Archive for October, 2013

Gotham Diary:
31 October 2013

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

After writing yesterday’s entry, I began to feel tired and heavy. It was like a hangover, only without the headache and the remorse — that biological remorse that must have been an evolutionary response to ingesting toxins. There was none of that yesterday, just a mildly painful exhaustion. I had no idea what the matter could be until Kathleen reminded me that I’m up for a Remicade infusion on Monday. Ordinarily, I’d be quite aware of this, and prepared for feeling low, but for some reason, the month of November has stood at the end of an ever-receding hallway, like the one in The Shining (innit?). This October has certainly been densely packed. Wallace Stevens comes to mind,

                       This is the barrenness
Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

While worrying that I might be on the edge of something — this was before Kathleen’s helpful reminder — I made my way to the end of Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, subtitled “An Adventure.” That’s not what it was for me. My vote for subtitle would be “A Disappointment.” Whether that would refer to the book, to its subject, or to both, I can’t quite tell. Why was I reading about Patrick Leigh Fermor? Well, his name kept cropping up, in books by and and about the Mitford sisters, for example. He was often referred to as a “beloved travel writer,” or words to that effect.* He seemed to be a swashbuckling Peter Pan, walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul at the age of nineteen and abducting a German general during World War II. (A few years ago, his correspondence with Deborah Devonshire was published as In Tearing Haste. I still haven’t read it — a very uncharacteristic response for this Triviata fan.**) Photos would show him to be sturdily good-looking, but of course they didn’t begin to explain the phenomenon. I couldn’t figure out how the contrarieties were resolved in one man: perfect gentleman, rowdy party animal; good friend, casual womanizer; careful writer, disorganized wastrel. The greatest tension of all — and I write this after having read a book about him — is Leigh Fermor’s conjunction of suave, quasi-military maturity and completely boyish immaturity. While I was trying to puzzle all this out, Cooper let drop a bomb, and I never quite recovered from the scathing dismissal belched by a very provoked Somerset Maugham (whom the adventurer had teased, unpardonably, about his stammer): “that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women.”

The charge is not without its elements of truth. Paddy Fermor was certainly middle-class, notwithstanding his mother’s pretensions to Irish aristocracy. The women in his life were gentry or better (sometimes much better — Lady Diana Cooper, the author’s grandmother, was a great chum). They supported him in most ways. Certainly without the resources of his longtime companion and eventual wife, Joan Rayner, Leigh Fermor would have gone on living out of suitcases, in other people’s guest rooms, and never enjoyed the monumentally unpretentious villa that he and Joan built on the Ionian Sea. Far from seeming to life a live devoted to fun and larks, Leigh Fermor struck me, in Cooper’s pages, as running one step ahead of being branded a bounder.

Joan is often mentioned in Paddy’s letters and notebooks, usually as a quiet presence.Sometimes he sees her reading, and notices the book and what she is wearing; sometimes he glances at her sitting opposite him, brows furrowed, deep in concentration over her pocket chess set. (Joan played chess to a high standard, but never with Paddy, was too impatient to be any good at the game.) Sometimes, in a notebook, he will comment that they had had a row that made them both miserable, though he never mentions the cause. It was probably money. Joan had to bear the strain of his extravagance as she tried to make her allowance stretch for two, and sometimes even her patience snapped. It is interesting to note how often Paddy was attracted to older women, and he was younger than the two great loves of his life. Yet he was not looking so much for a mother, as for someone to be Wendy to his Peter Pan, someone who would keep his fee on the ground, and at the same time do the tiresome, grown-up things so that he would not have to.

It didn’t help that I hadn’t read any of Leigh Fermor’s books. I’m going to give one a try — it ought to arrive any minute — and I’m going to put it down the tenth time it reminds me of Norman Douglas, if that happens. Elizabeth David, the alluring culinary heroine of Artemis Cooper’s last biography, pointed me to Douglas, whose work she adored. So I read South Wind and just about hated it.

The heart of the matter may be my own Anglophilia. I don’t long to escape the green and scepter’d isle. But Patrick Leigh Fermor and Elizabeth David and Norman Douglas, not to mention Nancy Mitford — these men and women couldn’t stand being in England for more than a short spell. Their longing for warmer weather was exceeded only by the desire for friendships that weren’t conditioned by background. Abroad, it didn’t matter who your family were or what schools you passed through. (Also, pounds made it possible to live in relative grandeur.) In Greece, Leigh Fermor got a lot of extraordinary mileage out of a vague personal resemblance to Lord Byron, the greatest of English Greek patriots. His wartime antics involved a lot of bonding with Cretan brigands, but the abduction of General Kreipe, aside from its stunt value, accomplished nothing but savage German reprisals.

It is also the case that vagabondage holds no romantic charm for me. My idea of roughing it is staying at home. It’s likely that I’ll never really grasp the fun in in what Paddy Fermor and his friends got up to. I have enough trouble living down my own exploits.

* I’ve just dug up Anthony Lane’s essay about PLF in The New Yorker. (May 22, 2006)
** La Triviata — am I making this up? — is what the duchess of Devonshire tagged a musical revue, concocted from various Mitford legends, that flopped forty-odd years ago.

Gotham Diary:
30 October 2013

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Arthur Danto died the other day. He was a genial writer, impossible to dislike. His writing gleams with healthy good sense. But it was also bent by his training in philosophy, and the struggle to hear his arguments out grew more and more difficult as I came to see philosophy itself as a terrible waste of time, and Kant its very Satan. Danto began as an academic philosopher, but he was drawn to art criticism by an encounter with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. This was a puzzle that Danto had to solve.

The first essay in his last book, What Art Is, unwinds the coil of twentieth-century antics that climaxed in Brillo Box, and in what Danto came to call “the end of art history.” “Wakeful Dreams” abounds in interesting observations, but I found it tedious to try to detach them from the philosophic thesis that Danto wrings from them. This thesis, in a nutshell, holds that art is a kind of philosophy, a practical criticism of modern society. This criticism is embodied not in texts, and not quite in works of art themselves, either, but in a meaning that is understood (and presumably acknowledged) by other artists, gallerists, patrons, and critics. Brillo Box is art because Andy Warhol said it was, and everyone else who mattered agreed with him. It is essential to this analysis that the meaning of the artwork be shared by artist and viewer. To me, this raises the question whether an artwork can survive the death of its creator and its first viewers.

I can assent to the proposition that art is identified by consensus. But I cannot detach that consensus from the array of individual human beings contributing to it. I cannot locate the consensus in the artwork. Artworks are, in my view, meaningless. That’s why I disagree with Danto so strongly about the appropriation of the Brillo Box. If there is an artist here, it is James Harvey, the commercial designer who created it. Andy Warhol’s replica is pure imposture — counterfeit. Danto’s attempt to set it apart as something new and special is plausible piffle.

There is one problem in concluding that the commercial Brillo box is what Warhol’s Brillo Box is about. Although I would have hoped for the contrast to be between art and reality, it is hard to deny that Harvey’s Brillo box is art. It is art, but it is commercial art. Once the design is set, the cartons are manufactured by the thousands. They are made of corrugated cardboard to protect the contents while still being light enough to be lifted and moved, and to allow for easy opening. None of that is true of Andy’s boxes; only a few were made, and their purpose was purely to be seen and understood as art. It is pure snobbishness to deny that commercial art is art just because it is utilitarian. And besides, cardboard boxes are part of the Lebenswelt. Andy’s box is not. It is part of the Art World. Harvey’s box belongs to visual culture, as that is understood, but Andy’s boxes belong to high culture.

Danto overcomes the snobbery of disdaining commercial art only to succumb to a philosophical delirium that reproduces the effect of snobbery. When he writes, “but it is commercial art,” Danto merely resets Harvey’s box as “reality,” placing it in the desired, but quite specious, relation to Warhol’s alleged artwork.

What I see in Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box is a curatorial statement. I do not believe that his constructing the box out of different materials constitutes a creative act. (I don’t object to it, either.) The artist whose work is on exhibit is, as I say, James Harvey, and Andy Warhol’s role is that of the dealer or gallerist. Danto’s attempt to recast this reality is, at bottom, offensive. A fake is a fake is a fake. Perhaps it would be better to say that there are no fakes — every “fake” is real enough in itself — but only fakers. Andy Warhol’s fakery was so thoroughgoing and transparent that I have come to regard him as a fake, not as a faker. The fakers in the case of Andy Warhol are the “artworld” people who proclaimed his genius. It kills me to be obliged to place Danto among their number.

Who knows “what art is,” and who cares? It’s pretty clear from the history of oil painting on wood and canvas that this sort of art is something for which a few people are willing pay a good deal of money to acquire, as well something in which many more people (not necessarily the same people) profess to find beauty, not just when the painting is new but for centuries afterward. Isn’t that enough?


Consider the history of Vermeer’s reputation. After his death in 1675, he did not, as one might imagine, slip into oblivion, only to be triumphantly rediscovered in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. He was triumphantly rediscovered, but not in Holland, where in fact he was never forgotten. In the Eighteenth Century, Vermeer was a local taste, peculiar to Nederlanders. His name meant nothing outside his homeland, and when his pictures changed hands — they were certainly recognized as important paintings — they were attributed to other artists, Rembrandt, de Hooch, or Metsu. (We shall consider the history of Metsu’s reputation some other time.) Were the Hollanders crazy to value Vermeer? Was the rest of the world crazy to take so long to do so? These silly questions imply that Vermeer’s pictures had (and have) an intrinsic value, a fixed atomic weight that it is up to us to appreciate. This is nonsense. There is no intrinsic value. The simple explanation is that Vermeer captured the potential beauty of the moral life of Holland, and his countrymen saw as much. It was only as the values of that moral life spread throughout Western society, gradually overcoming the masculinist grandiosity of the hitherto prevailing aesthetic, that Vermeer’s paintings came to be loved by viewers from other countries. It is certainly arguable that his paintings contributed to this spread.

The first Vermeer to hang on American walls was the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which it was donated (after a loan) by Henry Marquand, a New Yorker banker and the picture’s second modern owner to regard it as a Vermeer. Two links back in the chain of provenance, it was exhibited by Robert Vernon, in the British Institution show of 1838, as a Metsu. The idea, which we should have to infer from Danto, that the Londoners of 1838 could not have appreciated the picture properly because they were unaware that Vermeer had painted it, is not a thriving one. More telling still is Pierpont Morgan’s acquisition of A Lady Writing, in 1907. Approached by the dealer, G S Hellman, Morgan declared that he had never heard of Vermeer. By the time Hellman was through with his spiel, however — and this included a recital of the prices that Vermeers were fetching lately — Morgan handed over the asking price, $100,000, without demur. I am inclined to believe that the painting genuinely appealed to him. That’s all that matters.

Gotham Diary:
What Next
29 October 2013

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Lauren LeBlanc

Another thing that I did last week was to do a bit of staring at Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a very famous painting that I have never seen before. I found, to my disappointment, that the picture reproduces very well. There didn’t seem to be much to learn from the original. The painting has been given its own room at the Frick Collection, and not a small room, either. It has been hung rather high on the wall, so that everyone can get a look, but none, I think, a good one. It’s a trophy now, almost certainly better-known and -loved, at least in this country,  than the Mona Lisa. Everyone has read Tracy Chevalier’s book, and everyone has seen Peter Webber’s movie (ten years old already!) — everyone who goes to museums, that is. I still hear people who have walked up to the similar Study of a Young Woman that hangs in the Museum (up those stairs behind me, straight back, and all the way to the left — where the explosive gift shop would have been in The Goldfinch) say to their friends, “Here she is!” But usually somebody in the party knows better. The Museum’s girl is nowhere near so fetching. She doesn’t yearn; she doesn’t tease. The girl from the Mauritshuis makes you want to crawl back through time and follow her around Delft for a while. She’s an icon, which makes it even harder to look at the actual painting with any sense.

How interesting that she should be here in town while I’ve been reading a book about loan exhibitions, Frances Haskell’s The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition. The book came out posthumously, in 2000, and I bought it then, but never got round to reading it. Which was probably just as well, as I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about museums, or even walking around in them; I should say that, in the past seven or eight, I’ve spent as much time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I had spent in any and all museums up until that time. Also, much has changed since 2000, thanks not only to the events of the following year but also to the appointment, in 2008, of Thomas Campbell as Director of the Museum. No doubt foolishly, I attribute every slight change in the Museum’s environment to him; I suspect, on the basis of purely imaginary speculation, that he is more involved in the detailed operation of the Museum than any of his predecessors. With regard to Haskell’s book, Dr Campbell has wrought a change that amounts to a reversal of trends that Haskell feared. He has eliminated what I always thought of as the Old Master Exhibition Space in which the Vermeers and other Northern European paintings from the Museum’s permanent collection hang today. At the end of his book, Haskell predicted just the opposite: that permanent collections would be driven out of museum galleries to make room for loan shows.

Something else happened in the mean time. In the fall of 2004 — at about the time that this Web log was launched — there was a loan exhibition of paintings by Gilbert Stuart at the Museum. One of the pictures that could not be lent was the Frick’s replica (a copy painted by Stuart) of George Washington’s portrait. The exhibition catalogue doesn’t mention it, but the Frick’s painting was represented by a superlative photograph. As such, this object captured the colors of the Frick’s painting but not its dimensionality (brushstrokes, &c). It was not as good as the real thing, but it was close, and when 3-D printers came along a few years ago, it occurred to me that famous paintings might really be cloned — not just copied but reproduced in all visual particulars. Such clones, if authorized and identified as such by the paintings’ owners, would not be forgeries or counterfeits. They would be traveling copies, suitable for loan exhibitions. This prospect will horrify many readers, I’m sure — at first, anyway.

I’ll wind up this front matter with a word of thanks to Tony Bozanich, a young man who sat next to me at the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of the gentleman on the right, above, and the lady who took the picture. Tony was the best man, not just for Eric Denny, but for me to be sitting next to, because, when he heard that I was interested in museums and shifting tastes in art, and I told him that I owned The Ephemeral Museum but hadn’t read it, Tony told me to read it right away, which I did as soon as I found it. Tony was absolutely right, righter than he knew. Because it was, as I say, a good thing that I hadn’t tackled the book sooner.


The dust jacket for The Ephemeral Museum features a photograph of people lined up in the show to see the massive Vermeer show at the National Gallery in Washington, in 1995. I didn’t see the show — we might have gone, but you’ll recall the first government shutdown, in 1996 — but I have the catalogue.  Some twenty-three pictures were shown, well over two-thirds of Vermeer’s total output — in adjacent galleries in one building in one national capital. Haskell does not write about the show, but it is easy to imagine that he was appalled by the sheer imprudence of such a concentration.

The Ephemeral Museum is a collection of lectures, polished up for print by Nicholas Penny, about the development of the loan exhibition, a matter about which I was quite ignorant. I had no idea that the first such exhibitions took place in Rome, in the Seventeenth Century, and that they were ostentatious if very temporary displays of rich people’s property. For a few days only, at set times of the year, convents mounted canvases attributed to all the most famous painters of the past — justifiably or otherwise. Then, in the waning days of the ancien régime, an ambitiously public-spirited minor aristocrat, Pahin de la Blancherie, organized a series of loan shows, exhibited in grand hôtels particuliers, that climaxed with what can be recognized as a precursor of the old-master exhibition as we know it. Thanks in part to the sales of the duc d’Orléans’s collection in London at the beginning of the Revolution, the center of the exhibition world moved to London, where an outfit called the British Institution presented a retrospective exhibition of the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, late president of the Royal Academy.

Only glancingly does Haskell address the kind of loan exhibition that my readers will be familiar with — shows that 9/11 may have put a stop to. What distinguishes this most recent incarnation of the genre is the predominance of loans from other museums. The early loan shows, right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century, were exhibitions of paintings in private hands. There was a distinct air of enterprise about these older shows, because there could be no better way of putting a painting on the market. It is important at this point to step back a moment to consider a world without museums as we know them — the world of 1800 and earlier. All artworks were then in private hands. Many of course, were on public display, in churches and in royal collections that opened their doors to well-dressed visitors. But institutions like the two great National Galleries and our own Museum did not exist, even in larval form. What’s more, most art exhibitions featured new paintings by living artists. The very idea of the “old master” developed in opposition to the strong presumption, common to all the arts and crafts of Europe down to the end of the ancien régime, that new things were preferable to old things.

And when the museums-as-we-know-them were established, it was understood that their collections would stay put. Lending was generally forbidden. This restriction, still observed by a few museums, was eroded slowly but steadily, at first by governments but then by the museums themselves. Haskell is unimprovably succinct.

Success in a museum is measured today both by sponsors and by governments in terms of the publicity that only the opening of new galleries or the mounting of temporary exhibitions can stimulate. Once in the business of borrowing, an institution will not find it easy to refuse to lend. More and more exceptions are made to the lists of ‘national treasures’ or absolute masterpieces never to be lent, to the limits on the amount any work can travel, to the prohibition on the lending of works painted on wood. Rules become ‘guide-lines’ and are then regularly ignored. There is considerable reluctance to admit to this or to address the way in which the trend could be halted. The pressure to lend, which in the first half of the twentieth century was political, today comes from the demands of publicity and finance from within the museums themselves. The ideal modern director is likely to be someone well connected politically, with a flair for publicity, with enthusiasm, energy and ‘vision’ — in other words, a Lady Chamberlain. Deep commitment to the welfare of the works of art in their charge is no more likely to be a precondition for this position than scholarly knowledge of them.

It is perhaps foolish of me, as I say, to do so, but I entertain an idea of Thomas Campbell that is the positive of all these negatives. Under his administration, the Museum has developed astuteness at attracting favorable attention simply by moving its possession around, as witness the current textile show (textiles are Dr Campbell’s specialty), comprised primarily of fabrics distributed among the Museum’s various departments.

The Vermeer and the Fabritius are visiting New York for a reason that doesn’t seem to have occurred in Haskell’s time. The Mauritshuis — the Royal Cabinet of Paintings — is undergoing renovation. Most of its collection remains in The Hague (I gather), but ten paintings have traveled to New York. Similarly, quite a few of the Museum’s Sargents disappeared while the new American Wing galleries were being constructed; I daresay they were shown in some other town. As long as a work of art has to leave the building, I don’t suppose that it matters much in today’s world how far it travels. But I subscribe to Haskell’s ideal: paintings ought not to be disturbed for less-than-compelling reasons.

Most the things that we do today’s civil society are of fairly recent origin, and museum-going is certainly among the most recent. Because the contents of museums tend to be old, if not ancient, this novelty is hard to bear in mind, and there is no reason for a casual visitor to concern him- or herself with the matter. Lively minds, however, will see past the grand staircases and the skylights, past the installations and the guards, and discern a dense, ever-changing web of social expectations. (Consider the sheer dowdiness of museums fifty years ago!) They will grasp that the walls are hung with the fruits of a voluntary socialism that has transferred ever more artworks from private collections to public galleries. They will notice that museums designed to safeguard the finer ornaments of domestic (including palatial) interiors have engendered the production of works that could not exist outside of a museum. Most of all, they will wonder what’s next.

Movie Note:
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
28 October 2013

Monday, October 28th, 2013

One of the things that I did last week, when I wasn’t writing about The Goldfinch, was to take in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the movie based on the career of Eugene Allen, longtime White House butler. He is called Cecil Gaines here, and his life story is manipulated a bit, to tighten the narrative screws. The result is an arresting and complex film about the abrasive ironies of being one of the top “house niggers” in the land — there is, sadly, no other way to put it — at a time when black Americans were breaking out of the era of Jim Crow. The film does not belabor the point, but the White House of 1952, when Gaines’s career there began, was in many ways the last of the grand plantation mansions, as befitted a capital residence nestled in the aristocratical heartland of Maryland and Virginia. The operation was on autopilot — Tidewater comme il faut.

The drama is necessarily somewhat skewed. Had Cecil Gaines participated in any White House dramas, he would have lost his job. Gaines raises his voice only at home, where his wife drinks a tad too much (at first) — no doubt because she is confused about her husband’s job, which is clearly a very good one but also essentially servile — and his elder son who smoulders with shame at his second-class citizenship. Later, when this son gets involved with sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides and the Black Panther Party, there is a good deal of nasty violence, with beatings and jail time for the son and worry for his parents.

It may have been just me, but I was terrified that the son’s activism was going to get the father into trouble at the White House. If it didn’t, that may have been because none of the men who presided over the civil rights struggle came from the Deep South. What happened instead, according to the movie, was rather different. In the movie, four of the five presidents whose tangents skate across the movie — Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman) — treat Gaines as if he were a particularly valued and trusted attendant at an affluent country club patronized by broadminded, moderate Republicans. They’re not only decent, but slightly deferential, as if to compensate for an awareness that Gaines’s opportunities in life have been unnaturally constrained by the color of his skin. The exception, of course, is Nixon, who had no idea how to behave in a country club or anywhere else.

The White House provides The Butler with its allure, but its power comes from the superb cast, especially the performances of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as Cecil and Gloria Gaines, and of David Oyewolo as their elder son, Louis. Mr Whitaker accomplishes the astonishing feat of presenting Cecil as an active man, and not some scarecrow in a morning coat to whom things happen. He never lets us forget that, whatever we might think of his job, Cecil is very, very good at it, and proud of being so. At home, Cecil is a good-natured but firm authority figure whose word, at least until Louis goes off to Fisk, is law. It is no surprise that Mr Whitaker delivers such a great performance; the surprise is that Ms Winfrey is every bit as good. Eventually, Gloria stops drinking, and as her life comes into focus — this is very curious — the actress assumes the troubled beauty and cinematic magnetism of Elizabeth Taylor. She plows through the crust of unconscious racism and exemplifies what a modern American woman ought to look like. David Oyewolo is new to me, but I look forward to seeing him many times. He brings a fine degree of nuance to Louis’s many confrontations with his father.

As for the presidential impersonators, they’re all superb, but it’s hard to deny that Alan Rickman walks away with the prize — probably because he has the unfair advantage of playing a  presidential impersonator.

At another time, I might have been heartened by this movie, which would have seemed to be saying, Look how much better things are now. That’s hard to do at the moment. The only positive thing about the state of the nation today is that more and more people are willing to acknowledge that the civil rights struggle, far from being won, may be just beginning; for there are still, as there were fifty years ago, too many people in this country who don’t accept the deconstruction of official racism. They may no longer spit at black Americans who claim equal rights, but their hatred of the government that betrayed their primacy burns as corrosively as ever. What’s worse, their naked and very ugly hostility has metastasized into a dreadfully plausible mendacity. The screaming white witches of Lee Daniels’ The Butler have been transformed into those more telegenic harpies, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Goldfinch Week:
At Home
25 October 2013

Friday, October 25th, 2013

If there is anything that disappointed me about The Goldfinch, the new novel by Donna Tartt that I have been writing about all week, it is not a flaw in the book itself but an imaginative predisposition on the part of the author. She has set her wonderful tale in my part of the world, the Upper East Side of Manhattan — along with, in lesser roles, Greenwich Village, a run through Alphabet City, several years in Las Vegas and a climax in Amsterdam — but she has not troubled with exactitude in the rendering.

I don’t mean to say that Tartt has gotten anything wrong, exactly. I am not quite sure why she moved Theo’s storage facility, which I’m pretty sure is the one that I use, two blocks south from 62nd Street, but this doesn’t bother me, because I get it: this text is not to be mistaken for a map. Things are more or less where they belong. The invented locations resemble real-life ones. The atmosphere is genuine. I gather that Tartt has lived part of the time in New York for years, and she writes like someone who has. For a woman who grew up in rural Mississippi, she does a fine job of capturing the sensibility of a schoolboy from the Upper East Side.

But my sense that liberties were being taken with the details, present from the start, solidified at the top of page 21.

Upstairs [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art] it was freezing cold, with my hair still wet from the rain. “No, no, this way,” said my mother, catching my sleeve. The show was complicated to find, and as we wandered the busy galleries (weaving in and out of crowds, turning right, turning left, backtracking through labyrinths of confusing signage and layout) large gloomy reproductions of The Anatomy Lesson appeared erratically and at unexpected junctures, baleful signposts, the same old corpse with the flayed arm, red arrows beneath: operating theater, this way.

I was not very excited at the prospect of a lot of pictures of Dutch people standing around in dark clothes, and when we pushed through the glass doors — from echoing halls into carpeted hush — I thought at first we’d gone into the wrong hall.

Not the wrong hall, perhaps, but certainly an imaginary one. “Glass doors”? “Carpeted hush”? I won’t bore you with my gloss on the doors, which exist, but not as entryways to galleries as such; but carpeted floors are something that I have yet to encounter in a Museum gallery. Carpets are reserved for the feet of generous members.

I offer these quibbles not as complaints but as amuse-bouche: they show quickly and clearly that Tartt is writing from recollection, not reporting. Nothing wrong with that! In any case, my attention was already snagged by the bit about how “the show was complicated to find.” Nonsense. Some shows might be hard to find, but not this one (however imaginary), which was evidently mounted in the special exhibition space that was carved out of what I call the Old Master galleries — and which has recently been restored to them. This space sat at the top of the grand staircase and off to the left. No need for bobbing and weaving among the crowded galleries, as you might have to do if you were visiting the Tisch Galleries in the southwest corner of the building.

The show that Theo and his mother go to see might have been mounted in the Tisch, although probably not. But my claim about its evident location is taken from the novel itself. When Theo leaves the exhibition, he passes through “the Italian masterworks (crucified Christs and astonished saints, serpents and embattled angels) ending up in England, eighteenth century….” In other words, the Old Master Galleries. As I say, things are more or less where they ought to be. One can imagine its suiting the author’s pen to interpose a Museum experience that is common enough — trying to find anything in that barn.

So my disappointment is not very great. It is probably something of a beauty mark, a source of pleasure in re-readings to come, as I resist the urge, honed by decades of following Ruth Rendell’s novels with A-Zed in hand, to track Theo and his friends with virtual GPS. Instead, I will try to bear in mind something that I learned from The Goldfinch. Like all such things, it was something that I already knew, but wasn’t aware of knowing. Doubtless it’s an ineradicable consequence of possessing a Y chromosome, but I treasure my knowledge of where things are so greatly that I tend to forget why I care where things are: I forget that New York is, above all, a city of people. It has its vistas and its monuments, but far fewer per capita than much smaller towns — far, far fewer. Hardly a metropolis planned and executed by a handful of powerful tyrants, it is instead a granite rock upon which waves of individual wills lash without respite. Some waves leave more traces than others, but the effect could not be more miscellaneous. We may not love the ugliness that results, but our hearts are warmed by the cause.

Thank you, Donna Tartt, for reminding me of that.

Goldfinch Week:
24 October 2013

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Not being a fan of Charles Dickens, as a writer or in any other way, I hesitate to praise Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for its “Dickensian” magnetism and sweep, especially lest I imply that these attributes come at the expense of full-bodied characterization. But Tartt openly invites the comparison. There is the girl called Pippa, for instance. The name alone would be a challenge, even if Theo Decker’s crush on her, metamorphosed into romantic obsession by the catastrophe that wounds them both grievously but in different ways, did not crystallize into the kind of impossible dream that spins the turbines of much lesser literature. But the girl in question no more chose the name “Pippa” for herself than she elected to undergo a terrorist ordeal. When she does speak for herself, she is not a doll out of Dickens but a young woman of character who, we see clearly if ruefully, is never going to fit into Theo’s dream.

The following passage comes from late in the book, right before the climax rolls in like a storm surge. Theo is by now in his twenty-something phase, engaged to a smart Upper East Sider whom he does not love but might be happy enough with, especially once he discovers that she doesn’t love him, either. Pippa is in town, paying a surprise visit to Hobie, the Greenwich Village furniture restorer who has overseen the welfare of the two victims (Theo and Pippa) without ever appearing to put them in the same sentence in his mind — another bit of resistance to the Dickensian grain. Pippa agrees to go out with Theo to see a movie and then maybe dinner afterwards. Theo has high, unrealistic hopes. The movie is not a success, for complicated reasons that Pippa and Theo discuss, along with many other things, in a long conversation at a wine bar to which they repair. Here is the ending of this tender scene.

Silence. Her eyes on mine. But unlike Kitsey — who was always at least partly somewhere else, who loathed serious talk, who at a similar turn would be looking around for the waitress or making whatever light and/or comic remark she could think of to keep the moment from getting too intense — she was listening, she was right with me, and I could see only too well how saddened she was at my condition, a sadness only worsened by the fact that she truly liked me: we had a lot in common, a mental connection and an emotional one too, she enjoyed my company, she trusted me, she wished me well, she wanted above all to be my friend; and whereas some women might have preened themselves and taken pleasure at my misery, it was not amusing to her to see how torn-up I was over her.

Not Dickens.


So, The Goldfinch shows as an author making nimble use of Dickensian elements while avoiding Dickensian shortcomings. It took me a long time to see the most flagrant of these for what it was, doubtless because I was so engaged by the story that my critical faculties were muzzled. Also, Boris Volodymyrovych Pavlinsky reminded me of Gary Shteyngart, not Charles Dickens. Theo meets Boris at high school in Las Vegas — I must pause here to applaud the author for pulling off the Dickensian feat of transforming Las Vegas into an interesting setting for a substantial portion of her novel — and, notwithstanding the fact that Theo is a well-mannered Upper East Sider at heart, and Boris a social anarchist, the boys forge a bond of brainy, orphaned exiles. Both have lost their mothers; both are saddled with abusive fathers. School, they discover, is a prison without warders.

Before Boris, I had borne my solitude stoically enough, without realizing quite how alone I was. And I suppose if either of us had lived in an even halfway normal household, with curfews and chores and adult supervision, we wouldn’t have become quite so inseparable, so fast, but almost from that day we were together all the time, scrounging our meals and sharing what money we had.

In New York, I had grown up around a lot of worldly kids — kids who’s lived abroad and spoke three or four languages, who did summer programs at Heidelberg and spent their holidays in places like Rio or Innsbruck or Cap d’Antibes. But Boris — like an old sea captain — put them all to shame. He had ridden a camel; he had eaten witchetty grubs, played cricket caught malaria, lived on the street in Ukraine (“but for two we3eks only”), set off a stick of dynamite by himself, swum in Australian rivers infested with crocodiles. He had read Chekhov in Russian, and authors I’d never heard of in Ukrainian and Polish. He had endured midwinter darkness in Russia where the temperature dropped to forty below: endless blizzards, snow and black ice, the only cheer the green neon palm tree that burned twenty-four hours a day outside the provincial bar where his father liked to drink. Though he was only a year older than me — fifteen — he’d had actual sex with a girl, in Alaska, someone he’d bummed a cigarette off in the parking lot of a convenience store. She’d asked him if he wanted to sit in her car with her, and that was that. (“But you know what?” he said, blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “I don’t think she liked it very much.”

Did you?”

“God, yes. Although, I’m telling you, I know I wasn’t doing it right. I think was too cramped in the car.”)

Boris’s English is fluent but not flawless; it is inflected with the Slavic habit of dispensing with pronouns. Boris himself dispenses with every inconvenience that he can clear out of his way, and is not nice about the ethics. But that he is a lovable scamp is never in question. For about a hundred pages, the adventures of Boris and Theo fill The Goldfinch with the restless recklessness of two very disenchanted adolescents. They drink a lot of vodka and do a lot of drugs, but, being young, they pass out, wake up, and recover quickly. The idyllic part lasts for about a year, and then Boris “meets a girl”: yet another loss for poor Theo.

It was Boris I missed, the whole impulsive mess of him, gloomy, reckless, hot-tempered, appallingly thoughtless. Boris pale and pasty, with his shoplifted apples and his Russian-language novels, gnawed-down fingernails and shoelaces dragging in the dust. Boris — budding alcoholic, fluent curser in four languages — who snatched food from my plagte when he felt like it and nodded off drunk on the floor, face red like he’d been slapped. Even when he took things without asking, as he all too frequently did — little things were always disappearing, DVDs and school supplies from my locker, more than once I’d caught him going through my pockets for money — his own possessions meant to little him that somehow it wasn’t stealing; whenever he came into cash himself, he split it with me down the middle and anything that belonged to him, he gave me gladly if I asked for it (and sometimes when I didn’t, as when Mr Pavlikovsky’s gold lighter, which I’d admired in passing, turned up in the outside pocket of my backpack.

There’s more to it than that.

And yet (this was the murky part, this was what bothered me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses: hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked over beers foaming on the carpet — fun and not that big of a deal when it was actually happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes rolled back and I forgot about everything; but when we woke the next morning stomach-down and groaning on opposite sides of the bed it receded into an incoherence of backlit flickers, choppy and poorly lit like some experimental film, the unfamiliar twist of Boris’s features fading from memory already and none of it with any more bearing on our actual lives than a dream.

Aside from the infelicitous repetition of “lit,” this passage is a demonstration of uncommon virtuosity, perfectly blending authorial discretion with juvenile confusion. The point is not to suggest that Theo and Boris are lovers — rather the reverse, if anything. No, what Tartt is showing us here is just how extended a vacation these boys are taking from the business of assuming the identities that seem to lie ahead for each of them inevitably. What they get up to late at night is no more sustainable than the drinking that gets them there; their very friendship is a long-term impossibility. As it happens, Boris’s desertion into the arms of a slutty fellow-student advances him in masculine stature toward Theo’s father, a narcissistic petty con man whose charm and good looks no longer provide the necessary lift — a not-good-enough Boris. As this former actor spirals toward destruction, Theo and Boris forge a nw and darker bond, in which each of them is more accomplice than friend.

Of Boris’s reappearance at the climax, I shall say nothing, except that one of the stronger emotional residues of my crash-reading of the novel was the conviction that Boris embodied a critique of something bogus in the American character, something self-kidding but paralyzed, enchanted by a persistent but inauthentic conscience. This “something bogus” is represented by Theo’s possession of the famous Fabritius painting, rescued from the wreckage, in the very first moments of After, at the instance of Pippa’s dying uncle. The painting embodies Before — what life was like when Theo’s mother was still alive. Theo’s inability to let it go threatens to derail his journey to adulthood. It is Boris who deals with the problem, but, being Boris, he does so in a way that doesn’t help Theo out of his jam until the last minute, when Theo is poised to take a step that will poison the rest of his life. Boris is certainly ambiguous, but the rescue is real enough.


Goldfinch Week:
Stippled Complication
23 October 2013

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

What a moron! I forgot to take a picture of the Frick mansion. So this Upper East Side town house will have to do. It’s the closest thing that I could find in my files, not that I went through every image on the computer. The photograph was taken in June 2009. Next time, I’ll take a picture of the Frick.

Which Ray Soleil and I visited today in order to see the pictures from the Mauritshuis, especially Het Puttertje (The Goldfinch), by Carel Fabritius. I had seen the picture before, but I had forgotten how small it really is, and how easily it could be carried off in a tote bag — almost any shopping bag would be more than roomy enough. It’s nine by thirteen-something inches. But The Goldfinch doesn’t look like a small picture. It is the very opposite of a miniature. Had I ever seen I goldfinch myself, I might venture an opinion on how close to life-sized the painting is, but it seems quite close to life-sized. When you are looking at this little bird on his food-box — opening the hinged lid with its beak was one of the bird’s tricks — that is all that you need to see.

The bird seems alive, partly because of the painter’s mastery of trompe-l’oeil, but mostly in spite of it. What I mean is that the bird’s shadow is immediately deceptive, creating the illusion of depth in which a physical object might exist. But the figure of the bird casts a very different illusion: not so much of reality as of motion. We never doubt that we are looking at a painting. But it is a painting that is animated by the spirit of a living thing. The bird flutters; we cannot make it stop.

In The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s novel — which contrived to be published the very day that the Mauritshuis exhibition opened — Theo Decker’s mother (in one of the very last moments of Before) tells him how fond she was of this painting as a girl in Kansas, poring over a reproduction in a book.

And, I mean, actually it’s incredible how much you can learn about a paiting by spending a lot of time with a reproduction, even not a very good reproduction. I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way it’s painted.

Theo’s mom doesn’t have anything very profound to say about Fabritius’s painting, but then neither does Walter Liedtke, the Vermeer scholar who wrote up Het Puttertje for the catalogue to the exhibition, Vermeer and the Delft School, that was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London in the spring of 2001. What is there to say? There is only to see. At the Delft School show, I was far more taken by Fabritius’s much larger picture, The Sentry. It’s mysterious in many ways. With its pointless (but very arresting) Doric column, the architecture behind the reclining man has an almost Mannerist puzzlement about it: it’s deliberately not making complete sense. And its expanses of whitewashed masonry, basking in pale sunlight, display the same stippled complication that the painting also teaches us to see in Vermeer’s interiors. Here it is the walls that seem to move. The space is somehow alive. Vermeer mastered the trick and used it to create the pensive, breathing stillness in which so many of his solitary women stand.


After Ray and I took in the Mauritshuis exhibition, we toured the Frick’s permanent collection, which includes a magnificent Rembrandt portrait, of one Nicolaes Ruts, presumably a man of sufficient substance to warrant his fine linen ruff and fur-trimmed robe. Perhaps this picture is too magnificent: looking at it, all I can think of is the Fabian Bachrach studio portrait of my father, which as I recall made use of similarly dramatic backlighting. This effect is of no intrinsic interest; it is there simply to flatter the sitter, and it does. It is wonderfully done, but uninviting, as if its only secondary purpose were to warn the viewer against noticing such things. As backgrounds go, it is the very negative of Fabritius’s stippled complication.

In Rembrandt’s portrait, Nicolaes Ruts has been abstracted from his everyday world (which might have been very grand) and posed in a never-land of isolated grandeur. He is all there is to this picture, and we are clearly intended to be impressed. The painting has taken on an ironic patina, because Nicolaes Ruts lives on only because of this picture. This, too, is the negative of the environment in pictures by Fabritius and Vermeer. There, we find no claim to fame. Vermeer’s pictures are populated, for the most part, by ordinary people in ordinary rooms. They are not doing anything special. No dancing or carousing — although, in my favorite Vermeer, a lady plays the lute. No ceremony. (I don’t know what it was that attracted Vermeer to his everyday subjects, but it certainly appears to have allowed him to experiment with the representation of reality. The Ruts of the world, I find, are generally impatient with experiments, especially ones that don’t quite come off.) We are not asked to reflect, but only to look. And yet the pictures do not stand still. Our eyes roam their surfaces at the insistent pace of a heartbeat.  It is we who bring the pictures to life, but the artistry gives us no choice.

Donna Tartt’s new novel is unlike the two that precede it; extraordinarily propulsive, it hurtles though a head-spinning (and often heart-breaking) series of incidents. Moral derelictions abound, but redemption is attained on every level. Most of all, our hero achieves adulthood, enjoying a resolution denied to Tartt’s earlier figures. Their dramas, in contrast, were oblique, hinting at more than was revealed. I would argue that Tartt infused the prose of The Secret History and The Little Friend — especially the latter — with the verbal equivalent of a stippled complication that set them vibrating with impalpable significance. The mystery is whether she intended The Goldfinch to demolish, with galloping sentences that intermingle the clichéd and the genuinely novel with reckless unconcern, the hypnotic suspense of a style for which she was so highly admired. It is as though the new book were designed to simulate the munitions explosion that leveled much of the town of Delft later in the year in which Het Puttertje was painted, and which killed its painter — and perhaps its subject as well. But, however extraordinary her plotting, her materials are everyday. With the exception of a dreadful event that seems to shadow a notorious real-life calamity (or two), The Goldfinch is woven from the homeliest stuff of fiction. Its fabric may not be ostentatious, but it drapes beautifully.

Goldfinch Week:
Young Adult
22 October 2013

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

“Young Adult” is a marketing term used by publishers to frame certain books. What books these are, I can’t say, never having looked into the matter; almost everything that I know about it was learned in a conversation with Dot McCleary (recently retired and much missed from Crawford Doyle) about Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. And most of that conversation, I’ve managed to forget. I can’t remember whether Cameron’s novel was repackaged as YA when it didn’t sell in the trade market, or the other way round. It’s nice merely to know that anyone in publishing thought that it might be a good book for serious, sensitive teen-aged readers. It gave me a great deal of hope to think so! There’s nothing in Someday that’s inappropriate for a young reader, or unlikely to be understood, even if, like all good literature, it will mean more when that reader gets older. What’s useful about the “Young Adult” category is its implication of an inverse class of books, “Overgrown Adolescent.” I can think of lots of books to list under that rubric, many of whose authors were middle-aged guys writing for other middle-aged guys. Suffice it to say that I do not place The Catcher in the Rye in the YA class, but in the other one.

Whether Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch will ever be recognized as a young-adult classic, I read it as if it were one. That’s because, within three quick pages, I was carried into the imagination of the thirteen year-old Theo Decker, on a magic carpet of sagaciously drab prose. Drab? Drab is the very color of thirteen. We begin with a twenty-something narrator in a hotel room in Amsterdam, apparently on the run from some crime (the news is all in Nederlands), looking back to the day he lost his mother, the nightmare between Before and After. He takes us back, then, to the last moments of Before. These — the magic-carpet ride — cover roughly twenty-five excruciating pages. What I’ve extracted appears a few pages in.

I like to think of myself as a perceptive person (as I suppose we all do) and in setting all this down, it’s tempting to pencil a shadow gliding in overhead. But I was blind and deaf to the future; my single, crushing, worry was the meeting at school. When I’d called Tom to tell him I’d been suspended (whispering on the land line; she had taken away my cell phone) he hadn’t seemed particularly surprised to hear it. “Look,” he’d said, cutting me off, “don’t be stupid, Theo, nobody knows a thing, just keep your fucking mouth shut”; and before I could get out another word, he said, “Sorry, I’ve got to go,” and hung up.

In the cab, I tried to crack my window to get some air: no luck. It smelled like someone had been changing dirty diapers back there or maybe even taken an actual shit, and then tried to cover it up with a bunch of coconut air freshener that smelled like suntan lotion. The seats were greasy, and patched with duct tape, and the shocks were nearly gone. Whenever we struck a bump, my teeth rattled, and so did the religious claptrap dangling from the rear view mirror: medallions, a curved sword in miniature dancing on a plastic chain, and a turbaned, bearded guru who gazed into the back seat with piercing eyes, palm raised in benediction.

Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by. Bollywood pop — turned down to a low, almost subliminal whine — spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed carts laden with groceries; harried kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrokers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky. As we jolted up the avenue (my mother looking miserable, clutching at the armrest to brace herself) I stared out the window at the dyspeptic workaday faces (worried-looking people in a raincoats, milling in grim throngs at the crosswalks, people drinking coffee from cardboard cups and talking on cell phones and glancing furtively side to side) and tried hard not to think of all the unpleasant fates that might be about to befall me: some of them involving juvenile court, or jail.

It’s perfect. It’s not fun, it’s not lovely, but it’s absolutely right. I don’t mean the descriptions merely, or even the fact of the descriptions — these are indeed the things that you notice on a bad day in New York, a city with an usual ability to reflect and intensify whatever mood you’re in — but also the sheer drag of time. Theo is dreading a meeting at his school; we’re dreading something much worse. Our ignorance of what’s going to happen, though, is just about equal — something terrible is going to happen, but what? Is Theo’s mom going to be hit by a car, or something else?

Just beneath the surface lies the bedrock of what I take to be the young-adult environment, the lack of autonomy that torments thirteen year-olds. Theo has no say in what’s happening to him. He got caught, but he’s not sure doing what. Now he has to go to school, not for class, but for an administrative meeting, and his mother, the love of his life, is in for a disappointment. Everything about Theo’s situation is confined, unfree. He doesn’t catch the irony of “speeding” along Park Avenue in a taxi, flanked by the homes of people who can do almost anything they please when they please to do it, because he’s never known different. (And his older, narrating self is a gifted withholder of back-dated commentary.)

Tartt creates an early teenager so convincingly that you don’t wonder if you like him, or if you’re going to life him. Who likes anyone of that age? Who can feel anything but pity for the wretchedness of the worst year in most people’s lives? Give the kid a pass. As long as the spell holds, Theo is a child not to be judged. And the spell does hold, right up to the moment when, a few years older, Theo discovers that the apartment building where he used to live — the one that he left, unwittingly for good, the last day his mother was alive — is being gutted and converted into luxury condominiums. We are considerably more than halfway through the book, and, when we turn the page, eight years will have passed, darkening the novel’s complexion.

When we turn the page, Theo is an adult, or at any rate the bearer of adult franchise. He is free to make adult mistakes, for which he must be judged as an adult. Because he has crossed the line into his majority, we hold him to different standards. We regard him differently — but with a twinge, because we knew him so well when he was a kid, when we wanted, against the odds, things to work out well for him. But things haven’t “worked out”; they’re still “working out.” Spools of suspense set spinning in the earlier part of the novel are still unwinding. In no time at all, they’re humming as tensely as before. The Goldfinch does not bog down. But the temperature drops a bit, and our brows knit in concern where before they rose in alarm. The story of twenty-something Theo is one that we might not care to read; we very well might dislike him — if we were to meet him now. But of course we’re caught in the coils of his story, and can’t get free. Earlier, we were eager to know more. Now, we are eager to say goodbye. But the old eagerness has been replaced with a compulsion to know how things turn out. It’s as if — and this is the genius of the novel, if I’m right — Donna Tartt were pushing us through the awful business, in so many ways even worse than adolescence, of becoming complete, adult human beings. We’re still with Theo, all the way.

Young adult — yes.

Goldfinch Week:
21 October 2013

Monday, October 21st, 2013

It occurred to me that a photograph of Crawford Doyle’s right-hand shop window, which features new fiction (and poetry), would be a quick way of indicating all the books that I’m not planning to read. True, I’ve read The Circle; and it’s possible that I may relent about Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, but nothing else in the window interests me. Were I to take a picture tomorrow, the window would include the novel that I read obsessively over the weekend, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. But I don’t have to go back tomorrow. The good people at Crawford Doyle called me on Friday morning, to tell me that a copy would be mine for the showing-up. I took the picture of the shop window right before pushing into the store and securing my short-term happiness.

I had had the idea for the photograph on Wednesday, when I stopped into the bookshop without any object and wound up buying a book that I already owned. (See the previous entry.) I noticed then that there was nothing in the window that I wanted to read. Once upon a time, I’d have “wanted” to read almost everything, just to keep up. The Lethem definitely, perhaps even the Pynchon. I don’t care much for the prose of either of these writers, and while I found The Fortress of Solitude powerfully stocked with images of Brooklyn, real and imagined, that spontaneously well up on inside me with surprising emotional clout, I came away not wanting to repeat the experience. (With Pynchon, I never had even that much satisfaction.) I would read Elizabeth Gilbert’s historical novel, even though I avoid historical novels. I might even have delved into Longbourn and the new Helen Fielding, just to be in the swim.

(What’s that Alice Munro doing at the top of the stack? I don’t think it was there on Wednesday; and, on Friday, I wasn’t actually looking.)

This illo tempore isn’t so remote, only eight or ten years ago, when I was discovering the joys of the Internet and beginning to write a Web log. It was a sort of high school thing, except that I never went to a high school with a “cool kids’ table.” I never took a seat at the Internet equivalent, either, but even before my disappointment subsided completely, I learned that “keeping up” was not for me. Not if it involved reading highly-buzzed books such as Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel that blathers on for five hundred pages about, well, the cool kids’ table, before finally settling down to a story for a further two hundred. I should never get that far now. There is really far too much great stuff to read for me to find time for every hot new book. To read and to re-read!

On the cover of this week’s Book Review, there’s an illustration pairing Philip Roth with Norman Mailer. Yikes! To me, these writers are grand pianos that fell from high windows moments after I stepped over their impending crash sites. What if I had devoted significant time to reading and thinking about them, just because so many people who write about books found them important? (Mailer is already palpably not important, but that is something that I have lived long to see.) I learned early on that writing about books that were important to other people, but not to me, would be a terrible waste of time, because it would distract me from the vital business of trying to explain why the books that are important to me are.

And why is that important? Who cares what I think? Well, if thinking came into it, I could see the objection. But what I want to do, when I write about books here, is to show something of what it looks and feels like when a good book touches a mind. Matthew Arnold wouldn’t have put it thus, but this, I think, is what he was calling for, in Culture and Anarchy, still the most important book that I’ve encountered on the subject of the best things in life. Every good book deserves a bouquet of such reports. Someday, I hope, publishers will learn to collect them.


The first thing I did when I finished reading The Goldfinch was to see what James Wood had to say about it. His review appeared in last week’s New Yorker, which was irritating in itself, since what is the point of reviewing books that readers can’t go out and buy that instant? Why tease people? This irritation was was somewhat specious in my case, as I wouldn’t have read the review until I’d read the novel. Wood is a writer of great substance, and I wanted to read Tartt’s new book without being under any thoughtful person’s influence.

As The Goldfinch came to an end, I had a feeling that Wood’s judgment was going to be net unfavorable, and I was right.

The bounty, literal and figurative, at the center of all the absurd legerdemain of The Goldfinch is the painting of the same name by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt. It is a serene study of habituated imprisonment: a finch, one of its feet attached by a ring and a short chain to the little box it is perched on. This gemlike masterwork powers Tartt’s narrative: it is seen and cherished at the Metropolitan Museum by a boy and his mother, stolen by the boy, hidden, stolen again by someone else, and finally recovered. It occasions some of the deeper writing in the book, as Tartt slows from her adventurous storytelling to the eventless calm of ekphrasis, and describes the mournful splendor of Fabritius’s own painterly patience. But, alas, it is surrounded by prolix scrawls of novelistic impatience, and eventually the noisy tension between the two works, Fabritius’s and Tartt’s, becomes acute. The Goldfinch (1654) and The Goldfinch (2013) are birds of a very different feather. Tartt’s consoling message, blared in the book’s final pages, is that what will survive of us is great art, but this seems an anxious compensation, as if Tartt were unconsciously acknowledging that the 2013 Goldfinch may not survive the way the 1654 Goldfinch has.

This is a potent dismissal, and Wood spends the remainder of the review supporting its crux by pointing to various instances of “prolix scrawls of novelistic impatience.” If, in the end, I disagree with Wood, I still don’t think he’s wrong, because the familiar (Wood would say “clichéd”) tone of Tartt’s “adventurous” narrative clearly lacks the lapidary sparkle of James or Nabokov, two writers whom Tartt professes to admire, and if a reader, any reader, Wood or you or me, feels this absence of stylistic verve to be a failing, then that is that. And Tartt herself, through her narrator, tells us why.

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

“Only beginning to understand”: the narrator is all of twenty-seven, and if this insight were phrased any more artfully, it would be hard to swallow, because the awful truth about the ineffability of our hearts does not dawn on most people, even the most thoughtful, until they’re closer to the author’s age. (Donna Tartt will be fifty by the end of the year.) I swallowed it without a second thought, however, because, whether from want of refinement or some more positive characteristic, I never felt a “noisy tension” between the painting and the novel. I felt that they went together very well, almost perfectly. “Ekphrasis,” indeed. The illumination of one kind of art by another necessarily works both ways: the source of inspiration explains the illumination.

I do need to catch my breath, though. I did nothing yesterday but fix a little breakfast and read The Goldfinch; I never even looked at the Times. So, mindful that the book is still not generally available, I’ll deliver my book report in installments.

Gotham Diary:
Exquisitely Awkward
18 October 2013

Friday, October 18th, 2013

At Crawford Doyle the other day, I picked up a copy of Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent, even though it was hard to believe that I hadn’t read a book with such a boffo title. I ought to have opened it up first, and read the first couple of paragraphs. When I got round to doing so last night, I knew at once that I had indeed read the book before. The details were hazy, but the quirky tone was unmistakable. Unmistakably Spark, of course. But more particular than that. The young woman writing a poem on a tombstone — she’s one of a kind. She’s Fleur Talbot, budding novelist, a baleen whale feeding on bulks of tiny but clearly-observed details. She cares naught for none: it’s a portrait of the artist as a benign sociopath. With a sociopath’s genius, Fleur finds work in the employ of Sir Quentin Oliver, a baronet who runs a very silly club, the Autobiographical Association. Every now and then there is a meeting of the club, its eccentric (or would-be eccentric) members filling Sir Quentin’s drawing room. Sir Quentin has a frightful housekeeper and an aged mother, who is always escaping from the housekeeper’s vigilance.

But Lady Edwina just then came tottering into the room. “Mummy!” said Sir Quentin.

I jumped up and pulled forward a chair for her. Everyone was jumping up to do something for her. Sir Quentin fluttered his hands, begged her to go and rest and demanded, “Where is Mrs Tims?” He obviously expected his mother to make a scene, and so did I. However, Lady Edwina didn’t make it. She took over the meeting as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm. I was greatly impressed by the performance. She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, “Ah Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?” Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea-dress freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper, and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked father, “Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?”

“Lady Edwina, your rest hour,” wheedled Mrs Times. “Come along, now. Come with me.”

“Dear no, oh dear no,” said Father Egbert, sitting up and putting to rights his Prince of Wales jacket. “I don’t belong to a religious hierarchy of any persuasion!”

“Funny, I smell a clergyman off you,” said Edwina.

“Mummy! said Sir Quentin.

So I went into the blue room, and made for the shelf where only days ago I had noticed a rank of Spark’s slim fictions, and there, in the middle of them, it was, Loitering With Intent. So I pulled it out and took it back with me to the bedroom to re-read. Don’t you agree that that’s the true test? You buy a book and then find out that you’ve already read it. Disappointed? Never! How much more fun it is to make rediscoveries. The new copy, I’ll quiet give away.


In the kitchen, I’m watching Flirting with Disaster, David Russell’s 1996 comedy. This has always been a favorite of mine; I fell completely in love with Téa Leoni when it came out, for one thing. The slapstick plot, perfectly executed by a top-flight cast, is a great treat, as grossly funny as a movie without a pie-throwing scene can be. But as the movie began, I realized that it has an unusual dimension. All comedy involves the discomfort of others, and there’s plenty of that in Flirting with Disaster. But the movie is so full of TMI moments and Ew! moments that the discomfort spills out into the audience. Most of these unpleasantnesses do not involve plumbing; they’re higher-order embarrassments. Such as the unforgettable scene in which Mary Tyler Moore, as Ben Stiller’s shrill adoptive mother, harrasses her sweet, new-mother daughter-in-law (Patricia Arquette) about the importance of acquiring a push-up bra, now. Moore redeemed reels of sweetness with this performance, and it makes me sick with regret that she and Doris Roberts were never teamed up for a sister act. (Were they?)

Then there’s Charlet Oberly as the owner of a B&B who insists, in her welcoming spiel, that Betty Ford is a “lovely lady,” only to behave like a witch when Ben Stiller needs to make a late-night phone call. This isn’t just situationally funny. We’ve been set up to dislike the B&B lady by the patness of her speech, but we’ve felt guilty about it, too, because she’s just an old lady; but when she pulls the phone out of Ben Stiller’s hand, our guilt is replaced by a very complicated satisfaction. When Stiller tries to apologize by pointing out that he used his calling card — his apologies are always excuses — we throw up our hands at the hopelessness of things. The moral of the story is that American niceness is thinner than nail polish, and, like so much nail polish, really unattractive.

Anyone remember calling cards?

Gotham Diary:
17 October 2013

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Te Deum laudamus: the battle was not lost. A reckless foray beyond the perimeter of the known world was checked, before any serious damage could be done. Now, in peace, we can assay what might be learned from the past seventeen days.

I’m glad that I didn’t write more than I did about the shutdown and the debt-ceiling nightmare. But was I foolish to write what I did? What it silly to worry? I don’t think so. Among the friends I talked to, the consensus seemed to be that, if not this time, then next time: next time, or the time after that, the secessionists, as I think it safe to call them, will shear the unity of the country. The only alternative is to deflate support for their positions, by converting their supporters to a commitment to harmony. That will be difficult, but it is not unlikely. Many commentators have argued that what bothers the Republicans most about Affordable Care is that it will work, and persuade many of the less-affluent and -educated Americans who currently vote Republican, if not to switch allegiance, then to withdraw their support from Republican candidates — extreme Republican candidates, anyway. Even if this comes to pass, it will take some time, but the prospect does suggest an avenue of thinking that might inspire short-term inroads.

We pray that future battles may be as virtual as this one — or, in any case, no more expensive. But I don’t count on it.


It came to me this morning that I’d really like to see Sandra Bullock in an all-woman production of Waiting for Godot. I can think of no other actress who so consistently embodies the plight expressed by Beckett in the famous line (from The Unnamable, according to Wikiquote), “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” In film after film since Speed, Bullock has nailed characters who progress from being totally freaked out by a hopeless situation to ploughing through catastrophe and coming out intact. She makes full use of the license that female actors have to come completely undone, but panic is never more than a transitional phase that leads to determination and composure. It is hard for me to imagine that Alfonso Cuarón ever conceived of anyone else to play his new heroine, Ryan Stone, but apparently he did: Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie. Phew! I’m not going to say that they would have been bad in the part, but they couldn’t possibly have given us Bullock’s immense moral muscle. It is she who brings gravity to Gravity.

Long before I saw the movie, I sensed that, not only was nobody going to tell me how the story plays out, but, as with family scandals, I oughtn’t even to ask. Now that I know the ending, which, without hesitation, I would call “satisfying,” I have no intention of passing on what I’ve learned. Several reviews suggested that Gravity is something of a cinematic gamechanger, but I can’t bring myself to agree. It is a very beautiful film, with hugely exciting episodes in 3-D, but if there was something novel about the spectacle, I missed it. In a way that harmonizes with the look and feel of the show, the story is crisp and lean, an uninterrupted narrative that moves from heaven to earth.

In this, it is very unlikely Apollo 13, a film famous for its supple shifts among four graduated points of view (what Houston knows; what the astronauts know; what their families know; and what the television audience knows), but, even so, it was to Ron Howard’s  classic that I turned for the same kind of stimulation that Gravity aroused. The two films have a few things in common. Ed Harris, of course, plays more or less the same role in both, although he is not seen in Gravity. The sense of being in space, somewhere between the earth and the moon, is similarly represented, even if Cuarón indulges in a wild virtuosity that would be out of place in the stoic Apollo 13. The cockpits of the spacecraft are just about identically drab and functional: the glamour of space travel is altogether out the window.

But the films are not similar; they’re complementary. Like salt and pepper, they belong together, in similar vessels, and they both whet the appetite, but each does so by doing what the other does not. I can’t continue this discussion without spoiling the surprise of Gravity, so I’ll stop, but I encourage anyone who has enjoyed the new movie to give the old one a new look: Cuarón’s great movie increases the greatness of Howard’s.

When Gravity comes out on DVD, I’ll try to remember to pick up this thread.

Gotham Diary:
The Last Reel
16 October 2013

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Taking the pulse of things this morning, I sense that the showdown in Washington seems to be regarded as an embarrassing contretemps that we’ll all be laughing about over the weekend. I don’t share this cocktail-party skepticism, this doubt that things could ever be different. I see kids playing with matches while mixing potions from the cleansers under the kitchen sink.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I have no idea what’s going to happen as a result of whatever does happen next. Or after that. But I see robustly ramifying slides into chaos. If I have a pet worry, it’s for the credit markets. Lots of metaphors for the credit markets come to mind, but none of them stretches far enough to describe what might happen to everyday life if the credit markets wobble, or worse. Metaphors are distracting, anyway. There is nothing metaphoric about the observation that it is healthy credit markets, no less than trucks and processing plants, that put food on the grocery shelves and batteries in the hardware store. And it is only slightly metaphoric to suggest that a credit markets crisis is a kind of fuel crisis. A food crisis — possibly a famine.

Famines are always possible, as are all disasters, and we cannot devote our lives to worrying about them. We do what we can to avoid them. But that’s just what is not happening in Washington. The nation is currently held hostage by a band of parliamentary insurrectionists who are determined to slow, if not stop,  the transformation of the United States into a federation of cosmopolitan regions. These won’t-be-legislators represent a by no means inconsiderable segment of the population. White, older, moderately affluent, and sentimental rather than thoughtful, these Americans believe that their country is sinking in a bog of quicksand. Maybe it is. In a few years, they’ll all be dead, and it’s not unlikely that they won’t be replaced by like-minded younger voters. But they can still scream, and that is what they are doing.

They don’t care if their cries — and their intransigence — spook the credit markets. Why should they? They have nothing to lose. Like a man in quicksand with no one nearby to help, they have already lost it.

They just want to be sure that we all get to know what it feels like.

Reading Note:
Brave Utensils
15 October 2013

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

It seems that I missed the point of The Tempest, which, Frank Kermode suggests, is a beautifully disciplined blend of language and pageantry. Disappointed, I shall try to bear that in mind. I wanted another play entirely. In my telling of the story, Prospero would be less pompous and more tragic. He would probably remain on his no-longer-magic isle at the end, for what would be the good of restoring him to his dukedom? He seems unaware that he made a hash of it the first time, delegating responsibility for the health of his realm to his thug of a brother. (The best thing in the play, I thought, was the repellent but mesmerizing chumminess — I should not call it friendship — between Sebastian and Antonio, each egging the other on to be the worst that he can be, a miserably adolescent sort of relationship that can be fatal if not outgrown.) My play would climax in a long, ambiguous, but very moving scene with Gonzalo, who appears to have merely tempered his concern for the stability of the state with a tenderness for Prospero and his daughter: the counselor did not, after all, accompany his master into exile. The more I think on’t, the more Gonzalo becomes the lead. Perhaps it is he who undoes Prospero’s magic! Sadly, such a play might easily be conceived, even plotted out; but it will never be written by Shakespeare.

The Tempest is certainly stuffed with famous tags— brave new worlds and coral bones — but there are plenty of others that ought to be famous but aren’t. My favorite comes from a speech of Caliban’s (III.2.95). The editor glosses “utensils” to mean “furnishings,” but that’s no fun; I’d much rather imagine Prospero’s cell decked with heroic spatulas and dashing food mills.


Rummaging through a pile of books in order to insert a clipping into one of them — there is no room for it on the shelf where it ought to be — I came across an unread tome that (it seems) I picked up several years ago at the Museum bookshop, I can only hope not at the price stickered on the back. It is a scholarly work published by Penn, Walter Goffart’s Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (2006). It appealed to me in the moment, so I hauled it up.

Goffart announces at the start that he doesn’t believe in the existence of a “Migration Age” — known in German as Völkerwanderung. Nor does he believe in the existence of Germans — not in Roman times. Most of all, he does not believe that the Roman Empire was brought down by “barbarian invasions.” He believed that the empire gave way from within.

I used to puzzle over the question, as did most of the bright and even semi-rebellious kids that I knew. The question was in the air from the moment that I grasped the existence of history. Already in the Sixties it was clear to many observers that the United States maintained a sort of empire throughout the “free world,” in the form of military installations. The official purpose of these operations was to contain wicked communists, but the relations that developed between the superpower and its satellites had precursors in ancient times, and the spread of American “popular culture” throughout the world did nothing to damp the imperial similes. Every now and then, the question was frankly posed: was the United States the new Rome? And, if so, would it come to the same sorry end? How might that eventuality be prevented?

Don’t worry: I’m not going to jump ahead and try to answer those questions. About the condition of the United States at the present moment, I’m content with the legal maxim, res ipsa loquitur — and mighty eloquently, too. Rather, I want to fasten on a thought that occurred to me as I was reading Goffart, and not so much agreeing with his disputation as cheering it on. I began to see that there are two schools of thought, not so much of empire as of masculine sovereignty, and that these schools have their intellectual wellsprings in either one of two predispositions toward fear. There are those who fear what they don’t know, and those who fear what they do. The former are warriors, and the latter are critics. Not just in theory, but in my experience of human beings, these two types have very little to say to one another; each is inclined to regard the other as a nuisance.

Goffart, of course, is a critic. He concedes that Roman forces struggled with tribal bands along the European perimeter, but he insists that these bands never formed a coherent enemy. Rome, in his view, was defeated militarily (whenever in fact it was) because of distracting turmoil at its heart, particularly in contests for the emperorship. Superpower status was of little use to those who, trying to run the empire, couldn’t agree about deploying its resources. Collapse was never a question of armed inadequacy per se. Romans simply stopped living up to their own standards.

The idea of Roman decay was as old as the empire itself. Suetonius, looking back from the early Second Century, cast the imperial throne as a hotseat of depravity. His contemporary, Tacitus, went one step further. He conceived, on the basis of no personal experience, a territory to the north of the empire that he called “Germany.” He never said that it was populated by “Germans,” but he bunched together the manners and institutions of the peoples living in his “Germany” in such a way that his little book on the subject, which slipped into near total obscurity when it was written, only to be sensationally rediscovered in the Fifteenth Century and put to well-nigh catastrophic use by actual Germans, has been called “a baptismal gift” that “a good fairy of our people laid on the cradle of our fatherland’s history.” In case you still don’t get it, I refer you to another small book, this more recent one by Christopher Krebs, called A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (Norton, 2011).

Tacitus was a critic — of Rome. He made out his Germany-inhabitants to be rude, warlike, moral, and somewhat lazy — nymphs and shepherds with clubs and bearskins. Their principal characteristics amounted to the lack of a resemblance to Romans. We will never know the purpose behind Germania. Was Tacitus suggesting that Romans were soft? Almost certainly, but why? Bearing in mind that Tacitus had no idea of a “migration of peoples” pressing down upon the empire’s borders — this was an idea of much later vintage, originating in Constantinople — we may ask whether Tacitus saw the peoples of Germany (Alemanni, Franks, Suevi, whatever) as a compelling threat to Rome. This seems unlikely.

The threat to Rome came from the east. From the first tangles with the Persians to the extinction of the Eastern Empire by the Turks, Rome’s mortal enemies always sprang from what we now call the Middle East. The tribes of Europe were trivial botherations by comparison, and they tended, after a generation or two of skirmishing, to adopt or be adopted by the empire, or at least to take on what was left of its values. We are usually taught that the Roman Empire in the West ended in 476, with the abdication of Romulus Augustulus. That is one way of looking at it. Another way — a much more contemporary (late Roman) way — would be to hold that the imperial crown fell into abeyance for three hundred years, but was then reclaimed by Charlemagne.

The humanist writers who kick-started modern historical methods in the Renaissance were not inclined to view Charlemagne’s empire as a continuation of that of Augustus. We talk of the “Renaissance” as if it were a rebirth of Rome, but in fact it marked Rome’s extinction and replacement, by “Europe.” And Europe was, from the start, a German thing. That is, it was a German conundrum, a puzzle that would be “solved,” one hopes for the last time, by the Third Reich. German apologists, from the humanists onwards, brandished Tacitus’s little book as the birth certificate, the genetic identikit, of Germans. Germans were the natural occupants of Europe — Tacitus said so, way back when! They just needed organizing, so as to defeat their inferior neighbors, who (especially the French), though too weak for a fair fight, were always trying to poison their wells with cosmopolitan ideas.

Criticism had nothing to do with the German outlook. When a modern German empire surged upon the scene, it was ludicrously warlike. War was the point. War — Tacitus said so! — was what Germans were about. Except, of course, that he never said anything about Germans.

It seems clear that Tacitus’s book makes more sense as a criticism of Roman mores than it does as a call to arms. But in the transmutation of history, applied to circumstances that could not be imagined by Tacitus or anyone alive at his time, it became a criticism of Roman mores (French sophistication) and a call to arms — German arms.

All of this is by way of illustrating the difference between the mind-sets that I mentioned at the beginning. There are men who believe that the enemy lies without (in the form of hostile armies), and those who believe that it lies within (compromised and incompetent leaders). They will always be able to find support for their very different stories. It may be that their outlooks are mutually incompatible, but their wisdom is not. We need to learn how to listen to both.

Forty-Part Motet
14 October 2013

Monday, October 14th, 2013

If I had taken a clearer picture of the Fuentadueña Chapel at the Cloisters, I’d have used it, but although I brought home more than a few interesting snapshots from my outing to the Cloisters this morning, this clouded image captures something of the the experience of hearing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium (the “forty-part motet”) cast from forty speakers, each one registering a single voice, in a stone hall of middling size. The installation, by Jane Cardiff, dates back to 2001, and has been heard in New York before, at least once that I know of, a few years ago at MoMA. I hope that it will be regularly revived at the Cloisters.

Although written in the second half of the Sixteenth Century — no one is quite sure when, although a noted performance was given at Arundel House in London, probably before and in honor of Queen Elizabeth I — and although it reflects contemporary harmonic taste, Spem in alium is something of a throwback to the vast complications of the late medieval style, which lacked the tonal propulsion of the latest music from Italy. It stands out even among Tallis’s many other works of church music; perhaps it would be better to say that it stands back from them. I don’t want to say more, because all I know about Spem in alium is its oddness; I’ve only just downloaded a score. Hitherto, the motet has come across as a tidal surge, with ebbing echoes, and never have I been able to make out a single word after that opening “spem.” Although some voices are felt to be going up or down, there appears to be no overall direction to the piece, the effect being rather one of massive sustention. The simple point of Cardiff’s project is to make the voices intelligibly palpable, but even with one speaker per voice, the texture repeatedly fuses, as if to transcend music itself, in something even further from noise.

Determined not to be late, I arrived long before my friend. Climbing the steps from the sweep, I could hear nothing and despaired – it’s not on today. It wasn’t until I was getting my admission sticker that I made out distant music, coming in fact from fairly nearby. I had read somewhere that the motet is “piped through the museum.” This is not so. It is largely contained within the chapel itself.

I arrived as the motet was ending (it loops all day long, with intervals of perhaps five minutes between performances), and I stood in the doorway, so as not to disturb. People were standing throughout the chapel, but only a few were moving; most were transfixed. When the singing stopped, and the dazed listeners shuffled out of the room, I made my way to bench, sat down, and read the final scene of The Tempest. I closed the book when the first soprano cut the air. Spem. Hope. Trust, rather: “[Lord,] I have never trusted in another.”

Perhaps because it is hard to be hopeful or trusting these days. it is a relief of sorts to be overcome by Tallis’s grand joyous solemnity. I tried to make hearing it out an act of faith.


Excerpts from a letter to the friend who accompanied me to the Cloisters, written after I’d given up trying to capture the experience of Spem in alium at the museum, and just settled into listening to the music a few times — with a score.

When I got home, I listened to the recording of Spem in alium that I bought at the Cloisters  [by the Tallis Scholars], and it seemed clearer even than the performance in Jane Cardiff’s installation. I also located a downloadable score. Very dense and hard to follow, but it gave me the feeling that I was on solid ground at last and not floating through some improbable Elizabethan impressionism. I also realized that I don’t know a thing, really about this music, and that made it difficult to write about the experience. I took out the bits about weeping, too. I had, as you may have guessed, sat through a performance before you arrived, and my response was “emotional.” No matter how I came at it, I could not mention this in a way that didn’t strike me as insufferably conceited. Perhaps intuitive readers will “read” my tears into the dreadful photograph that I used.

Reading Notes:
Halfway Through Horror
11 October 2013

Friday, October 11th, 2013

It’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’ve just put down The Circle, which I’m about halfway through. It’s almost unbearable reading, even though the violence and horror are (so far) altogether implicit, offstage, internalized — easy to overlook. That’s what the heroine, Mae Holland, does. Or perhaps what she is does is to translate: to translate advertising into shared information, touting into gracious recommendation. She does not follow the money. She is actually too busy to care about money. But she steadily transforms herself into a bot that makes money for her employer, the eponymous company.

The writing is suitably creepy. Dave Eggers has does not satirize the perversity of business-speak, as Helen DeWitt does so brilliantly in Lightning Rods, but then The Circle is never, not for a minute, funny — whereas Lightning Rods was gruesomely hilarious. Rather, he captures the ingenuous response of a credulous ingénue. The novel’s tone of voice naive, reflecting Mae’s youthful optimism about technological efficiency. (Hers is the kind of “knowing” naiveté that Mark Edmundson finds so dismaying in Why Teach?) From the very beginning, however, the narrative is decked with red flags, some smaller than others but all cumulatively glaring. No sooner does Mae arrive at the “campus” of the vast social-media/search-engine monstrosity, which has learned how to conceal its stings and scales from the blandishments of Disneyland, than the old friend who got her the job plays a dubious joke on her, making it clear to the reader that Mae is going to have to work very hard to overcome normal human discomfort in this environment. Since Mae is a striver, she puts in the hours with relish. But she can barely keep up with the ever-widening demands that The Circle makes. And she fails to notice that her highly-placed friend is cracking up under the strain.

It’s the naiveté that’s distressing, not The Circle’s nefariousness. Eggers has projected a world only a few years into the future from our own, and nothing that he describes is difficult to imagine. In fact, one assumes that the basic mechanisms for the transmutation of personal information into corporate gold are already in place; one has gotten used to that. What’s horrible is Mae’s equable response to such company mottoes as “Secrets are Lies.” One is put in mind of the vulnerability of now-extinct Amerindians to European pathogens, circa 1500. Five hundred years later, young people with a natural and inevitable lack of long-term experience, and whose parents cannot have been expected to train them in the hygiene of streaming information, blithely follow the tootling piper of Twigglebook.

At Salon, Michele Filgate — whom it has been my pleasure to meet — writes about being so upset by The Circle that she went off social media for a spell. She soon saw that that’s not the answer.

Now that I’m back on social media, I’m realizing that the answer isn’t necessarily to deprive yourself. It’s better to find a balance and not think of your life as existing in 140 characters or status updates.

I’ve set up a few rules for myself, too. No tweeting while walking. No checking the phone on the subway. No TweetDeck. It’s far better to check Twitter on the actual website instead of having it open and taunting me all day long. The biggest thing I’ve realized is that I can’t have social media open while I’m writing. I don’t want to become like Mae, sacrificing real-life friendships for the allure of the screen. I want to be aware of the world around me. I want to write about that world. I want to feel more alive, even if that means being lonelier in the process. It’s a book that connected me with myself again — just as books have always done, and always will do.

Finding balance is the most difficult of the arts of living; it is so much easier to go overboard in one direction or the other. We are all such quirky beings that we have can offer little concrete advice to others. Michele’s simple rules probably seem to her, in retrospect, to be no-brainers. That’s because it took a novel to wake her up to the need to think about her envelopment in social media. Once it did, she had no trouble establishing clear boundaries. I doubt that she’ll be alone.


Yes, but is it art? The Circle, I mean. Will it remain a satisfying read long after the present crisis has resolved itself in salvation or disaster? Frankly, I don’t much care. It’s engrossing and timely and really smart,  not just “knowing.” For me, it’s a work of horror from the first page. For younger readers, it might have a more salutary effect.

While I’m enjoying The Circle, I’m mulling over some very strong words by Jonathan Franzen. They appear at the start of his odd new book, The Kraus Project, a work of indie-rock scholarship. Who is going to read this book? There are three texts: essays by Karl Kraus, a rebarbative writer who worked in the glittering sunset of the Austrian Empire; translations of the essays, on facing pages, by Franzen, and footnoted commentary, running along the bottom of the page and beyond. (Some of the notes are provided by Peter Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann.) It is this commentary, of course, that is the nub of the book: Franzen is using Kraus to show up the sins of contemporary America in different colors.

Vienna in 1910 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts toward apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climactic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our Far Left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our Far Right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that our manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree agree on how to keep health care costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense.

You might also argue that The Circle is a dilation of this grim picture.

Gotham Diary:
10 October 2013

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Last night, I watched a movie that I hadn’t seen since it came out, in 1972. It’s one of George Cukor’s last movies, based on a Graham Greene story: Travels With My Aunt. I haven’t read the Greene, which can’t possibly be as frothy as the adaptation by Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler — can it? The film has not aged well, particularly because of Tony Hatch’s glitzy score, which contrives to clash hideously with its look and feel. Travels With My Aunt would not be very satisfying to sit through if it did not exist in a world of other movies, to several of which it makes pointed, if unintended reference.

That’s the great thing about movies — and why I consider cinema a branch of literary fiction. I have technology to thank. Technology has made it not only possible but convenient to watch movies on demand at home, which was certainly not the case when I was a boy. In other words, I can choose to dip into a movie exactly as I might do with a novel. I love watching movies with friends — friends who will countenance my outbursts and running commentaries — but I am perfectly happy to experience film as I do print: alone. The charms of sitting among strangers in the dark are lost on me.

Being able to watch movies on demand includes being able to watch them often, and I’ve seen many movies many times. I try not to exaggerate, but I am certain that I have seen My House In Umbria a dozen times — at least. Made for TV but indistinguishable from a feature film, Hugh Whitemore’s adaptation of a story by Trevor Nunn, directed by Richard Loncraine, is an exquisitely restrained romance; more bitter than sweet, given the terrorist act that sets it in motion. I thought of it often, during Travels With My Aunt, because it’s in so many ways the “real” version of the same story. Maggie Smith pretends, in Travels, to be what she really is in Umbria: elderly. And the romp has simmered down; champagne gives way to dry cocktails.

As romps go, Travels With My Aunt is the missing link between Auntie Mame and La Cage aux Folles. You have an exuberant, extravagant lady of a certain age. She goes from being a rich woman who loses her fortune to a classy prostitute to a man in drag. Then you have the ingénu, first a little boy, then a middle-aged bank manager (assistant!), to an extremely correct Catholic family. The movies at either end of this continuum are much better than the one in the middle, but Travels With My Aunt is explicit about themes that are barely tacit in Auntie Mame, while at the same time Maggie Smith’s performance is so over the top that she might be impersonating a female impersonator. The movie looks both ways. You might miss that, or not find it very beguiling, if you could see features like Auntie Mame and La Cage aux Folles only rarely, at festivals in theatres.


I’m reading The Tempest with a keen interest in Prospero’s derelictions as Duke of Milan. In I, ii, Prospero, the usurped duke, tells his tale to his daughter, Miranda (and to the audience):

My brother and thy uncle, called Antonio —
I pray thee mark me — that a brother should
Be so perfidious! — he whom next thyself
Of all the world I loved, and to him put
The manage of my state, as at that time
Throughout all the signories it was the first
And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, for the liberal arts
Without a parallel: those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.

This is the stuff of tragedy. The duke is so illustrious that he allows himself to believe that the tedious governance of his realm can be delegated, whilst he passes the time “rapt in secret studies.” It is impossible to imagine that Shakespeare regarded such conduct as anything but wicked. The Tempest, however, is not a tragedy. The point of the drama must surely be to teach Prospero that he brought his downfall upon himself, and is responsible for Antonion’s encroachments. It has been a while since I’ve read the play — so long, in fact, that I might be said never to have read it.

Who does not love the lines of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand?

Full fathom five they father lies;
  Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
  Nothing of him that doth fade
  But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.

“Sea change” has entered the language as a phrase of uncertain meaning — suitably uncertain, since the transformation into “something rich and strange” takes place in the dark, too slowly for the unaided eye to notice. As a dramatist, Shakespeare has no time for dawdling processes, so Alonso’s bones have turned into coral mere hours after his death. That justifies the technical misuse of “sea change” to signify a pronounced, and possibly sudden, change of atmosphere. The song is deceptive, of course; Ferdinand’s father, even if he is the wicked king of Naples, does not lie at the bottom of the sea, but is as safe as his son. Since we in the audience know this, we are spared Ferdinand’s melancholy associations. The song is delightful and mysterious, but not ominous.

Gotham Diary:
9 October 2013

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Here’s something that we couldn’t do when I was little: watch a forty year-old television program. The history of the invention and development of broadcast television is a murky affair involving many small steps, some of them backwards, but the forty-year measure cuts right through that: a show of that age, when I was ten (1958), would have had to be made at the end of World War I. Not on!

But forty years ago from 2013 is no big deal; lots and lots of shows are older than that. Somewhere in my library, I’ve got a collection of old-time Saturday-morning kiddies’ shows, some of which, I’m quite sure, date back to 1953 and beyond — sixty years!

On the not-so-great side of remarkability: many of the actors in the show that I watched yesterday, the BBC adaptation of Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club — many of them have died, some, like the star, Ian Carmichael (1920-2010), not too long ago and at great old age. A little memento mori with your TV entertainment!

One of the actors who is still with us is Phyllida Law (1932- ). Law has made a number of pictures in a late career, most of them also featuring one or the other of her daughters, Emma or Sophie Thompson. But I had never seen her in her halcyon days — which is, of course, to say that, when I saw Unpleasantness on Masterpiece Theatre all those decades ago, I didn’t know that the actress playing Marjorie Phelps, a well-born bohemian artist who lives on a houseboat in the Thames, was enjoying her halcyon days, nor that she had a fourteen year-old daughter at home who would grow up to look almost exactly like her. The resemblance I would rate at 95%. Everything about Law is somewhat lighter. Her voice is not so deep, and her manner is slightly but markedly more coquettish. Emma Thompson, of whom I’ve seen a lot over the years, has a weightier, more serious presence. I doubt that she could scamper through an ingénue’s antics as blithely as her mother, the more natural comedian. But I’m quibbling over the 5% that distinguishes the two women. From the standpoint of a film viewer, Emma Thompson is a reincarnation of Phyllida Law, not her daughter. Discovering this in the train of watching The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a way of standing reincarnation on its head. Law becomes the preincarnation of Thompson. I am quite sure that I have never seen anything like it.

When Masterpiece Theatre began showing the Peter Wimsey mysteries, I knew of Dorothy Sayers as the Penguin translator of Dante. Indeed, she still is, decades after her death in 1957. The Penguin edition would be my favorite, if only it included the Italian text. That would make it perfect. Sayers’s notes and commentaries are stupendously rich, not at all what you get when a great poet has a go at the classic. The translation, by the same token, is relative weak, suffering from a lack of poetic flow; Sayers manages to sound “medieval,” but not at all like Dante. By why worry about being “like” Dante if you could have Dante himself, right there on the facing page!

(I’ve just discovered that you can buy an MP3 version of a Folkways Recording of the first eight cantos of Inferno, recorded in 1956 by a professor Enrico de Negri. It sounds great, but then, when it comes to Italian, I could listen to anyone with a nice voice read the telephone directory. I have to figure out how to get it onto an iPod.)

I remember that it was surprising that an Oxford don, specializing in Dante, would write murder mysteries on the side. We were so innocent in those days! Not too many lustrums ago, I re-read The Nine Tailors, which is all about churchbells and how they can kill you if you’re tied up in the belfry while changes are rung. Sayers’s mysteries are always satisfying, her crimes engagingly ghastly; but the real draw is the fairy tale that they weave out of the rays of Britain’s sunset. Lord Peter Wimsey, younger brother of the Duke of Denver, a genuine grandee, is, as his name betrays, too good to be true. An amateur sleuth with resources adequate to almost any demand, including an impromptu Atlantic crossing (Clouds of Witness), Peter comes kitted out with a valet, Bunter, who is nothing less than a full-bodied counter-argument to Wodehouse’s Jeeves. Together, the two men served in the ghastly trenches at Paschendaele and elsewhere, but now, ten or so years later, they helplessly and endearingly preserve the assymetrical relationship of master and manservant. This is where Sayers’ imagination seems most fanciful. Between them, Wimsey and Bunter appear to share an esprit de corps that requires Bunter to keep Wimsey looking and feeling band-box fresh at all times. I have a hard time believing in a relationship quite so winningly straightforward. The Wimsey romances are anything but timeless, and that is their great charm. They’re historical novels that happen to have been written in the same time period.

Back in the Seventies, I was hugely taken by the resemblance between Ian Carmichael and my adored uncle John. It was a blunt blow to discover that John and my aunt, Ann, were not keen to see any such thing. Now, of course I can understand why. Peter Wimsey’s effervescence has an undeniably fey quality, and there are moments here and there when his remarks seem fatuous. He is, moreover, an English aristocrat, something that my doggedly Yankee relatives would never approve. I see now that, simply by being reminded of my uncle by the actor, I was betraying the fact that I did not understand my family very well, while at the same time indulging in the wishful dream that their actuality were rather different.

Gotham Diary:
Cliff Notes
8 October 2013

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

On Sunday, I awoke as my old self, or, rather, my younger self: for the first time in ages, I felt — I didn’t feel anything. I just got up and looked around and saw what there was to do, and I did it. No fuss, no fatigue. By bedtime, the apartment was completely tidy — even the balcony was swept — and the pantry shelves were in order. Yesterday, I made a ragù and reorganized the refrigerator. I last cleaned out the fridge so recently that there was very little to pitch out. The ragù filled the apartment with a fragrance that I can only call divine — sage, rosemary, porcini, garlic and wine floating above fennel sausage and chopped tomatoes. The recipe came from Franny’s, the haut Slope restaurant on Flatbush Avenue near Grand Army Plaza, where the Ms NOLA’s mother-in-law-to-be hosted the rehearsal dinner last Friday. The food was very, very yummy. One of the courses was a polenta with ragù that did nothing less than change my mind about polenta. Ray Soleil, also in attendance, cajoled the server for a recipe, which I printed as soon as he sent it to me. I did not try to make the polenta itself; that, I knew, would require the extra-fine polenta meal from Anson Mills that Franny’s uses, and that melts down to a completely sub-granular creaminess. (I hate grits.) I did place an order online, and I look forward to following the recipe, which calls for microplaning cloves of garlic. The ragù from Franny’s was very like one that I’ve been making with fennel sausage for years and years, only much better, owing to the fresh herbs. I had always thought, wrongly, so wrongly, that the sausage provided enough seasoning by itself.

Kathleen and I were going to go out for dinner this evening, to an Italian restaurant that we’re fond of, Luna Rossa, only not in the hot months. It’s a nice place to meet Kathleen after her periodic board meetings at a proximate academy. I strolled over this afternoon to make a reservation. But some workmen were laying the foundations for a new sidewalk, and the restaurant was closed. I decided to make a chicken salad instead, and I’m on my way to do that.

Today, Ray and I went to the Container Store, and you know perfectly well that nothing of general interest ensued. Suffice it to say that the precious Christmas ornaments (untouched by me) are in a much safer place, the silver tea service is once again accessible, and DVD storage is no longer a headache. Also — and this did not involve products from the Container Store — the operas that are packaged in boxes (as distinct from the ones stuffed into jewel boxes) have been arranged, by composer and by order of composition (roughly) behind the books in a certain low bookshelf. Amazingly, they all just fit. Mozart on top, Strauss and Puccini on the bottom, Wagner and Verdi stacked in the middle, and everybody else strewn about the remaining crannies. It was a very satisfactory afternoon of work: everything that we dealt with was improved. And a bit of clutter in the hallway was permanently eliminated.

Fun while it lasted! Now I’m back to worrying about Washington.


Is is 1860 again, or 1789? It’s the spirit of 1860, certainly. The country has devolved into contested territory, and each party has completely lost interest in what the other has to say. Both parties see themselves as crowned in virtue. That’s where 1789 comes in: I don’t think that anybody can gauge the possibilities for unintended disorder when the business of the government is interrupted. Determination has become generally reckless.

If I were younger, it might be exciting, but something tells me that if I were younger — a young person today, that is — I wouldn’t be paying attention. Sometimes I draw great hope from the way in which people under forty seem to see beyond the sclerosis that impedes almost all public affairs in our time. They must be seeing something, I imagine. But I’m not sure that I want to live through the ordeal of getting from here to there, whatever is that young people see. It often seems to involve little more than the death of my cohort, not the happiest of thoughts, even if I do rather agree and have felt as much since my cohort was in its teens. Boomers have no idea how thick they are, how solipsistic and incurious! But they’ve always been that, because they grew up at the center of attention. Boomers are like Long Island, the terminal moraine of generations so obsessed by the dread of decay and decrepitude that wisdom and maturity became simply unfashionable. Just as the willingness to compromise has become unfashionable in Washington.

Now, it’s true that most of the renegade Republicans are younger men; surely most of them aren’t yet fifty. But you can see that they’ve learned nothing from the past, because Boomers, the nearest witnesses, have had nothing to tell them. Nobody had anything to tell Boomers, either. I can remember that pretty clearly. Instead of being presented with living models of adult behavior, we were parked in front of the television, and most of us grew up thinking that we were too smart to fall for the pitch of advertizing — exactly what the folks on the other side of screen wanted us to think.

Do you remember the climax of that movie about Patsy Cline? They’re flying along when the clouds break and suddenly there is this cliff dead ahead. The End. Right now reminds me of that.

Gotham Diary:
7 October 2013

Monday, October 7th, 2013

In this morning’s Times, there’s a front-page story about a secessionist movement in the plains counties of eastern Colorado. This utterly rural region — without the artifice of state lines, it would include the locus of In Cold Blood — shares ever fewer values with the metropolitan corridor that runs along the foothills of the Rockies. It is unlikely that anything will come of the drive for 51st-Statehood, but it’s possible, and it is inevitable that state lines will have to be redrawn at some point — not at gunpoint, one hopes — so long as the Napoleonic State continues to be the model of sovereign governance.

The key characteristic of the Napoleonic State is the universal application of one code of law throughout the territory. The Napoleonic State is a modern invention, as its title indicates; the stepchild of Enlightenment philosophes who deplored the patchwork of customs barriers that made doing business with France unnecessarily difficult, it was enacted by the revolutionaries of 1789, but it was Napoleon’s prestige as an effective ruler that made it the model of modern government. We take it entirely for granted today. In the United States, of course, there are two codes of law, but they are applied universally, either throughout the Union (via federal law) or within each state. Localities are allowed to enact rules and regulations that are not in conflict with the two superior codes, but only rarely is a code law modified to suit local peculiarities. An example that illustrates the triviality of such exceptions obtains in New York County (Manhattan), where it is not permissible to make a right turn on a red traffic signal.

The Colorado secession movement, and others like it that are also mentioned in Jack Healy’s story, have one thing in common, and it is the root grievance that drove the American Revolution: unrepresentative government. The people of eastern Colorado feel that their representatives in the state legislature have no voice. Interestingly, this is not a problem at the federal level — not at the moment. The Fourth Congressional District of Colorado, which comprises the secessionist counties, is represented by conservative Cory Gardiner. State assemblies have been exploited to gerrymander homogenous congressional districts throughout the country, and, as the government shutdown demonstrates, it is possible for like-minded regions, despite their geographical dispersal, to wield enormous collective clout in Washington. But within the states, ironically, it is much harder for such insurgencies to gain traction.

Whether we’re looking at gerrymandered congressional districts or quirky secessionist movements, the underlying logic is the same: the thinly-populated parts of the country are no longer the American heartland. Metropolitan values no longer honor agrarian pieties. People who live in cities no longer blush to think how wicked their lives are, in contrast to those of the folks back home. There are, increasingly, no folks back home. Most Americans today were born in shapeless suburban sprawl, and they have had to cobble together their own ethics, without much input from preachers.

Fewer and fewer people live in towns like Cheyenne Wells, Colorado. But there are still lots of small, shrinking towns, and, in an ideal world, they would constitute their own state, Ruralia. In one sense, they already do. Ruralia might sound fanciful, but — in case of fire — a disproportionate number of servicemen and -women call it home, or did until they joined the Army to get a job.

I don’t think I’m the only one who’s bothered by that.

Gotham Diary:
3 October 2013

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Thirty-two years ago today, Kathleen and I, freshly married, walked through the door of the New York Junior League, and upstairs to the reception that Kathleen’s mother had arranged with a view to perfection, which was in fact reached. It was a perfect day.

Today’s not so bad, either. I almost forgot about our anniversary, for just about the first time, because I’m so excited about the wedding of our very good friend Ms NOLA, which will take place in two days, on virtually the same October weekend as ours. I spent the afternoon with the bride-to-be and her mother, at the Museum, where we took in the textile show. The mother of the bride, nothing less than a gifted couturière herself, took the great interest in the fine needlework on display at the Museum.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow,” said Ms NOLA, as we were leaving. Do tomorrow? I retorted. You’re going to take it easy and get ready for a party! That’s what I told her, and that’s what I’ve decided to do myself. I’ll celebrate the conjunction of anniversary and wedding with a little pontismo. Back on Monday!


The other night, when I was reading the Claudia Roth Pierpont piece about Philip Roth and his writer friends that I mentioned yesterday, I was driven into a pothole by a reference to Bellow’s being “in low spirits, recovering from the death of both his brothers and the end of his fourth marriage.” I threw down the magazine. “I’m sorry,” I burst out to Kathleen. “I think it’s fine that the Wife of Bath married five times, but any man who marries more than three times has a broken axle.”

When the lava cooled, Kathleen asked, “But why does the Wife of Bath get to marry five times?”


I’ve got a date with Kathleen for dinner at 8:30, and not in Yorkville.