Archive for March, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Rumored But Not Verified
March 2016 (V)

Monday, March 28th, 2016

Monday 28th

At dinner yesterday, Fossil Darling insisted that I read the Ian McEwan story in The New Yorker. When I told him that I don’t read New Yorker stories anymore, because too many of them have turned out to be the first chapters of novels that were therefore somewhat difficult to read upon publication, the opening’s having been spoiled, Fossil insisted that this really was a short story. I took a look at it and saw that it was short enough to read again, if and when. I also noticed that I had begun reading it, down to the middle of the second paragraph.

So I read the story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” this morning, after the Times — after, that is, the obituary of Jim Harrison. I once read a story, perhaps a novella, by Jim Harrison that I liked so much that I bought the book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Other Stories. Do I still have it? In storage, if at all. Because I didn’t like anything else by Jim Harrison. Which is to say that the one or two things that I read, after “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” were so disagreeable that I drove a great strikethrough line across his name. Almost every detail in the obituary was at least somewhat off-putting, especially — the narcissism of small differences? — the bits about food and gastronomy. The name of Rabelais was cited, perhaps the most concise monument to the land where machismo brawling and roughhousing take the place of grace.

Two weeks ago, or, rather, in the next-to-the-latest issue of the New York Times Book Review (20 March), the “By the Book” feature was devoted to Harrison. This often begins with the question about nightstands. Who knows how long ago Harrison answered it. “Unfortunately, I can’t read novels while I’m writing one because of the imitative nature of the brain.” I’m well aware of the phenomenon, although I don’t write novels, but there is something so wrong about the way that this sentence ends that I can’t decide where to begin. With its impersonality, perhaps: I myself should say, “because I’m too easily influenced by the prose of novels that are good enough to read.” Or with its subhuman tone: “brain” instead of “mind”; the “nature” thereof. To move from “I can’t” and “when I’m writing” to a clause without verbs or personal pronouns is intellectually klutzy. And it sounds like an excuse. As if to say, Unfortunately, I can’t fly because of the wingless nature of the body.

I always read “By the Book” if the writer is halfway interesting to me, and Harrison is halfway interesting to me because he is (or was) a grand old man for whom I have no use. Who are his favorite writers? Never mind; they’re none of mine. When asked which author, living or dead, he would most like to meet, Harrison names García Márquez, “who has a jubilant nature. I would wonder what made his spirit so rambunctious.” I suppose that Harrison meant to say that García Márquez’s writing is jubilant. But, “rambunctious”: that signals something that I really dislike, seriously writing in your outside voice. I haven’t read García Márquez in Spanish, so I can’t comment; but I will say that his way with women bothers me. I wonder if he ever met one who was frank with him.

Now, what am I up to, you will ask. Am I not Mr Sunshine, saying nothing if I have nothing nice to say? Isn’t that my philosophy of book-reviewing? Indeed it is. But I don’t think that the preceding paragraphs are about books. They’re about me. I seized upon Jim Harrison’s obituary as an occasion for making an observation that the “By the Book” feature inspired. There is no such thing as an objective critic, no one who really likes and dislikes things for good reasons. I think that we’re objective, if we are at all, only after some highly personal criteria have sorted things out, preliminarily. From time to time, it’s important to review those criteria, which are of course nothing but prejudices, so that we know where we stand. The easiest way of doing this is to consider a writer whom we find uncongenial. Journalism comes in very handy. Obituaries and features such as “By the Book” allow us to consider writers whom we find uncongenial without actually having to read much of what they’ve written. After all, their books ought not to be cluttering up our shelves.

I have a strong prejudice against the landscapes of the “West” of the United States, and against the lonely lifestyles that seem to go with them. Let me be the first to fault myself for the incapability of my imagination to believe that Marilynne Robinson really did, really, grow up in Idaho. In my heart of hearts, I do not believe that it is possible to grow up in Idaho with the ambition to live a life of letters; and yet I have met, and even shaken hands with, the delightful Vestal McIntyre! He says he’s from Idaho; he has even written a novel about it. But I don’t really believe it. That is my prejudice. When a prejudice is confronted by an exception to its rule, it blinks. Denying that Robinson and McIntyre come from Idaho is an inevitable consequence of loving their work. (And, anyway, there is nothing very lonely about the Boise of Lake Overturn.)

I find that I have outgrown animals. I still have a weakness for patting the necks of horses, if they’re in the mood to let me. There’s something weirdly cuddly about horses, even though I’m standing on the other side of a fence. I like to outstare cats; anything that I can do to drive a cat crazy is worth trying. (Cats are unforgivably impertinent.) Dogs — the older I get, the sorrier I feel for dogs, given their terrible dependency problem with people. Like television, dogs get much more attention than we can really afford to be giving them. When Kathleen and I were married, I wanted to get a dog. I had grown up with dogs. Kathleen was very firm, however, about No Dogs. For a while, I resented this. Then I forgot about it. Now I’m nothing less than relieved. I had to babysit a dog one weekend, years ago, and the novelty wore off instantly. That, I think, is when I began to feel sorry for dogs. It was a more appealing solution to the babysitting problem than feeling sorry for myself.

Also: dogwalkers, or, rather, the ad hoc packs of leashed dogs that surround dogwalkers. Quite aside from the pedestrian nuisance that they present, these peculiar spectacles excite the most perplexed dismay. The attempt to imagine what a dog is thinking invariably leads to the mental equivalent of lower back pain. Trying to imagine what a pack of dogs is thinking, especially about being in a pack, makes me wonder if the End is sufficiently Nigh. I believe that mass dogwalking ought to be conducted in the dead of night, when I am never outdoors.

Anyway, I don’t like to read about animals. I don’t want to look at pictures of animals. I will tolerate animals only if they are appropriately subordinate to interesting human beings.

You might conclude from the foregoing that I don’t care for “nature.” This might well be true. In fact, “nature,” as a supposed thing in itself, does not exist for me. My understanding is that the term, “nature,” is used to refer to that which is untouched by human agency. As such, it follows that we cannot know it. Just walking around in the wilderness might upset any number of ecosystems. Think of all the ants you’ve stepped on! Not to mention the bacteria that go down the drain when you take a shower. Can’t you just look at something — the Grand Canyon, say — without hurting it? But how do you look at the Grand Canyon without driving up to it? And then what happens? After you’ve oohed and aahed at the pretty colors of the rocks, you try to get your mind around the stupendously prolonged erosion wrought by the Colorado River, that little dribbling creek down there. Talk about lower back pain!

I don’t care for bad — or gruff — manners. Now, I am no fussbudget when it comes to good manners. Good manners have nothing to do with empty, rote rituals; they’re all about making other people comfortable. This is particularly true of table manners, which have evolved to make it possible to conduct a conversation while eating, thus making a pleasure out of a necessity. Kathleen and I were talking just the other day about why genteel Americans shift their forks from left hand to right after cutting a piece of meat, and we agreed that it puts the fork into a decidedly different relation with the mouth, such that, among other things, the appearance of leaning downward to bite something impaled on a sharp implement, as if one were a fish snapping at a baited hook, is avoided.

Trying to make other people comfortable when you don’t really feel like taking the trouble is always an interesting predicament. Going ahead and not taking the trouble is never interesting in itself, but only when it leads to even greater offenses. Nothing offends me more deeply than the idea that “society” is the cause of everybody’s problems. It is precisely the other way round. The purpose of social conventions — and that’s all society is, conventions, ranging from family traditions to business practices, from language to walking in, or watching, a parade — is to make life better for everyone, by setting up a web of light expectations and freeing up time for more idiosyncratic matters. The fact that “everyone” doesn’t always include everyone is the fault of individuals, whether they’re acting alone or in packs. Social injustice is caused by bad actors, not by “society.”

The idea that “society” can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown. Whether reading Anna Karenina or a life of George Eliot, it is easy to conclude that “society” can be very cruel, especially in its rejection of “fallen women.” To us, it seems hypocritical, somehow, that all the great writers of the day could and did visit George Eliot at home, but that their wives never accompanied them on these outings. But the only people who were oppressed by such considerations were those who aspired to belong to a subgroup of society, the one best known as “respectable.” Respectable society could indeed be very harsh, but it makes more sense to regard it as a club than as a true society. Ah! I’ve just discovered another one of my prejudices: society is what takes the place of religion when people live together without observing the same religious practices. I’m very close, here, to claiming that there is no such thing as Islamic society. And precious little in some rural areas. That would certainly explain a great deal.

And yet, none of this bloviation about society explains the nasty little spring at the heart of Ian McEwan’s story, which is that literary merit is meaningless to the point of nonexistence in the absence of celebrity. McEwan is not writing about literary reputation, which really begins when an author dies and can no longer be encountered at book signings, publication launches, or literary festivals. Once a writer is dead, she can only be read, and her reputation depends entirely on the amalgamated opinions of readers (with an arguable boost from biopics). McEwan is writing about literary fame, something that has surprisingly little to do with reading. His story tells of two writers; it is the purported (but never disclosed?) confession of one of them, a sort of pocket Amsterdam. After university, the two writers enjoy bohemian poverty in Brixton. Then, one of them writes a successful script for television. One thing leads to another, which is plenty of free time in which to write good novels. Money and fame pile up together; the author and his wife live practically right on Hampstead Heath. The other writer marries, has children, struggles with teaching loads, and manages to write four novels. These are well-received by the critics, but it takes more than positive critical reception to make a writer famous; it requires, in short, a boost from somewhere else, whether a marriage, a job in publishing or creative writing, or a scandal. (Nobody read A Confederacy of Dunces until John Kennedy Toole killed himself.) Sadly, since the narrator hasn’t had his picture taken, kissing a movie star, by the time the story reaches its turning point, all four of his novels are out of print.

It turns out that the famous writer doesn’t read other people’s novels, or at least those of his old best friend. The narrator takes cunning advantage of this, and the resulting scandal propels him to dreamed-of eminence. Because that’s what it takes. Tell me how this is not an instance of social injustice.

Rather, it is a demonstration of the narrow range of the impact of social conventions. Society does not distinguish important writers from unimportant ones; only posterity can do that, and posterity and society are not to be confused. Society registers current events. Social conventions do everything possible to minimize the impact of events, because the whole point of social convention is to enable smooth sailing. (This is why adolescents and other immature types profess to hate society; it has no time for their profoundly stale traumas.) Social conventions can have nothing to do with literary achievement, because literary achievement is so often upsetting. But convention can take note of the fact that everybody is, or seems to be, reading Portnoy’s Complaint. Thus fame gathers around certain names.

Sometimes, in a certain light, I agree with Margaret Thatcher: there is no society. But of course I can’t leave it there, as she did. What there is, where lazy people think they see “society,” is a web of conventions, as vitally important but as morally neutral as the rules of the road, and sometimes, like the rules of the road, enforced by the state. This web is woven by everybody, give or take — everyone who has ever lived has had a hand in it.

Which means you.


Tuesday 29th

What did I write yesterday? I’m afraid to look. I remember that I was talking about prejudices — I suppose there’s some relief in that. In other words, I was saying, Now I’m going to share with you my nutty perspective on something called “society.” Only I didn’t ever say that the perspective was nutty, did I?

Of course I’ll blame it on Jim Harrison. There’s more about Jim Harrison in today’s Times. It’s pretty clear that what the newspaper’s literary contingent is hoping for is that rare reversal of the usual pattern, that Harrison’s death will occasion a regretful stock-taking: We didn’t fully appreciate him when he was alive. Our bad! Dwight Garner, responsible for today’s puffing, quotes a woman in Harrison’s fiction who complains that there is no nature in Manhattan; the closest that you can get to it (nature) is orgasm. This is the sort of nonsense that sets me dreaming of a science-fiction device that, when shot at people who say such things, strips them of all verbal skills. It’s nature you want? Fine: enjoy being limited to grunts and armwaving.

I’ll come back to Harrison, in connection with David Brooks’s column about “Trumps,” also in today’s Times. Right now, it seems essential to distance myself from yesterday’s implication that social conventions are essentially benign. This implication was unintentional. True, I did write, “The idea that ‘society’ can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown.” This statement is simply wrong, no matter how hard I try to bolster it with an explanatory context. I was thinking of “society” as it is represented in literature, where there is a lazy habit of blaming “the way things are” for the unhappiness that befalls fictional characters, especially stand-ins for disaffected young writers. It doesn’t matter what I meant: social conventions can cause a great deal of suffering and confusion. And if they don’t seem to be stridently damaging today, it’s not hard to remember times when they were — when, for example, homosexual men and women were condemned to vicious and pointless ostracism. Or when women were not allowed to work after marriage — something that is still the case in much of the world. My remark was fatuously provincial: social convention really does make life easier for educated, affluent, and inner-directed people like me. Good to know!

I was indeed thinking, not of everyday life (although I lazily included it), but of literature: how social convention is treated in fiction. The novel that usually comes to my mind when I consider this problem is Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I haven’t read it in about ten years, so I ought to keep my comments to the minimum. Let me not distract myself with lucubrations about Wharton’s venture into life on the other side of the tracks, about which she can’t really have known very much. Let me stick to the central problem of the book, which is that Ethan cannot leave his crabby old wife, Zeena, when he falls in love with Mattie and discovers that the drudgery of his New England agricultural life is redeemed by her presence. Ethan cannot leave Zeena for a simple reason, and it has little to do with social convention, although not the one you’re probably thinking of. If Ethan abandons Zeena, she will starve to death. There is no one else to take care of her. There is no safety net of state protections. So long as Ethan is alive, his obligation to care for his lawfully-married wife is non-negotiable.

This part of the story, Wharton certainly understood from the inside. She wrote Ethan Frome at about the same time as her marriage to Teddy Wharton fell apart. She had outgrown Teddy, to put it simplest; something of the same happens to Ethan vis-à-vis Zeena. But Wharton could put her husband behind her. She had the wealth, and she had the opportunity to escape to Europe, where, like her friend Henry James, she was genuinely happier. Teddy filched money from her accounts, but she put a stop to that, and Teddy never starved. What, Wharton may have asked, if neither she nor her husband had enjoyed such splendid resources?

Is Ethan Frome still as widely read as it was in my day? I can see that it occupied the place of an anti-Ayn Rand manifesto in the syllabus. (Not that anybody assigned Ayn Rand!) Once you read Ethan Frome, you understood how important Social Security, and, later, Medicare, were and are. As mid-century readers of Wharton’s sad tale, we were conscious of enjoying very different social conventions, enacted into law. Like so many French novels of the Nineteenth Century, Ethan Frome zeroed in on a “problem,” and eventually contributed to the inspiration for a “solution.” The last time I read Ethan Frome, I came away thinking that it had served its purpose and no longer needed to be read. I now think that that was wrong. So it does need to be read, again, by me. At least.


David Brooks has unearthed something mildly amusing in the history of the Civil War. There was a regiment from New Jersey, headed by someone called Atkinson. Atkinson was a gentleman, and he wanted his men to behave like gentlemen. Instead, the men rebelled. They set up something called the Independent Order of Trumps. “In sort of a mischievous, laddie way, the Trumps championed boozing and whoring, cursing and card-playing.” Trumps! Yet again: You can’t make this stuff up.

Here is Dwight Garner again, writing about Jim Harrison: “His books declared: If you aren’t taking big bites out of whatever life is on offer to you, you are doing it wrong.”

Now, I’m sure that Jim Harrison was a true gentleman in person, after his own fashion. He would probably have horsewhipped the Trumps. But the idea of taking big bites out of life is still gross, literally gross. Garner falls so completely under the spell of this excessiveness that he commits a grossness of his own:

Mr. Harrison was a more cerebral writer than he is often given credit for. In his memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), he reads books as if he were shoveling coal into a blast furnace. He wore his erudition with enviable lightness.

This is obviously confused, or at least a case of fatally mixed metaphors. It is one thing to be cerebral but to wear your erudition lightly. It is, oh, so very much something else to “consume” books as if they were undifferentiated bits of fuel. And I’m afraid that it’s the laddie appeal of the Order of Trumps that sings to men when they’re taking big bites.

As David Brooks explains the difference between the good boys and the bad — the Good Scouts and the Trumps — it is very hard not to picture him seated on a plush Victorian armchair in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

So the ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture, currently led by a group we might once again call the Independent Order of Trumps.

Last night, Kathleen and I watched The Descendants, a movie in which George Clooney does a fine job of bringing Brooks’s ideal man to life. He has two things going for him, both trademark skills. He embodies the “tensions” that Brooks writes about with harrowed eyes that register a massive effort at self-restraint; and his eyes are never more harrowed than when he has to tell is cousins that they are not about to be made rich. He feels sorry, that is, about making them do the right thing. This the opposite of what most men in his character’s position would do. They would look buff and advise the others to get over it.

The other thing is Crazy George. Clooney has a gift for injecting minute but hilarious shots of lunacy into his performances, at just the right time. Generally, the problem is one of impulse control. Overcome by the need to do something, or at least to find out something, right now, Clooney’s characters lose the bland authority that Clooney’s stature emanates and become sheer goofballs. In The Descendants, the Crazy George moment occurs outside his cousin’s house on Kauai, which is currently occupied by his comatose wife’s lover. Matt King scampers about and peers over the hedges with a barely suppressed frenzy. It’s moments like this that make Matt believable as an ideal man: he’s not too ideal.

In short, if you saw George Clooney in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, you would know that he was wearing it under duress. I should point to The Descendants rather than to Brooks’s column — endearing as it is to learn about the Trumps — for a portrait of the kind of man that Donald Trump’s supporters have given up trying to be.

This new Independent Order of Trumps, the one that is having such a fine old time kicking at political correctness and braying unwholesome sentiments has been not only enabled but instructed by hipsters in the media, men who think that it is funny to slum with the lads. I blame stubble. When men’s magazines began sporting covers on which chiseled faces sprouted stubble, that was the not-so-secret sign that American manhood had been ushered into the Age of Whatevs. It used to be that stubble was a sign of personal crisis: men without full beards did not appear unshaven unless something was very wrong. A three-day growth of stubble signified serious trouble. Soon, however, it signaled transgressiveness, or gratuitous misbehavior. In Trump’s supporters, we can see where transgressiveness leads when it is detached from collegiate irony.

It stops being transgressiveness; it is no longer gratuitous. It passes into plain wickedness. My ideas about free speech are rather more limited than those of the ACLU, and I don’t think that anyone ought to be allowed to state, in the public forum, that Mexicans are rapists. It is maddening to think that in this age of talk, talk, talk about humanitarian concerns, Donald Trump cannot be sued for racial defamation. Real men take threats to the civil order seriously.


And where are the women? Cindi Lauper claimed that girls just want to have fun, but it seems that Jane Austen still sees things more clearly: girls just want to have men. (And men just want to have sex.) In this week’s Book Review, Cindi Lieve writes about Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. The title speaks volumes: people no longer arrive at sexual encounters as men and women; they are boys and girls. Adolescence is a social structure for which no effective conventions have been developed. Not in America, anyway; in Nederland, it appears, they do things better, making sure that the boys and girls have a modicum of men-and-women training before they hook up. So they won’t.

What girls want, as best I can make out, is attention. Perhaps a little kissing, a little cuddling. But they don’t seem to be mad to have intercourse. So they do the other thing, because guys like it and girls don’t much mind. It is a terrible thing for boys to learn: that others will make them happy if they are careful not to inquire into the sincerity of their service providers. This is the germ of contempt that makes it possible — imaginable — to own slaves and to confine women to purdah. This is where enguytlement begins.

I keep hoping for the women who have done men to surprise me. I don’t mean, done with men, easy as it is to imagine wanting to. I mean the kind of woman whom Alison Janney so often plays. Someone willing to send jerks to their self-inflicted doom. Where is the woman who will speak trash truth to Trump?


Thursday 31st

The subject this week was supposed to be: my prejudices. It has turned out to be a hard one to get to. The moment I mentioned a prejudice, I would launch some sort of justification. Natural, perhaps, but not to the point. The original point was: I’m not a fan of Jim Harrison — but it’s not his fault. That is what I wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to utter.

The larger point was to acknowledge certain prejudices — preferences, likes and dislikes, habits of mind that shape perception before intelligent judgment comes into play. We all admit that we’ve got prejudices, but we don’t like to say what they are, and, when we do say, we find ourselves, as I’ve just done, arguing that they’re not prejudices at all, but rather — intelligent judgments. When I mentioned my response to the Grand Canyon, which I like to talk about partly because it is the one really top-flight American sight that I have never seen, I tried to present my resistance to its spectacle as reasonable. It was part of a larger objection to the idea of nature, which I held up as a paradox: human beings can never experience an environment that has never been sullied by human beings. But the simple, unreasonable truth behind these statements is that I not only find natural sightseeing a bore but have no affective memories of what I have seen. I don’t like the outdoors because it is insufficiently upholstered: there is nowhere to sit comfortably. I don’t relate to the exurban, and I have trouble relating to the people who do.

Why on earth do I want to talk about my prejudices? Because doing so seems to be the only honorable response to a certain kind of cultural event: the obituary for an artist or thinker or other cultural figure with whose work I have little or no rapport. Jim Harrison died — having just been featured in a Book Review interview — and as I read the obituary in the Times, I thought, disrespectfully, what is all this noise about Jim Harrison? It was the same with David Bowie. Thanks to my prejudices, I never got beyond the impression that David Bowie was creepy. Not him personally, but his work. I found Harrison’s writing to be rustic, rough, calloused; and I don’t like things that are rustic, rough, or calloused. There is no good reason to dislike these things — and that is the point that has to be made, at least every now and then. I should much rather talk about things that I do like. The world, it seems to me, is filled with things that I do like. But these obituaries remind me of things that I don’t, and I’m not comfortable with the appearance of pretending that those things aren’t there. I feel obliged to register their existence with honesty, by pointing out that, sadly, my personal limitations prevent me from sharing the obituaries’ enthusiasm.

Perhaps what’s really going on is that the obituaries of certain people remind me, vividly, of my prejudices, of my limitations, and it smarts. I should like to be a person who likes everything. The person who genuinely likes everything has always been the ideal. I settle for trying to like more — and quite often succeeding. I am engaged at the moment in an invisible skirmish with John Fowles, because I really don’t understand why I read his novel, Daniel Martin, with such a mixture of approval and disgust. And not only that: I was reading it for the third time. But sometimes, the attempt backfires. I used to like reading Trollope, and I read more than half of his many novels. I read so much that a certain prejudice of Trollope’s, not tremendously noticeable if you read Barchester books and the Palliser books and perhaps a half dozen more, but impossible to overlook once you have noticed it, nor any easier to endure than a very unpleasant smell. This was Trollope’s prejudice about virgins.

Which of course he never mentions as such — heaven forbid! No; what he writes about is girls on the verge of marriage. So much as to mention their virginity would be insulting, according to that interesting British logic according to which the mention of something — something “delicate” — not only implies but presents the possibility that things could be otherwise. (Thus the decoration of a house or the taste of a meal could not be discussed: both were presumably excellent, or at least correct. I even read somewhere that the reason for the table-manners ban on using a knife to cut salad is the implication that the greens have not been torn into properly bite-sized pieces.) Trollope has a thing about nubile females. They can fall in love only once; once they have “given their hearts,” they cannot take them back, not even to bestow on a more worthy lover. There can be no other lovers. When I read The Small House at Allington, a novel that is very much about this irrevocability, I chalked up Lily Dale’s steadfast devotion to Adolphus Crosbie to personal, peculiar obstinacy. I thought that it was “just her.” I had not read a great deal of Trollope at the time, and missed the blatancy of the theme. Once I noticed the theme, Trollope became as morally objectionable to me as are those pro-lifers who would punish women for seeking, much less obtaining, abortions. Or, in other words, a sex pervert.

A sad discovery. A few years ago, I read Orley Farm for the second time, and the sprawl of the story was great enough for me to overlook Madeline Staveley’s regrettable preference for Felix Graham. But I was reading the book for an extraneous reason; I wanted to see how it compared to Wilkie Collins’s “sensation” novels. (I wrote about reading Orley Farm in August and September 2012, beginning here.) My copies of Trollope’s other books have been in a box since the end of 2014; the box is in storage. I hold onto this voluminous library in hopes that my perceptions will shift again, restoring Trollope to the ranks of cherished writers, but I have no reason to expect that this shift will ever occur.

Is my current dislike of Trollope a prejudice? Absolutely. My prejudices about women are among the strongest. They may look like reasonable feminist principles, but they aren’t.


In today’s Times, someone mentioned something called the “Overton window.” I had never heard of it, but there is indeed a Wikipedia entry, and who do I find there but — Anthony Trollope. I’ll be damned. “An idea similar to the Overton window was expressed by Anthony Trollope in 1868 in his novel Phineas Finn:”

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”

“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”

“The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”

‘Tis a small world. I mentioned the Overton window to a friend who called a little while ago, as a way of explaining how consciousness of the prevalence of American racism has grown by leaps and bounds in recent months. In this connection, I’m reminded of an exchange in Spotlight. Ben Bradlee, I think it is, can’t believe that Bostonians have been unaware of the extent of priestly abuse, which the Spotlight journalists have shown to be much greater than anyone suspected. Didn’t people know? Mike Rezendes replies, “Maybe they did,” by which he means that almost every Catholic Bostonian knew about a pederast priest. But, at the same time, the assumption was generally made that the pederast priest whom anyone knew about was the only rotten apple in the diocese. It never occured to anyone that a penchant for pederasty is as distributed among the clerical population as it is among the male population. Similarly, white Americans have convinced themselves that instances of racism known to them were outlying events, freaks of bigotry.

If I’ve been an exception to that blindness, it’s because of where I grew up, where the undiscussable was discussed. Discreetly and in coded terms, to be sure, and certainly more taken for granted than talked about. But the fact that blacks and Jews did not own houses in Bronxville was known to everyone, children included. So was the knowledge that this discrimination was illegal. (I’d never thought of it this way before, but I see now that I grew up in a community of bootleggers.) So the racism that Donald Trump is tacitly treating as permissible comes as no surprise. I am glad that it is no longer outside the Overton window. I endeavor to resist feeling grateful to Trump.


Friday 1st

To celebrate April Fool’s Day, I had a bad dream this morning. A great leak was pouring through cracks in the ceiling of our bedroom. It was one of those classic nightmare maneuvers, how do we make this worse, that began with a spill of water from a vase. The next thing you know, the vase was a hanging basket, leaking a stream of water. But no: the water was running down the ropes from which the basket hung, and, my Lord, look at that yellow patch of plaster, seeping, now pouring water. Trying to make out the pattern of the carpet, dark under the water, I now noticed that the bedroom had been cleared out, even the bed that (in waking life) we fear will collapse any day now. Wondering how that happened — how all the furniture got moved (and by now the cascade was ebbing) — I woke up. Nevertheless, even with the bad dreams, there are times when my idea of the perfect life involves nothing but lying comfortably in bed, asleep. Tucked in and quiet and, requiring nothing but an occasional sip of icewater.

I’ve read two terrific books this week. I’m reluctant to write about one of them, lest I seem deranged by another crush on some dead old lady who was born in Germany — in this case, Sybille Bedford. I have decided to put my adoration of Bedford’s prose to the test: will she be able to engage and hold my attention throughout the nearly eight hundred closely-printed pages of her biography of Aldous Huxley? I have mentioned once or twice that I’m reading Huxley’s novel, Eyeless in Gaza, but mostly I haven’t been. The characters are both familiar and unattractive, and when the writing is really good, it makes me think of Virginia Woolf and wish that I were reading her. (She does not go on so.)

The Trial of Dr Adams appeared in 1958, as The Best We Can Do. John Bodkin Adams was an elderly physician, practicing in Eastbourne, a genteel seaside town. In 1956, Dr Adams was accused of having poisoned a Mrs Edith Morell, who had died, 81, in 1950. As he was also accused of poisoning somebody else, he was presented by the newspapers as a serial killer. He would, it was alleged, endear himself into his patient’s testamentary arrangements, and then overdose her with heroin and morphia. Sybille Bedford attended and wrote up his seventeen-day trial — then the longest in Britain’s criminal history.

Now, the first thing that I want to say about The Trial of Dr Adams is that the covers of my paperback edition, purchased through Amazon from a bookshop outside of Dayton, Ohio, that listed its condition as Used – Very Fine, fell, or rather, cracked off. The front cover came off almost immediately, the rear cover as I approached the end of the story. The book did appear to be in reasonable condition when I unwrapped it, but the covers seemed odd. They were very brittle and inflexible. And there was another thing. The publisher was Time Inc. Originally, Simon and Schuster had published the book in the United States, but Time had picked it up, several years later, for something called the Time Reading Program. The Wikipedia entry for this operation does not list The Trial of Dr Adams, but it does say that the books were chosen by Max Gissen, Time‘s book reviewer for many years, and notes that the covers were “constructed of very stiff plastic coated paper, for durability.” I can’t quarrel with that: the covers are intact. They’re just not attached to the book. There was much to be learned about the durability of plastic in the 1960s.

The point is, of course, that The Trial of Dr Adams was chosen by the TRP as representative of the edifying text that it went in for. It would be interesting to read all of the TRP titles, solid mid-century fare, much of still well-known, with one eye on Drew Middleton’s concept of “middlebrow” and the other on the Cold War. Two weeks ago, I was writing about Time in another connection, but I never got round to saying that Time was the most finely moderated voice of American anti-Communism. Its passions were covert, its surface wry and unenthusiastic. Why did a book about a serial killer register on its screen?

Because Dr Adams was the victim of a witch hunt. Or so it seems. The matter is not gone into at any length in either of the two prefaces to the TRP edition., and Bedford herself is brisk to the point of silence. The first preface, by the editors of Time itself — the TRP Introduction is the work of the then Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford — asks what seems to me to be the key question:

Could there be a fair trial in a case where every possible juror had been exposed to conjecture? Could the rules of evidence strain out from the jurors’ consciousness the irrelevancies that they had already heard and read? (vii)

The answer to both questions is “yes,” for Dr Adams was acquitted. The administration of morphia and heroin was never questioned; the question before the jury was whether such dosages as Dr Adams had prescribed could be said to have realized (and implied) his intent to murder the patient. Bedford’s account of the trial makes it very clear that Dr Adams’s innocence was established by the workings of the English legal system, with all of its ancient presumptions and its rules of order. She makes it clear, too, that the operation of this legal system was undertaken by two of the participants in the trial: the judge and the counsel for the defense. Geoffrey Lawrence, the counsel, mounts one of the most zealous defenses that I have ever heard of, by which I mean that he has mastered every fact of the matter, marshaled unexpected evidence, and measured to a pinpoint the implication of every scrap of testimony. His cross examination of the principal expert witness for the Crown is thrilling enough for film.

As for the judge, Patrick Devlin, Bedford is quite right to introduce him as the “supremely intelligent” possessor of “Mandarin” hands. (4) His summing-up at the end is what can only be recognized as a triumph of legal duplicity. Having dutifully noted and frowned over all the damaging evidence of overmedication, Mr Justice Devlin nevertheless manages to direct the jury to acquit the defendant.

Is he likely, it may be asked, to adopt a plan which does not even mean an instantaneous dose which kills her off, but involves a rather elaborate system of change in medication which takes thirteen days to dispose of her? (276)

In the context of the summing-up, this highly rhetorical question all but shouts its own answer in the negative. The judge is basically advising the jury that the Crown case is nonsense — which, upon the examination mandated by the English legal system, it was found to be.

There appears to have been a strategy, arrived at independently, no doubt, by the judge and Mr Lawrence, of denaturing the thrill of a serial murder case by rendering the quotidian details as monotonous as possible. If Dr Adams was up to something terrible, he was up to it day after day after day. As a murderer, indeed, he is all but shown to be incompetent. He completely fails as a diabolical character. The fact that two of the three attendant nurses don’t like him is brought out as a matter of their own nasty dispositions. The toxicity of the drugs is all but established, thanks to Mr Lawrence’s doggedness on cross, as being incapable of establishment. The Trial of Dr Adams would probably make a terrible movie. Suspense and horror are subverted at every turn. Which makes for a true page-turner.

Finally, it was decided that Dr Adams would not take the stand. The jury is reminded not only that this does not indicate a guilty conscience but that defendants were not permitted to testify in their own defense until fairly recent times. The prosecution, says the judge, must make its own case without any help from the defendant; that is, it has no right to benefit from the defendant’s behavior as a witness. The judge also addresses the evidentiary problem of the gaps in the narrative that the doctor could fill if he testified. “You are not obliged to think that if the Doctor had gone into the witness-box he might have given a convincing answer.” (253) In short (again), the jury must make up its mind on the Crown’s case. This is all very lucid, but it is sympathetic to the point of tendentiousness. What I think the good editors of Time wanted its reading-program participants to learn from the Adams case is that high-minded men of authority can be relied upon to steer society through the rocks of suspicion and confusion: they know best.

Bedford herself might not have altogether agreed. Her original title clearly implies that the system is capable of doing worse, and indeed, “The Worst We Can Do,” her chapter in The Faces of Justice that deals with regrettable magistrates, shows that, like any other institution, the law can be infiltrated by wrongheaded people. Let these paragraphs be a call for the republication of The Best We Can Do. It is a classic.


John Williams’s review of The Throwback Special, which I read over the weekend in the Book Review, convinced me that I had to read Chris Bachelder’s fourth novel right away, and, duly ordered, it arrived on Wednesday night. I swallowed the whole thing — it’s not very long — yesterday afternoon. I expected it to confirm a lot of my prejudices about men, and it did, but not precisely the prejudices that I had in mind. The Throwback Special made me feel achingly sorry for the middle-class heteronormative and acculturated white American male.

Something that I hadn’t expected at all, and that I had to force myself to bear in mind, is that the group of middle-aged men that Bachelder writes about is not my age or anywhere near it. These men are all in their mid-forties — my daughter’s age. Although they differed from each other in many ways, they reflected a far higher degree of what I should consider social enlightenment. It’s hard to imagine any of them — well, no more than one or two — supporting Donald Trump. But these general issues are kept in the background, just as they are in the daily lives of most healthy people. And, in the end, they seem only to add a layer to the familiar confusion: what does it take to be an American man?

It’s a curious question. For a long time now — since the late Nineteenth Century at the latest — the American male has been saddled with the explicit and very comprehensive dissatisfaction of the American female. Men are either excessive or deficient: crude oafs or spineless wimps. The response of American males has not been entirely constructive, for too many men have retreated to masculine enclaves, particular that of Sports. Here, they expect to be safe. But they are safe only from the complaints of women. More existential concerns pursue them, all the more pressing because so much time is taken up dealing with women. Please don’t think that I regard all women as wondrous special creatures who deserve to be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. I simply believe that women can be as great, and on the same terms, as men. That’s all. Most people, men or women, are not wonderful. And I think that it’s time for people to take stock of themselves without reference to gender. If you’re concerned about your courage, don’t be worrying that your cowardice marks you as unmanly. (And don’t pretend that it’s okay or understandable because you’re a woman.)

For the most part, Bachelder’s men are not consciously worried about their manliness. They’re worried about the entropy that is dismantling the ease with which they were manly when they were younger. They are worried about their children. Some of them are wondering what went wrong with their marriages. Each one of them is a apparently the owner of a home that has been invaded by some sort of unwanted animal, such as a raccoon, or bats. And yet manliness is the elephant in the room, because, unlike the length of a penis, it cannot be measured. For some reason, it is typical of the American male, or at least typical of the type of American male who interests novelists, to assume that other men are more manly. It is also characteristic of them to have no clear idea of what manliness might really be.

There are twenty-two of them here, and there is only one aspect of their lives about which we know the details for each one of them: the T-shirt that every man wears to bed is described. As to the rest of life, Bachelder makes no attempt whatsoever to produce data for dossiers. We know that Robert worries about the high pitch of his voice. We learn that Wesley is a real-estate lawyer who works for a major department store. Randy used to be an optician, but he lost his business. Charles is a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls with eating disorders. I don’t know how most of the men make a living. There is one thing I forgot: the other thing that we know about each of these men is that he has driven some distance to spend a weekend at a motel somewhere alongside Interstate Highway 95 (which runs from Florida to Maine). During the weekend, the group of twenty-two will celebrate, study, and, donning replica gear, re-enact the five-second play that ended the football career of quarterback Joe Theismann, on 18 November 1985.

We are told that these men, or most of them, have been meeting for more than ten years. We are not told one other thing about the formation of the group. Where do these men come from? How did they meet? It seems that they don’t know each other outside of the group. But, for the purpose of this weekend, they have well-established identities. There is Fat Michael, who is actually in unbelievably good shape, the “cephalic” vein on his upper arm a fixture of envy, and there is Bald Michael, who is really bald. There is Trent, who has put on about thirty pounds since last year. There is Adam, whose hair is streaked with grey. Adam shows up late, but won’t say why, beyond mentioning a domestic incident. It must have been a humdinger, because an elderly man, clearly Adam’s father, shows up later on the Friday night and escorts him to a car, never to be heard of again.”Is it true about Adam?” asks one of the other men, but we are never enlightened about what might be or not be “true.” At the very end, the point of view shifts to that of David, the young man — he is attending a business retreat that has booked the conference room that, for the first time, has not been rented for the group because dues money was used to replace Randy’s gear, which he claims was stolen but which everyone assumes was sold by Randy on eBay (indeed, Randy confesses to this) — who is drafted to take Adam’s place. The final page is covered with David’s plans to start up an even better (younger, richer) group to do the same thing.

I feel obliged to point out that almost every male encountered in The Throwback Special is perfectly familiar with what happened to Joe Theismann in November 1985. They all seem to have seen it happen, on Monday Night Football, where the gory damage was replayed with a warming that squeamish viewers ought to turn away. (Boys were sent out of the room.) The event is as well-known to normal American men as any major televised event, and somehow, thanks to the alchemy of media, mythologized into a kind of superfact. Bachelder’s re-enactors are not eccentrics. Needless to say, however, I wasn’t watching. I remember (dimly) that Theismann played for Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate there, but I didn’t go to football games then. (I would go to more than a few on my second round, as a law student, years later.) If I overheard talk about Theismann’s grisly injury — I was working on Wall Street at the time — I must have shrugged and wondered What do you expect, because I can’t get my mind around football; it’s simply lunatic to me.

But you don’t have to care for, or know much about football in order to fall under Chris Bachelder’s spell. I might almost argue that, the less you know, the more compelling The Throwback Special will be. The less you know, the more the book becomes the source of information. There’s a wonderful passage near the end that I copied out, not because the image is arresting — I’m as resistant to images as I am to football — but because the phrase with which it is wrapped up seems to capture everything notable about this novel:

Vince took a picture of Randy’s hand in the bucket, pink and blurry beneath the cubes like a creature whose existence has been rumored but not verified. (207)

Rumored but not verified — what boy’s head is not stuffed with rumors that have not been verified? The men in The Throwback Special are beset by rumors (“Is it true about Adam?”), and by things that they don’t know or can’t quite understand. Sometimes, it seems, they won’t understand. At one point, Nate consults Charles about a little problem he’s having with his wife. He has shared what he takes to be a sexual fantasy with her, and her response has been uncomprehending. Charles, who is always being consulted by members of the group, and who is almost used to the idea that they don’t know what they want to hear, tells Nate that his fantasy is not actually sexual at all.

Nate suddenly seemed despondent. He would rather, it occurred to Charles, have been diagnosed as an untreatable pervert than as someone who was just lonesome. Apparently, he had forgotten that he had sought out Charles for reassurance or explanation. Nate had finished talking, and it also appeared that he had finished listening. He seemed miserable. (68)

As I say, there’s a great deal in this novel that is not even rumored. John Williams considers it a shortcoming that the twenty-two men blend together. I don’t; I think that it has much the same magical affect as the use of the first-person plural in Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. The result in that unforgettable novel was to make the reader deliciously and terrifyingly complicit in the narrating group’s obsession with gossip. If that didn’t happen here, to me, it’s probably because I can imagine myself belonging to a flock of office workers much more easily than I can see myself in a football jersey. But Bachelder’s blur does indeed create a first-person-plural feeling; after all, it’s important to every man in the group that he belongs to it. At the same time, the men in the group do not know each other equally. Some friendships have been made over the years, although they are sedulously boxed apart from regular life, but most of the men are strangers to most of the others. It may surprise the reader (of The Throwback Special or of this page), but most people are not curious about things that aren’t partially visible. Most of the time, a guy is just a guy.

Bachelder’s writing is superb. For all its unerring precision, it is never actually at odds with the nature of the reunion, as it might be if, say, the style of Henry James were deployed. It strives to be invisible, aware that these men would be embarrassed to written about in any truthful way. (They all seem to harbor terrible misgivings about themselves, even the supreme Fat Michael, an absolute control freak about his body.) Its concision, of course, is expert: there is nothing “natural” about a lean, transparent style. And every now and then the writer steps forward, as if to take a little bow. And one cannot fail to applaud, after reading this:

It could be said of Steven, as it could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary. (80)

If I say that I don’t like images, it’s because they’re so rarely as good as this one, so apt and compatible — and also so precisely abstract. And vice versa, as necessary — what a raspberry!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
After Egypt
March 2016 (IV)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

Tuesday 22nd

It took longer than it ought to have done to figure out that taking a certain cold-remedy capsule shortly before bedtime was a bad idea. It didn’t occur to me until half an hour after I took one on Sunday night. What followed was not fun. I was still dozing, unaware of having had any sleep, the next morning. That wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was what I shall call an irritated bladder.

Between the cold and the insomnia, I got out of bed feeling that, behind my forehead, my skull contained nothing but low-grade concrete. I got through the day largely by foregoing any attempt at thought. I had to shop for a couple of dinners, and I had to prepare one of them. A very old friend who teaches law in Honolulu, and who doesn’t visit the East Coast as often as she used to do, was in town, and I wanted to try out my Tetrazzini on an important guest. Chicken Tetrazzini turns out to be a very good dish for the cook with diminished capacities: it is all about reduction, and the only halfway demanding part is the slicing of a lot of mushrooms. I never got round to mincing the fresh tarragon leaves, but perhaps they would have been de trop. Our friend very nicely asked for seconds.

We talked about many things, but there was one protracted conversation about writing that remained with me. We were talking about student writing, which is often surprisingly terrible, and always has been. Whenever this subject comes up, I’m reminded of Dr Johnson’s insistence that boys wouldn’t learn Latin unless it were flogged into them. Now, neither Kathleen nor I ever had problems writing. A Brearley teacher once wrote on a paper of Kathleen’s, “You write so well that it’s a pity that you have nothing to say.” My first paper at Blair — a bluff on The Iceman Cometh, which I hadn’t read — was dismissed as “a tissue of circumlocutions.” These are lessons that you need endure only once; perhaps it would be better to say they need to be taught only once. Students whose fluency is initially vacant will blush for shame but grasp the problem pretty quickly. Students for whom writing a three-page piece of expository prose is an exercise in pulling teeth without anaesthesia present a much more intractable problem.

When students who “can’t write” turn up in freshman college courses, or, worse, in law school, teachers tear their hair and wonder how such students have “gotten this far” without learning the rudiments of outlines and topic sentences earlier in their academic career. It has always seemed a deplorable mystery to me, a matter of high-school teachers inexplicably not doing their jobs. Last night as we talked, though, I saw things from the high-school teacher’s point of view. High-school teachers are overworked and underpaid. How realistic is it to expect them to make soup from stones?

Is it any wonder that a teacher confronted with twenty-five or more papers to grade will begin to overlook purely literary failings? If the teacher has assigned a certain theme, then the teacher will know what the student is trying to talk about. Has the student grappled with the theme? Is there evidence of learning in the contents of the paper? The fundamentally literary problem posed by the general reader, who needs to be agreeably introduced to the subject matter and persuaded to read what the writer has to say about it, might well begin to seem somewhat beyond the scope of the immediate assignment, or perhaps simply beyond the imaginative range of the student, who would not be writing (or reading) at all unless required to do so. What are you asking me to do? the student wails. The answer ought to give everyone pause: I am asking you to want to communicate in writing. Because effective writing does not occur without that desire. To what extent is wanting to write a skill that can be taught and mastered?

I still have a few of the letters that my father wrote to me, mostly during my teens. They are crisp and stern, but they are also scrupulously literate. To me, it seemed that he wrote easily, but he assured me that this was not so. No, he said; “You should be a lawyer, because you can write.” Oh for the days of the party of the third part.

It was bliss to wake up this morning, hours and hours and hours after last registering awareness of the time.


In my adult life, I have often feared political candidates whose policies were wrong-headed or worse, but now for the first time I am fearing not the politician, not the Donald, but my fellow citizens, his supporters. Whatever happens in this election cycle, Donald Trump has opened a putrefying abscess on the body politic. The growth of this abscess is of course none of his doing; ever since the Cold War persuaded the nation’s leaders that it was all right to lie to the voters and to misrepresent issues for the national good, Americans have been living in a sort of Disney World of fictions and unrealities. So long as we were prosperous, grateful Americans could afford the pretense of magnanimity, but, now that there is little to be grateful for, the sham is obvious to those who fell for it. They not unreasonably feel that they’ve been made fools of, and they’re mad as hell. What if these angry people coalesce into a political body capable of sweeping away the leaders who have lied to and taken advantage of them? What if the poisons of the abscess pass into the nation’s blood stream?

For that is how the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Everybody thinks, Hitler this and Hitler that. But Hitler, like Donald Trump, was merely an enabler. Sure, he looked like a dictator, he ordered and commanded. But he was only ordering and commanding what many Germans already wanted, and that is the problem, their already wanting it. Without that, there would have been no calamity, no Holocaust. Being high-minded and liberal no longer seemed worth the effort to Germans whose fortunes had dwindled after the economic chaos of the 1920s. They did not have to be persuaded that the victors of 1918 were wrongly punishing them with massive indemnities. (After all: what victors? World War I ended with a truce.) They did not have to be cajoled into imagining a return of Germany’s imperial power. The persecution of the Jews aside, the Nazi program for Germany was a happiness project, and it’s no wonder that so many Western observers were positively impressed, at least at first.

It has become horribly easy to imagine that the United States is on the threshold of a repeat performance. When I began keeping a Web site, I believed that it was not altogether useless to consider the mistakes and failures of leaders, with a view to avoiding both in future. It arguably remains useful. But, for the first time, I wonder if it is not actually, definitely, too late for secular improvements.

It has been pointed out, by Ross Douthat and others, that Paul Ryan could put an immediate stop to Trump’s juggernaut if he could only bring himself to repudiate the fustian economic policies that, surely, he can no longer take seriously. If he would set aside the free-trade, tax-cut nostrums of the Republican Party establishment, if he would acknowledge that Trump is right about a lot of economic issues, then faith in the GOP might be restored sufficiently to permit Party leaders to nominate the next candidate. The point of this exercise would be that, having come clean about economic fiddle-faddle, the Republicans could call a halt to Trump’s social demagoguery, much as an Eisenhower would have wanted to do, however indirectly. But this seems to be beyond the imaginative powers of today’s leading Republicans. They are more committed to an ideological program (one that increasingly seems to make no real-world sense, except for plutocrats) than they are to leadership or power. They are determined to honor their parents, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Martha Howell reviews a new book about Jacob Fugger, the Augsburg financier who flourished around the turn of the Sixteenth Century. Although Howell finds many faults in Greg Steinmetz’s mercantile biography, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, she thanks the author for making one thing crystal clear: large-scale capitalism depends upon state support. In Fugger’s case, bad loans to European rulers might be offset by commodity monopolies that were in the gift of those rulers. One does not have to think very widely to enumerate examples of state support for American capitalism: consider the gift, to private investors in a very wide range of transport enterprises, of publicly built and maintained highways and airports. Nor should countless tiny but lucrative amendments to state and federal legislation be overlooked: ostensibly neutral in their wording, their application will benefit particular, if unnamed, businesses. Consider the Black Hole of “Defense spending.” And yet none of this stops right-wing politicians from demanding that the government get out of business’s way. Eventually, someone — we’ve had the bad luck to draw Donald Trump — will come along to tell the losers whom he promises to make winners that the Establishment is wearing no clothes: policy and actuality have canceled one another out.

The cover story in the current issue of Harper’s is Dan Baum’s call to stop the War on Drugs, and I urge everyone to read it, and not only because it begins with a cynical confession by John Ehrlichman that makes Nixon’s Southern Strategy look ingenuous. Baum rightly devotes his most urgent discussion to the problem of regulating drugs after the current prohibitions have come to an end. But this discussion is blinkered by a common binary prejudice: the production and sale of drugs will be overseen and operated by businesses or by the government (or by some combination of the two). He does not consider the third possibility, which is the not-for-profit entity. Not-for-profits aren’t given the thought they deserve, perhaps because they’re neither potential jackpots nor implements of public virtue. Indeed, that is their advantage: they steer between the Scylla of political patronage and the Charybdis of greedy disregard.

The not-for-profit asks us to be clear about what we mean by the word “capitalism.” Do we mean enterprises that support themselves and plow surpluses into the maintenance and expansion of enterprise assets, as well as paying truly decent wages and remunerating executives with significant salaries? If so, then not-for-profits are as capitalist as anything. If, however, we mean enterprises that create earning opportunities for passive investors, pouring money not necessarily earned by the company’s stated business into the pockets of those investors (who have done nothing but contribute money) instead of into the company’s coffers, then not-for-profits begin to look “socialist.” But they are not socialist, because they are not controlled by politicians or government officials, all of whom might also have interests that cannot be served if the company sticks to its business.

The more I think about it, the more apt the not-for-profit seems to be for most commercial enterprises, especially those that people do not regard as primarily commercial at all, such as housing and utilities. I have said this many times before, but I am always looking for a better and more effective way of saying it. I’m also looking for contexts that point up the attractions of the not-for-profit. Whenever I think of Donald Trump and his “deals,” I consider how different our economy would look if not-for-profits ran the bulk of American businesses. There would be little room for the Donald in it.

For-profit capitalism has an important role in the economy: it is, demonstrably, the most effective engine of innovation. The development of innovative businesses is, needless to say, highly speculative, and investors in successful innovations ought to be rewarded for running substantial risks. But no enterprise remains innovative, and that is not a bad thing at all. Innovation comes to a stop the moment it finds a stable place in the economy. Once that happens, “innovation” becomes “improvement,” in a business that is no longer fighting for its life. To pick an historical example, landline telephones ceased to be innovative when they were installed in a great number of American homes and businesses. (And, as if to prove my point, the mature AT&T was opposed to most innovations, as anyone who tried to get a new phone jack installed will recall.) Another test of the moment when innovation cedes to improvement is passed when it becomes plausible for an enterprise to raise capital by issuing debt.

It may be too late for any of these ideas to stop Donald Trump’s insurrection (for that is what it is), but even that nightmare will not last forever. Adolf Hitler was such an idiot that his régime burned itself to a crisp after only twelve years of power. Twelve years ago, George W Bush was finishing his first term. It is in everybody’s interest to hope that Donald Trump is as wild and crazy as he seems.


Wednesday 23rd

In the afternoons, I generally stay away from the computer. Sometimes, I’ll sit down and write a letter. But I’ve altogether broken the habit, if it ever was one, of looking online for something interesting. So I generally miss late-breaking news. I didn’t hear about the Brussels attacks until Kathleen told me, when she got home at about nine last night.

To me, these attacks — and the very existence of ISIS — are the fruit of the Western élite’s contempt for the people of Islam. The people of Islam are, after all, generally poor (when they’re not crooks), and they don’t share our ideas about education in the humanities. They’re as either overlooked or looked down upon as Donald Trump’s supporters were, as such, until Trump dispensed with dog whistles and began discussing his issues explicitly. That he found an enthusiastic audience for his bigotry marks a colossal failure for the American élite, just as the emergence of jihadists in Europe represents the failure of a long-term policy of allowing immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Islamic world to fester in hopeless housing projects. The attacks in Brussels also represent the failure of Belgium as a nation. I call these developments failures because no liberal democracy can afford them. The fact that Republican electoral strategies were intentional, that middle-class short-sightedness was actively encouraged, does not make those strategies anything but a failure for the American body politic.

How did so many smart people screw up so badly? I attribute much of the half-baked quality of our social reforms since World War II to the masculine desire to get things done, which sometimes does actually get things done, but which more often seems hasty about announcing achievements prematurely. You pass a few bills — big success! You appoint a member of some minority to a top job — mission accomplished! The masculine way of getting things done is commendable where the results are material (new buildings and roadways) but almost regrettable when it comes to abstractions, such as civil rights. Putting an end to the egregious and visible signs of discrimination does not mean that the impulse to discriminate has been vanquished.

A major weakness of liberal democracy is that it is abstract. Or rather that it remains abstract, and somewhat unreal, for too many ordinary people. Now, there are some people without educations but with religious convictions who “get” liberal democracy without having to think much about it: more than any other form of government — perhaps it would be better to say, alone among forms of government — liberal democracy attempts to realize the Christian belief that all people, being equal in the sight of God, ought to be equal in the sight of men as well. A corollary of this equality, routinely dismissed by every kind of self-appointed authority, holds that no one is in a position to tell anyone else what to do. If these views are part of your spiritual anatomy, then you don’t need a four-year college to steep you in liberal values.

Unfortunately, this conviction is rare. Even worse, the liberal outlook, with is emphasis on freedom, is always somewhat more comfortable with laissez faire ideas than is healthy. Laissez faire would not be a problem in a population of highly-educated men and women. Highly-educated people know right away when their toes have been stepped on, and they can see who has done the stepping. They are in a position to lodge effective complaints. It’s the impact of laissez faire policies on the uneducated that’s the problem. Uneducated people are aware that they’ve been wronged, but they’re not sure about who has done the harm, and they are rather easily misled, at least for a time, by demagogues. Their often misdirected complaints go unredressed. With our dense network of federal and state regulatory agencies, we’re disinclined to see laissez faire as a likely problem, but in fact the concept of “free-market economics,” the juggernaut that has dragged behind it the financialization of markets and the globalization, not of trade, but of labor, is laissez faire in spades.

As I have said many times before, the failure of Western élites has been an unwillingness to communicate liberal values to the uneducated. Élites prefer to announce them, in rulings and legislation and campaign slogans. These are not forms of communication, and they feel like bullying. This is the big problem with Hillary Clinton. She will wonkily master the nuts and bolts of a problem, and then explain it in terms that make sense to people who may not have gone to a college as superior as Wellesley but who have been trained to imagine abstractions into reality. She has nothing to say to voters who lack this intellectual training, which is necessary if social problems are to be fully grasped. She has a hard time concealing her impatience with them. People like me may not like her very much, but we can agree that she’s the best of the bunch. Ordinary people lack the intelligence to judge her good qualities; they see only the bully.

How to deal with the lack of intelligence of ordinary people is a big problem that’s made even bigger by the persistent screw-ups of the élites. But they happen to be one and the same problem. The screw-ups are almost always failures to enlighten uneducated voters, to show people who have not been trained to deal with abstractions why the principles of liberal democracy are so important for us all. This would be a great job for our media, if our media were at all genuinely public-spirited. It is perhaps in our media, across the West, that we are screwing up most badly. It is not that our media tell lies. It’s rather that their way of presentation is a lie: media presenters affect a neutrality and even an innocence that they cannot feel. Television reporters pretend to be shocked by terrorism, for example; they behave as if they, too, were victims. They pretend to be as bewildered by the underlying causes of terrorism, which anyone with an education can see as clearly as the sun in the sky, as most of their viewers really are. Now, I do not mean to suggest that media people are any closer to a solution to those underlying causes — unemployment, first of all; cultural disaffection that is all but stoked by majoritarian contempt and official condescension; nostalgia and sentimentality that spoil in isolation; adolescent restlessness — but the harm is done by the appearance of cluelessness. If the media are clueless, then the causes of terrorism must be inexplicably evil. But the media are not clueless. There is just too much that they find it inconvenient — boring? — to say in front of the camera.

Worst of all, media people pretend that education is not really necessary. Anybody with good reflexes can bone up on a lot of facts and slam winning buttons.


I have entered the final, Egyptian phase of Daniel Martin. I ought to be speaking from experience, having read the book twice before, but in fact I had to skim the final pages to find out how close to the end the return to London was set. I can’t believe that I’ve come this far, over five hundred pages, without getting tired of the book’s obvious faults, which generally fall under one of two headings: endless stretches of dialogue that are often quite as deprived of literary interest as a tennis match; or authorial musings on gender issues that have gone rancid over the years. In this latter regard, it’s as though The Collector were John Fowles’s touchstone novel: his men do like women, a lot, but the question is whether women like being liked by his men? Well, of course they do; Fowles is writing the novels, after all. Except for that first case, where the woman tries to escape. For my part, I read Martin’s thoughts about women and so forth as historical curiosities, even though I know that most men still probably think that way. Martin’s bland self-assurance, at least, seems no longer sustainable.

In fact, I can’t say what is attractive about Daniel Martin. It owes a great deal to the novelist’s ability to present his hero as a creature who inhabits the world. I’d prefer to avoid talking of Daniel Martin as an animal, because he does so himself, always with respect to carnal desire. I find this idea, that it’s the animal in us that makes sex so compelling, slightly laughable, because for actual non-human animals sex is an endurance test that is undergone only very occasionally. Animals are more on the lookout for dinner, but you will not find Daniel Martin talking much about food. He does, however, inhabit the landscape of Devon, almost in spite of his descriptions. In his very green corner of England, Daniel goes shamanically green himself. (He does also make some curious remarks about Robin Hood.)

Egypt, of course, is not green. But it does have the Nile, which has already (by the point I’ve reached) been described as “pearly gray.” Cruising the Nile is like taking a train: you board a movable shelter that could be anywhere, and then travel through a peculiar landscape, only occasionally, however, setting foot in it. This is what the Nile means in literature (as opposed, say, to what it means in Egyptian agronomy). You steam up and down the river, and hope that the adventures will be manageable. You compare the slightly boring tranquility all around you with the hustle and bustle back home; you reflect that the Nile has been doing its thing for x long time. You study your companions, who bristle with far more points of interest than the riverbanks. You comment on the quality of the wining and dining. As an important part of the Nile trope, you’re involved in some complicated, problematic sort of romance.

I can’t remember a thing about how John Fowles plays this hand. Daniel and Jane are still in Cairo. They’ve just been to a good dinner party at which some very funny jokes have been told by a professional comedian. The jokes are still quite sharp and funny. Here’s the first:

They find a stone statue of a pharaoh at Luxor. The inscriptions are indecipherable, the archaeologists are at a loss as to who it is. The statue is brought to Cairo and cleaned, but still the experts are baffled. At last a secret policeman asks if he can see it. He is taken to the room, he goes in and locks the door. An hour later he comes out pulling his coat on and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“It’s okay,” he says. “He confessed.” (523)

The sad thing about this is that what used to be an Egyptian joke is now a TSA joke.


The lobby just called to tell me that a “delivery” was on its way up. Delivery? Of what? I wasn’t expecting anything. It took a few minutes to remember the Easter ham. I ought to have had the ham delivered tomorrow, or even on Friday, but I wanted to be sure that I had it. So now I have to find somewhere to put it. It’s a whole ham, you see, from which the butcher has sliced three or four steaks, leaving a great big roast for Sunday and a small roast to send someone home with. The steaks are the best part, if you follow a recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. It’s an adaptation, for ham steak, of a roast ham recipe in Mastering the Art, and really much better. The steaks are obviously not all the same size, but they always seem to feed three diners generously.

Even though I’ve been clearing out the freezer and the refrigerator with unprecedented regularity, I have nowhere to put all this ham — not yet. I’ll figure out something for the big roast. The steaks are more of a headache, because one doesn’t want to look at ham in any form until Whitsun, so the steaks have to be frozen. And where is the room for that, may I ask, especially in light of the big mistake in my last order from Nueske’s. I meant to order one package of Canadian bacon, but I ordered two. As I don’t know anyone else with a meat slicer, I can’t give the extra package away.

I wish I could remember how to cook the roast ham. I know that part of the method is to slice a fresh pineapple and line the bottom of the roasting pan with the rings. The ham sits on them instead of in the juice, and the result is magical. There’s also brown sugar, of course; but was there some strange ingredient that you’d never guess in a million years? In other words, did I make this recipe up in a moment of unrecorded genius?

And dessert — what’s for dessert? It has to be something chocolate, to break Kathleen’s Lenten fast. As always, Ray Soleil offered to make his intense chocolate mousse, but I wanted to make something this year, or thought I did, and so I declined. But what am I going to make? Is it too late to call Ray?


Thursday 24th

As I was walking out of the theatre yesterday — Yes! I went to the movies! But first, the important part — as I was checking my phone, I found two messages from Kathleen. The first said, “:will call when I check in at. Hyatt.” Great! Kathleen was in Washington for the night, attending an annual confab involving dinner and then a long meeting the next day. The second message took a while to process. It was from Kathleen’s phone, but not from Kathleen.

Hi: I found this blackberry on the train after we reached DC. Please tell the owner when you talk to her that I gave it to lost and found inside union station!

Two curious details about this message are that the writer knew that the phone’s owner was a woman, and that the phone was recovered by the stranger so soon after Kathleen wrote her message about checking in that the phone had not locked; there was no need to open it with a passcode. But I didn’t think much about these things at the time, and, indeed, there is still no reason to attach much importance to them. As of this writing, the phone remains in Lost & Found at Union Station — a haven with which we became familiar a few years ago, when Kathleen left her wallet on the train.

A more important detail: the lost phone receives the constantly updated codes that allow Kathleen to log on to her law firm’s network. (Need I point out that she left the phone on the train because she was preoccupied by packing up her laptop, on which she had been working all the way from Penn Station?) Without access to “the system,” she could not determine the time and place for dinner in Washington. I found this out when one of Kathleen’s associates called me. She had been out of pocket when Kathleen called for help, but was now able to be of service. She had called Kathleen at the Hyatt and gotten no answer. Unaware that Kathleen had called another associate and found out what she needed to know, I was left with disturbing visions of a Lost Kathleen, wandering the streets of the capital before finally collapsing, exhausted, in an unsafe alley.

And then there was the Hyatt angle. Kathleen had told me that the dinner would not be late, so, between ten and eleven, I called her room several times. Calls to the hotel were automatically answered by a recording. If you knew “your party’s extension,” you could dial it at any time. I would punch in Kathleen’s room number — which I knew, because I had tracked her down when I got home from the movies, and was able to tell her where her phone was before she was entirely sure that she had mislaid it — and then nothing would happen; nobody would answer. I was frantic by the time our landline phone rang, just after eleven. (Kathleen can’t remember my cell phone number.) “I thought I’d wait until after eleven,” she said, matter-of-factly recurring to an ancient practice that reflected the sharply reduced long-distance rates that use to kick in at that hour, sometime during the Peace of Westphalia. When I said that I’d been calling her, we had a new mystery. She had been sitting “right there,” and there had been no ringing. It turned out that something was wrong with the hotel’s phones. To get Kathleen, I should have to go through the operator. This morning, placing a wake-up call, I found even that to be a challenge. I cycled through three welcomes from the recorded voice before I finally chose an option that would take me to an answered phone and a re-connection to Kathleen.

After all, just how important are hotel phones these days? Everybody knows that their use is laced with surcharges. Everybody else knows that you can always reach your chums on his or her mobile, the number of which is tucked nicely into yours.

The cherry on top: Kathleen was carrying an iPhone. She had not left that on the train. She had not used it in ages. It was not charged. She did not have an Apple charger, and the hotel could not provide her with one. (Big surprise.) The whole point of the iPhone is that Kathleen is supposed to use it to contact me, and, presumably, other non-business contacts. I don’t have time to tell you more about this, because I can hear the men with the big butterfly nets and the funny white suit out in the hallway.

Now that I have described this sundae of technological delight, permit me to suggest the ambient lighting: the film that I had just seen when this opera buffa began was Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. Ah, here they are. They’re trying to decide whether to take me away to the “clinic” or settle for an injection. So I can’t tell you more about this nail-biting drama about a drone attack that alone will prevent a couple of suicide bombers from wreaking yet more havoc on Nairobi.


Just a few more deep breaths.


Not only did I go to the movies; I went to the Museum! For the first time since September, I’m ashamed to say. (It has been a difficult year. Longer than that, really.) But the weather was lovely, and I finished writing on the early side. So I dressed and ran outside and grabbed a taxi. The Museum is not far away, but I save my energy for walking around in it, not to it; and, in the event, I walked all the way home, too. On the way home, I stopped in at Crawford Doyle, not for the first time since September, but very nearly. I told the assistant manager that the store ought not to be selling the books of Marie Kondo, not, at least, to me; for I had taken the first one to heart and just about stopped buying books. But only just about. I did leave the shop with two new ones. There was Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I had intended to buy if they had it, and then a sort of surprise, Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. (I managed not to buy the new Kondo.)

Only now do I see what these books have in common: neither was written in English. A few months ago, as it must be by now, Jhumpa Lahiri published a piece in The New Yorker, an extract from her new book, announcing that she had stopped writing in English, and that she had taken up writing in Italian, a language to which she had no connection beyond an infatuation that began in her youth. The excerpt was translated, like the book, by Ann Goldstein.

I read a good deal of In altre parole when I got home. The original Italian text is printed on the even-numbered, left-hand pages, facing Goldstein’s translation. I was surprised by how rarely I had to look to the right. I, too, have an infatuation with Italian. I am by no means as fluent in it as I am in French, but I understand it better, perhaps because it is further away from English, just as Italy is vastly more self-absorbed and uninterested in Anglophone antics than France is. For some reason, I don’t translate Italian into English as much as I do French. Italian is more likely to make immediate sense to me. Why? All those years of listening to opera? That seems both plausible and far-fetched. After all, I haven’t learned German from Wagner and Strauss. It has something to do with the rhythm of Italian, which is perhaps the most beautiful rhythm in the world of language.

But my knowledge of Italian is vague and confused. I cleared up quite a few confusions yesterday, perhaps forever, thanks to Lahiri’s beguiling memoir. The difference between dentro and dietro, for example (within, behind). Per quanto — however (much/many). Sciocchezza: a folly, not a shock. Lahiri writes a lot about wanting to learn Italian — what, exactly, that was like. This involves a vocabulary with which I am already familiar. Lahiri’s very thoughts are familiar. This is her first book in Italian: the writing is not very difficult. I daresay that one of the attractions of Italian, for Lahiri, is the beauty of its simplicities. I suspect that it is more difficult in Italian than it is in English to be trite, banal, and stale. (The danger is all the other way: pomposity, grandiosity, drama.) Now, literary Italian can be — well, Latinate, as Dante often is. I carry around in my head a favorite sentence from a story in New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Italian, the Nick Roberts edition (1999). It comes from Silvia Petrignani’s “Donne in piscina.” The women of the title, sunning themselves beside, not in, a swimming pool, are talking, why not, about men, and one of them says,

Perché sono pochi gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono sul serio.

Because there are few men who really like women. Sad, but true. But I love all the bumps. “Pochi gli uomini” reminds me that what the sentence is really saying is that They are few, the men who like women really. And the inversion of piacere: Like the French, Italians don’t like things; they are pleased by them. That pleases me: Mi piace. Women please me: Le donne mi piace. Women please them: Le donne gli piacciono. Men to whom women are pleasing: Gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono. There aren’t many: Sono pochi. Really: sul serio. For me, the sentence is an Italian lesson all by itself. I have encountered nothing like it in Lahiri’s book, and I don’t expect to.

In altre parole is a handy Italian on more generous lines. It’s a pleasant book, tinged with loss and longing, that one can dip into anywhere. I was about to refer to an earlier entry here, but it doesn’t exist; I must be remembering a letter to a friend. When the excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, it obliged me to think about what it means to be a native speaker. Lahiri, accomplished in English as she certainly is, is not a native speaker. Bengali is her mother tongue: the language that she spoke with her mother. But that’s all it is. Growing up in London and Providence, she did not speak Bengali with anybody else. She does not speak it well, she says — she has a terrible accent, she says. And she can neither read nor write it. It would seem that Lahiri has known English almost all her life — but not quite.

So, when she fell in love with Italian, as one does, Lahiri did not feel altogether foolish, as indeed I should. When she stopped reading books in English, a few years ago, she closed the door on a world that, however familiar, had no real claim on her; it had not shaped her most fundamental thoughts about the world. She had enjoyed great success in English, obviously, and I hope that she will do so again, even if she is not so sure that she wants to. But English remains her second language. Why not make of Italian, not a third language, but another second?

It’s curious that one’s immediate objections are entirely “practical.” First, she is old to be learning a language. She has a lovely chapter about collecting words that she doesn’t know. She gathers them up every day and puts them in a basket. At the end of the day, the basket is almost empty, because of course it is her memory, and memory discards most of what comes before it. She is delighted when a word sticks. But is this a viable modus for a reasonably sophisticated writer? Presumably — this is at least my stumbling block with other languages — Lahiri would want to write an Italian that is as proficient as her English? In altre parole is an easy book for me to read, because it is the work of someone who learned to describe the world in English. Lahiri’s Italian is very good, but she says the things that an English-speaker would say.

Second, and perhaps the more massive caution, there is the numerical abyss between the languages’ readerships. Even without globalization, English is spoken by many times more readers than Italian is; and there is some evidence that Anglophones, for all their many faults, are bigger readers. Why write texts that will have to be translated, their born glories sheared off, in order to be widely read? As I say, I haven’t encountered a single sentence in Lahiri’s book that is anywhere near to the foreignness of Petrignani’s. But the language itself is indeed foreign.

Scrivo in un italiano brutissimo, scorretto, imbarrazzante.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is interesting.

I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.

If you’re following me, you’ll see that there is nothing at all foreign about the thought that Lahiri seeks to express. Goldstein captures it very well, but the changes that she wrests in order to make the statement fluid and agreeable in English completely destroy the power of the original, which depends entirely on a build-up of somewhat onomatopoetic adjectives. Brutissimo! Not just “terrible,” but “ugly.” Scoretto! So many Italian words are made negative or even nasty by fastening an ‘s’ onto the beginning, short for “dis” but resulting in a premonitory hiss. Imbarrazzante! Eem-barratz-AHHNNN-tay. How can “embarrassing,” obviously the same word, only in English, compete? The rhythm of those three denunciations is a virtuoso pile-up that requires no italics or exclamation points. It can’t happen in good English, as Goldstein demonstrates by taking scorretto out of the sequence: incorrect just won’t do. “I write an Italian that is ugly, incorrect, and embarrassing.” The literal translation is a flop. Of course anything so ugly and embarrassing is going to be incorrect. More has to be made of this note: it has to be amplified to “full of mistakes.”

The vituosity is not Lahiri’s, as I expect she’d be the first to agree. It’s simply Italian.


Good Friday 25th

Which is why the sentence exhibits none of the defects that it enumerates.

All day, I’ve been trying to decide whether to tack the preceding sentence, which didn’t occur to me until later, onto the end of yesterday’s entry, and finish it off with good wishes for the weekend, or to add something else. Having chosen the latter option, I’m still not sure that it’s a very good idea, but I’ll plead helplessness: I’ve just finished Daniel Martin and can’t think of anything else to do with myself, at least for a little while, until it’s time to make dinner. For several days, I’d put off continuing with the novel, because I really wasn’t keen to follow it to Egypt — and I was right about all the superficialities, which may mean no more than that John Fowles introduced the Nile-cruise trope to me. But it was in the final two hundred pages that the following statement began to make at least a vague sort of sense.

[Daniel Martin is] intended as a defence and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.

Those are the author’s words, printed on the back cover. Humanism? Never have I read, or at least tolerably enjoyed, a novel so completely marinated in the whine of male adolescence. Here is a sentence from the high slopes of the final climax, which is set in Palmyra — the Temple of Baal, recently destroyed by Da’esh, is pointed out, but this was forty years ago.

They were now reduced to what, in their two sexes, had never forgiven and never understood the other. (678)

So gross an appeal to gender, as if Dan stood for all men and Jane for all women, is nothing more than the rankly hormonal cry of thwarted carnality: I especially cherish the authority with which the author and his protagonist speak for women as well. Indeed, there is a dismaying Così fan tutte quality about the novel’s resolution, as if Dan and Jane were only doing what men and women were put on the planet to do. This is not Fowles’s intention, I suspect, but it keeps blurting out from behind the pretense of mature, experienced adulthood. I thought that Dan was an idiot tout court for pursuing Jane so loudly within the very month of her husband’s death by suicide — give the girl some time, man! So I felt mildly disappointed by the success of his importunings.

The humanism of Daniel Martin did not, for me, abide in the romance. It emerged from, of all things, the trope of the Nile-cruise. I’d left an important element of this elegant conceit out of my catalogue: along with the repetitious riverbanks (which however Jane and Dan claim to find endlessly interesting), the peculiarities of the fellow tourists (observed in somewhat contemptuous detail), and the “timelessness” of the ancient river, there must also be a wise old man (or woman) who does not so much explain the riddle of the sphinx as sprinkle other gem-like mysteries on the tablecloth. I had forgotten the Herr Professor, an elderly archaeologist from Leipzig who now lives in Cairo, serving Eastern Europeans as a guide to the antiquities. It turns out that his late wife was English; she was the daughter of a doctor who had settled in Egypt, and a pediatrician herself. After the War, the Herr Professor accepted the invitation to return to his now East-German university; one of his sons remains there (another doctor), while the other has gone to America. All this in the middle of a Cold War that the Herr Professor’s sheer humanity seems to see beyond. The conversations that he has with Dan and Jane are as interesting as conversations can be (although Jane, always something of a geisha, says little), but there is a tidal pull underneath that bound me to the novel, and made it seem to be the most important thing that I could possibly be reading. An interesting illusion, that. But somehow the presence of the Herr Professor does substantiate Fowles’s claim: Daniel Martin is indeed a defense of then-unfashionable humanism.

What mysteries, you ask. Simply the mysteries of another person, another life, another generation, another background. For once, Daniel Martin forgets about himself. Or at least the novel forgets him, forgets, for a moment or two, Daniel’s amorous quandary — whether to continue a relationship with the young actress whom he has befriended in Los Angeles, or to succumb to the weakness of Be Here Now and rattle Jane with his attentions. And the odd thing is that this new element, the open and nonjudgmental appreciation of sheer otherness, seeps up and floods the rest of the novel, so much of it, necessarily by now, in retrospect. If Daniel cannot stop measuring the world by his desires, his ambitions, and his contempt for both of these things, John Fowles shows that he at least can step back. The Herr Professor makes us aware that, all along, Fowles has enabled us to look over Daniel’s shoulders, and to see the other people in his life, for ourselves. We can’t look to Fowles for a judgment of his principal character, because everything about the novel (including that other trope: the novel that you are reading is the one that the lead character is thinking about writing) points to an identity, with Daniel filling in as an alternative Fowles, waving from the other side of experience. But even if Daniel and his author are the same person, the author is writing about the other people in the book from the perspective, and perhaps with the insight and the wisdom, that follows the writing of a novel. I hope that I am not spinning too fine a thread when I suggest that Daniel Martin is about who Daniel used to be, and who his friends have been all along.

As with the Herr Professor, the sense of a humanist assessment of life arises from a grasp of time, the difference between now and then. This is really nothing but sheer history, a feeling for which is so palpable in the Herr Professor’s personal narrative. Daniel always is, even when he is remembering his youth in the combes and hangers of Devon. That’s why he is so maddening. But the book itself is not lodged in an eternal present — another mystery. My solution to this mystery is to conclude that the novel is the history of a man who has no very clear sense of history.

And there I must stop: it is time to make dinner. My copy of Daniel Martin is flagged with more than a dozen small Post-its; I wonder if I shall actually take the time to copy all the passages into Evernote and explain why they caught my eye (if I still can). I hope so. It would be a fine way of working out the confusion that I felt throughout this third reading: why? What makes this book worth the time? Because so much — so much about the title character — argues that it isn’t. I feel that, in these few paragraphs here, I have reduced the perplexity considerably, but I sense that there’s more to be learned. Meanwhile,

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Avoiding Egypt
March 2016 (III)

Monday, March 14th, 2016

Monday 14th

Running an hour late on everything — trying not to feel delinquent, panicked.

Time Magazine was mentioned in one of the Op-Ed columns this morning — Paul Krugman’s, I think. Time Magazine! How surprising — that it still exists! But of course it doesn’t, any more than today’s Vanity Fair is really anywhere near as old as The New Yorker. It’s true that Time has published without interruption, but not only has it changed out of recognition, but the world that it served in the heady American-Century days of the Fifties and Sixties has disappeared — extinguished, pretty much, by people like me.

Now, I’m making all of this up, of course. You’re to read it as a piece of fiction, a story that might or might not seem to hew to true facts, whether or not you yourself remember them. Try it on; see if it fits. But when I caught the mention of Time this morning, my entire life flashed before my eyes.

The story begins in the early Sixties. Kennedy is president, or perhaps Johnson has already taken his place. Where I come from, it is still the Fifties, and where I come from is Eisenhower country. Eisenhower is a Republican, of course, but he has spent a good deal of his presidency trying to outmaneuver the ardent, Red-fearing right. He may have seemed to be a boring old man, but he was sound. Somehow, Kennedy seemed to be more sound than Nixon, and, if he wasn’t, the assassination at Dallas took care of that. Johnson is definitely not sound.

I come from an affluent Coastal suburb. Everyone is a Republican, but only a few people are in any way ardent. Republican is the default setting for “normal.” Democrats are, by and large, less educated and poorer. They live in other suburbs, or in the city. Nobody really believes that Democrats are Communists, because — I left something out — almost every white voter in the South is a Democrat. Nobody pays much attention to Democrats, at least until Johnson comes along.

In this Coastal Establishment, Time Magazine has the last word on everything. Take the clout enjoyed, on today’s liberal/progressive front, by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, and even The Nation — all the periodicals on my library table — and put them into one very faintly right-wing publication, and you have Time. Smart teenagers read Time as a matter of course. (To be impressive, you have to read US News & World Report — the most boring prose in America.) Time tells you how things are.

And then there is the rift. From the very start, the rift is generational. Kids look at their parents and assume that they’re wrong — about everything. Why? Is it the music? Is it the pictures of self-immolating monks and nuns in Vietnam? Is it Johnson’s talk about civil rights? Is it — drugs?

It is all of these things, but it is something more, because the parents, if not exactly wrong, are somehow mindless. The grown-ups have stopped thinking. They sound just like the authority figures in Brave New World and 1984. They want to have a good time, and they want their kids to have the same good time, dammit. They do not like having the boat rocked just for the hell of it — they can’t imagine having a good reason to rock the boat. They don’t have much imagination at all, really, and no wonder, given their experience of the Depression and the War. They’re entitled to some peace and quiet, no?

The problem is — Communism. The Commies are out to put an end to the good life. They want to surround the United States with Commie dictatorships, so we fight back with our own Crony dictatorships. In the South, Democrats complain that Communist infiltrators are encouraging Negro activism. How seriously do comfortable Republicans in the Coastal suburbs take these complaints? Not very. But they equate Commies with boat-rockers, and boat-rockers belong behind bars. End of discussion!

But their children — people like me — see the Negro struggle in a very different light. We may not actually know any Negroes — in sad truth, this ignorance makes our virtue easy — but we think that it is wrong to forbid some people to sit down at a lunch counter. We are beginning to learn about the Holocaust, and the idea of separate drinking fountains has a terrible smell. We don’t know if the nuns and the monks in Vietnam are really Communist agitators, but we sense a lack of connection between what is going on in Vietnam — what the people there really want — and the government that the United States is increasingly seen to be propping up. By the time Johnson decides not to run for reëlection, most people like me will regard his Administration, at least its military parts, as a big fat liar. As wars go, there is something awfully wrong about the War in Vietnam. Something — stupid.

I always think of this as Time’s swan song: Now that flower children have gone to pot. That’s from the late Sixties, obviously. By then, the Coastal Establishment is broken beyond repair: people like me have seen to that. We have embraced all the social challenges, and as Nixon and Watergate and the Oil Embargo and Stagflation bring the United States to what looks like the end of the American Century, a bit ahead of time, we grow up and get advanced degrees and start running things. This is where people like me divide into two opposed camps, one of which supports Jimmy Carter while the other hates him. (The people who hate Jimmy Carter are gearing up to financialize the American economy, but Afro-Americans are welcome everywhere among us.) But that’s another story. Between us, we have trampled Eisenhower’s Republican Party — also Nelson Rockefeller’s — to death. And, whichever side of the aisle we’re on, people like me are convinced that we’ve won.

But we’ve missed something. We have taken no political account of white people who are not people like me. In a curious transvaluation of values (I don’t know what that really means), we have rendered these people politically invisible. The ones whom we see are “entertainers,” Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, just as our parents ignored Negroes who were not entertainers. We may no longer read Time Magazine, but the white people who are not people like me never could read Time. It was above their reading grade, way above. Those people were too hopped up on schnapps and NASCAR to follow politics. People like me are in fact tacitly bigoted about such people, whom we call “rednecks,” “yahoos,” and “crackers.” How nice it would be if they would all emigrate to Australia!

We hadn’t noticed — we were still a bit young at the time — that Nixon had activated a sequence of changes that would transform American politics in a way that made people like me almost irrelevant. We sort of understood why southern Democrats, feeling betrayed by Johnson, were becoming Republicans, but we didn’t know where that was going to lead. Or perhaps we simply couldn’t see where it would lead, because where it would lead was not a political possibility, in the minds of people like me. Surely racist bigotry was a thing of the past?

I don’t know where we got the idea, people like me, that we had put an end to racist bigotry. We had put an end to our parents’ short-sighted, go-along-to-get-along quietism, but our parents, with a few exceptions, were not racial bigots, or in any case were not prepared to make a fuss about their bigotry. They would retreat to their gracious country clubs and churches, places in which enthusiasm of any kind was firmly discouraged. That’s what we brought to a stop. We never had anything to do with genuine, pulsing bigotry.

So, now it’s our turn to retire. the oldest amongst us are pushing seventy. We support Hillary, not because we like her but because she has proven to be a capable executive, or we would like to support Jeb Bush. Donald Trump has grown up with us; he might have been one of us. But he was never one of us, whether because he was an insecure dreamer or a bully or both. We have laughed at Donald Trump almost all our adult lives, when we haven’t scorned him for vandalizing the Bonwit Teller signage. We have always seen Donald Trump as a rogue, and we should never let him run anything.

My mind goes back to Simon Winder’s Danubia, which I read at the end of last October. Writing of the failure of the various revolutions of 1848, Winder points out that nobody was prepared to agree on a second step: after the revolution, then what?

People like me never even saw that there was a second step. We may have stopped reading it, but we were still blinkered by the worldview of Time Magazine.


I wound up last week’s entry by asking a question that I never began to try to answer. Why, in The Heather Blazing, does Carmel Redmond complain, on two occasions, at the opposite ends of her married life, that her husband Éamon doesn’t tell her about himself?

You’ve always been so distant, so far away from everybody. It is so hard to know you, you let me see so little of you. I watch you sometimes and wonder if you will ever let any of us know you. (154)

What does this mean? What would be the disclosures that Carmel feels her husband has withheld? And how can she have lived with him for decades without developing a sense of who her husband really is that she can depend upon, regardless of what he says or doesn’t say?

In other words, is she “really asking,” or is she demanding some sort of ritual performance?

When I read The Heather Blazing for the first time, I took this passage, like so many others, as an evidence against Éamon, an “indictment,” so to speak; that he could not defend himself amounted to a sort of conviction. Now I wonder if, each time that I read this novel — and I certainly intend to read it again sometime — I shall find myself forgiving Éamon Redmond’s faults even more unreservedly than the last time. To me now, he seems to be an almost obstinately decent man, meaning not that he is a rebel who stands up for inconvenient principles but rather that he is determined to suffer every inconvenience — every tic of conscience — that’s required to repay the debt that he owes to those who have taken care of him, the men of Fianna Fáil. It may be clear that Éamon is a cog in a machine that has already done whatever good it could do for Ireland, and that is now doing things that are not so good. But it is not clear that this makes Éamon a bad man. And my ambivalence surprises me. I do not expect to like characters such as Éamon Redmond.

And who would be responsible for that, for my liking him? Who, now? Who would make his silences so understandable that I should like to take Carmel aside and beg her to stop demanding ritual performances? I understand that the sharing of intimacies is a fundamental aspect of human social grooming, but by Carmel’s own account it was Éamon’s resistance to such norms that made him attractive to her in the first place. And there is nothing inside Éamon that would allow him honestly to comply. There is no withheld information. Why do I believe this? Where did I get this idea?

Why do I find Éamon Redmond increasingly semblable? Is it me? Am I changing? Or is it the novel — am I reading it more clearly?

What if Colm Tóibín didn’t know what he was doing back then, twenty-odd years ago? What if he set out to paint a portrait in vitriol but didn’t have the heart for it? What if he set out, instead, to invest a character, whose outward circumstances were the opposite of his own, with his own confusions? To infuse a High Court judge with the spirit of a gay expat journalist? Or to imagine himself as a High Court judge? It is none of my business, but the question, What does Carmel want? has become something of a laugh line.


Tuesday 15th

The pile of books alongside my reading chair has taken one of those Jack’s-beanstalk jumps that happen every now and then when books come in all at once from several quarters. There are some new books, some books that had been in storage, a book that a neighbor lent to me on the understanding that I would (please) not give it back, and books from my own shelves. Every one, though, belongs in one train of thought or another.

Well, almost every one. George Sand’s Consuelo is there because, frankly, it is very fat. If I read it and then decided that I didn’t need to keep it, that would be a very happy outcome. I have never finished a novel by Sand, although I have begun more than a few; this is another source of pressure. Consuelo is about a Venetian singer in the Eighteenth Century; I suppose that I could attach it to the Gilbert & Sullivan train, by contrasting it, however grotesquely, with The Gondoliers, which is set in the same place and time (roughly). Both capture, or rather are captured by, that sugary cuteness that you used to be able to find in Little Italy, on horrible table lamps featuring shepherds and shepherdesses: that is how one century liked to see its predecessor. Both Consuelo and The Gondoliers rise above the level of schlock, but you have to ask what, exactly, the period setting brings to the finished artwork.

Another fat novel is John Fowles’s Daniel Martin. I am well into this somewhat hypertrophic roman à moi, in which Fowles reinvents himself as a successful writer of Hollywood screenplays. The conceit is that the book in your hand is the novel that Daniel conceives of writing about halfway through the narrative — his first. It was of course not the first for author Fowles. I ask myself, Why am I reading this for the third time? The answer seems to be that it haunts me, that I remember it as a deeply engaging book, even if I forgot lots of the details, or even the extended episode in Egypt that finishes it off. I am about to embark for the Nile, in fact, and I’m twitching with the resistance that made me put down The Adventures of Augie March when the action was on the verge of shifting to Mexico. That won’t happen here, I don’t think.

Daniel Martin haunts me for several reasons. First, it is tremendously readable, even though written by a man. Even when Fowles launches one of his aesthetic sermons, he holds your attention. His opinions are very strong, and — now, in 2016, nearly forty years after publication — sometimes thrillingly out of date. It’s hard to make sense of some of them: you have to worm your way back to that rackety decade and revisit its peculiar perspectives (anything but confident, but not very clear, either) on past and future. The dialogue is lively, too, although it is something of a joke that Fowles/Martin exhibits none of the discipline of a moviemaker. His conversations go on and on and on: you are there. If you weren’t convinced of the sincerity of Fowles’s urge to recreate life as it is lived and breathed, his garrulity would be unbearable. (There is one tic that I cannot bear. In the depths of his exchanges, which read pretty much like a script, with even less adverbial modification outside the quotation marks, Fowles will deploy someone’s name as an anchor, to remind you that someone else is the one speaking. “Oh, if only I could see it that way, Dan” — an invented example with emphasis supplied. In the thick of intimate conversations, people don’t call one another by name.) Then there are the long lyric passages, usually describing landscapes, especially the landscape of Devon. These passages are shot through with a love of Little England and the longing of the highly rational man (or of one who thinks he is) for the simple certitudes (as he imagines them to be) of peasant life. At the same time, Daniel Martin is marinated in English literature. I don’t mean that it’s full of allusions that must be caught (although it is), but rather that it seems of a piece with great books from the early days of Modern English onward. Like so many English writers of the Twentieth-Century, Fowles finds the Seventeenth expecially congenial. And you can see that he is just about willing to consider forgiving the Victorians for having — existed. In the end, I suppose you could say that Daniel Martin is the literary equivalent of a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, except of course that one was alive for part of it.

Another novel is Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, which I haven’t read before. I haven’t much to say about it yet, having penetrated no further than the first two chapters, and I don’t expect to think highly of it. Huxley, as a recent re-reading of The Devils of Loudun brought home, has not aged well. I’m reading it solely because Sybille Bedford, in Jigsaw, tells us that Huxley “borrowed” some unpleasant dramas from her own family life and recycled them here. She was horrified, when she found this out, in 1937, but by then she and the Huxleys were great chums, and Maria Huxley reminded her younger friend that her husband used everything in his novels. So the friendship was not damaged, and Bedford went on to write the authorized biography of the author of Brave New World, which book I must say that I have managed not actually to read. I’ve treated 1984 in the same way. It occurs to me that I should have seen them, if they were great movies.

Anyway, I decided to read Eyeless in Gaza, really, because it was a way of holding on to Sybille Bedford, who didn’t write enough if you ask me. I read her Jigsaw years and years ago and liked it, but I thought that it was rather queer, and I don’t mean sexually. What made it queer was the Bohemian freedom of its characters’ lives, a freedom nevertheless bound up in good manners. I was too young, I think, to hear the crystal purity of Bedford’s voice. Now that I’m old enough, I read her with avid hunger. Legacy, A Visit to Don Otavio, A Favourite of the Gods — all marvelous. And now I’ve just read The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s Report. I quoted a passage from this the other day, but did not talk about the book. It ought to be read by every lawyer and, especially, every law student. Everywhere in Europe.

The Faces of Justice is something of a fragment. It might have been a much, much bigger book. I don’t mean that Bedford ought to have burrowed into the philosophical differences between Europe’s two great legal systems. The virtue of her writing is always that it sounds the depths from a calm surface. This is a knack that is easier to explain, in terms of Bedford’s very complicated personal background, than to describe; other writers who possess it would be Penelope Lively, though to a lesser degree, and Janet Malcolm, who seems to me to be following in Bedford’s footsteps. Both Bedford and Malcolm are fascinated by the funhouse-mirror distortions of legal procedure, and both appear to understand the whys and wherefores of everyday justice without having bothered with law school. Bedford, who became interested in trials as a very young woman in London, has a keen if unacademic awareness of, for example, the niceties of hearsay, and she is horrified by its admissibility as evidence in Continental jurisprudence. Provincially horrified, she is careful to note. If you grow up in the Anglophone legal tradition, then the courts of Germany and France (and all the rest) are going to seem frightfully inquisitorial; if you’re looking at Anglophone law from a foreign perspective, it can seem hideously infected by sporting notions that have nothing to do with right and wrong, but are instead wrapped up with that utterly untranslatable term, fairness. “Life isn’t fair,” we all console each other; but English law and it numerous offshoots all do try to correct that.

In The Faces of Justice, Bedford starts out with the way things are done in England. She attends an “ordinary” case, by which she means one in which there is no actual suspense. The dim truck driver who “converted” a shipment of apples and Gloucester cheese to his own use — that is, he stole it and sold it and used the proceeds to buy a flashy car — is obviously guilty. There is nothing to get to the bottom of. This makes the case a good teaching tool, because all the things that take place in an exciting case happen here, too, and, because there’s no mystery, it’s easier to pay attention to them. Bedford shows how the case against the driver is painstakingly made, by establishing, as if in some virtual, holographic recreation, the facts of the matter. We take this for granted; Bedford insists that we see exactly what it is that we take for granted.

Bedford also writes about “summary justice,” which is how the vast bulk of infractions are dealt with. Think of parking tickets; think “drunk and disorderly.” Think of stealing a quantity of matchbooks and a slice of cake from the back seat of a parked car, as one odd young man was caught in the middle of doing. So long as the money involved is below a certain threshold, and the penalties fall short of high fines and extensive prison terms, these cases can be handled by a magistrate, usually, in England (at least at the time of Bedford’s writing, 1960 or so), a retired barrister. Bedford runs through about two dozen matters: la comédie humaine. The salience of justice is oddly higher in magistrate’s court, perhaps because the magistrate is, within the scope of his jurisdiction, rather godlike: he is judge, jury, and counsel wrapped up in one person. And Bedford’s report demonstrates that magistrates usually, but not always, do dispense justice.

Then Bedford crosses the Channel, and visits the capital of the province in which she grew up, Karlsruhe. I didn’t know that Karlsruhe was the seat of West German justice prior to unification, a fact that is really neither here nor there in her report, which is primarily devoted to a somewhat sensational case (at the time) involving a stressed-out father who shot and killed an elderly exhibitionist who had been flashing his daughter. This is definitely not an ordinary case, but Bedford squeezes it for all that it can tell us about how things are done in Germany — how very, very differently. The jury, for example, sits alongside the judges, and together with the judges, one-man-one-vote, reaches the verdict. Nor are the members of the jury members of the public whose names are drawn out of a hat. They are what we might call stand-up citizens, people with good reputations in the town and solid balances in the bank. If there were one reform to be borrowed from Continental law, this would be my choice. I see the attraction of sporting chances as a way of leveling the field of justice, but I am not willing to extend it to a way of composing juries that permits uneducated men and women to grapple with complicated, unheard-of fact patterns. Nor do I buy the Anglophone fairy tale that juries are triers of fact but not of law.

There is a beautiful sequence of paragraphs about the Courts of Restitution. “Most of the plaintiffs are dead.” One gathers from today’s news that these courts must not have been doing a very good job, since the restoration of art (especially) to Jewish families dispossessed by the Nazis is as big a deal as ever, nearly sixty years after Bedford’s book. Her account, which is worldly and humane and as brief a can be, suggests otherwise. Grand pianos, furs, rings — it’s all being sorted out somehow. “Anyone who cares to may walk in and hear; this is the aftermath of what everybody knew, and here it is going on, in living memories. And it as grim and pitiful and unbearable as it ever was.”

The plaintiffs in such cases are represented more often than not by Jewish law firms. Once more, Jewish faces are seen in German courts; Jewish lawyers, move, speak, mix with apparent smoothness. “Morning, Herr Collegue — ” “Morning, dear sir — ” All as before? Better than before? Whatever lies behind — must lie behind — this is a daily reality. (108)

Bedford also goes to Switzerland and to France, providing a very interesting picture of the former and a more perfunctory portrait of the more-familiar French. Along the way, there is an “Austrian Interlude” that I have to read again, because it is so odd and so curiously funny: it’s as if Bedford were humming arias from an imaginary Mozart opera set to the usual Italian libretto by da Ponte, only this time starring Don Basilio.

I’ll wind up by quoting a passage or two from the Swiss section of The Faces of Justice that gave me a good laugh.

Bâle is a very rich canton. There are no poor. Private and public money is spent freely. Taxes are just and not too high. The young are well brought up. God is feared and the family is loved. Crimes against property are committed mainly by psychopaths and foreign workers. Nevertheless the summary courts do not stand idle. The Swiss appear to have a passion, almost equal to the Germans’, for dragging their private rows before the courts. Charges of slander, vilification, back-biting and evil-speaking are forever poured — not reticently — into the patient judge’s ear by waitresses, landlords, van drivers, neighbours and meddling passers-by. (153-4)

And, on the next page:

Then there came a whole group who complained of a messenger boy who would whistle at them when they went out to hang their washing in the yard. The boy said that it was his luncheon hour, and by no means at all of them.

The judge said, “That amounts to an admission, you know.” The boy laughed.

How I hated to finish this book! To make things worse, it’s a very slim reprint (by Quid Pro books, of New Orleans), so its removal from the reading pile didn’t amount to anything.

Other books: The Bad Popes, which you can be sure I’ll be telling you about; an early, and rather short, novel by Fontane that I’m never able to get quite into, whenever I pick it up — its time will come; Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, with its very indecent jacket art a book that cannot be read in public places; the first volume of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which I thought might make a nice bedtime read; Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons, which I must return to or replace on the shelf; Francis Bacon’s Henry VII, a surprisingly legal history of the reign and every bit as demanding as it is interesting (and so not for bedtime); and the latest Granta. Oh — and a real threat to the stability of the book pile unless it’s at the very bottom, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night. Soon to come, Tom Bartlett’s history of Ireland. What’s that book by Nicholson Baker? Fermata? I need that, but not for sex.


Thursday 17th

As I mentioned the other day, I’m reading Eyeless in Gaza, by Aldous Huxley. Discovering it, I ought to say. Discovering it in the now-official sense of reading it for the first time. But also discovering something, by means of rediscovery, something that once seemed familiar but is now amazingly ancient. That would be Huxley’s “novel of ideas” gambit. When I first read Huxley, in the early Seventies, he seemed adult and authoritative; the struggle that he had with reconciling passion with reason, the beast with the angel, was genuinely agonized, and informed by an Arnoldian study of all the best that has been thought and written. (Matthew Arnold was a collateral forebear.) Not only was Huxley not bound by European prejudices, moreoever, but he was keen to propose a third way, that of mysticism. He was greatly attracted to the dream of merging the self in the cosmos, as his two “psychedlic” books, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, attest. But for all the big ideas, Huxley now comes across as just another twentieth-century Brit dogged by irritated impatience with the limitations of his physical and psychosocial frame.

And who would not have been irritated and impatient? As I read the non-idea passages of Eyeless in Gaza, I’m reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Huxley’s style is differerent (it’s not so hierophantic), but his picture of the late Victorian world of his (and Compton-Burnett’s) childhood shares a certain heavy deadliness, as if every cup of tea were laced with soul-killing toxins. Stiff and stuffy, it is a time of frowns, of discomforts (those clothes!) and dissatisfactions. I rather enjoy these bits, because it is by no means disagreeable to be reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett if you do not actually have to read her. But one must also bear in mind that it was the experience of these buttoned-up atmospheres that made all the young men so thrilled to rush off to fight in 1914.

Owing to a childhood illness, Huxley’s eyesight was severely limited; he could not drive a car. But even had he been completely able-bodied, I doubt that, for all his loving-kindness for humanity, he should ever have been much help around the house. His clever but devoted wife, née Maria Nys, managed everything for him. I have to wonder, though, if she proof-read Eyeless in Gaza. I am certain that, had she had a look at it, Sybille Bedford would have complained about the following:

One isn’t lazy about what one loves. The problem is: how to love? (Once more the word is suspect — greasy from being fingered by generations of Stigginses. There ought to be some way of dry-cleaning and disinfecting words. Love, purity, goodness, spirit — a pile of dirty linen waiting for the laundress. How, then, to — not “love,” since it’s an unwashed handkerchief — feel, say, persistent affectionate interest in people? How to make the anthropogical approach to them…? Not easy to answer. (11)

You will be wondering who the Stigginses are. So was I. A light search revealed a learned-looking text in which the Stigginses were grouped with those oleaginous religious pooh-bahs, Austen’s Mr Collins and Trollope’s Obadiah Slope. I think that we can leave it there for the moment.

My concern for the Stigginses evaporated the moment I came across “dry-cleaning” and then “disinfecting.” What was wrong with “laundering,” I objected? Why introduce all those chemicals to the problem of eliminating adulterants? And then came the “dirty linen,” followed quickly by the “laundress.” My jaw fell; I didn’t know where to begin. With “laundress,” of course, Huxley inadvertently acknowledged my objection, but was he aware that laundresses do not oversee the dry-cleaning process? Most of all, did Huxley know that linen is not usually dry-cleaned? Laundering does not degrade linen, as it does, say, wool. All textiles wear out eventually, and cleaning processes of any kind hasten deterioration, but laundering makes linen soft and supple long before it frays it.

Aside from this domestic incongruity, there is the sheerly literary awkwardness of bringing together a snazzy new technology — the replacement of chlorinated for petroleum-based solvents made dry-cleaning much safer in the 1930s — and a venerable (if “unmentionable”) conceit, used by Voltaire if not earlier.

Finally, there is the confusion of following the mention of the laundress and the “pile of dirty linen” with the suggestion that laundry isn’t possible: love, that “unwashed handkerchief,” must be discarded. For Huxley is indeed assuming that there is no way to dry-clean, disinfect, or even launder words that have been soiled by overuse. I make no such assumption. I believe that you can nurse weakened words back to health by using them sparingly and deliberately, and exhorting others to do the same.

I reject, furthermore, the notion that human beings constitute a jumble of paradoxes and design flaws. They are not fallen angels. (There are no angels.) Nor is it intelligent to regard them as highly-gifted animals, because those differentiating gifts are so extraordinary that to overlook them in the search for a common nature is to commit a category mistake. We are what we are, and if we’re confused so much of the time, that is because we can create things that we don’t really understand. (Consider the smartphone.) We are perhaps too fond of keeping our options open, but then, having any options at all is a rather recent development in human history. Why should we be good at it?

“One isn’t lazy about what one loves.” What is that pearl of wisdom supposed to mean? Also: says who? “The problem is: how to love?” Is Huxley looking for a manual? I throw up my hands: men! Dry-cleaning the linen, indeed. Maria Huxley, we’re assured by Sybille Bedford, was a very busy woman.


The strangest feeling overcame me as I typed out Huxley’s words: the awful recognition that it was with this sort of twaddle that I filled volume after volume of my youthful journals. Anthony Beavis, the Eyeless in Gaza character whose diary the passage comes from, writes better and more coherently than I did, but the emptiness of the activity is the same. The problem with asking how to love? within the confines of a page in a book at a desk in a room that hardly anyone will ever see — nay, that one will almost certainly never revisit — is that talk of love makes no sense in solitude. Talk of love in general terms is never more than decorative. Love is a state that exists, with highly varying qualia, only between actual human beings. You cannot talk about love without having at least one other specific person in mind. How to love my wife after ten years of marriage? How to love someone from the other side of the tracks? How to love my parents? How to love this beautiful woman who has nothing to say? How not to love the guy who beats me up?

Like Aldous Huxley, I grew up in an affluent world of superficially similar people. Experience was both narrow and universal. It’s no wonder that, when we took up our journals, we assumed that we knew everything that there was to know about the world, except how to bear it. Being intelligent above the common run (the common run of this affluent world, that is), we set out to imitate the philosophers: we would work out the big problems by writing about them. Eventually, I realized that I was treading water in a limitless sea of verbiage. Huxley, more bold perhaps, polished his ratiocinations into books. His answer to the question of love was to be the devoted recipient of Maria’s care, while indulging in affairs with other women. I’ll bet that there were times when Maria Huxley wanted to send Aldous to the dry-cleaner’s.


My persistent cold, which seems to be a vast subterranean network of roots that now and then puts up mushrooms of congestion and misery, brought me low on Tuesday, but relief was at hand. 15 March was the release date for the videos of Brooklyn and The Big Short, and Amazon contrived to put the DVDs in my hands just after lunch. So I watched one and then the other. Brooklyn first, of course — and a good choice it was, too, to reserve The Big Short for second, because I lost about five pounds in salty tears watching Brooklyn and might well gone on weeping without something acerbic to change my tune. Both films are remarkable, but I don’t want to say much more than that right now, because yesterday —

Yesterday, I walked by the Video Room on my way home from the dermatologist. Or rather, I walked in, and then walked out with a copy of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which I watched as soon as I got home. During the years when I went to the movies almost every Friday, I should probably have seen Steve Jobs in the theatre, because if you go every week you have to sit through more than a few good films that are nevertheless not, at least in advance, compelling. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m trying to determine whether Steve Jobs is compelling — compelling enough to add to my library. Will I watch it again? Well, yes; I’d like to. But after the third time, would I be done with it? I can’t tell. The film has all the morbid attraction of a highway accident. You look for bodies. And you think, this man will die in 2011. But you also wonder: what is this movie about?

Steve Jobs asks you to look forward and backward. It moves forward, jumping from product presentations in 1984, 1988, and 1998, while jumping back to a few earlier moments in time. The formula is a Hollywood ancient, a sort of triple-play backstager: the moment Jobs (Michael Fassbender) walks onstage to pitch the latest marvel, the screen garbles or fades to black and we move on, for another twenty or thirty minutes of pre-game drama. Each time, Jobs has to confront three antagonists: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the computer engineer who actually designed the first Apple products; Lisa, the daughter whom he is so reluctant to recognize (played by three actresses over time, with Katherine Waterston appearing as her mother in 1984 and 1988); and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the professional executive whom Jobs hired and who fired Jobs. At Jobs’s side throughout is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). It is unclear what her job is, but she is clearly the only person who can make Steve Jobs do things that he doesn’t want to do. With good-hearted opportunism, Hoffman will play whatever role the situation requires, from dutiful personal assistant to stern grandmother. Kate Winslet must have had a ball, and at least she won at the Golden Globes.

With Wozniak and Lisa, Jobs is challenged by the demand that he settle old scores. It is with Scully that Jobs himself is the subject of the discussion. Scully, evidently a father figure of sorts at the beginning of his relationship with Jobs, is particularly interested in Jobs’s way of dealing with his adoption — by far the richest story line unspooled in this film, and I think that I can say that even though I had every reason, as an adopted person, to find it the most interesting part of Steve Jobs. Scully asks, “Why did you feel rejected? Why didn’t you feel selected?” Ha. I might say that I could write a book about that question, but it will probably be nothing longer than a chapter. The answer in Jobs’s case turns out to have been chilling: he was selected and rejected. Because his birth mother contested his placement with the Jobs family, his adoptive mother withheld her unqualified love, lest the child be taken away and her heart broken. That certainly explains a lot.

It explains a lot of Steve Jobs’s legendary indifference to the feelings of others. But why, really, do we care? By the time he died, Steve Jobs was famous for inventions that are only hinted at, and only once, in Danny Boyle’s movie. The Mac, NeXT, and the iMac have been consigned to the museum of technology. The Power Books and the portable devices that are so much with us are yet to come when the movie ends. I suspect that keeping these familiar products offscreen is part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s strategy for likening Steve Jobs to a rock star, a man who got onstage and killed the people. The movie leaves us all aware that the best is yet to come. And the final episode, set in 1998, seems to wrap up the squabbles. Scully is at peace, Lisa realizes that her father really does love her (a Rosebud moment), and Wozniak walks away, disappointed, presumably forever. Clear sailing ahead for Steve! Aside from the liver problem, that is.

“I play the orchestra,” Jobs tells Wozniak at the second encounter. They are standing in the pit at the San Francisco Opera, and Jobs credits the remark to Seiji Ozawa, who conducted in San Francisco for years but also appeared regularly at Tanglewood, which is where Jobs says Ozawa explained the conductor’s job — what, to be precise, distinguishes a conductor from a metronome. I should like to see a movie that explores this conceit, for it seems to be the one really interesting thing about Steve Jobs, more interesting by far than the innovations that he oversaw. As Wozniak sneeringly implies, Jobs was not really a “computer person.” He never learned how to make computers, or to make them do any particular thing. But he knew how to talk to the people who could do these things. He was, in a sense, the ideal customer, ideal not from the fabricator’s point of view (hardly that) but as a customer. He could have anything that he wanted, anything that he could dream up. As I see it, this virtually godlike power would play a much greater role in setting up the “reality distortion field” that Jobs was said (by Hoffman?) to inhabit than any adoption traumas.

What made Steve Jobs so interesting? It can’t have been bad behavior merely. Everyone knows who Bill Gates is, but I suspect that far fewer people know about his privileged background than know about Jobs’s more troubled one. Gates is gifted and clever, more knowledgeable than Jobs about the tech side and far cannier about business. But this extraordinary superstructure seems to rest upon the foundation of an ordinary guy. Steve Jobs’s foundation was daemonic: he vibrated, or so it seems, at superhuman frequencies.

If I am not a computer person myself, I am especially not an Apple person. I have an iPhone for one reason only: it facilitates FaceTime visits with my family in San Francisco. (My family is, decidedly, Apple people.) I no longer have in iPad; indeed, I have two tablets but rarely use either. And I do use the phone almost exclusively as a phone. The odd text; checking the weather — that’s it for me. I spend a lot of time at a computer with three screens. That is “work.” The rest of the time, I’m not connected. Perhaps I’m too old. I gave it a try, the new, seamless way of living, and decided that it was not a good thing for me. I treasure my traditional private life, a life that is spent apart, with family and friends, or alone. I don’t want, in the words of an infamous ad campaign, to make the world my living room. I think that it’s a mistake to conduct your private life in public, to text absent friends while dining with present ones. There is a terrible confusion here that I expect future generations will sort out. Since I probably won’t live that long, the experiment doesn’t interest me.

Although Steve Jobs isn’t the movie that I’d like to see about this remarkable man, it shows, with a lurid fascination, a way of being private at all times. Horrifying!


Friday 18th

As I was reading along in Eyeless in Gaza, I came across a line of German poetry that, without thinking, I rattled off with passable fluency. Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichniss [sic]. I could even sing it. (Mahler’s version; I can never recall the Liszt, although it is very beautiful.) I knew that the verse was Goethe, from the second part of Faust. But what did it mean? I really hadn’t the foggiest. Something about illusion. I looked up the words in the dictionary, but that got me nowhere. In a Wikipedia page on Liszt’s Faust Symphony (Mahler used the same chunk of sublimity at the end of his Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand”), the line is translated thus: “Everything transitory is only an allegory.” I don’t know; you tell me. The stanza ends with the equally inexplicable bit about how the Eternal Feminine draws us upward. It’s all very beautiful in German; it might be beautiful in any foreign language. But never, oh never, in English.

I had to set Eyeless in Gaza aside; its pretentiousness was keeping me awake. I turned to Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which is far more readable than Huxley’s novel. I keep waiting for it to become dry in the French manner, but it never does. I believe that I can actually date the purchase of this two-volume history to 1995, and even to a particular bookstore: the Quill, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was there with Kathleen, apparently the only husband that an alumna of the a capella group, the Smithereens, thought to bring along to its first reunion (marking its fiftieth). I loved the Quill and bought quite a few books there.

I was also, at the time, getting serious about understanding “the Middle Ages.” Somewhere around that time, I acquired Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book which argues that there never really was a feudal period, strictly speaking; feudal concepts, in Reynolds’s view, were elaborated by lawyers in Northern Italy just as the need for feudal arrangements — knight service and all that — was beginning to die down. If this sounds strange to you, or somewhat perverse, the reason for the lawyers’ interest was their clients’ desire to nail down property rights that, owing to very poor record-keeping in earlier centuries, were not very clear. I believe that Reynolds is quite right. The lawyers were only doing what historians have done ever since: they were imposing a retrospective coherency.

Does this mean that Marc Bloch was wrong to take “the feudal society” seriously enough to investigate its workings in five hundred pages of small print? I’ll see, won’t I. Meanwhile, I was struck by something that Bloch points out on page 75 of the Chicago paperback. Alone in Europe, England governed itself in its own language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is true that this came to an end with the Conquest, after which everything was in Latin for a while; what Bloch neglects to mention is that Latin, the official language on the Continent until well into the Renaissance, did not take hold in England for very long. A hundred years after the Conquest, a good deal of legal business was being done in Norman French. Consider the names of two of Henry II’s most notable possessory writs (real-estate claims), Mortdancestor and Novel Disseisin. Two centuries later, “law French” was firmly established as the language of English courts. I’ve never been able to figure out quite when it was abandoned, but I suspect that the use of law French (aside from references, quips, and quotes) did not survive the tumult of the Wars of the Roses. I have always loved the transitional judgment, concerning the law of nuisance (of all things): “Le noisomeness de le stench est plus que l’utilite de la use.”

Norman French transformed Anglo Saxon from a harsh Teutonic dialect into something vastly more sophisticated, a language, in my view, without a counterpart anywhere else. The French is not a dressing; it goes much deeper than that. It pervades English so extensively that there are rhythmic safeguards that prevent its taking over. In Chaucer, you can still see the French bits, which stick out plentifully. By Shakespeare’s time, French elements are so naturalized that many of them don’t seem foreign even to us, reading centuries later. We have two words in English for many ordinary things, and a great part of any writer’s style is his or her peculiar weave of Teutonic and Latinate words and phrases. English remains a Teutonic language, but only because it isn’t anything else; to describe its difference from other European languages, I should borrow an image from geology and call it metamorphic rather than sedimentary.

Geography is destiny: England owes its peculiarities to its isola-tion. Its language and its institutions have evolved without serious interruption for nearly a thousand years. This cannot be said of any other European country. At the very least, almost all the nations of the Continent were overhauled by Napoleon’s conquests; no matter how reactionary the government of any country might be thereafter, its leaders were afflicted by the need to reform and to streamline. The threat of revolution was always at hand, and often realized. England reformed, too, of course, but never dramatically. In 1832, the franchise was extended, and Parliamentary seats were more genuinely representative of populations; further reforms continued this trend. But Parliament remained Parliament, and the Prime Minister continued to be the head of the leading Parliamentary party. Nobody tinkered with the idea of installing a popularly-elected president. Nobody has. In the 1920s, the legal system was overhauled, but in a backstage manner; the leading players in a trial still wear wigs. England has a knack for changing the foundations while leaving appearances intact; on the Continent, it is just the other way round.

From these cloudy ruminations I draw an explanation for a curious phenomenon: the English are much better at narrative history than anybody else, and English history has a wider, general readership. It is not entirely a scholarly enterprise, and it is not aimed altogether at students. Why? Because English history is so pleasingly continuous, or at least it seemed to be in the Nineteenth Century, when modern traditions of writing history were germinated. It is only recently, with the depressive “realization” that Britain is no longer a superpower, and not a genuine partner of the United States in some “special relationship,” that the glum view of John Le Carré has taken hold. I don’t mean to complain, or to advocate waving flags, but only to say that English historiography was born in a climate of extreme self-satisfaction. Since the overarching story was so magnificent — a monarchy that knew how to relinquish control (as if), an empire upon which the sun never set (and whose books might be regarded as having been cooked by said sun), and a political system that was as free and open to all as Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — there could be no harm in chuckling now and then at the nation’s dependence on muddling through. Indeed, the moral of English history seems to be, Whatever you do, don’t use your head. Just tell us what really happened.

After all, everything transitory is only an allegory. <?>


While Huxley resorts to German, his admirer Sybille Bedford turns to French. Understandably: she spent most of her young life (if not her childhood) in France. Specifically, however, she turns to Racine, to a line from Phèdre to be precise. I have a distinct recollection of her doing so in Jigsaw but did not make a note of it. In The Faces of Justice, it occurs on page 157 of the Quid Pro edition. This is the beginning of a short but intriguing chapter about the daughter of a great French industrial fortune, a woman denied her inheritance by her brothers because she has neither married nor remained at home (“feudal society” still at work, circa 1960). This lady, whom Bedford calls Mlle Z, has come to Switzerland to try to recoup some bonds held there in her late father’s account. Bedford adapts Racine to describe this would-be heiress as “la province française entière à son but attachée.” I won’t translate this, because I’d just have to translate the translation, but the inspiration for the quip is Phèdre’s statement of the fatal nature of her attachment to Hyppolite.

Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée:
C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
(I, iii)

The image of Venus as a raptor, gripping her prey (Phèdre), is something that I have not encountered anywhere else in art — which may be proof that I don’t get around enough. Without being graphic, the line conjures flesh punctured by talons: it’s all in the sytax, which puts the prey before the “attachment.” Bedford’s borrowed plumes don’t quite sit atop Mlle Z’s head, however; far from French Provincial, Mlle Z appears to be somewhat bohemian. What seems to fuel the jest is Mlle Z’s inability to afford Parisian chic.


I am in the middle of watching a Nederlander film, Oorlogsgeheimen (Secrets of War, 2014). I picked it up at the Video Room the other day, thinking that it might be good to listen to some Nederlands. Actually, I am near the climax of the film. I had to turn it off last night, because Kathleen was still out, having dinner with a client, and I hadn’t heard from her. I was very worked up. Imagine a Mark Twain boy’s-own-adventure story, but with Nazis. Nazis rounding people up and putting them in cattle cars — that sort of thing. The movie is set in a Catholic village near Maastricht. Two boys, Lambert and Tuur, are best friends. But Lambert’s father is a collaborator, and Tuur’s father is in the Resistance. Tuur has a demented old auntie who speaks her incontinent mind, which is not full of warm thoughts about “Krauts.” Tuur himself has trouble keeping his voice down. He’s somewhere between ten and twelve, I’d say, and the War is very exciting for him. He likes having to run to the bomb shelter — he actually smiles when the ground shakes. That’s at the beginning of the film. One day, a new girl is introduced to the class, and unless your brain is a turnip you see at once that she is Jewish. Inevitably, she sets up a rivalry between the two friends, and at the moment when I had to stop watching, it seemed that Lambert’s jealousy might well bring ruin and worse to the girl and to Tuur and his family. I shall find out presently. The movie is exciting because it keeps the tempo of boy’s life, with slack longueurs punctuated by attacks of frenzy. It is very clear to the adult viewer that Tuur has no idea how dangerous the Nazi officers really are; his parents have tried to protect him from their terror. To no avail, of course. The comic-book pace of the action is horribly ironic: this is no action story.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Just a Patient
March 2016 (II)

Monday, March 7th, 2016

Monday 7th

Daniel Martin is a puzzling book to read in 2016. The world in which it is set is now forty years old at the latest, but there is little sense of history. By “history,” in this fictional connection, I mean the sense of present grinding into past — in a word, change. Things, in Daniel Martin, don’t so much change as reveal their essence. The title character and his friends (using the word loosely) exist in an eternal now. Their lives may be cluttered with memories, like crumpled attempts at a first draft, but their youth was a golden age, a time out of time. To remember the golden age is to feel disappointed by everything that followed, and doomed to that disappointment as the inevitable by-product of self-realization.

Here is a metaphor that is dropped in passing. (I am not interested in the “first major success” that is the subject of the paragraph.)

The anatomy of first major success is like the young human body, a miracle only the owner can fully savour — and even then, only at the time.

This is almost perfectly wrong. The young may enjoy their youth, but they are incapable of savoring it; they don’t know enough to make the myriad comparisons that melt into true savor. The sense of the wondrousness of youth does not come until youth is past, and we see it for the first time in those who have followed us into youth. We know that they don’t, that they can’t, appreciate what they’ve got. All that they’re aware of possessing is the audacity of youth, the license to reach out and take things. They have put the timidity of childhood behind them and are ready to run risks. But they haven’t the equipment for assaying those risks. They don’t know, until it’s too late, how much easier it is to hurt some people than others, and they don’t know which ones are going to be hurt.

Youth is a golden age — or has been one in modern times — because no one forgets the shocked delight of discovering autonomy, which may be nothing more than the absence of parents. It is a more or less unchanging experience, shared by almost everyone, but it is stamped by peculiarities that bestow a trumpery uniqueness.

Because I am puzzled, I am writing very slowly. Part of me wants to be brisk: Daniel Martin is a badly dated book. The author-narrator dispenses a lot of non-wisdom. Sometimes he merely blusters.

It took some years for Dan to realize that the total failure in England to develop a decent commercial movie industry, let alone something better than a constipated trickle of serious film-makes, is at least partly due to our unerring flair for backing bad directors … or to the corollary notion that some semi-illiterate cameraman or ingratiating phony must know more about reproducing life than anyone else. (153)

Consider the string of extreme adjectives: total, constipated, unerring, semi-literate, ingratiating. This could be Norma Desmond talking. There is absolutely no substance in these remarks. It is mere bile, and the all-too-familiar bile of movie writers at that.

Part of me is intoxicated by the sheer readability of the thing. Of Oxford:

No town is further, when it wants to be, from the tame conversational norms of the rest of middle-class England, with all its conditioned evasions and half-finished sentences, its permanent poised flight into the inarticulate. I had lived for so long in exile, in a world whose only ‘test” was one’s degree of craftsmanship in a given context, and aeons from this tiny society that lived essentially, for all its outward academic orientations, by ideal and abstract — and frequently absurd — notions of personal truth and behavior.

I had also, behind the apparent deference, felt obscurely condescended to; the way intellectuals will condescend to peasants, make all kinds of urbane adjustments for their ignorance. (176)

I agree with very little; much of it seems almost violently incorrect. But I do not really complain. I keep turning pages, pages that I have already turned on two occasions. I read Daniel Martin when it came out in paper, and then again shortly after law school. The paperback cover was deep green, and I thought of it Daniel Martin as a green novel, as who wouldn’t after that profoundly rural first chapter, so loaded with unfamiliar terms and arcane agricultural practices that it might have been taken from Keats’s Grecian urn — had the urn been green. It is a big, literate, realistic, almost Victorian novel, all the more so for being studded with situations that no Victorian could publish. (It seems ridiculous now, but Swinging London was really just the final (but successful) attempt to smash the staid English ethos that had come into focus during the old queen’s long reign.) It is sophisticated but not difficult — well, not difficult after the first two or three chapters, which can be as thorny as Sleeping Beauty’s forest, and for the same reasons. Having made it clear that he is not going to consdescend to us peasants, John Fowles proceeds with his stock-taking, which would be clinical if he were not so poetical.


And I keep comparing Daniel Martin (the character) to Éamon Redmond, the central figure in The Heather Blazing. The two books share a similar fundamental structure, as chapters set in the present alternate with chapters that glimpse at the progressively recent past, but their protagonists make them utterly unalike. It is easy to imagine Éamon’s response to Fowles’s book — and clear that it would not be verbal.

I cannot get over how familiar Éamon is to me. He doesn’t remind me of anyone in particular, just half the student body of Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate. So many boys were just like him: quietly well-mannered, mild, diligent, stoical, and determined to do well in the world in a way that marked no distinction between family expectation and personal ambition. It was the last part that kept me at my distance, and kept them in a generalized blur. I was fearful about doing well in the world. I was pretty sure that I could not compete; already, I knew that I could not keep my mind on the demands of an external challenge. I might be very good at something, but I should be good in my own way, disregarding the conventions that facilitate apprehension. In some obscure but persistent way, I could not conform. Complicating things further, I did not appear to be a non-conformist. It was like colorblindness, a drawback that you can’t detect in another person without amassing a lot of incidental evidence. I was forever letting interested and encouraging professors down.

And I was almost certain that compliance was corrupting. Eventually, it would become a habit that forestalled judgment. Colm Tóibín drops occasional hints that Éamon’s career has been corrupt ever since he agreed to study law, at the request of Seán Lemass no less. The problem seems to have been that the legal profession was in the pocket of Fine Gael; Fianna Fáil, Éamon’s family’s party, needed to challenge that hegemony, so that it could work with instead of against the lawyers. So Éamon became a barrister and was given Constitutional cases by the (Fianna Fáil) government; eventually, or actually rather early in his career, he was made a judge.

At the beginning of the second part of The Heather Blazing, Éamon is about to deliver an opinion that he knows will be controversial. In a small Irish town, a student at a Catholic school has gotten pregnant. She has not only been expelled, but forbidden to return after the birth of the child. Her presence in the school, the principal testifies, would be counter to its “ethos.” The question before Éamon is whether this “ethical” problem warrants depriving a gifted student of a good education. He himself, we are assured, has no personal stake in the religious underpinnings of the “ethos”; he has completely lost his religious faith. In other words, the ethos no longer has any meaning for him; it is just the way things are. But that has nothing to do with how he envisions his role.

He listened carefully to the counsel’s submission about various articles of the Constitution, but there was no argument about facts or truth, guilt or innocence. In the end he was not the legal arbiter, because there were few legal issues at stake. Most of the issues raised by the case were moral: the right of an ethos to prevail over the right of an individual. Basically, he was being asked to decide how life should be conducted in a small town. He smiled to himself at the thought and shook his head. (88)

And there is no question about how, as an adherent of Fianna Fáil, he ought to decide: for the “ethos,” of course. And yet Éamon is troubled by doubts. When he actually reads his opinion, he is sure that it is correct, well-written and -argued; he knows that his colleagues will approve. But when he looks elsewhere, when he takes his eyes off the pages, he is not so sure. He knows that many Irish people, including members of his own family, will disagree. He quails a bit at the prospect of this contention, and when it does break out he resorts to using his authority as a judge to silence it. But he does his duty. It is all so brilliantly written that you don’t know whether to admire him or to despise him. You manage to do both, because that is the only way to respond to the scrupulously corrupt, when they do unpleasant things no matter what the personal cost.

I came across an essay online, by a professor at the University of Manchester, Liam Harte, on the role of the marine in Colm Tóibín’s writing. Harte’s discussion of The Heather Blazing is interesting at two points for off-topic commentary. First, Harte mentions Éamon’s “emotional autism.” Second, he describes the speech that Éamon delivers at a Fianna Fáil rally in Enniscorthy:

This proves to be a defining moment in his life, which leads directly to his being singled out as a future instrument of Fianna Fáil power, a destiny he duly fulfills when he becomes a state prosecutor and eventually a judge. But it is also the moment in which Eamon Redmond becomes the mouthpiece for a moribund, patriarchal conservatism, parrotting a received revolutionary ideology that is shown to have ossified into platitudinous orthodoxy. It is the rhetoric of de Valera himself, who, instead of addressing urgent social and economic issues of the day, delivers a stock eulogy to Enniscorthy as “one of the sacred towns of this island […], which has ever kept the flame of nationhood alight, even in darkest times.”

Needless to say, Colm Tóibín would never put this so bluntly. He leaves it up to the reader to see Éamon’s “platitudinous orthodoxy” for what it is. Having read my Irish history books, I was able to date the scene to the 1951 election, clinched not only by Éamon’s age but by de Valera’s as well. (He’ll be seventy next year, someone tells Éamon.) I could measure Éamon’s determination to get ahead in the world by his ability to write and then to memorize a speech so at odds with Ireland’s social and economic needs. On the first two readings, I distantly sensed something “off” about the speech, but for the most part I saw the favorite son doing his family proud. Now I felt the depth to which Éamon’s corruption was rooted in his family.

As to the “emotional autism,” this must refer to the unhappiness that Carmel, Éamon’s wife, expresses at two points in the novel. In the earlier (which comes after the later in the narrative), Carmel is pregnant. She complains of Éamon’s remoteness; she feels that he doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t even hear her. Nor does he share himself. The passage is a bitter echo of what we have already heard from the much older Carmel. In the first stage of the illness that will kill her, this older woman makes the same complaint. What she also says at that time is that she blames herself for having tolerated his reserve. She used to admire it, but she learned that it was wrong “to want [him] like that.” (155)

I found myself surprised to be taking Éamon’s side. Colm Tóibín’s side as well, I suspect.


Tuesday 8th

Which is more important in everyday life, what we believe or how we behave? I myself have no doubt of the answer. The question, which nobody was asking, occurred to me as I mulled over a passage from Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, which I’ve just read for the second time.

They had known each other for some years. They moved in a milieu of highly educated, upper-class, post-war young, who had lost ideals and aims but retained their manners. (And the scruples which these comprise.) They had turned — privately: they were no socialists or reformers — against patriotism, militarism (that above all), religion, bourgeois values; they still believed in individual good behaviour. They wanted a good time […but] Unlike Evelyn Waugh’s Bright and Young they wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving unpaid bills or burning cigarettes on other people’s carpets. (182)

Bedford is describing what came to be called the “Lost Generation” in English; the case might be made that, when push came to shove, good behaviour was not enough to check the fascist tide. Dealing with Nazis, perhaps, required a new set of manners, one shaped by public convictions. I don’t know. I was thinking about how well the passage described me, and a lot of people whom I know, with the Summer of Love and its attendant seasons of countercultural excitement standing in for World War I. There would be only one item out of alignment: we did not reject “bourgeois values” so much as retune them. Particularly when it came to raising children, we believed in safety first, followed immediately by education.

The old bourgeois idea of education involved the pursuit of credentials and the development of a personal patina. The credentials vested some objective authority in the managers of business that bourgeois men usually became, while the patina of culture and worldliness conveyed an aura that, if not actually aristocratic, did not clash with high-born manners. Our idea of education was geared more toward self-realization, which usually involves having a good time. Fais ce que voudras. I now believe that the older view of education was better. When I was young, anything like patina was scoffed at — clearly phoney. But it seems that patina is not a mask but a kind of semipermeable membrane that permits sophisticated knowledgeability to flow back and forth between the individual and the environment.

A social crisis may be defined as a moment when belief displaces behavior as the more important thing. Otherwise, belief is, or ought to be, private and personal; it’s behavior that counts. Doing certain things, refraining from others, setting an example most of all: these are the elements of primate sociability. We are constantly checking up on each other, constantly measuring ourselves against others. We want to fit in, but without altogether disappearing, and other people show us how it’s done. Imagine two halls: in one, everyone is disputing the most important ethical principles, while, in the other, everyone is trying to make everyone else comfortable. It always amazes me that so many people choose the first room. Don’t they know about the second? Or do they truly despise comfort? Perhaps they are simply bad listeners.

I knew when I began re-reading Jigsaw that I would be upset when it came to an end, and I am. I want to know more. That is why I have just ordered Quicksands, Bedford’s third and final memoir. At the bottom of Bedford’s Wikipedia page, there’s a link to the podcast of her appearance on the famous BBC radio show, Desert Island Discs, in 1998. I clicked through and listened to it. Bedford shared a lot of Mozart, along with a bit of Beethoven and Schubert — oh, and Bach. All very proper. She sounded like the older and slightly odder sister of the princess that Wendy Hiller plays in Murder on the Orient Express very plummy, with a light Ruritanian accent. Bedford talked at one point about the importance of love and the risk of jealous misery, but it was clear that she would not allow herself to be induced by these thrills and ills to make scenes. Scenes in front of third parties, anyway.

Bedford’s life story was a charmed one, and we’re to be grateful that she taught herself to write about it so well. Her memoirs are only cosmetically fictional; she compresses and edits, nips and tucks, all in the interest of telling a coherent story. But she does not, I think, shape her material to emphasize the remarkable events. She acknowledges her luck at every stage. Sometimes — rarely — it is bad luck. Certainly few things could be worse than dealing with the drug addiction of a close relative (in this case, her mother). But for the most part it is very good luck, and the best bit of good luck in her life was the friendship of Aldous and Maria Huxley, who took up residence in her tiny seaside town, Sanary-sur-Mer, a few years after she herself arrived. Ordinarily, the advantages of such a friendship would be contacts, doors opened, but in the case of the Huxleys it was more immediate. They were generous to Sybille and her mother when money was tight. They got Bedford married and out of France on the eve of the War, and they took her with them to the United States in 1940. Because Bedford’s mother was Jewish (or partly), and because Bedford herself had published an anti-Nazi piece, she was on the Gestapo hit-list, and she might well have perished in the Holocaust had it not been for the Huxley’s constant material support.

On Desert Island Discs, Bedford cited a maxim of the Huxley’s: you must give people what they need before they have to ask for it. This is the summit on which listening truly merges with observation, with paying attention, with being aware. You hear a request before it is spoken.

I like to think that I’m a good listener, but I have my lapses, and one of them came up a few weekends ago, when Kathleen asked if we could “have some jazz.” I had been lost in the development of two monster playlists, one lasting well over a day and the other, two. I was in the middle of tinkering with one of them and telling Kathleen how happy I was with how it was going when she made her modest request. She was not complaining. She quickly added, “I don’t mean right now.” I didn’t blush, but I felt crass and derelict. Kathleen has often said, over the years, that jazz on the weekends makes her feel cozy and safe. I had stopped listening. I got good at compiling classical playlists to her taste. I had compiled a few jazz playlists that were limited to the mellow classics, to musicians like Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. This wasn’t what Kathleen had in mind. She wanted to hear jazz that was new when she was young. Herbie Hancock. The Crusaders. John Coltrane. Miles Davis. Sometimes mellow but usually not. To me, a lot of this jazz is difficult to listen to in the same way that self-consciously “dissonant” classical music is: I can’t grasp the form, and therefore don’t know where I am (beginning, middle, or end?). There is also a lot of noise: squawks, rushed scales, intrusive drumming. I don’t quite dislike the jazz that Kathleen asked to hear, but I pushed it aside over the years, as we stopped listening to CDs directly and took up connecting iPods to speakers.

Several months ago, Kathleen asked me to play some albums that she hadn’t heard in a long time. Quite a few of them were already uploaded onto iPods (we have two big ones and six or seven Nanos), and I uploaded a few more. In the process, I realized that it really does make sense to listen to albums as albums, rather than shuffling among their contents. I saw that this was why I had stopped listening to Keith Jarrett. Nearly a dozen of his Standards albums, on which he’s assisted by Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, comprised their own playlist, but shuffling through this material for more than an hour gave me a musical headache. I now realized that this way of listening was incorrect. The albums were as composed as the individual improvisations, by a sense of what followed what. And listening to Jarrett’s intensely analytical takes on the standards that he used to play in hotel lounges when he was a young musician is not something to be done at great length — any more than, except for some special occasion, you would play all of Beethoven’s late quartets in a row, or five Mahler symphonies. Such overexposure is not enlightening but corrosive.

From my first encounter with iTunes, as an application for managing a library of MP3 files with a view to uploading music onto an iPod, I have kept classical music separate from everything else. After my Radio Days experience, I don’t have to think about how to organize a library of classical music. Organizing everything else is not so easy. Jazz, for historical reasons, is particularly difficult. Does Mildred Bailey belong with Miles Davis or Jo Stafford? What do you do with Julien Clerc when he sings American standards? (One of my favorite CDs, it’s called Studio.) Pop can be just as difficult, although it usually isn’t: pop shuns the very possibility of difficulty. (And yet: Steely Dan?) In any case, the CDs are filed separately, classical in the book room and everything else, along with all the DVDs, in the bedroom. The MP3 files are loaded onto different computers, too. Everything that isn’t classical is currently stored on a large, heavy laptop that we call “the wheezer,” because no one (included our tech god) can figure out how to keep the fan from whirring into motion, slowing down, and then whirring again — constantly. I no longer use this machine for anything else.

Since Kathleen’s request, I’ve been spending time with the wheezer on at least one day of every weekend. Lots of CDs have not been uploaded at all, so there is always a small stack of them to process. I’ve already used up all the space on an old Nano that was for a long time tucked away and never used. Now I’m toying with buying a big iPod and putting everything on it. Everything.

I do know that it will be easier to listen to Kathleen if, every now and then, she hands me a newly-acquired CD. She won’t have to tell me what to do with it.

I am trying very hard to behave better in another area, too. When I am thwarted by things — when I can’t open a plastic package easily, when wrapped-up bits of food tumble out of the overcrowded refrigerator, when cords coil into knots and wall sockets can’t be reached without bodily contortions — I tend to lose my temper. The root of the problem is almost invariably my impatience, my wish to be done with tiresome things as quickly as possible. The effect is a lot of unpleasant noise. Bad language, blasphemy (baroque at times), an inclination to slam. When I am calm and happy about what I’m doing — cooking, say — I can steer through these difficulties without upset; but when I am doing something else — when I am writing, but momentarily occupied by filling my water-bottle with ice cubes, furious that the ice trays, made by Rubbermaid, produce cubes too large to fit into the mouth of the water-bottle, also a Rubbermaid product; when in short I should rather not be in the kitchen at all — I allow the recalcitrance of things to become what it cannot really be, a personal affront. The first step in a self-improvement campaign such as this one is to recognize as quickly as possible that one is behaving badly, and that is what I am working on. I talk to myself as if I were a child. Shsh! I say, trying to sound calm. Don’t say those things. It doesn’t matter whether I’m alone or Kathleen is sitting in the next room. Cela ne se fait pas.


Thursday 10th

Something in Daniel Martin reminded me, the other night, to tell Kathleen a story about the taxi ride that took me to the Hospital for Special Surgery for last week’s Remicade infusion.

I am not keen on talking to cab drivers. I try to provide particular details about my destination, and how I’d prefer to reach it, in the preternaturally clear and firm voice of a seasoned and very busy man. Either I encounter an unusual proportion of daydreaming drivers with no axes to grind, or this strategy of mine works, because most rides pass in blessed silence. The downside is that any driver resistant to my anticipatory rebuff is very resistant to it. Some are pissed off by it, while others are encouraged to believe that I am as anti-liberal as they are. I’m surprised to say that last Monday’s quick trip to the hospital gives strong evidence in support of the latter proposition.

The driver, first of all, was an all-American wreck. He was in his forties at least, and he sounded older — more worn down. His still-blond hair was shoulder-length and scraggly, his face was blurred by uneven stubble and unhealthy skin, and his frame was both sinewy and wasted. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that he had survived a serious drug problem, especially when he spoke. I don’t have much experience with addicts, current or rehabbed, and I shouldn’t be presuming to talk about this driver at all if it weren’t for the delicious punch line. But, although sooner or later I could usually process his statements, they were difficult to follow, especially as they were burdened by a belligerence whose aim was unclear. Sometimes, I thought he regarded me as the enemy; sometimes, as a desperately-needed ally. One thing was certain: he was not going to stop talking. Something else seemed likely: he’d become hostile if I refused to engage.

It was the usual stuff: immigrants were ruining the country — every country. Just the other day, he’d had a passenger from Europe who complained about the refugee situation there. I agreed that migration was a problem, but it was complicated, I said, because you can’t just stand by while people to starve to death, nor can you shoot them (yet) for trying to save their own lives. I pointed out that most refugee problems are the consequences of abandoned colonial projects, for which the Western powers were responsible — and it took him a moment or two to process that. When he returned to the ring, as it were, his new topic was welfare, specifically welfare mothers. Surely something should be done about them. It’s complicated, I said, once again; only this time, I could feel something sparkling inside me: my mind was jumping its leash. Ordinarily, this exhilarating sensation happens right here, when I’m writing these entries, and suddenly an unexpected line of argument opens up like a ray of sun that is doubling as a staircase to enlightenment. I don’t think that I have ever experienced it in a taxi.

We had just gotten off the FDR at the 71st Street exit: the ride was nearly at an end, with less than a minute to go. The driver said something to the effect of finding a way to keep welfare recipients from having children, and my reply was out of my mouth before I knew what it would be. “Indeed,” I said (I really did), “it seems to me that abortions ought to be obligatory in such cases — but you’ll never see that happen in this country.” Without making a sound, the driver radiated speechlessness. “Right in here is good,” I said, suggesting that he pull over near the crosswalk to the hospital. As I was swiping the credit card, he said, “Are you a neurosurgeon here?”

O how I beamed. O the abominable conceit of it!

“No,” I sighed, “I’m just a patient.”

Did I really mean it? Kathleen didn’t ask directly; she was probably afraid of what my answer might be. To what extent was I simply pointing out that extreme conservatives could simplify their lives so much if they could only get over their problem with abortion? To what extent was I offering a Swiftian modest proposal, tongue in cheek?

I do know that I was thinking of the children, the children who are born into welfare. And I was thinking of the many prosperous couples who declined to have children while World War II was raging. What kind of a world would they be bringing children into? Consider my old friend Fossil Darling. Once the War was over, his parents right down to business. He was born within a year of V-J day, making him one of the oldest of boomers. (I’m eighteen months younger, but the more significant detail is that the man and the woman who produced me were not married and not about to be.) Nobody told those couples that they couldn’t have children during the War; it was simply a decision that loving, would-be parents made on behalf of might-have-been children. It’s a pity that this reasoning and this discipline do not occur among the poor. It is also perfectly understandable. Poverty is exhausting, and pleasures are few. Nothing is more delightful than a baby. But babies stop being babies pretty quickly, and nothing is sadder than a child blighted by poverty from birth. A few exceptional kids will break through; exceptional people almost always do, no matter what their background. But one of this country’s leading stupidities is its equation of the exceptional with the exemplary.

We ought to be doing everything that we can to minimize poverty. That’s what I should have said to the driver, had I been thinking.


And yet to talk of such things seems a clueless luxury in these troubled times, when the risk of putting a demagogue in the Oval Office is as great as it is. The tide of conservatives who oppose liberal government has not receded, as political tides usually do, but burst all the restraints, and degenerated into an anti-political scourge of the very idea of government, of moderation of any kind. The politicians of the right have finally been overtaken by the bestial mindlessness that they have been feeding for decades. The opportunism of their positions has been exposed, as they themselves ridicule those positions, now that they have been taken up by Donald Trump. They could never come out and say what they were up to. They could never be honest about encouraging bigotry and a profoundly unChristian lack of generosity. Donald Trump is not only being honest about these things, he’s driving voters to fight for them. If those voters have their way, every social transformation of the past fifty years will be undone. I think that their success in this undertaking is unlikely. But their narrative is that of an oppressed people (white men and the women who have to listen to them, in this case) being led out of Egypt and delivered into the Promised Land.

If nothing else, how are these supporters to be managed in the event that Trump’s bid does not prevail?


I often claim not to believe in conspiracy theories. What I mean is that I don’t believe in secret conspiracy theories. Public conspiracies operate, if not “all the time,” then certainly from time to time. They are public in that they are not really hidden. There are no secret handshakes. The code words are not encrypted. Take the memo that Lewis Powell wrote, shortly before he joined the Supreme Court. He called for a judiciary more favorably disposed toward business interests. It’s for that reason that I speak of the Powell Court: even though Powell was never Chief Justice, his philosophy has shaped the Court’s judgments for forty years or more. Powell’s role was not widely known until after his death, but it was a matter of persuasion, not conspiracy. He inspired a generation of young lawyers (members of the Federalist Society) to take a new look at commercial jurisprudence. The results have been disastrous, if you ask me. But it’s hard to say that the pro-business agenda was a secret.

Now I wonder if the same thing isn’t happening with Ayn Rand. Sales of her books are “healthy,” to say the very least. People one knows talk about reading her books, although not much to us, because Kathleen and I radiate an anti-Randian voltage — the force that is with us. But how else to explain Justin Keller’s recent open letter about San Francisco?

The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day. I want my parents when they come visit to have a great experience, and enjoy this special place.

This sort of thing would have been truly unthinkable in the Sixties — Keller would have been tarred and feathered. One might have thought like this, but one mightn’t have said it. As with Donald Trump, however, Keller is merely giving voice to politically incorrect views. He wants to live in Disney World, so why can’t he? Ayn Rand is the Donald Trump of educated people. She is telling them that it is all right to complain, as Keller did, about “riffraff.” (I should have thought that Hollywood killed the use of that word in the Forties.) She inspires them to give a nicer-sounding name to what is plainly a casino economy.

As with the Federalist Society, the spread of Randian politics, while not altogether secret, isn’t noisy enough to generate effective opposition. Young people on the left are tilting at abandoned windmills. Wall Street, Big Pharma — these are not the enemy. And they remain impregnable so long as the enemy is ignored. The enemy is the aristocracy of the exceptional. In today’s world, brains have replaced brawn: you can leave the horse and the armor to your computer avatar. Exceptionally bright, focused people are gathering together, and, if nothing else, they are increasingly determined not to live among us.

The aristocracy of old Europe supported itself by expropriating agricultural revenues. Today’s aristocrats are doing something a little different: they’re preventing the spread of wealth, so that nothing has to be expropriated. They are nevertheless the same kind of rentiers, living off the revenues of intellectual property. As a former screen-writer who never owned her work for the studios, Ayn Rand would be applauding very loudly, were she but still with us.

I’ve written elsewhere about this, about my belief that the ownership of intellectual property ought to vest adamantly in its creator. It is not his to sell. He can rent it out, instead. His heirs, too, might benefit financially for a time, but the right to control the use of intellectual property ought to be extinguished with the creator’s death. To translate this into plainer English, no corporation ought to be allowed to own intellectual property of any kind, save perhaps for the limited exception of brand-names and logos. The use of intellectual property would thus pass into the public domain (although not necessarily for free) much faster than it does now. I should award Ayn Rand the rights to her screenplays but strip the Ayn Rand Institute (or, rather, Leonard Peikoff) of the rights to her novels. (How did Rand manage to let Anthem slip into the public domain?)


Ask me how I felt when I read David Remnick’s leading note in this week’s “Talk of the Town.”

The G.O.P. establishment may be in a state of meltdown, but this process of exploiting the darkest American undercurrents began with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.


I can go back to 2008, although the entry might be a bit difficult to decipher. That would be the first reference to the Southern Strategy on this site, which was inaugurated about a year earlier. More recent mentions of the term, “Southern Strategy,” in 2010 and 2013, do not state Nixon’s exploitation of bigotry as explicitly as I’d like for present purposes. In June 2013, I wrote,

Similarly, the Republican Party has made cynical use of christianists ever since the Nixon Administration. It can happen here.

I may sigh, but I don’t whine. I have always believed, or at least ever since I first heard this nugget of wisdom, that being ahead of your time is just another way of being wrong. (Let’s file this under “Up the Orinoco.”) I understand that anything that I say lacks most of the authority of anything that David Remnick says. But I do wish that that would change. Because the odds against “its happening here” dwindle with time. Before I searched the site, I was sure that I’d mentioned the Southern Strategy more often. That signals to me that I was afraid of talking about it too much. Perhaps I have to get over that.


Friday 11th

Were I so minded, I could start a new Web log, or re-pitch this one, to focus on a life of re-reading books. But first I’d have to come up with a better word for it. This is a problem that I often run up against — needing new words for things — and I must confess that I’m not very good at it. New words occur to me all the time, but I can’t go looking for them. Now that reading things a second or third time has become a regular activity, and not something that happens every now and then, I’m truly unhappy with “re-reading.” I daresay I needn’t say why.

Once upon a time, when books were expensive and scarce, multiple readings were the common ones. “Then read from the treasured volume of thy choice,” as Longfellow put it. That’s how I always remember the quote, which was inscribed on bronze bookends that were handed down to me when I was a boy. What Longfellow actually said, “Then read from the treasured volume the poem of they choice,” suggests an even smaller library. (The bookends must have been accurate.)

Then what happened? The consumer society? People now speak of “consuming” literature — perhaps they have stopped this barbarism. Literature can indeed be consumed, but only by oblivion. It survives careless reading robustly. Nevertheless, consider the very word, “novel.” That tells you something. It’s yet another instance of a word’s coming to mean the opposite of what it meant — don’t you just love old novels? — but only for lovers of literature. And even they face the problem of surfeit: in a world of much-too-much, how do you decide upon any one thing? For people who stick to the new and the fashionable, it’s a simple matter of locating the best buzz, but, even then, books take precious time to read. Almost any choice seems very clearly not to be the optimal choice.

I deal with this problem relatively easily, I think; I follow trains of thought. Last year, I read Angela Bourke’s biography of Maeve Brennan — along with all of Brennan’s stories — and I am still on the path that followed from there. I have bought a few books about the history of Ireland, but I have re-read a good deal of Colm Tóibín, and then re-read it again. Perhaps the word I need has nothing to do with doing something again; perhaps “to read,” chez moi, ought to be taken to mean “to read again.” More useful might be a marker for the book that I am reading for the first time. “I am discovering…” Something like that.

In any case, in the course of writing a letter to a friend, I learned from the little records that I keep that, of the seven books that I’ve read most recently, only three were “discoveries”; I’d read the other four before, one of them twice. Of the seven books before those, only two books were new acquisitions; two others had languished on the shelves, unread, for some time. It’s true that a lot of this revisiting began self-consciously, as I tried to justify keeping so many books in the house, and so many more in a storage unit that I rarely visited. But the activity has become a pleasure, and even something of a habit: when I’m looking for something to read, I don’t turn to my bookshelves only after having been disappointed by the offerings at Amazon. I turn to the bookshelves first. The repeated harrowing of my collection, moreover, has forced me to distinguish books that I love from books that literary people are supposed to have on hand. I keep ever fewer of the latter.

At the storage unit the other day, I came across two books that I wished I could dump into a get-rid-of box, right then and there. They were big and fat, just the sort of book that I like to de-accession (is that a split infinitive?). One was a memoir by the wife of a recent Prime Minister, the other the biography of a former Royal-by-marriage. Say goodbye, Gracie! In contrast, the clutch of books that I brought home were all slim paperbacks. One of them, unfortunately — Josef Pieper’s Scholasticism — is falling apart: open it up, and the pages fly out. This isn’t surprising. Paperbacks produced in the Sixties were cheap in every way. A few years ago, I went to read Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake again. I had to buy a new copy. But I couldn’t get rid of the original. I don’t know why the current edition isn’t bound as startlingly, in bright yellow with the title in Chinese red. I couldn’t live without seeing the spine on the top shelf.

The awful truth is that nobody can write about routinely reading books multiple times until the cusp of middle and old age. (I exclude scholars, of course.) Were I minded to keep such a blog, I should have to decide whether to be honest, whether to call it Diary of a Crusty Old Coot or Dust From the Attic. Something appealing like that. Here’s a naughty title: Foxy. (If there happens to be a blog by that name out there, one whose subject was old books, how would you find it? With very great patience, I suppose.) Nobody much younger would want to read such a blog, yet of course it would be young readers who could learn the most. They would at least hear something different from the chatter of journo-marketing.

I used to think that it was bathetic to have a “favorite author,” a writer to whom one could turn and always find satisfaction. If pressed, I should name Jane Austen as mine, but let’s face facts: there isn’t that much Jane Austen to go around. There are five unarguably great novels, and there are the sometimes very amusing things that Austen wrote before she found her heart. (She, too, had a morbid fear of bathos to overcome.) The early work is not the stuff of anybody’s “favorite author,” and the five great novels run the risk of overexposure. Lately, however, I have discovered that I do have a favorite author, and I don’t suppose that anybody will be surprised to find that it is Colm Tóibín. His books are always there for me.


The Heather Blazing left me puzzled: why did Carmel complain about not knowing her husband because he wouldn’t talk to her? I can understand her anger about his not listening to her, although I’m not persuaded that Éamon’s not-listening was quite the same thing as that of most men. I came across a perfect description of the general character of men who don’t listen in a book that I’m discovering by Sybille Bedford: The Faces of Justice: A Traveler’s Report. I swallowed the entire first part of it last night. In the following passage, Bedford is describing what she calls a “not-so-good” magistrate. He is the kind of man who

talks with his head down, who seldom takes his nose out of the ledger. He does not look at the people who speak to him. He hurries them along with hnhn’s and well’s. He interrupts witnesses, and when there is counsel he takes the examination out of his mouth. He browbeats young barristers. He gives everybody a sense of the scarcity of his time. He does not appear to listen. He pretends to be unable to understand what people say to him. He is sarcastic when it is too easy. He makes up his mind, or appears to have made up his mind, at the beginning of a case. He loses his temper not because it might be necessary, but because he loses it. He loses it, not because it has been tried beyond endurance, but because it is a cherished exercise. He shows contempt for his customers and his place of work, and he betrays his sense that he is made of different clay. (36-7)

Few actual magistrates may be not-so-good in this way, but Bedford has captured a great many not-so-good husbands. Unfortunately, Genesis supports the “different clay” idea, since Eve is created out of Adam. (You’d think that this would make her superior, no?) Today’s young men are far more conscious than their fathers were of the generality of “feminist” complaints, at least from what one can see in public, but the idea certainly persists that a man is somehow magically better than a woman who is by every meaningful metric his equal. He partakes of masculinity: res ipsa loquitur.

Éamon Redmond is different. Let me not say that he is never a not-so-good husband. But, as Carmel herself complains, he is too often elsewhere, off in his mind. If the narrator is to be trusted, Éamon is lost either in his past or in the law. I don’t think that he fully believes in himself. Perhaps he comes to do so at the end, when, like so many grandparents, he discovers the meaning of everything in the antics of a child indirectly his own.

As I listened to Carmel, I thought of Tóibín himself. Tóibín often refers to his own silences, to his preference for not-saying. Do the people who get close to him complain about this? Do people get close to him? It’s none of my business, but I can’t help feeling an authorial sympathy in these Heather Blazing passages, which seem at first to criticize Éamon but end up leaving me feeling that he has been (justly) acquitted. It is, after all, impossible for a silent man to tell you much about his silences. Tóibín writes volumes about them, but only by displacing them onto imaginary characters.

I found myself pulling down Mothers and Sons, the short-story collection, having forgotten that I’d recently had another look at it, also in 2014. I read everything but the two long stories and “A Priest in the Family.” This time, I read that story and the first of the long ones, “The Name of the Game.” They are both, intensely, about not-saying.

Ostensibly, of course, they’re about other things. In “The Name of the Game,” a widow plots her way out of the debts left by her late husband. In “A Priest in the Family,” a mother acknowledges not so much her ordained son’s pedophilia as her neighbors’ awareness of it. But what propels both stories is silence. In “The Name of the Game,” the widow keeps her plans to herself, discussing them only with the businessmen whom she deals with, and then only with regard to their specific dealings. The only exception is a traveling salesman who is known as “Birds Eye.” Even her exchanges with Birds Eye are short of conversation. He very kindly tells her what she’s going to have to do if she wants to save her shop, and the house that it is in, from foreclosure. He tells her whom to contact to make the arrangements. She asks him questions; he gets back with answers. That is all there is to it, or all that we are told. Her sixteen year-old son, Gerard, and some of her neighbors think that she and Birds Eye are an item, and have thought so before she takes him into her confidence. Needless to say, this news surprises her.

Nancy, the widow, does not tell Gerard anything. Gerard knows only what he can see, as a chip shop (fastfoodery) is opened on the side of the old store, and then the store itself is transformed from a failing grocery market to an off-license beer and wine shop. In due course, he also knows what he can count, as business booms. Because Nancy tells Gerard nothing, he assumes — and, again, so do the townspeople — that she is doing it all for him, that he will inherit the business pursuant to the custom of the country. But that is not Nancy’s plan at all. She intends to escape the town at the first possible moment, move to Dublin, and find herself a job as an executive secretary. The story stops short of the likely catastrophe, which is that Gerard’s life will have been ruined by reasonable expectations’ sprouting at a dangerous moment in adolescence. For Gerard hates school, or thinks he does, and embraces the promise of salvation that he sees in his mother’s enterprise. He drops his school chums and takes up wearing suits, and hobnobbing, so far as possible, with older men. (They don’t think that he’s being ridiculous.) What Nancy never mentions to anyone, of course, is her intended betrayal. Everything that she does, she does only to leave it behind.

I’ve arrived at the age where Nancy could be involved in international espionage, followed on every pavement by troops of assassins, and the story would be no more thrilling — less, in fact. What Tóibín never loses sight of is his setting: Nancy’s story unfolds beneath the carcinogenic lens of small-town attentiveness. Nancy is not the only silent one. Her neighbors are just as oblique. They also say nothing, or nearly. Saying nothing is how Nancy’s best friend and her husband indicate that their friendship has been dealt a mortal blow.

In “A Priest in the Family,” everyone is silent because nobody can imagine how Molly will react to the news, which seems to have reached the town in some indirect way, that her son, Frank, is going to be tried for abusing students. (The background is autobiographical, in that several of Tóibín’s boarding-school classmates were abused by a teacher. Tóibín himself was not. This wasn’t because he wasn’t the cutest kid in the dorm. It must have had much more to do with the massive not-neediness that, like Éamon Redmond, he developed in response to childhood loss. Such losses, interestingly, generally increase the vulnerability of children to predators. The story’s perspective on the crime is also autobiographical: it happened long ago. Frank is a middle-aged priest now.) The title of the story is ironic, of course; what had long been seen as a great advantage for any family was now more likely to be a liability. This is never mentioned or referred to in the story itself, except by its absence — another silence.

“A Priest in the Family” is a series of shatterings, all breaching the silence that surrounds Molly and all quickly repaired by her determination to maintain that silence. These upsets increase in violence (there is no other word) until a moment of extreme alienation, following a confrontation between Molly and her daughters, both mothers themselves. They daughters think that Molly ought to leave town for a while, to allow the scandal to die down. Molly is determined to continue her life as it is, but of course she cannot.

The town during the next week seemed almost new to her. Nothing was as familiar as she had once supposed. She was unsure what a glance or a greeting disguised, and she was careful, once she had left her own house, never to turn too sharply or look to closely in case she saw them whispering about her. A few times, when people stopped to talk to her, she was unsure if they knew about her son’s disgrace, or if they too had become so skilled at the plain language of small talk that they could conceal every thought from her, every sign, as she could from them. (147)

As she could from them. Molly has a better idea about how to live down “her son’s disgrace.” She will not go off to the Canary Islands with her friend, Nancy Brophy. Instead, she asks Nancy to do her a favor.

“Would you do something for me, Nancy?” Molly said, standing up, preparing to leave.

“I would, of course, Molly.”

“Would you ask people to talk to me about it, I mean people who know me? I mean, not to be afraid to mention it.”

That’s how you keep people from talking. All anybody (everybody) wanted to know was how Molly was going to take the news — would she, as some of them must have hoped, explode in hysteria? The people who knew Molly well knew that that would never happen, so (it follows) whatever might happen must be much worse. But they in their turn were wrong about that. Molly simply lets the air out of the balloon, and without pricking it.

It’s a neat trick, ain’t it, all this eloquent writing about silence.

Next up: my life as a born chatterbox.

Bon week-end à tous!