Gotham Diary:
15 June 2012

The other day, a copy of Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, arrived, and I have been wallowing — there is no other word — in the pleasure of reading it. How glad I am to have read all the novels, because they light up one by one behind the narrative. Taylor insisted that she made everything up but in fact she made up very little; almost everything in the novels appears to have been taken from life. Some people, such as her close friend Maud Eaton, were put to (very different) use in two novels, neither character particularly recognizable in the other.

The great question, of course, is why it has taken so long for Taylor to achieve the eminence that now seems fairly assured. A partial answer is that she stayed outside the literary world. She lived what looked like an upper-middle-class county life in Buckinghamshire, the wife of a prosperous businessman, raising two children and cooking meals. With defiant resolution, she undertook to unite the career of the writer with that of the homemaker. Even she herself thought that the experiment was crazy; a league of women writers living conventionally irregular lives in London rose up to denigrate her, to dismiss her as a writer for women’s magazines. (Everyone is a writer for women’s magazines.) In the end, she did not find a solution to the problem (which at one point Beauman calls reconciling modernism with “the woman’s novel”), but she wrote up the experiment, faithfully and fascinatingly, in book after book. Regular readers of this site ought to have no difficulty understanding why I find Elizabeth Taylor so compelling an artist.

Beauman’s praise for A Game of Hide and Seek, Taylor’s fifth novel, is so great that deprecates all the others by comparison, and precipitates Beauman’s conclusion — unstated so far — that Taylor was better at short stories than at novels. Since I haven’t read the stories, I can’t have an opinion; I can afford to be patient, because the stories are all coming out in one big book at the end of the month.


At the barbershop this morning, the radio — Pandora, Spotify, whatever — was set to play Greatest Classical Hits. When I took the chair, someone was playing Chopin’s best-known Nocturne (the second one), and then we had the “Meditation” from Thais, also nicely played. Then the bottom dropped out, with a shrill and mawkish adaptation of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria.” Yikes, it was awful! Then a strange sequence of two bits from the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, separated by a mindless pause. Only a half-witted computer would have selected the next item in the sequence: the opening of Carmina Burana. This was followed by the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. I was gone before it ended. Lord ‘a’ mercy.

Every now and then I pick up a thick box of CDs to peruse the contents of some bargain-priced compilation of greatest hits. Or someone sends me a link, thinking that I might round out my collection without spending much money. It is rare that a so-called “Greatest Hit” would make my list of greatest hits, especially in excerpted form: it is utterly barbarous to listen to monumental finales such as the one to Beethoven’s Ninth without having heard the work that precedes it. (This is not to say that there are not symphonic movements that meaningfully stand alone. But the ones that do never seem to make the Great Hits cut.) I conclude that the “Greatest Hits” aesthetic, aside from being a contradiction in terms, takes shape in the minds of people who don’t know and don’t care much about serious music; what they’re after is the hookiness of pop. Hits are only rarely longer than the typical pop song, and for the matter of that they tend toward the songlike — see the Nocturne, the “Meditation,” and the “Ave Maria” above.

While this was going on, another patron, about my age although possibly older (who can tell at this point; we all fall apart at such wildly different speeds) was nattering on about baseball games in a way that betrayed a preoccupation with winning. A Yankees fan, he joked a fair amount about the treachery of his grandsons, who favor the Mets. The jokes were phrased in terms of fear and trembling: when their team was losing, for example, the grandsons “went into hiding.” It was all very good-natured chit-chat, and I’m sure that the gentleman had no conception of the unconscious but relentless violence or the pathological obsession with competition that, for any attentive mind, poisoned his description of relations with young men whom he must in fact treasure. Why would anyone want to talk like that? Why is so much of what men have to say so utterly unconsidered?