Archive for August, 2016

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (V)

Monday, August 29th, 2016

29, 30 August; 1, 2 September

Monday 29th

The image that I have chosen for this week’s entry is so peculiar that I feel I must explain it as best I can. You can see the sidewalk at the bottom right. I have aimed the camera at a flap of siding, or perhaps a coat of paint, that has peeled away from the temporary housing that was erected a few years ago around the foundation walls of the kiosks that will house the escalators connecting the street to the mezzanine of the new subway station that, according to the MTA Web site, is set to open this December. The curve and the shadow — and the grey — caught my eye. The housing was always an eyesore, but now it is a derelict eyesore. Not to be confused with a poetic ruin! I should be more outraged about the apparent expectation that we shall live “philosophically” with such ugliness, were I not aware that, the moment it’s gone, we’ll forget all about it. I shall, anyway.

There were two pieces in the Times today that ought to have made me fret about the dark future ahead — but they didn’t. The first was an Op-Ed piece about the decline of political history as an academic specialty. The second was about the falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings.

Political history, together with diplomatic and military history, used to be all there was to academic history. Thucydides provided the antique model, in which the attempt to tell a plausible, naturalistic story replaced the heroic epic, with its gods, goddesses, and improbable ordeals. Beginning in about 1500, historians began to offer explanations of the role played by warfare in the formation of the modern nation state that were rooted in documentary evidence, not in the tales that they had heard from their fathers. Most of this evidence was diplomatic, taking the form of dispatches sent home by ambassadors and other agents, and preserved in state archives. Diplomatic evidence was hardly impartial, but if you could sift through all of it, comparing and contrasting what the Venetian envoy had to say with the memoranda kept by a royal secretary, you could get some idea of what people were thinking when they formed this or that league against this or that great power.

History was a school — the school — for rulers. There was no other kind of history. First of all, it was only the history of the state that mattered. Nobody had an interest (worth funding) in the kinds of history that have blossomed in the last fifty years. Even more, it wasn’t until the late Nineteenth Century that the possibility of other kinds of history was recognized. It began to be understood that rulers did not operate in a vacuum — that is, as if power politics were conducted entirely within a Davos-like bubble. Rulers had to take account of powerful interest groups, some of whom were rich burghers, otherwise known as “ordinary people.” Social history, tracing the network of relations between cities and countryside, between commerce, industry, and agriculture, began to displace conflicts between sovereigns as the primary area of interest. One thing led to another. On or about December 1965, political history was found to be fusty.

I don’t fear, as the Op-Ed writers seem to do, that political history is threatened by oblivion. I expect that it will be reinvented in more suitable terms. Just as the kinds of history that are academically popular today developed in a process of seeking historical explanations in the thoughts and actions of ever more “ordinary,” ever less “remarkable” people, so the course of historical study will probably begin to retrace its steps on the socioeconomic scale, and eventually resume an interest the study of sovereign politics. This time, however, the kings and their ministers will be evaluated by scholars who are grounded in an understanding of the very particular societies that they ruled — an understanding that did not exist when all history was either political, diplomatic, or military. It will be no longer be the history of powerful men, even if powerful men remain remain, in the study of the past, the only active figures. We shall have then severed the link, which was not entirely tenuous even when I was born, between history and Homer. A good thing.

The falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings is a phenomenon of the art market, that bazaar in which the emperors of the economy spend fortunes on new clothes. That these omadauns don’t want to buy paintings by Reynolds or Rubens is very good news for museums, which is where the Old Masters belong. If Sotheby’s and Christie’s cut back on their staffs in this area, that is no bad thing for great works of art.

Perhaps it ought to be worrying that, as one dealer in Old Master painting laments, American schools are not producing graduates with expertise in the field. People who know a lot about it tend to be European. That certainly makes sense. There is still a great deal more fine old painting in Europe than there is in North America — a very great deal more. I don’t see how anyone could achieve genuine connoisseurship without living in Europe for several years at least, and making frequent use of European trains to visit the museums large and small in which most of the world’s fine art still resides.

Both articles confirm something that we all know: Americans are still mythomanes, viscerally attached to their just-so stories about the greatness of the United States. It has never been otherwise. How much longer it will be sustainable is, worryingly, a question for historians of the future.


Here are two paragraphs from David Brooks’s column on Friday (I include the first simply in order to make the second, more important paragraph easier to understand):

The U.S. military used to be pretty good at breeding this type of leader. In the years around World War II, generals often got fired. But they were also given second chances. That is, they endured brutal experiences, but they were given a chance to do something with those experiences and come back stronger and more supple.

They were also reminded very clearly that as members of an elite, they had the responsibilities that come with that station. Today, everybody is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing the actual elite is someone else. Therefore, no one is raised with a code of stewardship and a sense of personal privilege and duty.

Why is the second paragraph more important? Pardon my abominable conceit: because I’ve been saying it for years. Everyone is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing that the actual élite is someone else. I have been puzzling over this paradox for so long that I have arrived at the idea that something like a democratic paradise may be at hand. We have distributed discretion and authority so widely among the population that perhaps thirty percent of Americans help run “the establishment.” All they have to do is wake up to that fact. We are all in power, and we are all responsible.


Tuesday 30th

Now I can’t even remember why I picked up William Trevor’s Collected Stories. It had something to do with reading Elizabeth Taylor’s Collected Stories — reading them again, I ought to say. I thought about reading them all again, but then it seemed a better idea to read Trevor, most of it for the first time, instead. As I mentioned a while back, I remembered three stories very well. But although I know that I read more than those three, some in Collected Stories and some in the publications, such as Grand Street, in which they made their first appearance, no other stories seemed familiar. I can only surmise that I wasn’t ready for them; I didn’t really get them.

What does it mean, to “get” a story? It’s not the working out of a puzzle, or not only that. It’s not just being able to say that you know what’s going on and why the characters are doing the things they’re doing. It’s more than that, and yet simpler: it’s the feeling that you have entered the story’s situation, or the problem that the story poses, usually to a principal character; and, at least in Trevor’s stories, there is also another feeling, which is that, given the character and given the situation, things could not have worked out otherwise. This makes the stories hard going, because they rarely work out in a way that anyone would call favorable. Sometimes the endings are so bleak that you feel for a moment that the resolution must have killed the protagonist; how could anyone survive such a dreadful outcome? In “Kinkies,” for example, a blameless secretary is drugged by her boss; she tries to make her way home but falls in the street; she winds up in jail. It will probably all be sorted out in a day or two; the secretary will merely have to get a new job. But you can’t really believe that; the story leaves you convinced that the woman’s life has been destroyed.

You can get a story without getting all of it. There is always something new to notice when you revisit any piece of fiction, as long as a bit of time has been allowed to pass. Sometimes the whole story seems different, but I think that this is usually the case only with respect to stories that you read when you were young and are now reading in middle age or later. I don’t think that “Broken Homes,” which I mentioned last week, is going to change much for me. I might, perhaps, have a keener sense of how Trevor registers the difference between Mrs Malby’s respectable house-pride and her deeper conviction that the flat is a desert, having been wrecked by the deaths of her sons in the War, decades earlier. But I shall probably continue to see Mrs Malby as overwhelmed by unfamiliar demands on her discretion. What she has to be discreet about, of course, is her ageing; she doesn’t want to be packed off to an old-folks’ facility. But the proposal of the teacher, who seems to have entered her flat at random, requires an affirmative rejection that might make Mrs Malby seem irascible and unbalanced. It appears that she has no friends to whom to turn for support; perhaps she is too proud to have friends. “Broken Homes,” like all the best Trevor stories, packs a Chekhovian punch, by raising a serious problem of human existence and framing it in detailed particulars, so that instead of “human existence” we have “Mrs Malby.”

How many of the stories qualify as “best”? Everyone’s list would be different, and there are some very powerful stories, such as “Beyond the Pale,” that I would not put on my list. I ran through the titles last night, ticking off the favorites in my mind; when I was done, I had the feeling that I had chosen about a quarter of the stories. I’d like to halve that, making an expanded baker’s dozen and writing down the titles in a proper list. Instead of “Beyond the Pale,” which is a tour de force of unreliable narration, I should choose “The Grass Widows,” a story that is also set at a hotel in rural Ireland. Where “Beyond the Pale” is haunting and somewhat nasty, “The Grass Widows” is breathtakingly furious.

But before I say anything about it, I must mention that Trevor’s men come in two colors: weak, and worse. If there’s an attractive man, anyone like a true hero, in the pages of the Collected Stories, he has slipped my mind. There are wicked women, too, and even a few foolish ones, but by and large the women are victims. They are the victims of the cruel arrangements of men, yes; but, more than that, they’re the victims of their own clear consciousness, aware of how stuck they are. This is what makes “The Grass Widows” so intense. The wife of a pompous headmaster, vacationing at a hotel in Galway that serves a clientele of men who like to fish for salmon in the local streams, is disgusted when her husband refuses to check out of the hotel at once, even though it has obviously been ruined by the man who has inherited it from the genial proprietor of earlier years. The rooms have been divided by flimsy partitions, and the food is terrible. The fish haven’t gone anywhere, though, so the pompous husband talks himself round to staying, even though there is nothing for his wife to do. It is the height of the fishing season, and all the hotels are full; if they were to leave, the headmaster and his wife would have to return to England.

This is the situation at the beginning. A brilliant wrinkle gives the headmaster’s wife, overcome by anger with her husband, the opportunity for indirect revenge. She counsels a new bride, the honeymooning wife of a former student of the headmaster’s, to leave her husband at once, to go back to her parents’ home while there is still time to back out of a mistake. For the bride has made the same mistake that the headmaster’s wife made long ago. She expects her husband to listen to her, and even to indulge her. The headmaster stopped listening to his wife so long ago that he would not remember doing it. His wife has become more an appliance than a companion. While it is true that her “fate” is to be shut up at a remote hotel for a few weeks, nothing worse, Trevor haunts the story with horror by making the new owner greasily repulsive. When the riled older woman pours her melodramatic advice into the younger woman’s ears, you want the bride to jump from her seat with alacrity and to do what she’s told. Instead, of course, the young woman is dismayed by the impertinence of the headmaster’s wife, not by her prophecies.

Curious to see what might have been written about William Trevor’s stories, I came across William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction, by Gregory Schirmer (Routledge, 1990, 2015). As you can tell from the date, Schirmer’s study was published a couple of years before the Collected Stories, so that every story that Schirmer discusses appears in the collection. Schirmer approaches Trevor’s work as a struggle between modern forces of alienation and the deep longing for connection. It is an interesting thesis, but I don’t think that Trevor’s stories would command much of a readership today if alienation, that byword of the Fifties and Sixties, were at their heart. At the risk of sounding dissertative myself, I should say that Trevor’s stories are about attempts to clarify the confusion that trails from desire. People want things, but they don’t want the consequences, so they try to detach them, only to find that it can’t be done. Instead of pointing to particular stories as examples, I’ll just mention sex — sex and loneliness.

I don’t regard loneliness and alienation as the same thing. Alienation is more severe, but it is also more bearable, because it provokes a stance of defiance (however sham) in the men who feel alienated. What makes loneliness so awful is that the sufferer does not feel cut off from humanity, but on the contrary surrounded by it, embedded in it, and yet unable to attract attention. Many of Trevor’s women are plain. They are not just physically plain; they have no attractive features of any kind. The men who might assuage their loneliness don’t even see them — not as human beings, anyway. Trevor’s plain women are not saints; they do not offer their lives up to God. Although there are nuns in his fiction, they remain rather faceless, and in only one, “Kathleen’s Field” — the final story in the collection — does a Reverend Mother speak up. In this story, plain Kathleen is invisible to most men but handy for molestation by her married employer. One can imagine the Reverend Mother advising Kathleen to offer up his unwelcome advances; Kathleen is working for the man, without receiving wages of her own, so that her father and brother can take possession of a field that may eventually bring prosperity to the family — but only at this terrible price. The problem in “Kathleen’s Field” may indeed be that the employer is neither alienated nor in need of connections.

Schirmer is coy about Trevor’s also somewhat coy portrayals of closeted gay men. The “Complicated Nature” of a man called Attridge in the story of that name is obviously his homosexuality, which is also undiscussable. Attridge is accosted by a neighbor whose lover, she claims, has died in her bed; she wants Attridge to help her to dress the body and bring it down to his own flat, so that the woman’s husband will not be alerted. Attridge refuses at first, but then, after a few recollections of his ex-wife’s charging him with inhumanity on a trip to Siena, he changes his mind, deciding “to prove to himself,” according to Schirmer, “that he is capable of compassion, and thereby to protect himself from the truth about his emotional paralysis.” Schirmer regards Attridge as alienated; I’m not sure that this is altogether fair. How, even as recently as the Nineties, could a gay man of respectable standing not be “alienated”?

Skirting this issue is even more costly to Schirmer’s analysis of “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch.” It is good so far as it goes, but it misses the resonant horror of Raymond’s ironic protest.

“I’m not a homosexual,” shouted Raymond, aware that his voice was piercingly shrill.

Although Raymond will later convince himself that his accuser, Mrs Fitch, is a madwoman, we know for a fact that everyone else at the crowded party regards Mrs Fitch as an oracle, her pronouncements accurate no matter how unwelcome. With his outburst, Raymond has branded himself in their eyes as exactly what he denies being — and in a “piercingly shrill” voice. I’m not quite sure why, but this moment reminds me of the climax of The Bacchantes. To say that Raymond and Attridge are beset by confusing desires is an almost giggly understatement, but not without its tragic edge. These men were born at the wrong time.

There are two stories on my list that might not make it onto anyone else’s, “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart” and “Her Mother’s Daughter.” In the first story, set among cozy old rich people in Cap d’Antibes, is a rather cruel satire with an almost ponderous twist, but I enjoyed the awful Mrs Vansittart, who of course turns out not to be so awful after all. “Her Mother’s Daughter” appeals to me because I cast it immediately with perfect actresses. The put-upon daughter, Helena, who is not allowed to do anything remotely fun by her obsessively risk-averse mother, would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, while Vivian Pickles would be the mother. Playing the widow of a lexicographer whose work she is arduously and endlessly preparing for publication, Pickles would bring this Casaubon-like creature imposingly to life, while Bonham Carter would give the manuscript exactly the treatment it deserves.


Thursday 1st

Nobody asked, and nobody would ever think to ask, but I have an opinion — yes! — on Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the National Anthem. I think that it was a mistake. You will note, however, that I do not say that Kaepernick was wrong. There’s a difference.

Forming my opinion was very easy. I have great respect for social conventions, because, without them, our lives would be consumed by futile arguments and negotiations. Our rules of the road, which every driver is expected to observe in every particular, provide the model of conventional utility. Without them, a town in which there were only two drivers would quickly become a town in which there were not even that many.

At the same time, conventions work best when they are meaningless in themselves, because the purpose of a convention is to correspond to expectations, and thereby reduce — vastly reduce — the number of things that we have to think about during the day. On a staircase, there is a general convention of keeping to the right. This keeps the people going upstairs out of the way of the people going down, and vice versa. The important thing is to move through the staircase as easily as possible, not to declare a virtue in keeping to the right. Similarly, when I ask how you are, it is a way of saying that I notice you as someone in my world, and that I hope that you are doing well — well enough, among other things, not to want to hurt me. When you say that you are fine, you are merely acknowledging the connection, slight as it may be. This exchange of pleasantries is an important emollient in social life; it keeps, so to speak, everybody’s blood pressure at healthy levels.

It’s no wonder that teenagers have a hard time with conventions. Teenagers are discovering that there is meaning in life, and conventions are meaningless. (What a waste of time! And it’s so much more honest to refuse to say “thank you” if you don’t really really mean it.) It’s also no wonder that the adolescent orgy of meaningfulness is rarely sustained for more than three or four years. A life of uninterrupted significance would be suicidally exhausting.

The convention of singing the National Anthem before athletic games (and only then, at least so far as doing so as a matter of course is concerned) is not an ideal convention. It is in fact a regrettable convention, because singing the National Anthem ought to invoke sincere responses to the words and music — to its spirit. But conventions, once again, work best when they are habitual, when they are observed without a great deal of thought, or perhaps any thought at all. People do not attend sports events in order to express their patriotic feelings, and yet because of an ill-considered convention — one of a type that gives conventions generally a bad name — they are asked to do just that before any game can begin.

Worse, as Colin Kaepernick has brought to our attention, the third verse of the poem that provides the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (a poem known as “Anacreon in Heaven,” because the tune to which it was to be sung was called “Anacreon’s Grave” — and was a drinking song at that; it keeps getting worse) contains some very ugly thoughts, which I should hope no American would wish to express in connection with patriotic sentiment.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave….

The reference here is apparently to American slaves who joined forces with British invaders in the War of 1812 — the one war that, until Vietnam, the United States didn’t win. The fact that nobody ever sings this verse is precisely the sort of point that becomes a wet noodle when something meaningful is absorbed into a convention.

This is not the place to quarrel with the selection of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem. By 1931, when its adoption as such became official by Act of Congress, its status was assured by convention. The whole idea of national anthems, to be sung by civil populations in peacetime as opposed to armies on the march, is of course a recent one, going back no further than “Rule, Britannia!” which was itself generated by the wonderfully-named War of Jenkins’s Ear. The song suited the times and was spontaneously adopted. So it went with “La Marseillaise.” The modern democracies that sing such songs have had only a couple of centuries to examine their lyrics in the light of changed circumstances. The meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has passed almost completely out of general understanding — and I’m talking about the words that everybody knows. “La Marseillaise” is unpleasantly sanguinary; no two ways about it. And of course “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!” is an indefensible exhortation, as anyone contemplating China’s actions in the South China Sea will quickly agree.

However, the convention is firmly established, and the only question is how deeply rooted it is. Nothing could be better calculated to strengthen those roots than Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit the song out. Kaepernick is right to object to the song, right to point out that it is almost pointedly not “national.” It is the anthem of the white guys who buy tickets to the games, and who sing it as self-indulgently as their imaginary descendants suck on sugary drinks in Wall*E. But instead of flouting the convention, and thereby adopting the trademark gesture of an insolent teenager, Kaepernick ought to have approached the problem politically, gathering signatures on petitions, negotiating with club owners, making a fuss in the media — almost anything but what he did do.

The paradox of defying conventions is that the defiance converts something meaningless into something important — vital even. People cling especially hard to expectations that they’re only dimly aware of. The convention of singing the National Anthem before sporting events, as well as the now official, and no longer conventional, recognition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as that anthem, ought to be reconsidered, and scrapped or revoked. But Colin Kaepernick and his defenders have no reason to complain of the ugliness that he has caused.


Friday 2nd

Clare Hammond is a young British pianist with a double first from Cambridge and attractive way of playing her instrument — so attractive, that she was cast as the younger Mary Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in The Lady With the Van, Nicholas Hytner’s screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play. Once you see a YouTube clip of Hammond playing at St Hilda’s, Oxford, not too long ago, you realize that she is an actress as well. At St Hilda’s, Hammond is cool as a cucumber. In Lady With a Van, she projects the maidenly romanticism of a classical artist in the 1950s; you fall in love with her as she falls in love with Chopin. Well, I fell in love, anyway, and I had to have more. I don’t know why, in the wake of the film, Hammond hasn’t been contracted to record a Chopin album; perhaps she’s not interested. The three discs that she has made are comparatively esoteric. But I had to have something, so I bought Etude, an album of music that I was sure I’d never listen to. Aside from Karel Szymanowski, the composers whom she plays on this recital were unknown to me, but the other two other albums featured music that looked even more forbidding. Etude duly arrived from Arkivmusic and sat in a pile for about a month. Then, the other day, after the stack of CDs fell slipped and fell onto the floor for the umpteenth time, and I decided to “do something” about it, I put the disc in the player, as if to intensify the purgatorial spirit with which, having thrown away the plastic cases in which CDs are still packaged, I laboriously repackage the contents in my space-saving way. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Etude is not hard to listen to. Even the liner notes, written by the pianist, are good.

An ‘étude,’ or study, is a piece written expressly to develop the technical capacity of a performer and, as such, seems a rather dry proposition. [There follows a brief history of the form, suggesting that, however dry the proposition, realization has not been.] At its best, the étude combines the visceral excitement of technical display with expressive, coloristic, and compositional ingenuity.

The first three pieces are “transcendental études” by Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924) that will please anyone hunting for something new in the neighborhood of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Two of them date from 1900, but although the textures are luxurious they are not glossy: this is romantic, not post-romantic, music. Had the entire album been given over to music like this, I should have been very pleased, because in my old age I have become fond of the urgent, clamorous virtuosity displayed by so many composers of the period. While it continues to remind me of women wearing fraught expressions who sit in rooms lighted only by the gleam of polished mahogany, it has revealed comforts for which the younger listener has no use. After the Lyapunov, Hammond plays a set of six études by the South Korean composer, Unsuk Chin (1961-). It is unlikely that I will live to warm to this music, but it is listenable and even stylish. The set of Twelve Studies, Op 33, by Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937) was written in 1920, and it consists of very short pieces — the longest by far, clocking in at 1:47, is marked lento assai. Perhaps because of their brevity, these études went in one ear and out the other. Repeated listenings might change that. Sometimes, though, an étude is just for the pianist.

The revelation came at the end, with Five Études in Different Intervals, Op 68, by Nikolai Kapustin (1937-). Written in 1992, these pieces remind me very much of Leonard Bernstein, of all people, particularly Bernstein’s special take on boogie-woogie. The first one, marked “Allegro [in minor seconds]” brought Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” very much to mind. But the third, “Animato [in sixths]” caught my heart. Hammond does not saying anything specific about it in her notes, so I feel somewhat ludicrous about suggesting that it is some kind of Latin American dance, some rhythm that Kapustin, who studied jazz as a young man but who rejected improvisation, encountered somewhere, and then recast as his own. This étude is shorter than all the others, alas. In the YouTube clip that I mentioned, Hammond plays the étude in minor seconds. If she were to play the one in sixths on-screen, I’d like her to wear a little hat, minutely suggestive of Carmen Miranda. That would ignite me.


The writing project turned a corner at the beginning of the week. On Monday, I reached what felt like the end, for first-draft purposes, of the seventh and last section. On Tuesday, I began proofing the first section. My original intention had been to clean up the clerical errors, but I was so disappointed by the shapelessness of the piece that I decided that I must more seriously revise it, because it would still be the first thing that a reader confronted. I went ahead with the proofing, and then printed a copy — the first time I’d put word to actual paper. I also created the file structure that will help me keep the successive revisions of the project in manageable order.

You learn what you’re doing by doing it, never more so than when you’re doing something that you’ve never done before. At the outset, I had two goals, one general and one immediate. The whole point of the first draft was to “get stuff down,” and to see how much there was. (There was enough. The first draft piled up over eighty-thousand words, written between 21 July and 29 August.) Right away, though, I wanted to memorialize the experience that had inspired the project, and although I was not aware of it at once, I wanted to present this experience by reproducing the effect of a certain piece of music. It was pretty clear from the first draft that I had not succeeded — which was understandable enough, as the idea had not yet taken shape. Instead of a carefully calibrated crescendo (a move from everyday speech, as far as I dared imitate it, to my own idiom), I had just gone off on some irrelevant tangents. Going off on tangents might be a good idea, but I’d have to think of better ones. I made the first attempt yesterday, and now, I think, I have something to work with.

Aside from wanting to describe the moment of deep fulfillment that occurred two days before I began writing, I had no plan for the first section; I now think of it as an invocation, a summoning of the muse within myself to come and tell me what to do. The muse was able to provide me with outlines for the ensuing sections, so I expect to find in them a coherence lacking in the euphoric (you-had-to-be-there) beginning. Meanwhile, I shall replace the invocation with an invitation, aimed not at me but at the reader.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Lazy People, Poets, and Men of Action
August 2016 (IV)

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

22, 23, 25 and 26 August

Monday 22nd

For a few weeks, I’ve been reading William Trevor’s short stories. I had a go at them ten years ago or more, and I still remember three quite vividly, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” “Mrs Silly,” and “Torridge.” (I recall writing about “Torridge,” but I can’t find it.) Curiously, these stories still seem standouts; so far, I haven’t read a fourth that quite reaches their intensity. And yet all the stories are intense.

At first, this time around, I read at random, but then I got systematic. The system was peculiar, of course, so the results are eccentric. I’ve read (or re-read) all the stories from “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” which begins on page 333, to “The Property of Colette Nervi,” which ends on page 963. Half the book, in other words.

What I’m looking for, as I read, is a lead on Trevor’s transparent prose. The language is entirely self-effacing; never does it call attention to itself or distract in any way from the limpid flow of the tale. It is also free of negative defects: it is never tedious, never obscure, never heavily ironic. One imagines that William Trevor himself is mute. The artful construction of the stories is evident enough, if you care to work it out, but somehow the quality of the sentences makes structural analysis seem both pretentious and pointless, and also something of a child’s play. Anyone could do it. Anyone could show how the layers of disenchantment peel off, each one darker than the other before, in a story like “Teresa’s Wedding.” Anyone could remark on the horror of Raymond Bamber’s exposure, even though he denies it himself — made worse because he denies it himself — as the quality of Mrs Fitch’s calling him homosexual passes from drunken raving to incontestable truth, accepted by all once it has been revealed by her. But how this is made to happen on the cellular level is unclear, because the happening is too clear.

Not wishing to return to the kitchen herself, she ran the hot tap in the bathroom on to the sponge-cloth she kept for cleaning the bath. She found that if she rubbed hard enough at the paint on the stair-carpet and on the landing carpet it began to disappear. But the rubbing tired her. As she put away the sponge-cloth, Mrs Malby had a feeling of not quite knowing what was what. Everything that had happened in the last few hours felt like a dream; it also had the feeling of plays she had seen on television; the one thing it wasn’t like was reality. As she paused in her bathroom, having placed the sponge-cloth on a ledge under the hand-basin, Mrs Malby saw herself standing there, as she often did in a dream: she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called, and two touches of red on her pale face, and her white hair tidy on her head, and her fingers seeming fragile. In a dream anything could happen next… (“Broken Homes,” 529)

That is the shorter half of a paragraph that I came upon by opening The Collected Stories at random. It took only the first sentence to remind me of the story, which is about the ordeal that an elderly London woman undergoes in connection with a cockamamie social-outreach program that seems drawn from A Clockwork Orange. The old woman is the prisoner of her fear that she will be taken for senile and shipped off to a home. Her autonomy is everything to her. But her over-correction of possible orneriness or outrage subjects her to the barbaric invasion of derelict teenagers who set about repainting her kitchen, which doesn’t need repainting, with all the carelessness that one might expect. All the while, their transistor radio blares loudly. Two of the kids have sex in her bed. Most of the story is a nightmare. In a dream, anything can happen, but in this dream, only this can happen. Just like life.

Consider the sponge-cloth. It is the sort of detail that no one can relish for itself. We do not want to know more about it. Trevor never describes it. But it is mentioned three times. It is material evidence that Mrs Malby can take care of herself. Note that, while the sponge-cloth makes its appearance already in Mrs Malby’s hands, it is put away twice. The putting away of the sponge-cloth on its ledge is part and parcel of Mrs Malby’s housekeeping; she does not leave the sponge-cloth lying about. The sponge-cloth is something that she can control, unlike so much else in her flat at the moment. She cannot keep rubbing at the paint on the carpets. She is eighty-seven years old. Her tired, insulted mind wanders to television plays. (There is more about that in the remainder of the paragraph.) And yet her confusion does not infect her behavior. Mrs Malby’s helplessness is by no means complete, and yet we must wonder if this is an advantage. Neighbors will come to her aid, but their aid will be partial. They will fancy that they have done more than enough on her behalf; her kitchen will remain debauched — there is no other word for it. Mrs Malby may retain her autonomy, but she has certainly lost something that seems essential to it.

Mrs Malby and her plight rise vividly from the page, and yet there is not one unusual word on that page, nor one odd phrase or construction. There are no metaphors. There is only this: “she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called.” Hunched. This one plain word recalls the difficulty that Mrs Malby has had, at the opening of the story, in dealing with the slippery teacher who asks for her cooperation. Trevor never makes sense of this project, which evidently contemplates the improvement of misguided teenagers by giving them something useful to do. We can tell from the teacher’s way of not responding to Mrs Malby’s statements that he will not be supervising the teenagers; we can see through his progressive cant to the hash that the young people will make of the job. Mrs Malby is so disconcerted by the teacher’s visit — so worried about revealing herself to be an incompetent octogenarian — that she merely survives it, and takes no follow-up action to keep the delinquents out of her kitchen.

The wonder of the story, as it is of almost all of Trevor’s stories, is that Trevor writes as if it were told by a protagonist who, in plain human fact, could never tell it nearly so well. “Broken Homes” may be told from Mrs Malby’s point of view, but it is not written as she would have written it. This is the last thing on our minds as we read the story. It can only occur to us later, if we stop to reflect on it. While reading the story, we are intensely engaged by Mrs Malby and her terrible vulnerability. Trevor’s stories are urgent because we are gripped by their narrators, who come to life no matter how obliquely Trevor introduces them. It is not so much what the narrators tell us as the witness they bear to experiencing it. In a story like “Mags,” nothing happens and everything happens (even the title character is, to put it mildly, dramatically offstage). The boy who narrates “Mr McNamara” hates his father at the end, and yet he says, “I could neither forgive nor understand.” This wonderfully ambiguous statement states the boy’s feelings at the time while suggesting a future in which there might be forgiveness and understanding: what he has discovered is beyond the comprehension of a thirteen year-old’s mind. “It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us.” Then. I sometimes feels that Trevor’s ability to hang an entire story on a common adverb is the Irish gift for gab raised to its highest pitch.


Tuesday 23rd

Last night, we went to the movies.

Kathleen came home on the early side, and we walked up to the Orpheum for the eight-o’clock show of Jason Bourne. Kathleen had said that she wanted to see the new installment in the theatre, and when I saw that it was showing right here, I made myself available. It sounds uncomplicated, and it was, but getting to the point of actually going required a few changes. I had to waive my preference (which Kathleen cannot accommodate, obviously) for seeing movies in the late morning, when theatres are empty. And I had to get over the peculiar variant of agoraphobia that has afflicted me for some time. In the past two years, I’ve built up an enormous resistance to doing anything unusual, such as going out at night. Like an OCD victim, I’ve fretted about missing things and exposing myself to risks, but all I’ve done is to read. It had come to the point where even watching videos was rare.

One contributor to my screwy behavior was the upheaval outside, the mostly-nonviolent urban catastrophe that has given the intersection of Second Avenue and Eighty-Sixth Street the look and feel of a provisionally rehabilitated bomb site. It would not be terribly disturbing to pass through, but it is degrading to live with. The greater cause, however, appears to have been the late stages of gestation. Since I embarked on the writing project I’ve been a new man. Whatever the quality of the work that I’ve been doing, concentrating on it for several hours in the afternoon has shut down the anxious hum that was making life more of a challenge than it needed to be.

I don’t mean to go on about the writing project. That’s for every other Friday — although I will say that by the time of my next report, I may well be proofing the completed first draft, and preparing to print it so that Kathleen can read it. I really did mean to talk about Jason Bourne. And yet I missed a good deal of it. As can easily happen — another reason for staying home — my intestinal fortitude was under challenge. I had to slip away to the men’s room several times during the course of the film, dreading an unfortunate accident that never, thank heaven, materialized. I chalked it up, in the end, to the unpredictability of internal affairs and to the violence of Paul Greengrass’s moviemaking. An early set-piece, for example, involving a demonstration in Athens’ Syntagma Square, got on my nerves. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, because the incoherence of the rushing hand-held cameras was making me ill. I couldn’t really see anything, and I couldn’t keep track of what the characters were trying to accomplish. When the action went automotive, it was somewhat easier to follow, but I find car chases to be objectively tedious, along with the run of courtroom scenes. The only comfort came from watching Alicia Vikander direct the chase from a remote war room at the CIA, and wondering how long it would take her to form a relationship of some kind with the rogue asset played by Matt Damon.

Speaking of assets, “Asset” is the name of Vincent Cassel’s character. Is Cassel becoming the new Max von Sydow? When I see the actor’s head shots at IMDb, he looks handsome enough, in his jagged way, but in most of his films he does something with his hair, whether the hair on his head or his beard, that makes him look like a monster, a vector of deadly disease. He never smiles unless he is torturing somebody. He is recklessly destructive. I have learned to dislike seeing him on the screen; there’s no real drama, just unpleasantness. They couldn’t even be bothered to give his character a personal name. Also upsetting was Tommy Lee Jones’s face, which suggested terminal disease.

But, ah — Alicia Vikander. She had a basic look for this movie, a dutiful, wrinkle-free frown, but it never became tiresome. Perhaps Tommy Lee Jones’s face was there to emphasize the radiant smoothness of Vikander’s skin. As an older viewer, capable of recalling Jones’s smooth features in The Eyes of Laura Mars, I had an idea of what Vikander is in for, but at the moment she is Freia, the goddess of the golden apples of youth; she is youth itself, not just young. But it is an ironic youth, because it clashes with her apparent omniscience. Vikander is not at all implausible as a powerful orchestrator of digital resources, any more than she was as a preternaturally astute doll in Ex Machina. How can she be so savvy at such a tender age? The answer, of course, as you can see for yourself in the recent Vanity Fair piece, is that she is an intelligent actress. She knows how to fake it. Which we ought to be able to make out without the help of pieces in Vanity Fair. I kicked myself for reading it; I didn’t need to know that she was in a relationship with a co-star. Why can’t everyone learn from Meryl Street? To be the world’s greatest actress, marry somebody who tames heavy metal.

Yes, I have a question. Was Matt Damon in Jason Bourne? Was that really him? It wasn’t a cgi stunt? His big fight with Asset was so dimly lit that I couldn’t tell who was doing what to whom. The ostensible Damon said about twenty words throughout the movie. And he had two expressions, grim determination and sorrowed wonder. Jason Bourne might have been a lot more interesting if we could have focused on the interaction with Bourne’s father. Jason (or rather, David) had signed on to the nefarious Treadstone project because he believed that his father had been killed by foreign terrorists. Now, in the middle of this noisy and crowded film, he learns that the CIA murdered his father. Perhaps if we could linger on this issue for a bit instead of just registering it, we might progress beyond the pat responses. All the Bourne films, especially the best of them (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner) are about the self-invalidating curse of special ops: inevitably, the need to keep secrets means throwing all legal constraints aside in the name of patriotism. Men invoke principles to save their own skin. The spectacle of cynicism feeds the knowingness of audiences too wised up to trust civil institutions. The things we have to do to keep America safe!


Thursday 25th

For a long time, my attention has fastened every morning on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. This was my agora; as I circulated among the days four speakers, regular columnists and interested parties alike, I developed a feeling for the general consensus. I also noted the extent to which my own view of things differed from that consensus. Sometimes I wrote about this, but, whether I did or not, my focus on the world invariably sharpened, if only a little.

Lately, that hasn’t been happening, because I haven’t been inclined to circulate among the speakers. I’m not sure whether I’ve lost interest in the consensus, or whether I no longer believe that it is there to be divined from the Op-Ed page. Variations on What motivates Trump supporters are no longer interesting at all. Trump supporters are people who are going to be dead or gaga in twenty years; they’re the past, not the future. Inquiries into how Trump supporters took élites and their pundits by surprise usually fail to recognize the central role played by the morality of the world of television, which highly-educated politicos have until very recently regarded as something having nothing to do with them. Nicholas Kristof’s humanitarian commentary is more a long-term consciousness-raising campaign than the series of calls to action that it appears to be. David Brooks is ever more afflicted by social nostalgia: if we could only go back.

What perks me up is the mention of Richard M Nixon. Nixon was the architect of institutionalized American malaise — political contempt for the little people, incarceration of as many African Americans as possible, espionage as a means of communication. He knew that everybody hated him, but exploited everybody’s fears to rise to power, and then he hated everybody back. Nixon was the Bad Seed that improbably but ruinously occupied the White House. We ought to build statues of him, so that we can blow them up. Yes! But, really, this is not very interesting either. Nixon may have been excitingly awful in his day, but he has left us with a hangover that will not go away. A hangover is something that you want to get rid of. You don’t want to think about it.


Kathleen and I were talking about Jeffrey Toobin’s new book about Patty Hearst last night. Neither of us has read it, nor does either of us plan to read it. But the nub of Patty Hearst’s story is worth disagreeing about. I say that it was right for President Carter to commute Heart’s sentence and for President Clinton to pardon her, because it is unbecoming for children of the élite to be punished as if they were common criminals. Kathleen says that this is outrageous. Of course it’s outrageous from the standpoint of simple justice, but it respects our irrational belief that justice is not to be simplified. We really do like to think that some people are special; it is a kind of belief in paradise. And we accept that nothing in Hearst’s upbringing — nothing — prepared her for the encounters and situations that followed her kidnapping. This is not to say that we excuse her, or believe that she ought to be forgiven because she is basically a nice person. On the contrary, our mercy is somewhat contemptuous. We’re upholding her status, for our own sake, at the cost of infantilizing her. We’re saying — my imaginary old-fashioned friends and I — that she could not have known what she was doing. We don’t really forgive her at all; we simply feel that it is unseemly for a Hearst to be in a women’s prison when all she did was to do what she was raised to do: to follow the prevailing winds.

I do detest righteousness.


Meanwhile, is Damon Baehrel a fake? This week’s New Yorker arrived yesterday (finally), but I read Nick Paumgarten’s piece online, this morning, by clicking on a link in my inbox. I now get a message from the magazine every weekday, and, now that the Op-Ed page has dried up as a source of inspiration, The New Yorker has moved in with its desktop sampler. The stories of the day appear in rows of two, and the link to lead, at the top left, is the one that I usually press. This morning — yesterday afternoon, actually, but I don’t read mail in the afternoon unless it is personal — the lead was Paumgarten’s story about a fabulous restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Was I the only reader to remember the much longer piece by John McPhee, appearing in (I have ascertained) the issue of 19 February 1979, about “Otto”?

He carried the octopus inside. He said he has a cousin in the Florida Keys who puts octopuses in his driveway and then drives over them. “It’s just to break down the fibres. I don’t know what happens. I just know that it works.” He went into the restaurant and took down from a wall an August Sander photograph of an anonymous German chef, a heavy man in a white coat of laboratory length over pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes. The subject’s ears were small, the head a large and almost perfect sphere. On the upper lip, an aggressive mustache was concentrated like a grenade. The man was almost browless, his neck was too thick to permit a double chin, and his tiny black eyes — perhaps by the impertinence of the photographer — were opened wide. In his hammy hands were a bowl and a wooden-handled whip. “This pig-faced guy is a real Otto,” said the chef. “When our customers ask who is that in the picture we say that he is our founder.”

Otto’s restaurant, McPhee agreed to indicate, was more than five miles and less than a hundred miles from the triangle formed by La Grenouille and two restaurants that are no longer with us. Paumgarten tells us that Damon’s place is in Earlton, New York, near Coxsackie.

Compared to Otto’s place, Damon Baehrel’s is austere — his flour is arduously milled from acorns, he pickles things in pine needles, and butter and cream are avoided — but that is mere fashion. The essence of the stunt remains the same. Food is transformed from nourishment, which we associate with mothers, into an achievement, which is heroic. It becomes amazing. It is the best! food! ever! Today’s fashions limit culinary excellence to two categories: high-tech and locavore. Ferran Adrià is famous for his spray cans. Damon Baehrel farms his swamp.

Whether the food is actually any good or not soon ceases to be the point, because it is taken for granted. If you are not impressed, then you are just not with it. Now, I have never been near the kind of cookery for which El Bulli was famous, nor have I dined at Chez Panisse (which I take to be the original locavore dining hall), and it is not my intention to question the satisfaction that these restaurants have given to many, many patrons. I will go along with taking the great food for granted. It’s what happens next that interests me. Legends begin to encrust the edifice. Damon Baehrel gets all his meats from “Mennonite farmers.” John McPhee’s Otto claims that smoking chervil will make you high. But the indispensable rumor is about bookings. It’s impossible to get in, and yet everybody famous seems to have been. It’s as if Donald Trump were saying that you, the reader, are a loser, because you’ve never even tried not that it would do you any good. Damon Baehrel’s restaurant is said to be booked through 2025.

2025! It’s a sign of the times that Paumgarten is rather less trusting than McPhee. Having talked about the weird food (which tastes “sublime” — at least on the first outing), the writer wants to get to the bottom of the indispensable rumor. It soon becomes clear, whether or not anyone is going to come out and say so, that Damon Baehrel is a fabulist. If you tell me a story about unicorns, I do not accuse you of lying. So it is here. When Baehrel claims that he has just served dinner — a dinner just like yours — to a party of Japanese that left moments before your arrival, it is more agreeable to think of him as talking about unicorns. Eventually, inevitably, Paumgarten wearies of the operation.

Many of Baehrel’s dishes are trompe l’oeil, with foraged ingredients subbing for more traditional ones. Consider a favorite of his book publishers, the Morrises—what he calls “the phony egg.” “I use native components to build an egg,” Baehrel told me. “The egg white is cattails. The yolk is pickled heirloom tomatoes in a broth of wild parsnip juice. I use willow bark to make the home fries, and squash as bacon.” Though he did not serve this one to me, I have seen photographs of it. It’s uncanny. I have no reason to doubt that the phony egg is phony in the way he says it is. But in the context of all the other questions surrounding his operation the egg can seem like a provocation. Why not just serve an egg?

Why not, indeed. Maybe the fake egg is really and truly incredible, a bucket-list must. Maybe even I would like it. But what Baehrel is really serving up is a guyish wet dream, complete with all the manly accoutrements. You half expect him to hand out Davy Crockett caps and to build a campfire. You forget that he was raised in Massapequa, and is not the last of the Mohicans. You don’t just drive up to the door; you have to wait for the gate to open (which it does, on time and not a moment sooner). You devour sixteen courses, for which you pay four hundred dollars. It had better be good!

That story about the emperor’s new clothes becomes a lot easier to believe if you presuppose that there were no women watching the parade.


Friday 26th

For dinner the other night, we had rib steaks. My interest in rib steaks has shifted over the years. During the graduate school days of M le Neveu, I served a thick hunk of beef every Sunday night. I would run it under the broiler for about fifteen minutes, and the center would still be pink. I could count on my young cousin to eat most of it. When he moved on, rib steaks disappeared from our table. More recently, however, I had to deal with a cooking-gas shutoff that forced me to make do with electric appliances. Consumer-quality electric ovens do not do a very good job of broiling meats, I found. So I turned to an old, somewhat forgotten friend, Edouard de Pomiane, and decided to give his approach to galley cooking a try.

Pomiane calls for ten-ounce steaks. I had a hard time conveying this demand to the butchers. So I settled on inch-thick steaks. I found that, if I followed Pomiane’s timing (three minutes per side), the meat was grey, so I cut it down to two minutes per side with fifteen or twenty seconds more on the side that seemed less browned. This works very nicely, but the problem is that the medium-rare beef has no flavor at all, according to Kathleen. I know what she means. Good steak is not supposed to taste, but only hint at a taste. It is only when steak is well-done that it has any real flavor, and it’s a flavor that I detest. Kathleen’s difficulty was complicated by a pungent Béarnaise sauce, again made following Pomiane’s instructions. The sauce continued to scream vinegar long after the vinegar evaporated. Pomiane’s recipe for Béarnaise cuts down on the butter and calls for one egg yolk instead of three, so as to reduce the quantity of the sauce to the needs of two people sharing a steak (as Kathleen and I do), but I think that I’m going to look into cutting back on the vinegar and the shallot as well. When I blamed the Béarnaise for Kathleen’s inability to taste the meat, she protested that she hadn’t used any. But all you had to do was to be in the same room with the bowl of sauce to taste it.

The gas came back on before I could make a thorough study of Pomiane’s little book, French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Or, Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life (1930). Pomiane was born in Paris in 1875 to Poles by the name of Pozerski. It was his parents who adopted the aristocratic French moniker. Pomiane worked at the Pasteur Institute, where he studied bacteriophages. I have found no information about the domestic conditions that led to his familiarity with the rigors of cooking on a pair of gas rings. I can get quite lost imagining where these rings might have been found in his apartment. I expect that the apartment was not designed to include a kitchen; that, in the original position, food was cooked somewhere else, in a nether region never visited by professors at the Pasteur Institute, except for scientific purposes. Perhaps Pomiane’s apartment had been part of a larger apartment. In some closet or a pantry, with running water nearby, the gas rings might have been installed on a counter or a table. I used to imagine Pomiane as a bit of a rake, sweetening his ladies with succulent but quickly prepared meals before leading them towards the boudoir. There is really no evidence for that daydream in his book. He seems rather to be advising the busy man who needs a good dinner without a lot of fuss. Wouldn’t such a man, even in 1930, have some sort of domestic help? Pomiane often mentions expense, but not all frugal people are impecunious.

I am writing this book for students, dressmakers, secretaries, artists, lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers, scientists, and everyone else who has only an hour for lunch or dinner but still wants thirty minutes of peace to enjoy a cup of coffee.

The translation, by Philip and Mary Hyman, first appeared in 1977, and that’s when I got my first copy, long since lost. I could swear that Pomiane dismissed pasta altogether because it takes longer than ten minutes to boil a pot of water, but that’s not what I read in the 1994 edition. There is a brief chapter on “noodle” dishes, and, among his whimsically-stated preliminaries, specifying the things that you must do the moment you get home, the following appears:

Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What is the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee…

All this should be done immediately, because the time necessary to heat the water or fat shouldn’t count in the ten minutes it takes you to cook your meal.

Now, he says, you can take off your coat.


If you don’t mind, I’m going to say a word about the progress of the writing project, even though I mentioned it last Friday and ought to hold my tongue until next Friday. What I want to say concerns the discipline required to do a lot of writing. I have never been good about discipline, but I have been able to rely on habit, which is really just unconscious discipline. My observation is that I cemented the habits that I would need long before undertaking the writing project. During last winter, I made two decisions. First, I would not write on Wednesdays. Second, I would try to write two thousand words the days when I did write. Perhaps the second decision came first. I’m pretty sure that I did not make them both at once. I only knew that, if I wrote more, I could not write as often. Four days of work seemed fair to me, neither onerous nor indulgent.

When I took up the writing project, I intended to make my entries briefer than they had been, and much briefer than they have been. I wanted to save my strength for the writing project. But it turns out that writing a little more than a thousand words for the Web log has been a great warm-up. After lunch, I could return to the desk and write what has come to be a norm of three to four thousand words. It is true that when the afternoon session is over, somewhere between six and seven, I am either shaking with surprise or listless with disappointment, but the words are there, and whether they are great or not-so-great, they tell me more than I knew about the form that the writing project will take when it is complete.

I had worried that the effort would be too great, that I would break down and lose interest. There has certainly been a lot of effort. But there has also been a lot of pausing to listen, as if I were in a forest that seemed to be silent until I stopped and paid attention. Yesterday, for example, I found that I had reached the ideal moment for interjecting a tangential but indispensable discussion into the body of a long section about something else, to which I easily returned when the tangent was covered.

That is what it has been like, this writing project: a walk in the woods. I know that I am in a room in a city, confronted by three computer monitors and a keyboard. But I am really somewhere else, in the forest of my mind. If I am very quiet, and I look very closely, a path appears beneath my feet, and I follow it. Sometimes, I come to a fork in the path, and then I depend on what might be compared to a forest bird or the sound of a waterfall to decide which fork to follow. I do not always feel safe, and sometimes the forest gives way to the edge of a cliff. But, so far at least, the path has always been there. I am still not sure how I managed to enter the woods, but I believe that my habits of writing had a lot to do with it.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Floor Exercise
August 2016 (III)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

15, 16, 18 and 19 June

Monday 15th

Last night, we watched more of NBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics, and as the hours passed by — diving, track, gymnastics — the show confirmed a thought that sprouted from last week’s Olympic evenings: television is a really lousy source of the kind of information that we call explanation. Explanations tell us how things relate to other things. They are very important to any understanding of the world. Sometimes, as at the end of a mystery drama, explanations are tremendously exciting, but usually explanations are more than a little boring, because you have to remember things that you weren’t thinking about. The explanation of taxes, for example, is not invigorating. Many unpleasant explanations must be grasped and accepted in order to move on in life. Many people who are stuck in loops of futility are actively resisting explanations that wound their self-esteem.

Television is a medium of entertainment. When it was introduced, there were high hopes that it would be something else, a means of education and enlightenment. I think that the lesson to be learned from the failure of those hopes is that education requires a personal commitment, a presence in the room, that watching television is simply too passive to simulate. Many kinds of things can be learned from television — I want to talk about Julia Child in a moment — but other kinds of things, such as explanations, cannot, because understanding an explanation is an act that the student (or whoever it is to whom the explanation is addressed) must perform, and there is a big difference between thinking that you have performed this act in the privacy of your own room and demonstrating that you have performed it by discussing it with others, ideally including the person doing the explaining. Where explanations are concerned, there will always be a test.

One day, perhaps, television will be revolutionized by a truly interactive overhaul. Without descending into utter chaos, television will work both ways, so that the producers of shows will respond to viewers directly. I cannot imagine how this might happen, and I doubt that you can, either. My point is that not until then will television be an all-purpose tool of learning. The only way that television has, at present, of telling us that A is more important than B is to repeat A’s name more often than it does B’s — much more often.

Julia Child was one of television history’s most interesting stars. She started as a kind of clown. Her cooking lessons were perfectly correct; she even conveyed the information that not all mistakes in the kitchen are fatal. But hers was an improbable presence, physically and, of course, vocally. She was obviously committed to sharing her expertise, and her improvisations were inspiring — by which I mean that many viewers dared to tackle recipes that would have paralyzed them without her example. On the whole, though, The French Chef was an utterly conventional cooking show, with all the usual apparatus in addition to the novelties from France. What made it special was the nonpareil star. Mrs Child was very entertaining.

A later engagement with educational television, however, resulted in a series of VHS tapes, now available in CD form (The Way to Cook — its title borrowed from that of her American cookery book), that reflected the insight that TV shows can be watched over and over. Exploiting the Groundhog Day possibilities of video, Mrs Child ran through quick demonstrations of certain culinary skills — making piecrust in a food processor, for example — in an anonymous laboratory setting wholly devoid of the first show’s charming atmosphere. If you don’t get it the first time, just watch her do it again, and keep trying. There is a fair amount of explanation, but no inspiration.

I’ll merely note that, if, having tried and tried again, you still can’t produce a satisfactory piecrust, you’ll have to go elsewhere for further help and explanation. What I want to highlight is that The Way to Cook is a great example of video that is not “television.” Try to imagine a television show that accommodated as many repeats as each and every viewer might require for comprehension. It’s technically unimaginable, and it would also be intolerably tedious for every viewer who got it the second time. I’m interested by the way in which limits to technology overlap the limits to passive watching — the point where boredom sets in. It’s also interesting that you can’t just tune into The Way to Cook on a network. You have to buy the CDs.

Television is good at being easy. This is not to say that it makes Simone Biles’s vaults look easy. But it transforms years of very hard work into a momentary miracle. You may react, as Kathleen does, by pounding the sofa cushion with your fist and demanding, “HOW does anybody do that?!” with the air someone who has just missed being struck by a falling grand piano. But the question passes with the gust of thrill. Kathleen’s amazement is consumed by her own gesture. Soon there will be another momentary miracle. I daresay that Biles’s achievement cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who is not a serious gymnast. Indeed, the commentators repeatedly hinted, even as they predicted the scores, that many of the considerations entailed in evaluating a performance are somewhat occult. It was much easier to suggest the caprice or discretion or just plain human inscrutability of the judges than to try to explain the subtle criteria, masked by the circus flash, that the traditions of gymnastics have developed over the years. Behind the amazing twists and turns that today’s gymnasts have learned to do, there lies a demand for grace and confidence that can’t be reduced to metrics.

So far, I have been speaking of kinds of information. It’s easy to show Simone Biles’s acrobatic mastery; it is difficult to evaluate it in terms finer than “wow” or its opposite, the sound that we all made when Daria Spiridonova missed the catch from one bar to the other and fell to earth. But wait. Was this the first time that NBC had featured a performance by Spiridonova? I feel that I’ve been watching the Olympics for weeks, and I haven’t seen her before. It seemed that last night was the home audience’s introduction to many of the competitors from other countries. We had seen Aliya Mustafina compete against Simone Biles on the balance beam, but we had not seen the Russian team go through its qualifying rounds. Of course we hadn’t — there wasn’t time. Nor was there time, I suppose, to speak to contestants whose English wasn’t very good. Which was a good thing, because, frankly, I got tired of hearing athletes being asked, as Abby Johnston effectively was, to tell us how they felt about losing rather badly. For reasons not difficult to infer, NBC introduced foreign competition slowly. The heart of its story was the reality show inherent in intra-Team USA competition. Poor Gabby Douglas, All-Around Gold in 2012, denied the chance to compete in 2016, an outcome widely decried as unfair but never really explained. The full explanation would have to resolve, one way or the other, the conflict of Olympic ideals with strategic considerations. We instinctively feel that there is no place for strategy in athletic performance — not, that is, before the starting bell has sounded, as was the case here.

How much of the Olympics did we get to see? As much as most of us could take. How else do you explain volleyball in two formats?


Tuesday 16th

The first thing I did yesterday morning was to call the box office at Alice Tully Hall and donate my pair of tickets to last night’s performance of Così fan tutte. I had done the thinking the night before, and would probably have called the box office before going to bed, had it been open. I hope that the performance was a great one — as Mozart’s most sophisticated work, Così deserves nothing less. It felt strange to turn down the chance to use tickets that I’d paid for to experience one of my favorite things. But it felt absolutely right.

Many times in our life together, Kathleen and I have groaned about the nuisance of having to drag ourselves to an auditorium when all we want to do is stay home, only to find, having pushed ourselves a little, that we had a great time and were really glad that we overcame our resistance. Last night might have been like that; in fact, it probably would have been. I didn’t know anything about the performers, but the odds were that if Mostly Mozart had scheduled them, they would at least bring something fresh to the familiar.

But the reasons for staying home were unusually strong. I am in the middle of a writing project that has brought me to a patch of difficult ground: I have to be able to think a lot and to suffer a little at the same time in order to keep going. Not that I know where I’m going, either! To do this in the face of early-evening plans — getting dressed, which has become a slight ordeal as my immobile back and mortal decrepitude narrow my reach; getting over to Lincoln Center by 7:30; and let’s not forget bladder management — is not possible, not if I want to write anything worth looking at the next day. When I’m writing hard, what I need to have in my immediate future is a bottle of chilled cucumber soup, a baguette, and a wedge of good cheese. I made the soup over the weekend, and it won’t be taxing to run across the street for the bread and cheese. Last night, instead of going out, I made a pizza, with a lump of frozen dough and a block of butter sauce (both homemade), a Boar’s Head pepperoni, a handful of mushrooms, and a package of grated mozzarella. It turned out to be the first pizza, or maybe the second, that I have really liked in the eighteen months since I began making pizza. Thanks to those eighteen months, it was very easy to make. It was the perfect follow-up to hours of difficult work.

Also, I could tell that Kathleen wasn’t at all keen on sitting through an opera. She knows Così and has seen it before. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” she says, “but I followed every note.” Nevertheless, it would have been our third evening out in as many weeks. Last week’s night out was a last-minute thing, a surprised response to an unexpected invitation. Two nights of Mostly Mozart in two weeks, even if Kathleen didn’t actually do the music part the second time, was enough of a sufficiency.

What clinched it, though, was the extreme undesirability of missing Simone Biles. Yes — it had come to that. I was passing up a beloved opera in order to watch television. To be sure, it was Kathleen who really didn’t want to miss it. She never grumbled. She merely corrected me. While I was shutting down the video setup on Sunday night, I mumbled that we’d be watching again tomorrow. “No, we won’t,” she said. “We’ll be at Così.” That’s when I began to think that perhaps we had better not be. Left to myself, I’d have gone to the opera. But I wasn’t by myself.

Ordinarily, I’d have traded a lackluster, fretful day for a night of glorious music, but there wasn’t anything ordinary about yesterday, what with the writing project (which I think has reached the halfway point of the first draft) and the drama in Rio. Ordinarily, if I had made the decision that I did make, I’d have been pricked by a pang of regret when I went to bed at the end of an evening at home. As it was, all I felt was the same grinding doubt and head-down determination that I’d felt the night before. And I felt awful about Simone Biles.

As you will have foreseen, I blame NBC. I blame NBC for the hoopla about Biles. Well, everybody was excited. It was the Biles buzz that, reaching Kathleen, got her interested in watching the Olympics. Interested enough, that is, to overcome my immense inertia, amounting to passive aggression at times, about turning on the television (which Kathleen doesn’t know how to do). But the NBC chatterboxes promised miracles. They betrayed their magic thinking after Simone’s mishap on the balance beam: one of them said, “And from now on, Simone will look at the scoreboard just like everybody else.” Had Simone Biles herself really inhabited a bubble in which perfection was the only imaginable outcome? Unlike the commentators, I am not here to speculate. Had her remarkable success — three gold medals at her first Olympics — gone to her head? Conversely, was she beginning to think too much? Was she now so consumed by the dissatisfaction that she had made the mistake of confiding to somebody’s microphone — it bothered her that her public balance-beam performances were never as good as what she could do alone in the gym — that she finally lost her balance and, to keep from falling off the beam, gripped it with both hands? These questions swirl in the mind, for anyone but Biles and her coaches, it’s silly to try to answer them.

I also blame NBC for popping Sanne Wevers on us. Where had this Nederlander been? Not on television. She had evidently impressed the commentators as an exceptional gymnast, but it seems that her routine was slightly unorthodox — “more ballet and less acrobatics,” as Kathleen put it — and therefore (perhaps?) not expected to attain a high score, even if she performed it perfectly, which of course nobody ever does. Whether or not there was a slot in which those of us who have been following the women’s gymnastic events might have had a foretaste of what in fact happened, one ought to have been made, because Wevers’s victory almost ruined the story, in much the same way that a creaky deus ex machina cheats us of genuine dramatic resolution. Where did this Odile ever come from, to steal the glory from our beloved Odette?

That the silver went to Biles’s teammate, Laurie Hernandez, was very satisfying. Without wanting Biles to lose, I had wanted Hernandez to win — something. It seemed to me that she performed as well as anybody else, even if she didn’t she didn’t give Simone’s impression of sailing through her twists and tumbles on gusts of effortless ectoplasm. Hernandez was clearly working. But she was very graceful about it, and she always landed where she ought to. At least that part of NBC’s story line worked out nicely.

The point of the Olympics is to provide a forum for excellence, and the exhibition of excellence ought to be an unmitigated delight. National pride aside — and, for most people on earth, even among those who get to watch the show, national pride usually doesn’t enter into it — we all ought to take pleasure in performances that approach perfection. But perhaps that is too cold for the average viewer. The average viewer doesn’t understand all the elements that factor into the scores; the average viewer hasn’t seen enough to recognize every kind of excellence when it occurs. And the medium of television cannot teach. But I think that the telecasts would be improved by keeping the commentary to a minimum. It gums up the show with soap-opera sentiment. My experience of the performing arts and those who perform them has brought me to the conclusion that performances are most satisfying when you don’t know anything that you can’t see on stage. Backstage is another world, for insiders. I don’t go to concerts in hopes of becoming an insider, somebody who “really knows.” I go to hear a piano concerto, period. I go to hear a noted pianist surprise me from the keyboard. Then I applaud and go out to dinner. I don’t want my dinner troubled by wondering whether the woman who gave birth to Simone Biles is even aware of her daughter’s excellence.


Thursday 18th

I read something in a magazine yesterday; today, I find it in the newspaper.

How long does it take to see something, to know someone? When we put in years, we realize how little we grasped at the start, even when we thought we knew. We move through life mostly not seeing what is around us, not knowing who is around us, not understanding the forces pressuring us, not understanding ourselves. Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s, September 2016.

“I look back at my life before 40 and deplore what I see; I hate myself for my lack of seriousness, my lack of productivity,” he writes, adding: “I knew nothing, understood nothing, had not grasped how one must start working and keep working, early on and every day, if one is to create something to show for one’s life.” Ian Brown (quoted) in a review of his new book, in today’s Times.

You can look back on your life and miss the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the readiness to jump in and the fearlessness about outcomes. You can remember health so good that it was simply a feature of your identity. Perhaps your youth was capped by beauty, “beauty which must die,” as the very young Keats put it. You can remember the joy, however wobbly and uncertain, of having a long future ahead of you.

Or, you can look back on your life and see that, when you were young, you had absolutely no idea about what was going on. You thought you did, and you could sound convincing. But instead of understanding, your mind held a bucket of speculation, illusion, and projection. Not knowing much, you were easily fooled by your own inventions. “Here be dragons.” And, if you were an American, you were applauded for the boldness of your convictions and the authenticity of your moralizing.

My understanding was no better than anyone else’s, except for one tiny difference. I knew that I was ignorant. It was a tiny difference because you cannot wallow in self-reproach. You can’t be dwelling on how much you don’t know. You have to be faking it and making it. You have to speak with assurance, at least to yourself. You have to keep going. You have to learn to look like you know what you’re doing. You have to be a fake, but only slightly aware of it. You have to hope that you can handle whatever happens. None of this is optional. There are no shortcuts that will spare you the mistakes of being young.

You can look back on your life and think of all the things that you wanted to do but never did. Or you can look back on your life and see days and years wasted on things that looked good at the time.

What I’m puzzling over, of course, is how you can distinguish the true understanding that comes with experience from the false understanding that gets you through it. How can I be sure that I am not just as deluded now as I was forty or fifty years ago? Can it be reduced to writing? And unless this wisdom is to be totally useless, how can I counsel a young mind to tend that quiet fire of ignorance?


As small consolation for missing Tuesday night’s Così fan tutte at Mostly Mozart, I was spared a third taste of the weirdness of my fiftieth anniversary of Mozart Mozart concerts. That first season, I went to concerts with enthusiastic devotion. Mozart was more than Mozart at the time. Mozart was an antidote. There were people who didn’t get it, of course, who thought of Mozart as a Meissen figurine; but, aside from them, there was a widespread desire for sublime meaninglessness, not art-for-art’s-sake but art-for-serenity’s sake. A recovery of beauty. There had been enough jagged and demanding modernism. There had been too much Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (The “three Bs, the three magisterial Germans.) And now Mahler. There had been too much tragic grandiosity. What was wanted was Alicia de Larrocha’s light andante at the keyboard. Small orchestras and young voices. Mostly Mozart promised the ideal August vacation for the world-historically-minded townsfolk of Manhattan.

It couldn’t last. After long years of wallpaper paste, it nearly expired. At the beginning of its comeback, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was wary of the festival’s overexposure. A diet of Mozart curdles the music, its richness cloying tritely. It turned out that Mozart was not a refuge. The Mozart who seemed to beckon with the understated elegance of the Age of Jackie went under a cloud, and emerged as a problem. A good problem: a workspace for interpretation, or the possibilities of expression if you like. The meaning does not lie in the music, waiting to be revealed. The meaning lies in the execution. If Mozart is the composer of music about music, what do you think he is trying to tell us? Go ahead, tell us. Tell us what you think, because nobody else does — wherein lies the greatness.

The only thing that’s fifty years old is the name, Mostly Mozart, which doesn’t — which can’t — mean what it used to do. Last year, I looked forward to elation: the festival and I would have an anniversary to celebrate. But an anniversary of what? Can we really remember?


I went to the branch of Morton Williams on First and 81st yesterday to buy Jones’s sausages. So far as I can tell, Jones’s breakfast sausages taste just what they tasted like when I was a boy. The only difference is in the package. The sausages used to be wrapped up, still linked, into a paper-covered bundle that would fit in a box just like the one in which you buy a pound (four sticks) of butter. I don’t remember how many sausages there were in a box; now there are twelve, and they are not linked, and I can’t believe that they really taste the same. They must have changed so slowly that I didn’t notice. Kathleen thinks they taste just the same, too.

Kathleen says that she and her brother were always trying to get their mother to buy Park’s sausages. Needless to say, this never happened. I, too, was drawn to an alternative: Rath’s. Rath’s sausages came in a tin, and were smaller and pinker than Jones’s. They were delicious right out of the can — the first two or three were. Then they got gross. What to do with the opened can?

I am always prone to “stock up,” so I bought two packages of Jones’s sausages yesterday, even though the freezer compartment is already crowded. If there is one bit of advice that I could pass on to today’s youth, it would be this: spend ten minutes every couple of days going through everything in the fridge. What have you got in there? How long has it been? When, exactly, do you think you’ll do something with it? Don’t wait until the fridge is a mess. Do a little bit of this every few days. It will alter your shopping; it will help you to use leftovers without feeling martyred. But this advice isn’t quite ready. I haven’t followed it myself.


Friday 19th

Gerald Grosvenor, the Sixth Duke of Westminster, died last week, but the notice didn’t appear in the Times until today. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the cause of death, which was a heart attack. The duke was only 64; it makes me uncomfortable when men younger than I am die of heart attacks. Hugh Grosvenor, who turned 25 in January, steps into his father’s many titles. The family business, the Grosvenor Trusts, owns most of the land in the Mayfair and Belgravia sections of London. Gerald Grosvenor was the sixth-richest person in Great Britain and the second-richest citizen.

The Grosvenor family’s ascent began with a strategic marriage in 1677; its fortunes mounted from there until Disraeli advised Queen Victoria to make the head of the family a duke, because he was almost as rich as she was. But the interesting thing about the Grosvenors is that that they survived until 1677. Their ancestor, one of William the Conqueror’s hunters, a fellow nicknamed gros veneur, was settled in the Welsh marches to maintain order. The family took root and held on throughout the disorders of the ensuing centuries. They seem not to have held a title until 1622, when Sir Richard Grosvenor, knighted by James I in 1617, was created baronet. You had to pay for this honor, so there must already have been disposable cash lying about. It’s the nearly six hundred preceding years of cultivating their own garden, or at least keeping the executioner at bay, that interests me. I wonder what kind of records there are, beyond who-married-whom and -begat-whom. Probably not very good ones. Good hunters know how to keep quiet.

Wikipedia is always so up-to-date. The page for the Dukes of Westminster notes that there is no immediate heir to the duchy. Young Hugh has not yet married. Not much is known about the new duke; according to his page, his private life has been protected. His parents were still married when his father died, although the Sixth Duke was somewhat embarrassed by the scandal that brought Eliot Spitzer’s political career to a crash (the two men were clients of the same escort service).

I wonder how many Grosvenors figure in the Seventh Duke’s ancestry. In the immediate past, not very many. His father, of course, in the preceding generation. His grandfather in the one before that — two out of six. But if you trace things all the way back, how many Grosvenor daughters show up in the tree? If you go back through his mother’s family, you run through a line of Russian Grand Dukes, before landing in the lap of Nicholas I. I should find it very exciting to visit Petersburg if I were descended from Nicholas I. Perhaps too exciting. I might just stay on the cruise ship and look.

Families are amazingly concrete abstractions. They don’t really exist, because so few people belong to the same family as anybody else. Your family becomes unique on the day you marry, unless your twin is marrying your spouse’s twin. Families are like mushrooms: they have no actual center and they turn out to be connected to all other families, a feature that drains the idea of the family of most content. That, however, is the view from outside. What could be more gripping from the inside? We identify with our families from the dawn of consciousness. Or so we think. In reality, we create them around ourselves. For most of us, the sense of family does not include persons belonging to remote generations. Even someone with a claim to descend from George Washington (which, officially, no one can do) is unlikely to know much about all the families that come in between. The Sixth Duke, however, would be an exception.


And now for a few coy words about the writing project. (Watch for capitalization down the road.) I have been writing a great deal. Since launching the first draft four weeks ago and a day, I have written 54,852 words. It’s gross to keep count, I know, but that’s the point: it’s gross, you can put your hands around it. As mentioned earlier, I am following Jane Smiley’s advice, and picking up each day where I left off the day before, without looking back. Yesterday, it’s true, I broke that rule, inserting two blocks of about a thousand words each at points in the section on which I’m working. Most of what I wrote, however, picked up from the end. I have three more sections in mind, one long (the next one) and then two short. I expect that they’ll roll out of me as quickly as what I’ve already written. It’s then that the hard work will begin.

The temptation to tell you the sort of thing that I’ve been writing is nil. When I get up in the morning, and at many other points in the day, I revel in the fact that no one has read a word, no one has heard a summary, or even been given a clue. Kathleen knows all about it, and I read a page and a half of the draft to her. Even that turned out to be a mistake, because I’m not proofing the draft, and my reading was interrupted by several faulty prepositions and even a few omitted words. I don’t think that close friends and regular readers of this site will be at all surprised by the result, but working in secret is far more satisfying than I expected it to be. I am happy to say that Hannah Arendt is not the subject, in case anyone was worried, and I’ll add that I hope that what I write will make people laugh. Nothing new in that.

The downside is that I have little to talk about. My mind is always pecking away at some point or other in the ever more expansive draft. At least once a day I feel that I have occupied its world, that I am no longer living here and now. The world of any writing project is always somewhere new, with its own landscapes and geography, maps and signs. I have never experienced such a big one, is all. At the rate I’m going, the first draft ought to be somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words, which is just right.

Now it’s time for lunch, and then I’ve got to buy bananas and paper towels at Fairway, among other things. After all that, I’ll sit down here and pick up where I left off yesterday. By the end of the day, the word count ought to have risen by a few thousand. We’ll see.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Blame It On Rio
August 2016 (II)

Monday, August 8th, 2016

8, 9, 11 and 12 August

Monday 8th

As the Rio Olympics approached, Kathleen enthused about Simone Biles, whom she had read about somewhere, or perhaps seen somehow, and my trepidation was great. Would I remember how to turn on the TV? (It’s complicated!) And when would I turn on the TV? Who would find out when to turn it on? I foresaw tears of frustration, and they seemed very likely indeed when, having managed to bring NBC into our home yesterday, I was confronted by endless volleyball, and no women’s gymnastics. According to the Olympics Web site, the women’s gymnastic qualifications were taking place at that very moment. Kathleen’s attempt to capture the live stream (is that how one puts it?) was not going well. I crept into the bedroom and riffled through the Times. There I learned, after some tabular decipherment, that there would be gymnastics after 7 PM. Sighs of relief were heaved, and the promise was kept. There were other events, too — synchronized diving (?) and swimming — but we got to see Simone Biles and her Team USA mates, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian. We also got to see — and I’m writing to complain about this — Aly Raisman’s parents, sitting in the stands.

“Agonizing” would be more like it. I believe that it was during Aly’s performance on the balance beam. At one moment, Raisman seemed likely to slip off the beam, or at least to grip the beam with her hands, reflexively. She did not grip it or even touch it. She saved her routine and went on to get a score that qualified her to participate in the Games. The usual repetitions followed, in slow motion and so forth, with close-ups of the near mishap (feet and hands). Then we were shown her parents, to whom we already been introduced, watching their daughter with their hearts in their mouths. They angled away from one another, then pulled together; Lynn Faber looked desperate and Rick Raisman looked hostile — a good thing, I suppose, given that his fight-or flight trigger had understandably been pulled. I felt an intense sympathy that no amount of well-wishing for the contestants themselves could possibly have aroused. And in the same moment I was ashamed of NBC for having televised the moment.

This is why we have plays and re-enactments. The real thing, when it happens, is personal and private. Whether the Raismans ever come to be offended by the comments of friends and strangers who saw, thanks to not being there — since all eyes save the cameraman’s were on Aly — their helpless, wretched reactions to their daughter’s peril, I’m offended on their behalf. The decision to air the footage betrays the same kind of error in judgment that, endlessly repeated, has made Donald Trump the Republican candidate. An adult is supposed to know when irresistibly engaging scenes are nonetheless unfit for public consumption.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science. To say that I read it as an undergraduate is misleading. I still have the book that I annotated (somewhat less foolishly than usual, but foolishly still); but I also have a sense of the difficulty, or at least the subtlety of the text that I’m quite sure I missed in college. It was perhaps an inappropriate assignment at the time, because Butterfield’s lectures assume a familiarity with events in the intellectual history of the scientific revolution that I don’t think any of us had. The hallmark of such advanced books is that while the contributions of minor figures are sketched in fairly fully, the achievements of the great figures are scanted. In his lecture about Harvey and the circulation of the blood, for example, Butterfield covers the work of Colombo (discoverer of the “small circulation” between the heart and the lungs), Cesalpino (adumbrator of general circulation, but himself still very much in the shade), and Fabricius (discoverer of the venal valves). There is no such summing up of Harvey’s accomplishment. That is taken for granted. So I was still a little in the dark, at times, reading the book now. And Butterfield’s concision sheds a flurry of nuances that sometimes made me doubt that I knew precisely what he was trying to say.

But I had no such doubt about the exordium at the end of the tenth lecture, “The Place of the Scientific Revolution in the History of Western Civilization.” The place of the scientific revolution in the history of Western Civilization, according to Butterfield, is central, as in “the most important place imaginable.” The end of the essay is really very grand, especially considering that there are still two more lectures to go, and also that the final essay, “Images of Progress and Ideas of Evolution,” comes to a dead halt exactly where another rolling peroration might have begun. “Something similar to this is true when we of the year 1957 take our perspective of the scientific revolution,” Butterfield begins his big finish. What Butterfield means by “this,” I think, is the fact that hindsight, while sometimes prejudiced by subsequent events, is often simply informed by them. What follows is too long to copy, so I shall cut to the final sentences, in which “the new factor” refers to what educated people today have in mind when they think of scientific analysis, and the “other” ones are the theories deduced from philosophical, unobserved ideas about the world.

The new factor immediately began to elbow the other ones away, pushing them from the central position. Indeed, it began immediately to seek control of the rest, as the apostles of the new movement had declared their intention of doing from the very start. The result was the emergence of a kind of Western civilization which when transmitted to Japan operates on tradition there as it operates on tradition here — dissolving it and having eyes for nothing save a future of brave new worlds. It was a civilization that could cut itself away from the Graeco-Roman heritage in general, away from Christianity itself — only too confident in its power to exist independent of anything of the kind. We know now that what was emerging towards the end of the seventeenth century was a civilization exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as Nineveh and Babylon. That is why, since the rise of Christianity, there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared with this.

In 1957, Butterfield could say this without sounding smug. Today, it would be not only smug but foolish, as I think every educated reader will uneasily sense. Why is this?

What came to mind as I read of this triumph of science over religion — it is important, here, to pit science against religion, and not against faith — was something that I read somewhere — in William Doyle’s great history of the French Revolution, I hoped, but can’t find there — about the low expectations, as the Eighteenth Century approached its end, that the Roman Catholic Church would survive far into the Nineteenth. These expectations were of course shared by the kind of men who promoted the scientific revolution. They saw a decadent organization that no longer commanded anyone’s serious respect. The respect, that is, of anybody serious. The opinions of peasants were not consulted. Had they been, the counterrevolutionary revolt in the Vendée might have been foreseen; had they been, the emergence of a robust and even purified institution might have been anticipated. For Roman Catholicism emerged from the collapse of the ancien régime stronger than it had been ever since — one is tempted to exaggerate — the days of Innocent III in the Thirteenth Century. Far from being knocked out by the brilliance of the Enlightenment, the Church became the beloved shelter of swelling numbers of the Enlightenment’s opponents. This new Church, although it preserved almost all of its old structures, embarked on a new project, or perhaps it would be better to say that it reconsidered its original project. It forsook its old dreams of temporal power and embraced its pastoral mission. Orthodoxy was assumed, not tested. The doctrines of the Trinity and of Transubstantiation remained on the books, but were presented in popular, almost Disney-esque caricature that were too limp to provoke controversy.

Much the same occurred in the Protestant North, where the separation of church and state, however stoutly resisted, seemed to redirect energy toward a booming philanthropic evangelism. We associate the Nineteenth Century with the Industrial Revolution, but it was also a time of intense religious revival. It was not unobserved that the appeal of religion was steadily confined to the uneducated classes, that religious gestures were cut to suit uneducated minds, but in the absence of contrary religious activities among the educated (no Church of the Dynamo appeared), the disconnection between the two classes did not result in clashes.

As liberal democracy spread throughout the West in the years after the French Revolution, up to an including our own time, it became less and less reasonable to see economic classes as horizontally arranged, with the rich dominating the poor as the old aristocracy had ruled the peasantry. The division, it seems to me, tipped more toward the vertical. Rich and poor, theoretically equal under the law, stood side by side. The rich continued to arrange things in their favor, and, incidentally, to the disadvantage of the poor, but it became possible, and, during the three decades following World War II not at all uncommon, for people of poor background to educate themselves into the élite. For a long time, this new dispensation, this complex sequel to the chaos that erupted in 1789, functioned without friction attributable to religious differences. Religious observance was painlessly accommodated by ostensibly secular régimes. It was an option that those so inclined were not discouraged to indulge. Children everywhere were taught that the earth revolves around the sun, and that the laws of gravity apply everywhere with equal force. If these doctrines were contradicted by Scripture, disputes were repressed. It was reasonable, in 1957, to speak as Butterfield does at the end of his essay on the historical impact of the scientific revolution. Ironically, it was at that very time that other outcomes of 1789 were culminating in social alterations that would tear apart the old accord, and reveal the educated view of things as a powerful but minority opinion.

Men had learned to live with religious differences that pertained to matters of faith and world-view. But they had not been prepared to reconcile differences that could not be kept private, nor be contained by a consensus regarding public behavior. I am speaking of racial equality and the authority of women.


Tuesday 9th

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there was a good deal of discussion about the suitability of aligning the campaign for the equality of former slaves with the campaign for the equality of women. That this discussion was never resolved reflects the asymmetry, or perhaps the incomparability, of the issues. On the one hand, men of African descent who had been enslaved sought political equality with men of European descent. This was partly a racial problem and partly a re-enfranchisement problem, for the former slaves had been free men in Africa. On the other hand, women of European descent sought political equality with men of European descent. This was entirely a problem of gender, and its roots were wholly distinct from those of the problems faced by the racial-equality campaign. The only overlap occurred if the equality of women of African descent played a prominent role in both campaigns, which I believe it did not.

The problem of gender is a problem of authority. Although the existence of matriarchies in remote, prehistoric times is postulated, none survived the introduction of writing. Recorded history invariably repeats the inferiority, however slight, of women. And whatever variations might be found concerning the administration of the household, women have never exercised authority outside of it; in other words, men have not been called upon (it may be said that they have refused) to submit to the authority of women outside their immediate families.

This is so universal that it does not appear to be an inherently religious principle, but at the same time it is a feature of every religion, or at least it is contradicted by none. It may be imagined that no religion espousing the equality of women as to authority would advance beyond the confines of a tiny cult. There are glimmers of such a cult in early Christianity; a freedom from what we call sexism is discernible in the teachings of Jesus, and women played important roles in the early Church. But this was arrested. Religions don’t so much preach the inferiority of women; they accept it.

Accidents in the course of events in the West since the Middle Ages have put women in positions of authority, but these have been seen as God-sanctioned buttressed her legitimacy by marrying the king of Spain, who became the King of England), and almost guaranteed by the even more remarkable accident that her potential successor and rival (the mother of her actual successor, in fact) was also a woman. Such a fact-pattern is extremely unlikely, but it happened, and thanks to the glory of the Armada’s defeat while Elizabeth held the throne, it conditioned Englishmen to being ruled by a woman. And yet Elizabeth herself would never have agreed to take the advice of another woman. Three English queens would come and go before the fourth — again, coincidentally — would be called upon to accept a ministry headed by a woman (Margaret Thatcher). With such a history, it hardly seems anything but inevitable that the campaign for women’s equality should be born speaking English.

Whether or not they were triggered by accidents, there are also developments in English history that reflect a deliberate intent to extend equality to women. Unmarried women have always had the right to dispose of their own property. Married women attained this right in the 1860s, long before the grant of the franchise. Before the end of the Nineteenth Century, there were colleges for women, at the English universities and across the United States, and by the middle of the Twentieth Century women had achieved academic equality with men. This means that, within the confines of academia, men recognized the authority of women over themselves whenever it was decided that a certain woman was the right person to exercise authority in the given time and place. I find it significant that this first bloom appeared where it did. For it was the men of the modern university, committed as it was to the secularism that prevailed among the intellectuals of the West, who were among the first to discard, along with what many of them regarded as religious superstitions, an even older prejudice.

And it was within such institutions as universities that the advance of women was sheltered. I’m reminded of the observation that Nancy Mitford made to an out-of-town snob: the great ladies of Paris were never seen in public. They never appeared on the street because they were driven from courtyard to courtyard, and they didn’t have to go shopping because merchants came to them. The advance of women in the Anglophone world occurred somewhat out of public view; it took place in élite precincts. Women had no trouble establishing their abilities, but they flourished only where they dealt with educated men. Educated men, in turn, were the only men likely to marry educated women, and they were also likely to have daughters upon whom higher education would not be wasted. Educated fathers without sons could find themselves eager for their daughters to have access to rewarding careers.

Every now and then, an accident would thrust a woman into public prominence. Most of the women who served as elected officials did so by way of taking places vacated for one reason or another by their husbands. (Lady Astor; Margaret Chase Smith.) And I expect that a study would reveal that women reached high-level office long before they did the same at the small-town level. Almost always, women assumed public authority accidentally.

In my lifetime, there have emerged generations of women not content to wait to be transformed into Joan of Arc by the call of heaven, and they have made the entirely unprecedented demand for the right to exercise authority when otherwise qualified to do so. They were not going to wait to take their fathers’ or their husbands’ places in business or public affairs. They refused to recognize the need for anyone’s permission to allow them to make responsible decisions. And the first momentous issue to arise in this new climate was geared to register the shift. Unlike anything else that a woman might need or want, an abortion is starkly general. Any abortion is, physically speaking, like all other abortions, in that a fetus is removed from a woman’s body. Personal circumstances have no bearing on the medical procedure. What’s more, the right to have an abortion must necessarily be publicly sanctioned. Affluent woman usually had access to abortion even when it was illegal. But the right to abortion is not a matter of access. It is a question of authority, and it asks this question at the very heart of relations between the sexes. No wonder the controversy over abortion in the United States has been such a big deal!

The curious thing to me is why “authority” is not an issue in abortion debates. Nobody objects to women’s demand for the right to abortion by claiming that they lack the authority to decide to have one. The debates have shifted their focus to the right of the fetus to live. This has always struck me as spurious, at least in origin. I am unable to believe that more than a small minority of men would ever be seriously concerned about the lives of fetuses as a matter of principle, without intending to assert the right to tell a woman what to do. As it happens, men who oppose abortion tend to support the death penalty. This inconsistency about the preciousness of life is dealt with by comparing the innocence of the fetus with the guilt of a murderer, but the comparison is a category mistake, because the preciousness of life is either unalterably inherent in every human being or a delusion. The right to life engages the support of women, and it reminds us that in the campaign for the equality — let us call it the campaign for the authority of women, many men support the campaign while many women oppose it. Many women are determined not to submit to the authority of a woman. A woman in authority challenges their right to a protected place in life, a place inferior only with regard to matters that don’t interest them. But nobody argues that authority is the problem.

Has secularism advanced so far in the Anglophone world that it is no longer possible to say why it is inappropriate for women to exercise authority? Not “impossible to say &c without being laughed at,” but simply impossible? This would explain the stubbornness of resistance. All the conceivable arguments have been raised and refuted; there is no point to talking about it further. This hardly means that the bone-deep objection goes away.

I have said that the roots of opposition to racial equality and women’s equality are different, but it seems that objections to the exercise of authority by racially exceptionable people faces the same problem: there is no reasonable ground on which to object. So other grounds are sought. The specious “birther” opposition to President Obama’s legitimacy are similar to the right-to-life argument; it shifts the opposition to more tenable ground. If Obama fails to meet constitutional requirements as to birth in the United States, then the racial issue doesn’t come up. Similarly, the right-to-life argument circumvents the authority issue by making murderers of the aborting mother and her assistants. These phoney arguments can never be settled, but they spare their proponents something worse than ridicule — what?


Thursday 11th

Last night, I got to hear baritone Thomas Meglioranza sing for the first time in ages. He gave a pre-concert recital of songs by Hugo Wolf at Geffen Hall, accompanied by Reiko Uchida. It is a sign of Tom’s self-confidence that he shares the stage with such a superb pianist. Tom was superb, too, and he still reminds me of Bobby Short, which I mean as a great compliment, because, just as Bobby Short’s did, Tom’s voice declares that he is very happy to be alive and singing. Tom sang a selection of Mörike lieder as if they belonged to the Weimar cabaret repertoire that he explored a few years ago, which could not, I think, be more appropriate. Wolf is considered one of the pillars of the German lied, but I’ve never understood why. He reminds me of that wonderful Anna Russell routine about the difference between the French and the German art song: with the German, you get soggy poetry set to magnificent music; with the French, you get magnificent poetry set to wispy music. With Wolf, the middle term drops out: soggy poetry and wispy music. That’s very unfair, I know, and “Die ihr schwebet” from The Spanish Songbook is quite ecstatically beautiful. But there is always a laughing-academy aspect: this art is disturbed — and not in the way that Die Winterreise is disturbed. If you squint, you can hear Pierrot Lunaire just around the corner. You can hear everything about to come crashing down. The last song on Tom’s bill, “Abschied,” ends with a crazed Viennese waltz, dancing on long after the singer has stopped laughing at the old man he has just kicked downstairs. Wispy poetry. Great performance, though.

As I was in the taxi on my way to the pre-concert, I heard about the eejit who was at that very moment climbing Trump Tower with the aid of suction cups. The reporter on the radio, who sounded every inch a New Yorker, said that the fellow “seems to know what he’s doing,” which is our way of saying, “Let’s see how far he gets.” But the police don’t have that kind of sense of humor. Treating the climber as a madman, they took him to Bellevue and would not disclose his name. He gave my day a lift, anyway.

Since the pre-concert was going to bring me to Lincoln Center anyway, I had the idea of taking Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil to dinner at Shun Lee West. It was only a short walk from Kathleen’s office, so the four of us had a jolly night. We hadn’t seen each other in ages, possibly not since Easter. Ray told some good stories, one of them about new chandeliers at a famous fashion emporium and one about a long-ago funeral. Funerals came up because Fossil is going to yet another one; this time, it’s the father of a very good friend at work. I don’t understand attending funerals of people whom you have never met; it seems wrong to me. Wrong to do and wrong to expect. Hundreds of people attended my mother’s funeral in Houston, but it was out of respect for my father, who was still a pooh-bah. When he died, long after his retirement, there were no crowds. Shabby and mixed-up.


On Tuesday night, Kathleen met me at the midtown storage unit and packed a box of craft books that she does not want to keep. We had dinner at a nearby pub, and didn’t get home until nine o’clock. We turned on the TV, hoping that we hadn’t missed the women’s gymnastics. Of course they wouldn’t tell us, so Kathleen sat through two hours of swimming. She was able to do other things, but even in another room I was distracted by the racket. Finally, at eleven, we got to see the Final Five win their gold medals. We also got to see a few Chinese gymnasts, as well as Ellie Downie, who had had taken a bad tumble a few days earlier. It was good to see the competition. I have to say that the Chinese contestants fanned my admiration for Team USA.

As always, it’s hard for me to pay attention to protracted sporting events, so, between the breathtaking leaps and twists in the “floor” acts, I imagined what a Paul Taylor dance, choreographed with these moves, might look like. Then I realized that Paul Taylor’s choreography might have inspired a few of them already. This was particular true of Laurie Hernandez’s routine.

This morning, a man who was recommended by Housing Works brought his van and an assistant to the midtown unit and carried off the fifteen boxes of books that I have been packing since the middle of May. While he was there, I discussed my next step with him, and we agreed on a plan for dealing with all the stuff on the tippy-top shelf, which runs around three sides of the room. With my immobile neck, I can barely see it. Kathleen’s wedding dress is up there somewhere. She plans to give it away. It took her a while to accept the unlikeliness of knowing a young woman who would want to wear such a dress. Certainly none of the young women whom we actually knew would wear it. Kathleen’s gown covered everything below her neck and above her wrists, much of it voluminously.

Also on the top shelf are yet more boxes full of old papers. My heart sinks at the prospect of going through them. That, however, will be the end of that.


There’s an extremely interesting piece by Tom Crewe, in the current London Review of Books, about Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters, and the Labour Party. Crewe captures the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s fans about as well as I’ve ever seen it done.

There was again a palpable feeling in the air, difficult to convey in print: the closest equivalent I can think of is the experience of attending a gig — a narrowed, concentrated attention, a consciousness of shared knowledge and understanding, that peculiar sense of security you have when surrounded by people who like what you do.

Well, it might have been done better: the final “do” rather threw me for a minute; “like” would have prevented ambiguity. Nevertheless, that peculiar sense of security that you get at a jazz performance is probably the last pleasure to be looked for at a political meeting, for it signifies that nothing political is going to happen. I daresay that Trump’s rallies are almost rank with it. Trump’s supporters draw from their sense of security the boldness to behave like thugs.

Jeremy Corbyn has been acting the saint in Parliament for several decades, and I have no strong objection to that, but for the peculiarity of British arrangements that makes him ipso facto eligible to head the government. At the moment, that’s what would happen if Labour Party candidates won a majority of seats in an election, which is why there is a movement to dethrone him. Corbyn’s unlikely leadership of the Labour Party, a position that he holds despite the scorn and contumely of almost every fellow Labour MP, is symptomatic of the disarray of politics in the liberal democracies. Corbyn himself is a saint because he refuses to do what almost everyone else does as a matter of course these days: he doesn’t permit economic considerations, other than a concern for the underpaid and the unemployed, to affect his judgments. He makes the pragmatic and accommodating Tony Blair — the all too p & a — look like the Whore of Babylon, which is probably why Labour Party civilians saddled him with a leadership role that he seems constitutionally incapable of exercising. Corbyn doesn’t do deals, which means he doesn’t do politics. There is a place for such stubbornness in legislatures, but none whatever in the executive. Corbyn has proved to be unable to manage a shadow government, and is widely blamed for lackluster participation in the Remain campaign. A good man, undoubtedly, but unsuited to govern.

What Jeremy Corbyn has not done is to make a case for putting economic considerations where they belong, subordinate to political goals. The idea that economic well-being will solve political problems is bankrupt, because only politics can prevent well-being from being concentrated in fewer and fewer pockets. What’s curious to me is that people seem willing to consider alternatives to capitalism, when what capitalism needs is an overhaul. An overhaul of capitalism appears to be unimaginable. And when capitalism is discussed as a theory, along with corporate structure, the air gets very musty, because its the capitalism and the corporation of 1850 that is being described. The terms of orthodoxy were set long ago, so damn the torpedoes. You might as well let the Vatican run things.


Friday 12th

Watching the women’s gymnastics events last night, I was more irritated than ever by the commentators, because I had already heard all their snippets of “background” and “color” several times by now. It was almost disgusting to hear the contestants described in heroic, courageous, determined — statuesque — generalizations while the very objects of this adulation experienced their ordeals, their disappointments, and their very particular triumphs right in front of us. I blew my stack whenever one of the three sonorous but invisible voices informed me that Simone Biles was feeling proud and confident. Not must be feeling no speculation required. The commentators knew. Almost as bad was their regurgitation of the well-coached boilderplate with which the young women had been taught to respond to fatuous questions about “what it’s like to be back at the Olympics” (often asked of Aly Raisman) or “how are you feeling now that you’re actually in Rio?” These routine breaches of the protocols of meaningful and truthful reporting constituted almost all of the padding between events.

One might wonder if the producers of the show fear that viewers would wander off to some other outlet if the commentators stopped talking filling the stretches between events with their babble. I should think that anyone bothering to tune in to the women’s gymnastics competitions would be willing to wait for the next jolt of acrobatic excitement. To relieve the slight tedium of doing so, the viewer might welcome brief announcements about what was going to happen next and how long it would be before it happened, but there was precious little of that. Instead, the commentators said things that sounded knowledgeable while carefully skirting the risk of boring viewers with too much detail. I never did understand the reasoning behind the scoring or the multiplicity of competitions from four basic events (vault, balance beam, unequal bars, and floor). The commentators might have told me how many points Aly Raisman needed to win a medal, but they never explained a thing. Undermining one’s belief that the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sport, the commentators groused about the caprice of the judges, and complained whenever they “took too long” to produce a score. Mind you, I didn’t try very hard to understand what was going on (beyond the thrilling immediacy of the tumbling and so on), partly because I knew that I was an outsider, someone who didn’t follow gymnastics; it is important, in sports commentary, to reward the devotés by excluding the uncommitted. I also knew that I was watching a patchwork of videos stitched together by NBC for the entertainment of American audiences within the space of an hour or two. Making sense was not an objective. The only way to endure the production was to uncouple my mind and pretend that the commentators were sources of useful information.

Am I trying to say that my experience of the Olympic Games this week has reinforced my sense that the depraved standards of television production made Donald Trump the Republican candidate? You betcha. When uncoupling the mind becomes routine, a catastrophe like Trump is inevitable.


Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times was straightforward: the Republican establishment (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) continue to support Trump because he’ll lower taxes and make the rich richer. Set aside the unspectacular record that the Republic Party has racked up at actually realizing such fantasies. Assuming that Krugman is correct, the ability, if that’s what it is, of diehard Republicans to reduce all issues to their effect on taxes is simplistic beyond belief — and at the same time, a sad old story. At a revealing moment in Ocean’s 11, the “bad guy” is asked if he would give up his lady love if it would get him his money back, and he says, “Yes.” Money, money überall. You’d almost think you can eat it.

These Republicans live in a bubble, or at least expect that they’ll be able to move into one if need be. The movie for this vision is Elysium. The 0.1% have offshored themselves to a glistening space station, the ultimate in gated communities. The very air they breathe is better! They share nothing with the groundlings. They extract value from the earth, and then they take it away, so that it doesn’t provide the earthbound with so much as the passive benefit of a lofty building’s exterior. There is nothing new about this dream; you can see it at work in the Quest del Saint Graal (c 1210), depicting a world from which the common people and their stink have been erased. Or, later on: everybody knew that the French government was bankrupt in the late 1780s, but few of the untaxed noblemen who “worried” about this crisis seemed to think that fiscal problems would undermine their way of life and separate many of them from their heads. Elysium‘s paradise, by the way, doesn’t last, either.

Fossil tells me that the phalanx of Republicans with whom he works every day are virtuosos at seeing awful truths as “out of proportion.” This is how they handled Trump’s winks to the “Second Amendment People.” They shrugged off the obscenity as a misunderstanding. Or they appeared to do so. I suspect that it must be exhausting for a smart person (as all of Fossil’s Wall Street colleagues by definition are) to defend stupid propositions — exhausting enough to make a smart person stupid. I suppose we must be grateful. Imagine the horrors that Republicans might concoct were they capable of taking the long view.

I take that back: Republics have taken the long view, on at least one issue. They have always understood that populists and progressives and other Democratic types who want to feel good about their society tend not to understand the role played law courts in making a good society possible, and for the past fifty or sixty years they have waged a tireless campaign to fill state and federal benches with pro-business judges who are reliably anti-anyone else. These judges are not necessarily social conservatives, but their focus, as Paul Krugman’s column might lead you to expect, is to keep money in the right pockets.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (I)

Monday, August 1st, 2016

1, 2, 4, and 5 August

Monday 1st

For years, I have not read White Noise. It has been an ongoing thing, of which I was always aware: “I have not read White Noise.” I missed it when it came out — I was on a different wavelength in 1984. But I was sufficiently tuned in to hear the big noise that it made, and, eventually, I bought a copy of the original hardback, complete with dust jacket, at the Strand, for $2.95. But I did not read it. “Don DeLillo” sounded too much like a sports writer. Later, I would read Underworld, but I would hate it. Such bloat! And of course it did start out at a baseball game. But it taught me that White Noise must have been very good indeed, to create the kind of reputation that would mislead a writer into thinking that he could do anything. I gave my copy of Underworld away.

I was wondering if I’d given away White Noise as well when I found it on last week’s visit to the storage unit. (I’ve packed fourteen boxes of books to give away, and have an appointment with someone to come pick them up and haul them to Housing Works next week.) Yesterday, I sat down with it, and wound up reading almost all of it; I read the last forty-odd pages this morning. I was expecting a more difficult read. It might have been a difficult read thirty years ago, I suppose. Now it was easy. It was like a well-planned ride at an intellectual amusement park. It was also, obviously, the template for a wide range of novels, ranging from the work of Tom Perrotta to that of David Foster Wallace. Its structure seemed to have been the model for And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s first, and I think best, novel. Its relish for the absurdity of American life brought George Saunders so much to mind that, in one or two sleepy moments, I thought that White Noise was his. I was left wishing that I had read White Noise a long time ago, because then I should have been able to assay the frequent references to it. It has come to be regarded as a book that every literate American ought to read. A nasty little corner of me hoped to find out that this status was not deserved, that White Noise was a meretricious entertainment. But it is no such thing. It is a good book, and whether or not it is a great book, it has had an undeniably great impact.

The novel’s setting, in a fictional town overwatched by a small but eminent college (College-on-the-Hill), turns out to be a weird stroke of genius — weird because it’s not easy to say when the stroke actually struck. Now, in any case, it is impossible not to see Don DeLillo taking the place of his narrator, Jack Gladney, with a dozen or more future novelists sitting on the lawn surrounding a very famous creative writing program — somewhere in Iowa, maybe, or in upstate New York — while he instructs them, not how to run a Hitler Studies department, but how to open a novel with the delightfully shocking surprise of something like a Hitler Studies department. I can hear him noting that this arresting invention need not become a distraction in the foreground. “Hitler Studies” is a joke, and it knows its place. (Hitler qua joke — who’d ‘a’ thunk it?) I envision the future novelists taking furiously comprehensive notes. I can even smell the grass stains.

It was fun to read a cutting-edge critique of the usual suspects that nevertheless lacked the Internet. Typing out “Internet,” just now, I shuddered to think that it sounds like a word that DeLillo might have made up for White Noise; it has become a retrospective target of his satire. The novel’s ridicule of supermarket tabloids does a very good job of standing in for the nonsense of today. Jeanne Dixon — that’s who she was. I was trying to remember her name last night, chatting with Kathleen. Do you remember how the year always began — or maybe it always ended — with a list of Jeanne Dixon’s predictions? DeLillo rolls out a bundle of parodies; I love the one about Elvis because it describes Graceland as “his musical mansion.” But gold has to go to this one:

UFOs will raise the lost city of Atlantis from its watery grave in the Caribbean by telekinetic means and the help of powerful cables with properties not known in earthlike materials. The result will be a ‘city of peace’ where money and passports are totally unknown. (145)

Do tabloids still publish predictions? Where have all the psychics gone? Were they, too, victims of the Internet’s creative destruction? Atlantis has sunk beneath the horizon of the culture’s imagination. But the magnitude and worthlessness of random crap have not diminished. We have replaced glimpses of the future with the glare of present reality.

Nevertheless, if White Noise provides the template, it does not contain the contents. The novelists of the future, having become the novelists of now, have had to mine that from other sources. What distinguishes George Saunders, you might think, is his soaring imagination, which effortlessly surpasses DeLillo’s; but it is really his aching humanity that sets him apart. In Saunders, you laugh at the language, never at the characters: his characters are no joke. And when I think of a novel written in a very different tradition, to wit by Penelope Lively, White Noise hardens somewhat into an extremely elegant toy. Almost everything in it can be understood and criticized by Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s brilliant fourteen year-old son. (Just what kind of a joke was Hitler Studies?) Did part of DeLillo suspect that Heinrich would grow up, shed his callow rigor, and grow a heart?


Tuesday 2nd

In Sunday’s Times, N Gregory Mankiw published an “Upshot” entry about “trade skeptics.” Trade skeptics are voters who disagree with economists about globalization, free trade, job offshoring, and so forth. Economists like Mankiw want to know why. Mankiw cites a couple of recent studies, conducted by political scientists, not economists, linking trade skepticism to xenophobia and to lack of education — the usual suspects. These studies apparently rule out joblessness, or loss of jobs to globalizing trends, as factors leading to trade skepticism — according to Mankiw. I find it hard to believe that he is right.

I am in no position to run studies of my own, but then I’m pretty skeptical about studies, and polls, too. I believe that they are hopelessly tendentious, designed, whether consciously or not, to prove a point, not to discover one. I believe that they are skewed by their participants. And, in this case, I am haunted by the echoes of George Saunders’s recent New Yorker piece about Donald Trump’s supporters. Saunders reports a lot of conversations with ordinary people. (Disclosure: I chatted with Saunders once at a book signing. I trust him.) Many of these people offered an anecdote about a friend or a neighbor who had been laid off. Then, too, I’m haunted by what I’ve read about plant closings. The Philips plant in Sparta, Tennessee. The Carrier plant in Indianapolis. The plants in Warren, Ohio, that George Packer writes about in The Unwinding. A quick Google search turns up plenty of job-loss-related trade skepticism.

I suspect that the political scientists find no correlation between trade skepticism and job loss due to globalization because of disciplinary preconceptions. The political scientists query voters on political views. Knowing someone who has been laid off is not a political view. Nationalism is; isolationism is; even racism is. But worries about job security do not register as a political factor. They might well be excluded in advance, simply by the design of the study.

But even if the studies are nonsense, Mankiw is a serious economist, an adviser to President George W Bush and a professor at Harvard. His opinions appear regularly, and I imagine that he wields considerable influence in Republican circles. What this Sunday’s upshot piece says — and it actually does say it — is that, with the expansion of higher education, fewer voters will be trade skeptics. Trade skepticism may be a political problem now, but it will go away when more people go to college.

Is that because college-educated people think clearly enough to agree with economists on the benefits of free trade, or is it because, until recently, college-educated people have been far less vulnerable to job loss attributable to free trade?

I am not opposed to free trade on principle. I’m opposed to the mainstream view of free trade because it nurtures unrealistic expectations of education — both higher education and re-education or re-training. First, we have probably reached the point at which those who are capable of pursuing a college education are doing so. Second, there is little evidence that re-training workers leads to a restoration of their status quo ante. They may get jobs, but the jobs are unlikely to be as good (in any sense) as the ones that were lost. Advocates of free trade never proceed beyond breezy statements of their nostrums. They never point to studies showing that displaced workers have fully recovered. They don’t seem to regard as the sense of job security as a factor.

Gregory Mankiw’s opinion is that uneducated voters are bigoted — and bigotry, as we all know, is a kind of stupidity. If the United States withdraws from the globalist carnival, it will be down to stupid, uneducated Americans. End of discussion.

I hope that more educated people will disagree. I hope that more educated people will become “studies skeptics.” Most of all, I hope that educated people will learn to treat those who aren’t as human beings like themselves.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday night, we went to a Mostly Mozart concert at Geffen Hall. On the program were Haydn’s 59th Symphony, Fire, which I didn’t know, and two works by Mozart, the 25th Piano Concerto and the 40th symphony. Thierry Fischer, conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, stood in for the ailing Andrés Orozco-Estrada. I’m not familiar with Mr Orozco-Estrada, whose somewhat hoopla’d début this was to be, so I was free to take what Mr Fischer had to offer without the burden of comparisons. In the event, I’m not sure that comparisons would have occurred to me. Fischer had an entirely new approach to everything. Even the unknown-to-me Haydn sounded unusual. Just now, I found a recording in my library, led by Trevor Pinnock, and it sounds exactly like what I’d have expected, and nothing at all like what I heard on Tuesday.

First, Fischer displayed a penchant for sforzando piano, a trick of following a suddenly emphasized sound by an equally sudden withdrawal. In practice, this worked to prevent the suggestion of shrillness that can accompany Mozart’s dramatic outbursts, replacing mere agitation with polished insistence. Second, Fischer was willing to alter tempos for expressive purposes. This is a commonplace for the big Romantic orchestral works, and its application to something as early as the Fire Symphony (1768) might be regarded as anachronistic — but perhaps not, given that this symphony is one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang experiments. Ten or fifteen seconds into the first movement, the texture of the music undergoes a bizarre change, passing from a clackety, almost late-Baroque tonic simplicity to a mysteriously chromatic iridescence. In a blink, the orchestra appeared to be playing a different piece of music. This was very startling, and almost irritating, the first time, but as the gesture was repeated its experimental urgency seemed better-controlled — by Haydn, I mean, as well as by the musicians. It’s a shock that you’re supposed to get used to — and Haydn’s symphonies are full of such. There’s another shock, in the slow movement of the Fire I think it was, when the languid strings are interrupted by a bizarre blast from one of the horns. That didn’t make sense, but I’m not sure that it was a mistake.

The third characteristic of the evening’s performance was a plush lambency, a melting clarity, that muted all abruptness. This must have at least in part owed to the orchestra’s skill as an ensemble, but Fischer depended on it. The two Mozart works, which are of course enormously familiar, sounded altogether new and different, the Symphony especially. “Melting clarity” sounds like a muddle, I know, but what I mean is a way of going from here to there that is at the same time both perfectly lucid and perfectly suave. And I suppose that what I’m trying to get at by “plush lambency” is the physical, organic nature of the sound. Nothing could have been less mechanical, or less “precise.” Fischer’s final trick was a knack for distant thunder. I heard it all evening, but I can’t explain it. It was as though Fischer had exported all the excitement to an offstage band. Some may prefer the violence of a storm overhead to the menace of distant thunder, but, at least outside the opera house, I do not.

The pianist, Martin Helmchen, suited Mr Fischer’s style down to the ground. A delicate presence at the piano, he was almost a dandy of exquisite nonchalance. I have found that it is very difficult for pianists to put their personal stamp on Mozart’s late concertos. Today’s piano did not exist when Mozart was writing. In particular, Mozart’s pianos lacked the burly lower registers that Beethoven would be the first to enjoy. It’s for this reason, I think, that the concertos are always a little more interesting when recorded. Mozart’s brilliant runs, moreover, are so demanding that merely to get through them coherently is an achievement. In the end, pianists are either headlong or elegant. I am mad about the exuberance of Daniel Barenboim’s recordings of the concertos, but I can delight in elegance when it shows reserves of power. That’s what Mr Helmchen and Mr Fischer did on Tuesday. Helmchen also played a cadenza to the first movement that I’d like to hear again.

As to the G-Minor Symphony, I can say simply that the first three movements were so unlike anything that I had ever heard before that the finale was almost boring in its regularity. From the beginning, the blend of strings and winds was amazing (a word that you’re not supposed to use when writing about this sort of thing). The strings produced a warm and enveloping sound that provided a luxurious mounting for the colorful gems spun by the clarinets, the bassoons, the flute, the horns, and, more quietly, the oboes. Tempos were brisk, which allowed Fischer to make a statement just by leading the trio of the minuet at a slower pace. (I had never noticed that Mozart keeps the clarinets out of the trio. It took the sight of the two musicians rather ostentatiously cleaning their instruments, finishing just in time, to bring home the point.) Altogether the magnificence of the performance was enhanced, rather than the reverse, by the rigor with which Fischer took all the repeats.

Through all of this, there was the performance of the man sitting in front of me.

Later, recovering from her nightmare, Kathleen said that the familiarity of the music helped get her through the fear that we were about to be blown to kingdom come by a terrorist bomb. This was no idle dread. The man sitting in front of me was an odd bird to see at a Mostly Mozart concert. Somewhat ferret-faced, with thinning but almost lacquered waves of fine black hair running back from his temples and a goatee of stubble, he was a medium-sized man of very firm build. Fifty at least, he might have been an exceptional athlete of some kind. He might have been a coach, too, but his manner made this seem unlikely. He could not sit still. For some reason, Kathleen noticed this more than I did. He swept sweat from his brow, his arms were alway in motion, and if he wasn’t peering up at the balconies, as if to make contact with an accomplice, he was peering restlessly into his large red Century 21 shopping bag. What I noticed was his attire. He wore dark crocs, black pants, and, most dissonantly, a black V-necked T shirt that had reinforced seams at the shoulder. It’s the sort of shirt that is usually sleeveless. This one, thank heavens, wasn’t. But although the items of clothes might seem similar, the man sitting in front of me could not have been less like the sloppy, gangly kid in a white T, jeans, and trainers who sat not far away. The man in front of me carried himself, agitation notwithstanding, as if he were wearing a suit — suitable attire. He was unaware that he wasn’t.

When I returned from having slipped away at the interval, I found Kathleen on her feet, which was odd, since she is usually placidly reading or just staring into space. The man was not there, but his bag was, and it was scaring Kathleen to death. What to do? We mentioned our concern to three ladies who were chatting in the row behind us; they looked nervous for a moment before relapsing into their conversation. I, too, should have regarded the bag with very mild concern had I been alone. But Kathleen was channeling Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. I knew that, if we said something to one of the ushers, we might risk bringing the concert to a premature end, and perhaps creating a dangerous furore. And although I was quite aware that the bag owner’s entire demeanor bordered on the inappropriate, I remembered that we were, after all, in New York City. Nevertheless, I had caught Kathleen’s discomfort, and could hardly bear standing near the bag. My compromise was to lead Kathleen to the rear of the auditorium. “But now no one’s watching our bags,” Kathleen complained. I pointed out that we could keep an eye on them from where we stood. When the man returned, we followed him down to the aisle back to our seats.

Later, I told Kathleen that she ought to have asked to leave the concert then and there. I’d have missed a great and very interesting performance, but then I shouldn’t have known it. And it was only music, only a symphony that I’ve heard possibly too many times. She did ask to leave the moment it was over. I hate walking out on ovations, but I didn’t think twice, given Kathleen’s wretchedness. As we scooted across the lobby, Kathleen said that she was glad after all that we hadn’t “done anything” (complained to the management); I said that the man clearly didn’t belong at the concert. At that very moment, the man who clearly didn’t belong at the concert walked right past me, reaching the escalator first. It would have been nicer not to know that he was standing ten steps behind us than to see that he was ten steps ahead. On the way out, he paused unaccountably at a turn in the traffic, and we very nearly did the same. Then he headed out into the night. It was we who struck out the different course, crossing the plaza to the State Theatre side, from which we stepped down to the crosswalk at 63rd Street. At our post-concert dinner at PJ Clarke’s, Kathleen had two glasses of Cabernet.

Really, what do you do in this day and age? It’s difficult to describe the situation, because everything depends on one’s own physical response to another person’s physical presence. Kathleen is a good judge of people, and she has spent more of her life in New York than I have. But her experience has been battered by the phenomenon of support for Donald Trump. It is inexplicable to her. I try to explain it — it is anything but inexplicable to me — but my explanations don’t take root; she always reverts to an understanding of the world in which people who say the things that Trump says in public are shunned. That Trump is saying these things not only in public but as a candidate for the presidency is simply intolerable. Then there is the understandable worry that what has happened in Paris and Brussels and elsewhere is going to happen here.

When I came into Geffen Hall, someone poked a flashlight into my tote bag but didn’t dig into it. Someone else ran a wand up and down with an apologetic air. These interferences inspire no confidence whatever. I do not believe that the civil state and the security state can co-exist, which is why I believe that dangerous materials ought to be, as they used to be, far more difficult to acquire. Opposition to gun-control is framed as the right to bear arms, but of course it is fueled by the desire to sell arms. As for bombs, I often wonder if the “household materials” that are said to be all that one needs to wreak mayhem might be adulterated in some way so as to make combustion impossible. Behind all of this is the far more important task of recognizing troubled minds before they sink into criminality. This is a social concern, a local matter, the requires closer connections among neighbors. To some extent, every town has to be a small one. The decision to intervene in a stranger’s life ought to be a civil, social one, not the response of security professionals. Let them deal with the guns and the bombs. The shooters themselves are out problem. We must learn to accept that.

I said to Kathleen that if she had really known the music, she would have been furious with Thierry Fischer for taking all those repeats.


Friday 5th

Bear in mind that Tuesday evening’s bomb scare found me more susceptible than usual because I had just seen, and then read, My House in Umbria. The novella is by William Trevor; I had not read it before. The film, directed by Richard Loncraine (for HBO), is an old favorite. Maggie Smith plays a woman with a past, now going under the name of Emily Delahunty. The film promises to be a breezy light comedy on the order of Under the Tuscan Sun, but within five minutes its subject becomes survivorship. Mrs Delahunty (never married) is one of four survivors of a terrorist blast on a train. She and the three others retire to her ample farmhouse in the country, not far from Siena. How she came to acquire this villa and what she does with it make one strand of the story; the other concerns the uncle of the little girl whose brother and parents perished in the explosion. He is played by Chris Cooper, an actor who consistently holds my attention even though I find him almost painful to look at.

The film has a happy ending that I knew better that to expect in the novella. Otherwise, the two are very close, with great swathes of dialogue lifted verbatim from one to the other. The screenwriters tweaked a few details, but by and large the movie is one of the more faithful adaptations — but for the ending, of course, which only the conning magic of cinema could make convincing. The book, however, is richer, as books usually are. Much richer, given the author. Mrs Delahunty is an unreliable narrator, of course. She is also the author of romance fictions. And she has prophetic dreams — doesn’t she? In the book, the subject of a paragraph can shift from one of these things to another without any notice, and the result, given a soft and light texture, is the portrait of a life all of a piece. Of a life that was all of a piece, before the event. Or, rather, before the aftermath of the event, the four survivors gathered in the house, almost a family, the closest that Mrs Delahunty has ever come to belonging to one, dissipates.

The movie has a feel-good air that, until the most recent viewing, muffled the focus a little bit and made it hard to see — made me want not to see — just how drunk Mrs Delahunty often is. Maggie Smith is ruthless about this; when I finally saw it, I wanted to look away. Mrs Delahunty believes that if she can find the right pitch, she will capture the uncle’s attention; she seems incapable of recognizing that he views her with a distaste that turns into disgust the harder she tries. It is embarrassing. On a sort of meta level, the uncle, Thomas Riversmith, is the kind of man who doesn’t want to watch this kind of movie. He doesn’t like soppy stories about survivors that involve dreams and astrology, and he couldn’t care less about sunny Italy. He wants to watch something else, anything else. When you see My House in Umbria through his eyes — through Riversmith’s piercing but hollow eyes — it becomes a much darker affair.

Why buy one Trevor when you can buy two? I ordered Fools of Fortune along with My House in Umbria. It is a novel about the Troubles in which the Republic of Ireland was born, and about an expulsion from paradise. As such things go, it is beautifully understated. Two young cousins fall in love but cannot say so; they don’t really wake up to the fact until they have been parted. When they are brought together later for a funeral, the boy is almost deranged with shame and grief, so, again, there is not opportunity for more than a blind leap. The novel is presented in the form of the letters that the lovers cannot write. I don’t feel sure about why, but it seems as though they can’t settle for writing; they simply want to be together. And so they don’t write the letters that they promise themselves to write. With almost tragic grandeur, they decline to “stay in touch.” On the surface, there’s a good deal of fuss about how awkward situations could have been avoided if they had only stooped to making plans for the future, but as the fuss subsides it appears that plans were indeed made, if not jointly. Then the novel drifts off into uncertainty; what we’re told may be the ravings of the lovers’ deranged daughter.

A great deal of the middle pages of Fools of Fortune follows some boarding-school high jinks that might have made for one of Trevor’s lapidary stories. I don’t know how much its detachment from the novel would take away, besides mere length.


The writing project that I announced two weeks ago has been coming along more quickly than I anticipated. At the risk of seeming gross, I can say that I’ve piled up nearly 25,000 words, with the first drafts of two sections complete. Plans for four or five more sections, as well as the expectation that there will be no more than that, have taken shape.

It has been more than twenty years since my last attempts to write something with an end as well as a beginning. Three plays were completed; a strange novel with supernatural inclinations that I could never gratify was not. In one theatre producer’s opinion, the plays were saddled with bloated expositions; I took too long introducing characters and situations. It was mortifying to hear this, of course, but I saw that the producer was right. The light, however, had gone out, and I never undertook repairs. I meant to, but the Internet came along, and everything changed.

So I am shy about trying again. My project is neither a play nor a novel — I can say that much. Regular readers of this site would find much of what I’ve been writing familiar. Much of the joy of writing it has so far come from not worrying about repeating myself, because it doesn’t matter if I’ve already said something somewhere else (that would be here). Now, everything that I say has its place in a much larger context, a much longer piece of writing. When I first planned this project, several years ago, and even had a go at writing bits of it, the going was very hard, and I was not optimistic. I knew that I must try, but it was hard to muster enthusiasm. I did not wait for enthusiasm; I took to writing longer entries here. That required a lot of thinking, and sometime near the beginning of this calendar year, the thinking and the writing began to chug along in synchronization. Knowing what you think is also knowing how you want to say it — that’s how you know.

I follow advice that I remember reading in Jane Smiley’s book about novels. Every day, you pick up where you left off, and write your daily allotment of words or pages. It is important to settle on an allotment. I used to fear that I might just write to fill pages, stuff that would have to be cut out later. With experience, however — and this is where the past year’s blog entries have been so helpful — you begin each day with a lively awareness of how far you are going to go. You might not know how much ground you’re going to cover, but that’s something different. You may have to go back and fill in. But — and this is the second prong of the advice — you don’t go back. You may re-read a little, to check something out, but you do not try to re-write anything. If you notice, as I did yesterday, a point that ought to be opened up and filled in with material that you overlooked in the moment of writing, you make a note of it, but you carry on. It’s likely that the material that needs to be inserted didn’t flow because you need to think about it some more. Meanwhile, it’s important to proceed, to build the edifice of a complete first draft.

Sometimes I think that all of this is easier than it might be because I’m so old, because I’ve read so much and, here, written so much. Sometimes I worry that I’m in for a dreadful reckoning, for the discovery that I’m no more skilled at this than an undergraduate with literary aspirations. But I can say that I am almost perfectly untroubled by one worrying botheration: it never occurs to me to wonder if anybody would be interested in what I have to say. I’m interested.

When the first draft is complete, but not until then, I’ll start looking for readers. Now you know as much as I do.

Bon week-end à tous!