Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

November 2019

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Henry James, Joseph O’Neill, Cavafy/Mendelsohn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But any poetry is strictly accidental. (11 November)

October 2019

Friday, October 11th, 2019

Rebellious Note:
Floating in the North Sea
11 October 2019

Friday, October 11th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the stories that folks will be telling! 

Heated Note:
10 October 2019

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deo gratias!

Haunting Note:
Concerned Reader
9 October 2019

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019

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

Reading Note:
Jubilee Postponed
8 October 2019

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Music Note:
The Piano Trio Concerto
7 October 2019

Monday, October 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 5th, 2019

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

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

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

Easier to Peel
3 October 2019

Friday, October 4th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Note:
Perfectly Interesting
2 October 2019

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere Note:
Houston Long Ago
1 October 2019

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that aimlessness: the recollection of it is nightmarish. 

September 2019

Monday, September 30th, 2019

Nuptials Note:
31 September 2019

Monday, September 30th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Library Note:
Favorite Pastime
27 September 2019

Friday, September 27th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior Note:
Brown but Green
September 2019

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

DVD Note:
The Gatehouse
September 2019

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Westminster Chime:
Lasciate ogni &c
24 September 2019

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

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

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

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

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

Poems Note:
“Unexceeded Minimum”
23 September 2019

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

¶ Randall Jarrell on anthologies:

And yet if you ask, “What do I need to become an anthologist?” it is difficult to answer, as one would like to: “Taste.” Zeal and a publisher seem the irreducible and, usually, unexceeded minimum. The typical anthologist is a sort of Gallup Poll with connections — often astonishing ones. It is hard to know whether he is printing a poem because he likes it, because his acquaintances tell him he ought to, or because he went to high school with the poet. But certainly he is beyond good or evil, and stares over his herds of poets like a patriarch, nodding or pointing with a large industrial air.

(No Other Book, edited by Brad Leithauser, page 264)

For me, alas, every anthology is haunted, raucously, by the poems that aren’t included. There are only five by Jarrell in The Oxford Book of American Verse. Is that very bad? I have to confess, though, that what draws me to Jarrell is his judgment, not his verse. 

Of course, only the very best verse — Shakespeare’s sonnets, a good part of Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, Keats’s Odes — are not haunted by all that is left out. 

Fugit Note:
Other People’s Cullings
20 September 2019

Friday, September 20th, 2019

¶ My gamble was, that getting through all of the boxes from North Carolina quickly, and doing it right, would weigh on me less in the long term. Time will tell if I was right; it’s all done. But I am not feeling very successful. Last night, Kathleen asked several time if I was just thinking about things, or in actual pain. For the most part, I was just thinking about things, but they were not the things that I’ve been working on for my essay on entertainment and the élite. In the late afternoon, I had gone through a box containing about thirty envelopes of developed film, most containing two dozen photographs. It was clear from this, and from the contents of the other box that arrived a week ago, that the accumulation had already been downsized by my late mother-in-law — I knew this anyway, because so many old family photographs had already been sent to us over the years — but there was still plenty to look at, judge, and discard. The box was almost as heavy when I went to toss it down the chute as it had been before I began culling. The thin sheaf of “saves” tucked neatly into the medium-sized pandan box that I’ve been using for the keepers.

And I felt as blue — melancholy at best — as you do whenever you go through a lot of old photographs of somebody’s younger days.  

The pictures fell into three categories. There were photos of gatherings and photos of travel, and photos of one or the other, taken by the other or one, of Kathleen’s parents. The gatherings were populated by elderly people whose faces were unfamiliar to Kathleen. And even if she had recognized them, whyever would we keep pictures of bygone get-togethers? We keep very few of our own as it is. So, out they went. (There was even a studio photograph of somebody’s pretty little six-year-old granddaughter, a woman now, by my calculation, nearly thirty.) 

The travel photos went, too, although for the opposite reason. We have other, better pictures (professionally taken, published in books) of the cities that Kathleen’s parents visited. And if you’ve seen one photograph of a nice resort, you’ve seen them all. So homogenized is the idea of comfort offered by these places that even the grand old spas, like the Greenbrier and the Broadmoor, begin to look like sleekly inflated motels. Especially painful were the repeated attempts to nail a good shot of an interesting-looking cactus or herbaceous border. I could tell that the plants must have been interesting, and perhaps even gorgeous, because I’ve tried for the same results myself, and failed just as consistently. The exceptions were genuinely interesting: my mother-in-law looking like a character actress in her prime, leaning against a fancy balustrade (at Mt Ada, I suppose), high above the boats and the casino in Avalon Bay; two shots of a mountain rising straight from the flattest of plains somewhere in New Mexico, beneath a participating sky. Those I saved, even though I expect that I’ll forget the “New Mexico” part pretty quickly. I also held on to any photographs of my in-laws that made me smile. 

(I forgot the fourth category: pictures of my mother-in-law’s rooms, which were intelligent but technically limited in the same way that mine are. Whenever I stepped away from the desk at which I was sorting the images, I felt uncertain of just where I was.) 

None of these pictures will mean anything whatsoever to anybody when Kathleen and I are gone. When we were little, older people passed on their few mementos with confidence that, at the very least, someone would find them quaint to look at. But that coinage has been devalued to worthlessness by the floods of prints that began to pile up in the Postwar boom. Nobody wants to giggle at crazy Aunt Lala anymore — what’s worse, she doesn’t look as crazy as she would have done, thirty years earlier. (Meds!)  

Why did the big boxes from North Carolina contain (among other things) smaller boxes of photographs? I’ll save that for another time. 

Reading Note:
19 September 2019

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Looking back over my notes, I see that I’ve read (or re-read) seven of Muriel Spark’s novels in the last couple of months. But I don’t have to go all archival to recognize that I’ve developed a taste for her voice that is very much like what the taste for blood is said to be like in scary books.

Mary McCarthy once wrote an interesting, perhaps important essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett that begins,

A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British Isles workmanship as a tweed or Tiptree or an Agatha Christie. The styling does not change greatly from year to year; production is steady.

What begins like a judgment of literary damnation, however, blossoms into a genuine appreciation of Compton-Burnett as a fine moralist. Toward the end: 

In her own eccentric way, Compton-Burnett is a radical thinker, one of the rare modern heretics. It is the eccentricity that has diverted attention from the fact that these small uniform volumes are subversive packets.

I’d like to say something similar about Spark, but I’m not clever enough. McCarthy says that the contents of ICB’s “packets” boil down to necessity, which is of course a cardinal principal for any moralist to grasp. What Muriel Spark’s corresponding essence might be could not, I think, be put in one word. But the styling is certainly reliable, and production was steady. Those are moral qualities, too, nowhere more so than in the case of an artist.

I’ve just read Spark’s second novel, Robinson. This is not one of the books that people writing about Spark mention in passing. As fame goes, it is a far cry from A Far Cry From Kensington. The plot capsule does not sound promising. A woman is planewrecked on an island in the middle of nowhere; only two other passengers survive. They are taken care of by the island’s owner, an austere former seminarian, and his adopted son. Contact with the outer world will have to wait for the seasonal arrival of a fruit boat, in three months’ time. We learn about the term of the ordeal in the first sentence, so there are no worries about rescue, &c. What’s worrisome is the prospect of a short-course Robinson Crusoe. Worrisome to me: I am bored to death by adventure stories. The only way to make them supportable is to read through the last twenty or thirty pages in advance, just to see who makes it and who doesn’t. 

Nothing much happens to January Marlow and her companions for a while, but a map of the island printed opposite the beginning of the first chapter itemizes intriguing sites, such as “secret tunnels.” This gave me a second irritating does of adventure: would there even be one? So I slipped through the latter part of the book and gleaned enough verbiage to learn that, indeed, there would be, even though there seemed to be not much in the way of material to work with, the volcanic semi-desert island notwithstanding. There are the makings of a villain in a fellow-survivor, a con man whom our heroine had overheard, and come to detest, while he peddled his occult wares to an American couple, on the doomed plane. But the writer keeps him somewhat under wraps, casting a far more interested eye on the other lucky man, a creole of sorts who might or might not be related to, and the heir of, the owner of the island. (Maybe it’s the narrator whose eye is interested.) 

Someone on the back of the book is quoted as having called Spark “the Jane Austen of the Surrealists,” a notion that continues to give me pause half an hour after reading it. It’s the kind of nonsense that, nevertheless, “has something to it.” There is a faintly surreal, but mostly droll touch at the very end, which I wouldn’t spoil for the world, but there is nothing surreal about the plot, much as one would like to see Jane Austen manage such local features as the Furnace, an open molten lava pit that screams — literally! — when you throw something into it. The plot, such as it is, suggests not so much the seasoned imagination of outlandishness as the bluff of a determined beginner. What carries Spark through her thicket of implausibilities — nay, she flies through them — is the power of that voice of hers. It takes this voice only a short time to convey the not-so-subliminal message that you would be wise not to wish to be alone in the same room with it. All of Spark’s novels — all the ones narrated in the active first person, as this one decidedly is — seem designed to show what the possessor of the voice can do to those who tangle with her; the message is that the same could happen to you. You are, in short, afraid of Spark’s narrators, despite or perhaps because of their complete want of superpowers. This is the real terror of Robinson, and it does not get in the way of the many good laughs occasioned by the narrator’s barbed repartee.    

One afternoon, during the thick of the adventure, January Marlow nonchalantly goes for a swim. 

At two o’clock I was cooling myself in the lake. I had avoided the house all day and had brought food to eat by the lake. I was regretting that I had not availed myself of the salvaged bathing dress in our early days on the island. (147)

Emphasis supplied to highlight a contrast that’s explicit in the book: only with the approach of peril does the heroine overcome her “squeamishness” about making use of the items (such as a change or two of clothes) that the men have recovered from the wreckage. In a rather marvelous way — but let’s not wax Dada about it — the danger occasioned by the “outrage” that occurs roughly midway through the book reverses the finality of the plane crash. The concussion which is Jan’s direct souvenir of the disaster is not the lucky outcome that it seems to be. It’s not over until it’s over — until she’s off the island.