Archive for March, 2013

Gotham Diary:
Closed For Renovations
28 March 2013

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

When I say that I’m having a “low day” today, I don’t mean to sound alarms or elicit sympathy. I have at least one low day every week, and I don’t see how I couldn’t. Low days are for the back office of my brain to sort out all the incoming. Ever since high school, when I returned from summer vacation to find that I actually understood the subjunctive mood, a matter to which I had given no thought for months, I have known that my brain needs time off, time away. I don’t need months anymore; a day in bed will do. As I myself do not require a day in bed, I thought that today would be a great day for lunch at the Seahorse Tavern. I got dressed after our cleaner left (now the apartment is ready for Easter dinner, but for a bit of superficial tidying), and headed over to 85th Street. There was something about the lighting at the Seahorse that always made it look closed from the outside during daylight, but today, it really was closed — “for renovations,” as the euphemism has it. C’est fini! The Seahorse ran for about two years, and I soon learned that it was much nicer at lunch than at dinner. At dinner, the room was even noisier than it had been as the New Panorama Café. At lunch, it was pretty quiet (too quiet, it seems), but more than that, there was the view. I would take a table by the window and sit with my back to the room. I would look up, now and then, from my reading, and lose myself in the local. Once, I remember writing, I felt I was sitting on the edge of a backstreet canal in Venice — last spring, I think. The windows were open and the whole immediate world was vernal. Today, it wouldn’t have been so pleasant. But it was what I needed, on my low days: sitting by the window and looking out on the passersby and their incalculable missions, my attention completely diverted from the static and buzz of neural reset. I will miss it.

Soon, however, I hope to be making salads for lunch on the balcony, which it seems certain we’ll regain access to within a month. Instead of gobbling them down, as I tend to do at meals taken alone at home, I shall try to take my time, enjoying the view. Passersby there will be none, but there are always planes landing at LaGuardia, and I know the two flight paths that come in from the south.


When her children went off to school (or thereabouts), Elizabeth Bogert Stille took a job a Reader’s Digest, condensing books. She had done a lot of work as a copy editor, and at one publication she was known as “the queen of the cutters.” It embarrassed her to work at the Digest, not least because of its owners’ staunch support of the Republican Party’s sweep to the right, but it was steady work, and she had to show up in Pleasantville (Chappaqua actually, of course) only three days in the week. This left her the long weekends to spend either in town or at her refuge in Great Barrington.

Reading what her son, Alexander, has to say about growing up on West 11th Street, collecting coats from the great and the good people who came to his parents’ cocktail parties, I saw the awful truth of my life: I grew up at Reader’s Digest. By the time I came along, Bronxville had lost the minor legion of New Yorker writers and other “creatives” who had lived there between the wars (including Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis — that improbable and unhappy couple). The Kennedys were gone, too, so the Village seemed designed to protect its inhabitants from any contact with interesting people. (That is undoubtedly why Jack Paar lived there — he knew he’d be left alone.) There was never the remotest chance that a house down the street would be blown up by an amateur Weather Underground bomb — as happened, of course, to Stille, foreshadowed moment he mentioned that Dustin Hoffman lived on his block. (After the explosion, which tore a hole in the actor’s living room that exposed it to the open, “we never saw Dustin Hoffman again.”)

Life is very,  very unfair.

Gotham Diary:
We’re Not Married Until We Aren’t
27 March 2013

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

At Crawford Doyle yesterday, I bought three books: Alexander Stille’s memoir of his parents, The Force of Things (which I’ve very nearly finished), Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, and Jeanine Basinger’s new film book, I Do and I Don’t. I haven’t read any of the cinema doyenne’s earlier books, but I bought this one because I’m up for a rethink. Over a quarter of a century ago, my way of watching movies was strikingly upgraded by James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood. In those heady days, videocassettes, while not exactly new, were beginning to make it possible to conduct personalized movie festivals, and to see films that had become all but inaccessible. Had The Awful Truth ever appeared on television? I don’t think so. And it wasn’t easy to obtain — the first copy that I could get my hands on was a laser disc. Now at or near the top of almost everybody’s list of comedies from the studios’ golden age, The Awful Truth was not well known when Harvey put a still from it on the cover of his book.

In a preliminary Author’s Note, Basinger hails the work of Stanley Cavell, who developed the concept of the “comedy of remarriage” to reformat the screwball comedies of the Thirties and early Forties into fodder for philosophical reflections on marriage. “My book differs in one simply way: he uses movies to think about philosophy. I use them to think about movies.” What she really means is that, while Cavell considers marriage from its breakdowns, Basinger wants to have a look at how marriage — committed domestic life — is presented in the movies. On the first page of her Introduction, Basinger notes that, when asked to name a few “marriage movies,” friends would almost invariably name The Awful Truth. But Jerry and Lucy Warriner are never, in Basinger’s sense, married in the movie. They have effectively broken up before the movie begins, and the film closes on their almost illicit reunion. They never actually live together.

So, The Awful Truth is not a “marriage movie.” I was a little sad to read this, true as it is. But it confirmed my need for a rethink. I’ve never given marriage movies any particular thought. And if The Awful Truth isn’t about marriage, well, then, what is it about? Beyond the comedy of remarriage and all that.


Fans of the movie will complain that the second scene of The Awful Truth takes place in the Warriner’s drawing room — so of course they’re married at the start. Here’s why I disagree.  Jerry has brought a group of carousing friends back for egg nog; then Lucy shows up with her music teacher. Everything they say about where they’ve been and why is dubious if not obviously untrue (as Lucy points out by tossing Jerry an orange stamped with the name of a state other than the one he’d pretended to visit). But let’s consider the drawing room. It is the most white-on-white stateroom that I’ve ever seen on screen. Full of Georgian furniture, it is not so large as the huge hall of the Seton house in Holiday, but, in it’s way, it’s grander: all that fine furniture and intricate plaster work crowd the scene with a jungle of curlicued pomposity. At the end of the film,  this room will be mirrored in the larger drawing room of the Vances, who are pompous and vacuous. And by then we shall have seen the rooms that Jerry and Lucy have chosen for their separate journeys toward divorce, rooms of the latest art-déco sophistication and restraint. Modern rooms. What were the Warriners doing, living à la Chippendale? One can draw any number of conclusions. Jerry and Lucy have outgrown an earlier, less considered taste. Or they have inherited the house, and never bothered to redecorate. But it is obviously not their house. Their marriage is technical. All they have to show for it is a dog. (And only in the comic inversion at the Vance’s will they ever be so incongruously attired.)

It is also fairly clear that the Warriners haven’t just started playing with matches. They’ve been pursuing their respective indiscretions for some time, but now each of them has begun to feel sore about pretending not to know what the other one is up to. The “comedy of remarriage” reading of the movie holds that Lucy and Jerry have never really been married, and that only the pratfalls and humiliations that attend their separation can bring them really and truly together. I’m not so sure. I think that there’s more of Les Liaisons Dangereuses here that is entirely comfortable. Jerry and Lucy are rich, handsome, spoiled and sexy. Fending off boredom is their principal occupation in life. I have this awful feeling, which came to me last night as I was reading Basinger, that the reconstituted Warriner marriage is going to differ from its predecessor by having an explicit policy about “sidebars.” Which will make the Warriners even more worldly and European than they were at the start. But what about the havoc that such people wreak in the lives of others? What about the hopes of next year’s Dixie Belle Lee or Daniel Leeson? The cabin in the woods in which The Awful Truth comes to an end is no more faithful to the aesthetic that the Warriners share than was the lobby at the beginning.

Basinger writes that, “watching marriage movies, I felt that they were pitched at the audience’s own level of experience more closely than any other type of movie I had seen. These movies were about content. They were talking to an audience who knew the subject, knew the subtext, knew the reality. I think this is one of the reasons that the topic of marriage in the movies, unlike the American West, horror, melodrama, combat, crime, and others, has not yet captured the full attention of academics.” I’ll be very interested to see how infidelity figures in the movies Basigner chooses to write about.

Gotham Diary:
Dames à Tablier
26 March 2013

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

If you think that “Ladies in Aprons” will do just as well as “Dames à Tablier” — well never mind. Consider it a branding issue. My thoughts about women lately have run under the rubric “Dames.” This is “dames” as in grandes dames, not as in Guys & Dolls. The women I’ve been thinking about were born into prosperity (or arguable dreams of it), and nothing was expected of them beyond marriage and children. But that was not enough for them, and often they needed to help out with the family finances. Diana Vreeland is my number-one dame, but Julia Child (who always regretted the lack of children in her marriage) comes close. I wonder if they ever met!

The phrase dames à tablier came to me yesterday, while I was mulling over Julia Klein’s piece about Betty Friedan and the fiftieth anniversary of The Feminine Mystique. Klein tells us that the book’s origins lay in a survey that Friedan conducted of her fellow Smith ’42 classmates, in the late Fifties.

Most had since married and had children, and few worked outside the home. In interviews, Friedan discovered evidence of “the problem that has no name,” which manifested itself in discontent, depression and physical illness. She would ultimately define that problem as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.” (Her focus, as critics have noted, was on middle-class women who could afford to renounce paid work, not the millions in mostly menial jobs outside the home.) Feminism, for Friedan, was fundamentally humanism, seen through a psychological lens: a question of growth, maturation and identity.

Something about this passage suggested a name for the problem. It was confirmed by a quotation from Mystique:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”

The nameless problem was the servant problem — and we still haven’t addressed it.

Betty Friedan’s grandmothers were perhaps not very affluent women, but surely most of her classmates’ very much were. Consider the difference between such a grandmother, circa 1900, and her granddaughter, circa 1955. Both women would have had similar ideas about domestic hygiene, meals, and, given changes in style, décor. (Both would have been horrified by stained upholstery; both would have insisted on clean-looking draperies in the windows.) Both would be involuntary participants in the display of bourgeois respectability, giving dinner parties and volunteering for charity work. But the granddaughter, unless she had married into great wealth, would have had, at best, the help of a “cleaning lady,” a working-class servant who might show up every day or just one day a week. Our alumna would not employ a cook. She would not have a personal maid to manage her wardrobe and to help her to dress (essential for ladies of 1900). She would not have a flock of nannies to shepherd her children from point to point. No, our Smith ’42 housewife, in 1955, aided by a car and a batterie of domestic appliances, would have found herself up to her eyeballs in housework. And — here’s the clincher — she would have done it all in a nice dress.

Somewhere around 1980, everything changed. I would peg it, somewhat whimsically, to the introduction of the food processor. The food processor made it possible to reproduce a number of hitherto unthinkably difficult dishes into everyday cuisine. It also made preparing them tidy and kind of fun. The “California kitchen,” now ubiquitous in new construction, brought the dinner guests into the kitchen, because, by 1980, it had been established that well-run kitchens are neat, clean, and convenient spaces — nothing to be ashamed of. Guests could be handed a glass of wine and asked to tear apart a head of lettuce. The making of food became part of the meal. Younger people who grew up in this environment cannot imagine how unthinkable it was in 1955, when a proper dinner party entailed a host of jobs — pressing table linens and polishing silver, just to name the two least popular — that had once been seen to by servants, and seen to well out of sight. It took ladies in aprons — my dames à tablier — about thirty years, not to take their aprons off, but to change what they were wearing underneath, and to simplify what they were expected to do. In the course of this time, feminism was put into practice on a front that few of even the most visionary suffragettes would have foreseen in 1900: well brought-up housewives had freed themselves from the postwar obligation to maintain prewar standards of living. They no longer did the work of servants.

But as any good butler will tell you, scrubbing is the easy part. Women are still saddled with domestic management problems that nobody seems to be able to talk about. Men diddle with their project management apps, but the laundry and dry cleaning remain obdurately inflexible. Cars and houses are full-time maintenance headaches. Untended bathrooms go swampy with the speed of a fatal fever. Dishwashers must be emptied and refrigerators restocked. Don’t get me started on lawn care! If feminists eliminated much of the “menial” work that servants had done for their grandmothers, they stalled at the next step, and that’s where we still are. And while the man in the house can never help out quite enough, I think that most women (my wife excluded) would be very unhappy to have a man, even their beloved husband, running their homes for real.

There remains much to be learned.


Must run, but I want to say how much I’m enjoying Diana Athill’s Somewhere Toward the End. I feel the oddest contradiction: beyond polite conversation, I don’t think that she and I would get on very well; we like different things. But our ideas about “life” are quite similar. I’m thinking especially of her modest, humane, but rock-ribbed atheism, which she writes about in Chapter 4 so beautifully that I’m going to hunt down my Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins books and give them the heave-ho. There is no need to say more than what Athill has written.

Gotham Diary:
Spring Cleaning
25 March 2013

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Around this time of year, a handyman shows up with a vacuum cleaner and a bin full of HVAC filters. Everything by the windows has to be moved away so that he can clean the units. Although it’s no fun really, I’ve turned it into a sort of rite of spring, a cleansing purge. When I’ve put everything back where it belongs, there’s less of it than there was. This year, it was the bedroom that needed renewal. Beneath one end of the window, there’s a small bookshelf that holds up a boxy HP printer with document feed that I’d like to put somewhere else. But there is nowhere else, not at the moment anyway, and I hold on to the thing because I just may need to send or receive a fax some day. Beneath the printers, on a shallow shelf, there was  a range of neglected, forgotten supplies — paper, envelopes, labels — and an old copy of the Yellow Pages. Most of this will get the heave-ho.

In every room in the house, you will find what we call rattan boxes. They’re made out of some woven organic material, somewhere in Asia, and they’re surprisingly stout as well as handsome. They come in a few unobtrusive colors: tan, reddish brown, black, and dark olive, and I’ve got them stacked up beneath and behind everything. I have no idea what’s in any of them. Periodically, I open them all up and, sometimes schematically, sometimes with the aid of photographs on which I paste helpful dymo labels, I make a record of what’s in what. But what happens to the record? It goes into a folder somewhere. I’ve experimented with Word documents, but that excludes the visual aspect.

But I’ve hit upon what at the moment promises to be a solution so perfect that it’s a dream I didn’t dare have. Evernote. I am not going to chatter on about Evernote. You’ll either wonder what took me so long or scroll down until something interesting catches your eye. And the fun part isn’t Evernote, either. It’s the Livescribe pen that I picked up weekend before last.

With an hour to kill between dinner and the evening Paul Taylor show, Kathleen and I, desperate for shelter from the inclement weather, resorted to the local Best Buy, where, astonishingly, Kathleen found a store map that showed a rest room, which by then I needed even more than the warmth. It was when I came out of the convenience, suffused with relief, that I saw a rack of packaged Livescribe pens and notebooks. Because I misread the price, underestimating it by fifty dollars, I thought, what the hay, I’ll give it a whirl. I brought it home and stashed it in a corner. The next day, I asked my daughter and son-in-law to recommend good project management apps. Ryan suggested Evernote right away, and Megan mentioned Toodles. I checked them out on Monday, but was not motivated to go further. It was not until this past Saturday that I opened the Livescribe pen and had a go at installing it. I soon discovered that it wanted to work with Evernote, so I downloaded the program onto both computers and was amazed to discover that the pen really did work. On Sunday,  I made a list of questions and to-dos about Evernote, and synched it to the computer. Then I downloaded the Evernote apps onto my smartphone and onto the Kindle Fire, which I want to put to use as my personal assistant. (I read Internet pages on the iPad, and most ebooks on the Kindle Paperwhite. The books that I don’t read on the Paperwhite are books that I’m not going to read for pleasure, such as Evernote for Dummies.) This allowed me to strike one item from the to-do list. I synched the updated list to Evernote and, voilà: this strike-out was visible on the Fire.

There is still much to learn. But I’ve already accommodated the pen and the application to my penchant for writing notes and lists by hand, away from the computer and its barrage of information. I can’t quite believe it!


I’ve just read the strangest book, Douglas Gomery’s The Coming of Sound. I’d llike to say that it is one of the most illuminating business books that I’ve ever read, but it’s also the most unedited, syntatically messy book that I’ve ever read. Because I read it to learn about the history of the movie studios — always a fascinating subject — I did not take note of every garbled passage, and most of them have proven to be difficult to retrieve. Here’s one, though: “They even knew of Warner’s plan for The Jazz Singer, but figured the first star chosen for the role, George Jessel would create not hit.” Everything seems to go downhill after the comma that ought to follow “Jessel” is omitted. I wonder not only how this survived editing (of which there is little evidence throughout the book), but how it got written down in the first place. Gomery often writes like someone who hates to write.

Providing motion pictures with synchronous sound was first undertaken in 1892, and, for the next thirty years and more, every scheme flopped, even Thomas Edison’s. By the Twenties, the major producers, such as Adolph Zukor, didn’t even want to hear about sound; they were doing fine without it. When engineers at Western Electric, a subsidiary of AT & T, finally developed a truly viable solution to the problem, the company couldn’t get anyone in Hollywood to take a meeting. Eventually, at the end of a long and complicated contredanse, a front-man for Western Electric, an investment banker from Goldman, Sachs, and Harry Warner came together on a project for making short subjects featuring vaudeville acts — and sound. One thing led to another. Sailing would have been much smoother if John Otterson had not taken over representing Western Electric. Otterson was, at least in Gomery’s telling, a complete asshole, and probably — this, Gomery doesn’t even suggest — an anti-Semite. But the deeply interesting aspect of the story is the leaching, from the technology companies to the studios, of highly collusive practices that, at the end of the day, furthered competition by eliminating an entry-level problem. By the time that Paramount and MGM were ready to sign contracts with Western Electric, the two cinema giants, along with some other studios, had researched the matter collectively, and the contracts were all but identical. The studios had followed developments at Warner Bros and at Fox Films, where Movietone newsreels were the primary sound project, and were convinced by the huge success of Al Jolson’s second Warner’s feature, The Singing Fool, that, this time, sound would not only work but pay. This was in the spring of 1928. Within two years, silent movies were no longer being made. The transition could not have been more orderly. Almost everything you know about the coming of sound (from film courses and Singin’ in the Rain) is wrong, or incomplete at best.

AT & T and RCA (the child of General Electric and Westinghouse Electric) had already partitioned the territory between them: RCA got radio transmission, and AT & T got wire services. All patents were cross-licensed. Movies with sound didn’t figure in this division of spoils, and when RCA took its superior technology to Hollywood, everyone was already committed to AT & T’s subsidiary, Electrical Research Products Inc (ERPI). So David Sarnoff, head of RCA, got together with Joseph Kennedy and some others and founded RKO (which was therefore the studio that never made silents.) Eventually, the ERPI engineers had to redesign their technology in imitation of RCA’s.

The Coming of Sound, however, is a collection of essays, and, quite apart from the shoddy editing, it is burdened with narrative backtracking and superfluous re-introductions. Although Gomery hammers home a few theses (the most singular of which is the unimportance of The Jazz Singer), he has not quite created a book out of his material. Stepping back and reorganizing the material might have inspired a series of portraits of the major characters, some of whom, like Zukor and the Warners, are better known as film moguls than as businessmen, and many of whom, such as the infamous Otterson, will not have been heard of. This is a story that richly blends conflicting personalities with developing technologies, and my sense of how things work was shaken by it — always a good thing. I have to thank Douglas Gomery for taking pains.

The Coming of Sound is a thwacking rebuttal of free-market notions. The cross-licensing and collusion practiced by AT & T and RCA, and among the Hollywood studios (which were all headquartered in New York when this was going on), served to free the individual companies from the destructive competition that doesn’t accomplish anything and for the productive competition of manufacturing ever-better products. It’s hard not to be wowed by the sound business sense of men like Zukor, who managed to bring stability to an industry fraught by its uncertainty.

Gotham Diary:
22 March 2013

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Once I got out of the house, I was all right. The weather was harsh, clear but penetratingly cold. I walked to the subway without a muffler, because it is always better to warm up in the station than to arrive already warm. The express train pulled in at once, and, but for a single full stop just north of Grand Central — I have come to dread full stops, having read so many stories about passengers trapped by “police action” — it charged down the island at a nice clip. At the City Hall stop, I had a choice: I could climb one flight of stairs and find myself on the street, or descend a flight of stairs and then climb two, and find myself much closer to 1 Federal Plaza. My knees were unhappy about my choosing the latter option.

Neither Kathleen nor I knew where 1 Federal Plaza is (now we do), but I found it without any trouble, and was soon inside. My bag went through one of those X-ray devices, but none of the airport humiliations was imposed. I was soon on the third floor of the not-very-tall building, which houses the United States Court of International Trade, looking at a picture of my grandfather, William J Keefe, a judge of what was in his day the Customs Court. I learned from the accompanying biographical sketch that the Judge (as we always called him) retired in 1947, the year before I was born. I was reassured about his dying in 1955 — my malleable memory hadn’t morphed that fact.

To say that I knew nothing about the Judge’s professional life, or who his colleagues were, while he was still alive, would be frighteningly accurate. They might all have been gangsters or money launderers, or even white slavers. This was true of all the solid male citizens of Bronxville, who did their business elsewhere, in New York City, away from the women and children. Everything that we knew about their work was negative: they did not get dirty, they did not develop calluses, they did not carry boxes, they did not count out change. (Nor did they hear confessions, but of course it never occurred to me, as a child, that the priesthood was a career. There were no priests or nuns or religious people of any kind in our family.) When we were told that our fathers were working hard to provide us with the best of everything, the more inquisitive would wonder what this hard work consisted of. It did sound incredibly boring, and that was a helpful clue later on, when I was puzzling out that the top échelons of American businessmen and the professionals who served them had unwittingly settled into recreating the courtly routines of ancien régime grace and favor.

I didn’t learn much about the Judge even after he died. My father was very proud of the Judge, but their relationship had not been sympathetic, because, if you want to know what I think, my father had inherited his mother’s much more placid disposition. I used to joke that my father napped his way to the top, because, really, that is all that I ever saw: my father dozing in front of televised golf matches. Perhaps because he was determined not to inflict the outraged disappointment of high expectations that had made his own youth such a pain, my father never attempted to introduce me to the elements of his daily life. I remember poring over a prospectus that he brought home — I loved the prospectuses of those days, small and neat and closely printed, really rather  scholarly looking — and asking what a sinking fund was. Whatever his answer was, it has successfully blocked my understanding of the term ever since. He did tell me that he thought that I’d make a good lawyer, because I could write. Talk about ancien régime!

It seems that, some years ago, a retired or about-to-retire judge at the CIT took an interest in the history of the court, which has gone through several mutations since its foundation in the late Nineteenth Century, and as part of his project to know more about the court, he researched the lives of its judges, and sought out their portrait photographs. That’s what led his assistant to me. She tracked me down via an entry in this very Web log. It turned out that I did not have a suitable photograph of the Judge, but my cousin, Bill, did, and he readily contributed a copy. That was that, I thought. But then, late last month, I received a letter inviting me to “a brief ceremony to unveil these biographical sketches.” I had a brief dream of picking up Will at school and taking him downtown to the courthouse. But he is really too young to be able to remember much of such an outing. (He just might be capable of it; he is already displaying his mother’s prodigious recall.) In the end, Kathleen had to be downtown all day because of board that she is on, so the event would not be inconvenient for her. We met up at 1 Federal Plaza at the appointed time.

The court staff had tracked down five or six of the judges’ families, few older than grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The unveiling was scheduled to coincide with an all-day meeting of the lawyers who plead before the court, so the crowd was decent-sized. But I was not feeling particularly gregarious, and I contented myself with telling the family story about how the Judge got the job to the assistant who had found me on the Internet. “Oh, they’re all political,” she blandly replied, waving an arm at the wall of photographs. Be that as it may, I will close with a quote from the letter of invitation, written by Chief Judge Donald Pogue.

The CIT and its predecessor institutions have had a crucial role in ensuring the peace and stability that come from a robust international trade regime. It is only appropriate to recognize the people so critical to its success.

Every now and then, I would read something that my father had written — one his annual speeches to the security analysts, perhaps — and be struck by his ability to strike the very same statesmanlike tone, a pose utterly unfamiliar to those of us who knew him at home. I have to say that this sort of thing still takes my breath away, because it’s such a surprise. Yes, it’s the correct thing to say, if anything is going to be said, ready to be chiseled into marble; but I still can’t believe that anybody can say it.


After the ceremony, we found a taxi on Broadway. No sooner did we direct the driver to Alphabet City, where we were going to sit with Will while his parents went out to dinner, than the taxi’s GPS/meter crashed. It’s all one system, apparently, and the worst of it is that the driver would have to head back to Queens to have it fixed. And he had only just begun his shift! It was an awful tale of woe, and it intensified my conviction that taxis ought to managed from Manhattan, where most of them make money, and not from Queens, which who knows where that is. They ought to drain the reservoir in Central Park and excavate a capacious cavern, where taxis can be serviced and parked — and where drivers can make pit stops! (Never fear that a driver will have to be directed to Carl Schurz Park.) My proposal is preposterous, but I’ll say anything to get people thinking.

As we approached Avenue C, the driver asked us if we made this trip often (and therefore had some idea of what the fare would be), but I’d made up my mind to be generous. When he asked for $12, which sounded reasonable, I gave him a twenty.

“I promise,” said Will. He wanted me to give him the Apple TV remote, but as he had just caused it to skitter far under the couch, whence Kathleen laboriously extracted it with the help of a book, I thought that I’d better hold on to it. When I expressed concern that he would lose the remote again, he said, “I won’t. I promise.” This was new, new to me anyway. I promise, eh? Perhaps because I’d just been to a quasi-judicial event, I was tempted to ask, “Did you mean to throw it under the couch?” I held firm; the remote stayed in my shirt pocket. Will threw himself on the floor for a moment and wailed, not very loudly, for ten or fifteen seconds. Within two minutes, he was sitting in my lap. (This was a wholly representative tantrum, no worse than a minute shower in Bermuda.) I wondered where “I promise” came from. It’s a formula that Will can’t really understand — can he? Coming from him, it just means, “trust me; I mean well.” Which I’m sure he does. Will can’t promise to be more careful for the long term (the rest of the evening, that is) because, as a happy and healthy little boy, he is swept by occasional gusts of sheer recklessness. But, like one of his grandfathers anyway, he can talk an older game.


Truly, madly, deeply attentive readers may detect the note of a literary influence in the first section of this entry (or even throughout); I wasn’t conscious of it while I was writing it but was struck by it while I was taking a break to make the bed. That bit about gangsters and money-launders and “even white slavers” — would such fancy have occurred to me if I hadn’t been reading Caroline Blackwood? I finished her novel Corrigan last night, and I hereby pronounce it the definitive fictional treatment of the problem that grown children have with their widowed parents’ subsequent arrangements. Nadine Conroy is a perfectly realized exemplar of the jealousy and disgust that seize hold of one when a deceased parent is replaced by someone “obviously” wholly inappropriate. The triumph is that the portrait is both accurate and hilarious. If you know anyone who is suffering along these lines, slip along a copy of Corrigan.

Corrigan turns on its head the classic tale of the rich widow and the suave con man. But that’s only the beginning. The novel is written in a flat but beguiling style, and its characters seem to be droll satirical stick figures; we’re lulled into the expectation of a satisfyingly amusing explosion at the end. In the novel’s final chapters, however, Blackwood slowly but steadily raises the backdrop on a quite different reality, one in which the characters are fully rounded. That’s the treat of the thing. Andrew Solomon, in an Afterword, puts it very well:

We, like Corrigan himself, have been duped. The last laugh is on us. We’ve been following entirely the wrong plot for the first three quarters of the book. The novel is wonderfully self-reflexive: we find ourselves the objects of the very stupidity we have supposed to exist among the characters, fooled as Corrigan was by their veneer of simplicity.

I read Corrigan on the Kindle Paperwhite, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to get the NYRB hard copy. This book is a classic.

Gotham Diary:
21 March 2013

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

It occurs to me that I use the word “social” a lot, and that, as I live in New York City, some readers might well think that I have a busy social life, that I know lots of people, and that, in today’s terms, I’m highly networked. Careful readers will bear in mind the other words that I use even more often than “social”: “reading” and “writing.” If you do a lot of reading and writing, you don’t have a lot of time to spend with other people. I have, yes, met a lot of people in New York City (and elsewhere). But I know very few of them. The number of people whom I could call up to make a date for lunch (without its being a big deal) is less than ten, and, more important, I’m not particularly inclined these days to call anyone up to make a date for lunch. I’m less social, in that sense, than ever.

But I’m rarely alone. Oh, I’m alone in the apartment for most of the day, but to be alone in an apartment in a building with nearly seven hundred “units,” with windows giving out over the racket of East 86th Street in Yorkville, is by no means a manner of solitude. And I leave the apartment for routine errands, some of which take me no further than the lobby, in the course of which I may jostle against dozens of people, some of whom I know well enough to say “hello” to. If I step out of the building, dozens become hundreds. It is my belief that every one of those encounters, however glancing, is psychosocially significant. For the most part, they reinforce my sense of self, by not calling it into question. Sometimes they make me uncomfortable. Women who chirp querulously into cell phones excite my disgust: the world is not your living room. Two or three uneducated guys, lumbering along in their outer-borough grunts, chill my heart. When you think you know everything that you’re supposed to know, and assume an understanding of how the world works,  your mentality is poised to slide off the human plane.

How’m I doing?, as Mayor Koch always asked. I try to be pleasant, but it’s not always easy, and my impatience is too readily tried. In good spirits, I can figure out how much interaction the clerk behind the counter is looking for. Many clerks, understandably, hate their jobs, and hate, unfortunately, their customers into the bargain. Whenever I’m at Fairway (where hateful clerks are not to be seen), I wonder how many shoppers a bagger will have to deal with on a shift. And I wonder how far the bagger has to travel to get to work: few clerks live in this neighborhood. (Which is a grave vulnerability, as shown when, in the two most recent hurricanes, local stores were closed well in advance, so that their staffs could get home before the mass transit shutdowns.) But if I think about these things, I don’t mention them. I try to treat people as decently as I’d like to be treated, but I would not call my manner “friendly.” I don’t get chummy with the doormen; I don’t discuss vacations with the butcher.

Sadly, I don’t get to look at people all that much. Ankylosing spondylitis has made it is almost impossible for me to walk with my head erect; I can do it, but it is a strain. I ought to work at it — but the list of things that I ought to do with my body is pretty long as it is. I see a lot of sidewalk, which is why taking walks is not particularly interesting. I used to read while walking, and I probably still could, but I came to see it as antisocial. It might not have been as annoying as chatting on a phone, but it was sending the same message. In fact, of course, it was a defense, a holdover from early days, when I saw the world as a hostile, or at least disapproving, place.

Before and after the Paul Taylor programs begin, and during the intermissions, I feel that I’m coursing through a galaxy of stars, each one a human life with its own ineffable history of works and days. Imagining the galaxies of audiences that have attended Paul Taylor dances over the course of the company’s near-fifty years of performance can make me light-headed and even a little bit stressed, as though too much were happening to quickly. But it is good to know that, like the stars in the sky, we hold each other in place.

Gotham Diary:
20 March 2013

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Shortly before his death, the legal philosopher Richard Dworkin forwarded a manuscript to the people at The New York Review of Books; Harvard will publish Religion Without God later this year, but the NYRB went ahead and published a portion of the first chapter in the current issue (LX 6). I read it dutifully over the weekend, much of it during the intervals at Paul Taylor. That is where the language that stuck in my mind came up. I say that I read the piece dutifully because I long ago learned that, although I looked for most of the same outcomes that Dworkin desired, his sobriety made me feel uncomfortably guilty of frivolity. Finally, on Saturday, I was able to put my finger on exactly what it is about Dworkin that puts me off. At the start of a section headed “What Is Religion: The Metaphysical Core,” Dworkin writes,

What, then, should we count as a religious attitude? I will try to provide a reasonably abstract and hence ecumenical account. The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value. It accepts the objective truth of two central judgments about value. The first holds that human life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.

The second holds that what we call “nature”—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder. Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our physical lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.

I could go along with all of this — until I got to the mention of wonder. I simply do not experience the wonder of nature. I am often baffled by its complexity, but this is an unpleasant sensation that induces me to turn my thoughts elsewhere: to the sublimity of humanity. Nothing in the world is more sublime! But humanity does not inspire wonder — I’m not sufficiently detached. Great curiosity, yes, although curiosity measured by the sense that there are many things that we are  not ready to know, just as the Egyptians were not ready to know about microbes or petroleum. I disapprove of making things up to fill in the bits that you don’t really understand; I want areas of ignorance to be as clearly marked as possible. “Wonder” sounds to me like an invitation to speculate.

Dworkin believes in the metaphysical reality of values, and he argues well on its behalf. But he doesn’t convince me, because I believe something else. I believe that values continually emerge, in ever clearer state, from the grinding polish of myriad human interactions. This is an historical progress (blotted by many horrible setbacks!). If we do not destroy the planet, I believe, we will learn to live together in peace, and we will learn from experience, not from speculative philosophers. Right now, we don’t know very much about our experience, familiar as it is; but cognitive science is going to establish a few benchmarks — I believe that, too. I believe that the forms that Plato and Plotinus believed in “out there” are actually “in here,” waiting for us to excavate them from our abstractions and generalizations. As we continually do.

At the end of the section about religion, Dworkin writes,

You may think that if all we can do to defend value judgments is appeal to other value judgments, and then finally to declare faith in the whole set of judgments, then our claims to objective truth are just whistles in the dark. But this challenge, however familiar, is not an argument against the religious worldview. It is only a rejection of that worldview. It denies the basic tenets of the religious attitude: it produces, at best, a standoff. You just do not have the religious point of view.

I agree with Dworkin’s last point wholeheartedly. I myself am not troubled by whistling in the dark — if that’s what we’re doing, it doesn’t invalidate our judgments. I agree that the religious worldview cannot be disproved, just as it cannot be proved. And it really is as simple as Dworkin puts it: I just do not have the religious point of view. Finally, I thought, standing in the aisle at State Theatre, a humane statement of the situation.

Gotham Diary:
West Side
19 March 2013

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

In keeping with yesterday’s dismal weather, I watched a movie that I’d missed in the theatres last year, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet. This is not the film with Maggie Smith. It’s about a string quartet called The Fugue that has been together for twenty-five years. The cellist, a generation older than the other members of the ensemble, discovers that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s, and his decision to retire while he’s still capable of playing well rips the network that binds the younger musicians. As Peter, Christopher Walken turns in a surprising performance; shorn of weird, unsettling looks, his character is simply a magisterial and somewhat stern Juilliard professor and Upper West Side instrumentalist. For once, Mr Walken plays the stable character.

The other three members of the quartet were students when they joined The Fugue; now they are in their late forties, and in sore need of reassessment. Even before Peter’s announcement, Robert, the second violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been pressing for change — he agrees with Peter that the quartet ought to perform a Beethoven cycle from memory — and he raises another suggestion even as he and the others leave Peter’s house. He wants to alternate with Daniel, the first violinist, on a fifty-fifty basis. Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the obsessive perfectionist in the group — he depends, in performance, on his heavily marked-up scores — naturally objects, claiming however that Robert’s proposal is badly timed. He arranges to meet with Robert’s wife, Juliette (Catherine Keener), on the sly — on Central Park’s Bow Bridge, where, it seems, they used to meet when they were students at Juilliard. No state secrets are bandied about in this picturesque location, but the scene wallows in the same murk of disloyalty and betrayal (for a higher cause, of course!) that oozes through the best spy movies. When Robert finds out about the meeting, he takes off into the Key of G (as Fossil Darling puts it) and does something stupid; but it is a stupidity toward which he has been predisposed by the marriage fatigue funking his life with Juliette — nothing musical. Meanwhile, Daniel takes up with Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a gifted violinist who happens to be Juliette and Robert’s daughter. And did I mention that, as a young man, Peter belonged to another quartet, The Hudson, which broke up when another member died in childbirth, leaving a daughter — Juliette, who was then brought up by Peter and his late wife? These incestuous short-circuits really do seem to be a species of espionage.

How will things work out? Will the musicians’ egos, so suddenly exposed and flayed, drive them apart? Or will the immense inertia of a quarter-century’s collegial professionalism hold them together? Are these celebrated musicians just like the rest of us, or has serious music-making invested them with special rigor? Watching a not-recent video of her mother talk about her tragic entry into the world and her relationship with Peter, Alexandra concludes that she cannot go on with Daniel, and this decision is the counterweight to Peter’s determination to retire. A Late Quartet manages to be a cliffhanger.

A Late Quartet is a movie about the importance, for some people, in certain walks of life, of living in New York, and New York life is shown with remarkable fidelity. When The Fugue performs, it is at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the movie also visits the Frick Collection. Alexandra’s apartment is totally plausible — a dump with some nice sticks of furniture and a well-upholstered bed. Sotheby’s auctioneer David Redden, whom we last saw in W/E (he was auctioning off gloves then; it’s violins now) makes it official: these are New Yorkers living at the center of their worlds.

Roiling through the background is Beethoven’s seven-movement late quartet, Nº 14 in c-Sharp. We never hear the music played from beginning to end, of course — that would be staggeringly uncinematic — but the snippets are so plentiful and drawn from every part of the quartet that, listening to the Beethoven afterward, I felt that everything that I was hearing had been somewhere in the movie.


In the evening, as snow fell on longing for spring, we watched Funny Face, Stanley Donen’s 1957 revival of the old Gershwin show. This was part of my Diana-Vreeland-and-fashion project, which rests on the proposition that Vreeland herself was more fashionable than her magazines and models, than the designers and their customers. She was fashion, living at a high pitch and making a remarkable appearance that only intensified when she opened her mouth. In Funny Face, Kay Thompson plays an editor obviously based on Vreeland — she barks Vreeland’s trademark “pizzazz” in every scene — and it’s clear that she, also, is the center of fashion. Lovely Audrey Hepburn, discovered in bluestocking drag in a Greenwich Village bookshop, cleans up nicely and carries Givenchy’s creations like a princess, but she is never truly fashionable. She amends her original belief that fashion is vain and silly to concede that it can be fun, but it is never important to her. Women like Vreeland (and the also not-very-pretty Thompson) exploited fashion as a kind of booster rocket that took them into the precincts of power without sacrificing their womanliness. Their wardrobes were far from the most important fuel in the mix, but they were not incidental, either.

Funny Face is shot in a strange, gauzy color that seems to seep up from the French locations, but there is one studio scene with shrieking hues. As Fred Astaire does a dance below Hepburn’s hotel window, you can’t take your eyes off his light-blue socks, which match his dress shirt. (He isn’t wearing a tie.) Then there’s the bright green of a shopfront behind him. I would give anything to paint a room that color, I said to myself. Then it hit me, that, if not a room, I had painted my most massive bookcase in that very shade, which, as I recall, was named “Parrot.” I was trying to match the color of Loeb Classics in Greek.

Gotham Diary:
The Company in 2013
18 March 2013

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Head shots of the sixteen members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company appear at the head of every program, arranged in order of seniority. Without ever appearing to prevail over the demands of art, seniority is honored by the company, so that, after a dance such as To Make the Crops Grow, in which there are no leading roles, the curtain call unfolds in reverse seniority, with the most senior dancer appearing last. It is very much in the nature of things that the senior dancers are virtuosos who have bent themselves over the years to the company’s aesthetic; it follows that they take most of the leads until it is time to retire. The junior dancers occupy a more provisional plane, and provide the company with its corps. Star power varies widely, and at least one junior dancer, Laura Halzack, has been a company star for years. (She is not much of a junior anymore, at tenth in seniority.)

This year, when the curtain went up, I found that I knew who everybody was. Even Robert Kleinendorst’s name was ready on my tongue; I no longer stumbled along with Kleindorst, Kleinendorf, Kleinfuhrt, whatnot. I have admired this dancer for a long time, but only now can I say his name without thinking. This puts me in the all-but-outermost ring of Taylor aficionados.

I even knew who George Smallwood was, because I’d never seen him before and that made him unique. Mr Smallwood seems stout for a member of the company, but he is very strong and very, very fast. He shone excitingly in the two Bach ballets that we saw on Saturday, Cascade and Brandenburgs. Heather McGinley had a lovely pas de deux (with James Samson) in To Make the Crops Grow, and was striking in Cascade as well, although it may be that I was simply captivated by her coppery hair. (Someone who knows something about dancing I am not.) As the Rehearsal Mistress in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), she was dressed like a cossack out of Nutcracker and hardly got to dance at all, but she was adept at playing Amy Young’s mirror image. I never see enough of Michael Novak, probably because he reminds me of the dancer at the top of the roster (we’ll get to him in due course) and I like to look for differences. One thing that he shares is the ability to define his position as the correct one. He radiates an inner authority that explains his outer comportment. Aileen Roehl is one of the company’s two blondes, both of them among the shorter dancers; she has yet to make a strong impression on me — which, let me hasten to say, simply attests to my ignorance. Michael Apuzzo hardly appeared last Thursday night but was much in evidence on Saturday, a strong and enthusiastic member of the corps as well as a convincing actor in one of Crops’s unattractive roles. As The Stooge in Sacre Thursday night, Jamie Rae Walker stepped out of the obscurity in which (for me) Ms Roehl still languishes; the Stooge is a great part, calling for much fancy footlery and comic timing, and Ms Walker’s performance made me squeal (inwardly) with delight.

With Laura Halzack, I come to the dancers who have been with the company as long as I’ve been going to performances. I’m not going to blather on about Ms Hazlack’s talent as a dancer (which is obviously amazing); it’s her skill as a fascinator that fascinates me. I said the other day that she is slightly too elegant to be femme fatale; there is a regal reserve about her person even when she is in the throes of a dance of madness. But she makes a grand diva, managing to poke fun at herself with a perfectly straight face, as her performance in Gossamer Gallants reminded me. “I wonder what she is really like,” and I would be tonguetied if I were in a position to ask her to go out on a date. Or even to autograph my program. Francisco Graciano, the shortest of the men, jumps higher, perhaps for this reason, than anyone else, and I wish I could remember the number (one of the Cascade dances?) in which he was allowed to show this off, to delightful effect. Eran Bugge always surprises me by the depth of grace with which she responds to the spotlight, which for some reason or other doesn’t seem to fall on her as often as it might. Sean Mahoney clearly gave up working on a pirate ship in order to become a dancer — perhaps he had a miraculous way of walking the plank. He is the company’s wild man, master of a dangerous-looking simian lope that the choreographer takes full advantage of. Mr Mahoney is a kind of counterweight to Mr Novak (not to mention the guy at the top), because, even if nothing that he does is ever wrong, he makes it seem dubious. Parisa Khodeh is growing on me; I no longer grouse when she takes a part that I’d have liked to see Laura Halzack dance. Michelle Fleet is easily dealt with: she owns Esplanade at the moment; she also danced a lovely, highly classical pas de deux in Cascade. Everything that she and Ms Khobdeh do is lovely and wonderful.

With the retirement of Annamaria Mazzini two years ago, James Samson‘s photograph moved to the top row in the program. Mr Samson is tall and athletic, and he projects an air of having developed his chops as a dancer as a fluke. And yet no one is more earnest. Robert Kleinendorst is the dancer who intrigues me the most, because he seems to be as wild as Mr Mahoney, and yet he also seems to have bottled his wildness up, so that it is under pressure and about to burst forth. Consider the startling death by gunfire t the end of the solo in Company B, which I’m sorry we didn’t get to see this season. I’m not sure that we should have seen Mr Kleinendorst if we had, however, because he never danced everything that he was billed to do. In two of the programs, there were substitution notes — in Cascade, Michael Novak took over one of his dances (but only the one); on Saturday night, he appeared, as listed, at the beginning of Brandenburgs but was replaced by Francisco Graciano in the remainder. I hope that he has not injured himself! Amy Young, like Ms Mazzini before her, dances as if she were simply the expression of Paul Taylor’s will. More than any other dancer in the company, she embodies the Taylor dedication to representing utterly carefree play.

Michael Trusnovec, who has been with the company since 1998 — an astonishing fifteen years after which he seems none the worse for wear (speaking of miracles!) — can do anything, but the thing that only he can do is to become Apollo himself onstage. I don’t mean that he impersonates Apollo; he simply is the god himself. I would never want to suggest that there is anything remotely niggardly about Mr Trusnovec’s deployment of resources, but Kathleen and I agree that he moves with a perfectly measured and atomically minute understanding of the requirements of his part. On Thursday evening, he covered for Mr Kleinendorst in Esplanade, so that for the first time ever we saw him dance three leads in a row. He was Ms Fleet’s partner in the Cascade pas de deux, and she became for the moment a goddess.


We’ll be going back on Friday night to see Sacre again; I’ve seriously considered going on Tuesday as well, to see Lost, Found and Lost again. I was in love with this dance before anybody even moved. The curtain went up on a bright box of light, peopled with black-clad dancers in comfortable tops and trousers — and shoes — and everybody, even the men, was coiffed with jeweled net, which conveyed the impression of a hood ornament on some fantastical old limousine. The dancers were arranged about the stage in attitudes of fashion, and that is what they moved in and out of as the dance progressed. Nonchalant elegance alternated with brusque boredom and the occasional tantrum as these incarnations of stylish mid-century Manhattan swam through the extraordinary music, a soup of a score listed as “Elevator music orchestrated by Donald York.” To me, it was simply Mantovani, whom I, much to my shame, was wild about at the age of eleven; for the moment, I know what I’m talking about. Donald York evidently took a great deal of trouble to counterfeit the old maestro’s shimmering layers of violin, and he knew precisely when to throw in a solo on the muted brass. Imagine the biggest Fifth Avenue shopwindow ever, dressed by someone as smart as Simon Doonan in a retro mode. Lost, Found and Lost is the most delicious fun that I’ve ever had at Paul Taylor.

Gotham Diary:
The Rite of Spring
15 March 2013

Friday, March 15th, 2013

There are many great things about the Paul Taylor season in New York, and far from the least of them is its occurring in March. It is truly a rite of spring.

And now the season is bigger than ever, with three weeks at the State Theatre. I’m trying to remember how long we’ve been going. Five years? Last year, for the first time, we went to three shows. This year, we’ll have gone to four. I just bought a pair of tickets for next Friday’s program. Kathleen came out of the theatre last night dying to see Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) again, and, when we got home, I saw that it would be given once more. We’ll also be going to both the afternoon and evening performances tomorrow (Sacre not included). “Do you think that anyone goes to everything?” Kathleen asked last night. There are certainly lots of people who go to more than four shows. We heard a guy tell his mom last night (they weren’t sitting together; he stopped by to say hi) that he’d already been four times and would be coming again the next night.

Every year, I try to get a little closer to explaining the greatness of Paul Taylor’s dances and the dancers whom he has trained to dance them. I realized last night, as I sat through Esplanade, that there is something eucharistic about this most beloved of Paul Taylor’s works. “Eucharistic” isn’t really the word; it signifies “thanksgiving.” But what’s supposed to happen in the Catholic Eucharist — that’s what happens to me in Esplanade. I am filled with the body and the spirit of youthfulness. My body might appear to remain seated in its age and bloat, but inside I am something else, and this is not a matter of imagining what it might be like to be young in a way that I myself never was. Nor do I imagine being able to leap and run with the élan of Michelle Fleet. I’m not imagining anything. Watching this dance allows me to participate in it on what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call a eucharistic footing.

The three works on the bill were Sacre, Last Look, and Esplanade. Last Look was new to us. We were both initially put off by the zombie note struck by the company of shaking and jerking dancers, but Kathleen later told me that she decided to attend to the “interesting moves” and ignore the intimations of Armageddon. I remained disturbed, not least because I thought that the dance might be upsetting her. Donald York’s score, composed for the dance, is lush and dreamlike, and I’d like to hear it on its own rather more than I’d like to see the dance again. Last Look seems to be Paul Taylor’s interpretation of the Masque of the Red Death trope. Although the men wear matching greenish shirts and trousers (and black shoes) that have the air of work clothes, the women are robed in satiny, jewel-toned dresses with wide sashes and ankle bracelets. The set, also by Alex Katz, is an assemblance of mirrored pillars. I took the setting to be the last redoubt of a doomed, self-destructive civilization: this is very much a dance for climate-change worriers. From the very beginning, the dancers appear to be dying horrible deaths. They rise from the floor, heave about wretchedly, and collapse. In lesser hands, it would be a bad joke of “modern dance.” But Taylor manages to pull a few coherent dances out of the shambles, even if the prospect of dying is never deflected. (In one duet, Amy Young and Michael Trusnovec become fixated with pulling their clothes away from their clavicles, as if they burned.) Even if not the sort of thing that I cross town to see, Last Look is unquestionably a powerful dance.

I’ve never seen anything like Le Sacre du Printempts (The Rehearsal). I’m tempted to throw up my hands and say that it has everything. It’s, I think, the most narrative Paul Taylor dance that I’ve  seen, and yet it is wholly abstract. It moves so quickly that you have no time to wonder what’s going on or what’s going to happen. The use of the two-piano reduction of Stravinsky’s score (precisely what a ballet company would use to rehearse the work) prompted me to see that Paul Taylor is a chamber choreographer, not a symphonist. Limited to the sound of the pianos, moreover, the music’s more lurid and terrifying effects are canceled, leaving the extraordinary rhythmic complexity of this epochal composition to convey its distilled impact.

While a dance company rehearses over in one corner, a mother loses her baby to a gun moll in the other, and the wrong man is apprehended for the kidnapping and incarcerated. The crook who keeps the gun moll has a sidekick — a trouser role. The ballet company men double as cops. Silent movies, Nijinsky, Charlie Chan, and a sort of all-purpose obscure Greek mythiness combine — along with many other influences too glancing for me to have caught them — in a dance in which high and low forms of entertainment do not so much alternate as interpenetrate. The result is delightful, but too compelling to be amusing. I doubt that any stage work has held my attention so firmly, and by this I mean that my attention was held so firmly that it was not free to make judgments. Neurons flashed in my brain (“Charlie Chan!”), but there was no thinking. The bereft mother and the wrong man (Laura Halzack and Michael Trusnovec) have a lovely duet while he’s in jail — and who cares what that means. Later, when the baby, having been recovered, is stabbed in an offhand way by a sidekick (who has just stabbed herself), the audience actually laughs. It’s so jokey — and yet! The mother gives way to dance of mad grief that is at the same time astonishing and exactly what Ms Halzack will have led the seasoned attendee to expect. A very beautiful woman, slightly too elegant to be a femme fatale, Ms Halzack is nevertheless capable of such abandon that you fear she might turn out to be Coppélia, and start popping gears and springs all over the stage. I, too, and dying to see Taylor’s take on Sacre again.


Gotham Diary:
If I Do Say So Myself
14 March 2013

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

The great novels that make you think and stretch your feelings and excite your compassion are probably best read quietly, alone. Hearing words is not at all the same thing as reading them, and I, at least, retain what I’ve read far more richly than what I’ve heard. When I listen, it’s not for content so much as to the speaker. That’s probably why being read to is such an intimate pleasure — when it’s a pleasure at all. “Tell me a story” masks a deeper request, “share yourself with me.” Kathleen loves having me read to her even more than I love reading to her, but probably not by much. I play to my longstanding audience of one with the greatest relish. But there is no planning to my reading. I don’t pick up where we left off last night — I don’t read to Kathleen every night. Quite often, what I’m reading does not lend itself to being read aloud. Most of the time, perhaps!

But a few weeks ago, we discovered that Caroline Blackwood is great fun. I read almost all of The Last of the Duchess aloud to Kathleen; that’s what got me on my Blackwood kick. The more we read, the funnier it got, because we were getting closer to Blackwood herself. She’s said to have been madly fun to listen to, once she got going on some topic, piling exaggerations on understatements. One of these days, I shall pull out Great Granny Webster for a re-read, and see how it goes over with Kathleen. For the moment, we’re having the most delightful romp with Corrigan.

Seeing that I was coming to the end of Nancy Schoenberger’s biography of Blackwood, and about to run out of Blackwood-related materials, I perused the offerings at the Kindle Store and came up with Corrigan, a novel that has recently been reissued by the NYRB press. I’ll buy the book eventually, but I had to have the Kindle edition now, so that when I finished the one book I could pick up the other right away. I’ve found that the three or four days that elapse between ordering and receiving even the most expeditiously sent books can be fatal to the fever; and, given as I am to free delivery, I often find myself opening boxes full of expired obsession.

Schoenberger lays out the plot of Corrigan, so I knew pretty much what was going to happen. A widow would be gripped by a con man, while her daughter tried in vain to pry her free — only to learn that her mother was on to the con but still enjoying it. I don’t know how far I’d got before I insisted on reading aloud, but it wasn’t very long. The widow’s speculations about the plight of the wheelchair-bound visitor who elaborately declines to accept her charity (on his first visit, that is) correspond in their kitey dartings to Blackwood’s own speculations about the Wallis Windsor in The Last of the Duchess. Even funnier is the rhetoric of the con man, Corrigan. Or it became so, as I infused my delivery with tones learned from Ruth Draper’s monologue, Doctors and Diets, and from Steve Martin’s oleaginous sob stories in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Without thinking about it, I was also mimicking the late Tom Bell, from (among other things) the earlier Prime Suspect episodes. I also put my peripheral vision to work by scouting ahead for the brash commentary of Mrs Murphy, the Irish cleaning lady who is forever assaulting the widow’s delicate eardrums by interrupting her flights of fancy with earthy remarks.

I couldn’t wait to finish dinner last night, and to get the washing-up out of the way, so that we could settle down for more. At some point in the evening, we passed the 25% mark, so there’s plenty left to read, but I managed to read the bulk of three chapters. In one of them, the daughter, Nadine, has lunch with her schoolfriend, Sabrina. Nadine is the mother of twins, and Sabrina is a sought-after model, so there’s little competition between them. In no time at all, I found myself reading as though Nadine were Sandra Bullock in one of her more impatient states, and borrowing Sabrina from Rosamund Pike’s performance in An Education. The clearer these characters became for me, the more seldom did I slip into error. I seemed to catch a rhythm  that underlined all the little words that are so easily missed when you’re reading aloud.

Looking just now for a passage to copy, I couldn’t find anything that was intrinsically funny out of context. Blackwood’s writing is fairly flat on the page — just as Henry James’s is incomprehensible. It’s by being read aloud that their narratives spring to life. When I get to the end of Corrigan, I’ll be able to talk about it better. For the moment, though, I’m having a blast reading it aloud. If I do say so myself, I deserve a Tony.

Gotham Diary:
Old Movies
13 March 2013

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Yesterday, I saw something that I have never seen before. I was looking out at 85th Street from my lunchtime table at the Seahorse Tavern when a young man on the sidewalk pulled off a kippa and stuffed it into his shoulder bag. His appearance gave no other sign of religious observance; perhaps he had been a guest somewhere and forgotten to remove the skullcap. Maybe the story was more interesting than that. It was certainly something to see.


For several years now, I have been hiding my library of VHS cassettes behind the living-room curtains. They’re stacked against the wall, and can’t be seen unless you’re on your way out to the balcony, in which case you had better be minding the step. Every now and then, I do a bit of culling. Some movies get tossed. Some get replaced with DVDs. Some I have to hold on to, because they’re not available in any other format, if at all.

The stack is hard to get to at the moment because of the the big pot of ivy that I think I mentioned yesterday. Looking for a film recently, I managed to knock the stack down. It had gotten a bit unstable, what with borrowings here and there that left unfilled holes. The whole thing gave way. I gathered up those tapes that had fallen in front of the curtain, just to tidy up. Then I culled. There was nothing else to do with the things; I have nowhere to put anything anymore.

While tidying the bedroom (and then doing the ironing) on Monday, I watched Caught, Max Ophuls’s 1949 noir-that-isn’t-really-a-noir. All right, it’s literally a noir — I don’t think there are too many movies as darkly lighted as Caught. Almost every scene takes place in a drab interior or at night. This makes blonde Barbara Bel Geddes look increasingly radiant as the movie goes on. It also merges Robert Ryan with the décor: in his dark suits, he seems to be a kinetic branch of the oak paneling in his lugubrious mansion. The lighting also exaggerates James Mason’s moon face. Playing an overworked pediatrician, Mason looks exhausted and distracted through most of the film, and very much not a bad guy, which makes for a change.

Ophuls’s directing is taut and brisk: the film isn’t a minute longer than it needs to be. The pace accelerates right up to the final moment. Indeed, it gets slightly slapdash: two doctors, one of them the pediatrician, almost laugh at the news that an inconvenient fetus has died upon premature birth. Well, that solves that problem! Robert Ryan plays a crazy millionaire who has “attacks” when he doesn’t get what he wants. In his climactic attack, which is heard but not seen, he tangles with a pinball machine in his Addams-Family fun room and is discovered gasping beneath it.

The most interesting part of Caught, from a film-study point of view, is the beginning, where the American dream is seen to be pretty pipey. Two young women share a dank apartment and try to figure out if one of them can afford charm school classes. Charm school is the way to department-store modeling, and department-store modeling is apparently the way to meet rich men. Barbara Bel Geddes plays the ingénue; she’s not naive, but she has standards. Her roommate, Maxine (Ruth Brady), is more cynical, but everything she says rings true. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to get out of a dump like the one they’re living in. And it is a dump. Ordinarily, Hollywood’s dump-dwellers are either immigrants who don’t speak English or people to avoid. Nice girls don’t live in dumps. I suppose that the social realism of this opening scene is one of the reasons for labeling Caught “noir.”

Along comes a ghastly little man who punctuates every sentence with “darling.” It’s Curt Bois, an actor who came out of the same box as Marlene Dietrich, and he sounds just like her. He invites “Leonora,” as Bel Geddes’s character has renamed herself upon becoming a department-store model, to a yacht party, on behalf of a “business partner.” He is in fact pimping for Smith Ohlrig, Ryan’s damaged magnate. Although Leonora agonizes over attending such a dodgy event, she does go, and one thing leads to another. Ohlrig marries her in a fit of pique — because a psychiatrist tells him that he can’t (commitment issues) and shouldn’t anyway. When the marriage sours, as you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that it will, you expect Ohlrig to lock up his bride in a genuine prison, but the script has a more clever way of pinning her down.

Ohlrig lets her go, and Leonora finds a job as a receptionist to two overworked doctors with offices alongside an elevated subway in New York City. She doesn’t work very hard, at first, and Dr Quinada (Mason) soon guesses that she’s slumming. Ohlrig, who has had her tailed, convinces her to give him a second chance, but this lasts precisely one night, as Leonora sees that he hasn’t changed at all. But one night, of course, is all it takes. Some time later, back on the job with the doctors, this time a marvel of dedication and efficiency, Leonora discovers that she’s pregnant. The rest is denouement, brief but exciting, because you can’t be sure how things are going to work out.

I’m not entirely certain, but Caught may have been James Mason’s first American movie. Robert Ryan was that era’s version of an action heavy, very handsome but kind of scary. Bel Geddes, who would work mostly in television, and whose great movie role would be the sensible Midge in Vertigo, was still a beginner in 1949, but she holds us in thrall as she tries to reconcile her character’s kind, loving nature with her profound self-respect. I believe the word for such heroines is “winning.”

Caught is definitely a keeper. It’s not available on DVD here at the moment, but I think it can be had in Britain.


Yesterday, I watched the DVD of MGM’s 1936 Born to Dance. The DVD had just arrived from Amazon, permitting me to dump the tape. Born to Dance is not a beloved old movie. Cole Porter, who wrote all the songs, claimed later to regret the big finale, which is embarrassing in several ways but most unforgivably for ripping off black swing in general and Cab Calloway in particular without a single African-American dancer in the chorus, much less in a dramatic role. I discovered Born to Dance in the mid-Eighties, when my new VCR began making it possible to get to know movies by playing them over and over on demand. Born to Dance, overall, is a very corny movie, and much too tactful and chaste for sophisticated banter; it also puts Virginia Bruce in the bad girl’s part, and I hate how satisfying it is to see her meet her comeuppance. So I’ve watched the movie, all the way through, three times at most. Four as of yesterday. What fascinated me about Born to Dance was that spectacular finale. I don’t care how incorrect it is — all right, I didn’t care 25 years ago — but I find it the most fun of all the dancing crowd wind-ups. It begins with Frances Langford singing, continues with Buddy Ebsen slipping and sliding, and finishes with Eleanor Powell kicking and cartwheeling. BOOM! go the battleship’s cannons. Eleanor Powell was not a gifted actress, and she wasn’t even much of an entertainer, but she was as born to dance as anyone has ever been, and she could flash a terrific smile while hoofing. But Broadway Melody of 1940 shows her off much, much better. Why would anyone want to watch Born to Dance?

I’d forgotten another favorite scene, the model-home display in the department store that Powell visits with James Stewart (they’re about to be an item). The house is explained to them by a floorwalker in a cutaway played by Barnett Parker (1886-1941) as a fruit fallen off of Carmen Miranda’s turban. I mean, really! He holds up a swathe of living-room curtain and sighs heavily. “Breathtaking!” There is simply nothing covert about this homosexual display, which is both silly and serious at the same time. MGM’s cloud of unknowing would dissipate soon enough, but in 1936, it seems, no one in Culver City seems to have feared being corrupted by gay influence.

That’s what was so shocking about Born to Dance when I discovered it: there had been a time, not a permissive or tolerant time, but a moment when “effeminacy” could parade across the screen, unclothed by arch dialogue and unbowed by dramatic humiliation. At the same time, it is not camp. Born to Dance is much too ingenuously joyous to raise an eyebrow. It’s as though director Roy del Ruth were filming a certain fantasy of happiness that, let’s just say, would never be entertained by the likes of Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable. Elenaor Powell makes the perfect centerpiece because she’s both womanly and asexual — a mom who can tap.

I couldn’t help noticing that that the female stars weren’t dressed like the girls in the chorus, or rather vice versa: the girls in the background were dolled up in ways that already looked dated, as though they had just awakened from naps commenced in 1933. The stars, in contrast, were pushing up against 1937 and beyond. Why would this be? Because the producers liked the trixie look; that’s my guess. You could argue that the filmmakers wanted to make the actors upstage more pungently fashionable, and I’m sure that they did. But that doesn’t explain the dated coiffures of the pretty chorines. Producers are a conservative bunch.

Gotham Diary:
Where Were We?
12 March 2013

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

At the back of my dream, I knew that the clank was too close. Nobody should be making that kind of noise so nearby. But as I snapped awake, I remembered. Things are different at the moment. There were four men standing outside the bedroom window, going about their business. Which is great, really, because it’s raining today. I didn’t notice that at first (by now I was in the blue room), because the puddle on the balcony is a byproduct of boring the new holes in the concrete. I had to peer down at the rooftops to see the gloss of rain. In a little over an hour, while Kathleen had her tea and toast but did not read the Times because she was just too sleepy, the men finished what they had to do, boarded their gondolas (there are two, one of them L-shaped), and cast off. The racket that they’re making one floor down seems more distant than it is.

Our neighbor who runs the great Mexican restaurant across the street reports that she’s got her balcony back. “We lost it for a day or two, because they put the partitions in the wrong space, but now it’s done.” The man across the hall told me that his balcony’s railing is complete, but that the partitions haven’t been installed. When I come out of Gristede’s this afternoon, I must make a point of looking up at the building — you can glimpse our side of it from there — to see what’s what. Our side of the building is unlike all the others, because there’s a setback that interrupts the line of balconies — abbreviates it, actually. The overall floor plan changes at the fourteenth floor (or is it the twelfth?), where the wing that runs out along 87th Street tops out. (You can see a corner of that in the picture.) This configuration means that a special gondola had to be constructed just to deal with the balconies between the setback and the twentieth floor, a job that was put off until everything else had been done. I do hope to see railing soon.

It is unsettling though — very unsettling. There is the noise, but far more invasive is the presence of strangers on the balcony. We have had that space to ourselves for thirty years. It’s one thing not to be able to use the balcony, and quite another to see other people standing outside on it. The workers speak a foreign language that I took to be Spanish at first, but, if it’s Spanish, it’s a dialect that omits all the words that I know. We never make contact with the workers; there’s no reason. While they’re outside, we have to stay inside. Eventually, after the partition has been installed, someone will undo the bolts holding the plywood in place that makes it impossible to open the balcony door.

But we have already forgotten what it was like to have plastic tarps over the windows. Will noticed right away. “I can see the buildings!” he exclaimed. I wonder what he remembers of the balcony. For weeks, he would head straight for the door, only to run into the huge planter of ivy that I decided to hold on to and cannot wait to put back outside. Recently, Will makes a beeline instead for the blue room, which serves as a garage for a small fleet of trucks (some of which are not small).

Did I mention the subway? The explosions, lately, have seemed very distant, as if they were coming from 83rd Street, where the alternative station entrance will be. If I live long enough to ride the new subway line, I will forget the upheaval that attended its construction. I know this from experience. A few years ago, our driveway was rebuilt (it’s the roof of a health club below), and the inconvenience was massive — that I remember. The inconvenience itself I forget. I can’t even imagine how we lived through it!

So now I’m teaching myself to anticipate oblivion.


Meanwhile, I suppose I might say a word about The Daily Blague, which is not the Web log that you are reading. You are reading The Daily Blague / reader. After a spell of quiescence, The Daily Blague is running again; that’s where I post the links and comments that, most recently, appeared here under the “Beachcombing” rubric. You can post comments at The Daily Blague, and you can get there by clicking the link in the banner above. I recently ordered a new set of little business cards from, in which I stipulate that this site — the / reader — deals with “Life & Books,” and that The Daily Blague is concerned with “Links & Comment.” I wish that there had been room to print “Life & Literature,” not only because it sounds better but because literature comprises, in my view, film. In any case, I’m going try to restrict my harebrained ideas for world improvement to The Daily Blague, which, in its return to the simplicities of early blogging, is as close as I can come to Twitter.

Gotham Diary:
11 March 2013

Monday, March 11th, 2013

“You’ve heard of Caligula,” I said to Kathleen last night.”I am Agogula.” Don’t ask me where that came from, or why we both thought it was very funny. My state of agog came from a weekend crammed full of people whom Lady Caroline Blackwood knew. I followed Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? with Nancy Schoenberger’s Dangerous Muse, a biography of Ivana’s mother, published ten years earlier, in 2000. I’d argue that I read the books in the correct order, because Lowell is a topnotch writer who blazes through her material with such whipping good humor that you’re begging for more — and therefore quite grateful for passages in Schoenberger’s more careful literary biography that might otherwise drag. And somehow the earlier book whistles with the secret of which it is unaware, Ivana’s molestation, not long before she was horribly scalded by a tipped-over teakettle, by one of her mother’s louche groundsmen. Ivana did not cooperate with Schoenberger’s project, and is somewhat inappropriately listed in the index under her putative father’s name.

There’a a painting at the Museum that I love, Sargent’s The Wyndham Sisters, and I love making connections, too, so it was great fun to work out that two personalities mentioned in the same chapter of Schoenberger’s book (“The Soho Circle”) were descendants of two of the sisters. One, David Pax Tennant, opened a nightclub called The Gargoyle in 1925 (with his wife, the actress, Hermione Baddeley, sister of Upstairs, Downstairs‘s Mrs Bridges, Angela). The other was Ann Fleming, granddaughter of Lady Elcho (as she then was), the sister perched on the back of the sofa. Ann Fleming, whose third husband was the creator of James Bond, had been in a relationship with him since she was married to her first.

Connecting these dots almost compensates for the tidal sadness that tugs remorselessly throughout Blackwood’s life. It’s a curious sadness, because it’s so funny. Jonathan Raban, who as a young man rented a flat in Blackwood’s Chelsea house, wrote, “More than any optimist I’ve ever known — far more — Caroline’s pessimism made the world a happier place to be in because she could make mocking music of its terrors.” Schoenberger adds that Blackwood’s wit, “more so in her conversation than in her writing, was redemptive,” which we have to take on faith. She was rich, beautiful, clever — and troubled. She could hardly speak until she’d had a drink, and then she drank too much. She was disciplined about writing, and her daughter Ivana appears to have adored her (there is not a shred of genuine meanness in what she has to say about her mother). But one wonders if it all really had to be so messy. Caroline’s sister, Lady Perdita, runs (or ran until recently) a horse farm in Ireland with a riding school for disabled children attached; she seems to be about as happy and well-adjusted a person as you could ask for. So the ghastly Marchioness Maureen, their mother, cannot be blamed for everything.


By comparison, mine is a dot-less life; I don’t know anybody, or so it seems most of the time. This oughtn’t to be surprising, since I never go out, and, when I do go out, I stick to myself. I shall probably be going out even less. Kathleen and I are near to making final decisions about not renewing our Orpheus and Manhattan Theatre Club subscriptions. For several years now, I’ve been having a harder time enjoying myself in the concert hall and the theatre, or at any rate focusing on what we’re there for. My mind wanders into meta-land — the history of concerts, the styles of behavior, the electricity of the theatre. It’s all wonderful stuff, but I don’t need to go out to experience it any more; I’ve bottled it and can sample it at will. As for the great performances, I know that I’m going to miss many. And then again, I’m not. I would rather spend the time reading, writing, and re-reading.

A very great part of my reluctance to renew is my growing dislike of showing up anywhere “at the appointed time.” It’s bad enough with the doctors.

Gotham Diary:
8 March 2013

Friday, March 8th, 2013

What a strange movie Stoker is! Arresting in its course, it leaves no very strong impression afterward. There is a psychopathic uncle, but his sister-in-law and niece are pretty strange birds, too, and the movie unfolds without a baseline of sanity. If someone more or less normal were to be dropped into the film’s curiously affectless atmosphere for long enough to get to be known, one might shudder. But for all that four people are gruesomely murdered (all more or less offstage, or out of view), Stoker is not frightening. It’s not even creepy. It’s foreign, is what it is. The first English-language project by Chan-wook Park, the director of eight Korean features, Stoker is easy to dismiss as “stylized.” It’s a stunning picture, certainly. The interiors, especially, are powerful. It’s as though their bare, underdecorated look represented the absence of psychological health.

At least three times, I was convinced that Stoker is aimed at teens. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a somewhat fey adolescent, a straight-A student who dislikes being touched, and whose best childhood moments seem to have been spent out shooting birds with her late father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). India does not get on well either with her mother (Nicole Kidman) or with the boys in high school. Her distrust of the uncle who shows up for the first time at her father’s funeral is the most ordinary thing about her, and the second-most ordinary thing is the attitude that follows distrust. But if Stoker were aimed at young people, India would turn out to be a regular kid underneath all the weirdness, and this she most definitely is not.

What do I know; it’s a long time since I was young people. Ms Kidman gives us a mom that would make the most well-adjusted teenager squirm. Evelyn is, I suppose, a standard-issue narcissist. She takes no interest in that part of the world that is not centered on herself. It is impossible to imagine her doing anything motherly for her daughter, and indeed she acknowledges that she has never brushed India’s hair. This comes up in a scene that captures the strangeness of Chan-wook Park’s work. There is a knock at Evelyn’s door, and she arises expectantly from her chaise longue. Her visitor turns out to be unexpected: India. Evelyn just manages to keep down the urge to ask India to leave, so as to clear the field for a more interesting arrival, and India knows that she is being annoying (but she is always annoying). Pretty soon, India is brushing her mother’s hair, and what has been a study in the pointlessness of adolescent existence (seen from the standpoint of both parent and child) artfully dissolves into the object of Evelyn‘s resentment. As Evelyn complains about all the time that India spent with her father, her brushed hair imperceptibly morphs into the reeds of a duck blind, in which we see Richard and India aiming their rifles.

Mia Wasikowska is perfect as India; Nicole Kidman is simply perfect. Yet another strange turn in this compelling actress’s catalogue of oddities! I haven’t seen them all, by any means, but the one that Stoker brought to mind was Suzanne Stone Maretto, the deluded “heroine” (also a narcissist) of To Die For. Evelyn is Suzanne with a wider range of pouts, and much less need to be on her best behavior. When India ventures that her mother never brushed her hair because she was “busy,” Evelyn demurs. “Doing what?” — and there’s a whole horror film right there. Ms Kidman looks terrific, without any telltale of “work” except that of unlikely youthfulness. But her glamour is all that she has been given to work with, so that the performance is charged with a frustration that I read as “Can’t I be bad?” This is not at odds with the film’s mood, but unlike her costars, the actress does not disappear into the movie.

Matthew Goode, playing Uncle Charlie (who is bad), has one great scene, and he plays it so brilliantly that you wish there were more of it, a lot more. This is a scene in with his brother, who has good reason not to want Charlie anywhere near his family. “What kind of family is it if you can’t take me home,” Charlie asks with a voice and a face that slips vertiginously between charm and tears. Otherwise, Mr Goode is asked to be a sort of Cary-Grant hunk, gazing steadily and calmly at everyone and radiating a trustworthiness so powerful that it can’t be real, except perhaps in an insurance ad. What you can count on this guy to do is strangulation and dismemberment.

But, seriously, how long would you wait to call for help after discovering the housekeeper’s head in the deep-freeze? To which you had been sent by your strange uncle? When the sheriff does show up (in connection with another but hardly unrelated missing-person case), India steers him away. Later — well, later, let’s just say that she turns out to be a lot more like her Uncle Charlie than another cinematic niece.

Amazingly, Evelyn Stoker is still alive at the end of the movie. I hope that it doesn’t spoil the movie to hear this. She wriggles so much like bait throughout Stoker that a big bite would be anticlimactic. No, she lives. To do what?


Could I have found anything less like Starting Out in the Evening to follow it with than Christopher Wilson’s Dancing With the Devil (St Martin’s Griffin, 2000)? Oh, I suppose so, but it’s hard to imagine.

In his introduction, Wilson writes that, after learning about Jimmy Donahue from Caroline Blackwood’s nonpareil report, The Last of the Duchess, “I had to know more.” I’m glad that he got there first, because, when I  had to know more, there was his book to read. I don’t know how he stomached the research, though. Quite aside from the difficulty of rounding up witnesses who were already elderly when Blackwood was writing and reading a lot of tittle-tattle books, the project necessarily entailed immersion in the ponderous and suffocating dreariness that went with “the Woolworth millions.” F W Woolworth had three daughters, and one of them, Helena, does not much figure in Wilson’s book. Another, Edna, appears only to have died and to have been discovered by her four year-old daughter, Barbara, who of course would grow up to be one of the century’s two “poor little rich girls. (The other was Doris Duke.) The third, Jessie, is the monster in Wilson’s book. Jimmy Donahue may have been “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but he was not only made but maintained that way by his ghastly mother, who used her fortune to control him, both by spoiling and him blocking his few efforts to make something of himself. She outlived him, and was outlived only briefly by her older son, Woolworth — a much more decent chap, but still a miserable alcoholic. She opened her purse all the way when Jimmy got mixed up with the Windsors, and they took generously for over four years, until, finally, as it seems, everyone got on everyone else’s nerves.

Reading about these people might ultra-depressing, if Wilson didn’t cut through their stories with the grace of Fred Astaire. They seemed to have possessed an updated version of the Midas Touch: everything they possessed ceased to mean anything to them. Barbara Hutton’s cycle of marriages was as dismal as the routines in a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. One of the nice things about Dancing With the Devil is learning that she actually had at least one good friend — her cousin, Jimmy Donahue.

I had always considered myself a fairly adequate Windsor-watcher, familiar with the key details. But I had never heard of Jimmy Donahue until The Last of the Duchess. That’s not true, as it turns out; Donahue is mentioned, very much as passingly as possible, in Anne Sebba’s solid biography of the duchess, That Woman. Never having heard the outlandish Donahue stories, however, I didn’t pay any heed. The idea that the Duchess of Windsor had an affair with a homosexual and considered divorcing the Duke and marrying him hit me like a bad joke in Blackwood’s book, on a par with the wonderfully florid speculations that make The Last of the Duchess more of a personal memoir than an account of the sick old woman. So much for “the romance of the century!” And I’d always thought that Barbara Hutton had all the Woolworth millions. (Well, I never could pay any attention to her.) Now, though, I had to know more.

Now that I do know more, I can testify that Christopher Wilson’s book is really pretty remarkable. It’s brisk, and rarely censorious. (The facts speak for themselves.) Wilson understands that fortunes and titles can make the people attached to them so generally interesting that their public lives become unscripted but riveting performances, regardless of dramatic significance. These are not people that you would want to know — that’s not the point. The point is that you hope that you would not like them if, by some miracle, you woke up rich or titled one day, and found all the world bent to your wishes. Because these people developed wishes that the world would not grant. Wilson never talks nonsense about “testing the limits,” but the figures in his book often behaved as if there weren’t any. And there usually weren’t. Let’s just pick a random chocolate out of the box:

Jimmy became intimately acquainted with Francis Spellman, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, a notorious homosexual predator and friend of Jessie. St Patrick’s Cathedral was a great cruising ground, particularly late Mass on a Sunday, and the cardinal was rumoured to have deflowered many young men. Jimmy once welcomed him to his mother’s apartment at 834 Fifth Avenue wearing a ball-gown and high heels.

And that’s not even one of the outlandish stories. (I attended a pre-deb dance in my teens at which Cardinal Spellman turned up in “my best gold cross.”) I am not going to repeat the outlandish stories. Kathleen finds them disgusting, so I feel somewhat sheepish about exploding with laughter when I read them, especially the one told by Aileen Plunkett in which, among other things, Jimmy instructs a waiter that he likes his meat “sliced very fine.” I am not going to ask what it was that made Jimmy Donahue so persistently forgivable — but he was forgivable; that’s how he stayed out of jail. I am certainly not going to chatter about Wallis Windsor’s sexual proclivities (although I’m inclined to agree, with Freda Dudley Ward, that the duke was a masochist.) To make inquiries about these people is to pop the balloon of the show that they’re putting on, and, without that, they’re nothing. The show is astonishing for the simple reason that the members of its cast roamed the earth at liberty. And within my lifetime — we’re not talking about Dark Age depravity! I certainly never thought that I would see Cardinal Spellman called “a notorious homosexual predator” in a book published by a reputable house. But there you are — it seems that he was, the head of my archdiocese.

In addition to connecting a number of dots for me, Wilson’s book makes it very, very clear that there was no collapse in social values in the 1960s. There were no values to collapse. When people at the very top of the tree carried on as the Windsors and the Donahues did, with impunity, there was nothing for the rest of us to do but to fall in line.

Gotham Diary:
7 March 2013

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

For the second time in a few months, I lost a notebook yesterday. Like the other, it was a small Field Notes item, and I lost in at our about the same place, and under more or less the same circumstances, which leads me to suspect that it may have been stolen and/or thrown away. One response would be to use a different notebook — something larger and more colorful, less likely to be overlooked or dropped from a pocket. Mine will be to type up my notes every day. That’s what they’re for, after all. I made this resolution the first time a Field Notes went missing, but now I’ve got religion on the subject.

My notebook had four or five (small) pages scribbled with page references to Starting Out in the Evening — which is not the sort of thing that you remember just because you wrote it down. (Not I, anyway.) Now I’m left wondering if, even if I reread the book right now, I would find the passage in which Schiller, talking about his own youth, describes Heather’s predicament. I remember seeing a reference to this in the notebook as I was adding to it at lunch yesterday, but not the page number, and just now, having glanced through all the conversations that Schiller and Heather have (there aren’t all that many), it eluded me. But wait! Looking for the bit that I mean to write about at greater length today, I’ve found what I’d given up on!

“It’s very hard to write a good novel when you’re young. You’re changing too fast. The central subject of a novel has to be something you care about deeply. And when you’re young, it can be hard to care deeply about one thing for a long time. I started my first novel at twenty-four; by the time I finished it, three years later, I was a different person.”

As Schiller is saying this, Heather is having trouble paying attention, because, even though she doesn’t quite know it yet, her interest has shifted away from Schiller, and away from the appeal of “discovering” a forgotten writer, to the downtown thrills of connecting with an important Village Voice editor who has urged her to be honest about her lack of affection for Schiller’s third and fourth novels. The rich irony, which any careful reader will appreciate, is that Heather decided to write her dissertation on Schiller before she read those books; she was certain, in her youthful stupidity, that her love for the first two would carry through; it did not occur to her that the second two would be intentionally different. Like Schiller, she has outgrown an old self in the bloom of youth. But if Schiller were to turn to her and say, “I think that you may be finding what I’m saying to be true in your own experience,” she would self-importantly, vainly deny it.

Which reminds me of another passage that I wanted to mention before getting round to the main topic. But I really can’t find it, so I’ll go on.


In Chapter 10, when Schiller and Heather have their second meeting — he has decided to cooperate with her project after all, moved to do so not by the chilling deprecation of modern-day publishing that he hears from a former editor at the 92nd Street Y (a scene invented for the movie) but by a visit to a dying friend — we learn something slightly off-putting about Heather. (It’s important, for those of you who have seen the film, to bear in mind that Heather is no Lauren Ambrose. Schiller is captivated by her “radiant ugliness.”)

Sitting at his kitchen table, she took off her sweater. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt; she wanted to show off her bare arms. She had muscular arms for a woman, from years of working out.

This is what a seductress is, she thought.

It wasn’t that she wanted to seduce him — not literally. But flirting was a pleasure, and flirting with intelligent people — male or female — was one of the supreme pleasures of life. Ever since she was in high school — ever since fifth grade, really, with her failed poet of an English teacher — intellectual communion and intense flirtation had grown from the same root. She’d always had a love of learning, a love of knowledge, but it was always an embodied love: she desired this man’s learning or that woman’s. The desire to learn from people was always bound up with the desire to seem special to them. Heather didn’t merely want her teachers to teach her; she wanted them to single her out.

She had always broken a few of her teachers’ hearts with all this.

I read this with a stalled heartbeat. It’s one of those passages that I come across, not very often, in which I feel that I have been captured. If only I had understood this about myself when I was younger, how much simpler life might have been. Perhaps not: flirting is flirting, and what distinguishes flirtation from seduction is that neither party knows where things are going. For me, that’s the point: there’s no knowing where flirting about intelligence is going to go. It just keeps going, on and on. Knowledge never comes to an end. The tragedy is that minds get tired; so that flirtation carries on, faute de mieux, into a bedroom, which is really nothing more than a category mistake. I have always done a good job of avoiding this. I have never, well, hardly ever, taken off my sweater. But I’ve seen a lot of confused faces.

Heather is the most daring character in Starting Out in the Evening, in that Brian Morton runs the fill risk of making you hate her, as some kind of monster, almost. But she’s only young. And her encounter with a Schiller is a gold-plated learning experience. I would quote from page 303 of the paperback edition — if I had not already done so, back when I wrote up the book the first time. (Scroll down to the end.) The passage that I still can’t find relates to this: novels are not about monsters, good guys and bad guys. What Morton doesn’t say (how I’ve grown up since my “Mr Morton” days) is that novels — the best novels — are about society at its smallest scale, describing the interrelations (and responses to same) of interrelated people. The point of such a novel is not to excite the reader’s “identification” with a character, but to knit the reader into the network of friends and enemies and strangers and lovers that it embodies.

An example. Ariel, Schiller’s daughter, accompanies him to the JFK to see him off on a sentimental journey to France. While waiting, Ariel stands on line at a cafeteria. Her father, seated at a table, pulls out a novel and reads.

She could make out the title from here. The Ambassadors, by Henry James.

When she was little, about eight or nine, she had a big reputation in her family as the girl with the eagle eyes. If her mother or father lost their keys, she would always find them. She could still remember how good it felt to hear her mother praise her.

Her father looked content, serenely absorbed in the book. He was a Zen master, thought: not because he’d only brought one bag, but because he lived in a kingdom of purely spiritual struggles and purely spiritual rewards. He didn’t care that he was sitting at a table in the smoking section, and that two nerdy guys next to him were chortling like goats. He didn’t care that his body was falling apart. He was somewhere far away, taking a walk with Henry James.

Even with her eagle eyes, all that Ariel can see is Schiller’s mantle of impassivity. We know how to see through it. Not twenty pages have passed since we learned of Schiller’s great professional heartbreak, the Edmund Wilson review that never was. We know that Schiller is no Zen master; his spirit is roiled by storms. Ariel and her father, although loving, are not simpatico, and they will perhaps never understand one another. But in a social novel as good as Starting Out in the Evening, we cure that defect with our own understanding of both characters. Their differences are resolved within us.


A final word about the movie version: it’s an excellent vehicle for a great actor, Frank Langella. That’s an excellent thing for a movie to be! As such, it is not to be faulted for leaving great chunks of Brian Morton’s novel by the wayside. I can’t imagine the film that, within a feature-format time frame, could possibly capture even the broad complexities of the book. (Movies often compensate for this by seizing on tiny details, such as, here, the phrase “bounded entity,” which Frank Langella gets to intone but which Schiller only feels.) There are two questions that I’d like ask Brian Morton: as the author, which invented scene in the movie annoyed him the most? As well as which “faithful” scene? He very well might not have answers: his only comment would be, as mine is: read the book.

Gotham Diary:
On the Go
6 March 2013

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

The wind is howling, but that’s the only sign of the storm that was predicted for this afternoon. I hope to be back home before worse sets in. I was about to sit down and write a few lines about Starting Out in the Evening, which I re-read in its entirety yesterday — Wow! What a book! And so much more than the movie that “more” doesn’t begin to describe it — when the phone rang, and now I’m on my way to pick up Will at school and bring him up here for the evening. Life in the big city! Is just like life everywhere else!

Gotham Diary:
5 March 2013

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

The gondola men are about to resume boring holes at the edge of the balcony, holes into which the new railings will be fitted. Although the men have been working elsewhere on the building, they haven’t landed here in some time, but they showed up on Friday, rather discouragingly only to sweep, and again yesterday, this time to make some noise. They removed the last of the old railing and immediately began boring the new holes. It is loud work. You can’t watch a movie or listen to music.

I did try. My new schedule calls for me to tidy the bedroom and do the ironing on Monday afternoons. I’ve always listened to opera while doing the tidying, but I have to watch a movie while I iron. So I chose Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening. An arguably inappropriate choice. Wagner’s quiet but intense movie deserves to be watched with undivided attention. But for me the video was going to be a prelude to rereading the novel, by Brian Morton, from which it was taken. The novel came to mind when Roger Rosenblatt failed to mention it in an Essay in the Book Review in which he hailed the movie as one of his three favorites about writers. The other two were The Third Man and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Rosenblatt also neglected to name Graham Greene — also neglected to mention that two of his three movies about writers were based on books. Well, they all were, but he did identify Truman Capote, arguably the least serious of the three authors. To gush about movies about writers in the Book Review without mentioning the underlying books (in two out of three cases) is proof of either the nonexistence of God or the editorial incompetence of the Book Review staff or both.

How maddening this must have been for Brian Morton, I thought. Greene and Capote are no longer with us, but Morton (a much younger man) is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence and, I hope, working on a fifth novel. It must seem that the book, one’s own book, has been vaporized by the film adaptation. Now, of course, everybody will “see the movie,” because it just takes so much less time than reading the novel. Even people who read.

I had to wait until after the gondola men broke for the day to get on with the movie (and the tidying and the ironing; I’d gone off to do something else during the drilling). My attempt to bluff through the racket broke down when I found that I had no idea what a handsome middle-aged man (played by Jeff McCarthy) was saying to Schiller, the elderly novelist (Frank Langella) at the 92nd Street Y. I could tell that they were discouraging words, and it seemed important to do better than guess at what they might be. I would quote the words from the novel, but I’m not sure that the scene exists in the book. Although the first couple of pages read like a scenario — so faithful is the film at the start — there are differences great and small. Levin, for example, Schiller’s dying friend, whom Schiller crosses town to visit in the hospital, does not appear in the movie. (He’s not even mentioned, I don’t think.) I’ve only just begun re-reading the novel, and I haven’t got to Levin yet, but I have noticed one small but telling divergence in the storytelling. It’s interesting because nothing “important” is changed. Heather Wolfe, the young grad student who thinks she wants to write about Schiller, and Schiller’s daughter, Ariel (played by Lauren Ambrose and Lily Taylor) arrange for Heather to give Lily a lift. In the film, we see the negotiation as it takes place in Schiller’s apartment, before the two women leave. In the novel, it is mentioned as having taken place at the beginning of the second chapter, as the women are walking to Heather’s car. The banal exchange about having a car and asking for a lift does not clutter the somewhat hierophantic page on which Heather takes her leave of Schiller. For the film to do the same would have been needlessly awkward.

Within a few pages, the novel opens up all to the complexity of which novels are capable (I don’t mean complication — there’s nothing necessarily difficult about novelistic complexity), and the movie, good as it is, suddenly seems limited and almost unimaginative.


My mother was not an imaginative person in the general sense of the term, but she was given to suspicion, and that requires a certain imagination. She was always on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of her — the legacy, perhaps, of having lived through the Depression in untroubled affluence. By extension, she was on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of her children, in theory, at least. I remember one mortifying instance in which her unseemly imaginings prompted a mortifying act of protectiveness.

During the difficult year before I went off to boarding school, I escaped on winter Saturdays by taking the train into the city and walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to hear lectures on this and that. One Saturday morning, standing on the platform at the Bronxville station, I noticed a tall young woman, and she noticed me, and we fell to talking. She was somewhat plain, but attractive when she spoke with enthusiasm, which she did as a matter of course. I was already familiar with tall, plain girls.  I was fully-grown myself, an inch and half taller than I am today. My mother had this almost demented habit of urging me to “go out and meet some nice, tall queen!” (Didn’t she know what “queen” meant, I wondered.) I must have struck the young woman as older than I was. By the time she found out that I was in the tenth grade, however, and I found out that she was something more than a freshman at Sarah Lawrence, she must have been happy to settle for talking with an intelligent person. I know that I was. That was all I asked for when I was a teenager. I was so hungry to talk to intelligent people that I never gave sex a thought. (You could almost say that sex never gave me a thought.) I don’t remember what the Sarah Lawrence girl was going into the city to do, and I’m not sure that we ever met again, but I did write to her, and she to me, from opposite sides of the Holy Square Mile, and who knows where that would have gone if my mother had not telephoned a dean at the college and put a stop to it. If there was one thing my mother knew for sure, it was that Sarah Lawrence girls were up to no good.

I am still ashamed. The only way my mother could have gotten into Sarah Lawrence would be as a housekeeper.


I remembered this story because I was thinking about Brian Morton at Sarah Lawrence, and how he must be quite familiar with girls like Heather Wolfe. (The young woman on the station platform couldn’t, of course, have been less like her, but in my mother’s mind all the girls at Sarah Lawrence were Heather Wolfes.) In Starting Out in the Evening, Heather continually pesters Schiller for the real-life details behind the passages in his novels that strike her as autobiographical. I’d be more curious to know about the older writers whom Morton might have known. But I would not pester him for details. I’d rather imagine them.

Gotham Diary:
Summer Jobs
4 March 2013

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Something about the weather shifted, and when I woke up at first light, I stayed awake,  A meander of thoughts eventually brought up the London fashion label, Hardy Amies. I had a Hardy Amies dress shirt in the late Sixties. It was the color of chocolate milk. The collars were rounded (Peter Pan!), and the buttons hidden by a fly front. I wore the shirt with a wide-wale corduroy suit, also light brown. The jacket was basically a double-breasted pea coat with a long, somewhat flared skirt, and the trousers belled slightly. The shoes that went with this were Bally monk’s-straps. Instead of transporting me to the world of glamour betokened by such striking duds, wearing this ensemble only reminded me how firmly planted I was in the professional class. I didn’t have what it took to be transformed by clothes into the person I thought I wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, that image was not very clear.

Remembering the clothes reminded me of the store where they came from: Sakowitz, in Houston. And this memory tumbled me into reminiscences of summer jobs. Ordinarily, when I remember those summer jobs, I regard them as irrelevancies, layovers in the course of life. I never sought them out; they were arranged for me by my father, or by people at my father’s office. I don’t think that I performed terribly at any of them, but neither could I say that I performed well. I was mediocre. I took certain primitive aspects of the jobs seriously enough: I tried to show up on time and I didn’t steal or tell lies. But I didn’t take the work itself very seriously at all, and instead of rising to the occasional difficulties, I allowed them to make me miserable. I was never diligent or careful — or only in little, arguably narcissistic bursts.

Here’s the strange thing: I felt much worse about these jobs lying in bed than I do now, writing about them. Writing about them, as usual, redeems me, because writing is what I do take seriously, have taken seriously all my life. Which is all very well, but I’d like to conjure this morning’s wretchedness.

The summer jobs fell into two groups, New York and Houston. In New York, my employer was always the same, the Empire Trust or the Bank of New York into which it merged. After a season in the mail room, I settled, year after year, in the bank’s large custodial department, where I worked as a clerk processing mutual fund payments. It was a very retail business. People of modest means — calling them “investors” would be trumpery, even though that’s what they technically were — would send in modest checks of $25 or $30 once a month. If they missed a payment, they were penalized, and if they wanted to close their accounts before whatever the fore-ordained maturity date, they lost significant percentages of their equity. It all seemed vaguely dishonorable to me, the way this business was run. Every now and then, a piteous, semi-literate letter would accompany the payment, and you could see not only how important the trifling sums were to the writers, but the precariousness of their hold on the substantiality that participation in a mutual fund seemed to promise. I worked at this for two summers, and then for a large part of 1966, after getting thrown out of Notre Dame. (I was allowed to begin again the following autumn.) I came back for a final summer in 1967.

The following January, my parents moved to Houston, so that’s where I went at the end of my sophomore year. A job had been arranged for me in the dispatching room of the Columbia-Gulf Transmission Company, a pipeline that ran from Louisiana to Kentucky. The dispatchers were responsible for overseeing the flow of natural gas through the pipeline. This entailed taking the pressure of the gas at various points and raising or lowering the compression provided by arrays of pumps, some of them old-fashioned reciprocating engines, some of them jets. There were computers off somewhere, but the dispatchers worked from a wall-sized panel that mapped the pipeline and showed the pressures with mechanical displays. The dispatchers controlled the pumps by calling up operators at the actual sites. I remember dandy little Wang terminals — in my idle moments, I “discovered” what I would later learn was the Fibonacci series of numbers. At the end of every day, though, I had to add up columns of six-figure numbers (indicating the cubic footage of throughput) and “prove” them by adding them sideways as well — with a crank-handled calculator. Rarely did I get the numbers right the first time.

I was the only tyro in the room. The dispatchers were seasoned old salts, blue-collar workers without higher education who had risen through the ranks to this clean, comfortable, and well-ventilated heaven where they didn’t mind wearing jackets and ties. They were mighty pleased with themselves. They tolerated me gamely instead of hazing me mercilessly, as I dreaded every minute they would. (For this crash course in Texas was also my introduction to blue-collar culture.) Somehow, however, they let me know that I wouldn’t be coming back the following year. Back in New York, my father’s contact had been stronger, and I’d gone back to the bank year after year — and not just for summers, in that one case. But Houston was a new town for Dad, too.

So, the next summer, I worked in men’s haberdashery, at Sakowitz, in downtown Houston.


When I imagine the exactitude with which Jonathan Franzen would recreate the elements of my summer job — presumably because he would already have been paying close attention to the details — I feel immeasurably careless about mislaying whole months of my life, but the feeling doesn’t last, because the job didn’t matter, and that’s what I remember. In bed, this morning, I felt that it ought to have mattered. But now, hours later, I’m not so sure. “Jobs ought to matter” is an equivocal statement, and I insist on both readings. Jobs ought to be taken seriously, but they ought to be worth taking seriously. There was something about the summer job — which I suppose would be called an internship today, and probably not pay as well (if at all) — that be taken seriously only by someone with a stronger sense of duty than I possessed (even if that duty was only to myself, as a future writer, paying attention and taking notes).

It’s a mystery to me, why I was such a “unmotivated” youth. And then, suddenly, the mystery completely clears up: there was really nothing attractive about the world, nothing that beckoned. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have to find a way to make it interesting. Nobody ever suggested such a requirement. For all I knew, everyone else was just naturally “motivated.” The only thing that I could imagine as an object of motivation was suicide.

Gotham Diary:
Ancient Worthies
1 March 2013

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Reading along in Maurice Keen’s Chivalry yesterday, I figured out a way of reading the Hebrew Bible.

Unlike the ancient Greek myths of Olympian gods and nymphs and satyrs, the stories in the Bible are still taken to be true by many living people. This calls for a certain tact that, I find, interferes with reading the Bible. I feel that I must read it respectfully, quite as if I were attending a religious service. This is especially the case as my favored Bible text is the one put out by the Jewish Publication Society. I bought it because it was cool to have the text in Hebrew (which I can’t read), but the English translation turns out to be easily the best that I’ve ever encountered. The King James version is tremendously important in a literary way; spoken English still resounds with its echoes. But it is more than a little archaic and certainly not fluent as a narrative. Other translations are rubbish mostly. So, every time I read from the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, I open a book intended for pious use. I can imagine a religious Jew taking offense at my possession of it.

My instinct is to leave the Bible alone, because I cannot read it with reverence. But the Bible won’t leave me alone. It is, unavoidably, a foundation stone of the rich culture in which I’ve grown up. References to it, overt and occult, are everywhere. For centuries, many English-speaking households owned no other book than the King James. Not the one I grew up in, however: until recently, Catholics were discouraged from reading the Bible without the counsel of a priest. Had I been a protestant, I’d probably have been familiarized with scripture at an early age, and I wouldn’t have to get acquainted with it now.

To read the book with piety would be fraudulent. But to read it as if I were a medieval knight, looking for stories of valor and derring-do — well, that would be imaginative. I’m not sure what makes the difference here but I can tell that it’s solid. Keen writes,

The stories of the conquest of the Holy Land by Joshua, and of its defence by David and Judas Maccabaeus were a clear foreshadowing, to the knightly mind of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, of the contemporary crusade, and helped to define crusading as the highest expression of chivalrous activity.

So, I read the Book of Joshua yesterday. I can’t say that I read it carefully. The second half of its twenty-four chapters is devoted to the parceling out of conquered Canaan to the twelve tribes of Israel, and only a real-estate lawyer with a command of the local topography could find it interesting. The much less boring first half of the book is quietly gruesome, as town after town falls to Joshua,  and king after king is impaled. I noted the stories of Rahab (the harlot in Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies) and Achan the Judite (stoned, along with his family, for having violated the ban on looting Jericho). I untangled the battle of Gibeon (home of the only Canaanites clever enough to survive the Israelite invasion), through which Joshua commanded the sun and the moon to stand still, from the fall of Jericho, which was effected by shouting. (I never quite figured out the bit about the stones from the bed of the Jordan.) I managed to overlook Joshua’s never seeming to ride a horse, but I can’t say that I came across anything that my imaginary knight might have found edifying. The carnage is pretty impersonal. “They exterminated everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass” (6:21).

Keen writes that Judges, Kings, and Maccabees were frequently translated into the vernacular on their own. When I pulled down the Tanakh, I meant to begin with Judges, but the first verse, mentioning the death of Joshua, reminded me that I’ve never read the first book that follows the Torah. So I began with Joshua. Judges, which I’ve just dipped into, appears to revisit much of the action of early Joshua — Caleb’s daughter, Achsah, asks him add “springs of water” to her dowry in Joshua 15:19 and in Judges 1:15. Jerusalem is a bit of a muddle: it is destroyed in 1:8, but in 1:21 we read that “the Benjaminites did not dispossess the Jebusite inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have dwelt with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day.”

I suppose it ought to be noted that, of courtly romance, the most seminal invention of chivalry, there is not the ghost of an intimation.