Archive for October, 2016

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (I)

Monday, October 31st, 2016

31 October; 1 and 4 November

Monday 31st

Adam Mars-Jones, I see, has been mentioned twice in this space, both times in 2015. Once was for his favorable review of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and earlier, for his unfavorable review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There’s an interesting complementarity here: the British reviewer likes the American novel, but not his own countryman’s. I happened to like Clegg’s novel quite a lot, but on the whole I reverse Mars-Jones’s preferences. When Mars-Jones quoted an extract from Philip Roth in a recent review of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, and insisted on the superiority of the former, I was so choked with irritation that I went out and bought Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, Mars-Jones’s memoir of his difficult dad.

Adam Mars-Jones writes frequently for the London Review of Books, and I almost always read his pieces. I almost always disagree with them, not so much with their judgments about particular books as with their implicit premises. We are not on the same page. We don’t agree about what’s important. Nevertheless I read him, because he writes very well, and so clearly about his obvious wrong-headedness that I am always stimulated. His tone suggests to me that he is happy to be writing from outside the cultural barbican, dressed in the motley of a caustic literary bohemian. Just say the word canon and he’ll shoot. In the memoir, he mentions that he has never got round to reading Daniel Martin or The Ambassadors. No problem! I cannot tell if the nearly seven years that separate us in age makes us contemporaries or not contemporaries, but I suppose that, from the standpoint of a thirtysomething, two men in their sixties are contemporaries.

You can learn a lot from articulate writers who think differently. Actually, I’m learning a lot from everything that I read these days; it’s as though Providence were supplying me with just the books that will help me to clarify the thinking behind the conclusion of my writing project. I’ve read that that happens: when you’re hot, everything is relevant. But from Mars-Jones, I learned something rather central: that I am pious, and always have been, about the experiment of civilization. “Piety” was the word that I had been looking for to describe the quality that I think makes me unusual. I’m no more pious in the traditional sense than anybody else these days; I have never respected my elders per se and I am not an obedient observer of the standards to which I was raised. Certainly not! But it would be wrong to say that I have done the usual thing and rebelled. Nor am I a straightforward reactionary. But before I was out of my teens, whether I knew it or not, I felt passionately protective about the fragile connections that allow us at our best to overcome rage and the itch to do violence.

This train of thought began when Mars-Jones mentioned, early in the book, his lack of interest in history. He claims that he can’t remember dates. I don’t want to read too much into what might have been intended as a light, perhaps self-mocking comment, but I find that when people associate history with dates they are saying that they have never heard history’s stories. When a history story has been well-told, the dates are as memorable as the names — they are names. Instead of “Liverpool,” the Titanic might just as well have had “1912” painted on its stern. In any case, dates are not the point of history; they’re just an excuse for people who believe that the past is dead baggage. (“The past” may be defined as time of which no one has a direct or indirect memory. Rosemary Hill, again in the LRB, has a memory of dancing with Steven Runciman, who in turn, as a child, danced with a lady who had danced with Prince Albert. “The past” has swallowed up the prince but not the lady.) It’s an axiom of my piety that people who regard the past as a pointless burden are also natural anarchists. Before I quite saw that I was pious, I understood that Adam Mars-Jones is impious, and probably wouldn’t mind my or anyone else’s saying so.

Another thing that I learned from Kid Gloves is that am deeply bigoted — about handedness. I had been sputtering through the book’s pages when the author mentioned in passing — I can’t find it — that he was left-handed. “There!” I said to myself. “That explains everything.” Even though I was talking to myself, I was shocked by what I had just said. I was shocked to note that I hadn’t really been joking. I hadn’t been joking to the extent that I really did — really do, it seems — believe that it was better to be right-handed than not. And it was obvious as well that this belief was a bit of unexamined bigotry.

There are studies showing that left-handed people have shorter life spans, aren’t there? But forget that, along with all the quotidian difficulties; there is nothing practical about my prejudice. Even thought I’ve never given the matter much “thought,” I clearly recall feeling relief when it became clear that neither my daughter nor my grandson was of the sinister persuasion. That’s what makes it bigotry: my preference was unconsidered. It’s not that I think that there’s anything wrong about being left-handed. It’s just that being right-handed is, well, right.

Oh, dear. Kid Gloves was just like Mars-Jones’s LRB pieces in that it was easy to follow but hard to understand. There are no chapters, and the narrative line is often obscure; this is a book of tangents. Once it occurred to me that Tristram Shandy might have been a model, I felt less impatient. Despite not finding Mars-Jones particularly simpatico, I was always, always on his side whenever life with father was contentious. I was repelled by Sir William. If nothing else, he seemed to be a prime instance of the weakness of the English legal system for translating successful barristers — partisan advocates — into positions of impartial magistracy, where, by the way, they make less money. I thought he had no business being on the bench. A good deal of the story’s point owes to accidents of time, to different generational experiences to which Sir William was probably more responsive for being a self-made man.

Certainly it was this self-made quality that explains the man’s ardent homophobia, which Mars-Jones presents in lush detail. And yet, how ardent could it have been? In the wake of the “sexuality summit” in which the son came out to his father, there was no rage, no banishment, no disinheritance. There was instead the beginning of an attempt to accept, sour and insincere at first, and never entirely satisfactory — Sir William could never manage to remember the name of Mars-Jones’s partner — but genuine enough in the end. At the same time, I wondered if his story was best told by his son, a man with a constitution almost alien to Sir William’s.


Tuesday 1st

It’s a commonplace that the United States’s body politic is polarized. But I wonder. If only white men voted, Donald Trump would carry every state, or so they say. If only people of color voted, Hillary Clinton would do the same. Women and voters with college educations are divided, but I suspect that polarized is not the word for them. It’s white men against non-white people, a very old American story, with the modern twist that the non-white people get to vote. White men have landed in a peculiar situation. They have been unable to propose a truly presentable candidate — a Dwight Eisenhower, say. Somehow, they have wound up backing a clown. Does this say something about white men? It would be pretty to think so. But I think it’s the result of blown fuses, brains shut down by the prospect of a woman installed in the White House by non-white voters. Nothing in the care, feeding, or training of white men has prepared them for that. Is it their fault that the United States so glaringly lacks true military heroes? Officer class, I mean. Maybe white men ought to get better at winning wars. That’s what they say they’re good at.

I’m a white man, and like many people who are going to vote for Donald Trump — that came out wrong. I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. But I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton mostly because I’m thinking about the Supreme Court. That has become a habit over the years. I’m beginning to question it, though. The scandal of Barack Obama’s inability to replace Antonin Scalia is arguably the most disturbing sign of constitutional breakdown since the Alien & Sedition Act. What if Hillary fares no better? And what if she succeeds at tilting the Court to the left? What happens when gerrymandered congressional districts are declared unconstitutional and half the House (at least) is sent packing? An undesirable scenario, however mouthwatering.

Without that gerrymandering, however, it just might happen that white men would not carry every state for Trump. The real polarization is among white men.

This just in: According to a reliable source (Andy Borowitz), Elizabeth Windsor (not Edith) has launched a write-in campaign.


Friday 4th

My mother, who died thirty-nine, nearly forty years ago, would have been ninety-eight today. For a moment, I made a plan to call my daughter, to wish her a happy birthday. But my daughter’s birthday falls next Friday, not this one. My mother was born on False Armistice Day — the end of the fighting in World War I was announced, but the announcement was premature. My daughter was born on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the actual Armistice, which occurred a week later.

It was only recently, certainly not earlier than reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers a few years ago, that I woke up to what Armistice really meant. It meant, at least on 11 November 1918, that nobody won the war, and that nobody lost it. The two sides simply agreed to stop fighting. How this neutral-sounding situation led to a conference in which self-styled “victorious allies” refused a seat at the table to the Germans seems no less worthy of attention than the “July Crisis,” the shambolic and cavalier shuffle of military and diplomatic cloak and dagger that resulted in something even more appalling than the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. The peace treaties that emerged in the wake of the Great War were punitive and wrong-headed; some of its terrible consequences were dealt with in the next war, while others (in the Middle East particularly) remain to be rectified.

The allies — represented by Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau — believed that an invincible tide of progressive thinking would support the peace that they imposed on the defeated powers, two of which had obliged by collapsing from within. The egregiously harsh terms in which they dealt with the third, Turkey, were so unrealistic that a wave of optimistic Greek colonists, settling in territories made available to them by the treaty, was quite quickly repulsed, with great loss of life. We can now clearly see how many conflicts engendered by Versailles and its satellite treaties were preserved in states of suspended animation during the Cold War, only to take on new life once Russia discarded the cause of International Communism. The war in Syria is both a consequence of the treaties and a Cold-War leftover.

In writing the foregoing, I checked only one reference: I couldn’t remember Clemenceau’s first name, although it came to me before the Wikipedia page opened. I don’t think that I’ve said anything novel or penetrating; I was just calling for a nice, chewy book, to balance Clark’s, on the immediate aftermath of the War. If you, my dear reader, happen not to be sufficiently conversant with the Great War, its origins and its aftermath to write such paragraphs off the top of your head, then I should still suppose that nothing that I’ve written surprises you; I should like to think that it has refreshed your memory. But while I am writing and you are reading, there is another body politic out there.

Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.

This is Caleb Crain writing in The New Yorker. I think that we can set aside any idea that these ignorant Americans are stupid, somehow incapable of grasping basic facts. It would seem, rather, that there is no downside to their ignorance, no penalty. The reward for knowledge is always the knowledge itself, obviously, but, to be honest, it takes a lot of learning to appreciate the reward. And if ignorance is a bad thing, it does not seem to hurt the ignorant, not in any way that they are likely to understand. Ignorance always, always rests on the assumption that somebody else will figure things out, which is tantamount to an assumption that somebody else is in charge.

As many critics of our particular democratic arrangements have complained, too much emphasis is placed on voting, and on the campaigns that precede them. Every so often, the man in the street is invited to cast his vote by an angelic choir that urges him to give the matter some thought. It’s hard to believe that anyone in media-saturated America can ever, for five minutes, be unaware of the national political scene, but the quality of general awareness may be difficult for educated observers to assess. How well voters understand the consequences of voting is also obscure. I should expect that most Americans would agree that voting for president is “more important” than voting for American Idol, but what would we find if we unpacked that greater importance?

Some would say that we need smarter voters. Some would say that we need fewer voters. This is the nub of arguments in favor of “epistocracy” — rule by the knowledgeable — that Crain was considering in his New Yorker review. I would say that we need more neighborly voters — voters who know what’s going on locally because their lives are directly impacted by it. And these good neighbors will need more than self-interest seasoned by good will. They will need to understand the long-term consequences of current decisions, at least as well as anyone can. There’s nothing like long-term consequences to dampen the drama.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Aeolian Harp
October 2016 (IV)

Monday, October 24th, 2016

24, 25, 27 and 28 October

Monday 24th

One of the closets in our bedroom is much more difficult to access than the other, so Kathleen switches her seasonal wardrobes twice a year. While she did that, I emptied a good deal of the linen closet. The linen closet, although it is not large — none of our closets is remotely “large” — was the largest space in the apartment that had gone more or less untouched since we settled in, a few months after the move downstairs, two years ago. In those settling-in days, the priority was to get things out of sight. Aside from the portion of one shelf that held bath towels, very little had been touched. My excavation revealed a number of things that Kathleen had been looking for, as well as a few things that we really don’t need.

My objective, aside from the general purpose of renewing acquaintance with our stuff, was to make a space for light bulbs. I like to have a few packages of light bulbs on hand — I bought four packs of four the other day — because so many seem to go out more or less at the same time. I’ve been storing light bulbs in a very precarious way on the shelf in the coat closet, where we keep board games and two trunk-like boxes of cables and such. (I ought to throw most of it away.) There is really not enough room for light bulbs on that shelf. The risk of light bulbs falling on the floor when the coat closet is opened has been great. Breakage has been avoided, thanks to stout packaging and a carpet from Central Asia, but the unsatisfactory nature of the arrangement has been clear from the start. Now the light bulbs are in the linen closet, and very easy to reach. Also, the bedlinens are in the linen closet as well — where they belong. Sheets and pillowcases have so far been stored in one of Kathleen’s dressers, another unsatisfactory arrangement. My bath towels have been moved to my bathroom.

To make the wardrobe switch easier, Kathleen used a folding clothes rack that we keep in the closet that we call “the attic.” Now that she is through with it, I am going to roll it into the book room. All of my clothes are in the quite-small book-room closet. I am missing a pair of shorts that I hoped would turn up when Kathleen shuffled her closets. No joy. Perhaps it will turn out to have been in my closet all along.

To make the reorganization of the linen closet easier, I brought out the folding card table that we also keep in the attic. Now that it is more or less bare, I plan to cover it with all the stacks of books in the book room. I shall also drag out the many tote bags that have accumulated here, because it is the dumping point of least resistance. I really have no idea what I’m going to do with the books and the bags, but then, I never do have any idea before I undertake projects of this kind. It is only when the room has been cleared, and the stuff has been piled in a heap somewhere else, that I begin to have ideas. I’ll keep you posted.


Is there a Shirley Jackson kick in my future? You will have come across one or two reviews of Ruth Franklin’s new biography. It sounds intriguing, but I don’t see the point in biographies of writers whom I haven’t read. Of course I’ve read “The Lottery,  but that’s just one short story. Now I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, too. What intrigues me about Jackson is her problematic domestic life. What with four children, a huge house, and a determinedly errant husband, she seems to have risked the doormat’s career. In fact, she was the family’s bigger breadwinner — which makes her even more intriguing. She wrote about housekeeping, from a humorous angle that I find somewhat broad. I began my exploration with a piece (in the collection Let Me Tell You) about rival serving forks (one with two prongs, one with four), and how difficult they made Jackson’s life (sez she) whenever she used one to do the other’s job. My own take on high-jinks in the kitchen is that I myself provide all the anthropomorphism that ridiculous situations require.

Last week, for example, I was bellyaching about having a friend to dinner on Saturday night. This particular friend is used to good food, so I wore myself out by wishing that I didn’t have to “make a production” and tying myself up in knots. In fact, I wasn’t feeling well for most of the week, so the shopping got postponed until Friday, giving it a desperate finish, and my thoughts of baking a cake were trashed by the proximity to Whole Foods of a branch of Eric Kayser’s pastry empire. I was thinking of roasting a piece of pork. Julia Child, in The Way to Cook, wrote of a four-pound roast, but there was nothing on offer at Whole Foods larger than loin cuts weighing just over a pound. Which turned out to be perfect: I used Mrs Child’s “spice marinade” to coat the meat overnight, but followed the cooking instructions in The Joy of Cooking (Guarnaschelli edition), which included the suggestion of something called Buttered Cider Sauce. Sooner or later, everyone who eats in this house is going to be served Roast Pork Loin with Buttered Cider Sauce. Not only is it delicious, but it fits very well with the host’s reasonable desire to have a drink with his guests instead of fussing in the kitchen. When the roast comes out of the oven, having cooked at 250º for nearly an hour, emerging tender and juicy and almost buttery itself, it has to rest under a piece of foil for fifteen minutes. This is the signal to serve the soup (curried butternut squash purée). When the soup plates have been cleared, it’s time for the pork. I was mortified to recall all the complaining. I waste so much time feeling sorry for myself about nothing.

My problem with ghost stories is that they are never really frightening. The Haunting of Hill House is frightening for other reasons. A woman who has spent her life taking care of an ailing, disagreeable mother finds relaxation if not rest in a huge ugly house with doors that open and close on their own, not to mention loud noises, laughter and screams. Eleanor Vance has always wanted to have an adventure, and Hill House obliges. When she is sent away from Hill House for her own good, she resists. She has come to believe that Hill House wants her. The fact that she wants Hill House tells you a lot about her life so far. I found the novel to be not only well-written but discreet. We are not left to wonder if the abnormal phenomena that disturb Eleanor (but not too much) are taking place entirely in her head; we know that her companions experience some of them, too. But it is Eleanor’s responses that are interesting, not the raps or the chalk-marks.

I am aware of two filmed adaptations of the novel, both called simply The Haunting, but before I get to them I want to mention a little episodic frolic that Jackson indulges that was cut from both movies. This involves the professor’s wife, Mrs Markway. Mrs Markway barges in on the proceedings — her husband is conducting an experiment designed to establish the reality of hauntings — with her planchette and an obnoxious headmaster who also serves as her driver. They are both detestable in the irresistible manner of Ivy Compton-Burnett. You could argue that they are the horror.

The wife actually does show up in the earlier of the two movies, but aside from being the wife she is not the same person at all. This Haunting, which came out in 1963, stars Julie Harris as Eleanor. Directed by Robert Wise, to a screenplay by Nelson Gidding, the movie has the production values of a first-class television show; in other words, it looks and sounds like Psycho. The house is vast and ugly and the rooms inside are overfurnished with depressing Victorian sculptures that leer at the camera. Claire Bloom plays Theo, the free-spirited young woman who is Eleanor’s not unsympathetic foil, while Russ Tamblyn plays the house-owner’s nephew, and Richard Johnson, an extraordinarily telegenic British television actor whom I have managed to miss — he died only last year — is Dr Markway. The adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, with the exception of Mrs Markway’s role that I’ve mentioned. Julie Harris will strike many viewers as the perfect Eleanor — a mouse powered by neurosis. But she simply made me doubt that Jackson’s story can be rendered in film at all. The movie helplessly makes an object of the novel’s subject (Eleanor), which disrupts its quiet but sympathetic intimacy.

The second Haunting came out in 1999. I remember thinking that it was a terrible picture at the time. Watching it again, I was more inclined to regard it as a train wreck — entertainingly awful. It is the fourth of five movies directed by cinematographer Jan de Bont, the first two being Speed and Twister, two favorites of mine. The screenplay by David Self put me in mind of something once valuable that had been left outdoors in the wind and the rain and the changing seasons for several decades, and had not only lost its value but become unrecognizable. Self introduces a lot of his own inventions, which complicate the story to the point of incoherence. Lily Taylor is Eleanor this time, but although she looks radiant and adorable, her behavior is strange rather than haunting. To be sure, this is because Hill House has become a very different kind of operation, a nest of the troubled spirits of molested children presided over by a dead ogre. Catherine Zeta-Jones slips nicely into Claire Bloom’s part, considering. Liam Neeson is the doctor, and we are a long way from his action-movie achievements. Owen Wilson is so annoying in the Russ Tamblyn role that it’s a relief to see the end of him (not in the novel). There is no Mrs Markway at all, and although Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes show up as Mr and Mrs Dudley, their lines are too denatured to register.

My advice is to resist both movies until you’ve completely forgotten the novel. Watch them then and then see how much better Shirley Jackson pulls it off.


Tuesday 25th

It is very quiet in the apartment today. It is even more quiet than that, because I have just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the silence in which the two women sit by the front door at the end, spying on trespassers, haunts the very air. I feel a weird, and I trust momentary, kinship with the Blackwood sisters. Just as Constance could have answered her cousin Charles’s importuning whine, so, with the flick of a switch, I could open the door to the lying evil world of television.

Yes, I know it sounds a little cracked; perhaps more than a little. Reading the Times this morning, I realized where the commentators’ obnoxious use of “bigly” comes from. (Trump apparently pronounces “big league” in an odd way, and uses it in peculiar syntactic contexts, so people mishear him.) Although Donald Trump has been a public figure for more than thirty years, I have heard very little of his voice, because I’ve avoided the television and radio shows on which he might appear. I’ve read about the Letterman show in which the foreign manufacture of his branded tat was laughed in his face, but I’m not sorry I missed it. You can laugh at him all you like, but he’s still there in his awfulness. “‘The least Charles could have done,’ Constance said, considering seriously, ‘was shoot himself through the head in the driveway’.” That’s all that I ever want to hear about Trump.

What few people understand — because television is simply a part of everybody’s everyday life — is that Donald Trump exists only in the airwaves. It is true that he shows up at rallies and puts his supporters into frenzies of hatred. But that’s not him up there. That’s “Donald Trump the billionaire,” a cartoon character. Just as it is William Shatner, and not Captain Kirk, who makes appearances at Star Trek events (if indeed he ever does such a thing), so Donald Trump impersonates “Donald Trump.” It is often remarked that Trump has no real friends, just an entourage of family and employees. A true Thespian, he lives only to be on stage, or in front of the cameras and the microphones. I’m saying all of this because you can just turn him off.

Well, it has perhaps gotten a little late for that. Bear in mind, though, that, once upon a time, your turning off the set, instead of watching him, might have made a difference. If nobody watched him, he would be nothing. That is true of any TV show. Donald Trump has always had an audience, because he is good at doing what TV viewers want to see. The pundits were the last to understand that his political viability followed the body-snatching consumption of politics by entertainment, a process that has been going on ever since Johnson defeated Goldwater with “Daisy” — if not, even earlier, from Richard Nixon’s ghoulish appearance in the 1960 debates with JFK. Trump did not introduce some “new low.” He simply demonstrated that the wall separating the serious from the frivolous that the venerable broadcasters of the old days had flattered themselves into counting on has been vaporized, brick by brick.

In a dream last night, someone urged me to set my scruples about television aside and join the audience for an important presentation. I replied that my resistance was greater than ever. I suspect that this was inspired by the scene, early in Shirley Jackson’s novel, in which Constance is cajoled by Helen Clarke into returning to normal social life. But the resistance was all mine.


Thursday 27th

Reading The New Yorker at lunch today, I thought about the mistake of misusing language for hopeful purposes. There was Joan Acocella’s review of a new book about Esperanto, the language invented in the 1880s by Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jew from Bialystok who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish. Esperanto was, as its name implies, designed to bring all people together in a common language that would end the post-Babel curse of “the other.” The wild naïveté of this idea would have struck anyone not born in the nineteenth-century era of wishful thinking. Zamenhof ought to have understood from the mere fact that four languages were spoken in his native city that people have no inclination to speak a common language. The author of Genesis got it wrong, too.

Acocella points out that English has taken the place that Zamenhof hoped would be occupied by his confection. Well, maybe. Actually, I think, not. English as it is spoken by educated Britons is almost as rare as Cicero’s Latin was in Caesar’s Rome. English as spoken by Americans is a form of German that uses English words, and a very platt German it is, too. Elsewhere, English words are appropriated to local creoles. “Okay” is about the only word that is understood everywhere. My hunch is that even if, tomorrow morning, everyone were gifted with the ability to speak English as well as Adam Gopnik does, it would not take two generations for mutual incomprehension to start creeping in. We read about dying languages, and imagine that languages have never died before. I worry all the time that the language that I speak and write in is going to disappear within a century, even if it is called “English.”

More seriously, I thought about “political correctness,” a matter that has been bothering me for some time. It came up in Andrew Marantz’s report on the doings of Mike Cernovich, the author of a blog called Danger and Play and a force to be reckoned with on Twitter. Cernovich came across as a complicated person whose only focus is his hatred of Hillary Clinton and the kind of “basic bitch” that she represents. (His misogyny strikes me as incoherent.) Cernovich also believes that “political correctness [has] prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.”

Political correctness, at least as I understand it, is an offshoot of what was called “consciousness raising” in the Seventies. Perhaps it would be better to think of political correctness as the calcified aftermath of consciousness raising. The idea behind consciousness raising was to change the way people thought about men and women, with a view to replacing patriarchal ideas about male superiority with a rough parity that would permit women to pursue their own self-realization without interference. The technique was applied to other frontiers of social progress, with the notorious result that it became socially unacceptable in polite circles to use what is now called “the ‘n’ word” under any circumstances, even with distancing jocularity. Political correctness was always haunted by the Holocaust; it was intended to set a firm barrier against the first step on lethally slippery slopes. Meanwhile, numerous college sports teams were urged to replace Native American mascots.

Personally, I’m in accord with the objectives of political correctness, but I dislike the “political” angle. The term itself, originating in conservative bastions beleaguered by liberal critiques, is justly sardonic: what can be the moral value of correct behavior that is politically enforced? Consciousness raising works only if you are willing to reconsider the world. Being told to replace words that offend other people with acceptable alternatives raises cynicism, not consciousness.

Inevitably, political correctness is going to produce ghastly usages on the order of “cuck.” Cuck is the first syllable of a nearly obsolete label for a husband whose wife is sexually unfaithful; it happens to rhyme with both the vulgar term for fornication and a common expression of outrage. It is the sort of thing that eight year-olds come up with, but no one seems to be in a position to tell grown men to refrain from sounding like eight year-olds — or to testify to the cognitive dissonance of hearing “dude” from the lips of any male who is neither fourteen nor saddled with acne.

The truly regrettable thing about political correctness is that it deludes good-hearted people into assuming that social problems have been solved. We can thank Donald Trump’s campaign, coinciding as it did with a higher incidence of the reported shootings of black men by white policemen, for putting an end to the notion that racial tension in the United States is a thing of the past. I myself intend to drop political correctness in future, insofar as it might have barred me from calling an enthusiast of “law and order” a plain racist.


The writing project has languished for over a month, but I think that I have found a way to begin what will be the final section, the need for which become more and more apparent as I worked on the seven that precede it. I’ll begin by talking about the need for a new Enlightenment — although I mean something very special by that, something whose spirit will run quite counter to the drift of progressive eighteenth-century thought. What I want to talk here, however, is wigs.

As a young man, Louis XIV had a beautiful head of hair, naturally curly and almost black. And he was young at a time when the fashion was for men to let their hair grow. Louis’s was very long. Then it began to thin at the top. I don’t know how long it took for him to cover his head entirely with a wig, but I expect that it started slowly, as these things do — think “comb-over.” Louis being king and all, his courtiers began to wear wigs as well. By the time he died, in 1715, polite men throughout Europe wore wigs in public. They kept their own hair very short, and worse little caps, something between a beret and a turban, at home.

No longer checked by the varieties of human limitations, men’s hair styles went through some exaggerated but highly uniform cycles. Overall, wigs got smaller as the century progressed, before finally disappearing in the quarter-century after the fall of the Bastille. But they started out massively, and could not really have gotten any larger. Military officers and sportsmen took to tying the ends off with a bow, and curls coalesced into ranks of two or three waves on each side of the head. (Needless to say, wigs could be very expensive, and caring for them was labor-intensive.) Whether you find the eighteenth-century look attractive or not, you have to remember that it made it very easy to conform with the style of the day, no matter what kind of hair you were born with. Because the wig was entirely artificial, nobody’s coiffure was more fake than anybody else’s. Youthfulness ceased to be an unfair advantage. Everyone could be exactly as presentable as his pocketbook allowed.

There is much to be said against wigs comfort-wise, however, and it’s no surprise that the experiment was abandoned. I believe, however, that it bequeathed a harmful legacy: for a long time, all that you had to do to look civilized was to shave your beard and don a wig. Instant conformity! The appeal of this easy transformation encouraged, surreptitiously, an idea of human perfectability that was altogether new, at least since Christianity firmly imposed the very opposite notion more than a millennium earlier.

The men of the Enlightenment were interested in new ideas, but they were even more interested in clearing away old ones. They sensed that the régime was doomed to become ancien, and in a sense they picked through the ruins in advance, deciding what to hold on to and what to get rid of. (Tocqueville’s study of the Bourbon provenance of so many of Napoleon’s “innovations” demonstrates the discernment with which this sorting was carried out.) Generally speaking, the things that were to be discarded were bundled together with the label, “feudal.” Feudal arrangements were personal, idiosyncratic, incoherent, and even contradictory; they were for the most part inherited relationships that had stopped making sense long before the Renaissance. The men of the Enlightenment were interested in consistency, predictability, and something that they called “reason.”

If we’re to avoid a return to ad hoc feudalism and the social insecurity that it reflects, we have to abandon the idea that people can be educated into, if not perfection, then some reasonable simulacrum thereof. We have to give up wigs.


Friday 28th

The problem with Crampton Hodnet, which would have been Barbara Pym’s first novel but which was published posthumously, is that the funny lines require context. There is a wonderfully odious old battleaxe, Miss Doggett, who counsels her paid companion, Miss Morrow. “‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind” (60). But it’s a bigger laugh if you’ve read from the two preceding paragraphs. There’s really nothing for it but to read the whole book aloud. Poor Kathleen.

Publisher Jonathan Cape notoriously rejected Pym’s manuscripts in the early 1960s, claiming that they were too old-fashioned. Pym herself seems to have regarded Crampton Hodnet as somewhat dated by the time she took a second look at it after the War was over, and she set it aside. Certainly the atmosphere of postwar austerity would have been uncongenial to the novel’s “Tennis, anyone?” lightness of touch. But just as Time reveals forgeries, so it discovers treasures. By the late Seventies, Pym was on a comeback. It was cut short by breast cancer, in 1980, but, regrettable as early death was, Pym has never had to be rediscovered. She is very much in print, and I noticed with interest that Pym is one of the very few women writers mentioned in a recent piece by Phillip Lopate about Tim Parks. It’s worth quoting the passage, actually.

Distressed by the degree to which the English-language market monopolizes the publishing world, he is equally irked by the fashion for world literature, and goes so far as to advise “a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi.”

Because this is exactly why Pym is precious: her English is very good.

As an example, take the beginning of the eighth chapter, “Spring, the Sweet Spring.”

Spring came early that year, and the sun was so bright that it made all the North Oxford residents feel as shabby as the still leafless trees, so that they hurried to Elliston’s, Webber’s and Badcock’s, intending to buy jumper suits and spring tweeds in bright, flowerlike colours to match the sudden impulse which had sent them there. But when they found themselves in the familiar atmosphere of the shop, they forgot the sun shining outside, and the thrilling little breezes that made everyone want to be in love, and the young lady assistant forgot them too, because, although she may have felt them walking down the Botley Road with her young man on a Sunday afternoon, they were not the kinds of things one thought about in business hours. And so, after a quick, practised glance at the customer, out would come the old fawn, mud, navy, dark brown, slate and clerical greys, all the colours they always had before and without which they would hardly have felt like themselves. It would probably be raining tomorrow, and grey, fawn or bottle green was suitable for all weathers, whereas daffodil yellow, leaf green, hyacinth blue or coral pink would look unsuitable and show the dirt. (66-7)

The secret to this beautifully balanced expository letdown is the young lady assistant, sedulously oblivious of thrilling little breezes when she is behind the counter. There, she stands as a minor Britannia, protecting the staid denizens of North Oxford from the consequences of seasonal affect mania. From the standpoint of fashion, the passage could not possibly be more dated, but for that very reason it cleanly captures an ethos that bound even the most affluent pedestrians on the Banbury Road to demonstrate that they were careful with their money — and vigorously hardy when blasted by those thrilling little breezes. Whatever would happen if everyone yielded to the desire to be in love!

It’s the setting that is old-fashioned, not the writing. Pym’s subject, moreover, has only become more acute. Here are Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow again:

“I do not think that Mr Latimer is very well,” said Miss Doggett [of her clerical boarder]. “He looks pale and seems rather nervous, but the Sanatogen ought to pull him round, and he’s been taking a glass of milk every night, too. Of course sensitive and intelligent people are nervous, there’s no denying that.”

“I think Mr Latimer is highly strung,” ventured Miss Morrow.

“Yes, he is like a finely tuned instrument,” agreed Miss Doggett.

Like an Aeolian harp, thought Miss Morrow, pleased with idea. But really a frightened rabbit was nearer the mark. (77)

Not very many pages earlier, Mr Latimer considers the benefits of “having a wife, a helpmeet, somebody who could keep the others off and minister to his needs…” (64) [Emphasis supplied] Poor Mr Latimer is handsome and charming; the ladies won’t leave him alone. He has, needless to say, never been in love, and when he proposes to Miss Morrow, she has the sense to turn him down.

Without striking any definitively feminist notes, Barbara Pym writes about the crummy ways in which men take women for granted. Unfortunately, there is nothing at all old-fashioned about this. Boys are still growing up to become men who don’t really believe that women are quite as human as they themselves are — or else believe that women are more human, which makes it easier for them to be loving and generous. Whichever, the calculus in which women don’t count is still in general use. Pym has a gift for making it look fatuous and ridiculous; indeed, in Crampton Hodnet, she almost makes it so funny that it’s almost forgivable. But it isn’t. What could be crummier than getting married so that your wife could keep the others off?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
“Beauty is Harsh”
October 2016 (III)

Monday, October 17th, 2016

17, 18, 21 October

Monday 17th

Over the weekend, I swallowed nearly the whole of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s an arresting, must-read book, and also an object lesson in the importance, for high state purposes, of eschewing that ostensible virtue so disastrously in vogue today, transparency. A recurrent motif in Lelyveld’s narrative is how impossible Roosevelt’s maneuvers would have been today, what with our media Cerberus on constant watch. I would believe in transparency only if everyone concerned — every voter — were equally capable of assessing political operations. But the triumph of democracy, which is an insistence on the equality of citizens despite massive and manifest inequalities in intelligence and every other social desideratum, depends on masking not so much the truth, which is almost impossible for any contemporary, no matter how brilliant, to grasp, as the actual, which is merely momentary. Smart people understand the transitory nature of appearances; stupid people take whatever moment they’ve accidentally glimpsed to be more representative than it is. Lelyveld’s ability to follow the state of play on multiple levels — military, geopolitical, electoral, and interpersonal — is extraordinary, but it only highlights the fact that his cunning if health-challenged subject was even better at doing the same thing. Writing about Roosevelt’s reluctance to make significant changes for his fourth-term cabinet, Lelyveld calls him a “minimalist.” I was surprised by the word at first. Then I began to wonder if it was not the key to Roosevelt’s genius.

There is one thing about Lelyveld’s prose style, however, that I find greatly objectionable. Without sacrificing clarity to the difficulties of complexity, His Final Battle is both readable and accessible, but this is carried too far in the case of contractions (weren’t, wouldn’t, &c). Contractions are essentially conversational ornaments; they signal the peculiar mix of intimacy and informality that I believe will prove to be the most salient characteristic of the age in which I’ve lived. For the purposes of an audiobook, Lelyveld’s use of common contractions would be appealing. But in print they sound careless. Much worse, they plunge into ambiguity every time that Lelvyveld relies on the particular contraction, ‘d. Native speakers are unlikely to be confused, but we live in an age of Anglophone hegemony: writers in English must do what they can to avoid making things unnecessarily difficult for foreign readers. He’d can mean “he had” but also “he would,” and it is Lelyveld’s use of the contraction in the latter sense that bothers me most. The first refers to the past, the second to the future, if not to an alternative to the facts. Precisely because the contraction can point not only in opposite directions but to contrary moods, it ought to be avoided in print.

The great minor pleasure of His Final Battle is the presence of Daisy Suckley, the distant cousin who features in Hyde Park on the Hudson, the lovely film starring Laura Linney and Bill Murray. Because Daisy’s diary, revealed only after her death in 1991, came as such a surprise, I always assumed that Daisy herself was a tucked-away secret, someone with whom the president chatted whenever he was at home at Hyde Park (she lived nearby), but never otherwise. But, no: she accompanied him to Warm Springs and even stayed in the White House. Lelyveld quotes the diary often, because Suckley’s worries about FDR’s health — his book’s grim tattoo — were candid and disinterested. Daisy may have lacked a sense of the context of world affairs, but she was an attentive lady whose adoration of the Commander in Chief did not inspire her to lie about his physical condition. One supposes that she can have had no idea that her diary would figure in a book such as Lelyveld’s — and yet one hopes to be wrong.


At The New Yorker‘s online site, Elizabeth Kolbert makes the modest proposal that men be denied the vote for a few decades. If only men were to vote in the coming election, according to polls, Donald Trump would have an enormous lead over Hillary Clinton. Not “white men,” apparently; just “men.” Two-thirds of “men” would vote for Trump. Jeez — I’d be happy to lose my right to vote if such a ban were imposed. What are men, anyway — men? Say it isn’t so.

Moving right along, I took a good look at the map of the states in which a majority of “men” would vote for Hillary. No surprises there: the whole West Coast, and the Northeast Corridor states, excluding (as always) New Hampshire, and an undecided Maine. Only two states that don’t abut either of these clusters would go for Clinton, but they are also “border” states, more or less: Illinois and New Mexico. Because I believe that, whatever happens next month, intelligent Americans need to commit themselves to a serious and effective program of mutual re-education, with a view to reducing political polarity by sincere discussion and practical experiment, I think that it might be most effective to target states that used to be somewhat more liberal than they are now, stretching from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, for conversion. If the South and West are to be politically transformed — cured of their toxic racism — it will be without help or inspiration from today’s blue states; the less they are lectured to by the likes of us, the better. But Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have been allowed by uninterested élites to sink into flyover status. That could be reversed. Indiana and even eastern Iowa might also be brought round.

My own favorite “Trump joke” is the one in which, ten years from now, the Donald looks reporters straight in the face and denies ever having run for President. I can’t tell you how many people respond by saying, “Oh, he would never do that.” It’s scary.


Tuesday 18th

His Final Battle closes, as it must, with Eleanor Roosevelt’s learning that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was at FDR’s side when he died. Lucy had been Eleanor’s social secretary when her affair with Eleanor’s husband emerged. Eleanor never saw her again. The marriage almost broke up, but instead it was reconstituted. Now it became an unequal partnership of politicians. Eleanor did just about everything aside from running for office to promote her belief in social justice; electorally unaccountable, she had considerably more freedom in airing her views than her husband did. His assent was nevertheless assumed, and on at least one occasion recounted in His Final Battle, he censored a proposed “My Day” column. (Eleanor was rooting for Henry Wallace’s doomed candidacy for a second vice-presidential term.) After her husband’s death, Eleanor went on to be a kind of Olympian goddess, nursing the new United Nations, which had been FDR’s final great project.

If I mention Hillary Clinton right now, you might be tempted to argue, “But nobody knew about Lucy Rutherfurd.” That is, nobody knew that Eleanor stood by a husband who had been unfaithful to her and whose further infidelities she would protect herself from discovering. Well, a lot people knew, in dozens. But the matter was never mentioned in public commentary, any more than FDR’s inability to walk across a room was mentioned. Had people known, what would they have said? Would they have charged Eleanor with opportunism for standing by her man? Would such a thought have occurred to anyone?

What can we say about marriage? Not very much; every marriage is, or ought to be, utterly private. All we know is how each marriage gets started, with more or less uniform declarations of mutual love and support. These declarations are usually made by young, inexperienced people who are likely to put too much stock in high hopes. What each lasting marriage becomes is unique, even though that is just as hard to imagine as the uniqueness of snowflakes is. We will never know what the partners in a marriage really think about one another, if only because they’ll never know it themselves. We know only what they do, how they behave. The idea of “transparency” presupposes that they are acting, that their appearance of partnership is emotionally unreal somehow. It says, with vast naïveté, this is what true love looks like, and they don’t have it. A political partnership! How can politics take the place of romance? In the end, gossips reject the fact of marital uniqueness. Nothing else, however, can explain why two people freely remain together. Or, rather, how.

More anon.


Friday 21st

The ups and downs of the weather here — a bright but somewhat humid Indian Summer, followed by days of rain — have undone me and left me fit for little more than reading. The weather has been greatly helped in this upset by the hopes that I had of taking up a new daily schedule when I got back from California. The old schedule was so established, however, that simply resisting it has taken all my energy. According to the new schedule, I will begin the day with something like a normal breakfast and a review of banal household matters. That way, I won’t be starving at noon and oblivious of the calendar. But it is so much more appealing to grab a banana along with the Times, and then to drift hither, that I wind up staying in bed. I will say that the sleeping-in has been very pleasant. At least there’s that.

I was supposed to put in a word here yesterday, but I woke up with a cough, and I decided that I had another cold. Taking it easy, I spent almost the entire day reading The Secret History. I had been inspired to take another look at Donna Tartt’s amazing first novel (1992) by the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness, which pays it a tribute of sorts. As in The Secret History, there is a group of high-minded students who live apart from the common run. French’s characters, who are grad students, share a country house outside of Dublin, eschew vulgar amusements such as television in favor of dinner-table conversation and clever card games, and attempt to transcend individual attachments. French’s wrinkle on the setup is too good to spoil (although Laura Miller gives the game away in the New Yorker piece that pointed me to French), and The Likeness is a gripping read. But The Secret History is a masterpiece, a novel that shares the rare, melancholy beauty of The Great Gatsby. That it is much longer than Fitzgerald’s triumph is not something that I am inclined to hold against it.

The writing is very beautiful, and clearly meant to be. My disappointment with Tartt’s two subsequent novels has been almost entirely a quarrel with their more relaxed language. They have their moments, certainly, but the general tessitura is lower. Here, from The Secret History, is a throwaway passage about a secondary character’s dorm room.

She screwed the lipstick down, snapped on the top, then opened the drawer of her dressing table. It was not actually a dressing table but a desk, college-issue, just like the one in my room, but like some savage unable to understand its true purpose — transforming it into a weapon rack, say, or a flower-decked fetish — she had painstakingly turned it into a cosmetics area, with a glass top and a ruffled satin skirt and a three-way mirror on the top that lit up. Scrabbling through a nightmare of compacts and pencils, she pulled out a prescription bottle, held it to the light, tossed it into the trash can and selected a new one. “This’ll do,” she said, handing it to me. (266)

Every sentence is tinctured in a tone either of excitement or its exhausted aftermath. Dull, plodding scholars are not to be seen. On the contrary, the novel’s scholars occupy center stage and represent a ne plus ultra of collegiate glamour — at least to the mind of our narrator, a boy from nowhere called Richard Papen. They study Classical Greek with a suave gentleman who in younger days lived in Europe and “knew everybody.” (Tartt invents a paragraph in which Orwell writes that he doesn’t trust this fellow, even though Harold Acton does.) There are five of them in the group, including a beautiful girl, and all Richard wants in the world is to be a sixth. It is a very old and very heartbreaking story, because of course there is nothing truly heroic about this gravely merry band. There is nothing remotely unique about it, either; for who does not recall the searing drive to belong to an illustrious blood-brotherhood, on the very eve of an adulthood that will inevitably break up sincere but shallow commitments? Richard is like someone who shows up at a shoot for Ralph Lauren lifestyle products and forgets that the attractive people are models whose true interrelationships are probably very different from appearances. Richard forgets that he is dealing with a handful of immature college students who have been encouraged, by their vain teacher, to pretend that they are already the people whom they are in fact far from having become.

As always, there is money, at least in the hands of one or two members of the group; Richard, of course, has nothing, not even a suitable wardrobe. He has only his smattering of Greek, by which he leverages himself, first into the special classes and only later into something like friendship with his classmates. Tartt’s narrative strategy is simply extraordinary. While we are following Richard on his pursuit of acceptance — an adventure that is interrupted by the account, almost as substantial as a novella, of a harrowing winter break that finds Richard alone and vulnerable in an emptied Vermont town — the objects of his fascination are troubled by the consequences of an ill-advised undertaking of their own, of which we learn nothing substantial until after the group’s leader, a somber genius called Henry, finds Richard sliding into hypothermia and saves his life. It is only now, about a hundred fifty pages in, that Tartt launches the tale whose lurid quality will be the flavor that most readers will remember when they put the book down. It involves a night of re-enacted pagan revels that ends badly and which, tantalizingly, cannot be recalled by its participants with much coherence. (“‘Well, it’s not called a mystery for nothing,” said Henry sourly.”) Richard himself played no part in the ritual; for reasons that now move to the foreground, creating a new and more serious problem for Henry and the others, neither did the shambolic preppie called Bunny.

Richard assures us that Bunny is lovable, but Tartt refuses to back him up. We see only a rude, condescending lout whose bons mots are usually flaccid insults. As Richard eases his way into the group, the group finds it impossible, but necessary, to ease Bunny out. Sad to say, Bunny is not very bright; it takes him a very long time to grasp the perils of blackmailing his friends. He is too stupid to see why he might no longer be wanted. That he belongs to the group at all is the result of a fluke: a dyslexic child, Bunny was introduced to languages with other alphabets, pursuant to some cockamamie theory. Hence his Greek, which turns out to be his doom.

Bunny’s death is announced in the first sentence of the prologue, and the implication that he was murdered by Henry and his friends is made immediately thereafter. The event itself occurs midway into the book. From there, the novel is plainly poised to follow a traditional trajectory: will the murderers get away with it? And at what cost? I suppose that many readers, somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Tartt’s storytelling, keep following that trajectory long after Tartt herself takes up a different one. Certainly there is a rivetingly suspenseful moment near the end, when an unsigned letter, long mislaid in the wrong mailbox, threatens to expose the group. But this moment is not resolved in the ordinary way. And yet many readers may be too worked up to see the actual resolution for what it is: a pair of terribly disappointed romances that required no crimes to unravel. True, worries about the consequences of those crimes put one or two of the characters under too much stress, but deception and disillusionment were on the cards long before the group’s wild night in the woods. The group itself was already doomed by then, and this, we see, is what Tartt means to teach us. Richard was drawn to a mirage.

The power of The Secret History is the sublimated power of youthful romance, of intoxicating dreams stretched over shattering realities. But instead of telling us love stories that wouldn’t — couldn’t — be very original, Tartt beguiles us with dusky imbroglios that would be Gothic if they were not so harshly Greek. The stunt of the book is its acrobatic reminder that Ancient Greece was not a land of sunlit syllogisms, but, on the contrary, a wild territory of prehistoric survivals. But the acrobat’s moves are those of a young lover, graceful and sure and triumphant — until suddenly not. Ironically, the students in the group seem unaware that they are surrounded by an undergraduate bacchanal far more reckless than anything known to ancient times: the drugs, the drinking, the smoking, the staying-up-all-night — Tartt contrives to unload this shabby carelessness without muddying her shoe, but it stains every other page. Never has higher education looked more seriously pointless. But we don’t care, because we’re in love.

The ubiquity of smoking and the absence of cell phones are the only features that date the story. You don’t miss the Internet. You certainly don’t miss e-books — real books are integral to the romance! The Secret History has aged very, very well; perhaps it will always carry an aura of prescience. Two not-unrelated curiosities stick out. First, there are the fraternal twins who belong to the group, Charles and Camilla. Ahem! At least Tartt might be charged with supersubtle joking on that one. What she can’t possibly have known in 1992 is how easily the following passage, which concerns the campus response to Bunny’s death, could have been pasted into commentaries made in the wake of a “tragic” death five years later:

A character like his disintegrates under analysis. It can only be defined by the anecdote, the chance encounter of the sentence overheard. People who had never once spoken to him suddenly remembered, with a pang of affection, having seen him throwing sticks to a dog or stealing tulips from a teacher’s garden. “He touched people’s lives,” said the college president, leaning forward to grip the podium with both his hands; […] it was, in Bunny’s case at least, strangely true. He did touch people’s lives, the lives of stangers, in an entirely unanticipated way. It was they who really mourned him — or what they thought was him — with a grief that was no less sharp for not being intimate with its object. (357)

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Baron von Moron
October 2016 II

Monday, October 10th, 2016


10. 11, 13 and 14 October

Monday 10th

For years, I had nothing to do with puzzles in the Times. I had done all the usual show-off stuff — the Middleton acrostics, the daily crosswords not only in ink but in order, moving from upper left to lower right — and eventually I got tired of it. New puzzles came along, but without appeal; I can still ask: what is Sudoku? (I’ve gone over the rules for Spelling Bee several times, but I still haven’t got a clue how to play it.) One new puzzle, however, has caught my fancy: Split Decisions. The pairs of words in Split Decisions share all but two letters, and only those two sets of divergent letters are given. By “letters,” I mean “letters in the same position.” As an example, here’s the last pair that I worked out: nether and nester. Both words share a ‘t,’ but not in the same position. What took so long was the wrong answer that I had come up with for a pair of words beginning in ba and mo respectively. Solving another pair gave me the third letter, r. The shared last letter of this pair would be the first letter of the words with th and st in the middle. The best I could think of was bares and mores. (Later, when I was stumped, Kathleen proposed barns and morns, interesting but no difference.) The s was a stumper. While sister and system came quickly to mind, it became ever more oppressively likely that there is no word in English into which sxthxx can be resolved. That’s when I set bares and mores aside and worked through the alphabet. When I got to n, I looked back at the ba and mo pair and nearly choked at the aptness. MORON! And not only that, but a moron who carries on as though he were a baron!

In true baronial fashion, I solved the entire puzzle without writing anything down. I kept it all in my head. I did not permit myself those little marginal jottings, much as I really wanted to print sxxalid and sxxared, which certainly would have helped me find squalid and squared much faster than I did. At the same time, I experienced at least one direct-line-from-God solution. Without my having solved any of the adjacent pairs, it came to me, just like that, that xxxmoxx and xxxssxx were chamois and chassis.

Baron von Moron is too good to be true, so we shall have no Progress this week. I hope I haven’t ruined the puzzle for anyone.


Last week, I neglected to mention Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe’s sequel to Man at the Helm. What has Nina Stibbe been doing all these years? Thirty-odd years ago, she was the au pair in the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, now the editor (and bankroller) of the London Review of Books. Wilmers had two little boys, and somehow they survived Nina’s tender loving care. They’ve long since grown up. What  did Nina do between then and now? — now being the publication, two years ago, of Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that she wrote to her sister from the Wilmers house in Gloucester Crescent. Whatever, she is now a lady writer. Last year, we had Man at the Helm, which I found a tad too depressing, because the narrative arc took the heroine from a shabby but grand old pile to a small house in a council estate. That’s where she’s still living, in Paradise Lodge, but this time the story is about her, not her Sixties-warped mother. The book is very funny, and I’ve hated having read it. I want to be still reading it. Why did it have to end?

Stibbe has held on to the voice of Love, Nina. I don’t know how long she’ll be able to go on doing this, as presumably Lizzie Vogel will grow up some day and put her adorable goofiness behind her — but maybe not; one can hope. Lizzie’s voice is really the whole point of the book. Anyone could cook up the escapades at a shambolic nursing home — the more I read about English schools and nursing homes, the more appalled I am by the English willingness to entrust institutions to amateurs — but they’d be little more than not-so-funny comic pratfalls if it weren’t for Lizzie’s fine-grained adolescent judgment, which is also the texture of the novel. To render the following snippet comprehensible, I think it’s enough to say that Sister Saleem, who is also Lizzie’s boss, is a woman of color.

I was thrilled one day when the talk turned to facial features and Sister Saleem said I had nice eyes. Having nice eyes, she said, was a great thing and could make up for awful defects.

“If you have pretty eyes,” she said, “you can get away with a flat behind or hairy arms or even spots — but having not very nice eyes is a curse.”

We all discussed this and agreed, the worst kind of eyes being dead eyes which don’t sparkle. The deadest I knew of were Nurse Hilary’s, which looked like fish’s eyes, or Miss Pitt’s — who looked like she’d poisoned you but you didn’t know it yet. The nicest eyes were almond-shaped, but not like Sister Saleem’s which, although almost-shaped, had purple skin all around — which my sister said was the colour of a man’s resting genitals, but not in front of her. (193)

But not in front of her. To take pains to tell us the obvious — Lizzie and her older sister did not compare Sister Saleem’s eyes to a man’s private parts in conversation with Sister Saleem herself — is of course to raise the hilarious spectre of having done so. It’s a way of making trouble without getting into trouble. If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, perhaps in an outburst that causes those nearby to turn their heads in your direction, then Paradise Lodge is not for you; rather, you are unworthy of it. It is not hard to see Jane Austen in the background, smiling the smile of someone who can reduce others to giggles but who never giggles herself.

The climax that I remember has nothing to do with the revelations and peripeties that wreathe the happy ending. It even occurs in the first half of the book. It oughtn’t to be funny at all, and, now I think of it, it isn’t funny, only I remember it as sidesplitting. Lizzie is trying to get her favorite inmate, a very stout Miss Mills, from the toilet to her bed, something that she ought not to attempt single-handed. But it is late at night, and her colleague, the air-headed Miranda, is too busy inscribing a birthday card to her boyfriend, in “bubble writing,” to hear the summoning bell. Miss Mills warns Lizzie not to try, but Lizzie can’t just leave the old lady on the commode. The upshot is that Lizzie just fails to get Miss Mills back into bed. The heavy woman slides off and falls on her, pinning her to the floor. This horrible moment lasts for quite a while, and, when Miranda finally does show up, Lizzie believes that Miss Mills shouldn’t be moved until an ambulance arrives, and so the moment continues for quite a while longer. To pass the time, Miranda keeps up a chatter.

After some time, the talk got less interesting. I mean, no one could keep it up forever and soon Miranda was dredging up stuff about her family. The time her mother tired to kill her father with a Flymo and once, when her father had accidentally unplugged the deep freeze, she’d called him a “bandit,” which made me rock with laughter, and that had hurt Miss Mills, and that made me cry. Miranda carried on, though, like a hero. About her sister, Melody, my ex-best friend who’d gone manly in puberty, as previously mentioned, and thanked God for punk arriving so that she could join in with fashion and feel she belonged without trying to look girly. (104)

As previously mentioned.

Lizzie has signed up for part-time work at Paradise Lodge, but full-time suits her better, because she hates school. Lizzie hates school so much that she risks being dropped from the ‘O’ Level program. This alarms everyone else far more than it does Lizzie, so Lizzie’s attempts to be a better student consist of little more than plausible roguery. In a comic reversal, school and its drudgery are the reality from which Lizzie finds uplifting escape in caring for the incontinent elderly. The precariousness of her academic situation is an overdue bill that shadows the entire novel, right up to the last line. The other thread is Lizzie’s imaginary romance with Miranda’s boyfriend, Mike Yu. Mike’s family runs the local Chinese restaurant, and the boy is a paragon. When he tells Lizzie that she must take ‘O’ Level courses, she almost buckles down. But even her dreams are fickle.

It wasn’t Mike’s fault but I started to hate him. I was fed up with being in love and feeling so on edge all the time. I tried to tell myself I was kicking out at him because I was feeling low about various things. But it wasn’t that — that only happened in an actual relationship.

It was that he started to seem too good-looking. I felt shallow for loving his beauty and felt inferior and not worthy. It was like the time my mother had driven us to Dorset to join a family holiday and it had been an embarrassing misunderstanding and we’d sat in the beach car park having a cheese cob while our mother summoned the strength to drive all the way home again. Even from the car, the beach had seemed too beautiful for us and we hadn’t been welcome and I longed for the muddy ruts of a Leicestershire field or the messy verges of the motorway. It was all we deserved.

Plus I’d begun to feel furtive and sleazy at my deviousness. My manipulating Miranda into divulging personal things about him, running into the drive just to say hello and look as if I were on the brink of weeping. And my betrayal of Mr Simmons in return for getting back into the ‘O’ Level group — which had been very much under Mike’s influence.

I imagined married life and having to see his face all the time and how its niceness would soon become sickly, like winning by cheating or eating too much pudding. Like when I’d begged for another slice of strudel and cream and Granny Benson had finally agreed and made me eat every last flake until I was sick.

Why did I love him anyway? Probably just because Miranda had paraded him and his love for her. She’d worn his love like a new mohair jumper and we’d all wanted its softness. It was probably nothing to do with his being so good-looking, so good and philosophical. (233-4)

What I’m hoping is that Lizzie will still talk like this when she finally goes to university.


Tuesday 11th

There is a piece in today’s Times about how hard it would be for someone with Donald Trump’s stated views (about women and such) to get a job with a Fortune 500 company. Once upon a time, this might have made somebody stop and think, Gee, maybe Trump isn’t such a great presidential candidate after all. I don’t know what impact the newspaper’s editors expect it to have now. Trump himself would seize the bull by the horns and declare that we’ve got to change the rules at big companies and stop all this political correctness. His supporters would cheer him. Surely everyone knows this by now. Surely everyone knows that Trump stands, like an unreconstructed Mad Man, for a return to the social facts of the 1950s, and that this is what his supporters think they long for. All they want, really, is to stop having to pretend that people who aren’t straight white males are just as good as those who are. Like the child pointing at the emperor’s new clothes, they want to acknowledge the obvious: people who look funny aren’t really American. It’s very simple.

What the rest of us have to ask is, Why? Why is this nostalgic dream still so powerful? And we have to come up with solid answers, because, as more than a few commentators have observed, Trump himself may go away but his supporters won’t, and eventually they will find a more effective candidate.


Whether it was in San Francisco or upon our return, I had one of those moments. For years, years, I’ve been grappling with what I’ve called “my élite problem.” This boiled down to the search for a better word (than “élite”) for a class to which everybody claims not to belong. The lumber in my head must have shifted — perhaps it was turbulence — because, in the moment that I’m talking about, it was suddenly obvious that “the élite” consists of the professional classes and its clients. For the most part, the clients are just rich people. They have the power that goes with money. There’s little more to say about them.

There is a lot to say about professionals, however. The professions are, above all, social constructs. Their skills reflect established standards. There are different ways in which professional credentials are attained, but every profession that I can think of makes an overt claim that its members strive to uphold certain public virtues: honesty most of all, but also the well-being of the body politic. (If you can think of an exception, please let me know.) Some professions police themselves privately, while others are state-sanctioned, but it really doesn’t matter: professions are unlike criminal gangs or commercial monopolies in that they harbor no objectives that are contrary to the general good. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to be. Professionals, in the course of doing what they do, are supposed to safeguard the rules — rules against fraud, certainly, but also against injustice.

I think it’s pretty clear that the public claim on professional probity has been allowed to fade. It is one thing for an attorney to advise a rich client about taxes; it is quite another for a lawyer to participate in the drafting of legislation that will favor the rich. Do I sound utopian? I don’t think so. What I think I sound like is somebody who can no longer reconcile professional standards with free-market physics. The whole point of professional standards is to regulate market physics, much like the governor on a steam engine. Many of our professional codes were first developed in an era that was more than a little traumatized by exploding boilers, and regulation is an almost universal raison d’être.

It is because professionals have neglected their public responsibilities as a matter of course since at least the Reagan Administration that so many Americans want to sweep away “the élites.” It is because professionals have turned their backs on those without the money to pay their fees that the “basket of deplorables” is overflowing. Too many professionals don’t give a damn about ordinary people, and too many ordinary people know it.

Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t asking a lot. They just want an élite that looks like them, or at least like Don Draper. They just want to go back to that. They’re wrong, of course, to think that old-timey prosperity will make a comeback if the right-looking people are in charge, but that’s just one of the many things that we’ve neglected to teach them in words that they can understand and accept.

If you want a sense of just how bad things are, consider the sense of public accountability that is current among the members of our newest profession, the coder entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.


Thursday 14th

My instinctive reaction to the news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature was to applaud, but it’s going to take a day or two to say why. Good for him, I thought — but I’ve never been a fan, not remotely, and in fact I can think of no popular figure of the Sixties who was more irritating to me at a subcutaneous level. That people voluntarily subject themselves to his humorlessly earnest, unmusically hoarse exhortations has always surprised me. Now, of course, his work has settled into the kind of cultural monumentality that works very well as a wallpaper of synecdoche: the sound of a few bars sets a very clear tone, rich in implications, very quickly. Nevertheless, I can’t think of an American whom I’d rather see win.

As a truly international prize, not limited to work in any one language, the Nobel cannot be a genuinely literary award, because literature, to the extent that it explores and extends the language in which it is written, cannot be translated. Translators have several options, but the rendering of original nuance in another language is not one of them. It is not always the case that something inimitable about the original is lost, either: the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe gain enormously by translation into French, so much so that Poe might be accused of having tried to write French using English words. (I’ve often thought that Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, albeit in Norwegian, with an ear for likely Anglophone outcomes.) The Nobel’s juries understandably fall back on the aspect of books that can be translated: the message. Heaven knows, Bob Dylan is a messenger.

So is Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s winner. Her Secondary Time, which I’m sipping in small doses, is a tremendously important book, because it humanizes the lives of Communist academics and administrators to an astonishing degree, and, with them, the Communist project itself. And yet Alexievich’s contributions to the text of this book are small and instrumental, placing the transcriptions of extended interviews in context. She is not, from any literary standpoint, the author of her own book. She inspired, edited, and produced it, but the words are not hers. Most of her readers, moreover, will not have been able to read Secondary Time in Russian. The attenuation of language into message is just about total: there is no literature left to speak of.

I’d be happier if the Nobel Prize for Literature had a name that better described what it is and must necessarily be: the gong for “a book containing a message.” The need for such a term has emerged because of a peculiar development. Originally, all written texts were messages most of all. So were most early books. Even the Aldine editions of classics were intended as messages of a sort, bringing a new world of readers information about old wisdom. But most new books eventually went stale and lost readers, and still do. A very few did and do not, Shakespeare’s Sonnets for example. We are drawn to these poems not by their message, which all of know perfectly well beforehand, but for their language, which can be incredibly rich precisely because the message is familiar. The Sonnets are bottomlessly literary; they are also, inexpungeably, expressions of the English language that remain intelligible four centuries after their composition — because we keep reading them. The long and the short of it is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets would never deserve the Nobel Prize.


Friday 15th

I’m sure that I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I saw the LP jacket of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for the first time, but it can’t have been long. Somebody had the album at boarding school. For me, the photograph was a total turn-off: a scruffy kid being held by a pretty girl (who was probably a model, I thought, although in fact she wasn’t), walking on a slushy street in a neighborhood dominated by fire-escapes (signalling poverty). If you’d wanted to get me to buy the record on the strength of jacket art alone, you’d have used one of Hayashida Teruyoshi’s photographs from Take Ivy. Nevertheless, I remember acknowledging that the Freewheelin’ jacket was very cool. I was getting used to the fact that there were a lot of very cool things that didn’t appeal to me at all, and that might never appeal to me; and I was discovering that any regrets that I might have about this discrepancy were insincere. I would take me over cool any day. My response to Bob Dylan’s first album has not changed, except that the whole thing is now very quaint.

My other problem with Dylan was that I didn’t need him to tell me that the misadventure in Vietnam was an atrocious mistake. I don’t know how I knew that it was; perhaps life in Bronxville had sensitized me to humbug. Perhaps it was the photographs of the Ngo Dinh clan that seemed designed — insanely, to me — to present them as Kennedys, a look that underlined their Las Vegas qualities. I was also very impressed by the self-immolating monks and nuns. Had the United States openly invaded Vietnam in order to crush a Communist régime, I might have gone along with it, but the mealymouthed talk of “supporting” an allegedly democratic government in an impoverished jungle was as openly bogus as the Donation of Constantine. (Not that I knew of this interesting document at the time.)

Writing about the Jersey shore in Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen refers to the children of affluence whose lives were so very different from his as “rah-rahs.” I disliked rah-rahs, too, even though my fashion sense was rah-rah to a T. It would be wrong, though, to say that I adhered to a conservative aesthetic. I just put on the same clothes that I’d always worn. It did not occur to me that sartorial eccentricity could amount to political protest, and what I saw in armies of jeans-clad youth was simply an undesirable uprising of vagabonds and hobos. When people I knew began looking like hobos, all I saw was carelessness.

That’s all I heard in Bob Dylan’s songs, too. Perhaps it would be better to say that I found them rude and insolent. I have never been comfortable with casual rudeness. For me, being rude is being very, very hostile. It is a kind of anger that has been compressed into a slap of dismissal, and social life cannot withstand very much of it. It is true that Dylan channeled his rudeness into performance art, inviting his audience to ventilate by singing along. But the lowering effect on public discourse was dramatic, and ever since the late Sixties, American life has been conducted in a fug of thoughtless generalities, as if semi-articulate expressions of good will would do the trick. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that civic discourse in this country has never been altogether sound.

Listening to Springsteen, I hear a young man in pain, with just enough lyricism to keep whining at bay. (And sometimes, as in “Brilliant Disguise,” with a flush of lyricism that amounts to plain beauty.) Sometimes, Springsteen’s updated Chatterton sounds self-pitying, but he is never what Dylan so often is: a scold. Unlike Springsteen, Dylan doesn’t present himself as the jerk, the failure. The jerk is somebody else. I can’t identify with that. The jerk is usually me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2016 (I)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

3, 6, 7

Monday 3rd

And here I am. It has been a chaotic day, on the smallest of scales, as I’ve resisted old habits and tried to launch new ones, therefore doing without the help of all the established priorities. On top of that, we went to bed early for San Francisco and got up late for New York, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t evidence that we needed a lot more than the prescribed eight hours of sleep.

I have discovered, working on the writing project, that I can write well enough in the afternoon — but it is no longer the afternoon. It is early evening, and I have onions caramelizing on the stove and requiring constant attention. With my thoughts on dinner, I can hardly expect to do justice to my vacation reading, which consisted of two-plus books: the new Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl; Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; and a wedge of Tana French’s In the Woods. The first two books are brand new — Born to Run was officially published on the day we left New York, and I bought it at JFK — but In the Woods has been out for almost a decade. Canny readers will attribute my sudden interest in the French to the influence of Laura Miller’s piece in last week’s New Yorker. I’m in the middle of it now. I like it, but I wish that its language were more Irish. Never have I so sympathized with Donna Leon’s reluctance to permit the Guido Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. There is a point, well into the book, at which a detective ends a sentence with a pleonastic “sure,” as the Irish do. I almost dropped the book. Finally (to paraphrase heroine Cassie Maddox) a sign of Irish intelligence.

What to say about Carl Hiaasen? The simplest is this: I don’t know his people. They’re fantastic on the page — literally. The eponymous character is enormously attractive, despite an unappealing start, but a world in which the male victims of rear-enders can be so easily distracted by extreme impropriety (you have to read the novel) is too dystopian for me. Hiaasen’s topical satire of reality television is almost more thoughtful than it is biting, but then why should I feel bitten if I’ve never watched a reality TV show? Razor Girl is trenchant and funny, and certainly worth the time it takes to read. I’d be enormously grateful to find Hiaasen’s work on the shelf of a remote beach house if I ever got marooned in one. But the moment Razor Girl was over, South Florida in general and Key West in particular vanished from my imaginaire — if you’ll pardon my French — perhaps because I’ve actually been to Key West and and so not curious to know more. It is always somewhat horrible, when reading Carl Hiaasen, to know that he is making up only so much. The rest (like those Gambian rats) is real.

Born to Run — something of a stunt, I’ll admit. My reading it, that is, not Bruce Springsteen’s writing it. And I do believe that he wrote it. I had been prepped by high-end journalism: a profile in The New Yorker some while back and then David Kamp’s cover story in a recent Vanity Fair. If the book disappoints, the fault lies in the somewhat anemic account of Springsteen’s development as a sophisticated musician. That he is a sophisticated musician I knew from experience, even if I’m not quite a fan. (Not yet.) If you want to know what I mean by “sophisticated,” let me just say this: I can’t think of another pop artist who has divided his work so evenly between what in classical music would be called concert and chamber formats. Springsteen writes for arenas (does he ever), but he also writes for empty coffee houses (the emptier, the better). He was always a rocker, but he was always something else, too: a severe melancholic. Over time, he managed to accommodate both impulses, sometimes simultaneously.

Presumably, Bruce Springsteen did not manage to do this with the help of archangels. Something happened, I should say, in between his first two voyages to San Francisco. I’d like to know more. Springsteen writes well about lessons — musical and otherwise — learned later in life, by which time he seems to have been articulate enough to recognize what he was doing when he was doing it. This was perhaps not the case as he transitioned from belonging to Steel Mill to creating and patronizing the E Street Band. He’s articulate now, though, and I suspect that he’s the only one who will ever be able to tell us what happened.

Fans, of course, will relish the history of a rock ‘n’ roll career with which they’re already familiar. Less zealous readers will appreciate the many well-told tales of scrapes and escapades, especially as it emerges that none of these would have occurred if Bruce were truly the boss of everything. Everyone, I think, will honor Springsteen’s account of dealing with bipolar disorder, which is both lucid and discreet. (I concluded, on the basis of the book’s sheen of candor, that ECT treatments would have been acknowledged had they been administered.) To me, Born to Run will be memorable for the very quality that the author himself highlights near the end (on page 501, to be exact): it is a portrait of the mind of Bruce Springsteen.

Now I’m back home, where the new Ian McEwan has just arrived.


Thursday 6th

Kathleen calls them my “girlfriends.” We saw one of them last night. When A Little Romance came out in 1979, I was enchanted by Diane Lane’s fresh, intelligent beauty. For a few minutes in the third act of last night’s performance of The Cherry Orchard, she was perched not ten feet away, and in profile she was almost the same young lady.

Having seen another one of my girlfriends, Kristin Scott Thomas, in The Seagull, a few years ago, I’m inclined to wonder if Chekhov works in English. We are so cool, so hostile to unnecessary histrionics. Our language is designed to make enthusiasm look foolish. It is also difficult to register class distinctions in plain English. Steven Karam’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard dealt with this latter problem boldly enough: Lopakhin, the scion of serfs who has risen in the world and is now rich enough to buy the Gayev estate, was played by Harold Perrineau, a handsome and personable African-American actor, and serfdom was swapped for slavery. This maneuver had its effective moments, but overall it pushed the play into a Nowhere that made caring much about the plight of impoverished landowners more trouble than it was worth.

Had the play been acted absolutely straight, though, I might well have felt no different. Chekhov makes me as impatient as his characters are supposed to do. And there are far too many of them. If I were adapting The Cherry Orchard, I would eliminate the parts of Charlotta (the governess), Yepikhodov (the clerk), and Yasha (the servant). I would consider doing away with Gayev (the “heroine’s” brother), too; as his nieces remind him several times, he talks too much. Take this as my way of saying that there was little that Tina Benko, Quinn Mattfeld, Morris Jones or John Glover, respectively, could do to entertain me, except to leave the stage. Simeonov-Pischik (the lucky landowner) is there explicitly to remind us that life is absurd, so I suppose we can’t do without him; Chuck Cooper made him a jolly old fellow, but also, convincingly to a fault, someone who might die at any moment.

Worse, Chekhov fails to give his diva a big moment. Ranevskaya is a complicated woman, but the play seals her in unexplained glamour. She remembers her childhood with pleasure, and the death of her son with grief, but these elementary responses are untouched by any reflections on the “fallen,” world-weary state that might make her interesting. Why has she come home? Has Chekhov dragged her back from Paris only to demonstrate her inability to forestall the family’s loss of its principal ornament? If you were compiling a psychological profile, you might wind up with no more substantial description of Ranevskaya than “leading lady in a play.” Diane Lane brought Ranevskaya to life by spoiling her beauty a little and looking confused. It was impossible, however, to imagine that the actress herself would ever be confused by such circumstances. She may be too apparently bright for the role.

Varya, played well if a tad scoldingly by Celia Keenan-Bolger, is a thankless role as well as an unthanked character. Her status as Ranevskaya’s “adopted daughter” is superficially ambiguous, but that seems to be a matter of politeness only. In fact, the Gayevs want her to marry Lopakhin, a man of the class to which she was born. Her adoption is merely another manifestation of Ranevskaya’s Lady-Bountiful compulsion, like the handouts to servants; it will slide into meaningless when Ranevskaya moults into the former owner of the cherry orchard. Perversely, the pretense that Varya is Ranevskaya’s daughter is what makes her not good enough for Lopakhin, who intends to marry the real thing now that he can afford to — if he marries at all. You feel sorry for Varya, but you want her to exit stage left with the more supernumary characters.

I was annoyed by the young lovers, particularly by their claim that they’re “above love,” but I wasn’t inclined to cut the actors any slack. Tavi Gevinson’s Anya was incredibly ingenuous. She behaved like someone who begins every day with a perky dose of amnesia, still as innocent and unblemished as a four year-old. Kyle Beltran’s Trofimov was also incredible. Far from a surly, scruffy student, he was a gleaming Millennial, with a Google internship lined up at the very least. His scenes seemed to be played with a view to highlighting the similarities between Russia on the eve of Revolution and the United States of the eve of Donald Trump, but the more I listened to him the less alike the two eras became. Our present-day situation may be as precarious as any, but we face it with strengths and weaknesses unknown a century ago. No thanks to totalitarian evils, we have put an end to leisure (for the time being), and we are drowning in information and its counterfeits. For all its many faults, the bourgeoisie has emerged as the first genuinely, if partially, humane class in history.

The bonbon of the night was Joel Grey’s Firs, the ancient loyal butler who misses the old days when master could beat their serfs. This was distracting, at least until the very end, when Grey brought a cold draft of Beckett to Firs’s abandonment in the abandoned house. It seemed absolutely right: he was the last man lying down.

One final quibble with the production (which I found to be somewhat overdirected by Simon Godwin): although the fancy costumes were truly delightful — hats off to Michael Krass! — having the ball take place onstage instead of just offstage introduced a very inappropriate note of carnival, and when the dancers withdrew, as they had to do so that the principals could have their dramatic moments alone, the stage looked unduly desolate without them.

Don’t think that I’m sorry that I saw the show. No! I enjoyed every minute, even, or especially, the wrong bits. Filing all the complaints that I’ve summarized here was a pleasure, because Diane Lane was no farther away than the wings.

Susannah Flood was delicious as the housemaid. I was always glad to see her. She is not one of my girlfriends, though. My girlfriends are all very brainy (as well as very beautiful). When I try to imagine having the chance to talk with them, I clam up. I’m sure that I’d bore them. In my imagination, we are all still in high school. In real life, they might bore me (although I cannot really believe for a moment that Helena Bonham Carter would). And in real life, as it occurred to me just the other day, when I was looking forward to seeing Diane Lane from a seat very near the stage, I have the girlfriend of girlfriends, my dear Kathleen. She loves me, yes; but what counts for this discussion is that she finds me snappydoodle. How cool is that?


Friday 20th

It was very hard to get up this morning. I had awakened at dawn and found it difficult to get back to sleep. It was a mistake to read this week’s New Yorker at bedtime. Tad Friend’s profile of Sam Altman, the new head of Y Combinator, like the piece that Raffi Khatchadourian wrote for the magazine about Nick Bostrom, nearly a year ago, upset me enormously. Altman and his friends embody the very danger of “AI takeover” that worries them. They have no idea of the consequence of their immense cultural ignorance, and they believe that you can know all that you need to know by the age of thirty. They claim to be motivated by humane impulses, but they haven’t done the reading. They’re not schooled in human error. They’re besotted by the prospect of “10x.” (Shame on Tad Friend for adopting such usage!) They are also afraid of “the coming chaos.” So am I. It’s not very cheering to try to comfort myself with the hope that I’ll be dead by then.

Louis Menand’s meditation on Karl Marx approached the coming chaos from a more traditional perspective. I don’t want to overstate it, but Menand appears to belong to the large club of educated people who think that Marx’s critique of capitalism was more or less spot on, and that the tensions that he described in The Communist Manifesto have only become more tightly wound. I wish that one of these believers would write a new book, without mentioning Marx at all, that would lay out the current state of play and propose solutions completely free of the taint of Hegelian reasoning. That way, we could talk about the ideas of this new writer, and leave Marx to history, along with the nightmares that, rightly or wrongly, he inspired.

One interesting idea that I gleaned from the Altman profile came in a kernel of news about a Y Combinator pilot project will “test the feasability” of an urban settlement in which, among other things, “no one can ever make money off real estate.” Now, this is a proposition that I heartily embrace. While I believe that farmers ought to own the land that they work, I think that urban residences ought to be owned and managed by not-for-profit companies that are free from the pressures of both government control and rentier greed. We have seen that the value of urban real estate too often chokes, like runaway kudzu, the value of urban population. I believe that markets have a place in healthy economics, but that it is a small place. Everything about markets ought to be scaled to the local, with as many markets and small participants in them as possible. I’d like to give Efficiency a major rethink, because, after all, the most efficient operation is one that never begins. I don’t think that we know very much about capitalism, actually. The wild success of highly capitalized projects over the past two hundred years has implanted an unexamined standard model that, among other problematic things, takes growth for granted.

In any case, there are different kinds of property. As I say, urban lots and rural farmlands are not the same sort of thing at all. And then there is “stuff.” Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx makes recurrent mention of the family linens, which were its most important possession. Things have changed. We are now living in the age of Marie Kondo, trying to empty our crammed closets. We are trying to make do with less, not out of frugality, but simply to unburden our minds. It seems ridiculous to think of “stuff” as “private property,” because who else would want it? This reflects our highly safeguarded property rights as well as an era of material plenty; I don’t mean to suggest that human nature has changed since Marx’s day. But our arrangements have changed — more than we may think.

Finally — before turning to the opening of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell — I read James Wood on David Szalay. I read a story by Szalay late last year, and it made a strong impression. I shall probably pick up a copy of Szalay’s book, All That Man Is. Wood brought up Knausgaard and Houellebecq, which startled me, because no writer is more joyously alive, or more capable of articulating minutiae in spacious narrative arcs, than Knausgaard, whereas Houellebecq’s literary weight is no greater than that of any other boring French think piece. (Dwight Garner gave the Szalay a rave in this morning’s Times.)

Where are the women? That’s what all this depressing reading left me wondering. Are the women off doing girlie things? Are they rolling their eyes? Do they really understand what a total mess unsupervised men can make? Help!

Bon week-end à tous!