Archive for December, 2012

Gotham Diary:
Date Line
31 December 2012

Monday, December 31st, 2012

And so, comes an end to the year “M.” Back in 1999, I was unhappy with the prospect of labeling files with a lot of zeroes. I had long since developed the habit of labeling photographs and documents partially or completely by the date, in computer order (YYMMDD), but the switch from such nice big numbers as 990704 to 000106 was discomfiting. So I decided to substitute “A” for the “00” part of 2000, and I’ve stuck with that ever since. There is a real chance that I won’t have to think about what to do after “Z”; if I’m still alive, I doubt that I’ll be fussed. It is mildly surprising to have reached “N.” Place your cursor over the photograph and you’ll see how it works. (The “a” signifies that this is the first image to be so dated; it will probably be the only one, but you can’t be too sure. The “x770” means that I have reduced the image size to the width of 770 pixels. What a bureaucrat I’d have made!)

***

A friend gave me a delightful little Christmas present, just the sort of unexpected treat that I adore. It’s an odd-shaped book of puzzles. On each of two facing pages, there appear six line drawings that sketch relatively obscure frames from 100 well-known movies. Name That Movie is the title of Paul Rogers’s appealing teaser. Rogers draws a quirky line that’s highly reminiscent of New Yorker illustrator James Stevenson, and I see that what has always excited me about Stevenson is that each one of his drawings looks like a clue, even in the absence of mystery.

“Relatively obscure” is a relative term. Almost every one of Rogers’s sketches after films by Alfred Hitchcock is completely obvious. The “R O T” matchbook — are you kidding. The fact that most of the hundred movies are rather more difficult to identify, however, is testament to the power of Hitchcock’s vision. It is also true that I have spent a lot of time watching Hitchcock movies, if not necessarily the ones that Rogers has chosen. (The Birds is a movie that, having seen it four times at the most, I may never see again.)

Paging through the book, I readily solved slightly more than half of the puzzles. Then I had to work — or not work, as the case might be. After a while, I was making good guesses. Cleverly, there are two appendices at the end, one giving the answer to each numbered puzzle, the other an index of films. I steered clear of the answers. When it hit me that a big building with a “Dance Contest” sign, three pictures away from a traffic sign pointing the way to the Verazzano Narrrow Bridge and Staten Island, might be taken from Saturday Night Fever, I was able to confirm this with a glance at the index.

Now I’m down to about 25 unsolved puzzles. Some of them stir muted tingles of recognition. Others draw complete blanks. Two of Rogers’s movies, Day For Night and Cool Hand Luke, I saw for the first and only time in 2012, and it took a while to identify those drawings. At least one of the movies, The Postman Always Rings Twice, I was able to guess (on the strength of two drawings) even though I have never seen it. I’m going to give myself a year to solve the rest of the puzzles. Then I’ll look up the answers.

***

I finished reading Fire in the Lake last night. I really cannot recommend it highly enough. What with the news about the fiscal cliff on the front page of today’s Times, FitzGerald’s study of Vietnamese dysfunction, fueled by American dollars, seems spookily timely. (I am convinced that our reward for “winning” the Cold War was to succumb to all the problems of the old Communist régimes.)

In a new afterword, written a few years ago, FitzGerald notes that she finished work on the book in 1971 and was never tempted to update it. I can see why. Her picture of the struggle to adapt traditional Vietnamese culture to modern times, in the teeth of foreign interference, is so complete that there would be nothing to add, except to say that things turned out pretty much as she foresaw. (Her foresight, astonishingly accurate although rarely explicit, so deeply infuses the final section of the book that it is hard to believe and horrible to realize that the war had four pointless years to run when she finished typing.) And Frances FitzGerald is not the writer to point out that she called the shots.

Fire in the Lake is not only great history but powerful political philosophy as well. It raises sharp questions about the nature of democracy and the virtues of multi-party politics. I’m still in the middle of a meditation on what “the mandate of heaven” might be in secular terms — we don’t, for example, vote on the standards developed by engineers for the design of aircraft; do American states that are dominated by single parties manage better than more divided ones? — that I hope will continue well into the new year.

One very interesting footnote, especially considering how I came to re-read Fire in the Lake at all: there is no mention of one of the loudest American hawks, Joseph Alsop. (It would have been easy to slip him in, among references to David Halberstam’s opposite view.) At the time of writing, Joe Alsop was the husband of FitzGerald’s mother’s best friend. I must re-read FitzGerald’s introduction to the biography of that best friend, Susan Mary Alsop, for a possible clue.   

Gotham Diary:
Funny?
28 December 2012

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Maybe it was the explosion. Not long before the end of the 11 AM showing of This Is 40, there was an explosion. It seemed very close-by, not, as I knew it must be, a long block away. Just like all subway-station blasts, it stopped on a dime, without any receding rumbling, but it was still somewhat unsettling, because I was more than two storeys down in the ground. The upshot was that I came out of Judd Apatow’s new movie thinking that it was not really very funny (despite the many laughs), and actually somewhat depressing.

Maybe it was the movie’s Los Angeles location. Los Angeles is usually a depressing setting, which makes film noir work so well there. (Also satire, particularly of “the industry.”) The fact that it looks like a paradise — but it doesn’t look like a paradise. It’s just a big suburb with palm trees, its housing manicured rather than neat. Somehow Los Angeles embodies a ghost of the snowbound landscapes from which Midwesterners escaped to it. That some people think it’s a paradise — now, that’s depressing.  

The movie begins with a sex-in-the-shower scene that goes awry when the man (Paul Rudd) sings the praises of Viagra. The woman (Leslie Mann) exits hurriedly (and discreetly), on principle. Why should her husband have to take Viagra? Can she arouse him only with the aid of a pill? I laughed, because the scene was framed for laughter, but I don’t think I’d laugh the second time I saw it. This Is 40 is a film about people who fight about everything except what’s important. What’s important is occasionally mentioned but it is rarely discussed and never effectively dealt with. What’s discussed instead is feeling good, and how difficult it is to feel good when being irritated by other people.

If I continue this discussion, I’ll probably convey the impression that I didn’t enjoy This Is 40 and thought that it was a lousy movie. Not so! This Is 40 is very well made (despite a certain lack of narrative focus), and the cast is great. Ms Mann and her daughters are funny in many ways, and they make a perfect foil to Paul Rudd’s likeable dickhead. John Lithgow and Albert Brooks powerfully play unlovable dads. But the further I got from the screening, the happier I was that I don’t know people like Mr Apatow’s characters. And there is something about Melissa McCarthy’s fascinating brutality that suffocates any ongoing drama.

***

As the holiday week chugs to a close, I wonder how I shall ever restore the daily routine that depends, first of all, on rising early, or early-ish. Before nine-thirty, certainly. I have hated getting up lately, almost every morning. Watching movies after dinner is a problem, and last night I watched a second movie, in two parts, first, while making dinner, and then, later, emptying the dishwasher. That second movie was City Island, one of the more authentic movies about life in this city even though it is an exuberant comedy with a farcical climax. The after-dinner movie was Love Actually, a Christmas number with ten million stars, many of whom, such as Keira Knightley, were not all that well-known when the film came out, nine years ago. Kathleen had somehow managed not to see it; she especially enjoyed Emma Thompson’s performance. (I’m sure that I did so in the course of tracking the films of one of its many notable names — Bill Nighy, very likely.) What few tears I had left after The Family Stone were flushed out by its two or three happy endings. I was in no shape for bed — I rarely am, after a movie. Late to bed, late to rise… no comment.

Gotham Diary:
Family
27 December 2012

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

My Christmas movie par excellence: The Family Stone. What a nice conceit, that it takes place in a Northeastern Tuscan villa. I cried my eyes to cinders, as I always do.

Does anyone else agree with me that the ghastly dinner-table conversation about “the gays” and, from Sarah Jessica Parker’s character’s standpoint, not “wishing being gay” on anyone, is the most arresting stretch of dialogue in twenty-first-century movies so far? Enough!, her prospective inlaws keep shouting. You hate her. But you know that she’s you. You were just like her until a month or so ago. Maybe not you.

It would have been interesting to grow up having brothers — I think. Well, it would have been interesting to have had blood relatives.

***

I’m  getting dressed and going out, to run a round of errands. It isn’t so bad out there today as it was yesterday; the snow has entirely disappeared. But it’s still pretty wet and cold. I have shoes for such days. They look like leather, if you don’t look too closely, and they’re always bright and shiny. And impermeable. They’re actually great shoes. Why don’t I wear them all the time? Because I feel like a prudent octagenarian every time I put them on. It might be less comfortable, but I prefer to slip into penny loafers, the type of shoe I’ve been wearing since I was a teenager.  

My itinerary includes HousingWorks, Duane Reade, Fairway, the post office, Morning Calm, Agata & Valentina, and — is that all? I’ve got to pick up something for dinner, but what? Facing this question last night, and not wanting to go out, I was relieved to find some very nice lamb chops in the fridge. I had planned to have them on Sunday, the day after they were delivered by the butcher. But plans were changed, and the lamb chops aged. Another day, and they would have gotten a bit too gamy for our taste.  

My Christmas present from Will’s parents was a set of four Carlsberg beer bottles that had been recycled into tumblers; tall, narrow, and bottle green, they’re just the thing for me, and I decided to use them for my whiskey nightcap. But they will take some getting used to, because they’re just t00-tall enough to be caught by cabinet doors and passing hands. I must have dumped a pint of whiskey onto the bedroom floor last night, in three spills. Thank heaven (Kathleen certainly does) it wasn’t Laphroaig.

Gotham Diary:
Gone On
26 December 2012

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Here’s hoping that everyone is taking it easy, now that the holidays, which, despite Mayan forecasts, have occurred in due order. They’re not really over, of course; there’s still New Year’s Eve to cope with, and Kathleen and I are expected at a Boxing Day at-home later today. Right now, I can’t imagine actually leaving the building, much less going to a party. The weather is about to be frightful — in an agreeably seasonal way; nothing too tempestuous — and, while I can’t exactly claim to be sick, I certainly do feel “on the edge.” It’s probably just fatigue. Early Monday afternoon, when it came time to tidy the apartment for the evening’s dinner (already cooked), I had one of those I-can’t-go-on/I’ll-go-on moments, and the reason you do go on in these situations is that, no matter how knocked-out you are, not going on really is the unbearable option. We had a lovely evening. Right now, though, I’m very glad that I don’t have to go on.

For Christmas Eve dinner, we had the dilled blanquette de veau that I’ve been making ever since I got my copy of the Silver Palate Cookbook, but this time it was different. It was really, really good, and there are two possible explanations. Well, three. The third is that I’ve attained a new level of culinary competence. Because I no longer try to do new things, but only variations on the same old things, I’ve really mastered the basic techniques that I happen to need, and learned how to work around the ones that are still tricky. So I’m not thinking about how you make a stew, whether it’s boeuf bourgignon or ragù bolognese. Stew is stew; sauté is sauté. I know these things like a mother knows her child’s habits. This frees me to think about local variations, tweaks, and one-off flights of fancy that, because I don’t write them down immediately (and, besides, you had to be there), I’ll never repeat.

Back to the two more likely explanations. First, I bought the veal cubes from Holland Court, the proper butcher. It was expensive, but top-of-the-like meat. So, there was that. The other possibility is that the blanquette, by the time I served it, had gone slightly off. Just slightly! I find that making French stews falls into two stages, in the second one of which you make a sauce out of the liquid in which the stew has been cooked. (You do this by preparing a roux of flour and butter and then pouring in the boiling liquid. How something so elemental can infuse divine flavors is a question for Harold McGee.) The second stage needn’t follow the first immediately, and, as a matter of course, I have cooked the stew the day before serving and then let it sit overnight, making the sauce shortly before sitting down at the table. This time, I made the stew two days before serving, and it sat in the cooling, then cold oven for well over twenty-four hours. I had it over low heat for most of Christmas Eve, but I worried that I had let it go for too long. Happily, I hadn’t. For once, the redolence of veal, a flavor that I associate with the fragrances of an autumn afternoon spent planting bulbs, overmatched the insistent dill.

The Silver Palate version of blanquette de veau reflects New York’s German and Jewish constitution. The very presence of dill seems un-French. The carrrots are not canonical, either. And the pearl onions that make all French stews something of a pain to cook are replaced by chopped sweet onions that go into the stew raw. They just about completely disappear in the cooking, so that the finished dish consists of fork-tender chunks of veal and thin carrot slices basking in a green-flecked gravy. Served with steamed arborio rice, it’s scrumptuous. Fossil Darling had two complete helpings, and then some.

I’d also made a chicken liver pâté, inspired by a recipe in last week’s Times Magazine. I spread the pâté on toasted sliced baguette, and handed it round during cocktails. Thus it was desirable to begin the dinner proper with a salad. I chopped Belgian endive and green onions and tossed them in lime vinegar, with a tablespoon of lightly-blended grainy mustard and safflower oil. I spooned this mixture — there was more to it, but, as I say, I didn’t write it down — over eighths of Comice pears. Quite good.

Dessert? A store-bought pecan pie with my own whipped cream. I can’t say that I’m proud of that, but there were no leftovers.

***

If I cut corners here and there through the holidays, it was because the I’ll-go-on always prevailed over the I-can’t-go-on. I refused to allow Platonic ideas defeat or exhaust me. At every point, I asked, what’s the point? And then I stuck with the simplest answer. What’s the point of having a tree? Lights and ornaments glimmering from branches of fir. The tree need not be large. Not this year, without the balcony to take up knick-knacks displaced by the Christmas show. Christmas cards? Couldn’t find them. So I sent postcards, and not seasonal ones, either, but New Yorker covers through the ages. I had Will covered months ago, and all Kathleen had to do was wrap the behemoth. (Which overawed Will at first: such a big rig!) I got through it, and if there were moments that were less than stellar, there were non to be ashamed of, and here I am, in one piece, exhausted but deeply pleased.

***

Many years ago, an old friend gave us a small Christmas crèche, made in Spain out of resin (to simulate carved wood), that consists of two recumbent animals (a mule and a cow), a small manger, and the Holy Family. Traditionally, the Baby Jesus was withheld until Christmas, but this year I lay Him in the manger on Christmas Eve and was done with it (see above). Later, I found myself staring at this sweet ensemble, aware of something jarringly wrong. The Baby Jesus is an appealing little boy of about Will’s age, not remotely infantine, and he is raising his arms as if waiting to be picked up. But for a diapery cloth, he is also naked, exposed to the Christmas cold. The figure of His Mother, however, has crossed her arms over her chest, as if in adoration. I cannot imagine any actual mother responding to her little one in this way.  In paintings, Madonnas always hold their Child, but for some reason the crèche trope endows the Baby with an untouchable divinity. It is, and it is probably supposed to be, profoundly unnatural.

Gotham Diary:
Game Over
21 December 2012

Friday, December 21st, 2012

First of all, I hate to lose. I hate to put effort into something only to come away without having achieved something discrete — “having played well” is no reward at all; it’s simply what one tries to do.

Second, I don’t have the time. I try to incorporate as much play into my work as possible, but I am never not working, even when I am daydreaming.

But it is also true that I’m put off by people — some people, anyway — who like to play games, especially puzzling and difficult and perhaps even frightening games. They can’t help nursing a hope that the game is more than a game, that, if you play it just so, portals to another, more interesting world will open before you. Of course, this belief also underpins ritual observances. I’m very much not interested in other, more interesting worlds. I can’t conceive the possibility. Where is this world going?

Robin Sloan’s new novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is peopled almost entirely with men and women who have lost interest in my question, or who wish to short-circuit it somehow. (The only characters who seems to be fully committed to this world are an archeology grad student and the vernacular administrator of a massive storage facility in Las Vegas.) It is difficult for me to engage with their sense of mission.

There are the black-robed members of the Unbroken Spine, a secret society devoted to unlocking the secrets of Aldo Manuzio’s Codex vitae (a fictional book). Manuzio, known also as Manutius, was the greatest of the publishers of incunabula in fifteenth-century Venice; his device, the dolphin and the anchor, appeared on Doubleday paperbacks when I was a boy. The brotherhood believe that Aldo discovered the secret of immortality, and encoded it in the Codex vitae, leaving the “key” to his favorite font designer, Griffo Gerritszoon (also fictional, from what I can make out). Gerritszoon hides the key, and the brotherhood has attempted to decode the Codex without it, for centuries and to no avail. Now the Unbroken Spine is torn apart by a disagreement about whether to bring computer power to bear on the project, and this inspires a rebel action to enlist the resources of Google itself. Thus a modern struggle overlays the ancient puzzle. The result is an atmosphere of exciting vagueness, in which a small band of plucky heroes, allied with the rebel, chase down the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They do so with much less sweat and heavy breathing than the questors in The Rule of Four, the page-turner from 2004 written by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, which exploited the hermetic text of the quite actual Hypnerotomania Pomphilii, published in 1499 — not by Aldo.

Sloan is clearly more interested in the clash of cultures that rends the Unbroken Spine than in the composition of a literary masterpiece. (It is arguable that he sees the literary masterpiece as no less a mirage than the secrete of Aldo’s immortality.) “We have new capabilities now,” writes Clay, Sloan’s narrative stand-in on the last page, “— strange powers we’re still getting used to.” To underscore the suggestion that his boyhood dreams in the reality of dungeons and dragons, the very next sentence refers to (yet another fictional tale) The Dragon-Song Chronicles: “The mountains are a message from Aldrag the Wyrm-Father.” As it happens, this second statement makes sense: a brilliant member of the Unbroken Spine hit upon the location of Gerritszoon’s key and encoded it, natch, in a childrens’ adventure long familiar to Clay. The answer was in his possession all the time, ages before he even knew that there was a question. So it is with all of us, Sloan might argue — and I would agree. The manual to our strange new powers lies within us, and with those powers we shall update it. Bravo!

But the tone of Mr Penumbra is at odds with this humanist message of deep reflection and aching wisdom. It is too breezy to comprehend the long and often wearisome work of gleaning nuggets of gold from moldy old books. There is more than a suggestion that Google will, somehow, someday, do the hard work for us — but that can never be. The hard work is never that of data retrieval, arduous as it might be. The hard work is good old-fashioned human thinking, which is something that we don’t begin to understand but must nevertheless do, over and over, as well as we can. In a Times review that begins on a favorable note, Roxane Gay concludes by charging Sloan with making too much use of “convenience.”

Instead, the book suffers from an excess of convenience — for every problem, a clever solution. Need to copy a text in a heavily guarded, secret library? There’s a portable cardboard scanner, Grumble­Gear 3000, built using instructions from the Internet. Have a complex problem requiring super computing power? Command the resources of Google. We are supposed to accept these conveniences because Clay is resourceful, but at times the ease with which the plot unfolds strains credulity. Though there are setbacks, he and his friends are never set too far back. They never have to suffer a world without answers. Instead they are afforded the satisfaction of unsolved mysteries as another obsolesced technology. Sloan effortlessly marries new ideas with old without realizing that all too often, the cleverness overwhelms the story.

I wouldn’t go that far. Given Sloan’s reluctance to burnish his novel with a more lustrous and suggestive finish, I’m glad that the conveniences bring the tale to a brisk and satisfying resolution. (Indeed, for the book that it is, Mr Penumbra is a few pages too long, especially in the middle.) Robin Sloan has surely done us the convenience of reframing the contest between books and computers as an alliance. Now it’s time for someone more exhaustive — someone like his archeology student — to develop the picture.

***

In the early dawn, our sleep was disturbed by a loud flapping, very much like the luffing of a sail on a windy day. In the dim light (and through our limiting plastic tarps), I couldn’t see what it was, but now I can: the tarp on the bedroom window next door has come loose. I don’t know if anybody is living there at the moment; the unit has a long history of subtenants. (No trouble to us, I’m happy to say. The only difficulty I had was with a man who liked to make calls on his mobile from the balcony in balmy weather, when the windows were all open.. There was not a corner in our apartment in which he could not be heard. I finally had to tell him as much, trying not to shout from our half of the balcony, and that was the end of that.) But from the way the tarp is flapping, I’d say that the tape came loose. Now: what is to be done?  

Gotham Diary:
Mandarin, cont’d
20 December 2012

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Mulling over what it might mean to be a mandarin — I came out as one yesterday — I grappled first with the problem of arrogance. Mandarins are noted for it. They exude it. Sometimes, they can’t help it: many people of middling intelligence firmly believe that merely being smarter is inherently arrogant. And I can’t fault mandarins for being impatient with fools. But as offensive as mandarin arrogance might be in society, its worst excesses occur in private, when mandarins too blithely assume that they fully understand a given problem, that their understanding already meets the case, that there is nothing for them to learn before proposing a new regulation. Mandarins, steeped in the history of their culture, are too ready to assume that there is nothing new under the sun.

So what today’s mandarin needs is a different style.

Mandarins are supposed to be experts, yes. And they must wear their expertise with reasonable assurance — bumbling mandarins, however ingenious, are not going to be effective. But they ought to be cheerfully frank, with themselves as well as with others, about the limits of their knowledge. And this acknowledgment ought to counsel prudence, discretion, and curiosity. The new mandarin must never, ever, be zealous.

If you want to know what a mandarin ought to look like, consider physicians. Medical doctors are our mandarins par excellence. Surgeons aside, the best doctors are the ones who quite simply make their patients feel better. Sometimes, an illness is cured. At a minimum, though, a good doctor breaks through the terrible isolation that comes with being sick. The good doctor does not walk into the examining room armed with solutions. The good doctor finds solutions, if there are any, by paying close attention to problems. And problems, like patients, are all different, at least potentially.

Like the good doctor, the mandarin must begin with an acknowledgment of ignorance — ignorance of the particulars of the case. If the particulars were known in advance, then  there would be no call for a mandarin’s involvement; the matter could be handled in some automated way. (That’s what clerks do.)

Mandarins ought to strive not to appear to be magicians.

***

Last night, I picked up Aaron James’s theoretical book about a certain class of unpleasant people. I do hope that someone deeply versed in ancient Greek will study the three prongs of James’s test for identifying the members of this class and develop a neutral-sounding synonym for the vernacular label, which, it could be argued, is rankly homophobic.

Although the attempt to pin down a philosophical definition of “asshole” is tedious, there is no doubt that James’s book has enormous practical utility. First of all, there is the test. Second, there is the recognition, which James might have foregrounded more emphatically, that these “gray area” sinners are not the real problem. The real problem is the diviseness that they exploit. In his fifth chapter, James shows how they “often effectively turn cooperative people against one another precisely when agreement in such efforts is most needed.” This is a brilliant point, and without it, James’s theory would be of little interest.  

Aaron James claims to be a follower of John Rawls; perhaps for this very reason, he is not a student of history. He exhibits absolutely no sense that his problem is a historical one — historical in that it arose at a moment in time, a moment that I’d place fairly recently, in 1945, say. I don’t know what good it is to call John D Rockefeller and Napoleon assholes. Rockefeller was a colossal hypocrite, aping an austerely Christian manner while pursuing his commercial interests with ruthless selfishness. Laws were enacted, moreover, to prohibit others from imitating his rapacity. No “gray area” there! Napoleon is a more interesting candidate. He came to power during a very brief collapse of authority; it was the general and permanent collapse of this authority, I would argue, that opened season for assholes after World War II.

Office workers everywhere ought to familiarize themselves with Aaron James’s test. And managers ought to tape it to their mirrors.

Gotham Diary:
Mandarin
19 December 2012

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Almost every page of America Revised provokes comment or dilation, but a particularly useful distinction appears on page 198; even thirty years later, it still seems sound.

Taken together, what the debates [about how to educate elementary and high school students] suggest is that the real divisions in American society lie not between Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals but among those groups one might call progressives, fundamentalists, and mandarins. These groups are not just political entities but whole cultures, as different from one another as the Zuñi and the Kwakiutl. The progressives are children of Rousseau, who believe in an egalitarian society, in the perfection of “nature,” and in the perfectibility of man through education or a change in consciousness. The fundamentalists believe in God, not man; they believe that man and society can survive only by the strictest obedience to a single, permanent set of truths, laws, and values. The mandarins are temperamental agnostics, who believe nonetheless in meritocracy, in the power of the intellect, and in the value of science and the cultural tradition.

Frances FitzGerald goes on, somewhat darkly, to say that, despite the fights that these groups have had over the control of education, they share “much the same attitude toward the purpose of schooling and the psychology of children.” (So don’t expect any of them to make school more interesting.) But the existence of the three cultures is immediately palpable, because it explains why I’m not at home with most Americans: I’m a mandarin. I’m a mandarin with progressive inclinations to the extent that I believe that changes in consciousness can indeed wrest great changes in behavior, and I believe that you ought to study Plato and Aristotle and Kant when you’re young, so that you can get them out of your system. But I still wish that I’d been required to learn Latin and Greek, and even Hebrew, because it is in the language of ancient thought that our roots speak to us. I am certainly a “temperamental agnostic” — someone with an inborn disinclination to believe in metaphysical propositions. (It is this agnosticism that underlies my round rejection of “Theory,” which has bottled God with the label “Power.”) I am probably out of sympathy with most people everywhere on earth, but it’s my misfortune to live alongside two cultures who share, if nothing else, an antipathy to me and my kind. I don’t think much of them, either; but my counterparts in other lands don’t have to listen to them so much.  

***

I’m filing late today because I had an early appointment with the dermatologist. We were going to do two things, burn off a precancerous muddle on the back of my left hand, and subject the rest of me to a full-body exam. The latter is always unpleasant; I cannot, as Miranda Hart might put it, claim my nudenicity in the presence of my gracious lady doctor and her technicienne. So I was relieved when the latter suggested coming back some other time for the exam, because apparently the insurance company won’t fully reiumburse a second procedure on any given office visit. That this makes no sense — that it is the perfect opposite of good sense — didn’t trouble me at all: I jumped at the reprieve. I do the unpleasant thing in a few weeks, after my birthday.

Gotham Diary:
Defending Freedom
18 December 2012

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

One of the fascinating things about Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised is her tour of the various editions of a history text, aimed at seventh- and eight-graders, written by Ralph Henry Gabriel and Mabel Casner and originally published in 1931 as Exploring American History. She traces the text’s rightward drift through five editions, culminating in 1955.

Later on in the book, the authors fulfill their promise by giving an account of Soviet institutions. In this section,  one is told that “Russia” is a police state, where “the leader of the Communist party has absolute power over … every person.” (The book cautiously does not name this leader; Stalin had died two years before publication.) Russia, one learns, is a “fake democracy” and a “fake republic”; worse yet, its industry is geared not to the production of television sets but to war production. In addition, one learns that Russia is tremendously powerful — perhaps even more powerful than the United States, because, in spite of all the American aid to free nations, Russia has managed to block progress and block the growth of prosperity. It is now threatening the free world. […] Internationally, nothing is safe from the Communists, and the home front is not very secure, either. The United States may be a free country, with “wonderful machines” and a free-enterprise system (over which the government now presides in t much reduced capacity of referee), but the Russsians are in the process of undermining it. They have already stolen American state secrets through Alger Hiss andd the Rosenbergs. They lie a lot, and the Communist Party in the United States espouses violent, undemocratic means. The book therefore approves of the Internal Security Act, the Loyalty Board, and the firm hand of J Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Is it any wonder that a generation, fed this malarkey, developed a taste for guns?

I wish that I could remember more reliably my impressions at the time — not as early as 1955, perhaps, but certainly by 1960 — for I do know that I was aware of a discrepancy between reality and the party line (the American patriotic line) before I got to high school. As FitzGerald writes in a nearby passage, history books did not discuss money or business or manufacturing in any detail. This originally reflected a progressive distaste for big business; Mugwumps like David Savile Muzzey (whose long-popular textbook also gets detailed coverage in America Revised) identified with the professional ascendancy that resented being trumped by the merely rich. But the evasion grew more determined as candor became problematic. (How to acknowledge that some people were poor so that others could be rich?) For my part, I was surrounded by money and businessmen, but factories were far away. We were taken on tours at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Tuckahoe and at Pepperidge Farm in Norwalk, but both of these installations, as I recall, showcased automation. The “workers” weren’t doing much of anything beyond watching the machines. We were not taken on a tour of the big GM factory in Tarrytown. The only workers I ever saw were janitors and construction gangs.

And what was this much-vaunted “freedom,” anyway? What I remember most about the three years that I attended Bronxville School is the insistence with which teachers urged us to resist conformity. Without preaching open rebellion, they chided us for our fads — fads in thinking just as fads in dress. They were genuinely worried that we would be crushed by conformity; it was assumed that grownups who weren’t teachers were zombies. (Our teachers were very highly paid, by the standards of the time.) Wondering why every grown man wore more or less the same suit and tie, we refused to tuck in our shirts and we stopped wearing socks. All (or most) of us. We didn’t have freedom. We had opportunities, and we were bound to take them as best we could.

Gotham Diary:
Femme & Mari
17 December 2012

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Having decided to replace my disintegrating copy of Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake with a paper book, but wanting to keep her voice in my ear while waiting for it to arrive, I turned to America Revised, her essay on the textbooks that have been used to teach American history to public-school students since the 1890s. (Before then, students were provided with poetic sermons, long on invention and short on fact.) It’s a very funny book, in its sardonic way. because, instead of bellowing indignantly at the pusillanimous mediocrity of the textbook business (which is, after all, a business — one wonders if it need be), FitzGerald writes with a winking equanimity that I should like very much to praise as ladylike but for fear of being misunderstood. (Few share my belief that civil life affords no more admirable characterization.)

As might be expected, the texts of the forties give emphasis to political history, or, rather — since in many ways these texts deny the very existence of politics — to the history of government actions. The word “democracy” is not, as it was in the thirties, a call to social action but simply the name of the American system, and the opposite of Fascism and Communism — which are not themselves very well defined. The curious thing about these books is that all of them insist upon the right to vote as the foundation stone of democracy. They do that in spite of the fact that this right exists in the Soviet Union and provides no real impediment to the rule of the Communist Pary bureaucrats.

That “curious thing” is like a speck of dirt on your cheek that, slipping you her compact under the table, FitzGerald discreetly helps you to see.  

I read America Revised in The New Yorker, where it appeared in 1979, and only bought the book a few years ago. I’ve read bits and pieces now and then, but not the entire book, as I’m doing now. As with Fire in the Lake, time has smiled on FitzGerald. Although her account necessarily makes no mention of the Internet, her discussion features an array of problems upon which the development of Internet society has had, so far at least, little impact. (That textbooks are available online does not mark a material change in the regulatory environment that FitzGerald sketches.) The sloppy thinking that she politely deplores has not abated, and our educational practices still turn out legions of students who believe that bigger states are represented by more senators than smaller ones. Ideas about making schools better tend always toward the ill-considered. “Attacked for being too intellectual,” she writes of the proponents of the New Social Studies drive in the Sixties, 

the reformers were in fact not intellectual enough. Nearly all of them … lacked philosophical training. Not only did they fail to develop any original ideas about the structure of knowledge but they actually confused the social sciences with science. Some wasted a great deal of time making and unmaking meaningless conceptual schemes. Others … would explain a few elementary points of logic and then disappear into a cloud of pedagogical or social-science jargon. Finally, they did not do what really had to be done if the schools were to make any advances in the art of training minds — and that was to define new purposes and set new standards for the curriculum.

The only thing that has happened since FitzGerald wrote that is that the business of defining purposes and establishing new curricula has been detached from any thought of training minds. Nationalist thinking still curtails the ability to learn from history — in most public schools.  

***

On Friday night, we were introduced to the Latin jazz of Eddie Palmieri and his Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet, and came away persuaded by Mr Palmieri’s claim that it is the fusion of the Twenty-First Century. Never has jazz sounded like so much fun, and never has Latin music been so interesting. As was pointed out, it is the percussion section that distinguishes Latin jazz from jazz with a Latin accent, and complex but imperturbable rhythms generated by the timbales, the congas and the bongos supported the trio of horns on flights of amazing virtuosity. Reading Nat Chinen’s rave review in this morning’s Times, I learned a lot of new words, and wished that I could have known the titles of the four jazz pieces while I was listening to them — I don’t know how people get by without knowing the names of things. As it is, I can’t say much more about the jazz half of the concert than “Wow!” (I’ve ordered a couple of CDs, too.) The dance-band half that followed did not catch our fancy. The three numbers that we sat through consisted of two minutes of song and five minutes of coda, full of dazzling riffs that left us dazed. The extremely festive, somewhat blaring music seemed out of context in Rose Theatre; at least to my gringo ears, there was a want of atmospheric licentiousness — smoking, drinking, and adultery were not much in evidence. I call attention to these clichés in my head simply to underscore their absence during the jazz set.

***

My sensitivity to bad weather is almost debilitating. On Saturday, I slept late but not too late, and was busy all day. Yesterday, I could not get out of bed, and, when I finally did, it was only to move to my reading chair, where I spent the rest of the day. In the evening, I watched A Royal Affair, with Alicia Vikander and Mads Mikkelsen. It was gripping even though I knew (from history books!) how it was going to come out.

During the afternoon, I read most of Jim Sterba’s Frankie’s Place: A Love Story. It’s a genial sketchbook of Sterba’s holidays in Maine, on Mount Desert Island. (The French origin of the name, bestowed by Champlain, is semi-preserved in the pronunciation of “Desert,” with the accent on the second syllable.) Sterba came relatively late in life to the island, paying his first visit not long after he became friends with the “Frankie” whom he later married — Frances FitzGerald — and he sees the place with a reporter’s eye honed in long professional tours of Southest Asia. He sizes up the flora, the fauna, and the tribal customs with humane attentiveness. A great many good stories are told, mounted lightly on a narrative that follows, with no particular insistence, the memorable events of one particular summer. Threads are picked up and put down gently; we never do find out the name of the local eminence who puts a dent in Frankie’s parked car only to deny it, because that’s not the point of the intermittently developing story — the point is that the collision was widely witnessed. Sterba is enormously discreet: Peabody uncles aside, visiting friends and relations are identified by first name only. (Brooke Astor is the exception who proves that Sterba knows better than to be coy.) The love story of the subtitle is hardly the portrait of a marriage; we’re shown, rather, the place where two simpatico people of widely different backgrounds discovered not just love but genuine companionship. You have to think that the marriage, a late, first one for both parties, changed the island for the girl who had summered there all her life.

Each chapter abounds in jolly moments (also featuring a tempting recipe or two), but the funniest moment in the book comes in the middle. Sterba has been on the lookout for “High WASPS.”

I had met my share of run-of-the-mill WASPs in Northeast Harbor over the years. Their names are usually a giveaway: Schofield, Minturn, Hamilton, Bradley, Whitney, Warrington, Denholm, Burnham, Crawford, Crompton, Stockton, and Granville. Those were their first names, their given names. Their given names, middle names, and family names all looked like last names. Hardly a Bob, Bill, or Dick among them.

But something leads Sterba to believe in the existence of an über-WASP species, one variety of which is the “snooty Philadelphian.” He goes a party, sure of tracking his quarry, but he is so charmed by a long chat with Mrs Astor that he forgets his search. Finally, he asks a “third-generation Northeast Harbor veteran” to identify someone who “qualified as the quintessential High WASP.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “You’re living with her.”

By this point in the memoir, you are aware that discussing the taxonomy of WASPs would not be a subject of any interest whatsoever to Frankie FitzGerald. She would never help out her husband with this particular quest. QED!

Gotham Diary:
All the Wrong Places
14 December 2012

Friday, December 14th, 2012

We went to the theatre last night, but our evening was dramatic in all the wrong places.

I happen to share Terrence McNally’s belief that Vincenzo Bellini’s opera, I Puritani (1835), is one of the very great music dramas, clearly up to Verdi and Wagner and Strauss, and better than anything by Mozart for the stage that doesn’t have a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. At first, the opera sounds merely pretty, “perfect” — as stylized and artificial as opera can be. But the style and artifice are eminently habitable, and, pretty soon, Puritani really does seem to be perfect. The scoring is exceptionally interesting for an Italian opera by anybody, and it’s no wonder that Chopin loved it (Bellini wrote one of the heroine’s arias as a polonaise, as a private joke for the two new friends to share, and Chopin appreciated it) or that Tchaikovsky cribbed from it. It is opera at its lyrical summit, but it also exerts the same compulsions as a great Broadway musical cast album, which makes you want to replay what you’ve just heard, but then you don’t get to the remote in time, and the next number begins, and you want to hear that instead. I’m no fan of Norma, by the way, or of bel canto opera in general. Puritani is the only one of that batch of operas that peaks through the clouds. 

But Mr McNally’s new play, Golden Age — the latest of his homages to Maria Callas — is a disaster despite its great cast. I shall say as little as possible. Golden Age ought to be withdrawn and recomposed in the key of Tom Stoppard. Chock full of wit and enthusiasm, the play nevertheless shows McNally up as a fainthearted dramaturge who goes for jokes. Clever on several different wavelengths (some of which threaten to jam the others), the show bogged down in a backstage set that I couldn’t wait to leave — but I never got to. I felt that I knew what McNally was aiming for, so I wasn’t just bored by the play, such as it was, but also pained by his wide miss. (Mr McNally needs to read Lee Child’s Times piece about suspense. The real problem with Golden Age is that it doesn’t ask any questions.) At the same time, I was completely engaged by the train wreck of it all. Instead of a play, we were treated to the excruciation of a host who keeps postponing dinner until his guests listen to “just one more” song. Bebe Neuwirth was fabulous, but we’d have had to be drinking Jonestown Kool-Aid for her star turn to lift the mess over the bar. (Also, her line about how “love dies” would have had to be erased. She might as well have said, “Playwrights disappoint.”)The applause was the worst. The applause and the desertion at the interval. 

And although I think it’s perfectly all right to take liberties with dates in the service of dramatic interest, in the absence thereof I can only scold Mr McNally for making Gioachino Rossini to be something like twice Bellini’s age, when in fact he was not even ten years older, and would survive Bellini by nearly thirty-five years.

The drama came after. From the theatre, we walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It was closed for a very noisy holiday party. So we hailed a cab and headed uptown to another. I wasn’t really paying attention — I haven’t been out much lately — and presently we were in a jam on Third in the Fifties, with cars all tied up trying to get into the right lanes for the bridge and for the FDR. Beyond that, paving, if you please — at 10:45 on a holiday weeknight! Such stupidity! And no police to manage traffic. The comble was a collision: someone cut in front of our taxi. I was already a wild caged animal, crazed by having sat through light after light going nowhere, when another car pulled in front of the taxi and there was a collision. (Apparently; I didn’t feel anything. Who was moving?) The cab driver wanted us to stay as witnesses, of course, but of course I wouldn’t — we’d have been there for another forty minutes at least, waiting for a cop. The massive incompetence all around me put me into a complete panic (nothing frightens me more than small brains in charge of big machines), and I only stopped shaking after I’d had a glass of wine at home. There was nothing about the evening to compensate for those ten minutes of disaster. 

You can imagine how much I’m looking forward to going out again tonight!  

You’ll not hear a bad word about 50 Shades from me. No one made me read it (and I didn’t), and no one has talked to me about it, either, except to say more or less exactly what you said. Fine with me: Random House was so flush that everyone got a $5000 bonus, so that Lauren and Eric will be able to take a honeymoon in Paris and Rome. I’m very forgiving about trash that enriches my near and dear.

Gotham Diary:
Forty Years New
13 December 2012

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Last night,  after dinner, I pulled down a book that I’ve been meaning to revisit, Frances FitzGerald’s Fire In the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. The book came out in 1972, and was covered with awards. I read it the next year, after it came out in paper. I read it very quickly, apparently. In those days, I wrote the date of acquisition on the front flyleaf, and the date of consumption on the inside back cover. It’s hard to believe that I had time to do anything but read this book between 27 September and 1 October 1973. Certainly I didn’t notice that my marriage was about to end. That would happen at Thanksgiving, when (as I recall it, anyway) a discussion of where to spend the holiday — with which parents — spiraled into something much more grave. I was twenty-five years old, and when I read the FitzGerald, Megan was not even one yet. Ever since, though, Fire in the Lake has stood prominently on my bookshelves, its Imperial yellow background making it very easy to spot.

Fire in the Lake was the first book that I read that could, it seemed to me then, have been written by a man. I had been waiting for such a book, because I believed that women’s minds were as good as men’s. But few women expressed themselves with the understated authoritative swagger that distinguished the alpha-male writer. I see that now, that that’s what it was, the elusive quality that was possessed by men only — by very few men, but men only — “understated authoritative swagger.” It was a kind of sex appeal, really, but nobody would have seen it that way in those days; aside from Cary Grant and Elvis, men weren’t supposed to have sex appeal. This was a sex appeal that led to dens, not to bedrooms. With the texture of tweed and the fragrance of pipe tobacco, it was not a good look for women. Frances FitzGerald trumped it with formidable good looks and patrician nonchalance. The look, I mean. She certainly had the understated authoritative swagger down pat.

The first chapter of Fire in the Lake hums with it. “States of Mind” is a model essay about the fundamentally antithetical worldviews of traditional Vietnamese and Americans in the postwar world. It demonstrates, with the grace of a Euclidean proof, that there was really nothing that the United States could do for Vietnam in the latter’s struggle for a post-colonial identity — if, that is, the Americans remained incapable of grasping the ways in which those worldviews differed. FitzGerald shows the folly of dismissing Confucian civics as primitive or passé, at the same time that she shows how Ho Chi Minh adapted Marxism to fit and fill the dimensions of a Confucian society (an achievement never attempted by Mao). She never scolds the Americans for neo-imperial ambition or exceptionalist egotism. She has no pacifist agenda. She simply lays out a cogent analysis that makes it easy for us to see that the impossibility of a practical alliance between the government of the United States and the people of Vietnam.

It is, startlingly, a cognitive analysis, a kind of mapping out of fundamental preconceptions that has become much more familiar today.

It was this very coherency of man and society that was to Westerners trhe most bewildering and unsympathetic aspect of the Vietnamese — Communists, Buddhists, and Catholics alike. … While generally admiring of the North Vietnamese leader, [Ho’s biographer Jean] Lacouture could not get over the suspicion that he was “playing a part,” that he was, to put it more harshly, insincere. Lacouture was right in a sense. But the very terms he chose to describe Ho Chi Minh showed exactly how Westerners and Vietnamese differ in their view of the function of the individual. To Westerners, of course, “sincerity” means the accord between a man’s words or actions and his inner feelings. But to Vietnamese, for whom man is not an independent “character” but a series of relationships, “sincerity” is the accord between a man’s behavior and what is expected of him: it is faithfulness not to the inner man, but to the social role. The social role, in other words, is the man. To many Vietnamese, therefore, Ho Chi Minh was perfectly sincere, since he always acted in the “correct” manner, no matter what effort it cost him. And it was the very consistency of his performance that gave them confidence that he would carry the revolution out in the manner he indicated. Ironically enough, because of this very intimate relation of man to society, it was precisely those Vietnamese military men, such as Nguyen Cao Ky, who had no notion of a political system and who did not therefore “hide their feelings” or practice the Confucian “self-control,” who seemed to Westerners the most likable, if not the men most fit for the job of government.

This could be an example of inadvertent misconception taken from a book like Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong or Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance. FitzGerald is also brilliant about the nature of revolution in Confucian society: it is the redress, not necessarily violent, of macrocosmic disorder, the correction of imbalances between all the levels of being (family, state, heavens) and the restoration of fertility. Its manifestation in society is the final, not the initial step. FitzGerald quotes a story about Confucius that establishes an identity between revolution and recognition. It explains the speed, baffling to Westerners, with which many Vietnamese switched allegiance, often multiple times.

Sadly, my copy of Fire in the Lake began to fall apart before I finished the first chapter, and I have to decide between replacing it, with another book, and supplementing it, with a Kindle edition. I do so like reading it as a book. But if I replace it, I’ll have to throw the old copy away.

Gotham Diary:
This Is It
12 December 2012

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012


Can I blame the utter inertia that seizes me this morning on an extraordinarily good book? Probably not. But I’m here to say that Dave Eggers’s new novel, A Hologram For the King, poses the risk of a literary form of sunstroke to anyone rash enough to read it in one sitting. Which is, nevertheless, how it ought to be read, the first time.

As I took in the story of Alan Clay, an American salesman in Saudi Arabia, I felt, as intimately as I would feel the temperature of the water in a swimming pool, that I was reading a book that both Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace had wanted to write, but could not, because their typing fingers helplessly transformed vernacular speech into something more sophisticated and complex. Alan Clay’s story is sophisticated and complex — this is a very big present in a very small package — but the language in which Eggers tells it is apparently artless, nearly flat. What gives it life is a muted but biting sarcasm. Here is Adam catching himself out at rationalizing his failure to set aside enough money for his daughter’s college education.

Now he was lying. She didn’t deserve that. She’d done nothing wrong. And, yet, the economy was this, the world was that, these schools were overpriced, ridiculously overpriced — my God, did they simply pull a tuition number out of the wind and then add ten percent? — but still. Had he planned better, had he not been so incompetent, he would have whatever she needed. He had twenty years to save $200k. How hard was that? It was ten thousand a year. Much less assuming any kind of interest on the money. All he had to do was save $60k and leave it alone. But he didn’t leave it alone. He played with it. He invested it, invested it in himself and others. He thought he could make the $200k at will, in any given year. How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?

The better part off the text is either reflective material in Alan’s inner voice or minimally reported dialogue.

— There’s a party at the embassy tonight.
— The Danish embassy?
— Yes, and it will be bacchanalian.
— I’m already drunk. That moonshine.
— That’s good. You’ll fit in. Will you come?

It will be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to write the simplest letter that this unadorned style is not easily achieved, but nevertheless it reads easily — too easily, we uneasily feel, to account for its power, the source of which is hidden among the plain words. By the same token, we don’t have to put any work into imagining Saudi Arabia: to Alan, it is very much the cliché of glitz, sand, and veils familiar to any well-informed reader.

***

The question at the end of the first passage is not offered as an excuse for not saving money; the subject has shifted slightly. The question explains why Adam is both desperate and deflated — and in Saudi Arabia. The world that has lost interest in Alan is a world made by Alan and others like him.

Another novelist who came to mind was Walter Kirn, and, behind him, Kazuo Ishiguro and Franz Kafka. These writers would all have bent Alan’s story beyond straightforward naturalism. The wonder of Hologram is that it packs the same dread, the same sense of impalpable doom, without invoking mysterious influences. As a businessman doing what the other businessmen have appeared to be doing, Alan has taken part in the absurd dismemberment of the American economy, and presided over his own bankruptcy. He has responded to the threat of suffocating bureaucracy in ways that make it more suffocating. His response to regulation has been reckless relocation. As Alan’s agony and redemption unfold beside the Red Sea, it becomes clear that China is now the number one country, thanks to a lot of help from the prior incumbent. You can make this stuff up, but how much more satisfying when you don’t have to. 

The tragedy, if any, is America’s, not Alan Clay’s. True, it does seem likely, at the beginning of the book, that Alan will come to a bad end. His situation is too precarious for any degree of confidence. His finances are in worse than disarray, and his neck is disfigured by a growth that, when he comes up from denial, Alan feels sure must be cancer. At first, his participation in the presentation that has brought his sales team to Jeddah is ineffectual. The atmosphere of the first half of Hologram is that of a Last Con.

But, just as Eggers doesn’t have to invent the horror story of American business in the age of financialization, neither does he have to invent the dangerous absurdities of life in Saudi Arabia. As Alan strays from the corridors in which visitors to the KSA can reasonably expect to be safe, he is revived by a series of thrilling adventures. He becomes attentive and competent — and lucky. The shapeless fifty-four year old whom we meet on the opening page becomes, in the second half of the book, more recognizable as George Clooney. It would be wrong to say that A Hologram For the King has a conventionally happy ending, but it would be right to say that its hero is unquestionably robust at the finish.   

On every page, I felt: I’ve read this story before. I’ve seen the movie, many times. But this is the best. This is it.   

Gotham Diary:
Flou
11 December 2012

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

You may think that I’ve been playing with Photoshop, but (sadly), no. Our windows have been covered with “clear” plastic tarpaulin, and this is what we see when we look out the window on a sunny day. On a day that isn’t sunny, the view is much less of a view. A demoralizing mess is what it is.

Even through the tarp, regular readers will see at a glance that the balcony railings haven’t been touched. The balcony floor has been sealed with waterproofing — and that’s where we are. Nothing has happened since the middle of last week.

As if to make up for the blur at home, I spent about an hour yesterday with Google Maps’s Street View, dashing up and down North End Way, in Golders Green, London, looking for a house that photographer Richard Hooker captured in his study of London bus stops. I encountered the study at The Morning News, and flipped through the images collected for the interview with TMN‘s Rosecrans Baldwin. The North End Way photo was one of the last. Unlike the others, it seemed to be more about the people coming out of the house than about the young man with the mobile standing alone by the post. I was unable to find the house in Street View, and this made me wish that I could go to London right now and look for it in person. I wish that I could explore the really rather vast region of Hampstead Heath, which is certainly a park, but also a place where some rich people live, rather as some rich Americans live “on” golf courses. Hampstead Heath seems the very opposite of our Central Park in having no distinct perimeter. London is so much more interesting that way than New York. It is also much lovelier. I really wished that I could be there.

But perhaps not in December. And even if I found myself standing opposite the house in Hooker’s photograph, right this very minute, there would probably be no hint of the family drama, if that’s what it was. Why is the man, who is not wearing a jacket and therefore does not seem to be leaving the house, bending to one side? Why does the woman at the passenger-side door seem to be ignoring him? With her pink trainers, is she more likely to be his child than his partner? Nor would there be any sign of the young man on the pavement, totally engaged with whatever it is that is making him smile. Standing on the other side of the post that marks the bus stop, and backed by dense, green foliage, the fact that he is in another world — the world of adolescent inattentiveness that strikes me in retrospect as a Garden of Eden of self-absorbtion, the ultimate expulsion from which marks the beginning of adulthood.

***

Yes! I am reading feeds again. One day last week, I accepted as fact that I would never so much as glance at the thousands of feeds that had piled up, unread, since August, and I saw that the only way forward was to “Mark All As Read.” Once the number of unread feeds dropped to zero, and all the boldface was cleared away, I began to manage the list, consolidating folders and eliminating a good many feeds. There is still plenty to be done, but at least I’m back in the habit of reading feeds. It was heaven not to, for a while, but also insupportably uncivil. You can’t write for the Internet without reading what other people have been writing.

One writer whose blog will almost certainly survive all further culls is Levi Stahl, of Ivebeenreadinglately. Levi works at the University of Chicago Press, I believe, although his profile doesn’t say so. (Maybe he used to.) The latest entry begins with the characterstic humor that it is always a pleasure to read.

I’m traveling for work this week, so posting will be more of the quote-and-run variety than the usual longform, print-and-bind-that-brilliance-and-be-sure-to-put-a-copy-in-the-next-Voyager-as-an-example-of-the-best-humanity-has-to-offer sort that you’re used to in this space.

Indeed, I recall that, just last week, there was a rumination prompted by the death of Dave Brubeck that was definitely of print-and-bind caliber.

Gotham Diary:
“This Is Not Good”
10 December 2012

Monday, December 10th, 2012

On a rainy afternoon, there was really nowhere else to run around. So we hopped into a taxi and said that we were going to the Museum.

Sharks! Dinosaurs! Will couldn’t wait. How to break it to him, that we weren’t going to that museum?

He had not been inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art (hereinafter and always, simply, “the Museum”) in over a year — since just before our first Fire Island holiday. I can’t say how much he remembered, but I do know that he knew the way through the moon gate to the pool of koi in the Astor Court scholar’s garden. He was not as fascinated by the arms and armour as he had been, but he was thrilled by the glassed-in elevator in the American Wing. He also led us up the Louis Sullivan staircase (from the Chicago Stock Exchange). That brought us near enough to the American painting galleries to warrant a bit of fine-arts exposure: I walked him through the enfilade of galleries to Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, where I picked him up for a better look — the better not to have to pick myself up from the utter unlikeliness of this dubious picture’s new-found power of place. Nothing else in Gallery 760 caught Will’s attention, but the seascapes by Winslow Homer, in Gallery 767, did, and it was there that we encountered some sharks after all, in Homer’s masterpiece, The Gulf Stream. I was still holding Will, and he examined the scene closely. I wondered if he shared my feeling that, even more than the broken mast, the absent rudder, or the sailor’s abstracted gaze, it is his shoelessness that signals his vulnerability to the sharks swimming around his derelict vessel. Will certainly registered the situation, though. “This is not good,” he said.

***

There was only one thing wrong with Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times, “Robots and Robber Barons“: its date. Or perhaps it was my date. I felt as though I were reading something written ages ago. A decade, certainly.

I don’t know how much of the devaluation of labor either technology or monopoly explains, in part because there has been so little discussion of what’s going on. I think it’s fair to say that the shift of income from labor to capital has not yet made it into our national discourse.

Can that be right? It’s jarring to see that what, to me, is not only America’s but the world’s most serious problem — far more serious than the interrelated menaces (by no means slight!) of fuel exhaustion and atmospheric corruption — “has not yet made it into our national discourse.” How can I make a suggestion that we put it at the top of the list?

It is ever more obvious to me that the pace of industrial and techological development has dangerously outstripped the social imagination. Personal imaginations, especially in the graphic arts, have kept up fairly easily, but generally in individualistic, almost private ways, so that it is no surprise to find that what our more rigorous dreamers foresee is the collapse of liberal civilization into some form of dystopia. That dystopian forecast is an uncanny reflection of the current failure of social imagination, of the fact that we, the people, have no idea where we’re going, or where we want to go. Our collective, and quite unrigorous, dream entails little more than enjoying more of what there already is. Which is almost to say that we have no social dream at all, just a plethora of sloppy personal ones.

It used to be thought that work was a scourge — not unreasonably, because it by and large was. We envisioned, as recently as the immediate postwar years, a future in which work would be automated: nobody would have to do it. The fancy was too unlikely to invite scrutiny, but it isn’t anymore, and I think that we can now agree that a world without remunerated occupation would be a nightmare. Much worse than that.  

Worry about the environment is idle and premature if we’re short on ideas about social objectives. We don’t even know how to talk about social objectives without sounding like socialists. It seems that no one can envision a future in which the organization of affairs is not imposed by blind bureaucrats. We understand almost nothing about pathologies associated with the exercise of personal power over other people — we’re just under the impression that most bosses are terrible. We do not understand the relationship between control and responsibility in business operations. And we still think that bigger is better. Raw size, mere arithmetic pile-up, continues to dazzle us. I should say that our grasp of what’s important about political economy is barely at the stage of pre-modern physicians, those quacks who believed in bloodletting.

This is not good.

 

Gotham Diary:
Unsubscribe
7 December 2012

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Good grief, is it ever gloomy here in New York. Dark and cold and soon to be rainy. I am dying to see Hyde Park on Hudson, despite reviews that are tepid at best, but I am not leaving the neighborhood in weather like this — not to see a movie, anyway.

As I was leaving the neighborhood last night — a friend from out of town treated us to dinner in the Village (we had a very jolly time, and were out quite late) — I heard a long toot, and thanked my lucky stars that I’d crossed Second Avenue before the intersection was closed to traffic, as it always is, briefly, when there is a blast. The two toots weren’t sounded for a long time, it seemed, but when they were, an explosion quickly followed. It sounded like a great burst of thunder, only somewhat more three-dimensional, if that makes any sense; unlike thunder — or a “regular” explosion, not that I have much acquaintance with such things outside of a movie theatre — the racket stops on a dime. It does not die out, it simply and completely stops. Then the three toots are sounded. As they were last night, I was passing a trio of young women, one of whom was doubting the wisdom of continuing in the direction from which I’d come. She hadn’t liked the sound of the blast — natural enough! She obviously didn’t know that the MTA is excavating a new subway station at the corner of Eighty-Sixth and Second, and I silently applauded her caution. I thought about saying something to allay her fears, but I decided to leave the sorting-out to some other good soul, someone less likely to strike her as a dithering old grandpa.

On the subway, I looked over the shoulder of a young man, not academically accoutered, and saw that he was reading a book about Kant. It was very distressing. Of all the things to read in the world, this young man, like so many smart young man, was wasting his time — I am now convinced that the reading of Kant is a dangerous waste of time — on the confections of a crabbed old bachelor who spent his entire life in a city even darker and colder than New York in December. I do not think it trivial that Kant had no normal social life. It suggests to me that his speculations amount to little more than a very slowly-paced, pre-industrial video game. I consoled myself with the hope that, after a brief illness, the young man would put the virus of metaphysics behind him.

Plato and Kant make appealing reading because they claim to know what they’re talking about. In fact, there is nothing more to their work than that claim. They fill the space of ignorance not with genuine learning but with rigorously-phrased daydreams that both sparkle before the young and appease the disappointed. In the end, even they both declare that we don’t really know anything, but they’ve decked out the darkness with theories about reincarnation and ontology that are complicated enough to distract otherwise intelligent minds. And they are both formidably antisocial. Women, I find, return the compliment — with silence. Had I looked over the shoulder of a young woman and seen a book about Kant in her lap, I should have been very surprised.

Meanwhile, directly across the car, an elderly lady was reading a Chinese newspaper. I felt a surge of regret, never to have learned Chinese well enough to make out a headline. (Or to have learned just enough, briefly, only to have forgotten it.) Among the things that I now see that I will never do in this life, a mastery of foreign languages is one of the most regretted lacks. I suppose I owe the failure to a certain unsociability of my own: I certainly could have gotten out more. How are you going to speak Chinese, or any other language, if you never leave the neighborhood?

***

If anyone knows how to sever relations with Spotify, I’d be grateful to learn. Suddenly, my inbox is full of notices that such-and-such a Facebook friend has updated a playlist. As I never, ever use Spotify myself — like Skype and Twitter, it quickly turned out to be Not For Me (I have yet to cancel Twitter, but I’m getting there) — these updates are useless individually and annoying en masse. But! We interrupt this rant to announce that emails have been received, the answers to which will probably close the account. When I filled out and submitted a “contact form” yesterday, I got an immediate boilerplate reply that referred me to “community support” and FAQ lists. Thanks for nothing, I thought. But just now, real people, in Cambridge somewhere, have asked for some vitals, having supplied which I can expect to see the account closed with 72 hours. That’s soon enough.

Why did I get so worked up about Spotify? Pushback, I think — displaced pushback. Between the subway-station construction and the balcony-replacement project, I’ve been left feeling invaded and powerless. A little harmless self-assertion was in order. I’m marching through my Outlook inbox, unsubscribing to update notifications right and left.

Bon weekend à tous!

 

Gotham Diary:
At the Dinner Store
6 December 2012

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Last night, at the coffee shop across the street that Will calls “the dinner store” — an insight of genius for which I would praise him to the skies if I were certain that it’s altogether his own — I needed to break a bill for the tip. I told Will to sit still and went to the cash register at the front of the shop. When I came back to the table, in the rear, there was no Will. There was no nobody. A dust cloud of panic swirled up, and the only definite concern that I can retrieve from it now is that Will might somehow have been abducted into the kitchen. (Self-abduction being a possibility.) Regular readers will recall that I had a dreadful nightmare along these lines just a few days ago. Awake, it seems, I’m not so easily dread’s captive. It hit me that I was dealing with Will. A glance under the table revealed a number of potentially moving parts. “You little stinker,” I snorted. Later, his mother would tell me that he’s been doing this a lot lately, hiding “too well.” So it will be more out of concern for myself than from fear for Will’s safety that I’ll be keeping closer tabs on him when he’s in my charge.

For the time being, it is possible to entice Will into almost anything if pressing an elevator button is involved. Just one button, mind. Although he’s delighted to push the button for your floor, if you ask him. He has to be shown which one to push; what looked a lot like numeracy six months ago turned out to be a (familiar, well-documented) mirage.

Do you remember the Jane Austen action figure that I picked up a while back? I had to have one, after Rachel Brownstein used one for the dust-jacket of her recent book about Austen. Will never fails to pick this up when he passes by it, because he can tell that it is an action figure. He also thinks that it’s a guy — you know what superhero drag is. I’m disabusing him of that. I told him last night that Jane Austen was a “writer,” but then, worrying that this sounded far too much like “rider,” I said, with painstaking enunciation and emphasis, that “she wrote books. And the quill pen was her weapon.” I think that I’d better buy another action figure, just to have in a drawer when something action-related happens to the one I’ve got. (But wait! A replacement will cost a fortune!) The beauty part, was hearing him repeat her name, as he does almost every new word that he hears, softly but intelligibly. Hearing him breathe “Jane Austen” made me feel very — silly.

***

I complain all the time about going out in the evening: it’s something that I don’t want to do anymore. That’s why I felt almost honor-bound to get myself over to the Museum yesterday for an afternoon concert in the musical instruments galleries. Wei-Yang Andy Lin gave an erhu recital to a packed audience — well, forty or fifty folding seats, arrayed at one end of the long and narrow Mertens gallery, were packed. Andy Lin is perhaps the best violist that I’ve ever heard (I’ve written about him somewhere, perhaps at Portico), and it’s not surprising that he makes the erhu sound lovely, too. To be perfectly blunt: he plays the instrument with such skill that its exotic qualities (read: limitations) are swallowed up by a thoroughly Western musicianship. Had Mahler heard Andy play, there would be an erhu part in Das Lied von der Erde.

My knowledge of Chinese music is as limited as you like; I really know nothing about it save what I’ve heard in the movies. But I gathered that the seven pieces that Andy Lin played are part of an ongoing, evolving tradition that has not been uunaffected by the pull of Western diatony. Composers were not identified; it may be that there are none, as such — that pieces such “Birds Singing in the Empty Mountain” and “Parting after the Newly-Married” are closer to jazz standards, musical concentrates that the performer fleshes out in his or her own idiom. (I must look into this!) I will say, though, that while it might have been reasonable to fear forty-five minutes of Chinese-opera screeching, the gallery was filled instead with the sounds of music both mellow and engaging. There was a fair amount of bravura trompe l’oreille (“onomatopoeia” wouldn’t do it justice) — those “Birds,” the horses in “Horse Racing” and “Horses Running on a Battle Field.” But “Loved Lonely Flower” sang a song that was almost Central European in its post-Romantic melancholy. And “Parting after the Newly-Married,” which captures the dismay of a bride whose husband has been conscripted the day after the wedding, was a dramatic scena without voice. Or, rather, with the voice of Andy Lin’s erhu. This was sophisticated but accessible music. Not the faintest whiff of broccoli.

***

Two items in this morning’s reading had me mulling over the conundrum labeled “nation.” One, in the Times, concerned the “often overlooked” role of the oligarchy in Greece’s fiscal woes. Two years ago, Christine Lagarde, then French finance minister, compiled a list of over two thousand Greeks thought have bank accounts at a Swiss bank. In Greece itself, this list was “swept under the rug,” writes Rachel Donadio. (Surprise, surprise.) In the other piece, in The Nation, Gary Younge writes about “Secessionist Fantasies,” here and in Europe.

In Europe, it is partly history’s revenge on rhetoric. The emergence of the nation-state as the single most effective economic and political unit over the past two centuries necessitated a confected patriotism that sought either to iron out or ignore regional differences. This meant reimagining countries not as the product of regional alliances, wars or necessity but as an incarnation of innate genius born from essential characteristics. “We have made Italy,” said Massimo d’Azeglio at the first meeting of the newly united Italy’s infant parliament. “Now we must make Italians.” But while those differences were eclipsed, they were rarely eliminated.

That’s putting it mildly. Tara Zahra, in a review appearing in the same issue, explores the postwar ethnic cleansing that attacked the Volksdeutsch, German-speakers living outside the (new) German border, reminds us of the American role in the disasters of which this was only the latest:

But for the victors’ calculations to be understood entirely, we actually have to turn back the clock even further, to the end of World War I. Woodrow Wilson arguably bears as much responsibility as Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Czechoslovakia’s president, Edvard Beneš, for the postwar spree of ethnic cleansing. In 1918, the remnants of the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires were carved into sovereign nation-states, in accordance with the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination.” As Hannah Arendt perceptively argued, the world stood convinced in 1918 that “true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, and that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights.” 

The problem with this principle was that borders and nations were not neatly aligned in Eastern and Central Europe. Citizens of the Habsburg Empire’s many linguistic, national and confessional groups were hopelessly intermingled. In many cases it was not even clear who belonged to what nation, because so many citizens of the empire were bilingual or indifferent to nationalism. Equally important, in spite of the rhetoric of national self-determination, the frontiers of the new successor states had been drawn with geopolitical imperatives in mind. Even though German speakers formed an absolute majority in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (which would come to be known as the Sudetenland), and most wanted to join the Austrian rump state, the region was forcibly annexed to Czechoslovakia for the sake of the state’s economic viability. 

The fact is — and citizens of the United States ought to appreciate this better than most — that the idea of the nation has never had much of a foundation outside the realm of sentiment. As a sentiment, it works pretty well: American children are (or used to be) brought up to respect the nation’s symbols, which are by and large inclusive and free of identity baggage. “Born in the USA” is all it takes. (Geographical isolation helps.) Strong national sentiment (“patriotic” is the preferred synonym; “nationalism” is for other people) made it easy for generations of Americans to overlook the ugliness of slavery and segregation — but then so did skin color. The toxicity of European nationalism springs from the difficulty of detecting “the other,” someone who might look just like you, giving himself away when he opens his mouth and speaks Walloon instead of Flemish. (How long does it take a Sunni Muslim to spot a Shiite?) American oppression of blacks was dreadful, but the status quo was largely free of the hate that fear of the invisible promotes.

It will be interesting, if we get to live so long, to see how future generations of Muslim immigrants assimilate into the textures of Northern Europe’s populations. There is every reason to expect that the lucky educated few will shed sectarian fervor, while the disadvantaged many will cling to Islam for the same reason that American immigrants supported Tammany Hall and tolerated protection rackets. But that overlooks any new wrinkles that might be in store. How long, one wonders, will the Maghrib and the Middle East remain pervasively unprosperous? Longer than it will take the Greeks on the Lagarde list to cough up? 

Gotham Diary:
Noise
5 December 2012

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Most of the time, I have a strong desire to outlive the construction and repair projects that have erupted in my corner of the world. But some times, I want to disappear right now. One way or the other, the intrusive racket is wearying. I can’t say that the workers and their machines are uncivil, but they’re not quite civil, either, and of course they don’t belong to the neighborhood.

But the noise that’s on my mind is something else. Yesterday, after lunch, Ray Soleil and I sat up and down in the blue room trying to figure out where to move a large stereo amplifier. It’s very much in the way of one of the bookshelves where it is. After about an hour, during which I rejected all of Ray’s ideas (having had them myself), Ray proposed moving the unit to the other side of the room. I wasn’t keen on the exact spot that he had in mind, but his suggestion achieved what I’d given up as impossible, opening up a new field of possibility. Now I think I know where the amplifier will go. It’s a question of marshalling wire and other supplies so that, once I start unplugging things, I’ll be ready to hook them up again as soon as things are in place. And yet it remains to be done, to exhaust other hours. Why not just get rid of the whole thing, I thought to myself, aware at the same time that I couldn’t possibly do without the beautiful music that was filling the room.

That’s where the afternoon went, more or less. When Ray left, I wrote a few letters and then hunkered down to my heure française, and the further exploits of various revolutionaries and adventurers in Central America selon Patrick Deville. I got very hungry — my gastrointestinal wobbliness seems to have moved upstream — and, to keep myself entertained while fixing some dinner, I watched Jack Black in Bernie, which turned out to be a less strange, more satisfying movie than I’d expected, and funny in a very familiar, Texan way. It has been been more than twenty years since I was last in Houston (or anywhere else Lone Star), and I generally assume that things have moved on since then; but, according to Bernie, apparently they haven’t changed much.

And so another day passed without my spending any time on my writing project. It has been so long since I looked at it that all I want to do is read what I’ve got, and perhaps to type up some notes. But the moment doesn’t arrive. It won’t today, either. After lunch, I’m going to head over to the Museum for a small concert in the musical instrument galleries: a Facebook friend (and gifted violist) is going to play on the erhu, or two-stringed Chinese fiddle. After that, I’ll read until it is time to head downtown, to help Megan and Ryan out with a scheduling problem. All day long, I’ll be thinking about Kathleen, who, all day long, will be flying home from Arizona.

It has been an extraordinarily noisy fall, and perhaps the subway construction and the balcony railing replacement projects have indeed undermined my peace of mind. As I write, two Latino workers are swabbing what appears to be a sealant on the balcony floor, chattering away while a transistor radio twitters in the background. Because all of our rooms, and all of our windows, give onto the balcony, it is impossible to flee this distraction without leaving the apartment altogether.

On the library front, progress has been very slow, but there has been progress. The worst part, unless it’s the best, is that I interrupt the stacking and the sorting and the shelving to open books and read them. Garrett Mattingly’s Catherine of Aragon, although published in 1941, is far more readable and intelligent than Giles Tremlett’s 2010 entry, which I gave away ages ago.

Henry needed, however, to trust someone. Behind his bluster there was still the timidity, the uncertainty of a boy who has seen little of the world, who wants to be reassured, to be encouraged, to be told delicately and tactfully what he ought to do next. He never quite outgrew the need for someone to lean on, some affectionate, admiring mentor and guide to protect his self-esteem, and help him to his desires, someone who, living only for him, would embrace his sense of life and still his inner doubts. He was to turn to one such image after another for most of his life, only to fling away from each in outraged indignation when he found the image had a life of its own. That was a great part of his tragedy.

In the first flush of his kingship, he found Catherine, and for a while it seemed the quest might end at its beginning.

That still seems to stand up to scrutiny, and it does not jangle with speculation.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Conjecture
4 December 2012

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

A few years ago, I read Per Petterson’s highly-regarded novel, Out Stealing Horses, and while certain scenes stayed with me, and the writing was not careless, the book as a whole seemed trivial. The central character, Trond Sander, has undergone some powerful, potentially meaningful experiences, but he floats in the existential limbo of his severely withdrawn life on the shores of a dead sea of memories. He exists, it seems, only as a vehicle for these memories, which we, as readers, will find more or less interesting, like photographs in an album or after-dinner anecdotes. He himself is not interesting at all. Not only that: he does not wish to be interesting. What is he doing at the center of a novel?

Since reading Out Stealing Horses, I have decided that I don’t want to spend my few remaining years in the company of such characters, and I have learned that I am far less likely to encounter them in the pages of novels written by women. This may be adventitious — it may simply be a matter of the women whose fiction I’ve been reading. But I’m very careful about picking up a novel written by an unfamiliar man, to the point of disinclination. 

I am very keen on the thoughts of critic James Wood, however, so I read his piece on the new Per Petterson novel, I Curse the River of Time, with close attention. Wood made it clear to me that I would not enjoy the book, but he gave me more than that. He gave me one of my crazy ideas.  

It is one of the most mysterious effects of these novels, which push the reader sideways, in the manner of an unexpectedly sourceless wind. Like Petterson’s sentences, his heroes are hard to hold on to and yet hard to let go of. Wherever and whenever they announce themselves, they are actually somewhere else, lost in dream. “I ate my lunch standing at the counter still asleep and cycled the whole way to the exchange with my body full of dreams,” the narrator of “To Siberia” says. It’s a characteristic Petterson sentence, beginning in solid realism and ending in lyrical suspension. A body full of dreams is not quite present, and not quite present to the reader. Thus it is that Petterson’s characters often seem to be living two lives, two versions of heroism: the actual and the ideal, the slightly fuzzy present and the sharply etched past.

“Heroes who are hold to hold on to and yet hard to let go of”: isn’t it odd, I asked myself yesterday, that male novelists create such heros. Although I’ve never read one, this sounds like the description of the dreamboat in a Harlequin romance. Aren’t men  supposed to go in for clear-cut action? Isn’t it the girls who are lost in dreams? I’m being vulgar, I know. But it occurred to me that the difference between popular and literary writers is that the latter swap gender-linked inclinations. Male literary writers explore what it is to be — and this is, naturally, tantamount to showing what it is to remember. Women, in contrast, downplay feeling in a display of doing.

I mean, think about Jennifer Egan. Think about Tessa Hadley.

There are certainly men who avoid the preoccupation with existential stasis. Jonathan Franzen, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Neill, Peter Cameron. (I have not read much fiction by David Foster Wallace, but I find that, when I do, I read it as journalism.) Alan Hollinghurst and Edward St Aubyn. Ian McEwan, of course. (But not Julian Barnes or Martin Amis.) Then there are the literary detectives, like Henning Mankell. (But I think that women are much better at this sort of thing: Ruth Rendell, Donna Leon. It’s not that they go about it differently, but rather that they play the genres better, and are lighter on their feet.) For the most part, though, men these days seem to go in either for “lyrical suspension” or for the style of an adolescent who tosses soiled clothes wherever he happens to be.

Dave Eggers: I’ve just read the first chapter of A Hologram for the King, and decided that it is worth a go. There’s a promising Egan tang to the opening.  

***

In local news, I have cut a flap in the window-covering tarp in the bedroom. Yesterday’s weather was too pleasant not to breathe indoors. This morning, the gondola men stopped by to apply a sealant of some kind to the balcony floor. They swept first, and, thoughtfully, closed the bedroom window from outside. Unfortunately, they chattered incessantly while I was trying to write the foregoing. At one point, I broke down and called Kathleen in Arizona, even though it was only 7:30 out there. When she answered neither the room phone nor her cell, I was in a pretty state, I can tell you. But she called back almost at once, drugged by a very bad dream that she was grateful I’d roused her from. We spoke again an hour later. By then, the gondola had descended on its merry way.

Gotham Diary:
Vapors
3 December 2012

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

At least there is sun this morning. Yesterday was only rarely bright. Overcast weather has suddenly become much harder to take, because, presumably in order to protect us from the dust that removing the balcony railings will kick up, our windows have been covered with “clear” plastic tarp. (As it happens, each of our three windows gives out onto the balcony.) I took a larding needle to the tarp in the blue room window, and shall do the same in the other rooms, lest we perish of dead air. But there is nothing to do about the light, or the blurred view, which seems unreal, as though dummied up for a movie set. To complete the deflation, Kathleen has taken her golden apples to Arizona, for an annual conference.

When I talked to Kathleen yesterday morning, she said I sounded as if I were coming down with a cold, and that is indeed how I felt for most of the day, which I spent in my chair. Beyond a midday congestion that has begun to seem normal, as if I were suffering an allergy, worse symptoms did not ensue. But I had to cancel plans to joing Ms NOLA on a visit to the Cloisters. When I talked to Kathleen in the evening, she said she could understand why people retire to Arizona. I can, too. Last year, for the first time, I felt a fear of the cold that was altogether new and obviously an adjunct to the general feeling of old feebleness that, in a less health-conscious age, would not be surprising in someone my age. (The miracle to me, of course, is that I’m still here. I never thought that I would live to be eligible for Medicare.) This year, I’m also afraid of the dark, and not only the dark at night. I no longer find it “atmospheric” to have to turn on the lamps in the morning.

And then this morning, I had a nightmare about losing Will — thinking that he was playing in a fenced-in yard that turned out not to be so. His playmates and the grown-ups in the house all thought that he’d been very bad to wander off — which meant that they didn’t want to help me find him. Most bad dreams, you wake up and sigh with relief. But there are two exceptions, both involving loss. When I dream that I’ve lost my wallet, I can fly to the blue room and see it in its bowl. But I dream that I’ve lost Will, I have to wait a little while for concrete proof that he’s okay. (How do I love thee, Gchat?) The dream did make it imperative to get out of bed, although with a heaviness that made me wonder if I was in for a second day of inanition.

Two books arrived in the same box the other day, one a biography of Susan Mary Alsop and the other the memoir of Benoît Mandelbrot. You might think that these books have nothing in common, but you’d be wrong, and not just because both mention Raymond Aron and Pierre Mendès France. Alsop (1918-2004) and Mandelbrot (1924-2010) were, roughly, contemporaries, and they lived actively transatlantic lives. Each was a very superior exponent of his or her sort of person, and both of them invented greater parts of their lives than most people manage to do. And both of their careers began shortly before I was born, in 1945. That’s when Mandelbrot entered the École Polytechnique, and that’s when Alsop arrived in Paris to take up her place beside her first husband, William Patten, an economist at the US Embassy. It is not inconceivable that they were in the same room, and not just once. It has to be admitted, though, that neither would have been much taken with the other. Well, they share that in common as well.

I doubt that many of my readers need to be told about Mandelbrot. I think that Megan was still in high school when she wrote a program that allowed me to explore the Mandelbrot Set on my computer. And then I read something about Mandelbrot in James Gleick’s Chaos. Nothing, however, prepared me for the excitement of reading his posthumously-published memoir, The Fractalist. I can’t put it down! But I’ll wait to finish it before saying more.

The Alsop biography, American Lady, was written by a Frenchwoman, Caroline de Margerie, with some vague but palpable personal connections to her subject, but it reads like a sound book, and it doesn’t have a thesis. No extravagant claims are made for this well-born girl who grew up to be the darling of French aristocrats and a doyenne of Georgetown politicos. And while the course of Alsop’s life is made intelligible, de Margerie keeps speculation to a minimum. Alsop’s two adulterous affairs, with Duff Cooper and Gladwyn Jebb, are treated candidly but discreetly, with a few extracts from surviving letters and a minimalist discussion of William Patten, Jr’s paternity. (He would discover at the age of 47 that Cooper was his father.) Alsop’s marriage to heavyweight columnist and Vietnam hawk Joe Alsop, which was much more than the marriage of convenience that it might have appeared to be to those who knew him to be homosexual (of whom she was one), is also discreetly surveyed, with indirect references to unpleasant scenes that were undoubtedly perfectly generic — he’d have too much to drink, with the usual sequela. Indeed, it’s her drinking that takes up a surprising number of pages; a social drinker all her life, she did not know how to stop when age made it impossible to hold her liquor, and she took a lot of falls. For all that, she really was very much an American grande dame, as is made crystal-clear in the one paragraph of judgment that de Margerie permits herself.

By dint of her personality, exceptional talent as a hostess, and intelligent exploitation of her past, Susan Mary made her salon one of the centers of Washington social life, a place that evoked older, more civilized times, when money stayed in its place, political party affiliations were less important, and America got along with Europe. Becoming a legend has a price, and it was one that Susan Mary paid willingly. By inviting only those who were well known or hoped to be, by entertaining only success and amition, she deprived herself of the other, gentler kinds of company that these strict criteria often cast aside. No matter her mood, she allowed herself only corseted perfection, sacrificing spontaneity, emotional sincerity, and repose. Even among her close friends … she was rarely willing to take off the smiling mask she removed only in the presence of Marietta [Peabody FitzGerald Tree]. One of her friends said that she was never sure which Susan Mary to expect, “one’s old pal or the Duchess of Buccleuch.” This remark would have probably pleased Susan Mary. 

What makes American Lady an interesting book is its invitation to ponder the power of resisting the casual and the spontaneous — as well as the price. We tend to believe that the repression of “natural feelings” invariably produces cancerous personality disorders, or at least deep unhappiness. Alsop would not have agreed, and her life does not suggest that she was misguided. We ourselves are learning to be more thoughtful, attentive, and self-disciplined. We have the benefit of working pretty much from scratch, but it’s instructive to see how an intelligent woman could make her way in a world of unexamined propositions. (Her success in keeping the carrying of another man’s child a less-than-total secret seems remarkable now.) I’m not sure that I’d have found Alsop to be as interesting as her Washington guests did, and I can’t quite forgive her the long stint at Architectural Digest. But I’m glad to have read her story, and I feel that it helps me to understand my world a little better.    

***

The other thing that I did yesterday was finally to watch L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, the Romain Duris movie that I didn’t catch in the theatres earlier this year. Rashly, I ordered a DVD from Amazon in France, one that came unencumbered by subtitles. I didn’t understand a thing that was said for the first twenty minutes. (Like Mrs Fisher, in Enchanted April, I don’t know the word for “castor oil.”) And very little of what followed, although by then I had an idea of what was going on. I’ve never known a movie to end quite as this one did, and I was very shaken by it. I just sat and let the outgoing credits unspool, rousing only when the root menu reappeared. I thought of watching something else, but nothing came to mind, so I returned to my book. Romain Duris carries the movie easily, pretty much as Melvil Poupaud carried the emotionally similar Le temps qui reste (2005), but I wish that there had been more scenes with Catherine Deneuve. If you know what I mean.