Archive for the ‘Reading Matter’ Category

Gotham Diary:
In 1937
19 July 2012

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Today at the DBR: Civil words, we trust, about Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility, now in paper.  

Gotham Diary:
18 July 2012

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Today at the DBR: A few words about a very intriguing book, Paul French’s Midnight in Peking.

Gotham Diary:
Captain Kirke
9 July 2012

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Today at the DBR: Wilkie Collins’s hugely entertaining No Name.

Gotham Diary:
13 March 2012

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Today at the DBR: The horror of love, I’m happy to report, is something that I know nothing about, although I’ve had my fair share of completely insane crushes. Lisa Hilton’s new book by that title provides a nice refresher course on Nancy Mitford, going very easy on stuff that you’re likely to know already, while filling us in on her worse half, the beloved “Col,” Gaston Palewski. Not that he was a bad sort really.

Reading Note:
Fun Stuff
Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

It’s actually rather refreshing not be entirely on the qui vive where Muriel Spark’s bizarre hommage to Watergate, The Abbess of Crewe, is concerned. I really don’t want to know! Don’t want to trace the connections among the references! Having put the book down only to wonder if Walburga is Ehrlichman and Mildred Haldeman or the other way round is nightmare enough. At the remove of over thirty-five years, I’m not going to spin an inch of exegesis: I’d only trip on it and break my neck.

Rather more frustrating: I haven’t been able to find a juicy-red quotation from fiction by Ivy Compton-Burnett — imagine Oscar Wilde come back as Florence Bates — that would prepare the ground for saying how very much the following sportif passage reminds me of her (Ivy Compton-Burnett, that is, not Florence Bates).

“It is useless to tell me not to worry,” the Abbess says, “since I never do. Anxiety is for the bourgeoisie and for great artists in those hours when they are neither asleep nor practising their art. An aristocratic soul feels no anxiety nor, I think, do the famine-stricken of the world as they endure the impotent extremities of starvation. I don’t know why it is, but I ponder on starvation and the starving. Sisters, let me tell you a secret. I would rather sink fleshless to my death into the dry soil of some African or Indian plain, dead of hunger with the rest of the dying skeletons than go, as I hear Felicity is now doing, to a psychiatrist for an anxiety-cure.”

Such literary revels! Alexandra, the slender, obelisk Abbess of Crewe, dances, to taped music, a triangular quadrille with her very anti-type, Richard Milhous Nixon, and his political heir, the lady groceress of Grantham.

Reading Note:
Vendler’s Dickinson

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

As it is, I can barely crawl. The book, manifestly superb, defies my attempts to crown it; any reaching toward grand transcendent pronouncements on my part will be flattened by obvious ignorance. I don’t begin to know enough about Emily Dickinson’s poetry to tell you how wonderful Helen Vendler’s new book is, or why it is wonderful. Attempting to praise the book would be, for me, essaying a swan dive into an empty pool: the risk of disaster followed by the certainty of it. I can barely summon the mettle to urge you to buy a copy, as soon as possible, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. But do — oh! — do. In Helen Vendler, Emily Dickinson has a reader who takes her with complete, exhaustive seriousness, unafraid to state the obvious if it throws (as it does here) Dickinson’s vision into “relief.”

To crawl, then. Before dinner — a chicken was roasting; water was coming to the boil for spaghetti; the table was set, and Kathleen was on her way home — I opened Dickinson and read two poems, together with the commentaries. The first choice was absolutely random, the first poem that i encountered. Entitled “Indian Summer” by Dickinson’s first publishers, it contains this amazing tercet:

These are the days when skies resume
The old – old sophistries of June –
A blue and gold mistake.

Here’s what Vendler has to say about these lines.

But she cannot remain fixed in her “objective” critique of what she initially calls “The old – old sophistries of June – ” (as if June, seeming to promise eternal skies of blue and gold, were a philosopher manipulating the truth) and secondly names as “a mistake” (as though June were a prophet in error).

As if, as though: it’s wonderful. The final line, “A blue and gold mistake,” has thrown a shard into my heart, not least because blue and gold used to be the Notre Dame colors, before that nasty leprechaun inspired a change to green and gold, a detestable combination of two colors that I love. Yes, yes; Dickinson doesn’t say “green and gold mistake.” In poetry this well put-together, opposites are found to have been smoothly compressed into the barest phrases.

The second poem was chosen after some riffling of pages, probably because it’s quite short — eight lines in all. “This is my letter to the World.” I’m so ignorant that I didn’t know that it is a “justly famous poem.”

The sticky line for me:

The simple News that Nature told –

Vendler unpacks it magnificently:

Yet almost everything about both this Nature and this messenger puts into relief the maleness of God’s authoritative messengers, from Moses and the prophets to Jesus and his disciples. Jehovah is masculine, but Nature is feminine (by virtue not only of her Latin gender, but also of her ability to bear fruit). God’s “Majesty” is intimidating; Natures is “tender.” God gives a Decalogue; Nature gives “simple News.”

Everything that Vendler says is obvious — the moment you’ve read it. But the shock of the last sentence persists, as if it were the very opposite of common knowledge. There are big, important things that, until now, at least, men really haven’t bothered to think or talk about. Sometimes, understanding the world is a matter of listening to “simple news,” not interpreting codes.

I hope that I’ve kept it simple.

Reading Note:
Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

At Crawford Doyle last Friday, I bought two novels, even though I have a rule against buying novels and, worse, despite the fact that I had been in the store on Wednesday, and not only bought several books but ordered — two novels. I had not planned to visit the bookshop quite so soon, but Ms NOLA had been at the Museum, so there we were. Crossing Fifth Avenue, I headed along the south side of 82nd Street, but it was Ms NOLA who voiced the suggestion — no doubt regarding it as foregone. Stepping into the cool, dusky air, I felt almost criminal, as though I were about to buy a large ice cream after a heavy dinner, complete with dessert. The idea of leaving the store without buying something was unthinkable; I’d have felt that I’d insulted the staff and presumed upon the air conditioning. Very silly compunction. The upshot was that I walked out with those two novels. But neither of them was new, and I could imagine devouring one of them on the spot.

That would be Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, which I hadn’t read. I had just read a review of the recent life, and mention had been made of Ivy Compton-Burnett. It seems that Spark actually acknowledged the influence of Compton-Burnett, which of course made it official, and I was curious to test the connection. The review also mentioned that caring for her ancient grandmother gave Spark the familiarity with the elderly that is manifest in Memento Mori. So that seemed to be the book to read, and there it was, at Crawford Doyle. In case you’ve never read Ivy Compton-Burnett — well, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve got a book somewhere that hails her as a camp classicist, and there is about her style a self-conscious intensity that seems now and then to wink at the reader. Compton-Burnett wrote about ghastly old Victorians, patriarchs and matriarchs who, wholly wrapped up in themselves, tyrannized the the young people who had the misfortune to be nearby. They’re not quite human, too; they glitter and gleam like birds of prey, determined but brainless. If you are writing anything serious at the moment, stay away from Ivy Compton-Burnett, because her manner is dreadfully catching; you’ll find yourself imitating her, horrified but fascinated, unable to stop.

When did I last read a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett? Decades ago, I think. I read a batch of them, and then I couldn’t read another. The last one that I read was published by Virago, I think, and it had a dyspeptic Picasso on the cover. Ah yes, here it is: Two Worlds and Their Ways. I don’t remember much about it, except that the atmosphere was oppressive, and that there weren’t any attractive characters. Maybe there was an attractive character or two, but they didn’t stick in the mind. The horrid old people stuck in the mind. Well, their horridness sticks in the mind. Imagine a life of heaping but flavorless food, served up in overheated rooms at punctual hours, silent but for the sounds of genteel people eating and digesting. Eventually, you conclude, “I can’t read this sort of thing anymore,” but it sticks with you, and, when you read Memento Mori, it all comes back.

Rather, it does not come back but it lingers in your peripheral vision. You know that it’s there and you sense it compulsively, but you cannot look at it. Spark’s characters are not so awful, possibly because they’re the children of the Victorian horrors in Compton-Burnett. But now it’s their turn to be old, and most of them are cross about it. There is the feeling, strong in Compton-Burnett, that age distills the vices of the mind, so that even if some old fool is physically incapable of doing much of anything, he can still splash around in a sulfuric puddle of universal loathing. There is also a return to childishness, to sudden hatreds and silly requests; an unwillingness to take very seriously what might make another person happy. A brusque self-pitying rudeness takes the place of politeness.

“You might have opened the door for me,” she said.

Godfrey did not at first understand what she meant, for he had long since started to use his advanced years as an excuse to omit the mannerly conformities of his younger days, and was now automatically rude in his gestures, as if by long-earned right. He sensed some new frightful upheaval of his habits behind her words, as he drove off fitfully towards Sloane Square.

As in Compton-Burnett (but also as in Spark’s other novels), the plot is buried in the busyness of a dozen microscopic campaigns. Godfrey Colston feels so embattled by his wife, by his wife’s former lover, and by his housekeeper, that he no longer has the faintest idea what he wants; he is simply at war, albeit on subdued terms, with the entire world. He lunges at imagined encroachments without much conviction in the effectiveness of either his bark or his bite. There is an inheritance, but Spark couldn’t be more desultory about its settlement, and when it ends up in the hands of the woman who was counting upon it all along, the chanciness of this outcome is so comic that one almost fancies it as a pie in her face. There is a notional mystery: the gang of old people who constitute the cast of Memento Mori have all been pestered by anonymous telephone callers who simply remind them, before hanging up, to “remember that you must die.” I put “callers” in the plural because the old folks can’t agree on what sort of voice makes these announcements, young, old, distinguished or common. Dame Lettie Colston, a do-goodering battleaxe, is so outraged by the calls that she wants the matter raised in Parliament. In contrast, Charmian Piper, a once-famous novelist who begins to recover from incipient dementia when her books are reissued and made a cult of by young readers, believes that the proper response to the phone calls is to take them at their word: it can’t hurt to remember that you must die. Dame Lettie considers the warning impertinent at best and menacing at worst, and indeed she comes to a corresponding end, while Charmian dies “one morning in the following spring,” in manifestly uneventful circumstances.

Almost everybody dies, but that’s what the title promised, no? One survivor, Alec Warner, is an unwitting mischief-maker whose amassed observations of old people, researched for some Casaubon-like book, are consumed in a fire; he suffers a stroke and goes to live in a nursing home “and frequently searched through his mind, as through a card catalogue, for the case-histories of his friends, both dead and dying.” Another is the awful Mrs Pettigrew, the officious housekeeper schemes to benefit from her employers’ wills. Mrs Pettigrew has lived among the gentry long enough to pass for one of them, but she knows her place, and one of the most astute passages in Memento Mori ties together her ersatz morality with her caste uncertainty.

Mrs Pettigrew went upstairs to look round the bedrooms, to see if they were all right and tidy, and in reality to simmer down and look round. She was annoyed with herself for letting go at Mrs Anthony. She should have kept aloof. But it had always been the same — even when she was with Lisa Brooke — when she had to deal with lower domestics she became too much one of them. It was kindness of heart, but it was weak. She reflected that she had really started off on the wrong foot with Mrs Anthony; that, when she had first arrived, she should have kept her distance with the woman and refrained from confidences. And now she had lowered herself to an argument with Mrs Anthony. These thoughts overwhelmed Mrs Pettigrew with that sense of having done a foolish thing against one’s interests, which in some people stands for guilt. And in this frame of heart she repented, and decided, as she stood by Charmian’s neatly-made bed, to establish her position more solidly in the household, and from now on to treat Mrs Anthony with remoteness.

Fat chance of that.

Reading Note:
The Two Georges
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

I’m reading A Single Man, the Christopher Isherwood novel that Tom Ford turned into a movie. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s cattier and less elegiac than the movie. This has everything to do with the difference between reading a book and watching a movie. It’s difficult to be intimate with movie characters, even when you’re taken to the very center of their turbulent hearts. That’s because they live in such powerfully rendered locations, places (usually) utterly unlike the ones in which you spend your time. The George of the movie inhabits an incredibly stylish house, a real work of architecture, and not the upper-Bohemian treehouse of the book. As Tom Ford’s provisional alter ego, George dresses with the maximum of easy but disciplined self-consciousness. Isherwood’s George probably owns a caftan or two — something a bit ratty from Morocco. On film, George is a grand figure, and his plight is tragic. But precisely because it is catty rather than monumental, the book brings home the full weight of George’s loss, the absence of his one and only love. In the movie, Jim is already dead, a creature of occasional flashbacks. In the book, he still bumps into George in the narrow doorways.

Also, because it is cattier, the novel is better at explaining George’s loss. The movie really can’t do more than attest that George and Jim were very much in love. It’s horrible to lose someone you love. But the book shows why George is one of those people who isn’t going to move on, who’s going to be stuck with his loss. That’s because losing Jim confirms something that George learned early about life, something we’re told about at the beginning of George’s day.

He fixes himself a plate of poached eggs, with bacon and toast and coffee, and sits down to eat them at the kitchen table. And meanwhile, around and around in his head goes the nursery jingle his nanny taught him when he was a child in England, all those years ago:

Poached eggs on toast are very nice

(He sees her so plainly still, gray-haired with mouse-bright eyes, a plump little body carrying in the nursery breakfast tray, short of breath from climbing all those stairs. She used to grumble at their steepness and call them “The Wooden Mountains” — one of the magic phrases of his childhood.)

Poached eggs on toast are very nice,
If you try them once you’ll want them twice!

Ah, the heartbreakingly insecure smugness of those nursery pleasures. Master George enjoying his eggs; Nanny watching him and smiling reassurance that all is safe in their dear tiny doomed world!

There is an Englishness about this pessimism. You run into it in the odd highly stylized American, but it’s rare. Why it should have become common among the scions of England’s upper classes I have no idea. George Eliot’s contemporaries, no matter how prone to despair, never sulked, and not just because it was ill-mannered. What happened? The end of empire? The vulgarity of democracy? The nihilism of the Flemish trenches? Somebody is going to raise is hand to remind me that George is a homosexual in an intolerant era. But it’s not that. Everyone in the novels of John Fowles is similarly disaffected, notwithstanding plenteous access to sanctioned booty. It’s as though an intelligent person would be insulted by promise.

Anyway, Jim’s death just proved what George always knew, which is that life sucks. George isn’t going to stick his head out a second time (or so he thinks). There’s nothing particularly homosexual about this “lesson,” either. There are obvious reasons for George’s finding it easier to stick to his resolve than for a straight man’s doing so. Finding a lover whom the world will join you in celebrating is tough enough. Finding a forbidden one has got to be daunting.

The curious thing about the movie — well, it’s about movies generally. In the book, George is a gay man. In the movie, he’s a man who happens to be gay. There’s a real difference, whether or not there ought to be. You might say that “gay man” is a type of homosexual, in the way that “Don Juan” is a type of heterosexual. Actually, if any straight profile comes to mind in connection with George, it’s Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, not because the men share any kind of erotic interest — they certainly don’t — but because of the fastidiousness of their resentment.

It would have been unappealing to watch Colin Firth impersonate Isherwood’s George. But that’s my point about the movies. So far as I know, a gay man like the George of Isherwood’s novel has never been the protagonist of a conventional feature film, even though that’s not what “conventional” means anymore. If I’m not complaining that Tom Ford failed to do justice to Isherwood’s novel, it’s because I’m not sure that I want to watch a movie about Isherwood’s George. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’m very happy to read about him.

Reading Note:
The Declaration of Adventure

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Here is the fatal paragraph:

Whatever the cost, Uzaemon vows, I shall free her. But I need help.

Don’t worry: I am not going to unpack this passage. I’m not going to spoil The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for you by explaining who “she” is, or why Uzaemon resolves to free her, or even who Uzaemon is. For my purposes, none of that is necessary — and that is what is fatal about the paragraph.

What I will do is point out that Uzaemon’s vow is meant to be taken seriously by the reader. There is no irony here, no distancing tug at the reader’s sleeve. So the vow differs in no way from hundreds of other such utterances that the reader may have read, and, especially, read when young. What we have here is the absolutely standard declaration of adventure that, with implicit contractual clarity, promises not so much a measure of excitement and derring-do as a simplification of motive. And it is not the character who utters the vow, either, but the author. The author promises to propel his character as a hero, in the single-minded pursuit of a worthy aim that will end in either triumph or death.

I would call it a boy’s own story, but I’m not sure that girls aren’t equally drawn to oaths of this kind. I speak, of course, of oaths in books, not of real-life commitments. It would be impossible to generalize about the latter; no two personal missions are alike. But in adventure stories, generalization is precisely what’s invited. With his vow, Uzaemon slips beneath the surface clutter of his contingent life as a Japanese man of a certain stature in Nagasaki, circa 1799. He sets aside the problems, great and small, that make up his everyday life. When he has stripped the accidents of existence away, he is seen to be wearing the hero’s armor, which protects him, above all, from ambivalence.

Here is why young readers of any age like declarations of adventure: ambivalence is banished. (Ambivalence — the emotional conjunction of palpably incompatible feelings — takes getting used to, and many people never succeed.) Anyone who makes Uzaemon’s oath is a good person, and a good person pure and simple, no matter how well or ill endowed with capability, intelligence, and fortitude. When a character comes to the oath with a spotted moral history, the vow itself is a redemption. The cost that Uzaemon vows to pay is the suppression of distraction: henceforth, nothing but the mission will matter. This means that nothing else will matter to the reader, either. The mission will part the world into the good and the bad, placing an uninhabitable gulf between the two. The indifferent will disappear: everything in the story, from other characters to the weather, will wear either the badge of help or that of hindrance.

But I need help. A second adventure! Freeing the girl requires the hero to field a team of loyal supporters with special skills, and this, too, is an adventure, no less clouded by the threat of disappointment and betrayal than the main event. (I see it — the rounding up of the helping posse — as a kind of temporal forecourt to the inner sanctum of dangerous rescue.) A complementary host of ritual obstacles confronts writer and reader alike with the satisfactions of knowing exactly where things stand with respect to the story, no matter how uncertain the hero’s arrangements might chance to be.

To the question, why does David Mitchell, a sophisticated novelist, issue a declaration of adventure at just about the point where an adult novel would be heading in the opposite direction, toward the uncertain resolution that George Eliot taught us to treasure, I don’t have an answer. My guess is that the writer is more concerned with genre than with character, more interested in a game whose rules are known to all than in the ineffable oddity of each human heart. When I saw what he had done, my curiosity about his novel — a book whose surface generates a turbulence of puzzlement — underwent a heroic simplification of its own, and I hunkered down with the sole aim of all genre fiction: to find out how it all comes out in the end.

Reading Note:
Why would you want the iPad to function like a laptop?

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


Why, I wonder, have the editors at The New York Review of Books drafted Sue Halpern to cover the iPad, when it’s clear that she is unsympathetic to the device? Her long piece in the 10 June issue of the Review never touched on the iPad’s function — its primary function, in my view — as an Internet reader. Now, in an entry at NYRBlog dated 8 June (but obviously written long after the printed piece), she comes closer, but lets the point slip out of her hands.

As it is built now, the iPad is the ultimate consumer device, meant primarily to consume media, not to produce it. That’s why, in its first iteration, it has no native printing application, no camera, no USB ports for peripherals.

Because Ms Halpern wants the iPad to be a computer. Why on earth, I wonder?

But the impulse to make it into something else, a lightweight computer that can stand in for a PC in the classroom, at a meeting, on the road, wherever, is strong. This is why iPad users have been buying keyboards to bypass the touchscreen, and finding apps that allow for rudimentary multitasking, printing, and remote access to one’s home computer in order to use non-iPad-enabled software like Microsoft Word. The paradox of having designed the ultimate consumer device is that ultimately the consumers will make of it what they want—if Google, with its rumored Chrome Tablet, doesn’t get there first.

Doesn’t she already have a computer?

Heading the blog piece is the image of an extravagantly marked-up book; we’re told that it is David Foster Wallace’s copy of Don DeLillo’s Players. Ms Halpern helpfully outlines a hack for writing notes on books that you’re reading on your iPad, although she complains that you have to know what you’re doing “to avoid getting tripped up.” Awkward or not, I won’t be giving the hack a try, because I don’t write in books. Except to insert the odd “Ex libris,” I do not mark my books. Possibly because I am really very bad at multitasking, I find taking notes to be unhelpful. I find that it’s better to let strong impressions simmer untended; if I feel that I have something to say when I’ve finished reading, then I try to write it out in as finished a manner as possible, often in the form of entries that, without too much editing, appear on this site. But that is me; that is my idiosyncrasy. In the end, reading books is not what the iPad is really for.

Well, that’s precisely what the iPad may be for — the specific tablet sold by Apple — that and all the other apps that Apple markets. I don’t have much time for apps, and, like James Kwak, I think that there’s something retrograde about them. Eventually, there will be other tablets, with or without their own apps markets. Some of them may support browsers superior to Apple’s Safari. I may come to prefer one of them to the iPad. All that is down the road. As Jason Kottke wrote when the iPad first appeared, it’s a “proof-of-concept gadget for adults.” But the concept that it proves is that reading the Internet can be as pleasurable as, or at any rate no less pleaurable than, reading a book or a magazine.

Since my way of reading the Internet is pretty much the same as my way of reading books, I am not incommoded by the difficulty of taking notes in a browser. The Daily Blague might indeed be regarded as a notebook, even if it’s a notebook that’s designed to be intelligible to other readers. Or just plain intelligible: in my note-taking days, I was often at a complete loss to make sense of a good many scribblings, even when they were perfectly legible.

When I acquired my first personal computer — an IBM Peanut — in 1985, I had high hopes of using it to organize my life. But life is far too complicated to be addressed by one machine. For several years now, I’ve been writing longer things on a laptop, in another room, without opening any email apps. The sensed difference between the computer where I work (with its two screens) and the one on which I think (in order to write) is intense. Now the iPad has introduced a third — and, I suspect, a completing — mode: a computer on which to read. Sue Halpern may try to tarnish the device by using the dirty word “consumer,” but I’ll embrace the description. As I stroke through Safari, I’m letting the other guy speak.

Reading Note:
At the bottom of the garden

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010


The pleasures of reading Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings are simple but amply sustaining. There is the lapidary writing, marinated in understatement, and a corresponding tact: Pym has very clear ideas about what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s funny, but she is determined to avoid communicating them directly to her readers, some of whom, she trusts, will share her outlook without having to be cued. (Those who don’t will either be bored, puzzled, or — the lucky ones — intrigued.) (more…)

New Yorker Story:
“La Vita Nuova”

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” in the current issue of The New Yorker, is a palpably artful story, but not a very appealing one. At the beginning, an unnamed fiancé breaks up with Amanda, a girl from New York who has followed him to Cambridge. Her immediate response is to carry her wedding dress to the school where she teaches art, and to invite her first-graders to embellish it with paint and feathers. It is impossible not to imagine an operatic mad scene or two, involving deranged heroines and blood. Certainly the school’s principal is disturbed.

The principal told Amanda, that for an educator, bounderies were an issue. “Your personal life,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate art project for first grade. Your classroom,” said the principal, “is not an appropriate forum for your relationships. Let’s pack up the wedding dress.”

At the end of the school year, Amanda’s contract is not renewed. I couldn’t tell how the author wanted me to feel about this. But I knew that the fiancé had done a sane thing in walking away from Amanda.

The meat of the story describes the summer that Amanda spends with Nicholas, one of her first-graders and now her babysitting charge. Nicholas’s parents no longer live together, which makes it easier for Nicholas’s mother to express her dislike of Amanda, and for his father to express his desire to sleep with her. Amanda and Nicholas do neat things, like going to the zoo, and Amanda behaves very responsibly with the boy, but recurring references to things that the fiancé used to say suggest that Amanda is enjoying a protracted mad scene. She is as closed to us as any disturbed person. Instead of hearing her thoughts, we watch her paint several sets of nested Russian dolls.

As before, she coated each painted doll with clear gloss until the colors gleamed. As before, she made each doll a perfect jewel-like object, but she spent the most time on the biggest, oldest doll.

After that, she bought more blanks and painted more sets: people she knew, people she didn’t know. People she met. Portraits in series, five dolls each. She painted Patsy, blonder and blonder in each incarnation. She painted her fiancé as a boy, as an athlete, as a law student, as a paunchy bald guy, as a decrepit old man. She didn’t kill him, but she aged him.

She lined up the dolls and photographed them. She thought about fellowships. She imagined group shows, solo shows. Refusing interviews.

She took Nathaniel to swimming lessons. She went down to the harbor with him and they threw popcorn to seagulls that caught the kernels in midair.

The self-indulgence of Amanda’s obsessive painting is mirrored quite perfectly in the author’s self-indulgent stylishness. What else could possibly link the third and fourth paragraphs here?

At the end of the story, Amanda breaks up with Nicholas; she decides to go back to New York. Nicholas — an unusually likable child, especially for literary precincts of this temperature — is far more dramatically heartbroken by Amanda’s defection than Amanda was by the fiancé’s departure. His squirming pain is so real, in fact, that I wondered if it were not the very point of “La Vita Nuova” (I’m going to let the Dante angle, such as it is, slide): Amanda’s revenge.

Reading Note:
Cheerful Money

Monday, April 26th, 2010


If I could only findAlexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons, I’d shelve Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor alongside it. Both books are heady blends of  eccentric family history, upper-middle-class anxiety, and painfully conditional love. Here is Mr Friend’s grandmother, trying to play testamentary tug-of-war with her son.

“Don’t you want my money?” she finally asked, plaintively. Jess seemed to understand that expectations of inheritance ratchet impossibly high because Wasps tend to express love not as a flow of feeling but as a trickle of side tables — leading their children to look to recoup in dead money what they lost in live affection. As Muriel Rogers once told her son Dickie, “I give you money because I love you at that particular time.”

Also: TMI alerts. Alexander Waugh doesn’t talk about himself very much, but his family can’t have been altogether pleased to read some of his stories about his father and grandfather. As for Mr Friend, one’s happiness at his apparently blessed marriage to Amanda Hesser is taxed somewhat by a polite discomfort occasioned his zesty retailing of previous romances. If nothing else, there is the racket of smashing taboos. Nothing could be less WASPy than the author’s accounts of his interactions with Giovanna, Melanie and Christine. Is this progress, or recklessness?

Considering that Mr Friend’s family background must, by any standard measure, be called privileged, it treads water in an ocean of disappointment. Take John Herman Groesbeck Pierson, the author’s maternal grandfather, whose graduation from Yale, in 1927, occasioned a local news item,

“YALE RECORDS SHATTERED BY J H G PIERSON.” The article noted that he had one nine academic prizes, been president of Phi Beta Kappa, and composed the class poem, while also being a member of the cross-country, rifle, and soccer teams, of the student council, and of the Whiffenpoofs — “prizes and recognitions for almost every form of worthy activity that Yale men admire.” 

But how could a newspaper take cognizance of the award that wasn’t bestowed, by Yale’s too-famous-to-mention club? “My mother, and her mother before her, liked to say that Grandpa John’s later frustrations flowed from a single headwaters: his rejection by Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society that ‘tapped’ fifteen juniors each year.” Grandpa John, who lived into his nineties, was saddled with the albatross of having reached his apogee fully seventy years earlier. And yet his career was burnished with real achievement, at least when contrasted with that of the author’s paternal grandfather, a feckless stockbroker who depended on the kindness of moneyed wives.

One  thing that’s for certain: this engagingly written book’s title is brilliant. It refers, specifically, to an emotionally stunted reward system that Mr Friend’s parents devised for reinforcing good behavior in their three children. But it also captures the material paradox at the center of late-WASP life.

So the money Amanda and I have now is almost all money we have made. Still she suggests that my real issue with ambition and money is my residual belief that I don’t have to do anyting I don’t feel like doing in order to establish our family’s financial security, becauase there will eventually be some sort of inheritance to tide us along. This charge is one of the things we sometimes fight about, all the more bitterly because I worry that she might have a point.

Let’s hope that she doesn’t!

Weekend Update:
The Koestler Problem

Sunday, January 24th, 2010


Back in callow college days, when I was assigned The Watershed, the book about Johannes Kepler that Arthur Koestler excerpted from The Sleepwalkers, I knew Koestler’s name, and I knew (from the jacket copy on The Watershed) that Koestler was the author a familiar title, Darkness at Noon, although I knew nothing about this latter book. I didn’t know much of anything about the Spanish Civil War, beyond Picasso’s Guernica, and it would have surprised me, in those days, to learn that the same man could face death in one of Franco’s prisons and, later on, write up Kepler’s search for the music of the spheres. But I’d have adjusted right away, because I somehow knew enough to place Koestler under the same rubric as Norman Mailer.

Arthur Koestler, in other words, wasn’t someone that I had to get to know right away, because he was one of those culturally immanent presences that float overhead from year to year, so constant that we don’t notice that they’ve been fading until something obliges us to look at them closely. That something, in Koestler’s case, was his suicide in 1983; which would have been unremarkable if he hadn’t been joined in the act by his younger, perfectly healthy wife. When I heard about that, I realized that I hadn’t heard Koestler’s name in quite a while, and that in fact I had never really known why he was famous.

Increasingly, fame feels like a kind of style; it is bestowed upon those who for one reason or another are in tune with the intellectual fashion of the moment. And it is withdrawn to the extent that its beneficiaries have committed themselves to looks and feels that have dated and staled. Koestler’s case is more encompassing. As Anne Applebaum notes in her review of a new biography of Koestler, the most urgent topic of Koestler’s prime has vanished from everyday discourse.

The most important change, however, is political. To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest. Thanks to the opening of archives, quite a few Western historians are, it is true, still investigating the history of the Soviet Union and of the international Communist movement. But outside of a few university comparative literature departments, Soviet-style Marxism itself is not a living political idea anywhere in the West. In the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash in the autumn of 2008, there were calls for a government bailout of the auto industry. No one—no major newspaper columnists, no leading politicians, no popular intellectual magazines—called upon the vanguard of the proletariat to rise up and overthrow the bourgeois capitalist exploiters. In the Europe of 1948, somebody would have done so.

What that means, though, is that the entire political context in which Koestler, Sartre, and Camus functioned—and in which Koestler’s most important works were written—is now gone.

Ms Applebaum goes on to suggest that, if Koestler is to regain anything like the fame that he enjoyed sixty years ago, it won’t be because he wrote about important things, but rather the reverse: he’ll be read, if at all, because he convinces readers that, beneath the political dramas that he addressed in his work, there is a timeless struggle between forces that bear more universal names than “communism” and “democracy” — a struggle that he understands with compelling clarity. Ms Applebaum doesn’t appear to find this eventuality very likely.

This has always been much on my mind, this “Koestler problem.” It’s one thing to be forgotten because you didn’t really grasp the issues that interested you. That’s a risk that we take knowingly when we publish an essay. What you can’t really grasp is the possibility that the issues that you address so well will fall away, and concern nobody. You can’t grasp it because you can’t see where things are going. You can guess, but you can’t see.

If you’re a journalist, you probably don’t care.

Library Note:

Sunday, January 10th, 2010


In the din of chit-chat and prognostication about digital book readers and whatnot, the idea of the library seems to have been drowned out. Technically, of course, the library will go digital along with its constituent texts, and occupy no visible space. A superb prospect! If someone offered me the contents of several major research libraries on a handful of flash drives, I’d be as giddy as a schoolboy.

The idea of the book as a disembodied object that appears only when needed is tremendously appealing. It would be wonderful if my bodied books would appear when needed! The other night, it’s true, I got very lucky: when the conversation turned to Savonarola, I was able to produce Lauro Martines’s book on the subject, Fire in the City. More typical, sadly, was the search for Marsha Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition. The Readerware file — I was still using Readerware at the time — pointed me to a shelf that did not exist. I tore apart the history bookcase, but to no avail. It turned out that I had let M le Neveu borrow the book, and surrendered to the nutty idea that a nonexistent shelf would indicate that the book was out on loan. It was thanks only to a spot of housecleaning at his end that I put my hands on Professor Colish.

A new way of cataloguing my library occurred to me the other day: I would simply take snapshots of the ranges of books. Most of my shelves hold two rows of books, one behind the other; the block of shelves in the photo above holds three. Hence “tearing apart.” A loose-leaf notebook full of digital images of arrayed spines would be the only catalogue that I’d need, and it would take very little time to update. If I were younger, I’d probably give this notion a try, but my more experienced self thinks that it’s suspiciously easy-sounding. I don’t know what’s wrong with the idea, really, but I’m sure that there’s something — and I know that I would feel an everloving fool when I found out what it was.

The other day, Joe Jervis remarked in passing that he has never been one to amass books in order to show off his reading. Horrified, I wondered if (a) that’s what my library is all about and (b) that’s how my library strikes other people. The first doubt was easily dealt with, because I’m very unimpressed by my library, and would not think much of anyone who regarded it as extensive. For me, an impressive library is a room all four walls of which are lined with bookshelves that reach at least from hip height to the ceiling. As for what other people think, I had to admit that I’m showing off. Subject, however, to the foregoing caveat: only rubes fall for it. This is simply how the well-fed urban ego behaves.

As I toiled over piles of books this afternoon, I asked myself more than once: why do I have all these books? If it weren’t for periodic bouts of re-shelving, would I ever have occasion to touch them? It’s all very well to produce a book about Savonarola on demand, but it’s also true that nobody dropped out of the dinner-party conversation in order to read it. You could say that I demonstrated the book’s existence. As I could with somewhere between two and three thousand other volumes. Pourquoi?

I have never lived without books, but I suspect that, without the daily reminder posted by those serried dust jackets, I might forget an important part of myself — to wit, where I’ve been in this life. I’ve spent so much of it reading!

Fossil Darling, who likes to dream, promised me the other day that, if and when he wins the lottery, he will set me up in a loft vast enough to house all of my books. Quatorze frowned: “RJ doesn’t want to live in a loft.” Quite right, Q! If money were no object, I’d take a suite at one of the grand hotels and survive on room service. With room service, I wouldn’t need a library. I’d just have books sent up.

As needed.

Reading Note:

Monday, December 28th, 2009


Now that the holiday calendar has come to a close, I’m losing no time in buckling down with the books. Although a few titles in my mammoth stacks of books appeal to me more than others, I resolved this afternoon to read what fate presented, sort of. The first book that my gaze fell upon was Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea, by Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams (Belknap, 2006). I bought the book at the Cloisters this summer, and immediately read the substantial introduction and most of the first chapter (of four). Then — well, then there was the Fall, and my life was derailed by an act of reupholstery.

CTB (as I’ll abbreviate the lengthy title) attracted me as a book about books — quite literally in this case, as the authors explore the generally-known but poorly-understood association between the establishment of Christianity and the replacement of the scroll by the codex. As I’m only halfway through the book, I can’t say where the exploration is going to lead, but in the agreeable atmosphere of the Cloisters gift shop it seemed to promise a variation on a story that’s close to my heart: the appropriation of a new technology, for which mainstream society hasn’t found a use, by the exponents of a new cultural outlook. That is why I am reading CBT. I am not terribly interested in the religious aspect of the book as such — except, of course, to the extent that the authors explode the orthodox Vatican view of early Church history, which is entirely a matter of martyrs.

CBT is a diffcult book, but it is aimed at the general reader. It does not assume any detailed knowledge of the early-Christian world of the Third Century, and it conscientiously explains what only specialists might be expected to know. The writing is cogent and lucid. But the scholarship of antiquity, so familiar-seeming from the book’s cover, is actually quite alien. One of the more influential scholars of his time, Origen was, by our standards, not much of a scholar at all, but it is not his Christianity (his belief in the inpsiring Logos) that sets him apart, as one might at first think. It is, precisely, his antiquity. His intellectual formation was in line with that of his pagan contemporaries.

Origen’s bibliographic habits fit well within the philosophical culture of the book as it emerged under the Roman Empire. The contents and scope of Origen’s collection, the uses to which he put his books, the ways he read and the genres in which he chose to write, and the social matrix that supported his work, all find strong parallels among the philosophers. Origen’s library was large and varied, yet its contents were also highly specialized, omitting many works, even entire literary genres, that were central to contemporary learned culture. Origen’s literary output was diverse, but much of it was shaped by the twin philosophical imperatives of interpretation — in Origen’s case, of the Christian Scriptures — and polemic, whether against members of one’s own school or against representatives of rival traditions. Finally, we have precious documentation both for Origen’s relations with patrons and for the concrete ways that their support enabled him to obtain and, especially, to produce books. What we find both reflects, and help us fell out, the pciture pieced together from the evident for more typical philosophers.

That documentation is precious, of course, because there isn’t very much of it, and because “Origen’s library has left no physical traces for archeology to uncover.”

The foregoing passages, taken from the first chapter of CTB, are dense but not distant. Origen’s library is made to sound familiar enough. But once the discussion turns to the Hexapla, the air begins to thin. You might almost wonder if the Hexapla actually existed. The two sets of fragments that survive do not establish the existence of the scholarly project described by Eusebius, Origen’s successor at Caesarea. This was a very emplified bilingual edition of the Hebrew Bible, presented in six parallel columns. The first column gave the Hebrew text, more or less as a list, word by word. The second consisted of a transliteration in the Greek alphabet. The remaining columns offered different Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, with that of the Septuagint — the official Christian Bible in the Greek-speaking Church— in the fifth column.

Origen’s reasons for undertaking this project appear — by the time the authors draw their conclusions — to have been the very opposite of what you might expect. They seem, for the matter of that, to have been the opposite of Jerome’s. Jerome set himself up in Bethlehem in order to provide the Western Church with a respectable translation of the Hebrew Bible in Latin (the Vulgate). Origen looked through the other end of the telescope. Far from trying to establish a correct Greek testament by scrupulous examination of the Hebrew orignal, Origen seems to have been convinced that the Septuagint was a more “authentic” text than the Hebrew version (“prot0-Masoretic”) that was in use in Hellenized Jewish communities about three centures later. How could it be otherwise? As Origen wrote to Julius Africanus,

Are we  to believe that the same Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has taught all the churches of Christ, gave no thought to those bought with a price, for whom Christ died?”

Not very scholarly. This is precisely the sort of thinking that early philologists such as Lorenzo Valla would reject in the 1450s, not because of any doubts about the divinity of Scriptural inspiration, but because of familiarity with the waywardness of pen-wielding human hands.

It was very difficult to fix my attention on this material in the early evening, after a long and bustling weekend. I was distracted by the teasing approaches of a nap, briskly withdrawn whenever I was on the point of surrender. I had to re-read a great deal — or, to put it more exactly, I had to go back and actually read many pages that my eye had grazed. Why, exactly, was I reading this book?  

Why are you reading this entry?

Daily Office:

Thursday, December 10th, 2009


Matins: In his review of Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy, Austin Frakt touches on what makes our working day possible. (Incidental Economist; via Marginal Revolution)

Lauds: How Terry Gilliam completed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after Heath Ledger’s death. It wasn’t just technical. (Speakeasy)

Prime: David Segal’s update on the failure to reform the ratings-agency biz in any meaningful way suggests that the conflict has little to do with lobbying (for once) but reveals a clash of visions, between bold (reckless) and cautious (ineffective). (NYT)

Tierce: Bad as “fast food” is, it may be safer than the stuff that the government provides to school cafeterias. (Good)

Sext: Does Mo’Nique really want that Best-Supporting-Actress Oscar? She sure sounds new to the Industry. (And the Winner Is…; via Arts Journal)

Nones: The opera buffa in Honduras too a turn for the seriously dramatic on Tuesday, with the assassination General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, the Honduran drug czar. The crime opens a window on our view of the local economy. (BBC News)

Vespers: Christopher Tayler (of the Guardian) visits Sir Frank Kermode on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. (via The Second Pass)

Compline: They all laughed… but everybody’s looking at Roadtown now. (treehugger; via Good)

Daily Office:

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


Matins: Just what we all need: China produces and sells more than 12,000,000 cars in a single year.

In a sidebar, Jorn Madslien reports that Shanghai Automotive Industries owns a majority share of Shanghai General Motors’s venture in India, leaving (American) General Motors to take “a back seat.” (BBC News)

Lauds: A very interesting comment from Felix Salmon, writing about productivity/price differentials between the fine-arts and photography markets. The former has split in two, with mass-marketed items buoying a “an elite circle of valuable works.” The dynamic hasn’t been tried in photography.

Prime: Alex Tabarrok writes about Project Cybersyn, an economic regulator waaaaay ahead of its time. (Marginal Revolution)

Tierce: How to account for same-sex liaisons in terms of natural selection? The investigation promises to be complex and counterintuitive. Also: resistant to cross-species generalizations!

Gore Vidal has always insisted that there is really no such thing as homosexuality; perhaps he’s right after all. (New Scientist)

Sext: What you need to know in order to navigate the tricky holiday shopping season: it will cost $395. (The Onion; via The Morning News)

Nones: New, and with more than T-shirts: Ottomaniacs!  One thing seems clear: Turkey is finally emerging from Atatürk’s secular tutelage, a nation with imperial memories. (NYT)

Vespers: At HuffPo, Alexander Nazaryan proposes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland as the American novel of the passing decade. We heartily concur, and we nominate Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End as runner-up.  

Compline: Witold Rybczynski reports that academic architects still don’t like Christopher Alexander’s patterns. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

Daily Office:

Friday, December 4th, 2009


Matins: In an extremely thoughtful piece that may alter the grain of your thought — or, as it our case, highlight the way in which you’re already inclined to think — Tony Judt asks us to consider why it is that, in the Anglophone world, we reduce all political questions to economic equations. He proposes a very persuasive, historically-bound answer to the question. Don’t miss it. (NYRB)

Lauds: Judith Jamison is looking to trade in “artistic director” for, perhaps, “Queen.” Those of us who were lucky enough to see her dance Revelations know just how aptly that very popular ballet is titled. (New York; via Arts Journal)

Prime: As the giving season is upon us, Tim Ogden plans a series of blog entries about the dangers of evaluating charities by overhead alone. (Philanthropy Action; via Felix Salmon)

Tierce: Melissa Lafsky urges us to stop trying to get more women to ride bicycles in urban areas, and focus instead upon making biking a lot safer than it is. (The Infrastructurist)

Sext: The things that Choire Sicha digs up on the Internets! From a blog called firmuhment, a thoroughly wicked “imagineering” of Zac Efron’s newfound, post-Orson intellectual sophistication. (via The Awl)

Nones: More Honduran predictability: the Congress declined, by a very large margin, to re-instate Manuel Zelaya in office for the weeks that remain to his term. The voting, 111-14 against Mr Zelaya, suggests that the ousted president is not a character worth fighting for. (NYT)

Vespers: In a backlist assessment that has the whole town talking, Natalia Antonova convinces us that she loves Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known book not in spite of her history as the victim of abuse but because of it. (The Second Pass)

Compline: Because it’s the weekend, we offer Ron Rosenbaum’s long and “Mysterian” query about consciousness and other unsolved mysteries as a way of killing time in the event of any dominical longueurs. Although we agree with his assessment of the the “facts” (ie questions), we do not, so to speak, share his affect.

While we recognize — insist! — that the universe remains profoundly mysterious, it doesn’t bother us in the least, because, really, it’s much too interesting to live with the mysteries that aren’t so profound. The profundity that Mr Rosenbaum highlights for us is the connection between adolescence and all forms of metaphysics. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

Bon weekend à tous!

Daily Office:

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


Matins: Kenneth Davis writes about the first Thanksgiving to be given on land that would one day be part of the United States — by Huguenots in Florida. Their base, Fort Caroline (named after Charles IX), did not last very long; nor did they: the Spanish eradicated everything in 1565.

Mr Davis’s litany of religious persecutions in America exhorts us to regard Thanksgiving not as the commemoration of a hallowed past but as a celebration of how far we have come from our dark origins — and a reminder of how far we have yet to go. (NYT)

Lauds: Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s most notable muse (and his only “art wife”), died last Friday in Santa Cruz, aged 95. (Los Angeles Times; via Arts Journal)

As it happens, we’ve been reading about Charis Wilson in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. Great reading!

Prime: We’re not terribly interested in the recent privatization of Chicago’s parking meters — or, rather, we weren’t until Felix Salmon decided to look into the matter. His conclusion: the city didn’t do too badly, and the contractors are idiots. The detail worth noting is that what Chicago’s alderman wanted, of course, was to raise parking meter prices without being accountable.

Tierce: The Aesthete unearths the strange figure of George Sebastian, an adventurer who married American money and used it to builid Dar Sebastian, still a breathtaking edifice in Hammamet, Tunisia. (An Aesthete’s Lament)

Sext: We love a good prank as much as anybody — probably more, as long as we’re not the victim — and so we’re rejoicing at the news that The Awl now has a whole department devoted to reviewing “pranks and their aftermaths.” Okay, they have Juli Weiner, who we hope is still enrolled in a good college.

Nones: William Finnegan’s New Yorker excellent report on the situation in Honduras is not, sadly, online, although an abstract is available. For regular readers who have been following the matter here, there is little substantially new in the piece, and in fact we were gratified to read that coup leader Roberto Michelletti, in television appearances, “tends to glower, and speak from the side of his mouth, like Dick Cheney.” However, we hadn’t encountered anything like Mr Finnegan’s thumbnail of the constitution that ousted president “Mel” Zelaya wants to replace.

Vespers: We’ve read Lauren Elkin’s review of Jeremy Davies’s Rose Alley several times now, and while we’re not certain that we want to read the novel, we’re intrigued by Ms Elkin’s account of it. (The Second Pass)

Compline: Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) takes “a look at what the Intenet is doing for learning, curiosity, and creativity outside the classroom.” There’s a lot about TED, which appears to be better understood in Europe than it is here. (Good)

To see how traditional education appears on the Internet, have a look at the Syllabus of Dr E L Skip Knox’s fully online course, sponsored by Boise State University, in HIST101 — The History of Western Civilization. (via MetaFilter)