Gotham Diary:
Signature Malfunction
21 November 2011

What an unpleasant surprise: there I was, reading along in Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King, only to find that page 48 was followed by page 81. So, I discovered upon inspection, was page 112 — the first page 112. There I was, right in the middle of George III’s (apparently shambolic) coronation, when suddenly it became 1765, and Rockingham has just come upon the scene. I had no choice but to put the book down. Most of the political drama of the reign occurs on those missing pages! And George III was going to be my big read on this trip, my one-book-that-would-take-the-entire-vacation-to-get-through. Piffle!

So much for “the book will always be there.” As there is no ebook edition of Professor Black’s tome, I’ve downloaded John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of George Kennan onto the iPad, and Susan Hartog’s Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson onto the smartphone. These are books that I very nearly bought in paper, as I’m sure I shall do if either one of them is any good. I’ve admired Kennan all my life — a short book of his, the title of which I forget, appeared on a summer reading list at a very early age; and I’ve been curious about Thompson ever since reading Ethan Mordden’s The Guest List, which I did a year ago, in the very room I’m writing in now, come to think of it.


The book that I read on the flight down was Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It’s a disgrace that I hadn’t read this book before, when it came out, about a hundred years ago (2010), but I got to it at last, and I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard at 28,000 feet. From now on, I am going to read everything that Batuman publishes as it appears, no matter what I’m in the middle of. What’s most striking — and this says a lot more about literary convention c 2000 CE than it does about Batuman — is her candor about how come she’s so smart: she’s done a lot of hard work. She has gone to good schools, yes; but having put learning, not fun, at the center of her life, she has acquired a great deal of it, some of it from “adventures,” but most of it from books. That’s the other thing that’s striking, almost shocking, about Batuman: her claim that you can learn a lot from reading books! What a concept!

Regular readers will be aware of my low opinion of American education, higher and otherwise; The Possessed is something of an antidote. Take those “adventures.” It is very sporting of Batuman to apprise the reader of the grants that she put together in order to spend time in Moscow, Petersburg, Samarkand, Tashkent, and elsewhere. In the hands of almost any other writer I can think of, these travels would be passed off as escapades, rip-offs of the system, occasions for drinking and whoring, with any actual learning swept to the sidelines, no matter how much of it there might have been. The point would have been to entertain the reader with naughty extracurricular frolics and odes to shirking reading lists, because who on earth would want to read about the somewhat dreary and very strange “classes” that Batuman took in Uzbek literature?

Maybe — awful thought — it’s that Batuman is a girl, and girls can be serious about these things. That may indeed what we have come to. If so, at least Batuman is there to save us, to remind us that scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of deluded Casaubons.


After breakfast this morning, I wrote to my friend Eric:  At the bookshop the other day, I picked up yet another nyrb reprint that I’d never heard of before. As it happens, I’m reading Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, now out in paper, and the last time that I read the novel it was in Francis Steegmuller’s translation, so Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, which Steegmuller published in 1939, was clearly something that I ought to look into. There are three parts, the outer ones by Steegmuller, with ample extracts from Flaubert’s correspondence. They’re called “Romanticism” and “Realism,” respectively. In between: “The Purge,” which is nothing but a selection of extracts from Flaubert’s letters to his mother and to his friend Louis Bouilhet, and from Flaubert’s travel notes, as well as bits from Maxime Du Camp’s “literary souvenirs” of the two friends’ trip to the Middle East in 1850. Many of the extracts are quite racy; there is even a rather voluptuous account of some male belly dancers (so to speak) in Cairo. In 1939, the book must have seem ultra-sophisticated, if easy to read. If you have not encountered this material before (especially Flaubert’s notes), I urge you to do so. I think that you will be greatly amused — which is to say, entertained and edified all at once. Never has “orientalism” looked so charmingly naive, or naively charming, on the page. 

According to Mohammedan law, full and complete ablution is indispensable following certain bodily acts. When a husband leaves the women’s apartments, for example he must entirely submerge himself — in a pool, in a river, anywhere, so long as his head is momentarily under water. When he emerges, he raises his hands to heaven and says: “O Lord, I render thee thanks for the joys thou hast given me, and I pray thee to lead in holy ways the child dthat may be born, O my God, make me blind in the presence of unlawlful women!”

 Very often, standing on my boat at daybreak, I have seen fellahin run to the Nile, strip off their clothing, and plunge into the river. At such moments my sailors would laugh and call out to the bathers pleasantries which were, to put it mildly, indelicate.

That’s Du Camp, not Flaubert; Flaubert would not have shaped the anecdote so carefully.

Looking over this letter, I think that I would change the last word to “judiciously.” Du Camp’s account has a tidy, after-dinner character that makes me smile, reminding me, now that I think of it, of a funny note that Steegmuller extracts from Flaubert’s letter to Bouilhet of 5 June 1850 (you have to know that Pierre Corneille, the great playwright of the Seventeenth Century, is Rouen’s most celebrated son):

Tomorrow is the sixth — the birthday of Corneille! What a session at the Rouen Academy! What speeches! The fine costume of those gentlemen: white ties, pomp, sound traditions! A brief report on agriculture!



I’ve just had a note from Amazon. Another copy of George III is on the way, at no charge. No need to send back the defective copy. Which means that I’ve got to throw it away! Yes, throw a book away! I don’t think that I’ve ever done that. But I can’t see leaving the book lying around, either, to trap the unwary. I may just abandon it in the hotel room, with a small note tucked inside. The housemaids will decide….