Archive for March, 2015

Department of Vexation:
31 March 2015

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Once again, there are piles of books here and there in the apartment. Boxes, too, some of them empty. Instead of breaking down the empty ones and taking them out to the service elevator room for disposal, I’m holding them for refills: books to go into storage. Vexed matter, that.

Regular readers just may recall that there came a day in December when I said, “Enough,” and arranged the fifteen unopened book boxes in the dining ell. They were about as invisible as light-brown solids could be, and they looked orderly enough if you saw them at all. The bookcases were almost full, and the contents of these remaining boxes would either go into storage themselves or displace books that had been shelved. Vexing.

The unopened boxes contained books from two very different bookcases upstairs. The ones marked “B4M-R” or “B5M-R,” or some variation thereof, held books from the second and third ranks of the bottom shelves of the breakfront bookcase. Those shelves are hard to get to — I have to get down on my knees and, unable to bend to see, grope. These were books that I wanted to hold on to but didn’t expect to open anytime soon. They will almost certainly go into storage now. (The shelves on which they stood are still partially or completely vacant. I’m thinking of storing something other than books in these difficult reaches.)

The other set of boxes came from bookcase F. Bookcase F is currently standing in the foyer, loaded with art books and generally taking the place of a classy-looking but shoddily-made book case that I knew we’d never be able to fit into the apartment. Effectively, there is no longer a bookcase F, just the books that were in it. Bookcase F housed a miscellany of books on all subjects save fiction and history, and many of them are one-of-a-kind, such as David Esterly’s The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making (Viking, 2012). This book is something like Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, but, instead of motorcycles and political philosophy, Esterly writes about wood carving, Grinling Gibbons, Hampton Court, and his participation in the restoration of a stateroom damaged by fire. Esterly, an American, had to prove himself worthy of the challenge, so the book is about that, too. To call either book a “memoir” would be dim-witted, but memoir, written by a craftsman, is what the two books have in common. You could slip Shop Class in among the political philosophy books, and Esterly’s book would fit in with the art books, but that arrangement seems dim-witted, too. The whole point of bookcase F was to reflect the unclassifiability of many books.

Another book that would belong in bookcase F because it wouldn’t belong anywhere else is Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. That’s assuming that it belongs in my library at all, something that I’m not sure about. (I haven’t quite finished reading it.) Everyone has been praising H Is for Hawk to the skies, but I find myself, among other things, in disagreement with many of the blurbs printed on the back of the dust jacket. Will I be surprised if a better book is published this year (Financial Times)? I’ll be not only surprised but appalled if one isn’t. “A wonderful exploration of how birds of prey can function as metaphor to produce art” (Dan O’Brien)? What does that even mean? I cannot agree with the Costa Book Award judges that H Is for Hawk is unparalleled in modern literature. (Running With Scissors comes swiftly to mind, tonally different though it be.) There’s something about Macdonald’s style that I don’t like, and it occurs to me now that this something is American. I don’t mean, as you might think, that there is something American about trying to capture the wildness of one’s own grief, although this is certainly something that the British writers that I’m familiar with don’t go in for. It has something to do with Macdonald’s language — a transatlantic quality, perhaps.

Macdonald was felled when her father, a noted press photographer only in his late fifties, collapsed and died on assignment in Battersea. Macdonald was very close to her father, she tells us, although she doesn’t enlarge on that or on any other aspect of her family life. Nor does she have much to say about her career as an academic historian. She appears to be on good terms with her mother and her brother, and a few close friends make sporadic appearances; as for the career, it is simply interrupted by grief. The conceit of the book — and I think I’m right to call it that — is that the death of Macdonald’s father left her all alone in the world. No partner, no home, no job, no nothing. Just the goshawk that she decided to train, and memories of reading The Once and Future King, TH White’s book about King Arthur, and The Goshawk, White’s account of training his own bird. Macdonald all but sequesters herself in dehumanizing misery, identifying, to the point of madness, with her feral pet, Mabel. Macdonald describes Mabel with an aplomb that, simply as a matter of writing, in contrast to the language of the rest of the book, suggests to me that she has not overcome the British leeriness of self-revelation. In the book’s best passages, Macdonald stumbles after her hawk through woods and fields with a transforming zeal, as if she were becoming a hawk herself.

Macdonald is able to return to normal life because she happens to be, after all, normal. TH White, to whom H Is for Hawk is something of a memorial, was not normal. Beaten by sadistic schoolmasters as a child, he became a sadist himself, and a homosexual as well. He recognized these developments with horror and did not indulge them — except, it seems, with his hawk, who eventually had enough and flew away. White’s is a sad story, or at any rate a lonely one, in Macdonald’s telling.


A sad and lonely story of a rather similar kind is told by Penelope Lively in the tenth of her novels that I have read, Passing On. The points of identity, often inverted, between Passing On and H Is for Hawk are so numerous that Lively’s novel answers the question, which I shouldn’t have dreamed of asking, “How would Lively handle Macdonald’s material?” Passing On begins with a funeral, and ends with something like an exorcism. Two middle-aged children, Helen and Edward, have spent their unmarried adulthood living under the roof of their unloving, demeaning mother. Now she is gone. She has left the house to her adolescent nephew, on the understanding that Helen and Edward shall have it for life. The children themselves have inherited outright an adjoining lot, a wilderness known as “The Britches.” This is where Edward spends most of his free time. A closeted gay schoolmaster — he teaches girls at a “crummy” private school — Edward lives a life of the most abject self-denial. Considered saintly by others, he is merely past caring for or about himself. As with White, there is no place in the British gentry for Edward. (Passing On was published in 1989.)

Now that his mother is dead, Edward finds that he minds this self-suppression very much. A passionate bird-watcher, Edward nonetheless realizes that human beings bring something additional to the business of organic life. Call it love, call it self-awareness, call it the foreknowledge of death — it is all of these things. Edward does not quite blame his stunted humanity on his mother, but her absence from the scene allows him to assess it — and he is undone.

A local developer pesters Helen and Edward to let him develop The Britches. Just to quiet him, Helen hires the developer’s son to dig a vegetable garden behind the house. One summer afternoon, after weeks of sleeping very poorly, Edward finds himself transfixed by what he sees out the window. Later, he remembers it this way:

He forced himself to go over what had happened, or what he thought had happened. The whole episode seemed now quite unreal; he doubted the testimony of his own memory, which made it all the more nightmarish. He could remember sitting up here, in his room, tense and restless, hearing the sound of the boy’s spade from beyond the yew hedge. He remembered getting up, going downstairs, standing for a while at the sitting-room window. There was some idea in his head, he knew, of going out there to talk to Gary, simply talk, he had barely ever exchanged more than two words with him. He had this compulsion to look at him, to stand there in the sunshine and watch him digging. He remembered opening the french windows, walking across the lawn. Then, somehow, he was beside Gary. Had he spoken? Gary had turned towards him — there had been an expression of surprise on his face. And that whiff of Lifebuoy soap, and the swell of his brown arms below the rolled-up shirt sleeves. But then what had happened? Edward had wanted to touch him, that he knew. He had wanted, overwhelmingly, to lay his hand on that blooming flesh, to feel its warmth, to make contact. The boy, indeed, had at that moment ceased to be himself at all — to be Gary Paget — but had become universal, anonymous and accessible. Edward had been filled with tumultuous thoughts and feelings, topped by an overwhelming need. And affection, there had been that also — a compulsive, joyous affection. He had seen Gary as someone else, as everyone: as a specific person known and lost, as a person unknown and of wondrous promise. He had reached out and his had arrived not on Gary’s arm but at his crotch. (189)

I hate quoting Lively out of context. For one thing, the stories are so good that it seems criminal to spoil them in the least detail. For another, Lively is a past-master at creating sustained fictional weather, such that the passage that I have quoted climaxes a sun-stricken sequence of pages with all of the éclat — but, horribly, none of the noise — of a summer thundershower. We stand by, so transfixed ourselves by Gary’s metamorphosis into a god that we’re not annoyed by, or even inclined to notice, the repetition of “overwhelming” and “compulsion.” It is right out of Ovid. But it is Edward’s life that is upended.

Happily, there is no doubt about where to shelve Passing On. It belongs with all the other Livelys, currently lined up in a small enameled bookshelf under the bedroom window that functions as a much-reduced bookcase F. Who knows whose novels will have to go into storage to make room for them in the fiction bookcase? A vexed question!

Travel Advisory:
Out and Back
30 March 2015

Monday, March 30th, 2015

The flight home was not fun. The turbulence wasn’t too bad until we approached New York, but I found it excruciating. Then the pilot switched on the Fasten Seatbelts sign, and announced that, as we should be making an instrument landing, all computers must be turned off. The forepart of my brain could deal with this information, but it wasn’t much help, because the primitive posterior of that organ, stiffened by the horrible surprise of the Germanwings crash just days before, remained unsubdued by two Xanax tablets. In the anxious empire of my helplessness, the announcement of an instrument landing had never been heard, for the good reason that, as my brighter self was perfectly well aware, such disclosures were unnecessary before in-flight Wi-Fi. As we rocketed in descent, I expected the plane to fly apart at any moment. (Visibility was indeed very low — three or four hundred feet at the most.) I have been on flights where landings were greeted by the passengers’ applause. This was not one of those. Everyone seemed quite calm. It was only me.

Otherwise, it was, if not a great trip, then an exceedingly interesting one. And we got to spend a lot more time with my daughter and her family than we had expected to do. On our last full day, Megan met us for lunch at Louis’s Diner, overlooking the ruins, shown in today’s photograph, of the Sutro Baths. Then she drove us up to the top of Twin Peaks, which neither Kathleen nor I had been to before. The weather was cool and crystal-clear. On our way home to Megan’s, we drove through an enclave that we’d never even heard of, St Francis Wood, a residence park of Westchestery substance.

Before that, there was Palo Alto. We stayed at an inn on Stanford Avenue, just off El Camino Real. The university campus began across the street. Four blocks along the main drag in the other direction lay California Avenue, where there were some quite nice restaurants. (I also had lunch one day at the Jack in the Box somewhere in between.) There was every inducement to leave the premises. No window in the bedroom; a conference table in the “living room,” no proper reading chair, a bizarre (but clean) bathroom. When it was warm enough, I sat in a flowery courtyard and tried to keep out of the sun. But it was usually too chilly.

I attended Kathleen’s panel at the Blockchain Workshop, but it was rather disappointing, owing to the unexpected presence of a cyberlibertarian cattleranching rock star. The man never sank to bloviation, but he did talk an awful lot. Kathleen looked a wee bit annoyed. The next day, we showed up for a panel on Burning Man, catching the end of another panel, this one on the Internet of Things. The Burning Man talk was lively, and I wish I could tell you about the panelists, but the acoustics were terrible, and I never did figure out who anybody was. Larry Harvey was there, but I had him mixed up with Peter Hirshberg and Stuart Mangrum. No matter, no matter; the stories were very good. You may be wondering what “blockchain” means, or you may be wondering why there was a Burning Man panel at a convocation of the Bitcoin Space. Don’t look at me!

It was disappointing to discover (as reason would have foretold) that there is no sand, nor any dunes, on Sand Hill Road, which runs up into the mountains from El Camino Real along the northern edge of the Stanford campus. I had enjoyed imagining that the venture capitalists to whom the name of the road refers, just as “Wall Street” refers to the stock market, hived in concrete bunkers on windswept beaches, desperately outbidding each other for real estate on the moon.

At lunch one day, we were having a nice talk with some younger people at a table by an interesting pool. Then I put my foot in it, by saying that San Francisco used to be a much more formal town, and I wasn’t only going on Vertigo or The Birds but remembering my own first visit, fifty-three years ago. The conversation shifted to local matters about which I could be expected to have nothing to say. The young people were very nice but very firm.

Megan and I had two very interesting conversations — interesting to me, anyway — and I’m going to write about the substance of each in a little while, letting things settle, and avoiding the risk of appearing to report on a discussion that Megan may remember differently. The first conversation was about the application of robots to farming, and it was touched off by Megan’s intriguing remarks about soils and mycorrhizal fungi. The second conversation was about “people skills” and sexism.

Will is beginning to discover that time is bigger than he is. When he airily told me that his “great-great-great-grandmother” was a famous doctor, I had to tell him to lose two of the greats; Martha Yow would not have been pleased to be shoved into older generations. But those greats meant little to Will. He needed more vivid constructions. Later, when Megan and I were talking about stuff and clutter and getting rid of things, I mentioned a photograph album, full of old photographs of people who were dead before I was born, that belonged to my father’s parents. “Your father’s parents!” exclaimed Will, shocked by this temporal stretch. You can tell that he both wonders where these ancestral figures are now and knows that he won’t like finding out.


On Friday, I went down to collect packages, mail, and the laundry, and brought up a small box that turned out to contain the sheer curtains for the living room and dining ell windows. I had expected a more voluminous arrival, but glass curtains aren’t voluminous. Ray Soleil came up after work and hung them all. Now, I had been saying for over a month that, as soon as the sheers were up, I’d regard the apartment as done, but instead the latest development set me off on an unforeseen tangent — although Kathleen did say that I’d been talking for “quite a while” about getting rid of the piece of furniture that, as a child, I was taught to call “the buffet.” We emptied the drawers and the cabinets, distributing contents on every available surface, and carted the sideboard to the service elevator room, whence, at some point on Saturday, it was taken away. Did I really do that? It was an iconic thing, that “buffet.” But it was in need of work, and it took up much more room than it contained. It was too big for the dining ell, and there was no sense in finding another place for it.

Instead of a compleated home, then, gracefully sheltered by gauzy draperies that concealed the black window frames together with the black night, I now had a royal mess. Napkins here, pitchers there; the platters I did manage to fit into the kitchen, where they belong. Once again, there are book boxes in the foyer — nine of them. It turns out that the arrival of the curtains signaled the end of a lot of provisional, temporary arrangements that I made in the high heat of the move. The apartment is not done.

But it looks great, and it was great indeed to come home to.

Reading Note:
Confrontation; Craftsmanship
20 March 2015

Friday, March 20th, 2015

A bad morning. David Brooks’s column in this morning’s Times is sinking in.

At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.

Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.

When Brooks goes on to speak of good times for Chris Christie and Scott Walker, all I can think of is Virginia Woolf, at about this time of year, in 1941. Nothing degrades humanity faster than fear, and life in a climate of fear is, as Hobbes put it, nasty and brutish. Short begins to look like a plus.


I’ve been reading about confrontational times of long ago, Hobbes’s day, in fact: the crisis of 1637-41 that led up to the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This is not a particularly favorite period of mine, but Ray Soleil brought back a book from his trip to England last summer that I fell into reading despite my own better judgment. (I mentioned it the other day.) Eventually, I couldn’t stand any more, and had to turn to my bookshelves for CV Wedgwood’s account of the same period, The King’s Peace: 1637-1641 (Oxford, 1956). I read it as an undergraduate, without any real understanding, and no sense whatever of Wedgwood’s artistry, but I managed to hold onto the edition, a now-battered first.

Wedgwood (1910-1997) was the great-great-great granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood. She earned a First at Lady Margaret College, Oxford, and in no time at all presented the world with the richly comprehensive Thirty Years War. It’s probably not irrelevant to note that her mother was also a writer. The King’s Peace begins with a brief acknowledgment of thanks to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which enabled her, she says, to write it sooner than she had expected.

The King’s Peace is divided into three sections, the first of which provides the background to the crisis. This background is very spacious. We are taken on a survey of the dominions under Charles’s rule — industry, resources; courtly life and the arts; and so on — that would not seem underdeveloped as an introduction to the history of the Seventeenth Century overall; as the prelude to four turbulent years, it risks seeming overkill. But it establishes a pace of fine-grained scrutiny that the interested reader will find reassuring: Wedgwood has an almost uncanny sense of detail that prevents her ever being tedious. There is, therefore, no impatience for her to begin. The Queen does not appear until the seventy-third page, and almost at once this opening section comes to a close.

The second section of the background report is entitled “Faith and Foreign Politics.” It runs from page 76 to page 133. The hinge between the two subject issues is so quietly clever — for now I was paying as much attention to Wedgwood’s craftsmanship as I was to her story — that I memorized the page number: 110. Having covered the irreconcilable differences between the Arminian clergymen of the Church of England and their Calvinist opponents, Wedgwood wraps up with a few cases of High Commission sanctions against men who would later be known as Dissenters. One of these was a brash young man called Thomas Shepard. Effectively defrocked, Shepard lost an appeal. “Uprooted, Shepherd fled to Yorkshire where he took refuge in a private household, but his retreat was discovered and he sailed for the wider freedom of New England.” We have arrived at Foreign Policy.

The North American colonies do not long detain Wedgwood; it’s enough to know that the king seriously considered outlawing further emigration. Foreign policy began very much at home, with a Catholic queen whose marriage treaty guaranteed her right to worship as she saw fit, and whose husband, initially chilly but later enthralled, confused making her life agreeable with appearing to tolerate not only Catholics but their priests.

The popular argument was ignorant, incorrect, but deadly: if the King, the head of the Anglican Church, persecuted honest Protestants and smiled upon the Papists, it followed that the Church itself was being led back to Rome. The King’s indiscreet and harmless relations with his wife’s friends made his, and Laud’s, religious policy suspect, not only to extremists and fanatics, but to the substantial majority of his Protestant subjects.

This is the best kind of writing: it presents a thorny complication (the king’s confusion) in an agreeably comprehensible manner. (“Smiles” is particularly fine.) But there is something else, something peculiar to this moment in my reading.

Once, he had been in love. At least, he had wanted desperately to go to bed with the girl and thought continuously of her, which fitted descriptions of the state. Mercifully, he discovered that there was already another man before he exposed himself to the humiliation of rejection. Now, he couldn’t remember what she looked like.

He wished, sometimes, that he had married. Sex he would have enjoyed, and a wife would have been armour against the more aggressive female parishioners. He stood in the aisle, still holding the red glove, and pictured the wife he did not have; she swam into the rose window above the west door, a realistic figure, nothing like Mrs Paling, but dumpy and rather plain, wearing a brown raincoat and carrying a pile of organ music, not an arousing figure but a reassuring one. (96)

That’s from Judgment Day. Penelope Lively (born 1933) read history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating with honors. It is not necessary for her undergraduate path to have crossed Wedgwood’s to make out, if not a connection, then a relatedness. Both women write with the same muted geniality.


If Monday comes and goes without an entry’s appearing here, and Tuesday does the same, and so with the rest of the week, that will probably be because I will be taking a break in Palo Alto. Kathleen will be participating in an event at Stanford, and of course I must take the opportunity to visit my daughter and her family in San Francisco. (Although at the moment I’m very tempted to hide under the bed.) I hope to return to weather more springlike, and less punishing, than what afflicts us now.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, a gentleman of my age shares his experiences as a picker-upper of coins in the street. He claims that his haul has swollen since the spread of smartphones.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Judgment Day
19 March 2015

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Partly, it’s the cold that I’m on the edge of. It has knocked me down on two days in the last month, but, for the most part, left me walking wounded. Mostly, though, it’s the impending trip to San Francisco. In a perfect world, I would never travel; people and even places would come to me. In this imperfect world, I start shutting down about a week before departure, so that, by the time we leave (for I never travel alone), I’m numb to most anxieties. Airport terminals are, increasingly, places of terror, with authority figures playing the part of terrorists. Everything that I dislike about the way we live now is concentrated in queues of apparently miserable wretches. I don’t want special treatment. I just want to be spared the hugely demoralizing sight of drab, careworn people.

The worst thing about this shutting-down is that it becomes harder to take an interest in things. That, in turn, makes it harder to judge the things that do engage my attention. Are they mere escapes?

Last night, I sat, stunned, for about twenty minutes, after finishing an early (1981) novel by Penelope Lively, Judgment Day. I had fetched it out of the pile the day before and swallowed it whole. Many of the earlier scenes were funnier than anything that I had read in Lively. But there were some very strong notes, too, of understated darkness, and, in the end, it was this darkness that prevailed. I was desolated by the ending — as desolated as if I were all, and all at once, of the characters who were desolate at the end. It was not a good feeling at half-past eleven at night, with Kathleen, unusually, long since asleep.

Lively’s characters are socially defined. We get to know them primarily through their relationships and interactions with others. (Regular readers won’t have any trouble understanding why I find this arresting.) In Lively’s later work, events, the things that happen, are also determined by things that have happened before. That sounds rather obvious, but it is actually uncharacteristic of long fiction in English, which relies on the introduction of new characters and unexpected developments, however plausibly foreshadowed, to maintain the pitch of excitement. In The Photograph, a widower discovers a photograph that he was not meant to see, and everything that happens afterward is a result of that discovery. Of that discovery by him, I ought to say, for it’s really the effect of the photograph on a particular man that sets off a chain reaction among a particular set of acquaintances, who themselves constitute the chain. It is in the light of this chain of events that we see all of the other characters. Everyone in Lively has a private life, but there is no privacy with regard to the world of the novel itself. Because Lively writes very generously, scrupulously registering everyone’s good qualities while letting the bad speak for themselves, her novels do not suffer from the suffocating rage that gives Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fictions their somewhat ludicrous, even autistic atmosphere. You do not want to escape from Lively’s novels. Although, in her later books, Lively quite strictly omits all the irrelevancies, she leaves the world large enough for comfort.

In Judgment Day, we see the characters in light of each other, but there is no chain of events, only a sequence. The plot is ignited by the need to raise funds for the repair of a village church. Almost all of the characters happen to live on the Green over which the church, flanked by a tavern and a petrol station, somewhat humbly presides; but they don’t necessarily know each other well. In fact, there is even a new household, headed by Clare Paling. Clare, a stand-in for the author to the extent that she is an Oxford-educated stay-at-home mother, is happily married to Peter, but Peter is a busy executive, always dashing off to a day at the factory or to a week in Brussels. The fragility of the Palings’ marital arrangement is so delicately hinted at that I can’t locate any actual hints; they consist primarily in the breeziness of Peter’s tone. You would not be surprised to learn that he is having an affair, nor that Clare would forgive him. But Peter is never linked to the slightest misbehavior. Such unrealized potential would not occur in a later Lively.

Naturally, the vicar has a leading role. I have never run into anyone like George Radwell. In George, the laughter and the darkness are united, with the laughs that respond to his early appearances drying up completely as the end approaches. George is a mediocrity, or perhaps something even worse. His being a vicar at all is the result of clerical error. Neither notably good-looking — he is pink-skinned and flabby — nor particularly intelligent — he’s not stupid, but he can never think of the right thing to say until the moment has passed — George is unattractive without being repellent. We laugh at him at first (he makes a fool of himself over Clare), but then we sense, and soon taste, the terrible loneliness of this man whom no one would miss. It begins to seem a living death.

The novel’s true stoic is Sydney Porter, a retired accountant. Porter keeps to himself and cultivates his garden. He has already experienced the living death of surviving the death of his wife and young daughter in the Blitz. Off somewhere else on naval duty, he was close enough to come to London afterward.

He’d asked to go, though there was no need, the identifying had been done already, before he came up from Portsmouth, done by the ARP Warden, who was a neighbor, who knew them well. They were side by side, and the attendant had pulled back the sheet that covered Mary first and for a moment he’d been shattered anew, thought wildly that perhaps there could have been a mistake, because her hair was gray, quite gray, her short, fine, brown hair. And then he’d realized it was the plaster, the plaster dust that had spewed out of the house as it fell about them, covering them, drowning them, suffocating them. And he had stood there staring not at her face, which was gray-white too, but at her dusty hair, until at last someone put a hand on his arm and steered him away.

I’d never read anything like that, either. Just how people died in the Blitz was never made very clear. Did it need to be made clear? But here it is. Drowning in plaster dust. Like the dead at Pompeii. Not burned by flames or boiling lava. Not concussed by falling bricks. Suffocated. Like George Radwell’s mediocrity, Sydney’s loss is expressed with shocking vividness in a very few words.

One other character whom I can mention without spoiling the story is Mrs Tanner. Mrs Tanner is a monster, no doubt about it, and all the more monstrous for having no idea whatever that this is the case. She is the one who deserves the living death of an isolated, unminded existence, but of course she is married to poor Mr Tanner and she even has a grown daughter. She appears in George’s study, “a massive figure in blue crimplene” with a “doughy, expressionless face,” to seek help with her “illness.”

“It’s this phobia, see. It’s been ten years now — ten years this spring. The doctors haven’t ever been able to do anything, so my husband said the other day, why not try the vicar? See what he’s got to suggest, if anything. Can’t do any harm, can it, he said, and that’s what they’re there for, that sort of thing.”

This scene occurred early enough for the idea of George Radwell as a faith healer to convulse me with laughter. Whither could this possibly lead? Several pages later, it leads to Mrs Tanner phoning the vicar to tell him that she’s going to take the place of his housekeeper, who’s off having a baby. So that’s what her “phobia” was all about: the opposite of “meet cute.” This is funny, too, but not quite so funny. Mrs Tanner’s barging around the vicarage with doughy inexpressiveness that nonetheless can’t keep silent turns out to be a very effective device for making sympathy for poor George at least imaginable.

I don’t believe that Penelope Lively was a young mother when she wrote Judgment Day, but the novel is haunted by any young mother’s anxiety about vehicular traffic. Clare herself is oddly immune to this dread. She drives, in fact, rather recklessly, too fast at least, and indeed she drives herself and a carful of children into a ditch. (This accident turns out to be providential, as George tries to counsel her, sparing her a much worse accident occurs at Clare’s intended destination — hardly a recommendation of providence, Clare retorts.) The village Green is vandalized by midnight motorbikers who can’t be caught; eventually, the marauders invade the church and put an end to the plot. (Except the story is not quite over.) Despite the appearance of Old England, the people of this town, like people everywhere who want things to be both convenient and picturesque, have failed to create a safe world. Inevitably, a child riding a bicycle is struck and killed.

This death either destroys or ruptures the two relationships that have grown in the course of the story. I can mention only the one between Clare and George. Working together for the good of a church in whose doctrines neither of them believe, these two, whose early encounters were marked by contempt and equally hostile lust, also work past their belaboring first impressions, but this appreciation culminates in a respect that prevents them from coming together.

Make sure that you do not finish this book alone, late at night.

Gotham Diary:
18 March 2015

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Picking up the current issue of The Nation this morning, after finishing with the Times, I had a sort of reverse sauna experience, plunging from an agreeably cool thought into a madly passionate screed — a juxtaposition that made the thought even more attractive. Both appeared in the “Books & the Arts” section at the back, which is not just the only section that I regularly read but the reason for continuing my subscription. The screed, an exaltation of the team of cartoonists that was massacred in January, was written by the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Stéphane Delorme. (“Team” is his word, and the subject of his fourth and final bullet point.) I don’t know if the now-venerable Cahiers was ever quite as edgy as Charlie Hebdo, but its subject matter has always been as graphic as Charlie‘s contents, and Delorme writes as if prepared to climb on board the younger vessel. “Now that literature in France has primarily become an unimportant society game, drawing brims with an understanding of the world.”

If you’ve read the piece, then you won’t be wondering why Delorme is so dismissive of literature, because the immediately preceding paragraphs concern the succès de scandale of Michel Houellebecq’s new book, Soumission. (I’m not going to translate that. You ought to have a dico on your phone if you don’t know what it means.) (Delmorme’s pep talk is entitled “Insoumission.”) I’d like to reproduce the entire essay, because it is so French, but a bit of the Houellebecq put-down will do nicely.

So Houellebecq becomes a word, an idea, the anti-Charlie. With his obsession for sullying everything, he is the embodiment of “meh” France, the rancid, depressive France of the beginning of this century. A France already anachronistic. A France represented by this intellectual without conviction, who tries things out “just to see,” to be less bored, who writes out of boredom. He is the typical French embodiment of a vintage trend, with his prose lifted from Flaubert, Céline and Sartre, but completely flattened out, deadly boring. He is the very picture of the writer without a conscience. Another sinister book was released at the same time, Jean Rolin’s Les Évenements, which shares Houellebecq’s petit-bourgeois fantasy of a civil war led by extremists coming along to entertain us. Now we must hold tight and not let these opportunistic vultures prowl around. Every one of these uninspired writers mired in the sordid and the police blotter merely gathers the crumbs left behind by journalists. We have to put an end to these so-called X-rays of French society, which only reveal their authors’ sad bile. If Charlie could make us understand once and for all that our era needs courage and conviction, and that we’re done with spinelessness — that would be a step in the right direction.

My problem with French journalism is that I have no taste for this kind of rousing, I-feel-better-now excitement, even when it makes me smile, as this certainly did. A strong current of magical thinking — Writing makes it so — charges this sort of work, which nevertheless must eventually fall back on old-fashioned exhortation: we must cease being spineless. Now is the time for courage. Well, now is always the time for courage, and there hasn’t been a moment in the past several centuries when some Frenchman wasn’t writing this sort of thing. For all the good it does…

(For a surprisingly interesting, and not at all unfavorable, review of Soumission, see Mark Lilla’s piece in The New York Review of Books. But don’t be tempted to read Houellebecq in French; he really is deadly boring. That’s his style, and, happily, it fades to invisibility in lower-key English translation. In case you find the author’s pseudonym daunting, just remember Welbeck Street in London, but try not to emphasize the first syllable.)

Nicholas Elliott’s translation of “Insoumission” immediately follows a round-up review by Thomas Meany, “The Great Chastening.” I don’t want to say a word about this fine piece today — I wrote an entry of twice the ordinary length yesterday, and I have errands to run before lunch — but the cool thought that I mentioned is expressed in one brief snippet. Meany is writing about John Dunn, author of Breaking Democracy’s Spell — a book that I think I should like to read.

His prose is intellectually bracing, sometimes opaque, but often flashes with insight. He is a late expositor of what Cyril Connolly called the Mandarin style: “Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are in possession of a classical education and a private income.”

If the shoe fits, sit up in your chair. The problem here, of course, is that I am forever barraged by the common-sense urge to soften the mandarin manner, to open up the seams here and there with a bit of (surely unnecessary) explanation, to concede that I am in possession of an education that is not quite classical — not to mention hurrying along to those errands before lunch; sometimes, just to use meaningless and inelegant expressions, such as “sort of.”

Reading Note:
The Buried Giant
17 March 2015

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

It’s an extraordinary image, isn’t it? Especially if you know that, the work of one Giovanni Battista Bracelli, it dates from 1624, nearly three hundred years before the word “robot” was introduced. I copied it from the current issue of the New York Review of Books, where it adorns Sue Halpern’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a piece that I referred to yesterday. The figure on the right is very dramatic — reminiscent, for me, of Paul Taylor’s dance, Cloven Kingdom. But it’s the figure on the left, composed in part of six compasses, that tickles me. Six compasses, a bit of baroque scrollery, and what looks awfully like the bells mounted in school hallways. Done!

It can’t quite go without saying that these drawings do not anticipate robots, but rather create (or further), in the venerable tradition of capricci, or fanciful doodles, the imagery to which illustrators would recur when robots did arrive, as fancies of a rather different kind. Bracelli’s characters are not anthropomorphic but just the opposite; they envision men with the gift of fleshlessness. These fellows stumble around painfully, but they will never bleed. It is difficult to suppress the idea that Bracelli’s drawing is “futuristic,” but we must make the effort, and not only because popular illustrators tasked with creating “futuristic” designs drew on very old ideas (if not necessarily Bracelli’s drawing itself). Futuristic images are so rarely predictive.


I thought about running the picture atop yesterday’s entry, where it might have been more apposite, but I’m glad that I didn’t, because I see it more clearly than I did yesterday, now that I have read The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel. The Buried Giant is also about images and their recurrence. This is not immediately obvious — as I must conclude on the basis of two of the four reviews of the novel that I read as soon as I was done with it. (I plead guilty to the charge of reading The Buried Giant, somewhat against my current inclinations, simply in order to deal with the reviews that were piling up, and that I could not read until I knew the book itself.) These rather unfavorable reviews, by Joyce Carol Oates and Adam Mars-Jones, appeared in the two Reviews, New York and London respectively. Oates and Mars-Jones are fairly unhappy to find that The Buried Giant is remarkable neither as a narrative nor as a piece of writing. In their disappointment, they dismiss the novel as second-class fantasy. (Mars-Jones is by far the harsher. Of the novel’s most stirring action sequence, he writes, “From the reader’s point of view, it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” This judgment is not nearly as clever as it sounds.)

The other two reviews that I had on hand, by Christine Smallwood, in Harper’s, and Nathaniel Rich, in The Atlantic, were favorable. Smallwood’s piece is a conspectus of “Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels of remembering” (as the subtitle has it), and at least it left me feeling that I wasn’t a complete fool to have enjoyed The Buried Giant. It was Rich’s piece, however, that woke me up to what I’d liked about it.

From subsequent clues, we can deduce that the year is approximately 450 AD, but despite our unnamed narrator’s anthropological tone, we are not in England as it actually was then, but as it was imagined seven centuries later by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the other mythologizers who gave us King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the wizard Merlin.

This is exactly right, and I shall try to explain why it is also very interesting.

In The Buried Giant, the people of Britain — the “Briton” (Celtic) and Saxon inhabitants of the island — are afflicted by a kind oblivion that, in Ishiguro’s hands, is pregnant with thought about the nature of memory. This oblivion, unlike the cruel caprice of Alzheimer’s Disease, does not make its victims forget their own names, or the faces of their loved ones. They simply forget what is no longer around to remind them — a bit more quickly than we all do. Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple at the center of the novel, cannot remember why their son no longer lives with them; they decide to set out to visit him even though they have no idea where that might be. The implication is that Axl and Beatrice no longer remember that the world, even the world of England, is a big place. Beatrice occasionally visits a Saxon settlement that is about a day’s journey distant, and she seems aware of other villages that lie beyond it; surely their son lives in one of these. So their adventure begins, and it soon becomes a quest — Beatrice’s quest — to put an end to the cause of this oblivion. Beatrice believes that recollection will bring understanding, and Ishiguro maintains our loyalty to Beatrice even as he makes it clear that recollection will bring other, much less desirable things, most notably the longing for revenge.

When what literary historians used to call the matière de Bretagne, the bundle of stories surrounding a late-Roman warrior known as Arthur, were being polished for courtly appreciation by poets and “historians” like Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the middle of the Twelfth Century, there was no real evidence of who the important people of 450 might have been. There were no documents, no inscriptions, no tombs. Bit of weaponry and coinage and other such knickknacks told an ethnological, but not an historical, story. Instead of the kind of evidence that modern historians insist on, Geoffrey and his French counterpart, Chrétien de Troyes, had stories, oral ballads one supposes. We don’t know much (if anything) about how twelfth-century writers transformed this matière into the written works that have come down to us, not because the process was embarrassing but because it was of no interest.

There was no critical voice asking Geoffrey to produce his sources. Geoffrey’s job was to create a satisfying account of what no one doubted — for everyone was familiar with parts of the matière — must have taken place. It is certainly arguable that Arthur and Merlin were “based,” over generations of retelling, on men who existed in 450, but those men were not like Arthur and Merlin. Arthur and Merlin, like snowflakes, grew during and were shaped by centuries of changing conditions. By Geoffrey’s day, a line had been drawn beneath most of those centuries by the Norman Conquest. The old changes, from Roman to Saxon Britain, were over.

Like the villagers among whom Axl and Beatrice live, at the beginning of The Buried Giant, the men and women who “retold” the stories that became the stories of Arthur and Merlin had forgotten everything about the great warriors of the mid-Fifth Century — everything but that there had been great warriors. The stories were the product of oblivion. Kazuo Ishiguro, studding his new novel with ogres, pixies, and a she-dragon, is perfectly aware of this, and he assumes that his readers are perfectly aware of this, too. His she-dragon is not the sort of accoutrement of fantasy literature that it would be in Tolkien. It is a small monument not only to the inability but also to the unwillingness to remember that no one has ever seen a she-dragon.


I have always thought of Ishiguro as a “Japanese” novelist, complete with scare quotes. I know that he grew up and was educated in England, and that he did not revisit Japan (having left it at the age of five) until he was an adult. What I mean by “Japanese” is a synthetic, imaginary quality that is self-consciously imitative of illustrious exemplars. It supposes an aesthetic at odds not so much with Western practices of art as with Western ways of talking about those practices. The Western artist is thought to require “new forms.” He goes out into the garden and looks closely at a peony blossom. He studies it to the exclusion of every other consideration. Then he returns to his studio and paints what he saw: his vision of a peony blossom. The Asian aesthetic, embodied in such treatises as The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, assumes that you must know how to paint a peony blossom before you can actually see one. Therefore you must study all the best paintings of peony blossoms before you consider an actual flower on your own. When you paint what you saw, you strive to make it look as much like other, great, pictures of peonies as you can. If you, too, are blessed with greatness, this will manifest itself almost as an error, as a falling-short of the exemplars, or, just as problematic, a falling-beyond. Your peony painting will be judged only by connoisseurs, men who may or may not be painters themselves but who are familiar with all the exemplars.

I don’t think that Western art is much different, but ever since Vasari, it has been presented in terms of progress and advance. Connoisseurs know better. Or, rather, they understand that “progress” and “advance” have nothing to do with beauty, and are therefore of no interest.

So what I mean when I say that Ishiguro is a “Japanese” artist is not that he has embraced the culture of his ancestors, but simply that — helped, perhaps, by an awareness of that culture — he has dumped a lot of European claptrap. His books, even the most gripping ones, are never about new forms. On the contrary; they are studies of old forms. Christine Smallwood, wondering why, as a “recent convert,” so many of her acquaintance either think little of Ishiguro or take him for granted without content, quotes a letter from a friend.

I think he’s very good, yes, although to be honest there is something snobbish in me that never quite lets myself say he is one of my favorite writers. What is that? I think it’s something about feeling very clearly manipulated, maybe.

That’s our world in a sentence: the writer is too much a snob to admit being the kind of snob who might be called a connoisseur: someone who cannot be manipulated. The big difference between Europe and Asia in this regard is that, in Europe, people who don’t know much about anything will be heard, their opinions “respected.” I hope that I don’t sound too much like Nietzsche when I say that this is ridiculous nonsense.

The pleasure of reading The Buried Giant is very much that of the connoisseur. This can be described in two ways. Positively: the connoisseur grasps a network of objects that becomes more powerful, and even overwhelming, as more connections are made. Negatively: connoisseurship is derivative, preoccupied with the past; ultimately, the connoisseur becomes an oppressive, completist bore. The difference is temperamental, and I don’t see the point of trying to convince people who are impatient with connoisseurship that they are wrong. The pleasure was in any case genuine for me. During the action sequence that I mentioned earlier, I was remembering the excitement of the climax of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose — both scenes of tumult in a monastery; but I was also remembering the fractured narrative, which I didn’t enjoy at the time, of Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice. I was often reminded of Boccaccio, because the archaic style of dialogue adopted by Ishiguro is that of translations of the Decameron — musty and earthy, with nothing left out or taken to be understood. This very quality also reminded me, but negatively, of the King James Bible, a book of many mysteries. If I did not, like the reviewers, make a connection between Ishiguro’s Sir Gawain and Lewis Carroll’s White Knight, that is because, to my shame, I am not conversant with the Alice books. (And if Monty Python and the Holy Grail occurred to me at all, it flashed by very quickly, because I should never allow satire, no matter how exhilarating, to cause collateral damage.) It’s probably no accident that I was reminded of many things that I can only halfway recall; I am no model connoisseur. But the pleasure of sensing connections was constant and quite intense.

I have been describing what I consider to be Ishiguro’s overall style, which I call, cheekily, “Japanese.” What makes The Buried Giant distinct, and not just a medium for memories, is its ongoing dramatization of memory and memory loss. What I mean most by “dramatization” here is that neither memory nor its loss is an absolute evil, the bad man in the play. Axl, who only dimly remembers that he and Beatrice may have had violent disagreements in the past, causing one another pain and even estrangement, wonders if oblivion has not, by healing those old wounds, allowed his love for her to grow robust and even indomitable. The Saxon knight, Wistan, with whom Axl and Beatrice travel — Canterbury Tales! — wants to put an end to the oblivion precisely to sharpen his people’s resentment against the untrustworthy Britons, who, as we know historically, will be beaten back beyond the marches of Wales and the borders of Scotland. We can argue, with Beatrice in turn, that understanding removes the sting of memory: tout comprendre est tout pardonner, a maxim that the Holocaust, however, appears to have derailed. There is no getting to the bottom of this conundrum, because there is no getting to the bottom of the fact that we are little more than what we remember, and that we shall all disappear in the oblivion of others. What makes The Buried Giant exciting to read is the unceasing prospect of betrayal: whom can Axl and Beatrice trust? Can they even trust one another? This, too, is a problem of memory, for we cannot remember what has not yet happened. We can only remember, and that very imperfectly, what has happened in like cases. For the experienced reader, the number of like cases is immense, and Ishiguro’s low-key prose does little to steer you among them.

The Buried Giant ends on a quay by a river, across which lies a special island that can be reached only by the offices of a ferryman, and the ferryman can carry only one passenger at a time. The hope nursed by Beatrice and Axl, that an exception might be made in their case, and both might be ferried across in a single crossing, is as heartbreaking as the hope of those Hailsham students, in Never Let Me Go, that love calls for the special treatment of lovers. It is so easy to forget that love is itself the special treatment.

Que Faire Note:
It Works
16 March 2015

Monday, March 16th, 2015

The weather warms by inches. It has ceased to be too cold to spend more than a minute on the balcony, and I have straightened things up out there. If it were warmer, I’d clean it up as well, so that we could sit out there in comfort. That will happen in due course. For the moment, it’s enough that the balcony doesn’t look like a dump — which it did, for most of the winter. If in doubt, put it out(side) — that was our policy. It must have been a dispiriting spectacle for our neighbors across the street. I hope that, what with our just having moved in and the frigid air &c, they haven’t minded too much. We also hope that they won’t notice, when the weather turns balmy and we can sit on the balcony in the dark, that we’ll be going into full rear-window mode, spying on everything that we can see through their windows. (Technical note: all the windows that are visible from that end of our apartment face front.) The building across the street, which is older than ours, has fire escapes, despite its size, but no balconies. So our neighbors won’t be sitting outside in the dark spying on us while we’re spying on them. Awkwardness averted.


The quiet weekend was clouded by sniffles that intimated colds, either past or to come, and by two pieces, one in the New York Review of Books, one in the London, concerning the third phase of the Industrial Revolution. The first phase introduced steam-powered factories and railroads. The second phase brought us the modern conveniences (electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing). In the third phase, the capitalists will finally attain their holy grail, which is zero human employment. Robots are about to replace us all, where they haven’t done so already. In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, a novelist who seems to have given up fiction in order to write about economic dislocations that are stranger than fiction, tells us about robots that are both designed by robots and capable of repairing themselves. If these marvels have not quite yet been realized, it won’t be long before they take their place beside drones that, for the moment, require remote human pilots, but that any day may graduate to the status of autonomous mobile weapons. In the New York Review, Sue Halpern critiques a rather sanctimonious open letter, signed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking among others, that calls upon AI developers to bear human consequences in mind when they develop their projects. Halpern and Lanchester are both perfectly aware that nothing — under current socio-economic arrangements — is going to prevent capitalists from developing any and all machinery capable of replacing human labor, no matter how dangerous, and no matter how destructive to the social fabric.

The only question is whether the political will to resist these developments can be brought to bear before it has been so fueled by toxic grievance and resentment that it is incapable of moderation. Forget “capitalism” as a system; the deployment of hefty capital investments is an essential part of economic life. Who is to own, and who is to direct, this capital? We have seen enough to know that governments are even worse than plutocrats — just as craven but vastly less competent. We also know that small businesses, which require capital investments, too (if rather modest ones), function better if they are operator-owned. I would venture to add that small-business owners would be more inclined to provide their human employees with robotic tools than to replace their human being altogether. And I would suggest further that such robotic tools would be best designed, or at least perfected, by cooperatives or not-for-profit organizations funded by small-business owners — and not, that is, by large mass-producers.

There I go again, sketching ideas on the back of an envelope. What good does that do? Well, I may say something that inspires someone else to think of something not only better but also more effective.

Optimism wilts, however, whenever I consider the social scene in which something better and more effective would have to be implemented. The last paragraph of Sue Halpern’s piece is enough to chill any hope.

We live in a technophilic age. We love our digital devices and all that they can do for us. We celebrate our Internet billionaires: they show us the way and deliver us to our destiny. We have President Obama, who established the National Robotics Initiative to develop the “next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.” Even so, it is naive to believe that government is competent, let alone in a position, to control the development and deployment of robots, self-generating algorithms, and artificial intelligence. Government has too many constituent parts that have their own, sometimes competing, visions of the technological future. Business, of course, is self-interested and resists regulation. We, the people, are on our own here—though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.

The problem is not business or government or the National Robotics Institute so naively established by the President. The problem is “we.” If it is true that we live in a technophilic age, that does not necessarily mean that we are technophiles. It does not seem to me that anyone is terribly mature about what “our digital devices” “can do for us.” The smartphone, the top device of the day, reminds me of Hollywood: it’s high school with money. The smartphone is an adolescent toy that permits users to play games and to exchange gossip. (The Apple Watch will open a gym wing, accessing all sorts of physical data that ought to be of no concern to healthy young people.) Sure, I have one. I use it as a phone, and to send the occasional text (usually telling someone where I am and when I’ll get to where I’m going). I check the weather, and I practice Mandarin character recognition. I take the odd photograph and post it at Facebook. At the end of the day, though, my battery is still 90% charged. I don’t read email on it, nor do I see what other people are up to at Facebook. I don’t look up movies on IMDb or search Wikipedia for information. These are things that I do at my desk, where serious thought is unlikely to be disturbed — and I am much less likely to post a fatuous comment at Facebook. It’s true that I’m having a hard time building the habit of registering questions that occur to me throughout the day, whenever I am not at my desk, on an iPhone Evernote. But I’m working on it.

In another NYRB review, this one of William Gibson’s new novel, I learned that it is already the case that, according to reviewer Lagaya Mishan, “people have hired stand-ins to play the tedious early rounds of games as a shortcut to higher levels.” (Ew!) How long before those stand-ins are replaced by robots?

Our Inner Life :
13 March 2015

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Where to begin. I was going to sketch the current state of my thinking about “the inner life.” And I shall, presently. On the way to the computer, however — at lunch, to be exact — I read the Folio essay in the new issue of Harper’s. (April 2015) It’s a piece by Fenton Johnson, “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude.” What with the thoughts already running through my mind, my reading of “Going It Alone” was something of a train wreck. I found myself in a sea of paradox and confusion. There: the train just sank to the bottom. Let’s swallow a paradox or two.

Isn’t spirituality something that ought never to be mentioned? Never preached or written about, or lovingly described in ecstatic poetry? It’s not that spirituality is private (although it is), but rather that the speaking, writing self dissolves in the experience. There is no ego capable of framing a report. Indeed, much writing about spirituality announces that very conclusion. Words cannot express or capture, so we’re told, the measure of spiritual life. All that can be discussed is a sort of hangover, an afterimage. Or perhaps some sort of koan.

Here’s another. Writing of the resolution to lead a celibate life, Fenton Johnson says, “I salute the courage of those who make such declarations in public, but I admire more deeply those who honor their vows in the solitude of their hearts.” Where does that leave the writer whose subject is the experience of celibacy?

What confuses me is the nature of Johnson’s intended reader. Who is he talking to? In our society, the solitary, celibate life is available to everybody who wants it, but Johnson’s solitaries don’t just pass the time in quiet rooms or spacious deserts. No: they write. Sometimes they paint (Cézanne); sometimes they preach (Jesus); but, mostly, they write. Now, it doesn’t take an essay such as this to inform us that writing, serious writing, well-packed with thought, requires extensive solitude. Everybody who has ever written a novel worth reading, for example, has spent a lot of time alone, or, in the cases of Jane Austen, Louis Auchincloss, and others, tuned out. My dear Kathleen has the gift of creating utter solitude wherever and whenever she needs to draft a document. Or when she wants to read a book. She will not hear music that happens to be playing in the same room. A video will not distract her. She is temporarily unaware of her body. I myself, in complete contrast, am helplessly responsive to the the slightest disturbances. Libraries have never been good places for me because, by their very nature, they make no provision for actual solitude. I require strict radio silence — voluntary solitary confinement. And I’m habituated to it. I need to be alone a great deal. The careful reader will quickly grasp that I can be alone when Kathleen is around because she isn’t around. Except when she wants to be, which is, I can happily say, not quite as often as I’d like.

I gather that none of the claims that I have made about my wife or myself would tempt Johnson into regarding us as living solitary lives. They are claims that could probably be made by most readers and nearly all writers. Celibate writers are rare. Great as my esteem for Henry James may be, I cannot allow the suggestion that his celibacy puts him in a higher heaven of writers. (On the contrary: James’s writing draws much of its power from sublimated sexuality. I think it safe to say that James was sexually troubled, and I would argue that the act of writing served as his sedative.) We’ll agree with Johnson that there have been some fantastic celibate writers. The question is how incidental this celibacy is to the writing.

I began by asking about spirituality because Johnson’s theme seems to be to praise the consecration of life to something other than love and companionship, but not just any something other — no. The consecration of life to meditation and then to writing all about it. Johnson praises James and his other writers for giving us the fruits of their solitude. What they wrote is “their gift to us, their spiritual children,” Johnson writes, and by “us,” he makes it clear that he means solitaries like himself. Is he trying to say that those of us who don’t live solitary lives can’t appreciate Henry James fully?

I am not going to try to straighten any of this out. I enjoyed reading “Going It Alone,” and could not more emphatically agree with Johnson about the importance of solitude in our mindlessly overconnected lives. But I could not grasp, and in fact probably refuse to grasp, what it might mean “to define, explore, and complete the self by turning inward rather than looking outward. “


Here is my thinking about the inner life: it is vital, but uninteresting. Essentially uninteresting. I must somehow conduct an inner life, simply to know what I’m working with here, but I don’t think that I can make it interesting to you. It is not very interesting to me, either, which is why habits are so important. I used to believe that habits were regrettable, because they were robotic. You’re not really living if you’re doing something habitual. But I have since learned that what goes on in the bathroom, for example, is of no real interest at all — unless it’s alarming, whereupon we act upon that alarm by calling the doctor; and even then, it is of interest only to us, our loved ones, and the doctor. What goes on in the bathroom is often vital, and, from the standpoint of society, it is vital that it go on in the bathroom. I am not going to argue that what goes in the bathroom could never be transformed into interesting reading matter, but I think we can agree that the subject is not going to become common anytime soon. My point is that the bathroom is a site of highly habitual behavior. It is not “really living,” but you’d be dead otherwise.

Thinking is also an act of the inner life, but it is no more interesting to others than what goes on in the bathroom. It is not thinking that is interesting. (Unless you’re Mozart.) It is what thinking inspires you to do. It’s what you say, or write, or commit to smoke signals, that is interesting. Or that might be interesting. Interesting things happen, always and everywhere and only, between people. Some of whom — note to literary solitaries here — are dead.

More to come. Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!

Spring Note:
Paul Taylor Returns
12 March 2015

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

If Paul Taylor is at Lincoln Center, it must be spring.

First, a bit of math. What is the value of N, where N represents the number of New York seasons of performances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company that Kathleen and I have shown up for, including the current one? It is not a very high number, unfortunately — to enjoy myself thoroughly, I have to stamp down a demon who barks What took you so long? first. But it is high enough for one’s merely mortal mind to equate it with “forever.”

N turns out to be seven, as I thought. I figured that we had to have seen the Company for at least three seasons at City Center, on 55th Street, and Kathleen read in last night’s program that the Company moved to Lincoln Center in 2012, making this their fourth there. It occurred to me that the Web site that you are currently reading would allow me to determine the matter. According to this Web site, there is no mention of Paul Taylor prior to 2010. It took a few minutes, however, to remember that there is no mention of anything prior to 2010 on this Web site, because that it when it was inaugurated. Looking into its predecessor (which is still out there, if neglected), I found, yes indeed, an account dating from 2009.

In that earliest related entry, I talk about a ticket-buying spree that took place prior to the performance. Kathleen and I visited the box offices of several Broadway theatres and got seats for several shows, one of which closed before we could use them (a revival of Guys and Dolls), and one of which was a dud (The Philanthropist). About the Paul Taylor dances I said just about nothing. “Delightful,” I said. In 2010, I said even less, because I was too wrapped up in my newborn grandson. These silences don’t surprise me. For a long time, I had no idea what was going on in any given Paul Taylor dance. I just knew that I liked them, and Kathleen made it very clear that she liked them. So we went back, some seasons more often than others. We almost missed last season entirely, and it would have been quite understandable if we missed this one. But we are not going to miss this one, because one late night in January, after Kathleen had gone to sleep, I sat down at the computer and did what you’re never supposed to do after a couple of glasses of wine. I bought a boatload of tickets. To five performances, no less. To save money, I took seats on the side of the front row, but the tickets added up, and I felt quite guilty about the impulsive expense the next morning. I felt even worse when I realized that we might be unable to attend one or more of the shows, owing to Kathleen’s commitment to attend a Bitcoin event at Stanford at the end of March.

The tickets duly arrived by mail, all on the same day, and they sat unopened for weeks. I finally opened them a few days ago, and good thing, too, because, shortly afterward, Kathleen was finally booking our flights to San Francisco, and if I hadn’t put in my two cents, we’d have missed three shows instead of just one. Phew. Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil will take our tickets for the Saturday evening on which we’ll get to Palo Alto.

Last night, we discovered that seats to the side of the front row are perfect. I shouldn’t like to be any farther back. Row A is ideally distanced from the dancers — by the orchestra pit. (For there is live music once again at Paul Taylor.) This is one of the first things that I learned about Paul Taylor dances: you ought to be close enough to talk to them. Not because you’re going to do any such thing, but because you’re going to want to read all the expressions that accompany conversation. Unlike most choreographers, Paul Taylor does not work from the neck down. In the middle of a new dance that we saw last night, Sea Lark (set to Poulenc’s music for another ballet, Les Biches), two dancers stood upstage, perfectly still but for their rolling eyes. You can’t really see that from Row R.

Row R is fine for classical ballet. You don’t hear the stomping (not that Paul Taylor’s dancers were very audible in the first row), and all the dancers in the corps de ballet look just alike, a lovely flock of indistinguishable swans. Classical ballet can be thrilling, because, like almost everything developed in the Nineteenth Century, it breathes a dream of mechanical precision. At its best, classical ballet is perfectly coordinated.

It took me a long time to figure out that what interests Paul Taylor is salvaging the moves of classical ballet (and combining them with other moves) while eliminating the exactitude. The coordination is studiedly imperfect. This is not the result of careless or sloppy dancing. It is the inevitable consequence of Taylor’s choice of dancers. For there is no Paul Taylor “look,” no type. There are, to be sure, no fat or even remotely unfit dancers. Nor are there any usually tall people in the company. But some dancers are considerably shorter than others. Some dancers are nowhere near as slim and fine-boned as others. Michael Trusnovec is an Apollo; Sean Mahoney looks as though he might be a construction worker. Laura Halzack stands out among the women not just for the glamour of her face but for her penchant for demented abandon: sometimes, the lady looks just plain nuts. (And very beautiful.) Moments when Robert Kleinendorst looks responsible enough to be trusted with a pack of matches are very rare. George Smallwoods substantial head (shaved, but not close enough to conceal a big bald spot) makes him look stocky, although he isn’t. In short, the Paul Taylor Dance Company comprises sixteen different human beings. They dance very well together. They run through intricate, quickly-shifting configurations without running into each other. Whenever a girl takes a flying leap, there’s always a boy to catch her. But they remain sixteen different people. And at least two are in the neighborhood of forty years of age.

Some dancers are more prominently featured than others, or so it seems, but there is absolutely no corps, no clump of lesser dancers condemned to assist the stars. One of the amazing things is how well Paul Taylor has made seniority work for his company. Members are listed by seniority, and they take curtain calls in reverse seniority. Some dancers move out, leaving the company, but most seem to move up, as older dancers retire. (We were sad to see the last of Annmaria Mazzini and Amy Young, and we can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when Michael Trusnovec withdraws.) Seniority, which is meaningless artistically, has the odd leveling effect of making everyone look different. Over time, you get to know who each dancer is by name, and while every dancer appears to be capable of doing anything, no dancer leaves his or her personal uniqueness in the dressing room. Full appreciation of such full-charactered dancing requires a seat close to the stage.

It took me until last night figure out that Paul Taylor and his dancers have taught me more than anyone else about what I understand humanism to be.

Gotham Diary:
11 March 2015

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Whilst ironing napkins yesterday, and generally tidying up the bedroom, I watched Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. I had hoped to see it in the theatre, but upheavals intervened, so I sent for the DVD and, as soon as the movie ended, regretted not having simply rented the thing from the Video Room. (Have I heard of Netflix? Oh, yes.) When will I watch Foxcatcher again? During a DIY Bennett Miller retrospective? (I’ve got Capote; what about Moneyball?) I remember news of the true crime that inspired the new movie. It was weird — a du Pont under arrest? In the movie, it all becomes much too creepy to be merely weird. (It’s interesting, though, that Bennett Miller makes movies about real people.)

Steve Carell really deserves some sort of Academy Award. It’s not just the facial prosthesis that buries his well-known persona, which, as we know from Dan In Real Life and The Way Way Back, can be disagreeable as well as lovably goofy. The impersonation of John DuPont is full-body acting, with a special walk (nerdy but feline), a ritzy Pennsylvania accent, an entitled way of slouching in chairs, and that incredible manner of sniffing the air, as if wondering what delightful treat — or irksome frustration — the world were about to serve up next. It is clear that this John du Pont would be swept to the margins of society if it were not for his family’s wealth. He is not just spoiled, but damaged in some biological way that rarely permits its victims to survive adolescence. He ought to have been institutionalized. Instead, he was allowed to play the munificent patriot. Steve Carell captures the compleat horror of this miscarriage, and he does so very quietly, by conveying, for example, du Pont’s inability to have a true conversation with anyone. Bradley Cooper was excellent in American Sniper, and a more real-world Academy would have awarded him the best-actor Oscar. But Carell deserved it. Maybe he’ll get it next year, the way that Jeremy Irons got it for Reversal of Fortune — truly an award for his unwatchably superb portrayal of the Mantle twins, in Dead Ringers, made the year before.

Everyone else in Foxcatcher is very good — not just the three other stars, but also the actors who play du Pont’s various henchmen. Guy Boyd and Anthony Michael Hall behave with the casual but cutthroat courtliness that surrounds America’s rich and powerful; it is their deadliness that makes John du Pont possible. They keep flashing messages, never properly interpreted, to the Schultz brothers, warning them to clear out while they can. I’d have liked to see more of Sienna Miller, who, here as in American Sniper, polishes off a gift for playing the strong man’s sweetheart. I sensed early that Channing Tatum’s gift for brooding (he can make resentment look manly and even admirable, even though it never is either) would show his character an escape route, and that Mark Ruffalo’s open manner would mark him as uncomprehending fodder for a domesticated predator, but because I was confused about which brother John du Pont shot, I watched the movie somewhat quizzically. I’ll have to see it again. But when?


In Sunday’s Times, Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, an appealing book from a few years back, published a complaint about inescapable advertising at airports.

Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.

This is not exactly news. Luxurious precincts have long been known for their well-upholstered hush. But Crawford is right to point out that the “usual airport cacaphony” is out of hand. What bothers me is the suspicion that most people find this reassuring, as though the constant racket signified and guaranteed their safety. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s clear that nobody can afford to pay much attention to all the noise, and that is truly alarming. More and more, the public sphere punishes the attempt to pay attention. Without attention, there can be no memory, a point that I expect Kazuo Ishiguro wants to make in his new novel about a bleak and blasted world.

Consider what advertizing has done to architecture: visit Times Square. This bazaar of signs is both there and not there. It is not there because it is pointing to thousands of other places, other weathers and times of day. Indeed, it creates an alternative time of day every night. Buildings, hidden behind the signs, might look like anything, if you could see them, and indeed one remaining relic of the old days is a Beaux-Arts palace loaded with pediments and cornices. Spruced up — what one can see of it is reminiscent of a firetrap — it would be very jolly to look at. Instead, we get signs that we more or less ignore. Times Square blazes at the point where too much information becomes no information at all.

Crawford compares the proliferation of advertizing to the environmental pollution that we have learned to curb. I think it’s a little worse than that; to me, it’s more like smoking. We are more than a little complicit. Too many of us rely on television for companionship, a vice that makes genuine human interaction more difficult than it ought to be. Too many of us abuse our privacy by introducing the presence of a talking screen. If this were not the case, then we should all see the blaring spread of public advertizing for the invasion that it is.

Gotham Diary:
Bedtime Reading
10 March 2015

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Early this morning, I fell out of bed. I was trying to get up, but I fell in a heap instead. I slipped, it seemed, as I was trying the chancy back-out maneuver that always makes me feel like I’m trying to climb down from a Tiepolo ceiling. I’m still new at it. Until recently, I slept in one position only, half sitting-up. Immobile for the entire night, I eventually contracted painful bedsores. Then, on our trip to San Francisco in January, I discovered that, with the help of long, king-sized pillows, I could sleep not only in a more supine position, thus taking some of the stress off my duff, but also on my right side, at least for an hour or so, until my shoulder got sore. As soon as we got home, Kathleen ordered similar pillows. No more bedsores! But I could sleep on the right side only, with my back to the edge of the bed.

Unwinding from this side-sleeping position, into a standing-up position, will require further thought, if I am to avoid further tumbles.

I was able to get up from the floor without pain  or ado. Presently I was lying on my back, in bed, wondering what the damage was going to be. Over the next couple of hours, what would begin to throb or burn or spark? What muscles had been pulled, what tendons torn? Would I have to use a cane? Would I be able to use a cane? What would become of my tightly-organized householding schedule? Well, that one was easy. I knew what would happen to it. Pffft is what would happen. Presently I fell back to sleep.

When I woke up, I felt fine. I still do. No: what I feel is insanely lucky. That can’t happen again!

It was a long evening. Dinner was late because because. Kathleen came home an hour later than she thought she would, and because this is precisely what I expected, I allowed it to put off my starting in the kitchen. Then what I thought would take fifteen minutes took thirty-five. The food was good, and we ate slowly. We continued talking after our plates were clean. I said that I was going to watch a movie, which was fine with Kathleen. While washing up the dishes, however, I decided that it was too late for a movie, and that, instead, I should read a chapter of Sperber’s Marx, and, not only that, but, sticking to my schedule, do the laundry. This meant that I wasn’t in my sleepies (a Thomas Jefferson shirt from Peterman and a pair of fleece shorts) until half-past midnight.

I was restless, not tired. I had read the chapter (“The Editor,” about Marx’s career as a newspaperman in Cologne, during which he was an acerbic free-trade Hegelian who actually advocated military action against communist insurrectionists), but couldn’t settle on what next. Having finished Munich Airport — for some reason, the ending didn’t go down properly, and, while not positively unsatisfactory, it wasn’t satisfying, either — I thought I’d give The Buried Giant a try, but it was too intense, in the way that Never Let Me Go was intense: not at all difficult on the surface but nevertheless disturbing. I’ve learned from reviews what the “giant” really is, and can already see the novel, like its immediate predecessor, as a parable of what we take to be our ordinary modern life. Not, so not, bedtime reading.

I turned to Making It Up, Penelope Lively’s anti-memoir. This is a series of stories in which characters start out in positions taken from Lively’s life, but only to be drawn in quite different directions. The first story, “The Mozambique Channel,” concerns the evacuation of British women and children from Cairo, where Lively was born in 1933, in the face of Rommel’s advance across North Africa. Some went to Cape Town; others went to Jerusalem. Lively’s mother took her and her nanny to Jerusalem, so the story is about a nanny on board a ship bound for Cape Town. I had just finished that, and was about to begin the next one, which involves, I take it, an unwanted pregnancy in the early 1950s, when abortions could be deadly. Again: not bedtime reading. I got halfway through an essay by Tony Judt that heaped contumely upon the imperialism of Ariel Sharon, but I had to put it down. (Everything on that front has simply gotten worse!) Finally, I crawled into bed with A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, by Katie Whitaker. This is not my sort of book at all. Its central, unforgivable sin is the anachronistic portrayal of a seventeenth-century political marriage as a romance filmed at Shepperton or Pinewood. Almost as bad, Whitaker takes the letters exchanged by Charles and his French bride at face value, when in fact they’re largely courtly boilerplate. I’m reading, or not reading, A Royal Passion because Ray Soleil gave it to me when he was through with it. When he sees what I’ve just written, he’s going to tell me to throw the book away. But I can’t. For all its faults, Whitaker’s book does tell the important story of the quite deservedly “turbulent” career of one of those arrogant idiots who have occasionally worn the English crown.

Interesting, the way the English have always had of getting rid of arrogant idiots. Edward II, Richard II, Richard III, Charles I, Edward VIII. In France, they’d have been allowed to Ruin Everything. But not in Merrie England! (Never you mind what they did to Edward II.)

At dinner, Kathleen and I talked a little bit about humanism. My humanism, as I’m beginning very reluctantly to call it. I have mentioned in the past that “Humanism” is currently claimed by two groups, neither of which I belong to. There are the atheist humanists, who are really more interested in atheism than in human beings; and then there are the neo-Thomists, who are more interested in eternal souls than in human beings. Both are colored by Enlightenment humanism, which holds that we are all more or less alike, and could  get on better than we do, if only malefactors of every stripe were not profiting from our divisions. I’m not an Enlightenment humanist, either.

I think that we are all very different, partly because of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The more alike any two people might be, the more intensely they’re going to focus on their differences (no malefactors required). Sociologists and other abstract thinkers like to put people in groups, but groups only exist in situations of mob frenzy. The members of an exclusive country club may look pretty much the same to you, but you can be sure that that’s not how they see themselves. We band together not to form groups but to surround ourselves with a range of varieties small enough to be lived with. In some unfortunate people, the sense that they’re not like anybody else and that nobody understands them is a cause of pain and disconnection, but for most people, I believe, it is a source of the most profound satisfaction — at least when things are going well.

Consider: when was the last time that you were happy to hear that “You’re just like my good friend X“?

Reading Note:
Conflict of Laws
9 March 2015

Monday, March 9th, 2015

For months now, one of the little books on the counter at Crawford Doyle has been Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I’ve resisted — and resisted. But I caved last week and bought a copy. It was inevitable, I suppose. “Decluttering” is one of my big subjects, and I’m in no position to disdain professional advice. Especially when it’s so delicious. Kondo writes with an elfin briskness that all by itself suggests that getting rid of stuff not only ought to be easy but will be immensely gratifying. Her mantra: Don’t hold onto anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” Ergo:

My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away. … After all, they will never inspire joy, no matter how carefully you keep them. (96)

She doesn’t — phew! — mean all papers. She concedes that there are papers that “must be kept indefinitely,” and she recommends setting all “sentimental” papers aside for later triage. (You’ll be throwing all of them away, too, but for different reasons.) But what a joyous idea! Certainly nothing floods me with pleasant relief more than bidding adieu to bags and bundles of paper.

With regard to books, Kondo is more perspicacious, even if her net-net advice is (as always) the same. She has some very good things to say about the possession of books, and I am meditating on them round the clock. One observation, however, stands out for immediate, explicit consideration. I reproduce it in its original boldface.

The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. (95)

Although I can’t think of any titles at the moment, I know that I have encountered numerous exceptions to this rule. After years of sitting on a shelf, this book or that one has emerged not only as the one to be reading right now, but, more than that, as a book that I shouldn’t have properly understood had I read it when I bought it. Although I say “numerous,” however, such books don’t amount to a serious fraction of my library. On the whole, I agree with Kondo. Here is my corollary, which I assure you I’ve been struggling to obey for some time now:

Don’t buy a book that you’re not prepared to read, all the way through, right now.

But, stuff happens. I was bringing my reading pile down to size last week when boxes began arriving. Plus the equivalent of a box: a phone call from Crawford Doyle informing me that a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was being held for me. (In the process of liberating it, I purchased not only Tidying Up but the Coralie Bickford-Smith edition of Wuthering Heights, a novel that I haven’t read since the age of fifteen. Bickford-Smith had a lot to do with my good behavior during the reading of Great Expectations.) Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life arrived — precisely the sort of book that, if not read at once, moulders away for years in the limbo of “unread” books. So I’ve read two chapters all ready. It’s excellent, and precisely the kind of biography that I want: the subtitle is deadly serious.

Nevertheless, I broke my rule when I ordered Sperber’s book. I was following a conflicting rule, one that was very deeply imprinted on my character by a suburban upbringing in the age of bomb shelters.

Stock up now, while you’re thinking about it.

As you can see, I no longer approve of this rule, which wreaks havoc in the kitchen as well in in the library. I knew at once, when I unpacked the life of Marx, that I should have to finish off Sven Beckert’s The Empire of Cotton double quick. Which I did, over the weekend. Cotton is an important book about capitalism — a very important book, I think — and it is reasonably well-written. But the plush profusion of facts and figures in support of Beckert’s assertions (about which I needed no persuading) clotted the narrative, making one feel rather stuck in traffic. (It occurs to me that such books would be vastly improved by moving all, or most, of those facts and figures to an appendix, perhaps in graphic or tabular format. I also found it interesting that Beckert ended his book without any apparent sense of leaving his story in the middle: the current configuration of the Empire of Cotton is hardly likely to continue indefinitely.)

There were two recent acquisitions, also purchased at Crawford Doyle, that had to be dealt with: the new (the last?) Tony Judt, and the latest Greg Baxter. I’ve already chewed off the first portion of Jennifer Homans’s collection of her late husband’s uncollected essays and book reviews, and I’m in no danger of not reading the rest: this is exactly what I long for between issues of the New York and London Reviews, and no wonder, since that’s where many of them were published. When the Facts Change is a great book to take to lunch.

Greg Baxter’s last book, The Apartment, arrived last summer — right before our Fire Island vacation and all the upheaval that followed. I liked it a lot, which made it one of the very few novels by a contemporary American male that I should recommend. The new novel, Munich Airport, is a longer, darker version of The Apartment, with fewer tangents. Once again, the account of a short period of present time is punctuated by extended flashbacks. The flashbacks run to a handful of earlier times, and are never complete. As they pile up, a picture emerges, and it is not, so far, a pretty picture. I have not quite finished Munich Airport, so I can’t say much more right now. Looking over the entry about The Apartment, however, revealed a big difference between the two novels. Of the first novel’s narrator, I wrote that “he was more interested in the world than in himself.” I shouldn’t say that of the second novel’s narrator, not because he is too interested in himself but because he is not interested enough. He hates himself too deeply to take an interest in the world. But enough of that now; I’ll have more to say when I finish the novel. And I shall finish the novel, very soon!

Marie Kondo all but recommends chucking her book when you’re done with it, but I don’t think that I’m ever going to be done with it, no matter how much stuff I get rid of. Cathy Hirano’s translation is too much fun to read.

Gotham Diary:
Of Fathers and Sons
6 March 2015

Friday, March 6th, 2015

What I wanted to do on Wednesday, I allowed myself to do yesterday: nothing. Nothing but reading, watching a DVD, and preparing a couple of minimal meals. Kathleen, who thought that she might have contracted my little cold, and who had been up very late the night before, working on a project, decided to sleep in as well, and to work from home (the dining ell) in the afternoon. Suspended in the aspic of convalescent domesticity, I had the sense not to try to write.

I had spoken of reading Fathers and Sons in the comfort of bed amply propped with pillows and quilts, but the comfort quickly lulled me to sleep, and I got little reading done until I tired, as I always do eventually, of being in bed at all. After lunch, I coursed through the middle of the novel, pausing on the morning of the duel to watch François Truffaut’s Vivement Dimanche. (More about that some other time.) Then I went back to Fathers and Sons and finished it. After dinner, I read the first chapter of Paul Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, and, after that, the first quarter or more of Penelope Lively’s Spiderweb. (My Lively hiatus did not last very long, did it.)


When I was in college, I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but not Turgenev, because Turgenev, unlike the other two, was “ambivalent,” or, in other words, lightweight and wishy-washy. Timid — the one thing you could say that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy weren’t. Dostoevsky was a Slavophile pessimist, and Tolstoy a patrician idealist, but they both somehow knew that Western liberalism (an economic outlook only dimly related to the political liberalism that emerged after the American struggle for equal civil rights) was going to lead Russia to catastrophe, if only because it was too indigestible an import. Turgenev had more faith in good intentions. He was also, at the time when he was writing Fathers and Sons (1860-1), very optimistic about the reforms that the new Tsar, Alexander II, was expected to introduce. He could not know that Alexander would be assassinated, twenty years later, by revolutionary terrorists who were impatient with liberal compromises. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in short, knew, or divined, what was coming; Turgenev did not.

In those days, during the high noon of the Cold War, one read Russian novels in order to learn something about the enemy. What could Turgenev, who spent much of his adult life not only outside Russia but inside anothers’ marriage, tell us about that? A wealthy aristocrat who lived in France and elsewhere in order to be close to the married opera diva he loved (and, necessarily, to her husband), Turgenev was obviously too much the playboy to know much about the volcanic suffering that made Russians crazy, drunk, and miserable. Turgenev had a life! That his novels were said to be lovely, charming, and so forth was hardly recommendation. One wasn’t reading Russian novels for pleasure!

When I finished the novel yesterday, I read Rosamund Bartlett’s introduction to the Penguin edition (translated by Peter Carson), and I was very surprised to learn that Fathers and Sons caused a sensation when it was published. How could such a sweet — yes, charming and lovely — novel upset anyone’s equanimity? Bartlett quotes the novel’s first translator into English, Eugene Schuyler.

Each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own very badly drawn.

That’s where ambivalence will get you. The fathers, the “men of the Forties,” very much resented being told that they had had their day, while their sons, who were going to do great things under the new Tsar, felt ridiculed and caricatured in the portrait of the novel’s apparent hero, Bazarov. I had missed all of this while reading the book, and I wondered what knowing of the resentments that Turgenev incurred (all were united in detesting him) would have done to the pleasure I had taken in it. More than that, though, I wondered what reading Fathers and Sons, with this background in mind, would have been like had I read it alongside Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, back in college, in the Sixties.

I can’t quite answer that, of course, but the question immediately highlighted a huge difference between the world of Fathers and Sons and the one I grew up in. The fathers and sons of the aristocratic and professional elite in mid-nineteenth-century Russia disagreed about means, but they were of one mind about the end, which was that Russia must reformed. The question was whether this reform would entail “modernization” — making the peasants more like Western Europeans. But the question’s terms showed that fathers and sons alike were blinkered about the role of commerce in this reform. Neither generation appears to have found it very important. Industry, such as it was, could have little to do with the fight for the Russian soul. The Russian soul was rooted in the land. Relations between those who owned the land and those who worked it would have to be sorted out before Russia could advance. Or so it was thought. In fact, the swelling urban proletariat that was excluded from this calculus of reform would overpower the landed interests. Fathers and sons alike would be shown to have trained their eyes on the same wrong ball.

In contrast, the struggles of the American Sixties, a century after Turgenev, were social, not economic. Remarkable prosperity encouraged demands that would never have been made in leaner times. These demands were not so much twofold as made on two distinct planes, and tensions generated by the way in which these demands rubbed in contrary directions would result not in explosive revolution but in the perplexed but fruitful fatigue of the Seventies, during which changes began to take hold. One of the planes was that of the fight for equal civil rights. No amount of legislation could settle this fight, but the laws that were enacted at least cleared the ground on which African Americans could claim equal opportunities. On the other plane, young people sought to put an end to respectability, that bogus and hypocritical portmanteau that had zombified the three cardinal civic virtues of decency, self-respect, and generosity. The tension between the two conflicts arose when black men and women, seeking to be treated as fully American, presented themselves in garb that seemed, to critical whites, to be merely respectable.

The demolition of respectability in the late 1960s was, of course, a generational fight, similar to the one seen whenever hazing rituals are contested. The elders say, “We endured it; so can you.” Just as hazing rituals are corruptions of rites of passage, so respectability was a corruption of civic virtue. Everyone knew this, but the fathers did not believe that change was feasible. The issue of civil rights was not generational at all, but it did involve fathers — the political leaders who believed that the status quo must be maintained in order to see the nation through the Cold War — and the victims of racial condescension who were infantilized by them. In Russia in the 1860s, it was agreed that Russia must be reformed. In the United States in the 196os, it was agreed that the fathers must be got rid of.

But Russia was not reformed, and the American fathers are still finding replacements (Jeb Bush, for example). Turgenev was right: Plus ça change…

Gotham Diary:
A Little Cold
3 March 2015

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

It’s Wednesday, so I must have a doctor’s appointment. Yes — the dermatologist again. I’m on the verge of canceling, because I have a little cold, my second in three weeks. It would be great to fluff up the pillows, climb back into bed, and plow through Fathers and Sons. (I feel a Turgenev binge coming on.) Why, I am wondering, does Turgenev feel so relaxed, where Dickens seemed so crabbed? The comparison prompts me to consider Dickens as an experimental writer, if you can imagine. This poses great problems for my understanding Shirley Hazzard’s judgment that Great Expectations is “the most greatly realized novel in English.” I’m not sure that Great Expectations is a novel at all. There’s too much parable in it, and of course too much advocacy journalism. (One answer to my Where’s Compeyson question might well be that the actual villain of the piece isn’t Compeyson at all, but the English establishment.) There is a measure of journalism in all good fiction; novelists must observe their chosen corners of the world with critical intelligence. But we do not read novels for news of the world. We read novels to test our understanding of human nature by judging how people fit into stories. Turgenev is one of the great natural novelists, which is to say that he writes novels that define the form. Most satisfying!

(It ought to be clear, I suppose, that I do not subscribe to the view that a novel can be anything that a writer wants it to be.)

I have never been to Russia, and the Russia that Turgenev writes about was swept away long ago, at least in its visible details. But the setting of Fathers and Sons seems very familiar, or exotic in a very familiar way. There’s the house in the country, which ought to be idyllic but can’t be, because there’s not enough money. There’s the drawing room “in the latest style,” and there’s Pavel Petrovich in his tailored English clothes. There’s naive, youthfully fatuous Arkasha, and boorish, troublemaking Bazarov. There’s the question, why doesn’t the sweet-tempered Nikolay Petrovich marry Fenechka, the mother of his newborn son? The possibilities for comic but rueful disappointment stretch out before me like a field of Russian snow, and my bed, with its pillows, blankets, and quilts, would make the perfect sled in which to cross it.

The little cold hit me yesterday afternoon, as I was finishing the tidying in the book room. I had meant to go on with some paperwork, and even to do some ironing, but I could do none of this. I felt exhausted. But it was not just exhaustion, I see now.


When you get to be older, there are days when dying doesn’t seem so very bad. One isn’t going to live forever, so what would be the harm in missing a rough patch or two, not in one’s own life but in the larger world. There are days when things really do seem to be going to the dogs, and sometimes this impression is created by what seem to be new and unimagined developments, such as the oafish thoughtlessness of young people with their devices (knowing that one would have been just as bad); and sometimes it rises from the sheer tedium of watching things happen over again, such as the crossness and dislocation of the Sixties. Young people have no idea how like boomers they are in their hope — I think that it’s a hope, not quite a belief — that the world’s problems can be fixed without resort to political activity. By “political activity” I mean “organized compromise.” Young people aren’t alone in disdaining it. Tea Partiers don’t believe in it, either; they’re convinced that their compromises have loaded them with burdens but withheld benefits. If fewer and fewer Americans believe in government, government has less and less interest in Americans. Look at the way government has allowed itself to be captured by business organizations, how addicted it has become to governing by means of obscure, coded laws buried in haystacks of legislation. Look at the way government has sent waves of volunteer servicemen and -women off to foreign lands to engage in pointless and ill-conceived battles, none of which seem to have changed anything. Something must be done in Syria, clearly, but there is no reason to look to the United States for any good ideas. As in the Sixties, we have come to an impasse: the old ways don’t work, and the new ways aren’t new. Who wants to go through it a second time?

But my political despair is but a passing fancy compared with my horror of American violence.

In a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich asked, “What, then, explains football’s appeal among Americans?” His enumeration of possible factors concluded thus:

I thought about this as I watched this year’s Super Bowl, which was one of the most thrilling sporting events in recent memory. My fandom has only increased in recent years, against my better judgment (and even as my New York Giants have foundered). I didn’t have to think very long. The source of the game’s appeal is obvious. It’s the violence. The NFL understands this. Why else would it risk lawsuits and moral indignation? If violence wasn’t a crucial element in the sport’s appeal, the league would institute two-handed touch tomorrow.

Rich’s final paragraph begins, “America is addicted to violence; America is addicted to football.”

Every now and then, some sociologist prances along with findings that fail to establish causality leading from the violence vicariously experienced in video games, superhero comics, and “sporting events” to acts of criminal violence. But this reminds me of an exchange that I had with a European who complicated my country on its relative lack of corruption. “But you see,” I replied, thinking of lobbyists, “in this country it is all quite legal.” So with violence. To be sure, we don’t tolerate criminal gangs’ running amok and breaking each others’ bones. Put those gangs in uniform, however, and oblige them to follow a few simple dance steps, and they can thrash away while pretending to chase a ball. We don’t tolerate holdups, but we make firearms easily available to disturbed individuals — men who are already challenged by the violence in the air. You tell me: Why is American Sniper such a hit? Because it has tapped a nerve of patriotism? In your dreams! American Sniper is a movie about a guy who gets to shoot people, bang, bang, bang, they’re dead, and be praised for it! Hallelujah! The horror is not so much the extent of American violence — all violence is horrible — as it is the extent of okay violence.

I know where it comes from. It comes from the angry disenchantment of white men. I can remember when a white man who acted responsibly would almost certainly be granted a place at the table as of right, and not only that, but also the automatic respect of all those who were not white men. These privileges have been inexorably eroded during my lifetime, with the tacit permission of elite white men at the top of the socio-economic heap. As another bit of fallout from the Sixties, American white men stopped acting in solidarity and began adhering to different class and cultural norms. (Archie Bunker was a figure of fun.) Sauve qui peut!

But now I’ve got to get ready to pay a visit to the dermatologist.

Reading Note:
Sadly, No
3 March 2015

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Six weeks or so ago, I quoted a paragraph that included the following sentence.

I would say that Great Expectations may be the most greatly realized novel in English (though I steer clear of that sort of competitive judgment).

This was Shirley Hazzard, in a Paris Review interview, refusing to name novels that she might like to have written (a silly question indeed). “Rather, I might speak with a joyful envy of passages that I myself would not have conceivably written.” The first book that she speaks of is Great Expectations.

It was too obvious a challenge to resist, but, its obviousness notwithstanding, it also became a very complex challenge. Of course I should have to read Great Expectations (which I hadn’t done before) to see if I could figure out what Hazzard was talking about. What would Great Expectations tell me about Shirley Hazzard’s idea of a “greatly realized” novel?

The complication was that I should have to read Great Expectations as if I were enjoying it. I should be obliged to forbear from interrupting my reading with expostulations upon Dickens’s incompetence, his treacly sentimentality, his half-hearted formulaism, his inability to create fully human characters — and so forth and so on. In addition to sparing Kathleen hours of bloviate denunciation, such as I once regaled her with in connection with The Prince of Tides, almost every one of whose supernumerary words prompted two or three explosive ones from me, I should have to observe a inward, mental quiet, as if my mind were a public library. Or as if, say, Shirley Hazzard were sitting next to me. I should have to try to forget my Dickens in order to read hers.

Now, there is not much to “my Dickens.” What have I read? David Copperfield in school — hated it. A Tale of Two Cities. This I quite liked, but it was the first novel that I ever read, aside from the Hardy Boys mysteries. When I had another go at it a few years, I became so exasperated with Miss Prosser at one point that I put the novel down and never picked it up again. Bleak House — Esther Whatshername gave me boils. I could tell that I’d be rooting for Lady Dedlock, just as I did for Lady Audley. Oh, and The Pickwick Papers, which I also had to read for school, but didn’t. A Christmas Carol of course, which of course I read with a heart of stone.

As is the case with authors who don’t excite a positive enthusiasm, I pretended, for the most part, that Dickens didn’t exist. In casual conversation, I might say, “I loathe Dickens,” and complacently nod if my interlocutor agreed. That was about it. I do not understand the appeal of Dickens. The most constructive thing that I have to say is that, to the extent that Dickens’s delineations of the hell that was mid-Victorian England are righteous and powerful, they sap his work of beauty.

And I say that after reading Great Expectations.

I did not come to understand what Shirley Hazzard was talking about. I remain as mystified as I was when I first read the Paris Review interview. I try in vain to imagine ways in which one might hold Great Expectations to be “greatly realized.” (Not to mention its being the most greatly realized novel in English!) The more I turn the question over, the more Great Expectations strikes me as perfectly un-realized. Dickens goes on and on about irrelevancies while scanting the meat of his tale. It seems more than possible that all I could see of Great Expectations was the negative of Shirley Hazzard’s impression.

But this entry is not about Great Expectations so much as it is about a novel literary experience. If I quickly rose to meet the challenge of Hazzard’s judgment, that is because I had never been able to figure out what Great Expectations is about. I knew about Miss Havisham, the jilted bride who extends the moment of her rejection to the term of her natural life. (Miss Havisham is such a well-known literary curiosity that I tended to place her in The Old Curiosity Shop.) But Pip and Estella were merely names, and Magwitch hardly even that. Herbert Pocket came as a complete surprise — I’d never heard so much as a whisper about him. Nor Wemmick, nor Jaggers. As for Joe Gargery, I might have come across the name, but never a hint that he is the moral touchstone of the book.

I had never picked up, as one does pick things up, the least idea of what Great Expectations is about.


Midway through the middle volume, or Book II, I sent myself an Evernote, in which I made three points. Here they are, fleshed out, in slightly different order.

First, I didn’t care about Pip. As best I can make out, Pip fails on two counts. First, he has no idiosyncrasies, no hobbies, no personal color. Second, his voice is implausible — the not-uncommon mishap of first-person narratives. How did a rather oppressed little boy from the marshes of Kent learn to speak so “well”? Because Pip wasn’t real enough to care about, I was never very excited by the drama of his great expectations.

Second, Dickens’s prose, especially where it ought to have been exciting, was, in comparison with Wilkie Collins’s, dead in the water.

Third, I wondered what Trollope would have had to say about Magwitch’s project of making a gentleman out of Pip by showering him with money. This is what I should address at length if I were to study Great Expectations. The greatness of Trollope’s fiction is its preoccupation with the ordeal that young men of limited means go through when they try to do the right thing vis-à-vis the women they love. What does it mean to be a gentleman? It is much more than a matter of spending money and fresh linen. This problem, or challenge, does not, however, interest Dickens at all. Pip’s London life, which apparently involves more than a few pieces of jewelry and a habit of running up debts, is given the most cursory treatment. We have none of the vivid illustrative scenes in which Trollope would have shown us the hero’s conscience wrestling with irresistible metropolitan lures.

Nor — and this seems almost perverse to me, but then I don’t get Dickens — is Estella’s creator very interested in her. Trollope managed to kill my the pleasure that I took in his books with his fetishistic idolatry of innocent young ladies (who could never be allowed to admit that they’d made a mistake, and permitted to find a happier love), but his fiction is liberally seasoned with bad girls. How intriguing it would have been to see the full-length portrait of Estella that Trollope painted of Lizzie Eustace!

And what about Compeyson, that cipher of a villain, who appears only to drown, and whom we never once hear? Compeyson is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I charge Dickens with incompetence. Here is a man who has betrayed both of the novel’s victims, Magwitch and Miss Havisham. Surely we ought to see at least half as much of him as we do of Adolphus Crosbie (in The Small House at Allington). Compeyson, in addition to being very wicked, is the archetypal non-gentleman, the pattern of what Pip, with his great expectations, ought to avoid. (It ought to have been Compeyson, not Orlick, in the limekiln.) But, as I say, he’s hardly there at all. Dickens’s handling of this character, from introduction to finish, seems extraordinarily maladroit.

But I did find out what Great Expectations is about, and in the only proper way: by reading it, quietly and with an open mind. That was the novel literary experience, and I can’t say that it wasn’t a pleasure.

Media Critic:
Job Description
2 March 2015

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Last week witnessed a very odd cluster of three deaths, all of them taking Notre Dame men — as one would have put it in the days when such specification was unnecessary — out of the world. In descending order of age, there was Father Hesburgh, president of the University during both of my careers there; Charlie Rice, our Torts and Con Law professor in the Law School; and classmate Hal Moore, long a partner at Skadden, Arps here in New York. These passings would be individually momentous, but, coming all at once, they’re overpowering, so that it’s hard to believe that they’ve really happened. Hal was my age, more or less. I have no idea what felled him; Kathleen and I have been out of touch with the Moores ever since — well, never mind. But it’s a strange shock. Even though they were not part of our present lives, the world seems a smaller place now that Father Ted, Charlie, and Hal are no longer in it. That’s what getting old means for those who haven’t yet died. And I’m still mourning, if very quietly, the death of my colleague from radio days earlier last month.

But the death that disturbs me most is that of Times Media Critic David Carr. Just days before Carr collapsed on the newsroom floor and died of lung cancer — didn’t know you could do that in the modern world! — I charged him with striking, as I think I put it, a note of moral bankruptcy in his commentary on the Brian Williams scandal. When Carr died almost immediately afterward, I felt rather ghastly for about ten minutes, as though my accusation (although I very much doubt that he ever read it) had been fatal. But in contrast to my experience of last week’s deaths, I can say that Carr’s has not left the world a smaller place. On the contrary, his dying made things clearer, at least to me, and in that sense it was additive. Now that he was gone, it was easier to see how he had done his job — and how, arguably, it ought to be done.

It now seems obvious, painfully obvious to me that the media critic at a major newspaper, especially in a time of dramatic media transformation, ought to be making the case, self-interested though it might be, that long-form journalism is the only means of communicating the complexity of the world to intelligent readers. That, by the same token, no intelligent person ought to be caught dead or alive watching TV news. Waste your time on anything else that the boob tube has to offer, but don’t clutter your mind with the amyloid proteins of television news! Just as Paul Krugman tirelessly argues for neo-Keynsian solutions to our economic problems, attacking the proponents of austerity with the manic ferocity of the computer in War Games, so David Carr ought to have made it his business to persuade readers of The New York Times that (a) they were already doing the right thing by reading the paper, and that (b) television news would therefore be as unnecessary as it is (c) undesirable.

Reading Carr’s response to the Williams scandal, it was impossible not to recall his much-publicized problems with addiction. They ought to have had nothing to do with anything, but wasn’t Carr writing about the relationship between viewers and anchors as one of dependency? Viewers needed this, and demanded that, from their newscasters. Carr did not question this; it did not seem to occur to him that there was anything to be done about it. This is the way in which most of today’s “media critics” cover their field. The prevailing note is helplessness. We are always checking our emails, we are always following Twitter, updating our Facebook status — you really can’t expect us not to. This is who we are.

If it is indeed who we are, if we are indeed helpless to resist the lures of advertisers and other self-promoters, then let us do the rest of the world a great big final favor. Let’s acknowledge that our exceptionalism has collapsed, that we have squandered our immense resources on a weakness for the instant gratification of our most casual curiosity, such that we are no longer capable of thinking through the awesome issues that we have claimed as ours to decide throughout the Cold War and beyond. Americans are just not up to the job. Too many of us can’t be bothered to learn that Toronto is in Canada, not Italy, or that California and Nevada, despite remarkable differences in population, each has only, or as many as, two senators. We have undermined our democracy by insisting that entitles us to be stupid.

Let’s try to figure out how to tell traumatized veterans of the guerilla wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that we’re sorry, that we should have known that those battles made no sense, that the insurgencies that fought them were created in response to their very presence on other men’s native soil. We went to war over there so that we could feel good about it over here. The Bush Wars mark the end, or at least the disappearance, of American intelligence. I think that most smart veterans already know this, but perhaps they would like to hear an apology or two.

Perhaps we are too stupid now even to apologize. Instead, we stupidly thank veterans for their service. That makes us feel good, too. As David Carr knew, we are keen on feeling good.


Does anybody out there who can’t imagine not watching television news happen to have kicked a smoking habit? Tobacco is much harder to cut off than television, but that’s for another time. All I want to say now is that you, you former smokers out there, you can’t really believe that you ever did anything so dirty, at least in the literal sense, for long enough for a habit to develop. Now, when you walk into a hotel room in which someone has been smoking, or when you see (but, again, mostly smell) an ashtray full of butts; when you remember how anxious you used to be about maybe running out of cigarettes or, just as bad, matches, you can’t imagine the satisfactions that compensated for such grossness.This is what I was told by one reformed smoker after another, until I myself gave it up (after twenty years — and this was over thirty years ago) and found out how true it was.

It’s harder, as I say, to stop smoking than it is to stop watching television. But, believe you me, once you’ve given up television, especially television news, once you have managed to keep it out of your life for a while, you will be so astonished by its screaming vulgar obscene banality that you will wonder why there aren’t laws against it — as there are now against smoking. Appalled, you will wonder. Believe you me.