Archive for April, 2016

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (IV)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

25, 26, 28, 29 April

Monday 25th

In the final pages of In altre parole (In Other Words), Jhumpa Lahiri mentions her last book, Lowland. Except that, writing in Italian, she calls it La Moglie (The Wife). That is the title of the Italian translation by M F Oddera. Presumably, Lahiri was involved in the decision to give Lowland a different title for Italian readers. But it is nevertheless surprising to hear the unauthorized title from the writer’s mouth.

Does Jhumpa Lahiri still exist? As a woman of flesh and blood — or flesh and bone, as Lahiri has learned in Italian (carne ed ossa) — the answer is “yes”; but, existentially, as a writer, the answer is, possibly, “no.” Existentially, at least, there is another woman going by the same name. She is another woman because she thinks, reads, and writes in another language — if, that is, she still does, now that she is no longer living in Italy. Lahiri ends the book in a state of doubt. What will she do? She is honest enough to say that she doesn’t know. How quixotic will it be, in America, to go on avoiding English texts — newspapers and magazines along with books, not to mention panel discussions and whatnot — and to continue to write in a language that she is unwilling to translate?

Lahiri mentions a writer whom I’ve never heard of, Agota Kristóf, or Kristof as I shall refer to her, as that’s how her name appears on the cover of her books. Kristof’s books are written in French, not her native language. Her native language was Hungarian. Kristof, who died in 2011, escaped from Hungary in 1956, after the suppressed revolt against the Communist régime, and settled in Switzerland — in Neuchâtel, the Francophone town on the lake of the same name. There, she reinvented herself as a writer in French. According to Lahiri, Kristof never felt fluent in French; she could not write without a foreigner’s dependence upon dictionaries. The alternative would have been to write in Hungarian, a language hardly spoken outside the very country that would prohibit publication of her work. In effect, Kristof decided to become her own translator into French.

Existentially, Kristof never existed as a Hungarian writer. As a woman of flesh and blood, she was obliged to leave her native land in order to survive. Lahiri points out these differences from her own case. Everything about Lahiri’s foray into Italian has been voluntary. And, no doubt because of her gender, even Lahiri wonders if this foray might not be somewhat frivolous. Other writers, she tells us, often regard her decision to write in Italian with disapproval, wondering if such a project can ever be more than superficial. She is heartened by the example of Agota Kristof, but one must ask (as Lahiri begins to do) if Kristof’s example is genuinely available to her. My own opinion is that Lahiri has not quite earned the right.

I say this because In altre parole reads like a translation from the English, even though it was written by the author in Italian and translated into English by someone else (Ann Goldstein). I can’t guess how foreign Lahiri’s text might seem to native readers of Italian; I fear that they might find it brave but elementary. I don’t mean to fault Lahiri’s Italian, which seems sound enough. It is her thinking that I question. For example, I question her use of the word “approccio.” This word appears in my Cassell’s, but only in the Italian-to-English section, where it seems limited to use in diplomatic usage, not unlike the French “tentative.” “Approccio” does not appear in the English-to-Italian half of the dictionary. I sense that it is simply “not Italian” to think, as we do in English, of approaching a problem in a certain way. There is another way to put it, one that reflects a different way of thinking about it.

Perhaps In altre parole reads like a translation because it is, as Lahiri claims, her first genuinely autobiographical work. She is writing, throughout, about herself, and as a matter of fact she is an American writer. Who would think in English more pervasively than a writer in English? Moreover, Lahiri is writing about reading and writing. (Scrivo, scrivo, scrivo! One gets rather tired of that word.) In one amusing chapter, her husband comes into the picture. Her husband is the beguilingly-named former deputy editor of Time Latin America, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. Whatever his background, he speaks Spanish. He speaks Italian as if it were Spanish. And yet, everywhere they go, his Italian is hailed as perfect, unaccented, even; while Lahiri’s Italian, which really is much more correct than her husband’s, never makes the grade. Lahiri is exasperated by this: do Italians hear with their eyes? And yet I suspect that her husband’s Italian is closer to the real thing because his Spanish is so much closer to Italian. He already thinks the right way.

The way to learn a foreign language is to parrot a good native speaker. Don’t say anything that you haven’t heard that native speaker say. Don’t, in other words, even think of expressing yourself until you have mastered the parrotting and no longer have to think about it. Then you may express yourself — if you still have anything to say. I wonder just how well Lahiri has expressed herself in Italian. I’ll never really know, not unless some highly literate Italian who is also fluent in English writes a critical essay that addresses this very question. I expect that Lahiri has used Italian to show Italians how Anglophones think, just as Francesca Marciano does the opposite, in The Other Language — a work that, sadly, has not appeared in Italian. I suspect that Marciano has a more proficient approccio.

Scrivo, all’inizio, per occultarmi. “I wrote, in the beginning, to hide myself.” That’s my translation. Goldstein puts it thus: “In the beginning, I wrote in order to conceal myself.” I do give Lahiri points for not beginning the sentence with “In the beginning,” natural though it is in English. “To conceal” is indeed the first choice, in Cassell’s, as a translation of occultare, but I think that I should have gone with the third, “to keep secret.” In the beginning, I wrote as a way of keeping myself secret. No matter how you phrase it, this is an intriguing statement, because it raises the specter of the writer who is her only reader: the true diarist. In the beginning, Lahiri wrote what she could not say. Why couldn’t she say it? And how did her problem with saying things, and her intention to write in secret, propel her into this engagement with Italian?


These questions play in my mind as I consider this week’s new word, oikophobia. It looks like Greek, because it is composed of Greek elements, but to Plato and Aristotle it could only have connoted madness, for to be afraid, or seized with a violent dislike, of one’s home couldn’t be anything but crazy. Perhaps that is precisely what Roger Scruton thought when he coined the word, nearly fifteen years ago. But I think that he had something else on his mind. “Oik” sounds pretty much like what an English oikophobe would want to flee: the people who say “Oi!” for “Hey!”: common-law Brits.

For further enlightenment on the subject, I turn to James Taranto, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, who in 2010 was weighing in on the kerfuffle caused by plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, within a few blocks of Ground Zero, here in Manhattan. Needless to say, Taranto’s opinion was that the élitist proponents of the center, in their unwillingness to respect the widespread but vernacular opposition to such propinquity, manifested oikophobia, which he explained as follows:

The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.

In truth, oikophobia functions elegantly as a disapproving alternative to an already perfectly handy word, cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan people have long deplored the provinciality of hoi polloi. Thanks to Scruton, the people can just as easily deplore the sophistication of cosmopolitans. For it is indeed true that educated people tend to have more in common with educated people from anywhere than with their own uneducated neighbors. That is, among other things, the whole point of education. Scruton has turned up the heat a bit, or at least Taranto has done so: élitists (another word for “cosmopolitans”) take the other side and denigrate their own “customs, culture, and institutions.” In truth, cosmopolitans are rarely so strenuous.

As someone who likes to think of himself as cosmopolitan, I agreed with the opponents of the placement of the Islamic center. I didn’t share their feelings at all, but those feelings struck me as perfectly understandable. The discomfort of regular people from the boroughs would obviously — obviously — be real enough, and I do not believe in overlooking popular discomfort. There seemed no real need to place the center so close to Ground Zero, or in Lower Manhattan at all. Not far from where I live, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York stands on the corner of 96th Street and Third Avenue. That’s completely out of my small orbit, and I have no idea how lively it is; nor do I understand why a second cultural center was planned. (I may have forgotten.) The ICCNY is the oldest mosque in the city, although the current structure dates to the Eighties. Even then, the construction was controversial. I am not aware of any appreciable local Islamic population. Being a cosmopolitan, I’m not personally troubled by that. But I cock an eyebrow. Everybody knows that Islam flourishes in Queens.

Along with the mosque squabble, Taranto borrows from Charles Krauthammer another oikophobic issue, opposition to opposition to same-sex marriage. Here we must note that Taranto is writing in 2010, a long time ago so far as this question is concerned. If touristic and corporate responses to recent legislation in North Carolina and Alabama are any indication, same-sex marriage can no longer be claimed as an American bugaboo; its opponents do look more and more like bigots. Certainly same-sex marriage cannot be viewed as a pill that élitists are forcing an unwilling population to swallow.

Closer to Scruton’s area of concern, my cosmopolitan outlook leads me to conclude that the Eurocrats in Brussels must be stopped, or at least saved from themselves. They accent cooperation at the expense of respecting local differences. Local differences are not going to go away, certainly not as the result of Eurocrat wishful thinking, and there is no real reason to wish that they would do so.


My real quarrel with Roger Scruton is that he believes in “the tribe” as the basis of culture. From Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern culture:

The core of common culture is religion. Tribes survive and flourish because they have gods, who fuse the many wills into a single will, and demand and reward the sacrifices on which social life depends. (5)

As the statement of a late-twentieth-century onetime Oxbridge don, this is fantastical stuff. What on earth does Scruton know, what can he know, about gods forging many wills into one, demanding and rewarding sacrifices? Nothing that he didn’t read in a book is what. Nothing that hasn’t been filtered into his consciousness by the more or less biased observers of either the earth’s few remaining actual tribes or the more numerous surviving texts that require an indeterminate degree of interpretation. One thing that Scruton downplays is the involuntary nature of membership in tribes. I find no mention in Scruton’s discussion of the person who wants to leave the tribe. The person who wants to change it is charged with sacrilege, but the person who wants to leave, perhaps to join a distant tribe, is not imagined. Scruton makes an interesting but, to my mind dubious, claim for the importance of membership in a tribe.

Modern people long for membership; but membership exists only among people who long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the fact of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man. (11)

It is quite easy to infer from this the existence of oikophobes. Imagine living, as one of them, among people immersed in a value structure that you deplore! It is not hard for me to do so; and, what is more, it is altogether too easy for me to feel proud of myself, according to one undoubtable aspect of the “ethical vision of man,” for resisting immersion. I grew up in a town that immersed itself in the idea of excluding Jews and blacks from its resident population. Jews and blacks could run the shops and clean the bathrooms, but they could not live within the Holy Square Mile.

And yet I am no oikophobe. I shouldn’t want to live in Bronxville, certainly, but I’m uncomfortable about calling attention to its sometime viciousness. It is not my problem; it is not really anybody’s problem. I cannot see Bronxville’s anti-Semitism as more than a foolishness: it harms only those who stew in it. As a cosmopolitan, I have no complaint. As a memoirist, I am forced to recognize it as a factor in my repudiation of the naive belief that community values are benign and worthy of being cherished. I knew the lesson of “The Lottery” long before I read Shirley Jackson’s story.

Up to now, in the novels that she claims are not autobiographical, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about the dislocation of leaving a tribe behind. In the new book, she addresses the much less familiar side of that dislocation. How do you join a tribe? How do you become a writer in Italian? Her tongue and her pen have mastered their part of the task. What’s left is for her mind to do the same. Is it even possible?


Tuesday 26th

When I find Roger Scruton’s remarks on oikophobia — I expect that his invention is well-cushioned in thoughtful verbiage — I may very well find him saying what everybody knows, which is that teenagers suffer severe bouts of the disease. Indeed, oikophobia is a healthy side-effect of adolescence. It’s part of the self-defining process that consists of differentiation from everything that’s familiar, too familiar to have been learned, so familiar that it has always been taken for granted.

On the basis of In altre parole, I should say that Jhumpa Lahiri suffered a variant of the stable child’s oikophobia. It started much earlier and went much deeper. The annoying superficial aspects of it were outgrown in the regular way, but a restlessness with language persisted, as if language were an overfamiliar nanny who overstayed her term of duty. Lahiri wasn’t entirely eager for the nanny to leave, because the nanny was her access to achievement in the country that remained strange to her parents.

The nanny was English.

It’s an interesting story, and I wish that Lahiri had lingered over it, or at any rate that she will do so in future, in English or Italian as she likes. She doesn’t tell us very much in In altre parole (although she does repeat more than a few things, as one does in successive pieces of journalism, and as one does when one is struggling to say things in a new language), but what she tells us, in the context of this Italian book out of the blue, suggests that the roots of her infatuation with the language of Dante and Ginzburg run all the way down to her beginnings.

Although born in London, she arrived in Rhode Island at the age of two; her father is a university librarian. Lahiri’s parents came to England and America from Kolkata. At home, her mother did everything possible to maintain a Bengali way of life. Bengali was spoken at home, never English. This is an almost universal immigrant experience, but for Lahiri it must have had an aspect of perversity, owing to her father’s profession. He was not a laborer. He and his wife were actually fluent in English, at least in understanding it. The choice to maintain Bengali customs was highly self-conscious.

I saw the consequences of not speaking English perfectly, of speaking with a foreign accent. I saw the wall that my parents faced in America almost every day. It was a persistent insecurity for them. Sometimes I had to explain the meaning of certain terms, as if I were the parent. Sometimes I spoke for them. In shops the salespeople tended to address me, simply because my English didn’t have a foreign accent. As if my father and mother, with their accent, couldn’t understand. I hated the attitude of those salespeople toward my parents. I wanted to defend them. I would have liked to protest: “They understand everything you say, while you don’t understand even a word of Bengali or any other language in the world.” And yet it annoyed me as well when my parents mispronounced an English word. I corrected them, impertinently. I didn’t want them to be vulnerable, I didn’t like my advantage, their disadvantage. I would have liked them to speak English as I did. (151-2)

Countless immigrant children have felt these conflicting resentments. But most of their parents did not understand English very well. Few were knowledge workers whose everyday office language was English. What did Lahiri’s parents think they were doing? Did they plan to raise children who would to return to Calcutta? This is only one of a dozen questions that come to mind. Lahiri has answered many of them fictionally, hypothetically, in her earlier books. But she has not given us, pure and simple, her parents’ answers. Her answers.

One consequence is that Lahiri’s English, while perfectly tuned, is at the same time muffled, because it served her in childhood as a utility. The real language, the language of hearth and home, was something else, something that inspired Lahiri to set much of her fiction in India, and in a fictional India that existed before she was born: the Bengal of her parents. At the end of In altre parole, she acknowledges a recent discovery:

Today, I no longer feel bound to restore a lost country to my parents. It took me a long time to realize that my writing have to assume that responsibility. (221)

To some extent, Lahiri’s writing has always been in translation. In altre parole is, indeed, her first book. There is something about English that she has not taken seriously, something that she assumed she knew. She is a born writer, and she certainly knows how to tell stories. But although her prose is recognizably American, it is not a particular kind of English. The French would say that elle vient de nulle part — her tongue/language/accent comes from nowhere. If she had grown up in India, her English might even have a more specific weight. Instead, she grew up in Suburbia, which IS nulle part. I strongly suspect that Lahiri believes that nothing worth writing about occurs entirely within the frame of the United States. When I consider the lengths to which a writer like George Saunders is obliged to exercise his imagination in order to bring Suburbia to life — how marvelous it is, and what an achievement on his part, that he isn’t regarded as a science fiction writer — I believe that she would be right.

I don’t mean to be oikophobic there. The failure of America to be interesting might well be its greatest achievement. Perhaps. The argument can certainly made that peace and stability are more nourishing than magic and drama. The Chinese curse about interesting times makes a good point. But much of American blandness owes to negative factors: to rootlessness (too much moving around), to projection (shopping malls and the fantasies that drive us to them), to vicariousness (the colossal but powdery edifice of celebrity). Multitasking makes people awake but not alert. And the ignorance, the sheer Dunning-Kruger ignorance. Only in America would “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” be considered a joke.


Speaking of jokes: Lady Elizabeth Anson, party-planner to HM the Queen, indulged a Times reporter with a bit of tittle-tattle, and we are holding our breath, hoping that Her Majesty is now just too old to do the wrath thing.

During a discussion about the lost art of conversation because of cellphones, she took her incessantly ringing land line off the hook, letting the receiver dangle at her stockinged feet, and leaned in, saying: “I think I can tell this. It’s a bit about the royal family.”

She described how the queen had had her grandchildren over for dinner. “And she said to me that she found it really difficult,” Lady Elizabeth said, “because they didn’t really know how to talk each other. And she said, ‘I suppose it’s because they’re always getting up and down and helping somebody and putting something in a dishwasher or whatever they’re doing, because they don’t have enough staff.’”

This is really horribly funny. There sits poor granny while her twenty- and thirty-something grandchildren peer surreptitiously at their phones under the table, decide to take this or that call, and pretend to take a plate into the kitchen. All right, it’s just horrible. One wants desperately to think that Elizabeth is pulling the other Elizabeth’s leg, with her explanation of all the “up and down.” One fears not. One suspects a nasty game that only spoiled brats would play. If they don’t know how to talk to each other, it’s probably because they all hate each other. It’s the Queen’s fault that they’re related! One blushes for shame: one oughtn’t even to know this story. Presently one feels better: it occurs to one that the late Queen Mum would have had her own mobile, and not bothered to get up and leave the table to use it, either. Anyway, would you tell her? And I don’t mean the Queen Mum.

And who doesn’t have enough staff?


Michael Kinsley’s new book about falling apart, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, was favorably reviewed by Philip Lopate in this weekend’s Book Review. I don’t intend to read it, because it would just make me more high-strung than I already am. Books like Old Age are warnings about the inevitable, and I have already had mine. I hope for a peaceful, moderately uncomfortable, and very inexpensive death, but I don’t fill in the details of that pretty picture. It will fill itself in without any help from me. I get through the day knowing that I may die at any time, and hoping that the specifics of the surprise aren’t too unpleasant. I worry more about the short-term future of civilization, which may be dying, too, but, unlike me, not necessarily.

Having already dealt with most of the material discussed in the review, I was free to be amazed by something I’d never heard put quite this way:

Still, the book refuses to wallow in self-pity or offer triumphalist narratives of overcoming victimhood. Rather, Kinsley is intent on being wryly realistic about coping with illness and the terminal prospects ahead. He makes fun of a fellow boomer, Larry Ellison, the C.E.O. of Oracle, who has spent millions in a quest for eternal life, and who was quoted as saying, “Death has never made any sense to me.” Kinsley quips: “Actually the question is not whether death makes sense to Larry Ellison but whether Larry Ellison makes sense to death. And I’m afraid he does.”

Chuckle, chuckle. It’s nice to know that Ellison is spending his money on worthwhile causes. Who knows what scientists will learn, while looking for something that can’t be found? “Death doesn’t make sense,” however, doesn’t make sense. Death is the secret of life. The death of the individual underpins the survival of the species.

We ought to want to die, just for the good health of it. Maybe someday, we shall. Maybe someday, all the resources currently being poured into cryogenics and reprints of Atlas Shrugged will make it routine for people to die because they’re tired of living. Healthy old people, in their nineties and later, begin to stop paying attention. They’ve heard everything already. They have no reason to learn anything new. They enjoy life but they prefer it to be peaceful and quiet. Eventually, they simply don’t wake up in the morning. There would still be idiots like Ellison demanding Permanent Ego Status, but if this pattern were generalized throughout the population, instead of being limited to a very lucky few, most people just might lose the fear of death. Knowing that death would be preceded by a relaxed stage of withdrawal, they would be happy to hand over the responsibilities and the headaches to their children and grandchildren.

It would be wrong to say that death makes evolution possible — I think. But death certainly makes evolution bearable. Imagine being condemned to live through a few centuries of recent history. Imagine having lived for the nearly two hundred thousand years of recognizably human experience. Death makes evolution bearable because evolution would be utterly unbearable otherwise.

As we grow up, somewhere between our late teens and our early thirties, we organize ourselves by putting faith in a certain arrangement of affairs. Today, for example, a young man with good business prospects plans, unasked, to buy a house with a mortgage. But wait: perhaps this commitment, so common when I was young, is on the way out now. Geezer moment! Young people may well be making commitments to new arrangements that I might find it difficult, after forty years of dealing with mine, to adapt to. We sensible elders may regret the overuse of mobile phones, but nothing we say is going to have any effect; young people will sort it out for themselves. That is how a healthy society functions: young people sort things out, and then they make their contributions of work and children. And then they die, to make room for new younger people, whom they welcome without quite being able to regard them as Hannah Arendt did: as invaders. The world — the natural world as well, but I’m thinking of the world of human beings — is in a state of constant invasion by newborns who know nothing about the world. Happily, most of them eventually learn more about it than Larry Ellison seems to have done.


Thursday 28th

Not gifted at dreaming up catchy names or slogans, I usually manage to stifle the impulse. But the impulse is strong today. I want to name the pixie who has taken to haunting the darker corners of the book room. She darts about like Tinkerbelle, but she has the face and long, straight hair of Marie Kondo (as she is known in the West). She does not advise me on the dispersal of old papers or the folding of socks, both of which could keep her busy in here. (The book room is also what might be called my dressing room.) Instead, she hides in the bookshelves, appearing only when I am looking for a book that just might be shelved behind another book. As I scan the spines in the rear, she whispers, That one. She taps a book with her magic wand. Are you ever going to re-read that one? The preliminary answer is almost always “no” — how did she know that? I take the book in my hand, look at it severely, try to remember reading it, and flip to the Table of Contents. I read a paragraph at random. Sometimes, the next thing that happens is that I slip the book into the discards pile. Just as often, however, I deposit the book upon the stack of books to read.

I’d like a name for this pixie so that I could blame her for unexpected turns in my reading. TinkerKon? Good grief, no. Konbelle? No — but there are possibilities there. Kondobella? Condobella looks nicer, and, besides, loosening the connection to the world-famous author of a treatise on how to get rid of stuff is probably in order, because I wouldn’t want to make the pixie’s namesake look incompetent. KonMari (as she is known in her book) would be very disappointed by my attachment to old books that I haven’t read or even looked at in forty years, books that are out of date in some way or other, books that I really haven’t got time to re-read. Condobella is more of a challenger. She’s not trying to make me get rid of books. She is simply daring me to justifying giving them house room.

Such a book is Edward Crankshaw’s In the Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917, which I believe I read when it came out, in 1976. It’s possible, I suppose, that all the John le Carré that I’ve been reading in the past six months has made Russia look interesting again, or at any rate less dismally nightmarish. To me, Russia has come to be an embodiment of hopelessness. The good things that people profess to find in its culture — the warm durability of the people, the forgiving majesty of the Church, the searing lyricism of the poets — are invisible to me, at least as advantages. All I see is brutality on a grand scale. I’m not saying that things are any better when I am, in the land of banality, frivolity, and thoughtlessness. But I’m used to those. American inhumanity is a rather negative affair — Americans are too distracted by other things to give humanism a thought. In Russia, where high human hopes seem to be talked about all the time, people get beaten up and thrown in jail rather a lot, and they used to be worked to death. There are too many beefy security types who would do almost anything rather than relate to you man-to-man. But what do I know?

In the Shadow of the Winter Palace begins with a study in futility. That is how I should characterize what I have read since the book was pointed out to me the other day. The first eight chapters, out of a total of twenty-two, cover the reign of Nicholas I. I knew that Nicholas I was a reactionary autocrat, but I didn’t realize — and here we must bear in mind that the statements, “I read this book forty years ago” and “I have never read this book” are often frighteningly equivalent — that Nicholas was politically impotent! I don’t mean that he was incapable or incompetent, although he was indeed both of these things. I mean that he spent his reign, as Crankshaw somewhat zealously reminds us, in a state of fear. His determination to brook no insubordination was couched in terms that betrayed the expectation of insubordination — or worse.

Why, if his power was absolute, if he was truly an autocrat, was he afraid? The answer, quite simply, was that he feared the fate of so many of his forebears, of his own father, the Emperor Paul, the fate that seemed about to claim him on the very day of his accession: death at the hands of his own Guards. (80)

The absolute power of the Tsar was a myth. Perhaps it had always been a myth, but now it was a myth that made no sense. A man of parts might have seen his way to introducing quiet innovations that might lead to more open social and economic conditions, but Nicholas was conspicuously lacking in parts. To the historian, that is, the lack has been conspicuous. Contemporaries saw a robust, handsome man who embodied autocracy, at least until he opened his mouth.

As he saw it, Nicholas had one job: he must make sure that everybody in Russia stayed on the same page. The chorale had been written, and it needed only to be sung — properly. Those who could not carry a tune, or who wished to sing something else, were removed from the choir. The mission of Russia was to go on being Russia. Crankshaw captures what he calls the “fatuity” of this mission in a statement that Nicholas made about the serfs.

There is no doubt that serfdom in its present form is a flagrant evil which everyone realises; yet to attempt to remedy it now would be, of course, an evil even more disastrous. (81)

Nothing could be changed without queering the pitch of the empire. But change could not be avoided; it could only be ignored. Count Kankrin, Nicholas’s minister of finance, opposed the construction of railroads. Nicholas overruled him, and a railroad was built connecting Petersburg with Moscow. But there was no money, and not much more will, to build a line to Ukraine; so that armies had to march all the way to Sevastopol to relieve Menshikov’s forces in the triumph of dunderheadedness that we call the Crimean War. Industrialization was mishandled in much the same way. A penchant for militarism encouraged the housing of workers in vast barracks, detached from their families. (This set-up has been adopted in crypto-capitalist China.) Had the authorities set out to create a deracinated, disaffected proletariat, they could not have done better. Given the circumstances to which the Russian worker was subjected, it is no surprise at all that Marxism met its first success in what was only numerically the least industrialized country in Europe.

The foundations of Soviet management, moreover, were laid by the Romanovs. It is always interesting to read a good history that has itself passed into history. In the Shadow of the Winter Palace was written in the latter days of the Cold War, and Crankshaw never shrinks from scolding the Russians for failing to grasp the inevitable virtue of the Western way of doing business — a failing that is shown to have its roots in the absolutism, itself quite doomed, that Peter the Great learned from the Bourbon example.

Thus there were no guilds of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen to combine in pressure groups and build up middle-class power. Peter brought industry to Russia, but he did nothing to encourage the establishment of the relatively open society which was the pre-requisite for the organic growth of Western capitalism, operating through countless small enterprises in furious competition with one another. Peter’s mills and factories, and the mills and factories of favoured private entrepreneurs, were thus organised not as the materialization of the personal dreams, ambitions and greed of countless individuals seeking to better themselves, or seized with the love of power or riches, or the sheer delight in making things work, but rather as extensions of the central government, as sources of supply for the central power. (74)

It’s almost an effort to remember that, when this was written, it was much less fashionable than it has since become. Freedom was everything, in those days, and Business was beneath serious discussion. It’s easy, now, to spot Crankshaw’s propaganda as such, but I sense that Crankshaw was not only criticizing the ancien régime in Russia but articulating a new self-consciousness for the home team.


Denied conventional outlets, educated Russians took to the life of the mind, producing masterpieces of melancholy and despair from Lermontov to Chekhov. This is the aspect of tsarist Russia with which we are most familiar. At a certain point in Crankshaw’s text, I conceived the desire to read The Idiot. I read the second of Dostoevsky’s four great novels after I had read the other three, in college — all in the Penguin translation by David Magarshack — and I understood it least of all. The only thing I remembered was that things didn’t work out very well for Prince Myshkin (and what kind of a name is Aglaya?). I acquired the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (2001) several years ago, and it was surprisingly easy to find, without any interference from Condobella. Worn out for the nonce by Nicholas I, I began the novel, and was presently swept up in the comic spirit that may or may not have been intentional. The scene in the Ivolgins’ sitting room reminds me of the second-act finale of Le Nozze di Figaro, and when the prince opened the door to Nastasya Filippovna, I burst out laughing — I couldn’t help it. Then Rogozhin and his entourage showed up! The melancholy and despair are certainly there, folded into the draperies, but the patina of commedia dell’arte is sparkling. I don’t expect it to last much longer.

The torture in Dostoevsky is a matter of never being able to decide whether the author is trying to tell us how hopeless Russia is (which would imply that things could be better) or how hopeless the human condition is (in which case not). There is a visionary quality, but there is also another quality, and this quality is visionary as well. Usually, “visionary” suggests an arrangement excitingly superior to the existing one; Dostoevsky’s other vision lacks not only excitement but all other emotions; it is a quiet, living death. Two or three characters will have a conversation about ultimate things, in a cold, dark room in the middle of the night. In the morning, someone will go off to get shot or arrested — c’est la vie. Like Henry James, Dostoevsky is gifted at composing elaborate, utterly novel dramas. His novels are encrusted in decades of Famous Reputation, but this gunk falls away as soon as a leading lady makes her appearance, if not sooner. I’m reading The Idiot as if it had just been published.


As I was walking home from the Hospital for Special Surgery yesterday, after a Remicade infusion, it occurred to me to have a look at The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, by James Billington. I’ve had this for a long time, but I suspect that my copy is a replacement, and not the one that I read in the early Seventies. In all ways but one, it’s in great condition, bearing none of the traces of my youthful attentions. (Tucked into an early page is the stub of an opera ticket dated 22 November 1985.) The problem is that even a thirty year-old Vintage paperback is bound to fall apart when read, because the paper is not acid-free. The pages are richly honeyed at the edges, and the binding is stiff. I’ve been reading some fascinating stuff about de Maistre — I didn’t know that he was a Savoyard — but I can’t quote it here because I dare not pin the book open. I am not sure what Condobella will advise, especially as the Kindle edition is more expensive than the paperback.

Not having walked by the river in some time, I saw for the first time that the great flight of steps running up from the embankment to the Finley Walk is under reconstruction. This is a good thing, for the old staircase was pretty crumbly. Everything seems to have been removed, except for a tall supporting slab that may actually be new. The mind boggles, though: what about replacing the Finley Walk? The Finley Walk is in fact the rooftop of a structure whose two lower floors are the uptown and downtown lanes of the FDR Drive. What a fracas rebuilding all of that will be!


Friday 29th

Jenny Diski died yesterday. Ever since she began her “cancer diary” in the London Review of Books, two years ago, I have been in denial. I have hung onto my crazy hopes in the teeth of her steadfast indicatives of dying. Misdiagnosis, miracle cures, remission — something would save her. I have been unwilling to accept the imminent mortality of a writer whose sensibility, despite everything, I have come to find profoundly sympathetic. I almost wrote “simpatico,” but that would have been dishonest: too cool, too jolly. I am not, in fact, given to feeling simpatico. On the contrary, I’m predisposed to the narcissism of small differences. Perhaps that was the secret of my romance with Jenny Diski’s writing: there was no way we would have been friends when we were younger. (Under fifty, anyway.) The differences were not small. I could cherish her work without feeling the need to alter my own.

Her honesty, her determination to get it right, was hugely encouraging. Honesty wasn’t a matter of making embarrassing confessions. Embarrassing confessions were a matter of course. Honesty was a matter of not accepting plausible explanations and just-so stories. She knew that we had been very naïve, and she wanted to know why and how — because we’d been so clever, right?

What the American and British baby boomers, who inhabited the Sixties as if they were building a new planet, have in common is that we watched the radicalism we thought we understood and embodied turn into a radicalism we (ignorantly and naively) never dreamed of. Perhaps all the hope and disappointment hung on a simple definition of a word or two. The big idea we had — though heaven knows it wasn’t new — was freedom, liberty, permission, a great enlarging of human possibilities beyond the old politenesses and restrictions. But it was an idea we failed to think through. It was a failure of thought essentially, rather than a failure of imagination. We were completely wrong-footed when the Sixties turned inexorably into the Eighties. With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan presiding, our favourite words — freedom, liberty, permission — were bandied about anew and dressed in clothes that made them unrecognisable to us. But even back then, in the Sixties, while we used the word “liberty” there were others who also used it, sometimes varying it to “libertarian,” who meant something quite different from what we intended, and we nodded and smiled, taking them to our bosom, and completely failing to understand that they meant a world that was diametrically opposed to the one we intended to inhabit.

We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit. But perhaps that is only to be expected. It’s possible after all that we were simply young, and now we are simply old and looking back as every generation does nostalgically to our best of times. Perphaps the Sixties are an idea that has had its day and lingers long after its time. Except, of course, for the music.

So ends the introduction to Diski’s memoir, The Sixties, a book that I shelve right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education, because both slim volumes are about the same small size and easily lost amid the larger ones. If they have more in common, beyond the obvious shared things (native city, gender, age), I’m unaware of it. For a good laugh, I imagine Jenny Diski working for (and almost idolizing, as Barbour does) Bob Guccione.

I’d have liked to ask Jenny Diski one thing. You’ve heard that movie-star mantra, Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. I understand it, but I would never believe it, no matter how great I looked. But forget about food; I’m thinking about money. Like everybody, I like having enough money. But I don’t feel the charm of making money — I don’t get that at all. My father might say, “There isn’t any charm,” but I don’t believe that, either. There seem to be people for whom making money is more fun than having or spending it. They will never feel rich — rich enough to be rich. They will simply go on intensifying their feeling of not being poor. Feeding this perverted hunger, they have infested everything with the bacterial kudzu of “financialization.” This was the disaster, these were the people, that we didn’t see coming. Was this really not a failure of the imagination?

I always expected to learn about Jenny Diski’s death (in my honest moments) in the pages of the LRB, but there she was, in the Times this morning. Very respectable notice, with a nice picture. Note to the inner narcissist: I’m not the only one who’s going to miss her.


There’s a new biography of Wallace Stevens out, by Paul Mariani. It’s called The Whole Harmonium. Paul Elie, in the Book Review, hated it; Peter Schjeldahl, at The New Yorker, loves it. But Elie’s complaints sound very much like ones that I should make.

Key parallels are left undrawn. When we learn, in reference to a 1943 lecture that Stevens gave at Mount Holyoke, that “for the past 40 years Coleridge as both poet and philosopher had been one of Stevens’s mainstays,” the comment comes 40 years too late. Introduced earlier, a comparison of the 20th century’s great poet of mind to the 19th century’s great poet of mind would have opened up a deep channel of insight into Stevens’s sense of himself.

So I can’t decide what to do. I shall have to see the book, certainly. In the meantime, I’ve got On Extended Wings, Helen Vendler’s 1969 study of Stevens’s longer poems. Ever since I acquired a cassette tape of Stevens reading “Credences of Summer,” that has been my favorite poem in the world, but it’s all because of Stevens’s voice, his intonation, accent, and all-round transcendent poohbahderie. He reads “The Idea of Order at Key West,” too, and I love it, but it’s so short. “Credences of Summer” rolls along like a book of prophecy.

Three times the concentred self takes hold, three times
The thrice concentred self, having possessed

The object, grips it in savage scrutiny,
Once to make captive, once to subjugate
Or yield to subjugation, once to proclaim
The meaning of the capture, this hard prize,
Fully made, fully apparent, fully found.

Don’t ask me what this means; at the same time, don’t think that meaning doesn’t matter. I suppose it means what it says. What is the object? Read the poem. Better, listen to it. Stevens’s way with “grips it in savage scrutiny” makes it easy to believe, as Mariani seems to be surprising everyone with the news, that the poet broke his hand in a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway in Key West. (Elie is upset, rightly in my view, that Mariani never tells us whether Stevens read Hemingway, or “any new fiction at all.”)

I copied those lines from On Extended Wings, in which Vendler describes them as “a procession of infinitives of purpose,” the point being that, while the self does actually grip the object, the making captive, the subjugation, and the proclamation don’t actually happen. Her opening chapter, “The Pensive Man: The Pensive Style,” demonstrates Stevens’s aversion to the present indicative. Things might be, they must be, they intend to be (“Once to make captive…”), but it is not established that they are. This is the sort of insight that one expects from Vendler, even if it always comes as a surprise that knocks you down a bit.

“Must” is not a word of faith but a word of doubt, implying as it does an unbearable alternative. (21)

It took a while for me to pick myself up after that one; I had to read the sentence to Kathleen. We realized, instantly, but without ever having thought about it before, that “must” is never used in legal writing; “shall” takes its place. I’ll be honest: I turn to books like On Extended Wings for skeleton keys. I get what I deserve. In her introduction, Vendler writes, “Stevens’ [sic] imagery is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: it is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation. I assume here a familiarity with its special meanings.” (9) Meaning: I taught you all of that last semester. So, instead of a cheat sheet, I’m given a way of reading Stevens’s verbs that seems meaningful. I do understand Stevens better for reading Vendler, but I can’t tell you what that better understanding amounts to, what comprises it. I’m fairly certain that it ought to remain unexpressed, except in Vendler’s terms. Vendler is not unapproachable, but she is a mandarin.


One of the saddest things in the world is that “mandarin” is not only not a Chinese word but also not even much of a Chinese concept. It appears to have come into English, via Portuguese, from a Malay term. In other words, it reflects a Malaysian attempt to make sense of Chinese culture, which has long been present in the peninsula. Foreignness, a sense of the exotic, is built into “mandarin.” Back at home, in the Central Country, there are other words, but they are neutral, without affect — none of the pantomime humbug. What we call “Mandarin Chinese” goes by just about the opposite in China: “Ordinary Speech.” Of course, it isn’t ordinary; it’s still the shibboleth of an educated man or woman. It used to be called “official speech,” which is certainly more accurate — but the distance between “mandarin” and “official,” in English, is too great for relation. “Mandarin” conjures up scholars in Chinese outfits (with special hats), distracted from their highly esoteric studies by problems of local civic administration.”Mandarin” conjures all the great Chinese poets who flunked the exam.

It has been a long time since I last thought about “China’s examination hell,” the ordeal, lasting three days or so, to which would-be mandarins were subjected. It was a sort of New York State Bar exam, but worse, because examinees were confined to a military encampment, where they slept in little huts and scribbled away all day out in the broiling sun or pouring rain. Something like that. What were the questions? Who were the graders? I’ve forgotten almost everything that I ever knew — just as the world has done, as regards the mandarin exam. I don’t mean that the world has forgotten the exams, but it is no longer interested in the knowledge that was tested by the exam. Likening it to the Scholastic philosophers’ question about angels dancing on the heads of pins is probably lazy.

The point is that China conducted a long and exhaustive experiment with meritocratic testing, and, in the end, it did not save the régime. Whatever it was the mandarins had to know, it wasn’t readily applicable to the business of running China. The experiment came to an end, along with its sponsoring empire, at just about the time that meritocratic testing fully took hold in the West. We, too, shall discover that there is no efficient way of evaluating people whom we don’t know.


This week’s culinary note must be about branzino filets. Agata & Valentina’s fish counter has taken to piling them up in a bin, ready to flour and sauté. Nothing simpler! I buy a couple, and toss the package into the freezer. When fish is what I want for dinner, I take the package out and thaw the filets in a dish of seasoned milk — don’t forget the pinch of cayenne. Having been floured, the filets go into the fridge for a spell, to set the coating. Then, they’re cooked in butter, over medium-high heat, three minutes per side. Maybe two extra minutes, if the filet seems thick. Keep adding bits of butter, so that there is a sauce, and during those final minutes, toss in a handful of slivered almonds. Serve with frenched green beans and rice. Splendid!

Cooked this way, branzino tastes a lot like trout. Trout was the first fish that I honestly liked, and I should cook it if I could find it. But I never see it in the shops. Branzino is a firm fish that does not fall apart in the skillet. It has a crisp, savory flavor that goes with its crisp, savory skin.

Of course, we wonder where it comes from. When branzino, which no one had ever heard of, began showing up, about fifteen years ago was it, we were told that it comes from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Really, we said. (We would ask an Italian-American.) But there’s no way that bins of trawled branzino are being flown to New York and sold at a very reasonable price. Is there? We wonder where the farms are. In Europe, apparently. Container ships? Oh, dear.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
At the PizzaPlex
April 2016 (III)

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Monday 18th

Comes now Parag Khanna, a think-tanker from Singapore, with a better map of the United States — better, because the States disappear. One quibbles with the details. But the important thing is to come up with a plausible way of getting rid of the states. My own utterly shameless solution is to pension off the governors and the legislators. Throw money at them! At least extract a promise from each of the fifty statehouses that no opposition will be mounted to new arrangements. To the imposition of new taxes, or, better, the diversion of old ones, to fund, say, infrastructure projects undertaken by new regional authorities. Urban-centric planning, with high-speed rail phasing out the use of Interstate Highways. First-class public hospitals. That sort of thing.

As for Washington, part of the statehouse bribes ought to include a provision that each state will return, in addition to its two senators, only one representative. This sole representative would reflect the presumption that the states, as such, were henceforth unpopulated. These congressmen would assist the president in establishing foreign policy and military procurement. Taxes would be raised in the old states to fund these projects. There would be no other federal programs. Sorry: just one. Wildnerness Management.

This brings me back to the quibbles. Although the lines that I should draw are very close to Khanna’s, I think it better to prevent shared regional boundaries, by the establishment of wildnerness areas. The entire Appalachian range, for example, is a natural buffer between the Northeast and the near Midwest. Wildnernesses would serve a number of purposes. Military reservations would occupy large tracts of this land, alongside nature and water preserves. Civilian settlement would be neither encouraged nor prohibited by the federal government, but large-scale enterprises of any kind would be forbidden. In the wilderness, gun-control laws would be what they are in the United States today, or possibly even looser.

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll simply urge readers to weigh and consider Parag Khanna’s argument for overhauling the nation’s political geography, which is, understandably, an economic one.

The problem is that while the economic reality goes one way, the 50-state model means that federal and state resources are concentrated in a state capital — often a small, isolated city itself — and allocated with little sense of the larger whole. Not only does this keep back our largest cities, but smaller American cities are increasingly cut off from the national agenda, destined to become low-cost immigrant and retirement colonies, or simply to be abandoned.

It is obviously easier for a region to prioritize its economic health than it is for a state. Khanna proposes an alliance, involving Kentucky and Tennessee primarily, to focus the prosperity of today’s automobile industry.

It is going to be a struggle between common sense and vested interests. How great it would be if human possessed the intellectual equipment to distinguish, at a glance, personal ownership from rent-seeking.


Yet another one of Kathleen’s school reunions left me home alone on Saturday night, so after a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara — about the best I’ve ever made — I set up the ironing board and watched Facing Windows (La finestra di fronte), which the Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek released in 2003 (that long ago!). I wanted to test my comprehension of Italian, and perhaps the ironing helped — I’m a much better listener when my hands are occupied. I understood rather more than expected. I caught two words that I have learned once and for all, “mistake” (sbaglio) and “lost” (perso), the latter several times. I heard the word essere (“to be”) said, more than once, with a firm accent on the first syllable. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been fooling around with Italian, sometimes quite earnestly, for more than fifty years without any consciousness whatsoever of the sdrucciolo thing, but there you are.

And maybe my hearing was helped by a complete engagement in the film itself. I don’t know how I discovered it, but I’ve loved Facing Windows for years. From the first, it made me regard the star, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Marion Cotillard’s beautiful sister. There is a scene comprised of two-shots in which she plays opposite Massimo Girotti. Girotti, who died, I gather, before the film came out, looks like one of those powerful old ruins painted by Mantegna or Piero; his youthful good looks have been ravaged by the carbuncles of age. For her part, Mezzogiorno is pure Botticelli, as fresh and unlined (and beautiful) as the newborn Venus. I had the feeling of standing between two paintings in the Uffizi — easy to imagine, since I’ve never been.

Mezzogiorno’s character, also called Giovanna, is at the center of one story and on the edge of another. Her marriage to Filippo (Filippo Nigro) has hit a rough patch, and she is distracted by the handsome young man who lives in the apartment across the way. It turns out that he, Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), has been distracted by her as well, to the point of following her around. What brings them together is the other story, which centers on Girotto’s character. He’s an old man who has lost his memory. At first, he can’t remember his name, and the name that he subsequently does remember is not his own, but that of his lover, who was rounded up in the Nazi sweep of Rome in 1943. Davide — that’s who our old man really is — got wind of the roundup and managed to run to the ghetto to warn people, but he had to choose which street to follow, and instead of saving his lover, he saved a lot of children. In the scene that I just mentioned, Giovanna discovers a numerical tatoo on Davide’s arm. So he, too, went to the camps — but he survived. This isn’t gone into in the film.

After the war, Davide became the best pastry-cook in Rome, famous throughout Europe. In a fairy-tale touch, Giovanna dreams of becoming a pastry-cook herself; she is already pretty good at it. She is startled when Davide, who hasn’t said much of anything, advises her not to smoke when she bakes and, more important, to taste the water before using it as an ingredient. When she asks him how he comes by this knowledge, he demurs: maybe in the past he knew someone who knew such things. A sharp one, Giovanna applauds the return of his memory. She doesn’t like having him in the house; Filippo’s outburst of charity is something new for them to fight about. In due course, and with Lorenzo at her side, Giovanna will begin to learn Davide’s story.

Kathleen came home early. The film had about twenty minutes to go. Even though Kathleen wasn’t paying attention — she was poring over eBay screens — I felt a shift in my response to the film. I’ve mentioned this effect before: watching a film that I know well with someone who has never seen it before can be a bit of a shock. I see it through the other person’s eyes. And suddenly, much that was moving about Facing Windows seemed a bit sappy and even more contrived. When Davide opened the door on the table full of gorgeous cakes, in a scene near the end, I thought of the lamest Hollywood romances, although the association would never have occurred to me had I been alone. When it comes to movies, Kathleen’s sensibilities are robustly American. She has no time for the “foreign film” aesthetic of Bergman and Antonioni. She sniffs at more conventional dramas as if they were soap operas. I’m convinced by Facing Windows because the register of Italian emotional responses does not seem unnatural to me. It seems — Italian.

The last scene of Facing Windows, which may well have been shot after Girotti died, is a single take of Giovanna walking around a small park, a park where, decades earlier, Davide and his lover used to leave notes, in the base of the fountain. It was in this park that Giovanna kissed Lorenzo. As she strolls, her voice addresses a news update to Davide, who has “left us forever.” She’s doing well in her job as a pastry-cook; she and Filippo are getting along better. She says that can hardly remember Lorenzo’s face, but she still wonders whom he’s smiling at now. For the rest, she talks about how he, Davide, is still with her; she can feel him in her gestures. If it is true, she surmises, that people leave something of themselves behind, then she feels safer; she knows that she will never be alone. In other words, it will in the company of Davide, not that of her husband or children or best friend (the salty Serra Yilmaz), that Giovanna spends the rest of her life. With this strange observation, the actress turns toward the camera, which pulls up to her until her eyes fill the frame, and it stays there, running for what feels like hours.

I had to watch this again just now, because I remembered only the bits about the new career and Filippo. Did she mention Lorenzo? And what made this final scene feel so momentous? Eyewash — because that’s what Kathleen would probably have made of it. Watching it just now, alone once again, I was very moved by it. I felt that Giovanna was not looking at me, nor that Giovanna Mezzogiorno was seeing the camera. I felt that Davide had been brought back to life. Along with my unabashedly Italian self.


Over the weekend, I read a story by Natalia Ginzburg. It is a very famous story, I believe, because it is collected not only in the book of five novellas that just arrived from Italy but also in the first issue of Penguin’s Italian Short Stories, edited by Raleigh Trevelyan, which I’ve had for a thousand years. It has held aspirational status for all this time; I’ve never got round to reading it. But I thought that I should read “La Madre” in the Penguin, and take advantage of the facing translation when necessary.

The success of this story depends on its ironies, which are concealed not so much from the reader as from the schoolboy brothers from whose point of view everything is told. We not only see from their point of view but hear what they understand. Being adults ourselves, we can figure out what is going on beyond their observation and comprehension, but we stick with them, because Ginzburg makes their inner life quite real. They’re nothing special, just boys; but their concerns are insisted upon. In an early, shocking passage, they say that their mother is not important. Almost everyone else is important, because everyone else is good at permitting and forbidding. What’s important, to a ten-year-old, is the exercise of authority; knowing what to expect in this line makes life simpler. The mother does not exercise authority with any consistency; she’s moody, and she is not at all focused on them.

At the very outset, we’re told that the boys are stupefied by their classmates’ mothers, all of whom are old and fat. Their own mother is still young and thin. She dresses like a young woman, too. She makes up her face carefully, first thing every morning. After seeing the boys to school, she mounts her bicycle and whizzes off, presumably to the office where she works. We learn that she goes out at night, ostensibly with “a friend,” to see movies. Several times, she comes home so late that her father, prowling around the apartment in which she herself grew up, starts a fight with her the minute she walks in the door. (The boys, of course, are awakened by the ruckus.) By now, we’re beginning to see a picture that the boys cannot. Although they can understand, sort of, that she might be prostitute — without their meaning to do so, that is the impression that is conveyed to us — they cannot grasp that she is simply a woman who is holding on to her youth. She will not wear a widow’s black clothes and let her figure go. She wants another chance at romance.

One day, on a long walk with their priest, the boys spot their mother in a café, holding hands with a man and smiling. Later, when her parents are away and the housemaid has gone to her people as well, this man comes to dinner. The mother can’t cook, but she buys some appetizing prepared food and only burns the sauce a bit. For what seems like the first time, the boys have a good time in her company. The man has sojourned in Africa, where he owned a monkey. He left the monkey in Africa, because he didn’t think that it would do well on the steamship that brought him home. When they never see the man again, the boys wonder if he went back to Africa, to take care of his monkey. It is all perfectly told, and heartbreaking.

You see what utterly conventional Italian men the boys are going to grow up to be. It never once occurs to them to stand up for “the mother”; the only feeling that she inspires in them is embarrassed disgust. You understand that the tragedy of the mother’s life is a familiar one, but Ginzburg refreshes it by occluding it. The labor of inferring her feelings and her fate from what the boys say makes her plight far more harrowing than she herself could ever make it. There is no room in the world that Ginzburg creates for widows who cling to their youth, who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives without kisses or embraces. The men who are available for such pleasures come from Africa and return to Africa. The mother is living in the wrong place at the wrong time. She would have done better to take up prostitution.

The centrality of mothers in Italian life is legendary. Every man worships his mother. The terms and conditions of this worship are implicit; people don’t talk about them. Ginzburg writes a story about them, and it is shocking, because nobody wants to think of the sacrifices that the mother must make in order to earn that worship, without which she is simply a non-person, worse than an old maid. (In one of the most delicate ironies, one day, while she’s walking them to school, the mother tells her sons about a teacher she had, an old maid who tried to hold onto her youth. This teacher, in other words, was merely ridiculous. The mother herself is vulnerable to much worse than ridicule.) The mother in Ginzburg’s story does not want to be a mother. She wants to go to the office, where she types letters and translates foreign languages. There may be pockets of sophistication in Italy where this would be possible, but the mother does not inhabit one of them.

I’m suddenly reminded of Io sono l’amore, in which the mother, played by Tilda Swinton, carries things much further: she has an affair with the friend of her son. It is not her son’s worship that she wants. When the son finds out what’s going on — and how he finds out is a masterpiece of storytelling — he is so shocked that he falls down, hits his head, and dies. Just like that! It is beyond the unspeakable. But if you think that it is contrived…


Tuesday 19th

Today is Kathleen’s sixty-third birthday, and, by way of a present, the Wall Street Journal has published a profile-cum-update of her career so far. The paywall is abrupt, but you can see a nice photograph of Kathleen. Leslie Josephs’s article will appear in print tomorrow, I’m told.


So, now I have read Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society twice. I know Early Europe in much finer detail than I did in the mid-Nineties, when I read the book for the first time. Golly, to think that I was in my late forties before I knew much of anything about the period. I had avoided it because of its reputation as a Dark Age. So depressing! But somehow, a copy of Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change had come into my hands, and suddenly, where there had been dark, there was at least an early dawn. When did I get hold of Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book that I am always trying to understand better? It’s because I was re-reading Reynolds that I picked up Bloch for another look. Now I’m going to try to figure out why Reynolds was so bothered by Bloch’s outlook.

Feudalism was discovered, and in many ways invented, by French lawyers in the Sixteenth Century. Never mind why; the point is that it was hundreds of years before anyone else took a closer look at anything but the old charters (so many of which, as Bloch would demonstrate, were fakes — and yet none the less legitimate for that). The Gothic Revival, as a picturesque state of mind, had pretty much run its course by the time academic historians applied their new and “more scientific” techniques to the records and other remains of the period, replacing venerable narratives. which had come down from generation to generation without much scrutiny, with accounts that valued accuracy over excitement. Thus the problem that the student of Early Europe faces is twofold: the records are scarce and fragmentary, and rarely reliable on their face. One thing that really distinguishes Early Europe, between the withdrawal of the Romans and the initiation of the Crusades, from the régimes that preceded and followed it is the relative absence of bureaucracy. For a number of reasons — especially professional literacy, and stationary institutions such as cathedrals and monasteries — only the ecclesiastics kept good records. Kings and other great men were almost always on the move, carrying their belongings in their train. It is no wonder that things got lost; but, like any nomads, authorities on the move strove not to accumulate things that weren’t liquid assets. So there is relatively little to work with. In some ways the more intimidating problem is the briary of legends and just-so stories in which Early Europe, a/k/a “the Middle Ages” (a term worthy of George RR Martin), is mythically embedded. The student has to chop her way through the thorns of Disney versions, only to find that there is little of any value at the center.

Even Bloch is occasionally susceptible to a regrettable essentialism. His chapter on the “Peace of God” movement of the late Tenth and early Eleventh Centuries blandly includes the following:

Finally, violence was an element in manners. Medieval men had little control over their immediate impulses; they were emotionally insensitive to the spectacle of pain, and they had small regard for human life, which they saw only as a transitory state before Eternity; moreover, they were very prone to make it a point of honour to display their physical strength in an almost animal way. (411)

When I read this, I bristled with questions. How did violence come to be an element in manners? Why the impulse issues? Is is true — and how do we know such a thing — that “they saw” life “only” as a tryout for Paradise? Finally, the comparison to animals is ambiguous, as most such comparisons usually are. I don’t mean to say that Bloch is wrong; but this kind of writing as better at dismissing phenomena than it is at explaining them.

It is never made quite clear enough, by Bloch or anyone else, that Early Europe was new. It was built on Roman foundations only where those foundations existed. Much of the territory was inhabited by human beings for the first time, or at least for the first time in centuries. Most of the farmland was of fairly recent clearance. Towns were small, and almost all structures were built of wood. Roads were terrible. This wasn’t because the Roman Empire had collapsed and left everything in ruins. It was because everything was improvised and roughed out, like a path across a field. And then there were the invaders.

The invaders who afflicted the Early Europeans were not very numerous, but their attacks persisted for years. Comparison with the settlement of the American West might be illuminating. In America, the Europeans invaders wanted only one thing that the natives possessed: land. In Early Europe, this was, at least initially, the last thing the invaders wanted. They were attracted by the prosperity of the new settlers: they wanted their jewels and they wanted their gold and silver. The Roman Empire had had to deal with the same sort of problem on its borders, but for a long time it was massively more powerful than the troublesome barbarians. The Early Europeans followed the opposite trajectory: they started out weak and got stronger. They did this, however, without the complex equipment carried by American settlers in the western territories. They had little in the way of the institutional arrangements that by the Nineteenth Century were taken, if anything, too much for granted. They had none of the technological backup — railroads, telegraphs — that cemented the pioneers’ achievements. The rough and tumble of early settlements in the American West was very quickly replaced by the lawfulness and conventionality that characterized the other parts of the country. In two generations, the offspring of gunmen became bankers and shopkeepers. The Early Europeans, in contrast could not import sturdy civil institutions from elsewhere. Elsewhere was too far away.

So they adapted arrangements that had been initiated by the Carolingians on the fly, transforming them sometimes out of all recognition. Charlemagne’s grants of “benefices” — rent or other money paid by monasteries to the king’s soldiers — were intended not to be permanent, and the counts whom he disposed over far-flung territories were supposed to be his agents, appointed at will, and they had no property rights whatsoever in their offices. These attributes were metamorphosed into their opposites by the pressures of the invasions. The idea of “freedom,” so central to Frankish self-regard, went through a degrading transformation; almost every man was free at the beginning of Early Europe; by the Thirteenth Century, most men were not, and they would continue in their servitude for another five hundred years.

As I see it, the lack of impulse control exhibited by Early Europeans was a straightforward result of trauma. Seemingly endless invasions reduced men already governed by a warlike ethos to hysterical fighters. The warlike ethos does not explain feudal violence by itself. Only the repeated invasions could break down the hierarchies that contained warfare during the Carolingian heyday. I am trying to develop an idea of humanism that begins with an awareness of genuine human limitations. Instead of regarding people as failed angels — that’s the kind of spurious human limitation that has governed so much thinking since antiquity — I accept their tendency to be damaged by violence and instability: you cannot expect human beings to behave very well if they are subjected to protracted, unpredictable attacks. That is why civil society, with its (one hopes) ever more accommodating conventions, is a sine qua non of human flourishing.

Feudalism, with its obsessive appeal to gratitude and loyalty on the smallest possible personal scale — between two men — is the measure of Early Europe’s instability. I think that Reynolds is right to argue that there never was a feudal period because the feudal project, so to speak, never actually worked according to plan. It was as though the personal, feudal bond could be entered into only under conditions of extreme inebriation, from which the parties subsequently awoke with something like buyers’ remorse. The weakness of the feudal bond was always a function of distance: one man swore to submit to another man who could not see what he was up to. What the lords and vassals quickly discovered, or would have discovered if they had not regarded faithlessness as aberrant, was that intimate relationships cannot be put to use unless they are so deep that there is no need to mention them.


The copy of Cassell’s Italian-English/English-Italian dictionary that I ordered arrived yesterday, and it passed the Ginzburg-Dante test. In one paragraph of the novella Sagittario, I found a word and a term that did not appear in the Webster’s New World Italian &c dictionary. The term was sbocco di sangue. I could figure out what it meant — spitting of blood — and I was intrigued to learn that sbocco is used to refer to commercial sales outlets. The word was tosone — il ragazzo dal tosone biondo. It might have hit me after a while that this was the Italian version of toison, as in toison d’or, the golden fleece that used to symbolize the chivalric order of the same name and that now adorns the Brooks Brothers trademark. But I found the word on the Internet. Then, in the first canto of Inferno, I came across grame, also omitted by Webster’s. I’m half of the opinion that every word in the Commedia Divina ought to be in the dictionary, but then, you know me. Even Cassell’s doesn’t list it. But Cassell’s does list gramaglia, “mourning,” and that meets the sense of Dante’s verse.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novella keeps making me laugh. How do I know it’s funny? My Italian isn’t that good, or at any rate I have no right to expect it to be. Sagittario is as funny as “La Madre” is grim. Once again, there is an unconventional mother, but this one has resources as well as independence. Let’s see what I can do: here’s the fourth paragraph of the story.

To pay for this house in town, my mother had sold some land that she owned, between Dronero and San Felice; she had argued with her relatives, all of whom were opposed to the division of the property. My mother had been cherishing the prospect of leaving Dronero for several years; she got the idea after my father died, and she told everyone she met about her plans, writing letter after letter to her sisters in town, asking them to help her to find a place to live. My mother’s sisters, who had lived in the town for a long time and who owned a little shop where they sold porcelain, were not very happy to hear about this project, because they feared that they would have to lend her money. Avaricious and timid, my mother’s sisters were caused bitter suffering by this thought, but they felt that they would not have the stamina to refuse the loan. As for a place to live, my mother found the house herself, in an afternoon, and as soon as she acquired it, she charged like a wild boar into the shop and asked her sisters for a loan, because the money that she got from the sale of the land was not enough. My mother, when she wanted to ask a favor, assumed a rough, distracted air. So the sisters were cowed into disbursing a sum of money that they knew they would never see again.

And I can’t resist the continuation.

My mother’s sisters were also troubled by another fear: that my mother, having moved herself into town, would get the idea of helping out in the shop. And this, too, happened right away.

For a while, I wondered what this year’s spring thing would be. I know that there are readers who have not recovered from my infatuation with Hannah Arendt — a sincere and profound engagement with her thinking that continues to my profit, but that I no longer have the urge to discuss as such. Last year, it was Penelope Fitzgerald, just as, a few years before, it was Elizabeth Taylor (both novelists). When was Albert O Hirschman? As I say, I was wondering. All the time, it was getting obviouser and obviouser that this year’s spring thing is going to be Italian, with a minor in Gilbert & Sullivan. I promise to keep actual Italian words and texts to a minimum, and instead to try to translate what appeals to me, with a view not to accuracy so much as to capturing the fun that I’ve gotten out of it.

Prendeva un fare ruvido e distratto: I can’t decide how to translate this. “Rough, distracted air” is a mere stab in the dark. Going by the dictionary, I could just as well say, “crude, absent-minded manner.” I haven’t encountered the word ruvido often enough to have any sense of its weight in Italian. I can just get a vague picture of how the mother behaves — she talks as though the money were by the way, an incidental thing that she shouldn’t have to bring up, while at the same time seeming to blame her sisters for making the discussion necessary. I suppose that, in English, this might be described as “bluff impatience.” “When she wanted to ask a favor, her attitude became bluff and impatient.”

I haven’t got very far in Sagittario. Maybe it won’t stay funny for long.


Thursday 21st

But maintaining discipline is more difficult than hiring new aides. Even some of Mr. Trump’s allies privately doubt that he can control his outbursts. And some Republicans believe that his adjustments are too late, that he is destined to lose at a convention because of a long litany of missteps and political trespasses earlier in the campaign.

Such is the state of play at this moment in Donald Trump’s career among the pundits. It hasn’t changed very much since Trump launched his campaign last summer; the dialectic has always been simple. At first, Trump would say something that the pundits would dismiss, along with Trump himself, as “outrageous.” As today’s observation, reported by Jonathan Martin in the Times, indicates, the scrimmage has moved to the institutional realities of running for president. Because Trump hasn’t done his political homework, the delegates who are bound to vote for him on the first ballot can vote for someone else on the second. Ted Cruz, who plays politics with the passion of a true gamer, has sewn up a lot of these delegates, resulting in a process that Trump calls “rigged.” (An allegation that he would never make if he thought that things were rigged in his favor.) The political tide, however, has tended to back Trump, bearing him ever closer to victory. Those outbursts, those missteps and trespasses — they don’t seem to do him any lasting harm. What is it that the pundits are missing?

Perhaps the pundits have forgotten that they are but a small sideshow on the media juggernaut. Pundits are charged with explaining political events to educated viewers who are aware that politics is a game with rules, but who fear that they don’t know the rules as well as they ought to do. Thus are the pundits identified with the rules. If the pundits were referees, they could enforce those rules. But pundits have no real authority. The most that they can do is get steamed up about outrages and outbursts. Pundits are useless in a revolution.

If you detach the pundits, if you drop a big black tablecloth over the lot of them, it’s much easier to see that the media juggernaut is not only enthusiastic about Trump but hopeful about using him to overthrow the rules of the political game as we know them, because the current rules, let’s face it, are boring. The media juggernaut prefers a president who swaggers from catastrophe to catastrophe, pointing fingers, and screaming like Don Rickles or mocking like Phyllis Diller. Such a playbook would make for great television. The media and Donald Trump have been playing nice together, mostly in New York, for more than thirty years, and both sides — well, why speak of “sides”? From the viewpoint of a cameraman or a news producer, Donald Trump is simply “content” of almost ideal purity. And he gives it away for free!

I wish that Neil Postman were still with us, not because I can’t imagine perfectly well what he would have to say about the nightmare of the Trump campaign, but because he might relish tasting the fulfillment of his prophecies. (Then again, maybe not.) Here is how his Wikipedia page summarizes Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking: 1985):

[The book] warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argues that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning.

Now, the Wikipedia page is flagged with many calls for cites and verifications, and, if I can find my copy, I’ll try to provide a few — some other time. But that these lines capture the gist of Postman’s argument is clear enough to anyone who has read the book. They also capture an anxiety that Donald Trump’s candidacy has borne out. The pundits themselves might not have accused Trump of “demeaning and undermining political discourse” &c in so many words, but that remains the burden of their outrage. Calling for the erection of a wall on our Mexican border, to be paid for by Mexico, is not “political discourse.” It is superficial imagery. Superficial imagery is exactly the drug to which television viewers are addicted. That is what plays on the screens that people turn on when they come home from work, what superimposes the illusion of connection upon isolated lives. Postman most remarkably noted that it is impossible to present the act of thinking on television. I wrote about this a few years ago, but the passage is well worth repeating.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impossible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas. … At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (90-91)

(“Some other time” arrived sooner than expected. I found my copy, and the quote as well, which I’ve now more properly cited.)

So, if you are mystified by the rise of Trump in American politics, you will find that the mystery was explained in a thirty year-old book.

And remember: pundits were invented to give the new medium of television gravitas and legitimacy. They have become the ritual Foo dogs of what is more than ever the Boob Tube. The Donald has the good sense not to appear alongside them. He phones himself in.

When you try to “think” about this campaign season, try to guess how it will play out; when you try to answer the question, Who do you think’s gonna win?, the tendency is to go with the pundits, because that’s where “thinking” leads. The pundits know how the game is played, and they know that Ted Cruz knows how the game is played, and that he is playing it very well. But if you look back on the campaign so far, it seems that Trump is right: the game is “rigged.” That is: the rules of the game are irritating.

If people watched television seriously — if they cherished the medium — the rules of politics, as well as all other rules, would be part of the pleasure. On the arts, rules are there to be broken, but only in such a way as to reinforce them. The rules aren’t really broken at all; rather, exceptions to the rules are recognized as such, and, as such, add to the richness of the rules. But television gave up on being an art form almost immediately: there wasn’t enough money to support such a use of its expensive technology. By the Eighties, television had become an armature for unavoidable commercial announcements. To prevent ads from striking an obnoxious tone, everything else was retuned.

The problem with the rule of no rules is the drift toward shapeless repetition. Therefore everything shown on television must be, to whatever microscopic degree, a novelty. And what is Donald Trump if not a piñata of novelties? As an impresario of real-estate put-ons — literally! he puts his name on buildings that others have paid for — with new casinos, new golf-courses, new wives, and new apprentices, Trump is the compleat representative of the television viewer; for, as to all subjects but himself, Trump bores easily. You can just imagine how exciting his foreign policy would be! So many opportunities for doing new, undreamed of things! How’s this for a reality show: Trump and Putin agree to a list of enemies. Then they try to outdo one another, taking out these unfortunates — with nuclear submarines! Don’t worry about the bombs! They won’t explode! They’ll just humiliate, with tar and feathers — while simultaneously emptying bank accounts. Such fun! The spectacle will be so engrossing that productivity will drop to zero — justifying the maintenance of an impoverished worker class that wouldn’t have the free time to watch even if it could afford access.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism,” which she describes as “a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither.”

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Solnit doesn’t link naive cynicism to macho self-puffery, but I couldn’t help seeing a very strong connection, at least to the phenomenon of the hipster. Women have so many more things to work with when it comes to projecting an image. All that distinguishes the men from the boys in our world is the man’s savvy: experience has taught him not to take the world at face value. Every actual man must ask whether this is true of himself. To avoid the possibility of being bamboozled — again, a favorite line from Radio Days: “Dana Andrews is a man.” “She is?” — a man might choose to adopt an all-purpose doubtfulness. Solnit’s point is that this habit precludes paying attention. Why pay attention if you “already know” that something is bogus?

Naïve cynicism loves itself more than the world: it defends itself in lieu of the world.

I couldn’t agree more, but I might tweak the judgment by substituting “fears for” for “loves.” Naive cynicism is, after all, as old as Europe’s peasant class; it is the uninquisitive conservatism that values staying out of trouble above all other satisfactions. It is also the outlook that generally operates behind the façade thought by others to be “cool.” J E Lighter, in his tragically incomplete Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says something very interesting about the use of “cool” to mean “under control.” In Standard English, he says (in words that I am not going to quote, because I already put the book away), “cool” has been used in this sense since Beowulf, but always in comparison to the hypothetical alternative of hot-headedness. Only after World War II did the black American use of the word to mean “good” instill cool with its absolute quality. To say that somebody is cool is to say that he couldn’t possibly be anything else, because cool is who he is.

That’s the kind of cool that the naive cynic has in mind: cool is who he is, and it doesn’t matter what happens. Pretending to be a man whose experience has taught him what’s what, he has in fact learned nothing from experience.

Another connection that Solnit doesn’t make — or, to put it more generously, one that she allows her readers to draw on their own — is between naive cynicism and journalism. Actually, her piece is infused by an implicit connection. The examples that she cites almost all have to do with media put-downs of the Occupy movement, of opposition to the Keystone pipeline, of the idea that revelations about Exxon’s duplicity, with regard to its awareness of the climate-changing consequences of burning fossil fuels, constituted news. Journalists who specialize in assessing the grist for their professional mill, as distinct from journalists who are plain old investigative reporters, are particularly prone to put amour-propre in front of information. And this lands them in a strange bind, doesn’t it? After all, their way of writing about the news involves a fundamental denial that there is any news to report. Nothing may be new under the sun sub specie aeternitatis, but we’re presumably not paying pundits to tell us that everything is still the same. Are we?


Friday 22nd

The other day, when I was out for lunch, my curiosity was drawn to a party of four men who were seated at a nearby table. I was instantly aware that they were not American, but the more I looked at them, the more they looked like solid citizens of the American heartland. But that was one bit of proof that they weren’t. You don’t see four such men together at a table, not in New York. They were substantial without being fat. With one exception, the men could have been dressed by L L Bean, and their clothes looked like personal default settings for everyday attire. They did not look like people who worked indoors. They seemed always to be smiling small smiles of self-satisfaction, but they did not strike me as unattractively smug. Had I been looking for the answer, I might have asked them what was the secret of the good life.

Instead, I asked them — one of them — what language they were speaking, for this was the more obvious indicator of their foreignness. I couldn’t make out a word: not only could I not understand the bits that I heard, but I couldn’t place them in any known language. I hear incomprehensible languages all the time on the elevators in our apartment building, and quite often, in addition to being incomprehensible, such as Hebrew, they are unrecognizable, which Hebrew is not. As someone whose interest in foreign languages is primarily literary, and whose mother tongue is arguably the world’s most widely-spoken second language, I’ve learned that there are many languages the knowledge of which is confined almost wholly to native speakers. (They don’t make a lot of movies in Tajikistan or Brunei.) It didn’t seem odd at all that I couldn’t tell what language the four men were speaking, but I was dying to find out.

The man whose attention I caught was very pleasant about it. “Finnish,” he said. “It sounds like Italian.” It had sounded to me, if anything, rather more like Spanish, although it very clearly wasn’t. But that’s a narcissism-of-small-differences thing. Although my knowledge of Italian (and French, to a lesser extent) permits me to bluff my way through Spanish texts, I can’t think of two languages that sound less alike — Italian, with its rolling sea-swells occasionally cresting in a whitecap; Spanish, with its impatiently curtailing staccato. In the end, what the men were speaking didn’t sound like either. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. I’ve known Finnish-Americans, but their Finnish was all but completely lost. The language itself has no close relatives.

When I told this story to a friend who came to dinner, he said, “And to think that Finnish is a language that was not written down until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.” I nodded vaguely, then disagreed. How, if this were correct, could Longfellow have derived the rhythm of Hiawatha from the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala? My friend took out his phone and mused his beard. Like a game show host, he said, “The Kalevala was first written published in — .” I thought for a moment. I came up with a year for Longfellow, 1845; don’t ask me how. I took ten years off, to give someone the time to translate the epic. “1835,” I said. My friend almost got up and left the room. Never be afraid to bluff! But never be afraid to ask, either.


My friend lives in Geneva, with his lovely wife and new daughter. He had thought that it would be a good idea to visit New York, which he loves, before his daughter could walk. He and his wife were kind enough to come uptown to our apartment and brave enough trust me to feed them. I’m not sure that I did the right thing. I made three pizzas. It struck me that a regular dinner, sitting at table with several courses, would not be compatible with the presence of a child not yet five months old. We were friends, after all, not family. I thought that it would be simpler and more agreeable to sit on the love seats in the living room and eat with our hands. Our get-together was not intended to be, primarily, a culinary experience. This all seemed obvious in advance. Now, looking back, I’m not so sure. But my reservations owe less to the quality of the idea than to the quality of the execution.

I had never made more than one pizza at a time, and I had never made two of the pizzas that I planned to offer. Complicating everything was a crisis at the office. No sooner did Kathleen get home (late) than she had to call the lawyer who has been working with her on an unpleasant problem. Sitting in the living room, our friends and I could hear highly uncharacteristic outbursts from the bedroom. Eventually, Kathleen came out and joined us. By then, I had cooked the first pizza.

By then, I had assembled all the pizzas. This took longer than I thought it would. Oh, I had cut everything up that needed cutting up, long before the time for assembly; I had little bowls of things everywhere in the kitchen. But what with putting flowers in a vase, getting our visitors something to drink, putting a towel on the bed so that the baby’s diaper could be changed in complete safety, and just talking to friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, I couldn’t quite focus on what went where. The pizza that I cooked first was not a problem; it was our default pizza — fennel sausage, mushrooms, my own tomato sauce (new!), and mozzarella. I made it not because it was familiar but because I wasn’t sure that Kathleen would like either of the other two.

Now that I have pretty much satisfied the pizza-parlor urge, I’ve moved on to recreating a pizza that I used to love at a pizzeria on Third Avenue called Loui Loui. It was a very gracious place, and the menu was not limited to pizza. Atmospherically, Loui Loui was a chic Italian bar. I forget the name of the pizza that I used to order, but it had basil and prosciutto, and I think that it was a pizza bianca — no tomato sauce. But there must have been more to it than prosciutto and basil, because my first attempt was nothing like it. I should have made it before, but Kathleen dislikes basil, and I was shamelessly taking advantage of having other mouths to feed.

Kathleen did like the third pizza, which it felt very daring to make. Which is why I made it. If you’re going to serve pizza to people who have crossed the Atlantic for dinner, you have to offer something a bit off the beaten track. So I followed a recipe (from Truly Madly Pizza) for a combination of fennel, sardines, and breadcrumbs, with mozzarella but without sauce. The recipe also called for fresh thyme, but I missed that when I was making my shopping list — just as I completely forgot to buy a dessert. (I blame Agata & Valentina for that. In order to stand at the pastry counter, you have to obstruct, at least partially, the checkout queue.) I also forgot to make my pizza dough with a blend of white flour and semolina. I forgot to set the timer for one of the pizzas — our friend gently reminded me. She, I have learned since my friend first introduced me to her, is someone who misses nothing. Somehow all the pizzas got made. Each was cut into four slices, and there was only one slice remaining when our friends left and Kathleen retired to the bedroom. It was a piece of the basil-and-prosciutto pizza, and to mark my great disappointment with it, I threw it away.

Going in, I had no sense of production time. This is something that you learn for every dish in your repertoire. If I’m going to make spaghetti alla carbonara, when do I have to start? Are there points along the way when I can pause, and, if so, can I pause indefinitely? How much of those dishes that are cooked at the last minute can be prepared in advance? I’ve always regarded production time as the key problem of cooking. Ours has not been a household in which meals are served at set times. Meals are served when Kathleen is ready to eat them, and there is often no knowing that in advance.

Pizza involves leavened bread — dough with yeast. It can’t just sit around. Except, I’m finding, it can. I don’t know why. My pizza dough recipe calls from a much higher proportion of yeast than any of my bread recipes. But then, it also calls for a higher proportion of salt, and salt retards the action of yeast. In any case, the three crusts were rolled out on pieces of parchment long before anybody arrived. The toppings were in their little bowls. I know now that I could have gone ahead and assembled the pizzas in advance. That would have made me a much more effective host.

In his kind thank-you note, my friend noted that he didn’t know when we’d see each other again — a perfectly reasonable remark. Trips to New York are thrown away on children who are not capable of walking, talking, and minding the gap. Our new little friend is going to spend a lot more time on ski slopes than on sidewalks, and her parents, I know, are not going to take pleasure trips without her. Nevertheless, even with all this sensible knowledge in my head, I felt that pizza in the love seats had perhaps been a tad too casual. My own provincial outlook still associates pizza, no matter how artisanal, with prepared food that comes out of a box or a can. The convenience of the host is inversely proportional to the welcome of the guests. (Not that making three pizzas from scratch was all that convenient!) There are times when I wish I were French. If I were French, it would never occur to me to do unusual things. And dinner would appear at seven, every day without fail.


David Bowie was almost exactly a year older than I am. Prince was nearly ten years younger, but, like Bowie, he made me feel much older. Like any rock musician. Nothing makes me feel older than rock ‘n’ roll, even though in was in first grade when Elvis was singing about hound dogs.

I clearly being being totally repelled by Elvis Presley. He sounded louche and unseemly, like someone who would never be welcome in my house. From the beginning, my reaction to rock ‘n’ roll and the kind of movements that it inspired was allergic. At best, I thought that it was ridiculous. Mostly, it seemed casually violent, and it made me feel unsafe. Not me personally, but us, the men and women and children in the street.

I had no idea of its black roots. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as black roots. My closest contact with black America was Ethel Waters’s Beulah, a very proper lady even if she was a housemaid. I didn’t know what “rhythm and blues,” that strange juke-box category meant until I was in college, and I think I found out from reading. To me, rock ‘n’ roll was a zit that erupted on lily-white skin. It was misbehavior.

There are some great artworks that demand complete attention, but most do not. The base line of the European or Western aesthetic has always been the atmosphere of the princely court, and our artists have developed an unsung knack for creating work that, even though it warrants the keenest analysis and appreciation, can be ignored by people who are having a conversation. I’m talking about the kind of people who can have a conversation without disturbing their neighbors, another Western art form not often encountered in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Outside Voice. What I mean is that, with a Vermeer print on the wall, and while playing a recording of a Mozart quartet, it is possible to marshal one’s thoughts well enough to contribute to a rich conversation. The freedom to shift registers of attention is one of the prizes of Western civilization. You can be bowled over by a sculpture one day, and on the next you can walk right by it on your way to dinner. There is very little ritual to the experience of art in the West.

And those great artworks that do demand complete attention — Mahler’s symphonies, for example — are conversations of a sort about the the things that cultured people in the West talk about, but raised to a higher pitch. We have developed a convention, unknown to the princely courts in which they were born, of observing silence in the presence of performing arts. Sometimes, it seems to me, the silence is carried to ritualistic extremes, and I’ve become a passionate clapper after roof-raising first movements. But the point of the experience of art, as Kathleen puts it, is to talk about it later. Art in the West, at least until the irruption of Modernism, has always been profoundly social.

Given this mindset, I won’t surprise anyone by saying that, if it has been a while since my last exposure to rock, my first thought upon hearing it involves The Lord of the Flies. I am never reminded of black culture.

I ought to confess, I suppose, that I never cared for being young as such, and rather hated being a child. I wasn’t born at forty; I was born at sixty. Which may be why my brain finally seems to be working.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (II)

Monday, April 11th, 2016

Monday 11th

On the front page of the Times this morning, an article about Hamilton. I read over the weekend that you can’t get tickets for this show for a date earlier than January 2017. Kathleen and I have not seen it, and we have no intention of seeing it. Reason n+1 for my staying away appears at the end of this morning’s first paragraph: “… not to mention the way Mr. Miranda’s dazzling rap lyrics pull off rhymes like ‘line of credit’ and ‘financial diuretic.'” I might be able to sit through two or three examples of that sort of prosody. Then I should be on my feet, leaving the theatre. In the twenty-odd years since rap began to impinge, my loathing of it has become too upsetting to contemplate. Not all the cleverness in the world can conceal its degrading belligerence.

Jennifer Schuessler’s piece is about the complaints that some historians have registered about the historical accuracy of the show. On the whole, I don’t expect literary adaptations of historical events to get all the little details right. The idea of an improper relationship between Don Carlos and his stepmother, the Queen of Spain, might be laughable, but Schiller and Verdi make it a worthy fiction. Sometimes, the fiction is unworthy, as in, notoriously, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but I have no reason — beyond the rap — to believe that Hamilton does a disservice to Hamilton. I daresay that few in the audience, even among those with Ivy League degrees, know much more about Hamilton than his death in a duel, his desire for a central bank, and, possibly, his Caribbean birth, which barred him from presidential aspirations.

I’ve thought about downloading the album and giving the songs a listen. As I said the other day, I don’t like disliking things. Especially very popular things. I’d like to be wrong about Hamilton. Ideally, I’d find it forgettable, somewhat amusing but disposable. But I don’t want to experiment badly enough to sit through what promises to be, for me, a grating unpleasantness. The fact that I couldn’t in any case is a relief. I’d have at least nine months to accumulate more indirect information about the show. Everyone Kathleen has talked to who has seen it has loved it. That seems to be all that Kathleen has heard: Loved it. Further particulars are not offered. I overheard a man of about my age praising it to the barber recently. Great show, he said — leaving it there. The message I got was that he had actually been to see it, no mean achievement, and that he was still young enough at heart to like it. Great show perhaps — but it was all about him.

Hamilton may be unusually successful, but I doubt that it is unusually bad. Those songs that I haven’t heard — I can easily imagine them, in all their songlessness. This has something to do with rap, but much more to do with the legacy of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is an immensely cultured, sophisticated writer. But I don’t think that he is genuinely musical. He seems to me to regard music as a self-important distraction from the beauty of well-wrought lyrics — much like the Poet in Strauss’s opera about opera, Capriccio. At his best, I grudgingly suppose, he can turn the music down so that the sentiment glows through. I never cared for it, but I appreciate its literary polish. Unfortunately, Sondheim opened the door to a turgidity that swamped and drowned real music.

I remember the night that we saw The Phantom of the Opera. Fortunately, not all of it. We weren’t in a theatre; we had just had dinner with twelve hundred other people, in a vast chain of brutalist ballrooms at a hotel disguised as a parking garage in Palm Desert. Our host was a major accounting firm. A partner of the firm was sitting at our table, so we felt that we could not leave. A chamber version of the show, which was still running on Broadway at the time, and not yet touring, had been fashioned for a handful of performers, and the run-time cut down to forty-five minutes. (I assume that the producers of the show were clients of the accountants.) The Phantom of the Opera was every bit as bad as we expected it be. Where there ought to have been music, there was sugary lamentation. The melodrama was triteness made up to look like camp. It wasn’t inadvertently funny; it was just awful. I have never been able to decide whether works of this ilk are incompetent or cynical. Kathleen and I were bored to sobs.

Yes, but how do you know the show is terrible if you’ve never seen it. The older you get, the more you know. You can tell a great deal about a show from a photograph, and even more from a lot of photographs. (Hamilton might have had a much better chance with me had its costumes actually reflected the sensibility of fusion that is implicit in its lyrics, but instead, they’re a mixture, a miscellany of then and now. Whatever it’s supposed to do, Hamilton oughtn’t to look like a third-rate provincial production of Figaro.) You hear a snatch of the singing on a passing screen. You ponder “financial diuretic.” You know.

Nevertheless, whatever my feelings about the show, I should normally feel constrained to keep them to myself, because they are indeed a matter of surmise, and not of experience; beyond that, I am on record as someone who doesn’t see the point of unfavorable criticism. Let silence be eloquent. Consider this passage as a response merely to the phenomenon of Hamilton‘s financial success.

I’m aware, by the way, that rap is political statement, and I am sure that it has been empowering. For this very reason, it can have no structural place in the arts, which consider human limitations in a grain too fine for political action. Magna Carta and our Declaration of Independence are not works of literature, either.


My reading pile has a wetlands feel to it. The same books are there every day; the bookmarks are just a little further along, if they’ve moved at all. I’ve been reading a good deal on the Kindle — two Brunetti novels by Donna Leon and, now, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted. Volume I of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society has given way to Volume II, and the French original has appeared. (Wondering what inspired L A Manyon to write “cosy” in his translation, I discovered Bloch’s “odeur de pain de ménage.”) Eyeless in Gaza promises to be eternal. The other night, I read a most stupefying chapter about “the proper use of the self.” I couldn’t tell if I had no idea what Huxley was talking about or if I wanted to keep it that way.

I am in no hurry whatsoever to finish Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole, but regard it as a box of very nice chocolates. Reading it is most gratifying. Of course, it’s not really Italian. Lahiri writes in idiomatic Italian, but she does not think in it. Her trains of thought are all perfectly Anglophone, and if there is a note of genuine Italian sensibility in her short story, “Lo Scambio,” it is only a note, a scent. I think that the story reads better in Italian, but the very fact that I have no difficulty reaching that conclusion makes it somewhat suspect.

Last week, I thought I had better get my hands on some recent Italian fiction. The obvious choice would be Elsa Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy (also granslated by Ann Goldstein), but a little voice warns me that either it’s not for me or I’m not ready for it. So I perused the pages of Amazon’s Italian site. Just reading about the books on offer called for a a greater command of Italian than In altre parole does. Every language, and especially the literary patois of every language, has its own manner of thinking, or façon de penser, which as a matter of course can never be translated. It can only be learned, as painstakingly and as tentatively as the Rosetta stone was deciphered. While one door opens on ways of looking at the world that are all but unknown to your native language, another door closes on other ways, very familiar to you, that are unknown to the language that you are learning. Whether it’s a tragedy or not, translation is fundamentally impossible. The consolation is that relatively few works are so important that their original idiosyncrasies really must be mastered. The real problem is that quite a few of those important works are among the earliest instances of European literature, and they’re also in Italian. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio — I haven’t spent a lot of time with Petrach, but I can vouch that the other two become either freeze-dried or artificially sweetened in translation. In the end, the value of translations of Dante and Boccaccio is as meditations on originals, not as transmissions of those originals. The mind boggles: how many languages can a literate person expect to master?

Well, many more, if language were taught as literature, not as everyday conversation. The nonsense of the conversational approach is demonstrated by the tremendous difficulty, experienced by almost everybody, of rattling off utterly banal remarks in a foreign language. “Where do you come from?” “Would you like to see the Rubens or the Rembrandt?” “How much does this lamp cost?” Memorizing the lyrics of a Mozart aria by Lorenzo da Ponte would provide a great deal more personal satisfaction.

When the two books that I bought arrive from Italy, I’ll have more to say. My choice was somewhat limited by the flabbergasting expense of “literature” over there. A book of Calvino novellas: fifty-one Euros. That seemed to be the rule, not the exception. I can think of several explanations for these prices, but I can’t settle on any one of them. Meanwhile, In altre parole pleasantly lulls me into thinking that my grasp of Italian is much greater than it is.

I spent some time yesterday sorting through the book room. Ever since we moved into this apartment, the book room has served as something of an attic, and before I got to work yesterday, the floor was littered with small shopping bags containing things that had nothing to do with books. These turned out to be much easier to deal with than the stacks of books that were about to topple in all directions. I amassed quite a few of them in a pile that will go into shopping bags and then be toted to Housing Works.

The book at the bottom of my reading pile is Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. I read, somewhere, a review of this novel, newly translated for the first time from the Irish into English, and decided immediately not to read it. What is it about? It is about dead people buried in a cemetery, dead people who never shut up. When I saw the book at Crawford Doyle, I was drawn to it as if to an irresistible sin. Once home, I read a few pages, then closed the book, as if it were radioactive. I still can’t tell if buying it was a mistake. Its view of the afterlife as a matter of lying in the dark while nursing old grudges is, as I hope this statement makes clear, horrifying. But Ó Cadhain draws you in nevertheless, and that is why I closed the book. I wasn’t quite ready. But I find that I look at the book not with a sigh of duty but with a wary curiosity.

Then there were those document boxes to deal with. One contained all the remaining personal reminders of my seven years in the law, first as a paralegal clerk at the Stock Exchange (even though I was a licensed attorney), and then as a proper attorney at E F Hutton. I glanced through the papers, and perused a spiral-bound log of sorts that I kept for nine months at Hutton. Calls, letters, updates: none of it even remotely refreshed my memory. But I was impressed by the appearance of diligence. Inclined to regard myself as a dreamer who never gets anything done, I am always surprised by evidence to the contrary — more surprised than pleased, even.

Or, if not a dreamer, then a rogue who gets away with things. If I think of myself as someone who gets away with things, might that not be because it takes more effort to get away with things than to simply buckle down and take care of what’s in front of you? Criminals work much harder than honest people — they have to; the world is not designed to make life easy for thieves. Even then, most people don’t get away with it. I don’t know why I think I get away with things; more abominable conceit, probably.


Tuesday 12th

After a spell of cold, wet weather, and then a sunny, rather springlike day, it is raining again, but not so cold. I read the Times and went straight back to bed. It took a while to fall asleep, but I was warm and comfortable. More than that, I felt safe. When I woke up from the murky dream that ensued, however, I did not feel safe. A strapping blonde wearing glasses was saying. “Howard. Susan Howard.” Ah — she was introducing herself. “Are you here, reorganized, too?” I already knew that I was in a house or an apartment where at least one tall guy felt that I didn’t belong, and by this point in the dream I had accrued a feeling of overstaying my welcome. Being asked whether I was or had been “reorganized” was so disconcerting that it woke me up. I did not feel safe, but I still felt very comfortable — too comfortable to move. I thought, as I always do now whenever I am in bed but not reading, about the next entry that I should write here, the entry that in fact I ought to have been writing instead of sleeping. (But I’ve learned it’s no use, if my forehead feels leaden.) The topics that came to mind were immediately swept aside, in view of a new editorial policy that calls for more lighthearted, ephemeral entries on Friday. On Friday, I shall write about Joyce-Wadler-meets-Marie-Kondo (a very funny piece in the Times over the weekend), and about how, after a year of making pizzas at home, I finally got it right by taking one simple step. But as for today?

The book that I was reading before I fell back to sleep, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted, is funny and horrifying at the same time. I can easily imagine how Lyons would rewrite Kafka: I had always been curious about insects, but not this curious. The scary thing is that Dan Lyons could probably make death camps funny. Where other people have a button labeled “Solemn,” he has one labeled “Wiseacre.” You can complain all you like, but he has you laughing. Dan Lyons is perhaps the writer for our time: deliciously inappropriate. Do you want to know just how inappropriate?

My heart sinks. I’m not angry. I’m disappointed. I realize that there probably is a legitimate business to be made from churning out crappy content. But that is not something you hire the former technology of Newsweek to write for you.

So — he thinks he’s better than everybody else, does he?

In their mind, HubSpot belongs to them, not to these interlopers and outsiders who are now storming into the place and writing memos and telling everybody how they should be doing their jobs. Many of these people have never worked anywhere else. A lot of them aren’t very good. But here, they’re in charge. And I’m stuck working under them.

This is my lifelong nightmare. I have never not been afraid of working for, or in any way dealing with, “them.” This is why I was terrified, throughout childhood, of military service. I knew how the sergeants would take to the likes of me. (Nobody told me that, if I just managed to survive basic training, I’d be whisked into a typing pool. Smart as I was, I wasn’t smart enough to see that the Army is loaded with opportunities for desk-bound bureaucrats.) I’m still afraid of stupid people — by which I mean, of course, the Dunning-Kruger types, who don’t know how incompetent they are. I admire Dan Lyons enormously, because, stuck in my nightmare, he stuck it out, long enough to gather material for his terrific book about the mind-killing impact of hierarchies. I don’t know what’s going to happen to HubSpot — according to Google, it’s still there, preaching “inbound marketing” — but while it would be very satisfying to watch the enterprise crash and burn, its founders in handcuffs, the story will be more sobering still if it carries on, providing jobs for people who aren’t very good at what they do, which itself isn’t any good at all. Because that is the world that we have to fix.

One passage caught my attention.

I wrack my brain trying to figure out how this has happened. Why did Halligan hire me, if they were just going to stick me over here, doing this? My theory is that Halligan wanted to hire me but he didn’t want to manage me, so he passed me off to Cranium, but Cranium wanted nothing to do with me, so he handed me off to Wingman, and Wingman realized that Craniun didn’t consider me important, so he stuck me in the content factory working under Zack and hoped I would just go away.

This is precisely how I came to analyse the situation behind the trouble that a friend was having getting a job at a major tech company. The company had a policy of promoting the candidacy of applicants who were recommended by employees. But this policy was not acted upon, because the people in charge of HR, I surmised, were too remote from the policy makers, and the policy makers, like Halligan, simply wanted to put something that sounded good out there. Once they had done that, they lost interest. The HR people continued to insist on the alums of the same old narrow band of schools and/or an equally narrow band of previous employers. Nobody ever returned the calls of my friend, despite the recommendation of a star executive. As Dan Lyons shows, the cogs of bureaucracy can become rigid in no time at all: HubSpot, during his term there, was only about five years old.

We’re familiar with the powerful man who won’t give up his power. But we ought not overlook the property interest that most quite powerless people take in their jobs. Most of them behave like property owners, too: they take care of their property. They get up in the morning and slog through the day, doing the best they can. That’s how the real world works, they tell themselves. And it does — if you consider inertia “work.”

I’d like to sign off now and return to Lyons’s book: the very next chapter is called “The Bozo Explosion” — a phrase that Lyons got from Steve Jobs.


Reading Disrupted, I wonder, perhaps a little too idly, if there is a nice way to scold people into turning off the TV and learning to read a foreign language. Surely I mean, not to scold, but to inspire? No, I mean to scold. Inspiration is not enough. We are all inspired to do good things. Sometimes we actually do them. But when it comes to the literacy of the élite, “sometimes” is not an option. All the time is the only hope.

In the third of last year’s October entries, I made light of calling myself, as I actually still do, a “scourge of the élites.” That was long before the primary season began. That was before Donald Trump shocked the American establishment by failing to collapse of his own ridiculousness. Whatever happens to Trump, he has certainly demonstrated that the American élite needs to reform itself, and for the most old-fashioned of reasons: to set a good example to the ordinary folk. (The folk who would never ever be the technology editor of Newsweek.) There was a time when I thought the world would be a better place — yes! even I! — if people in responsible positions were more thoughtful and broadly-read. Now I’m worried that the world just won’t make it otherwise, better place or not.

For example. Bono’s Op-Ed piece in today’s Times. It’s an example of what I’m talking about because, while the singer so eloquently makes the humanitarian case for helping refugees to maintain their personal dignity (which would include meaningful occupation), he fails to make the warranted case for reparations. The West ought to help out, sure, but it must help out because it created the problem. Almost all of today’s refugees in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing the consequences of incompetent Western imperialism. They are trying to escape the long-term effects of meaningless boundary lines and opportunistic political manipulation. (You get one guess as to why the long-dormant incompatibility of Shia and Sunni has flared up in recent times.) Only rarely do I get the impression that journalists covering the refugees and the wars from which they are running understand how shallow the roots of the crises are — or, how European.

And what, if anything, is being done to enlighten refugees, whether in camps or in urban slums, with a Muslim ethos that does not regard the West as inherently inimical? This may be the moment for saying that while the West must pay for the damage, it cannot make the actual repairs. That must be done by the Muslim élite — an élite fostered by the West to counteract the Wahhabism that the Saudi Arabians support. This would not be not the propaganda effort that it might seem, for there are already plenty of would-be Muslim reformers. These reformers ought to be enlisted not just in the project of reconciling Islam with the global human rights consensus but in even more urgent job of redrawing the map of the Middle East.

Please don’t suppose that I believe that I have really good answers for today’s problems. About that, I have no idea. What I do have, though, is questions, and for the most part the questions came from reading an assortment of history books. If you read enough history, you notice a few basic persistencies. Foreign occupation, for example, is always and everywhere resented, and in the modern world (given our techologies), it elicits terrorism. “Foreign occupation” might seem easy to define, but we see instances in the United States of local people regarding “Washington” as a foreign power. (If no other evidence of the cluelessness of the American élite were available, this alone would be convincing.) “Foreign occupation” extends to “foreign interference,” which is what makes it inadvisable for Westerners to try to fix what they have broken.


Over the weekend, I read yet another review of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. I have not read it, nor do I plan to, so long as I can argue its importance without doing so. The upsetting reviews alone have intensified my conviction that mixed housing is really the only answer. Not “affordable housing,” much less “low-income housing.” People who don’t make a lot of money ought not to be sequestered, if only for the sake of their children, who need exposure to affluence in order to grow. (By the same token, it is a terrible thing to allow affluent people to sequester their children.) I wish I were a billionaire, so that I could experiment with medium-density mixed housing, right here in New York.

My idea comes from Second-Empire Paris. You design a six- or seven-story apartment building to include shops on the ground floor, a large and comfortable but not necessarily luxurious apartment on the first floor, a somewhat more modest apartment on top of that, and, proceeding through further gradations on the remaining floors, a garret at the top. Some garrets might be what we call studio apartments, meant for one tenant, while others would house families. All the garrets would be decent, and might be reached by elevators. You line the sides of a city block with such buildings, and, treating them as a unit (which, structurally, they might very well be), provide both private gardens and a residential park in the center. Beneath the parks (on the ground floor, that is), there would be delivery facilities for the shops and, for the time being, parking lots. I’m saying just enough to give you a picture of this urban ideal, with all but the superrich and the absolutely destitute living together.

There would be lots of room, it’s clear, for small-scale intimidation and exploitation. The folks in the top floors would be expected to observe most of the domestic habits of the wealthier tenants beneath them. They would also provide a stock of nannies and baby-sitters. They would have first call on the cast-offs from downstairs. I’m not sure how oppressive this would be in the long run. I’d like to see someone on staff whose job it was to put a lid on snooty superiority, especially in the more pampered kids.

And did I say that this block of buildings would be owned by a not-for-profit corporation, staffed and maintained by credentialed managers?


Thursday 14th

Rereading that chapter — buried in that over-long, chronologically jumbled novel — I am struck by how much Aldous and Maria must have seen and interpreted at that time. (334)

This is Sybille Bedford, referring to Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, a chapter from which horrified her when it came out (she read it in 1937). Huxley had taken an anecdote — the word will serve — from the darker moments of Bedford’s mother’s addiction to morphine, at a time when the Huxley’s were not only neighbors but rescuers. Having read the chapter in question (the twenty-first), I understand Bedford’s shock, which must have caused her to re-experience some highly-spiced unpleasantness; but I don’t have the sense of violated confidences, because nothing else — nothing but the locked door with its lower panel knocked out, providing a sort of pet hatch through which an addicted women crawls in search of privacy in her filthy bedroom, and escapes from a housekeeper too stout to follow her — points in Bedford’s direction. It’s not only that “Mary Amberley is no more, or less, my mother than she is the other one or two women Aldous was supposed by critics, friends and gossips to have used as a model for her character and conduct.” Helen Amberley herself, Mary’s daughter, could never be mistaken for a character modeled on Sybille Bedford. Or so I thought: all I have is a couple of books to go on.

Now I have read all the chapters of Eyeless in Gaza, which I picked up only because of the quality of Bedford’s mention of it. I did not expect to like the novel, and, for the most part, I didn’t like it. It is certainly “over-long.” There is a great deal of twaddle in it, most of it appearing in the protagonist’s diary entries after an enlightening encounter with a Quaker physician in Mexico, but some of it in the form of regurgitated conversations about the Meaning of Life and Is This All There Is? — bright young questions that have staled very badly. It would easy, I think, to strike through all this sententiousness and produce a far more readable book. Even then, the pace is slow to quicken, and it takes even longer to see the point of the chronological manipulations. But the last two hundred pages (out of nearly five hundred) fairly gallop along, and I read them so intently that I did not have to stay up late to finish a book that I could not put down.

Even the twaddle has its moments. Chapter 35, for example, addresses several problems that I have posed here. My manner of thinking is very unlike Huxley’s, and I suppose you could read the chapter without seeing much in common with this Web site. But by the time I finished its four pages, I felt that Huxley had been reading over my shoulder. The essential problem is what I call the right to be stupid — a right that the men of the Enlightenment could not imagine anyone’s wishing to claim. The current electoral season has shown its pervasiveness in American society, and we have abundant evidence of its appeal in Europe as well.

There is no remedy except to become aware of one’s interests as a human being, and, having become aware, to learn to act on that awareness. Which means learning to use the self and learning to direct the mind. (343)

The problem, of course, is that this “becoming aware” is not easy, and not even appealing — it’s not a fun project. (And there’s that “use of the self” again!) Developing a conscious, authentic sense of self — not, who would you like to be, but who ARE you? — is arduous, unpleasant work, or at any rate much of it is, and it requires habits of thought that can only be acquired with genuine will. It’s not like a gym. Going to the gym, you can entrust the trainer to tell you what to do to build a buff body. The trainer will take your body as far as it can go; there is no need for you to learn how he does it. But to be truly self-aware, you have to become your own trainer. Or, in my parlance, a humanist: you have to learn what to expect of human nature (which you share), and then you have to learn your deviations from the norm. Nobody can help you unless you truly want to be helped — very much like saying the same thing to an addict with regard to staying clean. Like avoiding a relapse, humanism is a never-ending inquiry. The moment you let it slide, you revert to being a person who understands nothing.

It would all be much easier if most people were self-aware, if you found yourself living in a conducive atmosphere. But almost everything about the surface of American life is not conducive. Let me get right to one thing that is conducive: a default decency that you can usually count on if you’re in a scrape. It’s not much of a help, because we usually manage to lead our lives away from scrapes, and therefore have no need of that decency; but keeping it in mind even when you don’t need it is a thought to grow upon. One of the big differences between Huxley and myself is that he sees a binary conflict between systems and individuals. I am not particularly interested in individuals as such; I’m interested in human beings in all their engagements, as lovers, parents, children, friends, cousins, teachers, counselors, acquaintances, strangers, or, in other words — one other word — society. Society is the true opposite of the system, and decency, countless, mostly small, acts of decency are what hold it together — not laws or policemen.

I have not read Brave New World. I wonder if, in that book, Huxley observes that the basic problem with systems is that they are, for lack of anything better to work with, operated by individuals, mere men and women who flatter themselves that they are acting with more than human wisdom, and who believe that the systems that they embody (as it were) are proof against the caprices and vagaries of human nature. There is, however, no way of escaping those caprices and vagaries, except by maintaining a general watchfulness, they way our ancestral tribes watched for dangerous animals. You can’t count on the system to wake you up in case of emergency, because the system is nothing but other people like yourself. People have always wanted to be mechanical — you can see the desire burn brightly in Plato’s dialogues. After a lifetime of meditating on mechanization, I have concluded that our interest in machines, which reached such a climax in the Nineteenth Century, reflects a dream of expanding humanity’s powers by limiting its complications. The nightmares of the Twentieth Century were brought about by attempting to realize this objective in political terms.

In Chapter 35, Huxley connects systems to their underlying principles.

A principle is, by definition, right; a plan [or system], for the good of the people. Axioms from which it logically follows that those who disagree with you and won’t help to realize your plan are enemies of goodness and humanity, fiends incarnate. Killing men and women is wrong, but killing fiends is a duty. Hence the Holy Office, hence Robespierre and the Ogpu [a predecessor of the KGB]. Men with strong religious and revolutionary faith, men with well-thought-out plans for improving the lot of their fellows, whether in this world or the next, have been more systematically and cold-bloodedly cruel than any others. (342)

This is terribly true. But if, as Huxley believes, you can’t simply “higgle,” or muddle through, because modern economies can no longer be counted upon to regulate themselves, then either you have to have a plan, or you have to have a society of grown-ups. This is where the right to be stupid rears its monstrous head.

It’s true that you don’t see parades of people waving banners in support of stupidity. Stupidity tends to be a small-scale, even solitary affair. To express it more politely, it asserts the right to believe in dark and inscrutable conspiracies on the basis of vague, circumstantial evidence. To put it crudely, it insists on the axioms of peasant conservatism. Needless to say, it rejects the claims of liberal education out of hand. It regards reasonable analysis with suspicion; it has a dread, admittedly not entirely unwarranted, of cleverness.

The men of the Enlightenment were wrong when they assumed that intelligent men would jump at the chance to put the stupidities of the ancien régime behind them. It turned out that intelligent men were satisfied by nothing more profound than the application of new labels to old institutions. It takes my breath away to consider how rapidly the United States has reproduced the jurisdictional sclerosis of late-medieval Europe (a paradise of diversity, by the way, if there ever was one). Even worse, this sclerosis condemns us to depend on a failing infrastructure that can’t seem to be fixed.

Peasant axioms have been around for a long time. In the Muslim world, they are on the upswing. Even in the United States, extremely anti-peasant axioms, such as those concerning racial- and gender-neutral civil rights, are not secure, if only because they have not been in place for very long. Innovations are easily swept away. (Consider Prohibition.)

Huxley closes his chapter with a sigh:

It’s almost wearisome, the way one always comes back to the same point. Wouldn’t it be nice, for a change, if there were another way out of our difficulties! A short cut. A method requiring no greater personal effort than recording a vote or ordering some “enemy of society” to be shot. A salvation from outside, like a dose of calomel.

It is not entirely clear in whose voice Huxley is speaking here. Is it the voice of the man in the street? Or the voice of the man who would rather not plan for the benefit of the man in the street, the man who would like to go back to muddling through? In the latter case, I know what the American élite would sigh today. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to set an example. Meaning: wouldn’t it be nice to binge-watch, as Clive James advocates in the current issue of The New Yorker, Game of Thrones. With all due respect, James may be entitled to do as he likes: he is dying, if by degrees, of cancer. But he sets a terrible example.


If Eyeless in Gaza fails as a novel, it is not because it is too long or too hard to follow. It is that it allows a compounded moral crime to slip away unatoned and unforgiven. I don’t mean that Anthony Beavis “gets away” with the terrible thing that he does to his friend, Brian Foxe, or his destruction of the evidence of that crime after it destroys Brian, but rather that Huxley gives us little or no indication that Anthony sees the need for atonement.

By the same token, if Eyeless in Gaza succeeds as a novel, it is because Huxley has so acutely compassed the crime, embedding it in Anthony’s bad faith. I don’t want to say too much about this awfulness, because its slow-motion unfurling, which Anthony strains to present as a trifling thing that got out of hand and, among other regrettable consequences, embarrassed him into blacker bad faith, is a great part of its horror. Something like it happens in many lives. An ill-considered action sets off a chain of reactions for which the initial perpetrator is ever less directly responsible. In this case, what Anthony did did not by itself compel Joan and Brian to doing what they did; each of them could have responded, certainly, with greater self-control. The key word is “embarrassment.” Kissing Joan was not a bad thing. But Anthony yielded to the embarrassment of having done it, and of remembering why he had done it — what had made the carnal impulse so irresistible — such that avoiding even greater embarrassment became his true crime. There was nothing that he would not do, or would not refrain from doing, in order to minimize the possibility of being seen by his friends in an unflattering light — all the while blaming Joan and Brian and Mrs Foxe and anyone else he could think of for his predicament. It is a classic instance of small-mindedness, and it could not be better told. And yet, with time, Anthony gets over it.

As we all do — which is, I’m afraid, Huxley’s implicit message. Not for him the hero whose vitals are eaten away by decades of remorse! I recognize that it could be argued that Huxley does mean to attach Anthony’s approach to possible immolation, at the very end of the novel, to the idea of atoning for his sin against Brian and Joan, the dénouement of which, having taken place twenty years earlier, appears in roughly adjacent chapters. But it is not explicit enough for me, and I look back on the acreage of Anthony’s diary entries without finding any sprouts of shame. Regardless of Huxley’s use of these entries as a pulpit for expounding his own enlightenment, from the standpoint of the novel, Anthony’s silence discredits everything he says. But I have to admit that there’s an excitement even in that.


Friday 15th

About a year ago, I began to make pizza regularly. Ever since, we have had pizza for dinner at least once almost every week. For a long time, I focused on production — making a crust, and getting it into and out of the oven. I meant to tackle the sauce next, but it was so easy to use something out of a bottle that I procrastinated. It wasn’t until Agata & Valentina ran out of its own arrabbiata sauce that I resolved to find a good tomato sauce recipe and make it myself. That was nearly two months ago. I found a recipe — at Serious Eats — and made it, as mentioned here last week.

Meanwhile, we had been eating the same pizza over and over. A little bit of sauce spread over the dough. Then a sprinkling of cooked sausage and mushroomed, chopped up along with six or eight pitted oil-cured olives. Then a grating of fresh mozzarella. For a long time, the result was very tasty, much better than what Kathleen and I called “pizza parlor” pizza. Over time, however, that’s exactly what I hankered for — pizza parlor pizza. What had made my own pizza seem superior now became a defect. At bottom, you see, I believed that I couldn’t really make superior pizza unless I could make pizza parlor pizza.

My basics came from a pizza cookbook. The book was full of fancy variations; I tried exactly one. But I followed the book’s recipe for crust. I made the dough as instructed (and I still do), and I cooked the pizza, as directed, for twelve minutes in a 475º oven.

Now, here’s the crazy thing. The very first time that I made a pizza with my own sauce — last Friday — I knew that the pizza was seriously overcooked. Bingo! It was so clear, so obvious, that I couldn’t wait to make another pizza. I would cook it for ten minutes. In the event, I left it in the oven for nine minutes — and I’m thinking of cutting back to eight. I made a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and if it was still much better than a pizza parlor pizza, it had all the good qualities of one. The crust was not so rigid; if you picked up a slice, you had to fold it a bit to maintain the cantilever. (It also didn’t taste like a cracker.) The pizza was bubbling when it came out of the oven, another good sign. Finally, the pizza tasted cooked. It did not taste roasted. Roasted! I had been roasting pizzas for a year!

I still don’t understand why I woke up when I did, why using my own sauce (which — thanks, Serious Eats! — was indeed better than anything storebought) made such a difference that I could see in a flash what it was that I didn’t like about my pizzas. I have a dim idea of how this happened, but I can’t seem to write it down. Clearly, I had been drawing a false conclusion, blaming the “off” quality of my pizzas on the various sauces that I was using. This was doubly stupid, because the “off” quality never varied with the sauce. Why didn’t it occur to me six months ago that I was overcooking the pizzas?

The short answer may be that, for a long time, I was amazed to be able to turn out any kind of pizza at all. I assumed that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought in terms of ingredients, not technique. Twelve minutes didn’t seem so very long to be cooking dough. I did experiment with raw toppings, but while this produced an authentic amount of grease, it (obviously) didn’t do anything about the roasted taste, which I still didn’t recognize as such, of the crust and the sauce. Not to mention the mozzarella. I learned from Serious Eats not to use fresh mozzarella. What I needed, I was told, was “low-moisture” mozzarella. This is what comes in the plastic bags at the dairy section. Using low-moisture mozzarella made a big difference, too, although not one as big as the reduced cooking time. I wonder if you can grate fresh mozzarella and let it dry out a bit (wrapped in paper towels?) in the refrigerator. The packaged, pre-grated cheese is, after all, highly processed.

I haven’t named the book from which I learned the basics because, well, two reasons. First, ovens are notoriously different. Although Julia Child is absolutely reliable in most ways, I generally find that things don’t cook in the oven as quickly as she tells me to expect. And I’ve had to re-learn a lot of timings with the move from one apartment to another — I’m still not sure about broiling a good steak. Second, I haven’t looked at the pizza cookbook in nearly a year, and the chances are that I have misremembered something. In any case, I absolve the author of any responsibility for my long slog to a quality breakthrough.

I will say that it’s very nice that this particular breakthrough involves nothing more complicated than a small number. I have the rest of pizza-making down pat, so much so that I don’t even need the dough recipe anymore.

And I thank Kathleen for having said, week in and week out, that she liked my pizza.


I have just been distracted by the discovery of a marvelous old map, online (at Wikipedia, natch). It’s French, and it dates from the Nineteenth Century. It is entitled, “Empire de Charlemagne/et son démembrement/au Traité de Verdun/843.” Now, I always get the Treaty of Verdun mixed up with the Oaths of Strasbourg, probably because the Oaths are only a year older. The Oaths are famous primarily for providing the first written evidence of a distinctive French. (The texts also appear in Latin and in an early German.) It is also true that the whole point of the Oaths was upset by the Treaty.

The issue was the partition of Charlemagne’s empire after the reign of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son. At his death in 840, Louis left three sons (a fourth having predeceased him), Louis the German, Lothar, and Charles the Bald. Lothar regarded himself as Louis’s sole successor; for a brief period in the 830s, he had replaced his father. Now, however, his brothers contested his claim, swearing their oath of mutual aid against him in 842. The following year, the civil unrest came to an end, with the Treaty. The empire was divided into three pieces, which might as well be regarded as three strips, for that is very much what the piece in the middle was. The western piece became France, and eastern piece became Germany, and the strip in the middle — Lotharingia, stretching from modern Nederland to deep into Italy — became a zone of contest, for Lotharingia did not long outlast Lothar. Its component parts, the Low Countries, Lorraine, Burgundy, much of Switzerland, Provence, Savoy, Lombardy and Tuscany, were shuffled back and forth, with most of them settling in the Empire that German kings revived in the Tenth Century, and some of them, such as Burgundy, holding on to a measure of autonomy. The great Valois Dukes of Burgundy (1361-1477) would launch the most plausible attempt to re-unite the northern part of Lotharingia; they were allied with the enemies of France, and they petitioned the Emperor to raise their patrimony to the status of a kingdom. The scheme fell apart when the last duke died without leaving a son. All the French parts of this expanded “Burgundy” were seized by Louis XI. The rest went into the Hapsburg pocket, when Maximilian married the last duke’s daughter.

The last duke, Charles the Rash, died in battle, attempting to subdue the Swiss. I don’t believe that his effort was repeated, and the Swiss Confederation was duly recognized as an independent country in 1648. Savoy, rather improbably, became the cradle of the dynasty that oversaw the Unification of Italy in 1871, but not before its territory on the far side of the Alps fell to the French.

And these are just the notable moves. To this day, the remnants of Lotharingia float between the French and the Germans, neither one nor other, whichever language is spoken. Thanks to a strategic decision by Charles V, upon the division of his vast possessions between his brother and his son, in 1556, the language that we call Dutch survives; all of the other low-German dialects were stamped out by progressive education within the territories of the old Empire, from which the Low Countries were detached in order to provide Philip II of Spain with a second front from which to attack England.

It’s all there in the map. France is pink, Germany is yellow, and Lotharingia is green. Towns that did not exist in 843 do not appear. (There are only two Nederlander cities, Utrecht and Deventer.) If you look at the map as long as I’ve been doing, you will get a headache, not just because of vanished Lotharingia but because substantial bits of the pink parts are no longer French, but Belgian or Spanish, while some of the yellow parts have become Switzerland and Austria. Brittany is not part of France, while Brandenburg and Saxony lie beyond the German frontier. If you are not already familiar with the political geography of Europe, this map may do bad things to your brain. It is doubtful, however, that anyone unfamiliar with Europe would give the map a second glance.

Did I mention, recently, my proposal that we stop talking about “the Middle Ages” and talk instead of “Early Europe”? (Searching the site would be cumbersome for a Friday.) Following my own advice, I’ve been pleased by the change of air. For one thing, “Early Europe” sounds so much younger. It doesn’t make me think of now-ancient cathedrals; it takes me back to long before those magnificent structures were dreamed of. For another, there was always the awkward “between what?” problem. By now, you have to be a moron to think of the ten centuries from Clovis to François Premier as an interlude between the Roman Empire and Modern Times. I’ve bracketed the period with the mention of two French kings, but the novelty of modern Europe was, of course, the Germans, also known as the Franks, because they believed that every able-bodied man was, somehow, free. The Germans were, like everybody else, impressed and even a little bit intimidated by the Romans, but — and I hesitate to attribute this to their being German — they were also stuck in their ways. It took a long time to sort out the Roman and the German contributions to European life; that is what the development of Early Europe is about.

From the beginning, then, Europe had a cosmopolitan nature, even if no one was very happy about the confusion. Into this mixup came a band of Scandinavian marauders, themselves only distantly related to the Germans (or Franks). No sooner did they settle down in Normandy than their French-speaking leader invaded England, and became its king. You get the picture: tradition becomes a desperate, always somewhat fake attempt to mask adulteration and compromise. And those mysterious Bavarians — they’re really Slavs, aren’t they?

It’s for this reason that I set the end-date of Early Europe not in the Renaissance, or in 1648, or even in 1789, but in 1945. Just in time for an age of refugees.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (I)

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Monday 4th

There are words that I don’t know, of course. When I encounter one, I look it up in the dictionary. But there are also things of which I never knew, things for which there turn out to be words that I have never bumped into, so that the new word, instead of screwing in comfortably with all the others, continues to thrum with unfamiliarity. Such is the Italian word sdrucciolo, which I ran into yesterday.

Now, most Italian words correspond to English words that I know as well as you do. Sdrucciolare — sdroo-cho-LAR-ay — means “to slip.” Sdrucciolo, however, which is derived from this verb, does not mean “slippery.” The word for “slippery” is sdrucciolevole — sdroo-cho-LAY-vo-lay. According to my dictionary, sdrucciolo — SDROO-cho-lo — means two things, one of them a chemical, the other “trisyllabic verse.” Neither of these has anything to do with what I learned yesterday.

The default accent in any Italian word is on the penultimate syllable. Remember those adjectives from last week? ScorRETTo, ImbarraZANte? That’s normal. But there are some words that are accented on the antepenultimate syllable, and you just pick them up as you learn the language. BruTISSimo — again from last week. CAmera (room), FAcile (easy), PosSIbile (possible). Sometimes I’m not sure, and, when I’m reading aloud, I make lots of mistakes. I’m certain that I’ve said “FaCIle.” Another thing that I didn’t know until yesterday is that it is customary, when dubbing a foreign film into Italian, to indicate stupid characters — eg, The Three Stooges — by having them get their accents wrong. I’ve always been aware of a vague uncertainty about some words, though, mostly verbs, verbs in their infinitive and third-person plural forms. I know enough Italian to know that a lot of these particular forms are spoken with the accent on the antepenult. But I didn’t look into it until yesterday.

Yesterday, you see, I was reading on in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole (In Other Words), and the uncertainty that I just mentioned ceased to be vague, and became annoyingly insistent. Two words that appear with great frequency in Lahiri’s book are leggere (to read) and scrivere (to write). Although I was not reading aloud, my confusion about where to place the accent on these words was disruptive. I was pretty sure that the accent fell on the first syllable in both words, but LeGEre sounded right, too.

For a good reason. If you accent the second syllable of leggere, you say the word for “light,” as in “lightweight.” Leggerevole can mean “somewhat” or “slightly.” In the infinitive of the verb “to read,” however, the accent does indeed fall on the first syllable. Leggere and scrivere belong to a class of infinitives, all of them ending in -ere. They do not end in -are (parlare, amare) or -ire (partire, empire). The word for these -ere infinitives, and all the other words with an accent on the antepenult, is — yes! — sdrucciolo. These words have un accento sdrucciolo.

And you just have to learn them. It is a testament to my haphazard way of going about things, or of having gone about them in my wasted youth, that I have been fooling around with Italian for fifty years or more, and even taken a course or two, without ever having had the faintest suspicion of sdrucciolo. Yes, I was uncertain about accenting certain words, but it never occurred to me that they formed a class, with its own label. I never saw a list of sdrucciolo words.

Not until yesterday, that is. I found a very handy cheat sheet yesterday, in response to the last of about five Google searches. I thought about copying it into an Evernote and having it on my phone, but I decided to print it out, and to keep it handy while I’m reading In altre parole, and who-knows-what I’ll read in Italian next.

I suppose that this sdrucciolo thing is also testament to how surprisingly easy it is for me to read Italian, after years and years of practically no effort. Having the English on a facing page certainly makes things easier, but as I’ve gotten further into the book I’ve made a greater effort to work things out for myself. The result is that I’m bothered not by meanings but by accents. But I’m only talking about reading Italian. Not speaking or writing in it.

Lahiri tells of how, one day, in a library where she never felt comfortable, she suddenly had the idea for a story. She wrote half of it then and there, and then came back the next day and finished it. Then —

I don’t know how to read the story. [As in standard Italian, Lahiri writes about the ongoing past in the present tense. I’m not sure that Ann Goldstein was right to translate so literally.] I don’t know what to think about it. I don’t know if it works. I don’t have the critical skills to judge it. Although it came from me, it doesn’t seem completely mine. I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written in English. (65)

So when, in the very next chapter, she gives us the story, “Lo scambio” — The Exchange — I read it with this in mind: not only how “Italian” it sounded (and what kind of judge am I of that?), but also how “not-English.” I decided to take Lahiri at her word: she wouldn’t have written it in English. It’s not that the story doesn’t work in English; it’s just not the sort of thing that you’d expect Lahiri to write, going on her work so far (all of it in English). It is hard to imagine her even dreaming of the story in English. But it is Italian to this extent: it reminds me of The Other Language, the collection of short stories in English by Francesca Marciano, stories that struck me as having been designed to capture an Italian sensibility in English.

Lo Scambio” reads, frankly, like the scenario for a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. A woman who is a professional translator is disturbed by the conviction that everything that she remembers about her life could have been better. (Ogni volta che aveva un qualsiasi ricordo della sua vita passata, era convinta che un’altra versione sarebbe stata migliora. —  66) She is too fond of life to consider suicide, so she decides to vacate her circumstances instead. She says good-bye to everybody and gives everything away, except for a little black sweater.

In the strange city where she knows no one, she walks everywhere. Her life is very simple, but it is the simplicity of an Armani suit. It is a very affluent simplicity, buying a nice piece of fruit and then enjoying it on a pleasant park bench. Nobody writes this way in English; in English, this sort of thing seems weightless and inconsequential. (Needless to say, the translator is unnamed.) It can even seem to be precious. And perhaps it’s no longer stylish in Italian. (Why, though, did I just now think of early Paul Auster?) Be that as it may, the central event in the story has a fairy tale quality that fits perfectly. Standing under a cornice in the rain, the translator notices that women are entering and leaving the palazzo across the street. She decides to follow them. She rings and is admitted. She walks through a courtyard and up a grand staircase. No, I made that up: it’s “dark stairway, the steps slightly uneven.” The translator climbs the stairs, leaves her purse along with the others’ on a table in the hallway, and enters a large living room.

The tone becomes even more dreamlike at this point, not because odd things happen — not at all — but because the fact that the translator has gatecrashed what is essentially a trunk show held at a designer’s home is never announced, as it certainly would be in English. Instead, we gather as much from an accumulation of details — the rack of clothes against the far wall, the three-screen mirror.

Some women were already undressed, and were trying on clothes, asking the others for their opinions. They were a collection of arms, legs, hips, waists. Unceasing variations. They all seemed to know each other. (73)

The translator undresses, too, and tries on a lot of outfits — “all the garments in her size.”

She studied her own image. But she was distracted by the presence of another woman behind the mirror, at the end of the hall. She was different from the others. She was working at a table, with an iron, a needle in her mouth. She had tired eyes, a sorrowful face.

The clothes were elegant, well made. Even though they suited her, the translator didn’t like them. After trying the last thing she decided to leave. She didn’t feel like herself in those clothes. She didn’t want to acquire or accumulate anything more. (73)

The crisis is that the translator cannot find her little black sweater. A search of the premises turns up something that looks rather like it, but isn’t — its material is rougher, and it doesn’t quite fit. The translator actually finds it revolting. By now, the translator is the only woman in the apartment, aside from the owner and the woman with the iron. In search of the sweater, the designer calls up each of her clients, but nobody took it home by mistake. (The idea that someone might have stolen it out of spite does not occur.) The translator, feeling defeated, leaves with the substitute sweater. Her certainty that it is not hers is overwhelmed by an uncertainty about everything.

In the morning, a transformation. The black sweater both is and is not the garment that the translator brought with her to this new city. The alien aspect of the sweater is no longer revolting. “In fact, when she put it on, she preferred it. […] Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.” (81)

The end. Now let’s go back to the end of the previous chapter, in which the story was written.

Odio analizzare ciò che scrivo. Ma qualche mese dopo, un mattino mentre corro in villa Doria Pamphilj, mi viene in mente, tutto a un tratto, il significato di questo strano racconto: il golfino è la lingua. (64)

I hate analyzing what I write. But one morning a few months later, when I’m running in the park of villa Doria Pamphili, the meaning of this strange story suddenly comes to me: the sweater is language. (65)

You might wonder if Lahiri had better kept that interpretative key to herself until the reader had a chance to read the story. But what I find telling is that the critical experience occurs in a context that is unfamiliar to Lahiri’s writing (so far as I recall it): fashion. Fashion, that is, at one of its pinnacles. Not the brand-name “couturiers” but rather designers like the one in the story, who have a little list of women who look good in her clothes and who can afford them. Every now and then, she opens her doors and sells what she has. It is very discreet. The clothes are designed for women who travel; they can be washed in cold water by hand. They don’t wrinkle. Lahiri could be describing the dresses that Kathleen hunted down in an out-of-the-way corner of Hong Kong, twenty-odd years ago. That such an event should occur, convincingly, at the heart of a Lahiri story is proof that she has at least left New York behind. Her New York, that is — we have trunk shows like that, too. But in New York, writers do not “do” fashion. They do not do “girly” things. (A great deal of Joan Didion’s enigmatic aura owes to the fact that, as a writer, she almost completely suppresses her lively interest in womanly things, such as buying clothes and shopping for dinner. The Joan Didion known to her women friends would not, at least until recently, have been respected by male writers.) In “Lo Scambio,” there is an utter lack of the irony with which an American writer would treat the designer and her clients.


When I sat down this morning, this Italian note was going to be short, and then I was going to write about Vladimir Putin as a gangster. Over the weekend, I read yet another review of the Owen Report, which is based on an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with polonium in 2006, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. As it so happens, I was also getting into John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, which I’m reading not in continuation of my Cornwell craze but because a filmed adaptation, starring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, and Stellan Skarsgård, is going to appear in the not-too-distant future. And the novel gave me an idea. How do you go after a gangster? You hire a better gangster.

It’s not really much of an idea. The Litvinenko murder took forever to “clear up,” if that’s what the Owen Report means, because Litvinenko was more or less a nobody. If you took out Putin, you’d be killing the top public official in Russia. The Russians could hardly respond to such an assassination in gang-war terms. But maybe the better gangster could make life — gangster life — more difficult for Putin, perhaps not worth living. Putin’s henchmen could begin disappearing, instead of just his enemies.

The way things are going, defecting Russian millionaires and billionaires may indeed be investing in the development of such a gangsteer, one to rival not Putin’s thugs but Putin himself. One thing seems clear: you do not go after gangster heads of state in the United Nations, or by any other combination of conventional diplomacy followed by war. We learned that in the Thirties.

The problem with gangster heads of state is that they’re always appealing at the beginning, because they maintain a semblance of law and order. Order, anyway. Mussolini, Hitler, Erdoğan, Putin all seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. With Stalin, it was more the peace of the sepulcher, but even he had his gets-things-done fans. One has to wonder about Donald Trump in this line-up. Trump talks like a gangster, or rather he speaks with a gangland accent, but he talks too much to be mistaken for a gangster. Way too much.

And, say you got rid of Putin? Then what?


Tuesday 5th

On Saturday, I saw Paul Taylor’s Spindrift for the first time. The dance made a great and immediate impression. I recognized not only that it belongs to the grand tier of Taylor dances, but that this tier carries the label, “Sublime.” Other Sublime dances include Cloven Kingdom, Arden Court, and that old favorite, Esplanade. I’d be inclined to include Roses, if it weren’t for the relative monotony of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; the other dances in this class draw their music from multi-movement compositions with their roots in the Baroque, meaning that fast and lively music alternates with grave and solemn music. There are tears and there are smiles. Every now and then, a laugh. If the dances are death-haunted, they are all about being alive, with a comprehensiveness that seems exhaustive. That comprehensiveness is an illusion, of course, but the power of the illusion is what makes the dances Sublime. The power is generated by the choreographer’s skill at forging an organic whole out of a miscellany.

I say this, and yet I remember nothing of the particular movements of Spindrift. I saw that Michael Trusnovec had the leading role (no surprise), but I can’t retail his interactions with the other members of the company, as I can with Beloved Renegade, which was presented a little later. Performances of Beloved Renegade, which was new when Kathleen and I discovered Paul Taylor, had always eluded us. It was always appearing on an adjacent bill, not the one for which we’d shown up. I was relieved finally to see it. I’m sure that there are many who would include it among Paul Taylor’s Sublime dances, if they were to recognize the category. But I wouldn’t. Having seen Beloved Renegade, I needn’t see it again. It is an elegy for the company’s senior dancer, now in his eighteenth year with Paul Taylor. It also seemed to be an elegy for Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney; like Michael Trusnovec, they’re fortyish. These men, magnificent as they are, cannot go on doing this much longer. I was annoyed with myself for noticing an AIDS connection, mediated no doubt by the program’s explicit references to Walt Whitman, who so famously nursed wounded soldiers in Washington, during the Civil War. In the dance itself, there was a passage in which Trusnovec appeared to be succoring wounded men; I remember thinking that it was full of grace.

But I remember nothing from Spindrift. Once I had recognized its greatness, it slipped through my fingers. So I hope to see it again.

We did our weekend thing. On Saturdays, during its three weeks at Lincoln Center, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presents afternoon and evening programs. Generally, each program features the performance of three dances. On Saturday, however, the first segment was given to two short works, separated by a brief pause. First, we had Snow White, which is no end of fun. I have never seen a British pantomime, and I have trouble even imagining what it might be like, but Paul Taylor’s Snow White can’t be so very different. It is, briefly, a burlesque of Walt Disney’s version: the title character (danced adorably by Parisa Khobdeh) wears the same little red bow in her hair. The mean old queen stomps about in her voluminous cloak, clacking her blood-red fingernails and panting for wickedness; I quickly discerned that Sean Mahoney was dancing the part. He was much more obviously also dancing the part of the Prince. “Dancing” is an exaggeration. The Prince paces solemnly, one arm raised in conciliation, the other placed across this breast. From time to time, he frowns, and, with placid gravity, switches hands. It is very witty.

There is a nonstop, vixenish Bad Apple (Heather McGinley), and of course a passel of dwarves — but only five. Robert Kleinendorst was one of them, and as he and the others crouched through their acrobatics, I was reminded of an interview that he gave last year (I think it was) in which he complained of not being able to get a full night’s sleep, such was his back pain. I tried not to dwell on this. I tried to remember what Snow White was reminding me of, but I didn’t figure that out until just now (the elaborate curtain call in Lend Me a Tenor, which recapitulates the entire comedy in less than a minute). The whole dance is very witty: look, it says, at how clever our romping can be. Paul Taylor can get away with this, probably because he resorts to it sparingly.

Nothing could have been less like fun than what followed the pause: Profiles, a dance to scratchy and dissonant string-quartet playing. If I had to categorize Profiles, I should call it Sixties Serious, but you could probably do better. Bodies in Space? The four dancers (Michael Trusnovec, Eran Bugge, Laura Halzack, and Michael Novak — to list them, as the company is scrupulous to do, in order of seniority) are costumed in skintight outfits that I gathered must be stepped into, as there was a conspicuous lack of zippers. The intention behind this aesthetic, once so ubiquitous, seems to be half salacious (nudies!) and half despoiling (stripping away our bogus disguises &c &c). It also makes possible a sort of architectural treatment of the body, as if anatomy could be bent into structure. I was reminded of the days of my youth, when art went out of its way to be anhedonic.

Just how far we’ve come from those days was measured by Offenbach Overtures, which closed the afternoon program. The music consists of bits and pieces taken from the title’s sources, and the tone is therefore somewhere between ooh-la-la and Swan Lake. The costumes are cherry red, with black accents. For the ladies, low heels, cloth hair ornaments, bloomers, and can-can skirts. For the gentlemen: tank tops, tights, and boots, with hats suggesting either army or navy. Oh, and moustaches, lovely waxed curlicue moustaches, rendering the men indistinguishable, at least at first. The note of burlesque was struck again, this time by Parisa Khobdeh as an intoxicated chorine, vaguely reminiscent of Rosalind Russell, and by Laura Halzack, as a vamp who is rattled by the missteps of her partner (George Smallwood). In the middle of the dance, there is a duel scene, with Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney indulging in a dance-off instead of a shoot-out, and of course falling in love in the process, while their seconds, Robert Kleinendorst and Francisco Graciano, descend into partisan fisticuffs. You really don’t know where to look, because each couple is doing a perfect job of upstaging the other. Offenbach Overtures became an immediate favorite. I may have made it sound somewhat more jocular than it is, for the prevailing mood (the duel aside) is sweetly reminiscent of classical ballet. Glazounov on the sly.

In the middle third, we had Three Dubious Memories, which we’ve seen before. It, too, is recent, dating from 2010, when I suppose we saw it the first time.There is a man in green (Mr Kleinendorst), a man in blue (Mr Mahoney), a woman in a red dress (Eran Bugge), and a “choir,” led by a choirmaster (James Samson), in grey. In each of the first two of the dance’s four sections, the woman in red is coupled with one of the men, and the couple is interrupted by the other man, who tears the woman in red away. In the third section, the two men are the couple, and the woman in red is vexed. Then there is a “threnody,” which wraps things up. The choir, as Kathleen remarked afterward, has a much bigger role than you remember. Is it true that, whenever two people fall in love, they make a third person miserable? Not “whenever,” but often, and perhaps more often in New York than elsewhere. With the lightest possible hand, Three Dubious Memories highlights the selfishness of happy couples.

I’ve already described two of the ballet on the evening program. In between, we had Sullivaniana, which is new this year. The music consists of the overtures to Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience, played back to back in that order. There is more fabric in each man’s outfit than is worn by the entire quartet of Profiles. Frock coats in a loud check, vests in a the same check, but on the bias, solid trousers, shoes, and bowler hats. The colors are very vivid; I’d wear them (especially the green and the mauve), but most men wouldn’t. The ladies wear plain tops and tartan skirts with seductive little bustles. The look, like the music, is pert. I’d have to see the dance again to say anything about the choreography, which was pleasant enough but not (as I recall) pointed in any direction. At one point, there was sort of a group-grope pile-up on the floor. I could imagine Sullivan peeking at it through his fingers, shocked but approving, while Gilbert, fuming, telephoned his solicitor. The bowler hats made the men even less distinguishable than the curlicued moustaches. It took me forever to recognize Michael Novak.

Michael Novak seemed to be guided by a single thought all day. He danced as beautifully as ever, but as if determined to avoid giving the impression that we don’t have to worry about what will happen when Michael Trusnovec retires, because he’ll be there to step into the shoes of Apollo. Now, that’s artistry.

I wish we’d seen more Paul Taylor; of course I do. But I didn’t get round to buying tickets until early last month, and I wanted to be safe, not sorry — not to miss anything on a weeknight because something kept Kathleen at the office or I was worn out for one reason or another. And there were no boffo programs; there are quite a few Paul Taylor dances that we don’t want to see, such as Promethean Fire. Aside from Esplanade, none of the other Sublime dances was given this season. I shall hope for more encounters next year. As for this season, I feel unusually obliged to mention the dancers whom I have passed over. The ones that I’ve mentioned are all superb. Parisa Khobdeh impressed me more than ever, and I finally had a sense of Eran Bugge’s artistry; she was no longer eclipsed, in Three Dubious Memories, by the three men. (I already knew all about them, as it were.) George Smallwood is a very important asset, if a still-undeveloped one. What I mean by this is that every great Paul Taylor dancer is a fine dancer from the start, but becomes great by growing not only better as a dancer but more peculiarly him- or herself. I have not yet seen this in Jamie Rae Walker, and her immediate junior in seniority, Michael Apuzzo, has left me with the impression of a grinning strongman; I am always waiting for a dropped dumbbell to wipe the Da-DA! off his face. I ought to have mentioned Christina Lynch Markham, for her fine work in Beloved Renegade. And Michelle Fleet appeared in a brief solo in Offenbach Overtures that reminded us, instantly, who she is. This year’s newbie, Madelyn Ho, made a particularly strong debut, and, I noticed, was given plenty of room in which to do so. Among other things, she was paired with Michael Trusnovec in Offenbach Overtures. For the moment, however, she is just another pretty and talented former Harvard Medical School student.


To return to Gilbert & Sullivan: Until just the other day, more or less, I regarded The Gondoliers as a sort of cuckoo in the Savoyard nest, grandiose, empty, and, most of all, bogus. The music I found flashy rather than beautiful, the book both perfunctory and unfunny. Then, quite recently, the four root notes of the repeated dominant seventh chords that begin the tarantella in the overture somehow pierced my skin, and I was infused by a work that got lovelier and laughtier every time I listened to it. At the same time, I was reading more about the Savoy operas, and what I was hearing about The Gondoliers was invariably a confirmation of my former views. Oh, everyone admitted that The Gondoliers is radiant and sunny, deliciously appealing; but beyond such generalities the tone became more critical. Sullivan’s music, however pleasing, is set at such a pace that most numbers come off as unintelligible patter songs. Gilbert’s text is certainly regarded as a disappointment. The prosody is not up to the almost Shakespearean standard of the earlier works (or at least the great four in the middle, Patience to Mikado), and everybody — everybody — hates Marco’s line (in the barcarole, “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes”) about the “tender little hand fringed with dainty fingerettes.” “Dainty fingerettes” is off-putting; it makes me think of lobsters. But I kind of like it anyway, just because it’s so awful. I’m in that giddy moment of discovery, when everything that’s good about Gondoliers is great, and everything that’s awful about it is great, too. It took a while for that nautically protracted “Ah” in the finale to stop causing horripilation, and for the sugar shock of “List and Learn” to wear off. I know that they’re both dreadful Italian clichés — but they’re kind of wonderful. I have clearly fallen off the gondola into one of the deeper stretches of the lagoon.

The music is much more than pleasing. It’s as though the other Savoy operas had been written by somebody else, somebody somewhat inferior to Sullivan, and now Sullivan were going to show us how it ought to be done. I don’t mean that The Gondoliers sounds better than the others, not at all. But it sounds different, as if it included a critique of the whole general idea of Topsy Turvy. It’s a matter of countless little moments, such as the low clarinets that now and then carry the Duke and the Duchess through “Small Titles and Orders.” Or the strange chords that lead into the reprise of the dance that follows “I Am a Courtier Grave and Serious.” Or the big, dumb “Oh!” in the refrain of “Rising Early in the Morning.”

I could go on and on. But it won’t, this infatuation. It will come to an end. It must. For an entire year, within the past ten, I went without listening to any opera other than Bellini’s I Puritani. For a year, it was not only the perfect opera, it was the only opera. I have not entirely recovered; if I listen to one thing from the opera, I have to listen to the next, and the next, and then start at the beginning. (I am devoted to the Riccardo Muti recording.) That’s how it is with the second act of The Gondoliers now. If possible.


Thursday 17th

The response to being named in the Panama Papers, which broke a few days ago, has been shame, denial, or silence — so far. We can be glad about that. We can take some comfort in the fact that members of the global élite do not want their names in the papers in connection with this story. How long they will continue to react in this way seems to me to be a function of the ongoing power of the state.

And, by “state” here, I mean the somewhat abstract institution that is believed to represent the will of most of its citizens. I mean, not Russia, which increasingly looks like the personal property of Vladimir Putin.

Now, Putin has rolled out the usual denials. That a few chums of his appear to have been clients of Mossack Fonseca, the “boutique” Panama City law firm (with a staff of five hundred) that specializes in shell companies, is, according to Putin, a lie concocted by the West (meaning the United States), out of sheer disappointment that he is making Russia so happy and prosperous. This tale is for domestic consumption only; no one else is expected to believe it. Perhaps even the Russians aren’t expected to believe it: Putin’s explanation is merely a facet of their happy prosperity. There is indeed something worrisome about the brazenness of the lie. It could be taken to mean, “So what?”

That’s what Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson might be saying when he insists that he has not stepped down, but only stepped aside, after it became impossible to ignore the clamor calling for his resignation. Gunnlaugsson was an investor in a fund that is currently suing Iceland’s banks for massive losses in that country’s notorious financial meltdown in 2008. As prime minister, he is participating in the negotiation of a settlement of the dispute. The complaint against him is one of conflict of interest; to me it looks more like loaded dice.

What does it mean for an elected leader to step aside — for reasons other than poor health and so on? For reasons like Gunnlaugsson’s? Has there been much stepping aside in the two centuries of liberal democracy? Even Putin didn’t step aside. When then-current term-limit laws prevented him from continuing as president of Russia, he switched jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A few years later, they switched again, and things haven’t changed since. It now appears that Putin is not going to be stepping aside until he steps into his coffin. Those of us who haven’t been bitten by the power drug, and who wonder why people like Putin don’t retire when enough is enough, must remember that we haven’t been bitten.

If Gunnlaugsson’s bluff succeeds, I foresee an amendment to Iceland’s constitution. If, that is, anyone is still paying attention to such niceties.


In retrospect, it looks like a miracle of timing. Or a perfect storm. On Tuesday, I finished reading Our Kind of Traitor, and was very upset by it. The next day, I looked at the Panama Papers story with new eyes, and at the same time understood that what was so upsetting about Le Carré’s novel wasn’t the plight of the characters but the story in the background. It’s a story that frightens me a lot more than the Cold War ever did. The story in the background presents Great Britain with a new kind of enemy within: the City. The City, which in view of its status as the would-be global financial capital has taken to calling itself “London,” wants all the big money, from whatever source derived, and it wants the owners of that money to feel comfortable about entrusting it to City bankers. The City wants to be Panama. Or the US — Delaware, perhaps. (If the Panama Papers disclose few American names, that’s because Americans don’t have to go abroad to shelter their money.) It wants to be whatever will bring in that money.

Le Carré doesn’t go into it; he doesn’t belabor his belief that money is power — political power. He leaves that to the imagination. My imagination is receptive. I forget when it was, last year, that I began to worry about the ability of very rich people to buy their own armies. This has been a movie fantasy since the days of early James Bond, and it is given fantastic play in Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the minions of the sociopath played by Samuel L Jackson wear Star Wars-white armor. At some moment, however, it ceased to seem merely fantastic to me. What would stop a pharma king from defending his discoveries, and denying them to the rest of the world, with a conventional army? He would be safe from almost any kind of bombing. We might say, why go to so much trouble? But then, we haven’t been bitten by the power bug. For the moment, however, the pharma king would not need to go to so much trouble. He could buy the support of the state.

States are abstract, which is just another way of saying that they exist only in the minds of human beings. If we all believe in the state, and act as though it exists, then it does exist, embodied in countless personal interactions. It is embodied in countless acts that people decide not to commit. But this magic act lasts only as long as it is kept up by a determined plurality of citizens or subjects. We saw what happened in 1789, when masses of Frenchmen not only stopped believing in the power and authority of Louis XVI, but began regarding their king as their enemy. As Americans, we decided to have done with kings. We produced one of the most impersonal constitutions of all time, so full of its famous checks and balances that it has now become impossible to do anything, or at least anything that most people are aware of. But there is still no getting around it that our office-holders are men and women, just like us. The business corporation, for all the clout of its constitutive legal fictions, is still run by men and women, just like you and me. We expect these men and women to behave according to a very high standard of public interest. We have also depended upon a journalistic inclination to protect us from too much evidence to the contrary — it’s for our own good. Would Americans have made FDR a four-term president if they had known (as everyone in the upper socio-economic reaches, my late aunt once assured me, did know) that he was unable to walk from here to there? Our leaders have behaved pretty well, and our newspapers have shielded us from scurrilous gossip. But wait! It’s not 1970 anymore, is it?

What happens when and if Americans become so disgusted with the abuse of official institutions that they support a leader willing to bypass the state altogether, and to constitute power in himself?

We saw this happen, or should have done if it hadn’t happened so slowly, at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The idea that Rome fell to a host of invading barbarians is the most arrant nonsense. The barbarians did everything they could think of to imitate Roman ways. It was the Romans who stopped believing in Rome — a loss made easier by the removal of “Rome” to Constantinople. Rome got too big not to fail. The barbarians simply stepped into a series of power vacuums.

(We really ought to pay more attention to our use of this “too big to fail” conceit. It means nothing unless it means “too big to be allowed to fail,” and that, of course, invokes a greater power, one capable of implementing the decision to prevent failure. There was, obviously, no such entity to prevent Rome’s decline and fall. We can only hope that we understand enough about money and commerce to warrant our faith in the government’s ability to forestall financial catastrophes. It’s by no means a sure thing.)

But the barbarians were — well, different. They were warlike. That is, they liked war. Rome had grown by enforcing peace behind its borders. Roman aristocrats were distinguished by their disdain for military swagger. The barbarians, in contrast, and notwithstanding their Roman-ish duds, gathered around chieftains and indulged in feuds. Bloodshed was a very personal business; nobody went to war on principle. The Church, child of Rome no less than of Christ (an understatement), cried out for peace, but it could never be established for long. From the fifth century until the tenth, European kingdoms were either short-lived or ineffective. Peace was broken everywhere and regularly — sending a virtual invitation to invaders (and these were barbarian invaders) from Scandinavia, the Hungarian Plain, and North Africa. This invitation, by the way, appeared after the forging of the vast Carolingian expansion and the establishment of the new Holy Roman Empire, so soon did Charlemagne’s glory follow him to the grave. It took well over a century to get back, as it were, to Charlemagne.

It helped that making war got more and more expensive, making it available to fewer and fewer players. The history of Europe until 1789 is the story of an ever more concentrated class of noblemen by inheritance, determined to keep the fight going despite all the obstacles, from gunpowder to inflation. The aristocrats kept insisting on the honor of warfare even after the Bourbon collapse; indeed, their finest (that is, blackest) moment may have been the outbreak of the Great War, which was incited by a rather gothic-looking assortment of officer-class war bands.

The question for us is not whether we, too, are warlike. It doesn’t seem that we are. The taste for war has been drummed out of us, at least for the time being. The question for us is whether we are freelike. Do we like to be free? The barbarians who succeeded to Rome in the West certainly liked to be free. The most successful bunch of them went by that name, and came to call their country “France” — “free.” We have followed them in declaring freedom to be vital.

Like everything else, though, freedom has gotten complicated. There’s freedom from and freedom to. Many Americans seem to believe that the freedom to bear arms will take care of the freedom-from problem. Few of these Americans live in cities. (The Carolingians, their Merovingian predecessors, and their Capetian successors, didn’t care much for cities, either.) Urban Americans, at least on the East Coast, tend to prioritize the freedom from other people bearing arms. In any case, as the title of the new Richard Linklater movie shouts, everybody wants some! Meaning, the peace and quiet in which to enjoy it.

We may be too unlike the warlike barbarians, much as I hate to say it.


The Panama Papers present a certain conundrum. Among the clients of Mossack Fonseca were several heads of state and even more near relations of heads of state. (Or chums.) Their reasons for sheltering their money from public view — the view of the public back home — were certainly various, and not necessarily illegal. Nevertheless, hiding the money was deceptive in intent, and it was subjects or citizens, as the case may be, who were intended to be deceived. In some cases, certainly, tax laws were violated in order to keep money out of the public account. In other cases, the money came from bribes, which are if anything worse than tax dodges, as China’s too-booming construction industry keeps demonstrating in terms of collapsed or blown-up buildings. (The world was sickened by the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which seemed to target elementary schools for destruction.) In these cases, officials use their position to act against the public interest.

It is hard to see how they are not traitors. For it seems to get clearer every day that the global ring of Big Money is an enemy of the people with whom the leaders of the people ought not to be consorting. Big Money knows no nation; it owes no allegiance. Big Money does not unite or organize the people who own the big money; it controls them only with the view to expanding itself. And just how does it do this, you may ask? With opulence and exclusivity. With comfort and safety. An example:

Late one afternoon, I was having X-rays taken at the Hospital for Special Surgery. It was a slow time of day, or would have been had there not been a commotion of security agents opening every door and looking in every room. We would read in the papers, a few days later, that the dying king of Saudi Arabia was in New York, undergoing medical tests; some of them, it was later averred, at the HSS. The security agents were sweeping the joint. That’s what I mean by “safe.” I don’t have to mention that the king belonged to Very Big Money.

Compare this with the time, of which I never tire of telling, when I found myself in the office of a maxillofacial surgeon (impacted wisdom tooth) at the same time as the Nixons. Pat, it turned out, had rather bad teeth, but Dick tagged along and got as checkup, too. If you want to hear the rest of the story, not even two years have passed since I last told it, so I can’t tell it here. There may have been no one else in the waiting room, but I was still there, and nobody checked me out. Tricky Dick may have lived in the White House, but he was not Big Money. He probably would have been, though, by now.

Big Money provides entrée to the bubble of resorts, high-rises, and private islands that was consolidated, for edifying purposes, into a luxurious space station in the movie Elysium. You don’t have to worry about terrorists there. You don’t have to worry about political implications. You and the Big Money that owns you can leave those unpleasant things to ordinary people.


Friday 8th

On Wednesday, I did something partly new. I stretched out my arms on a stack of pillows in front of me and exposed them to the Blu U lights. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions sitting under the lights, exposing my scalp to the healing rays, but this was a first for my arms, and the results are certainly more visible to me. The backs of my hands are disfigured by preppie-pink blotches that itch like mad. (A moisturizer seems to help, but the dermatologist offered to prescribe an oral steroid.) More interesting is the difference between my forearms. The left arm is far more “afflicted,” with a rash of acne-like spots, only pink. There are a few spots on my right arm, too, but not nearly so many. Most interesting of all: the spots stop at just about the place where my skin is exposed when I roll up my shirtsleeves. I have always understood that the foundation of the precancerous cells that the Blu U lights deal with so effectively was laid in childhood. Perhaps not. When Kathleen looked me over, she said, “Ah, your driver’s arm.” Meaning my left arm, not the arm that I use to hold the wheel but the arm that I lean out the open window. Everything now points to Houston, where I drove a lot even when I didn’t own a car.

There’s a photograph that I ought to dig out for the dermatologist. It shows me in August 1977, and it is hard to describe my color. That year, which closed up my radio days and took me to law school (and Kathleen), I decided to see if I could build up a tan. My default response to sunlight is a quick burn, but I was told that, if I started early, and controlled my exposures, I would tan, and not burn. This turned out to be true. In Houston, it’s usually warm enough in March to sit out by the pool for an hour in bathing trunks. I would drive from the radio station to my father’s house, which I had moved back into when my mother got sick, and catch some rays. By June and July, I could spend all day in the sun and not get burned. But when I took a good look at myself in August, I saw that tanning was really not for me.

For I wasn’t really tan. My skin was too red — a very deep, mahogany red — to be mistaken for bronze, as the French describe a tan. There was the same uncanny effect that’s produced by Donatella Versace, a southern Italian if there ever was one, who likes to pretend that she is Scandinavian. Perhaps I’m mistaken about that, but in any case the color of her hair and her bone structure are an obvious mismatch. So it was with me. I had always wondered what the Mikado’s “permanent walnut juice” would look like. Now I had an idea.

Suntans are funny. In the days of peasant labor, they were eschewed by the fashionable: one didn’t want to look like a wizened old fisherman. Then work moved mostly indoors, and the lower quintiles went pale. Suddenly a tan was a conspicuous way to advertise one’s acres of free time. Golden brown skin became the look of health. My arduously tanned skin was not golden brown. I was not the picture of health. The picture of radiation poisoning, more like. However: I never burned, never peeled, never itched. Also: never again. From 1978 on, I kept myself well covered-up. And now this, the ghost of a very peculiar tan line, in ironic preppie-pink.

I don’t know how the Blu U lights work, and I have never seen the aftermath of treatment, because I have not got eyes on the top of my head, and, even if I did, they probably wouldn’t help. I don’t want to read about the lights until I’ve watched this reaction subside — I want to be surprised. And to marvel yet again, as the Blu U lights join fiberoptics and Remicade as techniques and medications that keep me alive. I think of myself as an old person, but not as a sick person, and yet without these medical advances I should have died five years ago at the latest. The marvel is not that these advances work. The marvel is that I’m surfing their introduction. If I had been born in 1938 instead of ten years later, they probably wouldn’t have been so effective. Orinoco!

Tanning salons were still new when I went to law school, and it took me longer than it did everyone else to realize that one of our classmates was paying regular visits to one. In the middle of winter, he looked as though he’d just returned from the Bahamas. There were reasons to suppose that he might very well have spent the weekend in the Bahamas, which I’ll leave it to you to work out, so I didn’t think anything of it. I was surprised only when I heard about the tanning salon. Suddenly, this guy’s tan looked as bogus as the one that had only recently faded from me. A tan that was developed in South Bend in the middle of an Indiana winter simply could not be real, however glowing. Come to think of it, the glow died out when I found out how it got there. When the lights went out beneath my classmate’s tan, he went from golden brown to grey. We see what we know.

It’s hard to believe that I was ever a guy in car, driving around Houston with my elbow sticking out the driver’s side window. To quote my favorite Woody Allen movie, Who do you think you are, an astronaut? (Hint: the line is delivered by Betty Boop.)


In the kitchen, on the stove, there is a pot of tomato sauce. The sauce cooked last night; now it must be strained. The onion, the sprigs of basil and oregano, and anything else that’s not smooth and silky must be filtered out. Tonight, I shall spread some of the sauce on a round of pizza dough. I shall sprinkle “low-moisture” mozzarella on the pizza, along with, perhaps, some sautéed mushrooms and some thin-sliced pepperoni. I hope that the pizza comes out tasting like a cliché.

I’ve been making pizza regularly for about a year, and I have mastered all the basic production issues. That was my first goal; only after I met it, I thought, would I tackle the sauce. But I’ve been procrastinating. It’s so easy to buy a bottle of sauce! I schmear a smidegeon of it on the dough, because I’m secretly dreaming of pizza bianca, and then sprinkle on the toppings: sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured olives. (I cook the sausage and the mushrooms and then go after them with the mezzaluna, throwing in the olives.) The pizzas come out great and Kathleen loves them. But I am disappointed. These pizzas don’t taste like pizza. And the reason for that is, largely, the sauce.

I finally looked for a recipe, and I came across one for “New York Style Pizza,” at Serious Eats. The sauce is a relative of what I call butter sauce: tomato pulp, a peeled onion sliced in half, and lots of butter. When the sauce is has slowly bubbled for a while, you throw away the onion halves. How could something so basic be so complex? But then, what is simple about the flavor of tomatoes? The protean magic of onions? The richness of butter? For the pizza sauce, the “lots of butter” is replaced by a teaspoon each of butter and olive oil. Pinches of salt and red pepper flakes are added along with a teaspoon of sugar. Oh, and microplaned garlic cloves. I had never grated garlic with the microplane. Intense, but not overpowering: it’s as though garlic were revealing its quiet inner soul.

The night before, I used the same pot for cooking a lavish morel sauce. I picked up a package of dandy-looking morels at Agata & Valentina, and decided on the spot to make a pasta sauce out of them. Again, it was a matter of treating complicated elements simply. Having read the pizza sauce recipe, I microplaned a clove of garlic into melted butter, then a chopped shallot. When these were ready, I tossed in the sliced mushrooms. When the mushrooms were limp, I poured in a tub of Agata & Valentina’s lovely veal stock — about two cups. When the stock was reduced by half, I added some heavy cream. When the cream thickened, we ate. I tossed into the sauce some cooked cavatappi (I’ve also seen them called cellentani) — the grooved helical tube that I discovered in law school. The dish was earthy and meaty but neither heavy nor wintry.

The night before that, I cooked in the same pot a chicken and wild-rice soup. I made this up but wrote it down. You cook a handful of mirepoix, together with a quarter teaspoon of something called “red poultry seasoning” (I got it at Fairway), in a knob of butter. Then you stir in four tablespoons — a third of a cup? — of something called Royale Rice mix. It’s a blend of brown, red, and (very little) wild rice. Pour on a quart of boiling chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, put the lid on the pot, and cook the rice for forty minutes. You can do all of this ahead. When it’s time to eat, cut a skinned and boned half chicken breast into bite-sized pieces, and throw it into the soup, along with a slurry of one tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in one tablespoon of water. Bring to the simmer, cook for a minute, and serve. (Cook a bit longer if your chicken pieces are bigger than you meant them to be.) With a nice piece of cheese — we’ve been crazy lately about a double-crème brie called Affinois — a hunk of liver mousse, and toasted baguette slices, the result is a very hearty meal for three.


From my last visit to the storage unit on 62nd Street, I brought back nine boxes of documents. They sat in the foyer, still in the big Bean tote bags that I use for these operations, for about a week. The other day, I began to tackle them. One box was empty — ideal! There were three others that didn’t seem particularly heavy. One was stuffed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the Times and most dating to the Eighties. All of them were quite yellow, and I expect that they’re friable as well. Another box held a few folders relating to the rent — the rent on other apartments that we have tenanted in this building. Also, floor plans. There was even a thank-you note from Rose Bialek! There are still some people in the building who remember jolly old Rose, the building’s long-time rental agent. We used to kid Rose about writing her memoirs. Impossible, she would always reply. She knew too many crazy stories about too many residents.

Rose told us a story that pertained to us, in a way. At the time, Kathleen had let Rose know that we were looking for a larger apartment. So, one day we had a call, and Rose said, there’s this guy on eighteen who just died — in the hospital, don’t worry! You won’t believe it, Rose said, but he isn’t even cold yet and three tenants have already called to ask for the apartment. Isn’t that disgusting? So I’m giving it to you. Whether that was the move that prompted Rose’s thank-you note, I can’t tell. Kathleen would always present Rose with a nice scarf, under which was tucked some valuable consideration. Rose did not identify the supplicant tenants, as was right and proper.

We heard a few more stories, not from Rose, about the late tenant who preceded us, but never you mind about those. It’s enough to repeat what we found. There was deep shag carpeting everywhere, and it was not new. Much less understandable was the closet situation. The sliding doors had been removed from the large closets in both bedrooms, and the interiors had been stripped down to the walls. Then they’d been painted pitch black. The building removed the carpet and restored the closets, but we were permanently curious about the late tenant’s décor.

The fourth lightweight box that I opened was full of crinkly onion-skin paper. This is not the time to dilate on my sometime passion for onion-skin paper, but I was very surprised to see that I had used for papers written for a history course that I took at Notre Dame. That this was what I had submitted, and not a copy, was proved by the grade on the last page. It was a very good grade, together with a note from the professor asking me to stop by after class. I remember that well. He was surprised by my grasp of history, already honed as a kind of obsessive hobby at Blair. He was pleased that I seemed to know so much. Well, everything has its down side, so that when we got to the English Civil War, and I found that I could not stomach the idea of going through that yet again — history was still very much a hobby, I remind you, and I took it all quite personally — I stopped going to class and ended up with that funny grade that you get for failing to show up for the final exam. It counts as an F, of course. I accumulated at least four of those over the years, all in electives. It never occurred to me that this failure of mine must have been very disappointing to the history professor.

I have not re-read the paper. I’m working up the nerve.

Bon week-end à tous!