2020
February

¶ The Old Wives’ Tale, Snips from Periodicals
§ Three Billboards, Miss Bates’s Christian Name

¶ Abashed — that’s the word for it, how I felt when I finished reading The Old Wives’ Tale. I had not read it before, nor I had read anything else by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). Bennett is the now all-but-unread novelist from England’s Midlands — the Potteries of Staffordshire — who antagonized Virginia Woolf into writing a notorious, and apparently effective, put-down. Because Woolf disdained his artistry, and because his artistry made him a lot of money, Bennett was swept, during the second half of the last century, into the lumber-room of forgotten best-sellers, to keep company with Sir Walter Scott and John Galsworthy. Abashed, and having read but the one novel, I am disinclined to make a fuss about restoring Bennett to his rightful plinth, so I’ll just say this: The Old Wives’ Tale merits a place on the shelf next to Middlemarch. The Baines sisters, Constance and Sophia, are as meditatively engrossing as Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. 

Putting the book down, I wondered if the hour of death offers the best perspective from which to appreciate a life, as Constance and Sophia do before they expire, while Bennett, looking over their shoulders, does the same. True, neither sister is actually concerned with her own life. Sophia is contemplating the corpse of the husband whom she has not seen in a very long time, and Constance is thinking of her sister. Both feel that the lives that they’re thinking about were wasted. The reader is sympathetic to Sophia’s dry grief; Gerald Scales was an absolute bounder, good for nothing except his resemblance, in her eyes, to Brad Pitt (if I may be excused the anachronism). As for Constance, this reader almost hated her for lacking the imagination to grasp Sophia’s eventful life. And yet, Bennett asks us, how would Constance know it any better? Outwardly quiet as it was, no one who knew Constance could imagine what her life had been like. “No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.” Some might find this observation “sentimental.” In the context of the novel, I found it as mordant as George Eliot’s assurance that Dr Lydgate “had not done what he once meant to do.”

I have been giving a good deal of thought lately to our canonical views of literature, and of English literature; to our ideas of what distinguishes a great novel from a good one, and if those ideas have any merit whatsoever; and to how I might defend any list that I might compile of five or ten or twenty super books. I am not prepared to expatiate on the subject now. But it did seem to me that The Old Wives’ Tale is a much better “Continental” novel than it is an English one. That is, it stands up well next to Balzac and Turgenev (Bennett’s “god”), Flaubert and Fontane, Lampedusa and even Proust. Whereas, considering it as an English novel, one feels positively obliged to judge it “uneven.” What does this mean? I think that it has something to do with the peculiarities of the Anglophone sense of humor. No one will deny that we have one, we English-speakers, or that we indulge it frequently. Or — and this may be what it comes down to — that we like to do so loudly. I have often thought that where we laugh, the “European” smiles, and, where the European smiles, quite often, we don’t respond at all. There is something about our responsiveness to amusement that requires a separate track, a departure from the schedule of other sensibilities. It’s as if “fun” makes a funfair of life. If a book makes us laugh, then we don’t want it to do anything else, and if a book makes us feel, then an unwonted laugh will make us feel ridiculous. We are, in this, as in so many other ways, all too much like thirteen year-old boys. 

To say that The Old Wives’ Tale plays upon the gamut of emotions, that it packs piquant domestic scenes alongside ringside views of world-historical upsets, that it has everything — to say these things is simply to risk making it out to be vulgar. Better to report that the novel traces the lives of sisters, one of whom stays at home while the other runs away. “Home” is Bursley, the fictional Burslem, one of the towns that was amalgamated, in 1910, into today’s Stoke-on-Trent. (Although there were six such towns, Bennett always writes of “five.”) “Away” is Paris. The story begins when Constance and Sophia, daughters of the town’s leading draper (confined to his bed after a stroke), are teenagers, in the 1860s. Curiously, the career of the runaway settles into its groove much more quickly than her sister’s. Caught with a worthless husband in the tumultuous Paris of 1871, Sophia emerges from the upheaval as an hôtelière: she runs a top-notch pension near the Champs-Elysées for twenty-five years. (I really cannot forgive Constance for regarding this establishment as a “boarding house.”) Constance, leading the life of a wife and mother in the house where she was born, suffers a rather bouncier inner life. Sophia learns everything that she needs to know before she is thirty. Constance, whose intelligence admittedly burns at lower wattage, is still learning decades later. Just as the sisters’ status is ambiguous, rooted in a commercial prosperity that was still widely deprecated in Britain, so it is difficult to decide whether or not these girls are “ordinary.” It is as impossible to say that they are as it is difficult to show why they are not. 

The same might be said of Bennett’s prose. It is fluent, and often winking, but it is neither showy nor dull. I would say that Bennett indulges every writerly impulse but always with the caveat: “Don’t frighten the horses.” Having lived long enough to be an old horse myself, I appreciate the peace and quiet of Bennett’s conduct. No matter what is going on in his heroines’ lives, he himself is always firmly and attractively in charge; as a tour guide, he is almost as interesting as the spectacle. I look forward to reading more. 

Which reminds me: why I just read it now. A very long time ago, forty years or more, I picked up a clutch of red-jacketed Everyman Library editions of Bennett’s novels; you still heard about him in those days, and I meant to find out why. All but one of these small volumes was eventually culled, unread by me, but I held on to The Old Wives’ Tale even though I could no longer even imagine where I had heard that it was the masterpiece that it apparently is. Last month, it too was almost given the heave-ho. I decided to read it instead, or at least to give it a serious try. Phew! Now the novels are rather hard to get, even in the UK. And do I or do I not have a copy of “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”? (4 February)

¶ Snips from Periodicals: 

The New Yorker: ... her home, like her prose, is straightforward in style, unfussy, minimally but functionally adorned. The table, couch and chairs are there to be used by the body, not enjoyed by the eye.*

London Review of Books: Despite abundant evidence from around the world, many people still find it hard to accept that flagrant lying is no longer a disqualification in public life, and that it might in fact be an attraction.**

 * Alexandra Schwarz on Vivian Gornick, The New Yorker, 10 Feb 2020, p. 18. 

** James Butler on Labour’s Defeat, LRB, 42/3, p. 12.

It’s hard to know whether Alexandra Schwarz means to be even a little bit complimentary in her description of Vivian Gornick’s living room. To me, what she says is the description of a pathology, not in the sense of something wrong but rather of something missing. My own pathology, of course, is quite the opposite. I will sacrifice a good deal of convenience to the pleasure of the eye. If I don’t have a sofa to stretch out on, much I should like to have one sometimes, it’s because the right couch for me would be too large and ugly; and since I always make the bed, I can’t stretch out on that, either. If I don’t have enough in the way of bookshelves, that’s because I have a lot in the way of pictures. It’s either one or the other. My eye has to be happy, or I’m miserable. Dejected, anyway. 

I should have thought that minimal adornment was a contradiction in terms. Maybe it’s not, though, if, like Gornick, you grow up a believer in your parents’ socialism. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up sharing the beliefs common in my environment. I hated the stupid smugness of the people I grew up among. I know I’m pretty posh by nature, but I will never (I pray) be one of them. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that I think it’s possible to be a stickler for the correct use of knives and forks without being swinish. There is something terribly ignorant about socialists: it’s clear that they don’t know very much about ease. On the one hand: why should they? How would they? On the other: ignorance makes them terrible critics. They can never satisfactorily explain why everybody they know from the neighborhood will, if given the chance, commence the laborious climb up the social ladder, leaving the neighborhood behind more quickly than they mean to do. It is related somehow to the enjoyment of the eye. Anyway, I have always believed, quite passionately really, that socialists are wrong about life, no matter how right they are about justice. 

The exceptions to the aforesaid are the writers and the orators. These recite their creed every day, professionally. Gornick went into literature, however, not politics, and I am looking forward to reading Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, which has just come out. 

As for Butler’s remark, with which I am in complete accord, I am too busy writing about the phenomenon myself (not here) to say more. (6 February)

 

§ Stretched out in bed, watching a DVD, in the middle of the afternoon — such abandon! It may be doctor’s orders to stay off my feet these days, but it’s still unnatural. Is something the matter? Am I being wicked? The movie on the DVD is certainly no occasion of sin. It’s Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the kind of art movie most of whose characters would find depressing. It was a little depressing to me, too. I often wonder if I should have had a happier, or at least a sunnier, life if I had never crossed the Hudson River, but had to make do with imagining what the rest of the country is like. If I had not spent twelve solid years there. They were not terrible times for me; I was more or less impermeable. But I saw a lot of things that I wish I hadn’t, got to know how people lived, became familiar with different accents, and came back to New York without missing a single thing. There was  this: Why? Why is it like that? Perhaps there is simply too much landscape out there. Even when — especially when — there is no landscape to speak of, there is too much of it. 

The landscape in Three Billboards is beautiful. Abbie Cornish, in her clutch of scenes, is beautiful. Everything else about the picture is unattractive, intentionally, I expect, but not interestingly so. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell turn in fine performances, as one would expect, but neither’s character holds a candle to the somewhat similar men they play in Transsiberian and The Way Way Back. And Mildred, grim and determined as she is, is nothing like as grim and determined as Linda, the kook Frances McDormand plays in Burn After Reading. The world of Ebbing is pinched. There is not a single inviting interior space. There isn’t any decent furniture. The general deprivation is appalling, and yet no one seems to be aware of it. I remember that world. I wish I didn’t. 

But don’t listen to me. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a fine and entertaining film. The world is full of small towns dotted with people too unlucky to find themselves in bigger places. There are already many movies in my DVD collection that I ought to have rented, not bought. (12 February)

§ Quick: what is Miss Bates’s Christian name? The talkative spinster in Jane Austen’s Emma: what’s her name? I don’t know how many times I’ve read the novel, but I’ve never noticed. Never even thought about it! Miss Bates’s first name is clearly “Miss” — as in “absolutely unmarriageable.”

But of course she does have a name, and it is not “Miss.” She tells you what it is herself, by way of quoting her mother. You will find it in Chapter 19, lodged in the lady’s lengthy account of Jane Fairfax’s unforeseen impending visit. 

By great good luck, I had just learned that Miranda Hart is going to play Miss Bates in the forthcoming screen adaptation when I re-read Chapter 19 the other night. My test of the movie’s quality will be the degree to which Miranda is allowed to demonstrate that Miss Bates is the moral heart of the novel. She is the pebble in the slipper that Emma must learn to honor and respect, if not quite to love; she is the good person who shows how difficult it is to be a good person even if you’re the girl who has everything. Miss Bates, of course, has practically nothing. She and her elderly mother are living on the fumes of extinct prosperity. What Miss Bates does have is a formidable loquacity, which she puts to work expressing her ceaseless gratitude for the crumbs that come her way. You must remember, when I say this, that I have reached the age of Mrs Batesor thereabouts. When I was Emma’s age, I felt very much as Emma herself does: tempted to skim. The other night, I read every word with the deepest smile.

It’s not quite clear to me whether I am reading Emma for the umpteenth time or not. Noticing that I was having a hard time with the early chapters of novels that I knew well, I decided to begin Emma, this time, at Chapter 17. Chapter 16 is devoted to the dust cloud of Emma’s collapsed ambitions for her new friend, Harriet Smith; Mr Elton, the vicar, appalled by the discovery that Emma had him down for Harriet, a love-child of no social standing, instead of for herself, has slipped away to Bath, leaving Emma to grin and bear it without the altogether unmanageable load of mortification that his presence would assure. The novel can now begin. 

I have long regarded the episode that opens Emma and so quickly comes to its embarrassing climax as an overture of sorts. It is the stuff of a novel, but Austen seems to have another novel in mind. I hadn’t developed the thought any further until now. By beginning after the excitement has subsided, I could see calmly and clearly what must be obvious to everybody, which is that Emma is about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. I had always regarded this as a background story, because, after all, it doesn’t concern Emma at all, not directly, and what could be more pert than than naming a novel about other people after so attractive a heroine as Emma Woodhouse? Or more typical of Jane Austen — as age and perspective prompt me to ask. Emma a red herring? Surely not! But in fact nothing at all happens to Emma. Really nothing! All those careful arrangements at the end, capped by the agreement that Mr Knightley, not his bride, will change residence, leave everything, despite making room for the unmentionable intimacies of marriage, exactly as it was at the beginning. No, the action-plot of Emma is the secret-agent thriller of a matrimonio segreto.

Chapter 19 begins with the statement that Frank Churchill has failed to pay a visit to meet his father’s new wife. The matter is discussed by Emma and Mr Knightley in a manner that reminds me of the Analects of Confucius. That’s exactly who Mr Knightley sounds like when he assures Emma that a gentleman is always free to do his duty. Emma’s determination to think well of Frank despite his inarguable lapse is of course self-interested; she’s already thinking of Frank for herself, and Mr Knightley is already vexed by his awareness of this — an awareness that he must keep partial, occluded, and thus all the more vexing. In the very next chapter, we learn that Jane is about to make an untimely return to her native village. We hear a lot about Jane and Frank in these two chapters, ostensibly because their presence will constitute the kind of novelty for which small towns pant, but really to plant both of them as unknown quantities in Emma’s little world. She has never met Frank; she has never liked Jane. Jane, at least as naturally gifted as Emma herself, is otherwise much less fortunate materially, and she has clearly felt it necessary to work on what talents she possesses, something that, to the regret of her flourishing if discreet vanity, Emma hasn’t bothered to do with her own. Who these unknown persons really are, and the nature of their relationship (completely unsuspected at first), will occupy the bulk of the narrative that follows. 

This suits a novel aimed at the acquisition of honest self-knowledge. To know who you really are, you must sit still and pay attention to the world around you, and that is pretty much all that Emma is asked to do. Like Lucy Ricardo, Emma can be a wise observer so long as she doesn’t try to do anything. Those opening sixteen chapters — the overture — show us what Emma is capable of doing, thus exhausting the need for further disasters. There is only one thing that Emma’s education requires: true remorse for her unthinking rudeness to Miss Bates at Box Hill. Emma’s great achievement is to be utterly ashamed of herself. 

I’ve never heard of the actress who is going to play the title role, but I’m hoping that the filmmakers will know how to let Miranda Hart make her Emma suffer. (17 February)

 

 

January 2020

§ Happy New Year!
Topsy-Turvy, “The Ebony Tower”
§ Mamie’s Bangs
¶ On Chapel Sands
, Iris Origo
§ Garish or Soviet
¶ Snips from Books
, Uncanny Valley, Language of the Third Reich
§ Boys Today

§ Happy New Year! I fully expected, a few months ago, to be announcing my imminent retirement from this site on this day, but the world will not be so easily spared. Perhaps all I needed was a break, together with the prospect of freedom. Since the initial announcement, I have reconsidered the whole business, or at least the back of my brain has done, and so, as a result, the only change to be announced is the introduction of anchors, or bookmarks as they’re sometimes called. The headings above the photograph in each month’s entry are going to be links leading directly to the related material. For some reason, this feature was not available by default, and I have asked to have it added. So there we are. I daresay that I’ll chat more about less technical developments as they occur. It’s astonishing to me that I am still tinkering, fifteen years later, with the Web log format. 

As always, it is great to be out of the teens. (1 January)

 

¶ We watched Topsy-Turvy  last night, and something hit me for the first time: how lucky Gilbert was! How lucky to arrive in middle age without knowing much of anything about Japan — a Japan that, at the time of Gilbert’s youth, had known even less about the West. What a marvelous treat for the inspiration it must have been — and evidently was — to visit the Japanese Village at Humphreys’ Hall in Knightsbridge, a veritable chocolate box of exotic inscrutabilities. At the time, Gilbert and Sullivan were famously at loggerheads about Gilbert’s addiction to supernatural potions and lozenges as the agents of his topsy-turvy dramas; Sullivan wouldn’t have anything more to do with such vulgarity. The men and women going about their Japanese ways at Humphreys’ Hall seem to have given Gilbert the idea for something better than a lozenge: his own England could be dressed up in Japanese “dressing gowns,” and Victoria could be switched out for an emperor with a daughter-in-law-elect. (Am I the only one who sees the ghost of Prince Albert?) No magic necessary! Sullivan appears not to have been able to resist the opportunities for “authentic” Oriental color — something that Offenbach and the Théâtre des Italiens hadn’t thought of yet. The Mikado is still the jewel in the Savoyard crown. 

Topsy-Turvy (1999) is not what I’d have expected from Mike Leigh, otherwise a master of improvisational, demotic critiques of the baggage of respectability. There’s a lot of that in Topsy-Turvy, I suppose, but you have to want to see (or hear) it, because the surface of the film is so pungent a realization of the scenario by Christopher Hibbert. Hibbert was unaware, no doubt, that a filmmaker would extract a feature from the relevant pages of his handsome picture-book, Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World (American Heritage, 1978), but it is impossible to read them without seeing a team of screenwriters forging them into a script.

Then, as Gilbert was pacing up and down in his cluttered library one day, a heavy object hanging on the wall suddenly clattered to the floor. Gilbert bent down to pick it up. It was a Japanese sword, and as he held it in his hand an idea suddenly came to him. (173)

This is pretty much what happens in the movie. It is notoriously difficulty to capture artistic inspiration on film, but Leigh, and Jim Broadbent as Gilbert, pull it off in a stroke: Gilbert, having picked up and unsheathed the sword, indulging in a bit of fencing while sotto-voce shouting nonsense “Japanese,” stares into the camera. Very slowly, his face lights up, those blue eyes glowing at lighthouse strength, and the music just as gradually comes up, leading to a cut to the “Lord High Executioner” march. 

For all the luxurious lighting and upholstery — the ladies in their finery are right out of Tissot! — Mike Leigh seems determined to dilute the idea that “the Victorians” were a different race of people. They are just like us, only with servants. And the travails of servants are not a topic here. If anything, it is the performers — the singers and the musicians, even, to an extent, Gilbert and Sullivan themselves — who are presented as the “servants,” charged with the duty to entertain everybody else. Leigh takes care that we see them doing that duty, working their heads off at times. But the clever dialogue distracts us from what might be the tediousness of getting the staging just right. 

Anyway, lucky Gilbert. Not only do we know what everyone looks like everywhere, but everyone everywhere looks just like us. (3 January)

¶ If I were Shakespeare, I would know how to put this all in five or ten words, but:

The contents of top shelf of my fiction bookcase — not all that capacious, only about a yard wide, if taller than I am — have never been catalogued. By “never,” I mean since the move down to this apartment, but they had probably not been catalogued upstairs, either. The top shelves of most of my bookcases are set fairly close, too close to accommodate today’s standard clothbound novel, or even many “trade paperbacks” (what a strange term), so they’re stuffed, sometimes three deep, with tiny, mostly old volumes that fall apart when I try to re-read them. Signet Classics, if you remember the ones with the great Milton Glaser art on the cover. I still have four of the Anchor paperbacks for which Edward Gorey designed the covers, and one of them, a translation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida (as it’s called), I bought just for that reason, although I hasten add that it was still newish enough to be on the market. Also, French books. I have accumulated a lot of French books since buying them online became an option (and who was that retailer — Bertelsmann? — whose dot-com emblem was a fist making a for Victory whilst also sporting what I believe the British call y-fronts? Only a few of the French books, I’m ashamed to admit, have been read, but of course the right way to look at it is that some of them have been read.) A few days ago — call it a New Year’s resolution that was actualized without having been made — I decided that I must sort through this shelf, and, sure enough, four or five novels that I had replaced turned up. What also turned up was an old paperback copy of The Ebony Tower, by John Fowles. I had been thinking of it, the title novella anyway. I hadn’t read it in a long time (obviously), and in fact I don’t know if I’ve read it once or twice, or, now, twice or thrice. I seem to recall looking for it at Amazon recently, and not finding it. Thank goodness, since I had it already! 

Reader, I read it. 

Perhaps I will let this entry stand as an introduction to the one that I am going to write when I have re-read According to Mark, one of the few Penelope Lively novels that I have read only once, and all I could think of during “The Ebony Tower.” Can it be that the Lively is a satire on the Fowles? From what I recall of the story, I don’t see how it could not be, unless of course it was written before 1974, which I don’t think it was. No — it’s ten years younger (and a Booker finalist! — that seals it, surely). 

I wanted to re-read “The Ebony Tower” for the same reason that has led me to read Daniel Martin three times: nobody except possibly Shakespeare writes so beautifully about the English countryside — or, in this case, the Breton countryside. It’s better than being there. You’ve heard, I imagine, that Michelangelo Antonioni had all the leaves on the trees in London’s Maryon Park painted green for their close-ups in Blow-Up. John Fowles achieves a similar effect with words on the page. All you can see at times is green, which is important, because verdure enhances the Arthurian echoes of which Fowles is so fond. And those echoes require a forest large enough to get lost in, which is pretty much what you know is going to happen to David Williams, the thirty-two year-old protagonist of “The Ebony Tower.” More about the story itself when I’ve had another look at According to Mark (which also involves a famous older artist — a writer in that case — and a young woman with whom the protagonist falls hopelessly in love). For now, it’s enough to say that the experienced reader of Fowles realizes from the beginning that a handsome young man who doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks he does is going to be devoured in the lovingly painted forest. All you do wonder is, exactly how? (Wasn’t there a human sacrifice in The Magus?) Our David, we know, is going to lose his heart, all unawares, to a young woman nicknamed “Mouse,” and the sobriquet has nothing to do with vermin. Oh dear, no. At some point, it’s clear, David is going to want — well, he actually asks Mouse, finally, “But please let me take you to bed.” That’s pretty Arthurian, don’t you think? Especially in light of the vague rape fantasies that have bubbled up in his mind earlier that day. In the very protracted post-mortem, however — Mouse declines the request — David doesn’t seem to ask himself whether or not he ought to have asked her. Seize the day and all that, what?

As a man on the eve — literally! — of his seventy-second birthday, I could only pant with relief when David escapes from the  occasion of infidelity (he’s married, with two daughters) that might have upended his life, but the whippersnapper doesn’t see things this way at all. No, he has ruined his life; he has failed the (Arthurian) challenge. All he does, on the long drive, next day, from Brittany to Paris — to pick up his wife at Orly — is to ring changes with the bells of self-loathing. The author is enthusiastically helpful, also believing that to be refused by a woman who has awakened your ardent lusts makes for extraordinary, world-historical misery. Fowles seems unaware that carnal desire, like the launch of a rocket ship, initiates many temporarily irreversible processes and chemical mixtures, all of a totally somatic and unromantic nature, the interruption of which used to be known to cause blue balls

But you can’t write a novella about that. And if you try, you certainly don’t need Fowles’s beautifully painted greenery. No: the tale must end like this: 

The abominable and vindictive injustice was that art is fundamentally amoral. However hard one tried, one was hopelessly handicapped: all to the pigs, none to the deserving. [David’s visit to Brittany] had remorselessly demonstrated what he was born, still was, and always would be: a decent man and eternal also-ran. 

Kathleen, with whom I shared many of these tittering thoughts at dinner, couldn’t remember exactly what she’d read by John Fowles, but she did recall thinking of him as “John Fools.” She’s the Shakespeare. (5 January)

 

§ From a letter to a friend: 

You know how people say, with an air of surprise “I don’t feel old at all, I feel as young as ever.” It seems to me that you hear this more from the elderly than from the middle-aged, and certainly I now feel more like my eternal self, if I can speak of such a thing, than I did when I was forty. But what counters the illusion of youth right now is the heavy arc of memory. Not the “personal” memories, but the news summaries from all the years that I’ve been around. Politicians, pop musicians, art crazes, just plain gossip. What an awful lot of them there are, and how few of them still mean anything to most people alive. I remember when you heard about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Sybil Burton’s discothèque every single day. (Imagine! Paying to dance to somebody’s record collection!)

It’s only now that I understand, or rather remember and really feel, how the Kennedys’ representation of a new and wonderful dawn was enhanced by the contrast of Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs. You really can’t imagine how dowdy Mamie Eisenhower was; you have to have been there. No first lady has been allowed to be anything like her since. And yet she seemed normal at the time, and that’s what made the Kennedy’s newer than new. Bess Truman was almost as bad. If Eleanor Roosevelt hadn’t had such an unfortunate chin, she might have prefigured Jackie, but even now few people realize what a clotheshorse she was. And if not dowdy, Mrs Roosevelt was a bit sour — understandably. That it was the sourness of feminist outrage and not the grimness of an old maid is hard to tell at a distance. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a picture of Mrs Hoover, and Mrs Coolidge looked rather like her husband. Anyway, Mamie came from a long line of bats, and that’s what everybody was used to. (If you watch Frank Capra’s State of the Union carefully, you can get the impression that American men liked it that way — politics, I mean.) Against such a background, Jackie Kennedy couldn’t help looking spectacular, and she quite literally did. Her dawn meant that everything new was good. “New” would fix everything, something like “science.” But Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs were the power supply.

We thought that everything would be different — snap — like turning on a light switch. We were assured that it would be. And I was too young to doubt it. That’s why I was thrown off by LBJ. He was, it’s now clear, a far more serious president than JFK dreamed of being, but he looked too much like Mamie Eisenhower. He was old, he was a hick. He was a throwback, and not to Ike, whom everyone foolishly admired for being “above politics.” (Something that ought to have been made more of when Obama was challenging Clinton.) LBJ was the actual dawn, the beginning of a genuinely new day, but he sure didn’t look like it. When you look more like Mamie Eisenhower than your drawling, beautifying wife…

According to Wikipedia, the apparition incroyable of Mamie Eisenhower was an adaptation of Christian Dior’s New Look. Now we’ve heard everything. (7 January)

 

¶ “God…is…love,” exhales Mrs Moore, in A Passage to India. Like everything that sounds simple, the precept leads to impossible complications among human beings. We desire love, but we spoil it by the very wanting. What we offer as love is usually lust. And what about God? How can God put every created being first? What’s really at stake for God? I say that love is a dream. The best that we have to give is caring. I suspect that Mrs Moore, if not her author, would be happy with the revision. After all, we can care; good people do it every day.

But caring is not love. For as long as Kathleen and I have been together, I have known that my wife prefers soft-boiled eggs to scrambled; and Kathleen has known that, given everything else that has to be brought to the table for a weekend breakfast, it is much easier to scramble eggs than to boil them. But only after nearly forty years of marriage, just a couple of months ago, did she confess that she actually dislikes scrambled eggs. I try very hard to care for Kathleen, but I don’t flatter myself that I love her very well, because love means getting the caring right. God presumably knows how we’d all like to be taken care of, but others are not always informed. Sometimes, parents and spouses and (later) children are grossly ill-informed, and they get the caring very wrong. Then it’s as if no one loves us at all. 

Such are my thoughts upon reading Laura Cumming’s utterly engrossing vicarious memoir, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons. There’s a very good story running through Cumming’s book, which she relates with the dexterity of a cardsharp, and which I’d have enjoyed somewhat more if it hadn’t been spoiled for me by a review. The book itself, happily, wasn’t spoiled; perhaps it was knowing how the story would unfold that allowed me to pay more attention to the teller, who is very much, as I’ve suggested, at the emotional center. Her mother, in her mid-nineties at the time of writing, appears to have put the unhappiness of her childhood aside; it is the author/daughter who, though the child of one loving home and the mother of another, seethes with anger and resentment.

The object of Cummings’s outrage is her grandfather, George Elston, and the real story of On Chapel Sands concerns the metamorphosis of this outrage into something much closer to sympathy. The selfish and hypocritical ogre who makes her pages shudder once the tale has got going becomes at the end an ordinary man making the most of a bad hand. Issues of patriarchy, authority, propriety and respectability, and what we dismiss as “keeping up with appearances” only because the appearances no longer appeal to us — these melt like the wings of Icarus in the warmth of patient detection. They melt into a landscape that is only partly the flat “Holland” of the Lincolnshire coast; it is also the scene of a vast, slow-motion upheaval, an immense cloud of families rising and falling within and through the swelling middle classes throughout Europe and America during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 

Betty Elston grew up in a terrace, two-up, two-down, outside of Chapel St Lawrence, near Skegness, the resort town on the North Sea, in a house remorselessly lacking stimulation. When she was not at school — which at first meant the parlor of a neighbor in the same small terrace — she was at home, always at home, forbidden to visit the town or to build friendships. She blamed her isolation on her parents — her father was an ill-tempered commercial traveler who spent his weekdays on the road, her mother a quiet homemaker and gifted needlewoman — but her daughter would learn that the imprisonment was managed by the people of the town. Everybody “knew” who Betty really was — everyone except Betty herself, of course. And this horrendous blend of knowledge and ignorance was universally thought to be “for the best,” even if there was some disagreement about the details. Victorian novelists have presented birth out of wedlock as such a total disaster for the mother and the child that we are blinded to the reality that “these things happened,” and happened often, and that towns and villages quite often tried to deal with them kindly. But the kindness was not always humane, just as the caring often fell short of love. The quiet glory of On Chapel Sands is the evaporation of a cloud of blame by the sun of understanding. (8 January)

Iris Origo, Images and Shadows, “Writing”:

But were I to write these books now, I think they would be somewhat different in tone and treatment from my earlier ones, for a reason which became clear to me, some years ago, after a conversation with George Santayana. During the last years of his life, when he was revising his Life of Reason, I asked him whether his opinions had become very different from those he had expressed some forty years before. “No,” he gently replied. “I feel I have much the same things to say — but I want to say them in a different tone of voice.”

Essentially, this reflects a state of mind not unlike that of Dr Johnson when, ten days before his death,k he asserted that he was ‘now ready to call a man a good man, on much easier terms than formerly.’ With the passing of time, a writer’s judgments are likely to become a little gentler and to be expressed in a quieter voice, and of course it is also possible that, in the interval, he may have learned a little more. This is not to say that the works of a person’s later years are necessarily better than those of his youth; something may have been lost, as well as gained. But they will certainly be different. 

Origo ends her chapter with a famous line: of the making of many books there is no end. Who said that, I wondered. The answer, when it came, via the universal concordance that is the Internet, was  a rude surprise, and yet only another reminder of the poverty of Catholic education sixty years ago, when good little children never saw a Bible, much less touched or opened one. (I’m not sure that we ever much heard the word. “The word” — that’s what we heard. “The word of God.”) Ecclesiastes 12:12. I call attention to Catholic education not because we didn’t learn this passage in school but because, by the time I did run into it, doubtless with an attribution, I had nowhere to put the information. Although I certainly recognized the name of the book, the book itself meant nothing to me, even though it was, as Mrs Clancy says, “full of quotations.” 

Or perhaps it’s simply that I regard the problem of too many books as a recent one. There certainly are! But haven’t there always been? And hasn’t it always been equally true that there is — sometimes — nothing to read, nothing that exactly suits the moment?  (9 January)

 

§ Could I possibly excavate the opinion that I had as a teenager of Time Magazine? Time and Life arrived every week (unlike The New Yorker, which my parents had no use for), and their sheer periodical novelty was mouth-watering. Life was more fun at first, but as I grew older, I preferred Time for, I dare say, two reasons. One: I was discovering the pleasure of exercising my mind over paragraphs of print. I had not been much of a reader as a child, and non-fiction was better suited my materialistic cravings. Two: the photographs in Life were depressing. The world was not a pretty place in the early Sixties, as I’ve already suggested above. (The Kennedys seemed miraculous because the world was so drab, either garish or Soviet.) When I close my eyes and imagine a Life feature now, I see a schlub in thick glasses and a pocket protector explaining a whizbang rocket ship. For all of its pretty girls, indeed quite often because of them, America was not a pretty place. (I was not yet aware that the impressiveness of natural wonders does not penetrate my mind. Little Carl Schurz Park, just down the street, provides me with all the nature I can take, not least because it’s right next to a river that isn’t a river but a tidal strait, flowing sometimes one way, sometimes the other — how crazy is that?) America was Civil Rights demonstrations in pokey towns, bulbous automobiles, and irritating animals. The composure of its black-and-white photographs was undone by full bleeds and sans-serif headlines. Even the poor people in Europe were more attractive, as were their cottages and slums. The America of Life looked like it had been built during the Depression and was already worn out waiting to be replaced by something more lasting. The real world of Westchester County that I actually lived in was much, much nicer, but I had my issues with that, too.

When I think back to Time, I recapture the moment in which a turgid sea of Congressional-hearings coverage startlingly bloomed with a very adroit phrase: Now that flower children have gone to pot… I forget the rest of the sentence, but I can almost smell the condescension of the wordsmithery. This would have been in the late Sixties, and I wasn’t really a kid anymore. I probably hadn’t smoked marijuana just yet, but I knew people who had done, and I knew that they would never read Time. I was by now reading The New Yorker, and hoping for the day when I would understood it at least as well as I understood Time, for which, however, I had little more than contempt. Time was like those horrible cereal boxes on Sixth Avenue, lined up in a row of four glassy walls, demonstrating that New York could be as up-to-date as Omaha or Tulsa, but with more, and a matching set at that. Wasn’t Time-Life in one of them? The magazine was not just slick but oil-slick, increasingly empty of what Jane Austen meant by “information.” 

I thought of all this after I read Pico Iyer’s contact piece about Sonny Mehta, “How to Be Cool and Warm at Once,” in Air Mail. It is neither an obituary of the late, great editor nor an appreciation of his career, but only a reminiscence with commentary, featuring an impromptu carriage ride in Central Park that I wish I hadn’t heard about, or at least heard about in the context of Iyer’s writing. Because I haven’t read Time since I was finally shoved out of my parents’ house a year after getting out of college, I didn’t know until recently — until I wondered why I didn’t like Iyer’s The Man Within My Head more — that Iyer was on Time’s staff for many years. There’s a short sentence in the Mehta piece that shows what this means; its sweetness dissolves altogether if you don’t swallow it quickly. “His kindness was as private as other people’s vices are.” As wordplay, this rivals the flashier flower pots. Truly private kindnesses are not known to third parties, period. It’s not that kindness is diminished by publicity. It’s that writing can be too clever by half, fizzling out after an instant of brilliance. To the extent that we are intended to be reminded here of saints on the order of Mother Teresa, the statement becomes as revolting as it is improbable. 

Instead of thinking of Mother Teresa, I thought of Dr Godbole, Forster’s slippery Brahmin, avoiding commitment more assiduously than beef. 

Meanwhile, the Times wasn’t delivered yesterday morning. Lapses of this kind have occurred too often in the past six months, and they invite an urge to retaliate somehow. Short of hiding by the door and shooting a deliverer who does show up, there doesn’t seem to be much to do aside from cancelling the subscription, and Kathleen won’t have that. So I mutter to myself about my addiction to a habit that, if not altogether bad, is somewhat pointless. The only articles that I read these days have “xit” in their titles, being concerned with either the UK’s withdrawal from the EU or Meghan Markle’s withdrawal from the UK. (The Times itself has trouble recognizing the daring royal marriage, referring constantly to “Prince Harry and Meghan.”) The problem with everything else in the newspaper is that it’s either irrelevant as news — all those investigative and social stories: they don’t belong in a newspaper at all — or they are transparently about, not national affairs or economic forecasts, but people who read The New York Times. Reading it, I feel that I am being boned-up on who I am and where I come from. For every whisper suggesting that I could be a better person, there is a shout from Jane Brody warning me that, because of complacency and self-indulgence, I am going to die a horrible death, which of course I already knew. 

Usually, when the paper doesn’t show up, we do without, but I went across the street and bought a replacement yesterday, even though it was Sunday and half of the sections had been delivered to us the day before. The odds that the pieces in what used to be called “The Week in Review” would be worth reading were even — in the event, there were a couple of good things — but because I am a New York Times reader, I couldn’t go without the latest instalment of Modern LoveI can never tell whether Modern Love is intended to liberate younger readers from the hangup of thinking that they’re unusual or to titillate my generation. They certainly titillate me, which is why I never write about them. It’s not nice to giggle at the misfortunes of others. (13 January

 

¶ Snips from Books: 

Shaw: “[The now forgotten composer, Hermann Goetz] has the charm of Schubert without his brainlessness…*

Nescio: “Als ‘t er in zit will ‘t er uit.”**

Forster: “A pause in the wrong place, an intonation misunderstood, and a whole conversation went awry. Fielding had been startled, not shocked, but how convey the difference? There is always trouble when two people do not think of sex at the same moment, always mutual resentment and surprise, even when two people are of the same race.”***

* Quoted in Gay, Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (Oxford, 1979), p. 242, footnote 20.
**Die uitvreter, in Verzameld proza en nagelaten werk (van Oorschot, 2010) p. 14.
*** A Passage to India (Harvest, 1952), p. 274

On this miscellaneous note, I ought to report a package that I received yesterday. It was a small cardboard envelope, and I noticed at once that there was something familiarly unfamiliar about it. It contained a copy of Andrea Marcolongo’s La Lingua Geniale, a book about the impassioned study of ancient Greek that comma queen Mary Norris wrote up at The New Yorker’s Web site earlier this month. The book has just been translated into English, but why not read about one foreign language in another?

Curiously, the Italian original was available at amazon.com. So I sent for it, wondering where the warehouse might be. The answer was on the envelope’s label, imperfectly concealed by another label that had been pasted over it. Both labels bore my name and address, but the return on the buried label was Castel san Giovanni, in Italy. (Strada Dogana 2U — sure enough, it’s in the Veneto, just west of Piacenza.) The envelope was familiar because I had received one just like it from Blackwell’s, in Oxford. If I had room for the collection, I would save the curious envelopes that arrive from time to time. Unlike American envelopes, the one from Italy is creased to expand just so when filled. The package would be very neat, if it were not for the USPS label slapped akimbo over the neat Italian one. 

As you can see from the Nescio quote, I’m in the mood for Nederlands. What I’d really like to struggle with is a novel with a modern Dutch story — a story (here’s the catch) written by Joseph O’Neill. (He grew up in The Hague, you know; he could easily turn one out.) No sooner did this daydream pass overhead than I was searching for a translation of Netherland, which I’ve read so often in English that I could probably get through it in Russian. (Not really.) I found a copy, at amazon.de, but it was pretty pricey, especially for this kind of folly: more than fifty dollars with shipping. “Not a Dutch story,” I consoled myself.

More disappointing, somehow, was the translation’s title, Laagland. “Laag” means “low” in Nederlands. What kind of dumb is that? The entire weight of a significant allusion to the East India Company’s adventures on Manhattan Island crashes and disappears into the Hudson Canyon. I understand that they couldn’t call it Nederland; why not just leave it alone? Netherland means nothing in English, and Laagland means less than nothing. Did O’Neill approve this? A fan wants to know.  

Anyway, I was encouraged by the envelope from Castel san Giovanni to try to get a copy of Laagland from amazon.com, where the shipping at least would be less. No dice. 

The Nescio quote, which I take to be idiosyncratic, refers to artistic urges: if you’ve got it in you, you need to express yourself. I could quote from the NYRB edition of the translation, which is introduced by Joseph O’Neill, but genug schon. This sort of entry, although it requires no thought at all, takes forever to finish. (15 January

¶ For me, the most interesting bit of Uncanny Valley appeared at the end. I suppose it’s a good thing for books to end with a surprise, but I’m not sure that Anna Wiener intended one. Writing about the mood of the technological “ecosphere” after the presidential election of Donald Trump, Wiener reports widespread depression. Having watched her parade of bright, twentysomething, and male embryo CEOs for nearly three hundred pages, I almost expected an outbreak of triumphalism, or at least a couple of memos from the corner offices mandating one. (But they don’t have corner offices out there.) Everything about these fine young men suggests keen support for Republican Party causes, no matter how malodorously achieved. Indeed, Uncanny Valley provides a sheaf of anecdotes that add up to make sense, as no amount of reporting has done, just why otherwise responsible Americans tolerate the hotelier-in-chief: he is indeed a leader of the great unwashed — the fuzzy, the untrained, women — for whom they have nothing but contempt. If he can deliver the votes, they’ll hold their noses and smile. Whatever it has to say about a moment in cybernetic history, Uncanny Valley demonstrates that Silicon Valley is where Fifties American masculinity has gone to be reborn. Of her first tech bosses, Wiener writes, 

They were focused and content. All three were clean-shaven and had good skin. They wore shirts that were always crisp and modestly buttoned to the clavicle. They were in long-term relationships with high-functioning women, women with great hair with whom they exercised and shared meals at restaurants that required reservations. They lived in one-bedroom apartments in downtown Manhattan and had no apparent need for psychotherapy. They shared a vision and a game plan. They weren’t ashamed to talk about it, weren’t ashamed to be openly ambitious. Fresh off impressive positions and prestigious summer internships at large tech corporations in the Bay Area, they spoke about their work like industry veterans, lifelong company men. They were generous with their unsolicited business advice, as though they hadn’t just worked someplace for a year or two but built storied careers. They were aspirational. I wanted, so much, to be like — and liked by — them. 

That there at the end is the other strand of Wiener’s story. She is herself a high-functioning Bohemian, by which I mean that she will never make enough money in publishing to support the casual life to which she aspires. It takes money to live mindfully; without it, you can’t think of anything else. (Plus, where are the men?) It would be easy to imagine that Wiener’s search for the good life in San Francisco is doomed by her attachment to the arts scene, but it would also be hasty. Wiener does leave the ecosphere eventually, of course, but not before scoring a nice if not indecent equity windfall and finding an appealing boyfriend, with whom she is still engaged as of the Acknowledgments. Wiener presents herself as deluded and naïve, and often invites us to laugh at her, but evidence of idiocy remains invisible. She expresses envy of the entrepreneur’s beautifully maned girlfriends, but it is apparent that her “zaftig figure and ample rack” are not exactly disadvantages — although they may, I suppose, provoke the unconscious misogyny that litters the book like peanut shells at a ballfield. About this and other issues Wiener reports concisely and without burdensome commentary; res ipsa loquitur, and, if it doesn’t, the reader would probably find explanations irritating. 

Glued as she was to computer screens for work, Wiener did find herself in San Francisco (as distinct from the Valley), where echoes of the Sixties are occasionally louder than normal echoes. I was reminded of the Sixties, too, by the earnest hope for a new and better world that would come into full view as soon as the author and her cohort turned the next corner. Somehow, they believed, these young people would manage to preserve all the freedom and baggagelessness of childhood right into adulthood, and while technology would provide the principal energy assist, tools left over from days of dope and doses would not be shunned, nor would positively transcendental investment in the material body. Of all the frights in Uncanny Valley, this retour aux années Soixante was the one that made me flinch. Don’t, I wanted to beg, don’t take me back! I watched with horror as history not so much repeated as reversed itself, for the hangover after youthful optimism is in Wiener’s account not the shambolic stab at respectability that characterized the Seventies but a militant postwar authoritarianism too well engineered and understood to need to raise its voice.  

When I was a boy, computers were beginning to assist large systems, corporate or municipal, with the operation of basic functions. Now, of course, they do a great deal more than assist; in the next big war, wherever it takes place, computers are far more likely to be targets than human beings. Which is probably a good thing even if our power and water systems depend on them, and their loss would throw us all into chaos. But what about regular people, owners of the eyeballs targeted by the Pied Pipers of Silicon Valley — do they, do we, really need computers? Do we need the efficiency that puts people out of work while sucking up our attention? I like to think that we don’t, even as I type up this entry on my old Hewlett-Packard. 

I read most of Uncanny Valley at bedtime, and I recommend not doing likewise. What I read didn’t keep me awake, exactly, but it did scare me. The book has the tone, for these ancient ears, anyway, of a dystopian science-fiction fantasy set on a baroque but inhumane space station patrolling a neighboring galaxy. Wiener writes very well, I have to admit, although I had to look up a lot of the words. What at first struck me as grammatical errors came to be seen as differences of style and usage, but it’s almost impossible for me to forgive the phrase “graduate college.” (In prepositions lies the poetry of spoken English!) Although Wiener is to be congratulated for capturing not just the tone of Joan Didion’s prose but the point of it as well, she is gifted enough to warm hopes that she will develop a tone all her own. (17 January)

¶ Over the weekend, I finally got through a book that I’d picked up last summer because of the bits that Karl Ove Knausgaard quotes in his Hitler thing (“The Name and the Number”) in the final volume of My Struggle. They turned out to be the best bits of Victor Klemperer’s LTI (Lingua Tertium Imperium; The Language of the Third Reich). In Knausgaard’s extracts, Klemperer reported the appalling conversations that he had with an “Aryan” colleague after the Nazi takeover; the woman rapturously claimed that she felt reborn. I was curious to read more, but there wasn’t any more, not really; Knausgaard had copied it all in. And, on the whole, the rest of the book was not so, shall we say, cinematic. LTI was what it professed to be, a philologist’s rueful notebook devoted to the fads and illiteracies of Nazi speech. A good deal of Klemperer’s material, I suspected, is essentially untranslatable, a matter of nuances utterly peculiar to German — not least those of his ironic anger, which depends on that most perishable of sensibilities, linguistic humor. (The LTI project would probably have been equally untranslatable from any other original language.) On top of this, Klemperer appears to have thrown the book together very quickly from his notes, so that Hitler sometimes “is” and sometimes “was.” (The book bears a dedication dated Christmas 1946.) Finally, the Bloomsbury Revelations edition of Martin Brady’s translation is a cheap job, printed with scanted ink in an ethereally dim sans-serif type. Sorely missing is an editorial apparatus providing background information, a timeline, and a map of Klemperer’s refugee route from Dresden. Worst of all: as might be expected, the language of the Third Reich was not very interesting at all, but pathetically meager. The banality all but occludes the evil! Klemperer is noted for the diaries that he kept during the Reich, and perhaps it is wise to have read those before undertaking LTI. 

Now: what to do with the book? I will never read it again, certainly. As narratives with guest appearances by the Gestapo go, it is bleak rather than terrifying, but I groaned every time I picked it up. Somehow, Klemperer’s being a Jew took second place to the dulling migraine of Germany’s prolonged subjection to fake news constructed from bogus vocabulary. There are, however, things that I may want to look up, to refresh my memory or to support a point of which I am not yet aware. In other words, LTI is a reference book, and perhaps it belongs with among the dictionaries, not the histories. But it is a marginal book, as I hope I’ve made clear. As a material book, it is one of the worst in my collection. (An intentional synaesthetic effect on the part of Bloomsbury?) Ought I to try to keep it? What with reading Jonathan Israel’s History of the Dutch Republic, the most immediate way to describe my library is to say that I’m as out of shelf-space as Philip II was out of money for paying troops. 

I will soon be facing the same choice with regard to Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex. What a title! I like to imagine the kind of rocket it would have set off fifty years ago. In those days, it would have signified authorship by some sordid hanger-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory; simply to have mentioned it in polite society would have induced choruses of coughing. Oh, it’s a very nicely published book, utterly conventional and no pictures. But the text is almost as gruesome as LTI, and in much the same way. A society has gone clean off the rails, led perhaps fatally astray by the promise of a wonderfully scientific new way of fixing things that, in this later case, does little more in fact than dump piles of indelible pornography on the screens of adolescents. Like LTIBoys & Sex is a compendium of evidence that a nation is going to hell in a handbasket. So this is how it is done… (27 January — Mozart’s birthday)

 

§ It’s very hard for me to come away from Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Sexuality with a warrant for comments, because, love aside — and, even then, not entirely to the side — none of the items mentioned in the subtitle existed “in my day.” (Boys and love? I don’t think so.) Porn existed, sort of, on a grubby fringe that decent boys were known to avoid (whatever some of them may have got away with). Porn was really too disgusting for conversation. I do remember listening, with five or six classmates in somebody’s dorm room, to an LP that purported to be the sound-track of a man and a woman coupling on an extremely noisy old-fashioned bed — the kind with sagging, exposed springs underneath the mattress. (I remember this disc because, about five or ten years later, it came to seem hilarious, like the rumor that uncircumcised men enjoy sex “50% more,” or a ventriloquist on the radio.) I also remember someone pointing to a dusty shop-counter at the rear of a corner store: it looked like it was crawling with what we didn’t yet call STDs. Outside the comfort zone of ladies and gentlemen, I was too nervous to dream of any kind of pleasure. The only subtitle that I’d have expected to see on a book with Orenstein’s title would be Dirty Jokes

Nothing in Orenstein’s book suggests to me that “things are better today” — not that anybody asked. Certainly not for girls! And not really for boys, either. Indeed, I came away with the ghastly suspicion that what critics have been calling “permissiveness” for fifty years is nothing but transactional lubrication on the assembly line of commodification and consumerization. I remember a time when the link between “sex” and “entertainment” consisted of naughty girls in heels, top hats, and not much else. Now, everybody is a potential sex entertainer. The fear of becoming one motivates quite a few of the dubious escapades reported in Boys & Sex. The broadcast of local gossip at light speed has made smartphones into instruments of blackmail. What if word gets around that I’m no good?

We — boys my age when I was a boy — were ignorant and naïve, and we knew it. Orenstein’s boys are ignorant and knowing. Which is worse? It’s an idle question; you grow up in the world you grow up in. Nevertheless, I want to fall to my knees in gratitude for having been schooled almost all the way through in single-sex institutions. (Also, for there being no fraternities at Notre Dame.) It was never the girls that I’d have minded. It what what their presence did to the boys. Apparently, it still does, although everyone is chill about it. 

The one sentence that burned itself into my grey matter, though, has nothing to do with sex. 

As financial challenges have mounted — especially at the kind of moderately selective, flagship state schools attended by Xavier and Emmett [two of Orenstein’s interviewees] — administrators have come under pressure to lure wealthier, out-of-state students who can afford their higher fees. So they have actively rebranded college life as four years of “fun,” introducing and array of low-pressure majors for those who want to spend (at least) as much time drinking as studying. (137)

Listen, I had a lot of fun in school, really a lot. It was actually educational, because I had to use my head to make it, or at least my nerve. I don’t know what’s more shameful, today’s resort-cum-classroom colleges or porn that’s all too accessible to young eyeballs. I suspect that the bull sessions that took up a lot of our evenings when I was in school would have been staggered into silence by the prospect of either, much less having to decide which was worse. (31 January)

December 2019

¶ Elizabeth Hardwick (in The Dolphin Letters; on Virginia Woolf)
§ A Bit Thick?
& What I Cooked For Christmas
§ Experience
and the Novel
§ Fiddlesticks!

¶ I haven’t got a copy of Saskia Hamilton’s new book, The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979, but the following line appears in both of the reviews that I’ve read. 

I swear I never in all this business have wanted to hurt you.

Thus Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Hardwick. Even the syntax is unnatural — just try to memorize the statement, and you’ll see. And then there are the pronouns: the earnestness of an apology is a function of their proximity. Here, “I” and “you” stand as far apart as possible, and the duplication of the first, in the bogus oath at the start, undermines what follows with a blatant confession: it’s all about me

If, using Lowell’s words only, we rearrange the sentence in order to produce an effect of greater sincerity, we get

In all this business, I never wanted to hurt you. 

but we also get a clearer understanding of what Lowell wanted and didn’t want — which is important, first of all, because want has to take the place of “sorry.” Saying I never wanted to hurt you is as close as Lowell can bring himself to the outright expression of remorse. But can it be true that he never wanted to hurt his former wife, Lizzie? Perhaps Lowell believed it, in one of those mental compartments that modern men construct with psychopathic ease. But he also wanted to take up with, and even to marry, Lady Caroline Blackwood (she had by this time borne his son, Sheridan). He wanted to write a sonnet sequence, The Dolphin, in which he appropriated and adapted chunks of text from the letters of lamentation that Lizzie wrote during the break-up. And he wanted to dedicate The Dolphin to his new wife. These desires were not forced. He gratified them deliberately. (What could be more deliberate than the composition of a sonnet sequence?) Lowell’s fake apology can’t mean anything but this: 

I wish I had never met you. I wish you didn’t exist. You are so inconvenient! 

Remember, we are not talking about a tongue-tied callow youth here. Lowell, in his fifties, was one of America’s most celebrated poets. Poets are understood not only to mean what they say but to know what they mean. But I can find no filament of sense to connect what Lowell says here and what he could possibly mean. Precisely because he is a poet, his falsity is spotlit. Yet why not say “I’m sorry”?

Perhaps even he would have winced at the threadbare insincerity of that

Lowell’s attempt at self-exoneration has caused me great turmoil, not so much because it’s upsetting to see yet another husband behave badly to his wife as because it very strongly suggests (if it does not prove) that the great poet’s language was a professional apparatus, suited to public address, that Lowell, when relaxing as an average sensual man, could set aside; that he felt entitled to resort to the indeterminate vernacular (all this business) in the capacity of an American Guy at Home. This art is fake at the root. (11 December)

¶ Vanessa on Virginia: 

She dislikes the possessiveness and love of domination in man. In fact she dislikes the quality of masculinity.

Elizabeth Hardwick quotes Bell on her sister in the essay “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf,” later published in Seduction and Betrayal, a book that came out in the aftermath of her marriage to Robert Lowell, which coincided with the Early-Seventies rediscovery of and craze for all things Bloomsbury. What started it? Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt? By 1980, everybody was sick of it. There are reasons to doubt that Bloomsbury was ever central to Virginia Woolf herself. The nub of the connection between the Stephen sisters and such free spirits as Lytton Strachey, their brother Thoby Stephen, didn’t live to participate in the group, such as it was. I think of Virginia making fun of Sybil Colefax or gossiping with Iris Origo, two ladies whose names have never come up, to my knowledge, in reminiscences of Bloomsbury. 

Hardwick says the damnedest thing: 

The novels are beautiful; the language is rich and pure, and you are always, with her, aware of genius, of gifts extraordinary and original. Our emotions are moved, at least some of our emotions are moved, often powerfully. And yet in a sense her novels aren’t interesting. …  I was immensely moved by [The Waves] when I read it recently and yet I cannot think of anything to say about it except that it is wonderful. … You can merely say over and over that it is very good,very beautiful, that when you were reading it you were very happy. 

I can’t help relating the alleged lack of interest to Woolf’s dislike of masculinity: To think of something interesting to say about a novel that you have just read is, let’s be honest, a mode of possession. Am I accusing Hardwick of masculinity? A little, perhaps: as part of her recovery from the bruising of the breakup with Lowell — his barely concealed preference for a younger, richer woman, already somewhat notorious as a femme fatale — Hardwick was teaching herself to play big-boy hardball. This doesn’t make her wrong about the lack of “interest,” but only raises a slight objection to her complaining about it. 

Nevertheless, I disagree. I think that To the Lighthouse is very interesting, sometimes furiously so. Never have literary characters sat down to a more interesting dinner than the one that closes the first part of the novel. And it is, precisely, an interesting dinner party, not a dinner party at which interesting things happen. Nobody does or says anything shocking or untoward — and yet everybody (Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe, anyway) is somewhat discontent. The evening is memorable despite, or perhaps even because of, a lack of anecdote. The “interesting” things that happen are precisely those that ought to happen: I see Mrs Ramsay looking for “a specially tender piece” of the Boeuf en Daube for Mr Bankes while she considers, among many other things, who at her table ought to marry whom. It is entirely a matter of food and matrimony, and entirely a matter of words presented artlessly to the characters’ minds and artfully to the writer’s readers. This glorious illumination of quiet life is not the sort of thing that men go in for. But then I, too, dislike the quality of masculinity, especially when it taps its feet impatiently under the table, longing to be outdoors, shooting at something. 

Just by way of explanation: something put me off Elizabeth Hardwick, ten or fifteen years ago. I started reading Sleepless Nights but couldn’t digest it, because, I now suspect, I was waiting for it to be a different book altogether. I had known about Robert Lowell’s fatal taxi ride for a long time, but I was never quite sure which wife he was leaving and which wife he was returning to, because I didn’t, for a long time, know anything about them. And then, as luck would have it, I got to know Lady Caroline Blackwood first (via her extraordinarily entertaining, quasi-Gothic investigation, The Last of the Duchess). Hardwick’s Kentucky background was no match — when that background, a working-class girlhood in Lexington, plus her status as a wronged wife, were all that I knew about her. On the basis of this utter ignorance, I’m afraid, I composed the portrait of a slightly younger Dawn Powell who had no sense of humor. 

Now I am making up for all that. (17 December)

 

§ Recently, life has had the rather awful quality of one’s being stuck in a room with a broken radio, tuned fixedly to a staticky frequency, that can’t be turned off. In the background, the vaudeville act of Johnson & Trump transfixes a hopelessly depraved public taste: neither the critics nor the fans can (or seem to want to) look away. In the foreground, my comical podiatrist says, “Now, this won’t happen, but if, when you’re changing the bandage, you see pulsing jets of blood, put your thumb over your toe and hop to he Emergency Room.” The podiatrist and I have come to an understanding, provisionally, that allows me to proceed more or less normally with activities conducive to a quiet, but not wholly undecorated, Christmas. After that, I shall probably be laid up for a while. 

The foot thing has changed my mind about retiring from this Web site and shutting it down. I’m going to drift along instead, and let it do the same, into the spring at least. Such is my thinking at the moment, anyway. Last month, as you may have noticed, I began experimenting with a somewhat different approach to entries, and I’d like to continue fooling around. 

Meanwhile, I’m stuck in the Early Seventies. I wonder what it’s like for someone thirty or forty, well-read but the child of later times, to read The Dolphin Letters. What it’s like for me to read about Greenwich Village between the wars, I suppose. Much of it is very familiar, but a great deal is not only unknown but unknown of. And yet, maybe not. The 1970s seem more of a piece with today’s world than the 1920s did in the 1970s. Or am I wrong there, too? The fact is, I remember the years in which the Dolphin Letters were written because I was settling down into a adulthood then. I had just gotten out of college, and was — I see it now clearly — forging my own post-graduate program at the radio station. And yet I don’t see anyone in the sprawling story who is quite my age. The mother of my grandson was born about a year after Sheridan Lowell; she was born, in fact, not long after his parents got married. And yet his father was a year older than my mother. It is all a little bit disorienting, very much because I was “there” — a weird sort of “there,” not too far from the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, where many of their papers are now. 

An even weirder “there”: the state of feminism at the time. Elizabeth Hardwick, who was working on an early book of feminist literary criticism throughout the first part of the Dolphin storm, writes letters to her husband, her abandoning husband, and finally her ex-husband, that might not be written today. Of course there is reproach, but it is occasional and rather oracular, not a constant drip of petty whining. Far more words are devoted to matters of household finance: their daughter’s tuition; the maintenance of their apartment on West 67th Street; piles of bills; and taxes, taxes, taxes. Hardwick does not scold, exactly; rather, she begs her husband, in tones that seem second-nature to her, to pay attention to these earthly matters. He, of course, can’t seem to manage it. He makes a point of putting a document in a special place and then forgets where that is (“utterly lost”). He almost thinks he’s cute about this. He takes his lectures like a man, which is to say like a boy who expects to be lectured as a tribute to and recognition of his manliness. (Perhaps Lowell read too much Penrod.) And then, after imploring him for the umpteenth time to send her his accountant’s address or somesuch, Hardwick tells him how much she (still) loves him and misses him, hopes that he’s well, and makes it clear that she’s happy to hear whatever good news he has to share. She seems by today’s standards to be wanting at times in self-respect. 

It’s clear that Hardwick’s problem is very simple: Lowell may have been no better organized on the personal-finance front during the twenty years of their marriage, but now he has wandered off to England, and his practical affairs are transacted in another country, where lawyers and taxation &c are all a little different, and nobody feels pressured to account to the Internal Revenue Service. The marriage, until actual divorce puts an end to it, becomes complicatedly international. Hardwick is somewhat responsible for an irresponsible spouse who is also unavailable, and it is not surprising that she finds this not only irritating but frightening. And yet she still love him. I’m not sure that a woman today would be as capable of loving someone fecklessly endangering her material security (and the home of her child). Of course, by “woman” I mean specifically a woman capable of writing Seduction and Betrayal and Sleepless Nights. But then, that is the woman Hardwick became during this trying time. 

A passing phrase lingers insistently: Lowell says something neutral about Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father), to which Hardwick replies that she found him “a bit thick” about George Eliot. I wonder if, when writing this, she is aware of regarding her husband as a bit thick, too. I’m not going to source these remarks right now, but I’m pretty certain that, at various points in the correspondence, Lowell repeats the male clichés about the incomprehensibility of women and praises Hardwick’s writing about women, calling it her best work. Now, how would someone burdened by the former be in a position to judge the latter? In the background, I sense the attitude that many men have toward children: they’re incomprehensible, too, except when they show the odd sign of acting like an adult. With children, the problem solves itself: the child grows up (“hopefully”). With women, though, not so much, because, as it turns out, they are already mature.  

Am I “a bit thick”? You will not catch me saying that I’m not. I understand that claiming to be enlightened about women’s issues is tantamount to posing as St George preparing to slay the dragon of masculine insensitivity — both ridiculous and pointless. (And it may be ludicrous in ways that, being a man, I don’t grasp.) I resist the temptation, if not the inclination, to try to figure things out. I remind myself that, until the day before yesterday, women were not “people,” and that it’s probably going to take more than two or three hundred years for the implications of that change in status to register. How much less settled things were fifty years ago! So many of them had just been thrown up into the air for the first time. 

And meanwhile, as I say, I’m stuck back there. And d’you know what else comes up in the Early Seventies? Whether or not to impeach Nixon, that’s what. (19 December)

 

What I wanted to use, instead of the ampersand, was the sword, or dagger, or whatever you call the doodad that signifies the third or fourth unnumbered footnote on a page. But the character set does not include one. The ampersand, in any case, makes sense in at least two ways. First, there’s the buried “E” — the ampersand is nothing but a stylized abbreviation of “et,” Latin for and — which can stand for “economy,” or “household management,” which is still the ostensible major theme of this Web site. Second, “&c” is similarly short for “et caetera,” or “and so on,” and now that reading is back in place as the actual default topic, discussion of What I Cooked For Christmas and suchlike matters are more palpably miscellaneous. 

What I Cooked For ChristmasTomato soup; Gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb) with green beans and rice, and a chocolate pudding, layered with sour-cream-enhanced whipped cream, the recipe for which appeared in the Times in the middle of the week before last. There would have been more than enough food for twice as many diners; there were only four of us. I hadn’t dared compose a longer guest list because I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t have to cancel — that my pedal extremities wouldn’t give me any trouble. They didn’t, and we got through it all. With spontaneous holiday cheer, to boot. And yet there was a difference. In the past, I’ve felt that I was maintaining a link with the past of my parents and their parents and so on, but this time, the past that I was in touch with was my own, and it felt almost as distant as that of my great-grandparents, long dead when I was born. 

We had a tree — half a tree, a tabletop tree, dressed with only the most select ornaments — and I loaded the CD carousel (capacity: six) with a rotation of the ten really bearable discs. I learned long ago that jazz albums, which for the most part are simply LPs transferred to CD, or formatted with the same sort of programs, cannot really be played in shuffle mode, whether alone or (much worse) along with other jazz albums. They’re meant to be heard in order, as presented. The last time that we had the tree and carols and dinner, which I think was two years ago, I realized that the same is true of Christmas records. Since I never dreamed of shuffling through Mozart & Co, I conclude that, after all, shuffle is, so many digital appliances, a junk option. 

I tweaked my ancient tomato soup recipe this year by contributing the savor of mirepoix. In a small saucepan, I cooked two tablespoons of diced onion, celery, and carrot — handily available at both Fairway and Agata & Valentina — a bit of butter. When the vegetables were soft, I poured in a glug of Calvados, and, when that evaporated, a cup of water. When I deemed that all the flavor had been drawn from the mirepoix, I strained the liquid into the soup, which was just beginning to bubble. My tomato soup, which I invented more than thirty years ago, is the most peculiar combination of simplicity and hard labor. The simple part is softening thinly sliced Spanish onions in butter (I sling the mandoline right over the stockpot) and then tossing in thirty quartered Roma tomatoes and three quartered Granny Smith apples, along with veal broth to cover. After a few hours of quiet simmering, I let the mess cool, and then I roll up my sleeves. After four minutes of food-processing, batches of soup are forced through a chinois, or very, very fine sieve. “Forced”? Belabored sounds more like it. The result is a voluptuous purée that bears no resemblance to what you can get out of a can. (The mirepoix didn’t tell so much as whisper, which is exactly what I was hoping for.) But oh, the work. On the good side, there are no tricks. (29 December)

 

§ From the tail end of Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1953 review of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

Women have much less experience of life than a man, as everyone knows. But in the end are they suited to the kind of experience men have? Ulysses is not just a work of genius, it is Dublin pubs, gross depravity, obscenity, brawls, Stendhal as a soldier in Napoleon’s army, Tolstoy on his Cossack campaigns, Dostoevsky before the firing squad, Proust’s obviously first-hand knowledge of vice, Conrad and Melville as sailors, Michelangelo’s tortures on the scaffolding in the Sistine chapel, Ben Jonson’s drinking bouts, dueling, his ear burnt by the authorities because of a political indiscretion in a play — these horrors and the capacity to endure them are experience. Experience is something more than going to law school or having the nerve to say honestly what you think in a drawing room filled with men: it is the privilege as well to endure brutality, physical torture, unimaginable sordidness, and even the privilege to want, like Boswell, to grab a miserable tart under Westminster Bridge. 

Perhaps, by her own account, Hardwick can be excused from understanding the nature of this experience. All it teaches — all — is that while some men are afflicted with pathological ennui, others are sadists. (My belief is that most men are neither.) And all that writing about it teaches is that, just as we are born and die alone, so do we suffer alone. Heroes are solitary creatures, and heroism is as shiny but hollow as most glamorous things. This appears to be the lesson of most exciting, adventurous literature. 

Humanity’s response to experience of this kind — today, the word would be trauma — has been to create a society, ever less imperfect, in which we can live together in mutual protection from barbarismThat, to me, is the experience worth having and appreciating. It is far more complicated — and perhaps its relative simplicity is the real attraction of the manly life — than the dreadful conflicts that Hardwick enumerates. 

Hardwick: “Who is to say that Remembrance of Things Past is “better” than the marvelous Emma? … But everybody says so! I is only the whimsical, cantankerous, the eccentric critic, or those who refuse the occasion for such distinctions, who would say that any literary work by a woman, marvelous as these may be, is on a level with the very greatest accomplishments of men.” I am a full-blooded crank, then, and have been one all my reading life. I should rather give up my library, every last book of it, than acknowledge any novel as a sculptural, monumental “great accomplishment.” What a dead, dud thing! 

Aside from this speculation on men, women, “experience” and the arts, which takes but a page of Hardwick’s thoughtful piece, I agree with her judgment of The Second Sex, although I would suggest that, as a pioneer in feminist thinking, Beauvoir was bound to get things wrong. (30 December) 

 

§ Not being famous, or at any rate known in the right circles, I was not asked to contribute a recommendation for The New Yorker‘s cartoon issue (December 30), so I’ll express my disappointment (that none of the celebrities asked for it) here, indirectly: Death ray, fiddlesticks! That ought to be enough for you to go on. Published in the magazine in 1953, this Addams Family orphan is, to my mind, the very emblem of New Yorker readers, who, while masquerading behind opaque spectacles as respectable professionals, would be only too eager to plug in a purported death ray and give it a shot, if offered the chance. The demure if paunchy inventor represents the obliging staff. Perhaps for the magazine’s second century (coming right up!), this drawing might replace Eustace Tilley on the anniversary cover. 

Happy New Year! (31 December)

November 2019

¶ Henry James, Joseph O’Neill, Cavafy/Mendelsohn, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stories
What Would Mr Rogers Do?
¶ William Maxwell, 
More O’Neill (The Dog)

¶ To begin with a housekeeping note: although, as planned, I shall continue to post entries here until early January, there will be no more “daily” to the blog. For better or worse, my heart has moved on, and what it has moved on to is what it started out from (online, at least): a Web site. In what remains of my time here, I’m going to try to find out what that will look like. (7 November)

¶ The American, by Henry James. I had read this several times, but not recently. I remembered a heartbreaking love story, with a heartbreaking dueling story on the side, and, once I got past the introductory chapters, I found it hard to go on, because I knew what was coming and I found myself in no hurry to experience it. Well, I thought I knew. Then, in a sort of whoosh, it all came and went, that knot of heartbreaking events — and I still had more than a hundred pages to go. This would have made me reconsider the novel if I had not already started doing so. 

The dueling story is real enough, involving a “meeting” about as senseless as any American could be expected to imagine. But the love story? Of course, the title begs you to imagine characters who are not American, and James really might be faulted for not having completed it, as, for example, calling it The American in St Germain. What does, what can Christopher Newman, a young, self-made, rich, and in every way healthy American from Nowhere understand of the noblesse de l’épée into which he proposes to marry? Surely he is an innocent abroad. But then, is he really? He has a strange way of talking about his lady love, and from what James tells us of the gentleman’s state of mind, it cannot be written off as the uncouthness of a Westerner. There is no question that Newman regards Claire de Cintré, the beautiful and self-contained widow who lives with her frightful mother in an ancient Left-Bank hôtel in the Rue de l’Université, as a pearl without price. The question is this: is the “pearl” part metaphorical? Or are we talking commodities? While the word “love” comes up precisely once in what you would have thought was its rightful position, Mme de Cintré is more likely to be presented to us — and I shan’t quote — as exactly what Newman was looking for. The perfect wife, the ideal mother of his children, &c &c. Something is missing, no? And when Newman’s project of marrying the noblewoman collapses, as it must, the sore feeling that lasts longest is that of “a good fellow done wrong” — the germ, you might say, of a second duel. In a subtle way (but not too subtle) James takes a classic love story and subverts it at every point. When you become aware of this, you see that not only do few of his characters know anything about the others, but they don’t much care, either. Even the idealized Mme de Cintré reveals that what she insists upon is true: she is not what Newman takes her to be. If she is a damsel in distress, she has accustomed herself to it; she does not burn for freedom. She wails, in the concluding interview, that she was made for peace and quiet, not for bravado and strife. 

The American also promises to be overtly Gothic. Heavens, there was a murder, complete with testimony from the victim! This is what occupies the last third of the book. Will Newman use what he has learned to humiliate the dreadful old marquise and her bespoke toad of son? The possibility is exciting, and James wrings it dry. The evidence is consigned to the flames. So The American is not Gothic after all. (One can hear Claire’s worldly but genuinely charming sister-in-law tut-tutting.) Although we are assured that Newman quits Paris never to return, there are indications that he will otherwise make a full recovery. Maybe next time he will actually fall in love. 

I picked up The American half expecting a romantic weepie. At least I got the other half — Henry James at his early best. (7 November)

Joseph O’Neill, “The Flier.” This very amusing story — is it just me, or is “amusing” becoming less and less a synonym for “funny”? — presents me with a quandary. Either its meaning its sufficiently occult to satisfy the thirstiest taste for conspiracy, or O’Neill is simply playing with jacks, writing Kafka for laughs. A middle-aged man, already suffering, perhaps (?), from another illness, develops a mortifying tendency to fly. His wife and friends need to see it not so much to believe it as to understand what he’s talking about. I’m not sure I ever did, but even that was amusing. More amusing: applying for insurance. (I wasn’t kidding about Kafka.) It makes sense that a tale about flying would have tangents, and this one’s concerns a lesbian couple’s breakup, complete with a gun and 911. Do you really want to figure it out? (8 November)

Cavafy/Mendelsohn. “As for the style, it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy’s language, because it generally shuns conventional poetic devices — image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction — is tantamount to prose.” So Edward Mendelsohn writes in the Introduction to his translations of Cavafy’s Collected Poems. Mendelsohn, it is clear, does not concede the last point. We are assured that he has done his best to render certain touchstones of Cavafy’s prosody in English — his rhythms, for example, or the offset in his verse of two vocabularies, the literary katharevousa and the everyday demotic.  Well and good. But English is a cold fish. Only a sonorous and intelligent mind can bring it to life; in the mouth of a thoughtless person, poetry in English is dull as felt. Poets writing in English know this. Their poetry is accordingly somewhat odd. It presents emotional connections in language (not mere words) and avoids surface beauty. It is intellectually sensuous. 

You might think that this would make Cavafy, with his light-handed references to the obscurities of Hellenism, a hit in translation, and it does — but not as poetry. Opening Collected Poems at random, I find “He Came to Read…” The poem reads like Proust, if Proust were capable of checking his melancholy. The visitor has opened

… two or three books: historians and poets,
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. 

“He,” we then learn, is a “very handsome” young man of “twenty-three,” and he lays the books aside in order to gratify a more carnal “fever of desire.” The vignette is scrupulous and sweet. The particulars of desire are encapsulated in the negative; we’re told only that the youth is untroubled “by foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment.” Without this discreet ending, though — which as good as laughs, “Don’t get your hopes up; what happened next is none of your business!” — the poem might serve very well as the opening of a pornographic interlude, because there is nothing about it to detain us. I expect there is more to it in Greek, although I can’t say what it is. What it might be is vocabulary that reminds the Greek reader, as Mendelsohn’s English doesn’t, and, I suspect, can’t, of the distance between the constellations of wanting to read interesting books and wanting to make love, from the abstract to the concrete, and the hopelessness, in the flush of being beautiful, of trying to prefer to be interesting. Would not an English poet write about himself rather than his lover?  

Even translated into English, of course, Cavafy makes a lot of memorable statements. 

And now what’s to become of us without barbarians, 
Those people were a solution of a sort. 
— (“Waiting for the Barbarians”)

But any poetry is strictly accidental. (11 November)

Elizabeth Bowen’s Stories. Perhaps because I am deep into writing the reading draft of an essay (or fable) that I’ve been working for six months, or maybe because, in the immortal words of postcard artist Ken Brown, the Moon is in Klutz, my reading has been very disorganized. I start things but can’t finish them; everything becomes too upsetting. For example, Viktor Klemperer’s LTI (The Language of the Third Reich) — no need to explain. Or Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, which I’m re-reading. I know how it comes out, but what’s really painful is the narrator’s bravado: although he knows that his ship is sinking, he pretends rather loudly to have everything under control, or at least to have good ideas for getting things under control. (Those disclaimer stamps! I may have to have one of them made, just for fun.) Martin Hägglund’s This Life has bogged down, as I was afraid it might, in the contrast of Marxism and capitalism; I’m not sure that Hägglund  knows what capitalism is. (Does anyone? Can someone please explain to me why capitalism is thought to require — require, for its very respiration — “growth”? I asked a Wall Street friend, and his answer was “inflation.” I could only raise my eyebrows (we were on the phone) and reflect that things are very much worse than I thought, if that’s what Wall Street has to say.)  

Thank heaven, then, for the stories of Elizabeth Bowen. In the Everyman collection, each one runs about ten pages, give or take. (“The Disinherited,” at forty, is an outlier. I’ve decided to read the stories gathered under the heading, “The Thirties,” and then to set the tome aside for awhile, partly to move on but mostly to save treats for later.) The tales tend to be upsetting, too, but I’ve usually reached the end before discomfort sets in. John Banville, in his needlessly biographical introduction, claims that Bowen is not only one of the best short-story writers but possibly the best, and I’m inclined to agree, even if Banville offers nothing in the way of demonstrations.  Aside from a steadfast control of tone — you never doubt that the person behind the wheel is an extremely capable driver — the stories vary as much as might be expected for stories written in the same language during the same high-seasoned decade. (Depression into war, and can we please talk about something else?) If not immediately, then within a page or two a strange situation arises, and then lingers, not without menace, until, shortly but not too shortly before the end, the story takes a turn. “Twist” was the word that came to mind when I caught on to the pattern,  but that’s too (merely) clever, while “surprise” is far too violent. However quiet, though, the turn is unmistakable, and it settles everything, at least so far as the reader’s understanding goes.  It also fixes the story in the mind. 

Two of my favorite stories involve girls. In “Maria,” a girl and a curate, already hostile, actually come to blows. In “The Easter Egg Party,” a girl shatters decorum by complaining that she wants to go home. In each case, I knew that something had to happen, but what did happen, finally, went beyond my expectations, while nevertheless remaining perfectly credible, even, in retrospect, likely. 

Elizabeth Bowen’s stories are as moody, if you like, as William Trevor’s. But in addition to being shorter (or seeming so), they are all infernal machines, little horror shows lacking nothing but actual horrors. The one story in this group that openly flirts with horror, “The Cat Jumps,” exploits Bowen’s genius to the point of sheer terror. But it ends with a laugh. (17 November) 

***

What Would Mr Rogers Do?

In the current Atlantic, Tom Junod has a quite beautiful piece about his friendship with Fred Rogers, which led, among other things, to the new film, A Beautiful Day in  the Neighborhood. Although the piece mentions the screenplay’s name changes, and reports on the true good-neighborliness of Tom Hanks, it is not really about the movie, but about the Presbyterian clergyman who, starting in 1966, attempted to rescue children’s television from Twitter-like pie-throwing orgies. 

I am often asked what Fred would have made of our time — what he would have made of Donald Trump, what he would have made of Twitter, what he would have made of what is generally called our “polarization” but is in fact the discovery that we don’t like our neighbors very much once we encounter them proclaiming their political opinions on social media.

I stopped right there. (I finished reading the piece later.) If I had got down on my knees and prayed for a sentence to describe the meaning of the word “ethos” — a little-used word that has come to seem very important to me — my prayer could not have been more aptly answered. More than answered. It was rather like waiting for the little slip bearing one’s fortune to emerge from the carnival machine, only to have a cascade of silver dollars pour from a trapdoor. 

What social media have revealed is that we don’t, as Americans, qua Americans, share an ethos. Not at all. What we share are everyday manners — we try to be nice people. But we’ve been raised in a society that for generations has regarded the discussion of politics and religion as fraught and discomfiting. We have been taught that everyone is entitled to his own personal philosophy. And now that that this personal philosophy is going public, we find not only that we don’t like that philosophy, but we don’t like “everyone,” either. Some days, we don’t like anyone. 

The word “ethics” is common. Aristotle used it for the title of his treatise. But his treatise was designed for the use of individuals asking What do I do now? He was not trying to summarize the political outlook of Athens, or one of those other famous Greek city states, meaning not the official foreign policy but the shared views of the citizens. This shared view would have been an ethos, not an ethic. It would been a common philosophy: an ethos, not an ethic(s). Maybe he would have said — maybe he did say, somewhere — that the people of Sparta had too much ethos. There does seem to be a point at which ethos becomes toxic. Consider the ethos of the white supremacist world. To live altogether without an ethos, however, without the assurance that your neighbors share your values, is beyond human endurance. 

Social media deserve the lion’s share of the blame. It’s too bad that Freud isn’t around to tell us how horribly they have amplified what he called the narcissism of small differences, as exemplified by the impulse, shared by countless individuals online, not just to put in one’s two cents but to have the last word, too. This means refining one’s opinions to the point where no one shares them, not completely. The impulse is of course human, but social media have engineered an expressway on which opinions can speed to battlegrounds. If my Facebook friends knew the variety of opinions that they see fit to send my way, they would have no choice but to delete the common denominator: me. 

And that, not admiration for or hatred of Donald Trump, is the true ingredient of an ethos. The idea that everyone is entitled to his own philosophy ought to be tempered by the understanding that only philosophers (who do it for a living) will devote a great deal of thought to the small print. It is more important for your neighbor to like you (and to trust you!) than it is for you to have thoughts about DACA and death taxes, especially as your views on any political questions likely to be almost grotesquely inicomplete.  

Someone will object that an evil ethos like that of the Nazis spread because not enough people stood up against it. But the truth is that, almost immediately, too many people stood up for it. But the evil genius of the Nazis was to transform philosophy into romance. The only way to counteract a political romance is to propose an alternative romance — and all political romances are bad, because they substitute happy endings for hard thinking. Hard thinking never won any beauty contests. 

 

¶ William MaxwellThe Château. A very unusual novel, at least for me, because although I have read it several times, all I ever remember, given the passage of a year or so, aside from the outlines of its settings, Touraine and Paris in the summer of 1948, is that it’s a very beautiful book, and that the woman who runs the eponymous country house, Mme Viénot, is a “memorable” character, even though I forget why. Evidently, she just is. This time round, I was pleased to note a detail that I didn’t recall even when it was repeated: toward the end, Maxwell identifies Mme Viénot as the novel’s heroine. I don’t know how I saw her before, but now she seems so formidable that only Simone Signoret could have captured her air of knowing everything, revealing very little, and radiating suggestion — while paying the closest attention to the state of her accounts. (Signoret always had that knack for defying the proverb: not only can you take it with you, but it’s all you can take.) 

The hero, an American called Harold Rhodes, is a happily married man, largely unconscious of Mme Viénot’s charms. But he is so badly scraped by the punctilio of her arithmetic (he is a paying guest in her home) that she assumes the dimensions of a femme fatale anyway. His lovely wife, Barbara, is more chorus than character; Rhodes and his creator might even be charged with the manly sin of taking her possession for granted. She is a lovely person, and the little trouble that she gives her husband is altogether delightful, at least from the reader’s perspective. She is too sensible to share her husband’s matador-like response to the chatelaine; she is too sensible not to have the best possible time on the couple’s four-month sojourn in postwar Europe. It is Harold who is agonized. He wants to stay in Paris forever — but he’s sensible, too, in his way: he recognizes that he wants to stay, but only as a Frenchman. Which he can never be. Any doubts that he may have had about this are laid to rest by the story’s beautifully layered tissues of misunderstanding. 

Five years later, we’re told, the Rhodeses return for another visit, and they see almost everyone that they met the first time except Mme de Viénot. In the interim, they have taken a Berlitz course instead of relying on their high-school French. Maxwell quotes William James: “The boy learns to swim in winter, and to skate in summer.” I wasn’t quite sure how apt this interpolation was, but the observation itself held no mystery for me. I knew exactly what it meant. Just when I learned the truth of it myself I don’t recall, but it was at some early point in high school, in the first or second week of the school year. Although I hadn’t given the matter any thought whatsoever, and indeed had hardly looked at a line of French, I realized that I now understood the subjunctive. Well, better than that: I knew where and how the subjunctive belonged; I was suddenly aware of something of the sense that it is intended to convey, a sense wholly absent from English despite some polite grammatical remnants. It was the beginning of an insight into the thousand-year egg way that I have of learning things. Because no one else would own up to a similar deformation, I thought it was just me. But William James, at least, knew what summer was for. 

I have read very little William James, and I don’t know where the quote comes from, but I had certainly been thinking a lot about brother Henry. Just a few weeks ago, I put down The American for the third or fourth time, and now, in The Château, I was presented with another American (this one already married, to be sure) whose stay in Paris was broken in two by a very similar side-trip, if you can call it that, to German-speaking lands and to Italy. Not to mention the tissues of misunderstanding. Maxwell makes very light, almost bittersweet comedy out of the instances of mutual incomprehension, whereas James wrests something very close to tragedy out of the pretense that his hero’s blazing candor reduces them to meaninglessness cinders, which it doesn’t. And “Mme Viénot” — am I the only one who hears a doorbell sounding “Mme de Vionnet”? (The Ambassadors

When I finished the reading, I had a look at William Maxwell: A Literary Life, by Barbara Burkhardt, which surfaced last week in a roundup of disorganized books and inspired me, without my opening it, to re-read The Château. Burkhardt’s chapter on the novel goes no further than employing the term “Jamesian” in a very general sense. A sturdy biographer who threatens at times to tumble into academic diligence (than which nothing could be less congenial to Maxwell’s playful evasiveness), Burkhardt reports that the second (but much shorter) part of the novel, “Some Explanations,” a somewhat experimental coda inspired by Francis Steegmuller’s complaints about the manuscript (it’s the Steegmuller stand-in who quotes William James), was nearly cut prior to publication, pursuant to comments from Knopf readers, one of whom was Judith JonesAlfred Knopf himself allowed the author to make the call, and Maxwell opted to override the comments. “If I were to pick up The Château and that epilogue wasn’t there,” Maxwell observed later, “I think I would shoot myself.” (25 November)

¶ More O’Neill (The Dogs) Why did I think that Joseph O’Neill’s latest novel, now five or six years old, would be a nice change of pace? It must be that “The Flier,” that New Yorker story that I read and wrote about three weeks ago (see above), whetted my appetite for O’Neill’s reincarnation of Kafka as a breathtakingly fluent stand-up comic. A comic, moreover, who presents himself as a morally conscious but ethically vacant jerk, bound sooner or later to be tripped up by the strangely anhedonic pursuit of status. The protagonist of this novel, about whose name we know only that it begins with an X, surrounds himself with the appliances of self-indulgence, but without at all enjoying, or seeming to be capable of enjoying, the pleasures that they afford. Sex, however dolled-up, is plainly no more than an itch that must be scratched.

X is similarly short-sighted about other aspects of his life. After the breakup of a senseless relationship in New York, X has taken a job in Dubai, as the officer of an old friend’s family trust. Other members of the family provide O’Neill with the opportunity to sketch a couple of shiveringly educational portraits of very rich people possessed of a taste for using others, a pastime that requires a great deal of money, and from which others can protect themselves by keeping well away, something that X is too stupid and/or desperate to do. As his fate is about to swallow him (whole), X muses rhapsodically, 

It’s in the spirit of the doomed, last-ditch sortie that I embrace the idea of the submarine to attempt to account for the deep element of illusion into which, it feels like, I have been hurled, as if […] at some point in one’s past one was thrown unconscious overboard, and one has only now gained an awareness of one’s situation, which is that of the human person going downward in water, and one is in a fix, to put it mildly, and heedless fish-people swim by, and a terrible bathyal reality prevails, and one can only go down, and cannot breathe, and one’s humanness has no medium. […] I’m left with a new, possibly valuable, clue-like question: when was I tossed into the sea? Because, as I review my history of living without a feeling of insight, I cannot say that it all started yesterday, at Dubai International Airport. I have trouble identifying a moment, if I may flip the question, about which I can say, At that moment, I certainly had not yet gone under; at that moment, I was on the good ship. 

X has never been on the good ship; he was always the sort of man who, quite prematurely, runs through or out of his options. To put in another way, X no longer has the drive to reset. Waiting for the authorities to haul him off in response to a long list of groundless delations, X recalls watching Conrad Black at the wedding of Donald and Melania Trump (an event, we learned rather more recently than this novel’s publication, that the author himself attended), and muses on the press baron’s cheerfulness in the face of impending incarceration. “Here, I find myself moved to a certain respect and sympathy — and, it is possible, envy: he has as it were surfaced from illusion. He is purely disgraced.” In the luxuriously bogus desert kingdom, X will await his purification. 

But the novel is really one long shipwreck, a slow-mo sinking, and there is never any real hope that X will look for a lifeboat, much less find one. Instead, he indulges his lawyerly mentality in a scheme that any good lawyer would see though. Obliged by his job to sign documents that authorize transactions the legality of which is unknown to him but nonetheless palpably dubious, X has hit on a scheme waive away his liability by the use of impressive, official-looking seals designed to emboss his signatures with elaborate disclaimers. Stamping his correspondence with these toys is of course great fun, but X sees at once that they will do him no good, and events catch up with him so quickly that their inefficacy is never put to the test.  Instead of making good his escape — he has, in fact, escaped, but only physically — X returns to his apartment (which is, incidentally, “underwater”) to retrieve what is left of his good name. When they come for him, that’s about all that he’ll be allowed to take. 

The novel was much too upsetting to read at bedtime, and not just because I had read it before and knew how it was going to come out. So it took a while to re-read. But not long enough. When I was done, the world that Joseph O’Neill clearly sensed but could not actually foresee when he wrote The Dog was still out there. (30 November)  

 

October 2019

Rebellious Note:
Floating in the North Sea
11 October 2019

¶ Tell me this: why would any sane person embark on on North Sea cruise at this time of year? 

Of course, I wonder why anyone would embark on an anywhere cruise at any time of year, especially on one of those gigantic ships that are far, far larger than any of the grand old transatlantic liners. Is there anybody left who hasn’t read “A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again”? I remember muttering, as I read David Foster Wallace’s gruesomely entertaining essay, “I knew it. I knew it!”

There are many reasons to regret the writer’s passing, but not the least of them is his unavailability to have joined the Norwegian Spirit fiasco that culminated in a sort of mutiny. All right, a mutiny to the extent that captain and crew were filmed escaping upstairs from a mob of angry passengers. Owing to poor weather, the ship had failed to make several scheduled stops — and then failed to stop at the rescheduled alternatives as well. That the toilets were backing up (bad weather?) was undoubtedly the greatest outrage, but several passengers were infuriated by having to spend three days at sea. That seems to sum up everything that I have heard about the spirit of adventure of the cruise-taking punter. Three days at sea! On a boat!

(I do agree that the plumbing problem makes the Norwegian Spirit something less than “a boat.” More like a big dinghy.) 

“Many passengers got off the ship when it stopped after 3 days stuck floating the ocean, fearing for their safety and health,” he wrote.

“Stuck floating [in] the ocean.” Imagine! One begs to consider the alternative.

Still, the stories that folks will be telling! 

Heated Note:
Ordeal
10 October 2019

¶ When I felt the heat rising wafting from the HVAC this morning, I burst into a number of Latin ejaculations. Finally: ambient warmth. Which is quite different from diving under blankets in a cold room.

When I was in bed, I felt like a rug merchant, hiding out under my stock. When I was not in bed, I felt that I was crawling on all fours through the Arctic wilderness — except that I was crawling on my neck and shoulders, which were screamingly sore.

I’ve got a something. A cold with a mild fever? Who knows. I’m not a Simpsons fan, but I believe the word for my medical condition is, basically, fallapart. Having just visited all the doctors, I don’t think it’s anything serious. Kathleen says that I’m worn out, and I wonder if that can be nearly as true as I feel it is. Why would I be worn out, though? 

It does seem, if I may answer from the side, that I have not yet returned to the state of health from which last year’s foot infection abducted me. Losing dozens of pounds (ninety, actually, at one extreme point) has not turned out to be the boon that I should have expected. Of course I look better. But I don’t feel better, not at all. The doctors sheepishly agree (with me — not entirely reassuring, given the medical credentials that I acquired in law school) that I may have lost all that weight too quickly, and that too much of it may have been upper-body muscle. One of the doctors felt that I was feeling the cold more acutely than ever before because my figure was no longer so amply upholstered. 

I was certainly feeling the cold. Kathleen has always claimed to be miserable in cold weather. Only now, though, do I understand. It’s like the life of a student in a frigid Petersburg flat, with hardly anything to eat. 

Because of my flu or whatever it is, I wasn’t eating much myself. 

When, about ten days ago, the temperature in our apartment drifted into the low sixties, I began to long for the heat to be turned on, checking it out four or five times a day. Then the management posted a notice: “transitioning” to heat would begin on Tuesday. Begin? Never having depended much on the heat, I had never noticed that it takes about three days to complete this process. Sure enough, on the morning of the third day…

Deo gratias!

Haunting Note:
Concerned Reader
9 October 2019

¶ Why does it seem that the editors of the Times run a front-page picture of the current president every day? This can’t be normal, and it’s impossible for me to grasp a purpose. Is it just me? 

Reading Note:
Jubilee Postponed
8 October 2019

¶ Matthew Webb, Major Archer, François Dupigny, and Walter Blackett are all big, meaty characters, worthiest of the baggiest monster. Jim Ehrendorf and Dr Brownley, although they don’t get anything like as much attention, are if possibly even more memorable: who can forget Ehrendorf, a compleat ingenu, pulling Joan Blackett, anything but, in a rickshaw (so that she can catch a boat and leave him behind), or the charlatan Dr Brownley, at nearly the same time, running through the fall of Singapore to a shop that is selling something madly desirable to the doctor, but not identified to us, for $985.50. What could it be? Probably not “a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use.”

The Singapore Grip came out in 1978, the year I turned thirty; I doubt that I’d have read it then had it been given to me — although I can’t say why. (Anglo-) Irish writers and (contemporary) Asian settings were disqualifying elements for me, because I knew all about them (not) and they had nothing to tell me (possible — I was still broadly deaf). Also, I was in law school; my attention was unevenly divided between fourteenth-century law reports and a classmate by the name of Moriarty. The author, JG Farrell, died in 1979, promptly to become a writer cherished by small, appreciative clusters. I have already forgotten what prompted me to order another title of Farrell’s “Empire” trilogy earlier this summer. 

I did not read the books in order, so it was only in the middle of The Singpore Grip that I saw the progression, from something close to non-violence in Troubles, the first book, to the oddly whimsical offstage violence of The Siege of Krishnapur, to the wholesale collapse of a city of millions. Although The Singapore Grip begins in  1937, it advances quite rapidly to the close of 1941, when a war familiar to all Americans also began in Southeast Asia. After a long evening that requires more than fifty pages of narration, the bombs begin to fall, and they keep falling for 378 more. The catastrophe of British incompetence becomes a feature of the landscape.

Why should you read this gruesome book? Because Farrell’s extraordinary prose redeems mortal pungency with the driest wit. As in The Siege of Krishnapur, attempts to reproduce Edwardian stateliness in the rabid tropics serves as a deadpan baseline of the ridiculous against which such follies as Walter Blackett’s Jubilee parade, celebrating his firm’s fifty years of “Prosperity and Continuity” — doomed to transpire only in his own mind — can be savored as the maddest nonsense. Farrell’s canvases provide him with ample inspiration for the bitter but awfully funny understatement of Evelyn Waugh while dispensing with the need for burlesque. Farrell apparently cribs from some published military memoirs; only the tidiest dose of ventriloquism is needed to make a mockery, sometimes of the authors but always of Whitehall. Churchill is no hero in these pages. 

There are no heroes. There are only men like the Major and Dupigny, who weather the storm with bone-deep resolution. You really can’t help admiring them, a lot. 

Music Note:
The Piano Trio Concerto
7 October 2019

¶ In the Times, over the weekend, there appeared a review of Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall that dismissed one of Beethoven’s violin romances and his Triple Concerto with the following: 

Neither is often performed; neither really deserves to be, either.

It is going to be a while before I forget this judgment when I encounter Joshua Barone’s byline. The romance (Romance in No 1 in G), like its fraternal twin (No 2 in F) is an outdoor-concert treat that, perhaps, nobody ought to be paying to hear a virtuoso of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s caliber to play. The concerto is quite another matter altogether. The secret to appreciating this work, which has given commentators so much trouble, is to rename it: the Piano Trio Concerto. It is a showpiece not for three instruments, but for only one. Already in Beethoven’s day, the piano, the piano trio was one of the most popular groupings, and to me it has always seemed Beethoven’s happiest, the most congenial. The violin and the cello formed a unit that would last (in tea rooms and resorts, at least) into the Postwar era. It constitutes the smallest possible reduction of the symphony orchestra, and much of the music written for it wavers on its own frontier between the chamber and the concert hall. Beethoven’s first publication was a collection of Piano Trios: they could be expected to sell. 

Of course, the Beethoven of the piano trios is not the Beethoven of the more famous concert pieces that, elsewhere in his review, Mr Barone bewails as “over-programmed.” By his curious logic, Beethoven is out because he’s overdone, while the Triple Concerto is out because it’s never done. The idea that the concerto might offer fresh insights into a fresher, happier composer, less burdened by guilt, unrequited love, deafness and destiny doesn’t appear to have crossed his mind. If indeed it is not performed more often, that is precisely because it is written for the very rare piano trio (often ad hoc) capable of playing with collegial bravura. 

You could say that Beethoven applies the concepts of the sonata form too severely to the Triple Concerto: everything must naturally be heard three times. Instead of complaining, though, you could say that Beethoven is letting it rip.

Whatever the critics think, this work has an effect on audiences that can only be called “rousing.” 

Cardiac Note:
Post-Industrial? Pre?
4 October 2019

¶ At the cardiologist’s yesterday, I couldn’t help watching the valves of my heart flap open and shut — in a distinctly non-industrial manner. Like all the children of Enlightenment scientism, I clearly expected something tidier, more mechanical-looking. 

At these checkups, I try not to look at the echocardiogram screen. In the past, it was easier, because the procedure was so strenuous, presumably because of my ample avoirdupois, since lost. This time, there was little in the way of distracting misery, and the doctor, who it must be said has looked at this organ several times now and has presumably become familiar with the difficulties of the terrain, seemed to be done with it in about half the time.

I was going to describe what I saw with my trademark poetical good-humor, but I decided not to, lest I disclose unawares the indicia of my imminent demise to a more knowledgeable reader. Perhaps I have said too much as it is. I most emphatically don’t want to know. 

Culinarion:
Easier to Peel
3 October 2019

¶ In her post-magisterial masterpiece, The Way to Cook (Knopf, 1989), Julia Child published a method for boiling eggs that capped the doubtless scientific findings of the George Egg Board with the immense authority of the French Chef. According to this method, the final step is to remove the eggs from the boiling water and to drop them in a bath of ice water — in order, says Mrs Child, to make them easier to peel. 

Thirty years later, the Times says otherwise. In a recently-published recipe, “Perfect Steam-Boiled Eggs,” Kenji López-Alt says,

Do not shock them in an ice bath after cooking; this makes them more difficult to peel.

Having accumulated, over the years, good reason to doubt wisdom of the Georgia Egg Board on this point, I didn’t bother with the ice bath the last time I boiled a few eggs, and, what d’you know: the eggs were indeed easier to peel without it.

I offer this as a public service to anyone still wondering how Julia Child even knew the GEB existed. 

Reading Note:
Perfectly Interesting
2 October 2019

Captain Benwick had some time ago been first lieutenant of the Laconia; and the account which Captain Wentworth had given of him, on his return from Lyme before, his warm praise of him as an excellent young man and an officer whom he had always valued highly, which must have stamped him well in the esteem of every listener, had been followed by a little history of his private life, which rendered him perfectly interesting to the eyes of all the ladies. 

Captain Benwick’s “little history” turns out to be a politely ghoulish tale of love disconsummated by death, the death of Benwick’s fiancée. Somehow, “perfectly interesting” sounds a little ghoulish, too; the ears, if not the eyes, of all the ladies are moved by Wentworth’s claim that it would be “impossible for a man to be more attached to woman than poor Benwick had been to Fanny Harville, or be more deeply affected under the dreadful change.”  You can hear them sighing, all these centuries later, with an almost unseemly simulacrum of contentment.

Austen’s “perfectly interesting” is of course one of her tiny ironies, easily passed over by the dutiful reader; it is a demonstration of her faster-than-light eye-rolling. Did she just do that? It assures us that Austen, notwithstanding her warm regard for the milieu of well brought-up ladies, does not write fan fiction. 

Captain Benwick will almost scandalize Anne Elliot (with whom he flirts over poetry) when his affections shunt, with volcanic surprise, from Fanny Harville to Louisa Musgrove. Even Anne was “perfectly interested” there, for a moment. 

Elsewhere Note:
Houston Long Ago
1 October 2019

¶ As regular readers are aware, I lived in Houston for most of the Seventies. My father’s company had moved its headquarters there in 1968, and when I graduated from Notre Dame two years later, I had nowhere else to go. I soon got a job, at the classical radio station, where I stayed until early summer 1977, when I began to get ready to leave Houston for law school. After 1980, I don’t think that I made as many as ten short trips to the city; the last time I was there, it was for my daughter’s high-school graduation, in 1991.

So the Houston that I remember is forty to fifty years old. The house that my parents bought in Tanglewood was torn down years ago; now, I see, a new place, quite different and much more to my taste, is rising on the property. Although I lived on my own most of the time that I spent in Houston (or with my first wife), the Tanglewood house, which we all referred to by its street number, was pretty much the center of my world, where it was by far the most solid thing going.

How curious it is that Bryan Washington’s new collection of stories, Lot, makes me feel not that I was in Houston last week but that I am there right now. Reading the book, I have been living in an extended flashback. On the surface, connections between the world Washington writes about and the one I inhabited might seem slim to none. It would be easy to attribute my sense of dislocation to Washington’s conceit of giving most of his titles the names of streets. Houston’s streets can be like Texas itself, and go on forever and ever. Many streets that I associate with the rather small, intensely curated-looking block of fin de siècle highrises that constitutes Houston’s “downtown” run for miles, to the south and east, mostly. Although only one of these, Fannin, appears on the table of contents, many others are mentioned throughout Lot. You can’t tell just which segment of the street Washington has in mind, but pretty soon you grasp that it is not going to be one of the nicer stretches. Of course I had to open up Google Maps and track everything down. It was an intensely geographical read. 

But it was more than that. Even though the people that I knew were almost all white, with a black or two but no Latinos (Chicano was the word), most of us shared something with Washington’s characters: an aimlessness that I have never otherwise known. Like quite a few of his young men, I landed in Houston without much intention, and instead of trying to leave — because (and this was during New York City’s very worst years) there seemed to be nowhere else worth the effort of moving to — I made the best of things for as long as I could. Sometimes, Houston seemed like hell, but most of the time it was too odd for summary description. Most of the city — an immense suburb, actually — was of course visibly bland, just like any other part of the United States. Most people had regular jobs and sent their children to regular schools. But the older, more faded area that I lived in (in something like eight different places, changing on average more than once a year), bounded by 59 (now 69) and Memorial Drive, 610 and the plug end of Westheimer, in neighborhoods that sometimes had a name (Montrose) but mostly didn’t, I met and got to know a loose crowd of people who didn’t know where they were going any more than I did.

Outwardly, I was rejecting my parents’ glossy bourgeois life. Inwardly, I was rebuilding it on more congenial foundations. Beneath the apparent cluelessness, I was very busy. I was teaching myself to cook. I was learning about different ways to live (so that I could respect them even when I didn’t adopt them). I was learning enormous amounts not just about music but about cultural history generally. I even made use of the Public Library, a sweet, Spanish building on the edge of downtown; it was there that I did the exploring, wandering the stacks, that I never had time for in college. And then, toward the end, I did the oddest thing of all: I buckled down and studied books of LSAT practice tests, night after night. That, and a little legacy action, got me back into Notre Dame, and out of Houston forever. In Houston, I mastered the preliminaries of living my life of the mind. But the day-to-day atmosphere, for most of those seven years, was that of an old French movie. “Nothing much happening” was the air we breathed, the color of the sky, the grass in the front yard.

Of course, we could have been anywhere. Lost people fill dodgy neighborhoods in every city in the country. Houston’s environment was probably relatively benign. It was growing too fast and too easily to tear down what it no longer wanted, and it was too obsessed with its strangely featureless success to give dissidents a thought. For those of us who weren’t trying, it had the benefit of rarely being actually cold or otherwise hostile. It was not terribly hard to get by. 

But that aimlessness: the recollection of it is nightmarish. 

September 2019

Nuptials Note:
Correct
31 September 2019

Reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion over the weekend, I couldn’t stop. And then, like a grand couturier, Tolentino ended the collection with a wedding dress — the dress she swears she’ll never wear. 

The thirty-eighth anniversary of my wedding to Kathleen, and of Kathleen’s to me, is coming up this week, so I would have been thinking of it even if Tolentino didn’t remind me. Nothing could have been less like the weddings that she describes, in all their variety, in that final essay, “I Thee Dread,” than ours. This is not because Kathleen and I discovered some outlandishly bizarro way of tying the knot, but just the opposite: we hardly gave the event much forethought. We left that to Kathleen’s mother, who, Kathleen knew, would have insisted on taking charge anyway. We also knew that our wedding would be absolutely correct, from a nice-people-of-the-Upper-East-Side point of view. There would be no reason to wonder if we’d done it right.

In the event, there were two occasions of dissension between mother and daughter. One was over the wedding march. Kathleen refused to have the Wagner, opting for Purcell instead. Her mother actually asked her: How will people know it’s a wedding? Kathleen took a deep breath. “I think, Mummy, that their having shown up in response to engraved invitations specifying the occasion, watching me walk down the aisle in a long white dress, on Daddy’s arm, with RJ standing by the altar, will give them the clue.” That was the end of that. 

The other disagreement actually boiled over into an argument. If I asked you to guess what the matter was, you simply wouldn’t. You couldn’t even guess, in fewer than a million years, that it was a question of stationery. Kathleen, who was not going to change her name, planned to write thank-you notes for wedding presents on cards marked with her monogram, KHM. (With the big “M” in the middle.) Her mother said that she would “die” if any such thing reached one of her friends in the mail. She insisted on KMK. (How would recipients know that Kathleen was still married?) The two of them fought this out on the phone for nearly an hour, until I leaned in at our end and whispered to Kathleen that she could do both. And that’s what she told her mother she would do. But it isn’t what she did. It was only a year or so ago that we finally tossed an almost completely unused box of the KMK cards. Notwithstanding the disuse of which, we are still married. 

I came away from Trick Mirror suspecting that Jia Tolentino has set her face against marriage in solidarity with, or rather out of respect for, all the many women whose weddings will indeed be a high point followed by the inexorable loss of rights, even though that would be unlikely to be her own lot. I can understand why her friends keep trying to convince her to make it official with a man she clearly loves, and who loves her. I sort of hope that she caves. But I respect her for bearing very much in mind that marriage is a social institution, and that, for all the expensive customizing, we don’t in fact alter any of the vital elements of the ceremony, most of which are pre-empted by the state. Getting married is a public statement very much like the pledge of allegiance: there is only one correct way to do it. If she and her Andrew can be privately happy without it, that’s an importantly different statement. 

Library Note:
Favorite Pastime
27 September 2019

¶ My favorite pastime is arranging books. Or would it be more correct, more insightful, to say that arranging books is actually an awfully agreeable relief from reading, which is in fact my favorite pastime? It depends, I suppose, on whether you regard a pastime as involving some sort of activity, more than just sitting there. (Turning pages and sipping tea do not count.)

Sometimes, arranging books is very annoying, and that’s all there is too it. Can you have a favorite pastime that is occasionally annoying, very annoying?

It’s understood that arranging books is just a way of planning to read them. Isn’t it? Or is that a conclusion toward which the inexorable tide of long experience has swept me? From time to time, the pile of books that I’m arranging includes a volume that, I suddenly realize, I am not going to read, ever. Even if I want to read it, I don’t — I won’t — have the time, all things (all other books) considered, to read it. 

I am in the middle of novels-storage crisis. There are two stacks of novels to be put away somewhere, but no somewhere. Absolutely no somewhere. Unless and until I get rid of other novels. The difficulty is that no section of my library has been more repeatedly culled than that of fiction. Not lately, anyway, not since I got rid of all those histories of mathematics and other aspirational sorts of books that, frankly, I am too old to aspire to. Anyway, I do not enjoy arranging novels. Not right now.

“Arranging books” also includes buying them, especially (pastime or not pastime?) ordering them from Amazon. New books must, of course, fit in with the ones that I already own. Or — which is as rare as it is fantastic — a new book must make books that I already have, some of them anyway, seem unnecessary, so that the net net total of books actually drops. I may be reading such a book now: Luuk van Middelaar’s De nieuwe politiek van Europa. (All right, I’m reading it in English — Alarums and Excursions. In an introduction, the author tells us that he approved this rendering; but that doesn’t mean that I have to.) It’s about the tension between the rules-based foundation of the EU and the events-politics turmoil into which recent crises (the Euro, the Ukraine, the refugees, and now Brexit — all problems that transcend the individual interests of member nations) have thrust it. Once I’ve digested everything that the madly brilliant van Middelaar has to say, perhaps a few of my older history books will look obsolete. (Although one venerable title, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, now seems as relevant as a book can be.) 

I almost bought an unnecessary book today — a score of Brahms’s Second Symphony. Happily, it was Amazon’s web page itself that prevented my mistake. Other books of related interest featured one with a rather familiar cover: the complete symphonies of Brahms. This I went and found in the stack of other Dover scores. Tucked away in a corner of the living room, of all places, as if I were some kind of undergraduate.

Not having arranged books is always extremely annoying — whenever I have to think about it. 

Interior Note:
Brown but Green
September 2019

¶ For years, Ray Soleil has been telling me that old furniture doesn’t sell anymore — nobody wants it. I see in today’s Times that this news is official. “When the Antiques Have to Go.” I’m not sure that Kathleen and I have any actual antiques — well, I think we do have one, a petite carved side chair that was old when my grandmother acquired it — but we have a lot of old stuff, as in old-as-I-am. And we’re perfectly aware that most people, especially younger people, would be uncomfortable in our rooms. “Clutter,” I think, would be a problem. Not to mention “brown furniture.” (What an awful term. I’d call it grained.)

I take comfort in the regularity with which photographs of rooms even more crowded than ours, with even more framed art and whatnot on the walls, appear in the glossy magazines, even if the rooms are always in England. I call the look “Twit Bohemian,” just to pre-empt snappy comebacks. Compared to a lot of these spaces, our rooms look a bit scanty. The worry here is that the owners of those attractive British stair halls and libraries are Leavers. 

Do the objects in our apartment reflect who we are? Indirectly, perhaps. We are a couple of people who do a lot of reading and writing; it’s hard to think of things that would actually reflect these passions — without being cute, I mean. Looking around, I see a lot of stuff that one or the other of us grew up with, and more or less took for granted. Many people would probably find our style to be quite formal, but to us, it’s relaxed — compared to that of our parents. But the differences are small. We both think that a Louis XVI canape and a demilune table with inlay is utterly normal. They represent the part of “home” that we didn’t want to leave. 

As for “midcentury modern,” when we were young, it said to us that the Martians had landed, and we were sore afraid. We don’t like deserts or earth colors. For me, there can’t be enough green. 

I’m sorry only that I won’t live to see what the Millennials’ children get up to. 

DVD Note:
The Gatehouse
September 2019

¶ It seems that Kathleen had never seen Rashomon. Every couple of days, we talked about watching it, but we were caught up in after-dinner reading. Last night, though, Kathleen thought that she’d like to take a break, so I pulled it out and put it on. 

I don’t know when we last watched a movie. We’re all too content to quote blizzards of lines from The Awful Truth and from Fawlty Towers episodes. Not to mention Anna Russell and Ruth Draper. (“People are so queer.”)

I’ll be honest: Rashomon is one of those tremendously important movies — it may even be the most tremendously important movie — that I would never watch a second time if I weren’t worried about slipping into philistinism. Last night’s was, for me, the third or fourth viewing. The only interesting thing, I thought, was Masayuki Mori’s stony, sardonic glare. I couldn’t overcome the sensation that the film had been shot in California — that the whole thing was a silent movie in which Lillian Gish might appear at any moment. (Or ZaSu Pitts!) 

Not once but twice there are moments when, while Machiko Kyo trembles in the background, the samurai and the bandit approach each other in combat, and what you see of them first is their swords, both raised at about thirty degrees above the horizon. I can’t tell you how unpleasant and confusing it was to be made to dwell, the second time, upon this phallic symbolism, for what on earth could it symbolize, exactly? With a lady present and all. 

What I didn’t know until I looked things up afterward is that the parts of Rashomon that aren’t set in the California woodlands take place in the ruins of a gatehouse, not a temple, as I had previously thought. (A gatehouse in Heian Kyoto, in fact.) This made me feel much better about the so-called commoner’s pulling it apart for firewood. 

Westminster Chime:
Lasciate ogni &c
24 September 2019

I am in a terrible funk. It appears that what I’ve been worrying about for years has already come to pass in part of the Anglophone world. 

What Cummings wants, other than the further humiliation of British elites, is less clear. For the time being, though, Johnson’s possession of an attack dog, willing to tear away at the basic conditions of liberal democracy, looks like an electoral asset, now that a sizeable proportion of the electorate has decided that democracy is a sham.

“Democracy is a sham” — I take this to mean that hope for reforming imperfectly democratic institutions has been abandoned. If I read William Davies aright, “a sizeable portion” of British voters have left behind the dream of draining, as we say, the swamp.

Of course, the same observations that have made me worry about all of this also make it very hard to fault them.