Archive for July, 2015

Gotham Diary:
The Limits of Relief
31 July 2015

Friday, July 31st, 2015

The end of July has become the end of the year for us. Next week, we’ll go out to Ocean Beach, on Fire Island, where I’ll settle for the rest of August. Just before Labor Day, we’ll come home and start the new year.

If we had known what lay ahead for the new year last year — well, if we’d known it all, we’d have taken it in stride. We’d know that the cellulitis in my left calf, caused by a deep cut, would be arrested before the onset of sepsis. We’d know that the apartment situation would work out nicely. We’d know that Kathleen would end the new year at a new firm, a move that in my view was almost disastrously overdue (and in this I was confirmed by events — that almost was a matter of weeks at most). But we didn’t know what lay ahead, so, as it all unfolded, sometimes at a glacial pace, we spent much of the new year in an atmosphere of alternating dread and crisis, crisis and dread.

We got through it. But my circulation took a beating, so I hope that we’re done with upheaval for a while.


The thing is, relief isn’t what it used to be.

First of all, we don’t really trust it, not the way we did when we were young. When we were young, we’d jump up and down and yell, Hooray! Nothing terrible is ever going to happen again! Now, we’re not at all sure that it’s really over. (And we know that terrible things are going to happen again.)

As if to illustrate the point, the doorbell just rang. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard it, over the rush of water coming from the adjacent bathroom, where the woman who does our serious housecleaning is freshening the tub. Because I’ve learned, finally, that the best way to deal with a bad situation is to stand up and grip it as quickly and calmly as possible, I got out of my chair and went to the front door, half anticipating the pleasure of having been mistaken about the bell. But when I opened the door, someone was there, someone holding something — of course, the orchid from the florist, usually delivered on the first of the month. I’d thought about canceling it, since I won’t be here for most of the time, but Kathleen will spend some of the weeknights in the apartment, and it seemed easier not to fuss. So I didn’t. And of course I’d forgotten about it. They say that you can’t feel hypertension, but I can. It will take a while to abate.

Second, relief puts an end, whether you want it to or not, to the charade of normality that you have been keeping up for the near and dear. Our friends knew about our situation, but they did not, I hope, see very much in the way of fretting. Why should we saddle them with that? (Kathleen and I spent a great deal of the year by ourselves for this reason.)

Third, relief is for everybody else. Our friends are happy that things have worked out; they don’t have to worry about us now. But our habit of keeping to ourselves has had consequences; our friends, not hearing from us as much as usual, reasonably assume that we’re busy doing other things. And it’s not that we need company, exactly. But it has been a long time since I last looked at my inbox so needily. It is almost always empty.

Finally, relief exposes the utter depletion of reserves, which takes us back to the first thing about relief: we don’t trust it. We don’t trust it, and we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to cope with new problems. Ergo, there is no call for relief!


All the difficulties that we had in the year just ended involved challenges to our control. Short of serious illness (but then, illness is also the perfect example), the loss of control is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; it is the welcome mat to the loss of a way of life. If you cannot manage your affairs, if you cannot avoid the interference of people with conflicting plans for the space that you occupy, then you fail. If, as in our case, the challenges involve housing and income (plus, I was in the hospital!), the scope of possible failure is close to total. The way of life to which you might be reduced might very well look like a paradise to someone a lot less lucky, but to lose one’s way of life is at any level a trauma. And of course it happens to everyone who lives long enough.

I saw Mr Holmes the other day. It’s a very satisfying picture, as well as what’s called a “feel-good” movie. I bring it up now to discuss Ian McKellen’s two performances. Yes, two. He plays Sherlock Holmes at 63, and Sherlock Holmes at 93. At 63, Holmes is on the late side of the prime of life, and it’s nice to see that Sir Ian, who is more than ten years older than that, seems to be in the same good shape. He gleams with a platinum soundness that makes youth look raw and unstable. He is very much in control.

But for the Sherlock Holmes of the present frame of the narrative, in the now of 1947, 63 was thirty years ago. The older Holmes has just returned from a voyage to Japan, in search of an ash tree whose leaves (or perhaps bark?) just might provide a drug that will arrest the decay of his memory. (A long-time bee-keeper, Holmes has given up on the alleged powers of royal jelly.) The former ace detective has taken to writing names on his shirt-cuffs, so that he won’t seem rude. He is also trying to recall the details of his last case — his failure in which caused him to retire from the field. What happened? All he knows is that John Watson’s account of it, which has been filmed, is bosh.

Holmes at 93 is not in control. He is slowly falling apart, which is to say that he looks like someone who is falling apart even when he isn’t. His face has lost its distinction, and his mouth appears to have a life of its own, his lips pursing as if quite helplessly to suck. His eyes are dulled by what seems to be distraction; he is no longer looking at the world around him. Instead, he is rummaging through the collapsed mineshaft of a faulty memory. Everything about Holmes suggests that sheer inertia is propelling his life. His body has taken over.

The actor has clearly been thinking about his own future, should he be lucky enough to experience it. And he and the filmmakers have a bit of hope to offer: the best medicine for old age is the company of a lively, good-natured child who asks a lot of questions.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
No Complaints
30 July 2015

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Complaining about literature does not appeal to me. I prefer to observe an old legal maxim, which is too symmetrically cute in Latin not to state: Inclusio unius est exclusio alterius. (Not very sophisticated, is it. Nothing with est in it ever is.) What it means is that the statement of one thing implies the exclusion of other, unstated things. Let’s say that all the DBR entries, taken together, constitute what I have to say about books and such. They may be said to indicate, by exclusion, that the authors whom I never mention, whose works I never discuss, simply don’t appeal to me. I also happen to believe that, by and large, the reasons for their failure to appeal to me are not very interesting, at least as literary criticism.

When I’m writing about myself, however, it’s quite different. Writing about myself gives me the license to describe, for example what a torture Moby-Dick is to read, the disgust with Melville’s dreadful writing, adolescent intellectualisms, and depressingly anti-social spirit that caused me to put down the book two-thirds of the way through. I really don’t know which is worse: Moby-Dick itself, or the reputation that twentieth-century critics, trying to counter what they feared was a feminizing trend in literature, crafted for what was by then a rather neglected book. (Melville’s contemporaries didn’t think much of Moby-Dick, either.) But I don’t talk about Moby-Dick itself except to complain about what those critics wrought when they hoisted twaddle as a model.

This is by way of making it clear that nothing in what follows is to be taken as complaint about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 4: Dancing in the Dark. My argument is with Knausgaard’s younger self, not with the way in which the mature writer presents him.

At the beginning of this book, the narrator is eighteen. He already knows that he wants to be a writer. He gives us a list of the writers he admires. That is what I am going to complain about: the preferences of a high-school graduate. The author whom that narrator grew up to become, the Karl Ove Knausgaard who is nowadays closer to fifty than to forty, does not write like Jack Kerouac or J D Salinger. It has been a very long time since I last looked at Charles Bukowski, but I’d be surprised to perceive any signs of the American poet’s influence on My Struggle — the very title of which constitutes, as I see it, a rejection of the following aesthetic:

Books about young men who struggled to fit into society, who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life’s Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.

Everything they wanted I wanted too.

The great longing, which was ever-present in my breast, was dispelled when I read these books, only to return with tenfold strength the moment I put them down. It had been like that all the way through my latter years at school. I hated all authority, was an opponent of the whole bloody streamlined society I had grown up in, with its bourgeois values and materialistic view of humanity. I despised what I had learned at gymnas, even the stuff about literature; all I needed to know, all true knowledge, the only really essential knowledge as to be found in the books I read and the music I listened to. I wasn’t interested in money or status symbols; I knew that the essential value in life lay elsewhere. I didn’t want to study, had no wish to receive an education at a conventional institution like a university, I wanted to travel down through Europe, sleep on beaches, in cheap hotels, or at the homes of friends I made on the way. Take odd jobs to survive, wash plates at hotels, load or unload boats, pick oranges … That spring I had bought a book containing conceivable, and inconceivable, kind of job you could get in various European countries. But all of this was to culminate in a novel. I would sit writing in a Spanish village, go to Pamplona and run with the bulls, continue on down to Greece and sit writing on one of the islands and then, after a year or two, return to Norway with a novel in my rucksack. (3)

Alas, the realization of this grandly shambolic vision was to be thwarted, as we’re cued only a few pages later, by a quite different dream that also held the young Karl Ove in thrall: a passion for looking sharp in cool clothes and hanging out at discos, getting drunk and groping pretty girls. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggle was not between an idealistic youth and bourgeois society, but rather between the impulses of heroism and hedonism.

Why do I say alas?


Knausgaard is about twenty years younger than I am, which I point out as a way of suggesting that, when I was eighteen, this aesthetic — and please note that that’s what it is; it’s not a political program — was newer, fresher, and even more insistent. I see now, for the first time, that it was really just an updating of the old stories about knights slaying dragons, only with scruffy clothes instead of armor, and with balding bankers and discontented housewives instead of dragons, but it seemed new in 1960 because its animus was directed at things that really were new: household appliances, suburban ranchettes, bloated automobiles, and the maintenance of wives whose participation in the working world would be frowned upon. The moral and spiritual emptiness of this package, paying for which could tie a man down forever and crush the life out of him, was manifest. I don’t argue with that. I was there; I remember. I hope never again to see meretriciousness on that scale again. But to respond by writing angry novels while crashing on other people’s sofas never struck me as a better alternative. You could suffer in dishonest style, or you could suffer in honest discomfort. When I was growing up, these were the only apparent choices. It was godawful.

Then, the world turned. The world of dishonest style was broken, along with its legal and political underpinnings. People with alternatives to the WASP ascendancy other than becoming a beach bum stepped forward and insisted on changes, most notably the equalization of former “minorities.” Authority was questioned by people who had no intention of writing scathing novels on Greek islands. None of the struggles launched since the Sixties has been fully achieved, but together they have created many new choices, and only a few of those choices are tailored to the daydreams of half-educated white males.

In short, the posture of protest that was assumed by the young Karl Ove’s literary heroes has become as ridiculous as Moby-Dick. There will still be plenty of young men to “drop out” of the “rat-race” — to use happily obsolete terms — but their experiences will be of little interest to anyone else. There is nothing admirable in self-imposed poverty, unless of course it is in the service of others (requiring a selflessness unimaginable to young novelists), and the glamor of excess followed by rehab has been shredded almost to destruction. There is nothing new about the life-cycle of the wastrel. All that has happened is that we have given up on the idea that the wastrel might be somehow wise.

Criticizing bourgeois society — and it certainly has its faults — is a matter for political thought, not aesthetic response.


For the second day in a row, I have tried to use Knausgaard’s novel as a ramp to more personal territory, only to run out of time (or energy) before covering the ground. Yesterday, I meant to marvel at the intimate ambiguity of Karl Ove’s childhood, sometimes so like my own but mostly utterly unlike it. Today, I hoped to discuss at greater length — as my principal topic — the stultifying, as it were radioactive, impact of the Cold War on the humane imagination; an impact, by the way, that, looking back, I don’t think anyone overcame, not so long as the Cold War raged. This by way of toying with my favorite question: why has it taken me so long to get to where I am now? This would be opposite to the inquiry that the young Karl Ove proposed to write about (perhaps if only in being an inquiry), but perhaps it would be just as self-involved as a book by Philip Roth. I should hope not, because I’m more interested in the “historical forces” (ie changing social possibilities) that would explain my tardiness than I am in the fact that I’ve finally made it. It’s interesting to me that Knausgaard began writing My Struggle within a year of my remastering the model of this Web site, developments that emphasize our being contemporaries, rather than members of different generations.

One of these days, I shall have to begin an entry in medias res.

Reading Note:
29 July 2015

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

For a number of years, my old friend Fossil Darling used to spend a few hours every weekend walking a dog, a yellow lab nicknamed Lula, in Central Park. The dog belonged to neighbors who were either too busy or too infirm to keep up with Lula’s puppydog enthusiasm, a trait that in her case was unaccompanied by brains. Afterwards, Fossil would call me up and regale me with delightful anecdotes of the day’s outing — delightful to him. I winced whenever he described Lula’s raptures in the muckier margins of the Lake, and his own delight at being covered with muck when Lula returned to his side and shook herself off. At first, I suspected that Lula had bitten Fossil, and infected him with her idiocy. Later, I suspected that it was the other way round.

I’ve been reminded of Lula by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the principal character in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle 3: Boyhood. In addition to the dramatically foreshadowed career as a writer who will not have left the world as he found it, Karl Ove is something of a strange duck. As he himself will tell you, tell anybody; just try to keep him from shouting it, he is very good in school, or at school. He’s only second best at math, but he’s best at all the other stuff. When his mother forbids comic books in the fourth grade, he reads library books instead, many of them classics that most kids won’t read until they have to, in college.

This learned and literate persona is at odds with the Lula side of his personality. If I remember My Struggle 2 correctly, Karl Ove will grow up to play soccer well enough for other players to want him on their teams, and presumably he is not inept as a child; but he seems to lack the gifts for every other kind of sport, as well as for defending himself in schoolyard fights, even though he is taller than most of the boys. And when he takes to mischief, the reader reflexively murmurs, oh, no…

But before we get to the mischief, we must understand two things about Karl Ove. First, he has an ogre of a father. To put it another way, the father has serious anger management issues. From time to time — there’s no predicting when — the father is overcome by a hostile, suspicious spirit that fills his eyes with a menacing gleam. All too often, these spells coincide with some sort of lapse or misbehavior that Karl Ove has tried hard to hide. These efforts at concealment, however, invariably alert the father’s radar. The physical aspect of the ensuing ordeal is usually limited to twisting Karl Ove’s ears and pulling him about the house, but child abuse does not require broken bones. The sound of the man’s “heavy step” upon the stair strikes almost as much fear into the reader’s heart as it does Karl Ove’s.

The other little detail is Karl Ove’s Christianity. This is, quite literally, the saving of him. There are, to be sure, aspects of meekness in Karl Ove’s makeup. He is naturally sympathetic, and one suspects that the lack of “strength” that allows other boys to pin him to the ground is more a lack of interest in fighting; I can’t recall an instance of Karl Ove’s trying to pin down anybody else. And it takes less than nothing to make Karl Ove cry. His eyes don’t shed so much as they hemorrhage tears. But then, one sick day, Karl Ove reads a book “published by a Christian company,” and is transfigured by the tale, which concerns a boy whose father has died and who must support his mother by foraging, a necessity that exposes him to the hateful attentions of a gang of bullies.

Not only did they hound and beat up this boy who was so different from them, they swore and stole as well and the inequity of this gang’s successes, in the light of the constant setbacks suffered by the honest, loving, and upright protagonist, was almost impossible to bear. I cried at the unfairness of it, I cried at the evil of it, and the dynamics of a situation whereby good was suppressed and the pressures of injustice were approaching bursting point shook me to the core of my soul and made me decide to become a good person. From then on I would perform good deeds, help where I could, and never do anything wrong. I began to call myself a Christian. I was nine years old, there was no one else in my close vicinity who called himself a Christian, neither Mom nor Dad nor the parents of any of the other kids … and of course no young people, so it was a fairly solitary undertaking I initiated in Tybakken at the end of the seventies. I began to pray to God last thing at night and first thing in the morning. When, in the autumn, the others gathered to go apple scrumping down in Gamle Tybakken I told them not to go, I told them stealing was wrong. I never said this to all of them at once, I didn’t dare, I was well aware of the difference between group reactions, when everyone incited each other to do something or other, and individual reactions, when each person was forced to confront an issue head-on with no hiding place in a deindividuated crowd, and said to each one that apple scrumping was wrong, think about it, you don’t have to do it. But I didn’t want to be alone, so I accompanied them, stopped by the gate, and watched them sneak across the age-old fields in the dusk, walked beside them as they scoffed apples on the way back, their winter jackets bulging with fruit, and if anyone offered me anything I always refused, because dealing was no better than stealing. (283-4)

Am I alone in finding this passage hilarious? It’s as though Woody Allen had become a sainte nitouche. The self-preserving self-satisfaction is too innocent to be unattractive, but it is ludicrous all the same, never more so than at the moment when, having been punished for something by his father and boiling with thirst for revenge, Karl Ove asks the What-Would-Jesus-Do question and decides to forgive. This could be intolerably cloying, but Knausgaard knows how to capture the ridiculous angle. I would perform good deeds … and never do anything wrong. Over time, the scope of bad deeds narrows down to the use of  swear-words, which Karl Ove shuns, at least until the incident in the garbage dump with the beer bottle and a black beetle (299).

Nevertheless, piety does put a stop to lighting fires in the woods and dropping stones on passing cars. Karl Ove is simply not cut out for a life of crime. He is the one who always gets caught, and, childish delusions notwithstanding, he is incapable of dissembling. When a particularly large stone connects with the roof of a sedan, buckling it but just missing the windshield, Karl Ove is transfixed by the enormity of what he has done. As always, he is immobilized by panic. Rooted to the ground, he is quickly accosted by the furious driver, and of course he gives his actual name and address. By the same token, he does not tell his parents what has happened; he keeps hoping that the driver will forget to call, and in fact so much time goes by that he begins to think that he may have gotten away with it. So they hear it from the driver first. What a cluck this kid is! Only Jesus can keep him out of trouble.


There is a je ne sais quoi about My Struggle — a lightness of touch, an air almost of inconsequence, of causes without effects — that one might associate with a book about childhood, especially a book about childhood in a relatively poor country (albeit one on the verge of reaping great oil wealth) on the edge of the habitable world. Electronic appliances and automobiles aside, it could all be taking place in the 1880s. But I attribute this simplicity to something else, to a tremendous resistance on Knausgaard’s part to the vernacular of Freud. What’s missing from My Struggle is what I think Tom Wolfe called the “hydraulics” of Freudian theory — pressures: the repressions, the suppressions, the expressions, explosive or neurotic, of psychic forces. Even the simplicity is a mirage; what’s missing is not complexity but mechanism, the if-then necessities that make machines work the way we want them to. If Karl Ove suffers from abominable conceit, then his friendship with happy-go-lucky Geir is not necessarily doomed. Human beings remain unpredictable except in one respect: they display an all but overwhelming desire to get along with their nearest and dearest, whether they understand them or not. Even when no one is really being “good enough.” It is a hard world, but it is obstinately sociable. Much of what Knausgaard presents is what we have lost to therapies and devices.

Page de Cahier:
On Chinatown
28 July 2015

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

The other night, we watched Chinatown. It had been haunting Kathleen, spontaneously coming to mind — lines here (“Get the girl”), scenes there (the boy on the pony) — for several days. When she first mentioned this to me, Kathleen thought that actually watching the movie would be too disturbing, but I convinced her that it would be the only way to lay the spectre to rest — the spectre of Evelyn Mulwray, whom, every time, Kathleen hopes will drive far off into the night, but who never does.

Chinatown has become famous for its screenplay, which is credited to Robert Towne, but which director Roman Polanski apparently edited rather heavily. The magic of the plot is its growing ambiguity. What begins as a story about corruption in Los Angeles’s water-management department shades into a case of incest. The water problem obviously effects everybody, to some degree; beyond a handful of people, the incest is nobody’s business. Somehow the same detective finds himself investigating both, and the vast disproportion in scale between these plot lines — the one immense, but abstract; the other intensely, horribly personal — creates a tension that the film exploits well. (Polanski would repeat the trick with The Ghost Writer.) The scenario is alternatively expansive and intimate, and it ends with a dreadfully intimate embrace in public. But since this happens in Chinatown, there are no consequences — the public there doesn’t matter.

Having many times observed Chinatown as a magnificent infernal machine, I tried to sit back and watch it naively, as if I didn’t know what was coming next. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It entails soaking up a scene for all it can tell you. With a little practice, you experience a rush of visual details that effectively blocks the recollection of prior viewings. What I took in this time, along with a renewed sense of the film’s striking beauty, was the power of Faye Dunaway’s performance.

“And Jack Nicholson’s,” you’ll say. But I don’t say. Nicholson is perfect as the detective, but he is also an Everyman, a stand-in for all of us. He’s sympathetic, but he’s not extraordinary; we wouldn’t like him if he were. Dunaway is extraordinary. She is like a star from the studio days. She is as volcanic as Nicholson is cool. Dunaway has the chops of a great tragédienne, but she knows how to tune them down for the silver screen, how to overflow the brim of her goblet without getting anybody wet. It’s a great gift. In other movies that are favorites of mine, The Eyes of Laura Mars and Mommie Dearest, hers is unquestionably the leading role, and her brilliance is certainly not surprising. In Chinatown, she is a co-star but it might be better to regard her as a supporting actress, if only in the sense that she supports Jack Nicholson. As the film proceeds, Evelyn Mulwray becomes more interested in Jake Gittes, with the result that Jake Gittes becomes more interesting himself, or at any rate less the generic hard-boiled gumshoe that we expect in these productions. It provokes a performance that ends with a living-dead gaze that Hemingway would have been proud to describe.

Also along the way, Dunaway creates a female space — a place that men cannot touch. Evelyn has built this space as a redoubt against her terrible family dynamics, and Dunaway brings it into the movie. The other women in Chinatown accept the fate of living in a man’s world. There aren’t very many of them, just Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) and Sophie the secretary (Nandu Hinds). Evelyn’s sister/daughter, Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer), is a special case. Katherine has only one distinct line: she says “Hello” to Gittes. This verbal silence, this limitation of Katherine to sobs and wails, leaves it Evelyn to articulate the darkness, which she does while betraying the horror with involuntary gestures, such as stumbling over the word “father” and crossing her breasts with her arms when she learns that Gittes has seen her father. The film bestows all the grand accoutrements of studio-era womanliness upon Evelyn Mulwray, and then strips her of them with a brutality that Dunaway fully registers — again, without overdoing things. I spent a lot of time watching her eyes. (These are almost comic in the nursing-home scene, popping out to dessert-plate size as Evelyn takes in Gittes’s improvisatory genius.) Unlike a compleat film goddess, Evelyn responds and reacts to Gittes: this is what I mean by Dunaway’s supporting Nicholson. Although stupendously attractive, Dunaway’s Evelyn remains a woman of mortal endowments. She does not know everything, and she cannot see around corners. Indeed, the key of the performance is that, as the climax approaches, Dunaway reveals that she is a damsel in distress.

I kept thinking of Bette Davis — not that Davis was ever permitted to play a role as raw and rotten and yet completely sympathetic as Evelyn Mulwray. Chinatown would have been unthinkable in the studio era. And I’m not just thinking of the censorship. Those great dramas of the late Thirties and the Forties, to my mind the first crop of great movies (I find the adoration of silent movies bizarre), were made by men and women who hadn’t grown up watching anything like them: they were making everything up. It took a few generations to produce filmmakers who knew every trick as if by instinct, and who could present complex screenplays without complication. The list of great “old” movies is impressive; after watching Chinatown, Kathleen and I named an easy dozen, from LA Confidential and Mulholland Falls to Quiz Show and Billy Bathgate, from Seabiscuit to Public Enemy. You can do it, too.

Why did Hollis and Evelyn Mulwray have to die? Was it because Noah Cross wanted to regain control of the water system, or possession of his unfortunate offspring? He wanted both, but which was more important? To consider either answer as the winner is to be pestered to botheration by the other. Chinatown knows no peace.

Reactionaries at Play:
The Nobs Did It
27 July 2015

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Increasingly, we see the two world wars of the first half of the Twentieth Century as parts of a whole, as detached installments of a single horror. As our distance from the conflicts increases, we recognize with ever-greater clarity the extent to which the Great War (1914-1918) left unfinished business, or even created new business, for Bellona and her minions to sort out in World War II. Everybody knows that perceived inequities in the Treaty of Versailles, which transformed an armistice into a defeat for Germany, rankled badly enough for Nazi thugs to work massive discontent to their advantage. Someday, these wars will be given a collective name, and be thereafter known as one thing.

But first, we have to understand why they happened.

Each one begins, I think, with that mystery: why? Why did the “July crisis” result in declarations of war between countries ruled by cousins? Why did France fall? As I have nothing to do but let such questions tumble in my unoccupied brain, it does not altogether surprise me that not only have I arrived at what feel like answers to these questions, but that they are the same answer.

Before proceeding further, I want to thank Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s Number Two, who famously observed (or did he?) that, even in 1972, it was too soon to assess the impact of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is understood to have put an end to aristocratic privilege in the West. A class of hereditary nobles that had hitherto been subject to laws very different from, and in most cases much lighter than, those imposed on ordinary people, lost its claim to special treatment. By and large, this is indeed what happened. But there was an exception, an area of public life from which the aristocracy did not fade: the military. Europe’s aristocracy was composed, of course, of the descendants of medieval warriors, but it is easy to overlook that, while many of those descendants became pampered hedonists who couldn’t be bothered to defend anything beyond their own personal honor, the armed forces of Europe were always overseen by members of the nobility. Monarchs exerted increasing control over military affairs, but they never displaced the men who had been brought up to fight on horseback. A compromise was worked out (in most jurisdictions): only competent aristocrats were allowed to make important decisions, and talented yeoman were inducted into the nobility from time to time. This arrangement survived the trauma of 1789, even in France. An “officer,” if not a bluebood, was expected to be a “gentleman” — that is, a man with an unearned income that allowed him to hone his martial skills. The cadets in officer-training schools usually came from propertied families. In the United States, the service academies admitted only those young men recommended by Senators; in an ostensibly classless society, it would be difficult to mirror the mechanics of Old-World military privilege more effectively.

From the first sound of the tocsin that preceded the guns of August, 1914, it has been asked why the cousins who sat on the thrones of Europe did not prevent the war. The question itself is telling. Russia aside, each of the Great War’s belligerents was a democracy of some kind. Notwithstanding the crowned heads, all had elected assemblies headed by powerful ministers. It was not up to the kings to say “no” to war. Curiously, however, the ministers don’t seem to have been any more in favor of hostilities. The standard way to resolve this puzzle is to point to mounting anxieties over arms buildups that, in the flashpoint of Serbian responsibility for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (or at least its complacency), pushed somebody or other into making a bad judgment. Some like to blame Kaiser Wilhelm II, a very childish man, for handing Austria a “blank check” (unconditional support for any campaign against Serbia), while others go after the weak Tsar, Nikolai II, who consented to the mobilization (or “semi-mobilization” — you can no more be “semi-mobilized” than you can be “semi-pregnant”) that did indeed trigger the German declaration of war. Round and round go the explanations and the accusations. Reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s terrific study of the run-up to the war, I found it impossible not to blame the Serbians, who, in Clark’s telling, seemed to be perfectly aware of playing with dynamite.

When the dust settled after the Great War, the kings were mostly swept away, and the titles of their aristocratic subjects were just as empty. This is a major motif in the anthem of loss that commemorates the way of life that failed to survive the war — a life that was gracious and leisured for those who could afford it, but also glamorized by titled ladies in large hats. Princesses and countesses were received at courts — there were still courts. Courts had marginal political power, but they were the clubhouses of the military leadership: the real men at any courtly function were wearing uniforms. Why, then, would these brilliant assemblages have committed suicide or fratricide by going to war against each another?

As to suicide, no one could be sure that that was would happen; and, of all people, aristocratic generals would be the last to foresee such an outcome.

As to fratricide, to ask the question is to misunderstand the aristocratic mind. From the beginning, aristocrats were the fighting class. That is what they did. As usual, my mind runs blank on specific examples, but there are plenty of stories about two knights, brought up from birth in the deepest friendship but consigned by indelible allegiances to opposed liege lords, who dutifully hacked away at one another in battle, as brutally as possible but with tears streaming down their cheeks. To the aristocratic mind, such stories have a happy ending.

In any case, the fight would not be gratuitous. It would, if successful, undermine those democratic regimes, putting an end to the deplorable influence of the shopkeepers of the third estate. It was even conceivable — just — that an even earlier dream of the aristocracy might be achieved: the unwinding of royal authority and centralized government. Once again, aristocrats might be the only truly free men on earth. Free, even, of the nationalities that they bore under protest. Kings and ministers were bound to their sovereignties, to the conceptual boundaries that demarcated the different countries of Europe. But an aristocrat was the lord of his acres, and his acres weren’t going anywhere.

There was no need for a plot, no need for conscious decisions. There was no need for collective action of any kind. All the noble generals had to do was frighten kings and ministers with tall tales about the other armies and what they might do. Their implicit message was : Rest assured, Sire, that I shall make it clear that I told you so. And this is exactly what they all did, those chiefs of staff, quite as if reading from a common script. There was no script, but there was a shared spirit, and it was this spirit that drove the nations of Europe into a war that, individualists that they were, the aristocrats were wrong about: it couldn’t be won by anybody.

Why, in June of 1940, did the French leadership, a cohort of politicians and industrialists, decide that France could only lose to a German offensive? I claim no great powers of discernment in presenting my answer, for it is a quotation from a book.

As for Reynaud [the French prime minister], he had called into his government Ybarnegaray and Marin, two reactionaries whose only surface virtue was a blustering show of war spirit. Raised to power by Socialist votes, Reynaud had turned toward men whom he trusted because they were of his own Rightist background — Pétain, Mandel, Ybarnegaray, Marin. All his Rightest friends except Mandel joined in smothering him. They felt that making war against Hitler he was betraying his own class.

This is AJ Liebling, whose report on the Fall of France appeared in the first two August, 1940 issues of The New Yorker. Liebling’s essential claim — that war with Hitler would be a betrayal of the soul of France — resonated deeply with me because of other things that I had read, especially Frederick Brown’s Fighting for the Soul of France, a history of the Third Republic through the Dreyfus case. I saw, beyond Liebling’s conclusions, that men like Pétain decided that it would be a good thing to let Hitler destroy, not France, but the Third Republic, a regime deeply hated by conservative Catholics, particularly those from titled families. As it happens, Liebling’s report is collected in an anthology of New Yorker writing from the Forties that also includes Janet Flanner’s profile of Marshal Pétain.

Now he was to have the undisputed, and for once undivided, glory of governing what was left of his beloved country, of leading her back, in a bitter penitence for her democracy and her defeat, to a restoration of the autocracy of her great seventeenth-century past, in which he thought her future still lay.

Sometimes, figuring things out is simply a matter of reading the right things at the right time. No effort required: understanding clicks into view.

Whatever they come to be called, the two world wars were wars launched against the political influence of ordinary people.

Dollars and Sense Dept:
24 July 2015

Friday, July 24th, 2015

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, there is a piece by Edmund Phelps, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Columbia Center on Capitalism and Society. He asks, “What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?” If I read it with cocked eyebrows, that’s because Columbia is the home of Glenn Hubbard, Bush family adviser and shill for financial rapine — also the dean of the B School there, I believe. (Hubbard ends his generally deer-in-headlights contribution to Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job with a hateful sneer.) As I read Phelps’s piece, though, I calmed down; Phelps’s goal, a society of mass flourishing, is clearly the right one. His brief discussion of economic inclusion struck me immediately as something that ought to be the subject of more political conversations.

I liked the way Phelps laid out the disappointments of capitalist democracy in the West. But when I got to his proposals for fixing things, for getting our economies back on track, I began emitting helpless noises, mostly whimpers but sometimes little screams. Nooooooo!

It’s not that Phelps’s ideas are bad. They’re just impossible. Totally impossible. Phelps seems to be unaware that the complex of technological innovations that we call the Industrial Revolution was a singularity. He seems to think that we can engineer another one.

I think of things that can’t happen again. The discovery of fire. The development of writing. You’ll say, “What about printing — surely that could be invented only once.” Technically true, perhaps, but as Andrew Pettegree shows in his important study, The Book in the Renaissance, printing launched a new business — publishing — that was beset by all sorts of marketing and distribution problems, and wouldn’t you know that many of these problems have recurred in our new digital age. The things that can’t be repeated aren’t technological breakthroughs so much as they are intellectual breakthroughs, real changes in human understanding of the world.

The Industrial Revolution was a complex of innovations each of which could be traced back to a single idea: the reproduction of things. Hitherto, artisans had created products that differed in minuscule but not insignificant ways. The screws that were made to hold one vessel together might not fit another vessel of the same kind, even one made by the same artisan. It didn’t seem to be very important. I’m not sure why it did become important — I suspect that the demands of scientific experiments, such as Lavoisier’s, for precision instruments were crucial — but I know that its importance emerged in the minds of technically sophisticated thinkers in the latter two-thirds of the Eighteenth Century. Rather than produce a thing, it became important to reproduce a model. It seems obvious now. Every iPhone is like every other, functionally identical in that it operates and can be repaired just like every other. But the goods produced before the Industrial Revolution were not uniform. This meant that the mathematical principles that governed, say, the operation of steam boilers might not apply equally to all steam boilers. With explosive results! The ever-expanding textile mills that blossomed on either side of 1800 depended on a uniformity of parts, so that they could run more or less autonomously, with no more supervision than an uneducated attendant could provide.

The railroads exemplified this singularity by demonstrating that a steady stream of replaceable parts could produce an all-but-infinite railroad. You could lay as much track, with uniform rails at a uniform gauge, with as many locomotive engines pulling as many railroad cars, as you might have need for. From Day One of animal husbandry until 1837, the possibilities of travel were absolutely limited by the speed and endurance of horses on land and the strength and persistence of winds at sea. Throughout early modern times, government-sponsored improvements in road conditions cut travel times between major cities by what seemed to be significant amounts, but these marginal improvements were blown to insignificance by the railroads. Not only did railroads cover distances much faster, but, even more, they carried orders of magnitude more passengers and goods.

The Industrial Revolution culminated with the harnessing of electric power, a breakthrough no less dependent upon the reproduction of goods. We often speak of mass production as if it were simply a matter of making a lot of things. But mass production is really the mass reproduction of one thing, always the same.

Are there more singularities ahead? Sure! Why not? But it is a terrible mistake to assume that somehow, if we roll up our sleeves, we can whip up another Industrial Revolution, and recreate the dynamism and innovation that Phelps calls for. We can tease out refinements, and indeed will continue to do just this for many years to come. But there will never be anything like the job creation that the Industrial Revolution engendered. And we should be glad about that, because those jobs were too often proto-robotic. They required workers to behave like machines. One of the final flowerings of the Industrial Revolution just might be the mass production of robots — by robots. But before we say goodbye to the Industrial Revolution, let’s remember that the discovery of microbes and the development of modern pharmaceuticals depended heavily on — you guessed it — the reproduction of models.

Does this mean that there won’t be any jobs? Not if we’re clever. Not if we can figure out how to “monetize” the task ahead — undoing all the damage of the Industrial Revolution!

We don’t need innovation in the field of making stuff. We need innovation in the field of sustaining, maintaining, and, in more cases than is desirable, discarding the stuff we make. We need to figure out how to pay people to do these things, which are just as vital and useful to all of us as the cotton mills and the railroads ever were and still are. We need breakthroughs in architecture and engineering. We need buildings and bridges that we can maintain and improve without ripping out walls or closing roads. Keeping things in good repair ought not to be as environmentally degrading as erecting them. (We’ll know that we’ve got where we need to be when a house can be built within a garden without the trampling of a single daffodil.) As I have said, we need to replace “Built to Last” with “Built to Upgrade.” And we need to make upgrading pay.

Maybe what we need is a breakthrough in the idea of Money.

The biggest difference between the Industrial Revolution for which Edmund Phelps is nostalgic and the Sustainable Revolution that can’t happen until we’ve stopped looking at the Industrial Revolution for inspiration is the colossal consumption of nonrenewable resources that fueled the Industrial Revolution. The wealth creation of the Industrial Revolution came at the cost of Earth depletion. That cannot be allowed to happen again, even were it possible.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
23 July 2015

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

There is not much to say today. I am thinking about loss — and I have suffered very little of it.

I am thinking about loss because I am reading Colm Tóibín’s book about Elizabeth Bishop, and reading most of the poems to which he refers.

I had put off this project because of its gay-studies possibilities: sometimes, the focus on homosexuality expands discussions, but, more often, it seems to narrow them, and I often wish that Tóibín, one of our best critics, would consider the work of some non-homosexual writers who appeal to him — there must be a clutch.

As it turns out, On Elizabeth Bishop is not a gay-studies book, because, while he was working on it, Tóibín was surprised by a new recognition. He had thought that his youthful interest in certain writers, Bishop among them, was rooted in the problem, common to them, of alternative sexual preference, but there turned out to be something deeper and darker that he shared with them: the loss of a parent in childhood or adolescence.

I thought at once of William Maxwell, the central event of whose creative life was the death of his mother in the influenza epidemic that followed World War I. How great it would be if Colm Tóibín wrote about William Maxwell! There would even be the gay angle that is provided by The Folded Leaf, which some gay critics have adopted as a “gay novel.” Maxwell rather furiously insisted that this was not his intention, but such remarks, while interesting, are never dispositive.

Anyway, between William Maxwell and Tóibín on Bishop, I’ve been reading a lot about loss. I’ve learned, with a new crystal clarity, that loss provokes some people to recreate what they’ve lost in language that registers and accepts that loss.


How do you lose what you’ve never had? The question is absurd. And yet I did lose it. I lost it even as I was born, wrapped up and carried away forever from the woman who bore me. The protocol of the time suggests that she was never allowed to hold or even to see me, which would have been terrible for her but which also seems so shockingly inhuman to me, now, that the enormity of what I call the Adoption Racket overwhelms my ability to consider one woman’s grief. I try to imagine it, but I am interrupted by a visceral hatred for the people who, with the best intentions in the world, took her child away. And who took me away from her. What I lost was the company of my biological kin. Most people quite reasonably take this for granted. If it’s no bed of roses, it is almost everybody’s bed of whatever. It wasn’t just the loss of kin, either. It was the loss of the right to propose that my biological kin might have regarded me as strange. The adoption racketeers have always been able to find adopted children ready to insist that their adoptive parents were just as loving as birth parents could have been, and that they love their adoptive parents as much as if they were their birth parents, and so on. More credulous than I am now, I used to feel unlucky in this regard — my case hadn’t worked out so well.

And what the hell do I mean by that? I was fed, clothed, schooled, and sheltered as well as anybody ought to be. I was treated kindly and reasonably. My welfare was never overlooked for a second. So what am I whining about?

Well, I am not whining about Barbara and Bill Keefe, that’s for sure. They have my deepest sympathy, in fact: they’re the ones who were unlucky. They got the kid who looked sure to grow up to march with the Irish Guard at Notre Dame, but who so very much didn’t. Why, he didn’t even go to the games! One Saturday afternoon, in fact, he went to a poetry reading instead. What had they done?

And I can tell you why I’m not whining about the Adoption Racket, either, and why whining is not what I’m doing: I’m outraged by the brainless optimism, coupled with a willingness to do unspeakable, unnatural things, that characterized American policy in the Cold War. It may seem grandiose, but at this particular moment, sitting here in my quiet book room, I can connect what happened to me and my mother with what happened to Vietnam and Iraq. The bad thinking behind the one and the others is stamped by the same American brand of hubris. We can do it because we’re special.

What’s special about America is that it was settled by social misfits who wanted to do things their way. They would have fought like spiders if the country hadn’t been so vast and largely empty. Their children had to figure out how to settle down. As they did so, they decorated their civil society with bric-à-brac from an ornamental mythology: Washington crossing the Delaware, the first Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, the Founding Fathers and their democracy thing. If we were an honest people, we would cover the Capitol’s walls with Saul Steinberg’s lampoons.

No, there is nothing special about this country, least of all the feeling special. Lucky, certainly: the land was special. But ours is a country like any other. I take that back: it is still at least two countries trying to coexist under one umbrella, just as it was at its inception.


I have endeavored to write this slowly, as if I were working on a poem, getting everything right and writing it clearly. There has been a great deal of excision. I have serious misgivings about some of the statements made, particularly the one that links the first thing that happened to me with military misadventures. But these misgivings are stylistic: the editorial board here prefers a temperate gloss, and generally disapproves of italicizing words like “outrage.” I am also dismayed by a sense of having said almost all of this before, on not a few occasions.

There is also the “so what?” factor. So you were adopted: deal with it. The funny thing is that I thought that I had dealt with it. I can remember joking, when adopted people began looking into their origins, that one family was enough for me. (It makes me angry to remember this flippancy: I want to slap the man I was then.)

But then, I began keeping this Web log, charting the course of my mind, building up something that few people have the leisure to develop, an articulate view of the world. Articulate and articulated — I am always making connections. More and more, I find that what obstructs these connections, or makes them obscure, is the received dishonesty of American life, the practical insincerity of American idealism. Perhaps other nations are dishonest, too, but this is the nation that I know. This is the nation that thought it best to spare my unmarried mother the embarrassment of an inconvenient child, and to spare me the stigma of illegitimacy. The dishonesty of what happened as a result of this thinking was far worse than a lie. It was the willful disregard of human nature, of everything that has ever been known about mothers and infants. We can do it because we’re special.

I have tried to write this as a poem, mindful, above all other things, of the truth that it is far worse, in a poem, to utter a lie than to say nothing at all.

Reading Note:
For Shame
22 July 2015

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

“Trumpusconi” — Frank Bruni’s coinage — ought to be the word of the hour, for however many hours it takes to determine the damage that television has done to the voting public. The Italians have been through this already, and perhaps they have inoculated themselves against a recurrence. Why not vote for the egomaniacal dork who rattles on about possessing the longest this or the priciest that, whose sex life is a string of superlatives? Maybe you honestly admire him, because he’s one of you, only with longer and pricier. Maybe you want to flip the bird to the tired and corrupt institutions that ought to be running the country. Maybe it’s enough that belly-floppers make the biggest splash.

I’ve read that the Huffington Post has relegated Trump news to the entertainment section, as if this comment to its readers has a correlative in the population at large. Italy showed us that voters are capable of folding entertainment and politics into one section.

Timur Vermes’s satire, Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da), comes to mind all the time now. In the satire, a rematerialized Hitler promptly becomes a media star, getting top ratings on his own show. The brunt of the satire is the complacency of today’s Germany, which is too fond of thinking that it’s Hitler-proof, but Look Who’s Back also suggests that Hitler’s rise to power was a media event as well. The media were different, and the chemistry was different (you have to attend a rally to get really excited by it), but by the time Hitler took power, he was the most popular political figure. The question of his experience in government meant nothing to most Germans. To have had no experience was closer to the ideal.

Hitler did teach us that applauding an obsessive crank with big ideas about Lebensraum can lead to very uncool outputs. Better to back the guy who’s deranged about more personal assets.

If Trump’s bubble pops in the next couple of weeks, as Nick Cohn predicts, precisely because it is a “media-driven” bubble, then we can all sigh with relief, and I’ll limit my remarks about television’s utter ghastliness, it’s essential emptiness. Otherwise…


Granta — to read, or not to read? That is the question, at least for this 67 year-old reader. I flip through the new issue when it arrives. Most names are unfamiliar. The photography is unappealing — deadening, really. I’ve given up on poetry that isn’t written in blank verse. (And I still can’t make up my mind about Emily Dickinson: is she healthy?) The fiction is as likely as not to be tedious. Drawn by the fancy title, I’ll admit, I gave Greg Jackson’s “Epithalamium” a try. I had to stop on the third page, when “Dueva had proceeded to call Hara a — . (I was already having plenty of trouble with the nomenclature; there’s also a character called “Lyric.”) This is the kind of writing that usually — only time will tell — has the shelf life of fresh fish, and I have retired from taking the trouble to discern the few exceptions. You read it.

Partly because this quarter’s issue, Possession, has a fascinating image on its cover (by Julie Cockburn), I put it where it would be sure to be read, if you know what I mean, and I came across Marc Bojanowski’s “This Is New.” “Shortly after I lost my job teaching,” it began, “I began taking my daughter on walks through the rural cemetery near the housing tract where we lived.” I continued to read, non-committally, prepared to put it down at the first sign of tiresomeness. Teaching and housing tracts are no longer of much interest to me. There might have been a hook in the mention of a cemetery; looking back, I can see that, if I were teaching a writing course (!), I’d hail it as a masterstroke. For one thing: the cemetery is the only open space in the neighborhood; what does that tell you about this sorry land? For another: the richness of this question all but demands that the image of the cemetery be dropped, as as a way of suggesting that there is nothing more to be said about the national bankruptcy. But this mandarin analysis had nothing to do with my first encounter with “This Is New.”

A few dozen words later:

And in her toddler’s voice I would momentarily forget that I’d lost my job and shamed myself and humiliated our family; I would forget that I’d become a stay-at-home dad and that my wife was supporting us financially.

Usually, men who have shamed themselves and humiliated their families do not go on to become stay-at-home dads. Isn’t that your experience, too? In fiction, I mean. So, now I was really curious.

“This Is New” feels shorter than it is, because it is packed with occluded clichés. I mean that to be complimentary. An occluded cliché is, obviously, one that you can’t see. It is concealed by being suggested but not mentioned. In this case, the cliché is a string of familiar images: the community college, the underemployed teacher, the unsophisticated students, the community of tract houses, the precarious personal finances. These are all mentioned without comment; we fill in the tiresome clichés ourselves, or watch them unpack themselves all over the reading room of our minds — but Bojanowski has moved on. He gives us just enough not-enough-time to savor his details, only some of which involve the shameful act that cost the narrator his job.

The paragraph that begins with the passage quoted above ends with this: “… I would forget that none of this would have happened if I’d just taken a deep breath, suppressed my emotions and said to the young woman, “Leave. Now.” What happened?

What happened was that the narrator, overwhelmed by the irritation caused by a student — a nineteen year-old black woman, who, having  been rude, and then insulting, to the teacher, proceeded to engage with her cellphone during the showing of a documentary in class, and, further, refused to put it away — smacked the phone out of her hand (while she was filming him). That was the shameful act.

I’m not sure that I understand the title, but my impression is that it refers to the inescapability of notoriety wrought by the Internet. You can’t move to another state where nobody knows what you’ve done, or where it will take a long time for your past to catch up with you. I also believe that the story launches a complaint: what the teacher did was not shameful. It was the student who was behaving shamefully, or shamelessly.

I’m curious to know whether “This Is New” was written before or after last summer’s outbreak of protesting violence in Ferguson — an event that for one reason or another tipped the scales, inspiring many Americans — most, it’s to be hoped — to cry out, Enough! Black Lives Matter! Stop Killing Us! Let us finally recognize the persistence of racism and resolve to put an end to it. Let us try to undo the wickedness of Richard Nixon’s foulest deed, which had nothing to do with Watergate or Vietnam or even Chile: the “Southern Strategy.” A strategy for Republican Party victories that was found to be quite useful in other parts of the United States as well. Let us put the WASP dream of white ascendancy firmly in the past.

But, the same token, let us also stop permitting members of minority groups to exploit past oppression to excuse civil misbehavior. In the middle of a class, the young black woman student addresses the white male teacher as “white boy.” Surely that is as unacceptable as her misuse of the phone.

If it is not, there is no point to keeping our schools open.

Gotham Diary:
Roughing It
21 July 2015

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

Shall I tell you about the mouse?

Or is it mice? If it’s mice, it’s now mice minus one. That’s to say that a mouse was removed from the apartment — alive.

Before she left the office last night, Kathleen told me that she wanted to order Chinese — she has become fond of the neighborhood restaurant’s Kung Pao Chicken. So, when she came home, I was reading in the bedroom, and not fixing dinner. We chatted for a moment, and I excused myself for a moment to refill a tumbler of wine. The light was off in the dusky kitchen. Standing at the fridge, I heard something. I was pretty sure that I knew what it was, and I was right: there was a mouse crawling around in the recycled Fairway bag of refuse. I gently detached the bag’s handles from the hook, well off the floor, from which I hang garbage bags, and managed to tie them in a knot even as I was coursing toward the front door. By now, I could see the mouse through the plastic bag. It was very small. It was squeezing itself along the inside of the bag. My hope was to reach the garbage chute before the mouse chewed its way out. I wasn’t running, but I was moving much faster than I normally do, even to catch a train. From the old apartment, the garbage chute was almost across the corridor. It’s more of a hike from here.

We never had mice in the old apartment.

I can’t remember just when we first saw a mouse down here, but it was well after we settled in. A long time passed before the second sighting. Recently, however, I’d been seeing a mouse, or catching its darting out of the corner of my eye, just about every other day, and I was steeling myself to say something to the management office about it. Why, you might ask, was I hanging garbage from a hook, however “well off the floor”? Did I not understand anything about mice? Had I forgotten “Hickory Dickory Dock”? And how to square the rather disappointing answer to these questions with the precautions that I had been taking, such as emptying shopping bags as soon as I got home from the store, whether anything actually needed to be put away (in the fridge, say) or not? I am forced to conclude that it was curiosity. The mouse was, first of all, not a rat. It was small and brown and not repellent, and aside from a gnawed piece of cheese (this led to the prompt emptying of shopping bags), it left no traces. If I hadn’t seen it, I shouldn’t have known it was there.

I was learning its route. Its destination, of course, was the kitchen. Several times, my walking in from the living room triggered a dash across the floor and under the dishwasher. I was fairly certain that the space beneath the dishwasher was a dead end for the mouse, because I never saw it scurry in the other way. It would wait until things got quiet, and then work its way back to the point of entry, which, from a series of observations, I concluded must be through one of Kathleen’s two closets. I also concluded that it did not live or linger in that closet, because Kathleen never encountered it there.

Every time I saw the mouse, I was a little bit upset — there really ought not to be mice in the apartment — but the upset was always outweighed by curiosity. Let’s see what happens next.

Now you know why I was in trouble all the time as a child.

(Speaking of curiosity, I did think about buying a cat. I rejected the idea every time — Kathleen wouldn’t have it; the upholstery would be scratched to shreds; kitty litter — but it kept popping back up. I thought about mousetraps, too, and the trip to the emergency room that would inevitably follow trying to set one.)

Moving almost as determinedly as the mouse, I reached the garbage chute, opened it, and pushed the bag through. I doubt very much that the fall of four floors hurt the mouse, although it’s always possible that the bag landed on shards of glass. In any case, I don’t expect that particular mouse to return. All in all, I’m quite pleased at the way things worked out, quite literally tied up with a bow.

Nevertheless, returning to the apartment from the garbage chute, I worried about having a heart attack. The spigot of adrenaline had unquestionably been opened. Carrying a living, squirming thing in a tied-up bag was very disconcerting. What if it burst through the bag and bit my hand in a fit of pique? I was reminded of the lobster, the lobster that wasn’t dead yet.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that killing a lobster with a chef’s knife is easy. Even Julia Child says so. (Or maybe what she says is that “French chefs get used to it.”) You hold the lobster on the counter with one hand, while you plunge the sharp knife into the interstice between the shell on the head and the shell on the thorax. This, you are assured, kills the lobster “instantly.” Well, maybe. But the one time I tried it, when I flipped over the lobster to cut off the tail, the tail flipped, with a great deal of energy, and it’s a good thing that no one else was in the kitchen, because who knows where the chef’s knife flew. I had been sufficiently macho to plunge the knife into the lobster’s neck, but only on the understanding that this brutal act would put an immediate stop to all signs of life. The idea that a lobster that I was trying to kill might fight back did not bear processing.

I have since learned that, if you need to start a recipe with dead but uncooked lobster, you can cheat: a few minutes in boiling water will kill the thing without doing much cooking. I have also learned that uncooked lobster meat clings to the shell. As if glued on! I haven’t found out how French chefs deal with that.

The moral of the story is: now you know why I always say that my idea of “roughing it” is staying at home.

Dystopia Parkway:
20 July 2015

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Don’t let it ever be said that I’m nostalgic for the Cold War. It was a bleak and stupid conflict, and it made millions of lives wretched. But it did have one virtue: it focused the attention of élites everywhere on a handful of issues. As a global, zero-sum game, it got everyone’s attention. The enormous pressure of its risks kept everything organized. Every action was designed to counter the opponent, no matter how ultimately self-defeating. (Consider widespread American support of Third-World tyrants.) Everybody’s to-do list was harmonized.

All that came to an end with the Cold War’s. The stupidity of Cold War “thinking” floated free. “We won!” crowed the Americans.



Did you see Kingsman: The Secret Service, when it came out last year? Probably not. Supposedly a larky variation on the James Bond theme, Kingsman is in fact not very entertaining. The first half meanders uncertainly between satire and danger: you don’t know whether to laugh or to close your eyes. The second half is stuffed with action and adventure, but the horrors are occasionally too kinky for genre expectations. As I recall, Kingsman was a disappointment for its producers.

However understandable, this is a shame. Kingsman is another kind of movie altogether: the Object Lesson. It makes you think, and the things that it makes you think about are not presented as cool or fun. There’s an element of science fiction, but it’s too grimly plausible to be dazzling. (And then, just when you’ve got used to this unpleasantness, the movie dazzles — with truly astonishing inappropriateness.) I was disturbed by Kingsman for days after seeing it. Seeing it a second time, I was even more disturbed, but by something else in the movie.

The story is simply told. (And, to keep it simple, I’m going to omit the actors’ names, which can easily be found at IMDb.) The bad guy, Valentine, is a telecom tycoon who has dreamed up a solution to overpopulation. He will give away mobile phones with free cellular service. When everybody’s got one, he’ll beam a signal that will make everybody crazy: totally hostile and totally unsympathetic. Everybody will kill everybody else! For some reason that wasn’t very clear to me, Valentine wants to get the élites of the world behind his scheme. (It’s not as though they could stop him.) The holdouts, people like the Princess of Sweden (or maybe it’s Denmark) who are disgusted by Valentine’s proposed “cull,” are imprisoned. The supporters are implanted with devices, located at the base of their brains, that will explode if they ever try to betray the plot.

Which of course the Kingsmen, a secret service in Britain that appears to act independently of any sovereignty (just like Valentine), must foil. But we’re not going to talk about the heroes, appealing as in this film they are.

The idea of drastically reducing the population of the earth has appealed to Western élites since the time of Malthus. One dreadful legacy of the Enlightenment was the almost automatic division of humanity into two classes: those who could understand and implement the Enlightenment program, and those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t. This was, it turned out, a far more categorical division than the one that had distinguished, in the ancien régime, hereditary nobles from peasants and burghers. The new line is easier to cross, certainly — but this seems to intensify the contempt of those who crossed it for those who didn’t.

This contempt is the product of a failure of imagination that always besets élites when they feel existentially threatened. The challenge must be dealt with — eliminated — at once. In our time, it is not easy to encounter an essay about our environmental future that is truly innocent of the hope that some terrible disease will solve the overpopulation problem for us. The rich will inoculate and quarantine themselves whilst the plague ranges round. After a time, there will be no more unnecessary people.

Kingsman stamps a comic-book glossiness on this terrible fantasy.

After days of feeling almost sick about the nightmare of violently cruel solutions to global problems, I calmed down and realized that our population problem is just like every other environmental problem that we have: one that can solved only over generations, by humane planning that seeks to persuade, without binding, our grandchildren and their grandchildren and so on. Planning that alters as circumstances alter, but that always proceed toward sustainable population levels without denying anyone a genuinely satisfying life (no doping). We’ll talk about such plans some other time.

After seeing the film a second time, it was the élites themselves who got my attention. Valentine, in the best evil-genius tradition, operates a mountain fastness. Here he keeps his imprisoned critics; here he entertains his willing supporters, who are given enough notice of the coming cull to make their way to his remote caves, where they live it up in a sort of disco nightclub. This cheesy setting is of course intended to be an implicit criticism of the rich people who hang out there, and for that reason, it ought to strike a false note, because rich people wouldn’t be caught dead in such a place. They take their fashion cues from Monocle! But: rich people do take fashion cues — in fact, they live by them. Élites have enough money to throw everything away and replace it with the latest accoutrements. If Monocle were to endorse disco clubs, Davos would be remodeled into a mineshaft.

And then there are those implants. The movie’s implants are fictional, in that they have not been implanted in our fearless leaders. But, reading Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times, it was very hard to resist the suspicion that Europe’s leaders have at the very least been complicit in a program of voluntary brainwashing. In his latest piece about the Greek migraine, he writes about the introduction of the Euro.

The only big mistake of the euroskeptics was underestimating just how much damage the single currency would do.

The point is that it wasn’t at all hard to see, right from the beginning, that currency union without political union was a very dubious project. So why did Europe go ahead with it?

Mainly, I’d say, because the idea of the euro sounded so good. That is, it sounded forward-looking, European-minded, exactly the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who give speeches at Davos. Such people didn’t want nerdy economists telling them that their glamorous vision was a bad idea.

Indeed, within Europe’s elite it quickly became very hard to raise objections to the currency project. I remember the atmosphere of the early 1990s very well: anyone who questioned the desirability of the euro was effectively shut out of the discussion. Furthermore, if you were an American expressing doubts you were invariably accused of ulterior motives — of being hostile to Europe, or wanting to preserve the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege.”

And his final comment makes something like those implants seem to be the only explanation for ongoing idiocy.

But we’re not having a clear discussion of these options, because European discourse is still dominated by ideas the continent’s elite would like to be true, but aren’t. And Europe is paying a terrible price for this monstrous self-indulgence.

The good thing about the Cold War, I’m sorry to say, is that there was no room for monstrous self-indulgence. But there is now.

Gotham Diary:
Muddling Away From Muddles
17 July 2015

Friday, July 17th, 2015

Writer’s block is not something that I’m familiar with, but I seem to be having a taste of it this morning. It’s very quiet, and it promises to be a quiet day — although I may have lunch with Fossil Darling, Ray Soleil, and Ms NOLA. That wasn’t on the schedule until just now. Loose talk about hanging out at the Museum and seeing the Sargent show coalesced into a plan to gather at lunch, followed by a tour of the exhibition. Fossil and Ray have a concert at seven, so what “hanging out at the Museum” on a Friday afternoon usually means (cocktails on the roof or elsewhere, with a bit of art thrown in if absolutely necessary) is not on offer. Kathleen had thought of joining us — her contribution to the loose talk — but this morning she wondered if she could get away from work before a late dinner. I haven’t made up my mind about anything, but I’m inclined to pass on lunch, because, as I say, it’s quiet, and I’m enjoying the quiet.

But I tremble at the thought of writing about it. Surely there could be no more immediate invitation to bring on more chaos and upheaval.

Signs that I may no longer be capable of managing our personal finances have followed last week’s false alarm about massively overdue rent. Yes, that was a false alarm; the building’s accountants had deposited our rent in an account tied to our old apartment. It was all quickly corrected. But I had menacing robocalls from the mobile phone providers (AT&T for regular phones; Verizon for MiFi) and the cable company, all regarding overdue bills. For the life of me, I couldn’t see that the AT&T bill was overdue, but I paid it by credit over the phone, which means that next months bills will be the higher for it. I had to do the same with the other two accounts, which really were overdue. As sometimes happens, I never received a June bill for the cable, and had not yet got round to paying this month’s bill. (Yes, it’s a bit late in the month to be doing that, but I’ve got excuses as long as my legs.) I haven’t yet figured out what was wrong with the MiFi bill, but I must have missed one a while back, and not noticed it. Sure enough, when I opened the envelope, I discovered that I owed somewhat more that I thought — although not the amount on the statement. It was all a harrying muddle, and I must take full responsibility — mitigated, privately, by that long list of excuses.

Part of the muddle is just me — I was not put on earth to be an accountant. But a greater part, I think, is my search for computer assistance, which, so far as paying bills goes, has tied me to Quicken for over twenty years. In the early days, I liked Quicken a lot; it did just what I wanted it to do, and very little else. Over time, the part of Quicken that is useful to me — printing checks — seemed more and more marginal to the software. Then, last November, there was a horrible snafu, in which six weeks’ worth of data was erased. This was not Quicken’s fault. Rather it was one of those disasters that have become not uncommon in our automated world, in which sooner or later a hitherto unsuspected weak spot in one’s backup procedures is pressed at the wrong time, and gives way. Ordinarily, you learn from the mistake and move on, improving security. But by last November, I was sick to death of Quicken. I also suspected that it lulled me into thinking that it was taking care of things, when of course it knew nothing but what I fed it.

(I ought to point out here that Kathleen has retained serious accountants to prepare our tax returns for years. I don’t have anything to do with the complicated stuff.)

So I began keeping records in Evernote, even though Evernote won’t, so far as I know, add up a column of figures and tell me how much I’ve spent on books or groceries this month. The figures are there, but you have to add them yourself. Well, I thought, that might not be a bad idea. It would engage me more fully in keeping track of our expenses. Of course, I had no habits for being engaged, on a weekdaily basis, with grubby money matters, and I still don’t have very effective ones, but I think I’m on the way. Meanwhile, however, muddle.

The other day, I discovered that you can make checklists with Evernote: a lightbulb moment. Yesterday afternoon, I designed a template for the monthly bills — one with two checkboxes for every account. I check the first box when the bill is received, and I make a note of the amount. I check the second box when the check is written. Since I do this on Evernote, I can manage the list at my household office in the dining ell, and then write checks pursuant to the checklist in the bookroom, where the printer is, without dragging any of the bills or other paperwork from one place to another.

I’m still using Quicken to print checks. I’m looking into Moneydance, but reserving any decision on that until the new way of doing things has established itself, and unexpected phone calls are a thing of the past.

This might seem incredibly trivial, I know, but to me it expresses an important — really rather vitally important, when you get down to it — cognitive problem. I believe that how you work and where you work determines the quality of what you do. There are many people who might disagree. Kathleen, who can work anywhere and under any conditions, is at the same time a crisis worker, almost incapable of dealing with a project unless there is a deadline, and, in the case of personal matters, a past-due deadline. Hating crisis as I do, I’ve always tried to integrate the boring parts into the fun parts, and also to make the boring parts less boring and possibly even fun. There isn’t a lot of practical wisdom out there on this problem, and perhaps there can’t be, because everyone’s integration is going to be unique. I have learned a few things, though.

The reason for my taking personal finance out of the bookroom and into the dining ell, where I sit right next to the kitchen — an arrangement not possible in the old apartment, where there was no dining area, and hence no table near the kitchen — is that personal finance is more like cooking than writing. I don’t mean to suggest that writing is a crisis sort of thing when I way that it does require freedom from distraction. Everybody knows this. It’s not so much the writing that requires it as the thinking behind the writing. Another thing that seems to be well understood is that libraries provide good environments for writing, especially if they’re private and you’re alone in them. Writing in a library encourages a range of broadening and enriching extensions, from the consultation of authorities to the indulgence of literary whims. My conclusion is there ought not to be anything in a writing room that is not conducive to writing.

Personal finance is like keeping the refrigerator in order: it’s much less off-putting if you manage to do a little of it at a time. Avoiding crisis is the secret. Never having too much of it to do at any one time is a blessing. What successful housekeeping comes down to is the clever stage-managing of distractions, where all the distractions are elements of housework. Having just emptied the dishwasher, why not sit down at the table with a cup of tea and open the one or two bills that arrived in the day’s mail, marking them down on a checklist and tucking them in a drawer (always the same drawer, a drawer used for nothing else). Then, sit back and ruminate on menus. Remember to order a 25-pound bag of flour.

Last night, after a long afternoon of paperwork, I made fried chicken, even though I thought I was too tired. I wanted to make it last night because the woman who cleans our bathrooms and the kitchen every other week was due this morning. So, even though fried chicken isn’t the messy production that it used to be, there are spatters, and the routine of wiping down the counters removes the afterodors of frying. (In the event, Sonja was unable to come.) I had bought six pieces of chicken at Agata & Valentina after lunch, and soaked them in buttermilk during the afternoon. Shortly before Kathleen left the office, I dredged the chicken in corn meal, cornstarch, flour, salt, and cayenne pepper (which I’d added to the buttermilk as well). The chicken went into the fridge for about forty minutes, during the latter part of which I heated up a bottle of peanut oil. Peanut oil is the secret of frying. Its fragrance is the lightest, and it does not break down (as canola oil does) at high temperatures.

I fried the chicken for two minutes on a side over high heat. Then for four minutes on one side over moderate heat, and two-and-a-half minutes on the other side. Finally, I left the chicken to cook over low heat for three minutes.

It was delicious. Sometimes, it’s more delicious, but it’s always delicious. Applesauce, cucumber salad, and cobs of corn completed the plates. For dessert, we tucked into a raspberry-lemon tart, also from Agata. We each ate two pieces of chicken, and could not have touched a third, not with the prospect of the tart.

After all that paperwork, cooking was fun.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
16 July 2015

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Ray Soleil just this minute sent me a link, with the following note: “What worries me is that Hitler was also thought a “priceless boob” by the elite of Germany, and look what happened….” Ray and I are on the same page about a lot of things, so I wasn’t surprised when the link took me to a piece of Donald Trump propaganda. (At Daily Kos, of course.) I suppose it could be a hoax, but I am sure that Trump will disavow it as such. Somebody goofed. Some bright young intern was tasked with finding an archival image of World War II-era soldiers, and he did what he was told, only the soldiers are Wehrmacht, not GIs. (The actual stock photo that was used suggests to me that there are Wehrmacht re-enactors.) I don’t know where Ray got the “priceless boob” line — it doesn’t crop up on the Daily Kos page, but it certainly fits, and, yes, it worries me, too — although it’s difficult to deny that the Donald has been a member of the American élite since he was a kid.

I’m not worried about another Hitler. There will never be another Hitler — Timur Vermes’s hilarious and almost plausible satire notwithstanding. Every political malefactor in Western history has developed his or her own brand of poison, to which everyone at the time was susceptible. The next “Hitler” won’t look or act anything like our Adolf.

But there will always be élites. What worries me — and I’m not saying this for the first time; it’s pretty much the fundamental anxiety of this writer — is the difficulty that élites have when it comes to understanding everybody else. The élite of the ancien régime in France, of course, failed to see the need to understand anybody else, and that’s why the ancien régime ended at the guillotine. Since then, it has become clear that one of the problems of democracy is that there are still élites. Democracy does not level the field. It is arguable that the citizens of a democracy don’t even want it to — Americans are particularly resistant to “class warfare.” Democracies still require the services of governors and capitalists. Most people, it turns out, aren’t all that interested in public affairs. All they ask is that things be “okay.”

It is very hard, if you live among the élite, to know what “okay” means. The problem is that few members of the élite are willing to try to find out — as if the French ancien régime had not ended as it did.

Benefits and burdens are distributed unequally in our modern democracies. (Totalitarian attempts to even things out have failed dismally.) I believe, however, that it makes sense to assume that they are distributed isostatically. What I mean by this is that everyone gets roughly the same amount of both. Big piles of benefits for the élite, yes; but also big piles of burdens. Now, here is a structural problem with élites: they use their benefits to offload the burdens. (This is what Trump did when he hired some doofus to create a banner.) They pay other people to do the things that they don’t want to do — the burdens. But determining what hoi polloi mean by “okay” is a non-delegable duty. You have to think for yourself. You can’t hire a consultancy that it is in the business of telling you what you want to hear.

The oldest problem with democracy, the one that ruled it out as a viable political form for the thinkers of classical antiquity, is its vulnerability to demagogues. Demagogues — and Donald Trump has always been one — stoke grievances. Anger can be very clarifying when it comes time to take political action. Trump appeals to non-élite white men who play golf, and to women who devote themselves to taking care of and enduring such men. Not to mention the men who would play golf if they could afford it. I can’t explain the link between golf and Trump, but it might have something to do with the elegant simplicity of the game — just a serious of strokes. You do the same thing over and over again, making minor adjustments for circumstances. Very minor adjustments.

Trump does the same thing over and over. Unlike the other Republican Party hopefuls, he does not wallow in policy. He doesn’t have a coherent program, a strategy for “starving the beast” or clearing the American stables of the “takers'” 47%. He says: America used to be great. Let’s be great again. He means: the United States won World War II, but it rewarded its soldiers with a unilateral and highly unpopular expansion of “civil rights.” Let’s undo that.

Trump is not proposing to chop off the heads of businessmen who sent our manufacturing jobs out of the country in order to maximize profits, incidentally keeping the number of golfers low. His intended audience wouldn’t listen. Contrary to everything that the Chicago School of economics insists upon, voters are nowhere near as interested in money as they are in pride. Their toes got stepped on in the Sixties and Seventies, and they’re sore about never having been offered an apology.

The Civil Rights movement is understood by too many progressives as a good thing that was long overdue — period. They don’t ask why it happened when it did. That’s to say that they don’t see it as a campaign in the Cold War. In the postwar world, the United States was richer and mightier than any other land — but this only made the spectacle of Jim Crow more embarrassing. All the other countries, of whatever political stripe, could say, “Yes, America is rich and powerful. But look at the South!” And now that the formerly isolationist United States stood tall in the global eye, it had to confront what it had managed to ignore, the denial of full citizenship (and, worse, of civil decency) to African Americans, former slaves who even now had not attained freedom. There had always been American opposition to Jim Crow, but Dixiecrats in Congress managed to marginalize it. Lyndon Johnson, who ought to have been one of them, upended the Dixiecrats’ hegemony. Johnson fought hard to reduce the influence of bigots in national affairs so that the United States would be as respectable as it was mighty.

Like so many Cold War initiatives, however — like the Cold War initiative that crippled Johnson’s effectiveness as a “Great Society” leader, the misadventure in Vietnam — the Civil Rights reforms were misguided. They shared, as so many Cold War policies did, the totalitarian preference for top-down edicts. They were ultimatums. The virtues of their objectives were occluded by the obnoxiousness of their enforcement. And Richard Nixon, who followed Johnson in the White House, knew just how to exploit the ensuing resentment, without appearing to backtrack on Civil Rights at all!

Am I afraid of Donald Trump in the White House? Not until I find out who his running mate is, if it comes to that. Meanwhile, progressives ought to be asking why Trump is so popular, and answering the question without resorting to variations on the word “stupid.”

Gotham Diary:
New Forms
15 July 2015

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

“New forms!” wails Konstantin. Doesn’t he? It’s just about all I remember from The Seagull. (I am not a fan of Chekhov — there, I said it.) Among other things, I find Konstantin unspeakably tedious, and, until yesterday, his call for new artistic forms expressed nothing more than the emotional acne of adolescence.

I still don’t think much of Konstantin, but I do see that we are very much in the middle of developing new forms. There’s no need to wish for them; they’re taking shape as we write.

I touched yesterday on the problem of fiction and nonfiction. What is the difference, anyway? It seems to depend on the context. In a New York Times news story, we expect that every statement refers to a documented actuality: this happened here, and that person said or did that. An incidental indicator of a news story’s veracity is its clunkiness. It takes a while for all the actualities that are involved whenever something happens to sort themselves out. And the process by which they do sort themselves out — a process that takes place in our minds — is the same process that enables novelists to create their fictions. A magazine article about an event, written weeks or months later, with plenty of time for reflection and consideration, is already halfway to fiction.

History is the story that we tell ourselves about what happened, and the story changes over time. Most people don’t read enough history, over a long period of time, to realize that history has its fashions just like everything else. History has its own history. Now, the vernacular view of shifts in historical accounts is that history written today is better than older histories; historians are always working hard to get things right. So today’s history is true, it is nonfiction. But this is a short-sighted simplification. It is true that historians endeavor to stick to actualities. But the weight that they assign to different actualities, the emphasis that they place on certain parts of the story, does not reflect an actuality. It cannot. The most important kind of statement that history makes — this is more important than that — is an actuality only in the sense that the judgment took place in someone’s mind.

(An interesting difference between history and fiction occurs to me. In a novel, a character might suddenly realize that he has fallen in love. The historian will confine himself to the time and place of the wedding — with perhaps a word or two about the bride.)

The tension between fact and fiction is mirrored in another avenue of literature. Along this avenue, as we might say, the fronts of the houses present those rational judgments about the world to which we give the names criticism and autobiography, while the more relaxed rear ends deal in feelings and memoir. Until very recently, each end had a strong gender association, which I hope I don’t need to spell out. These days, a lot of street-fronts are being remodeled to look more like memoirs. It used to be absolutely forbidden for a critic to interject a note of personal feeling. Feelings were thought to be an unmanly weakness, and an impertinence as well. Nobody was interested in anybody else’s feelings! But now we understand that feelings are where everything begins with us.

We also understand — see my entry on World Theory — that nothing in the world is permanent without us. The Japanese rebuild the temple at Nara at regular intervals, and regard it as over a thousand years old. The Tour Eiffel and the Empire State Building look like they’re built to last forever, but neither would survive a century of absolute neglect. The mere existence of the greatest book in the world, whatever you think that might be, depends on its readers’ ability to convince other people to read it. For some reason, a lot of men have trouble accepting this contingency. They want to believe that, once a thing is made, whether it’s a skyscraper or a novel, it’s “out there in the world,” leading its own life, forever. This might tell us why such men would make terrible mothers, but I still can’t quite explain it. Why do some men seem happiest when they’re done with something?

Feelings are no longer irrelevant or impertinent. “Objectivity” is a fairy tale. The value of a piece of criticism doesn’t lie as much in the rigor of its logical analysis as it does in the emotional responses that inspired it. I don’t want to read criticism that hides this essential information; I want to know how the critic feels. Criticism must therefore be infused with memoir.

For example, I don’t think that I should have engaged so deeply with Edward Mendelson’s views on the work and character of William Maxwell if I had not rather sloppily mistaken him for Daniel Mendelsohn. I admire Daniel Mendelsohn, although I never fully agree with him. I read and enjoy his pieces knowing that I am not going to agree with a lot of what he says. So it was not alarming to find that I disagreed with much of what Edward Mendelson had to say. And it made perfect sense that Mendelson held Maxwell’s fables in high esteem; I should expect Mendelsohn to do the same. I used to do the same thing myself. (I still love the fables, but I don’t want to write about them until I’ve read them all, re-reading the ones that I love in the process.)

It did surprise me that the tone of Mendelson’s piece was unkind — until I woke up to the fact that it wasn’t by Mendelsohn.


In the last two or three years, I have ever more consciously striven to write entries that blend memoir and criticism as seamlessly as I can. This means that many entries are too teachy-preachy for readers who like stories, while others are too ephemeral for readers who are discomfited by the personal. It’s a good thing that I’m used to feeling like Edith Wharton — too fashionable for Boston, too intellectual for New York.

I don’t expect to change readers’ minds, but I do hope to leave behind an example.

Reading Note:
The Thread So Far
14 July 2015

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

It seems to have started with Kate Bolick’s Spinster, which I read in late April. Bolick prompted me to look into Maeve Brennan, the New Yorker‘s Long-Winded Lady. At about the same time, Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, came out.

It was that conjunction, that accidental pairing of two New Yorker writers (who formed a sort of pair in real life) that made the magazine, and not any particular writer, my new center of gravity. I read Kunkel’s earlier biography of Harold Ross, the magazine’s founding editor, and from this I learned the measure of Ross’s industry, his devotion to The New Yorker as expressed in hours reading proofs and launching queries that, sometimes, reflected a good deal of sophisticated knowledgeability. I explored Wolcott Gibbs and A J Liebling, who were no longer writing for The New Yorker when I began to read it, but whose prose styles are still recognizable as templates for today’s magazine. I read Gardner Botsford’s memoir, and want to read it again. I dug up a copy of Here at The New Yorker, only to find that I am still as allergic to Brendan Gill’s chatty complacency as I was when it came out. Turning in the other direction, I decided to re-read The Château, and I have been lost in the work of William Maxwell ever since.

Which brings me to Barbara Burkhardt’s William Maxwell: A Literary Life. Burkhardt struck up a friendship with Maxwell while she was writing her dissertation on his novels, and he chose her to help organize his papers and shepherd them to the University of Illinois, the school they had in common. Her book is solid and I daresay reliable, but it is also somewhat academic, given to repeating key words and prone to slightly fatuous claims, such as that each of Maxwell’s books constituted an important step in his development. I’d withhold my complaints altogether if there were another book about Maxwell, more focused on his life and on his career as a New Yorker editor, but,  if there is, I don’t know about it.

The ground for my renewed interest in Maxwell — I had something of a crush on him in college, and sometimes that’s fatal, not because you outgrow a writer but because you don’t know that you’ve grown up, that he or she is no longer the same writer who appealed to your youth; for years, I wrongly thought that I “knew” Maxwell — was prepared by Philippa Beauman’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor, when I had a crush on her, a few years ago. Beauman quoted many letters between Taylor and Maxwell, who was almost her only editor; her stories were published in The New Yorker or they weren’t published at all. I began to see Maxwell in a different light, and I’d like to see more. But Maxwell’s career as an editor is not really in Burkhardt’s brief. You can learn more about Maxwell’s life from the Chronology that editor Christopher Carduff has appended to the Library of America volumes. It’s from that source that I learned the answer to two questions that I couldn’t stop itching: where, exactly, on East 86th Street did Maxwell and his family live (544); and whether the Maxwell girls, Kate and Brookie went to the Brearley (they did — or at least Kate started out at Kindergarten there). Christopher Carduff, by the way, has brought all of Maeve Brennan’s stories back into print. Hats off!

I’ve even been roaming The New Yorker archives, fishing out two stories that Carduff declined to include in the LoA books. The first one, “Never To Hear Silence,” was published in 1937. It is brief but painful: a young scientist whose work has been invalidated by an innocent error has to listen to his wife’s nonstop advice about what to do about it. The young man’s problems clearly surpass his troubles at the lab: he has married the wrong woman, and cemented his mistake with two children. There is a slightness about the story, relative to Maxwell’s other stories, that explains Carduff’s decision; but I’d have included it anyway, because it attracted the interest of Louise Bogan, the poetry editor at The New Yorker, and she became one of the several mentors who helped William Maxwell become himself. The story is also quite short.

My other catch is more doubtful, and has no place in the LoA. When it appeared, in 1964, it was signed “Gifford Brown,” a pseudonym that Maxwell used whenever he was writing about his older brother, or some other person who might take offense. Edward Mendelson mentions it in the NYRB essay that I touched on yesterday.

One omitted story, “The News of the Week in Review” (1964), is an acid portrait of a neighbor in Westchester, where Maxwell had a country house. He published the story under the name Gifford Brown, a pseudonym he used when he didn’t want neighbors or relatives to notice the unpleasant things he was writing about them. The secular saint portrayed by Maxwell’s friends could never have written it, but the real Maxwell did.

I don’t know what Maxwell is up to here. I’m not entirely sure that I can attach the “acid portrait” to the right character. Is it Reinhold, the garrulous neighbor who asks to have the narrator’s Sunday Times if he’s done with it, or Weidler, an off-stage figure with whom Reinhold is engaged in a dispute about the posting of roadside mailboxes? This mailbox imbroglio reminded me of many such trivial crises during my time on Candlewood Lake, but I can’t see choking a story out of it, unless it’s to point out how trivial rural crises can be. (The story betrays many signs of the animosity between country people and encroaching suburbanites.) Nor could I discern the feelings of the narrator about any of this. Of course, I read the story contentiously myself, aiming not to enjoy it but to determine if Mendelson is making any sense, and I’m not sure that he is. It’s all a muddle. Clouding the whole business is Maxwell’s use of the pseudonym, which indicates that even he took it all too seriously.

Whether, when I’ve gone through all of Maxwell (whether or not that means re-reading They Came Like Swallows and The Folded Leaf), I’ll continue this New Yorker thread is hard to say. With Maxwell, the atmosphere is quiet, not effervescent with intoxicated anecdotes. Maxwell does not inspire questions about who slept with whom. That sort of gossip is never interesting for very long, and without some altogether new tidbit it is simply unappetizing. Maxwell’s questions take the opposite direction. What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction — that sort of thing.

During the Cold War, the line between fiction and nonfiction was closely policed. That’s part of why books like In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song were thought to be so challenging when they were published. What they challenged was that line. The line has been effaced, but not the widespread feeling that it ought to be there. Children of the scientific revolution, we like to know  whether what we’re being told is actual or hypothetical. This does not, however, capture the difference between what we mean by “true” and “false,” which are much bigger, more complicated words. The vulgar association of truth with actuality is a failing that springs from the natural hostility of the commercial mind to the unbridled imagination.

In our spoken dealings with each other, it is probably best to be frank about what we know to be the case. Writing, however, requires more testing. Almost everything that is written down is a kind of history, a claim that something did or didn’t happen. What thinking minds have discovered in recent years is that the fictional can be true. Middlemarch is true in a way that no history of England at the time of the Reform Bill could possibly be. We have come to see the virtues of touching up accounts of actual occurrences with fictional devices, some of them as innocent as the stitching together into one speech of internally consistent remarks made by one person on two occasions, some of them a lot more inventive. One of the purposes of education is to provide readers with the ability to gauge how close the alignment of actuality and truth ought to be in any given case.

William Maxwell’s work teaches us that truth and falsity are not philosophical absolutes, at least not for the likes of us mortals. They will help us to distinguish what happened from what didn’t only indirectly, by calling on things that we know that are not part of the story. Why else should I find that what Maxwell says happened in Lincoln, Illnois in the winter of 1918-19 is interesting? There are still people who believe that fiction is a waste of time because it’s “just made up.” But made up of what? Great literature is made up of truth. In that regard, it all really happened.

Reading Note:
Finding Fault
13 July 2015

Monday, July 13th, 2015

Which way is up?

Over the weekend, which I devoted just about exclusively to reading William Maxwell (or reading about him), I discovered an essay from The New York Review of Books that I missed when it appeared, in 2010. Edward Mendelson writes à propos of the Library of America publication, in two volumes, of the bulk of Maxwell’s fiction — the very books that I have been leafing through. Less than attentive, I confused Mendelson with Daniel Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn is a classicist who writes about popular entertainment as well, and I was piqued to find that he was taking a look at Maxwell, who wouldn’t seem to fit beneath any of his rubrics (a third being the problem of the gay artist). Except he wasn’t: it was Edward Mendelson, without the second ‘s’ but also without the ‘h,’ who was going after Maxwell.

The NYRB essay, entitled “The Perils of His Magic Circle,” provides an occasion for Mendelson to discredit literature that refuses to take moral stands. Maxwell is made out to be something other than the “saintly” mentor who glows forth from every page of what can only be called a tribute album, A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch. Here, Maxwell is a magus, a high priest of “low church” modernism whose highly autobiographical fiction paints an unflattering self-portrait, but whose friends were too charmed by his manner to realize that he was exploiting them. Mendelson quotes a passage from the story, “Over By the River,” which I was going to write about anyway. Maxwell’s stand-in, George Carrington, looks at himself in the mirror while shaving.

There was a fatal flaw in his character: Nobody was ever as real to him as he was to himself. If people knew how little he cared whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.

To Mendelson, this is the self-indictment of moral depravity. But I don’t read it that way at all. It is not a confession, a positive admission of social bankruptcy. It is a feeling, sentimentally unsentimental, that, Edward Mendelson aside, we all have, whenever we’re confronted with the absolutely isolated doom of our bodies. (That George should think this while shaving makes perfect sense to me: what could be more Sisyphean than beginning every day with a razor?) There is a part of us that couldn’t care more whether other people live or die if it wanted to, because it simply doesn’t see them. It doesn’t hear, feel, or smell them, either. It is lodged deep in the gut and it feeds on weariness. That’s not all there is to us, of course, but it’s there, always.

“Over By the River,” a story that it took Maxwell many years to write, or, rather, I should say, many years to arrange to his satisfaction, is a nosegay of vignettes. Some of the blossoms show off the two little Carrington girls, who are prone to nightmares (the younger one especially) and to everlasting colds. Their parents, Iris and George, are comically perplexed by parenthood: no one is as responsible for their daughters’ welfare as they are, but no one is less equipped to take care of them. There is always an expert — a doctor, a teacher, perhaps even Jimmy, the elevator man — who knows more about how to make the Carringtons’ world work than the Carringtons do themselves. You might say that they don’t even know how to be grown-ups. In one odd, almost misfit scene, George finds himself at a penthouse cocktail party, helplessly tossed between the tedious and the tantalizing possibilities of casual chit-chat.

The story’s setting is the Carrington’s Upper East Side apartment and the neighborhood in which it sits. The Carrington’s address is 1 Gracie Square, a few blocks from where I’m writing. Its immediate neighborhood, which stretches along the East River from Gracie Mansion, at 88th Street, to the Brearley School, at 83rd, comprises Carl Schurz Park, Finley Walk, and the East End Avenue remainder of the old Henderson Place. Regular readers will have seen many photographs of this neighborhood over the years. I can think of no piece of fiction more densely packed with details that are personally familiar to me.

And that’s what “Over By the River” is, a collection of details before which states of mind are fanned out. There is no plot. Maxwell’s disdain for plots is, for Mendelson, another sign of moral deficiency. He writes,

All of Maxwell’s novels have a story but no plot. A plot is the means by which fiction portrays the consequences of actions, but it is not like a pool table; one event never mechanically causes another. In a plot each event provokes other events by making it possible for them to happen—possible but not inevitable, because human beings are always free to choose their response to provocation. Maxwell succumbed to an error common among writers who, as he did, organize their work for the finest possible rhythms and textures: the error of thinking of plot as mechanical and therefore trivial. As he explained to John Updike: “Plot, shmot.”

And then, concentrating this point somewhat,

He was incapable of thinking about erotic and moral choices for the same reason he was contemptuous about plot: he cared about art and the past, not about choices that might shape the future.

William Maxwell was certainly a fatalist. We are brought into this world without being aware of it, and we are subjected to Hamlet’s slings and arrows. We grow up to have personalities that seem little less determined than our skeletal peculiarities. Stuff happens, much of it awful. And yet Mendelson overlooks, in this condemnation of Maxwell’s lack of vision, the very choice that he damns elsewhere: Maxwell’s pursuit of a literary career.

Maxwell’s friends make vague, veiled allusions to the emotional price his wife and daughters paid for his ascetic devotion to art.

Maxwell was always thinking about choices that might shape the future. They just weren’t Mendelson’s choices.

Which way is up? Reading Maxwell is always agreeable: the man writes very well, and his judgment is sound. But where is he taking me? Through the pages of his little hobby, yet another History of Logan County, Illinois? To the corner of an overfurnished room in which we listen, as in Proust, for the sound of a beloved mother’s voice, and the delicious rustle of her skirts? Into the mind of an affable young man in need of psychoanalysis? And what about this suggestion of Mendelson’s, that Maxwell was not really a good man?

And is it important to answer any of these questions?

Journal of Creaks:
The Best Part
10 July 2015

Friday, July 10th, 2015

There’s no denying that I’ve become a lousy neighbor on the Web. Writing a thousand words or more every weekday, I read almost nothing. There is a pile-up of entangled explanations; what cannot be said is that I simply “got out of the habit” of reading other people’s blogs (such as remain). One of those explanations has to do with a very particular cause of Web fatigue.

I call it nailbiting, because it’s that unattractive — and pointless. Here is a précis of the idle complaint that I have read Enough, Already!

OMG, I can’t read anymore, can’t pay attention to a book, I’m always checking my email and Twitter and Instagram and don’t get me started on the YouTubes. The other day, I was so distracted texting that I walked into a cop. Assaulting an officer, he said! I know I should stop, but I can’t, I can’t! Now I’ve got a deadline for a ten-thousand word piece that will be universally TL/DR’d. Why go on?

For a long time, I responded to these lamentations with sardonic snorts. I get very little interesting email. (I have two Gmail accounts, one of them very successfully limited to long-form correspondents — people who respond at length. A week can go by without anything at all showing up in this account’s inbox.) I gave up on Twitter almost as soon as I signed up — I simply don’t understand it. Facebook can be fun; I rarely update, but I like to make snappy comments. Facebook is also vital for family connections. But it does not take very much time. I turn to it more or less the way I turn to FreeCell — to unwind, or to pass a small fragment of time. As for my phone, it does not ring very often; some days, it does not ring at all. I use the phone to check out the weather, to send the odd where-are-you-now text, and to set a timer for the laundry. An alarm rings at 9:45 every morning to remind me to take my pills.

I used to think, the quiet life is so lovely, so easy, so — quiet. What’s the matter with these young people?

For a clever guy, I can be pretty dumb. I am always urging people to remember the role of luck in our lives, and to resist taking 100% credit for successes, but that apparently didn’t stop me from feeling gratified about finally figuring out how to live a well-ordered life, even if I am at death’s door, more or less. (Everybody my age is.) In fact, I didn’t figure anything out. I did what I’ve always done: I followed my body. My body, now ancient and no longer restless, likes a quiet life.

It’s true that I myself have always wanted a quiet life — that’s why I’m feeling so “successful.” But my younger body had other plans. It wanted to go out at night. It found bars to be exciting, even interesting places (!). It was morbidly convinced that something tremendously memorable was happening somewhere else. The parts of my younger brain that were responsible for speech were not well integrated, leading to remarks that ought to have been catastrophic.

Now my younger body has become my older body, and I enjoy peace and quiet at last.

The moral of this story is:

(a) Stop with the nailbiting. Stop complaining about your addiction to social media. It’s normal! In his column today, David Brooks writes, “Being online is like being a part of the greatest cocktail party ever and it is going on all the time.” Yes! That’s the way it is! I shudder to think what I’d have made of myself if this cocktail party had been going on in the days of my younger body. We are living in an age of speakeasies, and to know the address is to know the password. Just remember: You’ll grow out of it. Well, your body will.

(b) Bear in mind that youth=unripeness=immaturity, age=ripeness=maturity. Do not struggle for maturity when you are only thirty. Strive to build good habits by all means, but do not imagine that you have achieved maturity prematurely! You really shouldn’t want to: premature maturity is often pretty sad. Maturity comes only with experience. Experience is not fun; it is not the same thing as “experiences.” It involves a wearying passage of time. But you’ll find that out for yourself. What I’m really saying is this: try to stay alive so that you can enjoy the best part.

(c) The best part is also the worst part. You will be, after all, at death’s door. Your body will be falling apart and giving you a lot of grief. You will spend an itself-sickening amount of time with doctors. All that aside, it is still the best part.

(d) Ergo, take it from me!

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Clerical Error
9 July 2015

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

For a few days, I pray, it is going to be very quiet around here. Kathleen has flown up to Maine for her annual vacation/bucolic spa retreat/collapse. She stays with old friends; they were camp counselors together, back in the early Seventies. (They were all campers together before that.) Two of them have houses on a nearby lake (it’s called a “pond”); a third alumna has a house right across the much bigger lake from the old camp. Now that they’re all respectable matrons, they find themselves roped in for an afternoon, or even a full day, of volunteer housekeeping; last year, they squared away the meeting house and museum. The owner of the camp, a grandson of the man who ran it when they were girls, is a little bit afraid of them; it seems that Kathleen’s cohort is unique in keeping watch from a nearby vantage.

I always wonder what the current campers make of them, although I’m sure that it involves the usual reactions: a bit of shuddering, and a determination never to “look like that.” Plus, how weird is it that the old broads know all the songs. Could they really have been young once, too? Meanwhile, Kathleen and her friends laugh over old scrapes and near-scandals that the youngsters, to hear them, would turn pale as the high moon.

But the important thing is that Kathleen is allowed to sleep unconscionably late, and to take naps before meals — to the preparation of which she is called upon to contribute nothing.

Kathleen almost always packs for a trip after dinner. If it’s a short business trip, or a weekend with her father in North Carolina, the packing takes a few hours. If it’s for a longer trip, and she has just, say, changed the place of her employment, and her brain is fully occupied churning out a manic stock ticker full of unfamiliar symbols, packing takes longer, and is somewhat frenetic. I didn’t complain or say anything, but I was a nervous wreck by the time she crawled into bed. I myself am a very organized packer: I know where everything is; I always take the same things and proceed in the same order, and I am always done much sooner than I expect to be. But that’s because I used to be like Kathleen, or perhaps much worse, and had to reform or die. When Kathleen packs the way she did last night, I’m clawed back to the bad old days, as if by the ghost of Christmas Missed. It’s too awful.

As further proof that my blameless way of life is no protection, this morning, shortly after Kathleen called to say that she had landed safely and so on, the house phone rang. I don’t like it when the house phone rings, unless I’m waiting for Chinese delivery or a case of Absolut. I have nothing to fear from the FBI or the KGB, but I’m a fervent dreader of the Wrong Man scenario — the nightmare of which is always heralded by an unexpected doorbell — in our case, the doorman calling on the house phone. The doorman on duty is new, and I haven’t worked out his accent yet (it’s not Latino), so I didn’t fully understand him, but I gathered that a Mrs Somebody from “our office” wanted to come up to the apartment. In thirty-five years’ residence in this building, no one from”the office” has ever visited our apartment. Within seconds, I was little more than a gaggle of chattering bones. In the middle of writing a letter, I found that I could not type, I was shaking so badly. Mrs Somebody kept failing to ring the doorbell, giving me more than enough time to make the bed — really, too much more.

Then Kathleen called again. Trying to tell her what was going on, while trembling all the more with gratitude for having her at the other end of the phone, I was barely more comprehensible than Leporello announcing the Stone Guest. She kept insisting that it would be all right, but I recognized this as yet another herald of the Wrong Man scenario.

The house phone rang once more. This time, it was Mrs Somebody herself. Her voice was vaguely familiar. I asked what the trouble was, and she said that she didn’t like to discuss it in the lobby — because, of course, you can’t use the house phone from the office, you have to go out to the doorman’s desk — but she did let on that the problem was “our account.” Could I come downstairs and talk about it? I said I’d be right down. I grabbed a blank check and a Post-It and headed for the elevator.

A few months ago, while I was paying the bills, I noticed that an inexplicable “past due” figure, in the amount of $7000, was appearing at the bottom of our rent bill. What could that mean? And why weren’t we being hounded about it? In the old days — but then, Helmsley Spear did know what they were doing — a shaming notice would have been slipped under our door by the twentieth of the month. I asked Kathleen to talk to the office about it (because I’m a chickenshit when it comes to the office, as my paroxyms of shaking betrayed), but she had too many other things on her mind.

But our problem wasn’t the $7000. The nice woman who keeps the office humming directed me to a glassed-in conference room, where I was joined by another nice woman, the one who showed us the apartments that we might take in the lieu of the one that we should have to leave. So this was Mrs Somebody! Perhaps she had remarried. We sat down and I asked what the problem was. She showed me a piece of paper with a table on it. I didn’t really understand the table until it was no longer necessary, but she told me that we had not paid rent in April, May, or June. When I said, basically, What?, she scrunched her face and said, “I know, it’s so weird, you’re always so punctual.”

I wrote out the check for the July rent, which I had intended to hand in tomorrow, and assured Mrs S that I would produce copies of the canceled checks for April, May, and June, which I had written and mailed and which I’d ticked off a list in conference with Kathleen, who, every couple of days, reviews our banking situation. The checks had all cleared; somebody other than us had that money. As I explained this (because we are so punctual &c), the pressure dropped to normal. There was no longer an emergency, with eviction notices and sheriff’s tape lurking in the background. I went back upstairs quite relieved. I called Kathleen to tell her how things had worked out, and she agreed to contact the bank later this afternoon.

When I hung up, I realized that I’d forgotten to make a note of the rent payment’s check number — that’s why I had taken the Post-It. Too dizzy to think of anything else to do, I went back downstairs to the office. After a minute, Mrs S came forward and told me the number. I thanked her and left. Then, out in the hallway, as I was about to press the elevator button, she called me back. “You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “They were crediting the money to your old apartment.”

She’s a nice lady. She didn’t apologize for the misunderstanding, but this is New York. Her smile made me whole.

And, now, can we please be quiet for a few days?

What’s the Question?
8 July 2015

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

A friend has sent me a recent law review article on the subject of same-sex marriage. My friend, who is married to another man, with whom he is the father of two children, tells me that many of his gay friends find the article offensive, although he does not. I look forward to reading it this weekend. I really do, too, because the very first footnote, which I couldn’t help glancing at, mentions the old Consistory Court, an English body that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the church (later the Church of England) had its own court system, and was deferred to by the civil courts in the determination of essentially ecclesiastical matters.

Just seeing the word got my fountain of youth burbling. A long time ago and far away, I spent a good part of my days with folios dating from the end of the Seventeenth Century, and smaller books even older than that, in my study of the medieval handling of the question of bastardy.

All my materials are somewhere in storage, so I can’t quote from the old books (lucky you), which were written in Law French anyway. Every so often, it is pleasant to think how very, very, very different legal practices were in the days of Edward II (1307-1327) — and yet perfectly recognizable as English.

Given that land was the most valuable thing under the sun, most lawsuits contested the ownership of real estate; and since real estate was owned by rich people, property law was complicated. We’re not going to go into that, though; we’re simply going to consider the report of a case. You probably won’t be surprised to find that it is not headed, Smith v Jones. What you might find surprising is that the report ends without telling you who won, Smith or Jones. It is not that the outcome of the case was of no earthly interest to the lawyers, but simply that the outcome was determined by the pleadings — which you can read in the report.

The report is in fact nothing but a dialogue between various named persons. Over time, the student of these materials learns which persons are the lawyers and which the judges. (Over time, some lawyers become judges — it’s practically Rumpole.) The dialogue is an argument that constitutes the pleadings. Now, pleadings in today’s world are thickish documents full of the allegations stating the grounds for a lawsuit. They will be proved or disproved at trial. In the old days, pleadings were an argument about how to frame a question. In medieval practice, this question, which would be asked of a jury (what we today call witnesses), pretty much determined how the actual trial would be run, and sometimes where. The lawyers, arguing in Westminster Hall at the beginning of the proceedings, tried to get one another to slip up and say something that would settle the question to be asked. Contentions about bastards provide an illuminating example.

The common law of England and the teachings of the Church differed on the matter of bastardy. Originally, Christian leaders did not acknowledge the stain of bastardy at all, which certainly does seem to be a “Christian” way of refusing to judge children by the sins of their parents. But in the Eleventh Century, it was seen that something must be done about priests who were leaving their parishes to their sons. (Yes!) Since a priest wasn’t supposed to get married, he could not have legitimate children, and if only legitimate children were allowed to enter the priesthood, then the undesirable practice would be stopped, albeit by a circuitous route. By the Fourteenth Century, ecclesiastical jurists in England agreed with their civil brothers that children born out of wedlock were bastards, illegitimate, whatever. But. The Church held that bastardy could be cured by the subsequent marriage of the parents. And why not? If the point of the exercise was to keep the sons of priests out of the priesthood, and a priest could never get married, then a cure was perfectly reasonable — desirable, in fact.

The common law still doesn’t agree, however. Its thinking on this point is still governed by considerations of honour. Just ask the Hon Benjamin George Lascelles, cousin to Her Majesty the Queen. When he was born, at Bath in 1978, his parents were not married. They did get married the following year, and in 1980 they had a second son, Alexander Edgar Lascelles. It is Alexander, not his older brother, who is in line to become the next Earl of Harewood.

Let’s say that Benjamin took possession of the family seat. Alexander would come into court and claim that possession ought to be his. Benjamin’s lawyers would argue that he was the eldest son of the previous tenant. Alexander’s would counter that his parents were married after the birth of Benjamin: puis né. That would be the Gotcha moment. The judge would instruct the clerk to issue a summons. Jurors — men of local importance presumed to know what was what — would swear to answer the question truthfully. In this case, they would agree that Benjamin’s parents were married after he was born, and the estate would go to Alexander.

Observe that what we call lawyers and what we call witnesses never intersected. The lawyers were in London. The witnesses were everywhere else.

It was also accepted that civil courts ought to leave ecclesiastic issues to the ecclesiastical courts. The mention of certain words would trigger an automatic change of venue, from civil to ecclesiastical courts. “Bastard” was such a word. In the case of Benjamin and Alexander, the one thing that Alexander’s lawyer must never do would be to state that Benjamin was a bastard. If he did, the case would be sent to the priests, who of course would decide, in accord with Church teachings, that Benjamin was not a bastard, because his parents did get married eventually. Benjamin would remain in possession.

Alexander would be happy to learn that the jurisdiction of today’s Consistory Court is limiting to the disciplining of clerics.

Gotham Diary:
Relics of Friendship
7 July 2015

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Boys don’t need much of an excuse to get on well together, if they get on at all.

William Maxwell drops this observation into the third chapter of his final novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow. When I read it for the first time, just last week, this was where I took a break, so that it was the last thing I read and then the first. What does it mean? Or, rather, how did it fit my own life? It wasn’t that I didn’t get on at all. But I did seem to need some sort of excuse to carry things further, to the point of getting on well — friendship. My lack of friends was, of course, thought to be a bad thing by everyone. One must have friends! But I needed something else more than I needed friends, or, rather, something that I had to have before I could have friends. I could never have said, at the time, what this was. Now I can, and quite easily. What I needed before I could have friends was adulthood, or at any rate my own version of it. I needed my way of thinking, my familiarity with history and the arts. I needed to know where we all were. Once I had that, I was ready to make friends with anyone who saw things from a similar perspective.

What I’ve just written is the result of a week’s puzzling. A week of noticing Maxwell’s observation as it flitted in and out of consciousness. A few other things came to mind as well, including two childhood connections that might or might not merit the name of friendship. One of them lasted a lot longer than the other, which I doubt lasted a year. They overlapped in 1958 or 1959, when my family lived on Hathaway Road in Bronxville PO, technically Eastchester.


Tony Frascati was the older son, and oldest child, of Dr Frascati, a short, round, gentle but frequently exasperated Italian-American. The exasperation was often caused by Tony, who, unlike his little brother and sister, took after his mother: he was tall and trim and brilliantly handsome. Mrs Frascati was just plain Italian, but that was the only plain thing about her. She was a war bride. I’m quite sure that, in Italian terms, she was a perfectly respectable girl. But she was also a beautiful woman. I see that now. At the time, she was the weirdest human being I had ever met. Aside from a very dreary string of Russian building superintendants and dour German cleaning ladies, she was my first European, and she was vibrantly alive to a degree that my mother, and ladies like her, would never have permitted.

She thought I was pretty weird, too, I think. I remember her looking at me with a kindly squint. I liked to read too much. Well, everyone said that, but, coming from her, it was more of a question. She was the only person who seemed potentially interested in finding out why I read so much. (In my experience, the answer to this question, where children under the age of ten or eleven are concerned, is always the same: escape. My years of reading for pleasure lay in the future.) For a big boy, I sat too quietly and tried too hard to be polite — unlike Tony, who was a noisy shining prince. Efforts at politeness were most severely taxed whenever my visits intersected with mealtime. It would be years before olive oil and garlic and artichokes and salamis that would never be found at Gristede’s would cease to be as exotically unappetizing as, say, popping a writhing little octopus into my mouth. Mrs Frascati, wearing something between a housecoat and a peignoir, her blondish hair pinned up in an improvisation, would walk around the table, putting dishes in front of us while we sat. Mangia, she would urge. I knew what this meant, because I had just started taking French lessons.

There was nothing cosmopolitan about my encounters with Mrs Frascati. She and her kitchen and her dishes were all fascinating, certainly, but they also made me uncomfortable. They were simply too unusual. I might, in a few years, be complaining about the homogeneity of life in the Holy Square Mile, but as a boy I was acclimatized, and all but addicted, to it. For her part, Mrs Frascati was untroubled about being unusual: she was simply being Italian. Her house might be in America, but, inside it, she could behave normally — as an Italian woman who was married to a doctor and the mother of three children, and only just the littlest bit plump. I can imagine, now, what she made of us, Americans, but all I remember is a  slightly challenging disapproval.

The only thing that I recall clearly about Mrs Frascati, the only non-reducible memory that penetrates the haze of impressions  is the Italian lesson. As it happened, Dr Frascati, like my father, was a member of the New York Athletic Club, which operated a sprawling outpost at a place called Traverse Island, on Long Island Sound. It was here that I saw Tony in the last days of our friendship. My family had moved to the house on Paddington Circle that put us, finally, in just plain Bronxville. I had hooked up with a sullen, “intellectual” cluster of disaffected kids, much too brainy and tragic for anything like friendship. Tony, meanwhile, was zooming along on the hormonal highway that bore him aloft even before the visible onset of puberty. He was crazy about the girls, and the girls were crazy about him — although this mutual attraction was confined to terms of mockery and abuse. All that remained of our friendship were two extinct volcanoes, on which we had both turned our backs.

I decided to teach myself Italian. I bought a book (because books are all that there were), and the book taught me that the word for “I” was io. Being too clever by half, I decided that the “i” in io functioned as a “y,” or as a “j” would, if Italian had that letter. One afternoon, finding myself standing by the Olympic salt-water pool at Traverse Island while Tony showed off on the high diving board, I announced to Mrs Frascati, who was lounging on a nearby deck chair, that I was learning her language. Oh yes? Say something. Instead of saying something useful or interesting, I went for clever. “Yo!” I said. What is that? What is that supposed to mean? I explained. Mrs Frascati’s exasperation with Americans finally blew its lid. “Eeeee-aw. Eeeee-aw. Don’t give me Spanish! You don’t know anything about Italy!”

It took a while to understand that Mrs Frascati had, in that outburst, taught me all about it.


Jimmy Chapman was a lanky but athletic boy who happened to be almost as fond of talking (when adults weren’t around) as I was. While Tony was a year older, Jimmy was a year younger, and we all went to different schools. And while I remember meeting Tony for the first time, playing in the street between our houses, I don’t remember not knowing Jimmy. The Chapmans and my parents were friends. Perhaps it would be better to say that my parents really liked Jimmy’s father, Roy Chapman, a lot, and put up with his mother, Jeanne Chapman, when they had to. Even though I have invented names for the Frascatis and the Chapmans, I still hesitate to say that Jeanne Chapman had a drinking problem. That isn’t how it was put. It wasn’t put; but I have an obstinate recollection of hearing one of my parents mutter, with no little disgust, that Jeanne Chapman was a drunk.

My mother, who was not keen on Italians, decided that I would be improved by a friendship with Jimmy Chapman, and a series of playdates and sleepovers was arranged. I don’t remember having a bad time with Jimmy — we had a lot of fun, as kids still did in those days, abusing the telephone. Jimmy knew a lot of dirty jokes, and I remember three of them, although one of them I never quite understood (and, when understanding began to dawn, I pulled down the shade). He would draw a picture of a light bulb and then tell me that it was his teacher, bending over to put on her girdle. It did not take forever for our fountains of loquacity to dry up, but we had fun while it lasted. I always had the impression that Jimmy would much rather have been playing baseball. Looking back, I think that he would have been happier had we been tossing a baseball back and forth while we joked, with maybe some pointless running around. I’ve never been able to decide whether my inability to catch a ball was an inborn ineptitude or the result of an absolute lack of interest.

Whenever Jimmy and I got together for a sleepover — a highly domesticated form of camping out for one child at a time — we prattled like monkeys into the small hours. I don’t remember being reprimanded at my house; perhaps I was a better enforcer of whispering. At Jimmy’s, however, we made such a racket one night that Roy Chapman got pissed off and stormed down the hall to tell us to shut the hell up. It wasn’t what he said that shocked me.

The middle-aged men that I knew — from such places as the locker room at Traverse Island — never ever ever looked like the Greek statues in museums, and not just because they were no longer young. These were prosperous executives, avid golfers perhaps but, at a time when gyms were patronized by cultish bodybuilders only, always pudgy around the middle. (Tennis players, in contrast, were too skinny to be mistaken for those statues.) But Roy Chapman, appearing suddenly in the doorway to Jimmy’s room, stark naked, furred chest only faintly grizzled, hands gripping the jambs, was a god, all six-six-plus of him. I couldn’t have made the comparison at the time, and Roy Chapman didn’t have a beard, but he was the very image of a bronze Poseidon, dredged from the Mediterranean, only livelier. His nakedness, far from suggesting vulnerability, blazed with the threat of terrible powers that he might unleash upon us.

Having barked, he disappeared. We quieted down.

This apparition might have been even more upsetting had it occurred in a normal Bronxville house. The Chapman’s house was not normal. There was nothing Colonial or Tudor about it. It didn’t seem to have any style at all, because it was hidden away behind a forest of rhododendrons. There was a small circular gravel driveway, where Roy Chapman parked his 1954 Buick. Owning a 1954 Buick in 1958 or 1959 was not normal, either. My father bought a new car every other year, and after he inherited his mother’s Dodge and we became a two-car family, there was a new car in the garage every year. That was normal. Roy Chapman, much ribbed about his ancient jalopy, claimed that he could not fit his giant’s frame into newer cars. And I’m sure that, when he did so, he spoke with enough Neptunian vigor to put a stop to the comments. Beyond the car, there were steps to a porch and the front door — all that could be seen from the street.

I usually came in through the kitchen, at the back of the house. I remember two things about the kitchen. There was a KitchenAid stand mixer on a counter. I had never seen such an impressive piece of equipment in a kitchen before, and I would have immediately pegged my family as less prosperous if it had not been for the other thing, which was a palpable neglect. Was the kitchen dirty? Probably not — but I wasn’t disposed to look too closely. Whether or not Jeanne Chapman ever made us a sandwich, my recollection of her kitchen is the negative of Mrs Frascati’s. I don’t even recall a table, much less sitting down to a lot of food. I must have been busy not remembering.

If you entered the Chapman’s house by the front door, there was a living room to the right. We were not allowed to enter it, which, since it led nowhere, was no inconvenience. From time to time, Jeanne Chapman’s French mother, who was called something like “Woo-Hoo,” and who was also, if not demented, then permanently out to lunch, would drift in and out; and there was one time when Jeanne Chapman sat down at the grand piano and played a song that I had never heard of: “Mood Indigo.” She asked me if I liked the song, but let’s face it: “Mood Indigo” is so sophisticated that I wasn’t even aware of a melody. What on earth did “mood indigo” even mean? It wasn’t a song; it was a state of mind.

If you turned from the hallway to the left, you could walk through to an octagonal room with window seats all round (except for the sides that abutted the rest of the house). While the living room was furnished with something approaching elegance (but still dogged by neglect), the octagonal room, which may have been called the TV room or the tower room (above the master bedroom overhead, there rose a squat Victorian turret), was not decorated at all. There were ratty upholstered chairs, and a sofa no doubt, along with other playroom bric-à-brac, and the television. The television was always tuned in to a game of some kind. Roy Chapman was spoken of as an athlete by my parents, and he had a keen interest in sports. So did Jimmy. I’d have been bored to death, but I was saved, transported, redeemed by a wonderful discovery on the window seat — and a discovery it was, because my parents were little old ladies from Dubuque who had no interest in subscribing to the magazine.

The New Yorker Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Album.

So there it was, in a house that might have been drawn by Charles Addams, whose heavy-lidded mistress might have stepped out of a cartoon by Richard Taylor, whose master’s casual nudity would have been right at home in the work of artists ranging from Peter Arno to William Steig, that I page by page woke up to the world.

Bureau of Treatises:
World Theory
6 July 2015

Monday, July 6th, 2015

There are times when, like everyone else, I wish I had my life to live over again — aided, of course, by the wisdom that I’ve acquired on the first go-round. In my case, these fantasies involve academic careers that I should have pursued in fields that even now don’t exist. The imaginary specialty that I have been thinking of most recently won’t have a name, will it, until I give it one. Here goes.

World Theory. Yes — the longer I look at it, the more I like it. It makes such an entertainingly ridiculous first impression. “World Theory” would be a theory about everything, right? Wrong — the second attraction. You must always give your theory a name that will trip up the uninitiated; otherwise, it’s not properly academic. World Theory (I’m being serious now, class) seeks to explain how certain man-made things acquire the very rare permanence that makes them meaningful to successive generations. How is it that we are still listening to Mozart and reading Jane Austen? World Theory would also seek to explain how this permanence, which is by no means to be confused with immortality, may be lost. How is it that we are no longer listening to Cherubini, nor reading Sir Walter Scott? Just what kind of cultural loss was entailed by the demolition of Pennsylvania Station? The destruction of the World Trade Center?

“The World,” according to World Theory, is made up exclusively of such permanent things. The vernacular word for these things is “classics,” but it throws no light on what World Theory wants to know, which is how and why some things get to be classics. Also, World Theory needs to explain who is doing the listening and the reading — the appreciating of classics. Appreciation is the principal Worldly activity of human beings. There is a vital secondary activity, known familiarly as “scholarship.” Scholars keep track of Worldly Things; they know the names and dates, they prepare editions and repair paintings with one objective that never changes with fashion: to preserve whatever it is that has been appreciated. World Theory itself is another secondary activity. The main Worldly activity, as I say, is appreciating things.

To begin at the beginning, let’s have a look at what academics calls “the Classics,” or “Classical Studies.” These are things — poems, statues, ruins — that were made, for the most part, by people who spoke Greek and Latin and who lived (to cast the net very wide) between 800 BCE and 400 CE. Scholars, as I say, oversee the care and clarification of these things. They authenticate the statues, and they prepare Loeb editions of the poems. To this extent, their work is a specialty of history. Classics scholars are often motivated by something besides academic curiosity, however. They are quite often impassioned appreciators of the things they study. Their relationship with these things is marked by love and reverence (even if the reverence often hides behind a taste for the carnal longing of Catullus or the rudeness of Juvenal). Insofar as they appreciate what they study, classicists are Worldly.

According to World Theory, the point of a liberal education is to instill in students the desire and the ability to appreciate the World. Where the modern research university has gone off the rails is in its attempt to transform students into scholars — into academics. Much of what passes for higher education is merely the ritual simulation of scholarly activity that bypasses the development of appreciative skills entirely. There are sorry explanations for this mistake, but we shan’t go into them now. We shall merely remind ourselves that the modern research university was concocted when entrepreneurs were harnessing what we now call “the scientific revolution” to drive what we now call “the industrial revolution.” In those days, quantities and regularities were the measures of success, and, as such, extremely important kinds of scores.

It is an axiom of World Theory that new things cannot be appreciated until they are no longer new. The vulgar term, “contemporary classic,” is meaningless. It is in the nature of new things to attract admiration. When something continues to attract admiration after losing its novelty, it may be on the way to becoming a Worldly Thing. Time will tell. Admiration becomes appreciation as novelty gives way to personal satisfaction. There is a monotony to admiration, because there is so little understanding in it: we are dazzled by the new in the same way. Over time, however, we appreciate things in very different ways; and yet there is a communicability of these different personal appreciations that produces the thick and rich texture of Worldliness.


Now: what brought that up? Whom do we thank for the latest little treatise? It seems almost unfair to point to William Maxwell. The preceding paragraphs would probably make him shudder, possibly break out in an allergic reaction. But that’s by the way. What I’m trying to understand is this: will Maxwell’s 1961 novel, The Château, become a Worldly Thing? Is it one already? How can we tell?

World Theory would explain it all, but, sadly, World Theory is not in working order at the moment. The scholars of World Theory have not been trained. This is what I would do if I had my life to live over: I would become the first scholar of World Theory.

Probably the first rule that I would hit on would derive from the axiom of novelty: it is not possible to estimate the Worldliness of a thing created in one’s lifetime.

When people ask me to name my favorite novelists, I draw a blank after Austen, Eliot, and James. Proust? I love Proust, but I don’t know how to re-read him. I’ve gone through the great novel sequence twice in my lifetime, and even embarked on a French crossing. But the work is so immense that it requires a pilgrimage, and one does not spend one’s life on pilgrimages. Is there a way to re-read Proust as one re-reads novels of normal scale? If there is, I’d like to know about it. (Note that the appreciation of a novel begins with the first re-reading. That’s why one essential course in a true liberal arts curriculum would revisit, in the final semester, works read during the first two years of college. With a very light-handed sort of guidance, students would compile their own reading lists from the books, not chosen by them, read earlier.)

Lately, I hit on the idea of keeping all the novels that I’ve read recently and really liked on one shelf. The shelf is only so capacious, and no book can be added to it without the subtraction of another. Who’s on the shelf now? Edward St Aubyn, Alan Hollinghurst, Ben Lerner, Greg Baxter, J K Rowling (The Casual Vacancy), Helen DeWitt (Lightning Rods), plus a few novels by writers who have their own sections in the fiction bookcase (Colm Tóibín, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Cameron). And let’s not forget Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy! (The Penelopes, as one friend referred to this winter’s passion for Fitzgerald and Lively, have their own little bookcase.)

William Maxwell has always had his own corner, shared for a long time (I can’t think why) with Barbara Pym. Pym has moved to the fiction shelf, and now Maxwell abuts all the Europa Editions. I’m waiting anxiously for delivery of the Early volume of the Library of America edition, edited by Christopher Carduff, because the spine on the (signed) Godine edition of Time Will Darken It has broken, leaving the book in two pieces. I was afraid that this would happen, but not while I was reading it. The sooner the LoA book arrives, the safer the Godine will be, because I have been unable to stop reading it.

I have always admired William Maxwell. (Even Worldly Things are novelties at first, centuries-old though they may be.) I have even declared a love for the fables gathered, in 1966, in The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Stories. But I have only appreciated him since reading The Château, ten or twenty years ago. The Château recounts the adventures of a young American couple, Henry and Barbara Rhodes, at a big house just out of sight of the Loire, as the paying guests of a once wealthy and vaguely aristocratic family. The Rhodes fall in love with France at once (Henry, turning forty, has never been to Europe before), and their fondness is amplified by one of those lucky good times that one sometimes has, in this case at an inn at Pontorson. They love everyone at the inn, and everyone at the inn seems to love them back. This is not the case at the château. What the Rhodeses encounter at the château makes the home lives of the Bellegardes, the cursed grandees in Henry James’s Traviata of a novel, The American, seem Midwestern by comparison. Poor Henry is exasperated by the unintelligibility of Mme Viénot’s treatment, but he keeps coming back for more; and, on his last day in Paris, Henry runs around like a man about to die, lamenting self-piteously that the Luxembourg Gardens will go on without him. William Maxwell completely captures the doomed yearning of earnest and well-educated young Americans to be taken for French, or at least to accepted as civilized equals. The glory of the novel is his demonstration, accomplished without fanfare, that if the Rhodeses are never quite accepted as peers, they do in fact deserve to be. The trick of the novel is that this demonstration makes you like the French even more. For The Château speaks to those Americans who believe that their own country would be a finer place if people were more demanding — especially of themselves.

As far as I’m concerned, The Château is a Worldly Thing. But it’s too soon to tell. All I can do is cast a baleful eye on the novels that hogged all the buzz when it was published. What’s become of them? Alas, I’m not the scholar to answer.