Archive for 2019

December 2019

Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶ Vanessa on Virginia: 

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

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

Hardwick says the damnedest thing: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy New Year! (31 December)

November 2019

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But any poetry is strictly accidental. (11 November)

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

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

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

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


What Would Mr Rogers Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 2019

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.