Forbidden Notebook
by Alba de Céspedes
translated by Ann Goldstein

When I was a small boy, and television sets were small, too, there was a Saturday-morning kids’ show that featured an animated creature called Winkie or Twinkie. The only thing that I remember about this show is that, at each episode’s end, a clue to the next one was cryptically delivered in a series of images (we’d call them screens now) showing pieces of letters. The only way to decipher the fragments was to buy a plastic sheet from the producers of the show, and perhaps a special marker, and then trace the fractured bits of alphabet as they appeared; with each successive screen, the magic words would become clearer. This gimmick probably doomed the show, because I can’t have been the only mite who, when the domestic exchequer declined to fork over the necessary funds for the con, resorted to self-help, in my case with a tube of lipstick, applied directly to the tube of television. I can’t remember the punishment for my vandalism, but my solution never fails to make me laugh.

Oddly, this unforgotten experience came to mind in a connection almost wholly  devoid of laughter, the reading of Alba de Céspedes’ Forbidden Notebook.

Valeria Cossati, a Roman housewife, buys, in late 1950, a notebook on an impulse that is never fully explained in any of the diary entries with which she subsequently fills it. The diary is “forbidden” because her husband, Michele, and her university-aged children, Riccardo and Mirella, regard her as incapable of having a life in which anything is worth writing down. Whatever pleasure she hoped to get out of keeping a diary, she soon realizes that pain is more likely. Aside from the fretful agony (mentioned, and sometimes discussed, in almost every entry) of finding new hiding places for the notebook in her small apartment, and of determining  when it is safe to write in it, she is wounded by the realizations that her record forces upon her.

I was wrong to write about the conversation that I had with Mirella when she came home late and, after talking for a long time, we separated not as mother and daughter but as two hostile women. If I hadn’t written it, I would have forgotten about it. We’re always inclined to forget what we’ve said or done in the past, partly in order not to have the tremendous obligation to remain faithful to it. Otherwise, we would all discover that we’re full of mistakes and above all contradictions between what we intended to do and what we have done, between what we would desire to be and what we are content to be. (46-7)

Entry by entry, Valeria is forced to conclude that her life is unsatisfactory and, worse, that she is unable to change it. She is unable to change it because she does not want to live without a husband, without a respectable home. Romance beckons, but, however badly she longs for it, however beautiful the pictures of happiness that it blandishes, Valeria cannot take its hand.

I would have in common with him only sin and money. (256)

The notebook will have to be abandoned, too, — for Valeria faces an indefinite future of sharing her roof with a daughter-in-law, Marina, impregnated by Riccardo in anticipation of marriage, whom she neither likes not trusts.

She’s certain to find it somehow and find in it a motive to dominate me as I dominate her for what she did with Riccardo. (258)

Although I have revealed the ending, I have not spoiled it, because there is nothing new about Forbidden Notebook except the extraordinarily vivid life to which de Céspedes brings it. For that, I urge you to read it.

Two Widows
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve re-read two novels about widows — and, for the first time, as a widower myself. One of them is probably more familiar as a film, starring Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend. The other happens to be the novel that ties for My Most Favorite with Jane Austen’s Emma. Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will never be really a favorite novel of mine, but it is a jolly if often bittersweet read, and, unmistakably, an entertainment. I would not be without it. In contrast, there is nothing entertaining about Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s fourth Enniscorthy novel by my count. It is one of those fascinating books — fascinating to some, but certainly more fascinating with each re-reading — in which nothing much seems to happen

The heroines’ widowhoods are quite different, as were the marriages that preceded them.  Laura Palfrey, of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, enjoyed a long, companionable, and sensible marriage, in which it would appear that both spouses knew exactly where they stood and where they were going. They were in accord about their respective roles, and managed without much if any fuss. For Laura, the corset of duty has long since become as indispensable as makeup used to be for many women; she would not care to be released from it. She might be happier if the people around her could manage to be more correct, better-mannered, less vulnerable to weaknesses of temper. Taylor introduces her as someone who “would have made a distinguished-looking man”; she might remind older readers of Queen Mary or Margaret Thatcher, but she has a kinder heart. Possibly something of a dragon in person, she is, on the page, an appealing woman, someone to root for. Taylor plays her as the straight man in a funny farm: the other inmates of the Claremont Hotel (located in London’s Cromwell Road; the novel is set in 1968 or so) are all “characters.” Mrs Burton drinks a great deal, but not too much, as if the world still accommodated the Bright Young Things of 1930. Mrs Post is a mousy woman who “wouldn’t dare” — whatever it is — and who pines for love or friendship. Wretched Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled by arthritis, puts off nighttime trips to the loo one too many times, and is asked to leave, but not before establishing a reputation for poisonous remarks. (Taylor doesn’t quite make you feel Mrs Arbuthnot’s pain, but the portrait is sympathetic enough so that if you’ve been there yourself, you won’t need her help.) Odd Mr Osmond will strike some readers as closeted, but to me he is just housebroken and exigent, the author of endless letters to the editor about such things as the impropriety of hiring Australian newscasters. A ghastly creature, Mrs de Salis, comes and, mercifully, goes. soon entertaining her new recent friends at the flat in Bayswater to which she moves, at a drinks party that seals the tomb of their acquaintance. It is all good comedy-of-manners stuff, to which Mrs Palfrey is an agreeable witness.

Dan Ireland’s film quite understandably sets all of this somewhat in the background and makes a good deal more of Mrs Palfrey’s accidental friendship with a young man, Ludo Myer, than is to be found in the book. Ludo is a starving artist (writer, actually) who picks her up after a fall on the pavement in front of his basement flat. In the novel, Mrs Palfrey has perhaps four meetings with Ludo while she’s in residence at the Claremont; he comes to take the place of the grandson who never visits (until he does). This is more a social than an emotional position, as the other inmates of the hotel are keen to meet any young man. (We’re made to suspect that the dreadful old vampires would be happier to discover that poor Mrs Palfrey made him up.) To Ludo, Mrs Palfrey is little more than a nice old lady — but an old lady — who might lend him some money for his improvident mother. And to Mrs Palfrey, Ludo is a more agreeable version of that grandson, someone she can fuss over a bit, but mostly just someone to salve the ache of loneliness. As Ludo’s concern for his indifferent mother suggests, however, Ludo proves to be a man of duty. This makes for a smiling finale. In the film, things are more “emotional.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont presents an elderly woman at the end of her days. Nora Webster is not elderly. She is in her mid-forties, and while her girls are grown (or nearly), her boys, Donal and Conor, ferment in adolescence and need her attention as much as ever. Nora’s decision to spend her late husband’s last weeks (months?) away at his bedside in a Dublin hospital has upset Donal enough to beset him with a stammer. The town is watching.

I can only begin to do justice to this novel in this post. The great pleasure of it, for me, is watching Nora navigate the rules or expectations of the townsfolk among whom she has lived all her life. For a widow in Catholic Ireland at the end of the Sixties, these rules are as manifold and tricky as white water. Nora knows them well enough, and is smart enough herself, to understand how far they can be bent without breaking. It is not that she intends to strike out in some exotic direction. If she takes a job, it is only because she is asked to do so; she also needs the money, but that is secondary. The problem with the job in the eyes of the town is that it requires her to leaves her sons alone and unattended at home in the afternoons; eventually, Nora arranges to work mornings only. What Nora wants is not a new life but autonomy; she wants never to be told, however well-meaningfully, what she ought to do. It slowly emerges that the lack of autonomy is the one thing about her marriage that she does not miss. She and Maurice were a very happy couple, but with him has died her willingness to submit. Her independence takes the form, utterly undramatic from our point of view, of refreshing the paint and upholstery in her home and exploring her budding love of serious music. She has always had a beautiful voice; at the end of the novel, she has been accepted by a choir for a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem. I believe that Nora Webster is unequivocally that rare thing, the serious novel with a happy ending.

It is also a novel that puts a very serious question to any bereaved reader. Habit, loyalty, or purpose? The question often pushes its way into consciousness, but not always. Am I doing this because I want to do it (or because it’s useful to do), because it’s an old habit developed during years of companionship, or out of loyalty to my late spouse, as a way of honoring our commitment? To do something for the last reason is not always wrong, but it usually is. There is an awful difference between honoring a memory and attempting to recapitulate happier days; the latter is patently ghoulish as well as futile, and, to be honest, needy. Companionate habits can be deadening, too; left unexamined, a habit may take a long time to reveal itself as no longer meaningful. For Nora Webster, the matter is equally one of thinking. Her late husband did the thinking  not so much for Nora as for their household, as the husbands of Enniscorthy and elsewhere generally do. Now Nora must distinguish between continuing with Maurice’s program, as it were, and developing one of her own. Undertaking to make her own decision is precisely the project that obliges her to consider the town’s expectations. It would be much easier just to carry  on with what Maurice did with regard to spending priorities and so on. Nora’s arduously-acquired skill in acting on her own, in contrast, enables her to act swiftly and effectively when someone rather powerful surprises her by trying to take advantage of  Maurice’s absence from the scene. One can easily imagine what Maurice himself would have had to say if some other woman in the town threatened a “widow’s curse” upon her opponents. And one can overlook (with a wink) what stock Nora herself places in such curses.

These novels are old friends, although I wouldn’t ask them to tea at the same time. Actually, I wouldn’t invite either of them to tea. Mrs Palfrey is always up for a brisk walk,  and with Nora it would be lovely to sit quietly and listen to records, as we used to say. If only I could sit quietly…



by Thomas Mann

This is a difficult entry to begin, because I feel obliged to explain why I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s the first of Thomas Mann’s three classic novels before the tender age of seventy-six. If it had simply been a case of not getting around to something, that would be one thing, But as a rule I manage to get around to everything that I want to read, and I didn’t want to read Buddenbrooks, although I read the other two classics — The Magic Mountain twice — and a good deal else besides. I didn’t want to spend time in a provincial North German city with a pinched bourgeoisie that has no time for unprofitable activity.

What changed my mind was the recent novel about Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, by Jo Salas, Mrs Lowe-PorterBuddenbrooks was the first of many Mann titles that Lowe-Porter translated into English for Alfred Knopf, and I fancied that reading it would allow me to stay closer to a very intriguing woman after I finished the novel. Getting hold of her translation wasn’t a matter of ordering it from Amazon. She has been displaced, in print, by John E Woods, who has retranslated everything for Knopf. I had to settle for a 1938 edition, which actually turned out to be more agreeable to hold in the hands. Because I haven’t posted an entry about Salas’s novel, I want to be sure to mention two interesting facts about Mrs. Lowe-Porter: first, most readers did not know that “HT Lowe-Porter” was a woman until the Times published an obituary in 1963; and Boris Johnson is one of her great-grandchildren.

The earlier translation omits Mann’s subtitle, The Decline of a Family. I can understand why, although the Buddenbrooks do much worse than merely decline — they disappear. The main line of the family simply dies out or leaves Lübeck — that north German city — and in such a way that business failure is not the culprit. The subtitle is misleading, to the extent that the “decline” of a mercantile family is almost always, well, mercantile, but even though the House of Buddenbrooks suffers some losses in the later parts (the novel is divided into eleven), the actual decline is the result of something else. That something else is what must have fascinated Thomas Mann; he would probably not have bothered with the usual wheel-of-fortune story.

Mann presents four generations of Buddenbrooks. (The first Lübeck Buddenbrook founded the firm in 1768 and does not appear.) The span of the story is 1835-1877. The curtain goes up on a housewarming in Meng Street: the family has just moved into the mansion formerly belonging to a faded family, a fact that sounds the unmistakable note of memento mori, which Mann’s irony intensifies by amplifying the extended family’s consciousness of its prominent status. The three children in the house are the novel’s central characters, and they grow into their roles as children do, gradually. In 1835, the family’s second patriarch, old Johann, has retired, but he has not lost the zest of living through exciting (Napoleonic) times. His son, another Johann but within the family called Jean, runs the family affairs now. He is a very pious man, but also an anxious one, always mindful of the risks to which the firm is vulnerable at any given moment. He is not given to laughter and his public character is nothing if not sober.

For the first half of the novel, there would not be much of a story if it were not for Jean’s daughter, Antonie, known as Tony. She seems to be very capricious, right from the start; I found myself whistling “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” But Tony’s caprice is confined altogether to her speech. She is not a rebel; she does not get into trouble. Although she has no head for business, her sense of the family “name” and position is really unsurpassed. She marries a man to whom she is not at all attracted because her parents want her to. When he turns out to be a fraud — Jean has been fooled by cooked books — Tony is rescued by her father, but at the expense of becoming a divorcée. In a somewhat rash attempt to bury this scandal, Tony decides that she’s in love with a Bavarian whom she meets on a visit to Munich. This man, Permaneder, is a good, sound fellow, but the match is obviously a very poor one, and soon enough Tony is back in Lübeck with two divorces under her belt — only to endure a third fiasco when her son-in-law is disgraced and imprisoned.

Very gradually, Mann’s attention shifts to Tony’s two brothers, Thomas and Christian. Christian, the younger, is a wastrel. It might be incorrect to dismiss him as utterly irresponsible, but it is painfully clear that hasn’t got a follow-through bone in his body. Christian would be a disgrace to the family were it not that he is such a charming storyteller than the men of “the club” depend upon him for entertainment.

Tom is the good son; of the three, he is the only one whom I should have expected to meet in Buddenbrooks. He is  energetic, ambitious, and disciplined. He seems to have a good grasp of business — the family trades primarily in grain — but it emerges that he has another quality, and the tragedy of Thomas Buddenbrook is that this quality, which he never fully grasps, drives him into the ground. It is, very simply, imagination; his fellow businessmen dismiss it as “vanity.” Tom is aware, to a very unhealthy degree, of his appearance in the world. He dresses impeccably, and he always says the right thing. It is easy for him to know how to conduct himself as a burgher and businessman, but it is also very taxing, because, unlike his forebears, he is not a trader by nature. He is a gentleman. But he goes too far, breaking with tradition by leaving Meng Street for his own establishments, the second one is simply grandiose. The expense fills him with a secret panic, and his family is reduced to plain meals served in an ostentatious dining room.

This is not to say that Tom affects the airs and tastes of an urbane sophisticate. That might have been better for him. Much worse, Tom aspires to be a model bourgeois. And in tracing the path of exhaustion and ennui to which Tom condemns himself, Mann suggests, without ever spelling it out, why this aspiration is deadly. Human beings can aspire to be all sorts of things, from heroes to saints to Don Juans. But, oddly like a sex symbol, a “model bourgeois” is something that, as a result of God-given gifts, either you are or you aren’t; and it might appear to the discerning eye that a reliable degree of unself-consciousness is essential, If you have to try, you’ll probably get it wrong. And Tom unquestionably tries too hard.

A merchant may hope for and try to achieve an unblemished record of business successes, but “who he is,” while it may help or hinder him, is not, and cannot be, an object of his attention. If successful bourgeois nurture hopes of being something else, they are of rising above the bourgeoisie altogether. As Tom discovers, there is no actual goal in bourgeois life. To borrow the Hollywood overstatement, you are only as good as your last deal. (His father understood this.) Having paused to note Tom’s failure to see that a routine of business deals, none of them interesting to anyone but the immediate parties, will not engross the imaginative mind, we can regret his collapsing in the snow after a tooth extraction as a furious waste.  In this regard, Buddenbrooks is a template for the plethora of novels about unsatisfactory if “successful” careers that poxed the Twentieth Century. There is nothing wrong with being a grain merchant. But there is plenty wrong with devoting your life to a pursuit that doesn’t engage you.

In Colm Tóibín’s fictional re-imagining of Thomas Mann’s life, The Magician, the writer tells a friend that he has “just” killed himself off in Buddenbrooks. Why? Because the family had to come to an end. Point taken. My question is whether it wouldn’t have been better if the family had died out with Thomas Buddenbrook. I don’t think that Hanno, as Johann Buddenbrook, Thomas’s son, was called, belongs in the story. Insofar as Buddenbrooks is a tale informed by autobiography, Hanno as an only child makes no sense. Thomas Mann was one of five siblings, and his older brother. Hermann, was the first to establish himself in print. The final part of Buddenbrooks is dominated by an excruciating account of a wretched school day “in the life” of the boy, who seems likely not to amount to anything. This may have been Mann’s way of burying a heap of old fears, and it could have been made into an effective short story. But the impression that Hanno has little in common with his forebears, compounded by his death at sixteen, make it difficult to conceive that he has a meaningful place in the family history.

A question that I am not going to explore is whether Thomas Buddenbrook was a misfit, or whether expectations had been so transformed by the Great Upheaval that the old way of life was no longer possible. While it is true that in the course of the 1800s trading families like the Buddenbrooks were replaced and outclassed by industrialists, I’m inclined to settle for my first impression, which is that the French and Romantic revolutions were very dangerous for non-poets with imagination.


Freedom’s Messiah by Ian Buruma

Spinoza Who? That’s what I used to be reduced to asking myself, until a few years ago. Who was Spinoza? What did he think and write? Why is he so famous? Why don’t I know anything about him except4 a small pile of facts that don’t add up to anything?

Here my answer to the last question, which I arrived at with the help of Ian Buruma’s fine new entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Spinoza’s position in the firmament of Western thought is obscured by three clouds: Incomprehensibility, Opprobrium, and Rumor. If you pick up one of the few books that Spinoza published, or that were published posthumously, you will have a very hard time reading it. Spinoza seems to have written his two principal books, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Ethics, as if he were thinking on out loud. The effect is that of walking into a classroom and confronting a blackboard covered with equations. Spinoza’s best students might know what they mean, but you won’t, not without a lot of work. Spinoza seems too busy getting things right to have time to explain what he’s doing to you.

Spinoza was born in the Sephardic quarter of Amsterdam in 1632; Portuguese was his first language. He was fluent in Dutch, but he learned early that it would be dangerous to publish his thinking in the vernacular; the authorities were somewhat more lenient when censoring books that ordinary people couldn’t read. So Spinoza wrote in Latin, and had to beg his admirers not to translate his work in to Dutch. Latin, already a dead language for two hundred years, was still written in and read by learned men. They did not have the difficulty grasping Spinoza’s arguments that you will. Spinoza’s through flew through the letters of the advanced thinkers of the time, most of whom were anywhere between intrigued and fascinated by the proposals of René Descartes. Unlike Voltaire and the other Lumières of the following century, Spinoza sand his fellow thinkers were not publicists. They wrote for one another. A rigorous rationalist, Spinoza deduced everything from one axiom, an idea that his contemporaries found both hypnotizing and offensive. It was so notorious that clergymen all over Europe denounced Spinoza on the basis of hearsay. And yet it is very hard for us to understand why they found his idea so upsetting. He appears to have influenced everybody, but no one would admit to agreeing with him. For two centuries, therefore, Spinoza’s difficult writings (incomprehensibility) were execrated everywhere (opprobrium), and yet everyone appears to have been influenced by him (rumor).

Spinoza’s basic idea was this: God and Nature are one and the same. We read this now and nod. Yes, we say, and? Looking back from the vantage of three centuries, it is hard for us to see through, and, so to speak, to un-write the work of Rousseau and the Romantic poets, who domesticated variations on Spinoza’s idea for popular consumption. Rousseau and the Romantics were not philosophers, they did not argue points of discussion. They simply made statements, and the force of their statements transformed their verses and their principles into  universal truths. Of course, few of them ever read Spinoza. They were inclined to suggest that God is Love and that is not what Spinoza was saying. But the possibility that God is very great but also very simple had an immense appeal in the Nineteenth Century. Not in the Seventeenth, though. God in the Seventeenth Century, to Jews and to Christians of every sect, was very complicated, bristling with attributes and bursting with demands. To his contemporaries, Spinoza insisted that he was not an atheist, that he believed in God completely. But to those contemporaries, he might as well have professed to worship a totem pole; a totem pole might have been better. To believe in God-as-Nature was to believe in no God at all. Instead of working out the attributes and demands of God, Spinoza worked out the implications of Divine Nature for Man. With Spinoza, the spirit of modernity, which had lighted the European sky for some time, actually broke over the horizon.

To stretch this metaphor (modernity as the sun), most people did not wake up and get out of bed until the new light was fairly high in the sky, by which time two responses, complementary and contradictory, had been worked out. You could see God as the embodiment of Newton’s Laws. Or you could see — feel, rather — God as a transcendent emotion. Either way, materialism or spirituality vaporized the need for theology. Churches have been emptying out ever since. If you think that that’s a bad thing, then you will have some idea of the outrage with which Spinoza’s thoughts were met, during his lifetime and for long afterward.

Of the facts of Spinoza’s life, I have mentioned only the circumstances of his birth. I hope that you will give Ian Buruma the chance to fill you in on the rest. I can assure you that he will do so with wit and concision. He will also introduce you to, or refresh your recollection of, the Zeitgeist of the Dutch Golden Age — the one fifty-year period in European history that we must all get to know if we are serious about knowing ourselves. Spinoza earns its place in the Jewish Lives series by illustrating the intellectual course of a Jew who, despite his rigorous training in the Law, could not live without thinking for himself, and so suffering the anathema of his native community, from which he was forever expelled. A recent attempt to rescind Spinoza’s banishment met with adamant refusal. Spinoza’s writings are simply too emphatically heretical, and the philosopher never repented.

Buruma quite rightly refers to Jonathan Israel’s massive and monumental history, The Radical Enlightenment. Working my way through this tome, which points on every page toward a Spinoza who never fully appears (Israel had already written a biography of the thinker), that Spinoza did not efface the God of this fathers, but rather that he personally assumed God’s blazing and paradoxical identity. If you have been puzzled by Spinoza, never quite clear about why anyone even remembers him, there are good reasons for your confusion.


Filed under New

On Westernization

In the March 18, 2024 issue of The New Yorker,  Emma Green writes about  so-called “classical schools,” a swelling trend in Anglophone education (“Old School“). These schools appear to be the latest exponents of the the long, somewhat rearguard campaign to unseat the “progressive” thinking of John Dewey, which can be caricatured as putting a child’s experience of learning ahead of the importance of learning anything in particular, and which has prevailed in American schools, more or less since the beginning of the Twentieth Century — to the dismay of conservatives, who claim to miss the good old days of obligatory Latin and rote memorization. (The motto of this movement is a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson, that nobody ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him.) Classical schools appeal, roughly, to two groups of parents: those who seek to infuse their children’s schooling with some variety of traditionalist ideology, and those who have concluded that American public schools simply aren’t very good. Both groups share the conviction that, to be worthwhile, education ought to be demanding, and the hope that, for good students, at least, it can be engrossing.

Green discusses various manifestations of the classics-school movement, such as the  lively growth of such schools in Kenya. In the United States, classical schools have long been a feature of Christian conservatism, but they also flourish in the Bronx, where white students and Republican-voting parents are very much in the minority. Green packs her piece with a good deal of interesting information. But the heart of the essay is as provocative as it is now familiar: what to do about the fact that the books on the classical-school curriculum were written, almost all of them, by white men who shared, whether they knew it or not, a Eurocentric viewpoint? And the even less pleasant fact that those books that were written in English reflect the outlook of the biggest player in the nasty game of exploitative Empire?

Having had what amounted to a classical education myself, albeit not a particularly doctrinaire one (I taught myself Latin, not very rigorously), I have ruminated on this problem for decades, just about since the unfurling of the banners of “diversity” and “inclusion.” (In my undergraduate days, the hot word was “relevance.”) The sad fact is not so much that all the writers of the foundational texts of the classical tradition were white males as that, with the marked exception of China and Japan, no other group anywhere on earth produced comparable secular (philosophical, not theological or legendary) texts. The comparable texts from China and Japan, moreover, are expressions of radically different cultures, founded on very different ideas, so that they are not nearly so accessible to Anglophone children, who grow up in a world still very much shaped by “classical” thought. If you are going to teach the Analects of Confucius or The Tale of Genji — works that were simply unknown in Europe until the last two centuries — you are going to have to lay a lot of cultural groundwork just to make comprehension possible — and it is not likely that you will do this as well as might be desired, because so much tricky translation (of values, not just words) is involved. The attempt to fashion a classical curriculum that is also inclusive, in a truly global way, seems hopeless.

As usual, however, I believe that a dose of historical perspective will dispel that hopelessness. First, we must look at the term “classical,” and discover that it entered the English language toward the end of the Sixteenth Century. The Greeks and Romans did not use the term to describe their philosophy or architecture; they did not use it at all. They were aware of participating in a tradition, but it was a Mediterranean tradition that regarded all those who did not speak Greek as barbarians. All the Roman writers knew Greek, and Greek works were not so much translated into Latin as completely rewritten by Romans, most conspicuously Cicero. Just as Greeks learned that their intellectual culture was taken up by Romans, so the Romans learned that the extended tradition was being taken up by Christians and Jews in the East and by barbarians to the North, in what would become Europe nearly a thousand years after Augustus. But the Greeks did not, it seems, take to reading Latin, nor did the Romans think much of barbarian gropings toward civilization. Unlike today’s forward-looking people, however, the Frankish leaders and thinkers who formed the nuclei of European cultures were far from disturbed by their exclusion from the curriculum. They insisted on it; they wanted only the best. And for centuries, imitation of the antique masters was their highest pursuit. Then, in the Fourteenth Century, there was a change that really does deserve the term, “seismic shift.”

This is not the place to inquire into the causes of that shift, but there is a strong hint to be gleaned from the very term by which it came to be known, a few centuries afterward: the Renaissance. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” which would seem to be the ultimate form of imitation. In fact, the earliest figures of this cultural overhaul, such as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini, were not imitators so much as examiners: they discarded the accretions of centuries of adaptations and corruptions and held up the originals, as best they could be known from surviving manuscripts, for study. In the process, they changed the language of culture. Insisting upon learning the “classical” Latin of Cicero (a tongue, it has been argued, mastered only by Cicero in Roman times), they also took up their own vernaculars. Petrarch wrote in Italian, as indeed Dante had already done so brilliantly. (And so powerfully that his poetry does not have to be translated into modern Italian.) Overnight, Latin, the lingua franca of Europe since Gregory of Tours and earlier but now deemed to be too precious to for roughing-up by everyday speech, became a dead language: the Renaissance killed it.  It is in this moment, not during the decline of the Roman Empire, that the idea of the “classical” was born.

Which is to say that the idea of a corpus of “classical” Greek and Latin texts was born (not reborn) in a civilization ruled, ultimately, by the God of Abraham and by his Only Begotten Son, personages of whom the writers of those “classical” texts took no notice whatever. If “diversity” and “inclusion” had been leading ideas during the fall of Rome, it is likely that Cicero and Vergil would have been “cancelled,” as indeed the Greek writers were. Plato and Aristotle were introduced into the “classical” corpus in stages, via their Islamic admirers in Spain and the flight of Christians from Constantinople in 1453. It was only in the Fifteenth Century that the works of Homer were known, not just known-of, in the West. So much for their venerable place in the “Western tradition.”

If you think that I am trying to make the point that there is something bogus about the “Western tradition,” you’re wrong. What I’m arguing is that this tradition, since the Renaissance, has been nothing if not inclusive, ever more expansively so. The proof is in the curricula. If you follow the changes in what university students have been expected to learn since universities were invented in the Eleventh Century, you will quickly learn that European culture is not just “inclusive,” but coercively so. Europeans may kill some of the peoples they conquer, but they do not destroy their civilizations; to a mad extent, they preserve and adapt them, with the result that we have today vibrant local cultures in French, German, and English — languages regarded by the initiators of the Renaissance as completely barbaric. To be truly versed in Western culture, it is essential to be fluent in all these modern languages, plus Italian, Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew. Without these languages, one is condemned to a Disneyland sham of the “classic tradition.”

One of the people with whom Green talked in her research, Angel Adams Parham, is a professor at the University of Virginia and the board chair of the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the SAT (which is deemed elsewhere in the piece, quite rightly, as cynical and career-oriented). Parham decided to homeschool her daughter using the Classical Conversations program. This led to her opening Plato’s Republic for the first time in her forties. Why, she wondered why she had never “been exposed” (required to read, as I was) to the book in the course of earning her undergraduate degree at Yale and completing a Wisconsin/Madison doctoral program? Parham is deeply interested, one might say invested, in the “classical canon.” I put that phrase in quotes because Parham and Green both appear to believe that the list of foundational texts is fixed. It is not fixed. It is, rather, stable, settled enough to look fixed throughout the course of a lifetime. If the Westernizing process that I have looked into here is allowed to continue, I have no doubt that the list of essential books, which has already made room for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, will include writers with the distinction of not being white. With Dr Parham’s help, perhaps, the list might include James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, men of penetration and courage who also wrote very well. All the smart phones in the world aren’t going to alter the fact that minds take time.


Revolutionary Spring
Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, 1848-1849
by Christopher Clark

1848 was, if not the year of failed revolutions throughout Europe, the year of revolutions doomed to fail by the end of 1849. The events of that time usually make for frustrating reading — all that trouble, not to mention bloodshed, for nothing. We shake our heads in condescending pity, and, if we’re so inclined, we raise a fist in anger against the reactionary blocs that prevailed.

Christopher Clark not only asks us to think again; he makes it impossible to see “pointlessness” as the principal feature of all those uprisings, which  raged from Palermo to Berlin, from Paris to Bucharest. He also asks us to consider this question: What would a successful revolution look like? For in fact we have never seen a successful one in the West (as distinct from a technical one, in the form of a palace coup); it’s possible that real revolutions are never successful anywhere. An old régime may be overthrown, but the hopes of the overthrowers are always crushed by a powerful dictator who imposes peace and stability, no matter what the political cost. We are reminded that peace and stability are the good things that make most people put up with despotism. Nobody wants to live amidst revolutionary chaos — not for long. Excitement is ground into misery by confusion and disappointment.

(American note: there has never been an actual revolution in the United States, just has there has never been an actual civil war — yet. If you disagree, drop me a line, and we’ll chat about wars of secession.)

As everybody ought to know, the French Revolution came to an end with the takeover of French government by Napoleon Bonaparte. Experiments in replacing the authority of the Bourbons came to an pause (if not an end) with Napoleon’s successful assertion of his own power. Napoleon himself was in time defeated by reactionaries who wished to recreate the ancien régime. If it was too late for their wish to be granted, they could at least put a stop to the experiments, largely by making empty promises involving constitutions and parliaments. Thirty years after Napoleon’s fall, however, a tide of local uprisings prompted by destitution and squalor made it clear that the reactionaries did not know how to ward off the turbulence generated by the Industrial Revolution. Poor peasants scattered  throughout the countryside had given way to even poorer proletarians concentrated in sprawling cities. Rich bourgeois demanded more practical government and the genuine rule of law. Temporarily united by frustration, the radicals who represented the poor and the moderates or liberals who represented property rights managed to assert themselves against the claims of kings. For a few months, their success seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately, however, nobody really understood political life. The crisis of the French Revolution notwithstanding, one form of despotism after another had precluded the need for compromise that is not only the foundation of political life but the fertilizer required for political identity. Without political identity, you don’t know which side you’re on until you’ve committed yourself, forcing you to choose between deep dissatisfaction and treason. The complex of insurrections that we call “1848” began in January at Palermo and spread quickly to Paris and Vienna. By May, it was clearly “too late” for many of the leading actors. Too late, radicals and liberals discovered that their only shared inclination was the desire to run things according to their respective interests, each at odds with the other’s. This stalled political action and gave the reactionaries time to regroup. Nevertheless, as Clark shows, there emerged from “1848” a genuine political class with at least the beginnings of an education in political options, political aptitude, and the mechanics of enlisting popular support. It would appear from a survey of current events, however, that we are nowhere near completing the course.

If Christopher Clark were not so gifted a writer of history, blessed with an unfailing knack for making minor details not just interesting but surprising and illuminating, Revolutionary Spring might well be too monumental for anyone to read for pleasure. Clark has presents his thoughts in phases, and subordinates chronology to that, so that we can see more clearly the commonalities between all the manifestation of each phase in a given place before discussing the next. This makes for demanding but not arduous reading, and it undoubtedly affords the most articulate way of considering “1848” as a whole. (Louis Namier wrote a short book “about 1848” that confines its attentions pretty much to the Confederation parliament at Frankfurt.)

The Acknowledgments make plain what a thoughtful reader might well have suspected all along: Clark has made adroit use of graduate student research. I don’t suggest for a moment that he has stolen anyone else’s work; on the contrary, he has directed gifted fledgling historians to investigate overlooked corners of the European tapestry. Their research is fresh and surprising, even if each episode ends in the more or less the same sad way. The configuration of players in such outlying places as Croatia and Romania (which was not yet “Romania”) is rather different from the much more familiar outlines of movements in Paris. The early pages of Revolutionary Spring explore some events that foreshadowed “1848,” such as the unrest among the silk weavers of Lyon, a religiously-motivated civil war in Switzerland that I had never heard of, and the horrible consequences of miscalculations made by aristocratic Polish émigrés from Galicia.

The worst outcome of “1848” was virulent nationalism. It was not, properly speaking, a result of the revolutions. Almost all the uprisings, to be sure, were at least partially powered by a desire to achieve governmental recognition of local peculiarities, most especially linguistic ones. But what might have been interesting talking points during the Enlightenment assumed lethal potential in an age of unprecedented growth in communications, transportation, and heavy industry. As was discovered “too late,” it is one thing to support the causes of oppressed people who live far away and quite another to cope with them as next-door neighbors. As Clark writes,

Nationalism was the most dispersed, emotionally intense and contagious experience of all the revolutions. It flared up with extraordinary speed. It abolished or reversed the hierarchy between centre and periphery. Liminal locations like Schleswig-Holstein, the Vojvodina, Dalmatia and the province of Posen suddenly moved to the centre of attention. News from distant epicentres of conflict reverberated in great national assemblies. Nationalism stimulated new solidarities that allowed Bavarians and Neapolitans to emote on behalf of Holsteiners and Lombards. And almost everywhere, this kindling of solidarity within nations went hand in hand with an embitterment of the relations between them. (540)

If Revolutionary Spring has a fault, it is Clark’s decision not to discuss Great Britain at any length. He might have undertaken to explain why Britain was untouched by political disturbances in 1848 — even though authorities were hardly unmindful of the possibility — and in the process examined  the exceptionality of Britain’s vibrant political life, which was admired but not understood on the Continent. Brilliant men and women adopted what they took to be a “liberal” outlook without fully grasping (until it was “too late”) that English life, even at its most high-minded, is not conducted according to principles. Long before 1848, the British had come to terms with the moral risks of political compromise by developing rules that seemed to work for them. Statesmen on the Continent did not share the British sense of fair play, and preferred to turn their backs on unseemly bargaining. That’s my take on “liberalism” in 1848, anyway; I should have liked to have Clark’s.

And if the book weren’t already so exhaustive, I’d want more about the economic transformation of Europe between 1789 or 1815 and 1848. The French Revolution, it is not clearly enough understood, was won not by the shambolic governments that followed Bourbon rule, nor by Napoleon, but by the Congress of Vienna. As a cleanup operation, organizing the shards into which Europe, cracked along fault lines old and new, had been fractured, the Congress did a first-rate job. From a political standpoint, however, it was utterly unsatisfactory. It’s arguable that the Congress still prevailed in the upheavals of 1848-9 — and indeed, that has been the common history-textbook interpretation. Clark shows how wrong this argument is, but he does not explain how the pressure on  the settlement of 1814 ballooned as the achievements of the Industrial Revolution worked their way through Europe, and finally made the ancien régime unbearable. The more I think about it, however, the more I think that this prequel, this history of the Silly Quarter, as I call it (after the often comic blend of Romantic and nouveau riche excesses) deserves a book of its own, one that is framed very much in terms of the revolutions at either end. It is too much to hope that Clark will undertake such a project, but perhaps one of those graduate students of his…

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Mrs. Lowe-Porter
by Jo Salas

To read Horace in Latin, Dante in Italian, or Racine in French is to experience something that these poets have to say that cannot be captured in translation. And it is very hard to describe this something in a language other than the poet’s. You have to be there, is what it comes down to. Which may be just as well. Without a moderate command of French, you cannot hope to read Proust, but neither — and this is the mercy — are you likely to have any idea of what you’re missing. If by chance you get a glimpse of what’s going on in Un amour de Swann (a phrase that does not mean “Swann in Love,” for which Swann amoureux would have been a better correlative, had Proust and Scott Moncrieff been collaborating), you might be inspired to enter and explore the very different world of another language. But if that never happens, you’re fine.

I’m never fine; I’m always tempted to learn what people speaking ostensible gibberish are really saying, or better, what they’re thinking. I give in to this temptation primarily by purchasing books that promise to teach me foreign languages, and, where European classics are concerned (and Tang poets, too), books that contain original texts. That is why I happened to have a copy of Tod in Venedig on hand when I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s The Magician a few years ago. The Magician is about Thomas Mann, and it comes very close to saying that Mann’s oeuvre, which often seems to create a monument to its own transcendence, is really — all about nothing. Or perhaps, more interesting, a monumental self-parody. Intrigued, I decided to have a look at Mann’s famous novella about a great writer (not Mann!) whose ageing self disintegrates on the sands of the Lido. And to help me along, I had two translations.

There used to be only one. Until Mann’s copyright expired, the English rights were held by Alfred A Knopf, the country’s most august publisher, and Knopf’s translator, for decades, was H T Lowe-Porter. Growing up (and old), I read Mann’s classics in Lowe-Porter’s translations. I never gave the man a thought, really, aside from mistakenly assuming that he was English. It never occurred to me that he was a woman until the recent re-reading of Death in Venice. My itch to check things out with Wikipedia has become incurable, and what else do you think I discovered there? The American Helen Tracy Porter Lowe (her married name) was one of the four great-grandmothers of Boris Johnson!

While I managed to work out Mann’s prose in Tod in Venedig, it did not seem to do anything — to say or suggest anything — that wasn’t put as well or better in Lowe-Porter’s English. This was unusual, and it hinted that Tóibín might be on to something.

Now comes Mrs Lowe-Porter, a novel by Jo Salas. Ms Salas is the wife of one of  her heroine’s actual grandsons, an American cousin of sorts of the former prime minister’s.* She has taken the people in Helen Porter’s actual life who were her age or older into her fiction, but she has invented a few incidental characters and given Helen an entirely alternate cast of children and grandchildren. So Albert Einstein, a friend met through her husband, Elias Lowe (né Loew), at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, makes a couple of appearances, but there is no possibility of the future Boris’s career even being hinted at. The story is told in fifty-eight short chapters (the novel, published by Jackleg Press, is only a little over 250 pages long) — staccato vignettes that trace a long course of unintended but thoughtless sexist insults, inflicted by her husband, Elias, her author, Mann, her publisher, Knopf, and the world in general. The extent to which Helen Porter internalized these insults is reflected in the name that she assumed as a translator, but Salas is primarily occupied with Porter’s life after she passed the point of being able to internalize any more of them. Her Helen grows into a crabby and implacable old woman who, though she loves watching her grandchildren grow, is not capable of establishing contact with another human being.

The story opens in Munich, where the two American students, Helen and Elias, have met and fallen in love. Salas suggests that they fell into bed, so to speak, before they got married, but  its was not Porter’s fate to be an unwed mother. Her affliction instead was a husband who felt himself to be burdened by the Life Force. Three guesses at what this might be, and if you need two of them —! Loew, a lapsed Jew who eventually established himself as an eminent paleographer, is an unconscious but rigid Victorian patriarch. Salas cleverly distinguishes him as a scholar-husband from the odious Mr Casaubon by making hm supportive of Helen’s work as a translator — even before working on Mann, she was the breadwinner for some time — and by giving him the bad idea of choosing “Hal” as an endearing name for his wife. It does not take Helen long to see through to the real meaning of this moniker, which is to neuter her — for romantic purposes only, certain not domestic ones — into a pal who won’t mind his carnal intermezzos with lovely young ladies whenever he is out of town, which is often. Inevitably, he Goes Too Far, and we see the disaster coming before any of the characters. The marriage is broken but not terminated. (In fact, it ended with Helen’s death in 1963.)

Helen is also afflicted by the urge to write poetry and fiction. Salas is careful to avoid the blunt conclusion that Porter’s failure to publish any fiction at all is the inevitable sacrifice of a wife, mother, and translator. But her heroine is not so shy of making exactly this judgment. My own impression is that Porter proved her gifts as a writer in her translations, which liberate Mann’s stories from his  thorny Teutonic syntax and present it in limpid and often striking English. But increasing frustration and a growing sense of  social injustice constitute the prevailing theme of Mrs Lowe-Porter. This sets the book in difficult territory. Feminist critique of Western society has mutated several times since the beginning of the last century, and each mutation has been expressed in the language of its own time. Salas is also writing long after Porter’s life (and experience) ended, and every once in a while it shows with a bit of glare, as when Salas has Porter cheering herself on through a difficult passage of Mann by saying, “I can do this!” Overall, Salas avoids such anachronisms, but her careful compromises make the book’s language unstable and often wobbly. Her grip on Porter’s state of mind, as it might have been eighty or ninety years ago is not always firm. Because Porter burned all of her attempts at fiction and does not appear to have kept a diary, there is no way to know how she thought what she thought — if indeed there is a difference. Brian Morton, in his novel Florence Gordon, solved the problem by fixing his protagonist in the present and  giving us her sharp recollections of a career as a feminist crusader. Salas does not have this retrospective luxury. Helen’s mind did not, like Florence’s, grow more acute with age. I suppose that mine hasn’t improved, either. Although I was often moved by the story of a woman whom for most of my life I thought of as a man, I was often a crabby and implacable old critic.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read Mrs Lowe-Porter. It’s a story, unfortunately, that still needs to be told, and the particulars of Helen Porter’s life, as set forth by her granddaughter-in-law, renew that necessity.

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Shirley Hazzard: A Writer’s Life
by Brigitta Olubas

Shirley Hazzard begins her memoir, Greene on Capri (2000) with an anecdote that has become well-known, if not notorious, among people who know anything about her. “On a December morning of the late Sixties,” she writes, she was sitting  by the windows in a café on the piazetta in Capri, doing a crossword puzzle. The weather was terrible. Hazzard watched two men approach the café. One of them was Graham Greene. She had never met him, but she recognized him, “as one would.” Greene and his friend came into the café, which was almost deserted, and continued their conversation. Something reminded Greene of a poem (by Browning), which he recited until he got to the last line, which he could not quite recall. No matter how hard he tried, he could not summon it.

When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, “The line is

“Or so very little longer.”

I went away at  once, back under the rain to the hotel San Felice….

That evening, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, encountered Greene and his friend at their regular dinner restaurant. They all introduced themselves and agreed to dine together. “And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.”

Intriguing and amusing as this little story is, it also provides a very big key to Shirley Hazzard’s sense of herself. Her behavior in the story as well as her manner of presenting it, reveal a woman who thought of herself as elegant and superior. The telling line is, “I went away at once…” She did not wait to be thanked by the famous writer, nor did she hang on him like a fan. She did not identify herself — a wise move, given that, as the author of a few stories published in The New Yorker and  a novel, her name might have meant nothing to him. She could be fairly sure that their paths would cross again; she had already noticed him here and there on the tiny island. He would discover in due course of time who her husband, a well-known literary American, was. She was able to make the most of seeming to be a djinn or a fairy, appearing out of nowhere with just the bit of esoteric knowledge that he needed. To  judge by the full picture of Hazzard that Brigitta Olubas provides in Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life, the writer, then in her late thirties, was already gifted at making herself known to important people.

Hazzard was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1931. It ought to as be unnecessary to specify which Sydney as it is to specify which London, but this wasn’t the case a century ago, when the arts in Australia might be said to have been rear-guard. Talented people simply left, and Shirley was no exception. She took every advantage of her father’s trade-representative postings to Hong Kong and New York. In New York, she was old enough to get a job, which she did, at the United Nations, almost immediately, thus establishing a foothold independent of her family. This was just as well, as the family broke up almost immediately, too. Her older sister, with whom she never got on, married a lawyer twenty years older than herself (Francis Steegmuller was twenty-five years older than Shirley), and the parents’ marriage collapsed in scandal: Hazzard’s father was having an affair with a woman in his office. He withdrew to Australia with the other woman, while Hazzard’s mother took up the life of a peripatetic albatross, incapable of sustaining friendships and other connections and content to exasperate her daughters.

I was bored to distraction by the lack of event in Olubas’s opening chapter, as I daresay Hazzard was by her own early life. The family enjoyed the tolerable prosperity sometimes achieved by those with difficult, dubious, but altogether colorless backgrounds. Marital happiness seems to have been sacrificed to conventional ambition. The origins of Hazzard’s finer sensibilities and wider outlook are hard to pin down. No inspiring teacher appears to have been involved. Although Shirley experienced the beauty of Sydney Harbour, she would not acknowledge it until much later. What did make an impression was a grand mansion in the Blue Mountains to which her school was relocated during the first shock of World War II. The Italian language, an immense feature of her maturity, entered her life indirectly, via a love of Leopardi’s poetry, which she seems to have discovered while temporarily exiled in Wellington; during the subsequent interval in Sydney before leaving for New York in 1951, she took Italian lessons and attained the beginnings of a proficiency that would flourish when she was posted by the UN to Naples in 1956. The time in Naples changed the direction of her life.

I spent most of an afternoon searching the 467-page text of Shirley Hazzard for a line that I did not find and might have made up. It had to do with Hazzard’s setting out, at some point, to become a significant person, or a person of significance. I concluded that the search was superfluous. Olubas doesn’t make a fuss about it, but her book is studded with glimpses of Hazzard’s self-conscious social advancement. This career became more overt once Hazzard got to New York, in 1951, and she no longer had to manufacture her own ideas of significance. With her marriage to Steegmuller in 1963, she gained “open sesame” to the world of letters, not just in New York but in Paris and Italy as well. There were people everywhere, it seemed, who were happy to talk about books with her. She was a voracious reader, and, gifted with something like an eidetic memory, which absorbed any verse that moved her — or any commendable phrase at all — making memorization unnecessary, she was quite literally a fountain of erudition, with no need to look things up. She formed a taste, both in literature and in life, that was “modern” but conservative: yes to Eliot and Auden, no to Abstract Expressionism. She seems to have been unfailingly genteel. As a lady who had read everything, she was certainly distinguished.

What’s missing from Shirley Hazzard is what its subtitle promises. There is very little about actual writing — almost nothing, really. There is frequent mention of Hazzard’s difficulty in finding the time to write. It would be misleading to say that she enjoyed a busy social life, because her time with other people was spent in earnest conversation; whether she ever danced in her life is never disclosed, and we have her own testimony in Greene in Capri that food was never of primary interest to her or to her husband.  (One gets the sense that they’d have known if it was bad, that’s all).) But what with traveling between three homes — apartments in New York and Naples, and rooms in Capri — and accompanying her husband not on all but on many of his trips here and there for research (Steegmuller produced important biographies of Flaubert, Apollinaire, and Cocteau, among other books), Hazzard was in transit far more often than most writers, and she never had a remote refuge in which to work. Writing The Transit of Venus, her masterpiece, took ten years to complete. More than twenty years would pass before her next and last fiction, The Great Fire. If anything, Olubas relies on the novels for biographical information.

For example, Olubas draws on The Bay of Noon, a novel that Hazzard published in 1970, for her account of Hazzard’s year in Naples, 1956. There don’t appear to be journals or even working papers to draw from, so, aside from the somewhat oblique view that we get of Hazzard-in-Naples, we have no idea how Hazzard-the-writer considered her experience while drafting the novel. It is clear, although Olubas could make it clearer, that Shirley Hazzard was not only private but secretive; she had nothing to gain, one concludes, from unedited self-disclosures. It would have shattered, or at least crazed, the mirror of an all-knowing sybil of unimpeachable sophistication that Hazzard presented to her international acquaintance to have revealed the girl from an assertively uncultivated family in Sydney. The sad thing about her almost extinguished insecurity (combined with a lack of worldliness as a youth) is that it seems to have opened the way to her having become something of a monologuist in adulthood, a trait that enchanted some people while boring others to tears. Worse, when forestalled by responses of varying politeness, she would whine: why would no one listen to her? This was insatiable: people listened to her plenty. She was also given, with advancing age, to somewhat overripe sentences; for example, these two gems from Greene on Capri:

One remembers long and well, and, without prompting, what is truly interesting — the moments that, pondered, shared, revived, become part of the inward legend. (70)

We had been told that he was steadily weakening; and we came up to the house in November light and with the pang of finality — that consciousness, after familiar pleasures, of a leave-taking (141)

For my part, I’d have considered the first sentence ponderous enough without actually using the word, and I can’t really hear Greene saying “remembered pleasures” instead of “better times,” if not just “fun.”

It remains for me to re-read The Transit of Venus. When it came out in 1980, I was still a young barbarian, and while I could follow the story easily enough I had no idea what it was about. Twenty-odd years later, I definitely had an idea, but it didn’t seem impressive. We shall see what I make of it a third time. Stay tuned.


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Men and Brethren
by James Gould Cozzens

For a few years now, I have been working my way backwards through the oeuvre of one of the two great but now forgotten midcentury American authors, James Gould Cozzens. The other is John P Marquand, whose novels I’ve been reading in no particular order. What I admire about both writers is the match between theme and tone. The theme is the proper behavior for an educated American male, and the tone captures the unsentimental rigor with which both authors investigate this question. Their heroes have ideals that they know to be unattainable, but they reject the option of not pursuing them. Marquand’s central figures tend to be bankers or even writers. His heroine, Polly Fulton (B.F.’s Daughter, 1946), is the wealthy daughter of a self-made industrialist. Cozzens’s men — and in the later novels, they are all men — belong to professions, usually the law, but, in the case of Men and Brethren (1936), the central figure is an Episcopal vicar. With Cozzens, the rigor of inward disposition is matched by the rigor of practical discipline.

Also typical of a late Cozzens novel is the very tight schedule: the action must be accomplished within a short period of time. The action of By Love Possessed, Cozzens’s last big novel (1957) takes place within exactly forty-nine hours — a mantel clock chimes at the start and at the finish. Men and Brethren occurs within the space of about twenty-four, from late Friday afternoon to roughly the same time on Saturday. Matthew Bruccoli, Cozzens’s biography, points out that this was Cozzens’ first attempt at extremely short duration, and even remarks that Cozzens’ original plans were for a Friday-night story only. This is not too suggest that Men and Brethren is a long short story. If anything, it is a novel that is far too short; there is more in it than can be dealt with in a short story, much more. What saves the hectic novel from incoherence is the character of the vicar, Ernest Cudlipp.

One simplification — like most absences, it may go unnoticed by the reader — is that Cudlipp is neither seen in church nor visited by members of its concgretation. The reader is presumably familiar with church services and parishioners’ problems. What Cozzens wants to show is all the other troubles and obligations that confront the Vicar. The administration of St Ambrose Chapel presents some of these; others involve Cudlipp’s friends, his connection to most of whom is, or was, spiritual. (As to family, we hear of his “unyielding” father at the very end, but nothing else about his background.) St Ambrose is not a chapel in the dissenters’ sense, of course; it is a sideshow, old and grubby, of Holy Innocents, a flush parish that has, just in time for its centenary, built its third church, a “serene” building in the Byzantine style. The church and the chapel are only a few blocks apart in midtown Manhattan, but the course of those blocks stretches between neighborhoods of great economic difference. St Ambrose sits only a short distance from the noisy elevated train, and its mission is to bring Christ to working people who are underserved by all denominations save the Roman Catholic.

Another Episcopal church haunts the background. Years ago, Cudlipp was attached to St Matthew’s, further downtown. Run by a Dr Ogilvie, St Matthew’s is said to have been “a circus.” Cudlipp was allowed to conduct what seem to have been rather free-style vesper services that attracted large crowds, almost a thousand each week. There seems also to have been a clampdown by the diocese, with the implication that Cudlipp is still somewhat on probation and lucky to be the vicar of anything. This is one of the many rich veins of background that Cozzens would explore over the course of his later novels, but I have told you only a little less about it than can be learned from the  novel itself. As it is, it suffices to buttress the portrait of Cudlipp’s character, which is engaged almost without interruption in the struggle to do his Christian duty. Indeed, the term “Christian duty” comes to seem  almost oxymoronic.

Aside from the serious tensions between fitness — observing ecclesiastical terms and conditions — and charity (not to mention determining what charity really comes to), Cudlipp is confronted by a number of people who mean or have meant something to him but whose idea of self-determination entails some degree of physical self-abuse, either addiction or sex outside the rules. One of the principal secondary characters complains that she could never forgive herself, to which Cudlipp replies, “You can’t forgive yourself because you’re not entitled to forgive yourself.” For most of my lifetime, the Vicar’s comment would have been dismissed with shock or contempt, but a moment’s thought will remind us that the idea behind it is one of key points in twelve-step recovery. Whether we are to be forgiven by God or by our fellow man, we do not get to act as we please, or to decide unilaterally whether the benefits that we take for ourselves outweigh the burdens of others.

In solitary moments, Ernest Cudlipp is often unsure what to do, or what is right or prudent. In the heat of the moment, however, he is one of the most decisive men, and possibly the most decisive thinking men, to be met with in fiction.

The Vulnerables
by Sigrid Nunez

In her writing, Sigrid Nunez comes across as attentive and observant and self-contained. She has affairs with men, but she never settles down with one, or hasn’t yet.) And her books are never romances. The Vulnerables is a COVID novel, so long as it is understood that COVID is a synonym for that dreadful and unnecessary word, “lockdown.” People huddle in their homes, going crazy; they’re obsessed with their screens partly out of habit and partly because the pandemic has disturbed their attention spans.

For a while, during the same time, I found myself unable to read. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again — just one of the many uncertainties of that spring. (Not a writer I know who didn’t experience the same.)

It’s all very familiar, or perhaps familiar to me because from the first it has sounded alien; that’s not what I went through. I was already accustomed to being at home all day, leading pretty much the life that I am still leading. It was only a pleasure to have my late wife at home, too, although she didn’t care for it quite so much. I am sure that there are other people who, like me, had atypical experiences of the pandemic. But I’ve given up expecting to read about them. COVID has become a cliché; nobody has anything new to say about it. Not even Nunez.

“Lockdown” — the term a violent, and almost criminal overstatement — is simply the backdrop, the particular dropcloth of catastrophism in the background. (As is, somehow, Trump. It seems that Trump will be forever associated with it, at least among those who think something worse than a political troublemaker.) Because the chapters are not numbered, or even titled, it’s difficult to say just what goes on in the foreground, which is characterized by a ruminative drift. There are three stories in the first part of the novel, each longer than the preceding one. The first story is really just an anecdote, and like all childhood anecdotes it ends up wondering what ever happened to so-and-so. The second story is about a college classmate, to whom we are introduced at her funeral. The narrative backtracks, necessarily, but after a while the subject changes, via a mutual friend, to the present day, where we find Nunez’s fictional self babysitting a parrot. As she demonstrated in The Friend, Nunez is very, very good with other people’s pets. Whereas in The Friend she brought a Great Dane to live in her apartment, however, taking care of Eureka the parrot requires moving into a (COVID-vacated) apartment where the bird has a special room all to himself.

After an interlude, this third story is resumed, and it ends when Eureka is taken away by the boy who was supposed to be his baby-sitter in the first place. (The new location is a loft, in which Eureka can actually fly, once his clipped wings grow back.) And that’s that, so far as prolonged narrative chains go. There are many discursions, especially into the matter of writing, teaching writing, remarks of famous writers, &c.  A friend of mine who read the book twice, and who interviewed Nunez for Vanity Fair, calls it “a prose exercise.” Which is fair, as long as it’s understood that the prose is excellent. Think of a pianist improvising. Contemporaries claimed that Mozart’s improvisations were miraculous in the moment, but none was ever written down. Nunez’s book has been written down. Alas, like all improvisations, it cannot be meaningfully excerpted for the purposes of review. You’ll just have to take my word for it that The Vulnerables is a very good read. I am not sure why Nunez calls her book a novel — which she does not only on the dust jacket but several times within the text itself — but perhaps that’s part of the exercise.

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