Buddenbrooks
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.

 

Spinoza
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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Innocence
by Penelope Fitzgerald

Every now and then, I am arrested, in the course of reading, by a sharp sliver of poetry. My mind refuses to go on until every shred of meaning and delight has been tasted. This recently happened in a re-reading of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, a novel that compares, in its blend of smiles and foolishness, only with Fitzgerald’s earlier novel (about the BBC in wartime), Human Voices. A young woman — this is in Florence in 1956 — is confronted with the problem of an absent lover. He is in fact finishing some family business before marrying her. This has taken him to a remote village in the South, where there is only one telephone. She can’t bear hanging around waiting for him to call, so she makes a quick trip to London, where she has a good friend, having been educated at a convent school (the girl is a countess), and where she is quite out of her fiancé’s reach.

The telephone, with its power of idiot silence, had become her enemy. (p 189)

The sentence includes a beautiful instance of strong poetic diction slipped gracefully into prose. “[I]ts power of idiot silence” has a Miltonian grandeur that, while at odds with the everyday nature of the problem, captures quite beautifully the misery of being subject to that power. It is the horrible power to just sit there, doing nothing, and it is more horrible because it must be made to take the brunt of the victim’s dissatisfaction, which could be easily relieved by a thoughtful call from the the right person, with whom, however, our young lady cannot really be angry, because she is very much in love with him. Much better to denounce the telephone as an idiot. A measure of this idiocy is the chance that the phone might actually ring, but with a call from someone else, worse than silence because it will block the lover’s call should he make one. And she cannot, of course, carry the phone around with her — not in 1955, when, for that matter, nothing like “call waiting” was envisioned except by visionaries. Now, of course, there are new horrors, and idiotic ones, but the power of idiot silence remains. Fitzgerald’s phrase captures the way lovers helplessly make mountains out of molehills, so that the failure to receive a banal phone call — hi, it’s hot here, we didn’t get much done, what did you do? — assumes a tragic intensity that is also comic because it is so out of proportion to our normal feelings about phone calls. It is love, of course, that invests the telephone with the power of idiot silence.

The young woman, Chiara Ridolfi, meets Dr Salvatore Rossi at the interval of a May concert that begins with a violin sonata by Brahms. When Chiara responds to Salvatore’s question about the sonata — did she enjoy it? No — Salvatore is gobsmacked, because no one ever agrees with him. Ergo, he must be in love, and this he finds irritating. He finds it irritating throughout the entire novel, right up to the last page, but irritation does nothing to mute his ardor. One might argue, with only a token perversity, that Salvatore’s irritation not only attracts but magnetizes Chiara.

Whatever it is that draws her to him, other than love at first sight, her privacy is guarded by Fitzgerald. The novel begins with her father setting out to arrange for the nuptials to take place at a family farm in the country. There is also a nearly ruined villa, La Ricordanza, but Chiara, feeling that Salvatore might be uncomfortable in its faded grandiosity. The meeting at the concert is presented several chapters later, but at no point do we witness their private betrothal. Fitzgerald writes as though the lovers had no choice in the matter.

This almost operatic fatalism suits their mismatch. She, the Florentine aristocrat with a distant American mother; he the son of the South, his father not a peasant but a worker who idolized and even met, with his young son in tow, the hospitalized Gramsci. It is unclear that Salvatore shares his father’s politics, but Gramsci gleams as a saint in the doctor’s mental firmament. He does not inspire the doctor in any noticeable way, although perhaps Salvatore’s irritation is a local expression of Gramsci’s global impatience. What I mean to say here is that there is nothing in Salvatore’s past that he can bring to the present in Florence. As for Chiara, she is not quite eighteen years old (Salvatore is thirty), and correspondingly certain that her love for Salvatore is the only matter of any importance. “Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty,” Fitzgerald writes by way of introduction, “but not thought beautiful in Florence.” No. it is the neurologist from Mazzata who is struck. But of course. There does not appear to be a town or even a village in Italy called “Mazzata,” but the word connotes a heavy, possibly lethal, blow.

In fact, Innocence might be characterized by its sense of offstage violence. Sometimes, as in classical drama, we’re told all about what happened. More often, we’re not; we have to form our suppositions from the slight evidence given, all the time aware that it is not very important to know anything very precisely. I am strongly reminded of the exhilarating scene in the now-famous screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, in which the heroine tries to conduct a respectable conversation with her new boyfriend and his mother while her ex-husband and her music teacher are loudly engaged in fisticuffs in the next room. The novel itself ends with the same reckless elan that concludes that escapade. Cary Grant rushing past temporarily dumbfounded spectators gives way in my mind to Salvatore, barely moments before relieved of a shotgun, buzzing off on his Vespa.

 

The Upstairs Delicatessen
by Dwight Garner

One of my great pleasures in life has been lunch, alone, with a book, at some local downscale restaurant that approximates a café. There aren’t many left. I loathe Greek diners/coffee shops, not only because the food is bad but because of the noisy, fluorescent-lit atmosphere. Music in the background is okay, as long as it’s not loud, and I want only enough light to read by, coming preferably through a window. A club sandwich is ideal, so long as the tomato is under control (thin-sliced and not too watery). Much as I love good cheeseburgers, they’re really too drippy for the welfare of propped-open books. Neatness is at least as important as flavor.

This may explain why I was attracted by the title of Dwight Garner’s new book, The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, & Eating While Reading. I imagined a table by the window — this would be one of those delis with tables and waiters — offering the always endearing (and rather rare) street view from the second floor. At a deli, moreover, there might be real liverwurst — grey, bitter, and not at all sweet —  to combine with red onion and perhaps even bacon between two mustard-coated slices of rye bread. The title made me hungry to read the book.

I was also attracted by the chance to have a glimpse of a noted book reviewer’s personal life, or at least this particular book reviewer. It’s not, or not just, that he’s well-known and obviously influential. It’s rather that my agreement with his opinions is  never total, and sometimes not even harmonious. At the same time, I never altogether disagree, unless his subject is a figure from so-called pop culture, and I bristle at the very idea of paying attention to such a person, at least in a literary context. How can such an intelligent, thoughtful reader be so different from me? Upstairs Delicatessen roughs out an answer. The book opens with an autobiographical sketch that stretches nearly to forty pages. The chapter winds down with references to some famous food passages from famous novels (Proust’s madeleine, Woolf’s boeuf en daube) and concludes as follows:

A few elite experiences are described in this book, but so is my devotion to fried-bologna sandwiches. The West Virginian and the Manhattanite in me are locked, like the ourobouros, in constant battle. Like you perhaps, I’m snobby about a million things, but I’m not snobby about a million other things. If you must set this book down, I invite you to do as the critic Cyril Connelly once did, and mark your place with a strip of streaky bacon. (48)

I, on the other hand, have come to the conclusion, urged on me by many friends, that I am snobby about everything. A felt very snobby indeed about the source of Garner’s title:

The great critic Seymour Krim liked to refer to his memory as “that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine.” It’s a phrase I’ve always loved. (7)

What a homey, ghastly image. I must note, though, that, despite all my disapproving remarks, I did enjoy reading it. The Upstairs Delicatessen is really too easy to read, just as a bag of snacks is easy to consume — leaving one feeling not quite tippety-top.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters and an interlude. Three of the chapters concern the principal meals of the day, while the other two are devoted to shopping (for food) and drinking (something unlikely to take place in a deli). It does not take long to discover that Garner is not, as a rule, going to be describing his favorite things to eat. He may mention them, but that’s all. About the fried-bologna sandwich, he discusses a vending machine in Texas that dispenses hot ones,  a brand of bologna that might owe its piquancy to the ministrations of a particularly insanitary worker, and the appearance of such sandwiches on upscale restaurant menus. Similarly, the pages that are dotted with references to hot dogs run from Mencken’s disappointment that there weren’t more varieties to the réclame of Gray’s Papaya. Garner does not need to describe the taste of these comestible because he can be fairly certain that his readers are more than a little familiar with them. Garner is also aware that these well known flavors are highly seasoned by the particular circumstances (from time of day to time of life) in which they are tasted. Correspondingly Garner seasons his text with a commonplace-book’s stock of literary, rather than culinary, quotations, some of them so circumstantial as to be tangential to the business at hand.

In Joseph O’Neill’s excellent novel Netherland, the narrator comments: “We courted in the style preferred by the English: alcoholically.” Muriel Spark, in A Far Cry From Kensington,  recommended this: “It is my advice to anyone getting married,” she wrote, “that they  should first see the other partner when drunk.”  (184)

“Breakfast” offers a pleasant example of the commonplace-book style’s penchant for unruly vagaries. Ir is not about the indigestible variety of things that different people start the day with, but a literary run-through of familiar options such as biscuits and bacon. But breakfast itself is sometimes forgotten. Susan Sontag, according to Sigrid Nunez, might cook a pound of bacon and serve at as dinner. Toward the end, the narrative hits a pothole in Cormac McCart5y that knocks it into a dispute about what the New Orleans restaurant Mosca’s would or would not offer its diners. It remembers its ostensible subject at the last minute.

But back to breakfast. Some mornings I do overdo it on the eggs, or the pancakes,  or the biscuits, and I just climb back into bed. I’ve committed what the backgammon app on my phone calls a “casual blunder.” Back under the duvet, I sympathise with the speaker in Finnegan’s Wake who said, “I’ve eaten a griddle.” (76)

In the middle of “Lunch” there  Garner gives us an account of the weirdest meal in the book — and he was there. This is not an extract from someone else’s writing. He does not explain how or why he happened to be at the table of eight when Nathan Myhrvold served not so much lunch as an homage to his idol, Ferrand Adria, the founder of molecular cooking. There were fifty courses, few if any of them individually ample. Garner tells us that he wasn’t hungry when he got up from the table, but his next meal, a few hours later, consisted of a cheeseburger at “Dicks, the indispensable Seattle burger joint.”

No amount of twiddling could improve upon it. Myhrvold’s  meal had left me feeling curiously empty. I didn’t speak Spanish and Adria didn’t speak English, Our conversation, through a translator, was strained. … There was no conviviality, no banter, no jokes, no music. It felt like an autopsy. (113)

He concludes by referencing David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” The comparison is not apt. Wallace was writing about a Caribbean cruise, pointing up its utter banality while disclosing the crew’s smile-plastered discomforts. From a certain angle, Myhrvold’s menu might be seen as pretentious, but as the science-lab abstraction of a normal meal, it was anything but banal. For all his interest in cuisines that were exotic until very recently, he does not seem to have been even intellectually engaged by Myhrvold’s experiments. The tone of the entire episode, is narrated in a somewhat more pointed version of the book’s tone overall; it presents Garner as a regular guy. And he is a regular guy, if by “regular” you refer to cultural arbiters, their families, and their college roommates.

“Dinner” is about everything from snacks to eat while cooking, through music to listen to, to the ideal dinner guests. The most memorable bit, for me, is this one-sentence paragraph.

My favorite thing to read, alone in a restaurant, is a restaurant review. (205)