Gotham Diary:
August 2018 (IV)

21, 22 and 23 August

Tuesday 21st

Reading the novella, “Reading Turgenev,” the first of two that William Trevor collected under the cover of Two Lives, I was reminded of a short story that I was pretty sure was also Trevor’s. In the short story, too, as I recalled, a girl rode a bicycle out of a small town into the countryside and visited a clever but sick young man in a remote house at the end of a drive. What I suppose it was about this motif that caught my attention was the unconventional inversion of the elements of a familiar trope: usually, it is the young man who rides out in search of the beautiful, but perhaps imprisoned, maiden. In any case, when I finished “Reading Turgenev,” I hauled down the bulky tome that contains all of Trevor’s stories up to 1992, and, after a good deal of searching, I found what I was looking for. It is called “Virgins.”

What the story and the novella have in common is the life-changing quality of the visits. But the young men are very different, and so are the visitors’ circumstances. Actually, there are two girls in “Virgins,” and each of them is altered by a parallel conviction that the charming invalid has chosen her. That they never discuss this between themselves is perhaps the first indication that they will soon outgrown their virginity; when the story begins, decades have passed, and the girls are now wives and mothers, tourists in Italy. They have not kept in touch. It will turn out that, during their second meeting with the dying boy, he asked both of them, quite separately, to write to him. Two much-treasured romantic correspondences ensued. Then the boy died. Because one of the girls is much more outspoken than the other, only the quieter girl fully understands what has happened; she knows about the boy’s humiliation of her friend because he wrote to her about it. But as she hasn’t acknowledged her own letters to and from the boy, she can’t express her sympathy. As it is, the other girl’s suspicions sour their friendship.

Laura, the more circumspect girl, knows why the boy humiliated Margaretta, because she grasps that the boy was playing with them. But that knowledge is her humiliation, and she keeps it to herself. The boy was dying; he needed amusement, and he enlisted the correspondence of two girls who would be away at school, writing to each of them exactly what she wanted to hear, and receiving no doubt flattering responses. Actual visits were unnecessary to this game, and actively discouraged. Margaretta was humiliated, in fact, because she ventured to pay an unsolicited, one might even say forbidden, visit to the house at the end of the drive.

It is sad and even a bit sordid, this story. Two girls are taken advantage of by an unscrupulous young man, and eventually horrified by the knowledge, in one case, and the suspicion, in the other, that they have shared both him and his mistreatment. “Reading Turgenev” is utterly different. Trevor’s virtuosity, usually implicit, becomes palpable when the story and the novella are considered together. He has put one rather striking motif (girls riding bicycles to visit dying young men) to two highly contrasting uses.

Mary Louise, the girl in “Reading Turgenev” is also a virgin, but disastrously. She has married a prosperous shopkeeper in order to escape the family farm. The marriage has not been (and never will be) consummated; the man, like his wife a virgin at the altar, too late discovers that she does not arouse him because she is not “his type.” The new bride is persecuted by her sisters-in-law, but she learns to ignore them. Then one Sunday afternoon, aimlessly cycling home from a visit to her parents’, she passes a familiar drive, at the end of which lives her aunt. The aunt’s husband was a feckless gambler who left her with a crumbling house and an invalid child. Years ago, when the boy went to school, Mary Louise had a crush on him, but she forgot about him when he stopped coming to classes (transferring her affections to James Stewart, whom the reader might not at first recognize as the movie star). Now, upon visiting him, she learns that he has always loved her, that he came to her wedding but stayed away from her wedding party because it would have been too painful. He takes her to an abandoned graveyard, adjacent to the burned-out hulk of a church, that nobody else knows about. There they have many Sunday-afternoon meetings, chaste until the very last one, when Robert kisses her. That night, he dies in his sleep. But Mary Louise knows what love is now, and it sets her free.

The freedom is purely internal. At home, over the shop, her mischievous disregard for the wickedly obsessed sisters-in-law eventually presents them with the opportunity they’ve been looking for. Mary Louise is interned in a home, where she spends thirty-one years, reading Robert’s beloved Russian novels, over and over, and eventually, one might say, she moves into them. It is not really madness; Mary Louise knows where she is. But she pays it no mind. She is disappointed when her husband comes to visit; “I thought you might be Insarov,” she tells him, referring to the hero of On the Eve.

I wish I could explain why “Reading Turgenev” needs to be about ten times longer than “Virgins,” beyond the obvious point that Mary Louise is a vessel of transcendence, whereas Laura and Margaretta are just pretty girls growing up. As teenagers, they have no reason to experience the desperation that prompts Mary Louise to accept the proposal of a dull draper who will take his first step into alcoholism on their marriage-night. They will have no reason to find out what really matters.


The other novella in Two Lives is “My House in Umbria,” which was made into a lovely motion picture starring Maggie Smith, for whose voice, indeed, the novella seems written. The movie is quite faithful to Trevor’s tale, although it amplifies the careless indulgence of Mrs Delahunty’s drinking. Also, there is no Giancarlo Gianni character, no charming, English-speaking detective to share her conclusions about what happened in the train. And the end — well, one knew that William Trevor could never have compassed it.


Wednesday 22nd

Oh dear, another “End of Trump?” piece at The New Yorker online. How many have there already been? Haven’t they heard of jinxes?

But what’s on my mind today is misogyny. There are men who really don’t like women, who use them (or don’t) for sex, but have as little else to do with them as possible. Clear misogyny.

But there are also men who regard women as delightful decorations, and who like being intimate with them. Some of these men steer clear of “challenging” women. There are (still) plenty of women who are happy to please a man, especially a well-behaved one. Some of these women are genuinely dim, but some are very clever Sheherazades. Some of the men who like women don’t mind an occasional challenge and are happy to spar with them on a recreational basis, perhaps even to lose an argument now and then. But these men, probably because they equate seriousness with their own masculine habits of mind, can’t be brought to believe that women have a place in public affairs.

Are these men, who like women but who also want to keep them “in their place” misogynists? Is there perhaps a better word?

“Please give an example of masculine habits of mind.”

Here’s VS Naipaul, in a Paris Review interview from a while ago, when the writer was in his late sixties.

You see, a writer tries very hard to see his childhood material as it exists. The nature of that childhood experience is very hard to understand—it has a beginning, a distant background, very dark, and then it has an end when a writer becomes a man. The reason why this early material is so important is that he needs to understand it to make it complete. It is contained, complete. After that there is trouble. You have to depend on your intelligence, on your inner strength. Yes, the later work rises out of this inner strength.

Have you ever heard a woman talk like this? It’s interesting that, throughout the interview, Naipaul never speaks of women. He expresses a number of sentiments that I expect most women would approve — he hates cruelty and appreciates generosity. He is no thug. But his concerns with power and strength and darkness and transformation might make it difficult for a woman to tell him about her day.

Many people who knew Naipaul in the Fifties were shocked to learn that he was married, that he had been married since Oxford. Then, when they did find out, he was not thought to have treated his wife as well as he might have done. His second wife appears (on a quick glance) to have done the Sheherazade thing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the clear misogynists whom I mentioned at the outset are people who simply don’t regard gender as a determinative characteristic. It is much more significant, one might almost say that it is much more appealing, to be kind, or bright, or imaginative, than it is to be a man or a woman. Gender is an accident; kindness and attentiveness are not.

The question is what to call the men in the middle.


Thursday 23rd

Collecting the mail yesterday, I found lovely new magazines in the box: a New Yorker and Harper’s. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, each contained a first-rate piece about American depravity.

Depravity is both the act and the consequence of surrendering to a meretricious rationalization in order to render odious and immoral conduct permissible. In practice, having surrendered to a rationalization of fairly limited scope, we ever more comfortably accumulate a stack of further exemptions from decency until, step by step, we wind up with things like major-league football, in which white blowhards pay big bucks to see black giants trash one another’s bodies, and “activist investing,” in which rapacious fund managers upset firms and the people employed by them because they can, for the hell of it. No right-minded society would permit either of these depravities, much less sing their praises.

At Harper’s, Kevin Baker sits in the Easy Chair — a sweet name for the magazine’s monthly seat of judgment — and holds forth on the all-but-explicit racism of Donald Trump’s tweets and rants about how football ought to be played. He believes in a frankly gladiatorial fight to the death — by CTE if not quicker means — waged by players who check their humanity in the locker room, which Trumpsters believe ought to be easy to do because these guys aren’t human in the first place. One wonders how often such games, minus the flashy outfits and the snack-riddled stadiums, were staged by plantation owners and overseers in the ante-bellum South. Certainly the spirit is the same: righteous protest is registered as disrespect, as if the flag belonged to whites only and whites were somehow deserving, just by being white, of anyone’s respect.

Baker notes that football used to be “a very different game.” Most players played both offensive and defensive positions. How interesting it is that this began to change in the wake of the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties.

Playing one-way football also allowed for the development of the sort of freakish physique that is now ubiquitous in the NFL — linemen who weigh 350 pounds or more, with bellies hanging over their belts, but who can run a forty-yard dash in less than five seconds. Players who increasingly injure themselves just by falling down, who look like so much of American livestock, purposely bred to be short-lived, walking meat vessels.

And like those other animals, their shapes are made tenable only by drugs.

Mushrooming salaries have made these degrading opportunities irresistible to boys emerging from poverty. Prostitution is the only word for it.

At The New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar writes about Paul Singer and his hedge fund, Elliott Management, and frames the piece with the story of Jonathan Bush, nephew and cousin to the former presidents. Bush had built a successful medical-records firm, but, something of a good-time Charlie, he was not the conscientious manager, at least as regards cost-cutting, that he might have been. He was also somewhat promiscuously photographed in fun-seeking settings, looking more like a spruce beach bum than a CEO. None of this ought to have been of interest to anyone but his near and dear, since his company was doing well. The right to argue, as did Singer and his lieutenant, Jesse Cohn, that it might be doing better, ought to have been reserved to the firm’s clients, since better performance ought to yield lower prices. But Singer cared nothing for prices. Better performance, in his view, would mean better returns for investors. Although Kolhatkar never makes the point explicitly, her piece highlights the irrelevance of investors in the conduct of a going concern. This is the reason why “capitalism” ought to be confined to the start-up, entrepreneurial phase of any business, and then quietly shed as investors are paid off once and for all.

Kolhatkar’s account of Singer’s battle with Argentina, moreover, illustrates the pernicious embrace of court-supported neoliberalism. Anticipating a restructuring of Argentina’s debt, Singer purchased severely discounted bonds, and then refused to agree to the restructuring. The bad faith of this opportunism is grotesque. In a protracted fight lasting for fourteen years, Singer squeezed out a $2.4 billion, 1270% return on his investment at a time when ordinary Argentinians were squeezed for everyday expenses. Sovereign debt, of course, is not an example of capitalist enterprise at all; international law ought to be adjusted so that holdouts to those restructurings to which a very high percentage of bondholders have agreed are forced to join in or lose everything.

The important thing is to recognize these outrages for what they are. They are not evil. They are not rooted in some dark, incorrigible recess of the human soul. They are, on the contrary, obvious excesses with clear explanations. They are social agreements that it is okay to do things that are wrong — things that everyone knows are wrong and that everyone usually frowns upon. These agreements, which are not compromises any more than they are evil, are the surrenders to momentary convenience or desire that, precisely because they are social, almost inevitably explode into full-blown depravity. It is up to all of us to withhold support, even if we can do no more than call depravity what it is.

Bon week-end à tous!