Archive for 2019

Reading Note:
19 September 2019

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Van Posj Note:
What Does It Say?
18 September 2019

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

¶ Boxes have arrived from North Carolina. We’ll talk about them later. For the moment, I am too busy throwing their contents away. Well, not all their contents — I have to sift. And, sifting one day, I noticed that the name of a committeewoman, printed on an invitation to one of the many posh dances that Kathleen “attended” during her Brearley years, was misspelled.

Why do I hear the ghost of Anna Russell doing the shriek of an alarmed chorus?

On all the other invitations to this series of parties, it was spelled correctly: “Rutherfurd.” You may have come across the name in connection with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I must confess that I first encountered it in a program for one of the Blue Hill Troupe’s Gilbert & Sullivan productions. The bearer in that case (White & Case) may have been the husband, possibly the son, of Kathleen’s committeewoman. 

Why was I even looking at these things? What does it say about me that I instantly recognized the misspelling?

Reading Note:
La Différence
17 September 2019

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

¶ How long have been putting off reading Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution? I know that my antennae, which are hardly ever mistaken, have warned me for years that this “hilarious campus satire” is not as funny as all that. 

I ought to keep a list of supposedly funny books that are not as funny as all that. Lucky Jim would top the list. 

My antennae were not wrong about Jarrell’s comedy. It is clearly the work of a poet, and often cast in a limpid beauty that would have annoyed me when, as a callow youth, I howled with delight at the horrible things, described in exquisite terms, that happened in Evelyn Waugh’s earlier novels. I was a sort of cannibal of humor in those days, stomping with rhythmic appreciation around the kettle in which deserving targets were being fricaseed. There is a moment, toward the end of Pictures from an Institution, in which a young woman, reading “The Juniper Tree,” a tale from the Brothers Grimm, is so persuasively moved to tears that was moved to tears — I’d have hated that when I was twenty. So I suppose I held back on Jarrell until the time was right. 

Pictures from an Institution is one of those books that has its funny moments, some of them — the entire (if short) chapter, “Art Night,” for example — sublimely so. But what I treasure most is the passage about a retired (actually very ancient) lieder singer — a witty woman who is never, not for one second, a target. 

When she sang you decided that a singer does after all need a voice to sing, but you did not decide this until several minutes after she had finished singing. Even her breathing was unmistakable, so that her hearers would feel, in senseless pleasure: “Who else in all the world would have thought of breathing there?” She did what she did because there was nothing else possible to do, and when she had done it she did not know what she had done: or so you felt, hearing. this was a delusion, of course; she once talked for half an hour about Lehmann’s, Schiøtz’s and her ways of singing the song from the Dichterliebe that begins, Ich grolle nicht. (164)

By this point in the novel, having spent a good deal of time with the singer and her composer husband, you understand that, while any three singers anywhere might passionately compare performance notes, these three interpreters had taken it for granted that their ways of singing would have met with the approval of Goethe. 

Quiescent Note:
Advice Reconsidered
16 September 2019

Monday, September 16th, 2019

The other day, I received an online invitation: M le Neveu is getting married next month. Kathleen and I have not seen much of him in recent years, but we did meet his fiancée, and we felt at once that they make a very good couple. So we shall attend their wedding dinner with pleasure.

M le Neveu has been in and out of our lives for about eighteen years. He arrived, in 2001, fresh out of college. He is now a tenured assistant professor, and (as you can figure out for yourself) roughly twice as old as he was then. (At our first meeting, though, he was a baby only weeks old, whom I was holding in my arms, standing on a lovely summer day by the banks of the Connecticut River. His metamorphosis into a tall, sometimes bearded man still surprises me.) If the timing seems rich, it’s because I had already made up my mind to wind up, once and for all, this blog, which never would have existed without his insistence. 

In those days, when he was a graduate student at Columbia, and my Web site, Portico, was still fairly new, M le Neveu came to dinner most Sundays, and not an evening went by without his quoting Daily Kos, which he would have been following, while I was in the kitchen, on my computer. 

“You need a blog!” he would declare over dessert. It did seem to me that I needed something more interactive than a Web site. Comments! Permalinks! Portico just sat there, no more inviting to respond to than any old book. I was in my mid-fifties, still keen in my way on keeping up with things. After more than a year of hearing M le Neveu’s elemental advice, I decide to journey into the future. I didn’t see that I was like someone packing for a journey to a fabled, exotic region who, upon arrival, would lodge immovably in the nicest hotel in the capital instead of exploring the countryside — or, if I did, I wanted to hope that, this time, things were going to be different. But how would they ever be different? On the one hand, I would never write the exciting copy that inspires quick responses and kicks off a conversation among commenters. On the other, I would not specialize in an esoteric topic that would attract thirsty simpatici. I would write, as I had always written, about the unfamiliarity of the very familiar: about hearing new tunes in a well-known piece of music; about making connections between books that I read thirty years ago and the same books, which I was re-reading now; about growing up in a strange place that looked better than TV. 

It would take a while to recognize that the interactions that my online activity would occasion would take place quite outside the blogging platform. Instead of comments — it would surprise me, today, to learn that I have received, on any of my sites, as many as twenty-five comments in all the fifteen years — there would be e-mail, or what I still call “letters.” And there would be personal meetings, not so much with readers of my blog as with the writers of other blogs. There would really not be very much interaction of any kind.

So the blog appears, now that I am wrapping it up, to have been an objective failure and a subjective success. The success owes to a conviction, which I held from the start, that the reader who had bookmarked my site must be entitled to expect new writing every day. That turned out to be a constructive discipline, forcing me to spend a lot of time on the expression of my ideas, instead of merely basking, as we all do, in the pleasant fragrance of merely having them. I had always believed, as an adult, that we cannot think what we cannot say, but only now, writing for a few hours every day, did I experience and habituate myself to the formidable difficulty of transforming a mental notion into a cogent statement.

I did not need a blog after all, and I’m looking forward to retiring to a site. 

August 2019

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Housekeeping Note:
More Breaks
19 August 2019

Monday, August 19th, 2019

¶ As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to be retiring from blogging soon — after the first week in January, to be semi-exact. Between now and then, I’ll be taking a couple of breaks, for the second halves of October, November, and December, but also from now until the middle of September. That is the plan, anyway. The reality is that no entries will be posted for the next few weeks. Chin up. 

Reading Note:
Love All
16 August 2019

Friday, August 16th, 2019

I’ve just read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s last free-standing novel, Love All. She began working on it soon after publishing the fourth, and what she thought would be the last, of the Cazalet novels, Casting Off. Then real life intervened, with the rather horrible episode that she would adapt into Falling. When it resumed, work on Love All was made somewhat more complicated than it might have been by Howard’s first use of the personal computer — like most people, Howard had no sense of the filing protocols that make directories and document titles vitally important to any writer — and the novel did not appear for nearly a decade. (It would be followed in turn by a fifth Cazalet book, set discontinuously in the Fifties — Howard’s last book.) It’s important to locate Love All in the retrospective atmosphere of the Cazalet series, because its setting, in the late sixties, makes it something of a historical document as well. As in the semi-autobiographical family history, Howard is remembering a very different world. While I completely disagree with his implied assessment of one of the novel’s final decisions, I agree with critic Nicholas Clee, who in TLS commented that the novel is set in “almost the last period when she” — Howard — “could show a young woman torn between love and duty.” 

Clee’s observation is quoted in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Howard, A Dangerous Innocence. Cooper herself writes of Love All that “The characters in this novel are incarnations of various states of mind more than they are real people.” I disagree with this, too — even more strongly — and I take issue with her judgment that “The book is filled with distorted, disappointed love.” 

I’ll try not to recount the complicated plot of Love All — you ought to enjoy it fresh. Rather, I’ll concede to Cooper, who suggests something of kind with her “states of mind” crack, that the novel is something of a quadrille, a figured dance in which couples are always changing. Among the many characters, the lovers include three men and two women. One of the men and one of the women are siblings, which means that, out of a possible dozen amorous attitudes, we are confined to ten. One man proposes marriage to both women, one proposes to neither, and one proposes it to the only one whom he is free to love. The women, meanwhile are both attracted to, or at least most comfortable with, the man in the middle, who may have refrained from offering his hand for the simple reason that he is gay, and, times being what they are, hasn’t figured that out yet. One women is dimly aware of this possibility, while the other has actually been advised of it by her brother, who got it from the man’s sister, his late wife. (I’m not trying to make this sound like Ivy Compton-Burnett, but I have been reading a lot her lately.)

We will take it that the marriage-minded men experience disappointment. But whether it is disappointed love is the novel’s unconscious question. Here we have to remember that Howard was an old lady when she wrote this book. She had lived into a time when the question, “Yes, but is it love?,” was becoming insistent. But although she was aware of this, she had not learned to mistrust amorous display — as the awful experience behind Falling makes clear. If a man sincerely believed that he was “in love,” then a woman ought to take that at face value. The possibility that the man might be dishonest was something that Howard had been forced to reckon with, but the possibility that he might be mistaken, in perfectly good faith, still doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. And yet one of her men becomes so impatient about formalizing and publicizing his relationship with the woman who has accepted his offer that he becomes quite unpleasant — more than merely impatient — about what she sees as insurmountable delays. This woman happens to be the sister of the widower. She never quite grasps that her secret fiancé is looking for something other than love, possibly something incompatible with it. When she breaks things off, it is because she concludes that she cannot get married while taking care of her brother. 

This is what Clee meant by putting duty ahead of love, and I have no doubt that Howard would have agreed with him — perhaps reluctantly. But Howard tells a different story. Both of her marriage-minded men, while attractive and good-natured, are still great big babies. They reek of masculine entitlement. (Nothing is made of it, but there is a good deal of explicit reference to the men’s culinary incompetence, which is clearly the consequence of taboo.) What they both say, in effect is this: “I love you, darling, and I’ll always put you first, but” — and this without asking how her day went — “what’s for dinner?”) Neither of the two women passes this judgment on either man, but there is not a shred in their resistance to contradict it.

Why would anyone volunteer to take on such great, lumbering egos? For each of the women is also aware that, although it’s still early days, marriage is not her only option. The sister had a very satisfying job in London while her sister-in-law was alive, while the other, much younger woman, a girl really, wants a career in publishing. And both are drawn to the man who says nothing about love because he is very good company, and unconditionally affectionate. When the novel ends, the older woman has lived in the same house with this fellow for years, while the girl has just taken up sharing a flat with him in Primrose Hill.

If anything is “distorted” about these love stories, it is simply that a gulf has opened up between a changing society and the expectations that it is not longer interested in meeting. Love All marks the beginning of the era in which we still find ourselves, as the changes work their way from metropolitan centers through to the rest of the population. The only difference, I must ruefully note, is that one of Howard’s disappointed men comes to the point of shooting himself, not his girlfriend’s family or a store full of strangers. We must hope that it will not get much worse before it gets better. 

Gotham Diary:
Bella Vista
15 August 2019

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

¶ The other day, I paid a visit to our formerly-nearer neighbor in her apartment on the eighteenth floor. One thing led to another, and when I asked about impending construction across the street, she directed me to a closer look from her window, which commands a panoramic view of Midtown.

Like almost all such views, it’s not as panoramic as it used to be. When she moved in, over forty years ago, she could see Everything, you name it. Now, not so much. But the lesser buildings that have obstructed her view of the more famous ones have until recently been pretty far away. Now there are two new buildings just a few block down Second Avenue, one on the corner of 81st and a much taller one on the corner of 80th. And whatever goes up across the street — right across the street from her window — will make it a bit difficult to gaze at the distance. 

For some time, the lots formerly occupied by three vernacular buildings — townhouses, walk-ups, call them what you like — have stood vacant and undeveloped. A while ago, it occurred to me that the builders were waiting to be able to add a fourth lot to their parcel, and the view from our neighbor’s apartment confirmed this. Even though there is no sign of construction on the street — no scaffolding, no dumpster — we could see from the eighteenth floor that the building immediately to the west of the three vacant lots is being demolished from the side, as it were. There’s a dumpster pulled up right against its eastern wall, and it is not empty. So the obstruction of our neighbor’s view will be even more considerable. If there’s one thing I don’t much care for, it’s a view of the building across the street. 

For years, in our apartment across the hall from our neighbor, Kathleen and I were spared such crowding. Our view looked out high over the tops of all the smaller buildings on this particular block of Manhattan.* To be sure, when we moved in nearly forty years ago, there was much more to be seen, especially in the way of the East River and the Triborough Bridge, but none of the ensuing construction was closer than the corner of 87th and First. Spaciousness persisted. 

Now, of course, we have a view of the building across the street. but it is much nicer than the view from our living room upstairs, which did not share the spaciousness of the view from the bedroom or the view from the balcony, even though it looked in the very same direction. What we saw from the old living room was the big apartment house just a few steps east on 86th Street. Our new view is greatly softened by the verdure of sycamores and honey locusts. And we are much closer to the street, hardly any higher up than the top floor of a walk-up ourselves. The word for the effect is “Greenwich Village,” and it is really quite charming, if you don’t look too closely.

But I do worry about the honey locust in the center of the view. Every year, its leaves burgeon later than the others’, and they are the first to fall off. The tree is not small. Its absence would create a terrible hole. I can only hope that it will outlive me. 

Justice Note:
“Vengeance Is Mine”
14 August 2019

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

¶ I, for one, read of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide with relief. Those who say that he has thwarted the course of justice by denying his victims the change to confront him “eye to eye” — as someone in the Times sanctimoniously put it — well, I don’t know how such people can get out of bed and look at themselves in the mirror. All I’m saying is that St Paul laid down a very different law for Christians. (Romans 12:19) I believe that there is a corresponding passage in Deuteronomy. Listening to the lamentations of pious prosecutors, it’s clear that something is out of whack with Anglophone justice. 

Such high-and-mightiness does not, however, become me. I’m simply pleased that, by removing himself from the scene, Epstein, in addition to sparing us all a mortifying and most unedifying spectacle, will almost certainly have facilitated investigations into the other denizens of his sordid milieu. While we wait, Connie Bruck’s very long piece in The New Yorker and Andrew O’Hagan’s impishly brief one in the LRB make for rich reading. Pray that your name isn’t in Epstein’s little black book, and pray extra hard that, if it does, there’s only one phone number, not the sixteen that Epstein had for Randy Andy!

What I still don’t understand is why Leslie Wexner has not fleshed out, with a public statement, his intramural claim that Epstein bamboozled him. Isn’t one supposed to report massive fraudulence to the authorities?  

Canonical Note:
Opera in Disguise
13 August 2019

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

As the two wayfarers came within the precincts of the town, the children of the Puritans looked up from their play, — or what passed for play with these sombre little urchins, — and spake gravely one to another: —

“Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!” (The Scarlet Letter, Chapter VII)

It is hard to know what to say about this dreadfully unlikely passage, except that it sounds like the work of a bad writer so determined to score period points that all sense juvenile reality is vaporized. Beholdverily, moreover, and therefore would be improbable curlicues in speech attributed to adults, Out of the mouths of urchins, they stink of bad fantasy. (Or of Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver. “Come, therefore, Mrs Cleaver, and let us fling mud at them.”) Happily, the passage stands out as kitsch even in the flowery meads of The Scarlet Letter — the novel commonly reputed to be the first masterpiece in American fiction.

The Scarlet Letter is not unreadable. The story is, as intended, provocative. Hawthorne’s concern for the roots of one rather significant corner of American life is preliminary, anecdotal, and finally somewhat evasive: it seems almost beyond the powers of his imagination to account for the collapse of moral determination that so quickly followed the Puritans’ quasi-Biblical expedition to the New World; what he captures is the bitter dregs of hypocrisy. Sensitive minds of his day were overwhelmed by the ubiquity of righteous pretense, and hardly anyone save Jane Austen knew how, or even thought, to make it entertaining. It is curious that Hawthorne, having attached his memoir, “The Custom House,” as a preface to his tale, did not more greatly appreciate the cosmopolitan influences of the world trade that was already making some Americans rich. But to fault Hawthorne for not doing more is not to fault him for what he does. 

The difficulty with The Scarlet Letter is simply that it is badly written. There seems no way to put this otherwise. The mere mention of Jane Austen explodes any hope of explaining the stilted, cliché-ridden style of Hawthorne’s prose as some sort of historical limitation, a characteristic of the times. Ironically, given Hawthorne’s excruciatingly patronizing comments on women throughout The Scarlet Letter, his language embodies the effeminate floweriness that subsequent generations of writers would strain to eschew, culminating in the expressive but dumb inexpressiveness of Hemingway and his imitators. Hawthorne cannot be seen as establishing any kind of actually literary tradition; his novels, on the contrary, make a bonfire of a discredited one. The only excuse is miscalculation: in attempting to show that Americans were not unlettered rustics, Hawthorne overshot the limits of taste, and his refinements curdled into preciosities.  

Almost as overcooked as the taunts of the wee Bostonians are the declamations of Arthur Dimmesdale, a character in search of either a nervous breakdown or the couch in Freud’s office. Surely the creepiest — just imagine that you’re Hester Prynne, alone at last with the most important man in your life — is Dimmesdale’s expression of allergic reaction to Pearl, the child of his illicit union with Hester — a child with an allergic reaction of her own: 

“I pray you,” answered the minister, “if thou has any means of pacifying the child, do it forthwith! Save it were the cankered wrath of an old witch, like Mistress Hibbins,” added he, attempting to smile, “I know nothing that I would not sooner encounter than this passion in a child. In Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me!”

From the moment he says this, it is impossible to imagine with any sincerity that Hester and Arthur will make good their plan to escape Boston. But even as I was disgusted by such puerile terror, I recognized a certain something in Dimmesdale’s melodramatic gush. While I hope that nobody has ever spoken in such a way in English, I know that the English translations that appear in the librettos of Italian operas are full of this sort of thing. And all at once I knew what to make of The Scarlet Letter. It is the scenario of an opera. 

The way to this conclusion had been opened for me by a remark made in the second chapter. (The first chapter is nothing more than a sentimental, two-page snapshot.) The goodwives of Boston have been gossiping outside the prison door, awaiting the appearance of the fallen Hester, when their curtain-raising chit-chat is halted by the kind of surplus observation that was stale when Shakespeare used it. “Hush, now, gossips; for the lock is turning in the prison-door, and here comes Mistress Prynne herself.”

The power of music to transform such banality into formally satisfying commentary cannot be my subject today. But as I leaned back in the forest, watching Hester and Dimmesdale squirm in the baleful glare of the child reflected in the pool, even as the pines resounded with the ecstasies of their warm declarations of love and hope, the whole action of The Scarlet Letter fell into four neat acts. The third act would be divided between two scenes, the nocturnal one in the Market-Place with the lovers, their child, and Roger Chillingworth, and the other, without Roger, set in the forest, as above. In addition to making basso profundo contributions to ensembles, Chillingworth could have a meaty aria, one to rival Iago’s “Credo,” at the end of the second act! The final act would open with the ghastly panoply of Puritan Boston on parade! 

The mind reeled. Why hadn’t anybody thought of this before? Before Wagner and Verdi died, I mean. 

But there you are. Even I couldn’t decide whether the result ought to be Il segno di scarlatto or Die Handarbeit der Sünde

Rep Note:
Sautéed Shrimp and Corn with Rice
12 August 2019

Monday, August 12th, 2019

¶ On the lookout for an everyday shrimp dish for two, I wound up tweaking something from the past. Nothing goes better with steamed lobster than corn on the cob, and nothing makes a better addition to cold lobster salad than sautéed fresh corn kernels. It occurred to me that the same might be true of shrimp, and it was a good hunch.

Cook up a nice batch of rice. My method takes twenty-five minutes — it’s a combination of boiling and steaming — so there is plenty of time to prep the dish while the rice is on the stove. In the event, I prepped an hour or so ahead — even better. The cooking is a last-minute business.

To prep, soak a dozen cleaned shrimp in water and a shot of white wine. Cut the kernels off of two ears of corn, and stir them with neutral oil, salt, and minced herbs — oregano and parsley were what I had on hand. Make sure that you’ve got a spare teaspoon of cream in the fridge. Finally, mince a shallot.

To cook, blend a splash of oil with a small knob of butter in a hot skillet. Sauté the shallot until it is fragrant. Turn up the heat and sauté the drained shrimp until they turn a nice pink. Then turn the heat down and add the corn mixture, stirring everything well. When the corn is almost cooked — about three minutes — add the teaspoon of cream, and give it a minute to thicken.

Dish out the rice, and spoon the shrimp and corn over it. That’s it! 

Concert Note:
In Which Gianandrea Noseda Wakes Me Up to Schubert
9 August 2019

Friday, August 9th, 2019

I have always known Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Which is to say that it is one of the few things that I knew early in life and have known ever since. I was thirteen or fourteen when the LP — Bruno Walter leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (an LA pickup group that, thanks to the movies, was full of gifted musicians) — arrived in a cardboard envelope from the record club. I didn’t know anything about it, but I liked it right away, and, as I didn’t own a lot of LPs but was always playing something, I got to know it pretty well pretty quickly. And, since I didn’t know very much music, I knew it uncritically, almost in the way that everybody knows a current pop song.

Oddly, that’s how it stayed. I seem never to have given the Ninth any critical attention. I never bought a score so that I could follow it. I wasn’t moved to ask (as I was with Mozart), how does he do that? It already gave me enough pleasure, as indeed did Schubert’s music generally.  I did regard Schubert as especially “Austrian” — lyric, genial, rustic but Alpine, plugged into the magic mountain from which the inspiration for European music poured south into Italy and north into Bohemia and Germany, and maybe somewhat folkish and naive. I could well imagine that Mahler longed for Schubert’s untroubled access to this source of beauty. But I seemed to think, quite uncharacteristically for me, that everything significant about Schubert was audible on the surface. It is possible — I am forced to admit this — that I regarded Schubert as a primitive.

These thoughts are all very preliminary. They’ve been bubbling up only during the past week, as I’ve been struggling to pin down what it was about Gianandrea Noseda’s reading of the Ninth Symphony that shattered my old view of Schubert forever. Aside from an overall freshness of approach, it seems to have come down to the way in which three phrases were linked together, fixed in my mind, as I sat and watched the orchestra — more specifically, the concertmaster and a flautist who resembled (at the distance of my seat) Saoirse Ronan. When the score arrived a few days after the concert, I was able to locate Bar 97 of the Scherzo as the starting point. Here, the violins pick up a lyrical phrase that has been held tossing upon the flutes by the clarinets and bassoons. After repeating the phrase twice, the violins make an insistent descent in the trumping rhythm of the Scherzo’s opening — a contrast that no dancer could have articulated better than the concertmaster’s shoulders. This is followed by a passage in which neither the strings nor the winds take the lead. While the strings skip up and down the scale, with a kind of cheerful uneasiness, the winds toot fragments of the opening theme, and what Noseda did was to make it all sound like a concerted alarm (even the lyrical phrase), with the winds chattering like agitated birds, threatening to play out of order. The winds never did play out of order, of course, but I was very worried that they might, worried in the way that Mahler is worrying, when his sunny blue skies cloud over suddenly. It was very exciting, and each time this complex of phrases was repeated, it got more exciting still.

Also very alarming was the strife — it sounded too manmade to be dismissed as a “storm” — that bursts out in Bar 232 of the Andante con moto. The brass blared like so many sirens, making the emergency racket that surrounds a burning house. This sounded so much like the wildest Mahler that I couldn’t believe that it was Schubert, and yet, as I say, I had known the music all my life. 

I often struggle to express what it is that makes the performance of familiar music great. Having read the obituary of Nederlander cellist Anner Bijlsma in today’s Times, I may stop talking about “great” and say “authentic” instead. 

Mr. Bylsma disliked hearing period instruments described as “authentic.” In a 1996 interview in Gramophone, he recalled being asked what is “authentic” in music. The answer, he said, comes clear “when you hear someone play a piece that you know extremely well and it suddenly appears still more beautiful than it was.”

Concert Note:
A Fave
8 August 2019

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

When I met Kathleen forty years ago, she was not much interested in string quartets or symphonies. She loved Motown, cherished singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, and took a serious interest in jazz. (A favorite album: John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.) I stretched my jazz stride to keep up with her, and I bought Joni Mitchell’s albums the moment they came out — although here, as with the Beatles, Kathleen much preferred the earlier stuff, while I liked the later. (Miles of Aisles vs Dog Eat Dog.) We were both hooked on Donald Fagen. 

But most of the music that has issued from the apartment’s speakers involved no electronic instruments of any kind, and most of the concerts that we went to involved orchestras, or at least multiple violins. The only criterion for buying tickets was that I use my head to spare Kathleen boredom or annoyance. (She still doesn’t much care for operatic sopranos.) Kathleen genuinely enjoyed these events, but the first time that she was thrilled by a symphony concert was after a performance of Schubert’s Ninth. I forget the orchestra and the conductor — the concert was part of a series of International Greats. (A lower rung from grandees like Karajan and Bernstein. It might have been Vladimir Ashkenazy, during his conducting phase.) Kathleen sizzled as if she’d had an instant-read vitamin injection. I made a mental note. I passed on some miscellaneous liner-note information, mostly about how the Vienna Philharmonic wouldn’t even rehearse the work, because the winds had all the tunes in the finale, while the strings, in Donald Tovey’s words, “turn round like carriage while we enjoy the journey.” (Well, maybe Tovey did say that, somewhere. But in his piece on the symphony collected in Essays in Musical Analysis, Tovey describes the violins as “madly turning somersaults.” And it was the London, not the Vienna Philharmonic, that giggled so badly that Mendelssohn chose to withdraw the work from the program.) Whenever Schubert’s Ninth came up, Kathleen would hum along, saying that she knew every note but couldn’t say what it was. Well, I knew. 

Previewing the Mostly Mozart catalogue a few months ago, then, I was delighted to be have the opportunity to hear, with one purchase, a particularly noteworthy conductor and a symphony of which Kathleen is unusually fond.  TK

Concert Note:
Announcement at Intermission
7 August 2019

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

¶ At intermissions, I stand up and step out into the aisle, to let past the people further in the row. I am always on the aisle myself. There are several reasons for this, having to do with my size and with the comfort of an easy escape route. The price is that I must remain standing throughout intermission. About halfway through, I head to the men’s room, whether I need to or not, because walking is more agreeable than standing — standing, what’s more, on the slightly raked aisle. The line at the men’s room is usually very long, but it moves quite quickly, and again, even shuffling is preferable to standing. The main thing about waiting until halfway through intermission is that almost everyone except for the gentlemen in the men’s room line is standing still somewhere else; there are no moving crowds to navigate. When I get back to Kathleen (who never budges during intermission), I stand until the others in the row have returned to their seats. There is always someone who doesn’t come until the last minute. I keep an eye on the doors. Once the ushers close them, I know that nobody will be coming back, and I can sit down in peace.

And, as long as I’m sitting, waiting for the orchestra to come out to play Schubert’s Ninth, I can make a couple of announcements. I’ll be taking another break from blogging after the end of next week, for an indefinite period, possibly just the last two weeks of the month but possibly longer. And then I shall be retiring, permanently, either in November, on the fifteenth anniversary of this site (and its predecessors), or in January, on my seventy-second birthday. I’ll be writing about what comes next as these dates approach; I’m still wondering myself. But of daily contributions to a Web site there will be an end, as there will be to regular schedules of any kind.

Blogging has been a great task for me, and I think I can say that I’ve tried it every different whichway. But it has achieved what I never thought of as an obective: it has come to interfere with work on the longer, more considered pieces that writing for The Daily Blague has inspired. That daily exercise, with its not infrequent outputs of a thousand words or more, taught me not so much what I thought as how my thoughts interrelated. In other words, I mastered my own personal curriculum. Now it’s time to write those things out together. Producing readable prose, I find, is a matter not of hours but of weeks, or even months. But the prospect of a solitary pace is cheering. Having always written primarily for the sake of my own understanding, I look forward to the freedom to set it out. 

Concert Note:
Brisk Furies
6 August 2019

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

The first of the two works on Friday’s concert’s program was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the one in G. This and the preceding one in in C Minor are my favorites of Beethoven’s five. The first two concerti are amusing, but it hard for me not to hear them as attempts to imitate, not Mozart’s piano concertos directly, but hypothetical attempts to imitate them by, say, Haydn: Mozart at two removes. With the Third Concerto, Beethoven created his own mold, and used it two more times with great success. Actually, I myself don’t see the Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor,” as a great success. Its air is polluted by that masculine self-importance that distinguishes Beethoven from Brahms, the other German who settled in Vienna — not to mention the three great Austrians themselves, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. And it concludes with a frankly vulgar waltz that’s far more Hollywood than Hofburg. The Fourth is, as we might say on the Upper East Side, much nicer. 

But the Fourth Concerto lacks a proper slow movement, a lyrical interlude between displays of virtuosity. I don’t think that Beethoven is sufficiently renowned for his lyrical interludes; there are days when I think that he invented them. They were his way of making up to the ladies in the audiences — ladies with whom his birth and gruff bearing made closer intimacy unthinkable. While we’re all too aware of the Faustian agonies of the noisier symphonies, we tend to forget that Beethoven composed his slow movements, especially in sonatas but elsewhere, too, with the canniness of a Brill Building balladeer. But perhaps he felt that the outer movements of the Fourth Concerto were already too genial to mask any surreptitious romancing. Instead, he gave us a bit of recitative that is said to put learned Germans in mind of Orpheus pleading with the Furies for admittance to Hades, from which he wishes to liberate his wife. I haven’t got the score handy, but I would bet that the movement is written for strings and piano only. The strings play what they have to say in unison, with a shapely tunelessness that convention makes musical by interpreting it as a series of moans and groans. Happily for a change, we were presented on Friday night with brisk, decisive strokes, and the movement seemed to last about half as long. 

The pianist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He was very good, possibly perfect, even; the thing is, I wasn’t there for the Beethoven. I sat back and enjoyed it. I will say that Airmard’s runs up and down the keyboard, although perfectly regular, sounded like a force of nature, rather than a mechanical one; and they did not always end quite in synch with the orchestra, but just independently enough to be “artistic” rather than “defective.” The orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda — the man I was there to hear — directed a lively reading that had something of the restraint of an overture: slightly more promise than performance. This suited me, too. It warmed me up for what was to come. 

I got to know the Fourth Concerto at a time when I was trying to assemble a Heathkit stereo receiver. I was not put on this earth to solder connections, or even to be sure which side of a circuit board is up, and I’m not sure that the receiver ever worked. (It may have been rescued by more capable hands.) But during the weeks that I spent fiddling with it, I got to know the first work by Beethoven that touched my heart. I was an undergraduate, and someone living down the dormitory hall had a recording of the Fourth that I fell in love with and borrowed an unconscionable number of times. Another fellow down the hall — someone who would become a very close friend — had a boxed set of the Budapest Quartet playing the late Beethovens, but they were beyond me, brusque and not at all pretty (a word that I already knew better than to use). But if I couldn’t sit through the late quartets without getting antsy, I did see quite clearly that every serious person must come to terms with this music. So, if not yet, I would make myself familiar with it. Which I did, eventually. But the quartets never remind me of the Heathkit project. The Fourth Concerto never fails to. 

Concert Note:
Tonight’s the Night
5 August 2019

Monday, August 5th, 2019

There I was, chatting with Ray Soleil on the phone, talking about everything and nothing. Here’s a good example: concerts. I was talking, hardly for the first time, about how the desire to attend concerts has waned in recent years, almost to the vanishing point. Perhaps it would be better to say that my interest in concerts is no longer strong enough to overcome the gravitational appeal of staying home, no matter what, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I told Ray that I had, in fact, ordered a few sets of tickets to upcoming events. Among them, a Mostly Mozart concert with no Mozart on the bill. I had told Ray about this concert when I bought the tickets, several months ago, and suggested that he and Fossil Darling might like to go, for I expected an evening of first-rate music-making. The orchestra would play Beethoven and Schubert, with an eminent pianist, and a remarkable conductor whom I hadn’t seen, but whose recordings I found tremendously impressive. I rattled on about all of this once again as we were chatting on the phone on Friday — long enough, apparently, for it to click in my mind that the concert would take place later the same day: that night

Let’s not go into why I have fallen out of daily contact with my calendar. Nor let us recall how many tickets have gone to waste because, by the time I remembered them, I was not feeling very well, or the weather was bad, or the pleasure of a quiet evening at home was especially alluring. I quickly called Kathleen to advise her that we had a date at Lincoln Center, and was almost disappointed to hear that she, although also surprised, was up for it. Almost disappointed.

We agreed to meet at the fountain on the plaza. Kathleen walked from her office, and texted me, while I was still in a taxi coming down Broadway, when she arrived. At first, I didn’t see her, and she didn’t see me, even though the plaza was not crowded, and several further texts were exchanged. Then all of a sudden there she was, walking up to me. Her idea of standing by the fountain had been to loiter in the arcade of the State Theatre, while I was where we belonged, in the arcade of Philharmonic Hall — neither of us, I suppose, where we said we’d be. As we went through the doors, a woman told me that I was the best-dressed man on the scene.

It is true that I was a vision in pale pink. I was wearing new trousers, trousers that were already a size too large. They were pink. (Ralph Lauren.) My jacket, too, was pink. (Tallia.) Unlike the trousers, though, it was much too large. “It’s a house,” I complained to Kathleen. “I feel like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.” My shirt was a Gant plaid in pinks and pale greens, with one very hot-pink stripe — enough to convey a hint of what this getup might have been like. I was not wearing a tie. The jacket’s excess baggage aside, I felt very comfortable. I also felt somewhat shocked to find myself the only gentleman wearing a jacket at all. As usual, most of the men in the orchestra seats were my age or older, and had grown up with the same dress code. While I considered an open neck the furthest tribute to August’s relaxation, everyone else seemed to have forgotten that he was in Manhattan, not at a backyard barbecue. One particularly lame old gent was dressed like a sophomore, in T shirt, shorts, flip flops, and a cheap short-sleeved shirt worn open down the front. Thus did Rome fall. But all this déshabille only made me feel more comfortable. 

Anyway, there I was in Philharmonic Hall, just as I had been fifty-two years ago, for the first season of Mostly Mozart. I know that you’re supposed to call it Geffen Hall, but when that happened, and “Avery Fisher” was dropped, I decided to hell with the whole thing. To put it more politely, I adopted the position that it’s improper to name  important buildings after a living persons. If they had changed the name to Bernstein Hall, I’d have been the first to cheer, even though I was never a big fan of the conductor. (I haven’t forgotten that Zankel Hall, in the basement of Carnegie Hall, was to have been named in memory of the hall’s virtual curator, Judith Arron, until some moneybags interfered.)

Indoors, of course, all resemblance to the original Philharmonic Hall — or to any earthly concert hall outside of Japan — has been effaced. Nothing in the view from my seat in Row Q revived a vision of Boris Goldovsky leading a group of singers in performances of the great comic ensembles from the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. The only thing that gave that long-ago concert any palpable reality was my body’s quietly throbbing insistence that it had lived every minute of the intervening aeon. A somatic counterpart to Leporello’s mille torbidi pensieri. 

Reading Note:
Bembo’s Moustache
2 August 2019

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Every time I edit a serious piece of writing, I go through it once just for the semicolons. I tend, as you may noticed, to use them too often; I seem naturally inclined to write in pairs of sentences. The first one rises to make a point; the second descends toward a conclusion. I do not believe that I ever misuse the punctuation mark, but I’m aware that forestalling periods just for the sake of rhythm asks a lot of the reader’s short-term memory. So, on the semicolon edit, I often take out five or six, replacing them with full stops.

Even so, it seems nothing less than barbaric to be asking, Who needs semicolons? As, apparently, some do. 

Cecilia Watson has just published a dandy book that has both a semicolon and a colon in its title, even if neither of them is visible as punctuation. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark is one of those wee books that used to be stacked at bookstore counters, when there were bookstores, and I hope that it will be the object of many impulse purchases. Although the history, use, and abuse of semicolons is more than adequately addressed in its pages, Watson’s book has the more general aim of explaining why rules, though a good thing, are not the thing. “To write well,” she observes, “you have to read a lot, and you have to read with attention…” (103), a nice way of saying that anyone who does read a lot, and with attention, has little or no need for rules. Anyone willing to take the trouble to write more than a couple of tweets will be too eager to establish communication not to be a born imitator. If you have any ideas at all, you don’t have to worry about sounding just like everybody else; on the contrary, you ought to be taking pains to be sure that you do, more or less, sound like everybody else. And I find — with all due respect for humility — that if you read well, you will not have to carefully avoid split infinitives or worry that everyone has their own way of understanding language. Such problems don’t come up, because the good writers who murmur in one’s ear have made a practice of avoiding occasions of error. 

A good writer cannot be thinking about rules. A good writer has to dwell upon saying interesting things, while listening, with a sleeping mother’s alertness to the cry of her child, to the cadence of sentences as they pass from mind to pen. Uncertainty about whether to use a colon or a semicolon means nothing, really — except that it’s possibly time to go back to fourth grade. This is not to say that a good writer will in an almost unconscious manner produce syntax that everyone will approve as absolutely correct, but it can be said, I think, that good readers will allow and perhaps even approve the occasional irregularity. 

Rules, as Watson might have made just a tiny bit clearer, are a byproduct of that widespread nineteenth-century malady, by which all intelligent minds appear to have been infected (with the exception of those belonging to poets), physics envy. The magical allure of modern science was predictability: IF, THEN

God said, let NEWTON be, and all was light. (Pope)

It was an intoxication from which we are still recovering, miserable and disoriented from the poison of treating human affairs as a branch of mechanical engineering. Earlier guides to the rules of grammar had a less noxious purpose: like all the manuals of manners that proliferated in early modern times, they promised to help turn the bumpkin into a beau. The steam engine, however, with its tiny, unforgiving tolerances, inspired a more fervent, not to say religious, obedience to the regulations that industrial publishers could discern. As Watson writes, 

Fear, worry, confusion — even if we did manage to agree on one set of rules to follow, we wouldn’t be relieved of our anxieties about punctuation. (174) 

But I think that we have been, relieved. Those who must write correctly or else have taken up the profession of writing code.

The upshot is that, while I objected to a lot of what Watson had to say about things other than punctuation — Melville and James, David Foster Wallace and SNOOTs, the plural of gin-and-tonic (note the hyphen) — Semicolon excited a response that I can only call affectionate.  

PS The asides that Watson plants in her many footnotes read like the interruptions of a mind even brainier than her own. On page 38, the reader is presented with an extract from the book in which “diagramming” sentences was introduced, with nothing less than The Beatitudes presented as a puzzle to solve. 

Gorgeousness Note:
Age Beauty
1 August 2019

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

¶ Today, in mid-80º heat, I walked to the barber shop for a haircut, thence to Shake Shack for a burger, and finally back home, without even feeling hot, much less perspiring. It wasn’t particularly humid, but still. And this can’t be a side-effect of losing 90 pounds. I sweated like a pipe when I was a kid, which I actually was, once. It has to be … old age.

Definitely a side-effect of the weight loss, though, is my slipping nicely into a new pair of shorts with a waist eight sizes smaller than what I was wearing a year ago. They’re the first pair to fit properly in calendar 2019. Everywhere but beneath the belt, they feel a bit snug, because there’s no yardage of flapping extra.

(Yes, dear reader, that’s what comes of buying clothes online. I had been wearing 50s. I knew, from an old pair of trousers that came out of storage, that 46 was still too big, but I didn’t dare go below 44. Until finally now. I ought to have gone to a store.)

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still an old man. This weight loss may be healthy, and I know that I look better for not looking worse, but the glamour of youthful fitness is no longer on the menu. 

July 2017

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Leadership Note:
As Long As You’re Up… (?)
31 July 2019

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

¶ The fact that a genuine presidential candidate said this makes it less a rhetorical question and more a performative utterance.

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States to tell us what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

As I savor this challenge, it strikes me, sadly, as increasingly unlikely that a man — an American man, anyway — would have made it. Whatever becomes of Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Oval Office, I shall try to honor her call for good old-fashioned backbone.