Archive for August, 2015

Gotham Diary:
The real new year
September 2015 (I)

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Monday 31st August

Having bid farewell to Ocean Beach last Thursday, we returned to an interesting apartment. All was well, at least once the refrigerator was emptied. Everything was a bit dusty, and almost everything still is. I have, however, reasserted dominion over the bedroom. Among a thousand other actions, this involved a) unpacking the suitcase to retrieve the extremely heavy HP laptop that I lugged out to Fire Island at the last minute because I wasn’t sure that the sleek new Lenovo that I haven’t got round to using was loaded with everything that I should need and b) tearing two closets apart in search of a fresh vacuum-cleaner bag. The big laptop, onto which the bulk of our non-classical musical collection has been loaded, and nicely organized in iTunes, will be parked in the bedroom, where it really does belong, because that’s where the library of non-classical CDs is stored. That is also the room in which Kathleen is most likely to cooperate on the construction of playlists for her pleasure. As for the closets, the foyer is still littered with a couple of shopping bags that I’m working up the courage to get rid of.

I meant to get to the bookroom over the weekend, but I never did. In the bookroom, there are books that need to be put away somewhere — but where, if the bookcases are already full? There are also papers, lots of piles of little papers, receipts mostly. Getting the bookroom in order is my task for today.

But first, an entry for this Web site. Long or short? Long — no matter how much I write today. I’ve decided on a permanent shift of format, following the preceding two entries’ innovation. Entries will henceforth stretch out over the five weekdays. One thing that I expect to happen is the limitation of opening material, Aristotle’s famous “beginning,” which you are reading now, to Mondays at the top. The other daily subentries, I hope, will begin in medias res. The general idea is to move beyond the column and toward the chapter.


Although I benefited enormously from this year’s Fire Island stay, learning to relax and even to practice some cognitive behavior therapy tricks, I was fairly gloomy by the time I left, because in my solitude I was daily more depressed by the feeling that we — the human race — have piled up a mess of conflicting political and social arrangements, generated a miasma of Earth-challenging chemicals, and spun off a constellation of gadgets that point us in no direction. The complications are more than we can handle. The traditional solution to overcomplexity is war, revolution, or some other kind of upheaval, but I don’t think that we can afford that option anymore. The loss of self-esteem entailed by general collapse would make the worst of us tyrants, and the best of us suicides.

My despondency had several topical causes. The Donald, for instance. Having come to regard the Republican Party not as a truly conservative organization but rather as a profoundly anti-social phalanx that guards rabidly selfish narcissists, I do enjoy watching Trump stomp through it like Godzilla through Tokyo. As Paul Krugman has argued, Trump is no worse than any of the other would-be candidates. He’s better, maybe, because he seems to mean what he says. It’s very clear that the others don’t. They may rail against “political correctness,” but they have their own versions of it, their own pretentious claims that impatient voters have long since seen through. Trump is telling it like it is. But of course he’s doing no such thing. He’s just bellowing pipe dreams, proposing a future in which he inspires “America” to throw off the constraints that have weakened if not altogether undone its claim to be top dog. Knock yourself out, “America.”

Then there were Greece and Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico especially. Greece is not nearly as stuck with the Eurozone as Puerto Rico is immured in the half-baked concrete of a conception of overseas territories that few Americans understand. There is no doubt in my mind that most Americans, if they think of Puerto Rico at all, see it as a tourist destination (no passport required!) in the sunny Caribbean, a place that needs water, power, and sewers in order to service hotels and the people who staff them. They have no idea that Puerto Rico is enduring a harrowing withdrawal from windfall tax breaks that were eliminated years ago. Transition from an agricultural, low-wage, post-colonial economy to a self-sufficient, more educated one has been stalled for nearly a generation. And yet the usual cluster of responsible parties, people who ought to know better — in government (both territorial and federal) and on Wall Street — have behaved as if Puerto Rico really were another Golconda. Endless streams of debt that can probably never be repaid have faced ordinary Puerto Ricans with the prospect of emigration as probably the best option. I have a hard time saying even that the élites screwed up, because screwing up takes some imagination.

Finally (for now), there is the Ashley Madison thing. If you don’t know about the hacking of a cheating site for married people that attracted (among others) a hundred thousand US government and military men, but very few actual women, then I am not going to disabuse your innocent ears. What makes me weep is that none of the contestants in this challenge runs the risk of winning Darwin Awards. Because, boy, are they dumb.

Intractable global problems; idiots on parade — what could be more newsworthy? The ultimate horror is the virtual placenta that binds hypnotized smartphone users to a media complex that metastasizes serious complexity into cheap sensation. One day, as I was walking up Ocean Walk to the Pantry, I was overtaken by a quartet of thirtysomething women, two by two, all chatting away amiably. But three of the four were carrying smartphones in their right hands. Not in their pockets. Not in their purses — they weren’t carrying purses. All they felt they needed were their smartphones, and these they had at the ready, in their hands. Why? Since when do human beings socialize while wielding devices? Are you with your friends or aren’t you? A clearer case of the absence of critical thinking I can’t imagine.

No, the irony of it doesn’t escape me. My wife happens to be the one woman who keeps her phones’ ringtone levels too low to hear anywhere but in a bank vault, who forgets to call at appointed times, and who doesn’t seem to grasp the idea of incoming. This is somehow all the more vexing (for me) now that one old problem has been eradicated: Kathleen’s phones are always charged.


How to talk about Talk, Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 “novel,” now republished by NYRB as the edited transcript of actual conversations that it is? The usual angle seems to be to compare it to Girls and Broad City, to see it as a wildly precocious reality show. But it’s not a show. On The New Yorker‘s Web site, Molly Fischer complains about this.

Even with such apparently juicy material, blithe self-exposure quickly grows dull. Their mutual trust comfortably established, Marsha, Emily, and Vincent unleash endless confession, allowing one another to stand in for the analysts they aren’t seeing over the summer. Nobody has to coax anything out of anyone. “I haven’t told you about the big breakthrough I had last week,” one will say, just before explaining the big breakthrough she had last week. At one point, Marsha and Vincent show their genitals to one another, in a matter-of-fact way that suggests toddlers rather than sexual adventurers. For all their world-weary posturing (“It’s been an awful lot of sacrifice and pain, darling, but I had no choice,” Emily says, of analysis), what registers most sharply is their innocence—particularly as concerns Marsha’s tape recorder.

This innocence, I think, rather than a diminished hunger for intimate revelation, explains why “Talk” did not grip me. Confession is not riveting because of its details—or not primarily so, at least. It is riveting because of the stakes involved in disclosure. The speakers in “Talk” are proudly liberated from a previous era’s strictures (while talking among themselves, at least), but they haven’t yet recognized what the new era’s might be.

But that’s just what I loved about Talk — its innocence. To me, this innocence isn’t so much a matter of the absence of wariness about tapes and videos and evidence as it is one of the talk cru. This is the language of legal depositions, that horrifying patois that comes into being only when what we say is reduced to words on a page, showing us all to be mouth-breathing morons. Here is Marsha, Rosenkrantz’s stand-in, talking about her sister.

I made her feel disgusting — that was one of her lifelong traumas. I think I was jealous of her, but I would lie to myself and say what bothered me was that we just didn’t have much in common, she wasn’t the type of person I liked to be with, she was phony, But I wasn’t jealous, of course not — I just didn’t happen to care for her personality. That was when she was about three. Because don’t forget she had suddenly appeared after twelve years of my only child-dom, this pishy little kid who could do everything I couldn’t do, not only the manual things with her hands and athletics, but she could talk to people, she wasn’t shy. I mean all she did was get born and two minutes later she’s doing all the banes of my existence, flushing mice down the toilet and everything else.

Dull? Not at all — the language is as shocking as a donkey in a drawing room. It is language that never appears in print that people pay to read. The absurdity of everyday speech cannot be imagined! No matter how carefully the Becketts of literature listen to lost souls, they cannot bring themselves to transcribe what is actually said. For that, you need a court reporter or a tape recorder. What’s innocent about Marsha, Vincent, and Emily, the three characters who speak in Talk as they pass the summer time in Amagansett, is not their willingness to share the details of their sex lives and their “analysis,” but their unawareness of the fun-house mirror that captures the things that we actually say. Most of us begin ruminative sentences with no idea of how they’re going to end, or of the rudiments of parallel structure that most educated people command, when they write, without giving it a thought.

… and two minutes later she’s doing all the banes of my existence: even if Shakespeare were a thousand monkeys typing away indefinitely, he’d never think of that one.


Tuesday 1st September

Wouldn’t I just love to know what Joan Didion thinks or thought of Talk. (If anything at all.) Perhaps she read it when it was a novel, back around the time of “The White Album,” her essay about apocalypse in Los Angeles. (“The Doors were different. The Doors interested me. … The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”) At no point in “The White Album” does Didion sound like Marsha, Vincent, or Emily; without thinking, one wants to characterize her style as mandarin — even though it is actually somewhat easier to follow than Talk‘s unedited ramblings. But Didion is no less aware than Linda Rosenkrantz and her friends that a new freedom is breaking up old social contracts. I want to re-read “The White Album,” partly to realign my own rather greener impressions of the period. (The Doors did not interest me; they frightened me.)

For the moment, though, I’m reading about Joan Didion. Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion may have been written without her cooperation, but it is forcefully Didionic. It is as unsympathetically sympathetic as one feels Didion herself would be, were she to take up a biographical project. It tells the story of a gifted critical observer whose deepest personal commitment is to her profession, as a reporter of what she sees. She performs her other obligations dutifully but with detachment — the detachment of a critical observer. Daugherty has already chilled his text — I’ve reached the period of Quintana Roo Dunne’s infancy — with drafts of what promises to be a harsh judgment of Didion as a mother. Didion was hard on herself in Blue Nights, but she drew back from sharp conclusions. Daugherty, I expect, won’t.

There seems to be some confusion about whether or not Joan Didion is a shy person. Is she “vulnerable,” as she and others have claimed? The simple truth seems to me to be that Didion is a writer. Writers — real writers — relate to the world with written words. Their texts are their garments; without them, they are naked, and, yes, vulnerable. It is possible, even easy for men, to project a persona. This is optional and even meaningless, to the extent that the writer is not interested in living among non-writers on their terms. The persona is always an invention, but, like standards, it can be developed and improved (ie, made to fit better) over time. As a writer, Didion was never shy or vulnerable. Her persona, it seems to me, was inspired by a kind of impatience.

Some of this impatience might have been directed at herself. In only two of the many photographs that Daugherty reprints can Didion be seen to smile. One of the smiling pictures happens to be the first of the lot, and it tickled me until I figured out why. Not a classic beauty, Didion is attractive in a stylish, intelligent way. She looks like someone who knows useful things. Except, however, when she smiles. When she smiles — for the camera; I’m not speaking of personal experience (the one time that I saw Joan Didion read, she reminded me of Wendy Hiller’s character in Murder on the Orient Express: “My doctors have advised against it [smiling].”) — her face stretches out goofily into an uncanny resemblance to the mascot of Mad Magazine, Alfred E Neuman. (There is a third picture, dating from 2000, in which what might pass for a smile looks to me more like making a face.)

I’m attracted to Joan Didion because she has used her pen to make a truly conservative case against her own class, arguing, implicitly, that, if the élites can’t or won’t live up to their capabilities, it is unrealistic at least to expect hoi polloi to do so. I like it too that Didion conveys a belief that being “nice” is not a particularly grown-up thing to be. What I don’t like is a certain perceived close-fistedness. Daugherty talks of her imbibing her father’s proclivities as a “gambler”: I associate gambling with a want of kindness and generosity. I’m also repelled by “The West.” Having given us Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan, the West and its voters have undone the Republican Party. I do not admire pioneers, and I feel that their settled descendants ought to forget “the pioneer spirit,” whatever that means. (In Where I Was From, Didion seems to have reached a similar conclusion.) But it is also true that the actual West makes me uncomfortable. Arid climates disturb me. Brown hills and red rocks depress me. I know that all natural wonders are produced by violence, and I suspect them all of fraud. I wouldn’t care for the West even if they spoke English there. (According to Daugherty, Didion holds what they speak is “Okie.”) I find myself quite often at odds with Didion’s takeaways. But I can never fault her expression of them.

As medieval iconography tells us, critical observers carry a scale with a set of weights. The weights used by angels conducting the Last Judgment are of course divine in origin. Where does a mere mortal, even a smarty-pants like Joan Didion (who didn’t, however, get into either Stanford or Phi Beta Kappa), get hers? I should suggest that the best critics derive their standards from the language itself, and that, as, speaking with care is a skill that takes years to develop, standards take years to develop, too. Didion famously lodges an acknowledgment of development near the beginning of “The White Album”: “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling.” Didion would go on to become a relentless interrogator of stories, as witnessed by her ruthless deconstruction of the Terri Schiavo case, which appeared in The New York Review of Books ten years ago. There, Didion hammers away with lawyerlike advocacy against the decision to remove the comatose woman’s feeding tubes — a position hardly popular with NYRB readers. Her appeal is not to law but to the leveling common sense that is always obscured in enthusiastic controversies.

In fact any notion about what Theresa Schiavo wanted or did not want remained essentially unconfirmable, notwithstanding the fact that a Florida court had in effect accepted the hearsay assertions that she had said, at one point, in reference to her husband’s dying grandmother and at another while watching a television movie about someone with a feeding tube, “no tubes for me.” (Imagine it. You are in your early twenties. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which someone has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. “No tubes for me,” you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?) Most commentators nonetheless seemed inclined to regard Theresa Schiavo’s “directive” as a matter of record, even as they undercut their own assumption by reminding us that the “lesson” in the case was “to sit down tonight and write your living will.” Living wills, it was frequently said, could be “Terri’s legacy.”

Joan Didion has spent her life sieving truth from cant. I fully share her conservative horror of life in a fool’s paradise. I prefer to speak about human affairs more hopefully; habitual pessimism can be gratuitously corrosive. But I detest received wisdom and party lines, and watching Didion explode them is both inspiring and highly entertaining.

Goodness: it just hit me. The offstage friend whose name and problems come up most often in Talk is known as “Sick Joan.”


Wednesday 2nd

This morning, after the Times, I read the first two pieces in After Henry, Joan Didion’s fifth collection of essays. The first was the title piece, a tribute to Henry Robbins, the FSG editor who, more than any other third party, helped Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to establish the economic foundation of their free-lance careers. Henry Robbins believed in them. Along with Robbins, Didion mourns the old-style personal support that Robbins provided, now famously missing from the publishing world. (In one instance, Robbins took a night flight out to Los Angeles just to read a Didion MS that she did not want to send to New York.) “After Henry” is brisk, only a few pages long. It shivers over the murder of youth by mortality: Before Robbins died, Didion writes, “I believed, by way of contemplating the future, that we would all be around for one another’s funerals. I was wrong.”

The next piece was “In the Realm of the Fisher King.” This is one of Didion’s essays about the Reagans, and what utter frauds they were. They were frauds to the extreme degree of not even knowing it. Nancy Reagan presented herself as a “lady,” nicely turned-out, always on time, easy with bland smiles. To Didion, who, in the complicated, even contradictory way of upper-class Americans everywhere, really was a lady (if also a tramp, fond of slumming with bikers in gas stations), Mrs Reagan (definitely “Mrs”!) was only an actress, and not a very impressive one at that. She was at home in the studio system, which took care of everything. She hadn’t a clue about seating the guests at a White House dinner. Didion retells a funny story first published by Michael Deaver, in which the Reagans attend services at a very picturesque Episcopal church in Virginia’s hunt country. Deaver, as the advance man, has worked out the details of the sermon with the pastor, but the pastor has neglected to inform Deaver that Communion will be served. Nancy Reagan, a Presbyterian in Hollywood, is flummoxed by this surprise: she is not going to drink from a common cup. Thinking that dunking her wafer in the wine will do, she manages to drop it into the chalice. The President, having been instructed to do everything that his wife does, politely drops his wafer into the chalice, too. Didion likens this episode to an imbroglio out of I Love Lucy. You can still hear her laughing.

But the Communion story is not just a funny anecdote. It is the symbolic centerpiece of Didion’s visualization of the Reagan White House as a sound stage on which a movie about the Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail, is being shot. The magical thing about this movie is that there is no crew. All the people who are making the movie are also in it. They are also its audience. Political reality has been set aside and replaced by a bogus liturgy of libertarian fantasies. The President, as Hierophant-in-Chief, is as vacant as his cult. (Didion begins the essay by retailing Peggy Noonan’s statement that the President sharpened his own pencils and responded to letters from ordinary Americans that had been culled from the mailbag by staffers whose job this was.) The fraudulence of the Reagans was a projection, not by the Reagans themselves (they lack the substance for such an effort), but by their supporters and bankrollers. The deception was successful only because no one (excepting Didion and a few like-minded Californians) could imagine such a stunt. Didion doesn’t follow forward, but of course the “Fisher King” was a hard act to follow, and George H W Bush, who, however rich and remote (remember that supermarket check-out line?), was nonetheless grounded in the scrum of political life, completely lacked the Reagans’ magic. He could not help reminding — re-awakening — Americans to the resented truth that the White House is not situated at the foot of a rainbow.

In the course of reading these two pieces, I came across many of the bits and bobs that Tracy Daugherty has recycled — artfully and purposefully — in his biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song. From “After Henry,” there is the bit about Quintana Roo Dunne joining the Robbins children in trick-or-treating, one Hallowe’en, in the Robbins’s building on the Upper West Side. (I’d like the recipe for the chicken in tarragon aspic that Didion mentions in an adjacent sentence.) From “In the Realm of the Fisher King,” there is the bit about how Hollywood wives take their after-dinner coffee in the hostess’s bedroom, where there are large bottles of perfume. After Henry is collected in the Everyman’s Library edition of Didion’s nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live — a very interesting title, given Didion’s determination to deconstruct our stories — and I expect that more than two readers of Daugherty’s biography (but fewer than ten?) will construct a concordance, annotating sources and extracts in the respective volumes. From this a second text of Didion’s non-fiction might emerge, consisting of all the bits that Daugherty didn’t use.

In the Times this morning, rock star Chrissie Hynde is said to be “something close to rock’s Joan Didion.” Ha ha: Dwight Garner goes on to write,

With her new memoir, “Reckless,” Ms. Hynde proves that she can compete with male rock stars in another essential way. She’s written a book that’s just as slack and disappointing as so many of theirs have been.

So much for being Joan.


I was too young, in the late Sixties, to worry that the United States was falling apart. I didn’t know enough about the United States that, for this fear to make sense, must have existed before the alleged collapse. I knew that the Fifties were a bad joke — had there ever, in the entire history of design, been anything so monstrously preposterous as the Cadillac’s tailfins? I knew something else, something slightly to the side of America’s problems. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew that the Soviet occupation of Russia would pass, and that Russia would go back to being Russia. I knew that the apparently Soviet behavior that drove American leaders crazy had nothing to do with Communism and everything to do with the kind of Bismarckian geopolitics that Communism claimed to have superseded. If I thought that my journals would tell me, I just might hold my nose and peruse them. But I should have been too self-absorbed, in those days, to write about Russia.

If I had only followed the thought through, I should have seen that the problem with the United States was that its leaders were alone in being deluded about the Communist menace. For the general public, the Cold War meant only one thing: the possibility of nuclear annihilation. For Washington types, nuclear annihilation was the almost irrelevant, merely possible outcome of an intricate and beguiling game of diplomatic go. This game determined the entirety of American foreign policy and a great deal of its domestic policy as well. The Civil Rights legislation of the mid-Sixties is an example. It is often forgotten that white Southerners were given to attributing civil-rights activism to Communist infiltration; ironically, at the federal level, this was oddly true: Jim Crow was an embarrassment in our game with the Soviets, and had to be gotten rid of. The Cold War interposed a decades-long disconnect between Americans and their government; indeed, the disconnect persists, having outlived its cause. The Cold War generated a menu of raisons d’état that shared a common, highly intoxicating ingredient: the justification of extraordinary powers. Why would anyone in Washington want to give up ordering from it?

In the late Sixties, the country wasn’t falling apart; it was waking up to the new arrangement between government and governed, and complaining. Why, I remember collegiate bull sessions wondering, did we always support horribly tyrannical dictators in the world’s banana republics? Why did we prefer to provide the more undemocratic régimes with the most foreign aid? Another question that I recall: Does the Central Intelligence Agency really exist?

How quickly that discontent faded; how soon the uprisings came to an end. We boomers — those of us lucky enough to escape Vietnam without having to go there — duly recalled that our birth had been blessed by a good fairy: things would work out nicely for us. We accommodated ourselves to the new American constitution and invented hedge funds. Now, according to a mighty tract in the current issue of Harper’s, our principal concern is to make sure that our children and grandchildren don’t get any ideas about upsetting the apple cart. William Deresiewicz has been taking shots at higher education for years now, but in “The Neoliberal Arts,” he has made it impossible for a thinking person to take American higher education seriously. Everything that he has to say is both obvious and bouleversant.

More anon.


Thursday 3rd

Loose change: In this morning’s Times, there’s a piece about the club scene in Ocean Beach. Needless to say, the racket of these revels cannot be heard in the Summer Club, which lies to the west of Ocean Beach; out where we are, there might be a local party, but it rarely lasts past half-past eleven, or even past ten. But we’re well aware that crowds of young people cross the Great South Bay each weekend to party in the bars along Bay Walk. Most of them depart on the 1 AM ferry, or sooner. The police, who ride around on bicycles, have everything under control, at least in the town. Boys will be boys, and every year or so somebody drowns in the course of an ill-advised late-night swim, while just as surely some doofus jumps into the Bay from the ferry returning to Bay Shore. (Bay Shore and Ocean Beach are such stunningly unimaginative place-names that they contribute a deglamorizing film of soap-opera banality to the journey between them. I rather cherish the protective coloration.) But for most fun-seekers, Ocean Beach is a safe proposition. There are no cars, for one thing. And the bars, numerous enough, are no farther from each other than a hop and a skip — forget the jump.

As we walk home from our early dinners, we watch the tide of loud girls and stalking boys flood the town. The girls are always loud, but when the boys are loud they are much louder than the girls. One senses that established couples do not participate in this idyll. One is thrilled to be ancient. We amble along away from the lights, and soon the hubbub can’t be heard.

Also in the Times, Dwight Garner waxes enthusiastic about Mystery Train, Greil Marcus’s book about — well, I’ll let you fill that in. Mystery Train is about to be forty; Garner read it when it was almost ten years old, and then he read it again and again, all in the same year. He buys every new edition, because Marcus is till expanding the back matter, which now, Garner tells us, exceeds the length of the original text. I am not familiar with Mystery Train, any more than I’ve ever been inside the Island Mermaid in Ocean Beach. I shall probably remain unfamiliar with it. One of its six major sections, Garner writes, is about Elvis.

I remember hating Elvis Presley. Was it in kindergarten or first grade? Second? My aesthetic embryo was developed enough to take deep offense at “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” Aside from the dreadful grammar, I didn’t know what a hound dog was, and it sounded like a hot dog to me, and calling somebody a hot dog was revolting. And I haven’t even got to the music yet, or the look of the man — yikes! I like all kinds of music, except country and rock ‘n’ roll. Country is brain-dead church music. Rock, along with its hip-hop epigones, betrays the essence of music in being noisy and violent. Really good rock — I’m thinking of a song like “The Weight” — is not noisy and violent, but it is often loud and assertive. I don’t care for assertiveness in music; I’ve never heard Beethoven’s Fifth with pleasure. I like music to be complex. Steely Dan, for example. I never think of Aja as rock. (Do you?)

When I was young, I understood that most people my age liked popular music, but I’m surprised to find that this fondness (to put it mildly) has persisted into the sunset. Of course, I never much liked it to begin with. More groans: when my sister got old enough to buy 45s, her first choices were “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Tell Laura I Love Her.” I heaved! This was my first experience of really bad music. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has attained a goofy period charm, but the other song is just embarrassing — as a song. It’s not even ridiculous enough to be good parody material.

Now I’m learning that, at least when she was young, Joan Didion liked to drive out to the cemetery and listen to country music. That’s the sort of thing that, piled up in Tracy Daugherty’s biography, makes me wonder why I’m reading it. Well, I’m reading it because it’s good stuff; I’m learning to approach it as a novel, with “Joan Didion” as the central character. The real Joan Didion lives in her work. Her work is more important than she herself is. All too soon, she’ll have died, and her work will be all there is. Then the endless sifting will begin, as generation after generation decides what’s important enough to keep and know.


But will they? Reading William Deresiewicz’s denunciation of American universities, I had to wonder — and that it could be wondered about at all was terribly painful — if the discipline of objective social memory, a skill-set developed in the past couple of centuries, no more, is in danger of abandonment. “Objective social memory” just hit me now, and I see right away that it is as good a definition of what I mean by “humanism” as I’ve ever come up with. It also defines “history.” “Objective” means, of course, that mental impressions must be supported by some kind of documentary (independent) evidence. “Memory” must be personal, not received. I can’t talk, for example, about the novels of Sir Walter Scott, because I haven’t read any; all I know is that they are nowhere near as popular (widely-read) as they used to be. I am not worried that the world is going to forget about Sir Walter Scott. I’m sure that there are literary scholars (professors and graduate students) who keep his tomes dusted. Well, for the moment. Deresiewicz suggests that such scholarship may be facing extinction. Certainly its continuation at the great universities is grudgingly supported at best.

It must be understood that Deresiewicz’s prophesying is ongoing. He has been complaining for some time. The latest chapter, the essay in the current Harper’s, is preoccupied by the displacement, in university life, of the humanities by business curricula. This is, Deresiewicz shows, self-defeating for educational institutions, because

business, broadly speaking, does not require you to be as smart as possible or to think as hard as possible. It’s good to be smart, and it’s good to think hard, but you needn’t be extremely smart or think extremely hard. Instead, you need a different set of skills: organizational skills, interpersonal skills — things that professors and their classes are certainly not very good at teaching.

So, smart university students develop their own “parallel college,” in the form of extracurricular internships.

I was electrified, early in the essay, to read this:

Pinker is correct. He is emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education.

I hadn’t gone quite that far in my thinking, but I have regarded Steven Pinker as a seriously wrong-headed man ever since I read his claim, in The Language Instinct or somewhere, that creole and pidgin dialects can be just as expressive as “standard” language. Well, sometimes, perhaps. But I reject the notion that the Authorized Version (King James) of the Bible would be anywhere near as monumentally articulate, about the holiest and most mystical matters, if it were translated into, say, Haitian. I believe not only that powerful poetry is untranslatable into other languages but that this untranslatability is the source of poetry’s power. Each human language is a different facet, a different face cut into our capacity for communication, and each language showcases different ways of thinking about the human condition. The idea that one language is as good as any other is insulting to all languages. Pinker’s implication seems to be that we ought to develop a global vernacular, a universal demotic — perhaps based on English, already so widely present around the world — that would make it easier, among other things, to conduct business operations.

Deresiewicz looks closely at the bogus vernacular that business-speak has begotten upon the universities. He deconstructs three favorite terms, “leadership,” “service,” and “creativity.” While I still believe that the first two words can be salvaged, the last one has been gutted and replaced by a pod-person.

“Creativity,” meanwhile, is basically a business concept, aligned with the other clichés that have come to us from the management schools by way of Silicon Valley: “disruption,” “innovation,” “transformation.” “Creativity” is not about becoming an artist. No one wants you to become an artist. It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques — “solutions,” which imply that you already know the problem. “Creativity” means design thinking, in the terms articulated by the writer Amy Whitaker, not art thinking: getting from A to predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

I would argue that this is the creativity that is nurtured in writing programs, which are, after all, intended to produce marketable texts, thoughts that are liquid assets.

The worst of it, however, is that higher education is settling for its lowest common denominator: training young people to preserve the status quo. That is an objective that my reading of Hannah Arendt has converted from something mildly regrettable into something luridly horrible. Arendt herself didn’t, to my knowledge, quite work out the relationship between Newborns and the World, so don’t suppose that I’m summarizing her. She did, however, articulate these aspects of the human condition quite well. Human beings incidentally create the World — a complex of artifacts that, for one reason or another, survive generational change. Generational change, in turn, is the result of the constant “invasion” — Arendt’s exciting word — of Newborns, each of whom must be taught how to live among human beings. It is the Newborns — the more intellectually gifted among, them, anyway — who, as they grow into maturity, reconfigure the World. To go back to my earlier example, they decide that Sir Walter Scott is not as interesting as their grandparents thought he was. In fits of violence, they may, like the armies of ISIS, destroy ancient ruins that are our only link to distant epochs. Everything in the World depends on the support of Newborns. This is why education is the most important, the central human activity. Markets have nothing! to do with it.

Training young people to preserve the status quo is invariably fruitless, because it’s boring for young people. Fewer and fewer of them see the point of such plodding curation. When they stop caring, the status quo is swallowed by passionate, violent upheavals in which some part of the World is simply destroyed.

Deresiewicz shows that Princeton, for one, is on this wrong track.

Neoliberalism disarms us in another sense as well. For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today, and so much of the negative response to my suggestion that students ought to worry less about pursuing wealth and more about constructing a sense of purpose for themselves, presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have to do what the market tells them. A Princeton student literally made this argument to me: If the market is incentivizing me to go to Wall Street, he said, then who am I to argue?

I’d tell the student to wash his mouth out with soap, for speaking that dreadful word, which to Steven Pinker, presumably, is a perfectly useful synonym for “inspiring.”


Friday 4th

All day long, I’ve been thinking that it was Saturday. Kathleen took the day off. We spent the morning reading this and that. At one, we began to get dressed, and, an hour later, we climbed the steps to the Museum. Once in, we headed for the Petrie Court Café, where we didn’t have to wait very long for a table. Kathleen, troubled by a peripheral bug, had a cheese plate. I had the French dip sandwich. Both were very good, although I needed two napkins to protect my shirt from the jus.

The Café, not surprisingly, turned out to be the only pleasant spot in the Museum. Everywhere else — well, it wasn’t so much the holiday-weekend throngs as it was the self-parked people stalled in the middle of traffic. More than a few looked overwhelmed by the sheer muchness — the crowds, the art, the rooms-and-more-rooms. Kathleen made it clear that she was not going to linger over anything. She would try to come back when things were quieter.

So we confined ourselves to the musts. The China fashion show, the Sargent show. “What is ‘Through the Looking Glass’ supposed to mean?” Kathleen asked. That’s the title of the China show. I replied by asking if she didn’t know better than to interrogate fashion statements. “What they tell you is so embarrassingly dumb that you wish you hadn’t asked.” The show is, in a word, bizarre, considered as an exhibition. Everything is difficult to see and most things are disruptively placed. Much of it is also dark. “Hung Over on the Bund” is what I’d call it. The Astor Court, paved with highly reflective tiles so as to suggest a pond, in which a gigantic image of the moon is reflected, wasn’t so exhilarating the second time; over the life of the show, those tiles have warped a bit. Kathleen was very impressed by the embroidery on Guo Pei’s gold ball gown, but she didn’t get the kick out of the pleated plate dress that I did.

While Kathleen circled the jewelry counter at the gift shop (finding nothing, as usual), I picked up one of each of the 2016 desk calendars. I need one of them already: tickets for a jazz series have arrived, and most of the dates fall next year. I’ve also looked at the schedule for the Paul Taylor season in March; as a Friend, I get to order tickets before they go on sale, which I am going to do any minute now.


When we got home, I read the last fifty pages of the Joan Didion biography. They were so death-soaked that I began to wonder if Didion herself were still alive. Tracy Daugherty dismisses one Didion project (something about Tom Dooley) with the pronouncement that “she would not complete it.” That suggests incapacity of some kind. Didion is only 80.

The reading that Ms NOLA and I attended in Central Park is covered on page 563. “Then the skies opened up…” How soaked we got! How long ago that was — when I think of all that has happened since.

Names drop thick and fast toward the end of The Last Love Song. Who showed up for Dominick Dunne’s memorial service. Who showed up for Quintana Roo Dunne’s, also at St Vincent Ferrer. Joan Didion seems to have known everyone. She and her late husband also seem to have been great fans of a restaurant two blocks from here (and much, much farther from their apartment), an Italian place that Kathleen’s old beau liked when it opened, thirty-odd years ago. I thought it was okay, but the table-hopping and air-kissing were unappetizing for someone who was not a member of the club. During the year that my father was president of the country club in Bronxville (1965), my mother installed herself as Madame President, and we couldn’t get through Sunday dinner in the grill without two or three interruptions by passing couples. (Stand up. Shake hands. Answer questions clearly. Sit down.) I can’t say that minded all that much at the time. I always welcomed relief from the more-than-occasional fraught discussions that I couldn’t help stumbling into. But I learned that when there’s a lot of that sort of thing going on, and none it really involves you, you’re in the wrong restaurant.

Now Kathleen is napping. She says that she’ll be happy with raisin bran for dinner. Maybe we’ll watch Network later. She asked about it the other day. I’ve only seen it the once, when it was new; all I remember is that it didn’t do anything for me. People all over town opening their windows and shouting that thing about not taking it anymore — very unappealing. Certainly no kind of solution. Also, isn’t there a character whose idealism is smashed by commercial brutality? Damsel in distress! I wish I could remember what I thought about television back then. But all I know is that, in 1976, I wasn’t watching much of anything. I had a little black and white television set; I think I’d asked for it for Christmas. This was so that I could watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I did for a while. I watched Saturday Night Live, too, of course, but that was at somebody else’s house: I remember it in color. Actually, the first season of SNL, as an ongoing parody of commercial television (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”), captured fairly well my opinion of the medium, such as it was. Soon I’d be in law school, where television might just as well have not existed; and, after that, now a considerably more critical thinker, I’d be an ardent student of Neil Postman. I’m still surprised that anyone with a brain can watch television after Broadcast News. Anyway, passing by the Video Room the other day, I thought I’d rent it, and see what it looks like after all these years.

At the end of his book, Daugherty dumps his opinion of Didion’s work onto the end of a passage about whether women understand Didion better than men do. “…her range has been vast and her style has become the music of our time.” A bit too blurby to take seriously — and one would wonder how it came to pass, that bit about the music of our time. Daugherty’s biography is too detailed, too fine-grained to go in for epiphanies, although he does note, several times and in several ways, Didion’s transformation from observer to critic in the 1980s. “In spite of her particularities, she is, finally, one of the most inclusive writers of the era: politics, history, war, the arts, popular culture, science and medicine, international relations, the passing of the years.” This sounds much better in context; extracted, it’s empty. It is no simple virtue for a writer to be inclusive. The claim that I should make on her behalf is that she became an outstanding judge of public society — the society of talked-about people, places, and things — by honing her grasp of that talk and writing about it with superb clarity.

There is a relentlessness in Joan Didion’s criticism that tempts readers into thinking of her as tough, and, therefore, as masculine. A beguiling woman on the outside, a tough guy on the inside. I suppose I may lazily have subscribed to such a view myself, before reading Daugherty’s biography. But I now think that she was trickier than that. Yes, she was a womanly woman in person — she was stylish, she was a great cook who loved to entertain and decorate houses, she desperately wanted to have a child, and she even remembered the names of her friends’ children and how they were doing. But she was a woman on the inside, too. A very smart woman who grasped early on that most of what boys write and publish as journalism is simply gossip dressed up in “objectivity.” Gossip is something that a smart girl understands much better than any man, and “objectivity” isn’t much of a veneer. She was tough in the way that a really good schoolteacher is tough: she didn’t let her readers get away with anything if she could help it. I can only wish that this were the music of our time, and I forgive her yearning to be carried off into the sunset by John Wayne.

I still say that there is way too much about Nick Dunne in The Last Love Song. Not only that, but most of it, if not disrespectful, is quite unflattering. It’s as though Daugherty or his editor thought it prudent to have two strings to his bow, along with a more poisoned arrow.

Bon weekend à tous!

Vacation Diary:
Afterthoughts and Notes
August 2014 (II)

Monday, August 17th, 2015

Monday 17th

Learning to relax: Yes, I’ve had to give it a try. In the past, I’ve come out to Fire Island with a simplified schedule, or what I thought would be one, But I couldn’t afford a schedule this year. I could follow the schedules of others, where necessary — if you want to get the Times, you have to get to Whitney’s Pantry before eleven — but I couldn’t plan for myself. As at home, I fell into a diet of reading, while writing less than half as much as I should have done in New York. I haven’t made dinner once, not for myself and not for guests. As long as I have to go the Pantry on weekdays, I have them make me a sandwich, something that they do almost to deli standards. By former standards, I’d just myself to be very lazy. Now I’ve learned the difference between lazy and relaxed. Lazy is putting off, or avoiding, responsibilities and obligations. Relaxed is making the most of having little in the way of either.

I’ve had to forget about Brahms and Mahler. I’m sure that they weren’t the only ones, but Brahms and Mahler developed a pattern of working out and bringing to completion their larger works (well, in Brahms’s case; all of Mahler’s were larger) at mountain-lake resorts, in the summer. This is a very attractive model, but for me this would require a printer and at least one more monitor — a lot of equipment to lug across the Great South Bay and along the narrow lanes of Ocean Beach — pulling it all in a wagon. Having all that stuff, and printing and cutting and pasting, is the last thing I want to do out here. I need to work, not only my work, but on my blood pressure, which has been significantly elevated in the past year by a meteor shower of stressors, with a couple of asteroids thrown in. I need to try not to worry.

Kathleen and her brother were out for the weekend, and they left after an early dinner. Kathleen said that she would call me when she got home. I know what this means — it means that she is not going to look at her phone, or even set it loud enough to hear the ring, until she gets home — but that knowledge wasn’t very helpful when, even two hours after her van was to have left Bay Shore, I hadn’t heard from her. I called both of her mobile phones, and after only two rings each call went to voicemail. My heart didn’t actually go cold, but that seems to be the best word for the low-frequency shock wave that swept through my rib cage as I put the phone down. There was nothing to do, no one to call. I knew — from experience, you betcha — that calling friends in town to ask if they’d heard of any road disasters would be an utterly pointless annoyance; on the very remote chance that they might know of one, they would immediately call me. So I tried to read. The book that I was reading did as good a job of distracting me, or most of me, from the crisis at hand. When the bells that announce a call from Kathleen chimed from the spires of what I think of as Te Deum Cathedral, I was not actually listening for them, and I hardly knew where to find the phone in my excitement.

Kathleen might have prevented my anxiety attack by texting at any number of points. When, still at the boarding stage, a passenger in the van declared that she needed a seatbelt, and for some reason this required everyone else to change seats. When, at the Triboro Bridge, it turned out that the van driver didn’t have his EZ Pass card. When, while waiting in one cash line, the was further delayed by vehicles cutting in from the other cash lane, where some sort of altercation was in progress. When, having reached Manhattan at last, another passenger asked to be left off at 125th Street, entailing a long drive afterward down Second Avenue instead of zip down the Drive. But, as I said, this never occurred to Kathleen. She might be running late, but she was okay. I don’t think that she makes conscious decisions not to text; it simply doesn’t occur to her. My habit of being hurled into the pit of despair by thirty-or forty-minute delays doesn’t register with Kathleen when she is okay and in transit.

But let’s look on the bright side: I was reading when she called. I was not staring at the phone or wondering “what to do.” My agitation remained fairly superficial. I even imagined taking a pill and going to sleep without hearing from her! There’s a resilience in this that I didn’t have as recently as two weeks ago.


The book that successfully pulled my mind away from worrying about Kathleen’s whereabouts was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. I said a few things about this book in the previous entry, but mostly as a point of departure for talking about myself and about some recent thinking at this Web log. I wasn’t quite sure that I would be reading the entire book.

By Friday, I had come to believe that everyone who can must read this book right now. It is a book for right now, an extraordinarily lengthy news report that takes days, if not weeks, to digest, and that certainly requires conversations with other readers to grasp. Far From the Tree is a book about how to deal with the vexed notion of “identity” in contemporary America. Its way is to go out of its way to examine the complicated and often contradictory arguments with which all of us weigh and consider questions few of which were being asked as recently as forty years ago. Which is another way of saying that it invites all mature people to reconsider what they learned about the world when they were young.

I am going to try to avoid the appearance of summarizing Solomon’s book. To read it is to do a lot of heavy lifting — to understand that the book might well be much more comprehensive, and therefor physically heavier than it is. I’m also going to try to relate Solomon’s report to my own ideas about society and the world, “the world,” as regular readers will know, being practically a term of art for me, replete with specific denotations and by no means a synonym for “the earth.” (The world is an exclusively human construction, or, to put it even better, the construction of society.) I’m not going to do much of anything now, either. I have read seven of the twelve chapters, just over half.

Why does everybody have to read this book? Because, as a society, we need a lot of help replacing our binary presumptions. The extent to which binary presumptions are a natural human bias as well as a founding tic of Western thought is hard to say, and perhaps unnecessary, but we can agree that our American ideas of rationality rest on the syntactic construction of either/or but not both. You are either black or white, male or female, honest or dishonest. Rational as these statements might be, they are so unreasonable in the face of complex reality that their simplifcation is not only ludicrous but harmful. Rather than offer an example, I’ll simply point to Solomon’s chapter entitled “Deaf.” You may not be very interested in the problems of the hearing-impaired, but the ways in which those problems are being dealt with even denied (to be regarded as advantages instead) show human ingenuity at its most profuse, and also at its most conflicted; it would not be more than mildly tiresome to transpose the entire chapter into the key of nuclear capability. As on so many American fronts, organizations refuse to engage in dialogue with their opponents, and demonize them instead; while  individuals make thoughtful and often painful compromises. The beauty of Solomon’s ear is his wonderful ear for the fine discriminations that underlie those compromises. Nothing is simple, but Solomon makes it all readable.

As I said last week, a better time for me to read this book cannot be imagined. What a lucky break to find it loitering among the beach towels!


Tuesday 18th

This morning, when it was grey and humid and the air hovered on the warm side of the frontier of comfort, I read Andrew Solomon’s chapter on Down Syndrome. It was depressing for me, more depressing even than the first chapter, on deafness. I draw so much pleasure from most of what I hear, even in the city, that a world without sound would be a very dull one. Music (everything but rock — which proves my point), Kathleen’s voice, birds at twilight… even the honking of horns when 87th Street backs up, not a pleasant sound to be sure but a comic one that makes me run to the window to see how far back to First Avenue the congestion stretches. The sound of the surf, which varies in many ways with the weather. I like to think that my prose is suffused by my ear for music (and not just rhythm); when I edit my work, aside from catching typos and suboptimal usage, I’m trying to hear the music in the flow of words. I don’t mean to say that I feel sorry for people who can’t enjoy these things. There are plenty of people with perfect hearing who don’t enjoy them. And, as I get older, I live a quieter life; there is not always music playing. But a world without You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion? Impoverished.

But my hearing opens me to pleasures outside myself. Down Syndrome would limit the quality of pleasures that I could enjoy. It is difficult to read Far From the Tree without comparing and contrasting: which disability would be the worst? Which, of any two, the worse? I don’t entertain these idle distractions, but they pop up just the same, because it’s so conventional to give thanks for having been spared such afflictions. It’s what people do. Solomon, moreover, provokes two versions of the question: which impairment would be worse to endure, and, more emphatically, which would be worse to see inflicted on your child? (Solomon provides one answer to the second question, at the top of page 124.) I remind myself that, although, relative to the children in Far From the Tree, I’m normal, my daughter is normal, and (so far) my grandson is nrmal, this means little more than we find the world around us to be as convenient as it is for most of the people we know. Notwithstanding this normality, we get sick, endure sorrows, and will eventually die. Feeling pity for a disabled person is an ugly folly.

I walked to town to buy the Times and to have a sandwich made, walked back, and finished the chapter. It wasn’t time for lunch, so I picked up Ulysses and chugged through the seventh episode, which, according to the Wikepedia page that I’ve been consulting, is informally (and invisibly) entitled, “Aeolus.” Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus pass each other in the offices of a newspaper, but do not meet. Leopold is trying to made a publicity deal for an advertiser; Stephen is dropping off a letter written by the principal of the school where he teaches. The short sections are introduced by tabloid headlines. I remember a vogue for that sort of thing in the late Sixties; I associate it particularly with Donald Barthelme.

I figured out what was going on without referring to the crib at Wikipedia, but I couldn’t really follow what the characters were talking about. Nor was I trying very hard to do so. I am not so much reading the book as exposing myself to it. The story of the “vestals” who spit plum pits from their picnic atop the Nelson Column was droll, or at least drolly told, but I had no idea what it was doing there. I tried to figure out what “onehandled adulterer” meant until just a moment ago, when I realized that I’d somehow put Parnell atop the Nelson Column. Having lived for more than a few decades, and immersed myself in fancy-pants literature for most of that time, I catch most of the allusions without trying, but I can’t think why they’re there in the first place.

Plus, a lot of the subject matter is Ew! Bloom in the outhouse, for example. Worse, Bloom buys a bar of soap, and visits a bathhouse. The bath is elided, but the soap won’t go away: Bloom keeps pulling it out of one pocket and slipping it into another. There is an extravagant uncleanliness about Ulysses that strikes me as childishly antisocial.

If there’s one word that makes me wish I hadn’t picked up a book, it is “sweat.” I have a lot of trouble with sweat. I read somewhere that, if you’re very lucky, the microbes that reside on your skin will consume the entirety of the sebum that you excrete. Most of us play host to more finicky diners. What some microbes don’t consume causes body odor. If I don’t have that problem, it might well be that I don’t give it time to ripen. My microbes leave behind a film that both seals and burns. I feel wrapped in foil, and no abundance of balmy breezes will cool me off. Only a quick shower will save me. In all but the coldest weather, simply reading about sweat is unsettling enough to start me sweating.

I am also crawling through The Tale of Genji, which doesn’t at all begin the way I’ve been saying it would. It is, in fact, far more erotic than I took care to notice forty-odd years ago. Forty-odd years ago, I still needed things to be spelled out. Arthur Waley is understated about sex, but never the least bit mysterious. I was quite shocked, however, by the suggestion that, in one instance, Genji makes do with the sweet little brother of the woman whom he’s really after.

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation of The Pillow Book is the perfect introduction to Waley’s beautiful translation of Genji. McKinney, like her predecessor, Ivan Morris, explains all the odd customs — women lurking behind screens when their lovers come calling, for example. Waley spends as little time on these details as possible. He remarks in a footnote that Heian houses were “arranged somewhat differently than ours,” and leaves it at that. If you read The Pillow Book first, the world of Genji will be much more familiar, and there will be less lumber to get in the way of the story, which is, after all, neither anthropological research nor shelter-magazine copy.

The weather was somewhat stifling yesterday, and only slightly worse than Sunday. While I was finishing the chapter on Down Syndrome, the sky cleared up and the air grew cooler. It’s warm in the sun, but almost chilly in the shade. That’s how I like it; that’s what I’m here to enjoy.

PS: I haven’t, on this vacation, been editing this pair of August entries. I’ll do that when I get home. Bear with, svp.


Wednesday 19th

The owner of the house we are renting is on her way over, to fetch some bottles of wine. Neither Kathleen nor I have met her, although I should recognize her from photographs mounted on the refrigerator. I was just about to say how glad I was that the house was presentable, when I realized that I hadn’t made the bed. And, to switch times, she walked in while I was pulling the sheet over the top of the duvet. She was surprised to find me all alone — quite reasonably, as houses here are either empty or lively.

The owner’s daughter and the daughter’s mother-in-law appeared presently, and all agreed that it was MUCH cooler here than where they’d been. That’s no surprise, either. The house is elevated, about six feet off the ground, and nothing stands between it and the bay breezes. I was invited to turn on the air-conditioning, an offer that I was happy to decline.

As it happened, I met the daughter yesterday. She stopped by to pick up a bicycle for her younger son. It was very nice to meet her, and to see her again today; but I’m glad that I met the owner, who was also very nice. The owner and her husband (who is also the owner, I expect, but Kathleen has had no dealings with him) will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tomorrow — unless it’s today. I’m never any good with temporal details when I’m in pass-the-hors-d’oeuvre mode.

Especially when I’m on vacation, something that began for me, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, after a walk on the beach last night. It was about six-thirty. I kicked off my beach shoes and washed away the sand, poured a glass of wine, and sat on the deck — for about a minute; the sun was still too high. An hour later (spent fiddling at the keyboard), the sun was near setting, and the sky was brilliant as usual. I was still in beach attire — an English polo shirt, bought years ago in Bermuda, with the ugliest oversized print motif ever devised, but in colors that I like, and denim trunks — and I had no plans. I wasn’t hungry, so dinner didn’t press. For the first time this season, I sat and thozed. Forgive the coinage (if it is one); I’ve run together “think” and “doze.” Dozing, you sleep without being aware of it. Last night, there was always something going through my head, but it was so light that I wasn’t aware of it.


Somehow, I managed to read about a hundred pages of Far From the Tree this morning. This included the long, penultimate chapter, “Transgender.” I had saved it for last, because it is the only one of the ten “conditions” that Solomon writes about that gives me any trouble, and I figured, rightly as it turned out, that I would be able to absorb its complications if I was in synch with Solomon’s analytic protocols.

Why do I have trouble with Transgender? I shouldn’t have been able to say, but now I know that there are many reasons. Changing gender looks optional; it does not cure a disability that is visible to anyone but the sufferer. In this, its an outlier. I now understand that changing gender can be as imperative as receiving an antibiotic. Another reason, and one that persists even after I’ve read the chapter, is disapproval of cosmetic mutilation. Solomon’s coverage of thisa issue is one reason why I spoke of complications a moment ago, and not complexities. The profusion of Solomon’s examples demonstrates the impossibility of generalizing about changing gender. Third, Transgender has also seemed to me to carry a heavy load of fantasy — and I am constitutionally chilly about fantasy. The little boy who wants to grow up to wear dresses is no more interesting to me than the one who wants to be president, or a fireman.

My fundamental reservation about Transgender, however, follows from my conviction that it displaces another problem. Solomon quotes Stephanie Brill:

“A male child who says, ‘I must be a girl because only girls want to do these things,’ is not showing evidence of being transgender; he’s showing evidence of sexism.”

I couldn’t agree more, nor could I more fiercely defend the right of boys and girls to do whatever they please absolutely without regard to what’s gender-appropriate. Interfering with harmless pastimes is just as impertinent as asking a married woman when she plans to have children. We need new conventions that respect dignity, autonomy, and privacy.*

I am not opposed to changing gender, just resistant. If I were convinced that such a change was key to a child’s happiness, I would not stand in the way. I might want to be convinced by a sympathetic therapist (sympathetic to the child, not to me), but this would only to prevent regrets down the road — which, Solomon shows us, do occur. (And of course I’m talking only about surgical interventions here. I was delighted to learn about Lupron, which forestalls puberty and its side-effects, playing for time.) So many of the conditions that Solomon writes about — nearly all of them — have changed complexion in recent decades, thanks to intertwined amplifications of identity activism and medical competence. Who knows how much of Far From the Tree will be dated in ten years?

* By privacy, I mean those instances in which interests and activities pursued in private are for one reason or another divulged in public. They remain private.


Friday 21st

Rain again. Before going to bed, I closed most of the doors and windows, but the rain, when it came, was soft and straight; I don’t think that any of it would have blown in. Dozing at daybreak, I wondered if it was peculiar of me to find the racket in the drainpipe, right outside the bedroom, so agreeable. If I had not known what it was, it would have been ugly and annoying.

When I went to bed, I had fifteen pages of The Moonstone yet to read. I had already stayed up very late, just to follow Ezra Jennings’s contribution to the story. Once I could be sure that Godfrey Ablewhite met with the death that he had coming, the tension snapped, and the words began to blur.

I wonder if The Moonstone has ever inspired a reader to become a Robinson Crusoe fan.

Yesterday morning, which was a bright as today is dismal, I declared a Total Holiday day. What this meant was that I would devote it to reading The Moonstone. Risking missing the Times, I stayed at the house until time for an early lunch at Maguire’s. There were still three copies of the newspaper when I passed the Pantry, and I bought one, but I did not read it until the middle of the afternoon, right before launching on Franklin Blake’s first narrative. At some point prior to four o’clock, I emptied a box of crushed tomatoes into a saucepan, added most of a stick of butter and an onion that I had cut in half and peeled, and set the pan over moderate heat. When I called Kathleen at four, as I usually do, the air was fragrant with Butter Sauce, as I’ve come to call this concoction (universally attributed to Marcella Hazan), because it is substantial in a way that’s quite different from the run of tomato sauces; it may not sound very appetizing to say so, but the butter contributes a meaty heft. When it came time to eat, I discovered that a Cuisinart pasta ladle is the perfect implement for keeping a Penguin Classic opean at the table. I took a walk on the beach, and did a load of laundry. I ran the dishwasher. Really, though, I did nothing but read The Moonstone.

The story is, of course, very good, an excellent yarn. But what I liked best was that Wilkie Collins was telling it. Collins can make shameless use of convenient coincidences that in lesser hands would be implausibly “melodramatic,” but he knows how to make them so uncanny that we’re compelled, for love of pleasure, to swallow them. Consider the spectacular demise of Sir Percival Glyde, burned to death in the blazing vestry of the church at Welmingham. (In The Woman in White.) It is nothing less than operatic that our hero, Walter Hartridge, is also on the scene, leading the effort to save Sir Percival’s life. But it is also operatically thrilling. When I was young, this was a guilty pleasure. Sensation was not cool. I wonder now, was that because of lingering modernism, or was it simply adolescent resistance to emotional display? I’m fairly sure that a lot of The Moonstone went over my head when I last read it, fifty-odd years ago. (Collins’s high-Victorian prose would have been too exuberant for me to follow with ease.) But I did recognize it as a guilty pleasure; and I began to hope that my life would be rich in guilty pleasures.

The part of The Moonstone that stuck with me was the character of Drusilla Clack — was there ever a better name? Miss Clack is a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances who has devoted her life to sanctimonious interference in the spiritual lives of others, especially those others who haven’t got much in the way of spiritual lives. Her family cannot dismiss her altogether, but they make their endurance plain. There suffering, of course, is grist for Clack’s mill: she is always on the lookout for the reversal of fortune that might soften someone up for the receipt of her evangelism. (She keeps herself supplied with inspirational tracts that bear such titles as “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons.”) Clack is a miracle of irony — she addresses the reader as sympathizer to her cause, as if unaware that sympathizers to her cause would not be reading novels — and the crowning touch is her hypocrisy, which, peeping out only rarely, here and there, has the astonishing effect of humanizing her.

And yet, I found myself pausing over a certain sort of passage, meant to be funny, or at least ridiculous, that I couldn’t help savoring at face value. In the following passage, the first such that I come across when I open the book, Miss Clack has just learned of Lady Verinder’s illness.

Little did my poor aunt imagine what a gush of devout thankfulness thrilled through me as she approached the close of her melancholy story. Here was a career of usefulness opened before me! Here was a beloved relative and perishing fellow-creature, on the eve of the great change, utterly unprepared; and let, providentially, to reveal her situation to Me! How can I describe the joy…

Yes, of course it’s ludicrous, and even inhuman to speak of joy here — but it is also quite essentially Christian, and aimed at transcendence. Imagine that Collins had the blasphemous idea of substituting Jesus for Clack. He would say much the same things; how would we react? It would be the wrecking of the novel, of course, but that such a notion should come to mind is testament to Collins’s gift for the rich ambiguity that holds us in thrall to the page even at moments of superb unlikeliness.

Reading The Moonstone was a bittersweet pleasure, because I knew that, when it came to an end, there would be No More. What would I do then, with nothing in my pile but The Tale of Genji and Ulysses, both of which would be somewhat medicinal after such Total Fun? Not to worry: Kathleen found my copy of The Lady and the Law, and she’ll be bringing out with her this afternoon. I won’t get to it until Sunday night or Monday, because she’s also bringing along Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil.

Bon weekend à tous!

Vacation Diary:
Notes & Afterthoughts
August 2015

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

Monday 3rd

In a little while, I’ve got to get started on pizza dough. My daughter and grandson are coming for dinner. (My son-in-law flew back to San Francisco this morning.) Megan and Will will show up sevenish, and I want to have everything ready to go by six-thirty. Will, I’m told, is crazy about spinach pizza, so I’ll be expanding my topping skills to encompass vegetables. I’m not sure what to do with the spinach ahead of time, but as it only takes a few minutes to cook — if cooking (aside from the pizza-baking ) is indeed necessary — I’ll confine the prep to scissoring and washing.

Aside from that, I have a little bit of paperwork to attend to. And some laundry to fold. Otherwise — you’d never know that I’m about to leave for three weeks.

Kathleen may be able to spend a few weekdays with me on Fire Island, but, for the most part, I’ll be alone. I’m taking The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which I haven’t read since college; a shopping bag full of stitching projects (as “needlepoint” is now called); and a few chunks of Reggiano Parmigiano. Also a few knives and a tea kettle. (And tea!) The usual togs; the usual digital equipment. Le minimum.

Here’s what I’m looking to on Fire Island: Nothing. Plenty of nothing. Day after uneventful day.

Which gives me an idea. The Tale of Genji. Arthur Waley’s translation — the only one I’ve read all the way through. Apparently there’s yet another new one. Someone was writing about it somewhere, and comparing it to the others that have appeared since Edward G Seidensticker’s, which I own but have not got through. As everybody knows, any translation of this ancient novel (c 1100) is a highly speculative business; so, I’ve decided to forswear attempts at accuracy in favor of beauty. Whoever-it-was mentioned that Junichiro Tanizaki consulted Waley when he translated Genji into modern Japanese.

The first quarter of The Tale of Genji is like the forest surrounding Sleeping Beauty — almost impenetrable. It is little more than a court calendar, a gazette of important ritual functions, with accounts of who showed up and, more important, who wore what. How, you wonder, can this book have possibly earned the reputation it enjoys? When you read for the umpteenth time that Genji has been prevented from visiting a friend or a favorite because doing so would require him to travel in an unpropitious direction, you want to throw the book out the window. In the middle of the book, more or less, the title character dies. Now what? You persist (along with the writer) — hoping, possibly, that the difference between the Minister of the Right Hand will at long last be distinguished in some functional way from the Minister of the Left Hand.

With the object of her infatuation out of the way, the author is free to pay a more divided attention to her other characters, and pretty soon you realize that you are watching somebody learn how to write a novel.

An early case of Kill Your Darlings.


Tuesday 4th

The day began unpropitiously. I fell out of bed.

This is something that can happen; it has in fact happened once before. The question is, how much of this story do you want to hear? There would be no question at all, if it were not that my falling out of bed did not involve inebriation.

No, it was morning. I had gotten up, to see a man about polishing some shoe laces. Coming back to bed, I was overcome by the desire to sleep on my side.

Normally, I sleep on my back, in what might be called a deathbed position, head on pillow, laid out straight, my breathing barely apparent. I simply do not move in my sleep. (Kathleen is occasionally unnerved.) A bed that I alone have slept in does not need to be “made.” You just pull a blanket to, and you’re done. A corollary of this rule is that I cannot shift in bed without getting up and out of it, rearranging pillows and blankets, and, if I’m hoping to sleep on my side — my right side, never the left — crawling back in carefully, so that there’s a blanket between my legs. l’m excessively warm-blooded, you see. In the winter, people pull back from hugging me, aglow — you’re so warm! And indeed I am. I am oxidizing so profusely that I probably ought to be dead by now. Or perhaps its a very inefficient layer of subcutaneous fat, bringing my skin temperature much closer to 98.6º than other people’s. In any case, my skin cannot touch — my skin, not without becoming quite uncomfortably hot and sweaty. So there must be something between my legs when I sleep on my side.

For a long time, I didn’t know that I could do this, sleep on my side. It still feels like a new experience. I can do it for only an hour. At about that point, I am awakened by a right shoulder that aches like the dickens, and a feverishly hot right cheek. This morning, when I extricated myself from the sleeping-on-my-side position, I was not very careful about the blanket between my legs. As I turned onto my seat, I slid toward the edge of the bed and — kept going. My legs, caught in the blanket, eventually followed. I forgot to tell you that our bed is high, almost counter-height from the floor. So I fell about three feet, in a tumble of limbs. I bruised an elbow and an ankle, rattled a knee, and pulled (or maybe just tugged) a muscle in the groin. Kathleen helped me back into bed and gave me three anti-inflammatory tablets. I slept for a while and woke up feeling more or less intact, but also quite shaken, and even sorry for myself, about the fall.

When I went out to get the haircut that has to see me through three weeks of seaside living — and an anxious creature I was, let me tell you, wondering where we had put the canes in the new apartment, and feeling that a taxi to Frank Campbell would probably be the best idea; except that they’d tell me that I’d have to go to the Emergency Room at New York Hospital first; which only goes to show that you can’t even go straight to hell in this town — I wondered if I would ever see the apartment again. It was very touching.

Pop Quiz: How many readers guessed that I’ve almost finished reading Dancing In the Dark (My Struggle 4) by Karl Ove Knausgaard?


More about him some other time. I know that I’m on vacation, but my brains don’t. They’re as frisky as fillies today. First, there was the Op-Ed piece by Yale historian Joanne Freeman, about Congressional violence in the Nineteenth Century. In the run-up to the Civil War, the Houses of Congress could get as ugly as a bar in the wrong part of town. Freeman’s point wasn’t that the nation has been seriously polarized before — she wants to remind us that political stupidity, or rather, saying very stupid things in political contexts, makes for great ratings — I came away pondering the difference between now and then. Then, before the Civil War, there was really only one issue, and it wasn’t slavery so much as the expansion of slavery, into new states, such as Kansas. By the 1850s, the agreement to disagree had smashed up against an impasse.

But what is polarizing the United States today? Well, so many things! Immigration, social welfare, racism (and the discussion about racism), guns. These are the issues that you read about in the papers. Deeper inquiry might suggest that the the very model of Western democracy is broken, or at least so decadent that it has achieved the bizarre distinction of recapitulating the privileges of the ancien régime, only with different labels. The situations of Greece and Puerto Rico, to give just one example of ancien régime redux, have convinced me that far, far too many investors have felt privileged to buy the debt of these two polities; meaning, by privileged, that they could overlook the obvious risks of such investments because they’d be bailed out in case of disaster. So the disaster is befalling ordinary Greek and Puerto Rican people instead, people who had nothing to do with any of the borrowing and whose benefit from it was almost certainly highly indirect.

Most Americans seem to be aware that our political discourse is no longer addressing genuine issues, or addressing them with full engagement. Most politicians seem to be aware that the genuine issues cannot be effectively addressed, because to do so would rain on too many parades. There is a terrible mental confusion, possibly unavoidable, given the financialization of everything, about where economic discussion stops and political discussion begins. Attention spans are too short to allow anything to be sorted out. Everybody wants to be left alone — in the most interconnected society that humanity has ever known.

Is there a single issue that explains all the others? Sometimes, I think that it must be guns, but that’s because I am nowhere near as unambiguously opposed to anything as I am to the civilian possession of firearms. I believe that merely wanting to own guns is odious. The National Rifle Association might just as well be sponsoring slave auctions. I can see fighting another war of secession on the point. (Good riddance this time!) But that’s just me.

Second, there was Joanna Scott’s essay in this week’s issue of The Nation, “Liberating Reading.” It’s a review of some recent books about books — about modernist books, particularly. Several times in the piece, Scott worries about the future of the ability to read demanding literature. I share her concern, but more moderately, because I don’t think for a minute that the Internet has adversely affected literary life. Literary life has always thrived in its own elitist hothouse (and there’s nothing wrong with that), and if anyone has been having a go at the fenestration, it’s not the Amazonian e-book but the Brobdignagian b-boomers. Undermining “the canon” was well underway long before the introduction of the personal computer, and much longer before the connectivity of the Internet. It was guys my age what done it. As students, they complained about “relevance,” than which there are fewer more narcissistic distractions; then, quite horrifyingly, they went on to become teachers themselves. Now their pupils are running things, not surprisingly given their training, into the ground. If I don’t worry too much about the future of Reading, it’s because I firmly believe that most of my classmates had no business pursuing higher education.

In my old age, however, I have come to the unapoligetic conclusion that Modernism was worse than a mistake. I won’t belabor the point here yet again; it’s enough to point to John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Carey’s exposure of the links between Modernism and Hitlerism are thrillingly right and deserve to be more widely acknowledged.

It wasn’t Scott but Knausgaard who suggested that this might be a good time to read Buddenbrooks.


Thursday 6th

They just got here — Megan and Will. And then Kathleen walked in, back from an errand. We have an hour or more to kill before the cars arrive. Assuming normal traffic, we ought to be in the beach house well before six. At six o’clock, Kathleen has a conference call. She has not been terrifically busy during her first month at the new firm. Now that we’re off to Fire Island, she’s got three documents to prepare, which is a lot for even a long weekend.

Will is full of pep, hugely excited by the prospect of travel to a beach. I’m dumbly hoping that everything will go smoothly.

I was ruefully contemplating such a hope last night, right before the Chinese dinner arrived from Wa Jeal. We were all in a funk. It seemed that Will had lost a phone ,on my watch, that, while it no longer had a SIM card, was loaded with Megan’s contact information, including bank passwords and the like. It was one of the first iPhones, and it became terminally unreliable last week, when she and Ryan and Will were on the Jersey Shore. They bought a new phone at the mall and copied everything onto it. Both phones were now loaded with games for Will to play, and the old phone retained its WiFi connectivity. But there hadn’t been time to wipe off the personal data.

By the time dinner arrived, we all wore bright faces, even me, despite the fact that I’d proved to be guilty of not one but two lapses. It’s a good thing that all’s well that ends well, but sometimes a chewy story is left behind as well.

Megan had lunch yesterday with a good friend, so I took Will to what he used to call the “dinnerstore,” a coffee shop across the street. He was in something of a sulk, which I’ll explain some other time (or maybe not), so, when we sat down, he got out his mother’s old phones and donned his Sony headsets and proceeded to ignore me, saying only that he wasn’t hungry. I went ahead and ordered a grilled-cheese-and-bacon deluxe. Eventually, Will condescended to eat a few French fries, after cooling them off in his glass of icewater. He accepted a glass of milk, He even warmed to a dish of chocolate ice cream, making sure to consume all of the whipped cream on top. By the time we left the coffee shop, he was in fairly good spirits, just as I’d expected him to be.

On the street, he stopped to make sure that he had a certain piece of paper in his cargo shorts pocket. He was to carry this at all times: it bore his mother’s name and her phone number. “Do you have your phone?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, and I did not ask to see it, even though I felt that I was making a mistake. We went to Barnes & Noble and bought some stuff. Then we came home and played with stuff.

Much later, Megan, who had brought her very nice friend back to the apartment, to continue their get-together, asked after the phone. It wasn’t in Will’s pocket; it wasn’t anywhere. Stunned by the magnitude of my misjudgment — I ought to have asked to see the phone in the street; it was impossible that Will had left it anywhere but in the restaurant — I just about ran across the street to the coffee shop. No phone had been turned into the cashier, and I had to wait for two women to leave the booth before I could inspect it. No dice.

Back at home, Megan was sitting in the part of the living room that we call the boudoir, by the window, while I sat next to Kathleen in the middle of the room and stewed in remorse. It was very quiet. I sipped on my glass of wine and refrained from saying anything. Then, suddenly, I was on my feet. I can’t trace what recollection provoked this, but without saying a word, I swept into the bedroom, and there it was, lying exactly where my own phone lies when it’s being charged. I remembered that Will had reached for the phone in his pocket — while we were playing with stuff — because it was vibrating. I asked if it was low on power. Yes, he said. So I plugged it in and forgot all about it.

Well, Will didn’t forget all about it, but his recollection was, at least as stated, partial.

So that when Megan asked after the phone, I did what’s normal for me: I remembered making a mistake, and reaped the consequence of that mistake, even though that consequence had not materialized. This triggered the second lapse, the temporary obliteration of any memory of charging the old phone. This cascade of error was not even interrupted by Will’s statement that “Doodad took it.” This refutation of my claim that he had left it in the restaurant — for which I blamed myself, not him — together with the imputation that I, having taken it, then lost it, only intensified my mistaken convictions. In one sense, of course, it was quite true that I had taken it and then lost it.

A happy ending, but a troubling story — or at any rate testament to an exhausted mind.


Friday 7th

We are here, at the end of East Walk, the Summer Club. All is well, except little thises and thats. It has taken a full day for me to find the energy to get connected, and, now I’ve done it, I have nothing to say. Everyone is resting in the late-afternoon warmth. It’s not hot, really, and there is a very nice breeze to put some life into the ceiling fans. But the sun is steady, and the western (living) side of the house is baking in it.

As long as I was going to read The Tale of Genji, I thought I’d bring along Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but I couldn’t find it, so I ordered another copy — only to discover that Penguin now publishes a new translation. Ivan Morris has been replaced by Meredith McKinney. I find that I’m reading the book from the beginning, something I’ve never done before. It started innocently — I wanted to see what kind of apparatus McKinneey had provided. You can’t publish the Pillow Book without extensive notes. Morris also added a few line drawings, taken from old Japanese models, to give an idea of the costumes, the layout of palace rooms, and the carriages in which ladies traveled about the town. McKinney has added to all of this a few glossaries, identifying recurring figures and defining the ministerial and bureaucratic jobs.that give the male courtiers their identities (even if they don’t keep them very busy). As for the translation, it seems lighter-handed; where Morris’s Shonagon was something of a self-important shrew, McKinney’s is an amusing, perhaps slightly too witty woman.

I’ve also read two dozen pages of Ulysses.


Saturday 8th

This will be brief. Dinner is under preparation in the kitchen (not by me), while Megan is consoling Will in the wake of scrapes and bites and a very tiring couple of weeks. Kathleen, working on a document, was knocked out by it, too exhausted in her last waking moments to cover herself with anything but a pillow. A Brazilian playlist is tinkling in the corner.

The weather continues lovely. Going into the town for a midafternoon shop on a Saturday was regrettable, although we did get what we needed. (Except, garlic?) Will was hauled around in the gigantic wagon along with the provisions.

I’m gripped by The Woman in White. I ought to be stitching — it’s more convivial than trying to read, innit. I never manage to capture a good image of Will and the gang. I got a message saying that another computer on this network has the same IP address — that’s a new one. It must have something to do with the new MiFi card and a new Lenovo laptop that I haven’t got round to breaking in. Hence my continued reliance on this enormous old Pavilion, which wheezes with age I kid you not.

The whole point of this vacation, this emptying out, is to regain the composure and presence of mind to deal with the foregoing problems. I do hope that I’ll be able to remain in touch until then.


Monday 10th

For a few hours, I have been alone in the house. Kathleen left after dinner last night — we all walked over from Maguire’s to the ferry to see her off. Everyone else, Megan, Will, and the NOLAs, left on the same boat this afternoon. I pulled the wagon home and resumed my breathless reading of The Woman In White.

Will is living in the molten core of the pleasure principle. Now that he knows how to express his desires more or less clearly, he sees no reason why they ought not to be indulged. He knows that there are limits, but he would like to revise this arrangement. He can be very inventive. An apparently ingenuous account of what he has been watching on Nickelodeon — of what his mother has very regrettably missed — turns into an infomercial for something that he “needs.”

In another verbal development, he has learned to announce mishaps with an apology. “I’m sorry!” he says. In those cases where no crashing sounds are involved, it is then that you find out what Will is sorry for.

There was a lovely moment this morning — little more than a moment. He made up a game, involving a pail of water, a smaller, empty pail, a Tennage Ninja Turtle figure, and a few paper towels. It was a sort of laundry game: wet paper towels were squeezed over the turtle in the empty pail; then the turtle was dropped into the pail. This was more of a dropping, splashing game. Some sort of industrial process was clearly in operation. The process was repeated several times, always with variations. It was both infantile and scientific.

He told his mother this afternoon that he is never going to grow up and leave home. This accords with his frequent reminders that he is the kid, and, as such, entitled to be taken care of in the manner to which he is accustomed (see “needs”). It’s like trying to swim up a waterfall.

It is obvious that Will has a good heart. But, as his mother says, this is not the same thing as knowing right from wrong. She works tirelessly at teaching him which is what.

A week from today, Will will experience the first day of Kindergarten.



More connection problems. This is my reward for updating the MiFi card and not getting round to preparing a new laptop for travel. It is not the new laptop that’s at fault — it didn’t travel. I have sent a note to Mr Mei, pleading for help. Until I get some, I may be too distracted by uncertainty to write very well. Compounding the problem, I’m in Fairlie mode.

Readers of The Woman In White will recall Frederick Fairlie, the invalid uncle for whom any distraction from his collection of objets de vertu is an intolerable attack on his nervous composure. He says “no” to everything, but persistence can wear him down, provoking a flustered “yes.” Fittingly, this unpleasant hypochondriac, who rarely leaves his suite of rooms and can’t be bothered with the responsibilities of being the head of the household, succumbs to “paralysis” and death.

C’est moi, these days.

While there were other people in the house, the weather was glorious — sunny and clear and not too warm. Alone, I awoke to the sound of a gurgling drainpipe. I got up in time to prevent large puddles beneath the sliding-glass doors. At the moment, it is clearing up, although more rain, and perhaps even a storm, are predicted for later. This morning, however, was wonderfully gloomy. I burrowed into the sofa and finished Collins’s breakthrough “sensation” novel. I have always regarded The Woman In White as a novel that I read during or shortly after college, but precious little of it was familiar. I remember not liking it as much as The Moonstone, and I’m sure that I skimmed a great deal of Walter Hartright’s amorous heroics. The book, this time around, was as good as new.

What is it about Collins’s writing that makes the floridity of Victorian prose not only palatable but so palatable? Collins certainly pours it on as thick as anybody — he makes Trollope read like an austere modernist. And yet the copiousness of his verbiage is devoted to showing, not telling. He writes like a scenarist, not a lyricist. He wants to be sure that you have a visual sense of people and places, and he trusts you to respond with the appropriate mood. His narrative forms in The Woman In White, moreover, are limited to the diary entry and the memorandum. Walter Hartright, perhaps because he is a drawing-master, goes in for tone-poetry, but the far more representative Marian Halcombe prefers understatement. (That is but one example of Collins’s propensity for fiddling with gendered expectations.) A thorough study of Collins’s prosody would reveal, I expected, that very few of his words could be cut without impairing not only the sense but also the power of his fiction.

Almost any other novelist would have made more of Walter’s Honduran intermezzo. Not only does this episode take place entirely offstage, but it is drawn on only three times (I’m excluding mere mentions, which aren’t very numerous, either). There is Marian’s delirious but predictvely accurate dream of the three deaths that Walter escapes (plague, Indians, shipwreck); and then there are two moments in which Walter attributes his survival skills to his Central American sojourn. (And on one of these occasions, he’s wrong: he believes, erroneously, that he has shaken his tail.) In the space of an ordinary adventure, Conan Doyle would have dotted a Holmes story with vivid recollections of the sort of things that Walter saw and did on the archeological expedition that he joined in the vain attempt to forget Laura Fairlie, but, aside from Marian’s dream, we are offered no exotic asides. Collins might be accused by some readers of failing to make even merely adequate use of his material. I find it bracing: the Aztec ruins were a worrying presence that never quite showed up. Worrying, I say, because one of the things that makes A Woman In White exciting is its firmly-established setting in Victorian England.

And yet how, without a nervous intelligence honed in deadly jungles, would Walter have had the imagination to connect Mrs Clements’s remarks about the vestry door at Welmingham — an unlikely site for romantic rendezvous — with “the Secret”?


Finally, the beach.

Everyone who was a guest over the weekend deserves an apology from me, because it took several days for me to pull out a stitching project and join the conversation. Until then, I read, mostly in stolen snatches. I behaved as though I were alone, mornings especially. I’d be up before anybody else, and in my seat on the deck, basking in the morning shade. Will was usually up next, followed by his mother, but I’d stay put on the deck, half because I was content to do so and half to let Megan organize Will’s breakfast without getting in the way. Kathleen might show up earlier, but she would leave immediately, to pick up a newspaper at the market. Eventually, the sun would sail over the house, and I’d have to go in. But I’d still want to be reading. After lunch — more reading, even though I was sitting in the middle of the living room conversation area. I’d put down my book if the talk became general, but people got used to my reading and ignored me. You fool, I thought. You ought to have saved Wilkie Collins for your solitude. But I’d been too tired to think, when we got out here. First, it was The Pillow Book, After two days of that, I turned to The Woman In White, and couldn’t think about anything else until I was done with that.

When I finally did take up a piece of bargello, one that required no thinking whatsoever, I felt an immediate transformation, from curmudgeon to gossip. I could contribute to chats that I wasn’t leading, that, like the bargello, called for no serious thought on my part. And, now that I’m alone, stitching somehow creates the illusion that my thoughts are in order. I consider things, and sometimes put the work down to make a note or to look for something in a drawer. Even my worries seem manageable when I’m stitching. I’m sure that it has something to do with blood pressure; the regular pulling of needle through canvas acts as a sort of pacemaker for my erratic, high-strung heart.

The only problem is that I don’t like the project. I don’t like the colors. The piece is supposed to replace a pillow panel that I stitched about thirty years ago. A few threads have pulled loose, and the pillow is no longer entirely presentable. When I took it down to Rita’s, on 79th Street (right next to the dermatologist’s office), it turned out that the colors couldn’t quite be matched. So the palest of the four greenish hues is really just the color of a washed-out dishrag. Also, there is an olive band. I don’t care for olive. Olive and turquoise are disliked colors, because they are so unfaithful to true green, which is different from all other colors in proving, to me, the existence of both life and hope. Olive is too yellow, turquoise too blue.

For a long time, I wasn’t sure about the replacement colors, but now that I’ve got five rows of each, I can tell. The dark green I like. The sea green, which runs between the olive and the dishrag, is appealing in its way, but do little to mitigate the impression that these colors were chosen by someone else.

I bought a trio of projects in San Francisco at the New Year. Cost a fortune! The colors are great, but the thread is silk, not comfortable old wool. and it must be handled with care. Also, there is no bargello element, no wave of undulating but otherwise identical stitches. Although I am not really proficient with a needle — I’m generally not proficient with anything involving hands, although I used to be a good dancer — but I know what I’m doing with bargello. Filling in colored areas (which is what most needlepoint projects involve) is something of a challenge. What works to my advantage is the slowing-down of age. I’m no longer in a hurry to finish anything. The only thing flogging me to get on with the pop-art projects from Needlepoint Inc — cartoon clouds of Zap, Bam, and Pow, just what our rather staid living room needs by way of visual Tabasco — is the cost.


Wednesday 12th

Even in the age of e-books, there is always the question, for someone of my age, of what books to take along on vacation. This year, I chose the two most famous of Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels; I’ve read one of them, and must save the other (The Moonstone) for the last week; The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji, two books set in Heian Japan (both about a century older that I remembered when I recently dated The Pillow Book at 1100 CE; in fact, the millennium of Sei Shonagon’s death falls two years from now); and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m galloping through The Pillow Book, but I’m not always in the mood for it. As to Ulysses, I’ve put myself on a diet of twenty-five pages a day; more than that, I don’t care to read, if the first part is any indication. What can I say about e-books except that I’m not in the mood? There’s a book about World War II that I really ought to knock off, and maybe I’ll get to it; but yesterday, in my restlessness, I looked at the bookcase that comes with the house, and I found Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.

I remember deciding, when I read the reviews of this book, that it wasn’t for me. I have a problem with the “recognition” of what I used, before this book, to call “disabilities,” because it concedes to much to belief in the normal. There is no normal, except maybe in Wyoming (there aren’t many people in Wyoming, and they all live a thousand miles apart; in Wyoming, “antisocial” is normal), and we are all more or less disabled. Let’s just say that I’m focused on the pathologies of unimpaired everyday life. (“Impairment,” Andrew Solomon’s word for “disability,” is now mine as well.) I didn’t think I had the patience to read a ream of parents’ heartrending stories about deaf children, autistic children, schizophrenic children, and so on.

And I don’t. I skim through all of that. So why did I pick up the book?

Karl Ove Knausgaard had made me very uneasy about the way I’d been complaining, in many recent entries here, about having grown up an adopted child. There is nothing in my history to have warranted the dread with which Knausgaard approached his father — or, more often, which he felt whenever his father approached him. More to the point — the point being my claim that I was never understood by my mother — Knausgaard’s father never even troubled to understand his two boys. Why should he? He was the father, and it was up to them to understand him, to understand that he was a serious disciplinarian. Books 3 and 4 of My Struggle are so graphic about the misfit between natural parent and child that they almost make the adoption racket’s claim, that children can flourish in any healthy environment, persuasive. I came away from Knausgaard with the uncomfortable feeling that I’d been bellyaching.

Solomon’s book promised even more graphic examples. He has a chapter on child prodigies — couldn’t I really explain the gulf between my mother and me as a matter of raw intelligence? (In fact, I do. I just don’t let it go at that.) My father, I think, understood me pretty well, and even if he wasn’t sympathetic to my way of life (which was simply not a way of life at all, in his view, but merely a way of goofing off), he was never hostile, which my mother often was. I could quite conceivably have been born to such a couple.

Chastened by these thoughts, I resolved to swallow the medicine.

It’s much too soon to tell how Far From the Tree will shape my thoughts about adoption, but it has already revised my ideas about “identity,” a concept for which I have never had much patience. And it has introduced, in this revision, an analytical tool that I know will be helpful to me in my thinking about society. This tool is the distinction between vertical and horizontal characteristics. Homosexuality is the classic horizontal characteristic, because it is rarely shared between parent and child. Solomon’s discussion of this, in terms of his relation with his mother, is both lucid and open-ended. He understands that his mother sincerely believed that her son would be happier as a straight man, but he also knows that she did not like seeing herself as the mother of a gay man. For both of these reasons, she would have preferred a vertical alignment, one featuring heterosexuality.

Similarly, my mother wanted me to prosper in the world, and she also did not want to be associated with a subversive, possibly sadistic intellectual. (I used to think it was just my mother, but I’ve learned that bright people in any age are commonly thought to be cruel, because they argue “painful” positions.)

If I’m still disinclined to regard sexuality as an identity, that’s because identity, insofar as it concerns me at all, is a public mask, and sexuality is private. What proves my point is the tremendous shift in standards for same-sex affectionate public behavior. Twenty years ago, the sight of two grown men holding hands in the street was shockingly unconventional. Now it’s merely unusual in certain neighborhoods. Conventions are nothing if not malleable. Behavior formerly regarded as gay has become loving.

Solomon doesn’t talk much about conventions, except to deplore regrettable ones. I’m going to keep them in mind while I read his now fascinating book.


Yesterday, I mentioned that The Woman In White read almost as a completely new book the second time around. I can’t say the same of The Pillow Book, for several reasons. I’ve always kept a copy close-by, and I’ve opened it now and then to enjoy one of Sei Shonagon’s discriminating lists. Infuriating Things. Things That Should Be Small. Things That Prove Disillusioning. So charming, so Japanese, so ancient. The Pillow Book is one of those shibboleths for sophisticated people: because it is not generally taught in school, one comes across it in an accidental way — preferably by word of mouth from other sophisticated people. And you can just read the lists.

Which is what I’ve done. I’ve never actually read The Pillow Book through. I’ve always tended to give the long anecdotal entries a pass, largely because I can’t be bothered to find out who’s being talked about. Grand Counselor Yamanoi. Acting Captain Narinobu. Consultant Sukemasa. I blame Sei Shonagon for that. Specific men appear in her pages only to engage in raillery or to compete at poetry composition. (Undifferentiated men appear in amorous vignettes, and Sei Shonagon’s complaints about them are possibly the most familiar, today-sounding aspect of The Pillow Book.) We are given no idea of what these men do when they are not dallying with the empress’s ladies. Once, we see them at archery practice. “How boring,” say the ladies, moving on.

In her introduction to this translation, Meredith McKinney makes clear, in her introduction, the extent to which The Pillow Book is an exercise in looking at the bright side of things; she tells us what Sei Shonagon rigorously overlooked. Fujiwara Teishi, the empress whom she served, was, as was usual in these cases, the daughter of the Regent, a shogun-like figure who ran things while the emperor performed ceremonial functions. When this gentleman died, Teishi and her brothers lost power and influence to their uncle, Fujiwara Michinaga. Teishi was displaced by his daughter and her cousin, Soshi. One almost thinks Teishi fortunate in dying in childbirth shortly thereafter.

When I first encountered The Pillow Book, I naively thought that it recorded the life of a sophisticated, highly aesthetic court of nobility. In fact it ignores the thuggery of the top men, who never went anywhere without their “retainers.” Eventually, power would be seized from the court-bound Fujiwara and contested by provincial magnates, beginning Japan’s “medieval” period. But it would be a mistake to think that tough guys replaced cosmopolites.

One reason for regarding the Heian nobility as “advanced” is the richness of court costume, which imprinted cultural values on uniforms. Colors, patterns, textures, and fabrics were all richly associated with the seasons, with the cosmological relation of the emperor and his court to the natural world, and with status markers either borrowed or adapted from Chinese usage. The two most valued materials in The Pillow Book are both perishable: textiles and paper. (Let’s not forget reed blinds!) Precious metals and jewels are all but unknown. Porcelain is not much remarked upon. More than once, I’ve thought of the Heian court as not very distant cousins of those Native Americans who used to be called Plains Indians.

The pavilion that housed the empress often seems like a large tent. There are few rooms as we would call them, and most living takes place in “aisles,” covered verandas in which  numbers of women slept, often with male lovers, separated only by screens and blinds. I am never quite sure that I understand how it all worked. Aside from the wittiness, which, although couched in references that no longer ring any bells, remains apparent, almost everything else in The Pillow Book is simply bizarre, at least until you’ve read The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris’s book-length explanation. And even then. How’s this for fancy:

I do hate the sight of some swarthy, slovenly-looking woman with a hairpiece, laying about in broad daylight with a scrawny man with hair sprouting from his face. What kind of a picture do they think they make, lounging there for all to see? Of course this is not to say that they should stay sitting upright all night for fear people will find them disgusting — no one can see them when it’s dark, and besides, everyone else indulges in the same thing at night The decent thing to do is to get up early once it’s morning. […] How dreary for two such people to have to look each other in the face when they get up! (104)



Friday 14th

Dear Diary: Getting more relaxed by the minute. The other night, the louvered door to the laundry closet came off its mount and nearly knocked me down. I managed to pick it up and carry it off to a corner; I’ve a hunch that Ray Soleil will be able to fix it when he comes out next weekend. Taking a shower, I felt something in the ball of my big toe. About this I worried a bit more than the door. Had I stepped on something in the short space between the bedroom and the bath? Would I have to visit the island clinic in the morning, to prevent a recurrence of last year’s catastrophe? Within the hour, I felt nothing; Kathleen can take a look at it tonight. She and her brother are coming out on a late-afternoon ferry. I’m about ready for some company.

Last night, I went to Maguire’s at six and got a table to myself outside on the terrace, even though the place was packed. (There were a few other empty tables, but only a few.) Thursday is Lobsterpalooza night at Maguire’s, so I got that out of my system. The plastic bib broke, as it always does, and I dropped a spot of butter on my shorts, but I emerged without making too much of a mess, and plus I was stuffed. I had to ask them to wrap up a claw. Lobster is so much work! More and more, I find myself making menu choices that  entail  operations no more advanced than cutting food into pieces. I particularly avoid anything that is likely to drip. But it has been four years since my last lobster dinner at Maguire’s, plenty of time for it to sound like a fun idea again. Actually, I really liked the clam chowder at the start, even though I’m not sure that it’s actually made in the kitchen.

Back at the house, I finished The Pillow Book. On the back of Meredith McKinney’s Penguin edition, there’s a finely contradictory bit of marketing copy: “A fascinating exploration of life amongst the nobility at the height of idyllic Heian period, it describes the exquisite pleasures of a confned world in which poetry, love, fashion and whim dominated, and harsh reality was kept firmly at a distance.” I can almost see McKinney rolling her eyes. Idyllic? If so, then what harsh reality? Did those exquisite pleasures really dominate? They dominate The Pillow Book, yes; but that makes the book something of a fantasy. It is a fantasy that the Japanese have kept alive for a thousand years.

I shouldn’t say, however, that The Pillow Book offers much in the way of an exploration of love. Sei Shonagon never describes the pleasure of being with a lover. The pleasure, if any, begins afterward, when the lover has departed into the night. With luck, there will be a moon, and the woman — Sei Shonagon always displaces this experience into the third person — can gaze into the moonlight and savor her amorous memories. It sometimes seems as though she wouldn’t even bother with love if it didn’t culminate in the treat of a morning-after letter. In Entry 181, she presents, almost as a sublimated sexual fantasy, a scene that no gentlewoman could possibly witness: “It is delightful to see,” the entry begins, “someone who’s a great ladies’ man, and is pursuing numerous love affairs, arriving home at dawn from who knows what night-time tryst.” She goes on to rhapsodize about the gallant’s composition of his love note. She doesn’t tell us what he writes, only that he “puts his heart and soul” into it — as, presumably, only a practiced philanderer can. But she tells us what he’s wearing, and how carefully he grinds the ink, &c &c. After he sends the note, he loiters in his study, and even recites a sutra; but Sei Shonagon (in her fantasy) catches him out — he is only waiting for his lady’s reply. This isn’t love; it’s choreography.

Needless to say, naked bodies are unmentioned. It’s important to be attractive, but it’s more important to be well-dressed. Very well dressed. Sei Shonagon’s relentless focus on the choice of costume mirrors her studied appreciation of the spontaneous deployment of classic poetry. With her dozens of lists, she is recognizable as a modern-day curator. Indeed, if you wanted to make The Pillow Book “relevant” to callow readers, you could teach it as “The Sei Shonagon Collection.” It reads much more easily that way than it does as an account of a distant culture whose political underpinnings the author is determined to repress. Indeed, it is difficult to confront The Pillow Book as a whole without thinking of Versailles in the 1780s: Marie-Antoinette at her fake little farm.

I think that this entry has gone on long enough; I ought to start a new one. Meanwhile, bon weekend â tous!