Archive for November, 2013

Holiday Note:
A Lovely Week to All
25 November 2013

Monday, November 25th, 2013

It is time to haul out a suitcase and pack for a short trip. Although I dislike travel itself, I’m looking forward to the rest of the adventure, which will take me to beloved people in a favorite city. As luck would have it, this will also be the perfect occasion for considering what I’m doing here, on these pages. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, as I suspect discerning readers will have at least sensed. For the first time, I’ve been thinking that I actually know what I’m doing — that I know what it is that I am really writing about. Rather than blurt it out, however, I’ve decided to look at it from every which way, just to make sure that I’m not mistaken, and also to prepare the ground a bit, so that, when I finally do come out with it, those readers will sigh, Of course! The topic sentence will appear at the end.

Over the years, a few people have said words to this effect: You write about books, right? Wrong. When I began this Web log, I suppose that writing about books was a big part of what I was doing, but in recent years, I have drifted away from that, toward something else, where books might better be described as points of departure than as objects of inquiry. But: points of departure whither? Two weeks ago, as I was walking to the subway on my way to see The Glass Menagerie, I was assailed by the answer to that question, which I wasn’t aware of having asked. It came all unbidden, as these things so maddeningly do.

The immediate effect has been exactly that of putting on a pair of much-needed reading glasses.

For all readers who will be celebrating Thanksgiving this week, I wish a day of warmth, connection, and good food. To everyone, I send my thanks for reading. I do look forward to sitting here next Monday and getting on with it.

Gotham Diary:
St Cecilia’s Day
22 November 2013

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

It seems that I’ll be staying home today after all. I had thought of going out, having lunch, touring the Museum and perhaps seeing a movie. But I didn’t want to do any of these things terribly badly, and the weather’s wet and gloomy. What decided the matter was the showerhead in my bathroom, which has been coming loose, and now sprays water everywhere but on me. I shall have to wait for a maintenance man to come up this afternoon. I could certainly run out for lunch and be home in plenty of time, but why?

My new armchair beckons. Well, it was new in the spring, but I didn’t sit in it during the summer; the blue room is stuffy in warm weather. But it’s very cozy now, and I find that I can stretch out in the deep club chair, put my legs on the very same hassock that I propped myself up on when I was learning to walk, and fall into a pleasant doze. Yesterday, I seemed to spend hours reading about Norman Mailer, because Harper’s kept falling into my lap. Mailer is an almost tragic figure, because although he was supremely gifted as a writer of durable sentences, his thinking on almost every subject was regrettable and quick to stale. He seems to have had no personal imagination, and as a result he was sunk in the facticity of his masculinity. To recall Mark Edmundson’s phrase, the punch in the mouth was a part of his repertoire, and not just in real life. Reading first Christopher Beha and then Andrew O’Hagan (at Harper’s in print and at the LRB online, respectively), I was appalled to see the effect that the old fighter had on their young minds. Here’s Beha, posing as the “Young Writer” or YW.

In 1994, Mailer complained that the place in the culture once reserved for the novelist had come to be occupied by Madonna. The YW would say that in his own time this place belonged perhaps to Kanye West, but that Kanye more or less deserved that place, insofar as he had not just talent but Mailer’s fascinating combination of megalomania and vulnerability, Mailer’s willingness to make a fool of himself, Mailer’s belief in his own importance, and Mailer’s determination to take the case for that importance straight to the people. The YW remembered what Schiller (the German poet, not Mailer’s buddy) had said — that a man must be a good citizen of his age, as wedll as of his country. What the literary world needed was a few good citizens willing to tell the age tough truths.

The problem is that Mailer was such a poor citizen. He was barely housebroken, and incontinently rude. He may have been in possession of a few tough truths, especially about Vietnam, but his delivery mirrored the insensitive belligerence that characterized our profoundly “masculine” misadventure in Southeast Asia. Mailer’s comment about the place of the novelist is sheer fantasy, the opposite of a tough truth, for serious novelists (and Mailer wasn’t a very good one) have never been at the center of American culture, and rarely anywhere near it for much longer than the display at a newsstand of an issue of Time Magazine’s cover. And to propose that the writer of novels can be replaced by a calculatedly meretricious pop star is to betray the passion for celebrity — his own — that flogged Mailer throughout his career. Beha compounds all of this by extolling a chain of vices; I very much doubt that Schiller (the poet) would have urged his readers to pay attention to Kanye West.

Mailer was right: the old standards were rotten. But his life and his art suggested that one might live without standards, without discrimination. Folly! O’Hagan reports that Mailer attributed his failure to win a Nobel Prize to the Swedish Academy’s refusal to reward a man who had stabbed his wife in a drunken rage. Good for them, if it’s true.

O’Hagan is just as upsetting as Beha.

I came to him via Marilyn Monroe. I was always reading about her and trying to work out why her story felt so personal to so many of the people I knew. ‘She was every man’s love affair with America,’ Mailer wrote. I remember reading that sentence and going to Kilwinning library for more books. They had Ancient Evenings, his vast Egyptian tome (I read the first ninety pages) and The Naked and the Dead, which was filled with the word ‘fug’ and seemed both plain and good. The others came in quick succession, half-read, skimmed or devoured, and his book about the killer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner’s Song, became for me a book that defined good taste in journalism. I read some biographies in between and quickly saw how far, in many ways, he was from the writers I considered my favourites. He didn’t do location or quiet suggestion; he didn’t do family history, grace, silence or epiphany. He didn’t do the human heart or the things that are left unsaid. Mailer was a celebrity who knew what he wanted to say and who wasn’t afraid of the loudhailer and the truncheon. He was never a subtle writer and never a complete novelist but as a navigator it seemed to me he was one of the heads of the profession. In any event, he was an intellectual who wanted to deal in headlines not footnotes, which wrecked him for some but made him a hero to me.

All I can say is how happy I am never to have sensed this hero-worship in anything else that O’Hagan has written. I can’t make up my mind whether I’d like him to dilate on that bit about Mailer’s excellence as a navigator, but it would be interesting to now more about “trying to work out why [Monroe’s] story felt so personal to so many of the people I knew.” The awful truth about Mailer’s Monroe book is that it obfuscates the simple basics of the case. Marilyn Monroe disliked the hard work of memorizing lines and the inescapable tedium of shooting films; she was a star in fame only. She was accommodated by the Industry because her big-girl body was comically and lubriciously inhabited by a stubborn little girl, and not just any little girl, but a close relative of Eloise de Plaza. I’m willing to grant a magnetic personal presence that could weaken the knees of very strong men, but it stops there; on film, she is just another pin-up, and it doesn’t say much for America to propose that her celluloid desirability embodied it. Monroe’s appeal and Mailer’s surrender are alike in heralding a period in American life when adulthood was merely genital.


In the kitchen, I am watching The Remains of the Day, which is twenty years old this year. I was startled to see Mike Nichols’s name in the credits; I hadn’t noticed before that he was a producer of the film, and I watched for twenty or minutes or so in a daze of having been mistaken about thinking that this was a Merchant/Ivory project. (Keeps life interesting.) I don’t think that I had seen Hugh Grant before, although very soon afterward, I had the pleasure of watching him impersonate Chopin in Impromptu, a wonderful movie that seems to have been swept out of the way so as not to interfere with Grant’s shooting stardom, which took off a year after Remains of the Day, with Four Weddings and a Funeral, the previous kitchen movie, to which I’d linked from Easy Virtue. Kristin Scott Thomas was new to me in Four Weddings, and I liked her so much that I disliked the movie for pairing Grant with Andie MacDowell, who though admirable in other contexts was here both American and Southern. I guess that you would have to be English to prefer the likes of her to Ms Scott Thomas, whom I still adore. I have always wished that Kristin Scott Thomas and Charlotte Rampling would make a movie together, set in the Thirties, about the English wives of wealthy French aristocrats — perhaps they’d be mother- and daughter-in-law. There would a touch of murder, maybe even a royalist plot. Perhaps the Windsors could be off-screen presences. You figure it out! I’ll be watching Zardoz next, at this rate.

The maintenance man has made an appearance, only to go off with the old shower-head and, for good measure, the kitchen-sink sprayer as well. I await his return with unabated hunger pangs. Ah — the door squeals!

Gotham Diary:
21 November 2013

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

In the new Harper’s (December), Jenny Diski makes a statement about advertising, consumerism, and capitalism that I take issue with. I agree with everything that Diski was saying about the book she was reviewing, Virginia Postrel’s book about glamour, which sounds perfectly awful. The remark that raised my eyebrows was something of a sideline, a bit of obiter dicta.

Instead, she seems satisfied to make glamour virtually synonymous with the function and activity of advertising: “By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure even as it heightens our yearnings. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” This she directly equates with the undeniable fact that advertising is the heart (if that’s the word) of capitalism.

Whoa! Whoa!

I’m no fan of advertising, although I have more trouble with its making a lot of entertainment “free” than I do with its consumerist content; and I’m certainly no supporter of free-market capitalism. I understand the temptation to cast both of these devils into the same boiling cauldron. But it must be resisted, because the resulting fumes are confusing rather than clarifying.

The heart of capitalism is: buy low and sell high, with the help of as few employees as possible. Industrial capitalism was a transitory phase, in many ways a perversion of capitalism. True capitalists don’t make things. They use their capital to buy things that other people make, which they then sell elsewhere. Think spice, think diamonds. Or think finance, for that’s pretty much what capitalism has come to in our time. True capitalism is rare.

Capital accumulations are also put to work starting up businesses. This can be done in either of two ways, directly (as equity) or indirectly (as debt — think bank loans). The industrial revolution witnessed the creation of many large corporations, some of them businesses, but large, innovative, profitable corporations have become difficult to sustain. Most industrial products and services, once their market steadies, tend to look more like public services, more properly paid for by taxes than by purchases.

Free-market capitalism is a chimera. It exists only for those who devote their lives to some form of trading, and it is confined to the specific market(s) in which that trading is undertaken. True free-market capitalism would be paralyzingly complex for the human organism; not even Eugene Fama could bear it.

A lot of what people call “capitalism” is nothing but a constructed receptacle for everything that’s meant by “not communist.” This construct stopped being even marginally useful when communism vanished from the political scene. Communism, unlike capitalism, is a moral system, with a great deal of internal coherence. If it doesn’t work, that’s because human beings aren’t sufficiently self-effacing to meet its minimum demands — and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future. Communism is a dream, a hope for some better future. That’s a problem, too, because people are impatient; they want to live the dream. Communism belongs in the same closet where we keep projects for perpetual-motion machines and philosophers’ stones.

What most people mean by capitalism, in contrast, is moral rubbish, amounting to no more than “do your own thing” and “leave me alone.” There’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing if you can swing it without hurting anybody else, but this is hardly the foundation of a moral system. And healthy people do not really want to be left alone. “Give me some space” is more like it; that is truly a moral, social claim.

Talk about capitalism and communism is highly colored by moral biases. On the one hand, the moral neutrality of what people call capitalism leads to objectionable outcomes, such as incidental accumulations of enormous wealth. (By incidental, I mean that making lots of money, while probably always the hope, is usually not the project that wins great fortune. Making hula hoops, or electric cars, or Viagra — those are projects. Most projects do not lead to wealth.) This makes capitalism a bad thing to many people, such as, I suspect, Jenny Diski. (But note: she is not talking about true capitalism.) On the other, communism cannot tolerate human nature as it is, and it also deals poorly with natural differences. Most experiments in communism have been more or less vengeful antidotes to capitalist excess. This makes communism a bad thing to many people, and instills in most Americans an unthinking dread of something called “socialism.” So, instead of moral analysis, we get grievances from both sides. Talk about capitalism and communism has preempted serious moral discussion since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.


Consumerism is also a consequence of the industrial revolution, and it also perverts social relations. It is best thought of as an infectious disease, to which survivors eventually develop a resistance. Sometimes it seems to me that we’re still in the middle of the consumerist plague; sometimes it seems that the end is truly nigh. We are always going to want stuff, but we are going to be a great deal more discriminating. And advertising, beyond telling us when and where to go, and how much to expect to pay, is going to have nothing to do with our desires.

Advertising is the nexus of industrial capitalism and the consumer. It announces the promise of realizing the desires that it seeks to create, if some sort of purchase is made. People with a resistance to consumerism already know their own desires, and so remain unmoved by advertising’s announcements; they also mistrust advertising at a visceral level. Postrel and Diski seem to be fascinated by a Louis Vuitton ad showing Angelina Jolie  and a leather bag by the side of a stream in Cambodia. The ad promises that a certain kind of leather bag exists. You may want the bag, and you may save up the money to buy it. That is the only part of the ad that will make money for Louis Vuitton. But the ad obviously announces other promises, only some of which are actual possibilities. You may travel to Cambodia, if you save up for that. You may even be photographed by Annie Liebovitz. But you will never be Angelina Jolie. This is not a problem for the survivor of the consumerist plague. The survivor may wish to be more like Angelina Jolie, or in the alternative may wish to marry her. But no survivor wants to be Angelina Jolie. The sign of survival is determination to be yourself, only better, because that is the only dissatisfaction capable of putting a stop to the consumerist itch. For the survivor of consumerism, the Vuitton ad is nothing more than a more or less appealing postcard.

Museums and libraries are the ultimate consumers of everything truly valuable. That’s as close as we’re going to come to communism for a very long time. But the world would be a duller place if Jenny Diski stopped taking swings at “capitalism.” I could watch her all day.

Gotham Diary:
Paradise and its Discontents
20 November 2013

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

The most trenchant passage in Walter Goffart’s generally trenchant book, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, concerns the Frisians. Unlike most of the tribal groups described in Goffart’s book, the Frisians are still very much with us; their language, distinct from Nederlands and German, lingers on in the remoter wastes of this very inhospitable North Sea territory. And that is the point.

Dwellers in a land that no one would dream of migrating to, the Frisians came from nowhere and went nowhere: they were in place as far into the past as anyone need look and remained so, confidently, into the Middle Ages. The physical evidence of their presence impresses us still in the majesty with which it traverses the centuries, proof of a single-mindedness not to be shaken by so flimsy a historian’s fancy as the Völkerwanderung.

If the Frisians were content to hang on in Friesland — some of them joined the Saxon flow to England, which crossed their land, but most stayed home, eking out an existence on terpen, precarious man-made mounds that rose above the tides (this is before dikes) — why would all those “peoples,” settled at various times and places along the length of the Danube, have felt the need to push toward Italy? Does the very idea of “migration of peoples” (Völkerwanderung) make sense? Goffart thinks not, and I agree with him. It goes without saying that I also concur in his judgment that there was never enough cohesion, internal or across group lines, among Goths and Lombards and others to support the idea of a “Germanic” infiltration of the Later Empire.

That the Later Empire swarmed with barbarian military men is not in question. Some of these barbarians, such as Constantine’s father, came from “backwoods” origins within the perimeters of the Empire; in the Fifth Century, emperors and general came from almost everywhere, inside or out. By Diocletian’s reign (c 290) at the latest, the imperial throne was occupied by military strongmen of varying durability, and a military aristocracy that drew from the top of all the more successful tribes was soon established. (Goffart mentions an eye-popping factoid: twenty-seven family connections link Diocletian to Charlemagne.) This aristocracy was highly meritocratic, if in a somewhat negative way: heirs without leadership capacities were bumped off. But it was already sustained by the sort of dynastic marriage that would characterize the European aristocracy right up to modern times. Already, Goffart tells us, we find that an illustrious family tree was indispensable for the major posts. It would only be in the High Middle Ages that such trees would be expected to go back before the times of renowned grandfathers or invincible uncles; by then, people without such backgrounds rarely had access to equine-centric military training.

Goffart’s book makes it difficult to believe that the Roman Empire ever “collapsed” or came to any kind of end. Its leadership rather passed into the hands of men (and women — women were far more powerful in this early aristocratic age than any Roman matron ever was) with interests completely different from those of the Julians or the Flavians. What did crumble was the veneration for the Athens of Pericles that so obviously motivated a great did of what the Romans of the Late Republic and Early Empire said, did, and, most of all, built. As we’ve been reminded ever since Gibbon, this loss of respect for Greek manners (which was of course even more completely discarded in Imperial Greece itself) is as attributable to the spread of Christianity as it is to anything else. Certainly the idea of “Rome” that Latin humanists have cherished since the Fourteenth Century eventually petered out. But this was because imperial institutions were steered in new directions, not because they were crushed.


Before reading Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, I could not have written a hundred words about Transylvania without consulting a very general reference book. Now I could possibly make it to five hundred — not that there’s a need. I might have learned a good deal, had I read it when it came out, from Between the Woods and the Water, the second installment of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Walk” trilogy, in the second half of which he ventures into Transylvanian territory. He doesn’t penetrate very deep, and he visits none of the places mentioned by Bánffy, but both writers are quite clearly describing the same earthly paradise.

Hills enclosed the north bank of this particular reach and the monastery was hardly out of sight before the tapering ruins of the castle of Solymos jutted on a pedestal of rock: it was a stronghold of the great John Hunyadi but much older than he. Then the trees of the foothills began to pile up in waves, with sprays of wild lilac scattered among the branches. The hills on the other shore stood aloof, and between the two ranges the great river lazily unwound. Sometimes it looped away for a mile or two, then meandered back and the clouds of willows and aspens that marked its windings were interspersed with with poplars tapering in spindles or expanding like butterfly nets. The women in the fields worse kerchiefs on their heads, under hats of soft plaited straw as wide as cart-wheels; leaves like broken assegais plumed the tall maize; an occasional breeze ruffled the wheat; the vines, all sprayed with sulphate, climbed in tiers. Pale cattle with wide, straight horns grazed by the score and the fens and water-meadows that lay about the river were wallows for buffaloes; lustrous as seals, or caked in dried mud as armour against insects, they were sometimes only to be spotted in the slime and the swamps by bubbles or an emerging nostril. Wherever horses and mares with their foals moved loose about the grass, a few ragged tents were sure to be pitched. Everything in these reedy windings was inert and hushed under a sleepy spell of growth and untroubled plenty.

I’d be dying to visit Transylvania myself if I thought that it still bore a strong resemblance to the land laid out in the pages of Bánffy and Fermor, but one might as well wish for a time-machine. But the foothills piling up in waves — perhaps that might still be seen. Every now and then I recall with a jolt that this is not the Transylvania of Bram Stoker or the movies. Nothing could be further from Count Dracula’s predations than Count Bánffy’s dream of a cosmopolitan but agrarian Transylvania.

Fermor is certainly more Virgilian than Bánffy, while the earlier writer’s word paintings are all inflected by a deep possessory pride. Nevertheless it is pleasant to remain tucked in my armchair Transylvania. Fermor’s summary of the local history, with particular bearing on the insolubility of the sovereignty problem — since resolved, by a brutal communist regime, in favor of the Romanians — is a masterpiece of lucidity, and I should happily copy it out if its length did not threaten to carry me far beyond the outermost rim of fair use.

Gotham Diary:
19 November 2013

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

This morning, I woke for the first time since Friday without feeling under the weather. The wear and tear of Friday’s library-management project has finally worn off. I did nothing all weekend — nothing! I sat and read. I fixed a simple meal or two. Maybe I even did a load of laundry. But nothing is pretty much all I was up to. The blue room remains just as disordered as it was when Ray Soleil and I called it a day on Friday evening — bits of discrete mess here and there, each a little problem to be solved. Bulk projects always turn up a dozen such.

I woke several times, actually, and each time I fell back to sleep, I returned to an archipelago of dreams that had an unusual weight or urgency. All I can compare this urgency to now, hours and the morning paper later, is the hypersensitivity to new people and places that attends starting at a new school. I don’t think that I should be so sensitive today, at my age, for I am too weightily settled in my own self to feel, as one does (or did) during the first couple of weeks in a strange dormitory, that absolutely everything of importance is (was) happening outside of me — and that everything that is happening is of equal importance. Even the unfamiliar now has a certain familiarity to it, which is perhaps only another way of saying that unfamiliarity itself is no longer enough to attract my attention. I have to have some reason to feel that, upon becoming more familiar, the unfamiliar will also be interesting — unlikely, in most cases, as I know from experience. I read that there are people for whom the unfamiliar is per se interesting, but I am not one of those people, evidently enough. In any case, the urgency of this morning’s dream owed to the “feeling,” or whatever it is that one has in dreams, that I had to work out just how I knew the other people in the dream, and why they were so eager to welcome and oblige me.

Waking from this dream left me with a sense of its architecture. I could not begin to describe this architecture, which was also a kind of logic, but I felt its strength, as though I were watching my mind handily push a loaded wheelbarrow across a yard. So much of what our minds do is unknown to us, or understood only in the merest fragments! It’s to be expected that we’ll know more in future; but, for now, we’re morally obliged, I think, to wait until that knowledge is secure to begin speculating on what it tells us about what’s going on beneath or behind or around our conscious selves. I have never had a dream that I could believe was “telling me something” about my own life that was otherwise invisible. I’m not sure that anyone who goes to the movies a lot has that kind of dream anymore: movies that we see when we’re awake do a much better job than our closed-off, sleeping brains can do of telling us what our lives look like to others, and of highlighting affinities of which we might never otherwise be consciously aware — hence the urgency of warning dreams before the advent of cinema. My dreams all seem to depict alternative lives, roads not taken, in most cases because they never quite forked off the route of my daily life.

“My dreams” — makes you shudder, doesn’t it? Please don’t tell me about your dream! Because you can’t. You can only report the aspect of the dream that you can remember and frame in words (two sides of the same thing). The necessary incoherence of your account will be all that you can communicate. No, there’s one other problem with dreams: they’re often quite unpleasant. My first reaction to hearing about a bad dream is to feel as sorry for the dreamer as I would had it all been real. Then I resent being made to pity the victim of purely imaginary (self-induced!) events. And, without going into detail, I must say that I dislike being libeled in someone else’s dream.

What we know, and what we don’t. The things we know are all very small. The spatulas are in the left-hand drawer. Our intestines are lined with microbes that participate in the digestive process. Oleanders are poisonous — even the smoke of burning oleander! The United States was founded in 1789, which also saw the beginning of the French Revolution. Earth is the third planet from the sun, and I forget how fast light travels but I could look it up in a jiffy. (The speed of light is profoundly meaningless to me; light is simply instant. And I know — another small thing — that this perception is “incorrect.”)

The things we don’t know are large. What is love? Might it be something slightly different for everyone who claims to have experienced it, and therefore incapable of generalization? The small things that we know about love don’t begin to add up to an explanation of the whole. Love seems to me to be a weak fact — its weakness being that nothing can be inferred from it or built upon it. It is best to take love as a miracle. As we ought to take dreams. They’re real, but their large reality is fully appreciable only to those who actually experience them.

This is not to say that love and dreams are purely private, that they have no social reality. One of the small things that we know about dreams is that a pattern of unusually vivid dreaming, followed by a cessation of dreams altogether, warrants consultation with a medical professional. Similarly, we know that people who are truly loved do not display contusions caused by the violence of their ostensible lovers. We positively bristle, as a culture these days, with myriad small facts about proper parenting — which don’t, however, explain the special love that binds parents to children, or the quite different special love that binds children to parents. Or that, sadly, doesn’t.

It used to be a humane conceit to assert that mankind is a blend of the bestial and the angelic. My updated version, which I’m sure could be put better, is that we confront a world of mysteries and miracles that we can only partially grasp in terms of sure knowledge. The first principle of any humane morality must be to respect this partiality humbly, for what it is.

Gotham Diary:
18 November 2013

Monday, November 18th, 2013

In this week’s Nation, Tara Zahra reviews three books about what caused the outbreak of World War I. She disagrees with their consensus, which pins blame for the war on a handful of diplomats and military men, because she feels that it slights the broader factors that alone can explain the explosive public enthusiasm that immediately preceded the gunfire. Zahra is also uncomfortable with the three writers’ insistence that the war was not inevitable.

I’m inclined to agree with her, now that I’ve finished The Transylvanian Trilogy, which ends at that moment, the rush to the front. Miklós Bánffy, a Hungarian statesman as well as a writer, is not shy about interpolating a good deal of political discussion into the three novels that comprise the Trilogy, and while these passages are not a substitute for conventional historical accounting, they capture an atmosphere in which powerful men interact with interest groups and more or less robust popular movements. Set in the ten years before the war, they repeatedly illuminate the opportunism, the distraction, the wishful thinking, and above all the moral inertia of a country that no longer exists, but the fact that the Dual Monarchy has long disappeared, and Hungarian Transylvania with it, does nothing to diminish the pungent familiarity of the political vices on which so many of Bánffy’s characters are hooked.

I believe that the “great men,” in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg, were directly responsible for the chain reaction that set off the war. But their “success” capped years of experiment. Their objective was never the stagnating death swamp that spread across the Western Front for four years. Nobody imagined that — which is certainly a way of saying that no one was directly responsible for the war that played out in reality. Something quick, dashing, and decisive was envisioned, a move so bold that rivals would have no choice but to assent. The great men played with military flourishes for years before 1914, many of them in the Balkans, where the withdrawal of the Ottomans engendered shimmering colonial dreams in the neighboring Christian empires. A local skirmish — between the Albanians and the Montenegrins, say — might invite the participation of the great powers, or a great power might indulge in belligerent gestures — as Germany did in Morocco in 1911 — but in each case the contestants quailed.

I still believe that World War I resulted from this troublemaking climate, but Bánffy has persuaded me (implicitly; he never argues this) that the event that sparked it was quite different from the earlier near misses, and not just because an Austrian grandee was the victim of an assassination. In The Transylvanian Trilogy, Franz Ferdinand is usually referred to as “the Heir,” meaning not just that he was next in line to succeed the very old Franz Josef but that he had policy objectives of his own, not necessarily congruent with the Emperor’s, and that he planned to implement these objectives as soon as he took the throne. (Bánffy regards the Heir and his objectives as malignant, and claims that the Heir openly disliked Hungarians). In Bánffy’s nutshell, the Heir planned to emasculate representative government wherever he found it, and in fact had neutralized the Hungarian parliament well before his death. He also planned to divide the Balkans, as well as the Austrian possessions that bordered on Russia, into petty kingdoms; he would replace the Dual Monarchy (in which the Austrian ruler was also King of Hungary) with a genuine empire, with local princes reporting to the emperor. This, in any case, is what emerges from Bánffy’s account. Never having given Franz Ferdinand much thought, I’m now on the lookout for a good biography.

If what Bánffy says is correct, then the death of the archduke was more than an insult. It was a successful attack on the future envisioned by the Heir and his lieutenants — like him, vigorous men in their prime. These true believers had no attractive option but to wrest an advance of their dream from the death of their leader, by subjugating the kingdom of Serbia to Austrian influence. They must attempt this even though Serbia was affiliated with the rival Russian empire. In 1914, the great men who had been itching for a chance to show their mettle, and who had toyed with opportunities in a series of foreign sideshows, found themselves with internal wounds that obviated the possibility of peace.

And suddenly, the citizens and subjects of the European sovereignties, most of them enfranchised within living memory, had the simplest of reasons to identify with their homelands, and to rush to their defense. The everyday realities of representative government meant very little to most people — they still do, unfortunately — but war was not rocket science.

Until it was. World War I was inevitable, because no one imagined anything like it.


In the middle of the third book of the Trilogy, Emperor Franz Josef threatens to abdicate, partly from old age, partly from frustration with Hungarian intransigence. Our hero, Balint Abady, has a long discussion with an old diplomatic colleague, Count Slawata, whom Balint has long known to be the Heir’s point man in Budapest. Balint is appalled to learn that the Heir’s immediate plans are those of a demagogue.

“The monarch who turns demagogue and who puts himself at the head of popular revolutionary movements may fancy that he’s featheering his own nest, but what he’s really doing is preparing the way for a republic, or for the ruin of his country!”

Slawata smiled ironically and said, “All that is sheer Montesquieu — esprit des lois!

“Of course! But it is no less true, however long ago it was written. Anyway, we are only guessing. All this is purely hypothetical and I, for one, don’t believe His Majesty has any intention of abdicating… so all this talk is really about nothing, at least for the moment. Khuen-Hedervary will resign and a new government will be formed which will reform the suffrage laws, which in my opinion should have been done long ago. I hear that Justh is quite ready, at least for a year, to drop all that tiresome obstructionism, especially as regards the army estimates. So, if the army question is out of the way, the other reforms the Heir wants to see could well be presented without upsetting anyone.”

Slawata’s reply took Balint by surprise.

“But we don’t want anything while Franz-Josef is still on throne. Indeed we’ll make quite sure that no real reform is possible. Perhaps some little concession here and there, but only if it proves unavoidable. His Highness wants to do it all after he succeeds to the throne, and until then he’ll do everything in his power to prevent any changes. If Laszlo Lukacs becomes Minister-President, which seems likely, he’ll forbid it outright!”

“Even if that means holding up the defence proposals?” marvelled Balint.

“Even that!”

The cynicism of the Heir and his minions chills and disgusts me as much as anything on this earth can. It is not so much power as the prospect of more power that leads men to evil.

Gotham Diary:
Bear With!
15 November 2013

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

There won’t be much of an entry today, because I spent the entire afternoon moving books from one bookshelf to another, and vice versa, with the incomparable help of Ray Soleil, who dealt with my impatience as if he were a god above, serenely free of the anxieties that made me worry about where my books were.

Kathleen came into the room after work and said that she couldn’t tell what was different, but she was joking. Of course she couldn’t tell; she pays no attention to the arrangement of books in the blue room, and she’d be an idiot if she did. So the idea that she might know was very funny. Ray said the same thing, however: when we were done, and all the immense piles of books that had covered tables and desk during the project had found places in the bookshelves, he couldn’t see what we had acccomplished. But I saw it, and so clearly: all the novels, magnificently organized in the bookshelf that happens to be hard to get to, row upon magnifcent row! While the “artistic” books, about music (at least thirty titles about Mozart), art, poetry, cooking even and even philosophy (The New Organon — why?) are all tucked into the breakfront behind my writing table — while,  while, while. They’re all completely disorganized; we just threw them onto the empty shelves. But they’ll be easy to arrange, and I look forward to the settlement.

Books: what do you do with them?

Bear with!

Gotham Diary:
To Go
14 November 2013

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

A friend of mine broke her foot the other day, so I offered to bring her lunch. I didn’t cook it myself; I walked up the street to Demarchelier late this morning, and ordered to go. Coq au vin for my friend; seafood ravioli for me. I didn’t have to wait too long for a taxi, and despite tangled traffic caused by cement trucks trying to get to the subway-station site, everything was still quite hot when I reached my friend’s apartment, so there was no need to reheat anything. We put the food on plates, poured ourselves glasses of wine (supplied by us), and sat down at the coffee table. The coq au vin looked good, and my friend tucked into it with relish. The ravioli were scrumptious. Stuffed with shrimp and other not-fishy morsels, they were coated with the lightest of sauces — butter, mostly, with diced tomato and flecks of herb. It was a generous serving, and I certainly got enough to eat, but when the ravioli were all gone, I wanted more. It was an odd dish to order to go, but I knew that it would be easy to eat. I didn’t think that it would be so tasty, though. I always order the same old things that I love at Demarchelier, and they’re great, but I forget that everything on the menu is usually very good.

Later in the afternoon, I found myself walking up 86th Street again, but this time I went only as far as Barnes & Noble. I was looking for a copy of The Glass Menagerie, having given upon finding one at home. (Having made a big mess, pulling books out of the case that is hardest to reach — the case where I really ought to put novels — and not put them back, so that I can hardly think in this room, it is such a bordel.) A cheap paperback would have been great, but I didn’t even look for one when I saw the Library of American edition of Tennessee Williams, Plays 1937-1955.

Amanda: That’s right, now that you’ve had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura! All for what? To impress some other girl’s fiancé!
Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! Just go, go, go — to the movies!

Tom: All right, I will! The more you shout about my selfishness to me the quicker I’ll go, and I won’t go the movies!

Amanda: Go, then! Then to the moon — you selfish dreamer!

What ‘selfish pleasure’? What selfishness? Who could live with such a parent?


My attention was called to a series of entries that Tim Parks has been posting at NYRBlog. I’ve read two of them, and read them again, and I still don’t know what they’re about, beyond Tim Parks’s unhappiness with “traditional” novels. At the end of one, Parks retails a truly sad story.

To conclude: in 2011 I had occasion to visit an old university tutor, a rather severe and demanding professor, who nevertheless played a generous part in encouraging me to write. He read my first attempts at fiction and introduced me to writers who would later be important to me, most notably Henry Green. I had not seen him in thirty years. Long since retired, he was now restricted to a wheelchair and, with time on his hands, had been re-reading old favorites, all the great novels that had inspired a lifetime’s career in reading, writing, teaching. We talked about Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Henry Green, Elisabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell.

“How did they hold up?” I asked cheerfully.

“Not at all,” he told me. “They feel like completely empty performances. Like it wasn’t worth it at all.”

It’s a sad story because it highlights a terrible want of imagination. Why, once the sense of emptiness took hold, did the professor continue reading the books that “had inspired a lifetime’s career” — hadn’t they done enough? Why not read new things? Is the professor even remotely aware of the extent of his self-indictment? Does either he or Parks have any idea how childish the old man looks, whining as though there were something wrong with the books?

I often hear that old people lose the taste for novels, sometimes from the old people themselves. It makes a certain sense, but I don’t care to spell it out, lest I tempt fate and wind up with a plate of words. I hope that such a loss of appetite doesn’t happen to me, but I don’t suppose there’s anything that can be done to insure against it. What, I wonder, is it about novels that fails for these older readers? Is there a connection between story and hope? If you’re not much interested in the future, do you lose interest in how the story comes out?

Any danger of losing my taste for fiction seems remote at the moment. I am literally enchanted by The Transylvanian Trilogy. I’ve reached the final book, They Were Divided, but despite its rather grim title I’m having a great old time, and so are Miklós Bánffy’s characters. Why, there has just been a Bal des Têtes in Kolozsvar.

The occasion had been eagerly awaited by all those who would attend, by the men because they would not have to make themselves ridiculous in some idiotic costume, and by their womenfolk because they could go in a classic ball-gown and not spend a fortune on some elaborate fancy dress, and also because they would be able to dazzle their friends, and hopefully outdo them, with some amazingly original and magnificent and hitherto undreamed-of ornamental head-dress.

For weeks before there had been to-ing and fro-ing and thought and planning and much pleasurable secrecy as to what all the fashionable ladies would wear. While everyone tried hard to find out what the others had chosen each was determined to keep their own ideas secret lest anyone should try to imitate what they had planned, thus leading to that social disaster when two or more women were dressed alike.

Nevertheless, in spite of, or perhaps because of, all this manic secrecy several women found themselves in just the situation they had most dreaded. There were eight Turkish turbans, five Dutch bonnets, three Andalusian head-dresses complete with high tortoiseshell combs and lace shawls, six country maidens from the Kalotaszeg district, two Cleopatras and four Little Red Riding Hoods. Not a few extremely cross society ladies had to console themselves with the thought that they had been first in the field with their wonderfully original idea and that somehow and with low cunning the others had stolen the idea from them. The one to be blamed was always their closest friend — that two-faced snake in the grass!

Someone with a brain at Random House ought to arrange for Part II, Chapter Two to appear as a short story in The New Yorker, as “The Anti-Duelling League.”

Rialto Note:
Broadway Fresh: The Glass Menagerie
13 November 2013

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Not being a fan of Tennessee Williams’s work, I agreed to see the current revival of The Glass Menagerie because Cherry Jones was to play Amanda Wingfield, and I didn’t want to miss that. I didn’t know how Ms Jones would play Amanda, but I did know that she would play the role in several ways at the same time, as indeed she did. The actress has a knack for bringing out the antagonisms within all of us without allowing them to cloud the coherence of her presentation. There is a great deal of sparkling naughtiness in Cherry Jones on stage, even when she’s playing an allegedly dour old nun, as in Doubt. The role of Amanda Wingfield offers many opportunities for romping subversiveness, and Ms Jones makes the most of them, brightening the play’s tone considerably. Grim The Glass Menagerie may be, but it need not be dreary. As it turned out, Cherry Jones wasn’t the only member of the company with a darting pulse. It was a quality that she appears to have shared with every one of her colleagues.

The Glass Menagerie is set in a lower-middle-class living room in St Louis:  dreary. But Bob Crowley, credited with the scenic and costume design of this production, sets the show on an airily expressionistic course before the house lights go down. Taking our seats, we see a few sticks of furniture, and a sofa that I’m sure would have been called a “davenport.” These are all suitably dingy. But the walls aren’t dingy, because there aren’t any walls, and the draperies aren’t dingy, because there aren’t any windows. Instead, there are fire escapes, as we call them: rickety-looking metal terraces connected by equally exiguous stairs to terraces above and below. From the Wingfield apartment, a fire escape climbs dizzily into the rafters, suggesting with the assurance of a Brahms finale that real escape from this apartment is going to be difficult, perhaps perilous, and possibly impossible: how do you cross the infinite? The Wingfields live in the dark, at the bottom of something. They appear to come and go — all but Laura, the crippled daughter of the house — but they never really leave this dismal space that is, nevertheless, strangely exhilarating for the audience, not only because the fire escape climbs so crazily but because the living room is set atop an inky lake that not only replaces the view outside with a reflection of the life within but underscores the precariousness of that life, which might at any time tumble into it. The pool creates a visceral anxiety in the audience, in accordance with Chekhov’s Law. If you have a tank of water onstage, somebody is going to get wet. That nobody does fall into the water acts, almost maddeningly, to heighten the anxiety, which goes undischarged.

That’s what I didn’t like about The Glass Menagerie when I was an undergraduate: it offered a ticket to nowhere. The problem faced by the Wingfield family remained unsolved at the end. Or so it seemed to when I was young. Last night, I understood that the problem itself is what changes: it is shown to be unsolvable. Laura Wingfield is never going to attract a husband. It has also been demonstrated that the alternative solution to her predicament — being cared for by her brother — has been withdrawn. Tom Wingfield just might take Laura under his wing, but in order to do so he would have to push his insupportable mother out of the nest. That’s what The Glass Menagerie comes down to: the dramatic proof of a thesis that, as of the opening scene, has not yet been put to the test.


The shouting between Amanda and Tom is what’s usually easiest to recall about productions of The Glass Menagerie, but there’s more to the play than their hoarse frustration. Much of the second act is devoted to a scene of extended conversation that can be extremely dull. But not in this production. Here, the scene for Laura and Jim, the “gentleman caller,” is a genuine duet, finely choreographed for two strong actors. The playbill features a “Movement” credit, to Steven Hoggett, and the performance is dotted with many moments of stylized gesture. The gestures are somewhat reminiscent of Grant Wood’s paintings, and their effect is sustained by Nico Muhly’s haunting, lyrical music. These elements establish a tenderness at the heart of the nightmare. As Jim, the gifted Brian Smith is the very type of an American fine young man, graceful about acknowledging that he was spoiled by easy high-school triumphs. He establishes an instant rapport with Laura — who loved him from afar in his glory days — but with time we realize that it is the rapport of a brother, not a lover. Jim would almost certainly make a better brother than Tom does. Unlike Tom, Jim wants to achieve success in the world as it is. As the poor girl, in one of the classic stage’s most thankless roles, Celia Keenan-Bolger brings an unquestionable integrity to Laura that amounts, toward the end, to grandeur. She and Mr Smith make this a genuine, if eccentric, love scene.

Zachary Quinto, who plays Tom, is making his Broadway debut, which would be starting at the top if it weren’t for a sheaf of Off-Broadway credits and a sterling performance in Margin Call. He looks nothing like Cherry Jones and is somewhat difficult to imagine as her son, but by the same token he evokes the absentee father who “fell in love with long distance”: as evidence of a mésalliance, he is eloquent. But he pulls off the even neater trick of presenting all of Tom’s petulance and impatience and cynicism, his resentment and his oceanic ambition — perhaps that is the sea into which he falls at the end — without making the character unpleasant. At no point did I share his mother’s exasperation with him. Mr Quinto doesn’t so much impersonate Tom as hold him carefully close, like a lantern that the draft must not be allowed to snuff out. Never has the portrait of the artist as a young man been displayed with such urgent good faith.

It is undoubtedly the vitality of Cherry Jones, the sheer aliveness of her, that enables her embodiment of an Amanda who, while frequently tiresome and thoughtless, is neither a monster nor a pathetic wreck. Amanda is limited, as we all are, and she is getting on as best she can, which is the most that can be asked of anyone. It is easy to remember Williams’s Amanda as a close relative of the deluded Blanche DuBois, but Ms Jones will have none of it. There is nothing toxic in her Amanda’s determination to remember the bright side of things — as she must, for she sees precious little enough of it. When I was young, I probably missed the absence of an Atridean secret in The Glass Menagerie, the germ of a doom that would explain the rotten downfall of the Wingfields’ fortunes. Cherry Jones makes me wonder if anything can ever be altogether rotten. It is impossible not to remember her Amanda as a woman coquettishly capering across the carpet, full of life. And so I left the theatre with a decided spring in my step.

Gotham Diary:
12 November 2013

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

As I’m running around today, and even going out this evening, my brain is something of a snow-globe. I thought that, in lieu of striving after lucid originality, I would pick up Henry Hitchings’s Sorry!: The English and Their Manners and revisit some earmarked pages.

I’ll begin with a comment about the subtitle. Now that the book’s contents have steeped in me for a few days, I find the subtitle incredibly misleading and, indeed, the source of much of my original puzzlement. While Hitchings does indeed write about manners, and while his sights are indeed focused on the English, his subject is not the bundle of shibboleths by which people gauge each others’ socioeconomic backgrounds but, far more largely, the psychological distance that has been extended, in Europe and North America, between bodily functions and effects deemed noisome on the one hand and social space on the other. Of course there is a physical distance as well — that’s why most bathrooms accommodate one person at a time. But the psychological distance is what allows us to forget about bathrooms altogether when we are not actually using them, or in need. That’s the kind of manners that interests Hitchings, not the table settings or the forms of address. Nancy Mitford’s mischievous essay, “Noblesse Oblige,” is disposed of in one paragraph — in the chapter on Victorian manners, if you please. The book’s second chapter is entirely devoted to the seriously undermannered period known as the Middle Ages.

The third chapter begins with the motto that William of Wykeham had chiseled over the doors of both of his foundations, Winchester College and New College, Oxford: “Manners maketh man.” William’s sentiment “may strike us as archaic,” writes Hitchings, but that is only because centuries of refinement (and “refainment”) separate us from his earthier era. In the Fourteenth Century, it was all too easy, at least in the benighted economic system that we call feudalism, to slip toward the bestial. Young people depended on their elders for their manners — there were no magazines or visual media to help them out — and most elders knew only what they had learned living out their lives in one spot. It was not a world that greeted strangers cordially and treated them well. The exhibition of a certain attentive flourish, combined with disciplined impulse control, was the only known passport. The display of what William meant by manners entitled its bearer to a room in the house, rather than a stall in the barn.

One particularly noisome bodily function is violence, and indeed this was tackled before all the others. Failure to wipe your mouth after eating might cost you the good opinion of others, but the uncertain handling of your knife could cost you your life. Today, we can hardly imagine the dangers of a medieval banqueting table. (When we sit down to eat, we don’t even fear intentional poisoning anymore.) Hitchings wants to remind us of them, if only to show us the ground of our own behavior, which we quite naturally take completely for granted.  That’s Hitching’s other point: the manners that we take for granted. He is not really interested in those that we don’t, or that we associate with social classes other than our own.

Class (page 36):

It was in the nineteenth century that the word class began to be used to signify a system. Since the seventeenth century people had spoken of classes — ‘lower,’ ‘higher,’ ‘governing.’ Middle class was established as a noun by around 1750; as an adjective it did not take off until about a hundred years later. We might interpret this as a sign that what we would call class distinctions were coming into sharper focus. But in its new sense the word class, rather than marking social differences precisely, did the reverse. It suggested the existence of a pattern of social divisions, yet created sketchiness where previously there had been the crisper demarcations of rank, order, station and degree. The old terms connoted heredity, along with duties and ethical expectations. Class was not so bound up with the past, having no air of the feudal or the medieval, and was therefore easier to change. The business of changing it was spelled out in the Victorian period’s innumerable etiquette books, which were aids to ambition. As social distinctions became less static, so defensiveness and rivalry increased, as did a fondness for playing detective, spotting differences that had been submerged.

The difference between “manners” and “etiquette” is important; children pick up manners readily enough, but not etiquette.

Plus ça change (page 133):

But English euphemisms seem to be everywhere, and many of the words we feel the need to avoid were euphemisms in their time — vagina and excrement, for instance.

Ageing well (page 170):

Nevertheless, we can see the practical bent of Savile’s counsel: he tells his daughter that ‘one careless glance giveth more advantage [to predatory men] than a hundred words not enough considered,’ and that she must ‘every seven years make some alteration … toward the graver side,’ so that she does not become like one of those ‘girls of fifty, who resolve to be always young, whatever Time with his iron teeth hath determined to the contrary.’

Baloney (page 193): Hitchings follows up a brief mention of a dicey situation in Fanny Burney’s Evalina with some salty language of his own (relatively speaking).

That basic attitude survives among many men, who defend their priapic blitzkrieg with baloney along the lines of ‘She was asking for it.’

The sentence stands out in Hitchings’s generally pastoral prose — priapically, as it were.

Punctuality (page 251): This is also from the chapter entitled “What Were Victorian Values?”

Among the consequences of closer timekeeping was a greater arbitrariness about what were the right and wrong times for certain kinds of activity. Prescriptions about timing replaced an intuitive understanding of it. Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, constantly fussing about the time, is a true Victorian.

Tipping (page 260): Tips were also known as “vails.”

Voltaire, having dined once with Lord Chesterfield, turned down a second invitation because the servants expected such great vails.

Location, location, location (page 276): This is a chapter heading. Manners are everywhere, and everywhere a little different. This frees us all, ultimately, to get on with more interesting things.

Ah, youth (page 315):

First of all, the young are likely to behave in a depraved way because they have yet to experience the consequences of such behavior, or because they know what the consequences are and don’t consider them significant, or because the consequences are much smaller for them, or because there is a masochistic thrill to be had from inviting the consequences. The ‘forgetting’ of manners referred to by my friend is in part a wilful abandonment of manners, an expression of independence. It is also a test of the structures that manners appear to hold in place.

This warrants a separate meditation.

Reading Note:
Back in Transylvania
11 November 2013

Monday, November 11th, 2013

Having set it aside for a few weeks, I’ve picked up Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy again, and I’m nearing the end of the second volume, They Were Found Wanting. The novel has become slightly more puzzling — not as a read (nothing could be more straightforward) but as a phenomenon. Set in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the Trilogy was written in the wake of World War I, and published in a troubled country with little interest in an epic that was centered in a territory (Transylvania) that no longer belonged to it. This initial impediment to the novel’s success was dwarfed by the two crushing blows that followed, the Nazi invasion of Hungary and the Communist takeover after World War II. Bánffy, born to one of the great Protestant but aristocratic families of Transylvania, died a poor man in 1950, stateless in every way that counted. His novel was stateless, too. Out of print when he died, it would not reappear in Hungary until 1983. Translations into other languages followed, with the author’s daughter co-producing the English translation that appeared in 2001. The Transylvanian Trilogy is therefore the Sleeping Beauty of great novels, unknown for the better part of a century. It is astonishing to think of all the literary critics and other pundits whose understanding of modern literature necessarily failed to take it into account.

It’s easy to make impressive claims for Bánffy’s work. It is obviously heir to the large-format canvases of Trollope and Tolstoy, setting a great love story against a detailed panorama of political crisis. The profusion of fully-realized characters brings Proust to mind, although Bánffy’s impatience with the easily-distracted élite is softened by an insider’s affection. But I don’t know where to turn for precedents for the copious amount of extravagantly appealing nature writing. I have heard that Transylvania is a beautiful part of the world, but now I know it, sight unseen, from Bánffy’s pages. This is not “nature writing,” nor is it cinematic. The fields and forests are vividly experienced by the characters; the beauty of this world gets under their skin.

Miklós Absolon sat at his ease between two columns on the veranda of Borbathjo, his elegant baroque manor house in the largely Szekler district of north-eastern Maros-Torda. His bald head was covered by a tiny velvet skullcap covered with pearls that he had brought from Bokhara and the collar of his soft silk shirt was open round his thick bull-like neck.

It was May and the sun was shining. Absolon had nothing whatever to do and he was just sitting there, barely even allowing himself to think. His attitude was that of an inscrutable oriental sage, content merely to contemplate.  After all, it was warm and the sun was bright. The view from where he sat was not particularly interesting but stretched into the far distance, right across the Kukullo River, which here was only a meandering stream, surrounded by water-meadows bright with the yellow of buttercups and the lime-green of young grass, up to the valley where the hillsides were covered with forests of beech, pine and hornbeam, all now in bud, and, still further to the south, to the peaks of the eastern Carpathians.

The view was so familiar to him that now he barely noticed it. He had known it from his childhood before the days when his restless urge to travel had carried him to the farthest and most unknown parts of Asia. Or course he had come home from time to time, until that day when he returned with a crippled lag and could roam no more.

If Absolon was thinking of anything at all it was to reflect that, after all, everything, everywhere, was much the same. What essential difference was there between squatting on a rock at Kuen-Lun disguised as a pilgrim and apparently watching the goats outside a Tibetan monastery, or lying at ease in the shade of a Kirgiz tent in the Taklamakan desert, and sitting here at Borbathjo, in the heart of the Szekler country, on the veranda of the house in which he was born?

Life could be beautiful, thought the old traveller, where you were — provided that, if there was no reason to travel, one was content to sit and enjoy it, unlike those city folk who always seemed so fretful and nervous. This was his philosophy, though he rarely thought about it in such simple terms and never discussed such things with other people.

This the opening of Chapter Five of Part Five of They Were Found Wanting. In the very next paragraph, the scene is disturbed by the appearance of a carriage in the distance. The approach and arrival of the carriage covers more than twice the length of what I’ve just copied out. It is a virtuoso performance, following both the vehicle across the landscape (and then out of sight but still audible) and Absolon’s inability to imagine who his visitor might be. That she is a woman, he can tell from the parasol peeking out from behind the coachman, but he can tell no more. I had no more idea than Absolon of her identity, but I had a feeling, guided, I am sure, by the suave undercurrents of this expansive fiction, that it would turn out to be Adrienne Miloth, the wife of Absolon’s nephew and the great love of the book’s hero, Balint Abady. And indeed it was. I am sure that I was not the only reader to feel a Wagnerian portentousness in this brilliant scene-setting. But what I want to call attention to is the fine braiding of psychological and physical detail. There is really only one sentence of specific landscape painting, but its vista is extensive, stretching from buttercups to mountaintops, and Bánffy’s language artfully contradicts the claim that the view “was not particularly interesting.” There is the conjuring of distant places, but not as exotic scenery; Absolon is “disguised” in Tibet and “lying at ease” in the Taklamakan. (I must say that I found the latter remark almost boastful, as being somewhat improbable in a trackless waste whose name means something like, “you may find your way, but not your way out.”) Above all, however, there is the fact of Absolon’s being as planted in this view as any tree. The “old traveller,” now lame, surveys his birthplace, and is no less inscrutable than it is.

I quote the passage also because it presents some of the difficulties that many readers will have with The Transylvanian Trilogy, once they realize, if they were so mistaken, that Transylvania is not an imaginary region invented as the backdrop for vampire stories. (Two-thirds of the way through the Trilogy, I can report that there is no hint, not the remotest, of the antics of the undead.) When Bánffy was writing, Transylvania had been ceded to Romania by the Treaty of Trianon. In time, the Romanians would re-name everything, so that it is difficult now to get a map of the province with the old Hungarian names. (The map provided in the two-volume Everyman Library edition is shockingly inapt.) But the grasp of a rich and complex history is also presumed. The Transylvanian aristocracy, unlike that of the Danube plain that constitutes modern Hungary, went Protestant in the Reformation, and it stayed Protestant. This only intensified the “Wild West” (or east, in this case) reputation of Transylvanian grandees, a friction which in turn mirrored that underlying the “Dual Monarchy,” a confection of 1867 that attempted to distinguish the identities of the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary, even though they embodied in the same man, Franz Josef von Hapsburg. Throughout the novel, the “men of 1867” are pitted against those of “1848,” partisans of Hungarian independence. As for the Szeklers, they were Hungarian, Protestant smallholders, and they were also emigrants leaving the country.

This political background is not at all decorative. Indeed, I have never read a more chilling account of the run-up to World War I, which is tacitly presented here as an inevitability. The Transylvanian Trilogy has the sweep and power of the best historical fiction, but it is written by a witness and participant — Bánffy was a career diplomat — and not by someone born long afterward. One big surprise is the antagonistic character of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whom I had never thought of as anything but the jolly old victim of an assassination. In Bánffy’s treatment, Franz Ferdinand is a malignant opponent of Hungarian autonomy and a reactionary intent upon emasculating diets and parliaments. When Balint Abady is not engrossed by his longing for Adrienne (whose marriage is complicated by the possible madness of her husband), he is almost as horrified by international developments as he is by his countrymen’s refusal to pay attention to them. The reader who can grapple with these foreign details will be rewarded, however cheerlessly, by the picture of a dysfunctional legislature that stinks with familiarity. The vulnerability of liberal democratic political systems to personal opportunism and rent-seeking is endlessly palpated, like a loose front tooth.


The carriage drew up, and Adrienne got out.

That’s how the chapter opening closes, and, as it did, I was acutely aware of having been reading. The scenery, perhaps, could be captured in a movie, but not Absolon’s impassive expectation. What you can see is only part of the story. Reading, alone among media, allows the momentary to be placed alongside, or perhaps atop, the historical. It is not just a beautiful woman who gets out of the carriage, but Adrienne Miloth, and all that we know about her. She alights upon a carpet of well-chosen words.

Film Note:
8 November 2013

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Ever since it started showing at the Orpheum, I’ve been toying with going to see The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s border thriller, featuring an able cast and Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay. It’s a good thing that I finally went, yesterday, because the film is no longer showing at such a convenient location. It must not have done very well up here. Or perhaps they just needed the second theatre for Free Birds in 3-D.

Cormac McCarthy has found his métier. He ought to stop writing novels — his novels are so not fun to read — and continue dreaming up lines like “I don’t think truth has a temperature,” which sounded positively Racinian coming from Cameron Diaz. I hope that the screeplay gets published, because I’d love to have a transcript of the speech that a character called Jefe delivers over the phone to the beleaguered hero. Rubén Blades delivers it perfectly, by which I mean that every word sounds dead serious even as a window is kept open on expansive possibilities for parody. The image of a crossroads recurs in this speech; unfortunately, the crossroads is already in the counselor’s past. The reality of the present moment is not the reality of the crossroads, and so on — I can’t hope to capture it. The point is that it’s nothing but typical McCarthy mythomasculine hyperventilation on a commonsense theme, which in this case is that crime doesn’t pay. It’s ridiculous, if you stop to think about it, but you don’t stop to think about it, because this is not a book, it’s a movie, and we’re snapping our fingers, moving right along.

And when I add that I was grateful at times that The Counselor wasn’t making complete sense, that it would have been boring if I had known precisely what was going on, you’re going to conclude that I hated the film and just want to make fun of it. That would be a mistake. I had a very good time, and I left the theatre genuinely shaken: walking out into the central intersection of Yorkville, bustling with suddenly dodgy-looking crowds, I felt an unusual eagerness to get home quickly. Nobody makes me happier about living far, far from Texas than Cormac McCarthy.

The Counselor is about an unnamed lawyer who, a little short for cash, yields to a client’s importunities and participates in some sort of drug deal. Millions of dollars of cocaine are to be shipped, in drums buried in the rebarbative contents of a septic-tank truck, from somewhere south of the border to Chicago. Both the client and the counselor have hot girlfriends, but the counselor’s is nice girl at heart — she still goes to confession — and the counselor is really in love with her. That’s why he may need the money, to pay for the extraordinary diamond that he has given her. (The DeBeers people ought to put McCarthy on the payroll.) Somewhere off to the side, there’s a laconic dude whose connection to the drug deal is thoroughly opaque. His purpose is to counsel the counselor, who is, of course, clueless about the dangers of big-time drug deals. Snuff films are discussed.

Then everything goes to hell. The counselor’s cluelessness exceeds, it soon appears, the average moviegoer’s. As his situation becomes untenable more quickly than he can grasp, it circles lazily toward stasis while the film busies itself with displays of cross and doublecross. It does this without bothering to explain who is responsible for what. The action is not as bloody as I was afraid it might be, and the violence has the virtue, when it rises to crisis, of being fast. After the first twenty minutes, however, The Counselor is never not violent.

I’m explaining only so much of the plot as will suggest the weight of the cross that Michael Fassbender has to carry in performing what is never quite the leading role. The Counselor is essentially a caper flick, and caper flicks are about expertise: clever cops versus cleverer crooks. Here, there are no cops, just crooks, and the lawyer is almost absolutely innocent of cleverness. He is, like Mr Fassbender, very fit, trim, and smart-looking. On the evidence of his habitat, he has done well at his job. But, again like Mr Fassbender, he radiates an existential impatience with his own good fortune. McCarthy’s gift is for making the this impatience come across as a kind of guilt, a sense of having cheated somehow, that can be atoned only by surrender to the intoxicating atmosphere of men challenging men to do stupid things. And then McCarthy has that other gift, already mentioned, of spinning empty blather into portentous testament. This works much better in the movies than it does on the page.

As things are heating up, the dude to one side — he has a name, Westray, and he’s played by Brad Pitt with his trademark sleepy slickness — expresses surprise that the counselor is still to be found at home. I was surprised that he was alive at all. But, while other characters come to bad ends, the counselor is forced to his knees, weeping in despair, when not choking up on the other end of the Jefe’s sermonizing phone call. A snuff film is received.

Javier Bardem takes a holiday from playing icily contained monsters and gives us instead, in the character of an entertainment entrepreneur by the name of Reiner (German for “more pure”), an amiable loose cannon with electro-shock hair. An early set piece in the film involves Reiner’s telling the counselor a very inappropriate story about his girlfriend — and the counselor’s wondering why he has been told. We in the audience know why: it’s so that Reiner can dismiss his girlfriend’s bizarre attempt to turn him on as “too gynecological.” This girlfriend, played as an icily contained monster by Carmen Diaz, is called Malkina. Would you trust anyone called Malkina, especially if she kept a brace of cheetahs? I can only wonder at the virtuosity of the makeup team, headed by Tina Earnshaw, at making Ms Diaz look like a Central European crone, not a day under sixty, who has had a fah-byu-lahs amount of “work” done to her face. Penélope Cruz, who plays the counselor’s fiancée, manages to look fresh and innocent beneath no less redoubtable maquillage. It’s a pity that she’s thrown away in this production.

As a Ridley Scott movie, The Counselor is naturally graced with stylish panache, especially when decapitation is involved. The workings of an instrument of death that disturbs the carotid artery are carefully described, so that when the device is put to work near the end of the movie we are not at all confused but can enjoy every everloving minute. What kind of nightmares must Mr Scott endure? Very terrible or none, I should think.

Feuille d’Almanach:
“But they couldn’t chat together — they had not been introduced”
7 November 2013

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Even after sleeping on it, I’m not quite sure what to make of this new book by Henry Hitchings, Sorry!: The English and Their Manners; and I’m wondering, of course, if my inability to be definite about it is a failing of some kind. Usually, it is. Indefiniteness, not being sure about something — these betoken a confusion in the reader that perhaps the writer ought to have cleared up. But there is nothing confused about Sorry! It is a straightforward survey of the history of books, most of them written by and for the English, about commendable behavior. If there is any confusion at all, it is in our shared, sloppy willingness to use “manners” as a synonym for good conduct. Hitchings, a journalist rather than a theorist by nature, has no interest in correcting that mistake. Quietly and without bullet-points, he lets the evidence pile up: all behavior is “manners,” and what we call “good manners” is a sort of colloid, in which chunks of timeless principle are suspended in fluid fashions.

I am fairly certain that the book has been mispackaged: both the title and the dust-jacket, which at least here in America features a formal dinner place setting, to which a red plastic “party cup” (so labeled) has been added, suggest a marketing scheme to plant the book in the gardens of Downton Abbey. In other words, a volume of etiquette porn, presided over by that dark goddess of drawing-room sadomasochism, Princess Margaret, who appears to have insisted upon the observance of regimentally correct protocol by everyone around her whilst she indulged in fantasias of rudeness. (See Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope for a sampling.) In the world of etiquette porn, nothing is allowed to happen unless it happens correctly; otherwise, in those cases not leading to beheading, it is ignored, rejected, overlooked, like an improperly executed ballot. The two fellows washed up on a desert island in WS Gilbert’s “Etiquette,” having worked up the nerve to discover that, since they have a friend in common back in London, they might “know” one another, decide that they must part when their mutual friend is discovered to be a criminal.

They laughed no more, for Somers thought he had been rather rash
In knowing one whose friend had misappropriated cash;
And Peter thought a foolish tack he must have gone upon
In making the acquaintance of a friend of Robinson.

Readers of etiquette porn wait with baited breath to discover the punishment inflicted upon the benighted diner who tries to use a fish knife to cut the roast. They want to be thrilled by that cliffhanging moment of terror that is magically resolved when Edward VII, or some other potentate, decides to drink from his finger bowl, too.

Sorry! is not that book. (Sorry!) There may have been one or two other examples, but I remember coming across only one high-grade etiquette-porn story. It concerns the old taboo about addressing grown men by their given names.

A book on contemporary manners from 1933 reports that “In no way is the offhand attitude of these days as apparent as in the extravagant use of Christian names.” A year later, the mountaineer Eric Shipton, after a month or so of sharing a small tent with his fellow Himalayan explorer Bill Tilman, asked if they could stop calling each other by their surnames. Tilman replied, “Are you suggesting that I should call you Eric? I’m afraid I couldn’t do that. I should feel such a bloody fool.”

That’s a good one. But the tale is not representative. Representative is the immediately following paragraph.

In 1939 Laura, Lady Troubridge, whose guides to etiquette were popular before the Second World War, wrote that “Friendships are made far quicker now that the barrier of undue formality has been lifted, and Christian names follow swiftly on mutual liking in a way which would make old-fashioned people aghast.” Yet thirteen years previously, her attitude had been different: she had warned that “everyone, and women especially, should be extremely careful in making friends and acquaintances in hotels,” on the grounds that “strangers still remain strangers, even though you sleep under the same roof with them.” It is striking, too, that Lady Troubridge’s thoughts were in 1926 being packaged as The Book of Etiquette — subtitled The Complete Standard Work of Reference on Social Usage — whereas by 1939 they werre presented as Etiquette and Entertaining — with a jaunty explanation on the cover that the book would serve “to help you on your social way.”

This passage is representative of Hitchings’s book in several ways. The style is agreeable but not brilliant. It takes the reading of such treatises as Lady Troubridge’s quietly for granted, and does not trumpet Hitchings’s researches. (Hitchings is, if anything, undemonstrative to a fault.) Most representative of all, however, the bit about Lady Troubridge illustrates that manners change.

This is something that the consumers of etiquette porn don’t want to hear. They like to think that there used to exist a world that bristled with punctilio, governed by edicts of Japanese nuance (and severity) on every aspect of personal conduct. They don’t lament the fact that this world has passed away so much as they miss the manifold opportunities it presented for other people to sink into lurid, tragic disgrace. Henry Hitchings, in contrast, is concerned to explore what manners tell us about humanity, and also what the fading of rigid codes tells us about our world of safe opportunity.

Failing to observe a dress code, whether prescribed or implicit, is considered at best gauche and at worst a sort of vandalism. Observing the code is a passport into a realm in which the code can (sometimes) be dropped: we are granted more latitude. The most tightly specified dress codes are ephemeral ones: what you’re expected to wear to a party, for instance. Then there are broad codes that may not even be explicitly set out, such as what’s appropriate in a particular office; these are likely to be absorbed, as if by osmosis. The broadest codes might be called “general principles of dress”: men’s attire and women’s are different, clothes protect the skin and keep certain delicate parts of the body out of sight, and our garments exist perhaps not so much to protect our modesty as to create it. But these principles are not rock-solid, and plenty has altered that once seemed immutable. Women no longer expect to have to put on gloves before leaving the house. Jeans are not associated with protest or even that often with the utilitarian needs of cowboys. Nor do we associate striped garments with ignominy, whereas in the medieval world they marked a person as an outside: juggler, fool, prostitute, executioner.

The first two of these alterations in the general dress code took effect during my youth; the third one took place so long ago that stripes are now associated with dress suits and ceremonial formal wear. That gives an idea of Hitchings range, which manages to line up the new and the old with aplomb. But the note most characteristic of Sorry! is struck by that eye-widening remark about garments creating modesty rather than, as we all think, guarding it. This amounts to asking, provocatively, if there is anything at all natural about modesty, at least in the same way that there is a natural need for protection from wind and snow. No one dies of immodesty; it is a socially-conditioned response. We learn about it from clothes, ours and other people’s — Genesis 3:7 to the contrary notwithstanding.

What’s misleading about the book’s subtitle is its promise of a look at English manners from the outside. It ought to read, The English and Our Manners. This is, especially, not a book written for Americans obsessed with the arcana of precedence and heraldry. It is not a handbook for navigating the stairwells at Buck House. Most English people have no more contact with “the royals” than most Americans, and such contact as there is is likely to be fleeting. The privileged few who frequent regal precincts do not need books of conduct to guide them; in their everyday behavior, they themselves are walking codes. “The moment codes of behaviour are written down, they become accessible to people who have previously had only a limited, second-hand knowledge of them.” Hitchings’s point might well be taken further: there is a difference between manners learned from a book and manners learned from social life. The former come attached to training wheels that are invisible only to the novice. A book such as Sorry! can’t help with that problem — no book could — but at least it can caution the novice against overconfidence. It can also explain manners that everyone takes for granted — that we don’t see as manners. My greatest difficulty in speaking French (or any foreign language) comes from the need to strip away the brief qualifying phrases (Hitchings calls them “epistemic” — however easy to read, this book is not fluff) that begin almost every sentence that I speak: “I think,” “I’m afraid that,” “I suppose,” and so on. This is an Anglophone tic, not an English one.

“Paradox will come up again and again in this book,” Hitchings warns us in the first chapter, and Sorry! bears him out so well that you might doubt that anything at all can be learned from it. But paradoxes are usually illusory. “The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.” There is nothing self-canceling about this amusing observation. In the teeth of physical impossibility, we human beings are very good at holding on to our cake even as we eat it. If there were a way to illustrate that comestible truth with graphic design, then Hitchings’s understated treatise would have the proper package.

Gotham Diary:
6 November 2013

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Oh, dear! Just as I sit down to write — and it’s already the middle of the afternoon — word comes that boxes of books have been delivered downstairs…

Let’s see: what have we got here? A CD and two DVDs. Sweets From a Stranger, the Squeeze album that we all had. For a very short time, I recall, we would think, while playing this LP (as it then was), that the spirit of the Beatles, the early-ish Beatles, had been revived; the songs seemed to have the same appealing brashness. We were already too old to let ourselves get carried away, and Squeeze did nothing to recapture our attention. But I’ve found myself longing to hear “Black Coffee in Bed” — not so much to hear as it imagine the mood that it captured. It was definitely a Sixties mood.

The DVDs are Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, which Peter Cameron, who wrote the book herein adapted, told me, at a book signing, probably “isn’t very good”; and Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night, which I can hardly believe I didn’t already own. I read the play last week and fell for it completely. (I’m having a much harder time with All’s Well That Ends Well and Love’s Labours Lost.) As long as we’re talking about Shakespeare, one of the books in the box is the Pelican edition of the sonnets, chosen because it is small, and will fit next to the translation into Nederlands. I have two Dutch sonnets, but the first one was a mistake; it’s a freestyle adaptation that makes little or no attempt to capture Shakespeare’s rhythm. The second one, which I bought with my eyes open, is so close to the original that, in a sleepy state, one might not grasp the foreign tongue.

As soon as I’ve written the rest of this report, I’m going to watch Someday. I’ve been dying to see it ever since I heard about it. Marcia Gay Harden and Peter Gallagher play the parents, and Ellen Burstyn the grandmother. I don’t know who Stephen Lang plays, but I have an idea. I’m wondering just how free the adaptation is. And I’m also wondering how the novel’s wonderful centerpiece — a disastrous class trip to Washington, DC — will be presented (if at all). In case you haven’t been paying attention, permit me to ring-a-ding my endorsement of Cameron’s novel, which is a lovely classic.

Back to the books: Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs. Talk about the Sixties — “hand grenades”! It’s James Wolcott’s new collection, to be stood, I should think, next to his memoir, Lucking Out. Opened at random, the book offers up Wolcott’s somewhat withering dismissal of Woody Allen’s Celebrity, a movie that even I never wanted to see again (but now do, of course). Why do I say “somewhat”? Turning a few pages, I discover that Wolcott didn’t think much of actress Jessica Harper (My Favorite Year).

And here’s a blast from the past (1980): Wolcott attends a Salmagundi conference entitled “American Civilization: Failure in the New World?” Already a fairly vieux jeu topic at that time, I should think. As this little snippet might indeed suggest!

It took Susan Sontag (who was sitting in the front row wearing baby blue cowboy boots) to say what sorely needed saying: that Fiedler’s categories not only have lost their usefulness but now clutter his (and our) vision. At one time his heady love of myth and genre and archetype allowed him to detect patterns in American literature that had eluded less foolhardy critics. Fiedler’s unashamed love of pop — sci-fi, comic books, Russ Meyer flicks — was also liberating at a time when academic critics tended to be ponderously Olympian (Lionel Trilling), hyperaesthetically gnomic (I A Richards, R P Blackmur), or sneeringly severe (F R Leavis and the Scrutiny spear carriers). In recent years, however, Fiedler’s love of pop has turned into a love of pop. He extravagantly admires his appetite for trash; it’s his way of proving that he isn’t a prissy academic prig — that he’s one of the kids. Similarly, Fiedler’s schlock-Freudian methodology is now used onanisticially — his allegiance is not to the artist but to his own technique. An artist who doesn’t fit Fiedler’s archetypes has his limbs lopped off.

Takes you back. It does me, anyway. Felicitously, the passage catches a parade of critical intellectuals, including Sontag herself, whom I should like to displace, not by being better at what they did, but by proving at the it needn’t be done. “Onanistically,” indeed!

Here’s a wonderful book that I used to own but imprudently lent to a friend, William Prosser’s collection of lawyerly frolics, The Judicial Humorist, published by Little, Brown in 1952 and by Fred Rothman in 1989. In case you’ve ever wondered why I’m sitting in my living room and not on an appellate bench, it’s because I spent my law school years giggling over such verbal treats as this report of a 1935 New York case.

This was an action for assault arising out of a baseball game. The plaintiff, at bat, was struck on the hip by a pitched ball; to show his displeasure as he took his base, the plaintiff admittedly threw his bat in the direction of the pitcher’s box. There ensued then an altercation between the two teams, during which the plaintiff tried to steal second base. Being returned to first base by the umpire, a colloquy arose between the runner and the first baseman during which allegedly the first baseman asked the plaintiff if he had ever received a “punch in the nose.” This is the prologue. The plaintiff hero, 17 years of age and 127 pounds in weight, undaunted by the fact that the “first sacker” stood 6 feet 2½ inches tall and weighed 220 pounds, scornful of the fact that “a soft answer turneth away wrath,” retorted in which in the lexicon of youth is called “a snappy comeback”: “Do you think you’re big enough?” This retort is classic; it will be found on the same page of “War-talk” with “Oh, yeah?” “You and what army?” et cetera, et cetera. Whatever plaintiff’s doubts may have been as expressed by his query, they were immediately resolved by the action of the first baseman, defendant herein. Having been carried to the dugout by his team mates, and subsequently examined by physicians, the plaintiff’s injuries were diagnosed as a fractured jaw, for which injury he now seeks a poultice of damages. Most of the facts are conceded. That an assault occurred is not open to doubt. Indeed the defendant admits that he “slapped the plaintiff down”; that plaintiff was pugancious and provocative is also beyond question. However, this does not excuse the defendant for “slapping the plaintiff down” as he might a troublesome mosquito. The plaintiff says he suffered pain for one day, was kept from school for several weeks, but is now fully recovered, for which the court directs a verdict for the infant plaintiff in the sum of $150. Let the plaintiff learn to keep his tongue in his cheek and the defendant his hands in his pockets.

$150 in 1935 was a lot of money; I’m not sure that justice was served. I wasn’t there in the courtroom with the first sacker, but something tells me that this wasn’t the plaintiff’s last brush with fisticuffs.

At the bottom of the box, two more. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. You knew I was going to buy it, didn’t you? This fairly recent Harper Perennial features facsimiles of Plath’s drafts. After reading The Silent Woman, I can’t be tempted to quote anything. Then there’s the second installment of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Walk memoir, Between the Woods and the Water. I haven’t read the first volume (A Time of Gifts), but that’s not important; I want to read about Leigh Fermor’s time in Transylvania, so soon after the setting of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvian Trilogy, which I’ve resumed reading.


When I sat down to write, my subject was going to be Henry Hitchings’s Sorry!: The English and Their Manners, a book that I finished reading just before lunch. It’s just as well that I’ll have the night to sleep on it, because the book is much more important, I feel (but can’t yet say why), than its title suggests. Hitchings appears to have read everyone, from Norbert Elias to Francis Osborne to Richie Frieman. Tomorrow!

Gotham Diary:
5 November 2013

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

No sooner had I finished making the bed this morning than I wondered why: I suddenly very much wanted to lie down again. I had sat up to read the Times, and the cover story about Nicole Kidman in Vanity Fair, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece about Norman Mailer in the new NYRB — this last explained, more plainly than I could have imagined, why I never had any use for the public figure that Mailer was always attempting to be (although I do have a grudging respect for his books about Gary Gilmore and Marilyn Monroe). Now I was ready to get back into bed — but it was not possible, because I cannot make myself comfortable in the bed as it is made. I like to think that I make the bed in the way in which a bed ought to be made, but it is also true that, in its made state, the bed does not invite napping. In most American homes, I daresay, I could find a sofa or couch on which to stretch out, but there is none such here. The awful truth is that, the moment I try to take a nap, I wake up and become restless.

Every now and then, I do spend the day pretty much in bed. Perhaps four or five times in the year. But today was not going to be one of those days, because there’s an election on, and I have to go out to vote. In the Times this morning, Frank Bruni had a not-so-fast column on Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects, which looked for a time to be ironclad, and as I read it I thought back to when I was sure that I would be voting for Christine Quinn today. But Quinn is not on the ballot. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I did learn that election cycles really are a lot like horse races. It’s best not to dwell too much on the likely winner until the last couple of minutes.

It will be interesting to see how badly Joe Lhota loses. That will be a measure of the city’s desire to say “goodbye” to Michael Bloomberg.


Reading The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, I wanted to suggest a better subtitle, but I couldn’t readily think of one. Janet Malcolm’s book, published originally in The New Yorker, in 1993, is not “about” Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes. The two poets are, along with several other characters, points of departure, or nodes in a network, and they appear in the book as adamantly offstage figures. Malcolm never had any contact with Sylvia Plath, and her one epistolary exchange with Ted Hughes concerned a fine but important change that was made when the material was published in book form. The Silent Woman is much more about the poet Anne Stevenson, and about Olwyn Hughes, the poet’s sister and Plath’s literary executor (with the highest of ironies, because when Plath died intestate, her estranged husband was free to appoint whomever he pleased). It was Olwyn Hughes who persuaded Stevenson to amplify a short essay about Plath into a biography — a biography that would favor the Hughes side of the story. Bitter Fame, the result, elicited vats of opprobrium from the bacchantes who saw Plath as a martyr, which was all the more painful for Stevenson because, by the time Bitter Fame was published, she was no longer certain that she wanted to be on the Hughes side. She had experienced an epiphanic change of heart, while reading (at a rather late stage in the project) Plath’s unpublished journals and letters.

Back in London, Anne set to work on her newly conceived biography. She was on course now, and no longer needed a genie. She knew what she was doing, and would work alone. She commanded Olwyn back into the bottle. Naturally, Olwyn refused. For the next two years, Anne and Olwyn were locked in mortal, uneven combat over the book. Anne’s attempts to reclaim it — to be the author of her own book — were unsuccessful; she had lost control of the text when she made her devil’s pact with Olwyn. Olwyn maintained her iron grip. Anne was always forced to retreat, compromise, give up something she wanted to use, put in something she wanted to leave out. Olwyn would not allow Anne to reject her offerings of hostile testimony. Anne’s weak struggles on the pin, her attempts to stand up to Olwyn, only invited Olwyn’s contempt and wrath. by 1988, things had reached such a pass that the “collaborators” were not speaking. Then, as the book was about to go the way of all the other failed Plath biographies, [publisher] Peter Davison stepped in, and his offer to act as the final arbiter of what was to go into the book was accepted by both women. In 1989, a text was finally produced — one that Anne was not sure she wanted to publish under her name.

It was the storm that blew up over this book that caught Malcolm’s attention. Malcolm had known of and admired Anne Stevenson when they were both undergraduates — Stevenson a year ahead — at the University of Michigan, back in the 1950s. Malcolm was never a neutral observer, but a parti pris from the start: she was on Stevenson’s side, whatever that was. This rolling contentiousness among living women — women for the most part — and not the miseries of the dead poet, are what The Silent Woman is about, and it’s a ripping good yarn. It’s a pity that Pale Fire, ingenious as Nabokov’s novel is, does not attain this book’s narrative pitch. The Silent Woman would be just as good a read if Malcolm had invented everything in it, including Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and their fame and reputations.

I grasped none of this when I flipped through the pages of The New Yorker that summer, twenty years ago, and sighed with exasperation. Ye gods, hadn’t there been enough about Sylvia Plath? You could say that Plath was a comet flying overhead at the start of my intellectual life. Ariel appeared when I progressed from high school to college. I never read it, but every time I saw the dust jacket (often) I thought of an angry poetess who killed herself. At one point in The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm compares Plath to Medea, perhaps more aptly than she knew. I took Plath as the embodiment of what would happen if men did not start taking women seriously. I might not have been moved by her verse, and I might disapprove of her leaving her two little children orphans, but I never doubted for a moment that Sylvia Plath’s white-hot anger with men was fundamentally rational.

I had my own issues with men; I still do. Bored when not repelled by the more extroverted masculine pastimes — warring, trading, bluffing — I was made severely conscious that my own bookish pursuits, while they might constitute a masculine preserve in dreaming Oxford, were absolutely unmanly where I lived. (I have only to summon the memory walking down Pondfield Road to Womrath’s, the bookshop patronized only by women and very old men, to recapture the low regard in which Bronxville held the human imagination.) So I had less reason than most, when the time came to think about such things, to subscribe the idea that women were subordinate creatures, inferior in design and construction, however superficially alluring. Even on this last point, I was not like most men. I didn’t, and don’t, care for superficially alluring women. They make me very uncomfortable, largely because they provoke a strong desire to scold. I like women who are smart and thoughtful and good-hearted. I like men who are the same, but there aren’t nearly so many of them; men have trouble being smart and good-hearted (it comes from all that bluffing). At the beginning of my adult life, anyway, I was predisposed to consider women as intellectual equals. I was inclined to believe that Sylvia Plath’s unhappy example could be forestalled.

I didn’t realize it until this weekend, as I was reading The Silent Woman, but I demanded a price for my loyalty to women: I did not want women to question it. I did not want to be told that, no, I didn’t really get women’s issues. I didn’t mind having the issues explained to me, but I did not want to be held guilty of misunderstanding them in advance. If I disliked fighting with men, I didn’t care any better for fighting with women. I wanted women to stop talking (and otherwise behaving) as if there were no sympathetic men in the world. Because I well understood that there were women without any direct experience of sympathetic men, I made no positive complaint, but I did my best to ignore them. I even developed a nasty epithet to describe the strident, “critical” women whom I should ignore: humorless lesbian vegetarians. This phrase still has a certain guilty currency among my friends, doubtless because we have learned to apply it to humorless male beefeaters when appropriate. Humorlessness is the defining characteristic of this group to be shunned, and, as late as 1993, I thought I detected a note of it in Janet Malcolm’s writing. Even for me, it was possible to be “too serious.”

But it was I who lacked the better sense of humor; I see that now. I know it when Malcolm makes me laugh. It is a darkly gleeful laughter, of the sort that Malvolio prompts in Twelfth Night. The passage that I have quoted above, about Anne Stevenson’s struggle to free herself from Olwyn Hughes’s tyranny, is not obviously hilarious, but it is threaded with laugh lines. Throughout the book, Malcolm compares Hughes to a string of grandiose divas, “Sphinxes and Turandots.” So when, here, she reappears as the genie who won’t slip back into the bottle, the ongoing suggestion of superpowers brings a smile. And that bit about “all the other failed Plath biographies” — that has a sardonic resonance as well. Far from being a “feminist screed,” The Silent Woman is a devilishly sparkling meditation (if I may risk oxymoron) on the civil status of secrets and privacy. I loved every page of it.

Now I can read Ariel.

Gotham Diary:
4 November 2013

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Kathleen was up bright and early this morning, packing for a week-long conference in California. This is what comes of educating women. In protest, I played bits of Princess Ida. Kathleen, being educated, just sang along. She asked for the great pompous anthem near the end, “This helmet, I suppose.” That is her favorite number. It’s all about the futility of educating men.

Remicade infusion today — early in the afternoon, for a change. (I seem always to be walking out of the hospital into the darkness.) Then I have to go to Crawford Doyle, where they’re holding a copy of Joe Sacco’s The Great War for me. Which reminds me: today would have been my mother’s ninety-fifth birthday. But as she died at fifty-nine, she has been dead for more than half my life. She  was born on what came to be known as “False Armistice Day.” The fighting stopped a week later. My daughter was born on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the actual Armistice.

My father’s centennial falls in January, not long after my sixty-sixth birthday.

Time! Oh!


And now I have just come home, having been out for about nine hours. There was lunch; there was getting to the hospital. I was at the hospital for a bit less than four hours, two of which were spent connected to the pump. Then there was getting to Crawford Doyle during the taxi down-time that stretches from four until six. I managed to get one, having hauled myself all the way to Park Avenue (from the river), and I have never been more grateful for a cab during dry daylight. From Crawford Doyle — where I picked up the Sacco and an interesting book about manners — I moseyed over to Demarchelier, where I had an early dinner. The delicious roast chicken was wonderfully fortifying.

Then it was two blocks to our local Barnes & Noble, to hear Artemis Cooper talk about her new book. Hearing her was very nice, but looking at her was even nicer: she is beautiful in the way that Vanessa Redgrave is beautiful — transfiguringly. (Her grandmother, in my opinion, was the most glamorous woman of the Twentieth Century, but I kept this bit of gush to myself when Ms Cooper signed my copy of the book.) She is also lively and droll. She told a few little stories that weren’t in the book but that would have given it a more bracing quality.

My favorite was the one she told about getting things out of her subject. Patrick Leigh Fermor completely approved of the idea of her writing his biography, but he simply wouldn’t tell her anything that he wouldn’t have told any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a press pass, and she knew it. What opened the sesame was the disorder into which his house had fallen after the death of his wife, Joan. Cooper’s offer to tidy his office was warmly accepted, and the very minute he sat at his desk, he began longing for distraction. So, while Cooper folded and shelved, Leigh Fermor opened up. After a particularly saucy story, he would quail: you’re not going to use that, are you? Cooper invariably assured him that she wouldn’t, but she assured us that she had: “Biography is an act of betrayal.” Indeed. As an envoi, she told a questioner that she was working on a biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard — and that she planned to interview Martin Amis (Howard’s stepson) tomorrow.

Tomorrow, if the past is any guide, I will feel curiously listless and “on the edge of something” — and I won’t think why, until somebody (Kathleen, on the phone from California, where she is safe & sound) reminds me that I always feel that way the day after an infusion. But I do hope to get a word or two in about Janet Malcolm and Sylvia Plath. Here’s the terrible thing: I’ve read just about every book that Malcolm has published. I am sure that I will enjoy re-reading them, but the thrill of raw discovery is coming to an end. In the early Nineties, when Malcolm’s pieces about Plath were serialized in The New Yorker, I couldn’t be bothered to read them, because I thought that they were about a poet in whom I had little interest. I hadn’t yet learned that Janet Malcolm writes, more elementarily than anyone else except perhaps Borges, than whom she is far more cogent and intelligible, about the darker problems of reading and writing. When Artemis Cooper made that remark about biography as betrayal, I almost shouted Ay-Men, as if I’d just come from a revival meeting where that truth was vouchsafed by an enthusiastic congregation. All of Malcolm’s books are such meetings.

Library Note:
The Last Resort
1 November October 2013

Friday, November 1st, 2013

The weather being awful in an agreeable way, and my body in its pre-infusion slump, I changed my plans yesterday and stayed home. No Museum, no movie, no running around. Instead, a long afternoon with the CD library, which I brought to a new level of order.

First, I cleaned out the curious rolling five-drawer cart, designed for what I have no idea, certainly not CDs. I’ve been using it as a sort of midden. Anything that I didn’t know what to do with went into one of the drawers — more like bins, really. Example: the block of foreign-language CDs. The rather wonderful CDs that I receive once a month, with my copy of BBC Music. Those are actually still in the cart. But little else is. I’m ready to put the drawers to a new purpose: the marshalling of all small-label CDs, in double alphabetical order (label>composer).

Here is how I have dealt with the CD-storage problem: the jewel box (plastic case) has to go.

  • The CD goes into a paper sleeve with a circular glassine window on one side. Along the top of the other side, I affix an identifying label. The label is not essential, but it comes in handy when a labeled sleeve is empty: I know that something is on the loose. (This rarely happens.) I place the sleeve on a surface, label side down, open edge facing left.
  • The booklet (the “cover” in old LP parlance) is placed atop the sleeve, stapled edge facing me. (Or, again, top to the left.)
  • The back matter, the piece of paper that you have to disassemble the jewel box to retrieve, is placed atop the booklet, top to the left.
  • When this bundle is placed sideways into a drawer of the vaguely Jacobean cabinet that holds most of the classical CDs, the flaps on the back matter, which serve as spines in the enclosed CD jewel box, continue that function. It took about eighteen months of experimentation to discover this.
  • Three or four bundled CDs take the room of one jewel box. That’s without real cramming.
  • There are fifteen drawers in the cabinet. This is inadequate, but it holds the major labels: Sony (Columbia that was), DG, Decca, Philips, Erato, Hyperion, and so on.

If you are asking, why are labels important, then it is clear that you have never worked with large quantities of classical recordings. From the earliest days of the LP, each label had its own spine style, together with a coherent, sequential numbering system that was no more difficult to deal with than telephone numbers. In those halcyon days, performing artists were much more closely associated with labels than was later the case — we have reached the other end of that curve, with artists publishing their own recordings — and, if you were looking for Van Cliburn doing the Tchaikovsky, you went straight to RCA, and toward the left (earlier) end of the shelf. Five years of dealing with a radio station’s library instilled a military sense of order about these things.

The current storage regime (no jewel boxes) dates to the introduction of iTunes into my life. It was then that I stopped listening to CDs and began assembling lengthy playlists for use on an iPod. As a rule, I don’t dismantle the jewel box until I have loaded the CD’s contents onto the computer library, but this rule took long to take hold. The evolution of the system was gradual, and earlier versions persist in some drawers. For example, my initial procedure was to file CDs and printed matter separately. It did not take eighteen months to see the folly of this, but I had deconstructed quite a few CDs by then.

For several years, I have been living in a comfortable muddle, with most of the CDs from major labels broken down and properly filed. Most. The bad side of the muddle is the disarray of small-label CDs. Taken together, the small-label CDs amount to about a third of the collection. I can’t find anything without a great deal of ferreting.

Some of the labels are very small indeed. Yesterday, I “processed” a CD on the Boston Skyline label. (“Processing” means loading the CD onto the computer, printing a label, breaking the jewel box down, and filing the bundle. In that sense, I did not fully process the Boston Skyline disc; it’s still in a pile on my desk. Processing marathons such as the one I undertook yesterday (which I hope will soon become a thing of the past) are multi-day affairs.) Now, I’ve never heard of the Boston Skyline label, and this CD is the only one that I’ve got. You might imagine that it’s an obscure recording of obscure music, but that is so not the case! There was a time when the recording in question was a collegiate status symbol. In those days, it came in an austere grey sleeve, just like all the other LPs issued by Arkiv Produktion, the early-music sublabel of Deutsche Gramophon. A collection of Renaissance dances recorded by an outfit called the Collegium Terpsichore, it contained a flutey little number that was known far and wide on the flower-power remake hit, “Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead,” from The Wizard of Oz, but now with the interpolation of a catchy bourrée from Michael Praetorius’s 1612 compilation, Terpsichore. If you had the Arkiv recording, then you could listen to the bourrée without all the Munchkin nonsense: very cool at the time.  It may be hard to believe now (it is for me), but Renaissance dance music sounded astonishingly fresh in the Sixties, even in the somewhat anachronistic performances of those early days. So, for the matter of that, did Vivaldi. Really! They were an interesting form of indie rock.

How the Collegium Terpsichore recording fell out of the Polygram catalogue, I have no idea, and how or why Boston Skyline picked it up remains a mystery that I’m not moved to solve. I’m too busy making sure that this time the CD will be settled where I can find it, along with all the many other small and one-off labels. I’ll draw up a list one of these days; some of the names are quite amusing, in a desperate sort of way.

iTunes being iTunes (ie perversely brain-dead about classical music, which it refuses to recognize as a realm apart from the world of “songs”), the recording label is not a data field, so the computer can’t tell me where to look for a CD. I haven’t figured out a solution to this problem, but then I haven’t  properly tackled it, either.

Yesterday, I was working both rooms. While classical CDs were being fed into the computer, other kinds of music were going on to the laptop. The laptop holds my “everything else” library, from Broadway shows and Christmas albums to the Ventures. There are over ten thousand tracks on the laptop, and nearly forty thousand on the desktop. This didn’t happen overnight! Both libraries are periodically backed-up to an in-house NAS drive, and I stoutly reject all iTunes updates order to preserve the very considerable internal organizing that I have imposed there. Now I have a lot of CDs to put away. But I have plenty of room for them, thanks to the way I started out yesterday.


All afternoon, I checked on the delivery status of a box of books from Amazon. It was promised for the end of the day, but the tracking update remained stuck at a “transit” that occurred at 4:50 in the morning. When I went downstairs to collect the mail, as late as I could and braving the floods of trick-or-treaters, the box was there. O happy! Clearly I’ve got old masters on the brain, because that’s what these books were, or were about. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, for example. Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape,  which Donna Tartt told an intereviewer she was reading. Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind 1680-1715 (also a NYRB reprint). A book that I saw at the Frick, but didn’t want to lug around that day, The Books That Shaped Art History, a collection of essays about key texts, such as Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting and Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, in the development of modern art-criticism. One of the books that is given an essay, Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters: Art and Society in Baroque Italy, also arrived by the same shipment. After dinner, I read bits and pieces from all these new acquisitions, but I very firmly settled on the Haskell, which makes great sense as history but which is also written in etched prose so worthy of its subject that, if a book could be drawn, as in an old-master drawing, Patrons and Painters would be a fine example.

Within the general framework that has been outlined there was a wide range of variation possible in the relationship between an artist and the client who employed him. At one end of the scale the painter was lodged in his patron’s palace and worked exclusively for him and his friends; at the other, we find a situation which appears, at first sight, to be strikingly similar to that of today: the artist painted a picture with no particular destination in mind and exhibited it in the hope of finding a casual purchaser. In between these extremes were a number of gradations involving middlemen, dealers and dilettantes as well as the activities of foreign travellers and their agents. These intermediate stages became more and more important as the century progressed, but artists usually disliked the freedom of working for unknown admirers, and with a few notable exceptions exhibitions were assumed to be the last resort of the unemployed.

I feel better just copying that out. Everything from “freedom” on is a smothered riot.