Archive for February, 2018

Gotham Diary:
February 2018 (IV)

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

27 February; 1 and 2 March

Tuesday 27th

Max Boot has written a might-have-been book about Vietnam, or at least that is how reviewers are approaching his biography of Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken. Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, makes a connection that, oddly, Boot doesn’t: Lansdale was a model for Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American, the suite of satirical vignettes published by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958.

I may not remember when The Ugly American came out, exactly, but I remember when it was new, and much talked about (it stayed on the best-seller list for over a year). I couldn’t have been less interested. Growing up in the fifties, I didn’t need to be told that Americans were ugly. And ugly wasn’t the worst of it. At least you could look the other way if a photograph of first lady Mamie Eisenhower came up — my Lord, how drab and plain and out-of-place she looked; in comparison, Eleanor Roosevelt possessed the dignified hideousness of genuine royalty — but could you shut out the braying of grown men shilling the glories of big business? No. But metaphorically, I kept my fingers in my ears until I reached the piece and quiet of boarding school. By then, President Kennedy was already setting a new style for more measured discourse and subtler enthusiasm.

Still, I wasn’t interested in Asia, certainly not in present-day Asia. I was doubly not interested. Asian civilizations didn’t appeal to me, and the value of Asian nations — aside from Thailand and Japan, all of them only recently independent of foreign domination — as pawns in the Cold War appealed to me even less. The Cold War was as obnoxious as the braying about business, even if it was conducted in winks, nods, and whispers. And although I didn’t quite grasp that the nasty hot war in Vietnam was a collaboration of ideology and project financing, I understood that it was stupid and pointless. I do wish that I’d read The Ugly American at the time — in the late Sixties, anyway. As it happens, I bought a copy a while back, and was even able to find it. Reading it was great fun. Well, I laughed a lot. But Burdick and Lederer might as well have signed their book “Cassandra,” for it was no more likely that Americans would either avoid intervention in Vietnam or that they would intervene effectively than it was that Oedipus would marry somebody not his mother.

As I read through The Ugly American, I reflected on the problems of the British in India, which seemed fundamentally similar.

  • With regard to armed conflict, the British never learned to engage with Indians on the same terms. Either they overwhelmed them with crushing, hateful force, or they wasted their bullets.
  • British civil servants in India not only lived in gated communities but enjoyed a higher standard of living than their pay would have allowed them back home. This attracted opportunists.
  • The British committed themselves, with a combination of high-mindedness and profit-seeking, to “modernizing” India. This had nothing to do with real modernization, which would have attempted to bring Indian culture into line with Enlightenment values. It was merely a program of capital development that meant little or nothing to lives of ordinary Indians. The difference is highlighted by the fact that the Subcontinent’s extensive railways were not accompanied by urban sewage systems.

It seemed to me that Burdick and Lederer were suggesting that the follies of American aid in Southeast Asia were much the same, but just in case I failed to infer this from the mordant humor, they spelled it all out in an Epilogue.

  • American military leaders ought at least to read the writing of Mao Zedong. Two central chapters (11 and 12) in The Ugly American illustrate this point with cinematic gusto. Sixty years later, the American military is not very good at guerilla war. To be sure, the greatest impediment is overcoming the tribal nature of guerilla tactics: how does a tall, strapping blonde from Alabama blend in among smaller men with different features? But it doesn’t appear that much effort has been made. We are still drilling uniformed men as if it were 1600. (Perhaps drones will make guerilla warfare obsolete.)
  • Foreign-service recruitment in Washington and elsewhere presented a garishly vulgar picture of expat life in Southeast Asia, representing it as one big cocktail party punctuated by shopping sprees at the PX. This not only appealed to “mediocrities,” as Burdick and Lederer repeatedly call them, but repelled idealists who might have put service before career advancement.
  • Southeast Asians are peasants — subsistence farmers, preoccupied by getting enough to eat — and they need the kind of agricultural aid that (you’d think) the American land-grant universities were designed to provide. Better livestock management, more efficient water pumps — cheap, small scale improvements to the lives of ordinary country people. And yet all the Americans could think of offering were highways and canals.

One truly dismal side-effect of reading The Ugly American these days is concluding that Americans didn’t even learn anything from Vietnam: the failure was indeed totally complete. There’s something about our gun-control problem that seems deeply stupid in the same way the the misadventure in Vietnam was deeply stupid — the kind of stupidity that only meritocrats like Robert McNamara can whip up.



Thursday 1st

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has been sitting at the bottom of my book pile for a few weeks. When I got it, I read a chunk of it, then set it aside. It’s dispiriting stuff, and, during the past couple of weeks, I’ve often wondered why I bought it. Surely not just because everybody else did! Michael Wolff writes very well, but the subject matter is something else, right?

A day or so ago, I saw that I must decide whether to finish the book or to toss it. If it hadn’t been as well-written as it is, I’d have tossed it. But I picked it up instead and forged on. I was surprised to discover that it was no longer so unpleasant. Indeed, it had become, somehow, excitingly revelatory. It wasn’t that there were things in Fire and Fury that I didn’t really “know.” But there was something big that I hadn’t figured out.

It is a commonplace in my part of the world to pronounce Donald Trump as unfit to be president. He’s uneducated (not for lack of tuition payments); he won’t read, he won’t learn, he won’t listen. He believes that he already knows everything that needs to be known. This is political and institutional heresy to almost everyone in his entourage. Wolff tells us that, in the early days of the administration, many White House staffers resolved their cognitive dissonance by deciding that, having won the election, Trump must know something. But it isn’t what Trump knows. Trump doesn’t need to know anything. It’s who he is. Who is he? He is John Q Public, that’s who. He represents everyone in this country, everyone in the Western world, who is sick and tired of the smoky atmosphere of secret knowledge that surrounds all the institutions of public life. When Trump asks why he can’t do something, he wants an answer that anybody could understand, in three sentences max. And then he’s going to do what he wants to do.

Trump represents the voter who isn’t interested in studying the ins and outs of governments, and who doesn’t think it should be necessary. He’s the voter who is tired of being lied to.

There has been a lot of lying. For at least two generations, politicians and other public officials have deemed the public incapable of grasping the truth about anything, which is, basically, it’s complicated, and, even more basically, we’re on the take. As I was reading Fire and Fury, I was wondering how it was that Washington, DC, with its avenues of orderly beaux-arts office buildings and its legions of capable aides like Katie Walsh, came to be regarded as a swamp. How could something so highly organized be associated with shapeless slime? The answer — my answer, anyway — it twofold. At bottom, Washington has been purchased/corrupted by business interests. Without the financial support of these interests, it would be impossible for men and women from middle-class backgrounds to attain elected office, and they would face penniless retirement when their terms came to an end. The awful truth about representative democracy is that it requires a disinterested class of independently wealthy public servants. Failing that, our government is run by the dependently wealthy.

As for the it’s complicated issue, that’s the awful truth about all large institutions. Their complexity increases and then sprawls. All institutions are abstractions designed to organize the behavior and effort of many people: they’re really nothing more than what people think they are. Looking back on a thousand years of institutional history in the West, I think it fair to say that most institutions degrade over time in a very specific way: maintaining the existence of the institution becomes more important to its officials than the quality of its output.* And, even if that doesn’t happen, the output of an institution will, over time, cease to serve its intended purpose. Society evolves, and values evolve with it. Once upon a time, gentle birth was the sine qua non of political advancement. Nowadays, it’s doing well on tests — although that’s not working so well right now. No one has yet figured out how to identify and promote, in any systematic way, intelligent men and women of strong moral character.

The good thing about having Donald Trump in the White House is that he’s bored and irritated by institutional procedure — just like everyone who isn’t already part of it. Steve Bannon could hold Trump’s attention by entertaining him, usually with apocalyptic forecasts that miraculously involved success for the President. Many voters were similarly entertained, and they paid for their entertainment with votes. They didn’t expect Donald Trump to reveal that he was made of presidential timber. They expected him to go on being just like them. Whether this is a viable development in the government of the United States remains to be seen, but we know from Trump what it is that ordinary people want. We know from him what turns them off. We might actually learn from paying attention to him how to make our institutions more responsive and effective, or indeed how to design new institutions. This is the point to which our society has evolved — it has no more patience with meritocrats. If you regard an electorate made up of millions of Trumps as hopelessly degenerate, then there is nothing for you to do for the life of this country.

*Perhaps because its output is raw, absolute power, the British Parliament, with its genius for reinvention on the fly, is an exception to this rule.


Friday 2nd

Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, arrived the other day, and I read the last one, “Slander,” right away. It’s about how an addiction to Fox News poisoned Robinson’s elderly mother’s relationship with her daughter.

I … a self-professed liberal, was one of those who had ruined America. I would go to hell for it, too, a fact she considered both regrettable and just.

Robinson was not deceived by this appearance of high moral ground, however.

For my mother and her friends, this was excitement, a big dose of adrenaline…

I read this with interest because a member of our family, also in the tenth decade of life, has been similarly disturbed. Even though, in our case, hell and religion don’t come into it, conducting a conversation is very difficult, notwithstanding a ban on political topics.

Robinson’s complaints are by now familiar, but it’s odd that she is still the only person making them. Perhaps not: her complaints, are, after all, entirely positive. She wants to know why we can’t see that we live in a wonderful, fortunate country. A country that’s well worth the trouble required to make it better. She can’t understand why we seem to want to destroy it. Why do we have such low opinions of ourselves? There is no doubt that, if we all saw America as Robinson sees it, we would live brighter, happier, and more sensible lives — more or less automatically. Robinson doesn’t ask us to do anything difficult. She does not call for sacrifices. She only wants us to look around and pay attention. In “Slander,” her reference to adrenaline suggests an awareness that it is more fun to tear something down in a fit of excitement than to devote thought and patience to its betterment.

Robinson attributes our failure to do ourselves justice to the fun-house mirrors of right-wing television, dominated by a pseudomoralism that has drained Christianity of its appeal to love and generosity.

Dystopian media arose with this Christianity of the Right. It would lose a great part of its market share if Christian standards were applied to its product, and then the atmosphere of this dear country would change in a week. The truth about Obama’s birthplace or Trump’s relations with Russia will never be established to the satisfaction of everyone, but Christians know truth of another order, that human beings are created in the image of God. They are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights — that is, unalienable claims on our respect. This is the truth that has made us free.

I agree, I agree — except I don’t invoke God. I understand that Robinson’s argument isn’t with the likes of me. It’s with those who profess to share her religion and her theology without manifesting concordant behavior. Nevertheless, I wish I could overcome the feeling, which inevitably accompanies the reading of Robinsons’ beautiful writing, of being an uninvited guest. By no means unwelcome — but ininvited.


In the title essay, Robinson embroils herself with the irritating question, What are the humanities for? The question is irritating because it cannot, ought not, be answered. A similarly dunderheaded instrumentalism animates the question, What is this book about? To the extent that the humanities are for or books are about anything, they are not very important, something that the people asking the questions seem to know.

My instinct is to claim that books and the humanities are expressions of beauty, but “beauty” trails a lot of baggage that I should then be obliged to explain. Robinson provides an anecdote that, in its starkness, does the work of beauty without appearing to have anything to do with it. It comes at the end of a paragraph that begins with Tocqueville and Keats and that ends with this almost inconsequent statement:

I talked once with a cab-driver who had spent years in prison. He said he had no idea that the world was something he could be interested in. And then he read a book.

That’s it; nothing about the book itself, and nothing about where it was read. I ought to leave it there, perhaps. But I can’t resist suggesting that beauty is simply the fulcrum on which one book can reveal the whole world.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
February 2018 (III)

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

20, 21 and 22 February

Tuesday 20th

Because a friend of mine was reading it, I thought I would read it, too. The subtitle was certainly intriguing: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. But there wasn’t much in David Crystal’s Making Sense for me. It is a pedagogue’s book, intended for parents and teachers who want to help children speak and write as well as they can. Frequently quite witty, it made it laugh a lot. Here are two lines from a delicious verse that Crystal quotes (they come from a poem, published in a 1924 issue of Punch, that mocks the use of Latin plurals in English):

May the man who says ‘gymnasia’
Be afflicted with aphasia!

But I did not find the book at all glamorous.

I’m not altogether sure what grammar really is. Where does grammar stop, and rhetoric begin? You can draw lines where you like, but they dissolve in the heat of use. A fluent speaker is conscious of neither. Rules governing the parts of speech and the ordering of words have been mastered and are reinforced by the everyday stream of sentences. Rhetorical strategies for persuasive argument have become instinctive. Out of grammar and rhetoric, the good writer forges a personal style, a kind of very local accent with only one speaker. The challenge is to develop a style that is pleasing, distinctive, and yet readily intelligible. There are no handbooks for that, although F R Lucas’s Style is stuffed with things to keep in mind.

Genuine rules of grammar deflect the writer from ways of saying things that will slow readers down by making comprehension difficult or impossible. Prescriptivist rules, such as the notorious ban on split infinitives, are points of style masquerading as grammar; indeed, the whole prescriptivist program betrays an attempt to infuse English with Latin manners. I acquired the rudiments of my own style at a time when splitting infinitives was not worth the trouble — the cocked-eyebrow reactions — so I learned not only to avoid splitting infinitives but to avoid the occasions of splitting them as well. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with them, except that they’re usually ungainly.

Working in radio for several years taught me to speak almost as scrupulously as I write. And writing as many as 2500 words a day on this site has taught me to write as personally as I speak — to resist the rather architectural urge to offset my native long-windedness by means of unnatural compression. (You may be sure that, in the course of reading each entry through before publishing it, I remove at least one semicolon.) More important, and more difficult, than either of these is the ongoing effort to be a better listener. Listening well is more than a virtue: it is not until we listen that we know our own minds. People who don’t listen know only what they think they think.

It’s like everything else: you become yourself by paying attention to everybody else.


Wednesday 21st

Reading Ronan Farrow’s latest New Yorker exposé, this one about the President and the “slim brunette” whom he met at an Apprentice party held at the Playboy Mansion, I reflected on Hugh Hefner, who probably did more than anyone else to bring us to the #MeToo moment — that is, to make #MeToo inevitable.

The premise was always ridiculous: Playboy would domesticate male sexuality. Perhaps there was something about the Cold War, that great unhinger of steady thinking, that made this objective seem possible, even desirable. In any case, the premise, stated in another way, insisted that there was nothing pornographic about Playboy‘s everyday exposure of bare breasts. On the contrary, those images of naked bosoms would nourish healthy libidos. (There really was a midcentury anxiety that men were becoming lackluster lovers.) Lounging amid the ponds of print in which Hefner’s “philosophy” and his talented writers’ hip arts criticism were made to look soberly adult, the rosy nipples of smiling beauties would arouse a response that could not really be called impure, because, after all, the walls of the great museums are covered with the same sort of thing, and as long as actual genitalia were cropped out of the shot, how erotic could Playboy be?

But Playboy was about access, not eros. You could buy the magazine, for one thing. From the start, it proclaimed itself as being a respectable publication — a somewhat ironic move at the very moment when the social architecture of respectability was beginning to collapse. Newsstands carried Playboy right next to Time — or at least somewhere in the same rack. While bringing the magazine into church might be frowned on, Playboy wasn’t something that had to be kept hidden. You could let the world know that you had access to the centerfold, to look at if not wherever then at least however you wanted to.

You could go to a Playboy Club. So much has been said about the indignity of pouring women into bunny suits and making them behave like playthings that our attention has been directed away from the fact that the clubs provided access to this kind of fun. They made it available, at least in the major metropolitan areas. It might not have been much fun for the girls, but they did the job, for whatever reasons of their own. That was their business, and all it took was money. But you weren’t buying flesh by the hour. You were buying access to the company of pretty girls, girls who smiled at you when they brought you drinks.

Playboy promised a supply of willing young ladies who might be willing to follow dinner at a romantic restaurant with a visit to your bedroom, and who then afterwards, like Karen McDougal (the slim brunette), might sweetly decline any payment. Imagine that! It’s almost as though the girls learned about the world from Playboy, too!

Now, none of this would have been news to the old Hollywood moguls. But very powerful men were rare back then, as indeed they always are, and it was not difficult for them to behave with discretion. But Playboy, however coy it was about pubic hair, threw sexual discretion to the winds, and it invited every healthy male with a modicum of disposal income to join the party. In the fleshpots of New York and Hollywood, the fun became so pervasive that the moguls themselves became brazen. I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein would have believed that he could ask Gwyneth Paltrow for a massage without being laughed at if it hadn’t been for a lifetime pickled in Playboy. If not the magazine itself, then certainly its philosophy, as American as latte grande.

When I think about all the grave discussions about Playboy that I sat through in college, debates that always ended with a judgment in favor of the magazine — it was serious, it was okay; it wasn’t prurient — I can’t decide whether to laugh or to howl in outrage. Of course, there were no women at Notre Dame back then. The women were all across the street, at St Mary’s. As I recall, Playboy was not delivered to campus mailboxes (the university had its own post office). That had been true of Time, too, at one time. Looking back, I’m glad that the school put up some resistance to Hugh Hefner, just as I’m grateful that it prohibited fraternities of any kind.

Maybe the Playmates were okay. But the fact that most of the women who appeared in Playboy were in a state of undress was not okay. And yet the confinement of women to cuddlesome contours was precisely the whisper of access that misled several generations of American men.


Thursday 22nd

Facebook. If it weren’t for my daughter and a friend or two, I’d cancel my account. Can you do that? In today’s Times, Farhad Manjoo warns that we may soon be living in “Alexa’s World.” I think that we’ll be giving that a pass. If Facebook can morph into the destroyer of democracy, what’s to stop Alexa from summoning armed drones to exterminate the peons?

Yesterday, I read a piece in the New Statesman about Jacob Rees-Mogg. They say that this man of archaic, not to say reactionary outlook can never lead the Conservative Party in Britain, but they said that a grabbing lout like Donald Trump could never lead the United States. It’s arguable that nobody knows anything about Western society anymore. It seems apparent that élites everywhere have provided themselves with gala echo chambers. How many Democrats, how many Remainers failed to vote because they were assured that their cause would prevail? On the other hand, say that Hillary Clinton won a couple million more votes than her opponent; does that make her more representative of the American people? How is it possible to represent a polarized body politic?

How did life-and-death issues like abortion and gun control become so divisive? How do we explain the failure of clear-headed leaders to be both more calm and more persuasive? My wife recalls a recent conversation in which a man told her that it was good to have assault weapons in the house because it would “improve the odds” when the government attacked. Whence this mad fantasy? Please point to the well-armed, innocent American who saved the lives of himself and his family from official assault. Ruby Ridge and Waco are not good examples! Whither do rogue males escape?

How long do people have to poke at an iPhone before abandoning the dream that it will surprise them with undreamed-of delights? Why does one person talking on a phone sound so much louder and more intrusive than two people talking together?

Why does everyone deny being prejudiced? How did we ever get so comfortable looking the other way?

For the answers to these and many other urgent questions, send a gold doubloon and forty boxtops to Basil Fawlty at his place in Torquay.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Awakening of Europe
February 2018 (II)

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

13, 15 and 16 February

Tuesday 13th

He’s a funny one, that David Brooks. He tries to end a rather apolocalyptic appraisal of today’s politics, in today’s Times, with a dose of stern hope.

Eventually, conservatives will realize: If we want to preserve conservatism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors. Liberals will realize: If we want to preserve liberalism, we can’t be in the same party as the clan warriors.

Eventually, those who cherish the democratic way of life will realize they have to make a much more radical break than any they ever imagined. When this realization dawns the realignment begins. Even with all the structural barriers, we could end up with a European-style multiparty system.

The scarcity mentality is eventually incompatible with the philosophies that have come down through the centuries. Decent liberals and conservatives will eventually decide they need to break from it structurally. They will realize it’s time to start something new.

This is all very well, but what possible interest can it have for generations heading into a long stretch of scarcity on every front? When will this wonderful “eventually” come about? Will the authoritarianism of warrior clans have stifled the possibility of multiparty democracy? Will people still be able to read?


In one of the great stories in David Szalay’s All That Man Is, the protagonist is an academic whose dog-bone is the End of the Middle Ages. When did the Middle Ages end? In one way, I find the question endlessly interesting, because so many different dates can be plausibly argued, ranging from 1350 (the end of the first and most terrible wave of plague) to 1789 (the end of the ancien régime), with plenty of alternatives in between, the favorites being 1492 (Columbus) and 1500 (1492 rounded out). More seriously, though, it’s absolutely pointless to ask. The very idea of “the Middle Ages” is bogus.

“The Middle Ages” posits a certain sequence. First, there was Greece-and-Rome, or Classical Antiquity. Then there was a Dark Age, following the collapse of Roman authority. In between the Dark Age and Modern Times, which many conventionally (but unintelligently) date from something called the Renaissance, stretch the Middle Ages, an in-between time of movement from dark to light. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church provided a shelter that was inevitably outgrown and cast aside when, in Modern Times, men regained the intellectual clarity and material affluence of Classical Antiquity.

That’s one way of looking at it. It is more correct, I think, to  regard Classical Antiquity as an extremely rare and precious blossom that was unknown to the overwhelming bulk of its contemporaries. All those statues, all that poetry — well, there wasn’t very much of it, because only the rich could afford it. It was never in the sinews of everyday society. It is also important to note that Classical Antiquity was confined to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, never penetrating very far inland at any point. There were outposts of luxury, some as far away as Britain. But these were encampments in foreign territory, much like the old American settlement around the Aramco headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

By 800, about half of the Mediterranean littoral was in Islamic hands. The sea was no longer a binder but a border. The city of Rome was a shadow of its former self, its glories long since removed to Constantinople, and its empire newly placed in the hands of the Frankish upstart whom we know as Charlemagne. Cut off from the Eastern Empire, the Latin world lost touch with a great deal of its Classical inheritance. A new civilization, one that called itself Christendom, grew slowly and arduously in territories that had been wastelands in Classical times. It was weak and subject to invasion for about four hundred years, but thereafter it went from strength to strength. When Christendom fractured in the Reformation, it became more convenient to speak of this civilization as “European” or “Western.” This European world was not a continuation, in any meaningful way, of Classical Antiquity, and the so-called Middle Ages were its early years. Organically, we are still living in that world.

It is hard to be sanguine about the future of Europe — which includes most of the Americas as well as many far-flung regions (Australia, for example). In countless ways, Europe has destroyed the larger world which it developed; just one of those destructions has led to the disruptive influx of refugees into the heart of Europe, kindling xenophobic populism. The great European revolutions of circa 1800 have confused almost everything, while degrading, for the first time in human history, not just a local ecology but the planet as a whole.

Like David Brooks, I look forward to the realizations that thoughtful people are going to have to reach. Like him, I also worry that thoughtful people are among the scarcest of resources, not just in the world at large, where they have always been rare, but at the top of the tree, where they have been so extensively replaced by a mindless meritocracy.


Thursday 15th

Last night, I stayed up very late in order to finish Chanson Douce, the novel by French writer Leïla Slimani that has just appeared here, in translation, as The Perfect Nanny. I first heard of the book from a piece in The New Yorker by Lauren Collins, “The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France.” Slimani has appropriated the rough outlines of a grisly New York story — a nanny murdered two of her charges, a little girl and her baby brother, and then tried but failed to kill herself — and refashioned it in a French setting. This is a shrewd move, placing the novel above the fray of socio-political bickering. The immigrant who committed the actual crime in New York is transformed into a blonde woman from the native lower class; it’s the mother, in the story, who comes from somewhere else. (Slimani herself was born in Morocco.) And the fact that the crime is imported detaches the novel from the hostile debates about professional women and the poorly paid surrogates who raise their children that would surround a French scandal.

Not that Gallimard, the publisher of Chanson Douce, sought complete detachment. The blurb on the back cover tells us that “beyond its detailed portraits of a young couple and of the mysterious character of the nanny, the novel reveals our society’s conceptions of love and education, of the connection between power and money, of the prejudices of class and culture.” According to Collins, Chanson Douce

is not so much about motherhood as it is about what the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie has called the “neoliberal intensification of mothering.” An activity, not a state, mothering—along with its gender-neutral version, parenting—is competitive and outsourceable. Slimani tries to put a price on the anxieties, hypocrisies, and inequalities that arise from the commodification of our most intimate relationships. “I wanted to take an interest in the home, which we always see as a space of softness, of protection, where we go to take shelter,” she told me. “It’s supposed to be a space where questions of power and domination are nonexistent. But that’s completely false!” The novelist Rachel Cusk has chronicled what motherhood did to her; Slimani examines what mothering is doing to society.

Well, maybe. Chanson Douce is not nearly so analytical or programmatic as Collins suggests. It’s much better than that. The nightmare that it relates unfolds naturalistically, convincingly, horrifically. If there is a theoretical aspect to this novel, I should say that Chanson Douce is a study in the discomfort of consciousness.

Slimani begins with the immediate aftermath of the crime. (Displaying a classical sense of the sacred, she refrains from depicting its commission.) Again, a shrewd move. She may have been inspired by the awareness that, if her novel took off, most readers would know what it was about — what happens — before turning past the title page. She may also have sought to exploit Alfred Hitchcock’s wisdom about the difference between suspense and surprise. Hitchcock claimed somewhere that he made his movies to be seen at least twice, and I doubt very much that there is a fan of his artistry who hasn’t seen the major films many times more than that. Slimani’s opening gambit amounts to making the first read a second read: we know what’s going to happen right away. For some readers, that’s a disappointment. For such readers, I suppose, it’s necessary to share the characters’ ignorance in order to identify with them. Or it may be that they have no time for the uneasiness of irony.


Consciousness is not the same thing as awareness. Awareness is a characteristic of all living things, plants as well as animals. Human awareness is arguably more complicated than any other kind, because speech allows us to grasp aspects of reality that are not immediately present, as well as imaginary things that might or might not be real. Sometimes, consciousness is thought to be an awareness of one’s awareness, also something that is almost certainly peculiar to human beings. But I believe that consciousness is essentially ironic, that it is a special, and usually bitter, kind of awareness: the awareness of the ignorance of others. This is what Hitchcock means by his example of suspense: showing the audience that a bomb of which the characters are unaware has been activated. The audience knows something that the characters don’t, and moreover this is something that the characters really do need to know. The audience longs to share its knowledge with the unsuspecting characters. (In real life, a wicked person might cherish and take advantage of the ignorance — the innocence — of others, but I am taking good nature for granted.) Consciousness is an awareness of difference, of asymmetry, of unevenness. Its affect, we might say, is the sense of defect: there is something wrong about that difference; it’s an inequality that ought to be balanced.

(This is why you have to be in a very grounded frame of mind to peruse old photographs of yourself. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed by the impossible urge to throw yourself on the impending future — something like an activated bomb — so as to protect the figure in the image who doesn’t know what’s coming.)

It is common to talk of consciousness as the highest, or most distinctive activity of the human mind. Perhaps it is. But it is also something that we avoid wherever possible. It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the bit of extra information that distinguishes unconscious nakedness (in the bath, say) from shameful nudity. Adam and Eve, waking to the fact of their nakedness, were really learning that they were not one and the same person. They were two different people, each with a certain demand for privacy. Sometimes, as #MeToo has made abundantly clear, our demand for privacy forbids other people from imposing their nakedness upon us.


Chanson Douce is readable — bearable — because Slimani allows us to forget, from time to time, what’s going to happen; she enables us to get lost in the present awareness of the most sympathetic characters, the parents of the two children who are going to be killed. They are Paul, a recording engineer and a hearty blond, and Myriam, his maghrébine wife, an attorney who retires from a promising career when she has her children, but who soon tires of the domestic round of daycare. She is ambitious and willing to work hard — at the law. She appears to resolve her uneasiness about possibly neglecting her children by befriending Louise, the woman whom she and her husband hire to take care of them. “Befriending” is of course too strong a word, but Myriam only gradually comes to understand this, to realize that friendship with an uneducated woman who wears nail polish in vulgar colors is impossible. For his part, Paul is a more generic figure, which is no failing on Slimani’s part: most men are generic when it comes to fatherhood, wanting to do the right thing, and waiting to be told what it is.

Although we see a good deal of Louise from the moment that she takes charge of little Mila and Adam, we don’t get inside her until her employers take her with them on a Greek-island holiday. For Louise, it is an awakening to beauty. She is as transfixed by the glories of Aegean sunlight as any poet, but unlike poets and other educated types she isn’t prepared to think through the impediments to her taking up residence in Greece. All she knows is that she wants it, and so she holds on to Paul and Myriam, because they can give it to her, at least for a few days each year. If she is aware of the possibility that Paul and Myriam might not invite her to accompany them a second time, she deals with this by denial, the most common way of resisting consciousness. We learn, as the novel proceeds, that Louise is adept at denial, at believing that what she wants will be granted, despite all the evidence in her past to the contrary.

What Paul and Myriam take away from their Greek sojourn is also subconscious. They understand, but dimly and without articulation, that they have erred in blurring boundaries with Louise. Paul begins to feel a visceral dislike of Louise’s person. Myriam is not so resolute; she can’t afford to be. Louise has made herself indepensable — the children adore her — and Myriam’s career is taking off. The honeymoon, in which Louise seemed to be too good to be true — not only does Louise take excellent care of the children, she also keeps the apartment wonderfully clean and fresh — begins to feel like a trap that has shut behind Myriam.

Gradually we realize that Louise is a monster, or at least a monstrosity. Her own childhood is never discussed, but we infer, from her treatment of her own child, a “disruptive” girl called Stéphanie who, by the time of Louise’s employment by Paul and Myriam, has long since disappeared, that it must have been characterized by violence and neglect. Sensing, again unconsciously, that she may lose her job — Adam will soon be going to school — Louise resolves that Paul and Myriam must have another baby. Her pathetic attempt to bring this about is so distracting that she no longer delights the children with her dark fairy tales. In the end, she cares more about herself than she cares about them. In this moment, she realizes that she has never known how to love, and that she will be punished for not knowing. This is what gives her permission resolve an awful situation in the only way that she does know how.


Every grade of consciousness is manifest in Chanson Douce, from Louise’s denial to our prescience. I rather doubt that Slimani set out to write a novel about consciousness, so the matter of her intentions, of the nature of her awareness of what she was doing, is also in play. But we shall leave the meta for another time. Chanson Douce is a story about people trying not to become aware of uncomfortable truths, while denying the reader any such comfort, and in which illumination, such as it is, leads directly to disaster. It makes Myriams of us all.


Friday 16th

(I might as well confess right now that I wrote what follows without looking back to what I wrote on Tuesday. I didn’t mention The Making of the Middle Ages then, but of course I was reading it, and I apologize for recurring to a topic as if I hadn’t mentioned it in some time.)

The other day, scanning the bookshelves for something lightweight and agreeable to carry along on a round of errands, I pulled down R W Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages, first published in 1952. I had read it before, and I knew that it was very good, despite the title, which ought to be The Awakening of Europe. I tossed it into my bag. Later on in the day, I was reminded by something in Southern’s book of a well-told tale involving a reforming pope. On a tour of the Rhineland, the pope stage-managed the relics of a saint so effectively that a gathering of of senior ecclesiastics was spooked into confessing their sins. I had read this story recently, but where? I went back to the shelves and looked through a few likely suspects, but the story wasn’t in any of them. Had I been more patient, I would have come across it, twenty or thirty pages later, in the very book that reminded me of it. And, yes, I had read it recently: according to my library notes, I read The Making of the Middle Ages in May 2016.

But The Making of the Middle Ages is one of those special books that stand out on the history shelf, partly because they’re elegantly organized and partly because, no matter how reasonable and straightforward their syntax, they are inflected by a strong personal accent. I’m thinking of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England; I wish I could think of others. I suppose that Albert O Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests is one, too.


Like Hirschman’s, Southern’s book is an intellectual history, a history of the development of ideas. He begins by defining the period that he intends to study, which runs from 972 to 1204 — a little more than two centuries, but not just any two centuries. His opening date lies right beyond the edge of the confusions of Merovingian and Carolingian Francia, an epoch that closed for good with a decisive military battle in 955. His closing date, which marks the launching of the “deplorable” Latin Empire in Constantinople, only slightly precedes the establishment of Modern Europe’s political outlines.

Having discussed the geographical boundaries of Europe and the hostilities beyond it that shaped the intellectual climate, Southern settles down in the core of medieval Europe, which ran from Southern England across Northern France, stretching from there into Germany and Northern Italy. The thinkers whom he writes about roamed throughout these regions with a readiness that belies the difficulties of travel. The sense of a unified intellectual bloc, contentious to be sure but more or less “on the same page,” is enhanced by Southern’s disregard for the narrative of political history. This is not to say that Southern overlooks the secular world altogether; he spends several profitable pages on the growth of the County of Anjou under the upstart line of Fulks and Geoffreys that climaxed with the passage of the territory into the bosom of the English crown. But an intellectual history of the period is bound to be slanted toward clergymen, who were by and large the only literate Europeans, and increasingly responsible during this time for civil administration.

It was during these centuries that the Roman Catholic Church became the autonomous confraternity of celibate males that it remains to this day. The blurred frontiers of religious and secular life that characterized the less organized arrangements of earlier times were brought into sharp focus, eagerly patrolled by churchmen who were determined to take no orders from kings or emperors that did not already comport with their own views. It was also at this time that hosts of robust horsemen were transformed from gangsters into hereditary aristocrats. The dwindling power of both groups, many centuries later, is the preliminary stage of modern history.

Women are almost invisible in Southern’s world. Agnes of Poitou, a lady of the Eleventh Century who was Empress, then regent, and finally papal ally, makes an interesting appearance, as does the pre-Conquest Countess of Northumbria, Judith of Flanders. Although Southern’s concluding essay, “From Epic to Romance,” looks at the work of Chrétien de Troyes, it is devoted to the growth of what we might call passionate Christianity, a faith in which the suffering of Christ is more salient than the Resurrection. This shift marks the final acceptance of an indefinitely postponed Apocalypse. The promise of corporal afterlife was never withdrawn, but even if we are, at the end of time, to see God in our flesh, we must learn how to live until then, and the message that St Francis made as clear as anyone ever did was rehearsed by Saints Anselm and Bernard. Pity and sympathy are presented in emphatically male, if not exactly masculine, dress. Eleanor of Aquitaine, a figure of the first cultural and political importance, is not mentioned.

Reading The Making of the Middle Ages this time, I noticed something that I’ve missed until now. I have always thought of the influx of Greek learning into Europe that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as a longed-for illumination; for the first time, the readers of the West could read Homer’s epics (even if most did so in translation). I have, I supposed, regarded this transfer of texts as the germination of the Renaissance. But doing so overlooks the plain and dumb fact that in 1204, Southern’s end date, the Crusaders who were pillaging Constantinople had all the access to Greek texts that could be desired, and yet they were interested only in relics. Far from taking an interest in Greek culture, they tried to pave it over with their own Latin one. They were not ready for anything like a “renaissance.” And the actual Renaissance was underway long before 1453. By 1440, for example, Lorenzo Valla had completed his philological exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a fabrication on its face, as the forgery of a document that could not possibly have written in the Fourth Century. Had the Renaissance depended on inspiration from the East, it would have taken much longer for the study of Greek to spark the critical study of the New Testament that was so instrumental to religious reformers at the beginning of the next century. But of course: I had never imagined the possibility of an early thirteenth-century flowering because “Crusader” and “Renaissance” are words that cannot fit into any single thought.

By the way, the Pope was Leo IX (1049-1054), and the business with the bones of St Remigius took place at Rheims, which is not on the Rhine but on the way from the Rhineland to Rome. Southern tells the story very well.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
What Everybody Knew
February 2018 (I)

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

6, 7 and 8 February

Tuesday 6th

“Everybody knew,” he says in a disgusted whisper about Harvey Weinstein. “Everybody knew.”

That’s actor Tim Robbins in the Times. The same can be said about the case of James Levine: here in New York, everyone interested in serious music “knew” about the great conductor’s irregular sex life. Well, of course there were only a few people who actually knew — relative to the overall population, anyway. But most people had heard tell. And what happens, when everybody knows, is that nobody does anything. Offenses already committed go unpunished, while further offenses go unstopped.

Something beyond knowing is required. In the old days, that something was religious sanctions, often backed up by the power of law. We don’t want to go back to that. We don’t want to give anyone the power to forbid Harvey Weinstein to do things, because that power necessarily includes the power to decide what to forbid.

Back in the days when religious officials had secular clout, there was also a social institution that protected women from the Weinsteins of the world. This was called respectability, and, like religious sanctions, it had many harsh side effects. In the name of protecting women, women punished women, whenever women disregarded respectable scruples. Nineteenth-century novels are full of the heartbreaking tales of fallen women, whose shame so often seems to lead, however mysteriously, to poverty and illness, and ultimately to death. A few women braved this treatment. George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans) lived openly with a married man for years, and although the men of literary London were not ashamed to be seen at her receptions, their wives stayed away. But then, she was a very famous and successful novelist. Few women had her resources. Outside metropolitan areas, women deemed to be not respectable risked being hounded out of town. We don’t want to go back to that, either.

My wife, Kathleen, a lawyer in her mid-sixties, has never attended a meeting in a man’s hotel room. She doesn’t believe that she has ever been asked to do so, but she knows that she would have refused, or, even more likely, headed off an invitation before it was made. She says that she cannot understand why a woman would do such a thing, but then she is a graduate of Brearley, Smith, and, did I mention, a lawyer. Let’s throw in the Convent of the Sacred Heart while we’re at it: everything about Kathleen’s upbringing instilled an almost militant self-respect, a powerful deterrent to unwanted advances. Like George Eliot, she has had unusual resources. What about ordinary girls? What about girls who are naïve, or starstruck, or very ambitious, girls whose judgment, for whatever reason, is a bit faulty? What about girls who are lonely or needy, whose imperfections may make them somewhat complicit in abuses of power by those who employ them? We appear to have arrived at a new unwillingness to dismiss the bad things that happen to these girls as just desserts or business as usual. That’s great. But how do we prevent them in the first place?

And how about men? It seems to me to be absolutely typical of Anglophone culture that here’s the deal: boys will be boys, but if you get caught, we’re gonna shoot you. Viva Las Vegas! Play your cards right, you can grab at will. Miss a trick, and you lose your job, possibly forever. So far, the #MeToo conversation has not sprouted a #NotI correlative.


As usual, liberalism is at the heart of the problem. (Cue mordant laughter.) Although the Founders piously believed that separating Church and State would allow churches to flourish, in mutual toleration, it wound up killing them, because a tolerant church is not a religious church. That’s to say that a religion that doesn’t frighten its observers into compliance loses observers, and a church that is complacent about the noncompliant folks who attend the church across the street isn’t very frightening. The Fear of God is something that, in the secular West, only observant Jews appear to have internalized, and even in that case, life in self-segregating neighborhoods entails frightening social pressures.

Most of us don’t want to go back to that. We’re happy with the liberal convention: in exchange for observing the public laws of society, we are granted the quiet enjoyment of our privacy. The problem with this social contract is that it is still rooted in the vision of a world of benign men who are the only parties to it — the dream of Enlightenment Europe. Women have fought successfully for participatory rights, but only to find that arrangements made by roughly equal males do not easily accommodate peculiarly female difficulties. Liberal society has always presupposed a membership of men who can take care of themselves, so that it doesn’t have to. This is why liberal society has been so bad at protecting the weak, aiding the poor, and, most notoriously, freeing the enslaved.

I want to pause here to address the widespread misconception that protecting the weak and aiding the poor are “liberal values.” They are not. That is why liberals have had to pass specific laws to deal with egregious social problems; left to itself, liberal society was prepared to go on living with them. As indeed it did, even after “liberal” laws were enacted. As we are finally openly admitting, it was one thing to enact laws that granted equal access to voting booths and decent schools, and other thing to enforce them. The liberal solution to social problems is to pass a law and hope for the best. Anything more invasive would disturb that quiet enjoyment — which in awful cases involve wife-beating, and in worse ones, children locked up in basements.

What would a liberal society look like of women undertook to re-imagine it?


Wednesday 7th

It’s time to get back to work on my writing project, an intellectual memoir in which I try to account for the way I think. My first draft, while readable enough, was encrusted with a great deal of biographical material that wasn’t relevant to my thinking life. That this material was also incomplete and even evasive annoyed one reader.

I’m having trouble deciding what do to with this second paragraph. Should it touch on the inspiration that I’m getting from Elizabeth David’s writing about food? From re-reading two biographies of David, both of which stress her proud and insistent privacy, which rejected all attempts to elicit information that she did not deem suitable for publication? The biographies are stuffed with such information, much of it unflattering. The result, however, is that the character of Elizabeth David that emerges from the pages of her own work seems to be the real, the important woman, while the subject of the biographies is an accident of human frailty. My own life story is full of mortifying incident. Tall, glib, and headstrong, I was a grossly presumptuous young man, usually unconscious of my manipulations, but inexcusably so. I ought to have known better. The only interesting thing about my catalogue of errors is that it seems to have come to an end, perhaps for no better reason than that I outgrew it. Or, perhaps, I finally figured out what I was trying to make of my life, and stopped thrashing around in dead ends.

In the alternative, my second paragraph might have jumped ahead to what’s on my mind today, which is three aspects of my intellect that seem to have been firmly in place by the time I got to college.

First, I regarded “academic success” as just that, a notion that must be buffered with scare quotes. It did not seem to me that, sciences aside (and I was never interested in science except as a subject of intellectual inquiry with a fascinating history), anybody was the wiser for having performed well on an examination. At boarding school, examinations dropped out of the picture during my senior year, in my favorite subject, English History. Tests were replaced by “papers,” an apparently unending stream of essays of six or seven pages in which I analyzed and discussed historical issues as well as I could. These papers were not about questions and answers but about me, about how well I not only understood something but could write about it persuasively. All that I remember of that year, at least so far as schoolwork was concerned, is typing those papers, week after week.

It was obvious to me that writing essays was the heart and soul of an education. It was hard work, because, probably as a consequence of being headstrong, I always seemed to know too much about some things and not enough about others. But there was tremendous satisfaction in typing up what I’d learned in my own words.

It was also obvious that there was no connection between the work that I was putting into my papers and the practical matter of getting a job some day, unless I wanted to teach English History, which wasn’t very likely, regardless of my own inclinations, because overall “academic success” eluded me. Studying for tests was inherently pointless and boring. It wasn’t always necessary for me, but when it was, the results were disappointing.

I outgrew this fussiness later, when, seven years after graduating from Notre Dame, I went back as a law student. I studied for tests; I studied hard. And even though the examinations all took the form of essay questions, I did not necessarily do very well, because by now I had a somewhat idiosyncratic prose style, with a Jamesian distaste for straightforward writing. Nevertheless, I got through it, and subsequently passed the New York State bar exam. But although I did learn to buckle down to the weary work of of evaluating proximate causes, my conviction that there was something bogus about American education was as firm as ever. American education was not about education, but about staffing a meritocracy.

Second, I was never a “person of faith.” I never believed in God. Walking down the aisle in my white First Communion suit, I worried about being struck down by lightning, my fraudulence exposed. But even my faith in a god who would punish me for not believing in him was wobbly. Looking back from early middle age, I thought I must have been a materialist from the beginning, incapable of believing in anything I couldn’t see or touch, but now that I’m an old man I have to confess that I believe, and have always believed, in a lot of things for which there is little or no positive evidence. I believe that a society in which people treat each other reasonably well is a functional and reliable as well a happy society (or happy enough). I believe that learning is important. But I can’t even imagine believing in a supreme being of some kind. Which is to say that, if it could be somehow demonstrated to me that there is such a being, I would still dismiss the news as meaningless, because I cannot comprehend such immensity.

As a consequence, I believed that human beings are the most intelligent and capable beings in the known universe. Existence must be its own significance.

Third, I was sure that nobody knew what was going on. I am about to try to explain what I meant, just now, by saying that existence must be its own significance. What was going on, really going on, way back in, say, 1960, was an almost but not quite chaotic cascade of the consequences of the great revolutions in human life that were launched in Western Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century. As Zhou Enlai was said to have said, it was still much too early to assess the implications of these upheavals. The meaning of life, which is to say the meaning of my life in a Westchester suburb during the Eisenhower Administrations, was nothing but the unfolding of contingencies triggered less than two hundred years earlier. Now, I didn’t know at the time that this was what was really going on. I knew that I didn’t know what was going on, either. But I was sure that people were wrong to think, as so many people seemed to do, that the world had been recreated in 1945, that the wonders of technology and the horrors of the Cold War were unprecedented novelties. Now I understand why they thought this: what adult wouldn’t have wanted to forget everything that had happened since — pick a date — 1848? 1860? 1870? 1914? 1929? 1933?

How, you may ask, can a little boy of nine or ten, no matter how smart or clever, see the emperor’s new clothes for what they are? As the Sixties would demonstrate, lots of kids had noticed the embarrassing nakedness. I never claimed to be unique.


Thursday 8th

It took a little while for me to order Justin Spring’s new book, The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy; eventually, I bought it for comic relief — which it amply provided. The comedy is intentional, I hasten to say, and confined largely to two chapters, one of which I’ve re-read with great glee; but more about that in a minute. I have been, as I’ve reported, reading about Elizabeth David, and it was getting to be too intense, as was reading her books themselves. I mentioned yesterday the connection that I feel between her story and mine (which has nothing to do with content or achievement); this only made the immersion more suffocating. Justin Spring provided marvelous respite. I’m not sure that this amounts to a recommendation, because reading Gourmands’ Way deepened many of the misgivings that I’d had about it before reading it. Nevertheless, it was a great treat.

My question going in was what, really, Spring’s six food writers had in common. Not even food, really, for Alexis Lichine, one of the three outliers in my view, wrote exclusively about wine, and he would have written more if he hadn’t been so busy marketing and selling it. The other two oddballs are A J Liebling, who doesn’t seem to have boiled an egg in his life, and Alice B Toklas, whose famous cookbook is a notoriously unreliable literary relic, written in conditions of dire financial distress. This leaves three figures who do form a group of sorts, Julia Child, Richard Olney, and MFK Fisher. But Fisher really doesn’t belong in such company; she has more in common, as a writer, with Toklas. Only Child and Olney can be regarded as developers of a “New Gastronomy,” although even that seems wrong, since both were students of traditional fare. The novelty, of course, was their persuading Americans to give it a try.

And this is where the “Americans in Paris” theme goes flat. Child and Olney were part of a larger Anglophone movement to respond to some social changes, most notably the disappearance of household servants, while resisting others, primarily the industrialization of food. And nobody expressed this movement’s mission better than the ultra-English Elizabeth David.

Good food is always trouble….Even more than long hours in the kitchen, fine meals require ingenious organization and experience which is a pleasure to acquire.

Lisa Chaney, who quotes this remark on page 264 of Elizabeth David, does not provide a source, but I’ll be on the lookout for it. In her television shows, Julia Child liked to assert that what she was doing was really pretty simple, but of course it would be simple only to someone who had done what she was doing — a lot. The idea that good food can be tossed off in ten minutes is irresistible, but it’s at best a gross deception, rather as it would be to say that it take only a little over a minute to play Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz. Chaney italicizes the last phrase in David’s comment, which is a pleasure to acquire. If acquiring experience in the kitchen is not a pleasure, then cooking is not for you. What surprised almost everybody during the Fifties and early Sixties was that the people who found it a pleasure constituted a substantial market.

In many ways, David spearheaded the movement, and was regarded, by Child and Olney along with everybody else, as having done so. And when we look at how and why David spearheaded it, we encounter a third element of change: travel. There had always been journalism for rich people looking for good restaurants, but David was a more serious, older kind of traveler. She actually lived on the shores of the Mediterranean, spending most of World War II in Alexandria and Cairo. She wrote her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food, in a kind of despair. It was partly the same despair that motivated Alice Toklas (money), but much more than that it was revolting against the deprivations of food-rationed postwar Britain. David famously wrote that merely writing words like “apricot” provided “assuagement.” Child and Olney also did more than just tour Paris and Provence. They lived there, Child for a time and Olney for most of his life. A great part of the appeal of following the recipes of these writers was and is to feed either memories of visits past or dreams of visits to come — visits that included or would include a kitchen in a foreign land.

Then — to return to Gourmands’ Way — there are the fascinating people whom Spring leaves on the sidelines, like Dione Lucas and “Philippe of the Waldorf,” the latter an extraordinary operator who controlled a $2.5 million food and wine budget (in the Forties!) and who was arrested for extortion and tax evasion — a most interesting character. There’s Philippe’s sometime wife, the extraordinary Poppy Cannon, a major perpetrator of processed food. There are Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. There’s James Beard, who did for American food what Spring’s crowd did for French. There’s Simone Beck, without whom Child’s career would not have launched. These characters rumble beneath Spring’s narrative like lumps under a carpet. I wanted them in the big picture. Needless to say, Elizabeth David languishes on the sidelines as well.

Spring aims for balance, but a bias very much in favor of Richard Olney and slightly against Julia Child is evident. Olney gets the lion’s share of the narrative, creating a suspicion that Spring felt that he didn’t have enough for a stand-alone book, or that, even if he had, Olney lacked the star power to carry one. There is something strangely muted and humorless, something almost overly decent, really, about Olney; his devotion to his siblings was, to me at least, unusual. Only an American could have had his career, which combined a refined palate and knowledge of food and wine, the worldly sophistication that goes with being a painter in Paris, and a knack for building construction and renovation. While many French men combine two of these qualities, the French educational process more or less assures that few will have all three.

The fun chapter is the fourteenth, “MFK Fisher and The Cooking of Provincial France.” I am not going to quote more than a single quip. When this Time-Life production was translated into French, in 1969, it was annotated by a very conservative man who larded it with footnotes contradicting Fisher’s many mistakes and misjudgments. The book was published before anyone in New York vetted the commentary, leading to great embarrassment. Times writer John Hess wrote that The Cooking of Provincial France was “self-roasting.” Spring’s account of the whole fiasco, which sprang from the buzz that accompanied the rediscovery of Fisher’s books and the associated assumption that she knew what she was talking about, is hugely entertaining. Also as much fun is the chapter about Alice Toklas second cookbook, in which Poppy Cannon provided breezy alternatives to Toklas’s laborious recipes, right on the same page.

On page 444 of her biography, Lisa Chaney wonders why Elizabeth David never met MFK Fisher on one of the many visits that she paid to San Francisco in her later years. On page 319 of her biography, Artemis Cooper ventures an answer. But once you’ve read Justin Spring, you’ll see that it’s ridiculous even to ask the question.

Bon week-end à tous!