Archive for June, 2013

Gotham Diary:
28 June 2013

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The end of June is always melancholy, as is the end of every green month from April to July. (August has a strange way of spilling over into September instead of coming to an end.) I remind myself that we will probably be enjoying the balcony throughout October. I hope that we get to enjoy it tonight — we’re having another picnic, and the weather is uncertain. (It’s unlikely to be too cold.) I’m a bit jumbled, having been called by a truck driver shortly after nine this morning. He wanted to deliver a piece of furniture but they weren’t letting him use the service entrance. Of course they weren’t. We had had no notice of this delivery, we had not filed the appropriate insurance letter with the management office, and the guard was not going to let me carry in the chair myself, no matter how much I bribed him, because of the surveillance cameras. It’s obvious to anyone with a brain that no one is looking at the surveillance tapes until after there has been some sort of problem — highly unlikely in the case of my carrying in a chair. By the time we’d come up with a workaround, the driver had taken off. Understandably: the service entrance is partially obstructed by the subway-station construction site.

We’re told that the blasting will cease this fall, and that the construction site will be cleared away next fall. (The subway itself won’t be running until 2017.) Meanwhile, the three sides of the building that face the street are still heavily scaffolded, at sidewalk level, in connection with the balcony railing replacement project. Which, if you ask me, is somewhere one side or the other of halfway done. Living in a construction site is never fun, but this has gone on for so long that one’s imagination of deliverance has been flattened, and the year to come stretches out into infinity.


The other night, I did watch Psycho, and I was, to my surprise, wowed. I was right to fear the dreariness of the television aesthetic that Alfred Hitchcock employed in order to make the movie on the cheap (he produced it out of his own pocket), but this disadvantage only intensified the excellence of the performances, especially in ensemble. There are two really riveting scenes in Psycho, and they are not the ones you’re thinking of; no one gets killed in either. Anthony Perkins is featured in both of them, but in his proper young-man clothes. In the first, he talks to Janet Leigh, and in the second, to Martin Balsam. The scenes are very different, because, of course, Norman Bates has done something very wicked in between them. With Marion Crane (Ms Leigh), Norman is a bright if strange young man who wants to make a good impression but cannot help himself when Marion inadvertently trips his wiring. With Detective Arbogast (Mr Balsam), Norman is an anxious dissembler whose discomfort makes Arbogast smell guilt. Martin Balsam adopts a breezily insincere persistence, as if he’s interrogating Norman in a nice-guy way. (There is something about the light that falls on Balsam’s full lower lip that highlights the menace that makes Norman so jittery.) But the scene is all the more uncomfortable because we know that Arbogast, for all his calm cockiness, his worldly assurance that he knows what Marion Crane is up to, has no idea that he is dealing with a dangerous, psychotic murderer.

The first great scene, in Norman’s office parlor, plays out a far more subtle drama. For one thing, it is the first moment of calm in the movie. Marion’s life, until now, has alternated between frustration and despair, culminating in a drive through dark, heavy rain. The conversation that she has with Norman, as she eats the sandwich that he has brought her (nice boy that he is), convinces her to abort her criminal flight and return to Phoenix. The other subtlety is Anthony Perkins’s posture. When Norman sits back in his easy chair, his affect is normal, but when he sits forward, and the camera picks out his glittering eyes, he is possessed by his disease, which springs from his inability to accept the fact that he killed his mother. Marion, distracted by the weight of her own problems, does not back away when Norman responds with inappropriate hostility to her sympathetic suggestions. She is calm, too. She, like Arbogast, makes the fatal mistake of seeing Norman as a harmless weakling.

The tremendous power that reverberates from these scenes, together with that of the visceral brutality of the murders that follow each, floats the movie well above the TV-grade production values that work themselves even into the script at the film approaches the end. Psycho is a departure for Hitchcock in that he ordinarily made pictures that are more powerful the second time, when you know what’s going to happen. The fatality of his pictures is rich and deep, and can’t be appreciated in a first viewing. Psycho, in contrast, is a shocker, a film famous for riveting audiences with completely unexpected violence. Such moments are self-extinguishing. A second viewing will bring out the ironies — ironies that are embedded primarily in the two scenes that I’ve discussed — but it pushes the murders into grand guignol that was never Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade, even though these celebrated scenes suggest a great deal more violence than they actually show.

Repeated viewings also deepen the impression that Anthony Perkins makes, not so much as a crazy person but as an extraordinarily interesting subject for Hitchcock’s expressionist photography. By the time he’s finally apprehended, we’re so relieved that he’s no longer at large that the somewhat bogus psychoanalytic evaluation, delivered in the earnest, “doctors call it iron-deficiency anemia” television style of the day by Simon Oakland, comes as a welcome debriefing, instead of the insufferable padding that it would be otherwise.


Watching Marion recoils apologetically from Norman’s overreaction to her suggestion that he put his mother in care, I felt an enormous sympathy with her, because I have triggered such unexpected hostility all my life. Maybe we all do, and I’ve just noticed it more; or, maybe I’m more like  Norman Bates than I think, and am seriously out of touch with common human nature. I have at any rate become extremely circumspect about giving advice. I’d rather seem callous.

Gotham Diary:
Bling Bang
27 June 2013

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

It was time to get out of the house for a bit, so I went to see an early-afternoon showing of The Bling Ring. It’s a powerful and unsettling movie, nothing like the whimsical trifle that I was expecting. On the page — not in Vanity Fair; I didn’t read Nancy Jo Sales’s piece, but somewhere more recent, written about the movie — the thieves and their parents sounded laughably fatuous, but onscreen they’re much darker than that. They’re zombies. They look like human beings but have lost all moral grounding; they’re exactly what conservative social critics have been dreading since the French Revolution. But conservatives have only themselves to thank, pushing free markets as they do into every sphere. Coppola’s clutch of young wannabes live in a world sandblasted by mere celebrity.

The story of the bling ring is compelling because it poses an uncertainty: when kids who don’t really need anything help themselves to bits and pieces of the monstrously swollen wardrobes and accumulations accessories of people who are rich and famous for being rich and famous, just how bad is it? We allow teenagers a latitude in minor crime — think of vandalsim — that we don’t tolerate in adults. It’s always obvious that the girls and boys in The Bling Ring have greatly exceeded that latitude, but they have done so in a way that obscures the limits.  Their victims practically invite them into their homes: doors never need to be forced, nor houses broken into. (Negligence seems to have taken the place of smog.)  And only once is theft followed by thief-like behavior (Marc, the semi-closeted gay boy who, unlike his accomplices, seems to be in possession of good sense, sells some stolen watches to a nightclub owner/fence). The thoughtlessness with which the girls use Facebook to post pictures of themselves wearing their loot approaches genuine innocence. Surely these pranksters don’t belong in prison? (The fact that some of them do go to prison merely continues the senselessness of American life.) And while the kleptomania here on display is unusual, the dangerous joyriding is not — not nearly unusual enough.

Sophia Coppola is an impressionist filmmaker rather than a plotter. She creates very powerful moods and lets their pressure power the drama. In The Bling Ring, there is never any doubt that the crime spree will be stopped, but, when it is, Coppola intensifies the catastrophe by inflicting swarms of briskly determined police officers on hitherto unsuspecting parents, creating a mood so violently different that the change in atmosphere has the impact of a surprising plot twist. The horror of having one’s home searched is nightmarish rather than inevitable; given the carefree boisterousness of the teenagers’ escapades, the arrival of the law is much more harrowing than we might have expected. (I’m not quite sure how Coppola pulls this off, but the visitations are more humbling than any I’ve seen in the movies; there’s something very real about them, as if the LAPD itself had been called in to stage them.)

Leslie Mann, who plays the airhead mother of one of the girls, injects a note of real comedy into the movie: every time she opens her mouth, the movie becomes a satire. But her daughter, played by the amazing Emma Watson, is one of the most vicious human beings to have squirmed onscreen, and her best friend, with whom she has shared a bed for years — played by Talissa Farmiga — seems wholly unmoored and possibly sociopathic. Coppola is right to direct our sympathies to Marc, who has clearly allowed himself to be swept up his friends’ wrongdoing because they accept him as himself. Israel Broussard plays Marc as closeted gay man, not as a caricatured pansy; stretched out reading in bed, wearing jeans, T shirt, and pink stilettos, Marc looks incongruous but not implausible. And touching, somehow, rather than funny. His dress-ups are as earnest as anything men do.

The adult males in the film — those who don’t work for the LAPD, anyway — don’t seem to be gifted with alert concern for their children, but I wish that Coppola had shown a bit more of them, because the slightness of their parts exposes the film to exploitation by patriarchs, as Exhibit A for the argument that strong fathers would have precluded its escapades. Such tiresomeness ought not to be facilitated.


As I went down to collect the mail, the elevator stopped at the seventh floor, one of the other floors that Kathleen and I have lived on in this building. As I almost always do, I idly noted the fact before the doors opened. When they did, I saw an unfamiliar burly man in black, and the edge of a gurney. My curiosity on autopilot, I leaned forward to see who might be stretched out on it, but that was not possible, because the bag was zipped from one end to the other. Nor were there any tubes or bottles dangling from above. There was no above. There was just the body bag on the gurney. Everything black, except for the attendants’ FDNY badges.

The attendants, seeing that there were two passengers on the elevator, decided to wait for the next one. When I was coming back upstairs, they appeared in the elevator that had just come down to the lobby. The gurney was tilted at an angle, the better to accommodate the attendants and, possibly, a passenger. You don’t tilt gurneys that are carrying living people — as if I needed further proof of someone’s death.

The surprising thing is that I don’t recollect ever seeing such a departure before, despite the size of the place and the ubiquity of the elderly. I’ve seen a few very sick people who, as they were carried out, certainly appeared to be at death’s door, but they hadn’t passed through it yet. Perhaps the zipped-up body bag is new. Perhaps the Fire Department used to conduct these procedures at quiet hours. Was the body not being conveyed to an undertaker? Questions, questions! Not to mention the identity of the late tenant — I wouldn’t mention that even if I knew.

Gotham Diary:
26 June 2013

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

It appears that I’ve come late to the technique of aiming a camera without putting it in front of my face. What keeps this picture from being simply foolish is the irregular band of greenish light, which seems supernatural because it isn’t really there, if you know what I mean. This photograph is also a change from the brutalist pictures of the subway-station mess outside my door. Our driveway has been shut down for eight weeks, four weeks to undermine and replace each of the drive’s crossings of the sidewalk. It gets harder every day to believe that one will outlive the chaos.

This morning, I finished Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. I bought the Kindle edition after watching the lovely picture that Sasha Gervasi loosely adapted from it. Reading about Hitchcock has developed something of a déja vu problem: I’m more aware of revisiting (very) familiar territory that I am of learning new things. I suppose I owe that to Donald Spoto. It has been nearly thirty years since I took his Hitchcock course at the New School, a thrilling experience that ranked with the very best classroom experiences. The lectures were followed by screenings, which could be attended separately, as it were. Kathleen signed up for the screenings only, so we would watch the movies together, but I would be exploding with observation. I hesitate to call Spoto’s lectures “academic,” not because they were somehow less than that but because they were so passionately devoted to simple attentiveness. I learned a lot more than Hitchcock — I learned to watch movies. Hitchcock, of course, rewards attentiveness more than most directors do; he was a formidably intentional artist. I’m about due for a serious retrospective — or should I say that Hitchcock is, chez moi — and Psycho, which I held off watching while reading Rebello’s book, would be a great way to open it. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, probably because it is stamped by the aesthetic of television that makes so many of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes look cheap and depressing. (In contrast, I don’t in the least mind the pronounced staginess of Rope or Dial M for Murder.) And, as Hitchcock’s films go, Psycho is uncommonly gruesome. If we must have psychotic mayhem, let it be the more suave brutality of Barry Foster, in Frenzy. (Plus, of course, Frenzy has all those lovely bits in which Vivien Merchant serves up exotic French dishes to Alec McCowen, who finds them repulsive.) But, as Rebello reminds me, Marion Crane’s ordeal is extraordinarily dramatic.

Rope, I always say, is the perfect party movie — never has there been a more intriguing party in the movies. Yes, it’s perfectly horrible that poor David Kentley has been murdered and tossed into the chest, upon which dinner is served — ghoulish! But one man’s ghoulish is another man’s goulash. As party stunts go, this one can’t be excelled; it is a true ne plus ultra. It doesn’t stop there, however, David’s body quite literally embodies all the domestic realities that must be swept aside in order for a party to sparkle. It’s the sweeping aside that makes a party sparkle. Finally, it’s startling to imagine that one might have been to a party where  dead body lay just out of sight, and never known it.


Hostile as I am to the pro-corporation bent of the current Supreme Court, I cannot say that Shelby County v Holder, the voting rights case, bothers me very much. The gerrymandering of congressional districts, apparently unhampered by any preclearance rules, has created divisive feedback loops that give us a fun-house mirror version of representative democracy. The Voting Rights Act, as passed nearly fifty years ago, was necessary at the time, but instead of being replaced by something more suited to changing times, its provisions were tinkered with. That’s why American regulation doesn’t work. The fact that most of our securities laws still radiate from a template established in 1933 and ’34 shows an astonishing want of imagination. And if the Glass-Steagall act was seen to be somewhat outdated, then it ought to have been replaced with a law that retained its essential safeguards, which of course turned out to involve proprietary trading with customer money.

To say that just about every law in the land ought to be replaced sounds cranky, but it wouldn’t, if we could only learn to replace our “build to last” mentality with a more supple “build to upgrade” outlook. Things that last tend toward sclerosis: pipes get clogged, and regulations get unworkable. Bridges fall down. The most powerful committee in every legislative chamber ought to be the one that decides which old laws must be updated, and it ought to be staffed by men and women who know how to cloak the inexorable impermanence of things with the appearance of stability. We also need to develop a better model of the regulatory agency. Requiring heads of agencies to have degrees in civil administration would be a great start.

I might not be so complacent about the voting rights decision if it weren’t for US v Windsor and Hollingsworth v Perry.

Gotham Diary:
25 June 2013

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

We see here the first move in what I expect will be a lengthy game. Almost everything in the new piece was standing, either by itself or crammed into one of the storage boxes at the bottom, on the other picnic bench. With time, a number of pieces, I’ve no doubt, will migrate from the kitchen, to make more room in there. The game of shelves has begun.

Ray Soleil came uptown to give me a hand setting up the new piece. The assembly was somewhere between really easy and unexpectedly complicated. The hard part was all at the start. We put most of it together in the foyer, where it was cooler. Lugging it outside turned out not to be difficult at all.

Our picnic dinner Friday night was exactly what I had in mind, a pleasant, easy evening of cascading conversation and straightforward food. I served spare ribs, chicken legs, potato salad, asparagus and bean salad, corn on the cob and cornbread. Then a Fairway cherry pie, and Queen Anne cherries. When everyone left, I ran the dishwasher and read; the real clean-up I saved for Saturday.

On Sunday, Kathleen finally took a nap on the Lutyens bench, chosen for exactly that purposes. She was out cold for the better part of two hours. She said afterward that it was much nicer than sleeping in a chair. The rest of the time, she was working. She’s very busy at the moment, and happy to be so.


I am in the middle of Janet Malcolm’s book about Joe McGinnis and Jeff MacDonald, The Journalist and the Murderer. It made a big stir when it came out, in 1990, but I didn’t want to read about two jerky guys. But of course it’s not really about two jerky guys. It’s about the ethical considerations that underlie the art of creating real-life novels — what we call “nonfiction” — and Malcolm never ceases to insist that she is as fully implicated as anyone in the murky business of coaxing interesting material out of people. At one point, she wonders if a question that she asks might have been imprudent, might have caused her interlocutor to clam up. At another, McGinnis himself, originally eager to share his tale of woe — MacDonald, convicted of murdering his wife and daughters, sued McGinnis when McGinnis’s book about the murder trial turned out to be hostile to MacDonald, leaving the convict feeling doubly let down— refused to talk to Malcolm after an initial interview. She says that she was relieved.

Every hoodwinked widow, every deceived lover, every betrayed friend, every subject of writing knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stgronger than his reason. That McGinnis, who had interviewed hundreds of people and knew the game backward and forward, should nevertheless exhibit himself to me as a defensive, self-righteous, scared man only demonstrates the strength of this force.

In the end, of course, the reader is implicated as well, for without the interest of readers, there would be no journalists, and no subjects suffering “what one goes through in those nightmares of being found out, from which one awakes with tears of gratitude that it is just a dream.” An extraordinary paragraph in the middle of the book, really too long for me to type out for a short entry, ends thus:

The Joe Goulds and the Perry Smiths of life tend to be windy bores and pathetic nut cases; only in literature, after they have got under the skin of a writer, do they achieve the ambition of fantastic interestingness that in actuality they only grotesquely gesture toward. MacDonald had no such ambition. He insisted, and continues to insist, on his ordinariness. “Im just this nice guy caught up in a nightmare of the law, fighting for my innocence.” McGinnis, if he had believed in his and had written about him as innocent, would have created a more interesting, if still not deeply fascinating, character, rather than the incoherently unevil murderer he had to settle for. Similarly, if I believed in McGinnis’s side of the lawsuit and could write about him as the the victim of a vicious act of vengeance on the part of a disgruntled subject, I, too, could create a better character. Like McGinnis’s MacDonald, my McGinnis doesn’t quite add up.

This is entertainment of the deepest, darkest art.

Gotham Diary:
24 June 2013

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Our weekend was so peaceful and quiet that, instead of feeling refreshed, I’m unnerved, and would prefer things to go on being peaceful and quiet. That’s because the peace and quiet were external. I spent most of the time in the life of a remarkable man, a man whose political and cultural outlook seemed to resemble my own more closely than that of anyone else I’ve ever read about, but whose life was altogether unlike mine. A heroic life, really, and an extraordinarily active one, for a worldly philosopher.

Worldly Philosopher is the title of Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert Hirschman, and it happens to be the mot juste to describe Hirschman’s interdisciplinary career. It is impossible to think of him as economist, so stunted have economists become in our time. He was almost everything but an economist. He boasted no overarching theories about anything, except for his conviction that theories and economies don’t mix. His slim books were well-received — outside the bubble in which economists talk to each other. Hirschman prized the specific and the actual, not the abstract or the probable. He called himself a social scientist, but he railed against “scientistic” thinking — Physics Envy.

But: what a life! Born in Berlin in 1915, he fled the city on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, after Hitler’s consolidation of power. He continued his education in Paris, London, and Trieste, and he took time out to take part in the Spanish Civil War on the eve of Franco’s sweep into Catalonia. When it was time to think about getting out of Europe, he headed for Marseille and hooked up with Varian Fry, the agent of the Emergency Rescue Committee that smuggled dozens of intellectual and artistic Jews across the Pyrenees — Hannah Arendt and Marcel Duchamp among the best-known. When he himself reached the United States, he settled into a program at Berkeley, where he met his wife, Sarah. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army and was soon seconded to the OSS, as a translator, in North Africa and Italy. He wondered why he wasn’t given more interesting intelligence work, as he would wonder, back in Washington after the war, why he had so much trouble getting a government job. He never did find out what the problem was; by the time that Adelman obtained his FBI file, with its flimsily-based “concern” about a social-democratic youth group to which Hirschman belonged as a teenager, Hirschman had declined into dementia. (He died only last December, aged 97.) Through better-established refugees, he eventually got a job at the Federal Reserve Bank, where he did the “thinking behind the thinking” for the Marshall Plan, but this hardly burnished his reputation as the political climate in Washington deteriorated. In desperation, Hirschman accepted a job offer from the World Bank, to participate in a massive developmental planning scheme for the government of Colombia.

Which, as you can imagine, was hardly the gateway to a settled life. Shuttling between various Latin American projects and three elite universities in the States, Hirschman lived a restless-looking life. At Columbia University, he also discovered that he hated teaching. It made him throw up,  and he wasn’t very good at it. Relief came in 1975, when he was asked to join the faculty at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, which has everything a scholar could want, including no students.

By this time, the field of “developmental economics” was in decline, if not disgrace; Latin America and the Third World were dotted with egregiously failed projects and defeated ambitions. Hirschman did not regret this: he was one of the first to understand that treating “developing” economies according to rules not in general use was a big mistake. (So many times did Hirschman’s observations, as quoted by Adelman, remind me of Jane Jacobs that I was sure that she must have been some kind of student of his, but his name does not appear in the indexes of her books. The two thinkers appear to have worked in true parallel, never meeting on any level.) So, Hirschman turned himself into an intellectual historian. with three remarkable little books about passions and interests. The Passions and the Interests was the first of these, but the other two, Shifting Involvements and The Rhetoric of Reaction pursue the same train of thought, which is that economists and political scientists ruin their work by insisting on gross oversimplifications. You might say that Hirschman embraced the messiness of life, but it would be better to say that he didn’t see the mess, only the life.


Hirschman wanted to change his last book’s title to The Rhetoric of Intransigence, because as he demonstrated in the book’s bracing last chapter, people on the Left could be as obstinately optimistic as conservatives were the other thing. “Intransigents of all stripes only serviced a dialogue of the deaf,” writes Adelman,

and thus ensured that the failure of reform was sealed from the start. The ability of a society to sustain open conversations among rivals that admitted the possibility of being wrong was a gauge of its democratic life and its ability to promote nonprojected futures for its citizens.

In the terms that I’ve been developing in the wake of reading George Packer’s The Unwinding, the health of a democracy depends upon the system of loyal opposition. I should rather say, the convention of loyal opposition. I’m not sure that loyal opposition has ever been quite conventional in the United States, but it is the bulwark of the parliamentary system, and multi-party legislatures cannot function without it. As we see in these hard times. The convention of loyal opposition would prohibit such remarks as George H W Bush’s insinuation that Michael Dukakis was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” (Adelman’s book recalls this). In the convention of loyal opposition, it is impermissible to charge an opponent with disloyalty to the nation. Opponents can be wrong-headed, deluded, misguided, or even deranged, but they are not to be attacked with innuendos of treason.

My thinking on the convention of loyal opposition, as an intramural code for legislators and other politicians, has developed out of an earlier, vaguer application of the term, to the lesson that I learned from the Jeff Connaughton story in The Unwinding: there is no “loyal opposition” to the embedding of almost all of our governmental apparatus within the shell of “organized money.” I have yet to be clear about the meaning of “organized money,” but I’m sure of one thing: it’s the money that is organized, not the people with the money. In Washington, money finds its way into the pockets of those who generate money, almost hydrostatically. There are no conspiracies of billionaires. By putting money first, the people with the money are kept at some remove, regardless of occasional cooperation.

Organized money is generally felt to have a tighter grip on Washington than it used to do. (Indeed, I believe that it has simply swallowed government whole.) But is this the case? People with money have always been influential in government. Somehow, though, “influence” doesn’t seem to be the right word anymore.

Gotham Diary:
Morals charge
21 June 2013

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Two things are missing from the photograph. The shambolic bar — now out of ice, now out of glasses, now out of vodka — was partly my fault, mine and a lot of other people’s: we hadn’t RSVP’d. The other thing missing is the blaring music, which I suppose was some sort of punk rock. Nothing less harmonious with the setting can be imagined, not, at least, without somebody pointing a loaded pistol.

The punk show itself, two floors below, was appropriately anti-social, a sort of un-fun house. But the staging was interesting. Mannequins were posed in niched arcades designed to simulate the near-ruined beaux arts décor in which the downtown scene evolved. (Out-of-towner note: “Downtown” Manhattan lies between Canal Street and 14th Street. Plus, of course, the rather small TRIangle BElow CAnal. Below Canal Street — further downtown in geography if not terminology — lie Chinatown, City Hall, and Wall Street, three different neighborhoods that are not “Downtown.”) We did not linger. As soon as we met our friend, we got back on the elevator and went up to the roof, where I should have liked to stay a bit longer, not only for the sunset snaps, but Kathleen wanted to sit down, and all the benches had been removed (?). So we pushed along to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and that was very nice. On the way, I persuaded Kathleen and our friend to strike poses before the ghastly statues that are still standing outside the stadtpalais across from the Museum even though I was sure that the first thing Carlos Slím would do when he bought the place was to have them carted off.


This morning, while Kathleen went through the Times, I read Frederick Seidel’s wearily dismissive review of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in the NYRB.

So much New York, so much Seventies, such bursting-apart-at-the-seams liveliness! What a splendor of invention! These passionately alive and not believable characters! Heat without heart. Such an abundance of life and liveliness and language! It’s a glorious novel Rachel Kushner has written with heat but without warmth. Maybe that’s a new kind of novel.


What’s this book interested in? It’s interested in being made into a movie.

I found myself asking, “Is it true, this heat without warmth thing?” Is The Flamethrowers a mere scenario? For a few moments, I engaged with Seidel’s critique. Then I came to my senses. Bad reviews, especially bad reviews of novels, oughtn’t to be taken seriously. They should be wearily dismissed themselves. I do not speak as a partisan of Rachel Kushner’s art. (I rather preferred her first book, Telex From Cuba.) I’m just repeating the lesson that I learned from years of reviewing book reviews. Bad reviews, however entertaining, fail in their essential purpose, which is to show why a book, or anything “under review,” is worth talking about. The fact that other people are talking about something may warrant comment, but never a review. You review something if and when you yourself see something valuable, and you want to recommend it to others. Seidel’s piece is unworthy of the NYRB, and ought not to have been published, more or less as a matter of principle.

I’ve read two bad, or at least diminishing, reviews of George Packer’s The Unwinding. While I doubt that Seidel’s review will seriously dent sales of Kushner’s novel, I fear that The Unwinding might not be so hardy. I was expecting that the Times might be unfavorable, but not that David Brooks would write the review, which in turn would be buried in the middle of the Book Review. No one could be deadlier than Brooks at dispatching a book such as Packer’s. The writing, the reporting, are lavishly praised. But analysis is found wanting.

I wish Packer had married his remarkable narrative skills to more evidence and research, instead of just relying on narrative alone. Combine data to lives as they are actually lived.

This plausible comment belongs to the class of dismissals that fault a book not being something that its author probably didn’t intend it to be. Packer clearly means to paint a powerful picture of American dysfunction, and he’s faulted for doing so, because there’s no data to back up his poetry. But who would read the analysis that Brooks has in mind? And what if the data that we have doesn’t really tell us anything? What if Packer is calling for a new kind of analysis? Reviewers like Brooks also like to scold Packer for having an implicit political agenda, as if this were somehow unprofessional.

He paints an admiring portrait of the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose political views seem to coincide with his own.

I’m not sure that I would characterize these particular coinciding views as political. I see them as moral.

Michael Lind’s somewhat harsh review in Bookforum came as a surprise. (Sadly, it is not online.) It is also a piece of disappointed praise.

The unwinding of the New Deal proceeds. There is much to lament, and Packer strikes the elegaic tone well in a brilliant and innovative book that transcends journalism to become literature. For inspiration, readers will have to look elsewhere.

That doesn’t really make sense: what, so far as written words goes, exceeds literature as a source of inspiration? I’m still basking in the glow of inspiration lighted by Packer’s bit of  literature. When I began to get a sense of what “organized money” might really be, I didn’t fault Packer for letting the term stand for nothing more precise than an offstage bogeyman. The bogeyman actually does come onstage, in all of the sections having to do with Jeff Connaughton, and in some of those relating Dean Price’s tale of woe, not entirely but just enough to get a sense of its anatomy. I thank Packer for laying out food for inference. And the Jeff Connaughton story alerted me to the fact that there is no loyal opposition in today’s America. There hasn’t been one since Reagan’s persistent demonizing of Democratic-Party values (such as they were). There is only the organized money, a nexus of corporate lobbyists, deep-pocketed think tanks, government contractors, and politicians who want to make some real money someday. There is no serious opposition to organized money that can be considered truly loyal, to the Constitution as well as to its protection of the right to fairly-gained personal property. Opposition — consider the Occupy movement — is not only ideologically straitjacketed and fatally underinformed, but manifestly insurrectionist. The Tea Partiers may think that they’re in opposition, but in fact they are both paid for and distracted by organized money.

After one long excerpt from the book, Lind writes,

This illustrates the most serious weakness of Packer’s project, which is also the weakness of a certain strain of American liberalism — the failure to distinguish the villainy of particular individuals and selfish elites from the lamentable collateral damage caused by technologically driven economic progress.

Sign me up as a willing failer! “Technologically driven economic progress” is necessarily paid for by “selfish elites,” and the villainy is systemic. There is no justification for the existence of billionaires. Not all the hospitals and education programs and charitable whatnot in the world can redeem the sheer wrongness of such concentrated wealth. I’m not arguing for “confiscatory taxation” here but for something deeper, something that would making the piling up of such vast fortunes impossible in the first place. We might, for example, and without doing violence to any core beliefs, put a cap on patent and license fees, effectively denying protection after a (very generous) figure has been reached. Once Bill Gates had amassed a fortune of a certain size, had such a scheme been in place, no one would have had to pay for a license to use DOS — the germ of that pile. (We already impose similar restraints on pharmaceutical companies.) It is simply not in anybody’s interest — certainly not in the billionaire’s family’s interest — to allow colossal properties.


The weather is seasonably pleasant today, which bodes well for our picnic. I’ve just steamed the potatoes for salad, and now I’ve got to cut them up and drizzle them with oil while they’re still warm, something I learned from Julia Child. What I did not learn from Julia Child is to use fingerling potatoes, which bring to potato salad something of the deep pleasure of a good baked potato.

Off we go, then. Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
20 June 2013

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Having done everything that I had to do, with plenty of time before dressing for the evening, I sat and listened to the end of Fiona Shaw’s reading of Emma, which had beguiled an hour or two of housework. Then it hit me that I’d neglected to write my daily entry.

There is a good deal on my mind, but it is rippled by preparations for another Friday-night picnic. This isn’t so much a matter of making dishes as it is one of doing so without breaking a sweat (given the season, I speak figuratively). I am determined not to hustle. I am also determined to have a picnic almost every Friday night in the summer, even if Kathleen and I are the only picnickers. We are reveling in the balcony. Today, a cushion arrived for one of the benches, and two boxes of papyrus plants from White Flower Farm. Why papyrus? Then I’d have to kill you.

So I can’t decide whether to write about James Salter here, or at the old blog. I hate disliking a good writer’s work, but that is what it has come to with Salter, and James Meek’s encomia in the LRB go a long way to explaining why. I’ll get to that eventually, because it really is on my mind. But my thoughts are also rippled by the evening’s prospect: a members’ preview at the Museum, and for two shows, the roof garden and the punk. I have no interest in the punk, none whatever; the very idea of punk revolts me. It’s nothing but rudeness, and the look of it makes me wince with pain. (Surely the pose is uncomfortable?) No, I’d much rather spend the evening at the Roof Garden. I don’t know what I think of Imran Qureshi’s installation (the painted floor), but it has the welcome side effect of opening up the space for a change, with unimpeded vistas from almost every spot. (What a change from Big Bambú!) I’d head over to the Museum right now, but I’m waiting for Kathleen to pick me up in a taxi, so that we can go together, with our one invitation to get in the door.

I linked (at the old blog) to an interview that Rachel Kushner gave The Millions, but I didn’t call attention to her interesting comment about Flaubert (to whom critic James Wood compared her). “I am still mulling the fact,” she said, “that Flaubert created a seminal mode of realism (emulated by most writers since), in order to skewer bourgeois values (a topic only taken up by some).” I will never understand skewering bourgeois values, except as a childishness, because in order to do the skewering you have to be pretty bourgeois yourself, however desperately you attempt, as Flaubert did, to set yourself up as an aristocrat of art — quite as ridiculous as Emma Bovary’s pretensions. Every time somebody talks about Flaubert’s “seminal” achievements, I am very glad that I got over the idea of writing a novel myself.

Fiona Shaw’s reading of Emma is delightful, as you might expect, but it’s very curious that her impersonations of Miss Bates and Mrs Elton are so close, at least to my ears, to those of Sophie Thompson and Juliet Stevenson in the Douglas McGrath adaptation, the one starring Gwyneth Paltrow — whom Ms Shaw does not call to mind. Which reminds me: Juliet Stevenson still holds the cup for Most Diverting reading: if you’re looking for a good time, let her tell you Lady Audley’s Secret. It’s as exciting as a circus!


Gotham Diary:
19 June 2013

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

In a corner of the blue room, I keep Will’s smaller toys in a chest by my closet, next to a table on which I pile books to be shelved. Last night, I found Will imperturbably riffling through the drawers, even though a stack of books had collapsed in a heap in front of it. I was worried that the books might have fallen on him, but there was no sign of that. The heap is still there, and I have to do something about it when I’m through here.

I wish that I could think of something to do with the books on the floor other than stacking them again. Evidently, I’m not wishing hard enough, because nothing comes to mind. At some point, I will be carrying books out of the apartment, presumably in shopping bags, and carrying them uptown to the new storage unit. But which books?

I’m not discouraged, though, because I’ve just come from the old storage unit, where, on the third try, I managed to open the Readerware file, which permitted me to register the titles in two piles, the donation pile and the uptown (keeper) pile. In about half an hour, I processed nearly forty books. The MiFi connection was a tad slow, so I had plenty of time to think about what I was doing. I had the advantage of a completely clear shelf: this year, the Christmas decorations stayed in the apartment. (I know myself well enough to foresee how really unpleasant a holiday-time schlep from  (and then back to) the uptown storage unit, at the tip of Manhattan, would be.) As soon as this staging area fills up, I’ll go downstairs and buy some boxes, and, when there are enough boxes to warrant the expense, I’ll arrange for a van to take them away, either to HousingWorks or to the new unit. It feels great to have begun the project at last.

At some point, I’ll lure an accomplice to the downtown unit, to read the ISBNs of older books, published before the advent of the bar code (I’ve still got quite a few of those), and the titles of books that don’t have numbers at all. This accomplice may have to be Kathleen herself, as a lot of the books are hers.

All this, after having a squamous cell burned off my scalp and then delivering a housewarming present. The present was for our friend who lives surrounded by museum-quality treasures, and I’d have been at wit’s end trying to think of something that wouldn’t be positively unwelcome if he hadn’t mentioned a predicament that owes to his not having explored the world of online shopping. There being few-to-no amply-stocked record stores anymore (we still call them that), he was at a loss to replace a recording of Der Fliegender Holländer that he had come particularly to dislike. It was one of those late Karajan recordings, ruined by the conductor’s delusions of expertise in the sound-engineering department. I went to Arkivmusic and selected three almost certainly better ones, led by Otto Klemperer, James Levine, and Sir Georg Solti. Kathleen wrapped them up nicely and I left them with my friend’s doorman on this morning’s rounds. When I got home, there was a message of thanks on the machine. “I’m pleased as punch!” he said. We’ll see him tomorrow night, at a Museum do, and perhaps he’ll have had a chance to do a bit of listening.


Why didn’t I read Edna O’Brien when I was young? Because I was put off by wild Irish pagans. They interfered with my study of English as it is spoken at the source. And they had, I thought, nothing to teach me about the world, except how backward Ireland was. The only good thing about Ireland, in those days, was that it made me feel lucky to live in America.

Oh, well. I’ve lived long enough to change my tune. When Country Girl, O’Brien’s autobiography, appeared earlier this year, I noticed that no one was carrying her novels, except of course Amazon. So I ordered a few, and I’ve been enjoying The Country Girl quite a lot, even to the point of deriving no small pleasure from discerning the passages that would have displeased my greener ear, and laughing at my fussy old self. Colm Tóibín has taught me to hear music in what once seemed to be gruff silence. There are also genuine wonders. For meshing all layers of narrative meaning, the following can’t be beat. After  a Halloween party, the girls file into chapel “to pray for the Holy Souls.”

We prayed for the souls in Purgatory. I thought of Mama and cried for a while. I put my face in my hands so that the girls next to me would think that I was praying or meditating or something. I was trying to recall how many sins she had committed from the time she was at Confession to the time she died. I knew that we had been given too much change in one of the shops and I said I’d bring it back.

“You will not, they have more than that out of us,” she said, and she put the change into the cracked jug on the pantry shelf. And she had told a lie too. Mrs Stevens from the cottages came up to borrow the donkey and Mama said the donkey was in the bog with Hickey; when all the time the donkey was above in the kitchen garden asleep under the pear tree with its knees bent. I saw him there because Mama had sent me to look for the black hen who was laying out. Every year the black hen laid out and hatched her chickens in the ditch. It was a miracle to see her wander back to the hen-house with a clutch of lovely little furry yellow chickens behind her. When I had stopped crying my face was red and my eyelids hot.

I was fairly knocked down by the presumption of the girl’s imagining that she might know what those sins were — that’s Ireland for you, I suppose — but even more impressive was the authorial trick of thereby introducing a couple of picturesque anecdotes into the story.

How nice it would be to stretch out in my chair out on the balcony and finish the novel! But I’ve a pile of books to attend to.

Gotham Diary:
I have my doubts
18 June 2013

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

The book party, hosted by a law partner of the author who also happens to be a fellow trustee of Kathleen’s at the Brearley, was a small gathering of elite New Yorkers. The author, Frederic Rich, read from his forthcoming novel, Christian Nation, a dystopian counterfactual story in which John McCain wins the 2008 presidential election but promptly dies, leaving the country to Sarah Palin and her christianists. Things go downhill from there; the novel, I believe, is written from the perspective of 2029. After the reading, questions were solicited, and one guest sensibly asked, “Why a novel?” The author thereupon named six nonfiction books about Americans who long to inflict Dominion and Reconstruction upon an evil liberal democracy. All of these books were outstanding, in his view. Had anybody read them? No one had. That’s “why a novel”: novels can get things across.

But when the author asked if anyone knew what “dominionism” and “reconstructionism” are, I did raise my hand. I raised it to the self-deprecating height of my neck, and smiled ruefully, lest anybody think me pleased about being the solitary smarty. It took Mr Rich a few minutes to look in my direction. When he saw me, he smiled and said, “Ah, the blogger!” For I had given him my card at the beginning of the party. And when he asked if anyone had read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I raised my hand again. “The blogger, of course!” Everyone laughed this time, nicely I thought. Later, when it came my turn to ask Mr Rich to inscribe my copy of his book, I told him that I would be honored if he made it out to “The Blogger,” which (I’ve just checked) is what he did.

If you have a look at yesterday’s entry, you’ll easily see that fortuity of event was piled on fortuity of reading. I’d been reading and writing about periods marked by the withering away of liberal democracies in France and Germany, in which Nazis came to power even though educated elites dismissed them as clowns. Similarly, the Republican Party has made cynical use of christianists ever since the Nixon Administration. It can happen here. When the question period ended, Kathleen turned to me and said that she’d wanted to ask Mr Rich what we could do to stop it.

For the rest of the evening, I tried to answer her question, not in terms of taking direct action to belittle or suppress christianists, but rather in terms of encouraging the elite to open up the bubble in which several guests at the book party had claimed that we live. The first thing to do, of course, is to read books like Haidt’s. Haidt’s somewhat schematic idea is that conservatives draw on greater reserves to strengthen their beliefs than liberals do, largely because liberals eschew traditional notions of the blood tie and the sacred. This is certainly arguable, but it is better seen as a point of departure for the development of positive liberal correlatives, rooted, perhaps fantastically, in doubt.

Between them, Eugenio and Otto Albert shared a little saying: that they should “prove Hamlet wrong.” If the Shakespearean figure was the archetype of immobilizing doubt, Colorni’s ideas were intent on demonstrating that doubt could propel deeds.

That is from Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert Hirschman. (Born Otto Albert Hirschmann, he became Albert O Hirschman in America. Eugenio Colorni was his brother-in-law.)

There are many things to do. One of these days, the idea of the elite itself must be subjected to some serious reconstruction. In the pattern familiar from history, elites grow smug and inattentive, and are either eliminated or co-opted by surging non-elites, who, however radical at first, soon settle into being elite themselves. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that an elite might reform itself — instead of trying, as elites fitfully do from time to time, to reform everybody else?

American elites ought to rally behind the idea of national service, starting it off unofficially if necessary. This national service would be tasked with useful projects, more or less in the nature of internships (designed not to put working adults out of their jobs), but the most important thing about it would be compulsory residence in relatively monastic barracks during the years that Americans now spend languishing in college. No saunas, no binge drinking. Rise and shine! Not a military life, perhaps — although it is in the elite’s own interest to extend its presence in the armed forces — but not a pool party, either. Lest you cock a skeptical brow, let me remind you that our now venerable prep schools were all founded in austere reaction to the pamperments of the Gilded Age. For several generations, at least, these schools produced a renewed elite burnished with strong commitments to self-restraint and public service. It can happen again.


The final stage of national service might be spent in community colleges studying such subjects as personal finance (with an accent on statistics) and serious home economics. Also on the curriculum: the Bibles, Homer, Horace, Shakespeare and Montaigne. (Learning from great doubters how to prove Hamlet wrong, in short.) Only after this common education (which would take a great deal less than four years) would some students move on to graduate schools — ideally, transplanted versions of France’s hautes écoles. Most would go into the world of work.

That’s a much thornier problem than reforming the elite. Where are the jobs going to come from? It occurred to me last night that the ecology of American business is in much worse shape than the ecology of the biosphere. (By “business,” I mean to exclude all activities in which money begets only money.) And the “population problem” has developed a different complexion: while we may still have to worry, a bit, about feeding everybody, the sharper challenge is providing people with meaningful occupation.

Gotham Diary:
Reckless Disloyalty
17 June 2013

Monday, June 17th, 2013

It has been thirteen years since I set up my first Web site. That feels like a long time, and certainly much has happened. Thirteen years is plenty of time for things to happen. And yet, it really isn’t so long. I’m not actually thinking about my life on the Internet here. What I’m thinking about is that I’ve been in power, first at Portico and then at The Daily Blague, longer than Hitler was in power in Germany. He came and went that quickly.

As I say, twelve years is plenty of time for myriad catastrophes to befall millions of people. As governments go, though, the Third Reich was short-lived, more comparable to Savonarola’s religious despotism in Florence in the 1490s, or to the much more mild-mannered Interregnum in England in the 1650s, than to the dynastic monarchies that ruled Europe for centuries. It wasn’t — the Reich — much of a government. Of course it wasn’t: it was a regime supported by a hatred of government. It was a madness, an epidemic of recklessness that ran its disastrous course in little more than a decade.

Thoughts of the Third Reich are prompted by a fortuity of readings. Yesterday, I finished Frederick Brown’s For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, and then, in the evening, I picked up Jeremy Adelman’s biography of economic thinker Albert Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher, precisely at the point where the collapse of the Weimar Republic inspired Hirschman to leave his family in Berlin and to settle in France — at the ripe old age of seventeen. It was very much like reading two versions of a well-known fairy tale. Or perhaps it was exactly the opposite of that, for, when you read two versions of a fairy tale, you note the discrepancies, the differences in tone and detail. In yesterday’s readings, the differences in tone and detail between fin-de-siècle France and Germany thirty years later didn’t amount to much. Even before I re-opened Adelman, I was haunted by the conviction that disgust with the Third Republic made many, many French people itch for something like Hitler’s fascist regime. Well, they got their wish.


For the Soul of France is THE book to read about the Dreyfus Affair, for the simple reason that it recreates, over the course of two hundred fluently concise pages, the context in which the scandal was brewed. Having steeped the reader in the big stories that preceded the Affair — the two financial imbroglios (l’Union Générale, de Lesseps’s Panama Canal company); the rise and fall of General Boulanger, and also in the vile, intemperate language of Catholic apologists, often priests, in the partisan press, Brown is free to run through the stages of Dreyfus Affair, and its important sideshow, the Zola trials, with brisk dispatch. At the center of everything is the insistent anti-Semitism that, in those days, knew no shame. Here is Henri-Martin Didon, a Dominican attached to the Collège d’Arcueil, in a commencement speech delivered in the summer of 1898:

We must equip ourselves with coercive powers, we must not hold back, we must brandish the sword, smite, terrorize, cut off heads, impose justice. … Armed force thus employed is no longer brute strength but sainted energy put to beneficent use.

By this point in the book, the reader does not need Brown to spell out the targeting of the Jews implicit in this attack. Vincent de Paul Bailly, the Assumptionist editor of the Catholic chain of newspapers, La Croix, wrote,

Free thought, standing in the dock with Zola, acts as an attorney for Jews, for Protestants, for all enemies of the Church, and the army must, despite itself, fire away. … On all sides, people clamor for a strongman who would rrisk his life to tear Franch from the clutches of traitors, from the sectarians and imbeciles who are handing them over to the foreigner … Ah! Who will deliver us from this pack of brigands?

Father Bailly might well have been editorializing in early-Thirties Berlin. He strikes the same note of derring-do that decorated Nazi puffery.

The German Student Association (Deutsche Studentenschaft) rampaged against signs of “un-German spirit” and welcomed Nazi speakers to their rallies. It was these students who stormed the University of Berlin’s magnificent library in May 1933 and proceeded to ignite tens of thousands of volumes at the Opernplatz, in front of the law faculty and around the corner from Hegel’s old office.

By then, Hirschman had left the University (and Berlin) for Paris.


One can only hope that the bee in my bonnet will make some honey. It is at any rate clear to me that the disarray in anti-Dreyfus France and Nazi Germany owed a great deal to the lack of a loyal opposition. The opposition to the Third Republic, as the remarks of Fathers Didon and Bailly make clear, was not loyal. Catholic nationalists did not respect the political constitution of the Third Republic, but openly undermined it, as the strange career of Georges Boulanger makes clear. (Boulanger is another figure of Third Republic history whose antics are impossible to understand without a grasp of the tenor of the times.) This was an opposition that sought to restore to crown and church the control of France. It was reactionary, but only in the sense that the victim of a terrible illness is reactionary in seeking to restore his health. They believed, just as the Nazis believed and the Tea Party Republicans believe, that the government is diseased, possibly too diseased to prop up. They believed (and believe) that the government itself can be a vector of infection. They constituted (and constitute) the opposite of a loyal opposition.

Inclined to be sanguine about the near-term future of the United States, despite everything, I must confess to a persistent chill of misgivings, occasioned, it seems, by reading and then thinking about George Packer’s The Unwinding. There is no loyal opposition in this country, either, at the moment, and that frightens me, because it is the role of the loyal opposition to rein in the recklessness of the party in power. Democracy does not work if it is merely majoritarian; minorities quite naturally come to believe that the government is one of foreign occupation, and that’s enough to shred the civil fabric, violently or otherwise. The party that gets to run things because it wins a majority of votes must nevertheless learn to listen to the party that doesn’t, and that party, in turn, must learn how to talk to the party in power. This conversation is the true seat of democratic government, and it is clearly not taking place in today’s Washington.

Gotham Diary:
14 June 2013

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Janet Malcolm’s essay about the art world of the early Eighties, focused on Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy and called “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” appeared in 1986 in The New Yorker,  where I must have come across it and decided not to read it. Why? Many partial explanations present themselves, many of which can be grouped under the following statement: it was at about that time that I learned that our original idea, what living in New York would be like for Kathleen and me, had to be replaced. Our original idea had predicated a measure of engagement with the social scene — the old-guard, uptown social scene, I hasten to add, that David Patrick Columbia so lovingly follows at New York Social Diary. Without having undergone any crises of painful disillusionment, I came to see that this world was not for us, if only because inhabiting it is a full-time job (or a paid publicist’s full-time job, and we cold not afford that), and we were interested in other things. For a few years, this re-think of how we might live in Manhattan was masked by a retreat from the city, in which I spent more and more time at our newly-acquired lake house in Connecticut. I also retired, precociously but permanently. In 1986, I might have flipped through Malcolm’s essay, seen how long and formidable it was, and decided that the days of my interest in such things were over — for in those days, without being aware of it, I took “the art world” and “the social scene” as two sides of the same frame.

But who knows. In any case, I did not read “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” until yesterday, and even now I haven’t finished it. Almost everything compelling about it is tinctured by a wincing awareness that the issues and personalities under discussion are of a vintage that’s closer to twenty-five than to thirty years old, but that feels, suddenly, more like thirty. Some of the personalities have disappeared (as the French say; I think of Kirk Varnedoe, cut short by early cancer), and those still with us are now a lot older, and no longer determining the scene. But what about the ideas? I ask about the ideas because the discussions about art that Malcolm captures coincide with the thoughts that I’ve been having —thirty years later.

I wrote yesterday that Andy Warhol put an end to a way of looking at art that made it possible to talk about art seriously. I see now that Barbara Rose, an art historian and critic who had left the board of Artforum before Malcolm began her investigations, said pretty much the same thing to Malcolm way back then.

There’s a generation now that feels you don’t have to make that distinction. Mickey Mouse, Henry James, Marcel Duchamp, Talking Heads, Mozart, Amadeus — it’s all going on at the same time, and it all kind of means the same thing. For that, you have Andy Warhol to thank.

(Rose blames Susan Sontag, too, but I don’t follow her there; Sontag tore down the old temple so that she could be the priestess of a new one.) I myself feel that distinctions are so obvious that they don’t need to be made. Amadeus, for example, is a tone-deaf misrepresentation of everything valuable about Mozart. I don’t mean that it is disrespectful; that would not be the problem. It is simply and altogether misleading. It posits notions of “genius” and “creativity” that, had he subscribed to them, might have disinclined Mozart to bother setting aside his skittles game to write a few bars of music. In his short but magisterial study of late Mozart, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff documents the composer’s extraordinarily adult program for the revitalization of a specifically German art music. (And how odd it is to imagine Mozart and Wagner writing the same sort of manifesto.) Mozart was the very opposite of the idiot savant; in his final years, he quite consciously and ambitiously set himself ever more formidable challenges. Peter Schaffer’s play is, from every standpoint — that of listening to music, that of understanding history — nothing but junk (as are its predecessors by Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov). It may be entertaining, but it cannot be entertained in the same hour as a the Dissonant Quartet.

If anyone had developed what is now called “reception theory” when I was a student, I was unaware of it; to the best of my knowledge, a readable history of the reception of art remains to be written. We know a lot about artists, and a fair amount about the patrons who commissioned their works, but shifts in public taste — bearing in mind the shifts in the meaning of “public,” from small courts in the Renaissance to the bourgeois audiences of the Nineteenth Century who in turn were so ill-received by many artists around the turn of the Twentieth Century that rebartative modernism was invented as a rebuff — have not been rigorously traced. Such shifts go against our ideas, such as we retain, of the transcendence of art: transcendence always suggests the eternal. It is still shocking to learn that concerts in Mozart’s day could go on for five hours or that people were allowed to talk through them, and to come and go as they pleased — shocking, that is, to audiences schooled in concert-hall behavior and unfamiliar with stadium rock. To a degree, charges of ignorance and inattentiveness can be lodged against those ancient audiences: they truly did not imagine the power of music, except on ceremonial occasions in which music played a supporting role. Today, we’re in rather the opposite boat, overscrutinizing the flotsam of “mass culture,” pretending to mind meaning in the ephemeral.

Until modernism — or, perhaps, until merely affluent, not particularly well-educated people began showing up at concerts and exhibitions — the arts were vehicles of pleasure. They were appreciated by audiences that studied pleasure, that grasped the complications of its evanescence. A scale was developed, somewhat loosely, between the inborn digestive pleasures and the acquired cerebral ones. The former risked grossness, the latter preciosity. But it was clearly the artist’s job was to provide some degree of pleasure. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain put a stop to that, or, rather, it announced to the public that artists were getting out of the pleasure business. This was so shocking that it attracted a phalanx of critics willing to defend the move. It became the artist’s job to be difficult and obscure. Andy Warhol’s boxes put an stop to that, as Barbara Rose observed, and that’s pretty much where we still are, I think.

The important thing about art, in other words, is no longer what artists are producing. It is how audiences are responding — with an accent on the plurality of audiences. The audience for Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc — the federal workers at the Javits Building in Lower Manhattan — hated what the sculpture did to their plaza, and eventually the piece was removed. I remember working through a strong resistance to the power of “popularity” in determining public art (just as Ingrid Sischy herself did, according to Malcolm’s essay), and arriving at what I would call the Jane Jacobs view, which holds that public art must be appropriate to its setting. There can be little doubt that Serra’s sculpture was designed to be completely inappropriate: that was its primary aesthetic point. It was meant to insult the admittedly ghastly Javits Building. But it was wrong to ask the people who had no choice but to work in that building to live with so severe and incommoding a work of art. When I say that Tilted Arc was a bad idea, the wrong work for the space in which it was installed, I am claiming that the artist’s inspiration and achievement is not the criterion. The work’s reception is.

As is perfectly obvious already in the world of literature, where all texts come in more or less identical packages (books), and the history of the art encompasses vast lumber rooms of forgotten authors. The fact that very few people today are willing or able to read Sir Walter Scott with pleasure consigns him to the attic, and we might very well have lost sight of him altogether had his novels not inspired so many operas. No one gives the neglect of Scott a second thought; we are not in any way obliged to appreciate him. Which is to say that nobody is making a persuasive case on his behalf. Let someone come along and show us things in Scott that we had missed, let someone open him and us up to pleasure once again, and the Penguin Classics will reappear on readers’ bookshelves.

When critics complain today that today’s art market is all about the art market itself, they are not missing the point.

Gotham Diary:
Up on the Roof
13 June 2013

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

As you can see, it was a perfect day for visiting the Museum’s Roof Garden. I hadn’t yet been, nor had the announcement of this year’s installation, by Imran Qureshi, caught my eye. I was very surprised to see that it amounted to — nothing. For the first time since the roof opened, the space stretches empty from building to parapet. Only having taken this in does one look down at the paving stones, which are splashed with dull red paint and inscribed with fragmentary lotus blossoms. It is a witness to violence, specifically to the violence in Pakistan, and, although two dimensional, it is not understated. For the simple reason that it is easy to overlook, it is disturbing to notice. It is also exotic, more exotic than it would have been within the Museum. Nothing could be less like the ghostly blooms of lotus than the lushly textured carpet of treetops, the most hope-inspiring form of life more than six months old.

I had errands that took me toward the Museum. After lunch at the Shake Shack, I stocked up on cash at the bank. At Flowers by Philip, I bought plants for the balcony; and, at Crawford Doyle, Janet Malcolm’s collection of pieces, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers. I had made a point of waiting to buy the Malcolm at the bookshop; it’s the kind of book that I want to pay for there. I managed to get in and out without buying anything else, which was so much the better when I came across two quasi must-haves on the sale table at the Museum. The first was a biography of Nicolas Fouquet, by Charles Drazin, that I probably should not have paid full price for, but the other, Frederick Brown’s For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, I was sorry to have missed until now. The last third of the Nineteenth Century was long my idea of a Dark Age, and I never obliged myself to learn its fundamentals. That ignorance has developed into an embarrassing pothole, and now I’m simply pleased to be able to repair it.

Visiting the Roof Garden was an errand, as well: seeing art for the first time always is; it’s only when you’ve thought about something that you begin to see it. I had no intention of exploring the interior of the Museum, and, once I’d taken in the Roof Garden, I took the elevator downstairs and headed out. On my way, though, my eye was caught by an unfolded altarpiece that seemed new to me (although it can’t have been, as it was featured in the big Netherlandish-art show in 1998), The Life and Miracles of Saint Godelieve. It has been in the Museum’s collections since 1912, but I really don’t recall attending to it before. St Godelieve, the patron saint of Flanders, was a good girl who wanted to share everything with the poor and to become a nun, two ambitions that were thwarted by her forced marriage to one Bertolf of Gistel. Bertolf soon regretted his exercise of force majeure, however, and concocted wicked stories about his wife that prepared the ground for her apparent suicide. In fact (according to legend, that is), he had her strangled. In the altarpiece, painted by an eponymous Master of of St Godelieve Legend, Godelieve is painted with long red tresses that are put up only once, into her wedding headdress: iconic proof of her refusal to be the great lady that she was born to be. My favorite thing about the piece (at not-quite-first glance) was the expression on the face of Bertolf’s mother, as she confides her “misgivings” about Godelieve to her son. She reminds me of another no-good-nik from a neighboring county, Ortrud of Frisia, the villainess of Wagner’s Lohengrin, an opera set only about a century before the life of Godelieve. The St Godelieve altarpiece subordinates sophisticated composition to effective narration, and is one of those works of art that used to inspire aficianados of cinquecento art to dismiss Netherlandish painting as “primitive.” But I hope that the curators leave it where it is for a while, so that I’ll pass by it most times I visit the Museum.


When I got home, I sat out on the balcony and dove into Janet Malcolm. I read the very brief pieces at the end first; then I turned to the title essay, which is, literally, a collection of attempts to write something reasonably substantial about David Salle, the hot Eighties artist who, by the time Malcolm got around to him in the early Nineties, was already something of a has-been. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what his stuff looked like, but that seemed beside the point, because although Malcolm described a few paintings, what seemed to concern Salle more in their conversations was the uncertainty of his fame. Junk-bond millionaires had made him rich by paying top dollar for his work, but it seemed unclear whether this work was actually art or, instead, just another hula hoop. Without the enthusiastic praise of Peter Schjeldahl, quoted by Malcolm, I’d have opted for the latter, as I do now, having done a bit of googling. But then I believe that Andy Warhol put an end, not to art, but to the idea that art is potentially transcendent in a way that can be vouched by philosophical consensus. In light of Schjeldahl’s interest, I’m thrown back into the wetlands in which the tides of what I think of as art intermingle with the more brackish waters of commercial illustration.

In the evening, I watched The Leopard, or most of it; when Kathleen came home from a late night, there were still twenty minutes to run. I hadn’t seen the sparkling Criterion Collection edition of Visconti’s movie, which has the strange effect of highlighting Visconti’s regard for music as a kind of subsidiary decoration rather than as a compositional element. When it isn’t in competition with the narrative, Nino Rota’s soore is pretty tacky, and Visconti thinks nothing of cutting it off along with a scene change — a sloppy effect that Hollywood outgrew very early. The interiors are all garishly over-lit; it might be argued that interiors in the 1860s were over-lit, given the excitement provided by gaslights, but they can’t have been always over-lit. And the compositions are antic rather than stately; there is no effort to see the aristocratic family as it saw itself — aside from Visconti’s trademark determination to get the costumes right. Only the Prince is a figure of real dignity, and one wonders how much of this is the filmmaker’s doing, and how much might owe to Lampedusa’s telepathic foreknowledge that Burt Lancaster would be playing the part. Why a burly American actor should be the ideal Prince of Salina is a deep mystery, but he is. Another mystery: why does The Leopard look so much more primitive than Senso, set at about the same time and made almost ten years earlier?

Gotham Diary:
12 June 2013

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

There is something about Michael Pollan’s writing that puts me off — his regular-guy pose, which may, for all I know, be perfectly sincere. It’s canny, and it sells books, I’m sure, but I’m the one reader in a thousand who has no use for regular guys, not in books anyway. I don’t think that masculinity (or femininity) is anything to be proud of; on the contrary, it’s a predicament that active, educated imaginations struggle to overcome. Writing about food and cooking, Pollan seems anxious at times to establish his he-man credentials. I know that I’m overly sensitive to this vernacular pheromone, and perhaps somewhat unnaturally repelled by it. But it made reading Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation occasionally uncongenial. I very nearly didn’t make it past the book’s opening section on barbecue.

Which would have been a terrible shame, because Cooked is full of wisdom about food, and it bristles with a fine critique of the business that has spoiled our supply. Was it happy coincidence that put Cooked and The Unwinding in front of me at the same time? I felt that George Packer’s book opened things in Michael Pollan’s that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I should have missed, for example, the importance of being on good terms with organized money that is the moral of barbecue master Ed Mitchell’s story. When Mitchell spoke out against industrial hog farming, his affairs were subjected to what he calls “organized turbulence,” and he lost his business. Organized money’s conservative shills would say that he ought to have paid his taxes. But his ordeal sounds a lot like that of Dean Price, another visionary with a less-than-stellar aptitude for bean counting, in The Unwinding. And I wouldn’t have been equipped to grasp organized money’s responsibility for the degradation of our foodstuffs, a matter about which Pollan is never quite explicit. Having explained the importance of live-culture foods to intestinal ecology, Pollan complains,

And yet these latter-day methods of food preservation and processing have pushed most live-culture foods out of our diet. Yogurt is the exception that proves the rule, which is that very few of our foods any longer contain living bacteria or fungi. Vegetables are far more likely to be canned or frozen (or eaten fresh) than pickled. Meats are cured with chemicals rather than microbes and salt. Bread is still leavened with yeast, but seldom with a wild culture. Even the sauerkraut and kimchi are now pasteurized and vacuum packed — their cultures killed off long before the jar hits the supermarket shelf. These days most pickles are no longer truly pickled: They’re soured with pasteurized vinegar, no lactobacilli involved. Open virtually any modern recipe book for putting up or pickling food and you will be hard pressed to find a recipe for lactofermentation. What once was pickling has been reduced to marinating in vinegar. And though it’s true that vinegar is itself the product of fermentation, it is frequently pasteurized, a finished, lifeless product, and far too acidic to support most live cultures.

The modern food industry has a problem with bacteria, which it works assiduously to expunge from everything it sells, except for the yogurt. Wild fermentation is probably a little too wild for the supermarket, which has become yet another sterile battlefield in the war on bacteria. Worries about food safety are very real, of course, which is why it’s probably easier for industry to stand staunchly behind Pasteur than to try to tell a more nuanced story about good and bad bugs in your food. With the result that live-culture foods, which used to make up a large part of the human diet, have been relegated to the handful of artisanal producers and do-it-yourselfers…

What makes it easy for industry to stand behind Pasteur is the persistence of government regulations that were formulated in a climate of horrified hostility to all microbes, long before it was known how vital many bacteria are to healthy digestion. It is not in the interest of organized money (big businesses lobbying in Congress and rewarding compliant legislators) to repeal these antiquated constrictions.

Claude Lévi-Strauss divided foodstuffs into the raw, the cooked, and the rotten, but “rotten,” as Pollan shows, is a term used only to dismiss the fermentations of others. Our own fermentations — our cheeses, our wines, our pickles — were mysteries until Pasteur’s discoveries, and few associated them with death and decay. But now we know better — Pollan shows how the making of a St-Nectaire cheese depends on waves of microbial advance and collapse — and we also know that kimchi and natto, however off-putting to the provincial Westerner, are but slight variations on foods that we prize. We also know that ninety percent of the cells in our bodies belong to non-human microbes, many of which defend us from pathogens such as E coli. The idea that all germs are bad germs is not only nonsense but wildly unhealthy. It seems almost certain that the autoimmune diseases that plague me took root in an environment, internal as well as external, that was simply too clean — too lifeless.

Everything that we thought we knew about food, in short, is wrong — fatally incomplete. Literally fatal: the link between the “Western diet,” high in sugar and low in bacteria, and the chronic diseases that afflict us, from cancer to hypertension, has been established. What we knew about food was incomplete in other ways, too, and perhaps the most interesting thing about Cooked is how it transforms the idea of cooking itself. More than any other writer, Pollan suggests the possibility a truly nourishing cuisine, one in which the drudgery of a designated expert is replaced by a sociable praxis in which the entire family participates. In the course of the book — Cooked is basically an extended version of a certain kind of blog entry, in which experiences are pursued so that they can be written about — Pollan teaches himself how to roast meat over wood coals, how to stew cheap cuts of meat (he is a little bit too in love with the term “braise” to excuse his failure to point out that it is the French for “ember” — another form of coal), how to create bread from flour, water, salt and the yeast that’s wild in his own home, and how to ferment vegetables (sauerkraut) and malt (beer). Aside from cheese, Pollan learns how to do all of these things in his own kitchen. Some of them become part of his everyday life, while others are reserved for special occasions. But Pollan never becomes a “food person” — he never ceases to be a professional writer.

Pollan works with many artisans who devote their lives to the craft of producing food of the highest (healthiest) quality, but aside from the journalistic business of describing personalities and processes, his interest in his subject is that of a householder, someone with a day job that is not centered in the kitchen. In the old days, householders had servants to provide them with delicious meals, but servants are extinct. When they began to disappear, commercial manufacturers sold “convenience” to homemakers, almost all of them women without other jobs, who had been taught to regard cooking as a matter of following miscellaneous recipes, and not as the command of a handful of techniques that would make it possible to construct wholesome meals from meats and vegetables on hand. No wonder the second-wave feminists repudiated this deracinated chore! In the course of my lifetime, certainly, I’ve watched a swelling movement pursue the holistic understanding of cooking that was easily acquired in the harsh conditions of long-ago life, while incorporating everything that is good about modern technology. (This would include the “science” of cooking: everyone now knows who Harold McGee is.)

Today’s householder has to be a cook on the side, which is to say a habitual cook. We must eat every day, and it is better to eat well and economically as long as we’re at it. Michael Pollan makes it clear that the only viable way for all but the wealthiest to do so is to cook at home. Instead of teaching our children how to make cookies, we need to teach them how to cook, and if Pollan’s experience with his teenaged son is any indication, this teaching can be compelling. Its subject, after all, is life itself.

Gotham Diary:
Secret Gardens
11 June 2013

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

The weather was dismal, the traffic was terrible, but I was still reasonably patient as we crawled toward the last segment of congested traffic, at the foot of the great ramp that leads from the waterline to the altitude of the George Washington Bridge. We were on the Harlem River Drive; we would cross Manhattan on the GWB approach, but then turn off for a brief stretch of smooth sailing along the Henry Hudson Parkway. We would take the first exit we came to, and climb once again to the height of Fort Tryon Park, where the car would drop us off for the Cloisters Garden Party.

I was patient, as I say, but the driver was not, and the driver didn’t know that he didn’t know what he was doing when he decided, at the last minute, to swerve into the right lane of the Harlem River Drive, which was empty, because all traffic on the Drive at that hour is aimed at the GWB: it’s one of the three routes to suburban New Jersey. The stretch of Drive beyond the access ramp is never very heavily traveled, and it’s not unusual for it to be absolutely empty, but for one’s vehicle. I knew what the driver, thinking himself very clever, was planning to do, and I knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it, and I was beside myself with frustration. In a small, calm compartment of my mind, I worked on how to save the situation.

For there is no entrance to Fort Tryon Park from the southbound lane of the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Nor would Kathleen’s suggestion work: proceeding to the next exit, getting off the Parkway, and then getting right back on again at the opposite entrance. This is a maneuver that I call the Sherman McCoy, after the protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities: it’s his deluded reliance on such a plan, which New York City was built to defeat, that precipitates his downfall. The next-exit turnaround works on most Interstate Highway access points in the United States, but as Susan Sontag said about Manhattan — well, some other time. The “next exit” of the Henry Hudson Parkway is a manic doodle of whichways that even makes use of a city street (Riverside Drive). Re-entry onto the northbound lane of the Parkway is not an option that I’m aware of. But we got off at this next exit anyway, because I was pretty sure that I could get us out of the sprawling interchange and onto a side street that would take us to Fort Washington Avenue, from which the Park and the Cloisters can also be reached. When I saw “W 178 St” on an overhead sign, I directed the driver to head for it, and, soon enough, we were really on our way.

I had not actually insulted the driver, but I had loudly berated him for not listening to me. My indignation subsided the moment the driver realized his error (counting on a southbound-lane exit that didn’t exist). By the time we reached Margaret Corbin Circle, at the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, the driver was not exactly apologizing but excusing himself — in seventeen years of driving around New York, he’d never been here — and I was apologizing, if also along pro forma lines. I was magnanimous — that state of soul that is ignited by the triumphant satisfaction of knowing that (a) I was right and (b) I knew how to fix it because (c) I’ve been visiting the Cloisters for nearly fifty years. Call me a hedgehog: I know one big thing about the Cloisters. How to get there.

Kathleen, who had not enjoyed the interplay between the driver and me, muttered as we crossed the cobbled road to the Cloisters that she hadn’t wanted to go in the first place. But we were soon enveloped in the peace of the place, and when we boarded a bus (provided by the Museum) for the homeward journey, she said that she was very glad to have come.


I know a few other things about the Cloisters, but others know them better. The important thing about what I do know is that it’s indispensable: if you can’t get to the Cloisters, the rest doesn’t really matter.

Which is why, I suspect, the Museum puts on this annual Cloisters party for its more generous members. Such members are extremely unlikely to take the MTA bus that threads its way up Broadway, and even less likely to take the IRT subway to 191st Street and then walk half a mile through the hills and dales of Fort Tryon Park, which itself is not easy to do, because if you elect to follow the road, there is no sidewalk, whereas the pathways in the Park are anything but straightforward, and often involve flights of stone steps that aren’t in the very best shape. As for driving, there’s something curiously wrong about a forty-minute road trip (in no traffic) that begins and ends in Manhattan. It’s a way of going nowhere in a car that reminds me of what Mark Twain said about Bermuda (before airplanes were an option): it was a Paradise that you had to go through Hell to get to.

Some party notes: The arcades of the Cuxa Cloister, the largest of the four (they say that there are five, but St-Guilhem, Trie, and Bonnefont are the only others that I’ve found), are not very spacious when furnished with a bar and serving tables and a small crowd of members — not on a rainy night when you can’t stroll in the garden, and neither can you leave the cloister with food and drink. Doubtless because of the weather, but also perhaps because absolutely nothing else was on offer, not even water, the wine-tasting setup in the chapter house didn’t seem to be very busy. There was another bar in the hall that contains the Fuentidueña Apse (“on permanent loan” from the Spanish government) — crickets. Heading downstairs, we found another bar/munchables setup in the arcade of the Bonnefont Cloister, which was almost jammed, given the bad weather. The Trie Cloister, which ordinarily sports a breezy café cart, was deserted, probably because the garden there has been completely reconstructed, with new drainage and a few seedlings sprouting from the new topsoil; the charming fountain is also out for repairs.

Access from the bar areas to the other rooms is limited to two doors leading off the Cuxa Cloister, the one from the vestibule and the one that leads to the room that I never linger in, despite its very pretty windows, the Early Gothic Hall. Through this chamber, you can descend to the lower level, with the Treasury (closed for the occasion, wisely I should think), the adjacent Trie and Bonnefont Cloisters, and the “tomb room” that is probably the most powerful reminder of the vicissitudes of fortune to be found in this city: how surprised those knights and ladies would be — how much more than surprised— to learn that their effigies would cross the ocean and come to rest in a heathen cosmopolis for all to gawk on (all who can find the way to Fort Tryon Park, anyway).

By another door, you can leave the Early Gothic Hall for the two rooms of tapestries (Nine Heroes and Unicorns) and the collections of late-Gothic artifacts (the jewel of which is the Campin Altarpiece). Through the vestibule, you can pass to the hall with the great apse that I’ve already mentioned, and proceed further to the always-tranquil St-Guilhem Cloister, with its pebbled court and translucent sunroof. The Langon Chapel was blocked off, for use by servers, but we espied the capital that is said to portray Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. (How surprised they would be, too — but not more than surprised, not that pair.)

I’m not sure that the doors to the battlements were unlocked, but only fools would have made use of them — fools and persons not appropriately dressed. The wet weather was a great shame. The gardens were lush and green and very melancholy. So beautiful and yet so inaccessible.

Gotham Diary:
10 June 2013

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Dreary as it is today, it is slightly difficult to remember by what a stroke of readerly providence it was that I came to the end (for the second time) of Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) shortly after noon on a brilliant summery Sunday in June. While Kathleen was at Mass, no less, at the church where we were married nearly thirty-two years ago, no less. It was all extremely concordant, and I felt that a Sicilian tenacity was holding my world in place, much as it did the Prince’s. In Lampedusa’s magisterially conservative Weltanschauung, nothing changes and nothing remains the same: passing away and becoming are the same thing. His writing ascends to such a pitch that one can fairly hear the music, not of the spheres, but of Kepler’s polyhedra, grating smoothly against each other at the occasional point of contact. Cosmic, in a word.

The Leopard is a book for older readers. It won’t do young readers any harm, although I expect it might bore them; I myself didn’t read the novel until I was in my early fifties, but even then I found it somewhat extended. This time round, it had the concision of a prose poem. There is also something faintly liturgical about it, as if Lampedusa were observing what we might call the Rite of the Novel. The book consists entirely of set pieces that are studded with memories. The family saying the rosary; the discussions with Fr Pirrone and Tancredi; the voyage to Donnefugata; the bourgeois comedy of marital misalliance, seen from the opposite perspective; a fantasia on fairy tale themes that follows the young lovers on their escapades through the vast, unmapped palace; the Ponteleone ball, summa and summary of Le temps retrouvé; the death of the just man, satisfactorily according with the Prince’s reaction to the copy of the Greuze painting in the preceding chapter; and closing with the family — now reduced to three of the Prince’s daughters (with his daughter-in-law looking on) — not saying the rosary but trying to hold on to the right to hear Mass in its chapel, a chapel (and a privilege) unknown in the Prince’s day.

Each of these scenes — I neglected the intermezzo in which Fr Pirrone visits his ancestral village and patches up a family quarrel — is as suave and shapely as the very best of European literature, and far more stylish than anything written in English (except by Henry James). The art lies not only in the beauty of the prose but in the concentration of significance, which is often effected by inverted sequences. Take, for example, the trip to Donnefugata, which takes up twelve pages in the Pantheon edition. We begin near the end, on the third day of the journey, with an extended rest stop — a scene by Corot. Then we flash back to an evening at the villa outside Palermo: a “Piedmontese” general arrives, together with his entourage (including Tancredi, the beloved, mercurial nephew) and asks to see the frescoes (!); this general is said to have been useful in arrangement the safe-conducts for the family’s crossing of the island from Palermo. Now Lampedusa returns to the journey, this time cataloguing its horrors and hardships (“…the Prince had found thirteen flies in his glass of fruit juice, while a strong smell of excrement…”). At the outskirts of the town, the cortege is welcomed by the “authorities.” And then, instead of retiring to the palace, the family proceeds to the cathedral for a Te Deum. Everything in this extended passage is massive, arduous, slow, and lighted by menace. The Salina family is impervious, but it treads on nothing more substantial than nuance. If you are severely pressed, these twelve pages will do a passable job of standing in for the novel as a whole.

The Leopard makes me envy Umberto Eco, because I believe that you would really have to be he in order to get everything that this novel has to offer. I don’t mean to suggest that The Leopard is at all obscure. But it, too, treads on nuance, on quiet references to Italian culture and history (and beyond) that I register without fully comprehending. The book’s political talk (not that there is so very much of it) must be so much more tensely allusive to well-educated Italians. And how the aristocratic writer would be cackling (silently, I imagine) at the current state of Italian politics. Talk about foretold!


I was still basking in the afterglow of Lampedusa’s masterpiece when Will and his mother arrived, a visit that, while it prolonged the concordance, prorogued my daydreams about the House of Salina. For the first time, we were able to enjoy the balcony as a family, and the balcony was fine place for would-be messes, such as playing with Kathleen’s collection of stamps and inkpads. Always fascinated by the three-gallon watering can that he has never been able to lift, Will found a new use for it when he discovered that his feet were “thirsty” and in need of immersion (up to the knee). Only one leg at a time, though! Happily, there isn’t room for both; if there were, Will and the watering can would have tipped over for sure, spilling a small lake of water that would immediately subside beneath our faux-brick flooring only to flood the neighboring balcony.

Like everybody, Will likes to have a choice. For quite a long time, he has been subsisting on milk, fruit, French fries, and the odd bit of vegetable. That is all we get to see, anyway. Signs that his original omnivorousness may be returning have begun to glimmer, however. For his dinner last night, we ordered a grilled cheese sandwich deluxe from the “dinner store” across the street (read “coffee shop”), so that Will could feast on the deluxe — the fries. The grownups were going to eat Chinese, which was a different order, so while Kathleen and Megan chatted indoors, waiting for that to arrive, I sat with Will at the table on the balcony while he tucked into his food. The stamps and the inkpads were nearby, and he seemed interested in playing with them while he ate, but I gently forbade that and he did not persist. I asked him to try a bit of his sandwich and he declined. Then I had a very low idea. I offered to let him play with the stamps while he ate if he took two bites of the sandwich. He at once put down the French fry in his hand, picked up half of the sandwich, and took the tiniest of bites. When it was objected that this did not count, he took a slightly larger one. Presently, he had taken two real bites and I reached for a third. To my surprise, he didn’t balk. The third bite was followed by a purely voluntary fourth, a fifth, and so on. Will seemed unable to put down the sandwich. This was gratifying in itself, but I was also piqued to observe that he showed no interest in playing with the stamps. It was the option that he wanted. And, only then, as he discovered, a grilled cheese sandwich

Gotham Diary:
Another Adoption
7 June 2013

Friday, June 7th, 2013

A pretty picture, ain’t it? Entrances to the new subway station are under excavation to either side of our driveway, which is already cluttered with the scaffolding required for the replacement of the building’s balcony railings. I suppose we’re lucky to be able to get in and out. A visitor queried elevator passengers the other day: was it always this noisy? (The sawing and the drilling of the balcony workers reverberates far and wide.) “It’s a war zone,” I said, as I tend rather fatuously to do, never having been in one. What I really mean is that the station’s work sites have made the intersection of 86th and Second something of a checkpoint, reminding me of Cold War Berlin (not that I’ve been there, either). The lady standing next to me said, “People in the front of the building have no life.”

Kathleen and I lived in an apartment on the front of the building for two years, and the street noise was plenty obnoxious then. I recall with special shudders the commercial refuse haulers who would grind their way down the street before sunrise, stopping every ten yards or so and lulling us back into dreams of quiet, only start up again momentarily. Now, what with the jackhammers and the blasting, it must be hell to spend the day at home for those overhead.


In the eighteen months since my aunt’s very unexpected death from complications of appendicitis, my thoughts about my adoptive father’s brother and his wife have shifted significantly. My feelings remain what they were, but I see them from a different perspective. The querulous egotism that marks every positive relationship (basically the late Mayor Koch’s question: “How’m I doing?”) gives way to something more Proustian. Instead of fretting over planning the next visit, or just picking up the phone (which I did quite often in the years after my uncle died) — instead of wondering what I ought to be doing, and looking forward to seeing and talking to them — I consider our connection with detachment, and I see, as I never did when they were alive, that I adopted them, I made more of them than anyone intended. When they were alive, I told everybody that I “adored” them, as indeed I did, but now I see something beneath that admiration, what might be called a neediness. I needed them because I admired them.

I won’t say that I ever wished that they were my parents instead. Some sort of taboo blocked longings of that sort. They had four children of their own whom they must necessarily prefer to me; recognition of this formal proposition is probably what licensed my interest and esteem, which certainly had no correlatives as regarded my actual parents. I admired my aunt and uncle because they were breezy and clever and well-read and unafraid of ideas. My uncle, unlike my father, was not embarrassed by his own intelligence. My aunt, who had written sonnets at Manhattanville and worked at Vogue, was unafflicted by the low-grade paranoia that paraded as my mother’s shrewdness. And she was my kind of woman. I see that now, too.

Yes. Although sophisticated and unsentimental (about people), and not, as I gathered from my cousins’ murmurs much later, the most maternal person in the world — she confessed to me herself that, although she dearly loved each of her children, she had not been able to care for them as babies — my aunt was more of a woman to me than my mother was. Isn’t that odd? Isn’t one’s mother ordinarily the template of womanliness? But mine was never mine, even before I found out that she was not my mother.

I suppose the current wisdom would hold that our bonding failed during my infancy. Whatever the cause, I thought that my mother was a strange sort of person, and frightening, too, because she did not handle finding me to be a strange sort of person at all well. And I still suspect that my sister and I were adopted to give my parents the appearance deemed suitable for membership in the senior-management class.


What is love? How do you know when you love someone? That you love someone? How can you be certain? What if it’s just the case that you want to love someone, because you’re supposed to, or you used to?

Such questions were a constant vexation to me, until I met Kathleen thirty-four years ago. I was very confused about love, but then she came along, and I learned that love is how I feel about her, and what motivates me to behave as I do. But because I was so old when I found out what love is — I had been on the point of learning, a few years earlier, when Megan was born, but the lesson was canceled and my feelings remained confused — I’m still astonished that she loves me. In black spells, I doubt that she does. (She is never nearby at such times — that’s the small part of the problem that ignites it.) Doubt is my default. As a boy, I knew that I was supposed to love my mother, and, wanting to be good, I wanted to love her. But I doubted that I did. I was often told that my behavior strongly indicated that I didn’t. Such comments clouded my grasp of love with frankly contractual concerns. On the subject of contracts, I am lucidity itself, a fount of judgments for all occasions. As to love, though, I know only that I found out what it was with Kathleen, and that she taught me, in her instinctive way, how to love the rest of my family. Instead of ignoring what I didn’t adore.

Gotham Diary:
6 June 2013

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Who knew? Who knew that there was a movie, made in 1948 (the year of my birth), about Sophia Dorothea, Electress of Hannover and mother of George II — but never Queen of England, owing to her mad idea that she could be as unfaithful as her husband. That would be George I, surely the most unpopular of English monarchs, even including bad King John, who was at least bad. George I was, in the vernacular view, pompous and German and even more hypocritical than the English themselves. But this is not the time to indulge in corrective history. No, this is the time to say that the original Sophia Dorothea probably lacked the modest county dignity of her impersonator, Joan Greenwood. In the Ealing Comedies, Greenwood was always arch and ironic, but in Saraband she is noble, or as noble as a lady who falls for love can be. She is also somewhat generic, in Ealing’s first motion picture in colour, looking like any number of beautiful Hollywood starlets whose first chance at leading roles was never followed up. She doesn’t sound like them, of course. She sounds like Joan Greenwood, with the sexiest voice ever to speak English on film. Her prettiness in Saraband is a kind of kink.

Françoise Rosay is very good as the other Sophia Dorothea, the mother-in-law, the granddaughter of James I who was on terms of conversational equality with Leibniz and other worthies and who, had she lived another couple of months, would have been Queen of England in her own right. Instead of that, of course, we have a dutiful old lady who brings Martita Hunt to mind. From a movie buff/historian’s vantage, Flora Robson is the draw, because instead of playing Elizabeth I or somebody’s prim aunt, she’s a sultry schemer with a small waist and a light voice — she looks pretty Hanoverian herself, and sometimes just plain pretty. But despite the valiant and engaging performances of the three leading ladies, Saraband can’t survive the mauling of its men (Stewart Granger, utterly inexplicable; Peter Bull, impossibly overwigged; Anthony Quayle, words fail) and preposterous screenplay, which, gunning for historical accuracy, presumes that audiences will care about electoral politics for its own sake. The result is an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, made ten years later but with no less lurid Technicolor, with Joan Greenwood in the Olivia de Havilland part. That was good enough for me, but I’m in love with Joan Greenwood at the moment. She is the frog princess.

It’s hard to resist the idea that Saraband could have been made only under the Labour Government that followed World War II. The Tories would have considered it a libel on the royal family, of whom the adulteress was an ancestress. Tories are of course the people who believe that it’s a crime to speak unpleasant truths. If it weren’t for that signal defect, I’d probably be one of them.


Michael Pollan’s Cooking, beginning as it did with its celebration of fire and barbecue and Homer and men standing around “passing the jar,” did not immediately appeal to me. I have found the second part much more attaching. I’m delighted that Pollan is making a reasonably big deal about the gender bias that built up around kinds of cooking in almost all traditional societies, with men killing and roasting the meat and women pulverizing and boiling the grains. Like me, Pollan believes that this has to stop: men must learn how to chop onions without complaint. In passing, Pollan says something (to be quoted at another time) that makes me very sad about my own kitchen. People are always amazed that I produce “gourmet” dinners in such a small space, but the real problem with my kitchen is that it is that it is too small for two people — too small for the conversation that makes chopping onions a breeze. I know, because I built a wonderful kitchen in our country house, years ago, and everything good that I remember about that room involves talk.

Gotham Diary:
5 June 2013

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

It was on the first leg of my round of errands that I realized that I should have to go home before setting out on the second. I had forgotten the key, the key to the storage unit, located a few blocks east of the well-known lamp emporium on Lexington Avenue in the 60s. I was, therefore, lugging my laptop for nothing. My laptop is perfect for someone who travels from one room to another; carried beyond the apartment’s threshold, it puts on a lot of weight. I sighed but managed to curb genuine irritation. At least I wouldn’t be carrying the bulky lampshade frame that I had brought in for recovering, but which was going, it turned out, to be thrown away — it was somewhat crude, said the salesman, and in need of repairs that would cost almost as much as a new frame. I was very happy about the apple-green silk-wool twill that we had found for the new lampshade, which will be the first thing that anybody coming into the apartment sees. Lampshades usually are the first things that you see: they surround sources of light. But they go unnoticed, designed to complement a room without attracting attention to themselves. I don’t expect the new lampshade to attract a lot of conscious attention, but I know that it will put people on notice that they’re entering the kind of place that greets you with a shot of apple green.

When my transactions were complete, I walked over to Third Avenue and caught a taxi. Although it was a beautiful day, traffic was terrible. I couldn’t decide what to do next, but when I got to the apartment, I stayed there just long enough to wash my hands and do one or two things. I stuffed some shirts into my consolidated tote bag and headed down and out. In the taxi, I realized that I’d forgotten to stop in at the dry cleaner’s on my way out and was still carrying the shirts. It was that kind of day. But I did have the key.

By now, it was nearly two, and lunch was way overdue. I thought twice about having my usual burger, with accompanying black-and-tans, at the Baker Street Pub, before trying to get something done at the storage unit, but I decided to risk it. In the event, it didn’t hurt, because I never could bring up the library database on the laptop. I thought that I had fixed whatever it was that doomed my first attempt, a few weeks before, but I was wrong. It would take an hour of help from Jason, back at the apartment, for me to figure out how to make Readerware work “offsite” — Jason’s word for anywhere not connected to the wireless network at home, through which a number of data banks are based (not just backed up) on a NAS server. Jason, paying a visit via TeamViewer, reminded me, ahem, that Readerware is designed for use on one, presumably stationary, computer. Jason is forever reminding me, graciously as you please, that I am living in the Flinstone era. That’s okay, because he usually has a workaround.

Before the session with Jason, as I was coming home from the storage unit, I walked right past the dry cleaner’s again. It really must have been a beautiful day, because I was still able to curb irritation. I cleaned up, changed into house clothes, and took the shirts down to the dry cleaner’s. Not having learned to do one thing at a time, I also took the cards that we use in the laundry room; there’s a device in the lobby that enables you to put more money on them. But I forgot that they were in my pocket when the dry cleaner produced a cumbersome bedspread for me to carry home. It was the kind of day when some little thing goes wrong at every turn, but to no effect. When irritation is curbed. A very rare kind of day. Perhaps not a kind of day at all, but unique.

After the session with Jason, I sat outside in the lovely evening light and read Albert Hirschman on interests and linkages. Then Kathleen came home from Washington, and we had a pizza.


Have you read Walter Kirn’s piece about his friendship with Clark Rockefeller, in the current (Fiction) issue of The New Yorker? As is well-known now, Clark Rockefeller was a Bavarian,  and not a Rockefeller at all. Was he a con man? Hard to say; he was so much more, and so peculiar as well. He was certainly a murderer — or at any rate a jury had no reasonable doubt that he was. Kirn admits to being dazzled by the friendliness of a man who appeared to belong to the ultimate inside establishment. His memoir of an uneasy undergraduate career at Princeton, alluded to here, prepared me for the story that he had to tell about “Rockefeller,” whose real name was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Kirn is careful to demonstrate that the point of such stories is that they are never about the showman; they’re about you, about what makes you fall for such a guy.

As an English major at Princeton, I’d learned the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” but with Clark you contributed belief, wiring it from your personal account into the joint account that you held with him. He showed you a hollow tree, you added the bees. He gave you the phone number of the President; you added the voice that would greet you if you dialled it, and the faces of the Secret Service agents who would show up at your home a few days later. He gave you an envelope with a check inside; you filled in the amount.

Gotham Diary:
Novelty Bomb
4 June 2013

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

George Packer is such an accomplished writer that everyone he talks to becomes an interesting person, at least on the pages of his book, The Unwinding. But only one of them puzzled me. That puzzlement will probably prove to be very constructive, indicating as it does a new window on human possibility that I’ve got to figure out how to open, but at the moment, I just don’t get Peter Thiel. I don’t understand how anyone so manifestly intelligent can be stuck on sweet dreams of the Tolkien fantasies and the, to me, equally childish worldview of libertarianism. Is it possible that his education passed by without a single teacher’s getting through to him about the meaning of the humanities? Or that the sprouts of any seeds of understanding that might have been planted have been rigorously weeded out?

According to Packer, Thiel believes that a constructive era in American life came to its end in 1973, and that sounds right to me. The oil shocks of that year are often cited as watersheds of trauma, but my recollection of a time in which I had little or no interest in the economic health of the United States, it seems to me that it was thereabouts that the last of the fizz of the Sixties finally went flat. It has long been my impression that, somewhere in the early Seventies, feminism went from being a challenge proposed to being a challenge undertaken. That most preposterous of terms, “human resources,” came into use about then, signalling a disingenuousness in American business that cleared the moral ground for the financialization of everything. Rather than share their merit badges with the girls, the boys converted the troupe into a casino. Men got sly. This did not mean that they became more intelligent, however, and that’s why we’ve had such a bumpy ride.

I agree with Thiel that we haven’t any real technological progress since 1973, but I’m not sure that this is the bad thing that he thinks it is. No technological progress since 1973? you gasp, glaring meaningfully at the screen upon which you’re reading this; but I agree with Thiel: the proliferation of circuits and binary strings that has certainly altered the texture of intelligent life in the past thirty-odd years has been a matter of implementation, not one of invention. The introduction of the personal computer (itself the miniaturization of existing machinery) launched a multiple-warhead novelty bomb that continues to cloud our understanding with information of dubious value. It has also facilitated transactions that tend to benefit few at the expense of many — the globalization of manufacturing, the merchandising pressures of a behemoth such as Wal-Mart, the growth of unwittingly risky financial trades requiring bail-outs.

In short, a mess. But Thiel doesn’t want to hang around cleaning up messes. He wants to visit other galaxies and live forever. He wants more new experiences. The novelty bomb is still going off in his head.


As I finished The Unwinding over the weekend, one figure stood out as a potential member of what I’m calling the loyal opposition to organized money, and that was Elizabeth Warren.

The bankers could never forgive her. They saw her as “the Devil incarnate, and they threw money all over Congress to keep her out of the consumer agency job. They called her naive, but what they could forget was how well she knew their game.

The Republicans could never forgive her. She didn’t back down or extend the usual courtesies, and so they hectored her, called her a liar to her face, and devoted themselves to killing the consumer agency almost as if they were pointing the knife at the woman who dared.

Some of the Democrats would never forgive her. The White House considered her “a pain in the ass.” Dodd suggested that her ego was the problem. Timothy Geithner, aggravated almost to shouting in an oversight hearing, couldn’t stand her.

And the president didn’t know what to do with a woman like this. They had Harvard Law School in common, and Warren talked about the same things Obama did — the hard-pressed middle class, the need for a fair playing field, the excesses of finance. But she did not talk about things things as one of the elites. She did not say, in the same breath, “It’s not personal, guys — let’s be reasonable and get a deal.” For that reason, some of Obama’s most prominent supporteers were moving away from him, and toward her.

We shall see. Now that she is in the Senate, Warren has an opportunity to show what loyal opposition might look like, by taking stands that preclude her selling out to the party in power, which is organized money. Organized money corrupts elected officials by purchasing their inaction with the promise of lucrative lobbying and consulting jobs upon return to the private sector. Packer illustrates the process in a brilliant single paragraph, which also encompasses the final awakening of one of his feature players, Jeff Connaughton. Connaughton, working for Senator Ted Kaufman to enact a strict Volcker Rule, might have hoped that Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd would support their efforts once he announced that he would not be running for re-election.

That should have liberated him to go after Wall Street with Kaufman, but Connaughton saw it the other way around. If Dodd had to face the voters again, he would have felt pressured to shepherd through a tough bill. Instead, he was free to prepare for life after the Senate, where the power of money would still hang over his career. You had to think really hard before you took on the establishment, because there were a lot of ways to build a very comfortable way of life if you went with the flow (like become the top lobbyist for the movie industry, which was what Dodd would go on to do), but standing against the establishment closed off a big part of America that otherwise would have made room for you. You were in or you were out.

To be perfectly clear here, “organized money” is the amorphous special-purpose entity that provides compliant politicians and other public figures with comfortable livings when they retire from public life. No loyal opposition currently exists as an organized body. That is what Packer means by “out.” Out in the howling darkness, with nothing but your own talents to chase down the rare high-compensation job that is not a comfortable living in the gift of organized money.

Organized money can never be eliminated altogether, but it can be cut back, and cut back extensively, if:

  • We deny corporations the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment — free speech especially. Defenders of this protection must be obliged to spell out the harm that would be done to actual human beings by its withdrawal, and to be very clear how many human beings (if any) would be harmed.
  • We professionalize civil servants, real-estate developers, and retailers, as we do lawyers, doctors, and military officers. Imposing standardized skill-sets and codes of ethics creates powerful bodies of men and women, while by the same token fracturing the elite into union-like organizations.
  • We improve living standards for elected officials by raising salaries and pensions and preserving the dignities of office after retirement, as we currently do for the President. Campaign financing must be equalized if not neutralized. (A good deal of this would be accomplished by denying the right of corporations or industry associations from contributing to campaign chests, as would follow from their loss of the right to free speech.)

There are undoubtedly many other things that could be done, but I’ve tried to focus on measures that don’t directly diminish anyone’s personal property or other expectations.

Gotham Diary:
3 June 2013

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

In the household I grew up in, meat was judged by the amount of time that it took to cook it. Quickly-cooked meats were prized; slow-cooking meats were shunned. It’s for this reason that I have never tasted pot roast. Nor, until quite recently, did I understand where the beef in a roast beef sandwich comes from. I still have no idea what “bottom round” signifies. Mark Bittman’s recipe for Off-Oven Roast Beef, published in the Times Magazine on 20 January, calls for “1 beef roast, top, eye or bottom round, approximately 3 pounds,” so I went to Fairway and found one. (Fairway seems always to have eyes and bottoms, but no tops.) Picking it up and putting it into my shopping cart, I felt that I was taking a big step in my mastery of cuisine, about forty years late.

On Sunday, I roasted a piece of bottom round for the third time this year, slathering it in a sloppy goo of garlic that I had run through a small food processor with sea salt and peppercorns. The roast weighed 2.71 pounds, so I multiplied that by five and got thirteen and a half minutes. Bittman’s rule is that you put the meat in a 500º oven for five minutes for every pound, and then you turn the oven off and leave the roast undisturbed for two hours — by which time my oven, at any rate, cools down almost completely. The fragrance of garlicky meat blasted the apartment for about an hour, and it would have been insanely appetizing if we had not had a big breakfast.

Rather late in the evening — Kathleen had been pottering in her closets, and I’d been lost in the last pages of The Unwinding — I decided to make dinner after all. I’d been toying with going across the street for Mexican, as we often do on Sunday evening. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to cook. I just wasn’t sure that I was up to inventing something worth eating. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of meat salads for decades, but recipes are hard to find, and they generally rely too heavily on tomatoes. Dressings never seem quite right. I have also learned, by error and trial, that greens — cooked beans especially — introduce an unpleasant note of chlorophyll. I had it in mind to make a dinner salad with wild rice, stewed tomatoes, and thinly-sliced beef, but the details were unclear. I had another glass of wine and listened to Kathleen’s music. Then I got off my duff and went into the kitchen.

Aside from an ear of corn, which I stripped into a small frying pan and sizzled for a few minutes, everything that went into the salad was already cooked. The rice had been sitting in a bag in the refrigerator for some time, but it was still good — very good. I shook out an amount that seemed right. I quartered four stewed grape tomatoes. I minced three green onions. I chopped the contents of a rather small bottle (Fairway brand) of artichoke hearts. I stirred in the warm corn. Then I turned to the dressing. I combined a little less than a tablespoon of sour cream, a little more than a tablespoon of mayonnaise, and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard with a splash of lime vinegar, and stopped right there, mindful that  the salad ingredients were already variously seasoned. Finally, I sliced the beef, which fell from the spinning blade in shreds. I tossed the salad well, and let it sit for about half an hour, or slightly longer than it took to compose the salad.

This is the second time that I’ve written down my recipe for Rosbif Salad; I was careful to do so last night, after dinner, in my kitchen notebook.


On Saturday night, we went to see the new apartment of an old friend who recently inherited some very fine furniture, paintings, and other lovely things. I have been in a few “fabulous” New York apartments over the years, but never in one filled with objects of museum grade. The rooms were spacious and uncrowded. There was plenty to look at, but no need to see much of it at any given time. The understated opulence was curative, deeply refreshing. My admiration was untainted by envy, because the meanest thing at our friend’s was finer than the best thing that home had to offer: there was simply no overlap. The question, wouldn’t I like to live in such splendor, had a way of not quite coming up. I might visit with pleasure, but I would never belong in such surroundings. Thirty years ago, when our friend was already collecting nice things, I was rattled by competitive urges, and it took rather longer than it ought to have done for me to realize that I was once again making like a Roman instead of learning how to live my own life. I did develop a taste for prints, shared with Kathleen. But eventually I woke up to the fact that I am uncomfortable living with antiques.

I was recalling an old argument with my mother the other day, talking to someone in the editorial department at Antiques Magazine. My mother insisted that anything called an “antique” had to have been made prior to 1833. I argued that it had to be a hundred years old, that the applicable Federal law, passed in 1933, fixed a term, not a date. How I knew about this law, or what business the federal government had ruling on antiques in the first place, I have no idea whatsoever, but the woman from Antiques nodded her head vigorously: I was right about the century, twice the period that has elapsed since my arguing the matter with my mother.

We have a small chair that I have always assumed to an antique; with every passing year, I can be more assured of it. I call it the “French chair,” as it was probably called that when it was new. Carved fruits, refined nor crude, arch over an open, unupholstered back (against which, Trollope reminds us, no true lady’s back would ever lean), and the legs are just finished just enough not to be dismissed as rustic. The chair belonged to my maternal grandmother and might well have been the finest piece of furniture in someone’s house at one time, out in the Midwest somewhere. I wouldn’t dream of sitting on it, but Kathleen takes it at dinner parties. It would be curious, if not frankly out of place, at our friend’s new apartment.