Archive for April, 2013

Gotham Diary:
The Gatsby Approach
30 April 2013

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

I wish I had a list, a list of all the movies, most of them recent, that show a carful of characters making their way to Manhattan (for the first time!) by crossing the East River on the Queensborough Bridge. According to Hollywood, this is how one enters the Big Apple. In fact, it is how one enters Gotham from Long Island, if one is too cheap to take the Midtown Tunnel, and one enjoys the company of very large trucks. Some folks, it’s true, get taken for a ride by unscrupulous cab drivers, en route from Kennedy Airport. (The fare is fixed, so the driver pockets the toll money.) To enjoy the drive over the Queensborough as advertised in the movies, you really have to be sitting on the roof of the car.

The scenes are all the same. Right off the bat, I can think of one: In The Reader, Ralph Fiennes sits the back seat of a taxi on his way to visit a Holocaust victim on Park Avenue. (He’s playing someone from Germany who might well not know his way around the city’s “shortcuts.”) Before we see the actor, the camera plays with the bridge, panning through the beams and trusses to take in the Manhattan skyline. But why listen to me?

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city as seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

That’s from Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby. I ought to have made the connection a long time ago. What simpler way to pay cinematic homage to the big fish that got away, the great American novel that has eluded filmmakers for the better part of a century? Flickering light among the girders! The great city rising at the end of a magic bridge, waiting to be discovered, to yield up its riches and its secrets to optimistic newcomers!

I have to pin down a movie in which a party of three or four travel from New Jersey to Manhattan via the Queensborough Bridge. There’s got to be at least one case of a director who couldn’t resist flying on sentiment in the face of plausibility. How about Stop Loss?


The Gatsby Approach was first deployed, I’ll venture, in a film where it made sense. Reading Gatsby this time, I kept thinking admiringly of Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation. Every time Gatsby said “old sport,” I heard Robert Redford’s voice, and it sounded right. This is not the time to look into the colossal failure of the movie when it opened. It’s enough to say that it has aged very nicely. I’m not sure about Mia Farrow — not just Ms Farrow herself but also the film’s general adoration of the corrupt Daisy Buchanan. In the novel, it’s pretty clear that the adoration is limited to Gatsby himself, and that Daisy is in every way an earthier woman than the ethereal Mia Farrrow. There is also a slightly static quality to the film, as if it were a slideshow of illustrations of the text. Certainly it lacks the power of the novel, which is driven by a remarkable narrator. The movie can tell the story, which is almost as remarkable, but it can’t harness the narrator, no matter how many snips of voice-over transcription it indulges in. The Great Gatsby is a book to be read.

I was chilled by how close it seemed, the world of Gatsby. Many things have changed since 1922, but somehow the story does not seem “historical.” The ashpiles long ago gave way to the World’s Fairs, and Robert Moses’s system of parkways were about to obviate one of Fitzgerald’s key plot points. It is not, however, that the world today still looks and feels as it did then. It doesn’t. Our manners are more sophisticated at every level. But the myth that Fitzgerald spun out of American life in the wake of World War I still beats with a strong pulse. Stylish dishonesty and whitewashed vulgarity have not disappeared from city life. Men and women continue to trip up, big time, on the discontinuities of pretension and desire.

I suppose that it’s common to read The Great Gatsby as the story of an American dream gone wrong, with Jay Gatsby as the dreamer. This time, however, I focused more on what Gatsby was up against: the massive, brutish power of Tom Buchanan’s moneyed entitlement. This is a fairy tale told as things really are: boys from nowhere haven’t got a chance of beating entrenched family fortunes. Fitzgerald’s portrait of the philistine philanderer from whom Gatsby so naively intends to steal his wife is not a caricature; it conveys the full authority of a man deeply accustomed to having his own way. His dismissal of Gatsby the end of the “scene” in the Plaza suite is assured and unanswerable.

“You two start on home, Daisy,” said Tom. “In Mr Gatsby’s car.”

She looked at Tom, alarmed now, but he insisted with magnanimous scorn.

“Go on. He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.”

And it is. The last that we see of Tom and Daisy shows us that Gatsby’s dream was always a fantasy, pitifully lacking in objective correlatives.

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.

They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale — and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

The glamor has collapsed, only to reveal the homely reality of the Buchanans’ attachment. What wicked fun it was, to think it might have ended otherwise. But: “Her voice is full of money,” says Gatsby. So are Tom’s pockets.


We look forward to seeing Baz Luhrman’s attempt to capture the Gatsby magic. I’ll have a particular eye on Joel Edgerton, the versatile actor who’ll be playing Tom.

Gotham Diary:
Best Self
29 April 2013

Monday, April 29th, 2013

In his Introduction to the 1966 edition of Penguin Classics Mansfield Park, Tony Tanner says something very beautiful about why Mansfield is necessarily inhospitable to amateur theatricals.

For Mansfield Park is a place where you must be true to your best self: the theatre is a place where you can explore and experiment with other selves. A person cannot live in both.

Over the weekend, I read Richard Jenkyns long, admiring essay on Mansfield Park, in which he struggles manfully to rescue Fanny Price from the charge of priggishness. This is a battle that, once joined, can’t be won, because it assumes that comic fun is the ideal objective. If Mansfield Park is supposed to be a comedy, then Fanny Price is a prig, and that’s all there is to it. However, notwithstanding Austen’s sharply comic writing (almost stand-up at times), Mansfield Park is not a comedy. It is a transcendent meditation on English Christianity, on Milton and Bunyan and Johnson, to name only three of the pillars on which it stands. I am tempted to call it an allegory — but I resist. Fanny Price is not a prig; she is a pilgrim. She is on a journey, and her only defenses are modesty and integrity. Austen takes the nature of Fanny’s spiritual development for granted, as may we all, and pays it no more attention than she does Fanny’s feelings for Edmund, which we are allowed to see only where they are crimped by the behavior of others. What interests Austen as a novelist is the secular manifestation of the pilgrimage, which is presented entirely in terms of Fanny’s occupation of her uncle’s house.

At first, Fanny is in the background. We are encouraged to believe that we are paying much more attention to her than any of the characters in the book can be bothered to do. Fanny is a passive witness to the rush of developments that crowd the first half-dozen chapters, after which the remainder of Volume I is devoted to two highly-wrought adventures, both parables of a sort. The first is the visit to Sotherton, a locus of amazingly transparent symbolism. At Sotherton, with its walled garden, wilderness, locked gate and “free” open park land, the English religious tradition is realized in the physical landscape. Maria Bertram rehearses the fall from grace that, at the climax of the novel, will validate all of Fanny’s “priggish” concern for her well-being. The second adventure, the production of Lovers’ Vows that is aborted at the eleventh hour by Sir Thomas Bertram’s unexpected return from Antigua, pits Fanny somewhat more actively against various displays of worldly bad faith.

In the novel’s second and third volumes, Fanny is advanced, rather against her will, to the foreground. Maria marries Mr Rushworth, Julia joins the wedding trip (not an unusual thing at the time), and the Bertram sisters disappear forever into the novel’s background; we hear of them, but we never again see them. Suddenly, Fanny is the only young lady in the house, and, as Sir Thomas’s warm greeting to her upon his return indicates, she is discovered to be an appealing young lady. She has grown pretty and, for most purposes, self-assured. She is no longer the puny transplant from Portsmouth: Mansfield Park has nourished her, even without a fire in the East Room.

But there is a failure of harmony, because Fanny’s virtue is mistaken for mere good judgment, a more pliable quantity. The novel slows down to a series of conversations, in which people say things to Fanny that make her uncomfortable because she is not pliable. The novel registers her discomforts approvingly. She is right to be pained by Edmund’s talk of Mary Crawford, and right to be horrified by Henry Crawford’s proposal of marriage. By the middle of Volume III, she has shown what she is made of, but Sir Thomas and Edmund are still too enchanted by the spell of meretricious worldliness cast by the Crawfords, which Fanny alone resists, to like what they see. So Fanny is banished to Portsmouth.

Being Fanny, she does not perceive the painful aspect of this removal until she has spent some time under her father’s relatively wretched roof. Setting out from Mansfield with her brother, William, she looks forward to “going home,” and it is only when she gets there that she realizes that Mansfield Park is her home now. This is something that anyone not engaged on a spiritual journey would have foreseen, but Fanny’s piety requires the kind of material challenge that genuinely risks undermining her. An ever-apparently self-improving Henry Crawford pays a surprise visit, and Austen allows us to savor for a moment a future in which, Edmund’s having married Mary, Fanny finally capitulates to Henry, and perhaps does indeed “fix him,” as Mary sighs. But this scenario belongs to a different novel, one in which the Fall plays a slighter role, and no dissatisfied Maria Rushworth smoulders menacingly. When Maria duly erupts, Fanny, not without pangs of guilt at the good fortune that befalls her in the wake of the misery of others, triumphs. She returns to Mansfield Park, her best self intact, as a model guiding the others who remain there toward their best selves. Tellingly, Aunt Norris expels herself from the general transfiguration.

I read Mansfield Park as the record of a spiritual journey taken by someone besides Fanny: Jane Austen herself. This was the first book that Austen conceived in maturity. She had recently reworked, and finally published, her second and third attempts at fiction, but Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are rooted in Austen’s high-spirited girlhood, which explains their continuing popularity with young ladies. Mansfield Park, in contrast, seeks to come to terms with the full weight of Austen’s religious and intellectual heritage. In it, she brings her deep reading in the monuments of her native tongue to bear on the opportunities and vicissitudes of gentry life in a time of pervasive commotion.

Nobody would think to call Fanny Price a prig if, instead of “Jane Austen,” the title page bore the name of Marilynne Robinson.

Gotham Diary:
The Nobility of Melancholy
26 April 2013

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Last year, Kathleen read a book called Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, and she liked it so much that I decided to read it, too, even though I find it very hard to focus on Abraham Lincoln. I prefer to admire Lincoln from a distance, and can only wish that the distance were greater — that, say, he were a great statesmen of a much earlier era and on a far-removed continent, rather than the man who presided over a regrettable war that, whatever the military outcome, could not conceivably have yielded political union, but only the mistrust of government and dearth of social vision that we Americans still have to live with. I read most of the book during the winter, but finally finished it in a long go yesterday, largely to clear it from the pile.

Shenk’s book is also admirable, and well worth reading, even if its parts do not fit smoothly. There is a want of harmony between the language of Lincoln himself, extensively quoted, and the language of contemporary therapy. Quite understandably, moreover, Shenk seems unsure of how well-informed his readers will be, about American history as well as about current thinking on mental health issues. Ideally, the book would knit into a seamless whole the image of the noble, tortured frontiersman and an unashamed acceptance of the realities of depression, but if Lincoln’s Melancholy fails of the ideal it nevertheless approaches it closely enough to present an occasionally mordant critique of the mindless optimism of our ghastly media culture.

Two paragraphs from the Epilogue stand out for snipping; they balance and resolve our conflicting views of afflictions such as depression, making good use of Lincoln as a case study.

For example, depressed people are often unable to get out of bed, feeling a kind of paralysis that seems physical and involuntary, even though on some level, it’s known to be mental and volitional. Truly, for those in thrall to mental agony, as Andrew Solomon has observed, merely going to brush one’s teeth can feel like a Herculean task. A common argument today has two people standing over the bed. One says, “He can’t help it. He has an illness and should be treated with deference.” The other disputes this, muttering, “He just needs a swift kick in the butt.”

Lincoln’s story allows us to see that both points may be true. First, when overcome by mental agony, he allowed himself to be overcome, and for no small time. He let himself sink to the bottom and feel the scrape. Those who say that we must always buck up should see how Lincoln’s time of illness proved also to be a time of gestation and growth. Those who say that we must always frame mental suffering in terms of illness must see how vital it was that Lincoln roused himself when the time came. How might Lincoln have endangered his future, and his potential, had he denied himself the reality of his suffering? How, too, might he have stagnated had he not realized that life waits for those who choose to live it?

This is very wise — as wise as Lincoln himself. At the back of it, I discern a suggestion of which Shenk himself may not be conscious: that, in certain cases of depression, it might be wiser to let the disorder run its course, without medication, for its natural term (about eighteen months). This would require organizing our affairs so that a person could suffer a bout of depression with the same guiltlessness as a cancer victim, and not be punished for absence from work or low spirits, and so on. Who knows how many lesser Lincolns’ potential “gestation and growth” we are sacrificing to our impatience with “volitional” disorders? Enduring depression would be appreciably less painful if it were generally accepted as an illness with a term. Shenk’s book demonstrates that it is impossible to hold Abraham Lincoln in high regard without ceasing to regard depression as shameful.


The other day, I watched Holy Motors, the French film made by Leos Carax (not his real name). Holy Motors was one of last year’s prestige films; when Oscar season rolled around, a few months ago, it was commonly sniffed that Holy Motors ought to have been nominated for something. I wasn’t tempted to see it in the theatre; I wasn’t even tempted to read much about it. But the title lingered, and eventually I yielded to Amazon’s suggestion that I might like it.

I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy watching it at all. A blurb on the jewel box promised “frenetic fun,” but I found the movie to be unrelievedly gloomy. The moment it was over, though, my feelings shifted. Holy Motors may turn out to be the strongest case I’ve yet encountered for getting the first viewing out of the way in order to see a film clearly. Insofar as Holy Motors is a lament for bygone ways of moviemaking (as suggested by Kenji Fujishima at The House Next Door), it’s probably not going to speak to me very powerfully, because I don’t let bygones be bygones. But as an object lesson in the illusions and actualities of acting, Holy Motors is very powerful, and Denis Lavant certainly deserved a Best Actor nomination. (Was I the only one who was reminded by his Monsieur Merde of Pan’s Labyrinth?)

Gotham Diary:
A Hole in Her Heart
25 April 2013

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Mansfield Park stands alone in Jane Austen’s small oeuvre for many reasons. Best-known reason: “Nobody likes Fanny Price.” Nothing funny (or ridiculous) happens in Mansfield Park. (Poor Mr Rushworth — who can really laugh at him?) My favorite reason, today: Depravity. Later English novels would be replete with villainy far less idle than Henry Crawford’s, but Crawford is a cad without equal in Austen. There are other cads, Wickham and Willoughby, who do worse things, but they do them offstage, to poor girls we don’t know. Henry Crawford sits right down in front of us and declares his intention “to make Fanny Price in love with me.”

His sister, Mary, is surprised.

“Fanny Price! Nonsense. No, no. You ought to be satisfied with her two cousins.”

“But I cannot be satisfied without Fanny Price, without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart. You do not seem to be aware of her claims to notice.”

Were Henry a genuine seducer — a Wickham or a Willoughby — we should not be hearing this conversation. But if there is nothing carnal about Crawford’s designs, that merely underlines their depravity. Operating without real desire, they feed on more than vanity. Crawford’s genuine admiration of Fanny drives him to engineer an affection for himself that can lead nowhere. Romantic longings that lead nowhere can be very beautiful (see Brief Encounter), but not when it is discovered, as here it is in advance, that those longings have been seeded.

We know that Fanny does not think very highly of Crawford, but Austen takes the trouble to warn us that, if her heart were not already given elsewhere (to her cousin Edmund — hopelessly), Fanny would be vulnerable to Crawford’s campaign.

… although there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Fanny one of them, or to think that with so much tenderness of disposition, and so much taste as belonged to her, she could have escaped heart-whole from the courtship (though the courtship only of a fortnight) of such a man as Crawford, in spite of there being some previous ill-opinion of him to be overcome…

But Crawford’s scheme will hurt Fanny otherwise than as intended, as we shall see. His behavior and his declarations end up covering her with shame, after all — in the somewhat astigmatic eyes of Sir Thomas Bertram, a paterfamilias unable to allow Fanny the liberty to reject the hand of so “fortunate” a suitor as Crawford.


We are all familiar with the cliché of the child who not only must be read the same stories at bedtime, night after night, and who interjects corrections when parents nod. Having familiar tales repeated, word for word, is understandably reassuring to budding imaginations. I am finding it no less reassuring in my dotage. But my taste cannot develop like a child’s — it is at any rate unlikely to have opportunities for doing so. Hitherto unknown but remarkably congenial authors cannot be expected to emerge from exotic recesses of literature. (As if to dispute that very remark, I think of Joseph O’Neill and Edward St Aubyn, two remarkably congenial writers of whom I was unaware only a few years ago. And let’s not forget Elizabeth Taylor.) Like a child, I want to hear certain kinds of stories, and not others. I have no use for what I call “men with issues” — put Ahab and Ishmael at the top of that list. I don’t much care for novels that center on the unsavory confusions of adultery. The list of things that I don’t want to read about it actually pretty long, and it gets longer as my life does.

What I want to read are stories of social gravity — accounts of characters influencing, sustaining, and thwarting one another by the sheer Newtonian effect of their own mass. In the end, Madame Bovary is an empty book for me because the story is about a narcissist’s failure to connect with anyone beyond her daydreams. Francis Steegmuller’s amazing Flaubert and Madame Bovary is immensely more interesting, not only for showing how Flaubert put his inner Emma to good use, but for setting the author in a context of friends and relations from whom, unlike his creation, he is not closed off.

Last year, I re-read Trollope’s Orley Farm, to see how it differed from a novel to which it was compared when it came out, Wilkie Collins’s No Name. (Hugely.) Orley Farm was a pleasant summer read, but I had to recognize that Trollope will never appeal to me now as he did when I was in my prime. Now, his resolutions seem both unimaginative, or unvarying, and medicinal. Trollope is too pious about the sacredness of landed property not to sacrifice his characters to its rules. And, with a few exceptions, his women are dim or wicked. Trollope used to make me laugh. Now, I sigh.

Overexposure is always a danger. Having discovered that you like something very much, you may, without caution, idolize and so kill it. (I find that I have to be very careful about Mozart — or should be if I did not have a battery playlists that dispenses Mozart with a plenteousness that falls well short of excess.) I don’t know what I’m going to read when I come to the end of Mansfield Park, but it will probably be about Jane Austen (about her work), not by her. One way in which I think of her novels collectively is as of an extraordinary fountain that becomes more extraordinary every time I visit it. I want to keep it that way. I want to resist the strong temptation to claim that it is the fountain of life. What could be more extraordinary than that?

Gotham Diary:
Lovers’ Vows
24 April 2013

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Reading Persuasion earlier this month was such an intense, private, and comforting pleasure that I resolved to read Mansfield Park again soon, and when the Penguin/Bickford-Smith clothbound edition arrived by yesterday’s post, I sat down with it at once and began to read as carefully as I could. I copied out many fine lines, although it felt somewhat arbitrary to do so, as all the lines are fine, in one way or another. The lines that caught my interest yesterday and this morning tended to point out the worthlessness of the Bertram sisters’ apparently fine breeding. The sisters, Maria and Julia, it occurs to me, have the leading roles in the first part of the novel, first as an undifferentiated pair of privileged girls who, while never treating their poor cousin, Fanny Price, with cruelty or contempt, are simply too wrapped up in themselves to “secure her comfort”; and then (but soon enough), as rivals for the attentions of Henry Crawford, an ugly contest made positively foul by the fact that Maria has by this time engaged herself to marry the dull but rich Mr Rushworth.

It also occurs to me that, in her three later novels, Jane Austen takes on the role of witty heroine for herself. Neither Fanny Price, nor Emma Woodhouse, nor even quiet Anne Elliot is a sympathetic heroine in the manner of Elizabeth Bennett or Eleanor Dashwood. I need say nothing about Fanny Price; Emma is a fatuous dimwit, not so very unlike Maria Bertram as you might think in her want of real moral upbrining; as for poor Anne, she is buried alive at the start of a novel that, step by step, disinters her. The comedy is all in Austen’s narration, and it tends to be sharp and black. Take this whizzer about the Bertram girls:

Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it.

That’s from the beginning of Chapter IV, by which time Sir Thomas Bertram has already taken himself off to his troubled plantations in Antigua. It is not to much to say that the rest of Mansfield Park is devoted to the gradual collapse of that “good order.”

I have read the first volume of the novel’s three, and it seems that everything that one remembers about Mansfield Park, aside from the thundering marital catastrophe at the end, has happened. On the last page of Chapter XVIII, the return of Sir Thomas is announced. During his absence, the questionable alliance with Mr Rushworth has been no sooner entered into than shown to be questionable, in the chapters depicting the visit to Sotherton Court. This episode is swiftly followed by the young people’s ill-advised theatrical project, which Sr Thomas’s arrival aborts. The pace is very brisk at the start, and the drama of event gives way to the drama of extended scenes only with the visit to Sotherton. One would never guess from Volume I just how suspended the action of Volume III will be.

It is undoubtedly a sign of old age to find solace in Mansfield Park, and to find it where one does. For example, “Julia’s penance,” at Sotherton: having thoroughly enjoyed sitting at Henry Crawford’s side on the box during the carriage ride from Mansfield Park to Mr Rushworth’s estate, Julia finds herself wholly neglected at Sotherton. Fanny wonders that Julia does not see Crawford for the trifler that he is. Jane Austen does not.

Poor Julia, the only one out of the nine not tolerably satisfied with their lot, was now in a state of complete penance, and as different from the Julia of the barouche box as could well be imagined. The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape, while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.

This is nothing less than a flash of the Inferno.


After a not-unpleasant visit to the dentist yesterday, I walked a few blocks to the old storage unit and threw as many of my old journals into a tote bag as I thought I could carry. There seem to be about forty in all. When I got home, I learned that the table that I’d ordered for the balcony had arrived (in a flat box), but that it was too heavy for me to carry up from the package room. While waiting for it to be delivered, I had a look at a journal volume chosen at random. Although, as I’d expected, there was nothing interesting enough to merit mention here, the entries were not absolutely disgusting. They were more diary than journal, and as journal they were vacuous. I seem to have been not only ungrounded but determined to resist being grounded, as if there were something toxic about common sense. Perhaps I am reading this in. I ought not to generalize from a quarter-hour’s perusal of one book out of forty. It will take a good deal of study to decide whether I was feckless by nature, or whether something very important had formed no essential part of my education.

Gotham Diary:
23 April 2013

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

The drilling noises, coming from nowhere in particular, continue to spread a dreary atmosphere of general dentistry. Today, for my sins, I am actually going to the dentist — a new one. For several years, I’ve gone to a dentist in a nearby building, but, because of one thing and another, I haven’t gone. Let me gently hint that I don’t think that the technician who cleans teeth likes me. And when you suspect that someone with drills in your mouth doesn’t like you…

From the dentist I plan to go to the old storage unit, to retrieve some of the old notebooks that I’ve been talking about it. I have learned not to see them, so I’m not sure where they are, but I hope to find them without much ado. It is not a nice day, but cold and dark with rain in the forecast. I’d give anything to be able to stay home.


It has been a while since our New Yorkers arrived on Monday, so I haven’t yet seen the current issue, but I’ve read a snip of it at my friend Jean’s blog. David Remnick, writing about the Tsarnaev brothers (the Boston Marathon bombers), observes, “The digital era allows no asylum from extremism, let alone from the toxic combination of high-minded zealotry and the curdled disappointments of young men.” This “curdled disappointment” strikes me as a much bigger problem, right this very minute, than global warming. Global warming is almost certainly a problem that will require the consideration of several generations simply to assess in manageable terms. The consequences of curdled disappointment are all too likely to interfere with such long-term deliberations, depriving society of the kind of calm stability that has enabled the fruitful social and technological developments of the past seventy years.

It’s time to rephrase Freud’s question: What do young men want? Better still: what do young men need? And what do you do about young men whose needs have not been met, not remotely? I’m willing to accept, theoretically, the occasional emergence of “bad people,” but the Tsarnaev story is so characterized by disconnection that I can’t begin to place primary responsibility on the damaged boys.

And why do I keep thinking about Ayn Rand and her fans? Not so much their refusal to take responsibility for the Tsarnaevs of this world — although I despise them for that — as for their trumpeting noisy anthems about the Land of Opportunity, which make everything sound so simple. We need to be sending an alternative message to the rest of the world: America is a tricky country, where good luck takes strange forms and where falls can be very, very hard. Think twice before leaving a dense web of family support behind!

My barber told me yesterday that he is going to take his citizenship test today. He has been studying the hundred questions, and two other barbershop clients, both of them professors, have assured him that he now knows more about this country than their students. I have no doubt that Tito is going to thrive in the United States; he’s savvy and self-directed. But the well-documented ignorance of American high-school students, where basic American history is concerned, suggests that the Rand rot goes much deeper than Rand’s readership. There seems to be an implicit understanding that, if you’re an American, you don’t have to know anything!

What’s for two smart boys, born in a very different world, to admire in that?

Gotham Diary:
22 April 2013

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Spring fever has hit me more intensely this year than it has done in some time. The explanation is simple: just as spring was arriving, I was allowed to open my door to it — the balcony door. As you can see, the balcony is not much to look at yet, but that’s not the point. The open door is the point. (The open door is remarkably unphotogenic.)

It was too chilly to spend time on the balcony this weekend, which was just as well, since there is only one chair out there at the moment, but I spent almost every minute reading, quite as if I were taking a holiday in the fresh air. I went back and forth between two books, Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, which I haven’t quite finished, and Geza Vermes’s Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea. I hardly know which is more sensational.

I don’t recall what pointed me to Vermes’s book. (I really must learn to make a note of such things.) The dust jacket is a bit waffly, identifying the author as “the first professor of Jewish studies at Oxford,” but not clarifying that this is his current post. He has certainly written a number of other books on early Christianity, and he is a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls. An air of controversy hangs over the pages of Christian Beginnings.

My critics complain that I rejected the authenticity of the passage from Philippians because its Christ picture did not agree with my theory. As a matter of fact, I argue against its Pauline origin on the grounds that it does not fit into Paul’s understanding [sic] of Jesus, as reflected throughout all his genuine letters and in particular in his numerous prayer formulas and doxologies.

But the book is thrilling to read. Step by step — chapter by chapter — Vermes shows, on the evidence of Scripture and later well-known writings, the transformation of the charismatic healer of Galilee into the Second Person of the Trinity. Claims for the divinity of Jesus, Vermes argues, are not even hinted at until the Gospel of John (written some time after Paul’s Epistles), and do not appear unequivocally until the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written about 110. Even then, the details of this new theology took a further two centuries develop, with the “orthodox” view erupting in Alexandria in 318, in the clash between Arius of Libya and two successive bishops, Alexander and Athanasius. It interests me no end that this fight over the nature of the Trinity boiled over almost as soon as it was legally able to do so publicly — it was only in 312 that Constantine reversed the persecution of Christians, beginning the process that would transform an illicit sect into the state religion. It was at Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the newly-recognized church (325), that the Athanasian view became established dogma. This did not prevent the Visigothic kings of Spain, for example, from adhering to the Arian view until they were extinguished by the Moors in the 600s. The Arian formula insisted on the understanding of Jesus’s subordination to God the Father that had been common, if not quite universal, right up to the beginning of the Fourth Century. Only after Nicaea was Jesus proclaimed to be consubstantial with, and co-equal to, God.

So, Christian Beginnings is in large part a history of “Christology” — the nature of Jesus qua Messiah. Other matters are discussed — the virgin birth, the Second Coming, the meaning of the Eucharist — but it is the gradual deification of Jesus that interests Vermes most. Vermes isn’t neutral about this. He closes his book with the hope that a new reformation will restore Christians to the “pure religious vision and enthusiasm of Jesus,” at the expense of “the church attributed to him.” Once upon a time, I’d have found a book such as this one to be shocking as well as thrilling, even though I myself have never been a believer, because it “exposes” Roman Catholic orthodoxy as a fabrication cobbled together by men who never knew Jesus and who dealt in a cavalier fashion with the Hebrew scripture that Jesus never repudiated. (The first chapter does a fine job of establishing the charismatic tradition in Judaism, “alternative,” but never altogether unorthodox.) But I find that I have outgrown the shock.

Granted that the Church’s claims about its divine origins are bogus, there remains the rather amazing history of the institution’s expansion over the course of four centuries. Although contentious, the early church was necessarily not on the offensive, and its administrators gradually assumed the secular burdens of a fading empire. How did that happen? Clearly, men and women found meaning in Christianity. But Christianity, as Vermes shows, developed meaning as it grew. I think that it is unreasonable to talk about a settled Christian doctrine as existing prior to the death of Augustine in 430 — at the earliest. And it was at just about that time that the embrace of a nascent European aristocracy began to warp ecclesiastical priorities.Whatever becomes of the Church in the future, its role in European history is clearly a leading one, and the roots of Western civilization in its modern phase are entwined in its teachings. Conversely, the Church is not eternal, but as historical as any other work of mankind.

I found Christian Beginnings to be an easy-to-read exposition of a patiently-made case. For anyone who wants to read the New Testament by its own light, the book is indispensable.


Armadale is the third of Wilkie Collins’s four “sensation” novels, and arguably the least successful. It has been too long since I last read The Moonstone or The Woman in White, the two that remain on college reading lists, for me to make comparisons, but I can say that No Name, which I read last year, has the advantage over Armadale of an irresistible heroine for whom no reader can fail to root. What we have in Armadale, in contrast, is the fast friendship of two men who, unbeknownst to one of them, bear the same name. There is a superb villainess, Lydia Gwilt, but she takes a while to appear, and we don’t get the lowdown on her career until well past halfway. The two men are complete opposites, and both somewhat  irritating. One is amiable but thick and bull-headed; the other is inclined to morbid superstition. The extracts from Lydia Gwilt’s diary, which dominate the latter part of the book, make for much more appealing reading. In fact, Miss Gwilt is an anti-heroine for whom it is difficult not to root.

The satisfaction of Armadale, however, is that of each of the big novels: a rich variety of voices and characters. I don’t know why anyone bothers with Dickens’s paper-doll creations when Collins, with a few bold strokes, creates such ferociously realistic figures as the bedridden and insanely jealous Mrs Milroy, whose complete lack of grounds for doubting her husband’s fidelity simply excites her mad capitulation to the green-eyed monster. Collins’s people are excessive, but they’re never implausible (although there is something dubiously virginal about the young men at the center), and sentimentality is beaten back by cheerful cynicism. The plotting (and counter-plotting) is engrossing because we care about the plotters rather more than we care about their victims.

I can’t wait to see how it all comes out in the end — so, you’ll excuse me.

Gotham Diary:
Happy Birthday
19 April 2013

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Kathleen is having a big birthday today: Certain Age + 1. There is a zero in the actual figure.

At a favorite French restaurant down at the other end of 86the Street, a small group of usual suspects will gather to celebrate.


When I finished the bowl of cereal and stepped back into the apartment, I couldn’t see a thing. My eyes had narrowed in the morning blaze out on the balcony. I did not linger after my  small breakfast; although my head was in the shade, my knees weren’t, and I’ve learned to dislike the feeling of sun on my skin except in the very coldest weather. It now feels like planting cancer. So I came back inside.

But for a few moments, I felt in the city. I felt a part of the bustle, even though I was sitting still in an armchair. That is the luxury of a well-placed balcony. Not too much wind, and plenty to look at. Soon,  Roofhampton season will begin (thanks, Roz Chast!). The sight of young people stretched out on beach towels on the tarred roofs of the nearby walkups makes me feel especially comfortable in my armchair.

Planes coming into land at LaGuardia from the south are visible, flying low to the ground, between two buildings a few blocks east of here. You expect them to reappear beyond the second building, but they never do, possibly because they have landed, probably because they have dipped behind a low hill just to the west of the airport. No matter how many times I see planes vanish,  they still vanish, and it’s minutely unnerving.

Gotham Diary:
18 April 2013

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

It happened very quietly, without the whir or the grind of tools. When I came out of the shower, the men were on the balcony, moving about silently. As soon as I was clothed enough to approach the window, I saw that the plywood block on the balcony door frame had been removed. And I never heard a thing! The duct tape was pulled from the HVAC intakes. The men boarded the gondola and went down a floor.

Paralyzed rapture.

In the living room, I pushed the potted ivy — nearly as tall as I am, with its obelisk trellis — a bit to one side and squeezed toward the door, which I opened just a little. The cable connecting the router to the WiFi booster in the bedroom had been neatly garlanded around the doorknob by the workers. I reached round and cast it free. Now I could open the door all the way, and step down onto the balcony. The rush of repossession was acutest joy.

I went out to lunch, and then took a walk to Carl Schurz Park, passing Holy Trinity (above) on the way. It was a beautiful day, and I took a lot of photographs in the park. Then I ambled on home.

As soon as I was changed into house clothes, I dragged the pot of ivy out onto the balcony. I lugged a number of other things that had been cluttering the apartment for the past seven months — large ornamental clay pots, a garden tool kit, and the bag of potting soil with which I’d amazingly managed to coexist in the kitchen. I swept up the debris shed by the potted ivy. I sat down on the garden kneeler (which also serves as a little bench) and put my tea on the blue Chinese garden seat. For the first time in a million years, I wished that I had a million friends to call up with the news. I did get hold of Fossil Darling, which was something. I sat outside for over an hour, getting up from time to time to peer at the men down below, in the workyard that they had set up on the roof of the garage. From time to time, they looked up — this part of their job was done.

I ordered a “beer garden” table, with two matching benches, from the Williams-Sonoma Agrarian catalogue. I’d seen at once that the table was right for us because, like our balcony, it is narrow. It ought to arrive in early May. I also ordered the French watering can that Gardener’s Supply sells — in blue. It’s offered only in blue at the moment, but I should have chosen blue anyway, because when the blue watering can that I had for years and years finally disintegrated, because I neglected to empty and invert it before what turned out to be a rough winter, I replaced it with a red one. Very bad idea! On the small balcony, the red watering can was like a buzzer that couldn’t be turned off.

The next item on the agenda is to plan to bring the things that we saved down from the storage unit up at the tip of Manhattan. Ray Soleil will help me with this. There’s a wooden bench, three metal garden chairs (in great shape), and boxes and boxes full of plastic faux bricks (also from Gardener’s Supply). The bricks interlock and provide a handsome and comfortable flooring for the balcony. Taking them apart was one of the last things we did last fall, in the course of stripping the balcony for this railing replacement project that has now come to an end — at least on our front of the building.

It’s going to be very different, the next incarnation of our outdoor room. There won’t be any florists’ étagères to fill with potted plants, or huge faux marble planters to fill with floral whatnot. I’ve come to accept that the balcony’s climate is not salubrious for plants, probably because of all the particulate matter sent up by the trucks that take a free ride on First and Second Avenues on their way to and from Long Island. The potted ivy does well, and so does parsley (which must of course be well washed). In the paper this morning, I read about a mildew that has attacked the common impatiens plants — so that’s why I haven’t seen any in the shops. What about geraniums? I suppose we’ll have a few, but nothing like the lineup of former years (done). As soon as I can replace the leggy nepenthe in the living room with tight new plants, I’ll move them outside. The balcony won’t be a garden. It will be a sitting room — outside. With a table for the occasional dinner. Kathleen plans to order a six-foot bench, so that she can stretch out completely for luxuriant naps.

Ray is on his way uptown by now. Before lunch, we’re going to carry the wicker club chair that spent the winter in the blue room back outside. I’m in the course of ordering an indoor arm chair to take its place, from the Canadian firm that made the identical chair that we found in our hotel room in Cincinnati in January. (Ray tracked that one down — bravo!) In the meantime, we’ll just play musical chairs, the oldest game in the house.

This morning, as Kathleen and I were having tea, I heard the sound of metal clanking right outside, behind me. Could the men be back? I hadn’t heard the hum of the gondola’s motor — a sound to which I had become keenly attuned. Looking outside, I saw nothing. The gondola cables were invisible. How had the men slipped past? I leaned over the railing (such fun!) and saw that the gondola was still on the roof of the garage. It was only the cables that had been hoisted. As I stood there, one of the hemp safety ropes began to shimmy, and soon it was pulled past. At the moment, two heavy black cables that I never saw until yesterday are the only lines. I won’t be surprised if they disappear before lunch time. But I won’t mind if they go on hanging around.

I’d better get dressed. But first, I’m going to close the windows; the weather is not so nice today. (I forgot to say how wonderful it was to have the balcony restored to us on the finest day of the year so far!) It’s much easier to open and close the windows now; I can do it from outside.

Gotham Diary:
Ma Bohème contd
17 April 2013

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Somewhere in our storage unit, there is a stack of two dozen bound notebooks. These notebooks were designed for permanence, with numbered pages ready to betray any tear-outs, no matter how neatly done. Are the notebooks blue and grey, or blue and blue? I don’t remember. I must dig them out on my next visit, because, I now realize, I can no longer put off the horror of reading the twaddle with which I filled them, forty-odd years ago. I began keeping these notebooks in college, and continued writing in them for several years afterward. Whatever the contents, the notebooks themselves are documentary evidence of a period of my life. There can’t be much worth reading, but it would be clarifying to know when I began, and when I ended. There’s a bitterness about the notebooks now that I couldn’t have imagined then: if I were forty years younger, I would never resort to the medium of a notebook. I should go straight to blogging.

My writing and my thinking would have been better for it. The fact that anyone with a link can read what I’m writing here keeps me sharp, even if no one does. My notebooks were not only unpublished but unventilated. Since I never re-read them, I repeated myself, lost in self-absorption. I wrote in them because I thought that doing so would lift me out of the sad futility of my life. But I never felt the futility of my life more acutely than when I was writing in the notebooks, because I had nothing to write about. When I did have something to write about, I wrote a letter to a friend. Or I wrote a spontaneous paragraph or two about a piece of music for the radio station’s program guide, inserting it right in the listings. I wrote two rigorous essays, for reasons that I do not care to discuss, about (a) Beethoven’s late quartets as reflected in Eliot’s Four Quartets, with passages of music alongside passages of verse — cool, huh? — and (b) the vision of the earthly paradise at the end of the Purgatorio.

I was able to write about music and literature because I was reading a great deal about them, more than as an undergraduate, and I saw how writing about them was done. There were no such templates for writing about myself. The only thing that I grasped about myself was that I was different, in defective, non-special ways. Even my strengths were bent. The proof of my worthlessness was that I had wound up in Houston. If I’d had any sense, I’d have turned my back on myself as a subject and got on with the life less troubled — sooner than I did. But I had been taught that the unexamined life was not worth living; and how was I ever going to be like Virginia Woolf if I did not keep notebooks? For my notebooks, unlike the pieces on music and literature, were aspirational in nature: I wanted to become the sort of person who keeps a notebook. I have yet to become it. When I write notes now, it is to remember thoughts and passages that I’ll want to write about here, when and if I get round to them. Genuine secrets I never commit to writing: quite aside from the imprudence of doing so, the true test of a secret is whether it’s worth remembering. Most, in my experience, are not. Most of mine have dissolved in oblivion.

Reading the notebooks and diaries of writers and other accomplished people was of little help. I rarely agreed with them about anything. And I already knew that I preferred the uneventful life — although I was ashamed of this and regarded it as a weakness. Turbulence shuts down the part of my mind that I find the most congenial to exercise. On a good day, nothing unexpected happens, and the expected happens as expected. (Kathleen’s raisin toast is always browned to perfection after exactly two minutes in the toaster — unless the toaster is already hot because I made myself an English muffin first, so I don’t.) The surprises are all quiet and interior. They jump out of books, or off of video screens. I hear something new in a familiar piece of music.

I can’t really say how I felt, back in the Seventies, about writing about people I knew. I’ll have to go over the notebooks before I determine that it made me uncomfortable, because (as I now believe) writing about other people becomes interesting insofar as it is heartless. To size someone up dispassionately may be useful for hiring purposes, but in humane letters it is a kind of murder. Because you can’t murder the dead, it’s probably best to wait.

I’m afraid that, when I open the notebooks, I am going to be knocked down by the stale breath of my immature vacuity.


Here’s a little surprise from this morning: I’m reading, as I think I mentioned, Alexander Stille’s The Future of the Past, a collection of reports about various conservation and ecological projects that was published in 2002. It’s impossible not to wonder about the future of this book, which is of course the present: how’s that linked-ponds water-treatment system working outside of Varanasi? What has happened to the Biblioteca Alexandrina since the Arab Spring, and how was it doing before that? This morning, I read a piece about Ranomafana National Park, in Madagascar, home to many species of lemur. According to Stille, the Park was established at the instigation of a Brooklyn woman called Patricia Wright. Wright was a social worker when she and her then husband bought a nocturnal owl monkey as a pet — and, the next thing you know, she became a credentialed primatologist.

Dr Wright maintains a Web site, and there is a Wikipedia entry that appears to have been written by an extremely sympathetic hand. Stille’s essay is not online, and its account of Wright’s efforts is complicated by conflicting estimations of their merits. I came away thinking that, however good at tracking lemurs she might might be, Wright is negligibly equipped to run a complex conservation and development program in a third-world town, and from abroad (she teaches at Stony Brook) — an inaptitude made locally catastrophic by her apparent ability to charm pots of money out of anybody, once. But the Wikipedia entry for the Ranomafana National Park does not mention her, or anybody else.

As for the Biblioteca Alexandrina, it seems, from its Wikipedia entry, to have turned out to be the extravagant dud that Stille was too polite to predict.

Gotham Diary:
16 April 2013

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

This has been a bad year for the ticket drawer. Too many tickets have gone straight from the drawer to the trash. Although Kathleen and I have decided not to renew our theatre and concert subscriptions for next season, I’ve tried to strike a compromise by taking advantage of the programs at the Museum, which is more or less in the neighborhood. Even that has been difficult, though, what with late-winter low spirits.

Last Friday, however, we did actually show up for something, and were delighted to have done so. A new outfit calling itself the Salomé Chamber Orchestra backed up violinist Philippe Quint and violist David Aaron Carpenter (one of the Salomé’s founding siblings) in a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K 364. I’ll say right away that I’ve never heard the work played nearly so well. Live performances have, in fact, tended to disappoint me. Friday night’s was just the opposite: a surprise.

It has long been my conviction that K 364 is Mozart’s angriest work. There is a lot of mockery in Mozart’s catalogue, but anger is rare, and perhaps K 364 is the only instance. The anger, tucked in between every well-mannered note, is directed at the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart’s employer, who refused to let the young musician travel. (And at Mozart’s father, whose idea of a career didn’t suit his son at all.) The violin and viola cry out in competition: “I hate this town more than you do!” The slow movement, which Maynard Solomon likens to a tragic opera seria duet, mourns the opportunities in Vienna, Paris, Milan, and elsewhere that Mozart is missing because he is stuck in a hick town by a contract. A hick town that would become a major destination on the music circuit simply because he couldn’t wait to get out of it.

You don’t have to know any of this background to grasp the passion; you need only read the music — which, when dutifully played for the archbishop, I’m sure went right over his head (or perhaps gave him a slight headache). Friday’s musicians did not play dutifully. They played the music by its edge. That’s how I describe what gypsies used to do — the faux gypsy musicians of old Vienna. They played as if entranced as dervishes, but every note would be where it belonged. Like such gypsies, Messrs Quint and Carpenter and the Salomé players flaunted the tension between precision and abandon, with all the playful ostentation of a sword-swallower. I couldn’t have liked it more. The performance was enthusiastically received, with booming applause after each movement. The musicians’ intensity fairly demanded it.

We stayed on for Lera Auerbach’s Sogno di Stabat Mater for violin, viola, vibraphone and orchestra. Aside from a few wild patches, mostly at the beginning, this is a neo-baroque work such as Arvo Pärt might inspire. I’d like to hear it again, and I look forward to a recording. (The program materials neglect to identify the gifted vibraphonist.)


In the old days, which is to say the first six years of blogging (this site will be nine years old in November), I used to buy a lot of things on the basis of other bloggers’ enthusiasm. I got the mugs and T shirts out of my system fairly early, but it took a while to stop buying books that, months later, I could no longer recall a reason for ordering. Lately, I have been getting rid of a lot of such books, even though I haven’t read them. Because I haven’t read them. I shall, of course, name no names.

One book that I didn’t discard was Bill Morris’s All Souls’ Day. I can’t think why I bought it, but I do know that I had it long before my interest in the American War in Vietnam flared up late last year. Set in 1963, All Souls’ Day is a crisply-written romance. The hero is a burned-out Navy vet who is running a Bangkok hotel with a Thai buddy from the war. The heroine is the daughter of a prominent California family. Working in Saigon for the USIS, she is shocked to discover the discrepancy between reports from the field and the twaddle dispatched to Washington — where, it is clear, leaders from Kennedy on down have decided to punish those who tell them what they don’t want to hear. The hero is, naturally, unshockable. The heroine puts her foot down: she can have no respect for a man who knows what the hero knows but refuses to act. So the hero thinks up something to do. Action!

There is just enough well-written, intelligent discussion of the war to keep the book afloat in its sentimental sea of hyper-handsome lovers, thrilling sex scenes, and lovingly described meals. In the course of the novel, both the hero and the heroine read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and they’re amazed by how little has changed in the ten intervening years. It is clear that the author loves The Quiet American, but he is really too upbeat and — I can think of no other word — automotive to stretch for Greene’s dark-hearted gravity. The lovers are appalled by the American conduct of the war, and resolve upon an expatriate existence that seems to suit them well. There is none of Greene’s ambivalence.

As an accompaniment to reading serious histories of the American War, All Souls’ Day is a treat, evoking without pedantry a world gone by. Oh, the fall of ’63! It was my first term at boarding school, and everything that happened, from the explosion of the Beatles to the assassination in Dallas, is bound up in the delight of being away from home at last. Beyond the antics of Madame Nhu and the downfall of her husband and brother-in-law, I don’t remember giving a thought to Vietnam. Youth!

Gotham Diary:
Life of the Mind
15 April 2013

Monday, April 15th, 2013

What, really, does “the life of the mind” mean? Not much, say I.

The phrase is a swirl of connotations and implications. A kind of tranquil thoughtfulness is envisioned. Meditation — that two-faced concept, which can mean either concentrated reflection on a matter of great importance, or the rigorous expulsion of all particular ideas — figures in it somewhere. For some reason, I tend to associate the life of the mind with the quotation of poetry, preferably Goethe: in order to lead the life of the mind, you must stock your mind well with memorized bits and bobs of wisdom, which you may, at leisure, turn over in your (mental) hand like polished stones. The life of the mind is aloof, conducted up there somewhere. It embraces significance and eschews triviality.

There are monks in monasteries who may be leading life along these lines, but of course they would call it the life of prayer. (Prayer is the only mindful thing that I recognize as arguably existing outside the life of the body.) Somehow, I don’t think that “prayer” is what most people who talk of the life of the mind have in mind.

So, who amongst us, living in the everyday world, is really leading the life of the mind — and how can you tell?

I strongly suspect that the life of the mind is a state of grace into which we imagine other people to be capable of entering, whilst we ourselves are fallen, distracted by swarms of vague and inexpressible mental flashes, to dwell on which would lead to madness.


In contrast, there is the life of reading and writing. It would be nice to have one word for “reading and writing,” and I hope that somebody comes up with it soon, because reading without writing is vain, and writing without reading is senseless. You really must do both if you are going to do much of either. There is a third element: attentiveness to the life going on around you. This is the current’s ground. The lack of such attentiveness is what powers the life of the pure intellectual, who studies philosophical systems and spins more of same. Lawyers are grounded intellectuals, dealing with abstractions in terms of actual cases. They are not, like pure intellectuals, fantasists.

It is very easy to tell who is reading and writing and paying attention.


I wrote the other day that my parents’ way of life was meaningless. I ought to have noted that it was meaningless to me, not to them. I believe that their lives were rich in meaning, and that the center of all meaning, for them, was the large and stable American corporation. (They would have strenuously countered that, as observant Roman Catholics, they believed in higher things. But faith and God were taken for granted, like the contents of a medicine cabinet.) They believed in the power of the corporation, moreover, very much as a married couple. They both found meaning in my father’s career, which my mother fully supported, at the company of which he eventually became chairman. It was like Far From Heaven, but without the sex problems. They believed in “the company” in the same way that French courtiers believed in Louis XIV: as the fount of honor and riches. Like the aristocrats who were invited to Marly, my parents shared an aptitude for this way of life.

It was a life, I now think, divorced from any thought of history. History was over. The two world wars and the intervening Depression had redeemed the (free) world, which could settle down to enjoying affluence. If it ever occurred to my parents that the era of the benign postwar corporation would not continue indefinitely, they did not dwell on it. Like all beneficiaries of a boom, they saw no point to imagining unpleasant sequels, especially as (quite correctly) they did not expect to live to see any.

If I am right about the association of their belief in the corporation with a disbelief in history, then it is easy to see why their lives were meaningless to me. I don’t remember not being aware of living in history. History is the story of how we got to where we are, and we are always rewriting it as we understand ourselves better. Although it appears to be about then, it is always about now. The questions asked about the past are always questions that seem important in the present. That is why, for example, the history of the Reconstruction period that followed the American Civil War is so persistently unsettled.

For my parents, history was what happened. Scholarly research might give us a better picture of what happened, but what happened was what happened. It was itself as immutable as the Bible. The idea that history is forever being rewritten by evolving minds would have struck them as fatuous and perverse. Minds didn’t evolve — not any more, thank you very much! And there was a word for taking an alternative approach to the events of history: propaganda!

Gotham Diary:
Ma Bohème cont’d
12 April 2013

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Kathleen spent this morning at home, less unwilling to brave the dank weather than determined to finish drafting a document in the peace and quiet of our apartment. While she worked, I read. I read Persuasion, right to the very end. (I read almost half of it yesterday.) This was a great treat — more than a treat. No book could distract me from a real crisis, but Jane Austen never fails to intensify the felicity of actual tranquility.

Is Persuasion becoming my favorite of her novels? It is unlike all the earlier ones in having a very decided chapter-bound march step. There are two volumes, each consisting of twelve chapters: no arrangement could be more deliberate. Each chapter contains some very definite plot-advancing event. (In this, it is very unlike Mansfield Park.) There is a great deal of authorial impatience with the fools in her pages, an edge of contemptuous dismissal that is not softened by humor. Of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot at Bath, she writes that their “evening entertainments were solely in the elegant stupidity of private parties…” She writes a couple of quite heartless paragraphs dismissive of the Musgroves’s near-do-well son, Dick, lost at sea and transformed by his death into “Poor Richard.” What’s funny is the apparent impropriety of her candor.

If I had a better memory, I might not enjoy re-reading Austen as much as I do. Emma, which I have read more than all the others and actually studied, has few surprises for me now, but the complications of the other books always prove to be more extensive than my recollection of them; and then there are the movies to set aside. The generally excellent Roger Michell adaptation of Persuasion (1996), for example, sheers off the first two chapters of the novel’s second volume — a good decision, I think, in cinematic terms. By the same token, no movie in the world could begin to capture the wicked subtlety of third chapter’s beginning.

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. [Emphasis supplied]

This reads like the introduction to one of the young Austen’s absurd little plays, its deadpan, just-so patness requiring no filigree but the smug, “happy-ending” coda. I can’t help feeling that “lofty, dignified situation” is meant to be satirical and ridiculous. Who inhabits a situation? Austen might have subordinated the phrase with a preposition, such as “of” or “with,” but she didn’t, as if to invite the charge of grammatical carelessness. In any case, Austen immediately rolls up her mockery and restores us to the passionate world of Anne’s feelings.

Anne entered it with a sinking heart, anticipating an imprisonment of many months, and anxiously saying to herself, “Oh! when shall I leave you again?”

To Anne, this bright sparkly bit of Bath, with its two drawing rooms and abundant mirrors, might as well be the castle of Otranto. But it is worse. Instead of dungeons and demons, Anne faces the unfeeling vacancy of her inane family.


In Montrose, at some point in early 1974, I moved in with the dear friend who had taken refuge in my garage apartment in late 1971. The landlord of the bungalow into which I had moved with my wife and my daughter, but which I had to abandon alone, put me through something of a ringer about finding a replacement tenant; I think that he thought that he was teaching me a lesson. (He was.)

My dear friend shared what was called a “duplex” apartment — one of two matching flats, the one atop the other — with a young woman whose family lived in River Oaks. They had the two bedrooms. I took the breakfast nook, which really was quite small, just wide enough for the length of my bed to stretch beneath the window, not much deeper. I can’t remember how long this jolly arrangement lasted, but shortly after I became friends with the man who lived in the duplex’s garage apartment, the two of us decided to share a flat in an apartment complex out in the part of Post Oak that lies just inside the Loop. I could and did walk to work from there, but the roommating didn’t work out — we soon became an odd couple, only without the laughs. By now, my dear friend had moved into a smaller apartment of her own, next door to the duplex in Montrose. In this building, there were four apartments. My friend lived on the bottom right, and I took the top left. I really think that I might have remained in this apartment forever, but the owner sold the building to buyers who planned to cancel all the leases and renovate. I moved a few blocks away, to an odd apartment walled with planks of wood. Not paneling, but planks. There was a story about the builder’s connections to the world of lumber. This would prove to be my last independent abode in Houston. By the summer of 1976, it was clear that my mother’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma was going to kill her — but of course it was the treatment that did that — and I moved back to my parents’ house to help out. I had been gone for five years, and everything was different.

For one thing, it is not true that I might have remained in that top left apartment indefinitely. That’s where I began studying for the LSAT. I had shown up to take the LSAT in 1970 or ’71, at my father’s behest, but I had walked out on the exam after about twenty minutes. I was really not equipped for the study of law at that time. By the time I took the LSAT more seriously, in 1976, the earlier score had disappeared, as if by the operation of a statute of limitations. I studied very hard the second time, and was quite proud of my respectable score. I had never done so well on a standardized test before.

My father wanted me to stay in Houston. He agreed to support me through law school only at a school in the South or Southwest. Happily, his alumnus’s pride induced him to make an exception for Notre Dame. It is difficult to imagine now, but Notre Dame really was my Window on the East.

The first letter of acceptance, from the University of Oklahoma, arrived a week after my mother died, in February 1977. So she never knew that I got in. I never knew how pleased she might have been, or even if she would have been pleased. She was very grateful for my help at home during her final months, and not shy about saying so. But I think that she had given up on my long-term prospects. Not without reason! I would practice law, in one way or another, for less than seven years, after which I would not work again. My father got something of a short end, too, because I settled in New York with Kathleen, whom I doted upon from the first day of law school, and not in Houston.


All that moving about — it’s oppressive and wearying to think of now. In the five years that I lived away from my parents’ house, I dwelt beneath seven different roofs. For the past thirty-three years, I have dwelt beneath the same one (albeit in three different apartments — but for nearly thirty years where we are now). As I said in an earlier installment, I could not take life in Houston seriously. And I’m glad that I didn’t, because it was much better to take it experimentally. This entailed a lot of jackass behavior, of course. But one of the experiments hardened into a viable way of life. I learned how to take women seriously.

It was a great decade for taking women seriously, because second-wave feminism was spreading out beyond its radical origins and engaging the lives of a lot of ordinary women. Women certainly took life experimentally in the 1970s — the ones I knew did, anyway. For one thing, they abandoned the veneer of respectability. This did not mean that modesty and virtue were thrown to the winds. Rather, modesty and virtue were newly grounded in personal conviction, and not fenced by appearances. Women continued to fall for the wrong guy. But they didn’t inevitably marry him. I watched a lot of women discover life apart from romance. Women would perhaps never become as detached from romance as many men manage to be, but they stopped defining themselves in exclusively romantic terms, with a man either at the center of things or glaringly absent. In a way, women discovered the freedom of nuns, even if they weren’t celibate.

Watching women become, in their own eyes, regular people was a serious business, because the meaning of “regular people” changed as they did so, requiring men to do some fixing-up as well. Attentive men, anyway. “Honey, I’m home!” became an ironic banner, because honey was no longer necessarily at home when her husband got off work, and there were cases — I am one — in which the honey at home was male. The domestic world that our parents had taken for granted was shattered. We are still rebuilding.

The other big experiment of my Houston years was the reconstruction of bourgeois stability. Every time I moved house, I became neater and more organized, my affairs more regular and less crisis-prone. I became a better cook of better-balanced meals. Every change of address really was a fresh start, and by the time I returned to Tanglewood in 1976, I was the tidy emptier of dishwashers that I am today. It turned out that I was not cut out for bohemian life. I was mistaken to think that it was an alternative to my parents’ way of life (which I must learn to describe); it was just another kind of meaninglessness. And ultimately inferior. Having been brought up in a bohemian household, I should never have had the habit of good manners. The habit may have been all that I got from my parents, but it was there to invigorate when I finally grew up.

Gotham Diary:
11 April 2013

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

In the first chapter of The Future of the Past, “The Sphinx — Virtual and Real,” Alexander Stille reports an argument between an American conservationist and an Egyptian tour guide who specializes in “Atlantean” groups — people who believe that the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx were erected by remnants of the people of Atlantis, that fair, doomed continent. As it happens, the American, Mark Lehner, started out as a believer in such New Age nonsense. Eventually, hard research changed his mind. There is a pointlessness to the argument, in that Ahmed, the Egyptian, is inclined to doubt the Atlantis “theory” as well; but there’s money in it. What, Lehner wonders (forgetting his youthful enthusiasms, perhaps), makes the bogus explanation so attractive to so many people?

We have thousands of tombs, thousands of hieroglyphs. If I climb the Pyramid with you, I can show you pottery in the mortar between the stones. We have carbon-dated it. What more do we need? You work with these people. You lecture to them. Why do people need to believe in myths? Why can’t they believe in Khufu and Khafre? It’s a great civilization. The boat of Khufu is as beautiful and sophisticated as anything produced by ancient civilizations. The statues of Menkaure and Khafre as as beautiful as anything produced by any civilization of any age. Why are they not good enough? Why do people need them to be by somebody else?

I share Lehner’s exasperation. I was reeling it with just last week, reading John Lanchester’s LRB piece on Game of Thrones. I read it because I hoped that Lanchester could explain its folly, patent in the publicity materials that have been junking up newspapers and magazines. (I will say at the outset that I never dreamed, as a boy, that I would live to see grown men discuss comic-book superheroes. I think that I just might have regarded such a forecast as more horrifying than that of a Communist take-over.) Lanchester is a sensible man; he has written not only brilliantly but lucidly about the financial disasters of the last decade. Sadly, I discovered that Lanchester is a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire — the cycle of fictions by George RR Martin — and the television adaptation. The piece would have been blather to me if not for a moment of connection with the real world: “Martin,” Lanchester writes, “has said that his ambition was to create an imaginary world with the atmosphere of the Wars of the Roses. A small number of aristocratic families are contending for power in the kingdom of Westeros, an island with a cold north….”

What, may I ask, is insufficiently interesting about the real Wars of the Roses?

This sporadic sequence of three dynastic wars, stretching over thirty years (1455-1485), that transformed England from a medieval kingdom into the foundation of a modern state, was not called by its now-popular name until the Nineteenth Century. (Was it Scott who made up the term?) The “roses” were the badges of the contending families, red for Lancaster and white for York. A weak king, whose grandfather had usurped the throne, was unable to neutralize the tensions of an aristocracy idled by the end of a disappointing war in France. Factions collected around men with claims to the throne that were arguably as good as the king’s — and who were prepared to argue with force. When the king (a Lancastrian) passed into insanity, his queen turned herself into the greatest harridan of English history by trying (often foolishly) to stand up for her husband’s interests, and those of her infant son. Scuffles and skirmishes metastasized into open rebellion, and, by 1461, a Yorkist sat on the throne. The Yorkist would in turn be ejected ten years later, but only for a short period; restored to the throne, he would rule for another dozen years. Then his teenaged son would succeed him — but only on paper. The late king’s brother was determined to seize the throne, and the young king and his brother — the “princes in the tower” — were made to disappear from this world. Two years later, a Welshman with extremely tenuous Lancastrian claims overthrew the Yorkist in a great battle. This turned out to be the end of the “wars,” but no one knew this at the time. Happily, the new king married a Yorkist princess and was very strong. So was his son. There would be a few seditious events every now and then, but by the latter part of the sixteenth century — just as France was sinking into its religious civil wars — the English monarchy was secure, at least from overmighty subjects, and an unmarried woman was able to rule the land in (domestic) peace for forty-five years. English kings and queens would no longer have to face the challenge of powerful aristocratic clans. In the future, political contentions would be waged nonviolently by men (and, later, women) who were elected, by ever more democratic constituencies, to represent the people of England in an ancient assembly called Parliament.

I have omitted all the proper names (except for those of the two factions). I have also neglected to mention the pervasiveness of the bloody violence. This was no palace coup. As we know from the Paston letters, the conflict wore a gangland face on the local level, with thugs seizing property in the name of whichever faction was prevailing at the moment. Every time I pick up a book about the Wars of the Roses, I discover some new atrocity, or at least a new snake in the grass. The constellation of titles and family names, and the endless shifts of allegiance, make it very hard to keep score, and the career of the Earl of Warwick, known as “kingmaker” after his ultimately vain attempt to restore the insane Lancastrian, is one that I find I must always re-learn. Convulsions on this scale, no doubt bewildering to live through, remain confusing on the page.

At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare rendered a sort of four-episode Game of Thrones from the records of the Wars of the Roses. The records were tendentious, and favored the Lancastrians — the Yorkists, particularly the antihero of Richard III, were drawn with a lurid brush. Shakespeare’s “history plays” are not history. But they are not fantasy, either. For the most part, his characters represent people who actually lived, and who died more or less as he said they did. These are not Shakespeare’s greatest plays by any means, but they are very good, and, if you’ll pardon the inanity of my saying so, beautifully written. Please tell me why you would prefer to watch a television show about a wholly imaginary concoction. No — don’t tell me. Just try to square it with yourself.


Gotham Diary:
10 April 2013

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

The first thing I did when I finished reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers was to check out what James Wood had to say about it in last week’s New Yorker. I was very surprised by what I read; it seemed at times that Wood, in his praise and enthusiasm, was describing some other book, even though all the characters’ names and doings checked out. It seemed that, while Wood had read the book carefully, he had not heard its heartbeat. I thought that I had.

The proof of our difference lies in the single paragraph that Wood devotes to Ronnie Fontaine.

But perhaps his stories are his best works. We soon understand that nothing Ronnie says can be trusted. Yet he has all of Kushner’s uncanny novelistic confidence.

Yes, yes. But what about the narrator’s obsession? Isn’t it obvious that Reno (as the nameless narrator is nicknamed — by this very character) is locked into orbit around Ronnie? The last chapter preceding the novel’s triple-headed finale closes with a searing passage of anti-romantic romance.

“Look,” he said, and petted my hair. His expression held something like pity. “I have no problem carrying around a small curiosity about lying down with you again. About more than that, okay? Okay? About looking at your cake-box face and your fucked-up teeth, which make you, frankly, extra-cute. About some kind of project of actually getting to know you. Because I honestly don’t think you know yourself. Which is why you love egotistical jerks. But I’ll tell you something about us, about me and about you, and what happens when two people decide to share some kind of life together. One of them eventually becomes curious about something else, someone else. And where does that leave you?”

My heart was pounding. I felt an ache of sadness spreading through me, down to the ends of my fingers.

“You want another Sandro, and I can just screw whoever I want, to keep myself entertained?  Because it wasn’t just Talia that he was gifting himself with. … Name a woman you have met through Sandro, or that he has met through you, and you’ll find that —”

“Stop it,” I said, tears rolling down my face. “Stop. Why are you doing this?”

“To show you the uselessness of the truth,” he said.

Ronnie — maybe I’ll get used to that name, but it doesn’t fit the description that accompanies his first appearance in the novel, by which, Reno tells us, “I was struck”; it’s the novel’s only flaw — is the Lady Brett of The Flamethrowers. No matter how close he comes to Reno, he remains unattainable, a very good-looking trickster. He sleeps with Reno the night they meet, and then she doesn’t see him again until he turns up as her new boyfriend’s oldest New York friend. (The boyfriend is Sandro.) Ronnie eschews serious attachments, and carries himself like a demigod who swims above séquences et conséquences. Reno needs a serious attachment so badly that she tries to see her relationship with Sandro as one, even though she doesn’t really love him — as Ronnie says, Reno doesn’t know herself — and can’t stop from violating the fundamental rule of his artist’s life in New York, which is that his connection to a powerful Milanese industrial family be overlooked, as a kind of embarrassing celebrity. Reno’s foolishness here, which plays out like a very extensive fermata in the moment (to cue in a famous opera that comes to mind) between Elsa’s asking Lohengrin what his name is and the ensuing calamity, propels the action of the book, even though Reno presents herself as an ingenue conceptual artist who can’t see beyond her next project. She is too naive and callow, and too ambitious to stake a claim to fame in the Soho art scene (the novel is set in the mid-Seventies), to acknowledge her own ignorance and inexperience. I came to think that Sandro’s ferocious old mother was right to treat Reno rudely. She is simply not serious enough for her son. She’s just another vacant American.

Reno is not serious enough to understand the novel she’s in. But I should have thought that James Wood, serious enough for twenty, would have gotten it.


Nick Paumgartner writes about James Salter in the current issue of The New Yorker. I read the piece with interest, although I should not read anything written by Salter himself. His last book, a collection of short stories about rich New Yorkers and other top people whom I should shudder to know, put me off him entirely. I was prepared to make an exception for A Sport and a Pastime, and to give it a second read. Like everyone (it seems), I was knocked out by it the first time. But now I’m pretty sure that the shock was meretricious, as though you could improve pornography by making it Slow. Here is Paumgartner on the novel:

It’s an odd little book. A first-person narrator tells the story of an affair between a Yale dropout named Dean and an eighteen-year-old girl named Anne-Marie. They travel around provincial France in a convertible and make love in hotel rooms. There are astonishing evocations of France and explicit descriptions of anal sex. The narrator, a tentative, rueful photographer and friend of Dean’s, states on many occasions that he is imagining this affair — that he is making it all up [something that would come easily and untentatively to Rachel Kushner’s Ronnie Fontaine], which makes the novel something of a puzzle. Salter has said that he devised the narrative conceit out of necessity. “You could not tell Dean’s story, I don’t believe, in the first person without losing the reader’s sympathy, some essential sympathy,” he told me. “And in the third person it merely becomes an account. It dries up a little and becomes a dossier, a report on something, no matter what the language does to enrich it.” The inference: to tell the story of his own affair, with intimacy and allure, he had to make it not only someone else’s but someone else’s as imagined by someone else. The novel is an Alhambra of narcissism and self-erasure.

(Typing out that final phrase, cumulus-grand but deadly, I feel that the wind has been kicked out of me. I live to say things like that.)

I remember “the astonishing evocations of France,” and how badly they made me want to see Sundays and Cybèle again, although it was unavailable at the time and nobody seemed to had heard of it, notwithstanding its Best Foreign Film Oscar win in 1962. Now I have a DVD of the film (Les Dimanches de Ville d’Avray in the original), so I don’t need Salter.

“Salter once told his close friend the poet and novelist William Benton,” Paumgartner writes,

that one of the functions of a writer is to create envy in the reader — envy of the life that the writer is living.

So, so wrong. The function of a writer is to enrich the reader’s actual life, whatever it might be. Envy, quite certainly, oughtn’t to come into it at all.

Gotham Diary:
Ma Bohème
9 April 2013

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

In 1970, I packed up my stuff at Notre Dame and flew to the house that my parents had bought two years earlier, in the Tanglewood section of Houston. This subdivision, not far from the brand-new Galleria Mall, resembled most postwar developments in that it thumbed its nose at Colonial (and European) traditions. The houses were all one-floor “ranches,” with low-sloping roofs and broad, rather than tall, windows. But they were not all alike. They were small at the south end, by San Felipe, and grew, block by block, larger toward the north, by Woodway. The house across the street from my parents’ house backed on to Woodway, from which it was hidden by a high brick wall.

I came to see the house as irretrievable ugly on the outside but very well laid out within; indeed, I had fantasies of transporting the floor plan, all 5500 square feet of it, to an apartment in New York.

I was impatient to get on with my life, and the way of life that I intended to lead, but not that impatient, not in my parents’ 5500-square-foot virtual apartment, with my own bedroom and huge bathroom at the other end of the house (it had been built as the dining room, and the bathroom as a pantry). After a year, my parents had to give me a poke. I have no idea how I found my first apartment; it was the sort of experience that I try to forget even before I find out whether it’s going to be good or bad. I have a general dislike of transactions, and also of changes. The before and the after might be great in their ways, but the shift from one to the other is essentially unsettling. I close my eyes.

I had already got a job. I worked at the radio station from soon after arriving in Houston after graduation until shortly before leaving for law school, seven years later. I was a staff announcer and then I was the music director. The pay was really quite awful, but that made sense (at the time), because I was doing something I loved. Well, I was not doing something I hated. I was not doing manual labor. Nor was I locked into the train of desolate ambitions that, to me, constituted corporate life. I was living in clouds of music, listening to it all day and learning to hear it better. But the glory days were still to come. For the first year at the radio station, during which I lived at my parents’ house, I was just a staff announcer, discovering that my poor opinion of Ravel was seriously premature. Then came the expulsion from the garden, and I moved to Montrose, a shabby-genteel neighborhood just west of downtown. I rented a garage apartment from a school.

Is this the time to talk about the school? It was an experimental school for pre-schoolers. A sort of day-care center. “Alternative.” “Free” (but with fees). It had just been started up, and I was helping out by renting the garage apartment. But this is not the time to talk about the school. I’ve just finished reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and it’s awfully easy to imagine Kushner telling the story of the school — which did not last very long. (Nobody died, but some Hell’s Angels showed up as friends of the house.) By the end (whatever that means — but it did all end), even I knew that the school was not cool. The mere thought of my grandson’s being stuck in such a hole prompts an involuntary scream.

In my garage apartment, I had an old kitchen table, some chairs to go with it, a desk that my parents bought before I was born, and a mattress on the floor. I kept my books and LPs in corrugated-cardboard boxes that didn’t take long to sag towards collapse. I don’t remember any kind of regular life; I suppose that merely renting the garage apartment was insufficiently transactional. There were still too many loose ends. A few memories persist. Punching holes in the wallboard when I couldn’t find my keys — I’m glad that I got that out of my system early on and cheap. (Living with the holes afterward was a mortification.) I bought my first piece of Spode Fitzhugh during those months — and at Tiffany, in the Galleria. And with the new charge account that the saleswoman had insisted on setting up for me, smelling the money somehow behind my denim overalls. (Maybe I was also wearing one of my father’s cast-off alligator shirts.) But the months of solitude were few.

I moved into the apartment on the eve of a hurricane — September, say. By the new year, or shortly thereafter, I was no longer alone in the apartment. I was no longer alone in bed, certainly, but there wasn’t there someone else living in what had been the tiny dining room? A refugee from the free school — and a dear friend during all my years in Houston? When did we all move out? Suddenly my bedmate and I were engaged, and living in one of those cheesy two-storey efficiency apartments, with outdoor access to each unit providing something of the funk of a motel. Soon married, we didn’t stay there long, either, although that’s where I took up the study of Chinese characters, if “study” is the word. Soon we were back out near the Galleria, in a period Fifties house that backed on to railroad tracks along which an occasional (but slow and endless) freight train would roll. By now, there was more furniture, and, presently, a baby. We stayed at the house for a year. Our landlord, who lived across the street and who had let us rent the house as a favor to my wife’s mother, declined to renew the lease. We moved back in the direction of Montrose, taking a neglected but stylish craftsman bungalow. This time, the landlord would hold us to the lease. Hold me, that is. Within two years of quietly minding my own business in the garage apartment, I had lost my wife and the daily company of my daughter, and I could not afford the rent on my own. Also, the Opal Kadette that my parents gave us as a wedding present was totaled while parked in front of a bar — maybe being at a bar, with a wife and child at home, was not a good idea. My mother-in-law bought her daughter a Vega as a replacement. I drove that car only briefly, perhaps for a week or two. Then it was back to the bicycle, and, soon, the Westheimer bus.

Looking back, I can see a handful of points where it might appear that choices were made, but they were never really made by me. I did choose to try to get a job at the radio station, and, years later, I did choose to study hard for the LSAT, spending my evenings going through sample tests (and learning that ETS was, to me, a foreign language). Going to law school was the only way I could think of putting an end to my improvident ways. Until deciding to try for it, however, I rarely did more than default. Whatever was easier, simpler in the short term, less disagreeable — that’s what I did. “Choice” didn’t come into it, not sensibly. While living in Houston, I was unable, or at least profoundly disinclined, to take life seriously.

Houston is one of the mysteries of my life, second, perhaps, only to my adoption. It can never be explained one way or another. It was deeply uncongenial, almost hostile to the likes of me, and I generally wish I’d never been there. But I’d never have gotten such a job at a classical radio station anywhere else (in New York, such positions were staffed by musicologists, with advanced degrees), and the job turned out to be a sort of prolonged seminar-for-one during which my mind expanded both faster and more strongly than it had done in school. Also, without Houston, no Megan and no Will.


This page has not taken me quite where I had in mind. I meant to explore my bohemian style, which involved innumerable furious renegotiations of the bourgeois platform. My parents might have found my way of life outlandish, but it was never, not really, bohemian, because it was always in the process of becoming both less careless and less carefree. Only this moment, however, does it occur to me why the process took the direction that it did.

It was because the idea of being the kind of man who lets women take care of everything was repulsive to me. I used to like to think that, by the time I got out of law school, I was a genuine gentleman. But it can’t be true, because everything that I learned about being a good man, I learned from women.

Gotham Diary:
Going Regal
8 April 2013

Monday, April 8th, 2013

“Going regal” is something that I do about a number of subjects. I regard being asked about them, even by the closest friends, as impertinent. They are all either painful or boring personal matters, usually both. Health is an example. If I am walking around, then I am well enough for public purposes. If I am not walking around, then I maintain the right to succumb the vapors without inquisition.

I will say to a friend, “Now, this is really bothering me, and I’m telling you so that you won’t be puzzled. But please don’t ask me about it if I don’t bring it up myself.” That is going regal. That is how the Queen’s conversations work. Of course, you can’t bring anything up with her. The Queen doesn’t “go regal,” because of course she simply is.

I’ve just got back from my annual physical exam, and, as usual, there is nothing much the matter with me. The ten days of shifting maladies from which I emerged yesterday, feeling “normal,” were not a medicable event. A stitch is a stitch. Coming down with a cold (even if the cold fails to show up) is what it is. Feeling old and tired — some people never do. I think they’re very lucky.Virtue doesn’t come into it.

I took a taxi to the doctor’s office, but I walked home. It is a lovely day, and I felt very grateful for it. Soon I hope to enjoy the spring on my own balcony. The repair project inches toward completion, but I don’t think that we’re too far. Something happens at least three days in every week.

Only Rachel Kushner could make me want to read about the sorts of things that stuff her new novel, The Flamethrowers. Motorcycles. The Seventies Art Scene in Soho. The Red Brigades (only mentioned so far, but I gather there’s plenty to come). She writes with the authority of of Ernest Hemingway, but with a more replete sense of the possibilities of journalism. Impressive! Also un-put-down-able.


Gotham Diary:
Comedy as History
5 April 2013

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Trying to puzzle out why Anthony Kimmins’s 1953 vehicle for Alec Guinness, The Captain’s Paradise, isn’t better known — doesn’t make anybody’s top-ten list of high comedies — I conclude that the film was ahead of its time. If I was squirming with agony of irony as I sat through the video yesterday, that might well have been because I was doing so sixty years later. The movie is funnier now, that is, than it was when it was made.

And it is funnier because of Celia Johnson, who gets third billing, after Yvonne DeCarlo if you please. We all know Johnson’s immortal performance in Brief Encounter, arguably the most deliciously sad movie ever made, and most of us have seen her her as Miss Jean Brody’s adversary, the formidable Miss Mackay. But these movies are as sleepwalkers compared with The Captain’s Paradise, because they make no call on Johnson’s surprising aptitude for burlesque. “Burlesque!” you splutter — I have gone too far this time surely. But, just as strippers send up the provocations of jeunes filles en fleur, so Johnson devastatingly mocks the fortitude of the bored housewife.

I’ve never been sure just what it means for a movie to have been an “Ealing comedy.” I don’t know, that is, what expectations an audience would have before the houselights went down. Certainly a comedy that begins with a bedraggled Alec Guinness being led before a firing squad, visibly enduring the “ready” and the “aim” but not the actual “fire,” which is only heard offscreen (crows scatter from their perches), is not going to be a story about how Guinness’s character died. But you have no idea why he was led before the firing squad until the very end, by which time you’ve exhausted yourself trying to connect the “paradise” that he has discovered to a capital offense. Entertaining in the foreground, the film is subliminally exhausting. And then, when it has you sitting there helpless, it whacks you with what Aristotle called “peripeties,” and the movie is over — hugely satisfying — before you’ve caught your breath.

The paradise of the title is, of course, bigamy. That’s why Jeanine Basinger discusses it briefly in her new book, I Do and I Don’t, which is how I discovered the film’s existence. “What a movie man wants in a movie woman can easily be summed up: everything.” The synopsis of The Captain’s Paradise that immediately follows is good so far as it goes, but it says nothing about Johnson’s performance, perhaps because, after all, the topic sentence here is about men. Seen as a movie about a scheming ferry captain who is playing with matches, keeping Maud, his proper English wife in Gibraltar and, and Nita, his peppery chiquita in North Africa (in a town that seems to be fictional, perhaps in the interest of discouraging vice in English audiences) in a state of mutual ignorance, The Captain’s Paradise is a farce in which a highly unlikely modus vivendi is upended by a pair of negligent acts: the captain mixes up his little anniversary presents, giving his babe an apron and his lady wife a bikini, thus “triggering hidden longings in the two wives,” as Basinger puts it. By this time, we have been through a delightful first act in which the suave Captain — and who could be more suave than Alec Guinness? — enjoys the fruits of his paradise, partnering the fiery DeCarlo in heated Spanish dances and calling for “beddie-byes” at ten every night in Gibraltar. He has it all, and we are waiting for him to get caught at it.

He almost does get caught. The passage, which is set in the North African town, is a model of Ealing economy, lasting no more than a couple of minutes, and its plot foundation only appears to have a connection to the captain’s carelessness about those mixed-up presents. In fact it rests an earlier bit of farce, based on the fact that the captain is the only member of his crew with a British passport. This means that not even Ricco, his second-in-command (played by Charles Goldner), can debark at the English base. Ricco knows all about Nita, but he has never heard of any Maud, and when he meets her — something has happened to the ship while in port, the captain can’t be reached by phone, and a British officer vouches to oversee Ricco’s mission to his house (wonderfully called “Mon Repos” — after a spell of wild North African nights, repose is precisely what the captain requires) — Ricco takes her to be the captain’s cook (she is wearing the apron that the captain was able to retrieve from Nita), and leers appraisingly at her physical charms. The looks with which Celia Johnson responds to these unimagined addresses ought to go into an encyclopedia. Outrage plays no part in them. It is Ricco who helpfully brings along the present that the captain left on the boat, “for his mother.” This is how the bikini comes into Maud’s possession. Not the captain’s fault at all, if one can say such a thing. The bikini turns out to be just what Maud wanted — much to the captain’s disconcerted surprise.

Years go by after the captain’s narrow squeak — which, at Maud’s end, he quieted by making her pregnant with twin boys — and we cannot imagine how he is going to screw things up a second time. And then, boom! Matters are literally taken out of his hands. Or perhaps they were never quite in his hands. Again, the movie slily farcifies something that would have happened anyway. A mid-voyage engine mishap on the ferry occasions an unscheduled return to North Africa, where the captain finds Nita packed and ready to leave him. It turns out that her next man was as deceived about the variety of her attachments as the captain, and a gun is fired. The captain is not even in the room when this happens, but now we begin to see a path to the firing squad — which we will completely forget about, however, as the captain’s paradise continues to crumble. In shock at the collapse of one half of his ideal arrangement, the captain soon finds that the other has given way as well: Maud is leaving him. Why? Because he is a cheat? Heavens, no! She has no idea of that. She is leaving the captain because he is so “colossally boring.”

We accept her verdict at once, because it triggers a recent memory: some bounder of a cousin of Maud’s has recently paid a visit and plied Maud with gin. The captain is obliged to accompany them to a dancing venue no longer familiar with the waltz. It is only 1953, but Celia Johnson and her cousin (Walter Crisham) cut a mean boogie-woogie. Now it is Guinness who is shocked. You want to weep, just as you do when you see Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire — what was wrong with the producers who didn’t see the comic potential that these actresses realized when given a chance?

Nita’s complaint about the captain boils down to the same thing. He’s boring in that he wants to do the same thing all the time. Nightclubs at midnight and beddie-byes at ten can be equally monotonous. The captain gets to alternate. His wives do not. He is a complete fool to imagine that they have no requirements by way of change of pace. In fact, he essentializes them, as I believe the word is, one of the nastiest male vices. Describing paradise to Ricco, the captain blithely postulates that Maud is supportive while Nita is beautiful. As though that were all there were to it. It never crosses his mind that Nita will, one fine day, say that he is “getting old.” The horror!

So the problem with The Captain’s Paradise is that it sets up a situation that ought to be resolved by some sort of catastrophic disgrace, but that it clears up in an entirely unrelated, but deeply wise and humane way. The unraveling of paradise is humiliating to the captain, but completely unaccompanied by the public shame that usually belabors discovered cheats. This cheat is never discovered! It is not hard to see the film — now — as a wry feminist fake-out, once you’ve connected the dots that are actually there and stopped looking for the ones that aren’t. The captain of paradise has bored his chosen companions to desperation! To his credit, Guinness knows how to make his debonaire manner curdle into fatuousness —”But you’re cousins!” he objects, when Maud goes off with hers — but this cannot have been a lesson that many audiences in 1953 were going to find amusing. And it is not the lesson that the movie’s ending leaves you with. Remember that offscreen fusillade? That’s the one eventuality that I won’t spoil.

The next time you see Brief Encounter, and are adrift in that “I can’t go on/I’ll go on” limbo that it dumps you in, reach for a copy of The Captain’s Paradise, and Celia Johnson herself will, I assure you, exorcise the ghost of her earlier performance.


Upon discovering that there were lots of people at Oxford much smarter than herself — or at least more disposed to do the scholarly — Lynn Barber, whose memoir, “An Education,” was expanded into a life-long memoir after the film adaptation of the Granta chapter, marked another stage of growing up.

But it made for yet another shift from my parents. Cleverness, and academic attainments, were almost the only values they had taught me to aspire to and, as far as they were concerned, I had ticked off all the boxes by getting into Oxford. But once I got to Oxford I realized that cleverness was not all it was cracked up to be — that there were other qualities, like sensitivity, like kindness, like charm, like tact, that I had never given a moment’s thought to, but that were actually far more important. I didn’t quite swing round to Charles Kingsley’s view — ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever’ — but I was beginning to think I should pay less attention to being clever and more to being good.

On top that, the Simon debacle [he’s called David in the movie] left me with a strong distrust of book learning, which I still to some extent retain. My feeling was: I’ve read all these books, I’m supposed to be so clever, and yet I couldn’t even spot the most obvious con trick in the world. I felt that what I urgently needed to understand was Real Life and that Milton and Spenser were of no possible help. This was a poor attitude for embarking on a three years study of English Literature. It meant that I read the classics impatiently, instead of luxuriating in them as I had at school, because I was dying to learn about the present day. I think it was this attitude that propelled me toward journalism — I still have a somewhat exaggeratged hatred of anything to do with the past. I must have done some work because I got a perfectly respectable upper second degree for essentially the Eng Lit course that was wasted on me.

I wasn’t just sitting about watching movies yesterday, as I had done earlier in the week. No, now I was well enough to do the ironing. (I was about to run out of handkerchiefs.) After The Captain’s Paradise, I picked An Education, just flipping through one of the DVD drawers. The minute it was over, I rummaged around for Barber’s book, which stood on one bookshelf for years but was recently moved. Reading the passage that I’ve extracted caused me to reflect that I have never been betrayed by anyone. No one has ever surprised me by turning out to be someone other than expected. I don’t know why this is so. Do I see people really clearly from the start? Do I simply never trust them to be consistent? Do I count upon being let down?

I know what betrayal feels like, but from a harmless cause. It happened when a secret, which had been withheld from me during a time in which I might inadvertently have betrayed it had I known it, was told to me after that danger had passed. I was shocked and felt miserably wronged. I soon got over it, but part of the shock owed to the fact that the experience was absolutely new.

I ask because I think that this is one of the odd things about me. I do count upon being let down, all the time, and by everyone. I know that I have no reason for such universal doubt, and I’ve long since learned not so much to act as to be a person untroubled by this fatality — a job made easier by the conviction that I probably ought to be let down. I must say that my ease with this view of things makes me worry a bit about being psychopathic. But psychopaths, as I understand it, feel just the opposite: completely deserving of the good things in life. When I was a child, I assumed that I was being punished because I did bad things, but before I was out of my teens I knew that I was usually punished simply for being myself — mostly for not doing things. (Sports, for example.) The inevitability of punishment was such a settled feature of life that I stopped worrying about it, and so took a long time to notice that anything that could be construed as punishment ceased with the death of my parents. The punishment was, of course, their disappointment, which couldn’t be construed as letting me down because it was so vocally a matter of my letting them down. It took a long time to see that they were the wrong parents for me, and that this was not their fault, because they were not my parents, but had been set up to think and pretend that they were by what I call the Adoption Racket.

The point isn’t that my life might have been better if I hadn’t been adopted. From a material standpoint, it would almost certainly have been much, much less fortunate. The point is that the particular adoption to which I was an involuntary party made me a little strange around the edges. All that disappointment.

I was at a wedding recently when a wave of recognition almost crushed me. My parents would have preferred me to be any other man in the room. (The wedding did not take place in New York City.) Because then I’d have been more congenial, more athletic, smarter, or more popular? They might have said so. But what they’d have meant was: more normal. More like other people.

When Kathleen says that she has never met anybody like me, and that she can’t imagine being married to anyone else, she sweeps away great drifts of pain. Or, not of pain, but of the memory of pain. She doesn’t care if I’m not like anyone else, and that makes two of us. But pain isn’t everything. I’m still a little strange. Book-learning or no, I should never have fallen for Simon Goldman.

Like Lynn Barber, though, I got by on cleverness (usually without her good marks); and I also had to learn about those other qualities that are more important than cleverness.

Gotham Diary:
4 April 2013

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Floundering has characterized the morning. Am I well enough? Too sick? Am I sick? And, if so, with what? On Monday, I’ll have my annual physical checkup, and it can’t come soon enough for Kathleen, who has been urging me to call the doctor all week. She worries that it’s my heart. I’ve had a few moments of worrying the same, but I think that I’ve been right to regard this as an idiosyncratic ailment that will never really be explained. Well, we shall see on Monday. The short-windedness has abated, but the stitch in my side still makes itself known from time to time.

Twenty minutes ago, I stretched out on the bed with a book, and presently felt too tired to read it. But I could tell that I was not drifting toward sleep. What I needed was simply to lie down for ten minutes. So it seems — a ten-minute lie-down has never done me the slightest good or harm. It appears that I can lie down for ten minutes without being painfully bored. If nothing else signals a profound change in life, that certainly does. In any case, I soon jumped out bed, filled my tea mug, and started going through recent photographs, desperate for something usable. On my walk yesterday — I went out to lunch, got a haircut, and stopped at Fairway for soup and salad, which even Kathleen could prepare for the table if I felt poorly (in the event, I didn’t) — the walking itself was such a chore that I never thought to stop and take a photograph, even though I’d changed the camera’s battery before going out.

One of the things that I am floundering about at the moment is whether to go to Crawford Doyle in search of books that will hold my attention without my making much effort. There’s a new book about Nancy Astor that’s sort of up my alley, and that I’d have bought already if I weren’t afraid that my vague but longstanding dislike of the woman (I, too, would drink that coffee) might blossom into irritated hostility upon closer acquaintance. (And I’m not sure that the book is any good, either.) Were I to visit the bookshop, it would be by taxi, round trip. Far more likely is a trip across the street to Gristede’s (on which I can take more photographs for my Callot-inspired collection, Les Misères de la Subway Station Construction). I’d already have run that errand, if it were only warmer. The Times predicts a high of 56º, and so does my smartphone; but said phone tells me that it’s 34º out there now. puts it at 43º (“feels like 40º”). I’m not going to Gristede’s until I can go in shorts.

When The New Yorker didn’t show up in yesterday’s mail, I thought about running across the street to the newsstand, just to be sure to have a copy. But the magazine had already arrived, just when it ought to have done; I felt too lousy on Monday afternoon to go through the mail. I’m especially glad that I didn’t buy a second copy, because it has been a long time since I was so turned off by an issue of this great magazine. It seems, surreptitiously, to be “The Men’s Issue.” There are two media stories of very dubious importance, one about Henry Blodget and one about Vice. Vice! Even Paul Rudnick’s piece (about a mommyblogger) seems more verisimilitudinously misogynistic than hilarious. (I shall, however, endeavor to add “Sonnet, Cascade, Nebula and Diaspora” to the my treasury of bits and bobs. Those are the names of the mommyblogger’s wonderful children, one of whom has entitled a picture of incinerated stick figures, “While They’re Asleep.”) Hendrik Hertzberg and James Surowiecki don’t have anything uncharacteristic to say, but in my current delicate condition they seemed both hectoring and blinkered. I am finding it harder and harder to read business writers who don’t recognized that we should make the Dunbar Number the key of our corporate tax code: organizations employing fewer than 150 people ought to be taxed far more lightly than those with bigger payrolls. It is time for economists to accept the fact that growth, in business as in life, inevitably leads to death. And any enterprise that truly requires armies of employees ought to be run — by the army. (Let’s learn from the Chinese!)

After my errands yesterday, I sat down and read what remained of Robyn Annear’s The Man Who Lost Himself, the book about the Tichborne Case. It was probably not the best thing to read while under the weather. All that Australian bush, for one thing. Just as unappealing as the scenery in a “Western.” (And only a few of the many locations mentioned in the text appear in my world atlas, depriving me of the one minor satisfaction that might have been extracted.) Then there is the sordor. The whole impostery of Arthur Orton depended on relatively primitive photography, rhetoric, and a rather widespread discontent among the English élite with the Victorian status quo. (Had Trollope written it up, he would have pitted gentlemen — anti-Claimant — against betting men.) The words of Judge Mellor, a member of the bench in R v  Castro, sum the whole thing up so perfectly that there really seems no need for a book.

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive how any person who has considered the intrinsic improbabilities of your story, and has intelligently considered the evidence which has been adduced in the course of this trial, could have come to any other conclusion.

The wonder isn’t that the Claimant lost, but rather that he ever got into court in the first place. For this, his sporting supporters must bear responsibility for wasting torrents of money and creating feeding frenzies in the popular prints.

While writing here this week, I have been listening to the latest playlist, which is built on music by William Walton. There are plenty of chestnuts in the mix, and also a work that I have never really known at all, Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. I am going to slip into this playlist the three Arvo Pärt pieces (out of four) that Paul Taylor set to danse in The Uncommitted, and that I’ve been able to get my hands on. (Fratres, Mozart Adagio, Summa) Not next to the Handel, you can be sure.

Gotham Diary:
3 April 2013

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Why did I buy a book about the Tichbourne Claimant in January? And for the Kindle? All I can recall is that something I read or saw or heard about reminded me of this famous imposter, whom I discovered in law school, reading John Torrey Morse’s magisterial Victorian account of the Tichborne trials, Tichborne v Lushington, 1872, and Regina v Castro, 1874. “Castro” was the name used by the Claimant during his butchering days in Wagga Wagga, NSW, but the man was probably born Arthur Orton, in Wapping. The question in the case was whether Roger Charles Tichborne was lost at sea in 1854, or rescued and carried to Melbourne, where he began a new (and very different life). It is hard to imagine trying to make the Claimant’s case, for the simple reason that it could not be done without visions of the payoff of the Tichborne estate — by no means immense, but capacious enough to reward betting men — blinding one’s sense. Sadly, a search of my email accounts turns up nothing, and, as regular readers will recall, I lost a couple of notebooks this winter.

I found the book on my Kindle Paperwhite yesterday when I crept into bed after lunch. I had watched Antonioni’s L’eclisse and it had worn me out. I tuned into Richard Peña’s commentary, but learned nothing from it — perhaps I’d listened to it before. It was a pillar of scholarship, however, compared to Peter Brunette’s commentary to Blow-Up, which I watched in the evening. At least twice, Brunette voices doubts that film photographs can in fact be enlarged to yield the images that suggest to David Hemmings’s character (whose name, Thomas, is never mentioned in the film) that he has witnessed a crime. And he doesn’t get around to mentioning the soughing of the leaves in Maryon Park (which he also doesn’t name) until the photographer pays his third and last visit. This is the most beautiful thing about Blow-Up, and it always makes me sad that I don’t live in a place where it can be heard often.

L’eclisse famously begins with a long, excruciatingly dull scene between a man and a woman who have clearly exhausted themselves arguing their future all night. He wants to marry her, but she doesn’t want to marry him. She says that she doesn’t know whether she wants to marry him, but this is just a way of being nice, I think. What she does know is that she doesn’t want to cause him pain; she wishes that he would just let her go, or at least stop talking about marriage. At the other end of the picture, Alain Delon puts Vittoria (the woman, played of course by Monica Vitti) through the same drill, which is even more surprising given the young man’s obvious indisposition to settled life. (Delon, youthful as he is, goes out of his way to make Piero even more of a boy.) Why do men want to marry Vittoria? Because she’s elusive? What do they expect marriage to solve?  Do they think that there will be no more long exhausting nights of talk, talk, talk?

I came away from the first viewing of L’eclisse, which happened some time during my undergraduate years, when the film was (five or six years) old, green with envy.  About those two miserable people in the first scene — with nothing really to worry about! The guy (Francisco Rabal) had a great apartment, and was probably a successful architect. Monica Vitti had a great dress. Money, check! In those days, I didn’t believe that there were problems that weren’t caused by the lack of money. This conviction was bolstered by an awareness that I was never going to do anything serious about acquiring any.

I still believe that money fixes most problems. But I have learned that the second-greatest cause of life’s miseries (aside from actual organic disease, of course) is, without question, youth, and the inexperience that naturally accompanies it. Youth is all unknown unknowns, and nobody suffers more than the really smart kids, because they can’t help projecting their relatively more extensive awareness of things upon the vast blankness of their innocence, and mistaking it for something far more comprehensive than it is.

In L’eclisse, Vittoria’s real problem is that, for all her up-to-date appearance, she’s stuck in an old world of traditional gender roles. Nobody has brought her up to have a job, and doubtless her playful thoughtlessness is one of the things that endears her to men. I wonder if the new sense of authority that will have to be developed if society is to survive the coming century might not be a respect for wisdom and experience that is shaped by women, not men.

Also I am warmed by the hope that we are moving into a world that older people will understand nearly as well as their juniors. The technological warp that has twisted business and society into positions that few greybeards are capable of grasping seems to be cooling. The parents who are giving their toddlers iPads actually know how iPads work.


I rallied a bit yesterday, but I also took a two-hour nap in the early evening, an unheard-of thing, and I do mean unheard-of. After watching Blow-Up, I powered up the Livescribe pen. During this illness, whatever it was, and the interlude of Easter Dinner, I had neglected the Livescribe notebooks, and I’d have probably neglecting them even if I’d been in perfect health, because, inevitably, I passed from the exaltation of discovering what Evernote could do to the disappointment of learned what it couldn’t. (Emptying the dishwasher, folding the laundry, coping with Fairway &c). But I’m back on track. For years, I’ve had a rectangular wooden thing with a handle — basket? bucket? Levenger, which doesn’t offer it any more, had a fancy word — in which to place books, magazines, pens and whatnot, everything that a reader needs. It has never ever found a use. I’m not sure that it has done so now, but I am stuffing all the Livescribe notebooks into it, along with, yes, books that I’m reading, or a few of them anyway. And the pen! My Evernote kit.

The idea is to keep the Livescribe pen charged (not a problem; I can do it while I’m writing this) and using it every time I have an interesting idea. Because even the most interesting ideas will be forgotten. Age, fatigue, who knows what — short term memories with no objective prompts simply don’t survive. Not for an hour. I have boxes full of old notebooks that I never look back onto, because I no longer remember the context in which the notes were made. I really do have a hope that Evernote and the Livescribe pen will make my notes worthy of having been written. (Or prove that they’re not!)

You may ask why I don’t simply run to the computer, which is always on, to note my thoughts. The simple answer is that the computer is hostile to thought. I have never had an interesting idea at the computer, unless I was already writing about a related matter. I find it hard to think in front of computers, and that makes sense: there is far too much information on even the most rudimentary screens. I also find that I expect what I type to be more presentable than what I write by hand. Like Evernote in particular, the computer in general, however necessary, is insufficient to many of life’s tasks.

So far, in any case, Evernote has proven to be flexibly capable of organizing my handwritten notes — with a just a little help from me. A little everyday attention. I may not be at the top of my game, but it’s good to be up to that.