Archive for June, 2016

Gotham Diary:
Act IV
June 2016 (III)

Monday, June 27th, 2016

27, 28, 30 June; 1 July

Monday 27th

On Saturday, I finished reading three big books, one in the afternoon, one in the evening, and one after dinner — which may explain why I watched Carol last night. It’s a film that Kathleen hasn’t wanted to see; Todd Haynes’s melancholy isn’t what she looks for in a movie. But Kathleen was in California, having left before dawn for Dana Point. My own expectations were mixed. I hadn’t read The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s second novel (which Carol adapts), but six or seven other novels (aside from the Ripleys) have left me with the sense of a strangely resentful writer. Highsmith always has a story to tell, but she is impatient with the need to write it all down. She can’t wait to be done, but she does want to linger over the discomfort. Having read a bit of biography, too, I know that Highsmith was very unhappy in love — and liked it that way. I met her once, at a book signing for the last Ripley, not long before her death. I told her that my favorite novel was Edith’s Diary. (It still is.) She almost moaned in response. “That was a very difficult time for me.” But when weren’t times difficult for this involuted woman?

And I haven’t been much in the mood for melancholy myself, lately; I’ve been producing enough of my own. But I myself was very curious to see how Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would play together onscreen. That turns out to be just what the movie is about. Carol gives Blanchett an opportunity to make over the imperious carapace that she donned for Blue Jasmine, and Mara responds with a more attractive version of the girl in Side Effects. Blanchett is leonine; Mara is mousey. Which is to say that Carol is hungry, while Therese wants to be swallowed up. I think that the key to the film is that these two women never quarrel. They are always warm together, even when Therese seems to think that this might not be a good idea. How long their harmony will last is not an interesting question, because the only answer is that it will last as long as it lasts. The interesting thing is to watch how it starts. The two actresses and their director make this so compelling that I was almost disappointed when carnality plowed its way upstage.

There are two sides to the beginning of any romance, and, correspondingly, two ways of presenting it. Every new love, especially for the young, “feels right.” This gratifying sensation not only sanctifies the relationship but absolves all transgressions. At the same time, new love is a betrayal or an abandonment of everything familiar: old friends and old places lose their appeal. There is a shame in rejecting familiar, once-cherished things. This is the side that Todd Haynes lingers over. True, his lovers are women in a time of intolerance — such intolerance that they are almost lucky to huddle beside the distraction of Joe McCarthy’s antics — but their guilty excitement will be familiar to anyone who has surrendered to someone new before quite closing off relations with someone old. Haynes materializes their giddiness in the rain-spotted windows of automobiles, through which the camera cannot hold its focus.

Cate Blanchett plays the wealthy matron who encounters Rooney Mara’s circumspect shopgirl on a Christmas-shopping errand. Draped in a rich mink that is nevertheless outshone by her impeccable blonde coif, Carol is the picture of a predator, but she turns out to have more to lose than Therese does. Therese, a budding photographer, travels light. Carol cannot: she has a four year-old daughter, and she must share the child with a rich businessman who refuses to understand why Carol prefers the company of other woman and resists her desire for a divorce. I must say that Kyle Chandler is perfectly cast as Harge Aird, the exasperated husband. Everything about his face — his boyish manliness, his pink cheeks and his five-o’clock shadow, his petulant heteronormativity — makes him a dangerous opponent. When he insists on taking the child to his parents’ house for the Christmas holidays, Carol comes up with the idea of inviting her new friend on a Lolita-like tour of American motels. It doesn’t take long for her to be tracked down, and for her transports to be taped by a detective. When Harge moves for permanent and total custody of the little girl, Carol heels to his whistle. Her best friend and old flame, Abby (Sarah Paulson) flies out to drive Therese (and Carol’s Packard) home.

While we’re on the subject of men, Jake Lacy deserves credit for his compleat impersonation of the annoying boyfriend, the kind with expectations where his ears ought to be. It is impossible for me to avoid surmising that the great attraction of lesbian life isn’t the absence of men. I understand that it is more positive than that, a matter of genuine same-sex attraction. But there is still an asymmetry between men and women here. Todd Haynes is electrically alive to the intolerable presumptuousness of men. What amazes me is that a man born in 1961 has developed such an expertise regarding the look and feel of the United States ten years earlier. In one of the early department-store scenes, Blanchett is clearly meant to stand out in a sea of frumpy, discontented women — but that’s how I remember them, and I’m about the age of Carol’s daughter. Where did all those sagging, sore-footed women go? It’s a good thing that they went away.


Now for the three books. The last shall be first, as it was the first that I began to read. This was back in the fall of 2014, when Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald came out. I had read three of Fitzgerald’s novels before; now I read the rest, alongside the biography’s engrossing discussions of them. Until, that is, I got to the last one, The Blue Flower. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to read The Blue Flower. It had something to do with German Romanticism, of which Fitzgerald’s hero, Friedrich von Hardenberg (who adopted the nom de plume Novalis), was a principal exponent. It had something to do with everybody’s dying young of tuberculosis. It had something to do with the title; I can’t think why, but the title seems hopelessly wet. It wasn’t until last month, May 2016, that I finally got to it. Only then could I finish Lee’s biography; for I could hardly follow a highly literate essay about an unread book. On Sunday, looking for something to move on to, I found Lee’s book in a pile on the book room desk, and was soon done with it.

Something else that kept me from The Blue Flower was my very protracted detour into the work of Fitzgerald’s younger friend, the other Penelope — Penelope Lively. I have even re-read a few of these. If I can’t think of anything else to read, I know that Lively will entertain me in the most agreeable way. Whereas I don’t know what to make of Fitzgerald. Which is fine, especially as I do know that I want to re-read Innocence, and perhaps Human Voices. Fitzgerald reminds me of other writers, or, rather, her subject-matter does. Innocence inspired me to re-read Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday, a book set in much the same time and place. The Beginning of Spring sowed the idea of re-reading The Idiot. Fitzgerald seems to disappear into her widely-ranged contexts; she is the very opposite of Ivy Compton-Burnett, who writes not only the same novel but the same sentences over and over (to strangely hypnotic effect). And yet Fitzgerald’s own life was wilder by far than any novel. Between her promising youth and her réclame as a spiky grande dame of letters stretched a middle age of distinctly problematic character, much of it the doing of Fitzgerald’s feckless husband, who was disbarred in the early Sixties after it was discovered that he had been stealing money from his chambers. For years, the Fitzgeralds lived in a council flat, while Penelope taught at posh private “crammers.” The air of disgraced gentry was, I thought, rather sordid. Fitzgerald survived, it seems, on motherhood and scholarship. And on pretending to be a nitwit. I died laughing when I read, in Lee, that she explained to an interviewer that she had founded everything that she needed to know about Novalis “on the Internet.”

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life did work a strange and utterly unexpected catharsis, however, not unrelated to questions of sordor. “There are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no one will ever know,” writes Lee of Fitzgerald, in a closing paragraph that follows hard on reference to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, “where Fitzgerald had been before me.” I don’t know that there are many things that I don’t want anyone to know about me, but there are more than a few. Now that I am old and falling apart, surviving on Remicade and five heart-related medications a day, I am more or less the person I always wanted to be. I didn’t realize how distracting and “not for me” being young was until I had left youth behind — far behind. (This, I think, went with the territory of being born when I was.) Along the way, I made some mortifying mistakes, about some of which I feel mortally shamed every time they come to mind, which is not rarely enough. I hope that they will be forgotten, and I am certainly not going to do anything to preserve their memory. This is part of a broader move to simplify the past by getting rid of most of the evidence of dead-ends, in which my early life abounded. If I preserve the bound National notebooks that I’ve mentioned from time to time, it’s because they say nothing at such great length that they would be funny if they weren’t so tedious, and barely more eloquent than my grandson’s scratchings at the age of two. Aside from that pile of rubbish, there isn’t much else. I haven’t written in books in decades; my current method of flagging interesting passages with Post-its as I read, and later transcribing them into Evernotes, is working very nicely, and contributing to the sense that my literary remains will be almost entirely digital.

Ideally, then, there will be no need to find a home for my “papers.” Pardon me the appearance of grandiosity, but Hermione Lee reminded me of something very important, which is that I want to have nothing further to do with the Lone Star State, and would sooner vanish from the memory of man altogether than find refuge at the Harry Ransom Center. I don’t care if it’s the most prestigious archive in the world (if it is); I want nothing to do with it. This disinclination, verging on abhorrence, was almost elating on Saturday night. It brought the oddest sense of relief. Not, as I say, that there is any danger that I  might “wind up” rubbing shoulders, or at least bones, with such illustrious departures. My life is starkly devoid of the trappings of celebrity, fame, or even the mildest buzz. Letters that I get from time to time are always kind — no one has written to complain, so far — and I like to think that readers who like me would prefer keeping me for themselves to “discovering” me. For my part, I should prefer that admirers who happen to live in Texas go through the motions of pretending to live somewhere else. (For you, George, I make a solitary exception.)

It is possible that I am alive today because I spent my reckless twenties in Houston; in New York, who knows what kind of conflagration might have consumed me. Houston kept me out of the kind of trouble to which I was drawn. This doesn’t change the fact that I look back on it as a complete exile, from which it took the highly uncharacteristic effort of getting into and going through law school somewhere else to return. It took seven years to build up the strength for that effort, to make an act of will that still surprises me. While in Houston, I married and had a child, thanks to whom I now have a grandchild. If my daughter moves back to Texas (something very unlikely, it seems to me), I shall have to reconsider my aversion, but, short of that, I am quits with Texas. That my parents are buried in Houston is simply yet another act of betrayal on their part; I have never forgiven them for changing “their song” from “Got A Date With An Angel” (irresistible, but already somewhat venerable when they were married, in 1942) to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”


Tuesday 28th

For reasons that I’ll get to shortly, I have been haunted by Verdi’s Otello. This has brought Woody Allen’s Match Point to mind, and, last night, to the screen in the bedroom. The movie’s soundtrack consists almost exclusively of old opera recordings. At the beginning and the end, and also at a dramatic moment in the middle, we hear Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. There are bits and pieces of things that are unfamiliar to me, and a few things that ought to be familiar but are made strange by the antique technology. The climactic murder scene is accompanied by a great swath from Act II of Otello. Iago, having opened Otello’s mind to the unthinkable, persuades him that his wife has been unfaithful. The music comes in on Otello’s “Desdemona rea,” and proceeds right to the unforgettable duet, “Si, pel ciel.” The singers are Janez Lotric and Igor Morozov; the recording, issued by Naxos, appears to be unavailable. Woody Allen deserves some kind of award for brilliant appropriation. On the screen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing the upwardly mobile former tennis pro who finds himself in a bit of a jam, falls apart as completely as Otello but then, as his own Iago, stiffens his resolve. It is utterly harrowing.

And yet the horror of this picture is that, even though the bad guy gets away with it, it is so satisfying. The bad guy will have to deal with the burden of a very unpleasant memory for the rest of his life, but the odds are that he will manage. We have seen this movie before, of course: in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the film that introduced Allen’s first corpse (Anjelica Huston), the eminent ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) silences a blackmail threat with the aid of a hit man hired by his no-good-nik brother (Jerry Orbach). And gets away with it. In Match Point, the bad guy has to do the killing himself. He nearly gets caught, but is saved by a piece of evidence that, thanks to a fortunate bounce on the net, as it were, is found in the wrong pocket. Well done!

Well done? What kind of moral degeneracy does this film induce? When the video ended last night, it was late, but I went out onto the balcony and sat for a little while, enjoying the kind of spring rain that we never had this spring. There seemed only the slightest, most negligible difference between the West End of London in which the movie was set and my own 87th Street. Even in the night, the honey locusts were low green clouds. The sound of the occasional car splashing through the wet seemed very Continental. All was in order.

I know that there are many people who would argue with a sneer that nothing could be more characteristic of a Woody Allen movie than the murder of two women by a man whose domestic happiness is at risk. The very fact that the murderer is badly shaken by what he has done, they would add, only makes it worse. What good are his tender feelings, if they don’t preclude his pulling the trigger? But I don’t see Match Point that way. The moral of the story of Match Point is that some people are lucky. Like the unlucky, they do not get what they deserve. A murderer is a bad person — we get it. But, having put his own life at the mercy of luck, he presents a thrilling spectacle, much like a tightrope walker, as the consequences of his act arrange themselves, as it turns out, in his favor.


The second book that I finished on Saturday was Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. I have mentioned this book a few times, and I’m not going to say much about it now. It is a readable and, so far as its subject makes possible, lucid biography. My slight disappointment with it is unfair, simply an indication that I was hoping for a somewhat different book than the one promised by Sperber’s subtitle. For what interests me about Marx isn’t the man himself — I already knew enough about him — but the posthumous evolution of his ideas, at the hands of Friedrich Engels and someone I hadn’t heard of, Karl Kautsky, toward the doctrines spouted by Lenin. Marx’s theories do not hold together, but they sparkle with piercing insights. He was not a very good philosopher, but he might have made a great satirist.

The first book to be finished on Saturday was a novel published in 1978. I don’t know that I have ever read a book that cried out to me for annotation as loudly as Brown Megg’s Aria. I didn’t require annotations in order to enjoy reading the novel, but, aside from Fossil Darling, from whom I learned about the book, I can’t think of anyone else who wouldn’t. I learned about the book in this way: I found it among Fossil’s books when I spent a few days at his apartment, in the summer of 1980. He graciously put me up while I looked for my own apartment. It took about a week to find one, and during that time I read Aria. That is how I remember it; what actually happened — I might have borrowed the book a little later — doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I read and liked Aria then, just on the other side of law school (three years) from my classical radio days.

The world of Aria was still very familiar to me, if only as a matter of hearsay. At the radio station, we gossiped about the luminaries of the music world (and the companies that paid them) just as the guys at ESPN must gossip about jocks today. I knew, for example, that the novel’s fictional record label, “Melos-Doria,” was derived from the role played by Dario Soria, together with his wife, Dorle, in the foundation of Angel Records, in New York in 1953, and that both labels began at about the same time. I knew that the great but now-voiceless Edith Cavalieri was based, very roughly, on Maria Callas, and that it was canny of Meggs to mention Cavalieri’s rivalry with Callas, so as to forestall libel suits. I knew that the casts of opera recordings were determined almost as much by caprice as by judgment, and that scheduling conflicts produced endless upsets. I knew, in short, that making records was a very complicated business. (One thing that I did not yet know was that RCA declined Rachmaninov’s request to record his Symphonic Dances with Artur Rubinstein because, in wartime, there would be “no demand.”) All the details in Aria rang interesting variations on true facts. Even the conductor’s name — Ponti — looked like a nod toward Sophia Loren’s husband, the film producer Carlo. I have never forgotten Aria since, and I have often thought of re-reading it. A while ago, I got a copy of my own. But it was only this month that I picked it up.

When I say that I had never forgot Aria, I mean that I never forgot that it was “about” the making of a studio recording of Verdi’s Otello, in Rome, and that the record producer and hero, Hurston (Harry) Chapin, faces many exciting vicissitudes. The drama of opera, so to speak. In fact, there is a good deal more to Aria than this. Of the novel’s four hundred sixty pages, only about a hundred are concerned with the actual recording. The rest is pretty exciting, too, and so vivid that I have to remind myself that many of its particulars have vanished so completely that nobody misses them. (EG: WATS lines.) Even more surprising, I recognized that Aria was written in a highly transitional cultural moment. Much of it could not have been published much sooner; nor, I think, would it be published today.

Wasn’t I just echoing, last Friday, an old frustration, that novels are always about love? Curious, considering that I was already well into Aria. Aria is above all a novel about work. Like any book about work, it is about a very narrow line of work. I am not entirely sure that anyone still follows Aria‘s line of work, or perhaps rather that the hero’s line of work — organizing the recording of an important opera — has not evolved into something else. Studio recordings have become uncommon for a number of reasons, but the principal cause of the shift toward live recordings is the great improvement in microphone technology — or so it seems to me. Today’s record producer faces a slate of engineering problems. Some opera house or other has already put together the cast, an undertaking rather more formidable than setting up recording equipment. Back in the day, however, live recordings had a distinctly inferior sound. Studio recordings were preferable partly because mistakes could be spliced out, but even more because ambient conditions could be optimal. An old church in the Holborn district of London, Kingsway Hall, became the sound studio of choice for many of the great EMI recordings of the Fifties and the Sixties. It was not much to look at, and when the tape reels were turning there were very few people in the room who weren’t engaged in singing or playing or checking sound levels or otherwise making the recording. In other words, nothing could have been less like a grand opera house packed with an eager audience. In those days, record producers were artistic quartermasters, engaged in manifold logistical conundrums and beset by loose ends at every turn.

But how much will you learn about a classical record producer’s line of work from Aria, a novel that assumes that you already know the business?

“Well,” said Harry with studied calm, “we certainly can’t break the act. Act IV is always complete on the final side. How do the other companies do it?”

“Other people don’t make it run thirty-four minutes, and they don’t do it in quad. Oh, you can squeeze it on, I suppose. But you won’t have any level — you’ll be hearing nothing but clicks and pops and background music. You don’t want that, do you?”

He was aware of his pulse again. In the new pared-down Chapin form, even the slightest change in emotional rhythm was noticeable. “No, I don’t want that,” he said quietly.

“I kicked it around with Mr Rose,” Poole went on, “and he says there’s a Victor set that starts Act IV on the fifth side and then runs it on over, making two pretty reasonable running times.”

“The act shouldn’t be broken,” Harry said petulantly. “On musical and dramatic grounds.”

“Okay, then,” said Poole.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, it shouldn’t be broken.”

“So what do we do?”

“So you tell me where you want it broken.”

Harry remained silent for several minutes, fingering through he master score. Oh, yes, this was the new Harry Chapin, who did not become unnecessarily exercised over trivial business decisions. “Oscar?”

“Yeah, Mr Chapin?”

“Break it after the ‘Ave Maria.’ You’ll have to redistribute sides four and five, too, or else five is going to be too long. You start side six there — right after ‘Amen!'”

Maybe I’m a worrier; maybe everybody understands what this is about. CD recordings of opera still involve multiple discs, and while it is somewhat unusual to break up the acts — the overall unit of opera — it is routine with Wagner and not uncommon with Richard Strauss. In the days of LPs, however, discs were playable on both sides, and there were lots of breaks. On the rare occasions when producers opted to squeeze Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onto one LP, there had to be an inevitably dreadful break in the middle of the long but lyrical slow movement. Act IV of Otello, in contrast, is relatively brief, with the troubled calm of Desdemona’s preparations for sleep followed by Otello’s swift act of madness and almost as swift collapse into remorse. But the conductor whom Harry Chapin has engaged for this recording, Gian-Carlo Ponti, is a plodder, a pedant, really, a young man who already thinks of himself as a high priest of music. Hence the thirty-four minute duration. Hence the need for a break. I will say that Harry’s choice for the break is the right one. But it’s a good thing that we don’t have to deal with these problems anymore.

(And “quad” — who remembers quadraphonic sound?)

Strangely enough, though, the parts of Aria that are not about work are the parts that would make it difficult to publish today, and that would have made it impossible to publish ten years earlier. In most lives, work is balanced by love and friendship, but love and friendship occupy a tiny part of Harry Chapin’s life. (He gets on best with his associate, Norman Rose.) His marriage is on the rocks, not that this bothers him very much. That’s one problem: it doesn’t bother him that his marriage is on the rocks. In fact, we discover that his marriage is not nearly as rocky as he would like it to be. Harry spends most of his non-working hours in a vast territory that merits the name, “Expense Account.” This is the aspect of Aria that has dated even more severely than the technical details.

Harry is a connoisseur of the great red wines of France. This sets him apart, in 1978, from most American men, even the rich ones; but what separates from Americans of today, or really almost anyone anywhere who knows about wine, is the quantities that Harry consumes. He drinks prodigiously, and suffers hangovers accordingly. He is certainly no picture of health. Many of his friends ask if he is putting on weight, because he is. At the same time, he is a relentless philanderer, whose only redeeming feature is the conviction with which he falls in love with every new face. What with all the wine, Harry has performance issues, and it’s clear that an awful reckoning is imminent. Author Meggs obliges magnificently, with a heart attack on the roof of St Peter’s in Rome. Harry survives, but without regrets: his new régime of healthy living is simply an updated ode to his vanity. And the conglomerate that owns his record company picks up all the checks.

If Harry’s high living is hard to believe, that’s because the constellation called “glamour” glistens with very different stars today. Well into the Seventies, opera held onto the status of top art form that it had achieved in the later days of the ancien régime. Back then, only royal and princely courts could afford to support opera houses, and only during a season. The thing about opera, aside from artistic merit, was that it was staggeringly expensive for something that left no trace when the curtain came down. Everything about opera was staggeringly expensive. Singers lived famously extravagant lives. Productions vied for costly special effects. If you weren’t spending money, you weren’t getting it. Harry’s life of first-class travel to biggest suites in best hotels with round-the-clock catering could still be taken for granted when Brown Meggs wrote Aria. All right; it was a little over the top. But only a little.

The satisfactions of Aria are, however, all work-related. There is an extraordinary scene near the end when Harry, whose label is facing a lawsuit, sits down with the plaintiff’s attorney plus two lawyers on his own side and silences them all, dictating the terms according to which the parties will move forward. The lawsuit itself is vaporized by his inexorable conditions. “Bravo!” you shout when he is done — and the plaintiff’s lawyer is fairly crawling out of the room on hands and knees. You are shouting because you understand the background; the novel has taught you exactly why Mme Cavalieri’s complaints against Melos-Doria records is piffle. This moment, and not the heart attack atop St Peter’s, is the climax of the novel. That’s to say that the climax is for lawyers and other negotiators.

Aria is the opposite of an historical novel: it opens a window on a world so vanished that without notes it is incomprehensible. Because I lived in illo tempore, I don’t need the notes, but I feel that I ought to write them while I can. (But I have forgotten so much of the detail since 1980.) At the same time, I’ve grown up a bit myself, and Harry’s immense condescension toward women, which breaks out into open misogyny whenever he is crossed, is both hard to take and fascinating, fascinating because well-written evidence of attitudes such as Harry’s are hard to come by. Few people were conscious of them as such at the time, and far fewer could afford them. The laws of fiction operational in those days said, “This is how it is.” The laws in force today would insist upon punishment for Harry. The women in his life would gang up on him, and his liver would give out. Instead, Harry gives every appearance, at the end, of having forsaken wine and women for song.


Thursday 30th

As I was reading the last chapters of Patricia Highsmith’s 1977 novel, Edith’s Diary, this morning, I was reminded of a movie that I couldn’t place. In the movie, a young woman whose marriage has broken down becomes unnaturally concerned about some political or social problem. Her life is a mess, but she can’t be bothered with that: what is her little life compared with the coming catastrophe that she is alone in foreseeing? We in the audience know that the catastrophe is indeed coming, but we also know that the woman’s hysteria — that’s what her friends call it — is abnormal.

The novel came to an end. I closed it and set it aside so that I could get up from my reading chair. I walked through the apartment toward the plate of bananas in the sunny dining ell. Even before I got there, I remembered the young woman and the movie: Kay, played by Joanna Pettet, in The Group, Sidney Lumet’s film of Mary McCarthy’s novel. At the end, Kay, searching the Manhattan skies for Nazi aircraft, loses her balance and falls out the window to her death. In the novel, Edith, who has been mountingly preoccupied by a hatred of Richard Nixon and bewilderment at the American evacuation of Saigon, trips on the stairs, and falls to her death.

Edith is carrying a metallic bust that she has sculpted of her son, Cliffie. It is an idealized portrait. She seems to have no idea that this bust might convince the doctors, to whom she intends to offer it as proof of her good health, that she is in fact in dire need of psychiatric care.

It is almost impossible to avoid regarding the deaths of Kay and Edith as mercies.


The other day, I wrote about telling Patricia Highsmith, at a book signing, that Edith’s Diary was my favorite of her novels. And then I added a parenthetical note stating that it still is. The falseness of this boast weighs heavily on me today. Oh, Edith’s Diary is indeed my favorite of Highsmith’s books — of which, to be honest, I have not read that many. But the novel that I thought I had in mind when speaking to Highsmith, the novel that I claimed as still my favorite, just the other day — this novel does not exist. To say that Edith’s Diary is not what I remembered is problematic, because while I did remember the major plot points, as well as the final fall down the stairs, I recreated everything else. In my version of the book, which posed as a recollection, Edith’s diary is the only text. We read the entries without confirmation or refutation from another point of view. We don’t know what is really happening in Edith’s life, but — here’s the brilliant part — Highsmith subtly signals to the reader that Edith’s diary entries are no longer truthful about the son whom we understand to be a disappointment. It is quite a trick! The entries become ever more far-fetched, the dissatisfactions of Edith’s life (which we know about, somehow) erased by her fantasies of wishful thinking. At the end, Edith is as demented and doomed as Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard. Trusting the son whom she has fabricated in the diary, Edith is traduced by him.

Quite a book, that would be. But I’m terrified by the unconscious abandon of my adaptation.

First of all, the diary entries take up very few pages, certainly fewer than fifteen or twenty (in a text that runs to three hundred). Most of the novel is narrated quite conventionally in the free indirect style, mostly from Edith’s point of view, but occasionally from Cliffie’s. Today, I think, Cliffie would be diagnosed as having a borderline narcissistic character, but he is not the psychopath that I invented. Nor is Edith the silly suburbanite that I remembered.

While I transformed Edith’s Diary into a lurid horror story, the novel is in fact the eerily gentle account of a woman’s dislocation under stress. Unfortunate things happen to Edith, but what makes them unfortunate is her inability to get anyone to help her with them. When her husband, Brett, falls in love with his secretary and, in the friendliest, most regretfully sympathetic way, leaves Edith, it’s hard to see who could help to patch things up; but Brett leaves a big problem behind, in the person of his uncle George, a self-absorbed old man who occupies the spare room in Edith’s house. Edith’s attempts to move George to a nursing home, while they have Brett’s support in principle, never get any traction, because Brett (interestingly, a journalist) doesn’t know how to do anything but talk. So the unfortunate thing that happens to Edith is not just the departure of a husband whom she has always thought she loved. It is Brett’s abandonment of the problem of what to do about the sick man in her house.

This wearing reality is severely crimped by a terrible coincidence. On the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Cliffie, driving while drunk, runs into a pedestrian, breaking both of his legs.

From that night onward, Edith had two on her hands, George and Cliffie, because Cliffie’s license was suspended for a year. He was grounded, as he put it. This Edith had learned the same early morning, when the Bruswick Corner police plus the Hopewell Township officer delivered Cliffie. He was plainly under the influence. Edith was ashamed, though she thought she had long ago lost the capacity for that, because Cliffie was a grown man, independent of her. Cliffie looked in fact half asleep, though the half of himi that wasn’t asleep focused on her, as if he were trying to gauge, if he could, her reaction. Edith was concerned about the man who had been injured… His name was written down, at Edith’s request, and left along with other papers for Cliffie to sign tomorrow, because as the police said, he was not in a condition to sign anything.

The following day, Robert Kennedy’s death was announced. Cliffie was asleep when Edith left for the Thatchery at a quarter to 2. Edith worked doggedly, with more of a head-down attitude than usual. “Don’t think, keep moving,” was her frequent advice to herself, and she sometimes added, “Don’t look for a meaning,” because if she did look for a meaning for even half a minute, she sensed that she was lost, that she had turned loose of her real anchor which was not Brett, but a kind of firm resignation. Edith didn’t know what to call it, but she knew what it was, knew the feeling. The feeling was one of security, the only security she knew now, or had now. (Chapter 18)

Highsmith’s approach is descriptive, not analytical. Edith’s relation to her parents, who are not even mentioned until well into the book, is oddly, inexplicably distant, and this strangeness is emphasised by Edith’s close and loving relationship with her great-aunt Melanie, whose niece her own mother is. We’re left to work out the possible consequences of that by ourselves. Edith’s early married life, and her early motherhood, are also glossed over. By the time we meet her, she knows that her little boy, then ten, is a liar with a weak and lazy character. Yet she seems to accept this as an everyday problem to be dealt with, not as grounds for medical attention. In the seventeen years that follow, Edith’s apparently placid nature is taken for granted by everyone. Only when it is too late do her ex-husband and her best friend, Gert Johnson, realize that Edith is headed for a breakdown. Their attempt to intervene are hopelessly condescending.

We’re told that Edith graduated from Bryn Mawr, so her attraction to progressive, and eventually left-wing politics is no surprise. Having moved from Greenwich Village to leafy Bucks County, Edith and Brett set up a small local newspaper, The Bugle. This soon fails, but later on Edith and Gert revive it and make a success of it. This is the weak spot in Edith’s suburban carapace, and what the bugle announces is the failure of Edith’s sense of proportion and appropriateness. Starting out as a successful homemaker, good cook, and enthsiastic gardener, Edith slides away into extreme political positions that have some occult connection with her increasing domestic derelictions. As her house takes on a shabby air, her newspaper trumpets unpopular opinions about birth control and abortion; toward the end, Edith is contributing to Ramparts (a radical mouthpiece that provoked my father to insist on the cancellation of my subscription, lest the postman be scandalized). Edith loses her job at the gift shop and is “boycotted” by most of her friends.

I like to think that Highsmith is not interested in assigning blame for the unraveling of Edith’s life. Arguably, it did not unravel at all — Edith simply tripped on the stairs; it could happen to anyone. She denied, through her fake diary entries (in which Cliffie goes to Princeton, marries a nice girl, has two children and a great engineering job in Kuwait), that she was unhappy. Who doesn’t try to overlook unhappiness? She is actually the first person to say, albeit jokingly, that she may be going nuts, but so long as the house is shipshape and the Bugle‘s editorials aren’t insulting, it’s simply the case that nobody has any time for Edith, because Edith is just another woman. Everybody admires Edith’s ability to handle the complexities of her life (until she doesn’t and they don’t), but nobody lifts a finger on her behalf. The way of life that Edith and her friends and family share does not provide for practical assistance. The housewife is either functional or sick. Her resentment burgeons and grows invisibly for years, but instead of rebellion, it leads her into confusion, as I think resentment usually does.

The unmooring that Edith feels manifests itself most alarmingly in lapses of short-term memory; this is eventually compounded by the difficulty of keeping the difference between real life and the events described in her diary distinct. Even she is upset to realize that she has knitted two little jackets for her invented grandchildren. Edith seems to suffer the violent displacements that seem to result from child abuse. There is no suggestion that Edith was abused as a child, but the novel never wanders from a world in which housewives, even the Bryn Mawr grads among them, are infantilized, making them dependent upon prospective abusers. Brett may be a bland nice guy with the best of intentions, but his selfish desertion of Edith, his uncontested insistence that the happiness of his life is more important than the happiness of hers, such a violation of the contract that Edith thought she signed at marriage, is a crushing blow, and Edith’s appearance of taking it so well really indicates that she is not taking it at all: her reactions to what Brett has done do not manifest themselves until the independence of Brett’s new life does, in the form of a new (and large) New York apartment, a baby daughter, and of course the uncle in the spare room who cannot be dislodged.

The second turning point in Edith’s Diary is the death of George. Highsmith keeps the details murky, to mirror Edith’s desire not to know what happened, but it’s clear enough that Cliffie gives George an overdose of codeine. This is actually Cliffie’s second attempt to kill “the old vegetable.” The first attempt fails because Edith steps in. The second one succeeds because she doesn’t. And, from now on, mother and son are a team, each protecting the other. When Brett insists that there ought to have been an autopsy, and even voices his suspicion of Cliffie to Edith, she dismisses him as a nosy stranger, and Highsmith does what she can to encourage the reader to share the same view. It becomes, frankly, an inverted example of abortion: Brett is far more exercised about George’s right to live than he ever was about the quality of George’s life or its consequences for his wife.

Edith’s Diary is, after all, a horror story, but it is a horror story from which excitement has been almost entirely drained. Instead of excitement, there is, every now and then, clarity. The clarity of the paragraph in which Edith comes to an end is unbearable.

She was aware that she didn’t scream, although she was terrified. It seemed a slow motion fall, she saw herself slanting head downward at the same angle as the stairs, and she thought of Cliffie as a small boy of eight and ten, potentially handsome as he was now potentially handsome, like the statue she held in her two hands. She thought of injustice, felt her personal sense of injustice combined now with the crazy, complex injustice of the Viet Nam situation — a country in which corruption, as everyone knew, was a way of life, normal. Tom Paine. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot … Her head struck hard, yet gracefully (she believed) on one of the bottom steps or the floor, and the lights went out for her.

Graceful to the end — a death worthy of her diary.


Friday 1st

My most recent Facebook update is two weeks old. It’s a link to the report filed at Political Scrapbook by Jared Yates Sexton after Donald Trump’s appearance at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. The report is actually a series of tweets posted by Sexton as the rally deteriorated into alarming disorderliness. In today’s Times, Sexton offers a toned-down but more thoughtful account of the Trump phenomenon. He suggests that Trump’s rallies have become “safe spaces” for Americans who feel suffocated by political correctness. Given the low-grade violence, occasionally erupting into fisticuffs, that Sexton tweeted about during the Greensboro event, “safe” doesn’t seem to be quite the right word. It’s like focusing on the calm in which the flame of a match can start a bonfire. But I see what Sexton means, and I’m intrigued.

Sexton closes his piece with more counterintuition:

Commentators have tried to cast Mr. Trump as a master manipulator, using his supporters to carry him to the White House but having no real interest in improving their lives. That may be his intention. But the reality is the other way around: His supporters are using him. Indeed, as I got in my car to drive home, I realized that since leaving the coliseum, of all the things I had heard people say, there was one phrase I hadn’t heard his supporters utter even once: Donald Trump’s name.

It would be nice to think that the Trumpsters are actually laughing at their man, at his weird hair and piggy eyes, at those hands that, along with being child-sized, are obviously innocent of manual labor. It would be jolly to know that the Republican Party has been saddled with a most unwelcome candidate by lords of misrule.

There has been a running joke, ever since last summer, that Donald Trump was going to pull a volte-face on us and claim that his campaign was only a joke, a wheeze: “Just kidding!” We passed the point at which such an outcome might reasonably be hoped for some time ago, but that is what seems to have happened with Boris Johnson in Britain. Having done more to inspire the move to Brexit than any other single figure — his distorted reporting from Brussels, full of tabloid-style nonsense, set the tone for British journalism on the subject — Johnson now reveals that he hasn’t a clue what comes next, and that (oops!) some of his facts and figures may have been mistaken. Sarah Lyall, who was the Times‘s London correspondent in Johnson’s palmier days, writes in today’s paper about the Falstaff who would be Hal with elegant glee.

Meanwhile, Members of Parliament who identify with the Labour Party are plotting to dethrone Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to the leadership of the party by the rank and file last year. It will be remembered that Conservative Members of Parliament brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990, by taking advantage of a twenty-five year-old party rule, never intended to be put to use, to withdraw their confidence in her premiership. Do Labourites have a similar rule? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Nevertheless, something can usually be stitched up. The next election is going to be fierce, and the Labour establishment believes that the adamantly leftist Corbyn will inspire a landslide loss.

If our political stage were more like Britain’s, then Donald Trump would take the place of Neil Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which stands to the right of the Conservative Party on issues of globalism and immigration. Instead of forming his own party and laying the groundwork — UKIP is twenty-five years old this year — Trump simply hijacked the Republican rostrum, and the Republicans, weirdly helpless, let it happen. Donald Trump was a magnet for UKIP-like disaffection, and his supporters knocked off the establishment candidates one by one.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the postwar political order seems marked for replacement. Notwithstanding the Trump insurgency, I hope that the reorganization begins with clearly distinct new parties. What are the issues? What’s more important, race or jobs? If un- or underemployed white men were able to get satisfying jobs, would they drop their resistance to the advance of other kinds of people? Are such jobs even conceivable? Or do we simply wait for the boomers to die off? What is the future of patriotism? Of nationalism? When will the French Revolution ever end?


The current issue of the London Review of Books is devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s discovery of the real Satoshi Nakamoto (the mythical/mysterior inventor of Bitcoin), a coder from Australia by the name of Craig Wright. “Is he Satoshi?” asks the cover. According to O’Hagan’s account, he seems to be; he has been acknowledged as such by two highly reliable members of the Bitcoin Space, Gavin Andresen and Jon Matonis. But when Wright was presented in a public “reveal,” he sabotaged his own performance in an easily detectable way, costing his sponsors a great deal of money. At least, that’s what I think happened. I had a very hard time following the story, not because O’Hagan writes less than lucidly but because the motivations of computer people often fail to tally with my expectations of humanity. For one thing, childhood traits persist well into middle age — and are not regarded as childish by peers. There is something about these men that reminds me of Creationists and Trump supporters: they’re not interested in common sense or received wisdom. (You have to receive received wisdom before you can transcend or amend it.) Where children used to have childhoods, they had superheroes and Dungeons and Dragons. If I read O’Hagan correctly, even Wright’s grasp of math is uneven.

Without Kathleen’s engagement in several Bitcoin/block chain projects, I doubt that I’d be paying attention to this story. (Maybe I’d go straight to the movie. There’s certainly a movie in O’Hagan’s piece, although the ending may have been left open. In a way, it’s a story that can end only if and when Wright is assassinated.) It’s bitterly ironic that the Internet, which was presented to us as such a dewily beneficent contribution to human betterment back in the Nineties, turns out to be great terrain for men being men. Pow! Zam! You will not be surprised to learn that Craig Wright, although probably a genius and hopefully the owner of many patents, is a terrible businessman. That is why he agreed to out himself as Satoshi. The sponsors would pay off all his debts in exchange for some of his intellectual property and the tsunami of publicity.

By now, everybody under thirty knows that “satoshi” is the Japanese word for “Ash,” and also the name of “the main protagonist of Pokémon manga and anime series” (Wikipedia). As to “Nakamoto,” it was the surname of an eighteenth-century Japanese iconoclast (for whom there is no Wikipedia entry.) The Wikipedia entry for “Satoshi Nakamoto” has been updated to include reference to O’Hagan’s exposé, but dismisses it as inconclusive. In a sense, the story has to be inconclusive.

Wright said he had never expected the myth of Satoshi to gather such force. “We were all used to using pseudonyms,” he told me. “That’s the cyberpunk way.” Now people want Satoshi to come down from the mountain like a messiah. I am not that. And we didn’t mean to set up a myth that way.” Satoshi was loved by bitcoin fans for making a beautiful thing and then disappearing. They don’t want Satoshi to be wrong or contradictory, boastful or short-tempered, and they don’t really want him to be a 45-year-old Australian called Craig.

Wright is generous in giving credit to the men who contributed to development of Bitcoin, so much so that I agree with Kathleen, that “Satoshi Nakamoto” denotes a loose band of contributors. Wright may very well have contributed, along with plenty of code, the name. He and his colleagues seem to have created a puzzle (who?) that can never be solved — not, at least, until a Bitcoin transaction can be faked.


It has been a long time since I read a novel by Anne Tyler. I thinker of her as an Eighties writer, whatever that means. For a few years, I read each new one as it came out. Then I began to feel that they were all the same. Baltimore was a big part of the problem, because no city confuses me more. Is it a northern city or a southern city? To put it slightly differently, is it a local city, with its own little ecology, or is it part of something larger, and, if so, what? Geographically, Baltimore belongs in the Northeast Corridor, or so they say. Whatever the trains may do, I’m not sure that the corridor really extends beyond Wilmington, Delaware. Sometimes, I’m inclined to limit the span to New York and Boston. I can imagine what they think in Boston: what corridor?

But I’ve just read what I think is the latest from Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, and it surprised me. It seemed less like the Anne Tylers that I remember and more like the Penelope Livelys that I’ve been re-reading. For one thing, there is no sad sack in Spool. When I think of Anne Tyler, I think of mildly disappointed people in trying family situations, unable either to light the hearth with cheer or to cut loose. There are no such people in Spool. Well, there may be one, but he is much too rude and opaque to be a sad sack, and he is far more disappointing than disappointed. Everyone in Spool is pretty lively.

And then there’s this house. The house, built during World War II, stands on a leafy lot in a very nice part of town. It is simple and unostentatious but perfectly proportioned. The rooms are spacious and airy, ventilated by transoms as well as ceiling fans (but no air-conditioning). The main attraction, at least during the warmer months, is a deep and wide verandah. The house is quite literally the embodiment of a family — the builder’s family.

The Whitshank family emerged from rural yeomanry in the 1920s, when J R Whitshank (known as “Junior”) came to Baltimore. He was followed, five years later, by Linnie, the young woman who had fallen in love with him, back in North Carolina, when she was thirteen. Junior prospered as a contractor, and they had two children. Their daughter, Merrick, schemed her way into the more eminent reaches of Baltimore society, while their son, Redcliffe (“Red”) followed in his father’s business. Red married Abby, the daughter of a hardware store proprietor, and they had four children. Or was it three?

The structure of the novel is palpable. Each chapter has its own topic, as it were, that renders it a distinct part of the overall narrative flow. Two preliminary chapters introduce the family, now centered on Red and Abby (Junior and Linnie having been killed in a grade-crossing accident in 1967). First we meet Denny, the third child and the elusive member of the family. Denny spies on everybody else but maintains rigid secrecy about himself. He also stays away from the house, roaming around the country in a variety of half-hearted pursuits. The novel begins with his calling home from college to tell his parents that he is gay. Having said that, Denny hangs up. His parents argue: is it possible? Red thinks not. Abby wants to know if there is someone in his life. Both want Denny to settle down. They want to know who and where he is — the most natural of parental concerns. The chapter is a chronicle of Denny’s sporadic appearances, sometimes with a daughter, Susan (who he confesses to his mother is not actually his child), that ends in the novel’s present, which is the year 2012.

The second chapter tells the two stories that everybody in the family knows. There is the story about the house, and then the story of Merrick’s social climbing. They are pretty much two sides of the same story, because Merrick climbs her way out of the house and, despite (or perhaps as underlined by) a couple of appearances, out of the family. (There turns out to be a third well-known story — how Abby fell in love with Red — and it is told later, after the present action winds up and nearly comes to an end.) The action gets going at the start of the third chapter, in which Stem, the fourth and youngest child, moves his family into the house in order to watch over his parents, who are beginning, it seems, to fail. In the fourth, Denny shows up, having voiced his complaint that the caretaker’s duty is his, since Stem is not a real member of the family. This is a surprise to the reader, of course, but not to anyone in the book; the thing that most of his quasi-adoptive family does not know about Stem (Stem included) is revealed later. In the fifth chapter, the simmering competition between Stem and Denny erupts into a fight at the beach house that the family rents every summer. In the sixth chapter, there is an accident, followed by a funeral in the seventh. In the eighth and last main chapter, the family decides to leave the house. At the end of the book, when we return to the present, Denny gets on a train heading north to New Jersey, where an exaperated woman awaits him, and the winds of Hurricane Sandy gather overhead.

In the five chapters that separate this story from its ending, Tyler tells Abby’s story, set way back in 1958. Then she goes back further still, and retraces in detail the story of the house. Or, rather, this time, Tyle writes about the journey to the house. This is a much darker story, complete with danger, violence, and privation, because there is no family as yet: we are told how it was created. The official family story of the house never mentioned Junior’s intense resistance to re-uniting with Linnie when she surprised him by showing up in Baltimore. He remembers her as the author of the worst episode in his life, in which he was obliged to walk, half-naked and barefoot, many miles through the night, in fear of his life. Linnie’s father caught the two of them together in a barn; Junior was twice Linnie’s age. Junior’s love, moreover, was pretty much confined to Linnie’s voluptuous bosom. Beyond all that unpleasantness, Linnie is disinclined to put aside her back-country ways, whereas Junior longs to be accepted by his neighbors on Bouton Road. Linnie rather sublimely ignores Junior’s countless snubs, and he learns that she is “the bane of his existence” — his way of saying that he can’t live without her. Junior may not be an endearing man, but Linnie wrests a family from him, pretty much as God wrought Eve from Adam.

As it has been so long since I last read Anne Tyler, I can’t generalize, but A Spool of Blue Thread pulls off a neat trick — although perhaps it isn’t a trick at all. The novel runs through all of the familiar domestic rough spots, and its characters are often thoughtless and self-aborbed, indignant and resentful. But however much Denny, for example, acts like a jerk, it is not a palpably gender-linked jerkitude. The men are more competitive than compassionate, and the women vice versa, but not to hyped-up degrees. (There is not the faintest whisper of second-class personhood that imprisons the heroine of Edith’s Diary.) Amanda, the eldest of the younger Whitshanks, and her husband, Hugh, would be equally disagreeable, if we saw more of Hugh; Amanda rather takes after her dreadful aunt. Gender doesn’t explain very much of what goes on; mothers and fathers are loving in their own ways — but loving. These family relationships are not qualified by sex. Maybe that’s because their author is aware that they begin in the union of the two.

Many thanks to Kathleen for picking up the book on her two-day trip to California!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Clean Starvèd
June 2016 (II)

Monday, June 20th, 2016

20, 21, 23, and 24 June

Monday 20th

All weekend, I pondered the reality behind a paragraph in the New York Times Book Review. The book under review was Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir; the reviewer was Dayna Tortorici.

Valenti’s commitment to holding the line for a certain common-denominator feminism in hostile territory is admirable. This is thankless work, and after more than a decade of it she is clearly tired. “I know I’m meant to be the bigger person,” she writes in “Sex Object,” her latest, addressing the anonymous men who flood her inbox with threats and insults. “I know you’re not supposed to hate people because hate is bad for your soul.” But so is knowing that “whatever you work on, whoever you are, the nameless horde of random people who go home at night and kiss their wives and children would like for you to disappear.” Likewise, of the men who approach her after speaking engagements: “I have become too exhausted with men online to interact with well-meaning information seekers in real life.” Of putting on a brave face and laughing off offenses: “This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore.”

In last week’s New Yorker (I am not changing the subject), there’s a cartoon in which a doctor shows his patient an X-ray and says, “That’s the racist bone in your body you claimed you didn’t have.” The doctor might just as easily have said to the man (for the patient is, as almost always, a man), “That’s the misogynist bone in your body…” The sad truth behind the joke is that there are no such X-rays. There is no way to tell, no doctor to consult, if you’re worried about hidden contempt for or hostility toward different kinds of people — different from you, the straight white male. How can you be sure that you’re not fooling yourself? Happily, the answer — You can’t — is the answer to almost every search for certainty about what’s going on in your mind. So, what you have to do instead is to listen to those different people, and to try very hard to hear them clearly. Stop there. Only in rare cases — invitation-only, probably — is it a good idea to stand up as a well-meaning information seeker. You ought to remain silent, if only to make up for the jerks who write insulting, abusive, and anonymous comments online.

In any case, I wasn’t thinking about Valenti or the many other women who have been subjected to mindless vitriol. I was thinking about the sources of that vitriol. What motivates men to write such things? I can barely imagine phrasing them, but even if I did, I’m certain that I shouldn’t write them down and post them in a comment, hiding behind an opaque screen name. There can be no justification at all for gratuitous offensiveness that splutters with hatred, nearly devoid of true criticism. If it makes you feel better to get this kind of thing off your chest, see a priest or a doctor.

Being targeted by nasty trolls is, I suppose, preferable to being dragged out into the market square and burned as a witch. That’s my way of saying that there might be nothing really new in this online ugliness. But it does seem new. It seems to be a weird way of combining the invisibility of merging with a crowd and the privacy of pornographic fantasy. In fact, it just now occurs to me that many of these commenters might be masturbating after posting. That, sadly, would explain a lot. Everybody else may have already figured this out, but I haven’t heard anyone say so.

Oh, dear. Little did I foresee that this is where my meditation might lead me. My solution to the practical problem, anyway — how to stop such behavior, if not the impulse behind hit — is to work to narrow the availability of Internet anonymity to the few areas where it is necessary.

Meanwhile, the Donald. (I am not changing the subject.) Last week, I was shaking in my boots, worried that he’d make his way to the White House. Over the weekend, I was assaulted by reassurances that this will never happen, that, now that he has no one to fight but Hillary Clinton, Trump is merely flailing. There is still room for him to maneuver as the scourge of the Republican Party, which in turn has not quite accepted the fait accompli of the primaries. But he cannot expose Clinton as he exposed his Republican rivals. There is nothing to expose, except possibly some further venial sins for which Clinton has characteristically refused to apologise. If anything, the T-shirt slogan, “Trump the Bitch,” exposes the unattractive nastiness in which the Trumpsters almost helplessly indulge. Nevertheless, I refuse to relax into complacency.

The Republican response appears to be divided between those who believe that Trump can be tamed and led and those who know that he cannot. This really is objectively reiterative of Hitler’s rise to power. The army, the plutocracy, the shreds of the aristocracy — all these right-leaning nabobs thought that taking charge of an uneducated rube from the poorest part of Austria would be a walk in the park. In their defense, there was little history to work with. Trump, in contrast, has been seducing and abandoning investors for decades, and charging them handsomely for the right to be impoverished by him. (Perhaps he anticipated the hedge fund’s two-and-twenty: he used everyone’s money but his own to fund his projects, and he collected handsome managerial fees — all the way to bankruptcy.) He has never submitted to any kind of second-fiddle role. He imagines himself (as I think Hitler did) to be the entire orchestra. The rest of us, including the Republican senators who expect to guide him, have only to listen.


On Friday night, we watched Gorky Park, mildly astonished all the way through to bear in mind that the movie was released thirty-three years ago, in 1983. To us, it still looks fresh. It may be set in those days, but the language of its filmmaking hasn’t dated very much. But then, how should we know? How can we sure to distinguish low-budget features from a style that might strike twentysomethings as antiquated?

Back in 1983, I still regarded Soviet Russia as a drab, repressive society in which everybody was miserable. I see things a bit differently now, and Gorky Park looked different accordingly. The state security system (whether KBG or otherwise) could be ferociously brutal on occasion, certainly, but it was for most people, most of the time, an irritating inconvenience, not a dread of midnight knocks at the door. And I saw more clearly that Gorky Park‘s background is the profound internal corruption that within a decade would spell the end of the régime. If there’s a lot of murder in Gorky Park, it’s because of the unimaginable financial stakes of breaking the Russian monopoly on sable fur. (A monopoly that appears to be somewhat factitious, as wild sables, who produce the most valuable pelts, seem not to flourish outside of Siberia.) Dreary, Russia might have been, but then so were (and are) vast parts of New York’s metropolitan area.

I used to find the ending very sad. Poor Arkady Renko, having solved the case and cleared out the bad guys, has to “go back,” in order to guarantee Irina Asanova’s “escape” to the West. But it is difficult to imagine Arkady’s finding contentment in the Europe or America that is thumbnailed by the American villain, Jack Osborne, as a place where everybody enjoys a pre-luncheon apéritif at a gracious restaurant. Irina will probably find that this is all too not true. We might have suspected as much in 1983, but now we can be certain.

I don’t mean to get sentimental about the Communist experiment in Russia. But it seems that the experiment didn’t do much more to Russia, in any permanent way, than Prohibition did to the United States. We forget that Russia and the United States were yoked in a competition by the Western European imagination in the Nineteenth Century, as both countries grew at a fantastic pace. One of the new giants represented the future; the other, the past. If it were possible to develop an American level of wealth while retaining what was already for Europe a pre-modern autocracy, then the future of liberal democracy would have appeared to be less robust. The termination of the Communist experiment, far from “winning the Cold War” for America, has revived this old competition. It does not seem to be the case that Russia is flourishing any more under the autocrat Putin than it did under the autocrats Romanov, but once again there is a luster, or at least a bling, that is anything but drab. Liberal democracy does not seem, at the moment, to be secure anywhere.

Charles Wheelan’s book, Naked Economics, arrived over the weekend, and I learned something from the back cover that would have stilled my hand from clicking on “Add to cart” had I known it then: Wheelan is a former “Midwest correspondent” for The Economist. I subscribed to The Economist for years. It cost the earth, was almost as boring as US News and World Report to look at, and mindlessly pro-business. On the good side, its coverage of foreign affairs was far more acute than that at the Times, and it was also less Yanko-centric. In the end, however, I concluded that the newspaper’s party line made it impossible for Economist contributors to register unorthodox developments. To put it another way, this party line held that the global economy entered a new phase, a new world order, with the Industrial Revolution, and that this era would last as long as any that preceded it. I don’t agree. I haven’t read his work, but I’m inclined to agree with what I hear about Northwestern’s Robert Gordon, that what we have seen in the past two centuries is comparable to the huge inflation that troubled the later Sixteenth Century, caused by the influx of the New World’s gold and, mostly, silver resources. The inflation was real, but it was the punctuation between two eras, not an era unto itself. So it is with the mechanical transformation of the Western economy, in which (reversing the earlier inflation, as it were) goods became ever more affordable. To take one example: indoor plumbing has become a default amenity in the West. Nobody thinks of building a house without a bathroom or a kitchen. But the economic growth that produced this amenity may be over, may no longer be necessary. When every house has a bathroom, there is nowhere to grow.

In characteristic fashion, I picked up Naked Economics and began reading in the middle. The chapter on “Human Capital” is lucid but implicitly retrospective. It simply is no longer true that college education provides the ten-percent return-on-investment that Wheelan posits. Once upon a time, yes, but no longer. Even if a degree still led to better jobs as a matter of course, that would change if the majority of shirkers changed there ways. “The poverty rate for high school dropouts is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates.” What would happen to the absolute poverty rate, though, if nobody dropped out of high school? What would happen if college degrees ceased to be scarce? I think that we’re already seeing what happens, and yet Wheelan begins his discussion of human capital by pinning its value to scarcities. He cites Bill Gates as a monument of human capital. This is perhaps an unwise choice, not only because Gates dropped out of Harvard — and what, pray, is The Economist‘s view of Thiel Fellows? — but because Gates’s unusual access to powerful mainframe computers during his high-school career was lubricated by his parents’ prestige. Bill Gates may be more like the Sultan Brunei, cited by Wheelan for being rich arguably without human capital of any kind, than Wheelan supposes. Indeed, to increase human capital in any significant way, at least in the developed countries, would seem to require a scarcity of people.

For a couple of hundred years, it certainly seemed that an economy that nurtured individual self-interest, encouraging everyone to make money any legal whichway, would lead, overall, to widespread prosperity. There might be occasional turbulence, but even in the Crash the economy did not actually crash. It now seems, however, that more than markets are at stake. Growth and self-interest have produced environmental hazards: the economy’s use of petrochemicals alone may have doomed life on this planet. As I never tire of pointing out, in planetary, or even evolutionary time the Industrial Revolution occurred last week, and we still don’t understand it. There’s much more to fear than the proponents of command economics.

Gorky Park deploys its Soviet setting as window-dressing; its story really concerns the combat of a man of principle with an opportunist. The opportunist is suave and self-assured — is it conceivable, by the way, that Gorky Park would have been made without Lee Marvin’s participation (as Osborne)? — while the man of principle (played by the then somewhat new William Hurt) is sallow and undernourished. The opportunist mocks the man of principle, but the man of principle seems to welcome the mockery, if only as an intensification of their struggle: mockery itself is a kind of weakness, perhaps a sign of fear of failure. (Even if Osborne’s mockery is extremely understated, it is still there.) In the end, Osborne does not kill Arkady, and neither does Arkady kill Osborne; the battle is settled by a third party, Irina, when she surprises Osborne with shots from a revolver. But the man of principle is also the best policeman in Moscow, and his survival may simply stand for the proposition that crime doesn’t pay, at least when the cops are doing their job.

In 1983, Kathleen and I thought that Joanna Pacula, who plays Irina, was just another pretty face. The other night, she struck as exceptionally beautiful. Is this just a sign that we’re getting old?


Tuesday 21st

The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s second novel, sat in my fiction pile for several months. I did not look forward to reading it, because I was sure that I should dislike it. Everything that I knew about it broke one or another of my rules of decorum about fiction — a protocol that has carved itself out of decades of reading. No historical fiction, for one. I read too much plain history, involving too many period documents, not to find that the dialogue in historical fiction is unbearably anachronistic, not only littering the page with unlikely language but stuffing impossible thoughts into characters’ heads. You may hear Thomas Cromwell, but I hear Florence Foster Jenkins. No opera fantasies. Ever since James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, this genre, of which I think Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case was the last that I read, has provoked an allergic reaction that used to make me tear through books in a fury, because I always finished what I started, and couldn’t wait to be done. (I am wiser now.) No dabbling in the occult. I shan’t stoop to explain that one.

Every review of The Queen of the Night promised a slew of violations, together with an impression that the steam of carnal passion would be rising from every page. In short, I was led to expect an overwritten, stilted, and sordid travesty of grand opera, “loosely based” on the story of Jenny Lind. You may be asking why I bought the book. The simple answer is that Alexander Chee is a Facebook friend, our link established long ago in the mists of social networking, not long after I read, and was impressed by, his contribution to an anthology called Boys to Men. I also read his first novel, Edinburgh. For years, I read status updates on the book’s progress; a lot of research went into getting things right. By the time The Queen of the Night was was published, I felt bound by honor to buy it. But I didn’t want to read it.

And now I have just read it, just finished it this morning. I did not dislike it, not at all. Well, there were two things that bothered me. Chee’s use of personal pronouns in his first-person narrative was occasionally ungrammatical. I’m a stickler about that. It’s okay for a character to be quoted as saying, “It’s me” to another character, but I prefer that characters not think it. The other bother was the novel’s Paris, in which everything — the Bois de Boulogne, the Marais, the Jardin des Plantes, and the various palaces — seemed to be only a few steps from everything else, and the Seine could be crossed without comment. In my Paris, no one ever crosses the Seine without comment. Like the Thames, it is a monumental cultural marker, and the heart of the city that it divides is nevertheless on one side only, not the other. There you have it, my calendar of complaints.

This is where I’m supposed to complete my surprise at not hating the book by claiming that, in fact, I loved it. But I didn’t love it, either. My positive response was milder than that, something close to beguilement. You might say that I was enchanted by it, if you meant it very literally, for indeed I read it as if the rules didn’t matter, even when I could hear them snapping underfoot. I can only think that the spell was cast by the well-aged patina of Chee’s prose. Although the subject matter is cosmopolitan and quite adult, the tone is that of a classic book for children, written in the days when publishers were expect to provide “improving” texts for young readers, and when a certain distance from the vernacular was the surest way of establishing a setting in illo tempore, the sense of another time and place not quite contiguous with our own. The Queen of the Night opens in 1882, and then goes back to the American Civil War, and Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie, appear in it, as do Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, and Pauline García-Viardot and her two husbands. Don’t forget George Sand! But historical events and personages, however accurately described, seem to be breathing the air of another world — the world of stories. The Queen of the Night is not a historical novel, after all, because it is not trying to tell us how things really were back then. If the details are sedulously correct, that is only to prevent the knowledgeable reader from stubbing his toe against a blunder — and waking up.

Chee cannot resist the conceit that his novel is in fact the opera, Le Cirque du Monde Déchu, that has been written as a vehicle for the soprano who is the novel’s narrator. Or at least its scenario. As I see it, the opera and the novel are as unlike as two art forms taking time to experience could be. Novels are baggy; even mediocre operas are well-tailored. I propose a compromise: tapestry. Alexander Chee has digested a great deal of information (and affect, if that is not also information) about Parisian high life in the Nineteenth Century, and then, like Keith Jarrett at Cologne, sat down to weave a tapestry of magnificent consistency.

The period covered by the novel witnessed the birth of celebrity — of people famous for being famous. There is a highly polished example of the birth of a celebrity in the novel. It appears in the eleventh “scene” of the fourth “act” of The Queen of the Night. After her début as Amina, in La Sonnambula, enthusiastic admirers unharness her coach horses with a view to pulling it through the streets themselves, something that actually happened to Verdi after the première of Macbeth. Instead, there is pandemonium, and the soprano, from girlhood in Minnesota an accomplished equestrienne, mounts one of the horses herself. As she gallops along, her trademark, a general’s overcoat, billows out behind her, as does the train of her gown. A caricature of the event appears in next day’s paper: La générale et la légion. I can’t believe that Chee didn’t consider this as a possible title, which I hope is what the novel will be called in a French translation.

(Yes: that’s the note I’m looking for. The Queen of the Night reads like a translation. This is not to say that its English is inept, but only that it hints at things that can’t quite be translated, tiny mysteries that we accept when we read foreign fiction in translation.)

Musicians were among the first celebrities. At first, they were freaks just like all the other momentarily notable. Did you know that the violinist who first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, an immortal masterpiece superior to every one of his symphonies, interpolated a little sonata of his own after the first movement — a sonata for violin played upside-down? As the century progressed, the circus atmosphere was left behind; music became an art form to be appreciated in silence. But Chee has reversed this progress. Le Cirque du Monde Déchu is, after all, an opera about a circus, with a heroine who does acrobatic tricks while singing and riding a pony. It’s as though the Barnum era followed that of the Palais Garnier, and the sleight of hand is carried off so well that it doesn’t seem to be a fiction. Or do I mean, a fantasy?

Female singers were certainly the first women to make public spectacles of themselves (and not their crowns), and they quickly learned to dress in a manner that the aristocracy, had it the wherewithal, would seek to imitate. There are a lot of dresses in The Queen of the Night. The very first, a gown by the House of Worth, is a disappointment to the woman wearing it, so she contrives an ingenious way of disembarrassing herself of it (a pair of dueling Dukes have a fetish for reducing flounces to shreds with their sabres) and she reappears in the second, a creation of the dressmaker Félix, a creation of Chee’s. In the third act of the novel, our heroine is a grisette in the service of Empress Eugénie, and she gets to handle a lot of imperial apparel, all of it lovingly described. Chee writes about clothes and fabric very well, by which I may simply means that he knows when to stop for the likes of me. It is not that he brings the dresses to life, but rather the attentiveness with which they are made. That was the point of haute couture in the Nineteenth Century: expensive women ventured forth covered with virtual banners announcing their awareness of this or that favored detail. There was nothing about a high-end dress that was “just a dress.”

There are a handful of aristocratic ladies in The Queen of the Night, but none of them is French. The Empress sets a rather low bar. There is also the intriguing Comtesse de Castiglione, who can shift from being a Good Fairy to a Bad one at the speed of light. Mostly, there are demimondaines, filles en carte — courtesans and prostitutes. This is the fluid world of the Belle Époque at night. There are revels at the maisons closes, balls, nights at the opera, and even offstage hunts, all of them presented with a blur that conjures the self-defeating longing of children who are staying up far past their bedtimes and trying to glimpse the grown-ups through the banisters. Indeed, nothing comes across as so pleasurable as a good sleep.

The men are — men. The ones we see up close are very good-looking, but their regard for women is nothing if not objectifying. Only poor old Turgenev seems to know what love is — and maybe Verdi, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Here I want to tread very carefully. The Queen of the Night favors women, but it presents them with something of the self-importance of men. It’s the difference, slight perhaps, between saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because it’s important [to be aware],” and saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because I’m important [just being me].” The heroine mixes this up nicely. She doesn’t think that she is important. But then, she must be, because she has invited the anger, or the luck, of the gods. Fates and curses are mentioned almost as often as fabrics. Somehow, Chee manages not to be melodramatic about this. The vividness of his heroine’s life, beginning with an early, despairing orphanhood, proceeding through “such like circumstances” worthy of the Lord High Executioner, and culminating in murder, is damped by the pursuit of her vocal artistry, itself an inexplicable gift. The delight of singing opera beautifully — not just listening to it — is beautifully described. Chee deserves a special award for presenting, as one of the most dangerous of the plot’s points, the singing of the Queen of the Night’s first aria: the music lies outside the singer’s Fach, and we are carefully prepared to grasp this esoteric, if quite fatal, risk.

At times, The Queen of the Night feels like a puzzle, or perhaps a cypher, that might be decoded given the proper insight. I myself, however, wasted no time trying to interpret the tale in other terms. Chee writes in an afterword that “this novel is meant as a reinvention” of The Magic Flute, and I’m glad that I read that before sinking my teeth into the novel, because nothing is sillier than trying to explain the peripeties of Mozart’s opera. If I haven’t said much about the plot, or even told you the heroine’s name (which it isn’t) — why, I haven’t even mentioned “the tenor” (also nameless)! — it’s because these are all elements of the ineffable tapestry; and it’s important to say only that Chee has a clear idea of what he wants you to know. He explains things just as the great storybooks do, so that even if you know all about the opera mentioned, or the political events in the background, you won’t object to reading what he has to say about them. If you ask me, The Queen of the Night is a reinvention of Consuelo, the novel that George Sand is said to have written about Pauline Viardot. I wish it were easier for Anglophone readers to assess the weight of that compliment.


Thursday 23rd

This weekend, I was more than a little amused to see that, in her favorable Book Review review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Penelope Lively touched on the very paragraph that I quoted in full when I wrote about the book last week. Even better, though, she wrought from it a small but invaluable teaching lesson.

I must confess, though, that I did get a touch irritated with Joy at a certain point, frustrated by her inability to do anything about an apartment apparently awash in papers, with files marked URGENT, with unopened letters and so forth. Come on, Joy, it’s just a matter of gritting your teeth and getting down to it! And here I can speak with a certain authority, being myself an octogenarian. But I am my own sort of octogenarian, and that is the whole point. Old people do have certain collective features — mostly the age-related disabilities — but otherwise we’re as distinct from one another as are people of any age.

As are readers: “that is the whole point.” I admire Lively’s native personal optimism, which shines through her fiction and memoirs; I can only wish that I shared it. I try to grit my teeth and open the mail as it comes in, but it’s a gruesome business, because I always expect the bill to be much higher than it is (or, conversely, find that I was wrong to expect it to be lower). I shudder every time the land-line rings: what fresh hell? And an unexpected knock at the door makes my heart pound audibly. That’s just who I am, or whom I have become after a life of low-grade, restless irresponsibility. (Vissi d’arte.) Considering Aaron’s serial bankruptcies, Joy’s horror of opening envelopes is perfectly understandable to me. But so is Lively’s impatience. And, what’s important, Lively has the sense to recognize Joy as someone else, and not to expect her to be a character with whom Lively might have the dubious pleasure of identifying.

This is the difference between youth and age. A young person is a bundle of physical attributes with only a few instances of initiative to recall. The young person’s life is a history of following instructions more or less well. On the cusp of adulthood, it is understandably pressing to know how to sort oneself in the world, and fiction has been found to ease the agony of this puzzle by providing the comforts of what we call “identification.” Girls indulge it more readily than boys, probably because bluff and bluster play much smaller roles in the lives of women. What literate girl has not identified with Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre — despite colossal differences in circumstances? It’s easy to “identify” with fictional heroines, however, only because there is no real identity to get in the young reader’s way. In the end, boys and girls aren’t very different after all; both are looking for exemplars to imitate.

It is the aged who have identities — even as they’re on the point of losing them. It is the elderly who have piled up successes and failures, victories and defeats, escapes and losses, and, unless they are very foolish, they do not seek to identify with anyone else. Proud of their achievements, ashamed of their lapses, they do not wish to share pride or shame with anyone. They are willing instead to acknowledge the experiences that they have shared, roughly, with others. Of course there are old people who have not learned much from their experience, and who are as annoyed as any ten year-old by the exasperating habit people have of being different. But wisdom begins with the understanding that everybody is different, really and truly, and that however well we observe the conventions that make it possible for us to work, live, and love together, we are fiercely unique. Each of us lives alone in his or her own body, and that is that, no matter what expectations of the afterlife might be.

In this world of chaotic, multibillionic diversity, it is the job of fiction to persuade us that the differences of others can be borne, sometimes with amusement, so long as different people share one’s commitment to the basics of “humanity” (what I call humanism). No killing, things like that.


During our short stay on Fire Island two weeks ago, I read the books that I’d brought with me. The two big books, Peter Ward Fay’s history of the first Opium War and (as mentioned) the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, took me to the eve of the last full day. Then I had to cast about for books in the house. I found Camus’s The Stranger, which I had never read — it turned out to be a different sort of book from what I expected, a curious failure of my antennae — and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s great story, also for the first time. It was like being in high school. Then I turned to the book on the nightstand at my side of the bed, Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage. I liked this so much that I ordered a copy of my own the moment I got home.

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir was assembled, after Broyard’s death, by his widow, Alexandra, from material that he had been working on during his illness. The book, she tell us, was to end with the death of Broyard’s father, and how it brought Broyard “back down to earth.” Broyard never got to that part. The book ends, instead, with a chapter that becomes more amazing every time I read it: clearly, there is much to absorb. At the end of a collection of chapters about the romantic and intellectual experiences of a fairly rootless young man (his daughter, Bliss, would later write a book, One Drop, that offered a persuasive explanation of this rootlessness), filled with vivid portraits and jazzy excitements, Broyard settles down to tell us how disappointing it all was, because the two never mixed — romance and argument. Like Augustine centuries before him, but quite without Augustine’s piety, Broyard loved his male interlocutors but had nothing to say to the women he slept with. Broyard had the advantage, at least, of finding out how it might have been different, when the old Augustinian settlement (sex is okay as long as you’re trying to have children, but not otherwise) finally began to crumble in the 1960s, with the advent of The Pill.

“To someone who hasn’t lived through it, it’s almost impossible to describe the sexual atmosphere of 1947.” This sentence doesn’t say very much, but it announces a possibility of which most people are unaware: sex changes. I don’t mean the physical side, varied as that always is, but the emotional side, the human context in which sexual acts take place. For Broyard, this context was always frustrating, and I’m talking about after sex, because he “hadn’t yet learned how to just be with girls, to exist alongside them, to make friends — and so once my desire was satisfied, I was bored.” He had the redeeming decency to feel guilty about this, but he wasn’t helped much by the girls, either, who for their part had been brought up to listen.

Men and women hadn’t yet learned to talk to one another in a natural way. Girls were trained to listen. They were waiting for history to give them permission to speak. They led waiting lives — waiting for men to ask them out, for them to have an orgasm, to marry or leave them. Their silence was another form of virginity. (145)

Broyard would learn this later. We all would. (Now, perhaps, my recollection of college bull sessions in which the mere existence of the female intellect was disputed will not seem so improbable.) There must have been young, sophisticated people who knew how to talk, but there can’t have been many of them, and almost by definition they would have known well enough to keep their intimacies to themselves. Most girls — and Broyard is talking about “nice” girls — were brought up to be virgins forever. The only scrap of information that married women gained with their new status was that men are truly bestial. (Or not bestial enough.) The only way to be truly married is to share a lot more than the bed of a spouse. Again, those lucky few who were truly married had every reason to keep their good fortunes to themselves; they would not have been envied. They would have been denounced as depraved.

In this regard, Broyard’s 1947 stands for the end of a very long era in human history. Or the beginning of the end. Sometimes I fear that it is still winding down. If women aren’t quite the listeners that they used to be, men haven’t taken up the slack. But it’s deeply comforting to read proof of one man’s growth.


On a very gentle tangent, I should like to say something about Jill Lepore’s short piece, in the current New Yorker, about women and the Republican Party, but the piece is too condensed for me to say much. There’s a lot of learning in those pages, and most of it makes very interesting connections. One thing stands out, however: the pivotal role of Phyllis Schlafly in driving women away from the Republican Party, the party to which they flocked for so long. Schlafly’s successful fight to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified by thirty-eight states required for passage (thirty-five ratified it, not counting the five states that rescinded ratification) not only divided but confused long-standing features of political life, and, worse, it continues to inhibit political advance. There ought to be a name for women like Phyllis Schlafly: educated, attractive, comfortable, and free to do just about anything they they like, but utterly opposed to extending their freedom to other women. Perhaps there is: “Schlafly.”

In Lepore’s penultimate paragraph, the string of historical observations is suddenly punctuated by a cry of pain.

With the end of the ERA, whose chance at ratification expired in 1982, both parties abandoned a political settlement necessary to the stability of the republic. The entrance of women into politics on terms that are, fundamentally and constitutionally, unequal to men’s has produced a politics of interminable division, infused with misplaced and dreadful moralism. (The New Yorker, 27 June 20016, page 26)

I realized when I read this that I had gotten so used to the status quo that I no longer saw the problem clearly: inequality produces instability, and this instability has been mounting in recent decades because the Republican Party has no raison d’être other than to maintain inequality. The moralism, as Lepore tries to show in her extremely concentrated capsule, was introduced by women, on behalf of themselves and of slaves, and it was a force for the good until, as I was just saying, the old Augustianian dispensation broke down. The moral voice in American politics was split by this rupture; some used to advocate equality (as women always had), while others used it to preserve a moral order that earlier women never thought of questioning — not in public, anyway. Since most people prefer what they already know, the moral order has attained a value far exceeding that of speculative equality. It’s hard to argue against stable families; whatever its long-term effects, the end of the Augustianian order certainly produced a lot of miserable children, torn by divorce. It’s hard to ague that children don’t flourish in the light of their mothers’ undivided attention. It’s hard to see how reproductive polarization can be reconciled with gender equality. It may not be impossible, but it is hard, and voices like Schlafly’s have been emphasizing the difficulties. Not to mention the fact that the moral order being defended fits in so well with the corporate order. Many Americans behave as if they wished that it were still 1947.


Friday 24th

The other day, there were three interesting obituaries on the same page of the Times. I had never heard of the deceased, which simplified the interest; there was no pang of regret for people of whom I’d known when they were alive. It’s just possible that I did hear of Bill Berkson, once or twice, long ago, but I have completely forgotten it if so, and I usually don’t forget. (I tend to confuse.) Berkson, who died at 76, in San Francisco, of a heart attack, was the son of two people in the news business. His father was the publisher of the Journal-American, the Hearst organ in New York, and his mother was Eleanor Lambert, the creator and curator of the Best-Dressed lists. Frequent guest at his parents’ many cocktail parties, Berkson grew up knowing everyone worth knowing. His epitaph might well be his own claim to be the only person who attended both Woodstock and the Black-and-White Ball. Something tells me he wasn’t, but the claim is still a reasonable one.

In later life, Berkson moved from the New York Schools of art and poetry — his “scatter” style was inspired by Frank O’Hara — to the Bay Area, where he continued to write verse and criticism. A 1957 graduate of Lawrenceville, he seems to have avoided the Draft.

Among the bold-faced names appearing in the obituary, which was written by William Grimes, were two that fascinated me when I was a kid: Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. Imagine being called “Jinx Falkenberg”! She was a tall drink of pulchritude who, with her husband, hosted radio and TV shows. I was grateful for the mention, because I worry sometimes that I have made Jinx up.

At the top of the page, the death of a slightly younger person was announced: that of Lorna Kelly, who died here in town, of a stroke, at 70. (It would better to say that she was even more slightly older than I — two years or less.) There was a good reason for me not to have heard of Kelly: in 1980, the year of my return from the heartland, she “parted company” from Sotheby’s, where she had served as a colorful auctioneer, specializing in netsuke. Born in Isleworth, London, Kelly came to this country as an au pair and worked her way up. When the chance to take the rostrum at Sotheby’s arose, she stopped drinking and divorced her husband. Four years later, she had had enough (I suppose), and, after leaving Sotheby’s, she went to India, like Woody Allen’s Alice, to work with Mother Theresa. She continued to “work with” AIDS victims in Manhattan and death-row inmates in Texas.

Margalit Fox concludes with a flounce worthy of the Telegraph:

Of all the rigors she faced in her work overseas, it was a domestic undertaking that, for the voluble Ms Kelly, very likely proved the keenest test of her spiritual commitment.

As the Times reported in a 1991 profile, she once traveled to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York, where she spent the next 100 days in complete silence.

At the bottom, Kimiko Freytas-Tamura sends off Benoîte Groult, “French Feminist and Writer Whose Books Explored Women’s Liberation.” We’re always hearing that they don’t have women’s liberation in France, possibly because of their famous expertise with traditional arrangements. Whether love always has something to do with it or not, there do seem to be far, far fewer unattractive or even plain women on the streets of Paris than there are on New York’s. In a picture dating from 1993, Groult certainly looks charming enough. She died, at Hyères, where Edith Wharton had her winter quarters, complete with a now-ruined garden overlooking the Mediterranean, at the age of 96. (No cause is stated; when you’re very old, you’re permitted to die of refusing to go to the hospital, which is how I hope it was for Groult.) Her mother was a niece of couturier Paul Poiret; her godmother was Marie Laurencin. Groult married four times. The first two husbands died in office. The third gave her two daughters (or vice versa), and the fourth a third.

I’m afraid that I must rap the obituarist’s knuckles.

She was 55 when her book “Ainsi Soit-Elle” (loosely translated as “As She Is”) was published in 1975. It became an instant best-seller in France (it was never published in English) and sealed Ms Groult’s reputation as a leading feminist.

No doubt; but the book’s title would be better translated as a gendered take on the formula into which the Hebrew “amen” is translated in French. Ah, women!

Call me terrible, but going through the paper and finding this kind of a lineup is almost as good as a great Op-Ed page. I have to say that I dislike reading about deaths sooner than eighty. Poor Anton Yelchin! I didn’t see him in Star Wars (it ought to go without saying), but I admired him in The House of D and Fierce People. For a Jewish kid from Petrograd, he certainly looked like a Brooks Brothers preppie. I was appalled to learn of his demise, but part of me wonders what else can you expect of those Los Angeles canyons? Having grown up in Bronxville, which bears resemblances to LA in this regard, I should never buy a house with a steeply-graded driveway. Even if it doesn’t snow out there. Sic transit!


Speaking of love, I remember being frustrated as a young person by the inevitability of love as a subject — the subject — of opera and lyric verse. Why did everything have to be a love story? Is that all people are interested in?

It’s easier to explain why poets and composers are. Love is unique among human experiences in being available to everybody. Sure, there are birth and death, and almost everybody has a mother, but aside from the love story that pops up the moment you propose to separate a mother from her child, or to confuse mother and child about one another’s identifies, there’s not much to carry one away. Lots of people never fall in love. Denis de Rougement all but argued that love is a Western invention, but he was talking about a certain kind of love: the love that takes place outside of marriage. This sort of love is not to be confused with mere infidelities or “affairs.” According to Rougemont, Love in the Western World is gripping and tragic. Somebody has to die. Certainly there must be plenty of misery. In the beginning, only aristocrats had time for this sort of thing, but by degrees, “romantic love” came to be heard of by everyone, culminating with the folly (in Rougemont’s eyes) of trying to conflate love with bourgeois marriage.

Along the way, poets and composers discovered that, at least among poetry readers and opera audiences, the understanding of love is universal. Everyone already knows all about it. If you write an opera about work, say, you have to spend the first act just describing the job. Boring! With love, you can start right away — most famously with the Marschallin and Octavian in bed together. That wouldn’t be very interesting, of course, if we did not know that Octavian is destined to fall in love with someone else in the second act, but it certainly is gorgeous. And then the first act does end with a quarrel and a misunderstanding, so there’s hope even before the Presentation of the Rose. The point is: love has a lot of problems, and almost everybody knows all about them.

To put it another way, if love is your subject, then you don’t have to worry about “meaning.” What’s it about, whines the lout. The first thing that any literate person learns is that “What’s it about?” is a stupid question for many reasons, most of them rooted in laziness or category mistakes. But the secret behind this condescension is that, where love is the subject, it is never the subject. It is merely the gateway.

These thoughts are inspired by a month or so browsing more deeply than usual through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with the inestimable assistance of Helen Vendler. I have owned The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets since it appeared, in 1997, but only recently have I learned how to read it. First lesson: begin with the Introduction. I tend to regard Introductions as Afterthoughts, but that is a mistake where Vendler is concerned. In her Introductions, she sets forth her goals, which she does not repeat later on. She tells you what she is going to do and why, and usually this generalized information is not only important but prerequisite to whatever follows. If she is writing about Wallace Stevens (On Extended Wings, her first book), then you must begin with the Introduction, which discusses the nature of Stevens’s “longer poems.” In her Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, she explains what she is not going to do. Among others, she is not going to search for their meaning.

However important “meaning” may be to a theological hermeneutic practice eager to convey accurately the Word of God, it cannot have that importance in lyric. Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of “meaning” at all, in our ordinary sense of the word. “I have insomnia because I am far away from you” is the gist of one sonnet; “Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death” is the “meaning” of another. These are not taxing or original ideas… Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels. (13)

She goes on to dismiss the ideas that the 126 sonnets to the “young man” are meant to code homosexual behavior, or that Shakespeare hates the dark lady of the remaining 28. Whether Shakespeare was gay or drawn only to women who had slept with lots of other men is simply not the point of these poems, because “the feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feelings attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essential feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric.” (16) Vendler announces that what interests her is summed up by the phrase “arrangement of statement.”

Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed.(14)

It is much more than good to know this before tackling her commentaries of the individual sonnets.

Somewhere in the Introduction (I think), Vendler refers to Sonnet 75 as having an unusual structure. Most of Shakespeares sonnets consist of a series of three quatrains, followed by a couplet. There are also sonnets built on Petrarchan lines: an opening octave (eight lines), followed by a sestet (six). Sonnet 75 is an outlier: an opening quatrain, then six lines of alternative experiences, followed by a quatrain that is really a return to the opening statement, with the usual couplet sendoff at the end. I was piqued by this and immediately turned to the sonnet, and was captured by it even though Vendler says that she considers it “otherwise [than as to structure] unremarkable.” Here it is:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;

Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.

Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

I have inserted spacing to make the structure more apparent. The conceit is the relation between a miser and his treasure, which is troubled by conflicting desires to protect and to adveritise. It is the pair of images expressed in the ninth and tenth lines that knocks me out: “clean starvèd for a look” has a punch that vaporizes the poem’s distance in time from 2016. It is the best way of putting the thing, of describing the feeling, or contrast of feelings, that I can imagine. One day I wear myself out staring at you; the next, I despair of seeing you at all. I should go a little further, and read in the implication that, having basked in your attention, I am now dying because you won’t look at me. This particular conundrum of desire is very familiar to me; it describes all the successive agonies of my adolescence.

Having pronounced the sonnet unremarkable, Vendler proceeds to show how wily it is, how persistently self-correcting. For, if a miser possesses treasure, the same cannot be said of the poet’s relation to his young man. The tip-off is in the first two lines, which mention organic necessities that, far from piling up, never cease to be necessities. In fact, the poet has no control whatever over the young man. The self-correction is most explicit in line 11: “Possessing or pursuing…” This is followed by a return to organic notions: pining and surfeiting, of “gluttoning” and starving. I call this having your cake and eating it — not the poet and his young man, not the miser and his wealth, but Shakespeare and his words. Sonnet 75 consists of two poems written in parallel. Which is, like almost every one of the sonnets in its own way, a neat trick.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
June 2016 (I)

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

14, 16, 17 June

Tuesday 14th

Writing is usually the second thing that I do every day. The first is reading the Times, which primes me by restoring a sense of the Grey Lady’s idea of the status quo. Since my idea of the status quo is quite different, the Times usually gets me going. Today, however, there was shopping that had to be done, and then bills to be paid; and, besides, I didn’t get up until half-past eleven. (I’ll let myself sleep late tomorrow, and then that will be that for jet lag.) At this point, my mind is in a material groove, piloting the ship of moi through the thousand islands that fill my stream of consciousness with practical distractions.

Returning from vacation is the best time for instituting new routines. Between the shopping and the bills, I lugged out the oversized whiteboard and wrote down all the things that I could think of doing today, in green ink, and several things that I’d like to do tomorrow, in red; and, with a black marker, a terse mention of dinner, indicating that my prep plans are up in the air. Tonight, I am going to make a sort of Stroganov, with cubes of filet mignon, mushrooms, shallots, sour cream and sage, poured over linguine. I’m going to make it up as I go along. I’ve got to remember to pull some frozen chicken pieces out of the freezer, so that I can marinate them tomorrow. You see what I mean by practical distractions; I could go on in this vein for hours. And once I had told you everything that there is to tell about the fascinating decisions that I get to make every day — for I am no longer in the closet about being a bureaucrat at heart — I could describe the improvements in the corridor, which climaxed only today in the installation of new baseboards, quieting the hitherto irritating border between the new carpet and the new wallpaper. New ceiling fixtures are yet to come, but because it is so much easier for me to look down than up, I may not even notice. I am very soothed by the baseboards.

I had hoped that the baseboards would be in place by the time we got home yesterday, but I was too tired to care that they weren’t. And happy, too: it will be a while before I go anywhere near an airport. Kathleen is thinking of an autumn jaunt to Bermuda, and I shouldn’t mind that, because the flight is not only short in duration but domestic at the New York end (US Customs has a beachhead at St George’s). And it has been a while since we’ve been. Kathleen has even threatened a return to St Croix for Thanksgiving. But I shan’t be imprisoned on a lengthy flight until the end of the year at the earliest.

I do hate to travel. I like being in other places, but even taking a taxi to Lincoln Center is a trial. Is there anything so boring as sitting in a vehicle of any kind through bumps of track and pavement and grinds of turbulence, always at the whim of someone else’s catastrophe and the ever more strangulating embrace of the security industry? I think that you have to be young not to notice the gross theft of liberty involved. Even walking isn’t a sure thing, as I’m here to testify after six years of subway-station construction right outside the front door. Nothing about life is certain, but modern motion seems to be about locking oneself into a schedule of uncertainty.

On the flight out, there was a computer glitch. I distinctly heard the captain discuss this with an IT technician, but they decided to do nothing at the time, because only the routine safety videos seemed to be affected. So we pulled out from the gate, tested the engines and whatnot, and then decided on a reboot, because it turned out that the thrust automation also wasn’t working. The pilot could have managed the plane in flight without this feature, but until it was in working order, he would not be permitted to depart. It did not take long to fix, but it did take a while for another vehicle to come along and pull us out again. We took off about an hour and a half late. Coming home, the plane was fine but the manifest was off by one passenger. This took ten minutes to clear up, but, remembering out outgoing delays, I was tearing my hair, virtually. Both flights were bumpy. Both flights were delayed, en route to the gate, by runway traffic. Sitting still in a plane anywhere but at the gate is torture for me.

Between driving out to Bay Shore (from which to ferry across to Fire Island) and back, and then the trips too and from JFK, I have seen enough of Long Island for the time being, especially the ultra-drab parts of Steinway that flank the Grand Central Parkway. How do people manage to live there? It is not a matter of poverty.


We stayed at the Palace Hotel, on Market Street. It’s a grand old pile that, unlike the St Francis, is in grand new shape. Plus, it is not on Union Square. Union Square used to be a center of elegance, but now it is crowded with people who are not dressed for San Francisco. (They’re not dressed for anywhere, except perhaps for one of those space stations in Wall*E.) Nice as the Palace was, though, we didn’t spend much waking time there. As soon as we were dressed, we took a taxi to the other end of town, and then, hours later, we returned via Uber. Megan and Ryan live in Outermost Sunset, a block and a half from the Great Highway, on the other side of which stretches a Pacific beach — although it does not stretch so far as it used to do, thanks, says Megan, to El Niño. The beach has been so extensively eroded that stone debris from an ancient graveyard, dumped as ballast along the shore a long time ago, once again basks in the sunlight. I spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with my daughter. I took a few pictures of my grandson, standing next to Kathleen. Will comes up to her chin. Because he is quite lean, with a swimmer’s body, he doesn’t look big — except, of course, in his kindergarten class picture. There, he and a few other boys standing in the back row look like troublesome fellows who have been held back repeatedly, who perhaps ought to be in middle school by now. By himself, though, Will does not look a day older than his age, which is six-and-a-half.

Whether Will is unusually self-conscious or not, I can’t say — I rather doubt it — but his sensitivity to perceived insult brings home to me how detached my everyday speech is from literalness. Almost everything that comes out of my mouth in casual social discourse, is exaggerated, insincere, inverted, ironic, and derogatory, and yet meant to be understood as utterly friendly. Genuinely friendly, as literal friendliness would sound altogether bogus. When I was a boy, this was the tone taken by affectionate adults, especially older men. We were called monsters and devils; we couldn’t do anything right (except that we were praised whenever we actually did), we were smart alecks and mad scientists bent on blowing up the world, and the people who told us this, we knew, loved us. At least we entertained them. They did not, as their elders had wished in the olden days, to whisk children altogether out of sight. My parents had many friends who wanted to make me part of their world, even if they had no intention of entering mine. This explains, perhaps, why I feel most comfortable with a cocktail in my hand.

Maybe it was just me. It occurred to me during an after-dinner discussion at Megan’s kitchen table that I really lacked all the ordinary inputs for being a child. I did not want to do any of the things that children were supposed to want to do, and yet I could not yet do the things that I would quite soon love to do and that I have loved doing ever since. I was too little for grown-up books, and I was only a little bit better at sitting still than the other boys were. The anguish of my childhood is exemplified by my never-realized yearning for Resonance Chessman.

Oh, how I wanted to have a set of Resonance Chessman! My mother’s cousin, Kitty, who came down from Manhattanville to babysit (and who took us to fabulously inappropriate movies, such as North By Northwest and Teahouse of the August Moon when they were new), would always correct me: Renaissance chessmen. Why the word “resonance” should come more easily to my lips is a good indication of how hopelessly at sea I was, because I certainly didn’t know what it meant. Resonance Chessmen were in fact rather medieval in appearance, which shows how the Fifties could be no less confused than I. In reality, I was not an ardent chess-player. I didn’t know yet that I had no gift for chess, and no interest in developing and possessing the skills required to play chess well, but I did suspect, guiltily, that my desire for Resonance Chessmen did not involve much playing of chess. To be honest, I’d had treated them as Resonance Tchotchkes. What I really wanted was to be old enough to own a set of Resonance Chessman. And when I did become old enough, Resonance Chessmen, and even Renaissance chessmen, were no longer very high on my wish list; in fact, they weren’t on it at all. By the time I could have owned a set, I knew that Resonance Chessmen were simply tacky, that one ought to play chess with a strong and simple wooden set of orthodox chess pieces. I spent a lot of time trying to cajole someone into buying me a set of Resonance Chessmen, but no one ever did, possibly because of an interdiction from my mother, but just as possibly because my true desire leaked through the  pleading, and it was understood that ownership of a set of Resonance Chessmen would not by itself make me old enough to regard a set of Renaissance Chessmen with fastidious disgust. Childhood was an interplanetary flight through waste and dreck that simply had to be sat through.


I re-read the Patrick Melrose novels on Fire Island — all but the last, At Last, which was published separately at the time that the first four were bundled together. (At the bookshop in San Francisco Airport yesterday, I saw that all five have been collected in one volume, and I’m thinking about trading in what I’ve got for that.) I was reminded that Edward St Aubyn is in a class by himself as a prose magician.

Watching the Road Runner and the stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake, Patrick was reminded of the early innocent days of his drug taking, when he had thought that LSD would reveal to him something other than the tyranny of its own effects on his consciousness. (Bad News)

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about LSD, except that the number is a great deal smaller than the number of tabs swallowed, and now I see why. I could tell you that LSD was surprisingly boring, and that I was humiliated by my persistent failure to experience a terrifying hallucination. (The worst that ever happened was that the sounds of insects on a summer night became unbearably loud, and made me think of mastication rather than sexual attraction; it sounded as though gigantic bugs were about to leap from the bushes and devour me. So I had to go indoors.) But it would never, I think, have occurred to me to get to the point of LSD as well as St Aubyn does, which is that LSD is all about LSD. It is the very opposite of a gateway to insight, or to anything else. You might as well wait for a sub-par garage band to become musical. The thing is, St Aubyn has not only a way with words, but something to say that can be expressed only with the words that he invariably picks. It is arguable that this gift is not put to such glittering use in his other fictions, which can be too earnest (On the Edge) or too clever (Lost for Words). But every now and then in the Melrose novels, St Aubyn outshines his only conceivable competitor, Evelyn Waugh, for surgical virtuosity. “Stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake” is a perfect description of the pointless futility with which Wile E Coyote comes back again and again and again, hoping that, this time, it will be different. It not only never is different, but it becomes less and less interesting. It is all about dust, and nothing but dust.

The idea of taking drugs for pleasure never crossed my mind, which I suppose saved me from early destruction. Even after I accepted that enlightenment was not really on offer, I cherished LSD for its alternative consciousness, however tedious that might have been. Once I gave up on wild hallucinations, I took to challenging regular life. Could I go to a lecture, could I participate in a seminar, while tripping? Could I pass for straight? Yes! Amazingly, yes, I could! It was arduous work, and completely pointless, but I could do it, just as I could make a round trip to my dorm room, having shown up for philosophy class only to learn that a paper was due to be handed in at the end of the hour, returning with said paper in hand (and get an A for it). (Not while tripping, however; I could not write under the influence of LSD.) I was still, in my early twenties, too ignorant to know what to do with what I knew.

I keep wondering, just as I once kept taking LSD, if there was something, a voice to listen to, that would have taught me what I needed to know sooner than I learned it for myself.


Wednesday 16th

Some regular readers, I suppose, may have been dismayed by my rattling on, Tuesday afternoon, about Resonance Chessmen, instead of commiserating with souls made sore by the mass shooting in Orlando. I am certainly very sore. But I am frightened, too, because nothing is being done about the disgrace of accessible assault rifles. A little piece in today’s Times reports that an academic study shows that the legislative response to mass shootings is not only nil in states controlled by Democrats, but worse where Republicans rule: Republican-controlled legislatures actually follow up mass shootings with laws that make it easier to get guns. This tells me one thing, loud and clear: gun control is not the issue.

The National Rifle Association, professing to deplore mass shootings, argues that America would be safer if everyone were armed. This notion is preposterous on its face, but what keeps us from laughing at it is the suspicion that the United States has become an every-man-for-himself sort of place. We cannot count on anyone else to protect us. Police and other security services probably do protect us, far more than we know — and so, very quietly, do our civilian neighbors — but thanks to our entertainment news media, we see only instances of incompetence. Step back a bit, and it appears that government at large doesn’t work. Officials are either too wealthy from corruption to care about doing their job, or too squeezed by low tax revenues to be able to do them.

What is to be done? There seem to me to be only two “options.” The first is to wait for a beneficent leader to emerge, someone capable of rousing us all to resume the hard work of participating in a democracy. Without a committed, pluralistic drive to create a genuine government-by-the-people, the nation will continue its drift toward breakdown. Rather than wait for one leader to inspire the country as a whole, I should advocate nursing a large brood of local leaders, working in some kind of local councils or committees to improve matters close to home. This would not be easy: we should all have to learn the good manners that silence cranks and bores. The conclusions reached by councils would not be binding, but they would have to be literate and resilient. Those who found the debates tedious or taxing could vote themselves off the island, while those of us who worry that nothing can be done would have something to do.

The other option is to call a Constitutional Convention and reconfigure the United States. It seems reasonable to call this the “nuclear option,” because the decommissioned order under which we limp along today might very well be replaced by nothing but civil strife. The usefulness of this second option is to refocus our attention on the far more appealing alternative, which requires no formal changes of any kind: leadership in local councils. In the Seventies, we might have called it “consciousness-raising for citizens.” We certainly do need to regard citizenship as something more than the accumulation of trivial knowledge required to pass the US Citizenship Test.

The murders at Pulse are also a reminder that gay lives don’t quite matter, just as police shootings of (generally) young black men tell us something similar about race. The United States is still a nation that likes to see a straight white male face in the mirror. Whether this can ever change is open to question; the prejudice is one of the deepest roots of the European West to which we belong. We ought at least to be aware of that.

Do I have to do everything? Why don’t you take the initiative? Get together with a couple of friends and grapple — just for practice! — with the thorny problem of establishing protocols for the use of mobile phones in public places. Set up a Web site, and invite contributions to a position paper. Behave yourself generously, and don’t take any money from anybody. Participatory democracy is nothing if not self-funding.


It is possible to imagine better ways of conducting government and civil life. It is difficult to imagine how ageing could be made less burdensome to everyone, especially since we no longer believe that people with disabilities ought to stay at home and depend on such family as they have. It has been a very long time since I left my apartment for the great outdoors (or returned therefrom) without passing someone assisted by a walker. (The abundance of squalling infants simply enhances the air of hospital living.) It is not always convenient to be stuck behind someone shuffling along with a walker, but I’ll have to get one myself, eventually, if my heart holds out. I see myself on both sides of this problem.

Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, glances at many of the indignities of old age, but it focuses on the one problem that ought to be easy to fix. Taking its title from a Philip Larkin poem which opens with the preceding line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the novel turns the spyglass around and remembers the last line of the poem (“This Be the Verse”): “And don’t have any kids yourself.” The person being addressed with Larkin’s wisdom is Joy Bergman, an eighty-six year-old Jewish New Yorker who lives on the Upper East Side. (That is the novel’s outstanding flaw: everything about Joy screams that she lives on the Upper West Side. But unless you live on one side or the other, the distinction won’t mean very much.) Joy has two children, a son and a daughter, and she loves them to distraction. They love her, too, of course, but they mostly drive her crazy.

Schine is a social satirist who pulls her punches, producing mild but funny reads in which the familiar foibles of brainy New Yorkers are warmed over in well-written prose. In contravention of all spoiler laws, I should like to say that the final scene of They May Not Mean To is both the most characteristic and the funniest. Joy is in traffic court, which is apparently where you go if you’re ticketed by a policeman for peeing in public. Joy might very well have peed in public: she depends on Depends. But it is unlikely that a cop would pull her over, as it were. No, Joy is the “emissary” of her grandson, Ben. Ben seems to have been something of a luftmensch, although now, by the end of the book, he is studying for the LSAT and planning to go to law school — in New Orleans, where he has been a bartender for too long. It is Ben, on a visit to see his grandmother, who peed in public in such a manner as to invite official reproval.

I’m not really sure of the effectiveness, vel non, of sending your grandmother to answer charges in traffic court, but muddle is brilliantly sidestepped by a clerical error. Instead of “Ben,” the court clerk reads out “Bea.” Joy, who has been itching with discomfort at the idea that anybody might regard her as the guilty party, tries to correct the mistake.

“It’s not me,” Joy was saying. “It’s my grandson…”

And then she looked around at all the men and women whose cars did not have taillights or headlights or side-view mirrors, all the men and women who had made mistakes on their registration papers or had read a form wrong or who had forgotten to mail some paper or who’d just never gotten around to going to the garage to get the muffler fixed, and she thought, This is humanity, all these people with shining sweaty bare shoulders and Life Savers and New York Posts folded into fans and excuses and worries and troubles and fines, and here they were all together. Everyone was so kind. Everyone was so helpful. It was really very cosmopolitan. Here she was surrounded by her fellow citizens, part of them, one of them.

“Bea Harkavy,” the voice boomed. “Public urination.”

“Is that correct?” the lawyer asked Joy.

“Oh yes,” said Joy. “This is exactly where I belong.”

Things could be so much worse; the novel could be much darker. To take just one plot point, Aaron, Joy’s late husband, rammed his thriving family business into bankruptcy, and not just once. He was a charmer without much of a head for business, one of those blind optimists who really believe that, next time, things will work out. I can’t say much more about the matter, except that it happened a long time ago. Schine does not discuss it. We are spared the easily-imagined recriminations. We’re told that Joy managed to “protect” an inherited upstate house from Aaron’s creditors, and also that she salted money away in bank accounts that Aaron didn’t know about: two sentences. Quite a few more sentences remind us that Joy is just about broke. This is probably what saves her from the fate she dreads most: being placed in a home. She certainly doesn’t have the money to pay for assisted living, and it seems that her children don’t, either, although they both have nice careers.

The children are Molly and Daniel. Molly, Ben’s mother, gave up marriage to a man for companionship with a woman; worse, she moved to Los Angeles. We are told again and again that the Bergmans are a tight-knit family. The jacket copy begins, “The Bergman clan has always stuck together.” Nevertheless, Molly is in Los Angeles, breaking her mother’s heart and feeling guilty about it. It is clear, however, that these are part-time pains. Joy has plenty to keep her busy, and she talks to Molly every day. Molly is one of those New Yorkers who, having discovered sunny California, never come home. (Everything about Molly, except her sexual preference and her religion, firmly reminded me of one of Kathleen’s oldest friends.) Molly’s companion, Freddie, is the daughter of a once somewhat-well-known character actor whose hands are Roman enough to have expelled him from two homes. Daniel works for an environmental organization. Molly, we know, is an anthropologist who digs things up; I have no idea what Daniel’s actual job is, or what his training was, or why he followed his undefined career. He lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and their two daughters, Ruby and Cora.

When Daniel and Molly discuss their mother, whom they expect to fall completely apart when Aaron dies, they say ill-considered, ungenerous things; it is not hard to imagine them re-enacting the parts of Goneril and Regan. They insist that they have their mother’s best interest at heart, but in fact her condition annoys them. Their solutions are anodyne: Why not join a poetry group at the 92nd Street Y? They worry that mourning will kill her — until she runs into an old flame, and is suddenly perceived not to be mourning enough. The old flame, Karl, is a prosperous gent who was also a friend of Aaron, and pretty soon he’s proposing. Joy responds with an elegant answer that just might start a real-world trend, and I’ll save that for you to read. Molly and Daniel, however, are beside themselves with irrational hostility to Karl. They think that he’s after her money; when they remember that he’s the one with the money, they convince themselves that he just wants a nurse. Sympathizing with Joy, I wanted to wash their mouths out with soap.

But I remembered what it was like, after my mother died. It was clear that my father was not going to spend the rest of his life alone, but I felt that our family (certainly no tight-knit clan!) was being invaded by the strange women whom he dated. There was nothing strange about them at all, of course, except that they were there, and my father evidently came to the same conclusion, because in the end he married a woman whom my sister and I, and even the woman who introduced them, regarded as an adventuress. I found her to be profoundly uncongenial, and relations froze into implicit hostility when my father died, about five years later. Being nice to Florice dragged me into a new dimension of phoneyness. To say that I had major issues with my mother is an understatement, but this did not stop me from roiling with suppressed outrage on her behalf. Had she known — ! I was just about as infantile as Molly or Daniel. (And I must say that Florice took tireless good care of my father during his long decline, cleaning up no end of messes and changing sheets in the middle of the night. She was an excellent wife.)

The real problem is that grown children believe that they are supposed to know what’s best for their ageing parents. They feel that taking care of their parents is their duty, even when their parents haven’t asked for any help or behaved with serious unreliability. Rather than help out in moments of crisis (which come along at a steady clip for the elderly), children prefer to stabilize the situation, usually by forcing their parents to give up their own homes, the last thing any sane person wants to do. Children think that they Know Better.

Would Schine’s novel be better if it were darker? It would be easier to write about, perhaps. But I for one was grateful that the punches were pulled. Joy was never evicted, never incarcerated, never condemned to dependence. Her children said a lot of silly things, but nothing much came of it. The ending, as you can see, was sunny — New York sunny. While all the really bad things weren’t happening, I could enjoy the humor and the wisdom and the occasion to consider the ironic benefits of living a long life.

I flagged a wonderful paragraph to copy into my commonplace book, and I’ll share it with you.

Then she hobbled back to her apartment. There it all was, her mess, waiting, turrets and towers of mail, its banners of Post-its and crumpled tissues. It was an eclectic collection: Everything had been or was to be filed, but the names on the files had little to do with their contents and few hints for what should be added. There were multiple files labeled, for example, Urgent!!, although some were labeled URGENT, all caps, and a few Urgent! with just one exclamation point. There was a Pay Today file and a Pay Immediately file, a Miscellaneous file and a Miscellany file. There were Medical, Medicine, Health, Health Care, Health Insurance, Doctors, Doctor Bills, Medicare, and there were files by illness as well: Diabetes, Cancer/Joy, and Cancer/Aaron. Inside were flyers for Roundabout Theater and YIVO, Time Warner, DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon, and free shingles shots from CVS. There were unopened envelopes with requests for money from starving children, dogs, cats, and abandoned farm animals, newsletters from Israel and Trader Joe’s; literature from city council candidates, mayoral candidates, cemeteries, the Neptune Society, and juice fasts. Bills and tax returns, X-rays and lab reports showed up, too, here and there, as well as clippings of art reviews by Adam Gopnik from the 1980s. (181)


Thursday 17th

Lumbering through Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, I’m learning nearly nothing that I didn’t already know or suspect. Without ever making a study of Marx, whose quoted words seem always to combine sarcasm and obscurity to repellent effect, I have more or less helplessly picked up the basics, namely, that Marx was a bourgeois who was never able to support his family, and that his theories about history and economics were outdated by the time of his death, in 1883. If I seem to have judged him in advance, Sperber has presented no information that would overcome my impression of a man so immature that he argued against improvements in social welfare, lest they derail or delay the “inevitable” collapse of capitalism that must necessarily precede a utopia for workers. Marx was an advocate of proletarian causes who had little but contempt for actual proletarians.

Actually, I did learn something: Marx was beset by a terrible skin disease that I didn’t know about. Sperber surmises that it was that it was the autoimmune disease hidradenitis suppurativa,

whose effects are similar to acne, but on a much larger scale — fist-sized growths, not small pimples, destruction of the outer layer of skin, not just redness and scarring. The disease is painful, disfiguring, and even today very difficult to treat.

My heart really does go out to the man: what a terrible burden! Especially for a bourgeois paterfamilias, swaddled in all those Victorian woolens! And to think that even today’s medicine might not have helped him very much! I do pity the man, but my opinion of “Karl Marx” hasn’t changed. I’m simply mystified by his posthumous influence.

At the same time, I’m reading a great deal that I don’t understand. For example, Ricardo’s “theory of differential rent”: “rent on land was equal to the difference in yield between the most fertile and the least fertile piece of land.” These lucid words roll about in my mind without making any connections. The theory seems both obvious and absurd. Sperber’s expression of an opposing theory about rent, “the rent on a piece of land was equal to the return on the capital invested in it,” seems at first to make more sense, but it soon fades into tautology; and I have no idea why this theory is labeled “absolute rent.” I smell the ancient urge to generalize about particulars: a boy’s game. The real mystery is that anybody cares about these statements. Do they say anything about the world?

As a student, I avoided the study of economy. It looked like a kind of engineering; there was no need to grasp its principles if you weren’t going to make promises about how things work. I didn’t really know what the term “political economy” meant, but I grasped the idea behind it, which is that an economy is shaped by political decisions. But you can make these decisions, I thought, without understanding the thing called “economics” itself. That’s because your decisions are based on a knowledge of what has and has not worked in the past: history. Economics predicts; history serves more modestly but reliably to avoid repeating mistakes. Economics is for dreamers and fantasists. It is, as far as I can see, a study of epicycles.

Nevertheless I have ordered a book, Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan. I have read a bit of it at Amazon, and I expect to take issue with it. For example, in his introduction, Wheelan refers to the joke that ten different economists will answer any question with ten different answers. Then he refutes the joke by insisting that all economists would agree that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of rent control. This is nonsense. Perhaps it was true at one time, many decades ago. But the truth is that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of a land-ownership policy (I’m speaking of small building lots) and a bureaucratic carbuncle (do they still call it “red tape”?) that together make building anything but the largest or most expensive buildings more trouble than they’re worth. So say I. But Wheelan’s book promises (on its cover) to impart the principles of economics without boring charts and graphs. It will give me a benchmark.

Until the Industrial Revolution transformed the relation of resources to markets with the wizardry of machines, there was not much point in studying economies, because you couldn’t do anything about them. Even so, the first wave of modern economists preceded the Industrial Revolution by about a generation. It is hard to say whether Smith and Condorcet developed new and powerful intellectual tools for grappling with things as they were, or whether they had an intimation of things to come. I prefer the latter suggestion, because I have come to believe, without much empirical (historical) support, that the Industrial Revolution was the answer to a question that was in the air, and not a surprise package that materialized accidentally. In either case, though, economics remains a relatively young field of study. Properly, it is a branch of the humanities, a study of human affairs that applies rigor and consistency to the problem of avoiding the determinism of the physical sciences. It does seem to have taken us two hundred years or more to let go of the dream that people are predictable machines, just very complicated. You can predict a lot of human behavior, but not enough of it to generate a “science.” And why would you want to?

You would want to if you wanted to make the world simpler, easier to understand. But “easier to understand” is an illusion, useful in solving particular, small-scale problems, perhaps, but deadly when generalized. The world is never going to be easier to understand. Only more difficult; only more manifold. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. But we don’t really need to understand the world in order to thrive in it; we come equipped with common sense, the ability to distinguish plausible and implausible statements. Nobody’s common sense is perfect, of course; and the guideposts to plausibility change over time. Right now, I feel, common sense is jammed by disagreement about the inherent superiority of straight white men; to put it another way, the default status of the straight white male is under broad reconsideration. But we can understand this without understanding the world. The proper study of mankind is man.


Yesterday afternoon, after writing here and dithering about what to do next, I hailed a taxi and lugged two heavy bags of books to the storage unit on 62nd Street. As usual, I asked the driver to take the FDR Drive. To access the FDR from 86th Street, you drive down to the end, at the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park, and turn right onto East End Avenue. When East End Avenue ends, at 79th Street, you turn left and then right, and you’re on the Drive. Ordinarily, the trip is a zip, ten minutes max, but there was a problem yesterday, and at 82nd Street and East End the taxi began to spend more time stopped than moving. Once we reached 79th Street, we moved most of the time, but very slowly. As we crept down the Drive, I remembered reading about an expansion at Rockefeller University, involving yet another installation above the Drive. There was a photo in the paper showing a large piece of prefabricated structure being swung into place by an enormous barge-borne crane. Perhaps that was what was slowing things down. But it turned out to be a serious accident, underneath New York Hospital’s Greenberg Pavilion, which is also built over the Drive. I spotted an ambulance, but I couldn’t see the cars involved. The driver — who had been telling me, in answer to a simple question about the traffic, why he hated Bill DeBlasio, and complaining that, whenever liberals are in charge, a dubious if not criminal element always pops out of New York’s woodwork (so to speak) — noted that “a taxi was involved.” It was almost immediately time to get off the Drive, at 63rd Street. When I paid and thanked the driver, he thanked me back, “for being patient with the traffic.” I ought to have thanked him again, because he was the reason for my patience. I simply dropped into a state of listening to him. Although I am no Sherlock Holmes, I’d say that he grew up in Queens, and very likely attended Catholic school, not long after I did. He spoke with what I can call only a bitter correctness. He did not ramble and he eschewed profanity. He believed that the facts, if clearly stated, would speak for themselves — and they did. When he told me about having to change cars on his subway ride home, or about crowded trains with an all but empty car, the problem in both cases being a stinking homeless person stretched out on the seats, I felt his grievance: this sort of thing oughtn’t to happen. What is to be done about homeless people? We need a committee.

At the storage unit, I remembered my plan, which was to go through the LPs that lined two shelves in the corner where I wanted to stack boxes. This would get the LPs out of the way and into boxes. I packed most of the records, but I saved too many, uncertain about Kathleen’s attachment to jazz albums that to the best of my knowledge have not been replaced by CDs (because the CDs were never issued). She will have to go through what I have set aside for keeping. There were one or two classical LPs that I couldn’t let go of. On one of them, one of the most enchanting things in all of Bach, a duet in the 78th Cantata, is performed a little differently, not by solo singers but by a chorus of women, while the through-bass is tinkled on a harpsichord, not a positif organ. This is how I first heard this music. Like so much of Bach’s choral music, it makes me think of paintings by van Eyck and the other Netherlandish masters of the Fifteenth Century. They painted such lovely angels, angels that look as though, if they could sing, they would sing Bach. I have made this association since I was a teenager, and I have always been puzzled by the Gothic or medieval mood that so much of Bach projects. A bit of the puzzle clears up when I recall reading that, in England, the Gothic never went out of style: consider Tom’s Tower at Christ Church or All Souls, both Oxford colleges. Which reminds me of something funny that I read the other day. Somebody was reviewing a new book about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, an English uprising that was duplicitously calmed by the young king, Richard II. Although the book was said to be very good, the author was chided by the reviewer for making an unnecessary and quite erroneous remark about the view of the spires of distant Westminster Abbey that the rebels and the courtiers must have shared from the East London field where they gathered for parleys. The spires of Westminster Abbey were not raised until more than three centuries later. The architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who also designed All Souls.

While I was writing yesterday, Kathleen called from Washington. She was sitting in a restaurant having lunch, and she wanted me to know that she had her phone and her wallet with her. On past trips to Washington, she has left one or the other in the train; both times, her property has been turned in at Lost and Found. The man who found her phone actually left a message on my cell phone — mine was the number most recently called — to say that he had found the phone and knew where to take it, so that I could tell Kathleen where it was when she managed to call me. Kathleen was in Washington to deliver a presentation about Exchange-Traded Funds to the Enforcement Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since Kathleen has worked on the creation and development of ETFs with most other branches of the SEC, I wondered why they couldn’t get a staffer to bring Enforcement up to speed, but perhaps it was cheaper to ask Kathleen to volunteer. It was certainly an honor. Kathleen has never worked at the SEC, and so she lacks the entrée of an alum. (It’s a matter of prestige, like clerking for a Supreme Court justice.) The problem with Kathleen is that this little paragraph is probably going to be the only announcement of the event. Not only does Kathleen fail to blow her own trumpet — she must have left it on the train.

On the phone, Kathleen was in no hurry to get off; she was waiting for a waitperson or for her lunch to arrive. I, however, was writing, and I had no news of my own. The conversation ebbed into an exchange of declarations of love. “Lots and lots and lots.” After a few volleys, I fell silent, and we soon said our goodbyes. What happened next was totally typical. As I put the phone down on the table and returned my attention to the screen, an inner voice blared a malediction: What if that’s the last time you get to talk to Kathleen? You are going to regret your hurry to get off the phone for the rest of your life! You’ll be sorry!

It wasn’t the last time. But why are we like this?

Bon week-end à tous!