Gotham Diary:
After Hours
25 April 2014

When I dressed for lunch at Demarchelier and a visit to the Museum to see Goya’s Altamira family portraits, I expected to have a few hours alone in the late afternoon for writing here. I knew that Ray Soleil, my companion for these outings, had to be somewhere else at four o’clock, so I put off two errands until after the Museum. It was between the first and the second of the errands that I learned that Kathleen was coming home early: the malaise that she felt in the morning had congealed into something feverish and flu-like. I hurried home, arriving moments after she tucked herself into bed. And I spent the next eight hours sitting with her in the bedroom. That’s what I do whenever Kathleen is in bed: I sit nearby, reading. I do little things for her, mostly to do with food and drink. But please do not think of this as a sacrifice, at least until I officially complain. For seven of those eight hours at least, I was reading, with helpless gusto.

One of my errands had been to pick up a copy of Nina Stibbe’s memoir of life as a nanny in the home of an important editor at the London Review of Books. The book is a sort of Devil Wears Prada in reverse, because it’s the nanny who does the awful things, and, what’s worse, usually at the expense of the elder child of the editor, a boy afflicted by nameless disabilities that seem more physiological than psychological. Sam Frears is not even on the Asperger’s spectrum, much less autistic, and he is subject to terrifying fevers. (Update: it’s Riley-Day.) Even so, although the nanny is a gifted prankster, she is not cruel; she is not turned out of the house, as you might at first be led to expect from the letters that she wrote to her sister that constitute the text of Love, Nina.

This was back in the mid-Eighties, when there was no email, and long-distance, or trunk, calls were fearsomely expensive. The letters have an element of buffing, of “improvement”; even as a relatively uneducated girl of twenty (at one point, Nina observes that reading The Return of the Native is not like reading The Thorn Birds — a moment of literary awakening that children like her posh charges would experience no later than the age of fourteen), the correspondent displays an enviable knack for writing. The most regular of the the regulars in the editor’s household is neighbor Alan Bennett, and his distinctive voice is almost unnervingly captured — captured, I say, as if by the opposing team. This ought not to suggest that Stibbe doesn’t like him. But she knows how to twist his pride at being a butcher’s son into a foodie’s conceit that might or might not be endearing. The humor of the book is cumulative, so that it is very difficult to excerpt: things become funny and funnier as you read on.

As it happened, I was already in the middle of another exciting, engrossing book, Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out, a personal account of the career of “Clark Rockefeller,” a German imposter who may or may not have been behind the collapse of the Knoedler Gallery but who was certainly brought to trial for the murder of a young man from San Marino, California, twenty-eight years after the victim disappeared. At a certain point in the early evening, I put down Nina Stibbe to be done with Walter Kirn, not because his was the lesser book but because I sensed an occult Arendt connection with the latter book that it would take a few days’ half-conscious thinking to work out. It’s for that reason that I’m not now going to say anything about Blood Will Out, beyond recommending it as a very good read and possibly something much more seriously valuable than that. For the moment.

Last night, M le Neveu came to dinner. We haven’t seen very much of him since the end of his relationship with Ms NOLA (now quite happily married to someone else, a wonderful man), largely because the breakup coincided with a series of out-of-town fellowships on both sides of the Atlantic. Now he is back, however, living not far from where Megan and Ryan lived before they left for San Francisco. We had him to dinner in the the fall, and meant to see him again much sooner than, in the event, last night, but stuff happened, mostly the awful winter.

Another thing happened: I read a lot of Hannah Arendt, and a lot about her as well. And it so happens that my nephew is the only person among my acquaintance with whom Arendt might be discussed bilaterally. He hasn’t read as much as I have, but he has been professionally familiar with the outlines of her thinking, and the critiques of her commentators, for a long time. What happened last night was a very pleasant sequence of ka-chinks, as I demonstrated again and again, sometimes quite nonchalantly, that I knew, as his grandfather and my uncle used to put it, my onions. M le Neveu was so impressed that he sent me a text message this afternoon in which he described the evening as “a joy” — an absolutely unprecedented remark. There were no skirmishes, no arguments over fine points, nothing competitive. He kept rolling his eyes in pleased surprise, as though I were a student who had wildly exceeded his expectations. Now I think of it, I have always been that student, disappointing my teachers with lackluster performance until some chance attraction would draw me out and show me off.

It was no less agreeable to me, because I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about what I’d learned to anyone who knew more. I was as familiar with Arendt’s weaknesses as with the strengths that, weaknesses notwithstanding, make her a vital thinker for us, a thinker whom, the more I know about both strengths and weaknesses, I regard as the most vital thinker.

I’m not alone, apparently. Several times during the evening, M le Neveu repeated the criticism that he had heard from colleagues: “Arendt is the new Rawls.” Graduate students who used to write about A Theory of Justice are now writing about Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism. Bully for Arendt, bully for the graduate students — bully for us all. There’s hope yet.