Archive for January, 2013

Gotham Diary:
31 January 2013

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Against all the self-made rules, I wrote no entry here yesterday — I never even sat down at the computer. I was fixed in my chair all day, watching all twenty episodes of what’s known here, somewhat stupidly, as The Killing — the original Danish show, starring Sophie GrÃ¥bøl and Lars Mikkelsen (who knew that Mads has an older brother?), Forbrydelsen, a somewhat unusual word, it appears, meaning “felony,” but with a Nordic root that sounds more like “forethought” or premeditation” to me. I was completely mystified by the denouement, even though the killer turned out to be exactly whom I expected him to be. But plot is not the point of this show, except as a way of catapulting the viewer through the white water of each episode’s thunderingly scored final minute, in which each of the story’s three main segments is pitched forward without dialogue, sometimes portentously, sometimes ironically, but always addictingly. Suspicion falls on almost everybody at one point or another, and the series’s byword, “trust no one,” is wickedly apt.

Forbrydelsen wouldn’t be worth the enormous time commitment if it weren’t for the characters, both as conceived by the writers and as realized by the actors. I ought to say, the characters and their relationships, because, with a dispatch that would seem shameless in a soap opera, marriages and friendships are ruptured right and left — usually to be repaired in the next episode. I’m not going to say much about it now, because it’s so easy to be fatuous when writing about television drama; it’s enough to confess that I surrendered to the show’s brooding sparkle. What I liked best — it was more relief than pleasure — was that none of the likeable characters spent too long in a jail cell, or was subjected to prolonged imprisonment by a villain. (No, what I liked best was Ann Eleonora Jørgeson’s luminous Pernille Birk Larsen, the mother of the girl who dies at the beginning. A mater dolorosa for our times.) I had a ball, and I look forward to watching, very eventually, the second and third series.


In other developments — but there haven’t been any other developments. I’m a bit worried that a slight skin infection, very much on the mend, might queer Monday’s Remicade scheduling. When not confronted with the absolute impenetrability of Danish (in which words seem neither to begin nor to end), I’ve been reading John O’Malley’s Trent, Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House, and the new Donna Leon — the last so sporadically that I am going to have to start again from the beginning.  

Gotham Diary:
29 January 2013

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

I thought that I’d go to the Museum today, to look at the Matisse and the Bellows, but when I woke up, I realized that I wasn’t going anywhere. It was good to be in bed. It is never good to be in bed when I am in full possession. I was not sick in the least; I was just tired. And this despite the presence of the gondola men on the balcony, jackhammering for all but for hours on end. To me it was music: the work on the balcony was progressing; soon we’d be a be able to go outside again without boarding an elevator. Hammer away! I kept drifting off into strange dreams. In one of them, Ray Soleil got married, for good business reasons. Yikes!

It’s the week before the next Remicade infusion, and I’m giving myself a time out of Barcelonian proportions. I don’t know how to put it otherwise; I’m simply enjoying life and doing as little as possible that isn’t fun. My mind is on vacation, but, mindful of Mose Allison, I hope that my mouth is not working overtime. I desperately need to listen to Tom Meglioranza’s recording of Winterreise, which I received last week in the mail and planned to listen to right away. In the event, I got as far as “Frühlingstraum.” Then something came up. So, now I have to start all over again. Which would be straightforward if I were not already caught up in watching the first season of Forbrydelsen. What I’ve heard of Tom’s singing is as great as it was when I heard him sing the cycle downtown a few years ago. Very great, in other words. Tom makes you want to know Schubert.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the SPDR launch, and Kathleen has had a few parties attend. I remember a dinner party in Bermuda, sponsored by Deloitte, at which a banker at our table said, “Why would anyone want an ETF?” That was in 2000. (I remember when thirteen years was a long time.) Discretion forestalls my saying all that I’d like about Kathleen’s achievement; although she has had something to do with most of the five funds that now hold, collectively, 90% of ETF investment today, she has a lot of stories that, naturally, can’t be told, and I don’t trust myself to talk about it. But she is, unquestionably, “the SPDR woman of Wall Street,” which is a great gag if you’re familiar with Kathleen’s sense of direction. She is also the patron saint of this Web site, in every way imaginable. Just a moment of applause is in order.

Gotham Diary:
Why Don’t You…?
28 January 2013

Monday, January 28th, 2013

… set up a daily Web log, and begin each day by spouting off whatever comes into your pretty litte head? Oh, the blogger Diana Vreeland might have been! Some will argue that she might have been more at home at Twitter, and some at Tumblr, but this is to quibble. The short forms of the Internet would have suited her down to the ground, and how much more interesting to broadcast her gnomic utterances about pink and fringe and freckles and allure instead of bombarding her bewildered staff with memoranda. Vreeland believed, religiously, in the power of being maximally alive, of attending to possibilities of beauty in everyday life while not disdaining the sheer glamour  (enjoyed to some degree by herself, but unbegrudged by much luckier people) of aristocratic birth and/or great wealth. She was blind (and deaf) to a great deal in the world, but what she cherished she embraced with contagious, adorable enthusiasm. She might make you laugh at something of the things that she said (“The serpent should be on every finger and wrist … we cannot see enough of them”), you would never laugh at her. It would be as senseless as laughing at a beating heart.

Performance is all that I cared about as a child and it’s all that I care about now. I don’t go to a play to see a great play. I go to see a great interpreter. Everything is interpretation. I think stars are the only thing we have. We have a star, we follow a star … we may throw that star out tomorrow, but today, without a star, we wouldn’t move at all. Group formation’s not for me! (Allure, p. 104)

Vreeland constently argued that fashion was not art — largely, I suspect, because she associated art with Victorian ponderousness, but also because the world of art was backed up by a library of histories and theories that she didn’t have the patience to master. (Thrown out of Brearley, remember.) I think that she was right: a dress is not in itself a work of art. But it partakes of art when it is worn by a woman of style: style is the art. Style is closely allied, I believe, to ballet — it is always on the move, which is why modern fashion photographers have worked so hard to capture motion in still photography. Style is anti-monumental, anti-ideal. There is only the moment. Style is as emphemeral as a great theatrical performance: you’re either lucky enough to be there to see it, or you’re not. (Reading about the magic of performers of the past ought to sharpen our attentiveness to the wizardry of those we can be in the same room with.) But style is more available to all of us, which is why it was not fatuous of Vreeland to urge everyone to develop one. Dance and the theatre require formidable discipline of an athletic nature, but the discipline of style begins with understanding who and what you are.

Vreeland was a great curator — in today’s sense. (In the traditional sense, she was not so great, as her unwilling colleagues at the Costume Institute witnessed.) She routinely sifted through masses of objects and ideas and picked up two or three that interested her. (I remember learning about the I Ching in the pages of Vogue. I looked at my mother’s copies not because of the dresses, although the locations were often intriguing, but because of the novelty: you never knew what people were going to be talking about.) She was attracted to things that enhanced the palpability of fantasy, but “fantasy” was really just a world view. Vreeland dreaded banality above all things, but she never had much to say about it, because why would you talk about the unpleasant? As a result, you’re left wondering what actually strike her banal — banale, darling — especially given her aptitude for finding marvels in everyday things.

So it’s not what she did that we ask about Vreeland. Was she an important editor at Harper’s Bazaar? An world-significant editor at Vogue? The goddess who filled the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the grand glamour of the great palace that it was built to be? It doesn’t matter. It’s how she was, and to find that out, you need only follow her blog, if you can find it.


Vreeland once said, I recall, that the essence of fashion is rejection. (This is not a line that Alexandra Mackenzie Stuart’s solidly engrossing biography captures.) But I sense that Vreeland’s idea of rejection was always temporary. What you reject today, for whatever reason of suitability, you might accept tomorrow. The aphorism also reflects that brutal truth about life that, whenever we are doing something, we are not doing all sorts of other things. In the end, there is always the embrace.  

Actually, and I write this having just re-read Allure from front to back, Vreeland said something else.

“Elegance,” I said, “is refusal.”

Gotham Diary:
25 January 2013

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Reading Caroline de Margerie’s Amnerican Lady: the Life of Susan Mary Alsop a few months ago made me realize that I’ve got an interest in well-written books about well-born American women who weren’t supposed to do much of anything beyond marrying and raising children, but who became famous, which they certainly weren’t supposed to do. What they became famous for was, essentially, being themselves in a publicly interesting way: Dames. They created stylish careers to suit themselves as women; they were rarely certified professionals. (My Dames were not WASP princesses who went on to be leading doctors or lawyers. ) They were not feminists — or, rather, the women who were would have said that they weren’t. Susan Mary Alsop was a diplomat’s wife with a couturier’s dream figure who became an important Georgetown hostess, entertaining the nation’s political élite. Not without a little help from her second husband, who, to be sure, married her for her Dame potential.

That’s a thing about Dames: they generally needed to be married before they could get started on whatever it was that would make them famous. Whether their husbands provided lots of money (Bill Paley) or lots of creative support (Paul Child), they were indispensible. Dames might not be beauties, but they were attractive, and their achievements depended on important lifts from men. Some worked harder than others — nobody worked harder than Julia Child, once she got going — and some were just famous for being famous, like the beautiful, beautifully-dressed Babe Paley.

Now lands Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland, by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Like American Lady, this is the first serious biography of its subject, and I will be refining my still rather vague ideas about Dames. How many other such lives can be found on my shelves?


Meanwhile, who knew? It was very interesting to read, on page 15, that Emily Key Hoffman, who would become Diana Vreeland’s mother, attended the recently-established Brearley School, of which my dear Kathleen is an alumna (and, currently, a trustee). But the bombshell on page 34 — Vreeland herself, who also went to Brearley (!), was effectively thrown out by the headmaster, for not being “Brearley material” — this startling revelation put ants in my pants, and at eleven-thirty last night. I got quite excited, mulling it over. Kathleen had had no idea that DV was a Brearley girl (much less a rejected one). Had we known it and forgotten it? Unlikely — but not impossible. I must find my copy of DV, Vreeland’s “factional” memoir.


Kathleen, during moments of relative calm in last night’s conversation (who knew?), asked me about the Mitford sisters — were they Dames? I am pondering this. There was something so prodigious about Lord and Lady Redesdale’s brood of girls that they none of them had to endure the floudering, or at least aimlessness, of my Dames’ early adulthood. Nancy always wanted to be a writer, and Jessica seems always to have wanted to be a socialist. Unity worshiped Hitler from quite a young age, and had a lot of comfortably sexless quality time with the monster. Deborah, who did everything she could think of to avoid becoming a Dame, is perhaps the only one among the lot. In becoming a highly idiosyncratic chateleine on a grand scale, Debo was assisted not only by her husband (who came into the castle, as it were) but by the Inland Revenue and some very untimely deaths. (Q: do Inland Revenue collect death duties?) But can a Dame be a duchess? We shall have to perpend.

Gotham Diary:
24 January 2013

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

The next step is to wash the empty jars and other glass containers that have gotten very greasy on the shelf high over the stove. What was I thinking, putting them there? It was no doubt one of those final, desperate moves — There, that’s done! These last steps are never satisfactory, but they can’t be otherwise, because by the time you get to the end you can’t really think anymore. I will give the shelf space to some Creuset dutch ovens.

The real question is what to do with the jars when they’re clean, and lined up on the table with all the other empties. The real question is which ones to discard. I must be strong, because the correct answer is almost certainly all of them. I must seriously evaluate, for example, the three Hellman’s mayonnaise jars — glass jars, among the last sold. They certainly come in handy for soups and whatnot, but how many times have I retrived a mayonnaise jar from the rear of the refrigerator to find that its contents, however delicious they might have been once, are no longer edible? Too many times! Too many times! I know that I ought to put the mayonnaise jars in the recycling bin. It’s been grand. Let’s see if I do.   


I didn’t write about Zero Dark Thirty the other day, because I didn’t have time and I couldn’t think what to say. Some random thoughts: Jessica Chastain is almost as superb as Jennifer Lawrence at playing an unappealing person. She doesn’t have to work as hard at it, because she doesn’t have Lawrence’s creamy-gorgeous, camera-loves-you features. Chastain’s character, Maya, is determined to capture Osama bin Laden. Some would say that she is obsessed, but that’s just a dismissive medicalization. Maya is utterly sane, “a real killer,” according to one CIA report. She works very hard; she is almost never seen not working very hard, although it’s not exactly clear what she does, what her deskbound sleuthing consists of. I should have liked to know something about her immersion in Arab and Islamic cultures; the movie manifests but does not demonstrate her expertise. This kind of exposition might have gotten in the way, though.

It’s hard to believe that the film covers such a long period of time; without any outward sign, we’re slipped from the Bush terms into Obama’s first. I for one felt immensely proud (and lucky) that the capture occurred on Obama’s watch.

I was going to ask what “zero dark thirty” means, but then I remembered that that’s why there’s Wikipedia. It is a military mystification for “12:30 AM.” It’s not meant to mystify soldiers themselves, of course, but I suppose the creation of special lingo is useful to the creation of special bravery. If you’re living among people who say such things as “zero dark thirty” and “heelo” (for helicopter), then you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore. In any case, the special operation to capture bin Laden is hard to follow in the film, as I suppose it ought to be — and can afford to be, given that everyone knows how it’s going to come out. The narrative complexity might even be taken as an invitation to further reading; the movie certainly raised my interest in what actually happened that clear and starry night.

I was thrilled by the sound effect of the “heelos,” which in reality are fitted with “anti-decibel” devices that muffle the racket when the copter is not directly overhead.

Jennifer Ehle is a most favorite actress. Even with bangs and a Southern twang. When I knew that her character, Jessica, was going to come to grief, I covered my face until it was over. Jessica and Maya argue about the power of money to bribe al Qaeda operatives. Maya thinks that it’s nil — this isn’t the Cold War, she insists — and Jessica proves her right.

Hollywood is so strange. I really like Joel Edgerton — what could be more versatile than a career that comprises outstanding performances in films as different as Kinky Boots and Warrior? He’s certainly very good in Zero Dark Thirty. But screen time? Do we see him for as much as five minutes? Would his dialogue fill more than two pages of script? And yet he gets something like top billing, over Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler and Faras Faras, the last an unknown (to me) actor whose brooding presence throughout the film gives Zero Dark Thirty a haunted feel. Not to mention Mark Duplass and Mark Strong and James Gandolfini. Is this what happens when a female star really owns a movie, and there’s no love interest? (Jason Clarke very much deserves his top billing.)

What do you do after you’re through crying after having captured your big target? What’s next for Maya? A corner office at Langley, I suppose — if they have such things.

Gotham Diary:
Dealing With It
23 January 2013

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Everything, every problem these days, seems to come down to bad timing. Not catastrophically bad timing, just a kind of inconvenience that we might call “incoincidence”: things don’t mesh, they’re out of joint. Weather is a huge factor behind bad timing. Who wants to go outside in a downpour, or on an icy day? Freedom is also a factor. The more you’re in charge of your own schedule, the tighter the pinch of interruptions and distractions. Age is the biggest factor of them all: I don’t have a lot of time, and it takes me longer to do almost everything aside from reading and writing. There is also the bleak side effect of age: doctors’ appointments. The only way to take the “bad timing” out of a visit to the doctor is build the entire day around it. Fun stuff!

I’m hoping that the bad-timing situation in which I find myself today owes to a less recursive matter — I really do; and yet it’s something that I write about endlessly. I need only say the word “closet,” and every regular reader will know what’s coming. The latest episode began when we took down the Christmas tree and wrapped up the ornaments and had no place to put them. This followed hard on the disorderly aftermath of my birthday party. I seem to have two characteristic modes of response to messy disruptions. Either I prioritize the restoration of orderly appearances, which leads to closets choked with mysterious bags of stuff, or I don’t, because I’m too much aware that it’s those bags of stuff that gum up the works. The second option is the path of true virtue, because life is simple only to the extent that cabinets and closets are stocked with what’s needed and nothing else. But it necessarily entails living in disorder while you figure out how to make your closets as accessible as your rooms are presentable.

During our first years in New York, Kathleen and I simply didn’t own a lot of stuff. By the time my father died, and I came into a lot of furniture, we had accumulated numerous boxes of whatnot. We took care of all that by buying a house in the country which, by the time we sold it twelve years later, was totally packed. The third phase involved a storage unit that we are beginning to decommission, as it were. because our Rent Stabilization bonanza, er, evaporated (as we’d known it would), and we can no longer fold the unit’s cost into the idea of a reasonable rent. So here we are, back where we began — in the same apartment, but without any lumber room. It is no longer feasible to say, “I’ll deal with it later.”

(Show don’t tell: yesterday, I pulled out two shopping bags of Amazon receipts. They go back to the beginning of the century, when I did not yet have the habit of copying the receipts into Quicken, making the personal finance program serve as a record of library (and video) purchases. A case can be made for “moving forward” by hurling the shopping bags and their contents down the garbage chute. The opposite case is obviously more compelling, because it occupies the high moral ground of achievement: my inner bureaucrat glows at the thought of a more complete record. But he, this bureaucrat, has a hard time finding interns to do the grunt work — don’t look at me!)

But instead of dealing with it now, I’ve got to go to the dermatologist, who scared me to death last week with biopsy results that showed the recurrence, in a spot on my chest, of a basal cell sarcoma. We agreed that trying to burn it out was preferable, at this point, to inpatient surgery. When I say “scared me to death,” I mean that I could brook no delay, although it probably wouldn’t make much difference if I had the treatment next week. I made the appointment right before our trip to Cincinnati, and also before settling down to the challenge of domestic rectification. I confirmed the appointment on Monday, after several hours of very encouraging session with the hall closet. I’d be up for it now if I hadn’t gone to the movies yesterday instead of continuing with the good work.


I’m not saying that I’m good for nothing after seeing a movie. That’s not true at all. But a tremendously exciting movie such as Zero Dark Thirty tends to exhaust my frontal cortex, leaving me incapable of making difficult decisions, such as what to do with two bags of Amazon receipts. So I retreated to my reading chair with my Kindle Paperwhite and gobbled up the rest of Barbara Vine’s new book, The Child’s Child. Instead of fixing pork chops for dinner, we ordered in Chinese. “Sounds like you’ve had a good day to me,” said Kathleen. But that’s just what it wasn’t: it was a lazy day. I enjoyed it, yes; but it was not good.  

Gotham Diary:
History, Not Mystery
21 January 2013

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Our friends had a lovely day for a wedding in Cincinnati. We were deeply glad to be in attendance.

There was a time when I should have filed a report about our quick trip, or at least a travelogue, but I’ve grown too discreet for such antics. In the eight years and more that I have been keeping a Web log, I’ve developed what I hope is a finer ability to locate the line between my stories and those of other people. I’ve also lost interest in writing about uncongenial encounters, à propos of which I’ll defer to Susan Sontag’s remark about living on an ocean liner tied up at the dock of the United States. I’ll add one thing: at the mention of “New York,” in response to questions about where I came from, conversation stalled if it did not stop. Gotham seemed to have a strange anti-importance in Cincinnati. I assiduously avoided all risk of having to say that I spend my day reading and writing, and that I don’t get paid to do either.


But when I say that I was deeply glad to be at the weddding, I mean it, because otherwise I don’t see how I could have gotten through the Mass. It has been a long time since my last experience of that service, and what made this one harder to bear was the coincidence of being in the middle of reading James O’Malley’s excellent history, Trent: What Happened at the Council. It was at that council, which met for three sessions in the middle of the Sixteenth Century, that the liturgy of the Mass was given its current form — current, that is, until the overhaul effected by another council, Vatican II. By and large, the clergymen and others who met at Trent displayed an almost obstinate inability to grasp what drove Martin Luther to break from the Church. In his summary of the canonical review of “justification” and divine grace, O’Malley puts the impasse very well:

The fundamental problem in reconciling the two positions is that they are manifestations of different intellectual cultures, the one more academic and analytical;, the other more personal and existential. The same words have different connotations and perhaps even denotations, and the emotional framework is more different still. The interpreter’s task, therefore, is to get beyond the words to the systems of which they are an expression. Luther’s justification-by-faith-alone was his eureka experience that, as he saw it, liberated him from the jaws of spiritual death. He clung to it, therefore, for dear life. Trent’s decree was the intellectuals’ emotionally cool response to Luther’s spiritual anguish.

Today’s vernacular Mass, it cannot be denied by anyone with an open mind — or, worse, well-remembered experience of the pre-Vatican II rite — is both ugly and boring. Although the reformers saw fit to throw over Latin, they permitted the celebrant to choose to recite a Eucharistic Prayer that features not one but two parades of all-but-forgotten saints’ names — Cosmas and Damian, anyone? And then there is the startlingly unmusical attempt at singing. Positively hateful is the sign of peace, which varies “according to local custom,” and might as well, to my reserved demeanor (the self-restraint of a rather large but civil man), involve snake-handling. I sat through the last third of the service, in order to be only locally consipicuous.

The next morning, at the airport, Kathleen read about Tony Flannery, a Roman Catholic priest of the Redemptorist order — for the time being. Flannery has advocated the ordination of women and generally readjusting the reactionary views of sexuality that flow so naturally from a hierarchical fraternity of celibate males. More than that, he has questioned the legitimacy of that very fraternity, and on purely historical grounds. The essay in which he sketched his doubts about any actual connection between Jesus and the hierarchy has, not surprisingly, been taken offline (if it was ever on-), but the Times report that Kathleen read at the airport, and I the next day, included a fragment.

In the letter, the Vatican objected in particular to an article published in 2010 in Reality, an Irish religious magazine. In the article, Father Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, wrote that he no longer believed that “the priesthood as we currently have it in the church originated with Jesus” or that he designated “a special group of his followers as priests.”

Instead, he wrote, “It is more likely that some time after Jesus, a select and privileged group within the community who had abrogated power and authority to themselves, interpreted the occasion of the Last Supper in a manner that suited their own agenda.”

This is what really got Flannery into trouble, and, according to him, this is what the Vatican has demanded that he retract. But we are not talking about miracles of mysteries of faith here. We’re talking about the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church in the earliest years of its existence — which, as Flannery suggests, is unlikely to have begun anywhere near as early as the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus personally. Long in control of literacy, the Church was able to tell its own story uncontested for well over a thousand years, but that monopoly came to a crashing end in 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library was unearthed, a collection of writings that had been banned by St Iranaeus in the late Second Century. It’s not that the Nag Hammadi writings tell us much that we didn’t know or couldn’t guess. It’s not the contents themselves, but the mere survival of documents unredacted by the orthodox. The library is evidence of a desire to preserve alternative views instead of destroying them. And whatever the ecclesiastical authorities might have done to the library if it had been discovered any sooner, the facts of modern times rendered them impotent to take any action now. And yet the hierarchy continues to parade itself as if we were living in the age of Innocent III.

Tony Flannery may not be a saint — his position on the priestly abuse of children, it seems, is not what one would wish — but it’s not sanctity that’s needed now. It’s historical rigor. If the Church requires belief in a historical account for which there is no historical evidence, then it forfeits its claim to intellectual honesty.   

Gotham Diary:
Death at a Distance
17 January 2013

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Yesterday morning, I learned that an old friend had just died. Although we never lived in the same town after Kathleen and I graduated from law school, he had been a boon companion for over twenty years, and he was Best Man at our wedding. Many years later, we drifted apart, our friendship abraded by deeply different responses to the Clinton impeachment and to the triumphalism of George W Bush. Illness intervened: at about the time that I was returning to normal life with the help of Remicade, my friend was sinking into horribly premature dementia. I did not experience this directly, but heard about it when, five or six years ago, I had a call from friend of his who tracked me down through the school connection. There was no diagnosis at the point, but my old chum wasn’t doing very well, and the caller thought that I ought to know. (Perhaps I ought to have done something, but I never could think what.) Yesterday, that same friend called with sadder news. Four years ago, my friend had been flown out to his hometown in the West, where he passed his last years in assisted living.

We will be in Cincinnati this weekend, attending the wedding of a young woman whom we’ve known since she was born, to parents who lived next door to us in the lakeside woods where we had a weekend house for ten years. They will certainly ask after my late friend, who spent a good deal of time at the house. Instead of stammering ignorantly about having been out of touch, I will be able to tell them that he passed away just a few days ago. I wonder if it would not be better to stammer, and keep the news to myself.

A very crude way to map the fading of my friendship with the deceased would be to align it with the remodeling of my life that was effected by the Internet, beginning in 1996. My late friend never got to be a “computer person”; I can’t recall a single email exchange. He did not belong to the new era in my life. So my regret, for the loss of our friendship as much as for my friend’s death, is dampened by a sense of the irrevocable. What I mean is that it is very difficult for me to miss anything about those old days. I was just passing the time, kicking cans as it were, until an amazing technological wrinkle charged the way I read and wrote (and wrote and wrote) with everyday purposefulness. When I do look back, it’s with the simple wish that I’d been younger when, on a holiday weekend more than sixteen years ago, I joined a listserv and passed through the most important door of my inner life, and, although I didn’t know it right away, my previous life came to a close.

But the past is the past. What has happened to my old friend makes me feel awfully low.


I’ve been catching up on books by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn that I missed when they were new. Chewing my way through How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken and The Irresponsible Self has been great fun; also, it has been centering. I am learning not so much about familiar or unexplored corners of literature as I am about what, after years of reading and writing, really matters to me. What is important, and, more to the point — I’m trying to slim down my library, remember — is not. And I’m learning to talk about it. This is very hard work, because it is truly personal and possibly embarrassing. I am always, for example, in dread of appearing to be shallow or lazy. Take my rejection of modernism, for example: it would be easier to speak of if I had ever accepted modernism. I would know, that is, what I was talking about. Instead, I see modernism only from the outside, as a shelf of difficult and unappealing texts, or as a canon from which I exclude a handful of writers whom I like, Virginia Woolf, say, or William Faulkner (for whom, however, I no longer have youthful patience). I fear that I would appreciate Kafka and Borges much more if I were a really fluent reader of German and Spanish. But for the most part I am put off by the sour stench of modernism’s degradation of heroism into solipsistic masculinism. The befuddlement of unwitting misogynists bores me to death.

James Wood talks at several points about “the social novel,” and I’m trying to figure out exactly what he means. I take it to signify novels that consider “social problems.” Whether or not that’s correct, it helps me to understand why I’m not interested in novels about social problems — why I’m interested, rather, by novels about societies. Human life is problem enough. Ethan Frome appears to be a novel about a social problem: Ethan can’t run off with Matttie because he would leave Zeena destitute. It’s tragic in its way, but with the advent of Social Security and a somewhat more caring set of social arrangements, it becomes pathetic, a tale of bad timing. Looked at more closely, however, it is a novel about a society, a very small and cramped society, but a way nonetheless of living together. It is instructive to the extent that Edith Wharton arouses our sympathies. When we re-read Ethan Frome, we re-enter that strange little society with a richer understanding, and we find that it is not quite the same society. It is natural to wonder “what it would be like” to be somebody else; the power of the novel to bring us so close to this experience is almost miraculous.

In too many books, mostly written by men, there is no society at all. There is just the lump of wounded manhood. I have never managed to read widely in Philip Roth, but I have never read a passage that was not in the clutch of a man in difficulties. John Updike gives us many pictures of societies, but he never enters into them; he just tells us how annoying his alter egos find them. Roberto Bolaño — how is his work not anti-social? Do we need novels that pander, as Cormac McCarthy’s do, to would-be Jack Merridews? Wood has a marvelous essay on Tom Wolfe, concluding that it’s important to recognize that Wolfe’s novels are not literature. Which is to say: they’re not important. It’s unlikely that serious readers disagree. But serious readers remain inclined to venerate Roth. So there’s work to be done.

Gotham Diary:
16 January 2013

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

How many other readers, I wonder, were as shocked by David Remnick’s piece in the current New Yorker, “The Party Faithful,” as I was? Or, more precisely, shocked in a particular way — shocked to discover that their first response to the rejection, by the rising right-wing Jewish Home Party, of any peace plan with West Bank Palestinians, was a kind of relief, an easing of pressure, a surge of hope? A surge of hope for what? For the expulsion (voluntary or otherwise) of the Palestinians? Surely not that! For the end of Israel’s status as a trouble-spot? Is it even conceivable that the Party’s position — which does not appear, by the way, to be obstinate or passionate or hostile, except perhaps to the liberal Western governments’ desire for liberal democracy in the Middle East — has a future?

Before that news could be digested, the next morning’s Times reported a further degradation of liberal possibilities in Pakistan.

The chief catalyst of this jolting change comes in the form of a 61-year-old preacher, Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, who catapulted himself into the political limelight less than a month ago, and now finds himself issuing ultimatums to Mr. Zardari from inside a bulletproof container within view of the soaring presidential residence.

Good grief! It’s Khomeini all over again! (The preacher, or Allema, recently flew in from Canada.) Liberal democracy in Pakistan has inclined to be an appearance without substance, more a ritual than a responsibility. Rural Pakistan remains essentially feudal, and the cities are full of the self-exiled children of peasants. The élites are hopelessly mired in their entitlements. (The more you look at it — well, up to a point — the more Pakistan looks like France in 1789. France, however, lacked the financial backing of today’s United States.) A grad student at Indiana in Bloomington, Rafia Zakaria, writes (in The Hindu),

To the most pessimistic, watching a bearded man, who speaks of constitutionalism but not of contesting democratic elections; of getting rid of a government without enumerating the basis of selection of the next, who gives few details of what would happen after the corrupt and inept leaders of now are finally dragged out of office, seems a dangerous mix away from Pakistan’s always delicate democracy. If they are correct, the appearance of Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri may seem the first visible symptom of a long secret ailment ravaging Pakistan; the Pakistani public’s decades long move away from feudal and technocrat dominated politics and decrepit institutions to the faith-based reform movements that have no faith in the party system. Or it could be the usual Pakistani disease; a new front for a military always waiting in the shadows, always impatient with political transitions and able perhaps to create just the right man to fit just the morose mood. To the supporters of Tahir-ul-Qadri huddled in borrowed blankets and threadbare sweaters, in the settling fog of a cold Islamabad night, the details of such dynamics may not matter at all, their chilled and weary focus remaining instead simply on change, in any form and at any cost and under the leadership of any man.

There’s that note again: “change, in any form and at any cost.” That seems to be what the Jewish Home Party is promising, too. And what both situations tell me is that liberal democracy itself just might be the final encumbrance of colonialism, an exotic imposition that finds little fertile soil outside of the lands in which it was developed.

I don’t know much about Islam; I don’t know if the great divide between Sunni and Shia is reflected at lower levels with local, passionate dissensions. From the outside, it seems that Islam is something of a security blanket for its adherents, a simplifying civil comforter. But I tremble for the non-observant Jews who have thrived in Israel for generations.  

Gotham Diary:
Photography and Accident
15 January 2013

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

When I was young, I thought that the Nineteenth Century must have been the very worst time in human history to be alive. I was brought to this conclusion by photographs, by the pictures that were taken of nineteenth-century people. Faces were either stern or inexpressive. Hair looked dirty generally; men’s hair was often a frightful mess — and those untrimmed beards! Everyone seemed to be wearing too much clothing, too much fabric that managed to be stiff and rumpled at the same time. The overall effect was infernally dismal.

There were no photographs of the people of earlier times, of course; instead, there was a very wide range of painted portraits. Each period had a definite style, but at least the rich and powerful people who sat to the most skilled artists looked lively and interesting. (Or appealingly wicked — van Dyke’s Richelieu, for example.) The light seemed to have gone out of life in about 1850, when photography began to be common. By intriguing coincidence, this is about when Queen Victoria lost her girlish charm. As a young woman, she was often painted in a way that brought out her youthful warmth. As a middle-aged woman, almost immediately a widow, Victoria was a monument to loss. The century’s other great figure, Abraham Lincoln, was equally rebarbative.

It was only a few years ago that I saw what the problem really was, an aspect of photography that hadn’t occurred to me. Oh, I had long known that early sitters had to hold their poses for aching stretches of time. That accounted for the frowns and the blank stares. But it didn’t explain everything, certainly not the clothes. Everyone seemed to be wearing a sofa!

One day, at the Museum, I was looking at Nadar’s portrait of Rossini, taken in 1856. It took a moment for me to correct the impression than Rossini had spilled soup on his coat; in fact, the print was damaged at some point by a splash of something. But the sense of dishevelment persisted. Rossini’s coat and overcoat are ribbed with creases. His shirt cuff appears not to be properly buttoned. Now, Rossini was a natty gent, a true bon viveur, with plenty of money and, presumably, a good tailor. Indeed, Rossini looks well turned-out when contrasted with another Nadar subject in the Museum’s collection, Théophile Gautier. But there’s still something frumpy and off-putting about his photograph.

Photography itself wasn’t the problem. Rather, it was the novelty of photography, the fact that nobody was prepared to be photographed. Painters had been straightening hair, smoothing bodices, and polishing shoes for centuries. We may assume that very few ancien régime grandees looked as good in everyday life as they did in their portraits. Correspondingly, no one expected bandbox freshness of friends and neighbors. Soup spots simply didn’t “show.” Minor accidents of disarray were overlooked.

Nearly two centuries later, we have so adapted to photography that it is the minor accidents that show most powerfully. Take a picture of your living room after you’ve tidied it up. The odds are that, looking at the photograph instead of the room itself, you’ll be assaulted by something terribly out of place, such as an unconsidered stack of magazines or a mug thoughtlessly abandoned on a shelf. (The very thoughtlessness is captured in the image.) With your own eyes, you simply won’t have seen these as faults. Welcome to the world of art direction!

Most clothing on the market today is made to look good in a photograph, and expensive clothing is designed to make love to the camera. Increasing platoons of young people are determined to do the same in their birthday suits. Photography has taught us to attend to the details of our personal appearance — of every kind of appearance. Appearance is nothing but a welter of details. There are no more accidents — no more slight derangements that “no one will notice.” Even the rejection of well-groomed neatness has become canonical: in the last thirty years, a stubbly chin and a loosened tie have become intentional “looks,” and are no longer the regrettable marks of the slob. (The slob is almost always overweight, and in need of a barber.)

In classical concept of the “accident” was a tool for guiding the attention, away from the chaos of detail, and toward the posited essence of a thing. Accidents today are, conversely, serious: unexpected collisions that result in breakage. The wishful simplicity of the classical outlook is no longer on offer. Photography, I believe, played a major role in the transformation of accidents from meaningless nonessentials into glaring defects.

Gotham Diary:
Good Habits
14 January 2013

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Blame it on the Sixties, but when I learned that Aristotle considered virtue a habit, I was disgusted. To the extent that habits were unconscious, they seemed a kind of death. The automation of behavior was a step toward body snatching. To be here now surely meant to be open to all the possibilities at any given moment, to consider every case afresh. Habits chewed up life before experience could be savored. By all means, blame it on the Sixties (and the Seventies), a period in which old habits were being outgrown and discarded everywhere you looked. Everything from dress to diet to sexual outlook was subject to change.

Now, of course, we know that the constant exercise of will power is physically exhausting, resulting in poor decisions. On a perfect day, will power is never called upon. It’s this freedom from hard choices that keeps the experience of life rich and fresh. On an ordinary day, good habits mean that you can find your keys and your wallet without tearing the house apart. There is a fresh box of dishwasher detergent in the closet. You do not get calls from bill collectors. Friends thank you for remembering their birthdays. If you have the habit of taking good care of yourself, then you can count on having enough energy to keep all the other habits going.

What I didn’t understand, although Aristotle was certainly trying to tell me, is that the best habit is a kind of knowledge. It is the distallate of observation and judgment, powerfully available in the moment of action. The better the observation, the more informed the judgment will be. I like to think of the habit of paying attention as a kind of acrobatic skill: how many connections can you run from whatever it is that you’re looking at to the different parts of your mind? (This is the very opposite of multitasking, which requires paying as little attention as possible — a dreadful idea.) How much can you take away from any given moment? You can take more, if you can rely on good habits to get you to the next one. Observation and judgment and habit — they begin to look like the same atom, seen in different phases.


The interesting question of “bad habits.” There are vicious practices — going out of your way to step on ants on the sidewalk, for example — that are merely untrammeled impulses. There are default behaviors — paths of least resistance too passive to merit the label of “habit.” All habits could be improved — more about why in a moment — but some clearly deserve to be called “poor.” (Multitasking, for example.) But a poor habit is probably better than no habit at all. As for addiction, it is involuntary, and “habitual” only in the vernacular.

The taxonomy isn’t important. Everything just mentioned puts a burden on will power. Vice and addiction overwhelm will power altogether. Poor habits, and the lack of habits, create a confusion that it’s difficult for the will to sort out.


Habits can always be improved for the same reason that I’m thinking about them: not only do we all need lots of (good) habits just to get things done, but we also need habits to resolve the conflicts that arise between different kinds of habits. I have the habit of writing an entry at this site every day. It is generally paramount; other things will have to wait until I’ve scribbled a few paragraphs. Every now and then, however, the priority is inconvenient or impossible. I might — as I did today — have doctor’s appointment. And that appointment will almost certainly elicit my habit of running as many errands as I can on any outing. So I did not just go to the dermatologist today. I went to the bank, the fancy dry cleaner, the video rental place on my way to the doctor, and, on my way home, after lunch, I shopped for dinner, had my shoes shined, and made separate stops to buy wine, a whisk, and bath soap. Then I came home. Then I sat down here.

Meanwhile, there is a terrible post-holiday messiness everywhere but in the bedroom. I would have better habits about giving large parties if I gave them more often, but that’s not going to happen, and in the year the passes between our routs, I am going to forget lots of little pointers. I’ve tried writing them down. The problem with that is that I do nort have the habit of beginning party preparation by reviewing notes from previous events (which, if not copious, would be useful). Instead, I have the vice of pretending that giving a bit party is “no big deal.” Disaster is averted because I do have a lot of habits about aspects of entertaining — lots and lots — and these more or less guarantee that there will plenty of everything and that no one will be poisoned. Nevertheless, I don’t have effective habits as a host. I can’t decide — which is to say that my poor planning saddles me with the decision — whether to spend time talking with my guests or to run about refreshing the refreshments. This year, all I could think of was how great it would be to carry Will around to meet my friends. And that was pretty great. Meanwhile, I completely forgot to serve the orzo salad. I’ve got tons of orzo salad in the fridge, not to mention mint-condition paper plates and bowls. And silvered plastic forks.

A few years ago, Kathleen and I hosted an important family party. Knowing my weaknesses as a host, and my great fondness for conversation, I hired Ray Soleil to run the back of the house. The party was a great success, and I enjoyed it as much as anybody. And that is where we are going to pick up this discussion: where the “servant problem” creates the need for good habits.

Gotham Diary:
11 January 2013

Friday, January 11th, 2013

It is, of course, not “just a movie.” That’s Steven Spielberg’s specialty: making films that always have a strong extra-cinematic, non-artistic, quasi-journalist chain running through them, as detachable (from the filmmaking point of view) as the background music. Perhaps this is why I find his films so hard to watch — they’re existentially muddled. And sometimes soiled — just thinking about Schindler’s List still embarrasses me, as though I’d been party to a ghastly prank. (And I saw it only on video!) Lincoln is inoffensive in this regard because it is about waiting, not suspense. There’s a huge difference. The movie’s suspense is nugatory: we know that the Thirteenth Amendment is going to pass. What thrills us Lincoln’s acrobatic patience. Again and again, the hero-president postpones action, not out of Elizabethan indecisiveness, but  in order to allow complications to gel, and they always do. The moniker “Cunctator” kept playing in my brain — the sobriquet of Flavius Maximus, a general in the Punic Wars whose innate slowness was a strength.

As I say, though, this is a not-just-a-movie movie about abolishing slavery. If Lincoln were merely one or two degrees more triumphal than it is, the film would be an insult to the endurance exacted from black Americans in the century and more that followed the Civil War. Only people ignorant of Reconstruction, Redemption, and Jim Crow could think for a second that, the assassination aside, Lincoln has a “happy ending.”

Lincoln’s greatness depends from his attempting to right a terrible wrong in the Constititution, which never mentions “slavery,” but countenances the weighing, for representational purposes, of three-fifths of the unfree population (“all other persons,” as the mealy-mouthed language has it). Slaves couldn’t vote — perish the thought! — but they could be counted, as fractions of themselves, for the purpose of determining the size of a state’s Congressional delegation. Without this, the Southern states would have been wholly marginal to the federal republic. The two plantation powerhouses, Virginia and South Carolina, had no intention of changing British for Yankee governors.  

Which brings me back to my regrets about the American Revolution. When I was a boy, I was jealous of Canadians and Australians, because they still had a monarch. Monarchs are great, I still believe — such fun! — when they know how to behave. (Insert: Memo to Charles re Chelsea Barracks.) As an old man, I understand that Britain was unprepared to govern the future American states — quite simply, no one in London really knew who was in charge of the colonies, and the colonies took full advantage of this confusion. Today, of course, we should say that Parliament ran the show, but that was not at all clear in the days of George III. And today, of course, the Parliament in Westminster does not govern Canada or Australia. Neither, for the matter of that, does HMQ. What works today was unimaginable in 1770.

No, what I regret about the Revolution now is the persistence of the States. At no point in history have the boundaries of the American states made the slightest demographic sense. They made no sense in 1776, and they make no sense now. They are useful to politicians and their acolytes, and that is all. They are, essentially, anti-democratic. You ask what I can possibly mean by that? This: states (and their capitals) were designed to be and remain anti-urban, anti-immigrant focuses of power. They stand for the proposition, widely shared in today’s surburbia, that the beneficiaries of American democracy ought to have been born in the country, and ought to know better than to live in the five or six genuine cities within its borders.


Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln… There’s a jokey poster going round, covering the Best-Picture nominees, in which Lincoln is billed simply as “Daniel Day-Lewis wants an Oscar.” I say, give the man a dozen! If there was ever an actor capable of co-opting a Spielberg project, it is Day-Lewis. He is the only actor I can think of who up to the challenge of making sure that Spielberg’s not-just-a-movie project is, in spite of everything, a really great movie. There is a moment in the scene with George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg) when Day-Lewis declares his ownership of the movie; having stood over the wavering congressman, he sweeps down into a chair with all the dread command of a Count Dracula. Throughout Lincoln, his eyes glow like penlights from raccooned eye-sockets. We shiver, even though we know that Lincoln is kind and good, because he looks and acts scary. Although maybe it would be more useful to say that he gives the greatest impersonation of a good lawyer ever captured on film. A man of secrets!

I feel utterly inadequate to the marvel of Sally Field’s performance — which, let it be known, is what I went to see. It is, like all her great work, charged with the determined yearning of an unembarrassed saint. To this, for Lincoln, she adds a period feminist note, by uncapping the bottled fizz of a woman whose intellectual reach has been lamed; Field never lets us forget that women will require emancipation as well. What’s transcedent about the lesson is her insistence that, just as blacks will become equal without changing the color of their skin, so she, or her figurative daughers, will become equal without abandoning the love of fine clothes or a mother’s desperate attachments. Men will have to learn to be equal to something other than men.


At lunch, after the movie, I glanced through the new issue of Harper’s. As always, I began at the back, in the books section, and read John Crowley’s review of a new book about Madame Blavatsky. (When are we going to get a movie about her?) It took hours to get through the piece, what with eating a burger and my mind’s being stuck on Lincoln. Only when I was about to leave did I turn to the front of the magazine, where I found Thomas Frank’s choleric deprecation of Spielberg’s movie and the book upon which is based, Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals. He has nothing good to say about anything. The recurrent best-seller he dismisses as “uninspiring to the point of boredom.” (This seems like a maladroit move, coming from someone who wonders what’s the matter with Kansas, but perhaps it’s just what one ought to expect.) Spielberg gets off lightly: he’s “that Michelangelo of the trite.” (I think he’s insidious.) What really troubles Frank is the celebration of a willingness to compromise that, in his view, is no better than a complacency with outright corruption. Lincoln is “a two-and-a-half hour étude on yet another favorite cliché: the impossibility of reform.” Insofar as reform is a high-minded business, however, its impossibility is a lot more serious than a cliché: it’s implausible. Reform inspired by morals and good sense, but ignorant of what students of human behavior have to tell us, will always come to naught. And behavioral reform is sneaky reform. (David Brooks wrote about this in today’s column.) Had I read Thomas Frank’s piece before going to see Lincoln, I don’t believe that it would have stopped me, for all my suspicion of the wiles of Steven Spielberg. It wouldn’t occur to me to assess the movie as a civics lesson. Although I have no desire to defend Lincoln against Frank’s charges, those charges seem merely petulant and juvenile.


PS: I cried almost unintermittently through Lincoln.

Gotham Diary:
Where to Find My Library
10 January 2013

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Mr Morgan’s Library  

The last essay in James Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff, concerns his late father-in-law’s library, which it fell to his charge to pack. I read the essay with bulging interest, as the disposal of my library is much on my mind these days. It’s not that the end seems nigh. What has dawned is the realization that nobody will be interested in possessing my collection of books as such. It will be as individual volumes that the books dissolve into the used-book universe. I am learning not to regret this, learning, that is, what my library really is, and where it actually exists.

Two of Wood’s anecdotes — neither about his father-in-law — stuck with me when I put the book down. One of them I had heard before. It was something that happened to Frank Kermode when, toward the end of his life, he moved house, and the boxes of books that he wished to keep were mistaken, on the sidewalk, for rubbish, and carted away, leaving him “with a great deal of literary theory,” Wood writes.

The story once seemed horrifying to me, and now seems almost wonderful. To be abruptly lightened like that, so that one’s descendants might not be lingeringly burdened!

It still seems horrifying to me, because poor Kermode was still alive. The other anecdote presents Susan Sontag in a now=familiar blaze of insecurity. I won’t repeat it entire; here’s the end:

… and it seemed strange of her not to comprehend what I intended to say, which was simply that, like her essays [Sontag’s point], her library was also more intelligent than she was.

I understand what Wood means to say here, but I would put it differently, probably because his essay sparked my mind on to what I think is a better grasp of the matter. I would say that anyone’s collection of books is more intelligent than its owner. But I would insist that the library itself, the library within that collection, is centered in the mind the person who has read the books in it, and held on to a memory as well as to the book.

That is why my library will not survive me, even if someone begs to take the whole lot, even if someone goes so far as to replicate the blue room in a museum. To anyone but myself, the collection will be just that, books on a shelf. What binds those books into a library is the web of connections in my head, some of them quite conscious, others all but unavailable. This had already been intimated to me by the work that I’ve been doing on culling the books, but I lacked the manner of expressing it.

My misgivings about personal libraries were awakened several years ago by a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum. In the grandiose library, I was peering at the spines through the grilles. It was all rubbish. Old travel books, I recall, or old translations of things. The books might have been valuable as objects, but their contents would be of no interest to anyone but a scholar, and, as such, ought to be uploaded into the clouds for permanent and universal access. It is not a library at all, but a collection put together for the greater glory of J P Morgan. It is hard to imagine him reading much of it. To put it another way, I should like to know of what books Morgan’s true library consisted. That would be interesting to know. (I do hope to leave behind a book list!) The library itself, however, died with Morgan.  


Scouting the Internet for reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I felt a bit foolish getting so excited by a book that came out last spring. I know why I shouldn’t have read it then. I was in the depth of my English commitment, reading one Elizabeth Taylor after another, and then, as i recall, reading and rereading Alan Hollingshurst. I was also loosening the compulsion to read all the new reviews. The mere appearance of “halftime” in a book’s title would have steered me away.

I don’t think that you’ll find me compiling ten-best-of-the-year lists of anything, but I have to say that it was the way Ben Fountain’s novel kept coming up on other people’s lists that concentrated my attention. The decisive pointer was Laura Miller’s rather harsh list of five books that she couldn’t pick up or get through. One of them was Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, the “other” Iraq novel of 2012. Miller compared it unfavorably to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The buzz had piled up in my mind. That, too, was part of my library; it still is. And, now that I’ve written it down, what is it? An annotation to my book list, I suppose.

Gotham Diary:
Words Fail
9 January 2013

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

As if sorrow is the true reality? Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory.

I allowed myself to make marginal squiggles in my copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk only twice. The second time, at the other end of the book (the above appears on page 11), I wanted to note Ben Fountain’s capture of something that I saw a lot of when I was young but was too repelled to try to describe: “the sure and liquid style that comes of long success.” I would go a bit further, and say that the style is produced by the success; it is really all that success really brings. The notion that this style is liquid seems particularly important: success is not achievement.

But, getting back to the other passage, it is the novel in a nutshell. The question is never answered; the belief remains a working hypothesis. It is tragic and not tragic at the same time, in the manner of the epic poems. A dark glory suffuses the long hangover that Billy Lynn never manages to shake in the space of a long Thanksgiving Day at the Texas Stadium, outside of Dallas. The noble parentage and physical magnificence of the heroes of Homer and Virgil is replaced, in equal measure, by great native intelligence and a tenacious spiritual resistance to the bitterness of irony. Other aspects of the epics appear more straightforwardly. There are games, and there are battles; there are goddesses and trophies. There are adventures in foreign lands: although Billy never leaves the stadium grounds, nothing could be more exotic than the Dallas Cowboys’ locker room — an other-worldly visit fleshed out with a truly jawdropping look at the “small airplane hangar” where the team’s equipment is housed. (This chapter, “XXL,” is one of several free-standing monuments in the novel.) Billy Lynn shares something else with the Iliad: it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

At the same time, this is an up-to-date denunciation of the “nightmare of superabundance” that seems to hold much of the United States in thrall. The pointlessness of the war in Iraq is taken for granted; Fountain, a former lawyer in his fifties, takes full advantage of the perspective of the Obama Administration. The heroics of Bravo Squad (as Billy’s team is misnamed by the embedded Fox News crew that captures Billy’s heroism on film) are sketched in a few, spare strokes; Fountain does not presume to write at length about what he has not seen. What he has seen, as a Dallas resident, is the shape of his countrymen, and on this point we are reminded not of antique conflicts but of the spacebound colony of former earthlings in WALL*E. While sipping an illicit beer, Billy appraises the crowds in the stadium concourse, and wonders, as a soldier ostensibly fighting on their behalf, what they’re thinking. His companion, Mango, brings him down to earth with the observation that they’re thinking about their bets on the game.

Billy nods. That sounds about right. He doesn’t blame them for such pedestrian thoughts, and yet, and yet … the war makes him wish for a little more than the loose jaw and dull stare of the well-fed ruminant. Oh my people, my fellow Americans! See the world with prophet’s eyes! Virtually everyone is wearing Cowboys gear of some kind or another, parkas and caps stamped with the blue star logo, oversized jerseys, hoodies, scarves of silver and blue dangly earrings or other forms of team bling, some have little Cowboys helmets painted on their cheeks. Billy finds this touching, how earnestly they show devotion to their team. The women display more aptitude for game-day style than the men, who lumber around with Cowboys jerseys hanging past their coattails and their pants bagged around the heels of their boots, a fatal foreshortening of the vertical line that makes them look like a bunch of hulking twelve-year-olds.

The rich are in better shape physically, but their women are demented.

Never do Americans sound so much like a bunch of drunks as when celebrating the end of their national anthem. In the midst of all the boozy clapping and cheering perhaps a dozen middle-aged women converge on Billy. For a second it seems they’ll tear him limb from limb, their eyes are cranking those crazy lights and there is nothing they wouldn’t do for America, torture, nukes, worldwide collateral damage, for the sake of God and country they are down for it all. “Isn’t it wonderful?” the realtress cries as she holds him tight. “Don’t you love it? Doesn’t it make you just so proud?”

Just the opposite: terrified and ashamed.  


Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is haunted by the ghost of Bravo Squad’s dead comrade, known to us only as Shroom, and about whom all we know is that he was a serious Zen Buddhist. Although Fountain never says as much, it is clear that Shroom has renounced this world — has freed himself from attachment to it. This freedom, coupled by the generosity with which he imparts his wisdom to Billy, is the force of Billy’s wartime education. We don’t see much of Shroom, or even hear many of the things that he said. His rank is not entirely clear; at least one reviewer identified him as a sergeant. (I don’t.) But Billy longs for him as much as any loved-on can be longed for. There was nothing carnal about their relationship, except for an exalted, unerotic kiss. Rather, Shroom was the first person to wake up Billy’s inner student. The wisdom that Billy manifests in the novel is perhaps implausible to some degree or other, but Billy himself is entirely unaware of it; he sees and feels only his own ignorance. Fountain presents the friendship with a brilliant obliquity: Shroom belongs to Billy more than he belongs to the novel. Billy gets to be our hero.

This gives the Victory Tour, and the day in Irving that we spend with Billy, a very strong sense of awakening, more a birth than a rebirth. For the first time, Billy sees what bothers him about his homeland, instead of feeling it dumbly. Tossing balls with the other Bravos before the game begins, Billy has a typical epiphany.

And if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make up more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of “play,” and then there are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other.

This is astonishing stuff, and even though there is almost nothing in this novel’s subject matter to interest me, the structure and the finish made every page gleam with genuine excitement.

Gotham Diary:
8 January 2013

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

During the holidays, and especially in the preparations for the party, I longed for regular life to resume, but, now that it has, I find that I’m not in the mood for it. I’m not in the mood for much of anything, except, of course, reading, and on that front I’ve been blessed with a really magnificent read, Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s both harrowing and impossible to put down, a waking nightmare of fraudulence, hypocrisy, and opportunism. It is also twisted and funny, and as pulsatingly vital as the America that it presents is bogus. As long as there are such novels, we need not abandon hope.

Billy Lynn is a smart but under-educated nineteen year-old from oil-patch Texas who enlists in the Army under duress, after a folly of adolescent chivalry reduces his options to that or prison. He has the good fortune, if that’s what it is, to be filmed as a hero by an embedded Fox News team, as a result of which he is brought back to the States for a “Victory tour.” War and the company of two wise, older soldiers (not much older!) have among them torn the scales from Billy’s eyes, as one used to say, and he sees his homeland with a zero-degree clarity that transcends — or subtends — all irony. He has the decency to expect that President Bush and Vice President Cheney, when he is introduced to them with his fellow team members, will be embarrassed about the course of the war, and he is shocked by their jocularity. I must admit that I was shocked by his shock — surely he would have known how Bush behaved as a matter of course. But he didn’t know; perhaps most Americans didn’t. Fountain is particularly acute when it comes to the metastatizing effect of media attention, and even better at making Billy’s resistance plausible. More anon.


In the last phases of party preparation, I slipped Broadcast News into the DVD boombox. Although made in the late Eighties, it looks about four or five years older now, the women’s fashions and hairdos (all shoulder pads and big hair) wildly dated. I wondered if the story has dated as well. I can easily imagine that younger viewers might wonder what all the fuss is about, given the subsequent ascendancy of Fox News. At a sharpish moment in the movie, Albert Brooks tries to convince Holly Hunter that William Hurt is the devil. The devil isn’t going to be scary and ugly, he tells her; he’s going to be nice and kind, and never hurt a living thing — as long as he can steadily lower everyone’s standards. Happily, this prediction turned out to be incorrect; there is nothing nice and kind about Fox News; only people who think that a locker room is a fun place to be could possible call it “nice,” and as for kindness, that virtue would be openly disavowed by the network itself. What keeps Broadcast News fresh is a more ageless story, even if it’s one that doesn’t get told very often, about the ethics of intelligence.

Both of the candidates for the heroine’s affection — Aaron (Albert Brooks) and Tom (William Hurt) are morally flawed men. Aaron, perhaps in keeping with his ideas about Satan, is not a nice person at all. He’s a jerk, frankly, unable to subordinate the display of his IQ to the emotional comfort of those around him. (And yet James Brooks’s screenplay takes great pains to rule out Asperger’s as an explanation, ante lettera.) Tom, in contrast, is a deeply empathetic man, but he is too willing to be dishonest about creating a welcome emotional atmosphere. The two men are almost perfectly complementary, and poor Jane (Holly Hunter) — as brilliant as Aaron but still woman enough to be drawn to the hunky (and much kinder) Tom — has a terrible time trying to decide between them. She winds up, by her own choice, with neither, and the movie would be scratchily unsatisfying if it weren’t for a feel-good postlude, set a few years down the road, when all three parties have found agreeable companions. Jane’s romantic adventure was something that she had to go through, and probably something that Tom and Aaron had to go through as well: the final scene is fairly adamant about lessons learned and moving on. It is knowing this, knowing how the story works out, that makes watching it supremely interesting now. One kind of suspense — yours — is canceled, because you know the ending, and this makes room for a second, which is Jane’s. No matter how many times you’ve watched the movie, Jane doesn’t know how she’s going to wind up, and the overall filmmaking is strong enough to forestall your pitying or condescending to Jane in this ignorance. It’s strong enough to make you see the battle that intelligence and desire wage within her. Desire is essentially unethical, but intelligence presents options, and Broadcast News is as elegant a study of moral choice as I’ve ever encountered on the screen. It’s all the more powerful for being relatively ephemeral. We are, after all, talking about television broadcasts here, not Sophie’s Choice. Precious few of us, it is to be hoped, will face the latter grade of decision. But all of us, especially those who are “knowledge workers,” face Jane’s conundrum, in some form, every day of the week.

One thing that has dated blatantly in Broadcast News is Jack Nicholson’s age. He was very much in-between when this movie was made, no longer the young rake but not yet the old monster. You can’t imagine him doing The Departed or Something’s Gotta Give. You would have to wait to let him show you those.

Gotham Diary:
Happy Birthday
7 January 2013

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Something is always forgotten. I forgot to put out the orzo salad. The bowl was on the table, with a silver spoon in it, but, because the salad is dressed with mayonnaise, we thought that I’d better wait until people arrived. But the first guests to arrive needed special attention, and I switched into front-of-house mode. The bowl for the orzo salad was on the far side of the table, beyond the plates of cheese and pâté, so I forgot. The little disposal bowls and silvered plastic forks were undisturbed, which is a great bore, because I can’t just throw them away, can I? And yet we won’t give another party like this one for a year at the soonest. Drat.

But I also forgot that I would be on the receiving end of a lot of very agreeable birthday wishes at Facebook. And I forgot that party guests would probably bring birthday presents. Birthday presents! What a concept!

I haven’t opened many. I will confess to searching out wrappings that might contain books. My friend Ellen gave me two New York-themed books, a then-and-now book of photographs and a very interesting compilation of New Yorkers’ diary entries throughout the centuries, arranged to follow the calendar. There are four entries for 6 January, the last of them by an escaped slave from North Carolina who joined the US Navy, noting that he had just been put in charge of the Wine Mess Ward Room (presumably at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn).

The party seems to have been a great success. The moment that I will never forget was intended to be such a moment. Soon after Will and his parents arrived — the anticipation was killing me! — I handed everyone a disposable glass and  asked Ray Soleil and another friend to fill the glasses with Piper Sonoma. When that was done, I scooped up Will and asked for everyone’s attention. Effectively, I toasted myself by thanking everyone for coming. The exact words escape me, but I don’t think that there were too many of them. Everyone drank my health. Someone nearby said, “Do we have to sing now?” “Yes!” I replied. Pretty soon, that awful old song filled the room, and I looked at Will and saw that he was mouthing the words, and just possibly singing. His eyes widened just a hair at the bellowing of my name, and his mouth went still. He has already been through the transgressive phase of calling his parents by their proper names; at the same time, no one was calling me “Doodad.” He was in any case looking out at the party with a rapt stillness, appraising this unfamiliar side of his grandfather’s life. Grandfathers’ birthdays! What a concept!

For many guests, the evening was an introduction to Will; others had not seen him since our last big party, given I believe for Kathleen’s birthday in 2010, when he was still an infant. It was generally agreed that it is not unreasonable of me to be “besotted” with my grandson.


Now it is time to clean up and put everything away, not just the party things but the Christmas things as well. And they will all be staying here. The most onereous project on the new year’s agenda is to empty out the storage unit on 62nd Street. What we can move up to the new but smaller unit in Inwood, we will keep. The rest has to go, either to charity or into the rubbish. It’s going to take a while, and a lot of adjustment, to find a place for the Christmas ornaments (not that they’re so very numerous), but I’ve been waiting for just this putting-away moment to tackle the closets in earnest. I shall try to take my time about it, try not to indulge in furious but exhausting orgies of reorganization.

I’m reminded of a story that I read a long time ago about an Italian aristocrat who lived a life of relative poverty so that he could afford, once a year, to host a party in his mirrored ballroom, lighted by hundreds of candles. In some way, I feel that I’m doing just the opposite. 

Gotham Diary:
Not Even Translated
4 January 2013

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Having done almost all of the cooking yesterday, I was in the kitchen for another reason this afternoon: polishing silver. (I keep telling myself that this party is going to be a “rout,” but there are limits to informality.) Since we’ll be using plastic forks, there wasn’t much to polish — just a couple of candlesticks and suchlike — but to ease the drudgery, I brought the DVD boombox into the kitchen and sat it atop the gag-gift oversized crystal beer mug, engraved “R J Our Hero,” the one souvenir of my working life that I’ve held on to, that sits on the counter holding lobster crackers. (You’d think we ate much more lobster than we do.) I slipped in North by Northwest; hey, it’s my birthday! Now, the DVD boombox has this annoying habit of displaying subtitles whether you want them or not. Sometimes, all you have to do is hit the “subtitle” button on the remote. Sometimes, you have to go into the DVD’s root menu and choose “No subtitles” as a language. It’s a bit of pain. North by Northwest turns out to be the first kind of disc. The subtitle button does not raise the “invalid key” message, but it does rotate through the available languages, which on this disc are English and French (and, thank heaven, “off”). For some goofy reason, I decided to go with French, even though, on the boombox’s tiny 7″ screen, the subtitles take up a lot of real estate. I wouldn’t be watching the movie much more than I usually do; I would be polishing silver.

I certainly hope, though, that they have better subtitles in France. I can’t imagine a Truffaut making a big deal about Hitchcock on the basis of the utterly witless rendering offered by Warner Brothers. It completely suppresses the dialogue’s pervasive sophistication, remarkable today and astounding for 1958. Also sacrificed is Roger O Thornhill’s crisp, patrician outlook. It’s easy to see that there would be no way to translate what Cary Grant says when he runs into Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau at the auction house: “Now, here’s a picture that only Charles Addams could love.” (Astounding, as I say. Who but New Yorker readers knew about Chas Addams in the Fifties?) But surely more effort might have been made with the moment of Cary Grant’s easygoing sarcasm, when he makes it clear, in the middle of the phone call to his mother from jail, that she has just said that there can’t really be anybody so unfortunate as to be called Emil Klinger, by replying, “No, I don’t believe it, either.” The subtitle is unadulterated mec: “Quel nom, hein?” And, at the other end of the movie, in the scene in the living room of the cantilevered house, James Mason says to Martin Landau, “Jump in, Leonard. The champagne’s fine.” The moment is so highly charged with sexual competition that you might think that skinnydipping is implied. But not in French. “Prenez un peu de champagne, Leonard.”

It has been a while since I’ve seen North by Northwest — six months or more, long enough for the Bernard Herrmann score to sound so fresh that I saw how much Wagner there is in it. (The Ring particularly.) I don’t mean motifs, but rather the orchestration. And yet, as always, it was the more minimal music that appealed to me, especially the passage, used first at Union Station and then at the cantilevered house, in which a bell-like instrument (I ought to know which one) climbs up and down the scale at an understated pace while the strings screw simple arpeggios beneath it.

And to think: I saw North by Northwest when it came out — but it’s still showing me things that I never quite saw before. (Such as, just one example, the contrast between Eva Marie Saint’s gently swaying pageboy, which would not be terribly dated today, and the United Nations receptionist’s no less blonde but much less interesting and totally Fifties tight perm. I don’t think that there’s another movie in which Hitchcock pitches the sexy so clearly against the respectable.)

Now it is time to go to bed and rest up for the party.

Gotham Diary:
3 January 2013

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

It’s late in the day to be writing an entry, and I almost forgot that I hadn’t written anything this morning. But then the first round of cooking came to an end — it came to an end because the dishwasher was full of pots and pans, and I decided to go do something else for a while while it ran, such as, what? I wondered. As you can see I am not firing on all cylinders, or, to borrow a favorite line from Miranda, I’m a few pashminas short of a wardrobe. (Quoting Miranda, are we?)

The plan was that I would shop this afternoon and then tidy up the living room and the blue room. Then, I would cook tomorrow. I’m making a trio of pâtés for my birthday party on Saturday, plus a few other items — nothing fancy, just hours and hours of using up all the pots and pans in the kitchen and endlessly running the dishwasher. But then I got home from my three shopping trips and there were bags all over the foyer full of things that had to be put away, and the blue room was kind of a wreck, never mind tidying. Plus it suddenly made sense to poach the salmon right away. Pretty soon I changed the plan. I’ll do most of the cooking this evening, and put things away that shouldn’t be lying about (not for a party, anyway). That way, tomorrow, I’ll have only the tidying to think of, and maybe I’ll take care of the liquor after that’s done. Liquor is going to be an important part of this party. The “part” part.

Meanwhile, I find that I am reading a history of Russia, Lionel Kochan’s The Making of Modern Russia. The book itself is not, strictly speaking, modern; it’s a Pelican book from 1963. While shuffling books in order to return Fire in the Lake to the shelf, yesterday — the original one, even though it can’t be read, it’s falling apart so — the blue Pelican spine caught my skeptical eye. Was The Making of Modern Russia even my book? Yes! There’s a note in red ink on page 44. There’s another two pages later. It appears that I (or someone) took up yellow highlighting on page 43 and got tired of on page 47. It must have been me; the highlighted passages are the least important ones. That’s why I never write in books anymore.

Anyway, I’m thinking that a history of Russia from 1963 is prime HousingWorks material, but then I open the book at random and come to the beginning of a chapter entitled “Russia of the Nobles.”

Peter the Great died in 1725 from stone and strangury. He was unable, without great pain, to retain or discharge his urine. This was a consequence of syphilis, probably contracted in holland and aggravated by drunkenness. He left no successor. From a combination of personal and political motives, he had already caused the death of his son Alexis, and had excluded Alexis’s son from the succession. By a decress of 1722, Peter claimed the right to nominate his successor in much the same spirit that had animated Ivan III “to whom I will, to him I shall give my throne.” But when the time came, Peter was unable to sweak. One of his daughters waited at his death-bed for the word that never came.

Well, who could stop reading that? Not me-mo. I set the book aside and later brought it into the bedroom. Do I need to be reading a history of Russia right now? Apparently, I do. One of these days, I will not have to think twice about whether Ivan III or Ivan IV was the terrible one (IV). As vivid as Kochan is about the demise of Peter the Great, he is oblique about the destruction of Novgorod, which according to one account that I read, long ago, was razed to the ground. (Which, I’ve just learned from Wikipedia, is not what happened.) I’m almost up to the Time of Troubles.

A much thicker book, one that I would never consider getting rid of, is James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, which (I’m too lazy to get up just now) dates from about the same time as Kochan’s book. Later, Billington was the Librarian of Congress; I wonder if he was a “Kremlinologist,” one of those analysts of the inner workings of the top echolons of the Communist Party in Russia who were desperate to find tea leaves to read (“Kremlinologer” would be more apt). Both Kochan and Billington argue, I think, what I have always believed, which is that Russia is Russia, Communist or otherwise. Events have certainly borne them out. Billington’s book is a cultural history rather than a political one. I wonder if I’ll read it next. I wonder if it will hold up. As a Vintage Book published in 1970, it is three years older than my disintegrating copy of Fire in the Lake.

So you see why getting rid of books is so hard. If I like a book the second time through, I’ll never give it away.


I’m making another batch — a double — of the chicken-liver pâté that Sam Sifton and Mark Bittman published in the Times Magazine a few weeks ago. It’s great, but there are two drawbacks. It’s quite hideously grey — exactly the color of a Weimaraner (“liver dog”). And it smells awful while the wine boils down. Well, not awful, but not like something that you want to spread on a cracker and wolf down with a cocktail.

I’ve already made a double batch of herbed pecans. Herbed pecans are a popular treat at my parties, and they’re easy to make; you just toss pecans in melted butter to which cayenne and rosemary have been added, and roast them in the oven. I got the recipe from a Junior-League-style production called Ravinia Cookbook. The thing about these books is that the recipes aren’t tested. What I need to do is write out the correct recipe for herbed pecans, or at any rate the one the works for me (longer time in a hotter oven, most notably). As soon as I do, I’ll share it with you.

Gotham Diary:
Lost in Translation
2 January 2013

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Many mornings lately, I’ve come to the desk with, at best, one little topic. (It’s a difficult season for writing, too, because of all the running around and seeing people.) This morning, though, I have two topics, and I can’t decide which one to go with. There’s “Learning to Speak American,” Tim Parks’s very just complaint about the provinciality of American editors when it comes to editing the work of other Anglophones. And there’s “The American Boy,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s virtuoso memoir of his correspondence with the late novelist Mary Renault.

Tim Parks, an Englishman who has lived in Italy for decades, was commissioned, he tells us, to write “a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and travelin on the country’s rail network.” I know that I’ve read some piece of this book already, whether or not it was written before the commission, and I think about it often, especially the observation (as I recall it) that the cheapest of Italy’s three rail services is designed to assure that everyone in the country can get home to mamma on the weekends, even students in Milan who come from Palermo. Ordinarily, I’d be sure of buying the book when it came out, but now I wonder. I would without question order the book from Amazuke, as I do almost all British and Irish books, at least in part to avoid the muddle that Parks writes about. But will here be an English edition of this book? I certainly wouldn’t want to read an American edition. An American edition would make it sound as though Italy is just an outlying province of the United States, with twelve hour clocks and distances in miles. And, as Parks complains, his own Englishness might well be effaced. Words that he would never use, that would never occur to him as he wrote, would lodge like foreign objects in the publisher’s all-but-translated text.

What was the publisher thinking? One thing the publisher was not thinking about was actual words, evidently. Why would you commission an Englishman to write an American book? And who, who among the population of readers interested in a provocatively oblique examination of “the Italian national character,” would be at all discomfited by Tim Parks’s English accent? Wouldn’t such readers know that “flyover” is how they say “overpass” over there, &c &c? I can understand translating the Harry Potter books (although I’d had no idea that they had been “thoroughly Americanized”). Harry Potter is for children, and children are by nature unsophisticated readers (as readers, I mean). As an adult, I read in order to engage with minds other than my own — minds that think other thoughts, and that think them, sometimes, in a language that is not altogether familiar. Since this is what I want to do when I read, I willingly pay the price, and extend my vocabulary whenever I bump up against a limitation. (When I was reading Trollope, back in the Seventies, I could not even find an Englishman capable of explaining “the Chiltern Hundreds.” But the Internet has made light work of continuing education.) My ear stretches to catch different rhythms, the odd inversion of phrases. And I’m talking here only of reading in English.

Tim Parks winds up,

Is it simply the publisher’s anxiety that his readers are weak, ready to put their books down at the slightest obstacle, and hence must be reassured by a homogeneity of usage that more or less makes language invisible? Or could it be that the long American hegemony has bred an assumption that American formulations are inevitably global currency and should be universally imposed?

Rome can’t fall fast enough.


Regular readers will know that I treat these entries, probably to a greater degree than is prudent, as language experiments. Because I read at least as much British English as American English (a great deal more, where history and fiction are concerned), British usages have more than seeped into my writing, and I no longer try to discourage their appearance. I’m also more willing, these days, to let in some Yankee vernacular. I hope never to be jarring, except to good effect (that is, to make a reader think). When I have time, I try to clear out the clumps of on-the-fly syntax that are perhaps too original to be readily readable.

Earlier in this entry, I wrote, “Words that he would never use, that would never occur to him as he wrote.” In another mood, I might compress this, to, “Words that he would never think to use.” I’m fairly certain that that’s English. You might say that I’m working against the tendency to develop a house style. This tendency can never be defeated by an individual writer with any real gift, because that is what “voice” comes down to. Tim Parks is right to worry about it as an editorial principal, though.

This whole question may seem a quite different matter from the contrast between Americans Americanizing and Europeans accepting Americanisms, but the truth is that house style is a much more common occurrence in the US and more aggressively enforced, to the point that when one rereads work one has written for The New Yorker it no longer seems like your voice at all.

Although I wonder if the happiest New Yorker writers aren’t the ones who know how to play the style — as no one does better than Englishman Anthony Lane. And what would you say about that last-minute shift in person, from “one” to “your,” which is all the more salient because “one” appears twice? I approve it heartily, because the “one” who writes is not quite the same person as the “you” who is wounded to have found your voice suppressed.

I’m reminded of the style sheet that George Saunders worked out for The Tenth of December with his editors at Random House.

Gotham Diary:
1 January 2013

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

On the drive down to Alphabet City this afternoon — we were going to enjoy a slice of Will’s birthday cake — I noticed that my notebook wasn’t where it belonged, and I still haven’t found it. I’d been writing a lot of notes lately, and meaning to type them up in some form or other, but I hadn’t developed the habit of that, and now the notebook has disappeared. I went to the tavern where I had lunch yesterday, but it wasn’t there. That’s where I made the last entry, which I can still recall: “I have not the sort of mind that believes that the details of lesser arrangements cannot be worked out until the world has been grasped in full.” I remember thinking that this was a very awkward of expressing myself, but I couldn’t think of a better way on the spot. I find that I can’t do much better now. I also made a note remarking on the difference between male and female piety (or piousness) in Colm Tóibín’s work. I was reading a collection of essays about the writer, and I was just finishing a piece about The Heather Blazing, a sort of translation, into the terms of constitutional philosophy, of that novel’s story.

Earlier, I finished The Testament of Mary, a fierce little book (81 pages) that might well have bulked out a collection of short stories, in the way that “The Street” concludes The Empty Family, but that deserves to be published by itself, because its subject is very bold, and the writing strong and spare. We have the last word, as it were, of the figure known to Roman Catholics as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ — but Tóibín’s Mary would have none of that. If she adored her son, it was only because she was his mother. She certainly didn’t approve of his behavior. “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.” Mary has been taken away to Ephesus, for her own protection, but also for the protection of the story that some of those misfits want to tell about her son, who is never named. Her version of the story, which does not please them, is extremely concentrated. When a cousin with a Latin name comes to her warn her that her son is attracting the attention of the authorities and that she had better persuade him to retire to a more private way of life, Mary makes her way to a wedding in Cana, where it seems that Lazarus has just been raised from the dead. “What have I to do with thee?” her son rebukes her, before returning to Jerusalem to make more of a spectacle of himself. Soon she is standing at the foot of the cross on which the Romans and the rabbis have crucified him. And she realizes that she is in danger herself even before she is told as much.

It is not just the shock of the completely contrarian telling of the Gospel story that makes The Testament of Mary arresting. Even more than that, I’d say, is the force of the encounter with the unswerving piety and formidable discretion of one of Tóibín’s older women, one of his mothers. Or one of the mothers of the Republican rebels from which his characters often descend. I can’t say more without spoiling the book’s darkest secret, which Mary has lived with in pain for many years and which she feels she must now share. But I thought often of Eilis Lacey’s mother (in Brooklyn), and the mother in “A Priest in the Family,” from Mothers and Sons. These women carry terrible weights, but they honor their sorrow by refusing to discuss it. They shun heroics, but with an heroic fervor. They are not like men. Whether they are weaker or stronger than men it is impossible to say, and no one captures that particular ambiguity better than Colm Tóibín.

Late last night, after the caviar and champagne and lobster but no room for dessert — and Radio Days, of course — after Kathleen had gone to sleep and I’d fooled around a bit with the old Daily Blague, I pulled down The Empty Family, Tóibín’s most recent collection of stories, and began reading “The Pearl Fishers.” I still don’t know what bearing this has on The Testament of Mary; the woman in the story, a fiery debater of conservative issues, is anything but reticent — she is very much not one of the “Tóibín women” I’ve been thinking about. It may be the hunch that Tóibín’s grasp of a certain kind of Irishwoman proceeds from his experience of the things that make gay men and straight mutually difficult to understand, a subject that, off the top of my head, anyway, I think he has yet to take on as a writer. (It may well not interest him at all.)

Now that I’ve typed up that final note, I had better figure out a better way of putting it. What was I trying to say?


Before lighting the candles for Will’s cake, Megan explained that she had bought the big one, the fat numeral “3,” last summer. (There were also three little candles, and Will blew them all out, if not in one go.) She had the foresight to do so after having no luck, last New Year’s Day, finding a a “2.” It was doubly impossible then, because there are two 2s in “2012,” but Will’s age will always coincide, not just with the New Year, but with the actual year being welcomed in. 

When asked how old he was, Will replied that he was “only three.” My sentiment exactly — it seems that he has been around forever! We see him far too often to register any but the smallest changes, and he seems always to be in the process of becoming more himself: he has always been Will. I always wonder if people who say that “they grow up so fast” are really paying attention.