Weekend Note:
The Royalty Rule
14-15 April 2012


Although I read everything but the first section after breakfast, I don’t remember a single thing from today’s Times. Jean Zimmerman’s chapter about the art world of 1890s Manhattan, centered on the still-unpaved 57th Street, drove the faits divers right out of my head.  

As I tidy the apartment this afternoon, I’m listening to a recording of Il Trovatore that I’ve owned for ages but never listened to, the one conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. And an unknown voice: Stefania Toczyska. I must ask Fossil Darling about her.

After Il Trovatore, I turned to Rigoletto, and a recording that I know very well (Solti, Moffo, Kraus, Merrill). It came to an end a few minutes after I put away the dusters. I really really must get serious about reading Peter Conrad’s Verdi/Wagner. The problem is that, as the biggest book in the pile, it stays at the bottom.


Charles McGrath’s piece about Robert Caro, in this weekend’s Times Magazine, had me thinking more about books. The piece’s title aptly describes Caro as a dinosaur; it’s impossible to regard him as anything but the last of a kind. The last of the run of historians who worked without making use of the Internet, for one thing. The last to use a typewriter — that sort of thing. But he’s the last of a kind in a different way, which I think McGrath pinpoints here:

Caro thought that the 1948 Senate election would take up a single chapter or so in his Senate volume. Instead, it takes up most of a book of its own, what is now Volume 2. Johnson advocates used to say that “no one will ever know” whether that election was stolen. Caro knows, because he uncovered a handwritten memoir by Luis Salas, an election boss and party henchman, giving the details of how he falsified the records. The Senate book, Volume 3, begins with a 100-page history of the Senate, starting with Calhoun and Webster, because Caro felt that to understand the Senate you needed to see it in its great period. It includes minibiographies of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Russell Jr., the longtime Senate leader of the South, and ends with a detailed, almost vote-by-vote account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first few weeks of the Johnson presidency, which take up so much of the new book, were originally imagined as just a chapter in what would be the final volume, and the new book also includes much more about the Kennedys than Caro anticipated.

Future historians will probably refer readers to someone else’s 100-page history of the Senate; failing that, the historian’s account will be published as a separate work. McGrath notes that 350,000 words were cut from the original manuscript of The Power Broker, and I hope that a complete edition of Caro’s text will be published eventually. I’d love to read the notoriously omitted chapter about Jane Jacobs’s run-ins with Robert Moses, for one thing; for another, completeness would heal the hacked disarray of the later chapters, which clearly announce a compromising determination to get out the bad news about world’s fairs and the even worse news about urban renewal. Caro has already done the work; it needs only to be printed. But would anyone do such work in the age of the Internet? I don’t want to sound naively optimistic about the Web’s encouragement of collaboration, but I do envision a gradually coalescing group project in which grand narratives are parceled out to hosts of writers, each of whom knows his adjacent fields almost as well as his own. I’m not talking about a single grand unified history of everything; there can never, thank goodness, be any such thing. A galaxy of histories would be more like it. Or perhaps the genome is a better model.

McGrath notes that Caro thinks about writing a biography of Alfred E Smith, the New York Governor who ran for President against Hoover and Roosevelt (the latter at the Democratic Convention of 1932), and who was Moses’s ultimate protector. (After Smith, Moses no longer needed protection.) What can he be thinking? There’s more than enough about Smith tucked into The Power Broker. It would be writing the same book twice. 


I compiled a new playlist yesterday. Becaue Kathleen often leaves for work after I’ve launched one of the “Bach in Order Playlists, and returned before it ends twelve hours later, she is very familiar with the first and last of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Opus 6, but the ten works in between are all but unknown to her. So I thought I’d build yet another list on the set, but this time without any Bach. (Almost; I snuck in my favorite orchestral suite, the fourth.) Designed for weekend use, the list includes agreeable, accessible classics, such as Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and Rachmaninov’s Second Suite for Two Pianos. So far, it has been very pleasant to listen to, but periodically jarring for me, as I am deeply conditioned to hearing the Corelli embedded in acres of keyboard works by Bach.


Late this afternoon, Kathleen and I went to see The Artist, which finally came uptown a few weeks ago — no nearer than 67th Street, but near enough. Kathleen loved it, too. What really interests me is that we both saw it in the same way, naively. We were both gripped by the story of George Valentin’s fall from stardom. That’s not how I saw The Artist the first time, and Kathleen claims that she saw it that way because she’d heard so much about the film that it wasn’t really a first time. We both looked through all the novelties and the references and the amazing artifice. We took note of all that, to talk about afterward, but while the reels were spinning, so to speak, we were watching it as if we’d never seen a movie before. And I think that that is what is great about The Artist: it is not so much a valentine to the movies as a reminder of how to watch a movie. Richard Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, debates the question, which comes first in opera, the music or the words? (The music, of course!) The Artist asserts that movies are to be watched first and listened to second. How many magnificent moments in talkies don’t involve dialogue! Music and dance, yes, but talking, not so much. I say this despite a religious devotion to the screwball comedies that seem to depend on their crackerjack dialogue to succeed. They don’t, of course; screwballs are always ballets for two actors, dances for wrongheaded lovers. The dialogue ought to be regarded as a part of the original score, written in the clef of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, and Irene Dunne.

The one thing that hit me just as hard the second time is that Jean Dujardin turns the wearing of clothes into an action. He wears clothes the way Steve McQueen shoots a gun or Sean Connery outfoxes a villain. It’s not an erotic thing; you don’t imagine Jean Dujardin’s body beneath the three-piece suits. But you are aware of a man in the act of wearing — carrying, as the Germans say — three-piece suits. Women do this all the time, but never men. Fred Astaire and Cary Grant don’t wear clothes so much as inhabit them as a species of skin. (When Cary Grant takes off his suit — his one and only outfit — in North by Northwest, it’s almost a kind of disguse, because the real Cary Grant is unimaginable without jacket and trousers. Consider that feathery bathrobe in Bringing Up Baby.)

The first time I saw The Artist, I’d never seen Jean Dujardin before. Now I’ve seen quite a lot, including several movies that I didn’t really understand because they didn’t even have close-captioning to help me follow the French dialogue (Brice de Nice, hilarious even if I didn’t understand everything, or perhaps for that reason). I’ve watched Jean Dujardin win the Oscar for Best Actor and The Artist win Best Picture. Seeing The Artist a second time, I can only thrill to the rightness of everything — not just the awards, but the way in which The Artist disciplines Dujardin’s loose-cannon talent and makes a real man out of him, something that doesn’t seem to have happened in any of the (other) French films that I’ve seen him in. All round, The Artist is a serious work of art, and I was awed by it the second time, not just impressed.


After the movie, we walked over to Madison and up to Frank Campbell. The mother of a very old friend of Kathleen’s died the other day, at 92 going on 93, and we arrived at the wake shortly after a large contingent of other old friends of the bereaved had departed — we ran into some of them in the street. The departed lay in an open coffin, so amazingly lifelike that we all expected her to sit up and tell us a racy anecdote — or at least to bid no trump. I couldn’t think what to say, but I had a brainwave: I fell back on the royalty rule. If there was silence, I was fine with it; it was not up to me to decide what to talk about. So I introduced no topics. I said nothing of Jean Zimmerman’s Love, Fiercely, even though the sadness of that book’s final chapters was much on my mind. I didn’t mention Bad News, the Melrose novel by Edward St Aubyn that takes place, in part, at the funeral home where we were sitting (under the name, as I recall, of “Frank McDonald,” moved, for some absolutely inscrutable reason, up a block on Madison to 82nd). Nor did I mention how I collapsed when, for verification purposes only, the lid of my mother’s casket was raised before her wake (she had been ravaged by primitive chemotherapy), or how I almost suffocated on my own sobs, in a torrrent that swept through me like a tornado but left everything undamaged. I understood, in some deep but initial way, that it was not up to me to keep the flow of conversation going. What it was up to me to do was to stand next to Kathleen and join in the spirit of the moment, which was certainly not jovial but also, strangely, not sad. What am I saying. It was terribly, awfully sad. But we were all behaving ourselves, so the sadness was effaced.

The royalty rule is a great idea.