Gotham Diary:
Okay and Not Okay
February 2016 (II)

Monday 8th

There were all sorts of things that I meant to do on Saturday afternoon, and some of them did get done, but not after I sat down with Lit Up, David Denby’s new book — the prequel, as he calls it, to Great Books, now twenty years old and I wish I could find it here somewhere. In Great Books, Denby went back to Columbia, where he had been an undergraduate thirty years earlier, and sat through the great books course with a few very good teachers. This time, he visited a magnet school on the Upper West Side (and, in shorter stints, two other schools outside of town), and sat in on a class of tenth-graders as they made their first serious contact with literature. In 1996, it was all about him — what had he made of his education? what was there to hold on to? — but, this time, his interest was, he says, more “parental.” I’m still musing on that choice of words. But the teachers are once again the stars. They are brilliant and inspiring: they have ingenious ways of setting books up for discussion, and they know how to keep interest from flagging. Your first thought is that teachers can’t be paid well enough. Your second is that relative poverty attracts or at least presents no obstacle to ascetic people whose aloofness from common clutter is what high-school students need more than anything else. In any case, you keep reading, as I did on Saturday.

Denby says that today’s kids are “incredibly busy.”

School, homework, sports, jobs, parents, brothers, sisters, half brothers, half sisters, friendships, love affairs, hanging out, music, and, most of all, screens (TV, Internet, social networking, games, texting) — compared to all of that, reading is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. “Books smell like old people,” I heard a student say in New Haven.

My recollections of those days, which are very patchy, can’t be trusted: they present a younger, unformed image of the man I am now. What I remember most clearly is that I was never busy. I avoided busy-ness even then. There have been busy passages in my life, matters of months, in which I lived out and about, but there have been longer stages of quiet. I’m in the middle of one now, and it often occurs to me that this one isn’t going to end until I do. But I was saying that fifteen years ago. I have been old and stiff and out of shape and physically lazy all my life.

Most of my classmates, wherever I was in school, did seem to be very busy. Busy was the smell of success. I thought it idiotic, certainly brainless. Busy people are very poor listeners, for one thing: so poor that they don’t even notice the failing, and I suspect that they don’t enjoy life very much for that reason. Young people are of course prone to restlessness; even I, Oblomov that I was, was all too familiar with restlessness. But restlessness and the urge to keep busy are not the same thing at all. I wish that adolescents were not encouraged to be busy. There may be lots to discover when you’re a teenager, but I don’t think that bits and pieces of everything ought to be served up in tiny slices day after day.

I certainly never knew an old person who smelled like a book, but I think I understand what the New Haven kid was trying to say. Perhaps what he really meant was that books sound like old people: they’re quiet.


By now, I was in New Haven myself. As usual, I skipped from the end of the Introduction to the middle of the book, and found myself in a class of unadvantaged students. Amazingly, their teacher, Jessica Zelenski, managed to get them interested in three of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of them classic standouts (Sonnets 18, 130, and 73). All of this happens in three or four pages — it’s rather miraculous. But what stuck to me was Denby’s reading of Nº 73, which begins,

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Denby writes that this is about “the poet’s diminishing passion for a lover”; a few lines later, he attributes to it the “grief over a passion consumed by its own strength.” I ran straight to Helen Vendler’s commentaries on the Sonnets and was relieved to find no mention of such ideas. Sonnet 73 is about ageing, and Vendler has very interesting things to say about how Shakespeare changes his mind about it in the third quatrain. The first line of the concluding couplet,

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

hardly describes the reaction to a lover’s spent passion. It isn’t love that is “consum’d by that which it was nourish’d by,” but life. I can dimly make out the grounds for Denby’s thinking what he does, but why he would want to think it — why it would be interesting to think such a thing — is beyond me.

Helen Vendler has convinced me that what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s sonnets is their construction, which, notwithstanding the form’s limitation to fourteen rhymed lines, varies enormously among the 154 poems. I should send Denby to one of the most strangely put-together sonnets, Nº 75, “So are you to my thoughts as food to life.” Whereas the bulk of sonnets consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet, this sonnet is laid out 4-6-4, with the eleventh and twelfth line joining the the couplet, to conclude the thought presented in the first four lines: I love you so much that I know what a miser feels.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometimes all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starvèd for a look;

“Sometimes,” Vendler writes, “when a sonnet seems otherwise unremarkable, as in the present case of 75, we may suspect that Shakespeare’s interest lay less in the theme than in its structural invention.” This is disingenuous; I am almost certain that Vendler believes that Shakespeare’s interest in invention is always greater than his interest in the theme. The less interesting the theme, the greater the scope for invention. Shakespeare may keep us guessing about the people to whom he addressed these poems (if indeed they were real), but he doesn’t try to hide his meanings. Sonnet 75 addresses an aspect of love that, while it rarely gets poetic treatment, much less treatment of this caliber, will be familiar to everybody. You are in love: you want the world to know it, and to admire you for it, which is a little queer, because you also want the world to go away, and leave you alone with your lover. (Sometimes, you want to be alone with your love.) The first two instances of indecision are thoughtful, somewhat abstract, as if the lover were planning the next day’s schedule. The third pair crackles with naked longing, “clean starvèd for a look.” That’s about as plain as Shakespeare’s English gets in the sonnets.

To return to what has become a favorite sonnet, Nº 95, I want to call attention to an awkward moment. The moment calls attention to itself, but you have to go to 95 to find it. It’s in the second half of the third quatrain, the first half of which I’ve already shouted from the rooftops.

O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Line 12 would offer a prime instance of bad writing if Shakespeare did not know perfectly well what he is doing. The line ought to read,

And turns all things to fair…

Reversing this order doesn’t just muss up the expected syntax. It creates the impression that a new image is going to be introduced, an image of which “all things” is the subject. (Equal accents for “all things turn” also slows down the scansion, so that there seem to be too many syllables in the rest of the line.) To begin with “And all things” is, in the nature of spoken English, to signify that the preceding line is complete unto itself, that we have done with veils and blots. “And all things turn,” which is how we read the line until we get to that seemingly out-of-place ‘s,’ might very well borrow from the cankered bud in the sonnet’s second line, and suggest a patch of sunflowers turning toward the sun, just as everyone seems to be turning, admiringly, to the secretly vice-ridden young man. Then we screech to a stop: is that ‘s’ a typo?

It is not a typo, and the fact that it is a chiasm (as Vendler tells us), while good to know, isn’t particularly material, either. It’s a jerk, intended to make us feel, in the reading of the sonnet, what we cannot see: something is wrong with this young man. His beauty’s veil is not quite up to the task of smoothing over his blots. It twitches awkwardly and reveals disorder. I don’t know how many times you’d have to read Sonnet 75 (from the top!) before the jolt would fade; I doubt that it would ever dissipate altogether. Shakespeare is quite right to regard his sonnets as living monuments that will breathe long after poet and lover are dust.


Now that I am about to finish R F Foster’s Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, I can complain about it without whining. Having attained the penultimate chapter, “The de Valera Dispensation,” I am where I wanted to be when I bought the book in June. I wanted to understand the world that Maeve Brennan, whose work I was reveling in, had to reject, a world in which a woman could be a wife, a caregiver, or a nun — and nothing else. Something that I had noticed without noticing finally clicked, something that I had seen in Colm Tóibín as well: priests had a strange power in Ireland. They were social policemen and social judges whose findings were often grounds for official enforcement. Priests had perhaps always played this role in peasant societies, but in Ireland the priests kept the educated middle classes in line as well. None but the very rich enjoyed what an American would consider everyday freedom. I believe that Irish priests are no longer the authorities that they used to be, and that today’s Ireland is as much like a modern secular democracy as a country with its hungover history can be. But I’m intrigued by the use that the new Republic made of the Church, as a stabilizing force that would forestall the social unrest that for centuries always seemed to be gathering at the edges of Irish society. Now that it’s over, I’m less inclined to regard it as the asphyxiating thing that it must have been for many Irish men and women, especially the ones I’d want to know.

Foster’s book is not written for tyros. It is a political history that assumes familiarity with events. Thus the Easter Rising is never presented as the subject of a narrative in which insurrectionaries seized public buildings, only to be overpowered and executed. You must find out what happened elsewhere. Likewise, the 1801 Act of Union is simply the after-effect of several decades’ commotion among the Protestant Ascendancy. Foster never makes much of a point of the implicit historical irony: no sooner had the Protestants upgraded their position in the English hegemony by taking parliamentary seats at Westminster instead of at College Green than the Catholics began working up to demanding what had just been abandoned: Home Rule. In any case, I was in over my head for much of the book, until I reached the run-up to the Troubles, which George Dangerfield discusses so eloquently in The Strange Death of Liberal England.

Even so, what were “the Troubles”? Just the Civil War of 1922-23? The Civil War plus the Anglo-Irish War that preceded it? Those two wars plus the Easter Rising of 1916? I’ll have to do a bit more reading before I can answer the question. For the moment, I’m panting with delight, celebrating my arrival at the end of Foster’s book. I can’t think when I’ve re-read so many sentences and still not understood what they meant. Next up, Ronan Fanning’s far more readable Fatal Path, a study of incompetence with which the British handled the Irish problem between 1910 and 1922. I know that it’s more readable because I’ve already been through the first chapter. I read much of it to Kathleen, while she was knitting. So far, I’ve discovered that Fanning (something of a grand old man in Irish history, I gather) has a fantastic knack for quoting passages that make H H Asquith look like a humbug. Great fun!


Tuesday 9th

This morning, I got back into bed again, after the Times. I felt not only tired, as I had done for about five days up to the middle of last week, but rotten as well, beset by the symptoms that most people think of when they think of a cold. (And, as always, I was cold.) For a little while, I lay in bed, feeling rotten but at rest, and superficially warm. The other two stages of this morning bedrest, with which I had become familiar, followed in due course. First was the nap, from which I awoke without being certain that I had been asleep. It took a few minutes of staring around emptily to register the time lapse, the lack of recent thoughts, that indicated sleep. The final phase ended with sharply waking from a clear dream.

In the dream, I had different parents. After the dream, I would realize that these alternative parents were borrowed, in large part, from a friend of mine, the death of whose mother several years ago had a strange effect on me. I never met her, but my friend wrote beautifully about her, and talked to me even more eloquently — although, perhaps in the talk, it was the silences that were eloquent. In the dream, she was about to go to the hospital. She was going to be tested for possible treatments; a serious cancer had just been discovered, and we all knew — my alternative father, even more like my friend’s, lurking in the corners of the dream, included — that she was going to die. But we were able to keep up good cheer because the ravages of the catastrophe were not yet evident. She was wearing a white dress, white-on-white, a cross between a summer dress and something that you might see on a débutante. Although simple and slender in outline, it was floor-length, in honor of this special occasion: a token of our brave simulation of optimism. I joked that she would be mistaken for an already-admitted patient. Her face fell a bit, and she said, in a voice that was no longer bright, “No, scrubs are blue.” I chimed in at “are blue.” Rhymes with rue.

Then I woke up. My figure in the dream had been distinctive enough for me not to think immediately of my friend’s mother; I thought, rather, of myself. (Also: patients don’t wear scrubs. Always the critic.) Was I dying? Was that why I was so cold and tired in the mornings? I wasn’t worried; it didn’t seem to matter. So long as death comes without violent pain and huge medical bills, I won’t mind it much. (Or so I fancy.) My mind wandered along until I remembered my friend’s mother. As I understand it, she decided, upon discovering the cancer, to go straight into hospice care. Now, when my aunt did the same thing, after she was told that the consequences of her appendectomy (of all things!) would involve feeding tubes and prolonged hospital stays, I was very angry about it. She was dead before I could get to New Hampshire. I had always been very fond of her, but now I discovered that she was not just the center but the entire embodiment of the alternative family that I had imagined in my unhappy childhood, an alternative that would become quite actual, I’d been told, if “anything happened” to my parents. I was angry with my aunt for removing herself from my life by, effectively, committing suicide. The atmosphere of peace and serenity with which I endowed imaginary scenes of my friend’s mother’s death were the result, I suppose, of having no actual emotional commitment to anyone in the envisioned scenes, except possibly to my friend, as to whose sentiments (whose grief!) the very decorum of friendship dictated that I keep a certain distance.

I have written here about my friend’s mother’s death several times. I was surprised by the intensity of my response. “Intensity” is perhaps the wrong word, but there’s no doubt that the death was catalytic for me. I have been on a different track ever since. Or perhaps I have had a more assured sense of what’s important. My friend’s mother’s death was distant (ie, it occurred in the Midwest), quick (a matter of three or four months), peaceful and serene, as I say (lots of pictures were published on a family site), and also undramatic. By “undramatic” I mean that my friend went into the ordeal on very good terms with his mother. There was no need for reconciliations or absolutions. She had always, it seems, regarded his sexual preference with equanimity, for one thing. I gather, on the basis of sheer inference, that she had a better opinion of my friend than he has of himself. Not that she expected more, just that she found him to be okay.

That may sound tepid, but I speak as a parent who knows that okay is the best possible state for a child to be in. There is a great deal of wisdom in the title of the film, The Kids Are All Right. Let a child be brilliant, successful, famous, whatnot: to a parent who is not living vicariously, these are all unstable conditions, and they have well-known adverse side effects. Nothing makes me feel more grounded than hanging up the phone after a chat with my daughter and feeling saturated with the conviction that she is okay. Doing okay might be a better way of putting it, because this kind of okay requires a good deal of hard work and serious thinking to achieve, and I know that being okay is not something that fell into my daughter’s lap, as if it were her destiny.

To my mother, I was never okay. Objectively, I have never been okay, at least by one important measure: I have never supported myself. The fact that this has never bothered me could be taken either way. Whenever I am beset by doubts, Kathleen insists that I am doing what I ought to be doing, and better than ever. But to most people, my unconcern with supporting myself is proof positive of my being the opposite of okay. Not that it is discussed, ever.

When I woke up, I knew that I had borrowed my friend’s parents for my dream, because I’d been okay, and I still felt okay when I opened my eyes.


In the Book Review this weekend, Tom Bissell wrote a birthday card of sorts to the late David Foster Wallace, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest. He had a couple of interesting things to say — interesting because of the starkness with which they declared a mentality unlike my own.

This difference was not surprising. I had been unable to get very far with Bissell’s first book, or first big book, The Father of All Things. I don’t remember why, but I suspect that it was a matter of punchy sentences. There was a violence in the book, not merely referred to by its contents, that I disliked in pretty much the same way that I would dislike seeing a portion of streetside slush on my dinner plate.

The first passage consists largely of a quotation that in itself has little to do with what interests me about this passage, but I give the sentence entire anyway.

In “How Fiction Works,” the literary critic James Wood, whose respectful but ultimately cool view of Wallace’s work is as baffling as Conrad’s rejection of Melville and Nabokov’s dismissal of Bellow, addresses E. M. Forster’s famous distinction between “flat” and “round” characters: “If I try to distinguish between major and minor characters — round and flat characters — and claim that these differ in terms of subtlety, depth, time allowed on the page, I must concede that many so-called flat characters seem more alive to me, and more interesting as human studies, however short-lived, than the round characters they are supposedly subservient to.”

What interests me — to the point of astonishment — is that, while I’m not familiar with Conrad on Melville or Nabokov on Bellow, I can well imagine what they have to say, and I’m pretty sure that I should agree with them. I admire Conrad greatly, and Nabokov mildly, not so much as I did when I was younger. But I have no use for Melville, at least until I’m reduced to using an outhouse, and Bellow is the midcentury American author whom I dislike the least — but I still dislike him. And all of these men, possibly even James Wood himself, are full of themselves as men, by which I mean that simply being male (and not female), being possessed of male genitalia and having access to the locker room, seems to them to be a terrific, transformative characteristic. These writers might acknowledge that there is actually nothing very remarkable in being a man, but they would all claim, in one way or another, that, just as only a man can be a military hero, so only a man can understand a man’s burdens, and only a man who is a gifted writer can explain these burdens to the world. In other words, being male is the problem that the great male writer solves. But first, the male must be posited as an object of interest, and that’s what “interests” me, because I don’t limit heroism (or creative genius, &c &c &c) to men and therefore can’t accept men as objects of interest.

In any case, how neat of Bissell, I thought, to line up the writers I like on the one side and the ones I don’t on the other — and to be baffled by the ones I like.


Here’s the second passage.

As a member (barely) of the generation Wallace was part of, and as a writer whose closest friends are writers (most of whom are Wallace fans), and as someone who first read “Infinite Jest” at perhaps the perfect age (22, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan), my testimony on this point may well be riddled with partisanship.

Again, my interest isn’t so much in the statement as a whole as it is in that glancing phrase, “whose closest friends are writers.” I have been feeling rather glum this February, this Black History Month, because I don’t have any friends who are black. Somehow the world around me has sifted and shifted to the extent that even my acquaintance is almost entirely white, the exceptions being Asians. Aside from two doorman and an extraordinarily capable handyman in the building, and the array of check-out personnel up and down the shops and stores of 86th Street, I don’t see any black faces unless I leave the neighborhood via subway. (Or visit the Museum.) To say that this is a problem is to beg for a solution, and solutions all sound both ridiculous and patronizing. The only real “solution” would be to have a friend who happened to be black. And it’s not odd that I don’t, because I don’t have many friends to begin with, a point that I’ve been trying to make, or to puzzle over, for some time now. Bissell’s phrase brightened the situation considerably, because I have only one friend who is a writer, and that is Ms NOLA, who entered my life via family.

It’s odd, don’t you think, that someone who likes to read and write as much as I do doesn’t know anybody else who is equally committed? Especially since I live in New York, a magnet for writers?

But what about my friend whose mother died? He no longer lives in New York, but I met him when he did, and I met him through his Web log. He writes, as I say, beautifully. On the handful of occasions when we have met, however, I have always come away thinking of him as a thinker. Not as a philosopher — that word is tainted for me, and probably unsalvageable — but as someone who thinks a lot. I’ve read a lot about writers getting together, and thinking never seems to play much part in their encounters.

I suspect that my lack of incentive to have friends is attributable in part to growing up in Bronxville. In the Times Magazine, over the weekend, I read that NFL chief executive Roger Goodell lives in Bronxville. Figures, said I to myself.


Thursday 11th

Let 10 February stand as the anniversary of the beginning of the evacuation (okay, emptying) of our oh so expensive storage unit on East 62nd Street. That will obscure the existence, and the failure, of earlier attempts. Until about eight years ago, I had been consistently getting rid of things, so that what began as a large box in which not a cubic meter was empty, stuffed as it was with everything that we retained after we sold our house in the country, but could not house in our apartment, was largely empty space, with a clear floor and only the walls lined with shelving.

Then, there was a hiccup. I could not bring myself to get rid of a piece of furniture that no longer “worked” at home. Actually, it was the top half of a piece of furniture, a hutch, in common parlance, although I never thought of it as such. I didn’t have a name for it, because it ought to have been inviolably attached to its bottom half, constituting a cabinet that I called “the breakfront.” I wrote about this piece about a year ago, and won’t repeat myself. I don’t seem to have mentioned that the “glass-fronted” top half was removed because some of the glass was broken, along with the little frets that held them in place. Repairs would have cost the earth, if you could find someone to do it, and I knew that the piece wasn’t worth it, sentiment notwithstanding. The shelves behind the glazed doors didn’t hold much, really — they were quite shallow — and I coveted the wall space that it blocked, room for more pictures. So I did something unimaginably transgressive, and dismantled what had once been something just short of an altar. I remember that Ray Soleil and I had a hard time getting it off; there were a few cunningly difficult screws at the back. But we managed in the end.

What I don’t remember is how the hutch, as I shall call it now, got to the storage unit. It can’t have been easy. I must have hired some sort of hauler. Ray, of course, advised me to get rid of the thing; whenever I’d say that, someday, down the road, I’d like to be able to hand on the breakfront complete, if not quite in one piece, he said nothing but assumed his wistful, people are like that smile. So the hutch went into storage and promptly blocked the lower shelves on one of the unit’s short walls. It also became a convenient surface on which to dump things. Then, three years ago, I did another stupid thing. When Megan and her family moved out to San Francisco, I thought that I would just hold on to the countertop dishwasher that we had given her shortly after she found their flat on Loisaida Avenue. Once again, Ray, who was helping me, said “Don’t,” and, once again, I did. The dishwasher, a very bulky piece of equipment, squatted on the floor in front of the hutch, making even the unobstructed shelves on the short wall incaccessible.

Then we moved, last year, from one apartment to another. In the process, ten book boxes were deposited in the unit. Three were full of the fantastic plastic paving bricks that we used to humanize the concrete floor of the balcony. Our balcony downstairs is much smaller, so that even after we shared some of the bricks with a neighbor who has the same-sized balcony, there were three boxes left over. (You never know!) The rest of the boxes were full of books; most of them, I had not even opened after the move. As I recall, I took them downtown in a black car, and schlepped them up to the unit myself. You could sort of tell, by the haphazard look of the two stacks of boxes, just inside the unit’s drawer. Throw in an old hamper full of fabrics that Kathleen had bought for the house whose sale had prompted the rental of this room, and the unit was once again impassable.

Only now I was significantly older. More decrepit, yes; no longer up to spending hours in a virtual basement without good lighting or a place to sit. A cage of four tinned walls, a concrete floor, and a screen-fenced top. For all its books and shelves, it was less a library than a moraine of disorganized deposits. The spirit of the place was, and still is, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” But I was also much more focused on what I’m doing right now, this, what you’re reading. I had less time, and certainly less drive, for other things. The storage unit might be an expensive nuisance, but when I thought about it at all, it almost seemed to be somebody else’s problem.

For a year, I sporadically flapped my arms up and down and whined for help. Nothing happened. One day in October, I dragged Kathleen to the unit, to show her the situation and to elicit her suggestions. I don’t believe that she saw anything, except overwhelming impossibility. When we left, with two totes full of document boxes, it seemed to me that Kathleen had simply turned off her eyes. But late last month, we had a more urgent talk. It had been time to stop spending hundreds of dollars a month for years, but now it was really time. At least I had an idea of what must be done first. All the items that I have mentioned above had to be cleared out, carried off and disposed of we cared not how. Kathleen volunteered to find someone to do the hauling.

She sent an email to someone whom we’d used before, but never got an answer. She also found that another outfit was still going, and when it became clear that we weren’t going to hear from her first choice, I called the second. It had blossomed into a very professional outfit, with a Web site, credit card payments, and insurance even. I made an appointment for yesterday. I was told that the movers would show up at some point between eleven and one. So I went to the until at about ten. Getting myself dressed and ready and out of the house was grim, anxious business, but I made it, and I was rewarded with a quick taxi ride. While waiting for the movers, I began to sort things out. As I piled up the smaller items to be got rid of (the boxes of bricks; Will’s playpen, hardly used — he hated it; the battery-powered patio lamp that proved too dim to read by), and as I emptied the boxes of books and set aside a few treasures to take home (James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, George Sand’s Consuelo), a warm sense of achievement stole over me. I knew that, even if the movers never showed up, and I not only had to make another appointment but also return everything to the storage unit, I’d have made real progress. More than that, I should have breached a barrier. I knew what we would do next, and then after that.

It was not long past eleven when the movers called from downstairs. Ten minutes later, fifteen at the outside, they were gone again, and so was all the stuff that for so long made it impossible to think about the storage unit. Because I could never quite bring myself to let go.


I say that I brought home a few treasures, but they weren’t all treasures. I seem to have filled the tote bag without paying attention. There were at least three books that I couldn’t consciously have brought home. One was Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, a memoir that contains an important account of the formation of the alliance between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and conservative Evangelical organizations that has driven the Pro-Life movement. Now that it’s here, I’ll make a place for it. I don’t think that I’ll do the same for The Essential Talmud. Well, I take that back. Picking up the book just now, to remind myself of the author’s name (Adin Steinsaltz), I see that it’s a history of the Talmud. I’d bought it thinking that it might be a sort of abridgment. While I might no longer have any use for an abridgment (is “abridgment” conceivable?), I’m sure that I’d find a history of the Talmud quite interesting. So I’ll give it another go. I’ve had the book for a very long time; it has spent decades on shelves, hidden behind the books standing in front of it. If it turns out that I like it, The Essential Talmud will be yet another instance of the grave difficulty of getting rid of books. They can be lumber for years, and then…

But it’s true, mostly they don’t change. They just going on being lumber. Also brought home was 201 Russian Verbs. I have dabbled with Russian on two occasions; the only word that I seem to remember is uchitel, teacher. Since I never took a course, I’ve never understood what those small-b thingies are. On the whole, I am not interested in Slavic languages at the moment, and if I were to change my mind about that, I’d focus on Czech, because it has a romantic claim on my imagination, embodied I suppose in the Charles Bridge, which I have never seen. At the moment, I’m keen to learn how to pronounce things in Irish. How to turn Taoiseach into tea-shack, for example. There is a suite of four maps in Foster’s difficult Modern Island that shows a slow and steady decline of spoken Irish from 1851 to the present, notwithstanding the Republic’s investment in its resuscitation. Its use in today’s Republic seems to be purely ornamental and ceremonial. It is never going to be another Modern Hebrew. I have no intention of trying to make myself understood in Irish. I learned, from reading Brigid Brophy, to avoid a voyage to Drogheda — years ago. But the book that I ordered comes with two CDs. They’ll be fun to listen to.


When I got back from the morning’s expedition, the water was still off in my bathroom. There had been the usual notice, alerting tenants that the water in certain lines of apartments would be cut off between 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM. But this time, the water had actually been cut off. It was running in the kitchen and in Kathleen’s bathroom, which abut, so I shouldn’t be without. But I was a little grumpy just the same, and then a lot grumpier when it didn’t come on at 3:30, or at 4. At five, I went downstairs and asked the nice lady in the management office about it. She assured me that it would come on in a second. It came on shortly past six — I won’t say that I’d given up on it, but I’d almost stopped thinking about it. The configuration of Kathleen’s bathroom is such that it is a bit cramped for me, and I disliked the prospect of having to manage, but I was getting used to the idea. But suddenly there was the unmistakable sound of surging in the pipes. I turned on the water in my sink, and a very brown liquid gushed out. Disgusting, but transitory. I returned to my reading with a lightened heart.

About an hour later, I began to hear dripping. I could also hear the hissing hum that the pipes make when someone nearby is running a bath. The dripping, which sounded quite electronica, was clearly behind the wall between our bedroom and my bathroom. But I didn’t like the sound of it, the dripping and the humming: it was pretty clear that someone had opened the faucets somewhere upstairs and neglected to close them when no water came out of the tap. And then walked away and forgotten about it — gone out for the evening, perhaps. So I went downstairs and told the doorman. I was advised to expect a handyman. Waiting for him near our front door, I noticed that a small stream of water was trickling from the base of the house phone faceplate. Miles from my bathroom! I went downstairs again. I was told that the handyman and his crew were in the apartment directly above me, mopping up. Sure enough, when I got back to our place, the humming had stopped. The dripping was still going on, but without much of a pulse. Presently the handyman appeared, to check for leaks. There weren’t any — or so we thought, because we missed the bulge over the showerhead in my bathroom, which I noticed at bedtime and which may or may not require repairs. But there were no leaks in places that ought to be dry, hallelujah!

The apartment directly overhead is untenanted. “They’re working on it.” Meaning that it is being renovated, presumably by outside contractors. That’s why the water was turned off, so that “they” could do something about new plumbing and fixtures. It now appears that one of “them” was an idiot. The handyman pinched his thumb and forefinger until there was nearly an inch between them. That’s how deep the water was before he mopped it up.

Too much excitement for one day.


The night before, I stayed up late, to finish the last pages of Lit Up. It’s probably no accident that David Denby, as an eminent film critic, knows how to write about classrooms with cinematic vitality. You, the reader, are very much there. You get to know the tenth-graders who express themselves so vividly and so individually, as they use the books that they are reading and discussing to differentiate themselves from the sullen, unwilling mass to which they all belonged at the beginning of the school year. Their teacher, Sean Leon, a wiry young man of mixed descent who was born in Northern Ireland, never knew his Italian-American father, and was taken by his mother’s second husband to grow up outside of New Orleans, comes across as a not-too-distant, if altogether mortal cousin of Jesus. I don’t mean that he is particularly holy, but his personal austerity is almost overshadowed by his passional commitment to helping young people in the struggle between the individual and society. That, “The Individual and Society,” is the name of his course, as it were, and his solvent is the urgency of literature.

Mr Leon’s syllabus is skewed to the recent; Denby’s persistent objection is to the omission of Shakespeare. As I mentioned, Denby finds, in his briefer visits to two other schools, that tenth-graders can be guided to a true if preliminary appreciation of the riches of extraordinary poetry, even if it is four hundred years old. And Mr Leon’s list is at least as precocious: Slaughterhouse-Five and Notes from Underground, not to mention No Exit and Waiting for Godot. Sometimes, Denby frets that these books might be brutal assaults on tender minds. What he’s forgetting, of course, is the inexperienced mind’s ability to ignore what it is not ready to suffer. I was pleasantly surprised by what Mr Leon’s kids could get out of what they were reading. Of course, he pushed them relentlessly. But they expected that; they pushed each other relentlessly and were conscious that relentlessness is a sign of metropolitan life.

I couldn’t put the book down, but it was also true that I never lost the feeling that I should have hated being one of Mr Leon’s students. I should have withdrawn into some sort of angry obstructionism, refusing as a point of pride to join the group discussion by taking one side or the other. The entire experience, for me, would have been nothing but a gross invasion of privacy. I hated being a student even more than I hated being young; I hated knowing so little of what there was to know. I never cared for hearing what classmates had to say, and by the time I reached the Great Books Seminar in college, I was exhibiting that dubious verbal dexterity that justified calling the program “Pre-Law.” Parry and thrust, but never support; it wouldn’t be until I was in my late thirties that I saw the importance of backup up other voices, if only by trying to say more clearly what they meant to say.

And I should have hated the recentness of the reading list. Indeed, even to this day I have not read most of what’s on it, including Slaughterhouse-Five. From what I know about the book, I’m grieved to think that it constitutes the gateway through which many students pass from complete ignorance to a sense of modern history, giving them, undoubtedly I should think, a picture of meaningless horror and incompetence that completely masks the awful but enlightening story of How We Got There. I can remember complaining in high school that we were being taught history backwards: beginning with New York State history (the idea!), we moved on to US history and then to Europe. That’s what happens when you introduce notions of “relevance” into education.

I haven’t read Brave New World and I haven’t read 1984. It is generally conceded that they are not works of great literature; if they have things to teach to adolescents, I learned those things elsewhere and wanted no further doses. (I’d be interested to know what students would make of them as parts of a trio that included The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The appalling fact that so many adults are reading and liking these dreculacious scrawls is proof of the importance of high-school inoculations.) I couldn’t believe that Paolo Coelho made it onto the list, even if Mr Leon’s idea seemed to be to shoot down the idea of life-as-a-journey. Nor have I read Siddhartha. I read a lot of Hesse in college, but it was all the stuff that was being translated for the first time, such as Beneath the Wheel, not the established chestnuts like Demian and Steppenwolf. (Was it Naomi Bliven who wrote of the newly-translated books that “This isn’t literature, but incense”? I never read another page of Hesse after that.)

I think of these as books for people who don’t hear very well. They require shouting. Fine modulations are lost on them, or dismissed as “elegances.” Shakespeare is all very well as a robust lover, consumed with jealousy. But the minute you lift the hood, as it were, and examine the mechanics of a sonnet, he becomes “aesthetic” and “refined.” Refained, as British snobs put it. They think that Jane Austen is all about class and marriage and property; they can’t feel the devastating heartlessness of Emma’s clever remark at Box Hill — nor suffer Emma’s agony as she later reflects that she is unworthy of Mr Knightley. It is all too fine.

It is a matter of music. Music without melody, without open-throated sound. It has rhythm, intonation, modulation, rises and falls — just no song. Even great poetry does not actually sing, which is why, Goethe aside, so many great German art songs are settings of second-rate verse. (The cry of the poet in Capriccio is ever at my lips: when the composer snatches his sonnet and runs off to the clavier, Olivier wails, “Er komponiert mich!”) But it does something like singing, something that a feel for music brings out as vital.

You can’t really hear that sort of thing in your teens.


Friday 12th

You are doubtless wondering what I, recluse that I try to be, do for a good time. Well, I cackle.

I’ve been reading Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré, a book that I had no intention of reading when it came out. But then I read A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s most autobiographical novel, and got to meet, Rick Pym, the extraordinary con man who is the hero’s father. I knew from reviews of the biography that this figure was very closely modeled on Ronnie Cornwell, Le Carré’s father, and, when I was through with A Perfect Spy, I had to have more of him. Indeed, Ronnie is even more outlandish than Rick — threatening to sue his son, if I got this right, because he wasn’t mentioned in one of Le Carré’s books. This hasn’t happened yet in the biography, but: the reviews had great fun with the time that Ronnie picked up a girl in Berlin (or somewhere) by pretending to be his own son.

Yes, but was she the kind of girl that David Cornwell (John le Carré at home) would pick up? For Cornwell jeune does pick up girls. It says so, in Sisman’s book, in a horripilatingly embarrassing paragraph that’s written in the present tense. I am not going to quote it. I am going to try to explain my cackling without any quotations — a bad idea, perhaps. Because first-hand evidence is part of the fun, isn’t it. Look at this! Now look at THIS! But you’ll have to take it all on faith from me. Adam Sisman tells us that David Cornwell is — “tormented” would be too strong a word — about his need for brief, meaningless affairs with attractive women. His wife — his second wife, Jane — is more or less understanding. “Nobody can have all of David,” she tells Sisman.

It’s unspeakably sordid. Not the philandering, but the talking about it. I can only guess that Cornwell’s sex life has occupied the patter of chatter among the classes that matter, and that it was thought wise to deal with “rumors” proactively, by saying, “Yes, it’s all true, and Jane knows all about it” — Sisman stops short of saying that she arranges the trysts, but you do wonder — “so deal with it.”

I found myself wondering how a particular woman would deal with it. Now, this woman is not one of Cornwell’s conquests. She claims to have led a long and happy married life. Her fiction is not quite so autobiographical, although in one of her best books, she revisits pivotal moments in her life and writes about what might have happened had things gone the other way. What if she had that baby in her teens, and lost her university slot? What if her husband had taken an American teaching position? And so on. I think about Making It Up all the time. The woman who made it up is Penelope Lively.

My favorite Lively novel is Heat Wave. Presumably, Lively made up the backstory of Pauline, the middle-aged book editor whose ex-husband not only carried on à la Cornwell but justified it in more or less the same way: I’m sorry, but I’m made that way. These things happen. &c. Now dry-eyed, Pauline remembers the sleep-deprived anguish of wondering where her absent husband was, or, worse, of knowing. Pauline has done with him; but only to discover that her daughter, Teresa, is married to a man who looks bound to take after her father. Pauline can hardly bear to stand by and watch this, but that’s what she does, as the summer gets hotter and hotter.

Not far, in the pages of the biography, from the “straight-up” passage about our author’s infidelities, Sisman discusses the writer’s home in Cornwall. It’s a refurbished terrace of three workers’ cottages, high atop cliffs overlooking the sea.

Three workers’ cottages?

In Heat Wave, the terrace of three workers’ cottages stands in the middle of a wheat field. It, too, has been refurbished — by Pauline. One of the cottages is her own weekend house. The other two have been knocked together into one unit, and, having decided to spend the entire summer in the country, Pauline has asked her daughter and family to spend it next door.

What would Penelope Lively make of this — is “coincidence” the word? She might ponder. “Attractive in what sense? Are these women ‘his type’? Or are they more objectively chosen, as likely to excite the envy of other men?”

I like to think that she’d say something like this: No need for cliffs, if you’ve got a nice steep flight of stairs.

This is what literature is all about. Sorry to be so shallow.

Bon week-end à tous!