Archive for June, 2015

Reading Note:
How He Does It
30 June 2015

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

But, first:

Greece and Puerto Rico are giving us rich lessons in one of the problems of democracy. All of the debt now coming due was signed on to by duly elected officials, none of whom, however, is currently accountable. They have all been replaced by other duly elected officials. It seems empty to say that the people of Greece and Puerto Rico are responsible, because they are not the same people, either. The stewardship feature of democracy, which counsels today’s voters to consider tomorrow’s (who, after all, will include children, grandchildren, and so on), is barely a notion: the only legacy that politicians ever talk about is that of military greatness, or other demonstrations of power, such as mammoth dams. It appears that nobody has given this problem much thought — more, that is, than merely hoping for the best. What would formulas and procedures for giving future generations a say in today’s decisions look like? In any case, we are learning that democracy cannot flourish in an eternal now — any more than the environment can. Not given the powers of today’s humanity to screw things up on a global scale.

Perhaps lenders will become more cautious. Perhaps they will demand referendums before making their loans. These referendums will vividly describe the weight of future payments (debt service) in terms that any newspaper-reader can easily grasp. At the bottom, there will a be a boxed warning: This obligation may condemn your children and grandchildren to disagreeably austere living conditions. That ought to cut down on long-term debt. Thought might also be given to making politicians personally responsible for the bonds that are issued under their watch. Nobody would expect them to repay the money, of course; but there are other pounds of flesh.


Having finished Book 2 of My Struggle, and finding myself in a drifting mood, not quite ready to pick up Book 3, I googled the author for flotsam and jetsam, and helped myself to two servings. The first was a Paris Review interview that Karl Ove Knausgaard had given to James Wood on an Oslo stage — recently, I suppose. The second was a clip from Knausgaard’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s show. I’ve never been a Charlie Rose fan, and now I find him perfectly dreadful — unwatchable, really. He is both rudely insistent and greedy for satisfactions. I flinched, I winced, I felt sorry for Knausgaard, who however did not seem in any way to be a victim. It was pleasant to discover that he speaks English with an accent that I can only call “groomed”; it most certainly doesn’t make him difficult to understand. But that was pretty much all I learned. In both interviews, Knausgaard more or less repeated things that he said toward the end of Book 2, in passages that muse on the nature of literature. What more was there to say?

I saw that Karl Ove is still married to Linda, and that they have four children now; they have had another girl since the period covered by Book 2. Knausgaard finished this book years ago. He underwent all the ordeals of publishing sensation back then. Now he’s dribbling along behind the translations. At some point, Book 6 will have been translated into every important language, or English at any rate, and people will want to talk to him about other things. Did he ever write that book about angels, set in the Seventeenth Century?

Somewhere in those thick disquisitions at the end of Book 2, where he writes about beginning to write My Struggle, Knausgaard complains that all stories occur at the same distance from reality, making them more like each other than they are like any reality. At least, I think he says this. Completely countering this complaint, however, is a passage on page 561.

Language is shared, we grow into it, and the forms we use it in are also shared, so irrespective of how idiosyncratic you and your notions are, in literature you can never free yourself from others. It is the other way round, it is literature that draws us closer together, through its language, which none of us owns and which indeed we can hardly have any influence on, and through its form, which no one can break free of alone, and if anyone should do so, it is only meaningful if it is immediately followed by others. Form draws you out of yourself, distances from yourself, and it is this distance that is the prerequisite for closeness to others.

It’s hard to tell whether Knausgaard means this ingenuously: the passage is presented as the gist of a talk that Knausgaard is going to deliver in Norway. It doesn’t sound like him, to talk about closeness to others as a possibility. Or perhaps he only feels close to others when he is writing, putting himself at a distance from himself. Sometimes, Knausgaard seems like a strange and very cantankerous man, quite beyond understanding; but at other times he captures a fundamental truth about serious writing: it leaves nothing more to say. Having written a book, Knausgaard can only repeat himself when talking to other people about it. Talking to other people about the book that he has written does not bring him closer to other people. On the contrary, it drives him further away, maddening him with the pointlessness of much human contact. He felt close when he was writing, and readers felt close while they were reading. The problem with readers, and the publicists who pander to them, is the delusion that meeting an author and having him sign your book and maybe even shaking his hand brings you closer to him. But the man who signs your book is just a man, he could be anybody. The writer to whom readers want to get close is locked up in the book. Readers must settle for that — they must do better than settling. They must understand and accept that we are brought together when we are writing and when we are reading, when we are, in fact, totally alone.

If meeting an author is more vivid or “meaningful” for you than reading his book, then you are not a serious reader.


But: how does he do it? What he says himself in the book suggests that, having found a thread that will lead him through episodes of memory, he thereupon writes down everything that comes him, in a state of demented recollection. (This headlong rush of detail is responsible for the exaggeration made by almost every reviewer, that My Struggle recounts everything that ever happened to Knausgaard.)  Later, there may be some editing; there is certainly a bit of cutting and pasting: every one of the regressions that I mentioned the other day is matched by an eventual restoration. Here in fact, are the page numbers: I made note of them on my phone. I’ve put the earliest episode, the innermost ring as it were, first.

  • 187-203 Knausgaard meets Linda at Biskops-Arnö. As the central episode, this is uninterrupted.
  • 126-285 This is the plane of Knausgaard’s first days in Stockholm, falling in love with Linda. What might be called Knausgaard in Love begins on page 126, is interrupted on page 187 by the account of his first meeting Linda, some years before, resumes on page 203, and at page 285 is brought to the resumption of the following cluster.
  • 105-349 This is the plane of the New Year’s Eve party (lobster and mussels) and Vanja’s birth a few days later.
  • 69-536 This is the plane that begins with the Rhythm Time class and the prolonged stay at a café, reading Dostoevsky. It follows the course of several days, ringing the changes on the awfulness of trying to function as an adult while caring for a toddler. The only solution? Have more children.
  • 20-543 This is the plane of Stella’s birthday party in Malmö, to which the Knausgaard family of four has moved.
  • The outermost plane begins with the family-of-five visit to a decrepit amusement park and ends with Knausgaard, shoulder taped up after a football collison, beginning to write My Struggle.

There are numerous smaller interruptions and flashbacks, as for example when characters are introduced and Knausgaard tells us how he met them and what he thinks about them. (I find it disagreeable to think of these as strict nonfiction.) The theme is Knausgaard’s helpless engagement with other people, from the wife whom he loves on out. All he wants to do, he says again and again, is to be alone, writing. He never quite says why this is impossible — what prevents him from retiring to a hermitage and cutting off contact with the outer world. It has, after all, been done. Why he does saddle himself with a wife and children and dinner parties and so forth remains a mystery.

But that’s what he does. How does he make it so compulsively readable? Suspense, as I said, has something to do with it. You can see from the numbers that Knausgaard quickly passes through several rings of time, reaching the central one at a third of the book’s length, and then working his way back out in a more leisurely fashion. But as I also said, these devices would not carry a book whose whole insistent point is that it has no objective interest, that it is not about anything that you don’t already know.

My preliminary hypothesis, to be tested by the remaining four books, is that Knausgaard deploys a double-barreled verisimilitude. He recounts events that are always totally plausible, especially when they’re unusual, such as the whole business with the Russian madwoman. The narrative is so grounded in everyday details that our skepticism is hypnotised, or, if you prefer, bored to sleep. Who cares if he boils the tagliatelle before cooking the mussels or the other way round? And if you do care, because you, too, are a cook, then the fact that he gets it right is just as lulling. This, together with the regressions from narrative planes that assure us how things are going to work out, create the impression that nothing is going to happen — and what could be more realistic than that? At no point does My Struggle exude the fragrance of Important Book. Not even when Knausgaard rattles on about Dostoevsky. Hey, it’s just a guy…

But what a guy. It’s the other barrel that works the magic. This is the verisimilitude of Knausgaard’s voice. I am not going to try to pin down the qualities of this voice, not now anyway. It’s enough to say that it is the voice of Orpheus. If it does not repel you (as, presumably, it must some readers), you will follow it helplessly, “sequacious of the lyre.” It is not a pretty voice, or an exalting one; the traditional attributes of poetic discourse are largely absent. But it is a passionate voice, a breathing, almost gasping voice, profoundly engaged in its tale — even, however briefly, with the boiling pasta. Your common sense numbed (nothing is going to happen), you follow Knausgaard’s voice with the passivity of a dreamer. And when the voice stops, you experience, as Zadie Smith noted, the pain of withdrawal: all you can think of is your next Knausgaard fix. Or, in my case, worse: flotsam and jetsam.

What will it be liked to re-read the damned thing?

Social Note:
29 June 2015

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Before I mention the little problem that I’m having with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I want to say two things. First, I promise to stop calling him Klaus Ove. Lord, how embarrassing! Second (but really first), I don’t think that Knausgaard is in any way a misogynist, or that he regards women as inferior beings. He is simply a traditional European male: Vive la différence! Regarding any problems that he might have “understanding women,” he is inclined to portray himself as the stupid person.

I also want to note something that hadn’t occurred to me before I became aware of this little problem that I’m going to mention: there are no gay people in My Struggle. Perhaps, in passing, there’s a minor character whom I’ve forgotten, but no one in the narrator’s circle is gay. This hardly came up in Book 1, which involved late childhood and adolescence and the memories churned up by the death of the narrator’s father. And which was set almost entirely in Norway. I expect that whenever the young Karl Ove encountered a gay schoolmate who couldn’t manage to remain closeted, he simply looked the other way, as much out of kindness (however misguided) as anything else. I don’t think that Karl Ove Knausgaard is homophobic, either, although I’m not quite so sure of that as I am of his non-misogyny.

I say all of this so that no one sits waiting for me to excoriate either the author or the narrator of My Struggle. This really is a little problem — so far as Knausgaard is concerned.

On page 312 of Book 2, Karl Ove has made a trip with his friend Geir to visit some boxers whom Geir has written about, Paolo Roberto and Osman.

The one called Osman was wearing a T-shirt and even though his biceps were large, perhaps five times larger than mine, they were not disproportionately large but slim. The same was true for the whole of his upper body. He sat there, supple and relaxed, and every time my eyes rested on him it crossed my mind that he could smash me to pulp in seconds without my being able to do anything about it. The feeling it gave me was one of femininity.

Later, on page 491, Karl Ove is talking to Geir about “Whole people.”

Precisely because it’s not something they have given any thought to, they don’t think like that, that they should be good, they just are, and are unaware of it. They take care of their friends, they’re considerate to their partners, they’re good parents, but not in a feminine way, always do a good job, they want whatever is good, and do whatever is good.

In the second passage, it is somewhat disconcerting to discover that “people” does not include women, but that, too, is traditional. IIn calling it “traditional,” I don’t mean to give it a pass. It’s not okay thinking. It’s a bad habit of mind that Karl Ove picked up unreflectively, I suppose, in his Norwegian childhood. Perhaps, by Book 6, he will have outgrown it. I understand, however, why it makes sense to him. He likes women, he wants to be attractive to women — to attractive women, anyway. And he knows “from experience” that attractive women are not drawn to men whose manliness is questionable, or to milquetoasts.

My little problem, of course, is that the opposite of a strong man, an Osman who can beat you to a pulp, is a weak man. It is not a woman.

Perhaps this is a problem of translation — not that I’m picking a bone with Don Bartlett (although I should like to talk to him about “kitchen paper,” on page 350). Perhaps “feminine” in this context sounds, in Norwegian, rather more like our word, “effeminate.”

It was only a few years ago that I realized that effeminate women are as rare as effeminate men. “Effeminate” does not describe the behavior of most women. I have never been reminded by any woman I know of a drag queen. Drag queens are, from head to toe, men. “Effeminate” men are men. To say that they’re behaving like women is a sort of cultural libel.

“Strident” women are sometimes said to be “mannish,” which is bosh of the same kind; but of course weak women are never charged with “masculinity.” To associate strength with masculinity, however, is to propose that biceps are everything, that the essence of strength is the ability to knock someone down. In most cases, ie drunken brawls, the ability to knock someone down is the essence of stupidity.

I don’t care for either word, “feminine” or “masculine.” They strike me as highly artificial; they remind me of vitamin supplements. They are spoken of as aspects of personality that ought to be enhanced. Women and men are told to be, respectively, more feminine or more masculine. It’s a classic border patrol problem, betraying anxieties and insecurities about social stability. It is not Vive la différence! but La différence or else! Its silliness is captured by Gene Wilders’s line in The Producers: “But where do you keep your wallet?”

Perhaps in a happier future, “masculine” and “feminine” will be classifiers for the bad habits to which each gender is prone. Women congregating in a doorway for a chat, or at either end of a stairway or an escalator — with a stroller as a bonus — comes to mind. (Kathleen claims to see men doing this “all the time,” but I still believe that, thanks to the Osmans of this world, men tend to have a sharper sense of where they’re standing in relation to others.) Men, talking among themselves, generalizing about women as idiots, and believing what they’re saying, even if they make exceptions for their mothers.

The demands of human reproduction, and the usually fixed implications of living in a body equipped one way or the other, to one side, the differences between men and women are either ornamental or regrettable. So say I.

It is also to be noted that Karl Ove Knausgaaard, even in his most philosophic transports, never generalizes about men and women. Which is nice, even if I think that the reason is his own anxieties about manliness.

Reading Note:
More Viking
26 June 2015

Friday, June 26th, 2015

It’s a good thing that I regard this Web site as a sketchpad, a place for first drafts. Otherwise, I’d feel compelled to subject yesterday’s entry, about Book 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, to severe edits. Writing about a novel that I’m not even halfway through is perhaps not the brightest idea, and it turns out that I was surveying the book from a point whose significance I didn’t grasp, whether I ought to have done or not. I was wrong about one thing, a mistake that I might not have made (I’m not sure) if I hadn’t let so much time pass between reading Book 1 and Book 2. As to that, by the time I began reading My Struggle, I had heard the cries of many reviewers, summed up best by Zadie Smith, who felt like addicts in need of a fix while they waited for the translation of the next volume to appear. Now that Book 4 is out in paper, I don’t have to worry.

I didn’t foresee, yesterday, that the steppe of time to which Knausgaard had regressed and to which I had advanced was foundation of the book’s big love story, Knausgaard’s relationship with Linda, his wife and the mother of his children. (I was wrong when I wrote that the narrator was unaware of Linda’s existence when he made his sudden move to Stockholm. Quite wrong!) It is a love story, however, as told to a shrink, a romance without a romantic arc. Linda and Karl Ove have their ups and downs. They have great times (which for the most part the narrator leaves to vague generalizations) and bad times (fights are often described in blow-by-blow detail). I was keenly aware that, if My Struggle were a traditional fiction — a fiction designed to smooth out and make sense of the world — a lot of the couple’s squabbles would signal their relationship’s doom. Surely two people who feel so completely unsympathetic (however momentarily) ought not to be together! But My Struggle is a contemporary fiction: the author is allowed, and even encouraged, to incorporate as much actual experience as he can manage. Complicating the zigs and the zags are (a) Linda’s history of mood disorders and (b) Karl Ove’s pig-headed belief (of which he appears to be unaware) that his Norwegian family, left behind by him in Norway, deserves extra-special sweetness from Linda whenever they all get together.

Some part of Knausgaard’s success must owe to his frank and ultimately engaging — ultimate, not always in the moment — inquiry into the makeup of modern masculinity. It might even be argued that this is the subject of the struggle of the title. Knausgaard comes equipped with a lot of traditional masculine equipment, but most of it is the negative stuff, the clutch of inarticulate habits of mind that allow and encourage men to overlook, ignore, patronize, and just not pay attention to their immediate domestic surroundings. Men whose minds work this way, one has to conclude, would be perfectly happy to live in a large doghouse out in the back yard and have their clothes washed every six months. Like dogs with their doggy interests, these men content themselves with their manny interests, casually, always prepared to move on to the next thing. (They have commitment issues on a microscopic scale.)  Knausgaard, as I say, appears to have grown up with a full complement of these “skills.” Unfortunately for him, and hence the struggle, he is also a curious man. He is — a reader. And not a reader about manny interests only, or even primarily. By the time Karl Ove reaches Stockholm, in his early thirties, he is carrying around inside him a sophisticated man of letters. This is a problem because Karl Ove himself mistrusts sophisticated behavior and has little sympathy with men who like letters. At the same time, he is terrified of being a closeted Marcel Proust. See it from Marcel’s point of view: imagine being trapped in the body (and the local enthusiasms) of Johnny Knoxville.

Particularly as the care-giving father of toddlers, Karl Ove discovers what it means to be a man whenever he feels that his manliness has been taken from him, as it is in a very funny set piece involving something called Rhythm Time. The first thing to be said about Rhythm Time is that there was nothing like it, and not just in Norway, when Karl Ove was growing up. Karl Ove’s parents never took him to the library for an organized playtime for small children that required mothers (and the occasional fathers) to get into the act. And if there had been such a thing, it would have been presided over by a middle-aged dragon or a sports coach, not a young woman whom Karl Ove calls “attractive” three times in a dozen lines. “She had a light, fresh, spring-like presence.”

What he had was the load of extra weight that he had put on, caring for children.

Away we go, then,” said the attractive woman, pressing the PLAY button. A folk tune poured forth into the room, and I began to follow the others, each step in time to the music. I held Vanja with a hand under each arm, so that she was dangling, close to my chest. Then what I had to do was stamp my foot, swing her around, after which it was back the other way. Lots of the others enjoyed this, there was laughter and even some squeals of delight. When this was over we had to dance alone with our child. I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies. When this was finished there was a session with a large blue sail, which at first was supposed to be the sea, and we sang a song about waves and everyone swung the sail up and down, making waves, and then it was something the children had to crawl under until we suddenly raised it, this, too, to the accompaniment of our singing.

When at last she thanked us and said goodbye, I hurried out, dressed Vanja without meeting anyone’s eye, just staring down at the floor, while the voices, happier now than before they went in, buzzed around me. I put Vanja in the stroller, strapped her in, and pushed her out as fast as I could without drawing attention to myself. Outside on the street, I felt like shouting till my lungs burst and smashing something. But I had to make do with putting as many meters between me and this hall of shame in the shortest possible time. (78)

All I could think of, while the big sail was making waves, was Vikings. This is what the vikings have come to. You can see why Karl Ove wants to break something. Right in front of really attractive young woman, he was obliged to play the eunuch. Even I’m obliged to say: Rhythm Time needs a re-think. More viking.

Reading Note:
50% More!
25 June 2015

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Even more baldly than in Book 1, the suspense in Book 2 of My Struggle depends on regressions. Something is about to happen — the author/narrator, Karl Ove Knausgaard, say, is about to find out how his wife feels about his having extended his “time-off” hour at a local café, leaving her to care for the two children and to do everything else around the house, by more than doubling it — but a hinge pivots, and the narrative slips back to an earlier time, suspending the abandoned moment.

The hinge in my for-instance is a Russian woman, a neighbor from hell, whom Knausgaard espies in his apartment building’s elevator as he’s on his way home to face the music. We are on page 105. At this particular moment, Knausgaard is the father of a little girl; the son in the stroller and the little girl who likes to be carried, in Book 2’s opening pages, have not yet been born. We have already had two regressions since then. Now, without so much as clearing his throat, Knausgaard launches a description of his horrid early encounters with the Russian woman, who would get drunk and play Eurodisco at top volume in the middle of the night. At that time, Knausgaard’s wife, Linda, was still pregnant with their first child. That time becomes this time, and there is a leisurely account of an evening that the Knausgaards spend going to the movies, to escape the racket in the building. Well, the Russian woman turns off the music as they’re leaving, but they decide to go out anyway; it will be one of their last changes for a night out alone.

On page 119, a paragraph begins, “Then, in the days before Christmas, all went quiet downstairs.” The narrative stays in the time frame but slips its referents. Christmas festivities are described, and attention gradually focuses on Knausgaard’s Norwegian friend, Geir, a writer who had already established himself in Stockholm when the narrator decided that he, too must leave Norway, and his first marriage with it. Now, on page 130, we drop back to that point in time. Twenty-five pages later, I’m still on that plane. I’m still waiting to find out (a) if the Russian woman continued to persecute the Knausgaards with her disco and (b) what Linda had to say when Knausgaard came home, an hour-and-a-half late, from his time-off in the café, reading, or in any case thinking about, Dostoevsky. I’m not sure that I’ll ever find out.

If Knausgaard were not a very good writer, of course, all the temporal manipulations in the world would do his sprawling epic no good. But they serve a practical purpose. Reading all these episodes from the past, we know, roughly, how things are going to wind up for Knausgaard. We know that he’ll become a family man with a modern family man’s problems. On page 155, Knausgaard has not even met his future wife, but I know she’s there. As are the three children, Vanja, Heidi, and Jon. Thus large-scale suspense, which can have one resolution only (how will it end?), is replaced by multiple small-scale uncertainties (what about the Russian madwoman?) that linger not in the distance behind us, where completed stories lay, slowly fading out of memory, but in the distance ahead, where they sparkle invisibly like so many unopened Christmas presents. It is a bizarre form of opulence.


As in Proust, there are reflective set pieces that unspool almost completely outside the adjacent time-line. On his first day in Stockholm, for example, before he has met up with Geir (who is going to put him up for a few days), Karl Ove buys a used copy of Hölderlin’s poems, and kills time by reading them in an alley. This reminds him of his uncle Kjartan, a Communist and something of a saint; when Karl Ove was a boy, he heard Kjartan speak enthusiastically about Hölderlin. After several pages of this further but quite minor regression, there is a break in the text, and then:

Although much had changed in my life since then my attitude to poetry was basically the same. I could read it, but poems never opened themselves to me, and that was because I had no “right” to them; they were not for me. (142)

This is tantamount to admitting, and then describing, a weakness for kinky sex: how can you not be gripped by such a confession, coming as it does from a successful — now, as you hold a translation in your hands, even more successful — novelist? Hey, even he does not get poetry! But we must read more closely. Knausgaard elaborates on the “right” to read poetry, and how to deal with the lack of it (there are three options, sketched in tickling detail), but he does not explain what it means for a poem to open itself. How could he, he might object, when it has never happened? But what might it be like, and how does he know it isn’t happening? These are classic adolescent anxieties that I file under “50% More.” Why? Ascoltami.

A story raged through boarding school like a virus: scientists had discovered that uncircumcised men experienced 50% more pleasure having sex. Yes, 50% more! (This was a time of ever more wonderfully effective cleaners, from detergent to toothpaste.) Most of us were unfamiliar with the pleasures of sex, at least with another person: we had not got that far. We certainly weren’t prepared to interrogate the science behind this electrifying assertion. We were more than prepared to assume that sex with another person that ended in orgasm was 100% pleasant for everybody. Sex was like an automobile, equipped with standard transmission and standard everything else. Because we were Americans born at a certain point in time, almost all of us were circumcised, not just our Jewish classmates. We were dismayed to “learn” that our sexual pleasure had already, prior to any actual enjoyment, been slashed in half. The more mathematical among us would have counseled that it was cut by only a third — great.

The trouble is, much of what we learn in high school is misinformation of this kind. It is neither right nor wrong; it is only simplified to the point of inarguability, and no sooner do we apprehend it than it sinks into the foundations of our becoming-adult worldview. Only later, when we’re in our fifties, do we begin to see that, indeed, everything we learned in school was wrong. It begins, innocently enough, with actual changes in the world: Karachi is suddenly no longer the capital of Pakistan. (When did that happen?) This leads to more penetrating re-evaluations: Why was Bonn of all places ever the capital of West Germany? Finally, assuming that our minds are still working, we get round to questioning the really unhelpful stuff. What precisely does it mean for a poem to open itself to a reader?

There is no point to telling high school students that poetry, literature, everything — that everything in life reflects what you bring to it, because high school students have nothing to bring. All they have is childhood, and the evidence of childhood cannot be destroyed quickly enough. A poem does not open itself to a reader: a reader opens the poem, by listening to it. This can be difficult because life is full of noisy distractions, many of which originate in our busy minds — but that is the only real difficulty. How do you know when you have opened a poem? You know when it gives you pleasure. That is all there is to it.

The easiest, and also the most delightful, way to open a poem is by following a congenial writer’s account of the pleasures that he or she gets from it. This is what Helen Vendler does, academic drag notwithstanding. This is also what Karl Ove Knausgaard does when he complains about life: he is really sharing the pleasures of complaint.

During those Christmas festivities that I mentioned above, Knausgaard inserts a remark made by Geir that acts both as literary criticism of his books and as recognition of his books’ literary reception. “Easy for you to say, that is. You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound.” (124) This is true. What accounts for it? How does he do it? I have a hunch, but I’m keeping it to myself, at least until I finish Book 2.

From the Last Row, On the Aisle:
24 June 2015

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Hallelujah! Elizabeth Banks has finally made the movie that Seabiscuit promised us, over a decade ago. Since then, Banks has made lots of movies, some of them very good, but none of them as grand — as grand for her — as Seabiscuit was. Her part in that film wasn’t all that big, but it showed her strengths, mainly a smile that took us far beyond the rapture of beauty, all the way to heaven itself: forgiveness, redemption, and a jolly good time.

Love & Mercy is something of a ham-and-cheese sandwich. There are two casts, but, more, there are two approaches to filmmaking. As you no doubt know, Love & Mercy tells the Brian Wilson story in two parts; how well these parts fit together, only time will tell. A gifted pop singer alienates his fellow Beach Boys with elaborate musical ambitions. (“Who are you, Mozart?” one sneers. Well, sort of.) And he goes mad. Director Bill Pohlad treats us to many, many scenes of Paul Dano, his stand-in for Wilson and an actor who has made a specialty of borderline alienation, looking bereft by a swimming pool. Beyond bereft. The irony of the comfortable but hostile California climate is enough to give you a sunburn.

Eventually, the poor fellow takes to his bed. After an implied hiatus, but actually in the first scripted scene — Love & Mercy refrains with Puritan rigor from providing the narrative with helpful timestamps — Wilson is played by John Cusack. This Wilson is the prisoner of one Dr Landy, a predatory psychologist, armed with legal custody (and the right to institutionalize our hero), played with creepily bug-eyed monstrosity by Paul Giamatti. Dano and Cusack do not look violently unalike, but they share little in the way of a resemblance. (Their noses! How hard would it have been to conform noses?) But instead of getting in the way, the particular facial discrepancies of these particular actors do a good job of embodying the utter devastation of Wilson’s early promise. Whereas Dano endlessly circles the drain of adolescent self-pity (nobody understands him!), Cusack has the air of a superannuated raptor, his eyes still clear enough to convey his regret at being unable to sustain ordinary human conversation. He is a prince laboring under a terrible spell. It is Elizabeth Banks’s job to rescue him.

Scenes from these very different segments of Brian Wilson’s life are intercut, making nonsense of any attempt to talk about “the first half” and “the second half.” I would therefore fall back on “the Dano half” and “the Cusack half,” except that the latter is really “the Banks half.” The Dano half of the movie is a rather weedy study of artistic obsession: we’re made to feel almost as bored and irritated as Wilson’s entourage. Plus, the self-pity. The Banks half is entirely different, the smashing update of a stylish Forties cliff-hanger (I Wake Up Screaming, with Betty Grable). Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) sells Cadillacs, and she is as suave as her showroom. Like any successful salesman, she is a very good listener, and, as a Cadillac salesman in her particular part of Los Angeles, she is accustomed to eccentric customers. When the rather shabby but focused middle-aged man asks if the two of them can just sit in the car for a while, and they close the doors and he locks them, she knows just what to say: “Now we know that the automatic doorlock works.” Only when his keeper and associated goons catch up with him does she learn who he is. She is instructed by Dr Landy to get started on the paperwork; Wilson leaves her a card on which he has inscribed a terse plea for help. She agrees to go out on a date with him anyway. She agrees to a second date, even, despite the chaperones who tagged along on the first. Only when they are out on a yacht does Ledbetter realize that Wilson is always under surveillance.

Like Seabiscuit‘s Gary Ross, Bill Pohlad showcases Elizabeth Banks’s strengths, only this time the result is a film-school case of Studio-era stardom. Repeat after me: the camera loves Elizabeth Banks. She is a blonde this time round, a blonde than whom only Kim Basinger is moreso. And she dresses not like a salesman but like a salesman who happens to be a slim, beautiful woman who sells Cadillacs in Beverly Hills or Brentwood. She dresses well. Even her garden apartment is snazzy. Gloria Grahame could be shooting In A Lonely Place in the next building. But Banks is not marmoreal, as the Forties goddesses tended to be; however well put-together, she’s spontaneous. She can think on her feet, by which I do not mean that she can come up with clever things to say. There is no call for cleverness here. What Wilson needs from Ledbetter is kindness, confidence, and a certain wily reserve — the lady knows from the start to keep her voice down. The situation with Dr Landy is so gruesome that Love & Mercy climaxes as something of a thriller, and the silent facedown between Giamatti and Banks is worth the price of ten tickets. This is not a film for men who believe that pretty girls need protection.

During the Dano half of Love & Mercy, I reflected on American popular culture, which erupted into the full daylight of public attention with acts like the Beach Boys — and, although no one but they themselves was conscious of their rivalry at the time, the Beatles — in the early Sixties. In the movie, it is observed, enviously, that Rubber Soul is an album — all of one piece. I remember being electrically aware of this at the time. I remember arguing, as a tyro student of art history, that Rubber Soul marked the Beatles’s passage from Archaic prehistory to Hellenic perfection. (Come on, that’s what college is for.) I remember reading that Brian Wilson was uninterested in stereophonic sound because he was deaf in one ear; I didn’t know that he was deaf in one ear because his father beat the crap out of him and his brothers. I remember grasping — this much more recently — that Wilson was alone among Americans in sharing the British passion for choral richness. And I reflected, as I surveyed the ghastly Sixties milieux that affluent Southern Californians inhabited in those days, that America not only did nothing to support its creatives but, on the contrary, constantly tempted them into deeper lunacy.

Eventually, Paul Dano’s Brian Wilson complains that he cannot go back to writing the kind of songs that made the Beach Boys famous. “We were never surfers, we never played in the sun, we never dated beautiful chicks” — or words to that effect, ie, that the Beach Boys were beautiful fakes. “Fakes” would be a harsh word. I think that they were transfigurations. They captured and represented the exhilarating apotheosis of American mindlessness. They showed why a healthy young man would want to replace his brain with a comb. (My favorite song, in 1963, was “Be True to Your School,” which sublimely drank the blood of its rah-rah vitality.) Love & Mercy does not look into any of this. The party is over before the Dano half begins. Love & Mercy is, so far as an actual band is concerned, a monument to Pet Sounds.

During the Banks half of the movie, I salivated. Oh, not in any coarse, carnal way. (I’m a happily married man!) But my impassioned longing for the cinematic splendor of Elizabeth Banks was gratified so generously that I may, in my senility, confuse Love & Mercy with a singularly memorable meal.

On the Encyclical:
23 June 2015

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

My plan for yesterday’s entry was to begin by thanking Paul Krugman — but there was nothing to thank him for, because I had neglected to publish entries for last Thursday and Friday. The entries had been written, proofed, copied (in HTML) to Notepad, everything but published. So it would have been odd to thank Paul Krugman for providing structured support, in yesterday’s column, for the mere assertions that had swept from my fingers in furious response to the Charleston massacre, but that had not yet actually appeared on this site. Krugman refers to two academic papers that demonstrate the link between Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and the race (and poverty) problems that we have today. Nixon and Cheney — it baffles me that such men can make any headway at all in a democracy. That two such extravagantly unattractive and politically repulsive figures have reached top offices forces me to conclude that our democracy is the opposite of enlightened.

I understand that a Miami Herald contributor tweeted that Charleston shooter Dylann Roof “doesn’t look white.” It sounds ridiculous — it is ridiculous. But it is not very different from Joseph Brooks’s assertion, in today’s Times, that the economic forces that Pope Francis allegedly deplores in the latest encyclical, Laudato Si, (I haven’t read it) have actually been of great benefit to the world’s poor.

No commentator excites more scrupulous attention than Joseph Brooks. I go through each column with a fine-toothed comb. Almost everything that Brooks says is genial and plausible. Much of it is even true. But today’s piece is arrant sophistry. In the second paragraph — that quickly! — Brooks is taking issue with the Pope’s claim that “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” This, according to Brooks, is “overdrawn,” ” 1970s-style doom-mongering.” I would argue, on the contrary, that His Holiness is wrong to say that it’s beginning. I don’t know what else to call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but “an immense pile of filth.”

Next, Brooks expresses something like “shock, shock” that the Pope disparages self-interest and competition.

He is relentlessly negative, on the other hand, when describing institutions in which people compete for political power or economic gain. At one point he links self-interest with violence. He comes out against technological advances that will improve productivity by replacing human work. He specifically condemns market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, even though these cap-and-trade programs are up and running in places like California.

This is the fatuity of the self-made man who can finally put his feet up and take all the credit for his achievements, blandly overlooking the countless boosts that he has had not only from luck but also from a robust political infrastructure that, among other things, protects his private property from the self-interest of crooks. The simple truth is that competition and self-interest are destructive. That is their natural effect. As Brooks points out in his next breath, lust leads to children. Bad things can have good consequences! But let’s be honest: this good consequence (children) would not be on any man’s mind if it were not for the institution of marriage, which, in the absence of better contraceptives, was designed to channel lust quite narrowly (and, many argue, unnaturally). So it is with competition and self-interest. Unless countervailed by social cohesion and common purpose, self-interest leads straight to violence: it’s a default, inherent setting — and everybody who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid of business-speak knows it. Even with as much regulation as we have imposed on commercial affairs, we are still preyed upon by rapacious men with no credentials, no social interest, and no commitments to anything but self-interest: developers.

“Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness,” Brooks argues. Yes, it can. But it usually leads merely to the exercise of power, and to the fiercely entrenched resistance to any reform that will reduce that power by so much as iota.

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

I’ve come across this argument several times since the encyclical was leaked. It is true that the gross metrics of short-term material well-being suggest that today’s poor are relatively rich. But Brooks’s “poverty reduction” is both unevenly distributed and environmentally unsound. Access to modern medicine aside, neither India nor China is healthier to live in, for most inhabitants, than it used to be. In India, the problem is sewage; in China, air pollution. Any connection between the expansion of the middle class in these countries and gains in human dignity are accidental: both middle classes exhibit an ironclad indifference to the plight of their economic inferiors. It goes without saying that neither India nor China resembles the United States in being principally middle-class.

Finally, fracking. A fiesta of prestidigitation!

You would never suspect, from this encyclical, that over the last decade, one of the most castigated industries has, ironically, produced some of the most important economic and environmental gains. I’m talking of course about fracking.

Two great things about fracking! Less air pollution (because of less coal burning)! More well-paying jobs! One bad thing about fracking that Brooks overlooks: seismic side-effects! Those well-paying jobs turn out to be physically corrosive and temporary. No one has ever built a safe and stable economy of jobs on resource extraction. And it doesn’t matter how low pollution gets, so long as it still exceeds the earth’s capacity to absorb and neutralize it. Large-scale fracking has no history, so promises and guarantees about its long-term implications are absolutely empty.

The very worst thing about Brooks’s piece is its failure to recognize the encyclical’s time-frame, which is timeless. This is a characteristic weakness of market-oriented thinking. Given short-term referents, most environmental policies appear to be impracticable. This brings us back to the self-satisfied self-made man. He measures out success in lifespans, and his only concern is his own success. Environmental issues must be worked out in terms of decades, if not centuries, and they must take into account and reconcile many, yes, competing interests. By which I mean that the competing interests are not to be permitted to duke it out among themselves. Are market forces going to provide a mechanism for solving disagreements between East and West (China and the United States) on automotive emissions? I don’t think so.

How marvelous it would be if heavy industry were operated by secular Franciscans (praised in Laudato Si), or, even better, by worldly counterparts of the Pope’s own order, the Jesuits, for the greater glory of creation.

Reading Note:
Delayed Reaction
22 June 2015

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Two weeks ago, I read Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act, more than six months after its publication. I don’t think I mentioned it here. There didn’t seem to be too much to say, two weeks ago. I put off reading the book because of the title, which suggested something very unpleasant, along the lines of The Comfort of Strangers; for, having assiduously avoided all reviews, I had no other idea what it might be about. “The Children Act” turns out to be the informal title of a provision of British family law. Put to use as the title of McEwan’s novel, it of course reverberates on a number of frequencies, but the point of departure for the story is that classic contemporary conundrum, the parents who object to the medical treatment of their minor children on religious grounds.

The Children Act lays out the grounds on which a judge may intervene in such a situation, in order to save a child’s life. That is where the protagonist finds herself. She is a respected family-court judge, approaching sixty. Having pursued an ambitious career, she is childless. As a consequence of a recent, far more disturbing decision, involving the urgent separation of Siamese twins, she has become sexually remote from her husband, and her marriage is in trouble.

The child is a bright young man just shy of his eighteenth birthday. His incompetence to decide for himself, and to agree with his parents about the treatment (they are Seventh-Day Adventists, and they object to blood transfusions on Biblical grounds), seems merely technical. The judge decides to examine him herself, to evaluate the quality of his decision in a personal interview. (This sounds like something that American jurisprudence would prohibit, but I’m a long way from law school.) She decides that the boy is in a sort of romantic fit, happily embracing an awful death without understanding just how awful it will be. She decides on intervention, and the boy’s life is saved. For the time being.

The judge is charmed by the boy, but the boy is even more charmed by the judge, and he has none of her sense of professional restraint. Not to mention the mountains of personal baggage that ballast the course of her life, allowing her to snip the encounter as a finished thing. When the boy writes to her, she cannot draft a satisfactory response, so his letter goes unanswered. As does another. Seasoned readers of Ian McEwan will have little difficulty guessing what happens next.

It was only last night, as I was reading something else, that it hit me: I had so often felt like the young man in the story, attracted to smart older people and immediately desperate for more of their company. Like the judge, they were charmed at first, but quickly cautious. Like the young man, I seemed to be putting myself up for adoption. The young man actually proposes that the judge allow him to move in with her. I never went quite that far, I don’t think. But I was drawn to the same sort of thing. What I mean when I say that these appealing adults were sophisticated people is simply that they could see things from two or more perspectives — they could hold contradictory ideas in their minds without irritation, a blessing the absence of which I find tragic. Not only were they comfortable with contradictions, they were often amused by them. There was something vital about the confusion of life, a vitality that made sorting out the confusion worthwhile in spite of the fact that sorting things out usually leads to the proliferation of things to sort out.

My father was (I see now) an extraordinarily tolerant, live-and-let-live kind of guy. But his easygoing nature was also indifferent to what did not concern him. His curiosity had a meter, like a taxi’s. You can make a nice income with that outlook, and he did. What I learned from him at the time — I think I’d have drawn other lessons as an adult — is that compensation corrupted curiosity. It would be best never to be paid for doing anything truly important. In any case, my father could entertain a million conflicting views, as long as they stayed in another room and kept their voices down, so that he could get on with his weekend nap. What distinguished the grown-ups who infatuated me from my father was their giving the impression that they cared. They were, with the best good humor in the world, earnest.

What distinguished these people from my mother, within the frame of this discussion, was everything. My mother liked to make up her mind — “that’s what minds are for,” as Mrs Clancy puts it. “To make up one’s mind” — an interesting expression to which I have never given a moment’s thought; but, now that I do, I see the implication of pretense. The phrase hangs somewhere between “to make the bed” — sorting things out in a very settled way — and “to make up one’s face.” For most of us, I suppose, making up your mind and coming to a decision are the same thing. But they’re not. The true test of adulthood is the ability to come to a decision without being able to make up your mind. We don’t have the luxury of being able to wait until we’ve made up our minds, and it is infantile to act as though we do. Our decisions are unavoidably infected with mistake.

Without exception, each of the alluring adults to whom I was drawn responded to my adulation precisely as McEwan’s judge does. And that was always that. Boarding school seems to have snuffed out the problem. I was too busy writing papers and hearing chamber music to pay attention to anybody else. And the grinding discomfort of living with someone whose habits of mind were so disapprovingly unlike my own came to an end. But my interest still flares up whenever I find myself in the company of someone capable of considering complications with a smile. For better or worse, I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm.

The Children Act is one of its elegant writer’s most elegant books. I like to think of it as a novella, because the novella, lately, has come to seem to be the most jewel-like of literary prose forms. Or perhaps the most musical (as in sonata form). Themes are limited, and ultimately unitary. (Everything in The Children Act has children in mind.) Something like the classical unities are observed. (The judge leaves London for the North, on business, but this is an episode in a closely-related if contrasting key, and not the expansion of horizon that occurs in many novels.) The good novella is an extraordinarily well-packed suitcase. (The book ends where it began, but the protagonist is now equipped to move on.) I recommend it very highly — and not just because it contains one of the funniest lawyer jokes that I’ve ever heard in my life.

Gotham Diary:
An Acquired Taste
19 June 2015

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Looking at the Times this morning, it occurred to me that, if you want to pin the blame for the massacre at Charleston’s Emmanuel Church on some one person, if you want to name a figure without whom the National Rifle Association and the various white supremacist organizations and the proliferation of gated communities and a reflorescence of the Confederate Flag would be inexplicable, that man is Richard Nixon.

It has become something of a journalistic trope to regard Nixon as a troubled man who never had two happy moments together — and then to feel somewhat sorry for him. This is like feeling sorry for Hitler.

Like Hitler, Nixon has a lot to tell us about what’s wrong with us, because he was powered by our darkness. He repurposed the paranoid energies that were flagging with the slow, inevitable fading of the Cold War, in the concoction of which he had been an eager participant. He got Americans to stop fearing and hating Communists and to start fearing and hating other Americans.

I’m not going to belabor this point. Just give it a thought.


Thomas Kunkel’s biography of New Yorker founder Harold Ross is a very good read. I overlooked Genius in Disguise when it came out, twenty years ago; for a long time, reading The New Yorker was enough — reading about it was too much. Kunkel’s biography of Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, which came out earlier this year, provoked me to give the earlier book a try. I’m about halfway through it, and I can’t say that I have learned a single thing about the legendary Ross. What I have learned is what it took to create the magazine, or at least a version of it that, with ninety years of care and cultivation, became that most remarkable kind of cultural institution, something that, while changes with the times, always remains recognizably itself. Ross created a magazine that could grow. Kunkel shows how hard this was to do. It didn’t take very long, two years at the most. But it was frighteningly hit-or-miss, and The New Yorker nearly folded six months after its inauguration. Cycling madly through talented writers and editors, Ross continued to keep the magazine afloat by splashing until 1927, during which he assembled a corps of four wingmen: Katharine Angell, EB White, James Thurber, and Wolcott Gibbs. This quartet understood what Ross was looking for, and it knew how to give it to him. But it was all Ross’s idea (however inarticulate at first), and a very successful idea it turned out to be.

It was like the one about having to have a job in order to get a job. From the start, The New Yorker was always going to be an acquired taste. How do you create an acquired taste? And how can Harold Ross, a man’s man if there ever was one, have envisioned something so sophisticated and peculiar? Kunkel reprints two memos, the only ones of their kind to survive, in which Ross reviews the current issue of the magazine, finding much of it wanting. Now, you have to bear in mind that he would have read and approved the entirety of each issue’s contents before publication. So the memos are essentially a form of self-criticism, however annoyingly projected outward at the staff. They show us that Ross was astonishingly well-informed. (Even if he didn’t know what the Blue Hill Troupe was — whether it was amateur or pro.) They also remind us that The New Yorker started out as a news magazine.

This is a role that the magazine has been discarding for years. At the back of each issue, you will find some combination of columns about books, classical music, television, the theatre, and what has always been called “The Current Cinema.” Every now and then, there’s something about music that is serious without being “classical.” But you will not find regular columns on jazz (Whitney Balliett), horse racing (Audax Minor), golf (Herbert Warren Wind), or women’s clothes (Lois Long, Kennedy Fraser). Coverage of the New York newspapers did not survive Robert Benchley. (Or did it? My point here is that I can remember all of the other extinct departments.) Even “The Talk of the Town” was supposed to be news. News of an odd kind, but still, news about New York City and the crazy people who live here. In Maeve Brennan’s Long-Winded Lady pieces, we see the transformation (under Ross’s successor, the very very very different William Shawn) of throwaway news into durable art. These vignettes may have read as news when they first appeared, but they have survived to form an ensemble portrait of the city at mid-century, not its finest moment. (From the Kennedy Administration at the latest to the near-death brush with bankruptcy in 1975, the sprites of novelty abandoned Gotham for other locales, and the city became, of all things, vieux jeu. The Twin Towers were monuments to this confused epoch.)

It appears to be generally acknowledged that The New Yorker “grew up” during World War II. It had ignored the Depression, which Ross, probably correctly, regarded as bad for business. If the magazine responded differently — actively — to the war, that must have been in part a reflection of Ross’s career in World War I. Originally a grunt, he was soon taken up by the new, government-sponsored publication, The Stars and Stripes. Kunkel conveys the genesis of the germ of The New Yorker in the Stars and Stripe’s blend of soldier-to-soldier coverage of trench-life news, humor, and good old Parisian ooh-la-la, all presented in a casual tone. Something altogether new happened to American letters when a troop (or troupe) of smart guys from nowhere, unpolished enough to regard France as no less exotic than Tahiti, were exposed to an old Europe that, but for the war, they would probably never have encountered. Actually, it was a Europe that had never been encountered as such. From the sizzle of the melancholic Ross on the hot pan of mademoiselles from Armentières wafts the cologne of Eustace Tilley.

In 1926, The New Yorker produced a parody of itself, with a silhouette of Harold Ross in the Eustace Tilley pose on the cover. This image might well be taken as the badge of the Ross years at The New Yorker. It captures the dissonance between the mock-foppish presentation of the magazine and the deadpan curiosity of the man behind it. There was nothing fancy about Ross but just one thing: he was a newspaperman with aspirations for the stars. He wanted to be a constellation in the literary firmament. He created the constellation, all right, but he did such a good job of it that the constellation could swirl about perfectly well without him at its center. Diligent and determined readers of The New Yorker may comb it for traces of Ross, and even find a few. But they wouldn’t know what they were looking for if they had only the past dozen years’ issues to go by. And that probably explains why there is still a New Yorker that looks like the one Ross made — although less and less with every passing year.

This entry was undertaken to lead to some navel-gazing on the subject of journalism, and why it never appealed to me as a possible profession, quite aside from issues of compensation and job stability. That will have to wait. Clues may be found in Kunkel’s book, in the principal paragraph on page 26 and in the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 50. Ross often claimed that, much as he liked women, he never understood them. My own problem is that I’d be much more optimistic about the future of our human experiment if I didn’t understand men.

From the Last Row, On the Aisle:
Two Lighthearted Movies
18 June 2015

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

Not too far into Woman in Gold, an Austrian man approaches the elderly Maria Altman (played by Helen Mirren) and tells her that she ought to drop her legal action to regain possession of Klimt’s famous picture of her aunt. I don’t remember his words exactly, nor even the subtitle translation, but the gist of his remarks is, Give the Holocaust a rest. Water under the bridge. Move on. Get a life.

Haven’t we all felt that, at one time or another.

The beauty of Simon Curtis’s film is the way in which it silences such irritable grousing. This is no doubt largely because of Ms Mirren’s ability to carry all of Maria’s dreadful memories with full consciousness but also with a light spirit. But the film itself is visually lighthearted as well. Aside from the somber scenes in which the end of normal life for a very prosperous family of Viennese Jews is played out — and these scenes are as brief as they can possibly be — Woman in Gold is one of the sunniest of movies, and not just because a good deal of it is set in Los Angeles. Vienna looks great! The scene in which Maria and the two men who are helping her with her case (played by Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Brühl) climb the gentle slope between the two Belvedere palaces, with all of the old city stretched out behind them, is the best sort of tourist cheesecake, unsurpassed by those corny Technicolor comedies that were popular in the late Fifties. You almost think, this is fun!

And it is fun, even though your cheeks are burning with the streaks of tears. Because Woman in Gold is never oppressive or manipulative, because it focuses on a woman who is determined to make the best of things — a determination that she passes on to her tenacious but confused attorney, Randy Schoenberg (Mr Reynolds) — the Holocaust is indeed put in its place: right out in the open. By coincidence, of course, I recently read Look Who’s Back, a satire that, for all its laughs, generates an uneasy awareness of how very thinkable a replay of the Nazi nightmare would be in today’s shambolic world. We have not reached the point of “enough already” with the Holocaust, not remotely. At the climax, Schoenberg makes a speech exhorting the Austrian government to disconnect itself from its shameful predecessor and, because Ryan Reynolds is delivering, the speech is both formidably decent and good to hear. We still have a lot of work to do on being our best selves, and Woman in Gold reminds us of this without putting us in mind of tedious homework.

Maybe a simpler way to talk about this film would be to say that it worked for me as Schindler’s List, like most Steven Spielberg movies, could not. I didn’t feel that I’d been dragged through an unsanitary funhouse of horrors. I felt as though restitution were one of the most important underpinnings of civilization. When Maria Altman made her first postwar visit to Austria — a visit she swore she would never make — the Austrians ought to have pressed her family’s five Klimts upon her and sent her back to California with them, joyfully relieving themselves of the disgrace of having worshiped The Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I as the nation’s “Mona Lisa.” A key element of the case for restitution was the fact that the state owned the picture. This is also the crux of the story’s significance. No sovereignty can afford to be seen sullied by the fruits of lawless plunder. No statute of limitations can whitewash such offenses. Yes, justice was done when the portrait was restored to Maria Altman. But the more important point is that justice was done when Austria got rid of it. And that is what makes Woman in Gold a lighthearted movie. It makes you see that the story ended happily for Austria as well. It does not pretend that there are no Austrians who would disagree with this proposition, but it nevertheless insists, and quite persuasively to any open mind, that there were no losers in the case.

So now the picture hangs in a city of Jewish prosperity even greater than that of old Vienna. And while New York is nowhere near as grand as Vienna, the picture has moved from one palace to another. Its new home is, perhaps regrettably, a lot smaller than its previous one — the lines to get in are extraordinary. Let us hope that its new country never slips as its homeland did.


I saw a very different sort of picture last week: Spy. The only statement that can be made about Spy and Woman in Gold is that the latter picture is better at showing off foreign capitals. Oh — and cameras were used to make them both. Beyond that, the two movies are incomparable, so I’m probably making a mistake by writing about them in the same entry. But perhaps not. Spy is delightful. I know what you’re going to say about Melissa McCarthy, but I’m here to tell you that she has vacated the bathroom. In Paul Feig’s new movie, at any rate, Ms McCarthy is neither rude nor crude. The humor that she gets out of being hefty is not essential to her performance; she plays up her character’s plainness (as perceived by men), not her plus size. The more I think about Spy, the more feminist it seems. Miranda Hart’s participation doesn’t hurt.

Nor do the performances of Jude Law and Jason Statham, which are brilliant self-parodies. Mr Law’s impersonation of a rather brainless matinee idol does not, it is true, suggest an enormous challenge, but the vigor with which Mr Statham exaggerates the powers of his usual action figure is the funniest thing going. It’s as though the actor wanted to be sure that you know how preposterous he finds the scripts that they keep sending him to be. The line between grim heroics and comic lunacy, it turns out, is nothing but a question of turning up the voltage, all the way into the red. He owns the movie’s funny ending — and I’ll bet it would make even Sean Connery laugh out loud. (Miranda Hart: “Does he know it’s a lake?”) He has a super-funny line, totally in character, right as the ending is getting going. Where did you get that suit, someone asks him. Well I made it myself, didn’t I, he says. The macho soufflé, having risen just a tad too high, promptly collapses, but all we can hear is our own laughter.

Everyone in the movie is great. I remember when Allison Janney was a mainstay of MTC casts, and now look: she’s doing JK Simmons! Rose Byrne makes such a perfidious villainess that I thought she was Kristen Scott Thomas! But a lot of the credit goes to a perfectly-timed screenplay and the deft deployment of Bond-type music. In the end, Spy is the Bond parody that makes you forget all about James Bond, if only because you simply cannot think about him when Melissa McCarthy is doing the throttling.

Reading Note:
O What a Mansion!
17 June 2015

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

One things leads to another — especially when I can find the books.

I plow on with William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity. It is like riding in a train, staring out the window at a tangled wood. Every now and then, a broad field appears at an opening in the forest, and, beyond it, the dreaming spires of Oxford. Just as one is recognizing the turrets and the towers, the wilderness closes in again. One sits back grumpily, resentfully surmising that Empson has no interest in Oxford. He went to Magdalene, not Magdalen: he’s a Cambridge man.

A Cambridge man who started out in mathematics. When I found that out Empson wrote 7 Types of Ambiguity when he was 24, having abandoned mathematics for literature, I understood a great deal, even if it wasn’t the book itself. 7 Types of Ambiguity is written rather incompetently by a brilliant young man who has not done a great deal of listening in his life and who blithely generalizes from his own rather peculiar experiences. His amateur psychology is intriguing enough to mask its dodginess. At the same time, the book is stuffed with the crack critical insights that come to a math man early in life, never to be recaptured.

Thank heaven for Wikipedia. The entry for the book helpfully lists all seven types of ambiguity. Having nearly reached the end of the first chapter, and heard Empson mention “the first type of ambiguity” several times without any clear expression of what this first type was, I sighed with relief to find that it was “metaphor.”

I also learned that Empson’s first evangelists were I A Richards and Frank Kermode. If Kermode wrote like Empson, I wouldn’t know much about him. And I learned that Empson was instrumental, if that’s the word, in enhancing the prestige of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 among New Critics. Sonnet 94? Which one is that?

For a few mornings in the spring or fall of my sophomore year at Notre Dame, I got up well before breakfast, dressed, and carried my Pelican edition of the Sonnets with me across the quad from Dillon to Lyons and then down to St Mary’s Lake. One I was lost in the shrubberies, I would open the book at random and read aloud. Every now and then, I would cross paths with a smiling priest, but I was safe, at this hour, from my fellow undergraduates, any of whom who might be awake at this hour were surely focused on non-cerebral tissues. Lost by the lake, I could let myself go, and feel what it might be like to declaim, and perhaps even to have memorized, Shakespeare, in bosky collegiate surroundings. I had a vague idea that, at some point in the past, such behavior had been not only encouraged but protected, and perhaps even admired, at least in the faraway vicinity of those dreaming spires. I wanted at least a taste of the life of open ownership of magnificence — something as forbidden in Cold War America as it was in Soviet Russia.

It was a matter of days only. I soon slumped to type. Disgracefully, though, I allowed myself to “remember” that I had, on these excursions, read each of the sonnets at least once.

Sonnet 94: “Those that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none…” This did not ring a bell at all. All it summoned up was the bosh of my exaggerate claims.

Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was right where it ought to be. In this indispensable volume, each sonnet is discussed in a couple of pages that reproduce the compression of the sonnets themselves. It is very apt to say that Vendler “unpacks” the sonnets, because, when she’s done, the contents of fourteen lines of verse are laid out over seeming acres, and all in the space of two or three pages. Reading about Sonnet 94, I was quickly made aware that it forms an arc with the sonnets to either side. “With the failure of 94’s hopeful diversion into organic metaphor, the accusation suppressed in 93 and 94 can burst out in full cry in 95: O what a mansion have those vices got / Which for their habitation chose out thee!

I had to stop right there. I had but to turn the page to read Sonnet 95 in full, but that would have to wait.

O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,

The exclamation point in Vendler’s notes to Sonnet 94 is an interpolation that makes sense if you’re just reading the two lines — if you’re imagining, perhaps, a very great actress on a severe stage, sharply turning in her long gown so that its train stretches out before her, and hurling a dagger of contempt at some blandly fatuous villain. Vendler claims that the gist of the sonnet, “often preached in sermons,” is “hate the sin and love the sinner,” but I don’t feel any love in these two lines. Admiration has rotted to disgust. In the notes to Sonnet 95, she asks us to hear the “man” in “mansion” and the “habit” in “habitation,” and this more than suggests the identity of sin and sinner. Having learned something from Empson, I can add that the mansion is an ambiguous figure, visibly splendid but secretly infested with vermin, and doomed to collapse into hell; alive and dead at the same time.

Every now and then, Shakespeare says something that startles because it shakes free of now-archaic speech patterns and assimilates the syntax of something that might be spoken today. Spoken in the exaltation of great anger, that is. O what a mansion! I could say that. And then there is that “got,” made all the more intensely vernacular by linking mansion with habitation — the one word very grand, the other abstractly pretentious, and both ending in -ion. Where we would diverge is in the final three words; we would say (to preserve the meter), “sought you out.” But “chose out thee” not only is required for the rhyme but emphasizes the sinner: thee! It spits.

One of the peculiarities of the English language is that the old second-person singular, thou which in all the European languages developed into a second-person familiar, to be used only with intimate peers (and God) — came to feel just the opposite, starchy and formal. It has disappeared from the spoken language and is known only to the educated and to some varieties of the religious. Chose out thee reminds us of our loss.

Anyway, I was staggered. How had I never encountered this magnificent language before? And what were the chances of my ever being able to use it to rebuke an actual person? As I stumbled about, getting ready for bed, I delivered the two lines over and over, trying to get them just right, as loudly and dramatically as I dared. I also tried to think which of Shakespeare’s plays they might be fitted into. I couldn’t think of one. The Sonnets are their own play.

Reading Note:
The Sound of the Onycha
16 June 2015

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Well, that did it.

In her really quite good book, The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, Sofka Zinovieff (as English as you please, despite the Slavic monicker) writes of the poems in Edith Sitwell’s Façade that they are made of “experimental, nonsensical words” (149). My blood it did boil.

[“Oh, the nursery-maid Meg
With a leg like a peg
Chased the feathered dreams like hens, and when they laid an egg
In the sheepskin
The serene King James would steer
Horse and hounds, then he
From the shade of a tree
Picked it up as spoil to boil for nursery tea,” said the mourners. (“Fox Trot”)]

This is no more experimental or nonsensical than the Alice books. When my blood calmed down, I read the first passage that came to mind.

And Charlottine,
Round rose-bubbling Victorine
And the other fish
Express a wish
For mastic mantles and gowns with a swish; (“Popular Song”)

Cloaks made out of fragrant gum might be just the thing for fish; otherwise, this is simply a Victorian fantasy, working, as Alice does, as an inverted surrealism, by domesticating what ought to be odd images. (One can almost make out the dreadful fountain in the middle of the ornamental lake.) I know that Façade was thought, and even meant, to be teddibly modern when it was new, in 1922 or 1923 (pick your première), and Sitwell herself says, right here in her memoir, Taken Care Of, that “experiments were made” (142). She even compares her poems to Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, quoting as an example the tongue-twister in “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside” (“Thetis wrote a treatise…”). But before saying too much of this kind of thing, she acknowledges that Façade is meant to be fun. And it is fun.

I don’t know how old I was when a recording arrived in the mail from one of those record clubs. Thirteen? It was a reissue of the 1948 performance at MoMA, sadly unavailable today. I could not have been a better target. That it was supposed to be “modern” went completely over my head, or maybe the other way. I took it to be an album of nursery rhymes for grown-ups — even if I couldn’t find a single grown-up (dear old Bronxville) who could stand to listen to them. I caught the immense nostalgia for Victoriana, coupled with an equally strong repulsion. I saw that Sitwell was making fun of John Bull, but that she was toasting him, too. The best thing was that she was indulging that most un-English of activities, having a blast.

Fun poetry! What a concept!

I am not going to make claims for Façade‘s place in the canon of English verse. It’s still too peculiar to bracket. You have to know the rhythms, and the rhythms have to be learned, either from the score or from recordings. I’ve had them by heart for most of my life. In college, I would read them at coffee houses (such as there were there and then), using an LP of Constant Lambert’s ballet version as backup. Last night, I made the surprising discovery that it can be very agreeable to read the poems without any music at all. (Plus, I can take my time with the tra-la-las in “Polka.”) Not that Walton’s score isn’t dazzling. He was about ten years old when he wrote it (all right, nineteen), and no doubt the mannerisms of ragtime and jazz simply percolated in his bloodstream. But just reading a poem like “En Famille” aloud in a quiet room is charming. (I talked a lot about the Sitwells, and quoted the end of this poem, in early April of this year.)

I’m making another attempt at William Empson’s book, 7 Types of Ambiguity (1930 et seq). This is a Very Important Book, and I have been trying to read it for years, but a good deal of it resists my intelligence. There’s a sentence of page 6 that defeats me. The preceding sentence makes the interesting, slightly dubious but altogether comprehensible claim that, even if we know what ingredients have been put into the stewpot, we don’t know how those ingredients contribute to the “juice” — which I take, perhaps mistakenly, to mean the delicious gravy that results from commingled cooking, and, by extension (metaphor), the magic of finished poetry. All very well. Then, this:

One must feel the respect due to a profound lack of understanding for the notion of a potential, and for the poet’s sense of the nature of language.

Something about the sequence of prepositions seems wrong. It can’t be, though, can it? I’d like to be able to complete the phrase, one must … in order to What, Exactly? (I tried googling the sentence, but nothing came up.) Anyway, Empson mentions Sitwell soon afterward, quoting her “synaesthetic” line, “The light is braying like an ass” (from “Trio For Two Cats and a Trombone”). He seems to approve — although I wouldn’t be too sure. But I thought of Sitwell when I read the following paragraph from Empson’s discussion of the “Atmospheric” response to poetry (according to which actual meaning is unimportant):

This belief may in part explain the badness of much nineteenth-century poetry, and how it came to be written by critically sensitive people. They admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realise that the process of putting such a taste into a reader’s head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing.

It seems clear to me that Sitwell worked very hard to avoid this pitfall. I’m not entirely sure that she actually had a “taste in the head” in mind when she scribbled her poems, but surely she set out to refresh, if only for the sake of harmless merriment, the oozing upholstery of a Victorian child’s exposure to vernacular entertainments as well as to Classical Authors (busts included). It’s hard to believe now that anyone ever thought that Façade was strange or “difficult.” Sitwell’s poems are not at all meaningless — not even this (also from the “Trio”):

He called across the battlements as she
Heard our voices thin and shrill
As the steely grasses’ thrill,
Or the sound of the onycha
When the phoca has the pica
In the palace of the Queen Chinee!

Nonsense, perhaps, but meaningless, not at all. Especially after one has learned how to read this line from recordings. The last three lines are to be recited as a kind of rote, in a mumbled whisper that accentuates every other beat. It is all a child’s secret game, and worse luck if you don’t know these special words. It is the perfect ending to a parody of flamenco that flaunts adult passions (“our Paphian vocation”) before eyes that are not yet prepared to understand. Indeed, “Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone” is another way of telling What Maisie Knew.

Just don’t tell Henry James I said that.

Rialto Note:
We’ll Never Know
15 June 2015

Monday, June 15th, 2015

On Saturday night, we saw a performance of The Audience, Peter Morgan’s extension of The Queen franchise. I ordered a copy of the play shortly after it opened in London, on the chance that it might be too good to miss. I decided that it wasn’t. Then the show came to Broadway, and Kathleen wanted to go. So she got us three front-row-center seats (we took an old friend), and there we were, not six feet from Helen Mirren when she got down on her knees to say the Lord’s Prayer. There are dogs in the show. I wonder how well they have to be trained to assure that they won’t be distracted by clowns sitting where I was, holding up a biscuit or a treat.

I wept through the whole thing. Of course I did. It was a grand spectacle. (More than it would have been in London. The first act now ends with Elizabeth’s coronation, to the tune of “Zadok the Priest.”) One conceit of The Audience is its exploitation of a curious moment in the Queen’s life: once a week, she has a private, personal, and — this is the curious part — unscripted conversation with someone outside Palace life, someone she doesn’t really know. The current prime minister informs the sovereign of current affairs. The sovereign cannot overrule the prime minister’s decisions, but she can discuss them freely. There is every indication that these meetings have not, on balance, been a waste of time for anybody.

There have been twelve prime ministers in Elizabeth’s long reign. What with Her Majesty’s age and the extent of David Cameron’s recent victory, it is not inconceivable  that Elizabeth might be dead or incompetent by the time Cameron’s successor comes into office, but twelve is a good number, and the fact that the first of them was Winston Churchill must have preyed somewhat on the ensuing eleven minds. It is the Queen, of course, who constitutes the audience. She listens, she comments, she presumably remembers. She compares and contrasts.

Does she? Is any of Morgan’s re-creation true, or even plausible? What does the real Elizabeth think about it? As Helen Mirren herself said after The Queen got things going, we’ll probably never know. There’s a lovely exchange with Cameron; they’re talking about mobile phones.

Elizabeth: I begged them not to give me one, but then security persuaded me it doubled as a useful tracking device in case I try to escape.

Mirren interposed a beautifully timed pause before “in case…”, and brought the house down. The Elizabeth of this particular moment is an old woman, still dutiful as ever but perhaps inclined to think that one has been doing this for long enough. Does Elizabeth the Actual ever crack jokes of this kind? And, if so, is her timing as good as Mirren’s?

What does Her Majesty think about this play? It used to be treason — and this was an ancien régime generality, not an English thing — to represent the sovereign on the stage, and the ban has not been lifted for so long that, thirty years or so ago, Prunella Scales’s appearance as the Queen, in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution, did not excite a very perceptible frisson among Her Majesty’s subjects at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. In that play, a last-minute alteration of the Queen’s schedule causes her to bump into Sir Anthony Blunt, the man in charge of her art collection and, infamously, a Soviet spy. Bennett’s brilliant dialogue is an extended double-entendre — possibly. Is the Queen on to Blunt?

We’ll never know.

What the Queen might think of The Audience was, predictably, the first question that came up at dinner, after the show. I didn’t ask it, but I certainly wondered; and then the play itself answered the question, if obliquely. To ask what Elizabeth thinks about a play is to ask what she thinks about generally, and it is probably the case that she does not think much of or about the theatre. It is possible (although difficult to see just where) that some little bit here or there in the play might give offense, or even wound, but one expects that the lady would move on briskly to other matters. She has other things to think about.

She heads an enormous extended family. There is the Royal Family of course, but I’m thinking more about the small army of — let us call them “employees.” They all work for what the royals are said to call “the Firm,” but then so do the royals themselves, in their view — the Queen most of all. The setup may look feudal, with its ladies-in-waiting and its footmen and its equerries. But I daresay that Elizabeth does not imagine that all of these people are working for her. Yes, the staff is responsive to her commands. In another lovely scene, Harold Wilson claims to have a photographic memory, and Elizabeth (who, in the play, prefers him to all her other PMs) is eager to put his boast to the test. A book is needed. There are no books in the drawing room. (Uniquely, this scene takes place at Balmoral.) Elizabeth picks up the phone and just about barks her request that a book be sent in. No, it doesn’t matter which book. It appears, from the Queen’s need to hang on in silence, that staff has no idea where to find a book. This is a nice joke, one that some members of the audience pick up sooner than others. (There is, in fact, a library practically next door to the drawing room, no doubt stuffed with deadly but beautifully-bound folios and whatnot; but never mind.) The Queen is businesslike about her request. Some might think she is bossy. I don’t. I think that this fictional onstage queen is the kind of person who saves being a caring kind of person for moments when it’s needed, and I believe that Elizabeth the Actual takes the same line.

The thing about The Audience is not what Her Majesty In Fact thinks about it. The thing about The Audience is being in the same room with Helen Mirren while she pretends to be the Queen. There is something so magnificently cheeky, so gleeful, really, about her impersonation that, as with A Question of Attribution, your attention is drawn to a subtext: what would it be like if Elizabeth Windsor were on the stage, playing/being herself, and Helen Mirren waltzed on and took a seat, as if she were the prime minister? What if it were the case that, night after night, the first act of The Audience ends with Helen Mirren’s being crowned as Great Actress?

To put it another way, what does Helen Mirren think about The Audience? Well, you don’t have to ask. The other conceit of this play is that it takes a thoroughgoing professional to bring a thoroughgoing professional to life.

Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem, concluded
12 June 2015

Friday, June 12th, 2015

In this final installment of these notes on My Ireland Problem, I want to mention the priest in Blairstown.

This was fifty years ago. There was a small Catholic church in Blairstown, at the east end of the town (a very small town indeed) from Blair Academy, the prep school on the hill toward the west that I was attending. The church was small and plain. Mass was always crowded, with somewhat more than a full house. I had never seen anything like it. Even in Bronxville, where Catholics were the minority, the church was lofty stone Gothic, decorated in far from the worst taste. (For worse taste, you could drive a few miles up the road to Immaculate Conception, in Tuckahoe: far more flamboyant Gothic on the outside, but utterly barococo within.) You could not even say that the worst thing about St Joseph’s was that it was built on the tracks, because it wasn’t really, and the far more elegant Christ Church, housing another somewhat minority congregation (the Episcopalians) really was. I had no idea that a Catholic church could be set up in what was basically a one-room house.

This is not to say that the Blairstown parish was poor. If I ever knew anything about that, I forgot it long ago, just as I can’t recall the name of the church. (Today’s St Jude is not in the town; I shouldn’t have been able to walk to it so conveniently.) The Catholics in Blairstown would have been recent arrivals, the first emissaries of suburban sprawl. They probably weren’t poor themselves; they probably just needed a starter building on the cheap. I’m surmising all of this in retrospect. I shouldn’t have been at all curious about these things in those days. The very idea of a new Catholic church was unattractive. In general, I disliked new things. Later, this dislike would grow into a preference for things that had been handed around for generations, and finally flower into the realization that things that have been around for generations are rich in information, while new things are shrouded in ignorance.

That’s why I was in the Catholic church in Blairstown at all. I had stopped going to Mass with my family before I’d been shipped off to boarding school. My parents and I had been through all the rows about that, and they were not the really serious rows. Now that I found myself at the only school in the country that was owned by a Presbyterian synod, where daily chapel was compulsory, the Church in which I had been raised took on a golden glow. It was, of course, much older than the Presbyterians were. Vatican II had not yet replaced Latin with the vernacular. Being me, I was interested in the similarities and the contrasts. The Presbyterian service at Sunday chapel looked a lot like the Mass, although there was no Eurcharistic folderol. I had no idea of the theological loggerheads that lurked below the appearances, but I shouldn’t have been much interested in them. I was not sufficiently spiritual to grasp the protestant sense of an antagonism between private devotion and public show. But chapel at Blair taught me to look at the Catholic church from the outside, even if I didn’t know that that was what I was doing when I took to walking through Blairstown to the small Catholic church.

Aside from its size, the only thing that I remember about the Catholic church in Blairstown was its pastor. I don’t recall his name, so I shall call him Father Derg, after the lake in which St Patrick’s Purgatory floats. You can read about St Patrick’s Purgatory in Bad Blood, Colm Tóibín’s book about walking the Irish Border — although he doesn’t seem to call it that. He simply calls it “Lough Derg,” as if the lake itself were the purgatory (a Baptist idea?). He positions it on Station Island, which is correct but beside the point. It’s as though he is determined to undergo the three-day penitential rite without giving the ecclesiastical establishment the satisfaction of giving the site its official name.

Suddenly, I saw Lough Derg. The sky was a light blue and the water was light blue as well, so I had been looking at it a while before I realized that it was the lake. A few hills came into view between the trees and after a while through a clearing the forest I could see the green dome of a church and then I could plainly see the island, Station Island. I already knew of the pilgrimage there, from stories people had told me. There is a short story by Sean O’Faolain called Lovers of the Lake. There are poems by Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney about the island as a central repository of the faith of our fathers, Irish Catholicism, where people with simple faith came hoping for a cure or a favour or a strengthening of their belief. They had done this right through the days when Catholic practice was forbidden in the eighteenth century, and despite the specific ban on the pilgrimage in 1704.

Father Derg would have been much happier with a congregation of “people with simple faith,” on their knees at St Patrick’s Purgatory. What I remember is his florid face, his eyes goggled by indignation, and his angry, booming voice. These were the principal attributes of his sermons. What he actually said was much too familiar to remember. I may not have heard such stuff at Mass in St Joseph’s, but I had certainly heard it from the nuns in the parochial school. Absolutely everything in this world, the only thing that mattered, was Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, a misery undergone because I was a thoughtless naughty little boy. The disparity, the disproportion between the world-famous Saviour and squinty little me was gigantic enough to assure that I never took it seriously for a moment. A world in which such a thing could happen would be too preposterous to exist — bring on the asteroids!

Yes, Father Derg was Irish, but that’s all I remember: he was “Irish.” His accent, his manner of speaking, any idioms that he might have brought with him — I don’t remember any of that. He can’t have been unapproachable, because I did approach him. I approached him with the news that I might have a Vocation. A calling to the priesthood. Father Derg dutifully arranged for me to be given a tour of the nearest seminary, which was across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.

The visit to the seminary put an end to my Vocation. The priests took a good look at me, but, more to the point, I took a good look at the seminary. It was never quite true that I had a calling to the priesthood per se. I didn’t know this at the time, but you don’t actually have to be a priest to become a cardinal. Crazy, no? (The last serious contender for civilian cardinal was Jacques Maritain, the mid-century Thomist. The loophole may have been closed since then.) Just like everyone else, I thought you did, and what I wanted was to be a cardinal. Even crazier, yes? I wanted to be a cardinal along the lines of Richelieu, whose riveting portrait by Philippe de Champaigne I had just discovered. I ought to be embarrassed, but it’s too funny. I ought to be ashamed to say that, because I could not envision the seminary in Pennsylvania as an incubator of cardinals, I realized that my campaign such required drastic reconsideration that Vocation had best be put on hold.

My Ireland problem developed a new blister. Where there ought to be Richelieus, I realized, there were Spellmans. Spellmans and Cookes and O’Connors and Egans and Dolans, as it would turn out. By Cardinal Dolan’s time, though, I had gotten over my Ireland problem. Partly, as I said at the beginning, with the help of Colm Tóibín. But mostly because, in late middle age, I stopped worrying that being Irish would somehow prevent me from becoming the man I ought to be. That being an Irish Catholic would stunt my mind — had stunted it, for all I knew. One day, in the middle of my fifties, I understood that any stunting of my mind was probably attributable to other causes, and that in fact I had no cause to worry about being Irish, because I wasn’t. All the Irish had been laundered out of me, by my adoption by Midwesterners of long Iowan provenance (long by Iowan measure), by my rearing in a WASPy bubble, by my decades in polyglot Yorkville. All that was left was long-windedness, and that was something that I should have to work hard to live up to.

Gotham Note:
Brief Pizza Note, followed by cont’d
11 June 2015

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

Before resuming the discussion signaled in the heading, I was going to say a few words about pizza, and not only because I’m on a roll in that department, inspired by Suzanne Lenzer’s Truly Madly Pizza to try a topping that never in a million years would I have ordered in the fanciest pizzeria — fennel sausage with balsamico-glazed radicchio (it’s delicious!). I was also wondering (that’s all there is to the brief pizza note) where I would be going, today, with my Ireland problem. I had a fallback angle, but I was rooting about my memories that would support a particular impression of the people of Ireland that seemed fundamental to my resistance to all things Éire. The only memories that emerged, however, were of movies. This was dispiriting, to say the least. It seemed that I wasn’t on a roll in this department.

So it was a miraculous convenience to find, in my inbox this morning, the following note from a friend. I will quote it entire and untouched.

Reading the blog reminded me of this quote
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” – Yeats
And that’s all you ever need to know about the Irish!
When will we see you? Can we invite ourselves over?

The writer of this note was unable to attend our Spring Fling, since which not a month has passed, and invitations are already being solicited! This is not the particular impression of the people of Ireland that I had in mind, but it is certainly cheeky!

Ah, but of course that’s not what was so convenient. What was convenient was being reminded of that abiding sense of tragedy, and the irony of being sustained by it when things are going well. Perhaps I spent too many formative years in the Midwest, but Yeats’s remark sounds more like a Polish joke to me. It’s really just a vale-of-tears joke, to be heard wherever Catholics are to be found on their knees. And Yeats! Now, he’s a big part of my Ireland problem. Yeats and Joyce. I can’t bear either of them. All right, the Joyce of Dubliners is a gifted writer; but Maeve Brennan gets to the point more quickly and more searingly. And she does not appear to believe in tragedy. She believes in bad habits. Her Dubliners have a lot of bad habits. If they would only learn how to behave with true charity! That they do not, quite fails to rise to the level of tragedy. And the failure to behave charitably is not peculiar to Ireland. It is a universal blight. Brennan gives us the Irish version.

When Yeats says something worth hearing, I wish that he would just write it out as prose. It seems to be a fact of modern life that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is a useful insight, well put. It doesn’t quite scan, and it’s too aphoristic for modern verse. There is no need to drag in the ceremony of innocence, whatever that is, and whatever it means to drown it. The two lines work much better as prose, without the fuss. As for Joyce: his later work, what he had to say about his later work, and what everybody seems to have to say about him are all redolent of a changing room that has been patronized by ardent adolescents. Many readers (men mostly) find this atmosphere evocative, but all I want to do is shut the door and get the laundry going. My reactions to Yeats and Joyce are a cause of my Ireland problem, not an effect of it.


Tragedy. The tragedy of Ireland. Qu’est-ce que c’est? If we asked informed passers-by, my bet is that most of them would point to the English, to the imperial occupation of Ireland that lasted for nearly a thousand years. As tragedy goes, though, I would say that Ireland was an English tragedy. The English were driven to do self-destructive things by the proximity of Ireland to the enemies of England, which might mean simply the enemies of whoever wore the crown. William the Conquerer whipped the English into shape (and how), but his heirs were never able to repeat this harrowing in Ireland. Then, along came the Reformation and its attendant hostilities. Oliver Cromwell’s régime had the terrible idea of expropriating farmland in the north of Ireland and bestowing it upon Scottish Presbyterian settlers. Settlers — a word that ought to give everybody goosebumps. (This was my fallback angle, and I’ll get to it eventually.) The Irish themselves were denied the freedom and scope that tragedy requires. They were merely oppressed. Plus, they were allowed to starve to death in great numbers. Quite a few boarded ships headed west, necessitating the erection of disambiguating cordons about the word “Irish.”

Finally, the Irish Free State arose from the blood of a brief but horrible civil war. How to prevent the recurrence of such excitements, in a largely uneducated peasantry? How do you create civil society overnight? You don’t. You can’t. Your only reasonable strategy is to infantilize the population, just as we do with domesticated animals. As it happened, there was an institution at hand with plenty of experience in the infantilization racket, and it was more than willing to help the new government.

This is why everything about modern Ireland — mid-century modern Ireland — seemed to me to be so colorless, so flavorless, and so prone to self-pity. (Self-pity does not indicate tragedy.) The men were tight-lipped, the women’s mouths were pursed, the whole citizenry a mass of disappointment and disapproval. A preoccupation with the very worst kind of respectability — as those with brains and discipline pulled their way out of the peasantry — precluded charitable instincts, especially toward those who were nearest and ought to have been dearest. Pick up almost any Irish novel, and you’d find a repressive dragon plotting the banishment of some free spirit, or a mean old man with a mattress full of money.

At some point in the 1970s, it occurred to a significant number of Irelanders that they themselves were their own oppressors, and the social tide began to run in the opposite direction, toward, long-story-short, a rejection of ecclesiastical hegemony and the popularly-enacted recognition of same-sex marriage. But I had at just about this time decided to stop paying attention to Ireland. I was simply too ignorant, when I visited in 1977,  to notice the shifting breeze. The old Ireland was still what showed. The new Ireland was taking shape in places like Barcelona — where a very similar tidal shift was taking place. It took me a long time to wake up — to wake up and find that my Ireland problem had evaporated.


Breathtaking advances in technology, both mechanical and informational, have brought us a world in which the rule of a territory by forces perceived to be alien by its inhabitants is almost certain to produce acts of terrorism. Turn this around, and we have a hard time finding other causes of terrorism. Terrorism, the sudden eruption of lethal violence, is the only weapon that enemies of aliens command, and technology has made the materials of terrorism (bombs, intelligence) far more available than they ever were before.

Who is right and who is wrong? In case after case, the aliens “started it,” by occupying territory that, for one reason or another, threatened the stability of their sovereignty at home. The tragedy of occupation is that the reasons that appear to warrant it also seem to justify it. It is not for me to say that they don’t. But occupation does expose the occupier to the hostility and, ultimately, the terrorism of the occupied. In the modern world, this has the force of the laws of gravity. If, then. Terrorism may not always, may even not often, be effective, but it will always be horrible. And it will always make intelligent people wonder what in hell is going on.

No: the real tragedy of occupation is that it induces a contempt for the occupied. Is anything quite so blinding as contempt? Not the contempt that you might have for a politician who has disgraced himself, but the contempt that you inherit from your elders, contempt that you have never thought about for a moment. I will not speak of the occupation of foreign territories by forces other than the United States, because I don’t know them well enough, but this contempt surfaces repeatedly in the accounts of American servicemen recalling their attitudes to Iraqis and others. This is the contempt that so many American whites seem to have for blacks (who return the favor). It is based on nothing but the most superficial differences. What a nasty surprise it must be to discover that the object of one’s contempt is bright, resourceful, courageous, and, just possibly, right. What contortions of repression and suppression are required to keep this recognition down!

Occupation diminishes everyone concerned. What honest human being requires further convincing? Can’t we think up something better?

Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem, cont’d
10 June 2015

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

We lived in the house on Hathaway Road for five years, from 1955 to 1960. But I was seven when we moved in and twelve when we left — the equivalent, I feel, of at least two decades’ worth of time as I now experience it. My deepest impression of these years is not that so much happened, but that so much happened ages ago. New friends became old friends very quickly. A treefort built one summer became a medieval relic by the next. Life was boring because everything mattered.

When, during this time, did the Kayes move into the house at the north end of the road? I have absolutely no idea. I do remember that they moved in after we did. I might very well be wrong, but that is what I recall. And I recall that the Kayes were an odd family of three. There was a mother, but no father. Was the father dead? Or was he simply not talked about? Then there were two sons. John, the one that I knew, was the younger.

Not that I knew John well. When I think of him now, I see a man, not a boy. The man is perhaps twenty-five years old. John was a year or two older than I was, but no more, and yet I see a man, with very pale skin and thin, reddish-blond hair. Physically, he is a less robust version of me in every way, but he possesses an intensity of will that is far beyond my grasp or even understanding. He seems always to be nearly dressed for Mass, wanting only a tie and a jacket. There is nothing casual or comfortable about his appearance.

I see us standing in front of his house. With our bicycles, probably. I seem to be asking John to do something that his mother will not allow him to do, such as, maybe, riding bikes down the hill of Hewitt Avenue, or perhaps all the way to Chester Heights.

Mrs Kaye was certainly not like the other mothers, all of whom were homogenized by the comparison. Was she an invalid? Did I ever lay eyes on her? These questions are my memories.

The Kayes were Irish. Not Irish-American — not quite yet. John may have been born in America, but he spoke with something of the lilt of a brogue. Was it the case that he didn’t say much, or that what he said didn’t interest me? I don’t remember him as explicitly pious, but he was always serious, even when he laughed. Life was a grave business for John Kaye. He had tasted misfortune and disappointment in this vale of tears. When I think of him looking at me, I see his eyes telling me that my allergy to the idea that this world is a vale of tears was naive and foolish. I’d find out soon enough, they seems to say.

The Kaye house sits, in memory, in a miasma of joylessness that brings “The Fall of the House of Usher” to mind. Was I ever in the house? I have a memory of dark rooms, wood floors and paneling polished to a gleam, and an odd smell. Not a bad smell, but a smell that I didn’t care for. Pressed, I would say that it was the smell of airlessness, a stale, overinsulated smell. It was the smell of the house, and therefore probably one that the Kayes never noticed. It is possible that I have made all of this up — that I was never in the rather forbidding house.

As I said, the house looked something like a rectory, but what rectory? What rectory had I been in? It occurs to me now that I might have been reminded of the Foundling Hospital, which, in those days, was a cluster of Victorian buildings in the East Sixties. My sister and I were taken there at least once. I remember a room with lots of toys but no other children, and, somehow, playing with the toys was not encouraged. Perhaps I was young enough to suppose that any toy on view and unclaimed by another child was being presented to me — not the case here. I was wearing a jacket and a tie, and my sister was in a party dress. Much was made of our being “all grown up,” but we can’t have been older than six and four. Again, memory is fragmentary. I remember a visit to a place full of black-habited nuns that was also said to be a place where babies came from. I don’t, however, think that I yet knew that I had been one of those babies, and my sister as well. (That wouldn’t happen until we were seven and five.) But I knew something. I knew something that I couldn’t remember: my sister had appeared out of nowhere, as a toddler, not an infant. She laughed and got everyone’s attention; I sulked. I was not yet three. Two maiden aunts, who took me off to a cabin in the country for a few weeks, later told me that my sister’s sudden arrival put my nose “out of joint.” That was another thing that I knew but could not remember the why of: I loved those aunts. I was, quite literally, crazy about them.

Whatever the root of the association, the Kayes’ house (whether I ever stepped inside or not) and John’s gravity forged a link in my mind between Ireland and an austere Catholicism — a Catholicism that was a rebuke to our assimilationist pseudo-protestantism, which was also pretty austere. The difference was that where we turned the flame of Catholicism down to the lowest possible setting, so as not to attract attention in a town where Catholics of Northern European extraction were the only minority (and in which Catholics of Mediterranean backgrounds did not figure at all). The Kayes’ Catholicism turned the flame all the way up, with Mass every day and memberships confined to organizations sponsored by the Church. Life was conducted as it were almost entirely liturgical. Later, I would read that the Ireland of those days was regarded as “a vassal state of the Vatican.” My problem with this formulation is that Irish Catholicism never shared in the papal exuberance of the Roman baroque. The rosary beads were all potatoes.

How much of this am I reading back into a threadbare swatch of memory? It’s not important. I don’t know why I came to back away from the idea of Ireland just as I backed away from John Kaye — for we did not become friends. I don’t know how I developed an idea of Ireland that was absolutely devoid of leprechauns and lucky charms. I don’t know how much the Kayes contributed to that gloomy prospect. But they did, because I was never to think of Ireland without thinking of them.

Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem, cont’d
9 June 2015

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Gardner Botsford’s memoir, A Life of Privilege, Mostly, begins, cunningly, with his hands-down best story. Not only did Botsford participate in the invasion of Normandy in 1944, but he may have been one of the very first Americans to reach Paris during the liberation of that capital. Talk about exciting! He writes briskly of all this, beginning with his dismay at being assigned to the Infantry, instead of something a little less exposed to gunfire, and rattling off a few highly entertaining anecdotes that, while they have nothing to do with training or fighting, illuminate the dislocations of the war effort. The next thing you know, he is crossing the English Channel (easy) and Omaha Beach (not easy). He has an engaging encounter with a French peasant, only to discover that it might have been, and probably ought to have been, a lethal encounter. Then, on to Paris — AWOL! You can’t put it down. Only when it’s all over does Gardner Botsford settle down to the conventional elements of an autobiography or memoir: the beginnings, the education, and the career. I call this cunning because not everyone will find the career of an editor at The New Yorker to be exciting stuff. I do, but — there you have it. Botsford’s very good war is such a good lead that the rest of the book is irresistible.

Looking back on my life, I see a complete absence of D-Day-caliber stories. I don’t have any thrilling experiences to recount. My past is not what is interesting about me. Nor, I think, do the aspects of it that I recall explain how I became the person I am today. They seem rather to do the opposite, to suggest the development of a different person. The stories that I remember all end up with roads not taken. Or roads that take most of the people who travel them to very different destinations. (I’m thinking of law school here.) What I see in retrospect is a clutch of fragments, bits and pieces of someone who never quite existed. Put that way, it sounds like a portrait of disappointment, but I have never felt disappointed by my life. I have always found a way to follow my star, and now that, whether from narcissism or stubbornness or both, I feel that I have got just about as close to that star as I can, I feel an immense satisfaction.

So the relation of the past to this contented state (let’s not overdo that: I’m an elderly man with aches and pains galore, still high-strung and occasionally fretful, and not at all serene) is a peculiar one. I cannot deny that I have been shaped by experience, but the evidence suggests that I shaped my experiences; what I got out of things may not have been what one is supposed to get out of them, but it was what I wanted, or thought I wanted. (Mistakes were made.) The relation of luck and responsibility is odd, too. I’ve had so many blessings that it is difficult to explain why I am not running a hedge fund or wearing the robes of a federal judge. Not to mention the football player that I never became. But these outcomes were never in the offing, because I didn’t want them at all. I didn‘t want them so badly that I could only have failed at them. I had to find other things to do with my good luck. Many might doubt that I’ve made good choices. I don’t. Even though I lead a very quiet life, I feel completely absorbed in the world: the world as it is, the world as it has been, and the world as it might become. Every day brings a clearer picture.

My Ireland problem, however, seems a little different from everything else that’s on my mind, which is part of why I call it a problem. I suppose that what I am trying to understand is one of my mistakes. Was it a mistake? It feels like one now. When I read a story by Frank O’Connor, I wonder, reflexively, what took so long. You’ll note that I call it my Ireland problem. It’s not an Irish problem. “Irish” would be too broad. Especially in America, you could have an Irish problem without ever considering the actual emerald isle. What happened was, twenty or thirty years ago — there may be evidence out there, in letters to friends, possibly even in a journal entry (although I doubt it), but I’m not inclined to hunt it down — I decided to avoid reading the literature of Ireland. As I remember, I made a similar decision about the literature of Israel, and I would say that both of these countries were too mired in identity problems to produce good writing. What I meant was that identity problems bore me to death, as indeed they do.

I happen to be a picky reader. Aside from a conscientious burst in college and throughout my twenties, when I set out to expose myself to the acknowledged monuments of literature, I’ve read what intrigued me. It is very easy, under such a dispensation, to write off whole swathes of literature. I’ve read just enough military history, for example, for me to dismiss it as a precursor of the video game, and not really literature at all. Ditto all the alternative “genres” — fantasy and science fiction. I’m very impatient about these, actually, just as I am about watching television; it’s so hard for me to imagine that either science fiction or watching television can lead to a better understanding of the world that I abandon the attempt. People say that they do, or at least that they can, and who am I to prove them wrong? The only solution is to ignore.d

(Murder mysteries, however, when well-written, are an essential branch of humane letters.)

So I ignored the literature of Ireland. I read no histories of Ireland. I read no novels written by writers who had grown up there. I decided that Ireland wasn’t worth knowing. Why?


The house on Hathaway Road is still there. It’s at the north end, near the intersection with Northway. Our house was on the other side of Hewitt Avenue. I paid a visit yesterday, via Google maps. Our house still strikes me as hideous. The positively defacing feature is a long but narrow picture window, flanked by two sash windows, that violates every principle of fenestration that I hold dear. Then there is the prominence of the garage doors, always regrettable in a façade. Finally, there is the oversized dormer, directly over the ugly picture window. The dormer was bloated enough to hold two twin beds, separated by a nightstand. The house is supposed to look like a charming if unassuming cottage, but it gets everything wrong.

This is not about our house, though. This is about the house at the north end of the road. It is still there, but it has been transformed. The brickwork seems much lighter, as if each brick had been stained a more cheerful red. A classical pediment has been planted over the doorway — I am pretty sure that that wasn’t there. (Wasn’t there, that is, in the late 195os, when I lived on Hathaway Road.) The most effective alteration, utterly erasing the look of a gloomy institution that was so oppressive when I was a boy, is the insertion of much-mullioned French windows. These make the house look almost gay. What I recall is sheets of plate glass, obsidian and unreflective.

The house was different from all the others in the neighborhood. It was older, I’m pretty sure. It was an urban structure, as many early suburban homes were. It was tall and boxy, not low-slung and relaxed. It did not suggest the English countryside, and it was at complete odds with the newest houses, built in the Southwest “ranch” style. No part of the house suggested outdoor living. I remember its foundations being buried behind plantings, but along the driveway there were basement windows of full size, suggesting not the “finished basement,” centered around a large recreation room, that could be found in several homes (although not in ours), but, on the contrary, servants’ quarters, boiler rooms, and even clankety kitchens. It did not look like a house at all. It looked, insofar as it looked like anything, like a rectory.

My Ireland problem may have begun there.

More to come.

Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem
8 June 2015

Monday, June 8th, 2015

In the summer of 1977, I landed in Dublin, with my father, on a flight from Vienna. We had been to London and Paris before Vienna, and a hotel near Shannon Airport would be our last stop. But first, a night in Dublin.

We took a taxi to the Gresham Hotel. We had dinner. I went to bed, but could not get to sleep, what with the noise in the street and the itch to join the people making it. I was twenty-nine years old, and still a willing carouser. But I stayed in bed, because in the morning I was going to have to get up and drive across Ireland.

I can’t imagine such a thing now. I can’t imagine that they rent cars to people with American driver’s licenses, just like that. I had never driven on the wrong side of the road before. We went back to the airport and they gave me the keys. By the time I had managed to drive out of the airport, I was confident behind the wheel. Things were going to be fine. And they were. Two or three times, my body was almost arrested by the toxic shock of knowing that I’d put the car where it oughtn’t to be, but at these times we were alone on the road.

We didn’t drive straight across, either. Because of Zardoz, I wanted to see the Wicklow Hills, so we left Dublin for the south, not the west. I don’t remember a thing about the Wicklow Hills, except that I never saw any countryside that reminded me of Zardoz. I don’t remember much else about the drive, either. The road was a main road, but just a road, nothing like a limited-access highway in American terms. We drove through a few towns — not many — and then we came to Limerick. I remember a spire in Limerick, but not very confidently. I might have seen it on a postcard. But we did pass through Limerick. We turned north, toward Shannon and the fancy place where we’d be staying. My mother was meant to have accompanied my father on this trip. But she had died, after a long bout with chemotherapy.

What I do remember is not seeing very many people on the drive across Ireland, and not being very impressed by the ones I saw. I remember quipping to my father, and thinking myself very clever for saying so, that “all the smart ones left.”

And what I meant by that was that the smart ones really left. They didn’t just leave Ireland. When they got to America, they kept going. They didn’t stop in the cities on the East Coast. They headed on, like my father’s grandfather, until they reached the Midwest, where being Irish didn’t mean very much, either in the way of identity or discrimination. Everyone in the Midwest came from foreign parts, and the Irish had the advantage of already speaking English. My grandfather went to law school and became something of a fixer for the Democratic Party. When he emigrated to New York, he was a Roosevelt appointee, not a guy off a boat. And he came from Iowa, not Ireland.

The food in Ireland was not very good. I shall never forget a plate of tapioca pudding that was put in front of me at a hotel in Galway. It was a hurl of white custard, with a dab of red jam in the center but not a hint of vanilla flavoring. Until that tapioca, I had always thought of vanilla as the flavor of no flavor. Now I learned that “plain vanilla” was very different from “plain.”

Ireland itself, however, was beautiful beyond belief. Every blade of grass of it.


The simplest way to describe my Ireland problem — I’ve been trying to work this out all weekend — is that all the interesting people are Protestant. Were Protestant. They’ve all gone, indirectly persecuted by the civic atmosphere of a working-class parochial school. The civic atmosphere has changed, it’s true. The referendum on same-sex marriage, all high-mindedness aside, was a glorious opportunity for Ireland to stick out its tongue at the Church; lots of people who don’t believe in same-sex marriage didn’t bother to show up to vote against it. That would have been a vote for the Church. But this new atmosphere is not going to bring back Erskine Childers or Samuel Beckett; nor is it going to reanimate any of the great houses.

Nor was it only the Protestants who had to leave. Maeve Brennan and Frank O’Connor had to leave. O’Connor had censorship issues in Ireland — imagine! Imagine it now, I mean. It was easy to imagine when I drove across Ireland, even though I had never heard of Frank O’Conner, or, if I had, I’d ignored him. A New Yorker story about Irish people was bound to be grim and twisted. The Irish (in literature) had a knack for being both crazy and common, and I can’t say which quality I find less appealing.

It’s all different now, of course. Colm Tóibín alone is doing several generations’ worth of composting, transforming the dross of everyday drear into literature of the highest kind. Tóibín was in fact the end of my Ireland problem. The people he writes about are neither crazy nor common. They’re like my father’s people, but they pulled off the advance right in Ireland itself. Maeve Brennan’s father was the first diplomatic delegate to Washington and the second Irish Ambassador. Even so, Brennan stayed in America when her family returned to Ireland, and Tóibín, whose family was also eminent in Fianna Fáil politics, escaped to Barcelona the minute the Generalissimo was dead — a few minutes before, actually.

My Ireland problem was that I should not have been at all surprised to know the story told in Philomena had I known it. In second grade, at St Joseph’s School in Bronxville, I was Sister Patrick Clair’s favorite target. Target for throwing erasers, that is. She rarely missed. After spending five minutes with my grandson, I can see her point, but my grandson, happily, lives in a better world, and is unlikely to be much punished for being interesting. In first grade, I don’t remember who the nun was, but I do remember being sent home with my shoebox of belongings on at least two Fridays — an informal expulsion that was meant to shame me. In vain, I’m afraid. In the confessional, Monsignor Scott asked me my name after I’d confessed to something that he considered very dark — worse than stealing; what can it have been? — and warned me that he was going to tell my parents what I’d done. Whether he did so or not, I still wonder just how much less bad threatening to violate the confidentiality of confession is than actually violating it.

Without meaning to, the good monsignor and his nuns taught me how Stalinism worked in Russia. Communism had nothing to do with anything. How dim Americans were, to think that Communism was the problem!

(How else to explain my conviction, bone deep if almost totally uninformed, that Russia was Russia, and only incidentally Communist? I’m ashamed to say that I’m not above enjoying the satisfaction that Vladimir Putin has given me by proving my point.)

I was already thinking about my Ireland problem before I discovered Frank O’Connor, but O’Connor’s stories — the ones that I’ve read over the past couple of days — have made my concern with the problem acute. This morning, after finishing with the Times, I turned to a story that I had found difficult to follow late last night (when I ought to have been in bed). It’s called “The Luceys,” and it is about a “bitterness” that separates two brothers in a small town. By morning’s light, it was gruesomely clear but also quite funny. The same could be said of the next story in the book (The Best  of Frank O’Connor; Everyman’s, edited by Julian Barnes), “Peasants.” Now, I know that I could never have got through either of these stories before I got over my Ireland problem. Colm Tóibín was from the start an unexpected voice, but Frank O’Connor was exactly what I sought to avoid. (Crazy and common.) Now I’m charmed to death! (I had Kathleen in stitches, reading aloud “My Oedipus Complex” and “First Confession.”) “Peasants,” indeed! In this story, a group of leading men (farmers at best) tries to dissuade the high-minded parish priest from pressing charges against a rotten apple who has absconded with funds. The men want the priest to give the man a character reference that will enable him to emigrate to America. The priest adamantly refuses. The man goes to jail for three months, and, when he gets out, he prospers, presumably by less dishonest means. But he is still a bad apple. In the final paragraph, we’re told that Father Crowley

has left unpleasant memories behind him. Only for him, people say, Michael John would be in America now. Only for him, he would never have married a girl with money, or had it to lend to poor people in the hard times, or ever sucked the blood of Christians. For, as an old man said to me of him: “A robber he is and was, and a grabber like his grandfather before him, and an enemy of the people like his uncle, the policeman; and though some say he’ll dip his hand where he dipped it before, for myself I have no hope unless the mercy of God would send us another Moses or Brian Boru to cast him down and hammer him in the dust.

Like Ireland, I have changed. I now find this sort of thing more than interesting. It’s the very stuff of life.

Chamber Piece:
Another Country
5 June 2015

Friday, June 5th, 2015

Not having seen his byline in The New York Review of Books for a while, I had begun to wonder if James Fenton was still with us; but here he is, in the current “art and money” issue. An essay entitled “The Rothschild Taste” certainly falls within this rubric, and Fenton’s brisk history and description of Waddesdon Manor, the Buckinghamshire pile that was donated to the National Trust in 1957, is quite entertaining. We’re reminded that the bogus château was widely thought to be too “hideous” to conserve; it has in spite of that become “one of the National Trust’s most visited sites.” It is stuffed with paintings, tapestry, objets de vertu, and “period rooms.” The period rooms provoke an interesting tangent.

Having nothing to do with the fortunes of Waddesdon, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco has published an “excellent recent” book about the salon doré that was taken from the Hôtel de la Trémoille and installed in the Museum of the Legion of Honor. What interests Fenton isn’t so much the fabric of the room as its original design and use. By “design,” I mean not the boiseries but the complementary mirrors and wall-bound sofas that were its only permanent furnishings.

If the salon in San Francisco looks to our eyes splendid but slightly underfurnished, with its mirrors, chairs, and consoles, that is because we have become used to museum displays in the form of period rooms stuffed with the museum’s star possessions. Or, in grand houses like Waddesdon, trophy antique furniture displayed to best effect beside comfortable contemporary sofas and chairs, and surfaces crammed with family mementos and plants and flowers and so forth.

What one loses is any sense of the provisional nature of the eighteenth-century interior: the valets waiting alertly to shift the chairs and bring out the gaming tables from behind screens, or counting the heads of the likely dinner guests before putting up the dinner trestles, or waiting for the last guests to leave before bringing out their bedrolls from the chests in the entrance hall.

I remember the mild shock of learning about this, many years ago, from a novel that I still haven’t finished reading, Le paysan parvenu, by Marivaux. The title character rises up in a bourgeois household, eventually marrying one of the sisters to whom it belongs. There is a little party scene in which the arrival of dinnertime occasions not the move to a dining room but the setting up of dining facilities in the room already occupied by the party. I had known that this was the medieval way of doing things, but I thought that it had been supplanted, in the Eighteenth Century, by arrangements more familiar to us. Not so. There’s an argument to be made, that the most important thing about any grand eighteenth-century salon was not its decoration but the human beings gathered within it. We should find authentically dressed period rooms, with all the permanent furniture lined up along the walls, pretty  boring.

Fenton notes that the really valuable furniture, “the desks and commodes and so forth,” were arrayed in private rooms that “only the intimates of the household would ever get to see.” That’s a very interesting disconnect. A grand house would have reception rooms with opulent wall and fireplace treatments, but little in the way of furniture beyond occasional tables and chairs, while the gorgeous furniture would be relegated to private rooms to which regular visitors would never be admitted. We, in contrast, put our best things where people can see and appreciate them. And we like to show off all our rooms, too. On our grandest occasions, every bedroom and every bathroom — everything but the closets, really — is open for inspection.

As Fenton also notes, the Nineteenth Century saw the introduction of heavier furniture along with the beginnings of “the servant problem,” as the number of household retainers began to drop. It was not convenient to move sofas about. Gradually, permanent furniture crept away from the walls, and the occasional pieces — the chairs and small tables that valets whisked in and out of the room — settled down alongside it. The reception room was no longer an empty ground to be filled in by the whims of the moment. It now had a personality of its own, a look that persisted day after day.

Like the history of costume, which is full of examples of the transformation of hunting outfits into evening clothes, the history of interior design is marked by a zig-zag from simplification to complication. Consider the drawing room. Now the most formal reception room in any house that boasts one, the drawing room was originally the withdrawing room. In those days, the main reception room was the great hall, a big room in which almost every domestic affair could be conducted, from sleeping to cooking. The withdrawing room was a chamber into which the owner and his wife could retire from the crowd of servants and retainers in the hall. Inevitably, withdrawing rooms got larger and more comfortable; they also became more presentable, which is to say, more formal. In search of relaxation — the simplifying zig — it was felt necessary to withdraw from the (with)drawing room. In America, this new withdrawing room was, in the middle of the last century, called “the den.” Somewhat later came the “family room,” which might well be larger than the “living room” — a room conspicuous for the lack of living done in it. As the old formal rooms disappear from new construction, the rooms that were originally escapes become more formal. The tug of war between inviolate privacy and welcoming display is unrelenting.

It is in the nature of homes that most of us never give a thought to how we inhabit them. Some people like to “entertain” — I put the word in quotes to remind readers that the semi-intransitive usage is going to seem quaint and perplexing one of these days. More commonly, though, homes are retreats from the world, safe places in which to raise children or just to rest up. Privacy certainly has the upper hand today. It is not the privacy of closed doors, however, but the privacy of attention withheld. It is the privacy of apps and earbuds. Everyone below the age of fifty appears to be living the dream life of an adolescent male. How much longer this will remain satisfactory, especially to women, is hard to say.

Brokenland Note:
In the Club
4 June 2015

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

An Op-Ed piece about advertising in today’s Times caught my eye — you bet it did. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, addresses her essay to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and implores him to let her pay for her access to the social network. She argues that even if a quarter of Facebook’s users paid one dollar a month to subscribe, the company would be far more profitable than, making about twenty cents per user per month, it is now. Why should we pay? To gain access untainted by the refractions of advertising, of course. We should no longer be steered this way and that by Facebook algorithms designed to soften us up to respond to advertising. We should merely connect with one another, which is what a lot of people mistakenly think is actually happening.

And, if Tufekci’s argument is correct, Facebook’s shareholders would be richer. But, Tufekci notes, there is a strong structural bias against making such a change. Her explanation is interesting.

Micropayment systems that would allow users to spend a few cents here and there, not be so easily tracked by all the Big Brothers, and even allow personalization were developed in the early days of the Internet. Big banks and large Internet platforms didn’t show much interest in this micropayment path, which would limit their surveillance abilities.

Why would “big banks and large Internet platforms” worry about their surveillance abilities? We can be sure that they do, because of their cringing response to Bitcoin. But why? And, assuming that platforms such as Facebook would make more money from the micropayment model than from the advertising model, why is there so little interest in giving it a try?

Thinking about this led me pretty quickly to the Dark Ages. Yes, it’s time once again to stroll out to left field.


The received opinion about the Dark Ages — the long stretch between “the Roman Empire” (forums) and “the High Middle Ages” (cathedrals) — is that the “collapse of the Roman Empire” left the people of Europe unprotected against “invading barbarian hordes,” who raped and pillaged &c. Eventually, these barbarians settled down and got respectable. Charlemagne! Then there was a second wave of invading barbarian hordes. The newly respectable kings fought this second wave and eventually defeated it. This time, things settled down enough for everybody to take off for the Holy Land and the Crusades. (More fighting, please note.) Meanwhile, Christian bishops and priests did what they could to keep culture alive, if not exactly robust. The Dark Ages were dystopian and apolcalyptic — nobody was ever really safe — but they get their name from the fact that records, when they were kept at all, were often lost, and we don’t actually know what happened when. Or we know just a few things.

The foregoing account is not wrong, but it is incomplete: it leaves out the formation of the European aristocracy. The things that we associate with aristocracy, such as hereditary titles, estates, precedents, and positions at court, did not develop until the very end of the Dark Ages. During the preceding six or seven centuries, it was, more simply, a class of warriors that arrogated violence unto itself by what we should call the continual upgrade of weapons. When the horse became essential to the fighting man’s armory, membership in the warrior class was confined to those who could raise the money to pay for the animals — to buy, feed, and train them. And there was only one way to raise that kind of money. At a time when nobody got rich in business, money came almost exclusively from agricultural rents. (Wealth, I ought to say. There was very little money.) Long before the hereditary nature of aristocracy was sorted out, membership in the club of warriors was limited to armed men on horses. It would take the leveling effect of gunpowder to put an end to this racket.

The more I read about the Dark Ages, and the more I think about the period, the more gratuitous all that fighting becomes. Warding off barbarian hordes? The size of the hordes was grossly exaggerated. And for a long time they were bought, not fought, off. Distant rulers would direct that a portion of local taxes be distributed to the newcomers — a convenient arrangement that further splintered the late Empire. No, the fighting was not defensive. It was expansionary. Take another look at Charlemagne. Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, turned back the Moorish invasion of France at Tours, in 732. Charlemagne himself would become the invader: of Bavaria and other German territories, of Northern Italy, and, famously, of Spain. Why? Why not.

There was nothing else to do. The Dark Ages were characterized by an ecclesiastical monoculture: the Catholic Church exercised a monopoly on cultural activities such as architecture and literacy as well as on the social regulation of marriage and morals. Everything that the Church did was a kind of prayer. By the Tenth Century, you either worked, prayed, or fought. The fighters were sanctioned by the theory that they were defending the priests and the serfs. More recently, this kind of defending is called “protection.”

Now, as we say goodbye to the Dark Ages, I want you to imagine modern warriors. Imagine that you are alone with two baseball players. One is a Yankee, the other a member of the Red Sox. On the field, each these men will do everything he can (within the rules) to best the other. But do you suppose for an instant that either of them is going to prefer you to the other player as a best bud? So it was with the warriors of the Dark Ages. So it was with the aristocrats whose swan song was the July Crisis in 1914. World War I was no more necessary than a baseball game.

And so it is, I venture to suggest, with the men and woman who are bagging seven- and eight-figure salaries today. Where does all that money come from? Increasingly, it comes from twenty cents per user per month, from serfs like you and me who produce pathetically small gains that, properly aggregated, make a small club of superpeople rich. If we were allowed to sell those gains ourselves, in the form of micropayment subscriptions — if the advertising model were as passé as feudal violence — there would be much more commercial opportunity for everyone and much less accumulation for anyone.

Can you see why those banks and platforms aren’t interested in micropayments. They’re not interested in us, not at all. They’re great friends — and rivals — just as things are.

Zeynep Tufekci tells us that Mark Zuckerberg has spent thirty million dollars to acquire the homes adjacent to his own. That’s one way to achieve privacy — a pretty offensive one, don’t you think?

Pizza Maison
3 June 2015

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Regular readers will understand that I am about to discuss making pizza, for why else would I bring it up? They might well wonder, though, why I am making pizza at all, in a city famous for “Original Ray’s” and for prompt deliveries. After all, pizza is a convenience food, something to fall back when you’re too tired or distracted to have much of an appetite for real food. And really good pizza is said to require either a commercial pizza oven or a rather fussy cluster of substitutes (stones that take forever to heat; sprays of water at the last minute). Plus, pizza crust is a “leavened flatbread,” as The Joy of Cooking puts it. You go to the trouble to make a yeast dough, and wait for it to rise once. That takes over an hour. Where is the convenience here?

I am not going to talk about making pizza dough in advance and freezing it. I haven’t got that far yet. Let’s just say that, even without the advance work, it’s no big deal. Making a yeast dough requires little more than forethought. And you can store what you don’t use in the refrigerator — although you must wrap it very tightly, or it will do what some leftover dough did over the weekend, and puncture the plastic wrap at a weak point, expanding into the open air, drying out, and becoming useless. Not altogether useless: I lost only about a third of the leftover dough. This turned out to be a good thing, because it forced me to roll out a thinner crust, which was no trouble at all.

Back to “why.”

For decades, I kid you not, we ordered our pizzas from Ottomanelli’s, a butcher shop with at least one pizza outpost in Yorkville. It took thirty years — thirty years! — for us to reach the point beyond which we could not think of ordering another. It happened overnight. What had been a perfectly satisfactory pizza suddenly became impossibly heavy and dull. So we tried another place, Two Boots, an assertively non-traditional outfit. Their sauce was just not for us. Even in its mild version, it was too spicy. I don’t mind a pizza that’s herby, but I don’t associate Italian food of any kind with “hot.” Quite the contrary.

We thought of asking around. We tried a few normal places. But normal pizza sauce has become terribly sugary. It is both dinner and dessert in one dish. Comfort food is one thing. Baby food is something else again.

There’s a place down in the East Village that makes terrific pizza — Li’l Frankie’s. I know, because Megan, my daughter, used to order it all the time when she lived on Avenue C. Then Megan moved to San Francisco. Her response to the fact that Li’l Frankie’s does not make deliveries to Outer Sunset was to take up making her own. I have watched her do this, without stress and with great results, every time that we’ve visited. Since Li’l Frankie’s doesn’t deliver to Yorkville, either, I thought I’d follow Megan’s lead.

Also, I have needed to enlarge the repertoire of short-order dishes that can be put together (with or without the kind of advance preparation that can be done hours ahead of time) at the last minute, when Kathleen finally does call from a taxi to say that she is on her way home, without my feeling that I’ve been on call for three hours. Even the simplest meal of meat-and-two-veg demands concentration and coordination if it’s to come out fresh. At a certain point in the evening (generally by eight-thirty), I want to have put the day’s concentration behind me. One-dish menus are the easiest solution.

So, that is why I’ve started making pizza.

It turns out that pizza is no less convenient to make than it is to eat.

This is not to say that it’s like making a sandwich. You can’t create a pizza in five minutes without any preparation at all. But if you’ve got dough that’s ready to use, and a reasonably-stocked larder, five minutes is indeed just about what it takes to put a pizza together.

You use a bit of forethought to determine when you’re going to want the pizza. This is usually dinnertime. so you work back from that. I said that I wasn’t going to talk about frozen dough (that you’ve made yourself), but I understand that it’s just a matter of pulling a ball of it out of the freezer in the morning and letting it defrost. Otherwise, you make it from scratch, starting an hour or so ahead of time.

Everything else is already on hand. So far, my pizzas have been just as simple as the ones we used to order: pepperoni and mushroom. You slice the pepperoni (about twenty slices) and you slice (two) mushrooms. You spread a half cup of tomato sauce, or maybe a little more, atop the rolled-out dough. (The sauce can be home-made, or it can come out of a tub from Fairway. Last night, I tried Fairway’s vodka sauce, and we liked it a lot.) Then you sprinkle grated mozzarella on the sauce. Then you arrange the pepperoni and the mushrooms. Then you bake the pizza in a 475º oven for twelve minutes. It comes out piping hot, of course, but it cools more quickly than you’d think. Pretty soon, the pizza is all gone.

I am dying to try bolognese sauce. I’m dying to try a lot of things. I’ve ordered Suzanne Lenzer’s Truly Madly Pizza. There’s a pastry board at Chefs Catalog that I’ve got my eye on.

Where did I get the idea that making pizza at home was a big deal?