Archive for 2020

2020
Convalescing

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

Δ Getting Better, 1848, Re-reading Lord Skidelsky
§ Shoes at Last!
Δ Radishes and Relishes, Belgian Galette
¶ What Are You Going Through, Zachary Carter on John Maynard Keynes
Δ Finding a life of FDR
§ Marilynne and Jack
¶ Lucas on Style, The Searcher, The Man Who Ate Too Much
§ Once You’ve Found the Long-Winded Lady
Δ How He Does It, Dept of Me


Photo by Walter Wade

Δ Well into the second week of Getting Better, I’m doing fine, although of course I’m “walking too much,” according to the doctor. Never mind how he can tell. Never mind about the rest of it either — enough about the corporeal me.

(About the pillowcases in the photograph: they are bold, colorful, and for the most part heraldically interesting. My interest in football of any kind remains nil. The pillows inside really do provide a pleasant support for stretching out on the bench, which however remains extremely strait.) 

Instead, this, from Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek:

From short replies at first, Mat was gradually beguiled into really relating some of his adventures. Wild barbarous fragments of narrative they were; mingling together into one darkly-fantastic record, fierce triumphs and deadly dangers; miseries of cold, and hunger, and thirst; glories of hunters’ feasts in mighty forests; gold-findings among desolate rocks; gallopings for life from the flames of the blazing prairie; combats with wild beasts and with men wilder still; weeks of awful solitude in primeval wastes; days and nights of perilous orgies among drunken savages; visions of meteors in heaven, of hurricanes on earth, and of icebergs blinding bright, when the sunshine was beautiful over the Polar seas. (OWC, 222)

Hide and Seek is an early novel (Wikipedia tells me), and it shows, mostly in the number of pages that it takes to get the story going. But once it does get going, it travels at speed; I did nothing yesterday but read most of the second half, and by the dénouement I was all but blubbering. As to the rest, what’s remarkable about the great Collins novels is already in evidence. Stock characters, shameless coincidences, and clichés of excitement such as litter the passage that I have quoted are all presented with a finished aplomb that elicits applause, not scorn. And even the darkest developments are peppered with a twinkling good humor. Call it joie d’écrire if you like. Why does anybody read Dickens at all? He is nowhere near so gifted. “Days and nights of perilous orgies among drunken savages” would have been completely beyond Dickens. For one thing, he would not have got the timing right. 

At one point, Collins describes Mat — the leading as well as the most mysterious character (even if he doesn’t show up until Book II) — as “this Jupiter of the back-woods.”

Another writer whom I’ve been enjoying is Cyril Hare — the pen name of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark (1900-1958), a British barrister who, in addition to writing a clutch of rather famous detective novels that I’d never heard of, wore several hats under his own name. I’ve just read A Tragedy at Law, which PD James called “the best detective story set in that fascinating [ie the legal] world.” I came across Hare in a reference made by David Hayton in his biography of Sir Lewis Namier. Namier was apparently the model for the European scholar Wenceslaus Bottwink, the outsider who solves the crime in An English Murder, and who, even though he shares, on the page, the frustrated impatience of Hercule Poirot, is as fond as Namier was of spending time in the muniment rooms of stately homes. The titles of these two books are dead serious: the English murder has a purely English motivation, while the tragedy pivots on a statute of limitations. I won’t say that you have to be an attorney to take pleasure in reading these books, but, being one myself, I am mindful of easy access to enthusiasm. Hare’s writing is as smart and sophisticated as the driest martini, but Hare himself is something of a cicerone, eager to explain the ins and outs of legal life. Not of the law, but of the life. (13 August)

Δ How many books am I reading right now? At least six. Two are novels — Ford’s Parade’s End and Warner’s Mr Fortune. It has been more than a month since I last opened the Ford, but I haven’t given up on it. Mr Fortune is not quite so slow-going, but its idyllic South Pacific setting puts me to sleep; it often seems to me that the English missionary is the only actual human being on the island. (How I do miss Hide & Seek!) I’m reading a book about Harry Dexter White (about whom I’ll say more when I’ve read more — meanwhile, do look him up), and a few other titles of an economic cast. Amidst all this ongoingness, it’s nice to be finished with something, and the something happens to be Sir Lewis Namier’s 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals

Having read about the man, for reasons that I still find complicated to explain (although they’re perfectly clear to me), I wanted to read something that he’d written, and the book about 1848 looked promising. I’ve never been able to get a grip on the hopes and disappointments that flashed seismically through Europe in that year, even though I’ve read more than a few reasonably straightforward historical recitals of the facts. Given all the reading that I’ve done in the past six decades, there are only two conceivable explanations for this sort of thing. The first is that I’m stupid, a possibility that I never reject even if, as you may suspect, I’m too conceited to take it very seriously. The second is that the standard explanations don’t make sense, and, having read Namier’s little book, I am sure that this is the case where 1848 is concerned.

The problem with the historiography of 1848 — the generally accepted terms on which historians approach it — is that the ultimate failure of each of the many uprisings that occurred during that year is invariably regarded as regrettable. Clusters of educated, idealistic men rose up in country after country in order to establish liberal democratic constitutions. None succeeded. Each was crushed by a reactionary government, making each reactionary government even more convinced of the virtue of reactionary government. Had revolution or reform succeeded in Germany, for example, then Bismarck and Prussian hegemony would have been sidelined, the thinking goes: no Kaiser Bill and no Great War. But while it is perhaps impossible not to sympathize with the nobler goals of the men of 1848, it is impossible to overlook the fact that some of these goals were confused, even contradictory; and some of the goals were not even noble. Consider the rhetorical question posed by Wilhelm Jordan, a delegate from Berlin to the Frankfurt Parliament, à propos the future of Posen/Poznan: 

Are half a million Germans to live under a German government and administration and form part of the great German Federation, or are they to be relegated to the inferior position of naturalised foreigners subject to a nation [Poland] of lesser cultural content than themselves? 

Namier — who delivered the lecture underlying 1848 toward the end of the war against Hitler — writes that this remark “proclaimed principles on which Bismarck acted and in which German intellectuals revel, but which other nations, with a few exceptions, would hesitate to proclaim.” James Joll, who introduces this edition of 1848, summarizes Namier’s views thus: 

For Namier the only constitutional system that will work is one like that in England for which he had a Burkean admiration. And if a nation is not fortunate enough to possess that continuing heritage, then its government is best left in the hands of traditional dynasties and hierarchies. 

After what Britain has been through in the past couple of years, I’m not convinced that even the green and sceptered land is quite the exception that Burke and Namier thought it to be. In any case, I now reject the idea that reactionary governments did any serious crushing in 1848. The revolutions were stillborn. 

Sir Lewis ought to be legendary for biting off more than he could chew. Much more. He was forever launching projects that failed to launch; he took on enough work for twenty or thirty lifetimes. 1848 suggests what I mean. It is not only not a comprehensive account of all the events of 1848, but instead a study of only two: the discussion in the Frankfurt Parliament concerning the Posnanian problem and the proceedings of the Slav Congress that met in Prague. The focus is minute and really quite fascinating, but 1848 is the very opposite of an introduction. You may have guessed that “Posnanian” refers to the city now in Poland mentioned above, but if you are unaware of its geographical position relative to the border between Germany and Poland as it has shifted in the past three centuries — during which time Poland has for long periods actually ceased independent existence — and unaware also that the towns of Slavic Europe were until 1945 quite often dominated by Germans whose colonization of the region began a millennium ago, Namier is not going to enlighten you. His little book, which expands fourfold, Professor Joll tells us, on lectures delivered in the mid- to late-Forties, is aimed at the educated reader indeed. Namier could have devoted his entire career to a fully fleshed-out study of 1848 on the same scale and still not tied up all the loose ends. His “big” books concern British politics in a handful of years during the first part of George III’s reign.  

The takeaway: nationalism is hopeless bunk. The tragedy: kickstarted democracy always begins with nationalism. There are no exceptions. (14 August)

Δ From a letter to a friend: 

Anyway, Skidelsky. If I say that I can’t put it down, you’ll call the funny farm, because, hey, I only just finished a thousand-page biography a month ago. But the original has “40% more”! And it’s the parts that got cut that catch my eye. For example, two sentences taken from a paragraph that otherwise made it into the paperback — the really interesting two sentences, if you ask me.

Yet Sidgwick was not unlike Keynes — part Apostle, part Benthamite, part poet, part scientist, part coterie figure, part statesman. The difference was that Sidgwick had a need, which Keynes never had, to find a way to bring all these things into a rational, coherent, relationship with each other.

Why is this interesting? Because I share Henry Sidgwick’s inclination to make a coherent whole out of myself, but have never been able to do so. Untrammeled by this urge, Keynes grew out in all directions. Like Kathleen, he was capable of immensely powerful compartmentalization, so that everything he did was unmindful of anything extraneous. Whereas I am all “extraneous.” Facing this lifelong mess, I have looked for a “key” to myself, an underlying, unifying principle. Many people, and most men I think, find it in a career. Certainly a demanding career imposes a focus that no one would or even could adopt voluntarily. What I wanted was an interior discipline; I wanted the organizing ideas to emerge from within me, not from a company mission. But of course they haven’t. So in the end I have learned to put things together. Some things. Have you ever worked a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the solution? I have big clumps of connected pieces here and there, but I will probably never know what it was supposed to look like overall. I’m sorry that this is so abstract; I ought to be providing examples. If nothing else, though, it will give you an idea of why I’m fascinated by Keynes, or rather perhaps Keynes’s life and time. It’s almost upsetting to read about his sunlit, Edwardian Cambridge years (as a child and then as an undergraduate) while bearing in mind — something that I couldn’t really do the first time around — the awful humiliations that he would undergo in round after round of dealing with the Americans throughout World War II and after. (24 August)

 

§ Shoes at last! I can wear one on the left foot as much as I like, and I can slip the right foot into a moccasin if need be. I require only one cast bag to shower, and, this weekend, I plan to bathe the right foot for the first time since surgery — which, it’s hard to believe, was done nearly a month ago. Kathleen has been entrusted by the doctor (on the evidence of excellent earlier work) to change the bandage, and I can clean up in between. By such degrees, I get better. The progress was so great as of Monday’s exam that, being me, as the podiatrist would put it, I was a very bad boy on Wednesday, following up visits to the internist (flu shots for both of us) and the barber (reduced to stubble!) with a spaghetti dinner that I thought would be even simpler than normal because Kathleen could lend a hand.

The dinner turned out to be a mistake, or at any rate premature. Kathleen’s help was contingent upon an ability to issue cogent instructions that I altogether lack — excellent topic for a further entry. I got cross with myself for overbooking (as it were), and this in turn inspired me to begin the conversation at the table with a lamentation: “He’s going to be re-elected.” Kathleen hit the ceiling, not so much because she disagrees as because she really can’t bear to think about it. The problem between us is we explain the Trump phenomenon quite differently. Kathleen regards Trump as a bad guy who swindled his way into the White House. I see him as filling a vacuum that has been swelling for most of my adult life, between the élite and everyone else. Regular readers will have noted my frequent complaints. To me, Trump is a genuinely popular president, not because he’s admirable but because he’s not a fake. This isn’t really the case — he’s a total fake — but he’s not a fake politician. He’s a very genuine television star. He smells like TV, and this makes a lot of Americans comfortable. The real difficulty between Kathleen and me is that the other’s view seems so much more pessimistic than one’s own. Kathleen doesn’t want to think that the country has sunk to Trump’s level, whereas I believe that intelligent attention — sorely lacking in the past decades — could readily lift it.

We both agree that the Democratic Party is the problem, but to Kathleen it is the only thing that we’ve got, whereas I regard it as an albatross that may doom American democracy. Perhaps if everyone who hates Trump comes out and votes for Biden, we’ll be able to limp along for another cycle or two, but until the party is either dismantled or marginalized — in either case, the operatives who actually run things Democratic would have to move to a new party and enable a new platform — the Republicans will pose a challenge that’s not reflected in actual voter support. Republicans are party apparatchiks. They hold their noses and pull the lever. They vote — and I’m speaking about the relatively wealthy, educated, and knowledgeable Republicans who keep the GOP going — for all sorts of dubious characters, because they want their party to be in power, and they want their party in power because it delivers. There is no corresponding Democratic Party group. What’s worse (from my point of view) is that such disciplined Democratic Party behavior as there is occurs on the Left, not among liberals. Any expectation of a center between Trump and AOC is naive; what’s needed is a disciplined Liberal Party, committed primarily to what used to be called “Rockefeller Republican” objectives but with a greater commitment to general equity and welfare. In other words: use current Republican Party techniques to create support for a Liberal Party among current Republicans, while steering well clear of social justice Jacobinism, and welcoming assimilationist members of minorities and thereby reducing the size of those blocs per se. There is no reason why Blacks and Latinos cannot become the new Irish. And there’s no reason why Liberals cannot embrace a party

The right foot was quite swollen yesterday morning, so I spent the entire day, but for dinner (Chinese), in bed, reading the entirety of Mary Stewart’s sufficiently literate and very satisfying romance thriller, Nine Coaches Waiting (1957) — which kept me up until nearly three in the morning. Quite a nice change from Keynes morning noon and night. A real day off. (28 August)

 

Note: It is regrettable that those who know the most about economics are disinclined to think about it; what they “know,” they know. On the bright side, there does seem to be something legitimately predictive about the dismal science: the hydraulics of greed. (2 September)

 

Δ When I was a new boy in town, back in 1980, I would begin the workday with the Times crossword puzzle, which I completed on the subway ride downtown. After a while, I moved from cautious pencil into bold ink; next, I imposed a convention of beginning at the upper left and working methodically toward the lower right. There were days when it seemed that I was simply filling in blanks with answers that I already knew. Then Will Shortz came along, and he was too cute for me. So I took up the weekly acrostics (Thomas Middleton?). Eventually, I became too blasé to spend time on puzzles of any kind. 

Nowadays, the only Times puzzle that I will even consider doing is the rarely-offered “Split Decisions,” by Fred Piscop. I’ll get to how this works in a minute. For moment, all you need to know is that I work these puzzles without writing anything down; I carry all the answers in my head. You wouldn’t know, from looking at our copy of the Times magazine, that I solved this week’s puzzle late yesterday afternoon, because the page is unmarked. But if you had access to my daily notebook, you would see in a minute that I was stumped. Stumped by two words, or four squares if you prefer. Because of the puzzle’s architecture, I couldn’t even be sure that many otherwise quite sound answers were correct, such as “dogmatic/dramatic” and “mission/million.” 

If you’re very clever — or a “Split Decisions” addict — you’ll know that the puzzle is a layout of blank squares into which bubbles, each containing four letters, have been inserted. The letters are paired, so that you might see “in” next to “cr” — this is indeed the example given of how the puzzle works. Your job is to figure out that the other three squares adjoining this bubble — there may be many more than three — ought to be filled in with “s,” “e,” and “w,” making “sinew/screw.” Got it? If you’re very clever, you’ll have already realized that “dramatic” and “dogmatic” share all but two letters, as, of course, do “mission” and “million.” I ought to point out that most of the squares are not intersections; the letters that you might fill in can’t be checked by working for two words. In the “dogmatic/dramatic” example, only the “d,” the “m,” the “t” and the “c” were parts of other words. 

I was prepared for a challenge when I took a good look at yesterday’s puzzle, but the answers came to me as if on the wings of a dove. In short order (gloating over the giveway of “or/sq” — “morgue/mosque”) I had filled in all the squares, except for a handful in the upper right-hand corner. This was, of course, the locus of “dogmatic/dramatic.” The “d,” read downwards, made “defer/demur.” The “m,” “mission/million.” Below the “t” was a bubble containing “en/al.” Before attacking it however, I had worked my way down to the other end of “defer/demur.” The final “r” gave me the start of words beginning “radi” and “reli.” (The “i” came from the “mission/million” pair.) Before I had given any thought to the words that would drop down from the “c” at the end of “dogmatic/dramatic,” much less the ending of the words beginning in “t” (followed by “en/al”), I had a brilliant, blazing insight: Radishes/relishes. Obvious, huh?

Part of me, truth to tell, was made queasy by this solution. After all, the trick of the puzzle is that, like “sinew” and “screw,” the words have nothing in common except correct spelling. But radishes are quite often served on relish trays. It seemed to be too good to be true, and it was — but once lodged in my brain, radishes and relishes induced that dreadful fever to which all abominably conceited people are prone: “they made a typo.” 

I continued under this inviting delusion even after I figured out that the “c” words dropping down from the end of “dogmatic/dramatic” were “convert/culvert.” There was really no way to fit the “s” from the solution glued to my eyes into a word beginning “c,” “ul/on” and ending in “t” (this “t” coming from “consort/consult”) But how could radishes and relishes be wrong? I tackled the “t” word — the “t” from “dogmatic/dramatic” (will you ever forget how much these words have in common?). “Ten—” and “Tal—.” How on earth could they be completed? The “h” from “radishes/relishes” didn’t get me anywhere, unless there was a word that I’d never heard of, “talth.” (To go with “tenth,” doncha see.) For the life of me, I could not work out this pair of words. Of course it would be better to say that I had given up, tied to the mast of the sinking relish tray of radishes. 

How does Virginia Woolf put it, in To The Lighthouse? “Time passes.”

And then I went to the dictionary, as nakedly depraved as the wicked queen who must find out who the loveliest of them all is, and looked through the words beginning “tal.” 

I’m still humiliated by this grotesque exhibition of weakness. Of course in no time at all I discovered “talon,” and with chills both predatory and wretched remembered “tenon,” as in “mortise and tenon,” whatever that means. (You don’t have to know what the words mean.) And no sooner did I take this disgusting discovery back to the bedroom than I saw, in one of those horrible, too-late-now flashes of insight, that the actual solution to the other pair was “radiance/reliance.”  

Radishes will never look, or even quite taste, the same again. (6 September)

Δ The good news is that I’m okay. For the first time ever (in a year, to be precise), the podiatrist did not tell me to stay off my feet. That was at yesterday’s fourth post-op exam. I have a Band-Aid on what’s left of the incision just above the right big toe; the left foot has gone back to being an unremarkable pedal extremity, rather than a site of concern. No more cast bags, no more Velcro bootees. I was all ready to get back into the swing of normal life today.

But the bad news is that my daughter lives in San Francisco — in Sunset, perhaps the best place to be in the Bay Area, but still. If anyone says, “evacuate,” the top question would be “where to?” Things are worse in every direction. A friend in Hawai’i wrote that, if she herself were of an Evangelical persuasion, she would be sure that the End Times were upon us. Aside from the El Dorado/Gender Reveal Party disaster, the fires appear to be “natural,” caused by lightning shot from storms that don’t rain, because the precipitation evaporates long before it hits the ground. 

Nevertheless, I’m okay, walking around for the first time in a year without worrying that I’ll go straight to hell — ie, amputation. And I must confess that I anticipated this happy outcome a few nights ago, when I decided to fix a nice  dinner instead of ordering something for delivery. 

I called it a “Belgian Galette,” because I used to have a book devoted to Belgian cookery, which, as everybody knows, even those of us who haven’t been to Bruges, is The Best. One of the recipes in this cookbook called for filling a galette — a sort of potato pancake — with sautéed leeks and other nice things. I make plain galettes — nothing but potato and butter — fairly often, almost always to serve with a cut of red meat, lamb chops or rib steak. In the winter, we like steaming hot baked potatoes, but only when it’s really cold outside. Otherwise, we prefer the happily blended flavors of baked potato and hash browns offered by the galette. 

There are many different recipes for this humble presentation. I follow Julia Child. You take a big russet potato and steam it until it’s fork tender. Then you let it sit in the refrigerator for a while. Shortly before consumption, you peel the potato and grate it. The grated potato, suitably seasoned, goes into a sauté pan with some butter, wherein it is shaped into a cake. How you flip the cake to brown the upside is your problem. My foolproof method involves sliding the half-cooked galette onto a platter and then covering it with a matching platter and going from there. I won’t belabor the mechanics because unintelligible muscle memory is key, and you must find the method that works best for you. (Hint: shortly before flipping, I brush butter onto the uncooked upside, which ought to be hot enough to melt it. Of course I’m working with a nonstick pan.) Six minutes per side, give or take. I cut the pancake into two half moons and tip them onto the dinner plates. Kathleen invariably says, “I could eat just this.” 

So I’d been thinking about making a galette that, what with goodies in the middle, really could stand in for a whole meal. But instead of leeks, I filled it with the sautéed slices of four mushrooms, about a third of a cup of grated Cheddar cheese, and a few slices of French ham that I minced together with parsley leaves. I ought to mention that the potato was enormous, practically a pound in weight, and really much too large to serve to anyone as a baked potato. Curiously, there was only just enough to provide for two layers. You could see the mushroom slices through the potato, it was that thin. 

But it came out brilliantly — by which I mean that it didn’t fall apart. We could taste the mushrooms, but nothing else. I hadn’t counted on tasting the cheese, which there to act as a glue (which it did), but the ham was too mild. It occurred to me that shredded leftover turkey dark meat would be better. In that case, I should have wanted to go completely overboard, with a sauceboat of Hollandaise. Perhaps even a galette Benedict. Nothing likes eggs and butter on top of butter and eggs! 

Meanwhile, the sky in California is a dark red at midday. It is hard to ascertain the role of the hand of man in this catastrophe, which (quite aside from global warming) I’m told owes something to a lack of firefighters, owing in turn to California’s dependence on currently COVID-sick prison inmates. (Almost all states exploit prisoners as slave laborers.) We all know that, given its terrain, its weather, and its water resources, California oughtn’t to be a populous state, but since when has anyone ever told Americans that they can’t live where they please? The British tried that in the 1770s, and look what happened.   

Here in New York, the weather has been lovely. Today was a bit grey, and humid enough to remark upon, but it cooled off in the early evening. As everyone here remembers, 11 September 2001 was among the loveliest Tuesdays ever. As I say, there are lots of ways to make a galette. (9 September

 

¶ Is it significant that the last sentence in Sigrid Nunez’s new book, What Are You Going Through — “What does it matter if I failed.” — is, like the title, a question without a question mark? About the title, which is a line from Simone Weil (“Quel est ton tourment?” we’re told), I feel that the absence of interrogatory punctuation reminds us that this is a book about the question, about such a question, rather than an answer. As for the ending, it is a statement, an inversion of “If I failed, it does not matter.” Both title and ending push back against the convention of asking “What can I do to help?” When the narrator tells a yoga trainer that someone close to her is dying, he asks, “Is there anything I can do?”

Said it reflexively, as people always do, this formula that nobody really wants to hear, that comforts nobody. But it was not his fault that our language has been hollowed out, coarsened, and bled dry, leaving us always stupid and tongue-tied before emotion. (135)

In other words, you must put the question in your own words, reaching out from your specific self to the specific sufferer with something better than a formula. 

In the space of a week, I have read What Are You Going Through twice, and on top of that I’ve gone back to re-read quite a few particular stories. There are many stories here, some of them stories within stories. (I won’t be the only reader to be reminded of Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, if only as a matter of structure.) All of them are both engaging and serious; by “serious,” I mean intended. The main story, which begins gradually, emerging on the foreground of a tapestry of other stories, concerns a good but no-longer-close friend of the narrator who is dying of cancer. The friend is in possession of a lethal dose of medication, which she intends to ingest at an unspecified moment while the two women share a house in a coastal New England village. She does not want to die alone, mostly (so she says) for “practical” reasons. The narrator is shocked by the request. But by the time she agrees to keep her friend company, her stories have so beguiled us that we don’t worry about having to deal with the moral uncertainties of euthanasia. We just want to know what happens. 

We might be tempted to ask: Is this a novel. Is it a “work of fiction,” or is it just a thinly disguised episode from the life of the author? We do not know whether Nunez has embarked on any such mission, but the tone of the work is so completely devoid of dramatic excitement that the story is suffused with realism. And yet such realism will be familiar to all readers of European fiction. So will the fact that the principal characters in What Are You Going Through belong to the small world of readers and writers, critics and professors. In the middle of the second chapter: 

Recently a story appeared in an anthology, based on a true story familiar to my friend and me because it involved someone we used to know, another old coworker. 

Their familiarity with the “true story” does not involve the breach of expected privacy that leads “ordinary,” non-literary people to take offense when a novelist captures them or their loved ones. The “true story” is well known to the literary world before any fiction has been “based” on it; almost every serious reader is a swimmer in this pond. I myself, marginal as I am, recognized the references, in the not altogether flattering portrait, toward the end of the book, of a wealthy would-be writer for whom the narrator did research as a graduate student, to Jean Stein and to her oral biography of Edie Sedgwick. One might imagine that the “true story” about the coworker passed into the public domain as soon as it became an item in literary gossip. Even so: 

Some people who were close to the professor were upset to see him turned into a fictional character and thought the story should never have been written or published at all. (40-42)

In other words, those supposedly sophisticated readers who were “upset” by the story were no more capable of believing in the truth of fiction — this is just a story — than the family members who took issue with William Maxwell’s novel, The Chateau. In the end, genuine fiction is an impossibility; nothing is made up out of whole cloth. Who would want to read purely inventive fiction — better known, generally, as the sad productions of inexperienced first novelists. I wasn’t much bothered by measuring the extent to which Nunez made things up. But her narrator is restless about the matter.

The record that I planned to keep, a record of my friend’s last days — that never happened. I started it, but almost immediately I stopped. … No matter how hard I tried, the language could never be good enough, the reality of what was happening could never be precisely expressed.

But what are we reading, if not something very like such a record? I cannot decide if the narrator’s ensuing paroxysm is confused or sublime.

Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important that whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up. I can no longer read books that —

But why am I telling you all this? (182)

All what? Language falsifies everything, but that doesn’t stop writers from trying? Yet what the best ones discover is that a way of writing means more than the subject-matter? This last point appears to differentiate the literary from the general reader, but the distinction is problematic to say the least. Writing that is manifestly more stylish than substantial is leaky and corrupt. I believe that style alone illuminates and expresses substance. Writing low on style is rarely as communicative as it purports to be; writing that tells us little or nothing about the writer does not engage us. Nunez’s style, in contrast, is so limpid that her writing seems to tell us everything that there is to tell, even though we know that this isn’t true. Where, for instance, are the unpleasant symptoms of the friend’s cancer? Where is all the disagreeable business? It’s not even hinted at — something that makes What Are You Going Through a more cheering read than, say, the cancer diary that Jenny Diski kept and left to us. How do you write a book about someone’s dying of cancer without fouling the air with hospital smells? 

You do it, as Nunez demonstrates, with considerable, if self-effacing, style. Or, it may be, that’s not what you’re doing at all. 

I come back to the plethora of stories that fill the first half of the book. Almost all of them are about ageing and the related pain of recollection, both of which seem to be mysterious issues until you consider the story that Nunez tells about the Tower of Babel. In her version, God did not stop at dividing humanity into tribes speaking different languages; he cursed each of us with a private language that no other person can truly understand. We may share the language in which we converse and write, but behind that one are the private tongues — dialects that, since they’re not anchored by shared recognition, even we forget over time. This makes it difficult to understand how we got to be old, or why we don’t remember things quite correctly. The story makes the difficulty somewhat comprehensible. 

There is also the problem of failed contact; because no two of us really speak the same language, our relationships are doomed to unravel. Nunez tells three stories about relationships that not only fail but backfire. One is about the neighbor who is transformed into an unbearable witch by the addiction to Fox News that she contracts during a hospitalization; one is about a schoolmate known as “Winnie the Poop”; and one is about the Bulgarian woman who sees that her husband is actually delighted by the prospect of her death. And then there is the story, which is not quite a story, of the narrator’s friend’s poor relationship with her daughter, to which she has long responded with the wish that she had had another child. On the second reading, I found myself speculating about the story that the daughter might tell about her now-dying mother.

Do we ever find out what happens? (16 September) 

¶ Another book that I’ve read for the second time is Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. I read it in the spring, and was so taken by the portrait of Keynes, about whom I’d known both much and nothing, that I took on Lord Skidelsky’s massive biography — which I’m also re-reading, this time in the original three volumes. Before I got very far with the Skidelsky, though, I sensed a divergence between the two books; were they really about the same man? Well, yes, of course they were, but if there’s one thing Carter’s book is not, it’s a “Life of John Maynard Keynes.” Even before finishing the first reading of Carter, I was puzzled by the six chapters that followed the death of Keynes. Where were they taking me? Why were they there at all? When I finished the first volume of the original Skidelsky, I decided to re-read Carter and to try to clarify the haze of confusion that further reading had blown Carter’s way.

I am not going to take Carter to task for confusing me. It’s enough to regret (a) the very misleading subtitle and (b) a couple of bloopers, such as calling Edmund Burke a Scottish philosopher — twice on the same page! (99) — and writing . It is not a crime to use “decamp” when “go” would do just as well. It is, for that matter, not a crime for a journalist to write a book, although it is somewhat dangerous, as evidenced here by two, what I would call weaknesses: first, a penchant for color; and sense of scale suited to the relatively short pieces that one finds in magazines.

At first, I thought that the problem was that Carter had two books on his hands and no good way of ramming them together between the covers of one volume. But on re-reading The Price of Peace, I decided that Carter does indeed have just one book, but that its first half or more is stuffed with distracting if entertaining details about Keynes’s personal life. The strong book that lies inside the one that Random House has published — and it is a strong book, well worth reading twice — might be called American Metastasis: the Reception of Keynesian Economics in the United States. The Price of Peace is nothing less than a tragedy, a drama in which extremely humane ideas are bent by forces of fear and selfishness to serve purposes that their creator regarded with horror. The forces of fear and selfishness are peculiarly American — an adolescent hubris, an equally adolescent hysterical response to the “threat of Communism,” and a smug tendency to regard the unfortunate and the unsuccessful as “losers.” Their ghastly quadrille has dismayed me for most of my seventy-odd years. Carter is outraged by the mutations wrought by American politicians and bankers upon Keynes’s ideas, and he is to be praised for keeping his outrage reasonable and conversational — for letting the outrage speak for itself. What struck me strongly the second time through was the dearth of forces for the good. Democrats and Republicans — it makes no difference; this is a bipartisan screw-up. Instead of diffusing prosperity throughout American society, our leaders have destroyed it.  

All of this would be much clearer if Carter had confined himself to two or three, instead of twelve, chapters about Keynes. The story of the development of Keynes’s thinking, while gripping, is not central to what’s worthy about The Price of Power. Carter might have devoted one chapter to Keynes’s private life (thus getting Bloomsbury out of the way early), and then two longer ones to his intellectual formation up to the Peace and to his subsequent experiences as a public servant/public intellectual. This third chapter would leave us in no doubt that “Keynesian economics” is less a theory than a toolbox. You would think that Americans, so famous for “can-do” spirit, would be more interested in practical expertise than in abstract doctrines, but beneath our pragmatism there lies the still powerful commitment to a Calvinist Weltanschauung that has also undergone deleterious mutations. The result is a virtuosity at cloaking opportunism with “principles.” It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish the gamblers from the morons, but neither crowd ought to be in charge of public affairs.  (17 September

 

Δ Continuing to get better, I have been able to straighten up the library somewhat. I’ve also been able to unearth a few books — books shelved behind other books, on shelves that are difficult to reach — including two about FDR. I turned to them for relief from a somewhat tedious book, Harry Dexter White, by David Rees. In part, the tedium owes to a writing style that permits the author to follow a sentence beginning “However” with one beginning with “But” — the qualifications soon sink into quagmire. In part, it owes to the author’s rather prim determination to avoid stating a thesis that would point to his conclusions about the question of White’s alleged espionage. Today, White is best known (not that he’s well-known at all) as Lord Keynes’s sympathetic adversary at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. But what Rees is more interested in is White’s contribution to and efforts on behalf of what came to be known as the Morgenthau Plan. This was a frankly vindictive scheme to “pastoralize” defeated Germany, largely by destroying its industries and repatriating nearly twenty million Germans. President Roosevelt was initially sympathetic, and even forced Churchill, who was repelled by the idea, to go along with it in exchange for favorable implementation of the Lend-Lease Agreement. Roosevelt’s support wavered and then sputtered soon afterward, and the plan, happily, came to nothing, although it has been credited with inspiring the surprising vehemence with which the Germans fought the Battle of the Bulge. That both Morgenthau and White were Jewish had something to do with the general unpopularity of the Plan among their colleagues. 

Even though I was familiar with White from the Keynes literature (Zachary Carter, Lord Skidelsky, and Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods), I was itching for another perspective on this rather grey eminence. (Nobody knows where the “Dexter” came from.) I wondered which other books in my library might have something to say about him. The first title that came to mind was Joseph Lelyveld’s His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. I located it, via my Evernote files, on shelf E6R. This is the rear half of the sixth shelf (down from the top) of the history bookcase. In order to reach it, I had to get a steel cart out of the way. The steel cart is an industrial baby that was intended to hold books temporarily, ha ha ha. Thanks to the straightening-up, there aren’t quite so many books on the cart these days, and none are stacked in piles that are likely to tip over in the event of moving it, but the cart is still something of a battleship to move. Because it’s hard to lift the cart over the edge of the rug in this room, I had to wriggle through a narrow space in order to clear the books on the fore half of the shelf so as to see the rear. Lelyveld’s book came into view right away, and I carried it off to my reading chair, where I discovered index entries for Henry Morgenthau and for his Plan, but nothing for Harry Dexter White.

It was only after I’d put Lelyveld back, restoring all the books to the shelf in front of it and rolling the cart back into place, that I noticed, in the Evernote file, that right next to Lelyveld (apparently) there was a book that I hadn’t read, H W Brands’s Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I didn’t expect to find a reference to White in this book, and there wasn’t one, but I was in the mood to read it anyway. So out came the cart again, and off came the books on the front of the shelf. Once again, I quickly found what I was looking for, and once again, books and cart were laboriously restored to order. This was two days ago. I’ve been enjoying Brands ever since. (Tomorrow, I will make a point of reading on in Rees, at least a chapter, as soon as I’ve done with the papers.) 

Brands’s is, not surprisingly, a fattish book, and at any number of moments in the twelve years that I’ve owned it I might have easily decided that, since I hadn’t read it, I probably wouldn’t read it, and therefore that I ought clear the space that it took up. Instead, I held onto it, and now I’m very glad that I did, for it turns out to be the only biography of FDR that I’ve got. I’ve read a great deal about this remarkable man — our greatest president, in my view— but never a life. Far from being a traitor to his class, Roosevelt embodied its virtues, and his career makes an eloquent case for the necessity of an established patritiate. To be sure, it was polio (or Guillain-Barré Syndrome if you prefer), and not Groton or Harvard or even Eleanor, that etched Roosevelt’s character with the sympathy that made him great. On the eve of his forties (he was thirty-nine when he succumbed to paralysis), Roosevelt was still very much a preppie, a gracious hail-fellow-well-met with enough earnestness to make him an honorable public servant, and indeed he retained something of the light touch and the non-committal engagement of a dilettante until the day he died. Beneath the clubbable manner, though, he became one of the great doctors of the body politic. At the expense — or perhaps for the sport — of alienating the rich and selfish, Roosevelt convinced most Americans that they were governed by a great and benevolent man. That hasn’t happened since, and there is no recipe for making it happen. (30 September)  

 

§ As a rule, I avoid reviews of novels that I intend to read — surely I need not explain why — but I really could not resist having a peek at Hermione Lee’s piece on Jack, the new addition to Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead series of novels. It didn’t take long to regret this lapse, but I was pretty hopelessly embroiled in Lee’s discussion, which after all is an inquiry by a serious British woman (albeit I expect not a churchgoer) into the thinking of a serious American woman. I’d undoubtedly have read the whole review if it hadn’t been for this: “In her essays, [Robinson] has often drawn links between Shakespeare, Puritan writings, and American literature, which she sees as a sanctification of the individual,”

a fascination [this is Robinson herself] with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. … Sacredness is realized in the act of attention. … The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary.

I stopped there because I have been hovering over the problem of the individual for some time now. What I call “the problem of the individual” is this: the individual is not only unknowable by anyone, including said individual, but is not very interesting, either. I’ll be the first to concede the Jack Boughton, the axial character of Robinson’s novels, is extremely interesting, because he’s endlessly puzzling. But the puzzle is Robinson’s. In life, I’m pretty sure, I should find him trivial and annoying, a nuisance, precisely because he is such an individual, or so individual, however you might like to put it. So stuck! Jack Boughton cannot connect with the rest of us. His family of loving parents and seven devoted siblings have almost drowned him in attempted love. The rest of the world, less inclined to cherish him, has, among other things, incarcerated him for a crime that he didn’t commit. It is difficult to read about Jack without asking, What is his problem? When he says that he is mortally tired of himself, I find myself nodding almost pitilessly. It is not that he is unworthy of pity, but rather that sympathy is impossible. Jack’s affliction fixes him beyond the pale of human society. His infractions are all extremely venial; there is absolutely nothing “evil” or even wicked about him — although he does appear to have been a rather perverse child. Nor is he unlovable, really; his family is not crazy to care about him, and he wins and holds the affection of a good woman. If the world could be reconfigured so that Jack never had to deal with more than one person at a time, and so that everyone who dealt with Jack paid him full attention, his life might be a happy one. But with society, with all of us whose attentions are divided among so many of us, he remains, like a supernumerary gear, unclutchable. 

I won’t be the first to argue that we find ourselves in our current state of distress because, maybe, the sanctification of the individual is not a great idea. This is not to say that the sanctification of society — of our plurality — is a good idea, either. We are what we are, both individual and social. Since the Protestant Reformation, however, the individual has been invested with responsibilities that many find crushing and that many others find pointless. Like everything else about the European West, however, the Protestant Reformation is not simply a new wrinkle on old Christian and Jewish dogmas, but a mutation of classical paganism as well: no one can deny the grandiose Stoicism of martyrs to modern ideologies. In our time, this has drizzled down to the Republican Party’s cant about “personal responsibility,” at least to the point where some of us passionately argue to the contrary that if children are not responsible for the deplorable conditions of poverty, hunger, and ignorance in which we find too many of them, then neither are the adults that they grow up to become. It is hard to know where the Stoic stops and the Pharisee begins. 

Writing about my own life, I have stumbled on a question that I ought to have asked a long time ago. Was the trouble that I had in my childhood, such as it was, the result of character flaws (failures to live up to standards of conduct expounded according to Christendom’s venerable blend of prophecy and philosophy), or of psychological disorders (pathologies defined by the scientific humanists who followed or deviated from Freud), or of simply not fitting in? Was I a naughty boy, a damaged child, or a rogue — by which I mean a critic, but a critic without the necessary vocabulary. It isn’t hard to see that the choice of one of these diagnoses will go far to produce an answer inconsistent with those of the other two. My adoptive mother was inclined to dismiss me as naughty, perhaps even as “a bad kid.” I myself was drawn to pathological explanations when I was young. Now I believe that the whole problem of my childhood was nothing worse than a bad fit. Nothing less than one, either. For being a bad fit is our shared human lot. Much of the time, I don’t even fit in with myself. 

There is something deeply novel, something post Judeo-Christian, about Protestantism, and it shows up in a strange way in Robinson’s novels. I’m re-reading Home at the moment, having already delighted in Gilead for the second time. Several surprising things about the religion shared by John Ames and Robert Boughton, the Congregational and Presbyterian ministers, respectively, in Gilead, Iowa in the summer of 1956 (both are at the ends of their lives) are striking this time around. For one thing, it is a religion of the here-below, not of the eternal-hereafter. In that, it shares far more with the faith, rooted in family, of the Hebrew Bible than with the fixation on personal redemption preached by Paul. And yet all the sweet lovingness of Jesus has been transferred to God the Father; Jesus himself goes almost unmentioned (a careful reading might show that he is not mentioned at all, exept “in vain”). This God the Father is not the punitive Jehovah of Scripture, but a Supreme Parent, all but pining for the reciprocated love of his creatures. But again unlike Jehovah, he is not interested in — he simply does not recognize — collective action or responsibility. It’s a strange mixup, one that is perhaps confined to the Anglophone world. (Have you never wondered why pious Britons and Americans, alone among Christian Europeans, have lavished Biblical names on their sons?)  

I shall have more to say about this, I think. Perhaps I’ll simply amend and extend this entry. (I’ll be reading Lila soon, and then Jack.) Some thoughts at parting: what if I were to replace, in what I’ve written above, the word “social” with “tribal” — would that make it easier for me to argue that we have never, we human beings, frankly confronted the difficulties of living together despite all our variations? And what about this: so far as I can see, the European novel operates on the assumption that we could all behave better. The European novel is not tragic — no, not even Anna Karenina. We could all behave better, and we could all do more to help others behave better. We may be weak, but we are not doomed. Except — what about Jack Boughton? (5 October)

 

¶ Having good memories of it, I’ve been meaning for some time to have another look at Style: The Art of Writing Well. F L Lucas developed the text as a course of lectures delivered to Cambridge students for several years after the War. In his introduction to the Harriman House reprint of 2012, Alexander Zambellas divides the world between those who feel fortunate to have encountered Style in youth and those who wish they had done. But I’m not sure that the book itself would have done me much good back in the 1960s, when things that weren’t New! and Improved! were Irrelevant! And beyond that, I sense in my old age that even such good advice as Lucas’s will do little to instill a style. Lucas admits as much, at least implicitly, throughout. Style is in fact a manual of caution. If you haven’t much style to begin with it, the book may at least help prevent your cultivating a bad one. If you do have a native style, then your writing will probably want the kind of attentions, mostly negative, that maintain a flourishing garden, and that’s just what Lucas provides.

I have long believed that the best road to fluent, attractive, and significant writing is paved with copious reading: reading and more reading. It helps to have models of good and bad writers (and, as in the notorious case of Time Magazine, sources of bad writing) pointed out by one’s elders, but pleasure is probably the best teacher. Pleasure — and the inevitable embarrassment that follows overindulgence. I think that it’s better to wallow in jejune imitation of Henry James for a few adolescent terms than primly to refrain. It’s also a good idea to write letters when you’re young, and plenty of them.  

Lucas makes the important point that style is not to be confused with mannerism. Mannerisms are often, but not always, self-conscious; when they’re altogether unconscious, they’re better called tics. Either way, the great sin is overuse, whether a cant formulation is repeated over and over or an exotic adjective appears twice. Even the best writers must keep a lookout for such unwanted growths. I myself am too often “hastening to add” or “to point out” — and this is just one example of exuberanct weediness. If, during the editing process, such turns of phrase always seem to make perfect sense, it’s time to worry about brain atrophy.

In the first lecture, Lucas expresses a belief that I am quite sure I shared before I read Style the first time: scholarly students ought to be required to have mastered at least one ancient and one modern language other than their own before they are allowed to specialize in the study of what has come to be called “English.” I have never been quite sure what “English” is supposed to cover, beyond the subject matters of “Linguistics” and “Literature,” but I am certain that there can be little value in the study of English linguistics and English literature only. It will be argued that there is no need to study other languages because everyone on the planet appears to be clamoring to learn English, but of course this is precisely why native speakers require the sophistication and perception that only a real familiarity with different ways of doing things provides. (8 October)

¶ This will be brief, because I was disappointed by The Searcher, Tana French’s new book, and I don’t care to linger over disappointments. Overall, The Searcher tells a competently composed and reasonably exciting tale — but one expects so much more from French. The early pages, in which we get to know Cal Hooper, a Chicago Police detective who has retired to the West of Ireland, were the hardest-going for me: not only is Cooper a perfect sausage of cliché, oozing all the standard ingredients of the tough (but sensitive!) American guy — the kind of man who is completely undone when his black-and-white moral code dissolves in the complexity of life — but he speaks the ghastly lingo of gonna and wanna and Could me and her come over sometime, something even the least polished of French’s Irish characters rarely sink to (in this book as well as her others). I didn’t loathe the guy, but I did wonder how he’d been invited to the party, and I often longed for im to shut up. I thought of one of those noisily effective Saul Steinberg cartoons that pit curlicued ladies against scribbled thugs, with a visual eloquence that does not translate into prose.

Ironically, the one unexpected detail in the protagonist’s make-up, betrayed by his name (“Cal” for “Calvin”), is thrown away in this context. Sending a Protestant with roots in the Carolina backwoods to the Republic (it is not explained why Cal didn’t consider the North) might have created some interesting friction, but the trope of the hard-boiled metropolitan cop has been so long submerged in immigrant Catholic drippings that this one distinguishing feature simply doesn’t read. Oddly, the locals, who know everything before it has happened, seem to be unaware of this wrinkle; to them, Cal is just another Yank. 

Toward the end, a touching scene involving a teenager, a dog, and a fireside sent up a deadly pong of Disney. The Searcher was just good enough to keep me reading, but bad enough to warrant the judgment “Straight to Video.” (12 October)

¶ In need of a good laugh — and who isn’t? — I re-read Chapter 14 of Justin Spring’s The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy. One of the Americans is Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and Chapter 14 is devoted to the fiasco of her Time-Life production, The Cooking of Provincial France. While not exactly ignorant of the subject, Fisher had never studied it, and she lacked the comprehensive grasp of regional cooking that Time-Life warranted. Her experience was limited to Burgundy, Provence, and the Isle de France — in this case a synecdoche for “Paris” — and of course she had been to many more hotels and restaurants than provincial home kitchens. What would have been a dreadful embarrassment was saved by Fisher’s ultimate disqualification: she was incapable of writing non-fiction. What might have been a messily misleading train wreck was instead a gloriously confabulated party tape. The American edition was bad enough, but Time-Life had presold Cooking to German and French readers as well, and for the French edition the company commissioned the right-wing food pundit Robert Courtine to supply an introduction and footnotes, which apparently were published alongside the translation without any supervision from headquarters. John Hess, writing in the New York Times, called the result “self-roasting.” In note after note, Courtine flatly contradicted Fisher’s text, the numerous errors of which had alarmed Simone Beck even more, perhaps, than they entertain Justin Spring. The result, Hess felt, was “an item for collectors of curiosa.” I’d love to have a copy, but Spring’s chapter is probably an adequate substitute. It is very, very funny, and not for a minute do you feel sorry for the self-mythologizing enchantress of  The Art of Eating

I pulled down The Gourmands’ Way because I wanted to see what Spring has to say about James Beard. For I had just finished reading John Birdsall’s new biography of Beard, The Man Who Ate Too Much. Here is what Spring has to say: 

Employees did his writing for him; others solicited and negotiated prices for his public appearances; others kept his accounts. Others organized and assisted at his cooking school; still others maintained his household and his kitchen. Like Andy Warhol, whose art studio became a self-described “Factory” in which many participated in the creation of art but only one received the credit as artist, Beard developed an instantly recognizable celebrity identity as America’s leading gastonome and gourmand, and was rapidly turning that composite identity into the public face of a highly successful, income-focused business.

Spring also notes that one his other Americans, Richard Olney, found Beard to be “creepy.”

In Birdsall’s book, the note of success is rarely heard. We’re told — every so often — that Beard was a success, but we’re not shown it. What we are shown is an unhappy person, too adrift to be focused on much of anything. Beard’s worldly success, in short, is an offstage presence, something that Birdsall perhaps unwisely presumes to be a matter of common knowledge, which I doubt that it is anymore. And what were the elements of this success? In addition to the cookery books and the famous cooking classes, Beard was a very busy spokesman for a lot of kitchen-related products, such as Birdseye Frozen Foods and Skotch Grills, that would almost certainly not harmonize well today with the farm-to-table, seasonal/American ethos that he presaged in so many ways. 

I don’t think that I knew anything about James Beard when, in the mid-Seventies, the radio station where I worked began carrying a short daily syndicated program in which Beard chatted about this and that. As best I can recall, my impression was that Beard publicized himself as a way of selling his sponsor’s ads, and this I found tacky at best. It wasn’t until later, when I discovered his American Cookery, that I appreciated his authority. The recipes in American Cookery are accompanied by thoughtful, historical commentary that, as Birdsall points out, present American cooking as a matter of dishes imported from elsewhere and altered, but not diminished, by adjustment to the American scene. In short, American cooking was International Cooking, but framed by the cedar shakes of a cottage in Siasconset. Beard frequently refers to his mother’s enterprise in the boarding-house line, an unusual background I always thought — uncommon, anyway. I found out from Birdsall that Mrs Beard retired from her career in residential hotels when she married Mr Beard, long before James was born. I also found out that Beard not only didn’t write the engaging commentary in American Cookery but probably couldn’t have done; he seems to have been incapable of composing so much as a coherent paragraph of personal memoir. Indeed, the bits that Birdsall snips from Beard’s correspondence are zooty, slangy, and more enthusiastic than informative. (American Cookery was actually written, I gather, by one John Ferrone.)

Birdsall states a purpose in his introduction — to portray Beard as one of the many gay men who shaped the presentation of American cuisine in the middle of the last century — that he only half-heartedly fulfills. This isn’t necessarily a failing, however. It is so easy to attribute Beard’s many inconsistencies — confusions, really — to the distortions of closeted life that the undertaking is not enlightening. His loveless upbringing and his physical drawbacks compounded the difficulties of looking for love, and, undoubtedly because documentary evidence does not survive, Birdsall is unable to put any flesh on the stick figure of Beard’s lasting relationship with Gino Cofacci. That Beard comes across as someone who didn’t want to think too clearly about things is no surprise, but Birdsall does not bother to square it with the image of a knowledgeable and reflective writer — or rather, since he was neither of those things, with Beard’s pursuit of a career as such a man. 

Of American Cookery, M F K Fisher wrote, “You have definitely proved your point, that there is an American cookery. And you have done it with such deftness!” Sometimes, you just don’t know whom to believe. (16 October)

 

§ Over the weekend, I finished re-reading Lila, the third of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books, and now I could read Jack, the fourth, which has just been published. The problem was, I didn’t want to. I had had enough of Gilead for the moment. Lila is a grave book, often verging but never quite tipping into the outright bleak. It is, if you ask me, about grace — a terrifying subject, really, because God has all the cards. It is also about the vacancy of the American heartland, although I don’t think that Robinson means to create that effect. The Gilead books make me wish that I could retire to an established place; even New York City is too wild-westy for my comfort. In any case, I needed something to read, so I headed for the bookcase that holds plenty of books for just such situations. Most of the books about New Yorker writers that I own are there, for example, and before I even got to the bookcase I knew what I was looking for: The Long-Winded Lady, a collection of Talk pieces by Maeve Brennan. I found it without much trouble.

I began reading The New Yorker in 1962, when I was fourteen, and soon enough I came across one of those items near the first page of text that began, “Our correspondent, the Long-Winded Lady, has blessed us with another communication.” Well, not really, but words to that effect. I cannot say that I comprehended the Long-Winded Lady’s letters. I was naive enough to think that she really was a reader who from time to time sent the magazine an envelope containing her latest ramblings, and that was a very appealing idea, suggesting as it did a relatively easy career opening. Perhaps I might write a letter, too. I could not really follow the Lady’s meanderings, which I could tell only seemed to be about nothing — a theme of The New Yorker, really. I imagined the Lady to be a stout, middle-aged matron from Norwalk, unaccountably marooned in Greenwich Village (although by the time I began reading the magazine, Brennan’s byline was more likely to be a downmarket hotel in the West Forties — a possibility that I could not readily absorb). The Lady was somebody’s redoubtable aunt, much more worldly than any old lady I knew but just as sure of her own mind. Imagine my surprise when, years later, I found out something about the actual writer. There’s a wonderful Whitney Darrow cartoon from the early Fifties that captures something of the nature of my misapprehension. At a costume party, a gentleman in a bunny costume (and, please note, pince-nez) turns away from the blonde in his arms to say to the indignant dame in the doorway, who is wearing the same sort of costume as the blonde, “Good heavens, Emma! I thought this was you!) Only, wouldn’t you know, in my case it was the other way around: the blonde was in the doorway. There was nothing stout, and precious little matronly, about Maeve Brennan.

You don’t have to understand something in order to adopt it. The Long-Winded Lady was as much a part of my idea of New York City — I was growing up in faraway Westchester County, not five miles from the city line — as the Empire State Building, which it seems Brennan didn’t much care for (she writes of its Ugly Length, and I daresay it would have made her day to wake up to discover that the building was actually situated on equally ugly Sixth Avenue. The Empire State Building is still with us, hard to see from up here where I live but still magnificently elegant when espied from the south. The New Yorker is still with us, too, of course; it’s, what, six years older than the skyscraper? Ninety now, the magazine wasn’t even twenty-five years old when I was born, and perhaps because it is much easier to change a weekly publication than a mass of bricks and girders, it is not what it was. I feel this all the time now; not a month goes by without my longing to cancel our subscription. (But it is ours, and Kathleen intends to keep it.) Reading the selection of Long-Winded Lady pieces that Christopher Carduff in 1997, I found that my finger had been put on one significant difference between Then and Now. Now, The New Yorker is a fountain of what I suppose must pass for “excellent journalism” — need I say more than “Ronan Farrow”? Then, however, it took a highly critical stance on the very idea of journalism, and a very clear example of this skepticism appears in “A Chinese Fortune,” the tenth piece in the collection. 

Rather than describe the communiqué, which is of course very clever and even funnier, I’ll simply say that it concerns a puff piece in Life Magazine about Geraldine Stutz, the longtime boss at Henri Bendel. I guess that Stutz was new at her job in 1958 (the date of both items); she was, at thirty-three, and a woman to boot, something of a wunderkind. That she was clearly meant to run something was expressed by her no-sweat executive mantra, “Once you’ve found the right people and set them free, you can’t lose.” The Long-Winded Lady worries this bit of nonsense to death with the knuckleheaded anxiety of one of the pigeons to whom she compares “the right people,” when she imagines Stutz taking them all up to the roof of the building and opening their cage doors. Thus she creates an unforgettably silly image that neither Stutz nor her Lucite interlocutor are likely to have imagined. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse a New Yorker writer nowadays of scribbling down Stutz’s aphorism with a straight face, but I will insist that The New Yorker no longer makes confetti out of the sort of PR twaddle that has always lined the foundations of journalism. Give us something snappy to pass on to our dim-witted readers, interviewers seem to say whenever they’re asking a movie star about his latest project. I wish that someone would publish a collection of the many Talk pieces that used to recount visits to trade shows at the old Colosseum; there used to be about one a month. The always-anonymous New Yorker writer would show up at an exposition of motorboats or plumbing fixtures and write down the absurd claims made by the flacks (“this toilet sleeps twelve while transforming Long Island Sound into fresh water”) and duly noting the outfits worn by the showgirls who stood alluringly but meaninglessly alongside the shiny whatnots. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Bruce McCall, whose send-ups of shameless marketing, having debuted in the National Lampoon, now grace The New Yorker itself, was inspired by those very Talk pieces; but as a reader, I cannot be happy about the transformation of great copy into funny drawings.) 

The New Yorker, in short, used to be a haven, a refuge, an escape. But some people thought this was dubious, and the writers were set free. (19 October)

 

Δ The other day, I went to see the podiatrist for a follow-up exam, only to undergo a bit of impromptu amputation. A bit of toe was removed. Not one of the big ones — they’re doing well, it seems. Problems have emerged next door, in what I call the index toes. On Tuesday, a bit of bone was clipped off (that’s what it sounded like; I couldn’t watch) the index toe of the left foot. A similar procedure is probably in store for the corresponding right-hand toe. These surgeries are not big deals; at least, Tuesday’s wasn’t. I am almost optimistic about what lies ahead — but the weather these days is unfavorable for optimism. Here’s the thing: whenever I was entangled with doctors and medicines in the past, I could tell myself that, pretty soon, it would all be over and I’d get back to normal. Now, though, it’s clear that when this is episode is over, I’ll be on the verge of seventy-three, and all too soon it really will be all over. There’s a subtle difference. 

Ever since the bout of re-reading Maeve Brennan, I’ve been looking into other New Yorker writers, with Ben Yagoda, author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, as my guide. I read Yagoda’s book when it came out — as who with the slightest interest in the magazine didn’t — but this time I’ve treated it less as a sideshow of literary eccentrics than as a gallery of writers, all of whom Yagoda appears to have read in depth, a remarkable achievement. For the first time ever, I’ve made a point of reading E B White,  not because his writing appeals to me but because I want to see how he does it, how he describes things without padding the prose. I myself am not good at description. It does not particularly interest me to read descriptions, for one thing, whether they’re of people, places, or things, and quite often I don’t understand them. (I recently had a terrible time keeping track of the logistics in Mary Stewart’s The Moonspinners.) I want to hear what people, places, and things sound like, what they say or cause people say about them, or to learn how they changed over time, but when I “picture” things, it often becomes awkwardly clear that I’ve got them wrong. Until something in Yagoda-on-White jogged me, I hadn’t realized that, in the project that I’m working on these days, while I describe the neighborhood of my later childhood with some detail, I say nothing whatever about the house we lived in it, beyond a few words about the basement that are necessary to an anecdote. What’s unusual about this omission is that houses have always been, if anything, too important to me: what kind of rooms I live in and how they’re fitted out have always inspired me to an excess of fuss. With regard to the house in which my sense of domestic insides and outsides took shape, I think it’s odd that I never until now thought to mention how much I hated the picture  window that marred — disgraced! — its façade. (There was certainly no view to justify the expanse of plate glass.) Or my discontent with the walls that slanted between side and ceiling in my dormered bedroom. (The poetic possibilities of life in a garret never appealed to me.) Why did I leave these obviously relevant matters out of my little memoir? I had to wonder if I’d drowned in a fantasy of writing about my life without actually describing it. 

After a bit of searching, I found a photograph album that my mother kept when I was little. It begins with my arrival in 1948 and ends with a photograph of our first house, the one with the awful picture window, that may have been taken right before we moved into it, in 1955. What’s striking in to me in these childhood snapshots is how rarely I smiled, once I began walking. I think it’s still true that I’m far more likely to laugh than I am to smile; it would be nice to think that I smile with my eyes. I was certainly laughing last night, laughing so hard that, if I could breathe, it was only barely, and I couldn’t tell Kathleen why. And I knew why. Although it can be difficult to explain laughter, I knew why a joke of Garrison Keillor’s (not published in The New Yorker), about a “Local Family” hiring a prostitute as a live-in companion for its sixteen year-old son (“Keeps Son Happy” — Yagoda, p 375), was killing me. Every time I went over Keillor’s premise, I saw it from a different point of view — the neighbors’, the school board’s, the kid’s best friend’s, the magazine’s readers’, and even the son’s (whom I doubt would have been happy to have the prostitute in his home, but this only made it funnier) — and each point of view was at tempestuous odds with all the others, helping to wind up a chaos of hilariously contradictory denotations. While the joke was not the sort of thing that would make me laugh at any old time, once it did begin, I was reduced to helpless landslide. One of these days, that sort of excitement is going to kill me. What a way to go! (1 November)

Δ Between leafing through New Yorkers from the early Sixties (and not remembering very much; so much for precocity) and re-reading Ben Yagoda’s history of the magazine, in which many writers are quoted as having dreamed of growing up to be New Yorker writers themselves — But no, that’s not quite right. J D Salinger, it seems, “told friends at the Valley Forge Military Academy that his ambition in life was to succeed Robert Benchley as the New Yorkers drama critic.” (Yagoda, p 233) Never mind that that’s not what happened; the point is that Salinger foresaw making a very particular contribution to the magazine. I dreamed of being a New Yorker writer, too, but there was never any specificity to this prospect. Lacking journalistic training, talent, and inclination, I could not have done much but send in short stories and poems. Once Donald Barthelme showed up in The New Yorker‘s pages, I considered submitting crazy pieces, but it quickly became obvious, within mere hours and in the privacy of my own dorm room, that my efforts were completely, not even laughably, derivative. (I had no inclination for absurdity, either.) Nevertheless, the vague dream of seeing my name at the end of New Yorker pieces lingered. I was wondering, the other day, what sort of thing, looking back, I might have produced if anybody had encouraged me. Then, I mean. By the time that the occasional friend would tell me that I really ought to “publish in The New Yorker,” I knew that it was too late. 

What I came up with (the other day) was probably inspired by reading all that Maeve Brennan: “The Department of Me.” I couldn’t by any stretch have come up with this idea when I was young, and even if I had, I shouldn’t have dared to express it. But it probably does capture the underlying fantasy. In my Department of Me submissions, I would not write about myself — boring and pathetic! — but simply deliver opinions. Remember that we are talking fantasy hereIn fact, I had only a few opinions, and even to me they were suspect. For example, I believed that lamps designed to provide electric light in the home were a modern pestilence.  In part, this craze of mine for pre-modern atmospherics owed to my new acquaintance with Period Rooms and historical novels. In larger part, it reflected an allergy to my mother’s fondness for what I thought were big, ugly lamps fitted with blindingly bright lightbulbs. (I am grateful that my brief attempt to read by candlelight did not ruin my eyes.) There you have it. How many more sentences do you think I could choke out of this fleeting attitude? That’s the wonderful thing about fantasy: you don’t have to work at it. You can simply imagine having produced a ream of sparkling paragraphs.

If I had had a steadier hand — that’s how I like to explain the failure of  graphic abilities (such as an early command of perspective) that were much commented-upon by the grown-ups — I might have been able to submit drawings to The New Yorker. I know that “drawings” is what the people there call cartoons, but I’m talking about real drawings, such as one of Me, Myself, seated like a pasha on a pillow, meditatively smoking a hookah and dreaming up opinions. (I see this in dark pastels.) For that would indeed have been a wonderful life. Indeed, it is much like the life that I have actually lived, except that I have never been comfortable sitting on the floor, even on a pillow, with crossed legs; what I require is a substantial, upright upholstered chair. Something like a throne, except that I am getting up and down all the time, who knows why or what for except that half of the trips involve modern plumbing. (I never conceived a prejudice against that.) From an early age, it’s true, I wrote down what opinions I had, in notebooks that I still have but can’t bring myself to look at. Eventually, I could bring myself to look at some of the opinions, and then the Internet came along, and here we are. I remember hearing someone worry, at a meeting of bloggers long ago when there were such things, that all he had to write about were the books that he was reading and what he had for dinner the night before. At the time, I shivered with sympathetic horror. Now, though, I believe that talking about books — unpacking them, I think is the phrase — is the whole point of having a mind. I’ve never really doubted that a fine dinner is pretty much the whole point of having a body. (2 November)    

Im Grünen — 2020

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Δ My Boomerang
¶ Obligatory Reading (Re: Keynes, Margot, Hegel)
, Kudos
§ Sexual Revenge
Dracula
§ Namier Lost and Found
Δ Stubbled Curmudgeon
§ The Good Critic: A Vocation, Democracy and Competence
Δ Confession
¶ Nick Jelley’s Renewable Resources
§ Keynes: Philosopher of Prosperity
Δ Not Detected

Δ Although I seem to be reading about fifteen books concurrently, the one that arrived this afternoon is such a tonic that I have no trouble whatever paying attention to its every word. When I sat down with it at lunch, I opened it in the middle, just for a taste. I was still glued forty pages later.

The book is Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, by Anne Glenconner. Maybe “Shadow of the Crown” is a sort of code name for the late Princess Margaret, to whom Lady Glenconner, née Miss Anne Coke, was Lady in Waiting for thirty years. (This is reminding me of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother racket.) I’ve never been sure just what being a lady in waiting entails (as David Cameron said in another connection, How hard can it be?), but I hope to acquire a passing expertise from this subtly enchanting memoir. I have a favorite anecdote already. 

I’ll give you the punch line, but the rest I’m going to paraphrase, partly to save time but mostly to preserve the freshness of the tale, which like everything in Lady in Waiting owes a lot to the author’s special gift for wisecracks. Her tone is almost invariably kind, warm, generous and amused, but she knows how to make any reader with half a brain fill in the blanks even as she stares levelly out from the page, rightly if a wee bit pharasaically murmuring, “didn’t say that.” For example, this recollection of a state event in then-Swaziland:

Princess Margaret and I sat there, stifling in our English clothes, watching the different things happening in front of us. There were many dance troupes, who moved in perfect unison, and I admired the clothes they wore, knowing how much Colin [Lord Glenconner, the original Piece of Work] would have liked to wear feathers in his hair and parade around to a loud drumbeat.

The schoolgirlish tone of those last words, “parade around to a loud drumbeat,” which so volcanically understates the heart-of-darkness beastliness of her party-mad husband, is what transforms the dig into an excavation. I didn’t say that

The boomerang story involves the wife of the very grand governor of New South Wales. Back in London from an Australian tour with Princess Margaret, Lady Glenconner was approached by the good woman. Would Princess Margaret accept a present? Lady Glenconner, having inquired what it might be, went to tell the princess. “Ma’am, you’ll never guess what Lady Cutler is intending to give you as a present. A boomerang cover.”

Princess Margaret laughed. “How on earth does she know how big my boomerang is?” 

Of course, the cover turned out to be a quilt, embroidered by ladies all over Australia (“which was how it got its name — because it had gone back and forth”). All the more reason to admire Margaret’s quick-draw mastery of the Queen’s English.

***

For forty years, I have lived at the same three-block distance from the mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion, which occupies a corner of Manhattan hitherto but not at the moment unfrequented. I loathe the dull roar of hovering helicopters; I daresay no one likes it. I have gotten used to being out of the way. The noise on Tuesday afternoon was extraordinarily distressing. Yesterday, I ran an errand to Schaller & Weber, half surprised that it was open and doing business as usual. Today, I visited the local discount shop for health and household aids, for the first since it closed back in March, and had the satisfaction of stocking up without having to coach Kathleen. While I was gone, she was distracted by the sound of chanting protesters in the street, and dreadfully worried that I’d been caught up in it. For my part, I didn’t hear a thing until I opened the apartment door coming home. The marchers were on 87th Street, right out the window from where Kathleen was working, and not on 86th, where I had been. As always, the sound suggested a crowd rather bigger than a glance from the balcony revealed it to be. A jolly amble, is what it looked like. Even when I was young, though, it was the sort of thing I didn’t go in for. (4 June)

 

Having had no economic training of any kind, I’m not qualified to judge the Keynes book that I mentioned at the end of May: Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace. But it’s more than “very good.” As usual, the subtitle is a missfire — I wish that publishers would fuss less with subtitles and more with proofreading — because, in this case, “Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” fails to herald the most important aspect of the book, which might in a conventional biography be confined to a brief sequel. In a text of 530-odd pages, Keynes’s life comes to a close by page 370. What follows is the long and sad story of the posthumous mutations inflicted on his ideas in this country. Reading it, I figured out at last why “Keynsian” has never described anything very definite to me. I might have figured out, had I thought about it harder, that Keynes’s trademark “deficit spending” had been perverted by Washington to pay for Vietnam and other follies, instead of improving, as Keynes would have expected, the general welfare. I closed Carter’s book in a thundercloud of disgust. Mind you, not with the book. I recommend the book heartily. Indeed, for any intelligent Anglophone, it’s obligatory reading

Once I was finished with Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting, I pulled down Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret for another look. The handful of stories that they both tell do not seriously conflict, which is reassuring, but Brown is stolidly unsympathetic to the princess, while Glenconner is both friendly and loyal — well, as loyal as one can be when writing a book at all. This is not at all surprising, for Brown not only wrote for Private Eye but never got to know — he may never even have met — his subject, while the lady in waiting was an old friend of the family; she and Margaret had played as little girls. Lady Anne was also scrupulous about observing the formalities; if she ever addressed the princess by name, it does unreported here. I did not find the accounts truly dissonant, because the erratic behavior of an intelligent and curious but uneducated and (it must be said) self-important person is only to be expected. As to the self-importance, it was never enough, alas, to be a royal princess, because Margaret was drawn to bohemian cliques where the creative types, although no less flattered by royal-ish attention than anybody else, did not stand on ceremony; they would have resorted to calling her Maggie or Margot if not kept firmly in line. So they stood on ceremony while she was with them and then made fun of her later. Why didn’t she stay among her own kind, you may ask, to which I can only repeat that she was intelligent and curious. As to the lack of an education, I can see why she hit it off so well with Gore Vidal: both were happy to indulge their shared taste for withering dismissals. In retrospect, her rudeness is amusing, which his isn’t. Both Glenconner and Brown, by the way, retail the note, meant to be very nasty, that “Tony Snapshot” left in his wife’s glove drawer, comparing her to “a Jewish manicurist.” 

Why read about Princess Margaret? I have no answer to that one, although it has something to do with the size of boomerangs. Let’s talk about Hegel instead — such fun! D’you know, I always thought that the “Young Hegelians” were students (ie, young) who studied Hegel for fun. Not so! They were, in fact, students who believed that the mature Hegel had betrayed his younger, apparently more radical ideas. As in, “Young Hegel.” You learn something every day. I learned this from Peter Singer’s dandy Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. It’s Nº 49 in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, and it was just what I was looking for, which was intellectual housekeeping. I have picked up plenty of things about Hegel over the years, and the accumulated mass was greatly in need of organization. Confident that Professor Singer put everything in its appointed place. I am also very impressed by the degree of his attentiveness to language issues. While the problem of translating Geist cannot be overlooked, it can be overworked, and Singer is nothing if not deft and suave. In short, the perfect char. (8 June

¶ Now that I have a diary to consult, I see that I was distracted, last week, by two errands and one grocery delivery. Between those, and copying out the entirety of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” into said diary, I find enough in the way of excuses for not showing up here.

It would be nice, perhaps, to be able to say that I’m finding it difficult to get “back to normal” after all that’s happened (the pandemic, the Floyd furor), but in fact my daily life has never been so normal; during the distancing (I will not call it a quarantine or a lockdown, for it met only a few of the dread limitations of those exciting terms; far better to call it a small-business lockout), I have been able to devote a lot of attention to the household’s pulse, which is a faint thing indeed until it is regulated by the rigid schedules maintained by upper servants. But in the absence of outside distractions (not to mention upper servants), I am bedeviled by internal ones. And of course I don’t count what most people would consider the principle distraction: the amount of reading I do. 

(Which reminds me: it would be useful to develop rules for determining the practical necessity of relative pronouns in writing. Grammatically, of course, they are always necessary. But for the sake of coherence, which is a more important factor, they can often be dispensed with —  although, to my mind, more often not. I’m inspired by the rule that I made for the use of Oxford commas: if the absence of the second, Oxford, comma in the series might possibly render the first one a functional colon (as in, “I dedicate this book to my parents, God and Henry James”), then don’t leave it out. In speech, intonation usually compensates for dropped relative pronouns, but that’s just what can’t be counted on in prose. At least once a week I find myself floundering in a wild misreading that could have been prevented by a simple, if admittedly plodding, “that.”)

All I did yesterday, for example, was read Kudos, the final volume of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy (is that really what she calls it?). There were about five moments when I had to overcome a strong desire to put the book down, and succeeded in doing so only because I was recovering from a minor weekend malady and still frazzled by the accompanying anxiety that it might not be an ordinary minor malady at all but you-know-what, and Kudos was (a) easier to read than Parade’s End, which I’m working on and (b) already in my hands. The book is a peculiar triumph: Whereas Cusk’s narrator (“Faye”; wherever did she get that?) never says and rarely even hints at her impressions of the things that she is told in the course of the action-minimal text, she lets her interlocutors themselves tell you. So that while the surface of the novel is sociable and polite, the sociability and politeness occasionally crystallize into a sharp, stabbing blade, often in a phrase that commences with some version of “To be honest…”) The men in the first (German?) part of the book — Faye’s fellow passenger on the flight out; her publisher; the chap named Ryan (the guide Hermann is a still a boy, not even at university) — are particularly dreadful, rigorously uncritical about the decisions that they’ve made. (Much worse, for these men, than making a bad decision — which, as I’ve said, never happens — is not making a decision at all. Cusk doesn’t say so, but I have already learned that this is because men need resolution.) Ryan, a former writing teacher and converted body-builder who outsources the drabness of “researching” a novel to a flabby female collaborator, is particularly odious. (Not that he’d give a damn if you thought so.) I hated reading about him not least because of his brutally evasive language.

The publisher who is excited by “combustion” could be played by (a younger) Bob Balaban at his most demonically impish. But I haven’t said anything about him yet. He’s at the top of the three passages that follow, which I’ll take up in order. 

“People enjoy combustion!” [the publisher] exclaimed. (38)

He was all for people speaking their minds, but it did make him miss the time when what was beneath the surface had been permitted to stay there. (166)

My son once admitted to me, I said, that when he was younger, he desperately wished he could belong to a different family, such as the family of a friend of his with whom at a certain period in his life he spent a lot of his time. The family was big and noise and easy-going, and there was always room for him at the time, where huge comforting meals were served and where everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing through the mirror, as he had put it, into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility. 

He understood that he had given some of his freedom away, through a desire to avoid or alleviate his suffering, and while it didn’t seem exactly an unfair exchange, I believed he wouldn’t do it again quite so easily. (200, 202)

“Combustion” is a wonderful word, so wickedly gleeful, but Cusk has its larger, more mundane sense in mind: “consumption.” The editor plays a little riff on the recycling of Jane Austen, retooling not only her novels but her life, and culminating, he believes, in a reality show. He is probably quite right to suggest that these pitiful zombies exhaust the material from which they are fashioned, but he sounds like the sort of guy who would frown knowingly at the claim that Price and Prejudice can be read again and again, with increased pleasure. He wouldn’t be a young, presumably hotshot publisher (fresh out of marketing, by the way) if he didn’t put all his eggs in the basket marked “novelty.” He is used to using things up; it’s how his world works. That such an outlook is tolerated above the level of publishing-house mail-room clerk gives a good measure of the extent to which rentier capitalism has confounded a commercial activity in which it has no place. 

The second extract is an indirect expression of something said by the Welsh writer, a figure in the Portuguese second half. That it captures my sentiment exactly does not blind me to its colossal, really rather hilarious inconsistency. Speaking of Jane Austen, it’s a zinger worthy of her, and you don’t run into those every day. But I couldn’t agree more, and to explain I will turn to the third extract, which comes from one the rare passages in which Faye is heard to talk about her own life and family.

The two bits in this third extract constitute the opening and the closing of an anecdote. One key word, “freedom,” appears later than the other, “human fictions,” and it was only when I got to it that my disagreement with Cusk took a clear shape. I have been thinking a lot about freedom, and wondering why it doesn’t mean much to me; why, in particular, the word “freedom” itself is dead in my ear. I suddenly saw, reading Kudos, that my mind fastens on a distantly similar concept, “autonomy.” Here’s the difference: if I am an autonomous man, I can decide whom and whether to marry; nobody makes those decisions for me. But at no point, having married or decided not to marry, am I free to shrug off either the commitment that I have made in marriage or the respect that I owe to the marriages of others. Put more bluntly, I have the raw power but not the freedom to be a fornicator or an adulterer. My autonomy permits me to bind myself and it makes those bonds meaningful, precisely because I retain that raw power to break them, a power that, as an autonomous man, I can exercise only at the risk of tragedy itself. Indeed, it is the nature of my obligations that distinguishes me from the unfree slave. Because “freedom” and “bonds” are so automatically opposed in the way Western languages have come to be spoken, the longing for freedom has degenerated into a childish tic that reminds me of the fake coonskin caps that lucky boys wore with pride during the heyday of Disney’s Davy Crockett. (Consider his nickname: “king of the wild frontier,” and what that tells you about the freedom of others.) No autonomous man can live altogether without the ties that bind human beings in one way or another. 

Now I turn to the other phrase, “human fictions.” Reading this, I had bristled on contact, but now, thinking about freedom and autonomy, I knew how I should rewrite it: “social conventions.” I will be here all day if I start unpacking my replacement, because I am only at the beginning of puzzling out the tremendous mystery that surrounds our tied inabilities, first, to reflect on the good things about humanity without framing them in individualist terms (often quite ridiculously heroic) and, second, to meditate on the terms and conditions with which our daily interactions are formed and enforced without dumping them into a vat of gruelly socialist goop. (Libertarians are as bad at this as communists.) Why doesn’t anybody ever think of comedy? But as this is probably no laughing matter, I will leave you with the wisdom of Jesus (Matthew 19:20):

For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst. 

It would be fair to argue, I think, that Jesus, and certainly Paul, urge us to work tirelessly on creating social conventions that are less fictional and more human. (16 Junes)

 

§ It may seem that I’m going to talk more about Kudos, in this run-on fashion that I’ve apparently been currying — we’ll see. First, a quotation from Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. In the middle of a dark passage about the terrible expertise of English gentlemen at gossip, this made me sit up in bed and perpend: 

She…was aware that in certain dark, full-blooded men the passion for sexual revenge is very lasting… (“Some Do Not…” (Book One), Part Two, Chapter III)

Now, what the devil does this mean? How does one identify a “full-blooded” man? As for “sexual revenge,” who would indulge such a waste of time? 

Well, in answer to the second question, all the ex-husbands mentioned in the Portuguese half of Kudos. That’s who. We don’t meet any of these men in Cusk’s book, but almost every woman who does appear is the ex-wife of such a one. “Sexual revenge” is usually worked through the child — where there has been a marriage, there is always a child in these stories. I’ll give my favorite example only. One little girl says to a friend of her mother’s, “Mama’s always talking about her work … but in fact it isn’t work — what she calls work is what other people would call a hobby. Don’t you agree it’s a bit of a joke?” This very same Mama has just had a call from her mother, who follows up an unreasonable request with a fling of verbal acid:

Look what all your equality has done for you — the men no longer respect you and can treat you like the dirt on their shoe. Your cousin Angela has never worked, she said, and she has been divorced two times and is richer than the queen of England, because she stayed at home and took care of her children and treated them as her asset. But you don’t have a house or any money or even a car, she said, and your child goes around looking like an orphan on the street. You don’t even get her fringe cut,  she said, so it covers her eyes and she can’t see where she’s going. And I said, Mama, Stefano likes her hair that way and he insists that I don’t cut it, so there’s nothing I can do. And she said, I can’t believe I brought such a woman into the world, who allows a man to tell her what to do with her own child’s hair.

It’s so awful it’s funny. But the men aren’t funny.

I honestly don’t know what to make of it, what to make of these men and their pathology, because I can’t imagine thinking about someone you don’t like. I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my life, but pursuing revenge doesn’t seem to be one of them. Trollope says somewhere that we are all avenged, eventually, but will probably never know it. There’s not a lot of satisfaction in that, I suppose, but it’s what I think, too; and the surest way to let off someone who has hurt you is to try to hurt back. Or so I think until I read about the experience of these ex-wives, one of whom says that, if murder ever becomes legal, she’ll be dead before the first minute is out. Not that there seems to be anything that, mere women, they can do.   

The picture of the dark, full-blooded men, lurking no doubt in a dark, well-upholstered corner, makes me laugh — it’s pure Edward Gorey.

Here’s my question, though — since it’s clear that these Latin lovers don’t like women, and don’t like them precisely because they’re not ageless, inflatable dolls. (Deflate and stow when done — now, wouldn’t that suit them.) The question is, how is a woman to know? Well, if she lives in Portugal, I suppose she can take bone-deep misogyny for granted. But how is a nice American girl to know? For the matter of that, how is the boy she’s crazy about supposed to know? How old do you think these men usually are when they realize (if they ever do realize) that, despite their functional heterosexuality, they don’t like women? And do they ever, really? Or do they go on blaming the women for — being women? Are they like the ungifted, stupid criminal who blames his lengthy stays in prison on bad luck?

It would be handy to have a test, perhaps something breezy like the Minnesota Multiphasic. You know how, on that famous questionnaire, the same inquiries keep popping up, but phrased slightly differently so as to catch the unwary. (I hate my mother. No. My mother has caused all my problems. Yes.) The girl could ask to see the results before going out on the first date. (I love women. Yes. Women belong on a pedestal. Yes.)  

I suspect that I am not a full-blooded man. On the contrary, I’m a compleat bourgeois, more interested in peace and quiet than in property itself. The world would presumably be a duller place with more people like me about. But I have never once been asked, not remotely, to “liven things up.” (17 June)  

 

In the current Harper’s, there’s an article about Ireland’s peat bogs, and as I was reading it I came across the name of Bram Stoker, and I said to myself, “DraculaThat’s what I want to read now: Dracula!” And I didn’t even have to order it. I found my copy among the other Penguin Classics, although it belongs to an earlier generation of cover formats. It dates from 1993, in fact, and tucked into I found a bookmarker from the St Mark’s Place Bookstore, which is probably where I bought it. The bookmark gives a fax number but no Internet address. 

Anyway, Dracula. When I read it in college, I was very disappointed. The Transylvanian spectacle turned out to be a wash. Not only was it brief, but the exciting scenery and lurid goings-on were submerged in the ripe, fatuous prose that I had outgrown when I left Poe behind (another disappointment). Worse was to come when the action shifted to England. Vampires in Blighty? Don’t be daft! The language of the two ladies, Lucy and Mina, was vomitrociously sweet, and the plattdeutsch pieties of Van Helsing might have persuaded me that Stoker was paid by the word. 

By 1993, it seems, I was ready to consider a second look, but not ready to take it. 

This time, I couldn’t put it down. The difference had something to do with age, I’m sure, but it’s more clearly got something to do with Wilkie Collins. Although Collins is famous for his ripping yarns, his appeal, I think, lies in the grit and determination of his heroes and heroines. They simply don’t give up. And they always find courageous allies. It’s the moments when the good guys swear to fight to the end that are the most thrilling. I find them enormously encouraging, anyway. 

Wilkie Collins would have handled Dr Van Helsing better — probably much better. The worthy medico from Amsterdam is almost the novel’s real monster. His butchery of English is sui generis, not the plausible effort of a German- or Nederlands-speaker. Worse, he never shuts up. Worst of all, though, his blunders with the treatment of Lucy Westenra are so thoroughgoing — and so “misogynistic” — that they begin to seem deliberate. 

I put “misogynistic” in quotes because it’s the only word rather than the right one. “Misogynist” has come to describe any person or attitude that deprecates women in any way, and this is too broad. It’s also not quite right: the word properly ought to denote a dislike of women, and thus to exclude the very patronizing behavior of men who profess to adore the fair sex. It is this latter failing that marks the five heroes of Dracula. The author himself plays a more ambivalent game, if only to suggest that the men can’t really afford to patronize Mina Harker. Their attempts to protect her are often ineffective, and they have to learn to let her tell them what she needs. Again, Collins would have done a better job, for he truly believed that women are as strong as they need to be, or in any case not appreciably weaker than men under the circumstances. Much as I liked reading Dracula, it worked up an appetite for Collins’s totally natural thriller, The Lady and the Law

 

§ Something rather curious and unlikely happened yesterday. I was taking some shirts to be cleaned down to the package room (a dual-purpose operation), and whilst waiting for the fellow behind the counter to take them, I noticed a book on the counter. It was the kind of clothbound book that I read: thickish, with a black dust jacket graced only by the profile of a young man and some sober lettering. Conservative Revolutionary was the title, but the subtitle made my eyes bulge: The Lives of Lewis Namier. Namier! With a shock, I realized that this was my book!

I ordered it from Amazuke on 1 February, along with two novels by Arnold Bennett. The Bennetts arrived presently, in an intact envelope. Some time later, I happened to notice that, according to Amazon, D W Hayton’s Conservative Revolutionary had also been “despatched,” and ought to have arrived at the same time. I thought about making a fuss, but by now it was March, and one had many more pressing things on one’s mind. From time to time, I would think about the book that I hadn’t received, smolder a little, and forget about it. I had plenty of other things to read, and I wasn’t altogether sure that I’d find the life of Namier as interesting as I hoped. 

Now who is this, you may be asking, this Namier person. Sir Lewis Namier first came to my attention a long, long time ago. I can’t say just how long, but the fact that the book that introduced me to him carries the very first bookplate that I ordered from Antioch, together with the fact that the bookplate is affixed incorrectly (pasted onto the flyleaf rather than the inside cover), dates Herbert Butterfield’s George III and the Historians as one of the first books in my library. I’m pretty sure that I bought it from Marlboro Books, back in the days when the Times often carried an advertising section stuffed with thousands of titles that could be purchased for very little money. The books were often junk, frankly, but I did well with Butterworth, whose Origins of Modern Science (not a Marlboro book) is still an extremely useful introduction. Of course, George III and the Historians went right over my teenaged head; it’s a work of critical historiography, not history. (It’s not about George III but about how historians have treated him.) But I held onto it. 

An entire section of the book is entitled “George III and the Namier School.” Whatever “the Namier School” might be, it was the sort of thing that electrified my adolescent brain. “Namier” sounded sort of French (although not with “Lewis” attached to it), and it was all I could do to resist the conclusion that the Namier School was a going concern in the 1760s, perhaps in opposition to Lord Bute. I took stumbling command of the basic facts from Butterfield: Namier was a historian (duh) who was active between the Twenties and the Fifties. I learned only later that Namier was born Ludwik Bernstein in that corner of the world that still hasn’t entirely settled down and of which the best that can be said is that Lemberg/Lvov/Lviv is its regional capital. Bernstein grew up speaking Polish, disdaining both the Ukrainian of the peasants who worked on his family’s estates and the Yiddish of the shtetlers. Via Lausanne and the LSE, he arrived as an undergraduate at Balliol. In 1910, he changed his name, smoothing off the edges of his father’s Jewish surname, Niemirowski. (Does this make him a relative of Diane Arbus?) Eventually, Namier developed an approach to history that subordinated the role of intellectual to that of cultural life, influenced perhaps (I haven’t got that far in Hayton’s book) by his field of study, the Whig Ascendancy. It is difficult to conceive of an intellectual platform for the party of Walpole; the Tories who supported George III’s attempt to retrieve the reins of of sovereignty were a different story, although perhaps not all that different in the eyes of Sir Lewis Namier. As I say, I haven’t got that far. 

The book was sitting on the counter, just as it’s sitting in front of me now. There was no packaging over or about it. The bottom of the dust jacket was a bit wrinkled and torn, evidence of some heavy weather, but the book itself was in fine shape. Given the war footing on which the package room has been operating since the pandemic began to be a concern (weeks before sheltering was ordered), I can’t be surprised, and certainly not scandalized, by what presumably was minor damage to a package. Happily, my claim to the book was not contested. I daresay the package-room staff had debated tossing it into the garbage, since, without envelope or receipt, it could not be connected with any tenant. Now, it’s true that our apartment building is large, and not inconceivable that someone else hasn’t received a longed-for copy of Hayton’s book. But — probably not. That I should happen to come along at precisely the moment when it was on the table, as it were, is the unlikely part. That the  book meant anything to me in the first place, and why — that’s the curious part. Sure enough, Hayton’s index contains a reference to George III and the Historians. This warms the cockles of my amateur scholar’s heart. (26 June)

 

Δ By appointment, if you please, I got a haircut yesterday. My beard was reduced to stubble. There’s no knowing how long the window will be open, so to speak, and what with three months’ profuse growth and my  barely competent attempts to keep things in trim, there seemed to be little point to trying to shape what remained. In the mirror, I caught myself staring out of the dead-white fringe with the accusing eyes and shriveled ruddiness of a veteran curmudgeon. My forehead seems more engraved than ever with its ancient scowl (surely not wholly unintentional, I’m afraid), and because I still see myself as a vague, mouth-breathing adolescent it is a terrible shock to behold such a stern visage instead. This is followed by immediate relief: I am not a vague, mouth-breathing adolescent. Were we to meet, I’d have some sharp words for that younger self, let me tell you! I wonder how long he’d listen, before making excuses and taking flight. 

After reading the Times this morning, I felt that I had just sat through a not particularly interesting science-fiction film about maddened young people vandalizing the few remaining scraps of civilization. If only I could find something else to do with my hands in the morning! The habit of turning the pages of a newspaper is one of the oldest in my life, but I might as well be sorting a fishmonger’s wrapping-paper for all the good I get out of it. What’s most hateful about the Times these days is its sanctimonious misapprehension that rendering the world even more depressing than it already is merits kudos. 

Now that I am keeping a diary, I can see that I returned to working on the Writing Project not quite two weeks ago; it already feels that I’ve been doing nothing else for months. I set the Writing Project aside at the beginning of 2018, shocked and stung by having asked intelligent people to read such a breezy and shallow account of my life. (All I can say in my defense is that I was afraid of being a bore. ‘Twould have been better to remain silent.) Later in the year, I tried “coming at it from different angles,” but that led nowhere, and then I got sick. Convalescing, took up the Essay, something altogether different. Now that I’m nearly as unhappy with the Essay as I was with the Writing Project, I am trying to make of the latter what it ought to have been, and this time I am blessed — yes, it’s a blessing — by doubts that I have the brains or the skill to do the job.

If I were to keep a notebook in which to  collect fine specimens of the poetry of English prose, I might very well begin with Horace Walpole’s yoked judgments of Queen Augusta and the Earl of Bute (Walpole was writing of the foundering of the young George III’s plans): “a passionate domineering woman, and a favourite without talents.” (quoted in Jeremy Black’s contribution to the Yale English Monarchs, p. 45.) In comparison with the virago of a queen mother, Bute is simply puny. (1 July)

 

§ The education of a good critic begins by finding fault with the world, and it comes to a climax by finding fault with one’s education. Thereafter, the good critic is less interested in finding fault. 

Today, for the first time in my life, I see that the practice of criticism is a vocation, a calling. I’m sure that I’m not the first person to think so. But I intend to contemplate the matter. My offhand impression is that the word, as I intend to use it here and I expect my readers will understand it, does not enjoy anything like so robust a currency in other languages. But even in English the word does not connote a profession. That certain journalists are known as “critics” sheds little light, because there is much about the practice of journalism, which we already recognize as a profession that requires a vocation, that is completely at odds with the value and purpose of criticism. At the top of the list we must put the journalist’s mortal but also vital fear of boring readers. More concededly important is the journalist’s obligation to report the news. 

Take the theatre critic, the writer who reports news about new plays for a newspaper or magazine. The essence, not so much of the training or philosophy that characterize theatre critics as of the writing that they produce, is comparison, for comparison is the essence of theatrical news. Theatre critics compare plays both vertically (in terms of the playwright’s other work) and horizontally (in terms of current and recent shows). They compare performances in a multiplicity of directions, too: the members of a cast to each other, the other work that an actor has done, the better work that other actors have done in the same roles, and so on. Some of these comparisons reach pretty deeply into the social themes that some playwrights address, while others — made by the very same critics — attempt to grasp ephemeral phenomena, in a mad but irresistible attempt to capture the thrill of an exciting evening of theatre. Different as the objects of these comparisons are, the journalist who covers the Rialto will be judged by the felicity of the comparisons themselves. The mot juste about a noted actress may well prove to be more memorable than a truly penetrating insight into Shakespeare. Most readers will be perfectly innocent of the kind of meta-criticism that I am indulging in here. 

Journalists in general, moreover, whether serving as critics or not, are no respecters of persons. One might even say that all journalists are critics. Without getting too bogged down in origin stories, I think we can agree that in modern times it has been found useful not only not to punish but to reward public-affairs faultfinders. How else are we to know that the emperor is naked? We cannot take his word for it — which means that we can’t take his courtiers’ word for it, either. A corollary of this faultfinding role is an insistence upon disinterest. We cannot be expected to pay journalists to exploit their vantage by lining their own pockets or promoting their own friends. 

Yet how, you may ask, is all of this “completely at odds” with criticism? It may take a while to answer that, but preliminarily, you must set journalism aside. If you find yourself thinking of book reviews, you must smack your head and sit up.

But wait: there is much more to the field of book reviewing, as distinct from reviews of other kinds of artistic performance, than journalism. If I were to go through the latest issues of the New York Review or the London Review of Books, I might find very little plain journalism. Fintan O’Toole, for example, has yet another piece about the awfulness of Donald Trump in the new Review. I should say that O’Toole is a political commentator by profession, which means that to some extent he looks like a journalist. But he writes sort of commentary that readers may still find valuable in twenty years or more, when nothing that he has to say can be considered “news” anymore, but will have shaded into a kind of historical record. As I recall, this piece is not a book review at all.

Far more conventional is Michael Gorra’s appraisal of the life and work of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the American expatriate writer of short stories and novels who is familiar to readers of and about Henry James. Library of America has just issued a collection of twenty-three of Woolson’s stories, and Gorra recommends reading it: this is where the news stops. What Gorra’s piece actually amounts to is what used to be called “an appreciation” — a term that ought to jolt unconsidered notions of what criticism really is. For Gorra makes the case that we have overlooked Woolson as a writer — who died, after all, in 1894 — and making cases of this kind is closer to the art practiced by those who are called to be critics than is pointing out writers’ shortcomings. When Gorra writes that “Woolson’s five novels don’t have as much to recommend them,” the net effect is to enhance the value of the stories that he has devoted most of the essay to describing. Good criticism takes it for granted that nothing is perfect, and does not belabor the point. It eschews faultfinding. 

My words about Fintan O’Toole may give the impression that he is a faultfinder, but I doubt that he would waste his time enumerating the president’s personal failures. His point is rather that Trump’s behavior exacerbates tensions and ambivalences that were latent until he came along; arguing that he is a menace to American democracy is far more serious than “faultfinding.”

There are at least two more points to be made. First: good criticism is a necessary ingredient of intelligent understanding. We need to know why good things are good and how they might be better still. Second: there is as yet no suitable job description for the good critic — a role, that is, that is properly remunerated. Who is to pay for the benefit that the good critic provides? Who can be expected to, given the unpleasantness of bad critics? (2 July)

§ 

Like his new American friend, the journalist Walter Lippman, whom he had met in Paris, Keynes was moved to wrath not so much by a “fiery passion for justice and equality” as by “an impatience with how badly society was managed.” This was the new liberal mood. The twentieth-century claim to rule would be based on competence not ideals. Ideals were too costly. 

Thus Lord Skidelsky on Keynes, in the afterwar, following the catastrophe (to his thinking) of the Treaty of Versailles. The three sentences end the second paragraph of his chapter, “Keynes in the 1920s.”

I will not be writing much about Keynes here, although I do keep him in mind, because he exemplifies a moment in the development of the ideal that the thinkers of the Enlightenment called “rational government,” or words to that effect. “Competence not ideals.” My first question, of course, is how do you manage competence? Where, for example, would Cardinal Richelieu fit in the dichotomy? The second question is a refinement of the first: how do you manage competence in a universal-franchise democracy? The second question is the one that confronts us today, and the answers that come to mind are not pleasant. 

I brought up Cardinal Richelieu because he was certainly competent, and he never let ideals get in the way of his projects. But nobody today would accept Richelieu as a model statesman, probably not even Henry Kissinger. Because the things that Richelieu was good at are now considered bad — wicked, evil, even — his fame has been canceled. (His statues and portraits are so old, though, that they can survive as works of art, not monuments.) You could say that his project was a good one: he meant to make France stable and strong. But anybody can adopt a project like that. It’s how you go about putting it into effect that matters, and about ways and means Richelieu was as almost as amoral as a virus. His open-secret support of a Protestant power (Sweden) in a war against a Catholic rival (the Empire) was a scandal from which Christendom could not and did not recover. (The French also had a history of backing the Turks against the Empire, than which anything more Satanic is difficult to imagine, but the objective was diversionary, not mortal.) And what about Robert E Lee? I was taught that he was an exceptionally able general who fought for a doomed cause, but, like Richelieu’s, his ability no longer saves his reputation. It appears that competence must follow ideals — it must accord with them. I must make it clear right now that I regard ideals as childish things unsuitable for adult consideration. Not because I’m a heartless cynic but because I believe that ideals in and of themselves make it impossible for us to do well enough — and well enough is the best that we shall ever attain.

To return to the question of competence, though: how do you train experts in a democracy? How do you teach them to be persuasive? And how do you persuade voters (ie everybody) to be persuadable? Lots of people, you may have noticed in the past couple of months, regard it as their god-given right to make up their minds for themselves, a policy that, insofar as newly-deadly microbes are the issue, leaves them with little to fall back on besides their own ignorance. How can I make up my mind whether it is necessary to wear a face mask? And how can I wait until you come up with a healthy answer? How can I be sure that you’re an expert?

I am inclined to believe that we are at the other end of an experiment that was getting underway when Keynes seriously undertook to promote himself as a public expert. We have invested immense resources in the production of a meritocracy, relying perhaps too heavily on professional credentials (which are fairly easy to establish with objective measurements) and too lightly on character and fitness (much harder both to discern and to agree on). The élites that we have entrusted with our welfare have done such a bad job of it that no one will take responsibility for anything: we all but openly declare our incompetence.  

Several chapters after the one that I mentioned, Lord Skidelsky sketches reactions to Keynes’s Tract on Monetary Reform

What most worried the sceptics as Keynes’s assumption of omniscience and incorruptibility on the part of his putative managers. Josiah Stamp, a fellow mandarin, found dismaying Keynes’s “desertion of the best physical base (gold) for what may or may not be our best mental basis, the basis of day-to-day judgement. For one who often finds the living occupants of our most reputable national institutions so lacking in true qualifications for their task, he [Keynes] shows a surprising confidence in the the effective of human agency for giving theory a perfect touch in practice.”

Somewhere in between these passages, Skidelsky describes Keynes as “cool” towards democracy, another point of agreement with the philosophes.(13 July)

 

Δ Ever since the pandemic swept over New York, somewhere on the cusp of February and March, I have resisted writing about how unsettling it has been. “Unsettling” might be faulted as a lightweight euphemism for anxieties and fears — anxieties concern what might happen, fears what is happening; I have only to point out the distinction to show how unstable it is — but from the standpoint of a housekeeper, even slight disturbances ripple abrasively through the fabric of everyday life. It can be difficult to pursue the banalities of domestic order (among which figures the production of appetizing dinners) when the world seems about to come to an end. Unthinking routines can also provide a respite from dread, certainly, but they don’t do so, at least for me, altogether reliably. 

Dangerous as it is, the Wuhan virus doesn’t quite threaten the end of the world, and if I had nothing but the pandemic to worry about my heart would be much lighter. The terrible thing about the pest so far is that it has not been possible to imagine a place on earth that is safe from it, where the inhabitants needn’t give it a thought. There is no imaginary escape from the disease that does not depend on plain old science fiction. But vastly more demoralizing is the worldwide political scene, a tumult of angry and aggressive crowds that really do seem to will the end of the world. An end to this world, the one that we know more or less well. The pandemic has ignited the tinder of widespread discontent. And for the first time in my life, this discontent does not seem to be distributed among faraway places, but concentrated right here in the United States, where multiple social failures, most of them long-running, inadequately tended sores, have become impossible to ignore. The fact (and I claim it as one) that I wasn’t ignoring these problems affords no comfort at all, quite the contrary; for I am a critic by nature and critics are rare. (They are not to be confused with complainers.) If anything, the current upset makes me wonder if critics are of any use at all, if they are not all Cassandras — cursed not by the gods but by the curves of human nature. 

Why write about these things? Everybody is already distressed by the coincidence of illness and unrest. And in my corner of the world, and from my personal perspective, life goes on without much change. Yes, we are wearing face masks, and no, the restaurants are not quite seating diners indoors. But if that’s the extent of novelty, and if one is an elderly man who has avoided crowds for years and even lost, if not his taste, then the keenness of his taste for concerts, there is simply no warrant to fuss. At the same time, though, it has manifestly interrupted my relationship with this blog. If I’m not going to make a fuss about these awful times, then what am I going to do? Write about how lovely my private life has been? But it hasn’t been lovely at all, because even at the best of times I’m high-strung and self-consciously dependent on creature comforts, on top of which I’m now also an old man, with a respectable portfolio of health issues. Two weeks from today, according to the current schedule, I’ll undergo outpatient foot surgery that will lay me up for at least a month afterward. Do you want to hear more about that? Don’t worry; I know how to present it in an attractive way. By which I mean a way that will hold your attention while making you very happy, possibly even ecstatic, that you do not have to undergo such inconvenience. (Another non-euphemism.) Both the reading and the writing of that sort of thing, however, I consider something of a waste of time. 

Which leaves me, alas, with silence.

Happily, there is Lord Skidelsky’s huge biography of Maynard Keynes. It goes on and on as if in perpetual demonstration of my new conviction that Keynes, a genuinely entertaining impocerous,  was only incidentally an economist, and essentially a humanist. More anon! (20 July)   

 

When I reflect that, for the time being, nobody is doing much of anything, much less going anywhere, it occurs to me that this is probably the ideal time for picking up a handy little book about a vision of the future that’s not only much nicer than right now but better, I think, than the future that we were worried about before the pandemic descended. This is the future that we will create when we start weaving a new normal that just might be an improvement on the one we’ve had to leave behind. The book that I’m talking about is Nick Jelley’s Renewable Energy, a topic well worth thinking about as we contemplate how not — most emphatically not — to renew the way we used to live now. It is also a book that we can enjoy without, for once, feeling guilty about our huge carbon footprints, because they’ve never been so small. 

Renewable Energy reminds me of the daily updates issued by Liz Krueger, who represents our district in the New York State Assembly. As a source of news about the pandemic, these updates are serious and thoughtful, but they’re also cheerful and reassuring. They do not scold. They may tap their feet with impatience if too many people are seen in the street not wearing masks, but for those of us who are wearing masks even these little frowns are heartening. So it is with Renewable Energy. The problem that Nick Jelley addresses, although vastly different in scale and duration (I hope), is not so very different in nature. There are things that we are going to have to do differently if we want to stay alive on Planet Earth. We are going to have to stop using up, in a matter of seconds, fuel resources that it took tens of millions of years to produce. We are going to have to stop burning things just to get around. Renewable Energy shows us not so much how hard the road ahead is going to be but how far we’ve already come. We are going to have to make some changes, and soon, but Nick Jelley makes it possible to imagine that we can do so without fuss, panic, or pseudoapocalypse. 

This contribution to Oxford’s series of Very Short Introductions is so slim and brisk that my attempts to summarize it — you know me — may outbulk it. There is little need for me to point out that wind and sunlight provide very promising alternatives to coal and oil — wind, especially, is much more than “promising.” Renewable Energy provides a context in which to map thinking about these alternatives, about their costs and limitations, about realistic expectations of output, and about further alternatives. Changes in the ways of storing and transporting power are also surveyed. Since I have spent  as much time as the next sanguine fellow holding my head in despair about the future of our environment, the great virtue of Renewable Energy for me was organizational, but, believe me, the sense of proportion that it imparts is not merely decorative. And I did have to learn something. I had, prior to reading this book, confused solar technologies that directly utilize the sun’s heat as a fuel with the technology that transforms it into electricity by means of photovoltaic cells, which involve some tricky engineering. Actually, Renewable Energy is studded with hard information that  helps me to assess journalistic prognoses, whether they be pie-in-the-sky or gloomy-gus. 

Confronted with the nightmare of climate change, we shrug and ask, What can do? To which I say: Calm down, and read this book. (24 July

 

§ As I come to the end of Lord Skidelsky’s biography of Maynard Keynes, I see Keynes clearly as a humanist philosopher rather like Plato in one key respect (and unlike him in almost all others): Keynes enjoyed considerable political influence. Whitehall turned out to welcome his ideas far more encouragingly than King Dionysus did Plato’s. Whether it was his training in the ethics of GE Moore or not, Keynes appears to have begun his adult life with the conviction that life ought to be decent and safe for everybody, not just for the rich. I have taken to thinking of him as the philosopher of prosperity

I would distinguish the idea of prosperity from the affluence that John Kenneth Galbraith disparaged in his famous book on the subject, The Affluent Society. I would probably take a very paternalistic interest in the characteristic look and feel of prosperity — it wouldn’t include big-screen TVs or retirement colonies in foreign countries. A healthy diet of broccoli — in the alternative, a diet of healthy broccoli — would be a staple feature. The secret to making my program palatable would be a reconsidered approach to education: I would like to teach people, above all, to enjoy life. This paragraph is by way of making it clear that I’m aware of the “moral hazards” of prosperity, especially prosperity that’s a social given, there for the taking. What protects prosperity from those hazards is its preference for contentment over ostentation. Here we find the seeds of an economic hazard: the showing-off indulged by affluent society naturally leads to a much greater consumption of unnecessary junk. With its roots in the commercial activity of the early modern world, before industrialization and whizbang technology, economics has never effectively distinguished between non-obsolescent valuables and utter crap. 

Liberté, fraternité, égalité — the tocsin of social upheaval. With fraternité I will have nothing to do: it is insulting nonsense. I know who my brothers are, and most people are not them. If nothing else, the idea that all men are brothers is disgustingly presumptuous. Two people locked in a common predicament might form a lasting bond that deserves the name, but they might just as easily establish a profound mutual hatred; as Chapter 4 of Genesis is there to remind us, mere fraternity is not bound to virtue. We are necessarily perfect strangers to almost everyone else on earth, and likely never to be more than imperfect neighbors. 

Liberty and equality, however, not only sound like good things but really are — and yet they do not consort well. I place them, politically, at opposite extremes. On the right, we see the libertarians who sincerely, if stupidly, believe that they did it their way, and that if you can’t figure out how to do it your way, don’t come crying to them. On the left, the egalitarians fall quickly into leveling and ressentiment: if there isn’t enough for everybody in class to enjoy a piece of the treat, then nobody shall have any. It is only in the liberal middle — Skidelsky calls it at one point “the clever center” — that individuals come to terms as individuals, or, in other words, as imperfect neighbors. The nurture of this center was the principal object of Keynes’s thinking about macroeconomics, whatever his theories. In the long run, we are all dead, and in the short run, there will be revolution if too many of us don’t have a job, jobs being the best key to prosperity available to those not lucky enough to inherit it. It is a typically English — Skidelsky might call it Edwardian — blend of good will toward men and good sense. 

The first thing to be grasped firmly about Keynes from now on is that he did not invent a machine for the regulation of commerce, money, banking, finance, or international trade. He did not create foolproof devices for repairing disabled economies. What was new about Keynes, if anything, was his energetic dismissal of rationality and calculus whenever they interfered with a humane assessment of the given situation. So much of his rudeness seems to have taken the form of accusing his adversaries of limited intelligence! His great discovery may have been that, in the long run, selfishness is a kind of stupidity, if not invariably fatal then often enough soul-crushing. At the very least, it must be acknowledged that we are all so naturally selfish that the characteristic requires no husbanding. Selfishness can be hard work, but it is almost always intellectually vacant. 

But this might sound romantic. Keynes’s achievement was rigorous. He inverted the very idea of economics by transforming it from an ostensible body of universal rules — the physics of money that bewitched Ricardo — into a kit of tools, to be used at the economist’s discretion. In the long run as in the short run, we are the only ones in charge.  (27 July)

 

Δ Yesterday, I was tested for COVID — with swabs up the nostrils. This morning, I read the results on my phone: “Not detected.” This good news was confirmed by the nurse who called in the afternoon to give me some information about Monday’s procedures. More good news: contrary to what I’d been advised earlier, I can drink as much water as I want to after midnight the night before (until ten in the morning). The focus of my anxieties, which are always steaming at a steady rate, had narrowed to the prospect of one relative minor agony, going through the night without sips of water. (Typically, I drink at least a cupful — eight ounces.) I knew I’d be miserable without, so now I’m corresponding delighted. Being laid up for a month is going to be — demanding. But I’m resigned to it, really, and months of sheltering have taught me that even when nothing is happening time flies by. All I have to do is to let my toes heal.

I didn’t realize what a relief it would be to know that I haven’t been infected by the virus until tears began flowing while I was listening to Brahms. By no means a hardened hypochondriac, I’m nonetheless cursed with an imagination that came without brakes: once the descent begins, there’s no stopping it. As a result, I’ve “come down” with the coronavirus at least a dozen times, at least three of them bad enough to keep me awake. (Usually, the “symptoms” fade away once I’ve stopped thinking about them.) I believe that almost everybody has had something like the same experience(s). Most of the time, worrying about the infection is pitched just over the horizon, so that I can’t see that I’m afraid. But I am. And I know that the result of yesterday’s test means nothing, really. I could wander out of the building recklessly and contract the disease — although, come to think of it, that might be difficult here in Yorkville because everybody wears a mask, and I do mean everybody, and everyone keeps a distance. We’ve all adjusted that city thing of living close to a lot of strangers without giving it a thought, so that we’re no longer so close. What’s frightening is realizing that I’ve run an errand and not given contagion a thought. Washing my hands was already a routine. But still, the test means “so far.” As long as it’s out there, anyone can catch it. 

But for this glorious moment, I am officially Not Detected. (the attorney in me appreciates the phrasing.) Deep in the heart of me, I’m aware of this. I was listening to Brahms’s short choral masterpieces, and in the middle of the Alto Rhapsody, my eyes flooded over. It was as though I’d never heard the work before, or learned the words. 

And in truth, I had never followed the score, which is what I was doing today. I’ve been “reading” a lot of Brahms lately, learning what the music looks like. There is always something to learn from this. Quite often I “see” a note that I’ve never heard, or realize that a phrase begun in the winds ends in the strings. What’s particularly striking about Brahms is an attention to detail that is both hypertrophic and barely perceptible. But this is not the place to try to explain Brahms’s magisterial reconciliation of the learned and the impassioned; like Bach, he was miraculously pulled in one direction by both at the same time. But I did learn that the cello line in the serene part of the Schicksalslied — the Song of Destiny — shares an identical pattern with the passacaglia of Handel’s Organ Concerto Op 7 Nº 5. I’d never noticed the similarity, but I recognized it as soon as I saw it. Needless to say, the Schicksalslied and the Organ Concerto do not “sound alike.” But it’s important to remember that composers write with their eyes, not their ears. There is a literate, if not exactly literary, angle to music that is easy to overlook.  

So that’s a good reason to follow scores, especially when I already know the music by heart (as a mere listener, I hasten to say). Another advantage is that the score — the mere fact of the notes on the page (and so many of them!) — pierces the crust of familiarity that can obscure parts of the things that we know best. Today, it was the tragedy of the choral works that freshly knocked me down. (The third one was Nänie — Dirge in English; the German comes from the Latin, naenia). By “tragedy” I mean the sense we mere mortals will never enjoy the peace and love that we can so easily imagine that we have created a parallel universe in the skies and populated it with gods of one kind or another. What distinguishes this tragedy from fairy tales is that it makes no difference whether you believe that the gods are real, because sometimes you know, at a level and with an intensity not amenable to belief, that they are. 

Of the three pieces that I listened to this afternoon (having bought yet another of those dandy Dover editions that are as crisp and easy to read as their Breitkopf & Härtel originals), the poems by Schiller (Nänie) and Hölderlin (Schicksalslied) recall the Greek pantheon; Goethe, in the excerpt from Harzreise in Winter that Brahms sets for the Alto Rhapsody, addresses a “Father of Love” without any specification of divinity. The first two poems draw a clear line between Here Below and Up There, and that line is of course the fact of death, synecdoche for pain of every kind. This doesn’t prevent Schiller’s gods and goddesses from weeping at the death of beautiful mortals, but it’s hard to doubt that their weeping is no more painful than mine, as I listen to the music. For what Brahms brings to this age-old division is a plausible peep of superlunary perfection. The music seems to know what it sounds like when gods and goddesses weep — it isn’t sad. There is an awful grandeur about the rhythm of the music that is too spare to be pompous; as I say, we’re given only a peep. But the vision simply intensifies what it feels like to be human. The “Here Below” part of Schicksalslied is a raging, angry comparison of our lot to water “thrown” down from cliff to cliff; the gods, in contrast, enjoy “eternal clarity.”

The Alto Rhapsody, which is certainly the best known of the three, is closer to the appeal of a prayer — it imagines that something might be changed. The poet sings of a young man who has been crushed by the disappointment of love; something more than romance gone wrong is strongly suggested. Here, a solo contralto is accompanied by a male chorus, an unsurprising configuration in a culture abounding in singing societies. Brahms’s melody for the prayer (“Is there, Father of Love, a sound on your psalter that can comfort his ear?” — comfort being a very loose translation) seems even more inevitable and perfect than Goethe’s lines. Come to think of it, can you name a great composer who looked more like God?

For the first time in my life, I actually felt pity for Goethe’s young man. I listened to the music in a way that amounted to joining in the prayer. And that’s what flooded my eyes. Cynics will sneer at self-pity, but I believe that it’s precisely because I wasn’t thinking of myself, or at any rate of myself-stuck-in-the-pandemic-with-surgery-coming-up, that my heart overflowed. What a joy to swap the nitzy fretting that has blotched so many of my days for a moment of sublime sorrow! 

I don’t know how long it will be before I can sit up long and comfortably enough to write the next entry, but I daresay the longed-for vaccine will still rest in the future when I do. Assuming that I do write again, it will be lucky for everyone if I’m wrong about that. (31 July)

Spring 2020

Monday, April 13th, 2020

§ Veal Stew, Disappointment
¶ Sophie’s ChoiceStyron’s Myth
§ Nickels
¶ “Youth”
§ Frightening and Lugubrious
Δ Sirens, Gratuitous
¶ By a Lake, More Conrad, Novel List
§ “Not a Fabulist”
, Brand New Chairman?
¶ Apparatus of Happiness
, Playing House
Δ Inception

§ How am I doing? The short answer: there’s a veal stew in the oven, filling the air with the muted but rich fragrance of meat and aromatics simmering in a casserole. (The aromatics are leeks and sage.) I bought the veal at Schaller & Weber; the leeks arrived this afternoon, from Zabar’s. We will get four or more dinners out of the stew, all of them both delicious and effortless — assuming, of course, that the end of the world doesn’t intervene. Right now, anyway, I’m just fine. 

Because the stew is best if it sits overnight before the juices are strained for the sauce, we’ll be having macaroni and cheese this evening. John Thorne’s recipe, of course. (He attributed it to Pearl Bailey. — didn’t he? The cookbook will fall apart if I open it.) Actually, I don’t follow the recipe anymore. Just the basic idea: make the sauce with an egg, not a béchamel.  

On the other hand, we’re only halfway through April. Because Kathleen just read Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, we watched both Chinatown and The Two Jakes over the weekend, and I found both, under the circumstances, several degrees bleaker — Chinatown, especially. For the first time, I noticed the change of tempo that bubbles up in the orange-grove scene. Until then, the film has proceeded at an almost bewitching adagio, taking the time to lavish attention on its many elegant period details. Thereafter, the gear shifts to più mosso, and the atmosphere becomes hasty. It’s a messy haste, because Jake Gittes isn’t quite clever enough to stay ahead of the bad guys. In The Two Jakes, this haste prevails throughout, telling us more about the director than his leading character, who is — big loss — no longer an insolent, adorable puppy. 

I’m heaving through the third quarter of Sophie’s Choice. Something has happened to me since the last time I read it. I don’t like Styron’s verbal flourishes as much as I used to, and sometimes I simply hate them. Just now, I was snagged by “amok flambeau,” meant to be descriptive of New England’s fall foliage, but so little suggestive of New England that it’s jarring to remember that Styron spent so much of his later life in rural Connecticut. Earlier, I choked on Styron’s take on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: “inebriate psalm to the flowering globe.” That it actually scans just makes it inexcusable.  

Then there are the mistakes. The flutes in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K364. (Unthinkable in several ways.) The “main Brooklyn branch of the New York Public Library.” (Brooklyn, once a mighty independent city, has its own library system. So does Queens County, for that matter.) The carelessness of these errors, unimportant in themselves, is emphasized by the tone of documentary exactitude with which we are informed of the horrors of the Holocaust. Every little word counts in this novel, because it constitutes nothing less than the ontology of a major writer.  

The other big book that I’m reading is not unrelated, Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. This is “original” Foner study of the subject, and of course I ought to have read it years ago. Even though I’m only just beginning to read about Radical Reconstruction, the book has already shifted the foundations of my thinking about our tragic past. I used to think that the Civil War accomplished, really, nothing. Now I find it hard not to imagine that, left to its Secessionist self, the South — more properly, the “upcountry” Southern yeomen who hated both slavery and blacks — might have organized a Final Solution of their own. (13 April 2020)

§ The veal stew is a disappointment. It’s not very savory. The meat seems to have been terribly overcooked, meaning, paradoxically, that it may have been too good to stew, or at least to stew for as long as it did (following a recipe that has never let me down over thirty years). I’ll freshen up future servings with mushrooms and spring onions, sautéing the first and leaving the latter raw, but the improvement will be just worth the trouble and no more. We won’t starve, but I was counting on a deep satisfaction to make me forget, at least during dinner, this strangely attenuated ordeal.

Attenuated for us, I know. Unlike so many people in the metropolitan area, we are neither sick nor unemployed. I read of an out-of-work nanny who shares a small flat with several other women; they eat one meal a day. Meanwhile, farm produce, for want of distribution, goes to waste. In the space of a few weeks, attempts to thwart the pandemic, which has taken many lives, have upended many more. From us, nothing more than patience seems to be demanded: we have been very lucky. 

Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to read Sophie’s Choice. (14 April 2020)

 

To read Sophie’s Choice now, in 2020, when the novel is nearly twice as old as its narrator, can’t be a mistake, exactly, but it might be that the time is not right for any kind of assessment. The kind of assessment that I am bound to make is necessarily that of someone who read the book when it was new, or new-ish. What I see now is what I saw then: a big, important novel. The difference is that it was a big, important novel then and now it is the relic of that book. It may have become something else, but I am reminded on every page that this is what seemed important and/or fascinating back in the early Eighties — back when I was in my early thirties. Not only were the themes important — of an ultimate importance, really — but Styron had rigorously observed the commandment to “make it new.” Of the novel’s two principal settings, it was the Brooklyn neighborhood south of Park Slope that seemed exotic, not the Polish locations, and this was a mark of William Styron’s artistry. (Heavens, that a notoriously “Southern” writer had ever gone to Brooklyn otherwise than by taking the wrong subway was intriguing.) There were two kinds of Jews in the book, doomed Europeans and domesticated Americans, and even as background characters they formed very distinct groups. The Jew in the foreground, Nathan Landau, had never been to Europe, much less to a death camp; even odder, the death-camp survivor was a goy. And the narrator was both a Marine Corps veteran of World War II and a virgin, all the way to the climax before the climax. Finally, in a masterstroke that disinfected Sophie’s Choice from the mustiness of once-upon-a-time — 1947, the novel’s year, was all but unsurpassable as a date from ancient history — Styron created a leading man who was not only handsome and brilliant but a pill-popping paranoid schizophrenic. 

And of course there is lots and lots and lots of — sex? 

I looked up at the ceiling in alarm. The lamp fixture jerked and wobbled like a puppet on a string. Roseate dust sifted down from the plaster, and I half expected the four feet of the bed to come plunging through. It was terrifying — no mere copulatory rite but a tournament, a rumpus, a free-for-all, a Rose Bowl, a jamboree. The diction was in some form of English, garbled and exotically accented, but I had no need to know the words. What resulted was impressionistic. Male and female, the two voices comprised a cheering section, calling out such exhortations as I had never heard. Nor had I ever listened to such goads to better effort — to slacken off, to push on, to go harder, faster, deeper — not such huzzahs over gained first downs, such groans of despair over lost yardage, such shrill advice as to where to put the ball. And I  could not have heard it more clearly had I been wearing special earphones. Clear it was, and of heroic length. Unending minutes the struggle seemed to last, and I sat there sighing to myself until it was suddenly over and the participants had gone, literally, to the showers.

Presumably, what Stingo has overheard has very serious reproductive possibilities, but what drifts off the page along with the roseate dust is the impression that sexual congress is best understood, certainly best represented in a work of American literature, as a contact sport. Sport, after all, is far more familiar to men like Stingo than love-making. Love-making is ambiguous; the American boy wants to know: first base, second base, third base, or home? Stingo’s kind of sex has definite rules: there must be throbbing erogenous zones, preferably naked. Penises and pussies and whatnot are itemized, like the commodities on a bill of lading, to make it easier to score — easier for the reader, I hasten to add, to score, qua reader. The fact that young men have hard-ons at the darnedest times, the more inappropriate the better, was the stamp of high-church confessional sex-writing in those days; persistent frustration not only made it “funny” but preserved it from the swamp of pornography. Note, of course, that the frustration is an element of the novel’s historical angle: the writer is quite aware that it has largely evaporated from the atmosphere breathed by twenty year-olds at the time of writing. Sex, in the Seventies, was not only easier to enjoy but permissible to write about. Permit me to fasten on a personal experience of the transition: reading E L Doctorow’s Ragtime (at least as big a hit as Sophie’s Choice) some time after my mother told me that she had enjoyed it, I turned strange colors and fell into syncope upon encountering the word fuck, which I simply could not have imagined my mother’s reading. I suppose it’s quite literally correct to say that America discovered sex in that yeasty decade. (As a perhaps unintentional sign that there remained much to discover in detail, Styron rushes Stingo in and out of a light hangover of doubts about “faggot propensities” in the space of fifteen pages, signaled but not, shall we say, delved into. After all, Styron’s overall point was to insist —however exotically — that sex is not exotic.) Many books of the time celebrate the mere fact of sexuality. Unfortunately for Sophie’s Choice, the novelty has worn off. 

Similarly, I feel that there is too much Auschwitz, particularly for the second reading. The great bulk of the material, set in the off-key bourgeois household of the camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss, could be slimmed down by half at least. (The encounters with the housekeeper, Wilhelmine, and with Emmi, the daughter, well done in themselves, are somewhat de trop, heightening the pile-up of Sophie’s shaming somewhat beyond visibility.) In my view, we have grown beyond the initially natural response of attempting to dismiss the death camps as unspeakable. If nothing else, we know that this is manifestly untrue, that there is always something more to say. Something unspeakable did happen at the camps, over and over again, millions of times, and to get an idea of what that was, or might have been, Karl Ove Knausgaard is wise to steer us toward Paul Celan’s poem, “Engführung.” But that the camps themselves were kinds of factories is a very speakable horror. Their construction was an arguably inevitable outcome of the half-baked pseudoscience that half-educated minds have appropriated from sketchy Enlightenment projects from the revolutionary tumults of the late Eighteenth Century through to the present day (transhumanism?). We don’t begin to know enough about this man-made junk. The most awe-ful book about the Holocaust, in my opinion, is Gitta Sereny’s Into that Darkness, an extended interview that dispenses altogether with Gothic touches on the order of Styron’s white stallion. It is essential to see Auschwitz outside the framework of entertainment — without, that is, exciting the reader’s sympathies and anxieties. Only by stripping away intoxicating excitements can we protect ourselves from somehow, “same but different,” recreating it.  (15 April 2020)

What each of the foregoing objections points to is the truly important thing about Sophie’s Choice, which is Styron’s myth, for both are, arguably, excessive distractions from this main event. Styron may have put Sophie in the novel’s title, but the novel’s story is his own. From first to last, Sophie’s Choice tells of the adventure that a callow young Virginian has on his way to becoming a writer, and not just any kind of writer, but a writer of epics. Along the way, he meets a woman whose adventures are considerably more vivid than his own, but nonetheless not epic. Sophie’s story is another kind of tale, a metamorphosis, a transfiguration. At the end, while Stingo, although very much alive, is literally planted in the earth, Sophie is transported to the heavens in a kind of apotheosis, accompanied by her mad lover Nathan. This world is not for her; at the same moment, it finally becomes Stingo’s true home.

Epics are spliced together from travels, and the very first sentence undertakes a journey: “…so I had to move to Brooklyn.” Before we get to Brooklyn, though, we have to know why, money aside, our narrator has to leave Manhattan. (And why he has been in Manhattan.) The problem is that he can’t write there. Possessed by the idea of a novel, a very specific novel that only he can write, he cannot (quoting Gertrude Stein on blocked genius) “pour” the “syrup” Manhattan has been fouled for him in  two basic ways. The cubicle in which he sleeps is a sordid hovel from which his only view is of an unattainable Elysian garden. Worse, the job at which he earns his keep is a mockery; it condemns him to write, not the masterpiece aborning within him, but useless summaries of amateur scribblings that will never be punished. 

Without being willing quite fully to admit it, I had begun to detest my charade of a job. I was not an editor, but a writer — a writer with the same ardor and soaring wings of the Melville or the Flaubert or the Tolstoy or the Fitzgerald who had the power to rip my heart out and keep a part of it and who each night, separately and together, were summoning me to their incomparable vocation.

This is a summons to travel in a different dimension, no doubt the hardest kind of travel to write about, and, happily, Styron does not waste a lot of time on it. For what is there to say about journeys in words that does not overwrite the battles that the heroic writer fights? The act of writing is doubly indescribable, not only microscopically tedious but, if successful, self-erasing. When the job is done, signs of effort ebb altogether off the page, leaving only an exhausted writer who may feel the need for a stiff drink. And from all his agonizing labor the writer learns nothing, for once again tomorrow his only tool will be trial-and-error. But before the writer can write he must see, and what he must see is that he not only understands nothing but will never understand anything except by capturing this truth, paradoxical as it is, in words. As befits the self-consciously macho enterprise of the heroic writer, work must begin with demolition, and demolition is the true subject of Sophie’s Choice. Sophie’s world is destroyed, of course, but beneath that, so is Stingo’s: a son of the South he may be, but he will never return to live there. Between Stingo and the cozy dream of a backwoods peanut farm lies the impassable rubble of a nightmare. In Manhattan, Stingo knew no one and therefore could learn nothing. In Brooklyn, he meets two larger-than-life figures who lure him through the traps of his own disappointment. These are the adventures that must be completed before he can sit down with pencil and paper — decades later. 

It might be amusing, but it would certainly be precious, to map the correspondences of Sophie’s Choice to The Odyssey and The Aeneid. This is not a novel to deconstruct, I think, along the lines of Ulysses. It is enough for the reader to sense the resonance of a great ambition. At the end, the author relays the narrator’s determination “to write about Sophie’s life and death.” But the realization of that ambition is not the only one manifest in the book that we hold in our hand. There is, inextricable from it, the ambition to be capable of telling such a story. My complaint is that Styron’s realization of this deeper ambition is clouded by the indulgence of two of the literary fashions of the time in which Styron wrote. (Or perhaps the problem is that they are not literary fashions.) The hopes that Styron had for the success of his career are expressed many times in Sophie’s Choice — most annoyingly so with the references to Nat Turner, the subject of a book that Stingo would write and that Styron had written. The future of Sophie’s Choice depends, I think, on the reception of the two distractions that I have mentioned. If Styron is lucky, Stingo’s hard-ons will wear down to the unobtrusiveness of Homer’s epithets. (16 April 2020)

 

§ What, I asked when I had done with Sophie’s Choice, would I read next? Kathleen reminded me that I had mentioned Daniel Deronda as something that I might like to re-read, so I pulled it down from the shelf — an Everyman’s Library edition that had never been opened, as one could tell from the undisturbed placemarking ribbon still folded neatly into the pages.

We talked about the opening scene, set at Baden I presume, in a casino both luxurious and shopworn. This occasioned the sort of repetition of certain previously disclosed truths and previously made remarks that happens in the course of a long marriage when something a little unusual is touched upon, in this case, gambling. Regarding gambling, Kathleen always begins by saying that she has no taste for it. Whatsoever. Whereupon I reply that any inclination to gamble that I might have had was systematically stripped away in childhood, by a bet that I made with my mother when I was about nine or ten. 

I say “systematically” because I lost the bet not once but over and over and over again, until and beyond the point at which I thought I might start screaming or sobbing. Instead of which, my soul withered up in exasperation. It was a fine day in early spring, sunny and breezy and really delightful. It was the sort of daffodil day that trumpets the end of winter: we won’t be freezing again for a while. What I had to learn was that this did not mean that summer was icumen in — not yet. But that’s not the lesson that I learned that day. I learned that lesson much later, on a January weekend in Indiana, when it turned out to have been a big mistake to mosey around the quad after lunch in shorts and shirtsleeves, even though it was “almost hot in the sun.” On the earlier day in April, I learned about the horrors of gambling — or at least I thought I did. 

It was such a fine day, I said, that every convertible on the road was sure to have its top down. “Nickel a car,” wagered my mother. For the first and last time in my life, I took her up on it. 

I don’t remember why my mother and I were in the car. We might have been running an errand to the store, but it turned into more than that — into an occasion for me to keep losing. We pulled out of the driveway and drove up to New Rochelle Road. Traffic wasn’t very heavy. In the short time it took for the car to swing by the club onto Pondfield Road, I yielded to what I knew was an unsporting eagerness to start winning my bet. When the first convertible did appear, and its top was not down, I became all the more impatient for the second to neutralize my loss, which, in the event, it did not. It took a while for this “sunk costs” clutch to give way to outright despair. Until that day, I had enjoyed thinking of myself as a clever fellow who understood the world better than most. But as we neared the village, I lost my innocence and learned that the world can be a cold, cruel place, especially when it is cold, too cold to put the top down. Resisting this part of the lesson, I fastened on the cruelty. How, I wondered, how could the world so resolutely conspire against me? Didn’t everybody know that I was hemorrhaging nickels? 

Every convertible in southern Westchester County, its top securely fastened to its windshield, seemed to be patrolling Bronxville that day. The crescendo of drivers who declined to make use of their automobiles’ sexy and expensive feature was like popcorn after a minute in the microwave. Keeping count of my mounting losses went from being difficult to dizzying to sickening. The drive through the village, along Pondfield Road, under the tracks and then Palmer Road, cost me nearly a dollar — and then we turned around and drove home. Please let there be no more convertibles, I prayed. The two convertibles with tops down that we did see (big help!) were loaded with noisy, idiotic teenagers, putting a little extra zest in my mother’s smirk. As I peered into all the other convertibles, I could see only grandmothers. 

There’s a difference between gambling and making a really stupid bet. Happily, I was too young, and much too sore, to grasp the difference. (17 April 2020)

 

¶ Thanks to a piece in the latest London Review of Books (Until I saw the cover, I didn’t know — although Kathleen did — that Britain has been having a toilet-paper situation, too) I rolled the library stepstool over to the fiction bookcase and reached down an old paperback of Joseph Conrad’s “Great Short Works.” Then I stretched out and read “Youth.” I suppose I am old enough now to read about youth without being oppressed by the massive impatience that soured my experience of the state and, for decades afterward, the very thought of it. (Let’s face it: I was born for retirement.) And now that I have read almost all of Conrad’s novels, I am not so sniffy about the “Short Works.” The short works have always fallen into two classes: “The Heart of Darkness” and everything else, with “The Secret Sharer” flickering back and forth between the two, and I have always been more inclined to give the first class another go than to dabble in the second. “The Heart of Darkness,” after all, is one of our central sermons, conjuring all the wickedness of imperialism (especially its soft, rotting, commercial underbelly) in a few pages of intensifying nightmare. But really, a lot of the nightmare owes to Marlow’s tortured telling. I will never understand why young people are made to read “The Heart of Darkness,” especially now that I have swallowed “Youth,” which is a lot more readable and (by the adolescent mind) vastly more comprehensible. 

Whether or not I am old enough to read about youth, I am certainly old enough to hear Marlow’s narrative sympathetically even though I’ve shared none of his experiences and would never have wanted to. “The glamor of youth” I think I do understand. If it encouraged the young Marlow to be a hero — a hero of enduring hope — it encouraged me to be a jackass. Item: swimming across St Mary’s Lake at Notre Dame in the middle of a dead-winter night, stripped to my drawers. I achieved this stunt without incident, without a moment’s physical misgivings (or givings-out), but it did occur to me, at the mid-point of the adventure, that I had absolutely no reason to believe that my body was capable of undergoing this quite icy challenge. (I believe that this was the moment in which I sobered up.) But I was brightened, not frightened — by the glamour of youth. But was it glamour? Wasn’t it just stupefying boredom? 

Although I suspect I’m the only literate person around who hasn’t read “Youth” before, I’ll say a word about the story. It is the straightforward reminiscence of a maiden voyage in which one damn thing goes wrong after another. Because it is the reminiscence of an old man; the story could just as well have been called “Age,” but you don’t have to be a publisher to see the problems with that.  The actual title is richly ironic, too, because the hallmark of youth is its incapacity to foresee a sequel. What must follow, to a mind such as young Marlow’s, can only be a series of further “firsts,” of higher summits conquered. My calling the voyage of the Judea “maiden” is ironic, too, for it is of course the ship’s final one. But in old Marlow’s imaginative hands, it can be squeezed to yield the eager young man’s “first command,” even if all he commanded was a lifeboat. It was also the captain’s first command, a detail that gave me pause. What kind of sailor is promoted to captain at the age of sixty? What kind of owner promotes him? What kind of ship belongs to such an owner? When the time comes to gather up all the salvageable goods “for the underwriters,” before the men row away from the burning wreck, one feels that conscientiousness has been invested in the wrong quarter. Not for the first time, either. 

As a light literary exercise, you might undertake to translate Marlow’s well-seasoned tale into the doubtless excruciating language of his younger self. Impossible, really. For the young Marlow, conscious as he might have been of danger, and hungry as he obviously was for glory, really didn’t know what was going on. And of course he had no idea of how it was actually going to come out. Only at the end does the older Marlow capture his younger self’s innocence, when he describes the first glimpse of “the East” that he has carried ever since, as a virtual postcard, the first in a thick collection. (20 April)  

 

§ I do try not to complain — and to be mindful that I have very little to complain about. But for a few weeks now I have felt a budding hope that, when the pandemic is a thing of the past (and assuming that I’m not), I will find another way to start the day than the now awfully venerable one of reading the Times. I have already slowed down on reading The New Yorker. Both of these publications soured long ago, even before 2016, but both have become frightening and lugubrious since March. I take the pandemic seriously, but sensibly: I do not want to read about how the coronavirus attacks the tissues of the body, or mull over the arguable similarities in social dislocation between the Siege of Sarajevo and sheltering at home. I found David Remnick’s suggestion that we might “stumble upon surprising, uncanny moments of familiarity” between what we’re going through here in New York now and Mollie Panter-Downes’s account of the Blitz in her September, 1940 Letter from London to be so irritating that it felt more like an insult. I hope that such instances of mournful grandiosity will be seized on by moral historians as evidence of the intellectual decay that has afflicted the so-called élites in recent decades. (I hope that there will be moral historians.)

The coronavirus epidemic is a terrible thing, and my heart weeps for its many victims, but as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it is the wide spread of official dereliction and incompetence that has proximately caused the damage. Neither of these calamities can be properly viewed as a natural disaster; they are the consequences of shocking negligence and carelessness. But this is no time for shock. It is my belief that, so far, by fanning fear, sensationalism, and helplessness, the editors of The New Yorker and The New York Times are as responsible for social anxiety as the politicians who send mixed but self-serving messages. Happily, a sound but reassuring source of local news pops into my mailbox every day, the “eblast” sent out by our state senator, Liz Krueger. I can only hope that you’re half as lucky. (24 April)

 

Δ The wail of sirens has never been uncommon in this neighborhood. In simple terms, this is the most densely-populated Congressional district in the country, so why shouldn’t there be plenty of emergencies? These days, though, every siren makes one wonder: is the ambulance ferrying an “ordinary suspect,” or a victim of the coronavirus? For a while, it was easy to imagine that the pandemic had taken over all our EMS resources. It was also, sadly, true, because sick people with other complaints (coronary ones especially) were staying away from hospitals just like everybody else. I don’t know how or if that has changed. But at the moment it doesn’t quite go without saying that all the ills to which mortal flesh is heir to have not — unlike so many of my neighbors — left town. The problem is that it is so easy (given one’s lucky ignorance) to interpret the preliminary signs of almost any malady as the first stages of the dread virus. 

Which is my way of saying that I was sick on Friday night and Saturday. Now, let me make it clear, for superstitious purposes, that my use of the past tense in the preceding sentence does not imply the boast that my body is not, as I write, in the first grip of the nasty bug. Nor does it mean that I won’t get sick, with whatever it was (intestinal flu?) or with something else, in the coming days, weeks, months, &c. What made the weekend special was that, along with the usual unpleasantness of illness, I had the extra treat of contemplating, hour after long hour, the prospect of “dying alone,” which I put in quotes in order to remind future readers that the two words now constitute a term of art, conjuring up a dark, windowless chamber in which a gasping, perhaps unconscious, probably elderly human being experiences the final hours of existence, with only the occasional health worker looking in now and then. No loved ones. Since moaning and shrieking wouldn’t do any good even if one didn’t feel too lousy to indulge the urge to dramatize, I had no choice but to lie there with a faux-stoic expression on my face while chewing truly foul anxiety. For comic relief, I could now and then ask Kathleen not about our long life together but, “Do you think that symptom x is a sign of coronavirus?” Her unswerving answer, God bless her, was “No.” She even said it sweetly. 

By the late afternoon, adding up all the symptoms, which included feeling cold (but not chattering) and warm (but not feverish), plus earlier signs of irregularity in the plumbing (not the ventilation) that I hadn’t noted at the time, I concluded that my plexus was simply on the fritz, due to “worn-out,” and that chills &c and the other thing — I could barely get down a piece of dry toast, from lack of appetite — were nothing more than signs of temporary outage. On Sunday, I felt what nowadays, for me, passes as “fine.” It was only on Monday that I was flattened by the hangover of all that terror. 

I’d like to come back, one of these days, to what I had in mind when inserted “in simple terms” into the first sentence of this note. Our Congressional district straddles New York and Queens Counties. I’d like to venture suggestions for “complex terms” that would explain the difference between the Upper East Side (Manhattan coronavirus cases, according to the latest figures: 19,046/1.629,000 population) and Astoria (Queens: 47,511/2.273,000 population). It has more than a little to do with “land use.” (28 April)

Δ Here’s hoping that a week’s silence has caused any alarm. Had I added to this entry, though, I may have done just that. Because — it is too shaming to think of, much less to confess — I gave myself a foot infection. With an old, worn-out slipper. The lining was shot. I couldn’t see the wound, of course, but Kathleen checked it out every night, when she bandaged the other foot, the one that is supposed to get infected (so to speak). She cleaned it and bandaged it and we couldn’t figure out why it kept getting worse until I stuck my hand into the slipper and felt something not unlike a dorsal fin. It was hard, not soft like the eroded sheepskin lining that had covered it. Of course it had hurt, but I hurt all the time for no reason at all. The internist prescribed antibiotics and the slipper (with its mate) was discarded. I think that I have said enough, if not too much. Here, in the middle of all this genuine calamity, I give myself a gratuitous injury, and to make it even worse, don’t know it

So I’m keeping off my feet even more than I was before, a lockdown (hate that word) within the lockdown. I’ve been reading and writing, but my thoughts on the reading have fluttered with anxiety, and the writing is a tender shoot, not that I would discuss it in any case.

Like everybody else, I suppose, I spend plenty of idle moments wondering what life will be like when and if pandemic conditions come to an end. I can’t help foreseeing a society that is somewhat less open, and I can’t help feeling that this would be a good thing in itself. I believe that one reason why privacy is so challenged today is that, aside from Big-Brother worries, too many people have forgotten what it’s for. Forgotten that it’s about much more than hiding dirty laundry. To be sure, there are some who grasp the virtues of privacy instinctively. But one of the principal purposes of society is to guide those whose instincts aren’t so steady. In my youth, I was certainly such a one. (4 May). 

 

The faults of Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation (1994) are obvious long before the last page. A good deal of material in the book does not cohere in the way that all the parts of an admirably-constructed novel do, and the principal characters, particularly the principal character, are at best somewhat flou and at worst “unconvincing.” I’m ashamed to say, though, that none of this mattered to me, not in the least. I read the book with the greatest interest, almost breathless at the big shootout finish. Big shootout finish? Edna O’Brien? What was Edna O’Brien thinking, when she sat down to write a novel about an IRA gunman — more likely a gunman repudiated by the IRA — with a reputation for psychopathy (unmerited, apparently; as mythic as the fairies’) and an old lady in a big neglected house by a lake who falls in love with him? Well, she clearly thought she could do it, that it would be worth giving the idea a try, and I can’t say that she was wrong. 

O’Brien makes a virtue of her biggest lapse, which is failing to explain things. She moves, like the killer, too fast for explanations. She does not establish characters before they start talking, and during the brilliantly-constructed sequence of vignettes in the brief first part of the novel, it is often difficult to figure out just what’s going on. But I didn’t mind looking back and clearing things up, because looking back always did clear things up. Our lapsed-Catholic Northern Irish terrorist does not figure in the much longer part that follows, nor in the fourth part’s short-story-like narrative; both of these sections would probably have been removed on technical grounds by a strict editor, with only about a quarter of their contents (perhaps less) worked into the remainder. That fourth part, “A Love Affair,” hangs by the merest thread from the body of the novel, prompted, almost artificially, to disprove a young woman’s caustic dismissal, “Old people know nothing about young love.” And to be sure, the story of young love that follows does not linger in the mind even though it is nicely done. Worse, it blurs our sense of the leading lady even further. 

Who is she? Josie O’Grady, first old and then young, a new bride living outside Limerick. But not so young: young Josie has already had a brief career as a housemaid in Brooklyn. Everything about Josie’s marriage borders on the inexplicable; more accurately, the details would be punctiliously elucidated by an English novelist. Where her husband’s family got its money, how he lost it, what drew him to Josie, what allowed her to imagine to think that she was drawn to him; and then, after all that, the curious rapprochement that evidently united the couple after the husband’s spell in Irish rehab (a monastery), leading to a long period, briefly sketched, sometimes just hinted at, during which the big house was put to use hosting parties of sportsmen from across the Irish Sea — the fishing in the lake is excellent — and a later (or is it earlier?) foray into thoroughbred mares, ruinous apparently. Finally, the husband’s death, an episode that links the backstory, again by a thread, to the novel’s present action. The present action begins with the arrival of the gunman, who invites himself to stay in one of the many unused bedrooms while he waits for the opportunity to commit yet another atrocity to mature. Josie, long a recluse by this point, discovers that the terrorist is not a psychopath, and also that she cares for him as she has never cared for anyone else — except for that other hopeless case, the priest in “A Love Affair.” O’Brien doesn’t begin to give us all the information that we would ordinarily demand, but she gives us more than enough to hear heartbeats, and that, as in many old tales, is enough. A biographical portrait would be unwelcome. 

Without tales such as this, the Ireland of the Twentieth Century would probably disappear from human recall. It seems that Ireland today has cast off its post-imperial baggage; if it were not for the festering problem of the North, the Republic would appear as sound as any other European democracy. It has overcome both its propensity to internecine violence and its subjection to the policing of the Catholic Church. It appears to have abandoned the undertaking, so bound up with pride and romance, to recreate a Gaelic society, and it speaks English far more clearly than the United States does. Sally Rooney has demonstrated that the repressions that were the making of Edna O’Brien’s literary sensibility have been swept away. Tara French’s novels, like Rooney’s, suggest that Irish writers have left the countryside, with its lakes and small towns and exiguous farms, for Dublin. Nor does emigration exert the imaginative force that it once had: I can feel the intimations of a hole in House of Splendid Isolation where a Brooklyn once story stood. Today, perhaps, O’Brien might have dispensed with the reference altogether; or, consider Colm Tóibín’s Eilis Lacey, who wants to return from Brooklyn, like Josie, but is made to go back. Meanwhile, the novel resonates against two other lakeside stories from long-ago decades, JohnMcGahern’s By the Lake and William Trevor’s Love and Summer. (The latter also features a derelict mansion.) Telling such stories, the Irish writer of the last century dealt from the same deck, which has now been retired. But some of those stories will be read as long as English is intelligible. (5 May)

¶ Something that often gets in the way of my writing about books these days is a rather egotistical indecision: I can’t decide whether it’s more interesting to discuss the book, or to chat about why I read it in the first place. House of Splendid Isolation, for example, is a novel that I’d never even heard of until Ray Soleil sent this witty graphic: 

That’s all it takes, sometimes, to get me to read something. 

With regard to Joseph Conrad, it was the piece by Frederick Jameson in the LRB that I mentioned above. Having read “Youth” for the first time, I thought I’d re-read “The Secret Sharer,” last looked at in school. (Jameson’s actual subject, which I don’t think I named, is “The Shadow Line.” I read it, too.) For all that stuck with me, I might as well not have read “The Secret Sharer” at all. I didn’t like Conrad when I was young, because I hated boys’-own adventure stories, and that was all I could see in him. Do admit, Conrad’s pretty short on interesting women.

Thank goodness, youth isn’t all there is to it. I read “The Secret Sharer” yesterday afternoon, all in one go, with my mouth fairly agape. I have never been so impressed, astonished, startled, even, by Conrad’s prose. The entire story is of a piece, so that copying out an illustrative extract misses the point somewhat. Nevertheless, here are the paragraphs that immediately follow the confession of murder made by an interloper with whom the narrator, newly-appointed the captain of an outbound ship, senses an uncanny rapport:

His care to subdue his voice made it sound monotonous. He rested a hand on the end of the skylight to steady himself with, and all that time did not stir a limb, so far as I could see. “Nice little tale for a quiet tea party,” he concluded in the same tone. 

One of my hands, too, rested on the end of the skylight; neither did I stir a limb, so far as I knew. We stood less than a foot from each other. It occurred to me that if old “Bless my soul — you don’t say so” were to put his head up the companion and catch sight of us, he would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own gray ghost. I became very much concerned to prevent anything of the sort. I heard the other’s soothing undertone.

“My father’s a parson in Norfolk,” it said. Evidently he had forgotten he had told me this important fact before. Truly a nice little tale.

“You had better slip down into my stateroom now,” I said, moving off stealthily. My double followed my movements, our bare feet made no sound; I let him in, closed the door with care, and, after giving a call tot he second mate, returned on deck for my relief.

The physicality of this passage — of the entire story — is radically unlike the physicality that obtrudes elsewhere in Conrad: it portends no violence. It is intimate, or even beyond intimacy. The men are of the same physical and social type. They move, or don’t move, in the same way. They steal barefoot across a deck and down into a cabin. The interloper, we’ve already learned, arrived naked, having swum from the scene of the crime, the ship on which he served as first mate. Later, his new friend, the narrating captain, will be obliged to strip down for a bath while the interloper stands by. And yet the language of identity and closeness is all Conrad’s. The men exchange no friendly remarks, they do not even comment on their complicity in concealing the swimmer from the rest of the crew. As to the crew, they are strangers to the captain. He is variously repelled by his officers, who in turn appear to mistrust him. All of which — the naked swimmer, the hostile crew (to be won over, if at all, in the voyage ahead) — is normal enough as fictional fact. What is unusual about this story is Conrad’s way of writing it. The nakedness, the “limbs,” the bare feet, the extreme intuition are all very unusual. But un-self-consciously so, without any sense of daring.  

“The Secret Sharer” is celebrated as an artful allegory — art concealing art — of divided human nature; we are all both captain and murderer, civilized and feral. Twenty years ago, one might have choked on a bit about homoeroticism, which it still seems witless not to mention, if only to dismiss. Eroticism requires objectification at some level, and for this there needs to be another person, even if only an imaginary one. There must be a doer and a done-to. But here we have nothing of the kind. We have, rather, a projected identification that might seem to require the lingo of science fiction to expound. Each man sees in the other his own outer self. The fantasy has nothing to do with lust and everything to do with curiosity: What do I look like to the world? Each man instantly recognizes that the other holds the answer to this question. And that is why the caper succeeds. Without any planning or prompting, each man acts in precise, unpremeditated coordination with the other. At the end, a straw hat floating in the water is the only sign that the captain’s friend, “the secret sharer of my cabin and my thoughts,” has made his escape. They will never meet again, but they don’t need to. (7 May)

Last night, Kathleen and I found ourselves stretched out on the bed talking. Well, I was doing most of it. The thing is, we lay there for about two and a half hours. After a bit of talking about the essay that I’ve been working on, I asked Kathleen if she wanted to read. “I don’t have a book,” she replied. Oh dear. I’ve gone through all the novels that I think she’d like, and ventured to suggest many that I didn’t, but that she did. (Why, you may ask, doesn’t she just eyeball the bookshelves herself? A question that I can’t begin to answer, except to say that perhaps every personal library has its Name of the Rose aspect.) What now? Before I got up to look for something, we spent another hour or so talking about great novelists: who are they? Is there a list? Of course I ought to be able to come up with one off the top of my head, and I did begin one, but it sputtered out after six or seven names. That’s because every name added to a list tends to limit the range from which further names can be selected. Austen, Eliot — I can’t really think of a third name that deserves to follow those two. 

nd then there are the novelists with “great” reputations whom I find, well, not. Dostoevsky, for example. Dickens, absolutely — absolutely not great. This is part of the larger problem of male dominance of the field. Roth and Updike: nobody would read them if they weren’t men, and, as their way of being men disappears, no one will read them at all. By this I mean to point to a huge difference between the problems of a male being or becoming a man in any given contemporary society and those of a human being striving to be a person at any time. Not to mention the much more interesting problems of persons trying to get along with each other. 

“Proust.” Kathleen mentioned Proust, whom she has never read. I thought back to a recent dip into Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way. The remembrance of things past was duplicated by my own recollection of reading Proust as a young man. It seemed like all the world then, an endless magic story with a superb finish. Remembering that is much more agreeable than actually following Proust’s paragraphs now, for really it seems clear to my elderly eye that Proust is simply a world-class gossip afflicted with a cynical aesthetic. He is wounded and untrustworthy, and his wisdom is little more than compressed disillusionment. Plus, that huge vocabulary, which so burdens one with shuffling through the dictionary. And, like his sort-of contemporary Edith Wharton, he has a tendency to dwell on difficulties of polite society that turned out to be ephemeral — the indigestion that inevitability followed on the Victorians’ greedy helpings of romantic fantasy and utopian optimism. At best, they write about an awkward phase in the profound alteration of sexual mores from tradition to autonomy. 

I would put Trollope on the list of greats, but only on the severe condition that his oeuvre be limited to the two six-novel cycles and a couple of real masterpieces, such as Orley Farm and The Way We Live Now. I loved these books, and I wish that I had stuck to them, and not wandered out onto the fringes, where Trollope’s weak novels disclose — disrobe is the better word — his dreadful fetish with the virginity of nubile maidens, which he deemed lost at the mere acceptance of a proposal of marriage. How I regret the cost of my completist urges vis-à-vis the creator of Lizzie Eustace!

Speaking of completism, I’ve just finished The Little Girls, so now I’ve read all nine of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. (Wait! According to Wikipedia, there’s a tenth. Oy.) While I enjoyed the bunch, I might just as well have accepted Vivian Gornick’s judgment, in Unfinished Business, which is that there are three must-reads, written in a row in the middle of Bowen’s career: The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart, and The Heat of the Day. These are really good books that align superb writing with gripping characters. The others certainly have their strengths, but they also wear the air of experiments that are only partially successful. The Hotel and To the North are both bothered by Bowen’s attempt to beat off the influence of Aldous Huxley, at least at the start; while The Little Girls and Eva Trout betray exasperation with uncorseted standards. And all the novels, even the best ones, contain chunks of potential short stories, reminding me of Nicola Beauman’s judgment of Elizabeth Taylor’s work: that writing novels was an unfortunate distraction from her true métier

Which doesn’t get me anywhere, because Kathleen doesn’t read short stories. “They’re like half a sandwich,” I think she said. I don’t at all agree, but I do see how Kathleen likes to settle down with a good book. What’s the use if it’s soon over? (14 May)

 

§ If my contributions here have dropped off, that’s simply because I find it increasingly necessary to have something to say before beginning to write an entry. I can’t do what worked when I was younger, which was to doodle about a bit off the top of my head, hoping for genuine inspiration. Like everyone else, I’m finding the top of my head to be as empty as Carnegie Hall. 

So you ought to be grateful for new issues of the LRB and the NYRB (LXVII/9). The last piece in the NYRB is Joseph O’Neill’s “Brand New Dems?” Then, in this morning’s Times, there appeared Ben Smith’s critical appraisal of Ronan Farrow’s journalism. It’s hard to decide which to address first. 

Just as Ben Smith says that Ronan Farrow is “not a fabulist,” so Smith’s piece is not a takedown. It is more in the way of an illumination, confirming tentative judgments that I made long ago, almost immediately, in fact, when Farrow shot to fame abreast the #MeToo movement in 2017. This is not to say that the young man was unknown before then — merely that he was so unknown to me. As someone who doesn’t watch television, I still thought of him as Satchel Allen. (On the photographic evidence  — supported by the youth’s mother — “Satchel Sinatra” would appear to be more accurate.) In any case, from out of nowhere, the unforeseen firebrand launched his astonishingly successful attack on Harvey Weinstein. Something about the story seemed too familiar, and I only now realize what it was: see Chapter 17 of 2 Samuel for the story of David and Goliath. 

An odd parallel aligns David and Ronan. Both were young, untried men. Not much was known about David was, while too much was known about Ronan — too much of the wrong sort of thing. Surely he was too glamorous to do the grubby work of building a solid case, either as an attorney or as a journalist, against the giant seasoned philistine from Hollywood. The handsome media darling, bearing his embarrassingly rich provenance, hardly seemed cut out to shepherd a flock of ladies through the bruising thicket of technicalities that has for too long protected sexual predators — in short, no more suited to the job than David. But he, too, was victorious. His reporting created a blaze bright enough to light the prosecutors’ way to trials and convictions. Perhaps his provenance, which must account in part for his extraordinarily wide-ranging entrée, was the secret after all. Smith’s report suggests that The New Yorker was dazzled into muting its long-cherished insistence on clear corroboration. 

That Harvey Weinstein has been brought down is a good thing; Farrow’s charges may have provided the detonation, but the explosives were far more comprehensively sourced. But the producer’s reversal of fortune triggered Jacobin trials of other well-known men, some guilty of nothing worse than inappropriate goofiness. (I’m thinking of Al Franken.) The air thickened with the stink of opportunistic score-settling. It was all too sensational, too exciting. And the central role of Ronan Farrow’s apparently heroic determination to vindicate the victims of sexual abuse underlined the conclusion that, if men are the perpetrators, they will also have to be the saviors. How much our shining knighthood altered the problematic role of “consent” in abuse cases, however, remains to be seen.

§ Joseph O’Neill‘s profile, as summarized in the “Contributors” listing beneath the NYRB‘s table of contents, mentions nothing more pointed than his membership on the Bard College faculty to suggest that his writing about political affairs might be worth reading — which I must say is disappointing, because his analysis of the fecklessness and folly of the institutional Democratic Party is so brisk and acute that one hopes to discover him in an official position of great influence, party chairman perhaps. Then again, one also feels justified in believing that the institutional Democratic Party has outlived its usefulness by fifty years, that it has not really been a party since LBJ’s volte-face vis-à-vis his party’s Dixiecrat backbone and the ensuing success of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Instead, it seems to have served as nothing more than a trade association for politicians who don’t subscribe to the essentially anti-political Republican cult. Individual Democrats win elections (when they do) on the strength of their own personal resources, be it the cool charisma of Barack Obama or the fund-raising efficiency of Chuck Schumer. Bill Clinton made hay by running on the Despite-Being-a-Democrat ticket, but this did not work for his vastly less sexy wife. 

Since few people otherwise capable of winning an election are either very stupid or very wicked, officials affiliated with the Democratic Party have managed public affairs much better than their opponents, but because active politicians make up only a relatively small part of the population of committed Republicans, it has not fallen on the shoulders of the likes of Dubya or the Donald to articulate coherent party propaganda. The Democratic Party has yet to benefit from the talents of a good Lee Atwater, and successful Democratic presidents have been dogged by charges of failure to advance a genuinely Democratic-Party agenda, whatever that might be. While I agree with just about everything that O’Neill has to say about the urgency of the Democrats’ twinned task of rebranding both their own party and the Republicans’, I think it more likely that building a truly successful Democratic Party will require the armature of an actual human being, yet to be conjured, someone capable of making an intelligent, responsible, and engaging policy presentation. Here, I think, O’Neill overlooks a daunting Republican advantage: stern authoritarians who say mean and frightening things about imaginary dangers are much easier to come by than likable, encouraging, and convincing executives. Obama promised to be one, but in office he displayed, perhaps to his own as well as everyone else’s surprise, a formidably mandarin temperament. I can think of no one who challenged Joe Biden who fits the description, and Biden himself certainly doesn’t. I often wish that the Framers had replaced the age limit with a requirement that presidential candidates complete at least one term of state governorship, but that’s cheating. Still, there would be no harm in the Democratic Party’s adopting such a plank. Proven competence! (A corresponding plank barring mere legislators would be almost as healthy.) 

The most obvious way for the Democrats to successfully position themselves, across their many audiences, would be by passing a universally popular piece of legislation that is strongly and durably associated with the party, as Social Security once was.

If you think that that would be hard, let me turn the screw a bit by insisting that the only conceivable such legislation would pivot on regulatory reform. Don’t ask me how anybody could possibly wrest a universally popular program out of regulatory reform, but regulatory reform — legislative reform, really — is what’s needed. What kind of laws our assemblies enact, how they are implemented, and when they are reviewed and updated: these are all questions about democracy that are currently as unstudied as the dark side of the Moon. Perhaps the answer to my conundrum is to run on a (very dangerous) ticket of constitutional amendment. 

For the moment, I’ll be happy if Nancy Pelosi commits to memory O’Neill’s ideas of more effective speech. That would be a start. What’s happened to those poor Republicans? Some of my best friends are… (18 May)

 

¶ The other night, we watched the latest version of EmmaEmma.We had been on the point of going to see it at the theatre across the street from Bloomingdale’s when the advent of coronavirus made doing so seem like a bad idea; the DVD package has only just been released. I find myself wanting to think about it without judging it, which is very easy to do if I keep my mouth shut. I’m inclined to attribute the film’s shortcomings to the peculiarities of the novel’s structure. 

Autumn de Wilde’s take on the story is a very pretty one, almost excessively stylized. Inclined to linger over its own loveliness, the movie runs out of time without making much sense of such important developments as the surreptitious engagement of Frank and Jane. The success of the Box Hill episode owes entirely to Miranda Hart’s very endearing Miss Bates, without whom Johnny Flynn would have an even harder time making Mr Knightley’s speech in a hurry.  

It seems that I last read Emma in March, for what must have been the ninth time. I did not begin at the beginning; I began with Chapter 17. If you know the novel well, you may have an idea why. Emma begins with a mounting riot of activity relating to Emma’s scheme to marry Harriet Smith off to Mr Elton. This results in disaster that agitates me more every time I experience it. There they are, Emma and Mr Elton, shut up in a moving carriage, the man just drunk enough to overcome his amatory inhibitions and the lady just astonished enough to mute her outrage. What they share is the conceit of believing themselves to be far too good for the other’s plans — it’s an almost unbearable symmetry. Josh O’Connor, playing Mr Elton, intensifies the drama by exhaling a smarmy whiff of Dracula upon Mr Elton’s leers, and then throwing a little fit when he wants the carriage to stop. He jumps out, and that’s that: we won’t see him again until he returns to Highbury, in Chapter 22, an engaged man. (His dear Augusta won’t show up until Chapter 32. I can’t think of another novel in which a character so vital to the reader’s memory of the tale makes so late a first appearance.) Like an amateur bomb, the climax of Emma appears to have blown up much sooner than expected. By taking up the story at that point, I could see more clearly how Austen works her way through what’s left.

In the meantime, Chapter 18 begins, “Mr Frank Churchill did not come.” Well, of course he does come, but he doesn’t stay. At one point, he runs off to London just to get a haircut, or so he says. He’s a slippery fellow, and Emma can’t make up her mind about him. She decides fairly soon that she doesn’t love him, but perhaps — what’s more interesting — perhaps he loves her? And so the novel swells one way and then the other, like the wake of a boat dissipating among the reeds. Some years ago, there came a time when I had to admit that, even though Emma is my favorite book, nothing much happens in the great middle of it. 

Austen’s difficulty, of course, is that her heroine is invulnerable to the slings and arrows of melodrama. She is simply too rich, too accomplished, too pleased with herself. What can happen to her? It’s because nothing can happen that she conjures the Smith-Elton marriage plot out of whole cloth. When that story runs down, it isn’t immediately clear that Austen has anything else to fall back on. Frank comes, and Jane Fairfax comes, and even Mrs Elton comes, but none of them come to any point. All that Emma gets to do is to console Harriet without too abjectly apologizing for having disregarded Mr Knightley’s warnings about the vicar. The things that “happen” — the ball at the Crown, the first “exploring party” to Donwell Abbey, and the second to Box Hill — don’t really happen to Emma herself; rather, it’s she that inexcusably happens, in the form of a thoughtless insult, to Miss Bates. Dramatically, Mr Knightley’s scolding is an event for us, but Emma so completely deserves it that it is not an event for her, but only what she ought to have seen coming, and, but for her vanity, would have done. Nothing at all happens to Emma until the end of Chapter 47, when she realizes, too late perhaps, that Mr Knightley must never marry anyone but herself. This is the one and only risk that Emma encounters in the entire novel, and even if we know the story inside and out we have to congratulate Jane Austen for distracting us from its singular inevitability.

But what kind of accomplishment is that, forestalling all sense of real danger until the very end? No wonder the films can’t get it right. 

Although I didn’t much care for Anya Taylor-Joy’s rather babyish voice — it’s a pity that she doesn’t speak with the hauteur of her visage — her Emma haunts me. Coming across a real-life photograph of the actress, I wondered why pretty young women wear makeup of any kind. I can see that girls put it on because they think it makes them look more grown up, but surely nobody over the age of seventeen should labor under the misapprehension that this is a good thing. 

The first passage written by Jane Austen to make me laugh out loud was Mrs Elton’s stream-of-consciousness commentary among the strawberry beds at Donwell. 

The best fruit in England — everybody’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for oneself — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about. Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation— beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.       

But what prepared me to laugh, no doubt, was the phrase with which Austen announced her appearance: “Mrs Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking.” Apparatus of happiness. It’s meant sarcastically, but I can’t help taking it as the best description of Emma itself. (22 May)   

¶ About fifteen years ago, perhaps a little more, I surprised a dinner table of very nice people by claiming that Mary McCarthy was the most important American novelist of the Twentieth Century. The eruption of squawked responses indicated that none of my well-read fellow guests would hear of such a thing, though I could tell by the light in the eyes of one or two women that they guessed that it was the sort of thing that Mary McCarthy herself would suggest (although certainly not about herself) — the recommendation, out of the blue, of a writer whom nobody real thought of as a novelist at all and, on the evidence of The Group, surely not a very good one. I can’t claim that the after-dinner conversation was flagging, but it certainly perked up right away, as almost everyone had a better candidate.

I’m of two minds about my rash gesture. What was I thinking? And yet, what else is there to think? Go on, name somebody better. Okay, Saul Bellow — done. But is there anybody else? Fond as I am of William Maxwell, he is an artist of melancholy, of wounded sensibilities, and his most interesting array of characters, appearing in The Chateau, is French. But don’t worry; I’m not going to belabor my point. I just happened to think of it this afternoon as I was reading Chapter 4 of The Group. Here we watch the unlikely marriage of Harald Petersen and Kay Strong, celebrated at the opening of the novel, in the early middle of its unraveling. Kay, of course, would claim that nothing was really wrong, just a bad patch of luck for Harald, but the whiff of tragic doom is already upon her. Tragic, do I say? There I go again. The writing is actually the most peculiarly, sensationally accurate salad of comic domestic misery that I have ever tasted. Just read the passage, comprising the bulk of one paragraph and the whole of the next four, that begins,

Once he had brought one of the authors, and Kay had made the salmon loaf with cream pickle sauce. That would have to be the night they broke for dinner early, and there as quite a wait (“Bake 1 hour,” the recipe went, and Kay usually added fifteen minutes to what the cookbook said), which they had to gloss over with cocktails.

and ends, 

Harald knew this, yet so far he had said not a word about the Apartment, which he must have guessed was the thing uppermost in her mind from the moment she opened the door and saw him: what were they going to do? Hadn’t this thought occurred to him too?

Between these sentences, the focus zooms back and forth between the details of making dinner and the grievances of wanting to get life just right, just as it does for anyone confronted by the need to stir up a stew while simmering over the annoyances and shortcomings that could so easily be cleared away if only other people were more thoughtful. Only an experienced cook, by which I mean an experienced human being with years of practice in the kitchen, could have composed this account of discontent in servitude. A more beneficial Vassar mentor would have advised her to stick to her job at Macy’s and sleep around. Even then, though, Kay would have been voted Most Likely to Have the Most Things to Prove. Every home cook is going to suffer stretches of resentment of being unappreciated; what makes Kay’s time in the kitchen really awful is that, naively unsuspecting, she is Playing House. Her heart is not really in the cunning Russel Wright cocktail shaker or the darling little dressing room. Her heart is in advertising these desirable things prominently in the stylish magazine published more than monthly in her mind.     

I must say that my decision to re-read The Group was made in the face of reluctance to re-acquaint myself with Chapter 2. It is funny to think so now, but back when the novel was published, in 1963, Chapter 2 brought Mary McCarthy a huge, one might almost say swollen, new audience. The strange thing is that it wasn’t published separately in pamphlet form. I even caught my father reading it, with an air of rank surreptitiousness. (It was thus that I learned the true state of America’s birds and bees.) In Chapter 2, McCarthy author serves a polite cordial concocted from frankly pornographic ingedients. If I didn’t find Chapter 2 sordid this time, it was probably because I haven’t seen Sidney Lumet’s film lately. I wonder what today’s young ladies would make of a college graduate laboring with Dottie’s innocence of s-e-x. A few of them might even be envious. (26 May)

 

Δ I could bring this entry to a close with some further words about The Group, which I was very sorry to finish re-reading yesterday, or about Zachary Carter’s terrific Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (at last I’ve read something about “marginal utility” that makes a kind of 3D sense — just a hint, but it’s a start), but instead of mumbling about what’s going on in my head, or even in the apartment, I’ll say just a word about what seems to have happened just outside. Our bedroom window looks out onto the patio of a residence for Doe Fund workers that was built into the four-wall shell of an old hotel fifteen or twenty years ago. (From our last apartment, we could look down from the balcony right through all five floors’ worth of empty space.) On holidays, there is often a party on the patio, usually a barbecue, and given the acoustics the evidence of liveliness is somewhat amplified. Never, though, have I heard as much talking and singing as I did this afternoon, an anomaly that I can only explain by reference to the nationwide outbreak of exasperation proximately caused by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  

I could have told you how I’ve been priding myself on resisting the infection of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but since I’m actually worried, for the first time, about the President’s ability to make a very bad situation much, much worse, I’m not sure that I can make that claim. It seems to me now that I was softened up for the malady two nights ago, when Kathleen persuaded me to slip the DVD of Inception into the player. All she remembered from seeing it once before was the spinning top, which somehow caught her curiosity. I remembered a lot more than that, which is why Kathleen had to work to persuade me, but I had certainly not seen Christopher Nolan’s visually unforgettable movie as an alt-right wet dream (excuse my French), depth-charged with an allegory of Deep-State conspiracy theories and fantasies of oligarchic superpowers, all wrapped around a heroically misogynist warning against letting a smart woman into your life (because she will destroy you). Not to mention the endless racket of popguns. Long before Inception came to an end, Kathleen was assuring me that we would never have to watch it again, but when I got up to put the DVD away I was shaken by the feeling that the Donald had been jawboning us at the dining table for two hours while we helplessly despaired of his ever leaving. 

Way back at the beginning of this entry, in the middle of April I mentioned that I had started to read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction. As I expected, the book was very well done and yet an awful ordeal to get through. I can’t say that I learned anything really important; I already knew that most Americans, then as now, drew a sharp distinction between the hatred of slavery per se and concern for the welfare of those enslaved. And I still cannot be sure that there was enough real interest in the lives of African Americans to warrant all the upheaval and bloodshed. The only way to avoid dismissing the Civil War as completely futile is to take it as the measure of the many equally tiny baby-sized steps that will have to be made before people of color can wake up every morning in this country without an iota of fear for their personal safety. (31 May)

Carnival & Lent 2020

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020

¶ The Old Wives’ Tale, Snips from Periodicals
§ Three Billboards, Miss Bates’s Christian NameWeather
§ Cranky Theory
¶ On Reading, and Reading About, David Foster Wallace; The Death of the Heart, Save It For Later
Δ Abominable Conceit
¶ The Virgin of Bennington
Δ “New Zealand”, House Call
§ Connections, Jumprope
Δ He Don’t Come
§ Blair
¶ History and Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man

¶ Abashed — that’s the word for it, how I felt when I finished reading The Old Wives’ Tale. I had not read it before, nor I had read anything else by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). Bennett is the now all-but-unread novelist from England’s Midlands — the Potteries of Staffordshire — who antagonized Virginia Woolf into writing a notorious, and apparently effective, put-down. Because Woolf disdained his artistry, and because his artistry made him a lot of money, Bennett was swept, during the second half of the last century, into the lumber-room of forgotten best-sellers, to keep company with Sir Walter Scott and John Galsworthy. Abashed, and having read but the one novel, I am disinclined to make a fuss about restoring Bennett to his rightful plinth, so I’ll just say this: The Old Wives’ Tale merits a place on the shelf next to Middlemarch. The Baines sisters, Constance and Sophia, are as meditatively engrossing as Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. 

Putting the book down, I wondered if the hour of death offers the best perspective from which to appreciate a life, as Constance and Sophia do before they expire, while Bennett, looking over their shoulders, does the same. True, neither sister is actually concerned with her own life. Sophia is contemplating the corpse of the husband whom she has not seen in a very long time, and Constance is thinking of her sister. Both feel that the lives that they’re thinking about were wasted. The reader is sympathetic to Sophia’s dry grief; Gerald Scales was an absolute bounder, good for nothing except his resemblance, in her eyes, to Brad Pitt (if I may be excused the anachronism). As for Constance, this reader almost hated her for lacking the imagination to grasp Sophia’s eventful life. And yet, Bennett asks us, how would Constance know it any better? Outwardly quiet as it was, no one who knew Constance could imagine what her life had been like. “No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.” Some might find this observation “sentimental.” In the context of the novel, I found it as mordant as George Eliot’s assurance that Dr Lydgate “had not done what he once meant to do.”

I have been giving a good deal of thought lately to our canonical views of literature, and of English literature; to our ideas of what distinguishes a great novel from a good one, and if those ideas have any merit whatsoever; and to how I might defend any list that I might compile of five or ten or twenty super books. I am not prepared to expatiate on the subject now. But it did seem to me that The Old Wives’ Tale is a much better “Continental” novel than it is an English one. That is, it stands up well next to Balzac and Turgenev (Bennett’s “god”), Flaubert and Fontane, Lampedusa and even Proust. Whereas, considering it as an English novel, one feels positively obliged to judge it “uneven.” What does this mean? I think that it has something to do with the peculiarities of the Anglophone sense of humor. No one will deny that we have one, we English-speakers, or that we indulge it frequently. Or — and this may be what it comes down to — that we like to do so loudly. I have often thought that where we laugh, the “European” smiles, and, where the European smiles, quite often, we don’t respond at all. There is something about our responsiveness to amusement that requires a separate track, a departure from the schedule of other sensibilities. It’s as if “fun” makes a funfair of life. If a book makes us laugh, then we don’t want it to do anything else, and if a book makes us feel, then an unwonted laugh will make us feel ridiculous. We are, in this, as in so many other ways, all too much like thirteen year-old boys. 

To say that The Old Wives’ Tale plays upon the gamut of emotions, that it packs piquant domestic scenes alongside ringside views of world-historical upsets, that it has everything — to say these things is simply to risk making it out to be vulgar. Better to report that the novel traces the lives of sisters, one of whom stays at home while the other runs away. “Home” is Bursley, the fictional Burslem, one of the towns that was amalgamated, in 1910, into today’s Stoke-on-Trent. (Although there were six such towns, Bennett always writes of “five.”) “Away” is Paris. The story begins when Constance and Sophia, daughters of the town’s leading draper (confined to his bed after a stroke), are teenagers, in the 1860s. Curiously, the career of the runaway settles into its groove much more quickly than her sister’s. Caught with a worthless husband in the tumultuous Paris of 1871, Sophia emerges from the upheaval as an hôtelière: she runs a top-notch pension near the Champs-Elysées for twenty-five years. (I really cannot forgive Constance for regarding this establishment as a “boarding house.”) Constance, leading the life of a wife and mother in the house where she was born, suffers a rather bouncier inner life. Sophia learns everything that she needs to know before she is thirty. Constance, whose intelligence admittedly burns at lower wattage, is still learning decades later. Just as the sisters’ status is ambiguous, rooted in a commercial prosperity that was still widely deprecated in Britain, so it is difficult to decide whether or not these girls are “ordinary.” It is as impossible to say that they are as it is difficult to show why they are not. 

The same might be said of Bennett’s prose. It is fluent, and often winking, but it is neither showy nor dull. I would say that Bennett indulges every writerly impulse but always with the caveat: “Don’t frighten the horses.” Having lived long enough to be an old horse myself, I appreciate the peace and quiet of Bennett’s conduct. No matter what is going on in his heroines’ lives, he himself is always firmly and attractively in charge; as a tour guide, he is almost as interesting as the spectacle. I look forward to reading more. 

Which reminds me: why I just read it now. A very long time ago, forty years or more, I picked up a clutch of red-jacketed Everyman Library editions of Bennett’s novels; you still heard about him in those days, and I meant to find out why. All but one of these small volumes was eventually culled, unread by me, but I held on to The Old Wives’ Tale even though I could no longer even imagine where I had heard that it was the masterpiece that it apparently is. Last month, it too was almost given the heave-ho. I decided to read it instead, or at least to give it a serious try. Phew! Now the novels are rather hard to get, even in the UK. And do I or do I not have a copy of “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”? (4 February)

¶ Snips from Periodicals: 

The New Yorker: ... her home, like her prose, is straightforward in style, unfussy, minimally but functionally adorned. The table, couch and chairs are there to be used by the body, not enjoyed by the eye.*

London Review of Books: Despite abundant evidence from around the world, many people still find it hard to accept that flagrant lying is no longer a disqualification in public life, and that it might in fact be an attraction.**

 * Alexandra Schwarz on Vivian Gornick, The New Yorker, 10 Feb 2020, p. 18. 

** James Butler on Labour’s Defeat, LRB, 42/3, p. 12.

It’s hard to know whether Alexandra Schwarz means to be even a little bit complimentary in her description of Vivian Gornick’s living room. To me, what she says is the description of a pathology, not in the sense of something wrong but rather of something missing. My own pathology, of course, is quite the opposite. I will sacrifice a good deal of convenience to the pleasure of the eye. If I don’t have a sofa to stretch out on, much I should like to have one sometimes, it’s because the right couch for me would be too large and ugly; and since I always make the bed, I can’t stretch out on that, either. If I don’t have enough in the way of bookshelves, that’s because I have a lot in the way of pictures. It’s either one or the other. My eye has to be happy, or I’m miserable. Dejected, anyway. 

I should have thought that minimal adornment was a contradiction in terms. Maybe it’s not, though, if, like Gornick, you grow up a believer in your parents’ socialism. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up sharing the beliefs common in my environment. I hated the stupid smugness of the people I grew up among. I know I’m pretty posh by nature, but I will never (I pray) be one of them. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that I think it’s possible to be a stickler for the correct use of knives and forks without being swinish. There is something terribly ignorant about socialists: it’s clear that they don’t know very much about ease. On the one hand: why should they? How would they? On the other: ignorance makes them terrible critics. They can never satisfactorily explain why everybody they know from the neighborhood will, if given the chance, commence the laborious climb up the social ladder, leaving the neighborhood behind more quickly than they mean to do. It is related somehow to the enjoyment of the eye. Anyway, I have always believed, quite passionately really, that socialists are wrong about life, no matter how right they are about justice. 

The exceptions to the aforesaid are the writers and the orators. These recite their creed every day, professionally. Gornick went into literature, however, not politics, and I am looking forward to reading Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, which has just come out. 

As for Butler’s remark, with which I am in complete accord, I am too busy writing about the phenomenon myself (not here) to say more. (6 February)

 

§ Stretched out in bed, watching a DVD, in the middle of the afternoon — such abandon! It may be doctor’s orders to stay off my feet these days, but it’s still unnatural. Is something the matter? Am I being wicked? The movie on the DVD is certainly no occasion of sin. It’s Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the kind of art movie most of whose characters would find depressing. It was a little depressing to me, too. I often wonder if I should have had a happier, or at least a sunnier, life if I had never crossed the Hudson River, but had to make do with imagining what the rest of the country is like. If I had not spent twelve solid years there. They were not terrible times for me; I was more or less impermeable. But I saw a lot of things that I wish I hadn’t, got to know how people lived, became familiar with different accents, and came back to New York without missing a single thing. There was  this: Why? Why is it like that? Perhaps there is simply too much landscape out there. Even when — especially when — there is no landscape to speak of, there is too much of it. 

The landscape in Three Billboards is beautiful. Abbie Cornish, in her clutch of scenes, is beautiful. Everything else about the picture is unattractive, intentionally, I expect, but not interestingly so. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell turn in fine performances, as one would expect, but neither’s character holds a candle to the somewhat similar men they play in Transsiberian and The Way Way Back. And Mildred, grim and determined as she is, is nothing like as grim and determined as Linda, the kook Frances McDormand plays in Burn After Reading. The world of Ebbing is pinched. There is not a single inviting interior space. There isn’t any decent furniture. The general deprivation is appalling, and yet no one seems to be aware of it. I remember that world. I wish I didn’t. 

But don’t listen to me. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a fine and entertaining film. The world is full of small towns dotted with people too unlucky to find themselves in bigger places. There are already many movies in my DVD collection that I ought to have rented, not bought. (12 February)

§ Quick: what is Miss Bates’s Christian name? The talkative spinster in Jane Austen’s Emma: what’s her name? I don’t know how many times I’ve read the novel, but I’ve never noticed. Never even thought about it! Miss Bates’s first name is clearly “Miss” — as in “absolutely unmarriageable.”

But of course she does have a name, and it is not “Miss.” She tells you what it is herself, by way of quoting her mother. You will find it in Chapter 19, lodged in the lady’s lengthy account of Jane Fairfax’s unforeseen impending visit. 

By great good luck, I had just learned that Miranda Hart is going to play Miss Bates in the forthcoming screen adaptation when I re-read Chapter 19 the other night. My test of the movie’s quality will be the degree to which Miranda is allowed to demonstrate that Miss Bates is the moral heart of the novel. She is the pebble in the slipper that Emma must learn to honor and respect, if not quite to love; she is the good person who shows how difficult it is to be a good person even if you’re the girl who has everything. Miss Bates, of course, has practically nothing. She and her elderly mother are living on the fumes of extinct prosperity. What Miss Bates does have is a formidable loquacity, which she puts to work expressing her ceaseless gratitude for the crumbs that come her way. You must remember, when I say this, that I have reached the age of Mrs Batesor thereabouts. When I was Emma’s age, I felt very much as Emma herself does: tempted to skim. The other night, I read every word with the deepest smile.

It’s not quite clear to me whether I am reading Emma for the umpteenth time or not. Noticing that I was having a hard time with the early chapters of novels that I knew well, I decided to begin Emma, this time, at Chapter 17. Chapter 16 is devoted to the dust cloud of Emma’s collapsed ambitions for her new friend, Harriet Smith; Mr Elton, the vicar, appalled by the discovery that Emma had him down for Harriet, a love-child of no social standing, instead of for herself, has slipped away to Bath, leaving Emma to grin and bear it without the altogether unmanageable load of mortification that his presence would assure. The novel can now begin. 

I have long regarded the episode that opens Emma and so quickly comes to its embarrassing climax as an overture of sorts. It is the stuff of a novel, but Austen seems to have another novel in mind. I hadn’t developed the thought any further until now. By beginning after the excitement has subsided, I could see calmly and clearly what must be obvious to everybody, which is that Emma is about the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. I had always regarded this as a background story, because, after all, it doesn’t concern Emma at all, not directly, and what could be more pert than than naming a novel about other people after so attractive a heroine as Emma Woodhouse? Or more typical of Jane Austen — as age and perspective prompt me to ask. Emma a red herring? Surely not! But in fact nothing at all happens to Emma. Really nothing! All those careful arrangements at the end, capped by the agreement that Mr Knightley, not his bride, will change residence, leave everything, despite making room for the unmentionable intimacies of marriage, exactly as it was at the beginning. No, the action-plot of Emma is the secret-agent thriller of a matrimonio segreto.

Chapter 18 begins with the statement that Frank Churchill has failed to pay a visit to meet his father’s new wife. The matter is discussed by Emma and Mr Knightley in a manner that reminds me of the Analects of Confucius. That’s exactly who Mr Knightley sounds like when he assures Emma that a gentleman is always free to do his duty. Emma’s determination to think well of Frank despite his inarguable lapse is of course self-interested; she’s already thinking of Frank for herself, and Mr Knightley is already vexed by his awareness of this — an awareness that he must keep partial, occluded, and thus all the more vexing. In the very next chapter, we learn that Jane is about to make an untimely return to her native village. We hear a lot about Jane and Frank in these two chapters, ostensibly because their presence will constitute the kind of novelty for which small towns pant, but really to plant both of them as unknown quantities in Emma’s little world. She has never met Frank; she has never liked Jane. Jane, at least as naturally gifted as Emma herself, is otherwise much less fortunate materially, and she has clearly felt it necessary to work on what talents she possesses, something that, to the regret of her flourishing if discreet vanity, Emma hasn’t bothered to do with her own. Who these unknown persons really are, and the nature of their relationship (completely unsuspected at first), will occupy the bulk of the narrative that follows. 

This suits a novel aimed at the acquisition of honest self-knowledge. To know who you really are, you must sit still and pay attention to the world around you, and that is pretty much all that Emma is asked to do. Like Lucy Ricardo, Emma can be a wise observer so long as she doesn’t try to do anything. Those opening sixteen chapters — the overture — show us what Emma is capable of doing, thus exhausting the need for further disasters. There is only one thing that Emma’s education requires: true remorse for her unthinking rudeness to Miss Bates at Box Hill. Emma’s great achievement is to be utterly ashamed of herself. 

I’ve never heard of the actress who is going to play the title role, but I’m hoping that the filmmakers will know how to let Miranda Hart make her Emma suffer. (17 February)

¶ Bad idea: reading Jenny Offill’s Weather while my cold got a little worse. Speaking of worse, Christine Smallwood’s review, in Bookforum — which, however, is not really a review, but more of a witness, as if Smallwood were reporting on a religious revival at which Offill had testified to her own worst fears about the environment. A complaining report, at that. “There is something unsatisfying about Weather. It looks at the scariest things, but as if with one eye only. … It’s like the book itself can only bearly bear its subject.” With both eyes wide open, Smallwood writes, “Those of us who believe that we can salvage at least some habitable community out of the hellish destruction around would do well to work quickly and together and with as much intention to the present as to the future.” At the age of seventy-two, afflicted with a runny nose, I am made to feel somewhat in the way. My take on Weather: Nietzsche, collaborating with Donald Barthelme, does stand-up in Brooklyn. There are jokes, even. My favorite: “These [transhumanists] long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee.” (39) (26 February)

§ You’ve heard my cranky theory before — this one, I mean: in each of the past five centuries, an uproar has either begun or climaxed in the second decade. 

1517 Ninety-Five Theses: the Reformation begins
1618 The Thirty Years War begins
1714 The War of the Spanish Succession ends; 1715 Louis XIV dies
1815 The Napoleonic Episode is brought to a final conclusion
1914 The Great War begins

All that remains to be said about the second decade the Twenty-First Century is deciding on a label. What’s clear is that the Twentieth Century has come to an end. Social media, populism, and the rather sudden political viability of environmental issues have contributed to the sea change. Not to mention Fake Meat. Which, by the way, I haven’t tried yet. 

When I went to place my Fresh Direct order, at the usual hour yesterday, I expected to choose the usual delivery slot for this afternoon. But it wasn’t available. No Monday slots were available. I’ve got to wait for tomorrow. Worried as I am about contracting the wicked flu, I’m more concerned about the possibilities for chaos. “The Coronavirus Is Causing a Global Panic,” shouts an online New Yorker headline. “but That’s a Good Thing.” The headline certainly isn’t. 

A lawyer for whose wisdom I have the greatest respect believes that all human arrangements need to be remade every hundred years. Actually, I think he puts it a bit more fearfully than that. But I agree with the general idea. People forget. They forget how awful war is. For most people, books and movies are not sufficiently informative; they don’t pack the wallop of a grandfather’s recollection of house-to-house combat. They forget what poverty is like. They forget the horrors of which uncorseted human behavior is capable. They’re bored. They have to find out for themselves just how bad things can be. Or they want to give all the latest whizbang appliances a road test. 

And here I was, thinking that I’d spend my last years quietly in the bookroom. (2 March

 

¶ Nearly twelve years after his death, David Foster Wallace remains a significant literary figure — not a monument, but a living reputation. He is a sort of genius of the national calamity, and perhaps what keeps his reputation alive is the way he, or it, presides over what we’re going through. This has little to do with predictions. It would be beside the point, somehow, to say, for example, that he “saw Trump coming.” In his imaginary, Trump is already there, even if Wallace hasn’t got round to writing about him. Everything had already happened. The writer and his writing are wracked by youthful excitement — you know how young people think it’s cool when there’s a power failure — and mature sorrow. 

Wallace is hard to read, in this sense: having read one essay, or one story, you don’t want to read another. After “Big Red Son,” Wallace’s account of a pornography convention in Las Vegas, I wanted to find a time machine that would carry me to a land of severely restricted human possibility. Wallace’s subject was depravity: rationalized wickedness. Call it personal depravity, because he was far more interested in the terrible things that we do to ourselves than in the pain that we cause others. His psychopaths are their own biggest victims. 

I laughed at Infinite Jest when it came out, and dismissed it as a wheeze. Now I’d be afraid to fall into it. A story like “Oblivion” is all that I can manage. I read “Oblivion” the other day because the story features so prominently in Adrienne Miller’s account of working with and trying to love Wallace, In the Land of Men. I had somehow missed the entire collection (which takes its name from the story), and now I have treats like “Good Old Neon” and “The Suffering Channel” to look forward to. I’ll save them for some dark and stormy night. “Oblivion” had a bonus interest: it reminded me very strongly — and I know that I ought to put this the other way round — of Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, which I recently re-read. Both tales share the same desperate hope, ventriloquized by a madly literate writer but inscribed by an homme moyen sensuel too naive to know better, that careful and exact language will, especially if piled up in reams, resolve a dreadful predicament. Obsessive, finicky talk is brandished like a cross or a clove of garlic, to keep the monsters at bay. But the monsters, alas, are now digital, and do not respond to charms. 

In the Land of Men warrants a second reading, I think, not right now but in a year or two. It is an attractive memoir, but it is also a work of somewhat tortured literary history, set in a temporal equivalent of the uncanny valley. The Nineties are both recent and distant. First of all, they are not as recent as I think they are; at my age, I have barely got used to regarding the Eighties as distant. Second, the Nineties witnessed the sharpest moment of technological divide in industrial history: 1996 was without question the year in which “everyone went on the Internet.” All earlier innovations, from railroads to television sets, took years to unroll, what happened in 1996 was relatively instantaneous. But it was also like a puncture in the hull of a great ship, nothing so dramatic as what the iceberg did to the Titanic but just as upsetting. There would be another moment, in 2009, when Smartphones appeared and were rapidly adopted; this marked yet another divide, but one that wouldn’t have had any meaning without the first. You might call these two developments the Two Boots. Few walks of life were more disturbed by these thuds than magazine publishing. Adrienne Miller asks us to remember a world in which Condé Nast’s GQ was a pale, somewhat jejune simulacrum of Hearst’s Esquire. (GQ‘s success today is the sad outcome both of declining expectations and of Esquire‘s extinction.) Sometimes, Miller’s story seems set late in the Obama Administration. At others, the aura is such that Diana Vreeland might be walking around the corner. 

Miller would begin at GQ and go on to be the first female fiction editor at Esquire. Although she owed her entry to the fact that she was an attractive and intelligent young woman applying for a job that was rarely offered to men, her career appears to have been free of a serious gender handicap. We’re never asked to “make allowances” for her actions or decisions. She did her job as well as anybody. Even though she claims a worshipful attitude toward David Foster Wallace’s writing, her work as his magazine editor never seems other than coolly professional. There are moments, I must admit, when it all seems too good to have been true, but I couldn’t put my finger on anything, not, at least, during a slightly dazzled first reading. 

My introduction to Wallace was the folio in Harper’s that I recall as “the SNOOT page.” It is collected, along with “Big Red Son,” in Consider the Lobster, with the unpromising title, “Authority and  American Usage.” This review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage — favorable enough for me to replace “Fowler” with “Garner” — presents Wallace indulging a gambol among the peaks of orthographic fussiness. A page of closely-printed solecisms that would fill a billboard in normal type precedes the first page. If its horrors make you scream (“Between you and I”), then by all means raise the tent flap and enter, for although Wallace might not be able to entertain just any old audience, he will surely entertain you. Like the daring young man on the flying trapeze, Wallace will thrill you as he flies past the thicket of grammatical tedium and over the abyss of curmudgeonly complaint. How does he do it? (What would have become of this brilliant writer if he had not also been a great showman?) He plays with the snarls of prosody like a child prodigy — which apparently he was. The information that both of the disputed derivations of the elegant acronym SNOOT are quite disappointingly clunky is wisely consigned to one of the myriad footnotes.  

And then there is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (also its collection’s eponym), indispensable to all serious discussion of cruise ships but for that very reason undiscussable in this time of pandemic threat. 

And then there is the “boy-man,” “man-child” thing. Miller doesn’t have to tell us much about this; it’s obvious in every photograph of Wallace. Physically, Wallace may have been a monument all along, stuck in a casing that must have become increasingly dissonant. I was always both repelled and saddened by Wallace’s need (it can’t have been less than one) to protect his immense and fecund cleverness behind the coloration of an American slob, and to project a manliness that too eagerly repudiated the appearance of privilege to be genuine. Miller does confirm one’s impression that Wallace’s modus for silencing the contention between his brains and his environment by behaving like a boy in a tree-house. That part of Wallace, in any case, is dead. (5 March)

¶ The Death of the Heart — what an odd, off-putting title. Or so it seems to me, after a first reading. I should have called it, simply, Portia’s Diary, because it is the diary of a sixteen year-old orphan that provides Elizabeth Bowen’s novel with its narrative orientation. What Portia writes in the diary is not nearly so important as the fact that she writes as an adult — a young, ignorant adult, perhaps, but a grown-up in the works. She possesses the rudiments of a critical mind. This, and not Portia’s tattling — she’s not a tattler — is what the other grown-ups with whom she lives, particularly her sister-in-law, Anna, find almost horribly disconcerting. Portia hasn’t yet “filled out,” it’s easy to regard her as still a child. Her capacity for adult attentiveness seems a kind of treachery. The worst thing about Bowen’s title is that the novel pinned beneath it is a comedy. A deep comedy, to be sure, full of pain and loss and dissatisfaction, but still pretty funny. There is even the occasional uproarious note: someone has built a house on the Promenade at what I take to be Hythe, on the Channel coast of Kent, and called it, oh dear, “Waikiki.” 

The younger inmates of Waikiki could pass, on the accentless page, for braying Americans worthy of Nancy Mitford’s worst nightmares. They are loud and impertinent and appear to lack what we call indoor voices. I found them “pretty awful,” as Anna puts it, but Portia is sorry when her sojourn by the sea comes to an end. I couldn’t wait to get back to London, myself. But although I had gasped when I saw that the episode was going to take more than a hundred pages to get through, I got through it all with a smile. Of course, giving Portia some young people closer to her own age, more disposed for crude fun, also set her off very nicely, while curiously rendering the novel even more reminiscent of The Awkward Age, which is for me the most interesting of Henry James’s novels. I couldn’t help wondering what Portia would make of it all when she grew up and looked back. Possibly not much: she’s the sort of person who’s more engaged with living than with being herself; curating her past would not be a likely pastime. One wonders because Portia is such a beautiful blank. She has grown up entirely on the seedier edges of Continental resorts, and almost entirely in the company of her late mother. She has always known about the exterior, at least, of her half-brother’s house in a terrace facing Regent’s Park, because her disgraced father made a point of walking by it one spring day, and later told her about it. What she did not know about its interior was that it now houses Matchett, the fearsome housemaid — a housekeeper in uniform — who, having always been attached to the family, will attach herself to Portia. Portia, you see, has nowhere else to go.  

Grim and volubly laconic — Matchett always seems to be telling Portia that she’s too busy to have anything to say — Matchett is the good fairy. The bad fairy is Eddie, a handsome, feckless hanger-on in Anna’s circle who can’t restrain himself from conducting a liaison with Anna’s little sister-in-law. It is a platonic liaison, notwithstanding a few awkward kisses, but most unseemly. The only explanation for Portia’s responsiveness is novelty: no one has ever paid her such attention before. If you want to know more about Eddie, see Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business; Eddie is too ridiculous for me to anatomize. He, too, never shuts up; one almost fears that Portia might follow another James heroine, into a Carmelite convent. Eddie never shuts up and he never means what he says, except in the moment of saying it. If we are being asked to believe that his logorrheic infidelity breaks Portia’s heart, I’m having none of it. The flirtation struck me as wholly and beneficially educational. 

There is indeed a sort-of sadness here: there is no room for Portia in the life of anybody who knows her. Anna and Thomas, Portia’s half-brother, lead entirely unsuitable lives, quiet, correct, and utterly selfish. We’re told that Anna has had two miscarriages, which is some kind of message I suppose. Anna’s world is full of sophisticated “darlings.” The only exception is an old duffer whom she runs into at the movies. Major Brutt is someone whom Anna met once — once — through an earlier, more romantic but less successful love affair; on a whim, she asks the major back to the house for a drink, only to discover that he is at loose ends, and looking for some kind of connection to life in the England from which he has been away for years. Major Brutt turns out to be a good fairy, too, and he is rewarded with a stunning, unforgettable scene with Portia toward the end. 

The actual end is a monologue delivered by Matchett to the rear of a taxi as it crosses from Regent’s Park to Kensington. Move over, Molly Bloom! If it weren’t for Matchett’s ruminations, one would have to say that Bowen leaves Portia altogether up in the air. One senses instead that Matchett will fly up and bring her back down to earth, with a cup of tea and a warm bed. I wish that she could fly into my book room with some additional chapters. I would drop everything. (6 March)

¶The other day, I picked up Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, even though I’d wanted to hold off, partly to save it for later, partly to insure against tiring of the author. As to the latter point, though, The Heat of the Day is really nothing like the two novels before it, or the two early ones set in Ireland. The texture of the prose in this wartime novel is very dense, and liberally seasoned with Proustian intricacy and Jamesian inference. It’s the sort of book that no one under the age of 40 could possibly understand; the pile-up of the heroine’s experience wobbles like a tower in an earthquake. I have had to re-read at least one chapter before going on. Which I didn’t mind at all, by the way, because, for all it finesse, the writing is beautifully feeling.

Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love. (107)

This almost scans. But I quote it because it captures the vulnerability of the romance when it is disturbed by a snake in the garden who may be telling the truth. Set in London in the locally peaceful fall of 1942, The Heat of the Day concerns a love affair undertaken two years earlier.Settled into expectations of comfort, the relationship is no longer redefining the world every day, as new love does. By the time we hear the lover speak, it seems more than a little likely that the heroine has begun to fall out of love with him. Certainly he is not presented to us as a paragon. Of course, there is something paradoxical about personages as sophisticated as Bowen’s harboring lovey-dovey feelings that they can no more express than I can risk unintentional irony.

I believe that Patricia Hodge starred in an adaptation of The Heat of the Day filmed many years ago. Bowen’s dialogue reads as if written for her. I am keen to see it. (17 March

 

Δ I was just telling someone in a letter that it has been difficult even to think about writing here during the coronavirus pandemic, because, doubtless out of abominable conceit, I don’t want to get caught saying anything that turns out to be unintentionally ironic. Now that I have admitted this, perhaps I will relax write.

As regular readers know, I have “this foot thing.” (The podiatric surgeon wants to “do a Keller” on each big toe, and I’m supposed to stay off my feet as much as possible until the elective surgeries — now postponed indefinitely — reduce the risks of serious infection.) Also, the neighborhood was swept by what in retrospect was a rather mild wave of panic: the news had it that Fairway, the only ordinary supermarket left standing in the wake of the Second Avenue Subway construction, was going bankrupt. One day, meaning to pick up a package of Oreos, I discovered stretches of blank shelves where the Nabisco cookies ought to have been. For both of the foregoing reasons, I decided there and then to get back into ordering groceries from FreshDirect.

Which I used to do until I forget when and why I stopped. Oh! I know why I stopped: FreshDirect was carrying fewer and fewer regular kinds of ordinary things, offering only “specialty brands” instead. Now, I’m one of those bon viveurs whose taste for caviar does not preclude a taste for Triscuits. Stop carrying Thomas’s English muffins, and I’ll take my business elsewhere. Now that I am a regular FreshDirect customer again, I can attest that the misguided policy of snootiness has been abandoned.

I had just enough time to become a regular customer before everyday life in New York began to wrinkle. For three or four weeks, I would place an order on Sunday afternoon for delivery on Monday. At Fresh Direct, you are allowed to preview the available time slots for delivery — the weekdays, and some evenings, are divided into two- or three-hour periods — but you cannot choose one until you are checking out. I wish it were otherwise, because I hate filling my virtual cart under pressure, which I felt even before the flu arrived. Then there came a Sunday afternoon on which I discovered that the first available time slot would be on Tuesday, not Monday. (I see that I have already mentioned this. See “repetitiousness,” below.) Later that week, on Thursday, I placed an order and got my Monday afternoon slot — but it was the earliest available: this, I repeat, on a Thursday. The other day, when my latest order arrived, right on time on Tuesday morning, I decided to place another order immediately.

I filled my cart, a little hastily, like a contestant in one of those early-TV game shows that flirted with gladiatorial sadism. I checked out. Next —

No time slots were available. Every slot through Monday the 23rd (still in the future as I write) was “sold out” (as FreshDirect ineptly puts it). Without an available time slot, my order could not be placed. I could place no further orders at FreshDirect. Is my repetitiousness here conveying my dismay? The end seemed to have arrived.

An hour later, I refreshed the screen, and bravo, there it was, the lineup of slots for Tuesday, 24 March. A few slots were already filled, but I got what I wanted. Now all I have to do is hope that the ground beneath us doesn’t heave again between now and Tuesday. 

How I wish that I could nurse my anxiety with a cuppa poured from a Calamityware teapot! (20 March)

 

¶ A few weeks ago, a friend posted a Facebook update about a favorite book — one of those memes, if that’s the word, in which a friend taps you to mention a book (or an old LP) that has meant a lot to you, and to do so for a number of days. All you do is post the image of the cover, which is usually available somewhere online; reviews and recollections are not required. The cover, in this case, was arresting, because the whole background is a photograph of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with (presumably) the author sitting on its rim. How it manages so clearly to be a photograph taken during the late Sixties I can’t quite say, but it’s unmistakable. Interestingly, it turns out not to have been taken by someone you’ve never heard of, but by Warhol Factory fixture Gerard Malanga, although I couldn’t tell that until I bought the book. I bought the book, The Virgin of Bennington, because I knew that Kathleen (my Kathleen) had liked other books by the author, Kathleen Norris, such as The Cloister Walk and Dakota. In due course, Kathleen read it, but she wasn’t as keen on it as I expected her to be. Then I read it and discovered why. 

The Virgin of Bennington, which came out nearly twenty years ago, is really two books. First, and far more interestingly, it is a memoir of the years that the author spent in New York, between college in Vermont and maturity in South Dakota. Second, it is a memorial to Norris’s New York boss, Elizabeth Kray, who for many years ran the Academy of American Poets out of an office on Madison Avenue. It is possible that, in sheer bulk, the memorial material outweighs that of the memoir, but it may just seem that way. In any case, there are far, far too many names, oft-repeated names, often embedded in maddening little lists of people who contributed to Kray’s programs over the years. Betty Kray seems to have been a truly remarkable woman, and she deserves the attention that Norris gives her. But I’m not sure that her operations do, not in this particular book. I was glad to be done with it. I am glad that I read it, but — what is it they say about Paradise Lost? I am glad that it was not any longer. 

I’ve already told you that Norris knew people from Andy Warhol’s orbit. She knew a lot of other people, too. She remembers a memorable chat with Patti Smith, on a balcony somewhere (or maybe it was a fire escape). She had a much wilder time during her sojourn in New York than you might expect of the writer of Norris’s other books. (Not having read them, I speak of titles only.) Having lived the downtown New York City life when it was still peaking, she was more content than most to leave it for a house in the vicinity of the Badlands that her mother grew up in. And she worked for the wise and indomitable Kray. If the Donnell branch of the Public Library were still standing on 52nd Street, its auditorium ought to be named after Kray, who also happens to be, at least in Norris’s hands, a genuine literary character. 

For the first time in my life [I have neglected to mention that Norris herself is a poet], I told her, poems were coming out whole, as if they had formed in my unconscious before speeding through my hand to the paper. But Betty head heard it all before, and recalled other poets she had known, John Berryman and Anne Sexton, for whom religion had fed creativity but also fueled manic behavior in unhealthy ways. She did not count my new high as “religious experience, which is not ego-centric, But it seems the kind of thing that would make you feel exposed and vulnerable.” She was on full alert. 

Norris’s portrait of Betty Kray made me forgive what otherwise might have been torn from the introduction to a worshipful Festschrift. Or from an endless after-dinner speech celebrating some worthy’s retirement. Betty Kray herself, I’m pretty sure, would have excised most of it. 

But wait: could my impatience with Norris’s roll-calls have something to do  with my near-total ignorance of the poets mentioned? A little, perhaps. Mostly though, I’m afraid that I was put off by my own stuffiness where poetry is concerned, and my lurking suspicion that American English is not really a language for poetry — for poetry, I mean, that anyone will read in two or three hundred years.

Or it may be something entirely different: whenever I have to read a chunk of lines by Walt Whitman, I’m reminded of that Scottish fellow with the reputation for being the worst poet of all time, William McGonagall, author of “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Whitman presents me with the paradox of a man who sonorously purrs or bellows but who doesn’t seem to have a pulse. His words have no rhythm. (If they do, it’s the crashing irregular rhythm of surf.) He says just what he thinks, but his commendable thoughts are really too grandiose and banal for his unstructured lines. Language is more paint in Whitman’s hands than it is a medium of expression; I suspect that he was a terrible listener. If he belongs under “P,” its as in “prophet,” not “poet.” (22 March)

 

Δ No soda, no Entenmann’s donuts, and no canned goods — well, none except for three cans of Old El Paso Refried BeansI recall having about $170 worth of stuff in my shopping cart before I tried to check out at Fresh Direct last Tuesday (a week ago today), but that the total bill, once I had found a time slot for delivery and paid, was much less, about $115. Rattled, as I was almost every minute last week, I didn’t focus on what hadn’t been ticked through. It’s possible that I never actually tried to buy soda, because, already, it was “not available.” It’s probably that I don’t recall the details of this health crisis with much accuracy — to put it better, that I’ve already lost the ability to connect the upsetting things that happen (many of which I would be embarrass to confess having been upset about) with actual dates. My internal timestamp has been overwhelmed. As Sloane Crosley has written, yesterday already seems weeks ago. Anyway, what got delivered this morning fell into one class of comestibles, while what didn’t fell into the other. Everything that I did get has to be cooked. Chicken, eggs, milk — you don’t have to cook Cheddar cheese, I suppose, but this is cheese-shop Cheddar, not grocery Cheddar (there’s a difference). I have six gorgeous russet potatoes. I know people who bake potatoes in the microwave because they can’t wait, but those people are not cooks. I bake potatoes in a preheated 400º not for the standard hour but for 75 minutes or more. In a pinch, that’s almost enough time for a half-stick of salted butter to come to room temperature. Yum. 

The time, the delivery followed building protocols: I had to go down to the lobby to fetch the bag of groceries from the FreshDirect deliveryman. It’s a good thing that I decided to answer the phone call from New Zealand. That’s what my smartphone told me: it gave me a number, with “New Zealand” beneath it. I’ve been getting a lot of these calls, enough to notice that the number begins “64 6.” Today, I wasn’t taking any chances; I was ready to abandon my policy of screening calls, and encouraged by a little flash of recognition that suggested that the call was really from New York, downstairs possibly. Indeed, when I answered, the doorman told me that FreshDirect had arrived. When I got downstairs, the doorman told me, “Everybody thinks we’re New Zealand.” Somehow, the doorman phone (provided by the building, of course) is afflicted with an errant space; “646” is of course one of our local area codes, but the space separates the first two digits from the third, inducing receiving smartphones (no comment) to announce calls from Country 64, which is, I take it, New Zealand. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll fashion a contact, so that the phone will sound the “doorman” ring. 

(Did I ever tell you about what happened to the house phones? In the old days, which is to say until five years ago, the doormen contacted tenants via the house phone, a single-purpose handset mounted in the wall near the front door. In the course of upgrading one thing or repairing something else, a worker in the building’s employ accidentally severed the Verizon landline trunk line feeding the building. Whereupon Verizon and the building management fell into a dispute, unresolved to this day, about paying to fix it. No more house phones, no more landlines, either. It only occurred to me just this minute to wonder about the poor souls who were still using dial-up connections to the Internet.)

Concerns about when the FreshDirect order would arrive, how I would be notified that it was here, and what it would ultimately contain, were all scheduled worries for today. What was not on the agenda was the Wi-Fi system, which pooped out some time last night or early this morning. Having sweated over restoring it only last Monday, I knew what to do, but I couldn’t be sure that it would work. And it didn’t, the first time I rebooted the router. The second time, it did. Maybe it did the first time, too, but my desktop unit, with its wired connection, did not. I had to reboot it, too. I did not have to reboot the ancillary Wi-Fi transmitters (which project the signal into the living room, where Kathleen works), both of which are plugged into sockets behind large pieces of furniture (nothing to be done about it), and I’m grateful for that. Nevertheless, I was rattled. I find that, when I’m rattled, I forget to wash my hands sometimes. Sometimes when it’s really not a good idea to forget to wash your hands, if I may put it that way. As to the Wi-Fi failure, I am advised that this is almost certainly a consequence of the work-from-home phenomenon. Speaking of connections, a friend who works for a pretty large outfit told me that she and her thousands of colleagues, all now working from home, promptly crashed their network’s VPN, so, now they’re on shifts. My friend works from 5 AM until 1 PM. When she signs on in the morning, colleagues in California have only just signed off. 

I am in any case still too rattled to think about the next FreshDirect order. (24 March)

Δ Just checking in, a bit too late in the day. If I don’t write earlier, my brain gums up, like the Wi-Fi transmitter, apparently. It went on the fritz again. When Jason, the tech god who also protects me from stroke, installed the ancillary thingies, he wanted to avoid using extension cords. He wasn’t keen on plugging them into sockets hidden by heavy furniture (a secretary desk, a mahogany sideboard topped with a marble slab), but those were the only sockets available, and indeed I completely forgot that one of them even existed. Now, things having changed, Jason has relented: very short extension cords might be okay. He is going to find some online, and then send me the links for purchase — which is how we have always handled such things. 

Nor do you probably want to hear about how I reconciled my determination restrain the use of paper towels for the duration with the need to mop up the contents of a nearly-full glass of juice that I knocked over while talking with my hands. It involved Squiffers — yes, two, and different ones. “Squiffer” was no more than a name to me until four years ago; if I have two of the specialized mops today, it’s because I still don’t really understand how to use them. 

The other fun thing today was seeing the doctor. I was taught to say, “I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.” That was when, since one was young and healthy, the reason for going to the doctor’s or the dentist’s office was routine, as for an annual checkup. (If things were serious, someone else said, “He’s seeing the doctor tomorrow.” The victim didn’t say anything. If you were really sick, the doctor came to you.) The underlying aim seems to have been to convey a proprietorial relation to medical attention while disclaiming any need for it. Nowadays, of course, even my routine visits to doctors are not routine at all. I also find myself questioning the construction, “doctor’s appointment,” on grammatical grounds as well. Now technology has barged in with an innovation that intensifies the need for fresh syntax. Either that, or a revival of “house call.” 

I had an appointment to see the podiatrist tomorrow afternoon. I made it a month ago, when things were different. Before I could bother to inquire into the impact of current events on this date, I was notified that the exam would be remote. Did I have a “smart device”? Yes, I did. Do. At first, I figured that the doctor would simply have a look at my toe via FaceTime, but no, there’s an app for that, as I learned when the confirming email arrived. The app turned out to be easy to download and install (well, they always are, now, really), and it worked without a hitch this morning. (The venue wasn’t the only detail to change.) Dreading the thicket of possible technical difficulties that naturally haunts the mind of anyone who, on the threshold of middle age, began using personal computers Before The Internet, when traumas of incompetence, not always mine, were the unavoidable amuse-bouche of cybernetic life, I was tempted to “oversleep” and “miss” the “appointment.” If the podiatrist calls me, I compromised, I’ll pick up. But Kathleen did not approve of this compromise, not at all; without raising her voice or resorting to explicit reminders, she warned me that my inner hypochondriac would really regret any evasion. If the app didn’t work, that would be one thing. But I must call the doctor — or, rather, press a sequence of buttons — at the appointed hour. 

And there he was! So now, if I die, I’ll know that it won’t be because I yielded to a moment of weakness. Not that one, anyway. (26 March)

 

§ Fifteen years ago, when I began keeping this Web log, blogging was fairly exciting, especially, I think, for older people who, for the first time in their lives, discovered what promised to become — or at least offered the beguiling promise of becoming  — connections to virtual communities of like-minded, thoughtful and articulate people. While it’s sad to think how inexorably the Internet made way for troops of trolls instead — and perhaps it’s not a good thing for thoughtful, articulate people to form communities — I’m grateful for the enthusiasm, because it prompted me to meet a few fellow bloggers in real life, and at least two of them remain important figures in the life of my mind, even if years go by without my seeing them. Jean Ruaud, now retired from Paris to Angers, is the only non-Anglophone in the bunch. Jean would frown — he will frown, I daresay — to hear me call him a detective working for the French railways, but that is not only what he has been doing for years (having, I suspect, invented his own job, which is deskbound and does not involve skirting mudpuddles in dark alleys), it is what he is writing about at his longest-running blog, Mnémoglyphes, right now. The course begins here, with the words, “Vous le savez peut-être , chers lecteurs, dans la vraie vie je fais de la géographie criminelle… Je fais des visualisations cartographiques de ces phénomènes pour aider à les comprendre et aussi à les prévoir.” Although he is passionately interested in several facets of American vernacular culture, he approaches crime with Cartesian, arguably Euclidean rigor. I find that I’m looking forward to new entries with an impatience that I haven’t experienced in a long time. And now that, to put it mildly, I have all the time in the world, I look up every word that raises an eyebrow, even if I can guess what it means. Punaises — I had forgotten that the word for “bugs” is also the word for “pushpins.” 

Last night, Kathleen took part in a Zoom call, with seven other women who were colleagues of a different sort many decades ago, as summer-camp counselors in Maine. Since she hooked up on her iPhone, she could only see one old friend at a time, as the app toggled among the inputs; had she been connected via computer, Zoom would have presented her with a gallery showing everybody. I’m sure that the visual aspect of the call grounded the call in something stronger than virtual reality, but of course it was the voices that hadn’t much changed — I’ve known a few of these women quite a long time, myself. Because they have stayed in touch in real life, the call was not a camp reunion; the pandemic was the central subject. But the tone was cheerful, and rightly so: getting together was a source of strength not least because it was a pleasure. Kathleen was almost exhilarated afterward. A lifetime of participation in professional conference calls has taught her to confine her remarks to what absolutely needs to be said, so it wasn’t surprising to hear one of the old campers pipe up, “Moriarty’s fallen asleep.” “No, I’m not!” she laughed, raising her eyelids. 

It’s almost funny: countless magazines and self-help books offer us advice about looking better. But our personalities are vested in our voices, in what we say and, more than we might like to think, what we sound like when we say it. (31 March

§ The unsurprising antics of Viktor Orbán reminded me yesterday of an old rhyme. I think that it may have been used for jumprope. Give the first syllable of each line a heavy accent, and drawl out the rest in equal time: 

Austria got
Hung(a)ry
Ran after
Turkey
Slipped on the 
Greece and 
Broke all the 
China.

I learned this when I was about eight or nine years old. I would object (to myself): But China is so far away — from the other countries mentioned. Without it, the rhyme might tell the story of some familiar Balkan imbroglio, although, perhaps not one familiar to an eight year-old. I am pretty sure that I already knew, however, that Austria and Hungary had been troublesome. You know, of course, that one interesting difference between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which share the same language, is that the first was ruled from Vienna in the old Hapsburg days, while the second was ruled from Budapest, and considered part of Hungary. 

My forbidden passion for jumprope is one of the things that I remember about the second half of sixth grade. Somewhere in the fall, I was taken out of Iona Grammar, a Catholic school for boys, and after the holidays I was sent to the William E Cottle School, a public elementary school in Eastchester, New York. My first clear memory is of asking my new teacher what church or temple she attended. I don’t know how it came to me to include the possibility of a temple in my question, but it turned out to be the right move. The second memory is a blur of jumping rope with a posse of tall black girls and then being asked to desist. Told to desist, rather. I don’t remember how this was put, but the easiest thing would have been to tell me that boys don’t jump rope. Well, duh, I could have countered, well aware that boys don’t do anything but hit. (Not that they hit me; I was too big.) In any case, I knew that the real offense had been mixing with black girls. It’s very possible that I made them uncomfortable. I wonder what would happen on today’s playground. 

I also remember a tall, pretty girl called Winifred. She was fair and Irish, and she told me that I was “conceited.” Or maybe somebody told her that she was conceited. I associate the word, which enjoyed something of a vogue in those days, with Winnie, who also reminds me of singing “All Through the Night” and “I am a Happy Wanderer,” two very sappy songs that I still adored long after I knew better. 

The following year, my new classmates and I were shunted to the larger, older building at the other end of the street: Tuckahoe High. I had a brief crush on the daughter of a Lutheran pastor associated with Concordia. She had grown up in someplace like Iowa, and spoke so fast that we could not understand her. She was very smart, although maybe not as smart as her rapid patter suggested. I remember reading a pioneer novel called A Candle in Her Hand. I checked it out of the library because of the candle in the title. The book was not what I was looking for. 

In the late spring, we moved from Hathaway Road, in “Bronxville P O,” to Paddington Circle, in Bronxville proper, so that in eighth grade, instead of walking to school along the country club drive, I walked the length of Elm Rock Road, and then downhill to Bronxville School. My new classmates included kids I’d known since the start of dancing school in fourth grade. (1 April 2020

 

Δ As I sort-of expected, I have resumed doing our laundry. It seems that the driver who picks up and delivers the wash-and-fold to the dry-cleaning outfit just off the lobby downstairs stopped showing up last week. It took three or four discussions to figure out why. Neither of the new young men currently now working for the dry cleaner — they also do their best to control the tides of shipping that are delivered every day — speaks competent English. They can say what they absolutely have to say, but strange situations confound them, and daily life is nothing if not a strange situation these days.

I handed in a bag of laundry a week ago Wednesday, and when I asked when I’d get it back, they looked at one another and exchanged uncertain glances. That ought to have been my tip to take the bag back, and I knew it. “Friday or Saturday,” they mumbled, shrugging. I didn’t bother inquiring on Friday, and when on Saturday it wasn’t there, I was only a little disappointed. By Monday, however, my disappointment had ripened anxiety: I was wondering how I would replace what it seemed I might have lost. On Tuesday, I expressed my concern more vividly, taking great care not to appear angry — not too difficult, since I knew I had only myself to blame. Only now did the senior staffer, Evram, make a motion when he repeated what he had been saying since Saturday, which was “He don’t come.” He pointed at one in a group of laundry bags in the middle of the floor. I quickly grasped that mine had never left. My relief worked a little too fast for Evram, who didn’t see that the problem was solved. He doubtless regarded me as a customer who considered himself as entitled to clean laundry. And maybe, under normal circumstances, I am. But under actually prevailing circumstances, it was quite all right with me that “he don’t come,” so long as he don’t taken my laundry away. I just wanted my stuff. I did take care to ask Evram, as he removed the ticket, not to charge me. 

I took the bag upstairs and dumped it in one of the machines in the laundry room on our floor. (Each floor has its own, and some of the more recently remodeled apartments have their own, too, which cuts down the demand a bit.) I was almost giddy with delight. It didn’t last long, though, and soon all the other uncertainties resumed their cackling and crackling. (2 April 2020)

 

§ The other day, I saw a flurry of FWDs in my inbox. This was a sign that our Blair class secretary had sent us all an email and that several of us had replied. These flurries usually occur in the fall, when there’s talk of gathering for a football game, maybe even “the Peddie game,” against our traditional rival, but they are familiar in the spring, too, when reunion time comes up. This year, our class will mark its fifty-fifth anniversary. Most of us are still here, it seems, if the mailing list is any indication. 

Don, the secretary, was writing to express uncertainty about the reunion, which in fact was definitively canceled while the flurry was still piling up. The subject of most responses was the pandemic, and how the writer was dealing with it. Not surprisingly, those reporting were doing fine. 

I have been back to Blair just once since graduation in 1965 — it was during one of the two very low points of my college career — and never to a reunion. Fossil Darling, who, readers may have forgotten, was my roommate our first year there, used to talk about renting a car and driving out, but he gave that up a long time ago, and we did not seriously consider attending our fiftieth reunion. Much as I’d like to see the campus, which has sprouted more than a few new buildings over the years, I don’t know what I would do after a walk round the place. Once upon a time, I’d have contrived to drink too much, but I have learned so well that drinking too much is the price of bored discomfort that I avoid, whenever i can, large gatherings of people I don’t know well. It’s also true that I have nothing in the way of life trophies to show for myself. And the last thing I want to do is to sit through a football game. It’s for this last reason that I rarely add my two cents to one of Don’s letters. It seems rude even to imply my very low opinion of grown men’s interest in young men’s games. 

It has dawned on me, though, that I was happy at Blair. I have always known that Blair was a refuge at the time. Noisy, grating interactions with my mother were profoundly demoralizing; we were both so very much not what the other wanted or needed that it was a great relief not to live under the same roof, at least for a while. But happiness? I don’t have any “happy memories” of being at Blair, not as such. I made one or two lasting friendships (quite aside from Fossil, with whom I was on cool-to-hostile terms until later), but like all real friendships, they completely outgrew and displaced their origins. Nothing exciting or memorable happened. 

What I mostly remember about Blair now is what I did when I was alone. I listened over and over to a few LPs of Bach and Mozart. And I opened that charge account at Blackwell’s of Oxford. How I managed it, I simply can’t recall, although I know that I was inspired to do so by two things. First, I took English History in senior year, but discovered that this subject was not a strength of the school library. Second and luckily, there was a profile of Sir Basil Blackwell that fall in The New Yorker. I still have most of the books that I ordered; at the time, they made up half of the truly grown-up part of my library. When I wasn’t listening to cantatas or reading select charters, I was as close to an ordinary boy as I’ve ever been. Particularly in that final year, I did what I was supposed to do and didn’t do what I wasn’t. Having an unremarkable career was, simply, agreeable. Which is why I don’t say that, at Blair, I was not unhappy. I had never known or even imagined what it was like for life to be agreeable. 

That sound of paradox rustling in the corner owes, of course, to my not having been altogether aware that life was happy and agreeable. But I do remember thinking, as graduation approached, that at least one more year of this would have been welcome. The present was certainly clouded by anxieties about the immediate future. I had not gotten into either of the colleges that I thought I’d like to go to (I forget whether it was Hamilton or Colgate that wait-listed me, but I recall that one of them did), so it was clear that I would have to go Notre Dame, my father’s school, about which my misgivings turned out to be spot on. (It was the things that I didn’t think to have misgivings about that, once I was out there, got me through.) I remember the college adviser’s expression of extreme, almost shocked disappointment when I told him. His palpable dismay at the prospect of crossing the Alleghenies made me feel twice as bad. And it would be a long time before I was anything like happy again.

Perhaps because of the gravity of the moment, some of my classmates’ replies to Don’s letter are nothing less than engaging. Having misplaced my yearbook, I can’t put faces on a lot of names, but it’s the people whom I don’t recall at all, with one exception, whose articulate thoughtfulness has most impressed me. I attribute this somewhat surprising display of reflection to the virus, which has made it forgivable for a man to be serious in a prep-school setting. The exception is a classmate who has been living in Switzerland for what now seems like a long time. He was briefly my roommate in East Hall, the senior dorm, and to say that we did not get on is a choking understatement. But he appears in the life that he describes to be a very appealing fellow. No more likely to attend a reunion than I am, he may not be so appealing in person. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s the words that count. In the end, the words are all that there are — a lesson that I may very well have learned at Blair. (3 April 2020)

 

¶ What would a pluralist ethos look like? Would it be yet another liberal procedural checklist, with a few general moral propositions that almost everyone already accepts (murder is wrong) down at the bottom? I’ve only just begun asking myself the question, after reading Nicholas Lemann’s new book, Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream. Like all of Lemann’s work, this is a book for every American. Lemann is, by profession, a journalist, but he researches and writes about the past, even the recent past, like a historian. The difference is that the historian’s writing reflects, even when it does not explain, a great deal that is known about the past, not just the material useful to building up a case or a “story.” (As an excellent journalist, he certianly knows how to tell a story.) Lemann traces a thread — more like an anchor chain — through twentieth-century thinking about business, business institutions, and the government’s relation to business from the Progressive Era to MAGA, discerning three nodes, characterized respectively by Adolf Berle, Michael Jensen, and Reid Hoffman, and embodied in the transitional neighborhood of Chicago Lawn. Lemann tells us a great deal about how we got to where we are today. Readers who believe that where we are today is confused will find Transaction Man extremely helpful. 

He begins with Berle, the Institution Man, who saw business, properly if lightly regulated by the government, as the source of social benefits. Workers would earn not just money but health care and pensions, provided by large employers who would also devote attention to what we now call “stakeholders” no less than to shareholders. Jensen, the Transaction Man, shared the Chicago School’s belief that stakeholders are distractions, that only shareholders count. The belief in free markets, seeking to unfetter them, destroyed them. The networks for which Reid Hoffman has great hopes are still very much in the making, but it is already apparent that networks themselves, lacking the trickle-down effects of institutions and transactions, are not going to affect most working people, much less improve their lives. 

At the end, he concludes that each of his three figures, and each of the trends that they did so much to carry forth, are doomed by the conviction that this is the answer. Berle thought he had. Jensen was sure that he had it. Hoffman appears to believe that the right idea, the one that will save us all, is just around the corner. Meanwhile, life in Chicago Lawn, shaped by all three of them, becomes ever less pleasant. Each attempt to guarantee the health and security of the American economy turned out to be far more partial than its projectors imagined. And the determination of each of his men to stamp out the alternatives has only made things worse. This is what leads Lemann to take up pluralism. Maybe they’re all right — to some limited extent, even necessary. If we have a job, it’s to make them work together.

Paradoxical as it might seem, the idea of toleration would be hostile to any pluralist ethos. We are used to hailing toleration as a good thing, as a hard-won acquisition of modern societies, and it is certainly true that toleration is the indispensable bridge between traditional heterophobia and the new world to which it has led us. It cannot be denied, however, that toleration predicates an ugly transitive ineqality, whereby one group does the tolerating while the other remains on the receiving end of the tolerators’ virtue. We need only inquire where and under what circumstances Jews were invited to tolerate European Christians at any point in the past two thousand years to see how toleration really works, at its best. In a truly pluralist society, no one group can be in a position to tolerate any other. We are so far from fully grasping the implications of living according to this rule that we might pause to consider that, until toleration is really a thing of the past, no pluralist society can be hoped for. 

Lemann’s history begins a little later than it might have done, with an existing constellation of large and powerful corporations passing from the founders’ hands into the control of trained managers. He might have started with the birth and development of these corporations, not in order to complete the picture so much as to show how relatively new it still is. The Industrial Revolution, complicated as it is, took less than a century to produce the swollen factories and belching mills that so visibly distinguish the modern world from what went before. In the United States, where the impact of the new economic order was delayed until population and settlement were less dispersed, the Civil War acted as an accelerant upon the transition. Lemann’s book, therefore, covers most of the historical frame of the modern economy, but it does not convey what seems the most striking but oddly the most overlooked aspect of the matter: that Adolf Berle grew up in a world that would have dumbfounded his German forebears only three or four generations earlier. Lemann tells us that Berle’s grandfather was an immigrant who fought in the Civil War only to die, eventually, of his wounds. Berle himself, in a contrast that could hardly be heightened without beginning to sound like a movie, belonged to the inner circle of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisers. The truly astonishing thing about Berle’s social ascent is that it was not particularly unusual, especially as Berle’s own father was something of a celebrity (as a Congregationalist minister). Berle’s was a world that already took change — momentous change — for granted. 

It is one thing for a society to take change for granted. It is quite a different thing, and still a very mysterious thing about which little is known, for a society accustomed to change to know what to teach its children. That Berle’s generation did not know how to teach its children is abundantly borne out by the middle chapter of his story, which tells how financial radicals like Michael Jensen — radicals of the right — fastidiously undid all of the protection that Berle’s generation had put in place. Consider the now lamented Glass-Steagall Act. Enacted in 1933, Glass-Steagall erected a firewall that protected Americans from the exploitation of their bank deposits by speculating underwriters. By the second Clinton Administration, the provisions of the Act, however outdated in detail, were as essential as ever, a sad truth that dawned ten years after Glass-Steagall’s repeal, in the financial crash of 2008. Although at the time of the repeal, my wife and I regarded the destruction of the firewall as the work of ignorant barbarians, we see now that theirs is not the only responsibility: generations of liberal economists had complacently regarded American banking regulation as more or less permanently arranged, and shifted their attention to other matters. In fact, a regulation of Glass-Steagall’s significance, like any material bulwark, requires steady maintenance, and sometimes outright reconstruction. If there was something wrong with Glass-Steagall in 1998, then the Act ought to have been fixed, not junked. But Michael Jensen’s generation had never been taught such things. To the young men who got high on financial antics beginning in the 1970s, Glass-Steagall was nothing but a sacred cow, a suitable target for anti-liberal pot-shots. In more grounded societies, young men are taught how to handle weapons before they’re allowed to use them — taught very carefully. But what did Adolf Berle’s generation know about being grounded? 

This intergenerational lapse, a feature of life since 1800 that becomes ever more salient with the passage of time, brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s insistence that human life is marked by the constant invasion of newborns. Newborns, I might add, who cry out Take us to your leader! The horror of modern life may well be that the depth of the leaders’ experience of things is so rarely much deeper than that of the newborns. (7 April 2020) 

January 2020

Friday, January 3rd, 2020

§ Happy New Year!
Topsy-Turvy, “The Ebony Tower”
§ Mamie’s Bangs
¶ On Chapel Sands
, Iris Origo
§ Garish or Soviet
¶ Snips from Books
, Uncanny Valley, Language of the Third Reich
§ Boys Today

§ Happy New Year! I fully expected, a few months ago, to be announcing my imminent retirement from this site on this day, but the world will not be so easily spared. Perhaps all I needed was a break, together with the prospect of freedom. Since the initial announcement, I have reconsidered the whole business, or at least the back of my brain has done, and so, as a result, the only change to be announced is the introduction of anchors, or bookmarks as they’re sometimes called. The headings above the photograph in each month’s entry are going to be links leading directly to the related material. For some reason, this feature was not available by default, and I have asked to have it added. So there we are. I daresay that I’ll chat more about less technical developments as they occur. It’s astonishing to me that I am still tinkering, fifteen years later, with the Web log format. 

As always, it is great to be out of the teens. (1 January)

 

¶ We watched Topsy-Turvy  last night, and something hit me for the first time: how lucky Gilbert was! How lucky to arrive in middle age without knowing much of anything about Japan — a Japan that, at the time of Gilbert’s youth, had known even less about the West. What a marvelous treat for the inspiration it must have been — and evidently was — to visit the Japanese Village at Humphreys’ Hall in Knightsbridge, a veritable chocolate box of exotic inscrutabilities. At the time, Gilbert and Sullivan were famously at loggerheads about Gilbert’s addiction to supernatural potions and lozenges as the agents of his topsy-turvy dramas; Sullivan wouldn’t have anything more to do with such vulgarity. The men and women going about their Japanese ways at Humphreys’ Hall seem to have given Gilbert the idea for something better than a lozenge: his own England could be dressed up in Japanese “dressing gowns,” and Victoria could be switched out for an emperor with a daughter-in-law-elect. (Am I the only one who sees the ghost of Prince Albert?) No magic necessary! Sullivan appears not to have been able to resist the opportunities for “authentic” Oriental color — something that Offenbach and the Théâtre des Italiens hadn’t thought of yet. The Mikado is still the jewel in the Savoyard crown. 

Topsy-Turvy (1999) is not what I’d have expected from Mike Leigh, otherwise a master of improvisational, demotic critiques of the baggage of respectability. There’s a lot of that in Topsy-Turvy, I suppose, but you have to want to see (or hear) it, because the surface of the film is so pungent a realization of the scenario by Christopher Hibbert. Hibbert was unaware, no doubt, that a filmmaker would extract a feature from the relevant pages of his handsome picture-book, Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World (American Heritage, 1978), but it is impossible to read them without seeing a team of screenwriters forging them into a script.

Then, as Gilbert was pacing up and down in his cluttered library one day, a heavy object hanging on the wall suddenly clattered to the floor. Gilbert bent down to pick it up. It was a Japanese sword, and as he held it in his hand an idea suddenly came to him. (173)

This is pretty much what happens in the movie. It is notoriously difficulty to capture artistic inspiration on film, but Leigh, and Jim Broadbent as Gilbert, pull it off in a stroke: Gilbert, having picked up and unsheathed the sword, indulging in a bit of fencing while sotto-voce shouting nonsense “Japanese,” stares into the camera. Very slowly, his face lights up, those blue eyes glowing at lighthouse strength, and the music just as gradually comes up, leading to a cut to the “Lord High Executioner” march. 

For all the luxurious lighting and upholstery — the ladies in their finery are right out of Tissot! — Mike Leigh seems determined to dilute the idea that “the Victorians” were a different race of people. They are just like us, only with servants. And the travails of servants are not a topic here. If anything, it is the performers — the singers and the musicians, even, to an extent, Gilbert and Sullivan themselves — who are presented as the “servants,” charged with the duty to entertain everybody else. Leigh takes care that we see them doing that duty, working their heads off at times. But the clever dialogue distracts us from what might be the tediousness of getting the staging just right. 

Anyway, lucky Gilbert. Not only do we know what everyone looks like everywhere, but everyone everywhere looks just like us. (3 January)

¶ If I were Shakespeare, I would know how to put this all in five or ten words, but:

The contents of top shelf of my fiction bookcase — not all that capacious, only about a yard wide, if taller than I am — have never been catalogued. By “never,” I mean since the move down to this apartment, but they had probably not been catalogued upstairs, either. The top shelves of most of my bookcases are set fairly close, too close to accommodate today’s standard clothbound novel, or even many “trade paperbacks” (what a strange term), so they’re stuffed, sometimes three deep, with tiny, mostly old volumes that fall apart when I try to re-read them. Signet Classics, if you remember the ones with the great Milton Glaser art on the cover. I still have four of the Anchor paperbacks for which Edward Gorey designed the covers, and one of them, a translation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida (as it’s called), I bought just for that reason, although I hasten add that it was still newish enough to be on the market. Also, French books. I have accumulated a lot of French books since buying them online became an option (and who was that retailer — Bertelsmann? — whose dot-com emblem was a fist making a for Victory whilst also sporting what I believe the British call y-fronts? Only a few of the French books, I’m ashamed to admit, have been read, but of course the right way to look at it is that some of them have been read.) A few days ago — call it a New Year’s resolution that was actualized without having been made — I decided that I must sort through this shelf, and, sure enough, four or five novels that I had replaced turned up. What also turned up was an old paperback copy of The Ebony Tower, by John Fowles. I had been thinking of it, the title novella anyway. I hadn’t read it in a long time (obviously), and in fact I don’t know if I’ve read it once or twice, or, now, twice or thrice. I seem to recall looking for it at Amazon recently, and not finding it. Thank goodness, since I had it already! 

Reader, I read it. 

Perhaps I will let this entry stand as an introduction to the one that I am going to write when I have re-read According to Mark, one of the few Penelope Lively novels that I have read only once, and all I could think of during “The Ebony Tower.” Can it be that the Lively is a satire on the Fowles? From what I recall of the story, I don’t see how it could not be, unless of course it was written before 1974, which I don’t think it was. No — it’s ten years younger (and a Booker finalist! — that seals it, surely). 

I wanted to re-read “The Ebony Tower” for the same reason that has led me to read Daniel Martin three times: nobody except possibly Shakespeare writes so beautifully about the English countryside — or, in this case, the Breton countryside. It’s better than being there. You’ve heard, I imagine, that Michelangelo Antonioni had all the leaves on the trees in London’s Maryon Park painted green for their close-ups in Blow-Up. John Fowles achieves a similar effect with words on the page. All you can see at times is green, which is important, because verdure enhances the Arthurian echoes of which Fowles is so fond. And those echoes require a forest large enough to get lost in, which is pretty much what you know is going to happen to David Williams, the thirty-two year-old protagonist of “The Ebony Tower.” More about the story itself when I’ve had another look at According to Mark (which also involves a famous older artist — a writer in that case — and a young woman with whom the protagonist falls hopelessly in love). For now, it’s enough to say that the experienced reader of Fowles realizes from the beginning that a handsome young man who doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks he does is going to be devoured in the lovingly painted forest. All you do wonder is, exactly how? (Wasn’t there a human sacrifice in The Magus?) Our David, we know, is going to lose his heart, all unawares, to a young woman nicknamed “Mouse,” and the sobriquet has nothing to do with vermin. Oh dear, no. At some point, it’s clear, David is going to want — well, he actually asks Mouse, finally, “But please let me take you to bed.” That’s pretty Arthurian, don’t you think? Especially in light of the vague rape fantasies that have bubbled up in his mind earlier that day. In the very protracted post-mortem, however — Mouse declines the request — David doesn’t seem to ask himself whether or not he ought to have asked her. Seize the day and all that, what?

As a man on the eve — literally! — of his seventy-second birthday, I could only pant with relief when David escapes from the  occasion of infidelity (he’s married, with two daughters) that might have upended his life, but the whippersnapper doesn’t see things this way at all. No, he has ruined his life; he has failed the (Arthurian) challenge. All he does, on the long drive, next day, from Brittany to Paris — to pick up his wife at Orly — is to ring changes with the bells of self-loathing. The author is enthusiastically helpful, also believing that to be refused by a woman who has awakened your ardent lusts makes for extraordinary, world-historical misery. Fowles seems unaware that carnal desire, like the launch of a rocket ship, initiates many temporarily irreversible processes and chemical mixtures, all of a totally somatic and unromantic nature, the interruption of which used to be known to cause blue balls

But you can’t write a novella about that. And if you try, you certainly don’t need Fowles’s beautifully painted greenery. No: the tale must end like this: 

The abominable and vindictive injustice was that art is fundamentally amoral. However hard one tried, one was hopelessly handicapped: all to the pigs, none to the deserving. [David’s visit to Brittany] had remorselessly demonstrated what he was born, still was, and always would be: a decent man and eternal also-ran. 

Kathleen, with whom I shared many of these tittering thoughts at dinner, couldn’t remember exactly what she’d read by John Fowles, but she did recall thinking of him as “John Fools.” She’s the Shakespeare. (5 January)

 

§ From a letter to a friend: 

You know how people say, with an air of surprise “I don’t feel old at all, I feel as young as ever.” It seems to me that you hear this more from the elderly than from the middle-aged, and certainly I now feel more like my eternal self, if I can speak of such a thing, than I did when I was forty. But what counters the illusion of youth right now is the heavy arc of memory. Not the “personal” memories, but the news summaries from all the years that I’ve been around. Politicians, pop musicians, art crazes, just plain gossip. What an awful lot of them there are, and how few of them still mean anything to most people alive. I remember when you heard about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Sybil Burton’s discothèque every single day. (Imagine! Paying to dance to somebody’s record collection!)

It’s only now that I understand, or rather remember and really feel, how the Kennedys’ representation of a new and wonderful dawn was enhanced by the contrast of Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs. You really can’t imagine how dowdy Mamie Eisenhower was; you have to have been there. No first lady has been allowed to be anything like her since. And yet she seemed normal at the time, and that’s what made the Kennedy’s newer than new. Bess Truman was almost as bad. If Eleanor Roosevelt hadn’t had such an unfortunate chin, she might have prefigured Jackie, but even now few people realize what a clotheshorse she was. And if not dowdy, Mrs Roosevelt was a bit sour — understandably. That it was the sourness of feminist outrage and not the grimness of an old maid is hard to tell at a distance. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a picture of Mrs Hoover, and Mrs Coolidge looked rather like her husband. Anyway, Mamie came from a long line of bats, and that’s what everybody was used to. (If you watch Frank Capra’s State of the Union carefully, you can get the impression that American men liked it that way — politics, I mean.) Against such a background, Jackie Kennedy couldn’t help looking spectacular, and she quite literally did. Her dawn meant that everything new was good. “New” would fix everything, something like “science.” But Mamie Eisenhower’s bangs were the power supply.

We thought that everything would be different — snap — like turning on a light switch. We were assured that it would be. And I was too young to doubt it. That’s why I was thrown off by LBJ. He was, it’s now clear, a far more serious president than JFK dreamed of being, but he looked too much like Mamie Eisenhower. He was old, he was a hick. He was a throwback, and not to Ike, whom everyone foolishly admired for being “above politics.” (Something that ought to have been made more of when Obama was challenging Clinton.) LBJ was the actual dawn, the beginning of a genuinely new day, but he sure didn’t look like it. When you look more like Mamie Eisenhower than your drawling, beautifying wife…

According to Wikipedia, the apparition incroyable of Mamie Eisenhower was an adaptation of Christian Dior’s New Look. Now we’ve heard everything. (7 January)

 

¶ “God…is…love,” exhales Mrs Moore, in A Passage to India. Like everything that sounds simple, the precept leads to impossible complications among human beings. We desire love, but we spoil it by the very wanting. What we offer as love is usually lust. And what about God? How can God put every created being first? What’s really at stake for God? I say that love is a dream. The best that we have to give is caring. I suspect that Mrs Moore, if not her author, would be happy with the revision. After all, we can care; good people do it every day.

But caring is not love. For as long as Kathleen and I have been together, I have known that my wife prefers soft-boiled eggs to scrambled; and Kathleen has known that, given everything else that has to be brought to the table for a weekend breakfast, it is much easier to scramble eggs than to boil them. But only after nearly forty years of marriage, just a couple of months ago, did she confess that she actually dislikes scrambled eggs. I try very hard to care for Kathleen, but I don’t flatter myself that I love her very well, because love means getting the caring right. God presumably knows how we’d all like to be taken care of, but others are not always informed. Sometimes, parents and spouses and (later) children are grossly ill-informed, and they get the caring very wrong. Then it’s as if no one loves us at all. 

Such are my thoughts upon reading Laura Cumming’s utterly engrossing vicarious memoir, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons. There’s a very good story running through Cumming’s book, which she relates with the dexterity of a cardsharp, and which I’d have enjoyed somewhat more if it hadn’t been spoiled for me by a review. The book itself, happily, wasn’t spoiled; perhaps it was knowing how the story would unfold that allowed me to pay more attention to the teller, who is very much, as I’ve suggested, at the emotional center. Her mother, in her mid-nineties at the time of writing, appears to have put the unhappiness of her childhood aside; it is the author/daughter who, though the child of one loving home and the mother of another, seethes with anger and resentment.

The object of Cummings’s outrage is her grandfather, George Elston, and the real story of On Chapel Sands concerns the metamorphosis of this outrage into something much closer to sympathy. The selfish and hypocritical ogre who makes her pages shudder once the tale has got going becomes at the end an ordinary man making the most of a bad hand. Issues of patriarchy, authority, propriety and respectability, and what we dismiss as “keeping up with appearances” only because the appearances no longer appeal to us — these melt like the wings of Icarus in the warmth of patient detection. They melt into a landscape that is only partly the flat “Holland” of the Lincolnshire coast; it is also the scene of a vast, slow-motion upheaval, an immense cloud of families rising and falling within and through the swelling middle classes throughout Europe and America during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 

Betty Elston grew up in a terrace, two-up, two-down, outside of Chapel St Lawrence, near Skegness, the resort town on the North Sea, in a house remorselessly lacking stimulation. When she was not at school — which at first meant the parlor of a neighbor in the same small terrace — she was at home, always at home, forbidden to visit the town or to build friendships. She blamed her isolation on her parents — her father was an ill-tempered commercial traveler who spent his weekdays on the road, her mother a quiet homemaker and gifted needlewoman — but her daughter would learn that the imprisonment was managed by the people of the town. Everybody “knew” who Betty really was — everyone except Betty herself, of course. And this horrendous blend of knowledge and ignorance was universally thought to be “for the best,” even if there was some disagreement about the details. Victorian novelists have presented birth out of wedlock as such a total disaster for the mother and the child that we are blinded to the reality that “these things happened,” and happened often, and that towns and villages quite often tried to deal with them kindly. But the kindness was not always humane, just as the caring often fell short of love. The quiet glory of On Chapel Sands is the evaporation of a cloud of blame by the sun of understanding. (8 January)

Iris Origo, Images and Shadows, “Writing”:

But were I to write these books now, I think they would be somewhat different in tone and treatment from my earlier ones, for a reason which became clear to me, some years ago, after a conversation with George Santayana. During the last years of his life, when he was revising his Life of Reason, I asked him whether his opinions had become very different from those he had expressed some forty years before. “No,” he gently replied. “I feel I have much the same things to say — but I want to say them in a different tone of voice.”

Essentially, this reflects a state of mind not unlike that of Dr Johnson when, ten days before his death,k he asserted that he was ‘now ready to call a man a good man, on much easier terms than formerly.’ With the passing of time, a writer’s judgments are likely to become a little gentler and to be expressed in a quieter voice, and of course it is also possible that, in the interval, he may have learned a little more. This is not to say that the works of a person’s later years are necessarily better than those of his youth; something may have been lost, as well as gained. But they will certainly be different. 

Origo ends her chapter with a famous line: of the making of many books there is no end. Who said that, I wondered. The answer, when it came, via the universal concordance that is the Internet, was  a rude surprise, and yet only another reminder of the poverty of Catholic education sixty years ago, when good little children never saw a Bible, much less touched or opened one. (I’m not sure that we ever much heard the word. “The word” — that’s what we heard. “The word of God.”) Ecclesiastes 12:12. I call attention to Catholic education not because we didn’t learn this passage in school but because, by the time I did run into it, doubtless with an attribution, I had nowhere to put the information. Although I certainly recognized the name of the book, the book itself meant nothing to me, even though it was, as Mrs Clancy says, “full of quotations.” 

Or perhaps it’s simply that I regard the problem of too many books as a recent one. There certainly are! But haven’t there always been? And hasn’t it always been equally true that there is — sometimes — nothing to read, nothing that exactly suits the moment?  (9 January)

 

§ Could I possibly excavate the opinion that I had as a teenager of Time Magazine? Time and Life arrived every week (unlike The New Yorker, which my parents had no use for), and their sheer periodical novelty was mouth-watering. Life was more fun at first, but as I grew older, I preferred Time for, I dare say, two reasons. One: I was discovering the pleasure of exercising my mind over paragraphs of print. I had not been much of a reader as a child, and non-fiction was better suited my materialistic cravings. Two: the photographs in Life were depressing. The world was not a pretty place in the early Sixties, as I’ve already suggested above. (The Kennedys seemed miraculous because the world was so drab, either garish or Soviet.) When I close my eyes and imagine a Life feature now, I see a schlub in thick glasses and a pocket protector explaining a whizbang rocket ship. For all of its pretty girls, indeed quite often because of them, America was not a pretty place. (I was not yet aware that the impressiveness of natural wonders does not penetrate my mind. Little Carl Schurz Park, just down the street, provides me with all the nature I can take, not least because it’s right next to a river that isn’t a river but a tidal strait, flowing sometimes one way, sometimes the other — how crazy is that?) America was Civil Rights demonstrations in pokey towns, bulbous automobiles, and irritating animals. The composure of its black-and-white photographs was undone by full bleeds and sans-serif headlines. Even the poor people in Europe were more attractive, as were their cottages and slums. The America of Life looked like it had been built during the Depression and was already worn out waiting to be replaced by something more lasting. The real world of Westchester County that I actually lived in was much, much nicer, but I had my issues with that, too.

When I think back to Time, I recapture the moment in which a turgid sea of Congressional-hearings coverage startlingly bloomed with a very adroit phrase: Now that flower children have gone to pot… I forget the rest of the sentence, but I can almost smell the condescension of the wordsmithery. This would have been in the late Sixties, and I wasn’t really a kid anymore. I probably hadn’t smoked marijuana just yet, but I knew people who had done, and I knew that they would never read Time. I was by now reading The New Yorker, and hoping for the day when I would understood it at least as well as I understood Time, for which, however, I had little more than contempt. Time was like those horrible cereal boxes on Sixth Avenue, lined up in a row of four glassy walls, demonstrating that New York could be as up-to-date as Omaha or Tulsa, but with more, and a matching set at that. Wasn’t Time-Life in one of them? The magazine was not just slick but oil-slick, increasingly empty of what Jane Austen meant by “information.” 

I thought of all this after I read Pico Iyer’s contact piece about Sonny Mehta, “How to Be Cool and Warm at Once,” in Air Mail. It is neither an obituary of the late, great editor nor an appreciation of his career, but only a reminiscence with commentary, featuring an impromptu carriage ride in Central Park that I wish I hadn’t heard about, or at least heard about in the context of Iyer’s writing. Because I haven’t read Time since I was finally shoved out of my parents’ house a year after getting out of college, I didn’t know until recently — until I wondered why I didn’t like Iyer’s The Man Within My Head more — that Iyer was on Time’s staff for many years. There’s a short sentence in the Mehta piece that shows what this means; its sweetness dissolves altogether if you don’t swallow it quickly. “His kindness was as private as other people’s vices are.” As wordplay, this rivals the flashier flower pots. Truly private kindnesses are not known to third parties, period. It’s not that kindness is diminished by publicity. It’s that writing can be too clever by half, fizzling out after an instant of brilliance. To the extent that we are intended to be reminded here of saints on the order of Mother Teresa, the statement becomes as revolting as it is improbable. 

Instead of thinking of Mother Teresa, I thought of Dr Godbole, Forster’s slippery Brahmin, avoiding commitment more assiduously than beef. 

Meanwhile, the Times wasn’t delivered yesterday morning. Lapses of this kind have occurred too often in the past six months, and they invite an urge to retaliate somehow. Short of hiding by the door and shooting a deliverer who does show up, there doesn’t seem to be much to do aside from cancelling the subscription, and Kathleen won’t have that. So I mutter to myself about my addiction to a habit that, if not altogether bad, is somewhat pointless. The only articles that I read these days have “xit” in their titles, being concerned with either the UK’s withdrawal from the EU or Meghan Markle’s withdrawal from the UK. (The Times itself has trouble recognizing the daring royal marriage, referring constantly to “Prince Harry and Meghan.”) The problem with everything else in the newspaper is that it’s either irrelevant as news — all those investigative and social stories: they don’t belong in a newspaper at all — or they are transparently about, not national affairs or economic forecasts, but people who read The New York Times. Reading it, I feel that I am being boned-up on who I am and where I come from. For every whisper suggesting that I could be a better person, there is a shout from Jane Brody warning me that, because of complacency and self-indulgence, I am going to die a horrible death, which of course I already knew. 

Usually, when the paper doesn’t show up, we do without, but I went across the street and bought a replacement yesterday, even though it was Sunday and half of the sections had been delivered to us the day before. The odds that the pieces in what used to be called “The Week in Review” would be worth reading were even — in the event, there were a couple of good things — but because I am a New York Times reader, I couldn’t go without the latest instalment of Modern LoveI can never tell whether Modern Love is intended to liberate younger readers from the hangup of thinking that they’re unusual or to titillate my generation. They certainly titillate me, which is why I never write about them. It’s not nice to giggle at the misfortunes of others. (13 January

 

¶ Snips from Books: 

Shaw: “[The now forgotten composer, Hermann Goetz] has the charm of Schubert without his brainlessness…*

Nescio: “Als ‘t er in zit will ‘t er uit.”**

Forster: “A pause in the wrong place, an intonation misunderstood, and a whole conversation went awry. Fielding had been startled, not shocked, but how convey the difference? There is always trouble when two people do not think of sex at the same moment, always mutual resentment and surprise, even when two people are of the same race.”***

* Quoted in Gay, Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (Oxford, 1979), p. 242, footnote 20.
**Die uitvreter, in Verzameld proza en nagelaten werk (van Oorschot, 2010) p. 14.
*** A Passage to India (Harvest, 1952), p. 274

On this miscellaneous note, I ought to report a package that I received yesterday. It was a small cardboard envelope, and I noticed at once that there was something familiarly unfamiliar about it. It contained a copy of Andrea Marcolongo’s La Lingua Geniale, a book about the impassioned study of ancient Greek that comma queen Mary Norris wrote up at The New Yorker’s Web site earlier this month. The book has just been translated into English, but why not read about one foreign language in another?

Curiously, the Italian original was available at amazon.com. So I sent for it, wondering where the warehouse might be. The answer was on the envelope’s label, imperfectly concealed by another label that had been pasted over it. Both labels bore my name and address, but the return on the buried label was Castel san Giovanni, in Italy. (Strada Dogana 2U — sure enough, it’s in the Veneto, just west of Piacenza.) The envelope was familiar because I had received one just like it from Blackwell’s, in Oxford. If I had room for the collection, I would save the curious envelopes that arrive from time to time. Unlike American envelopes, the one from Italy is creased to expand just so when filled. The package would be very neat, if it were not for the USPS label slapped akimbo over the neat Italian one. 

As you can see from the Nescio quote, I’m in the mood for Nederlands. What I’d really like to struggle with is a novel with a modern Dutch story — a story (here’s the catch) written by Joseph O’Neill. (He grew up in The Hague, you know; he could easily turn one out.) No sooner did this daydream pass overhead than I was searching for a translation of Netherland, which I’ve read so often in English that I could probably get through it in Russian. (Not really.) I found a copy, at amazon.de, but it was pretty pricey, especially for this kind of folly: more than fifty dollars with shipping. “Not a Dutch story,” I consoled myself.

More disappointing, somehow, was the translation’s title, Laagland. “Laag” means “low” in Nederlands. What kind of dumb is that? The entire weight of a significant allusion to the East India Company’s adventures on Manhattan Island crashes and disappears into the Hudson Canyon. I understand that they couldn’t call it Nederland; why not just leave it alone? Netherland means nothing in English, and Laagland means less than nothing. Did O’Neill approve this? A fan wants to know.  

Anyway, I was encouraged by the envelope from Castel san Giovanni to try to get a copy of Laagland from amazon.com, where the shipping at least would be less. No dice. 

The Nescio quote, which I take to be idiosyncratic, refers to artistic urges: if you’ve got it in you, you need to express yourself. I could quote from the NYRB edition of the translation, which is introduced by Joseph O’Neill, but genug schon. This sort of entry, although it requires no thought at all, takes forever to finish. (15 January

¶ For me, the most interesting bit of Uncanny Valley appeared at the end. I suppose it’s a good thing for books to end with a surprise, but I’m not sure that Anna Wiener intended one. Writing about the mood of the technological “ecosphere” after the presidential election of Donald Trump, Wiener reports widespread depression. Having watched her parade of bright, twentysomething, and male embryo CEOs for nearly three hundred pages, I almost expected an outbreak of triumphalism, or at least a couple of memos from the corner offices mandating one. (But they don’t have corner offices out there.) Everything about these fine young men suggests keen support for Republican Party causes, no matter how malodorously achieved. Indeed, Uncanny Valley provides a sheaf of anecdotes that add up to make sense, as no amount of reporting has done, just why otherwise responsible Americans tolerate the hotelier-in-chief: he is indeed a leader of the great unwashed — the fuzzy, the untrained, women — for whom they have nothing but contempt. If he can deliver the votes, they’ll hold their noses and smile. Whatever it has to say about a moment in cybernetic history, Uncanny Valley demonstrates that Silicon Valley is where Fifties American masculinity has gone to be reborn. Of her first tech bosses, Wiener writes, 

They were focused and content. All three were clean-shaven and had good skin. They wore shirts that were always crisp and modestly buttoned to the clavicle. They were in long-term relationships with high-functioning women, women with great hair with whom they exercised and shared meals at restaurants that required reservations. They lived in one-bedroom apartments in downtown Manhattan and had no apparent need for psychotherapy. They shared a vision and a game plan. They weren’t ashamed to talk about it, weren’t ashamed to be openly ambitious. Fresh off impressive positions and prestigious summer internships at large tech corporations in the Bay Area, they spoke about their work like industry veterans, lifelong company men. They were generous with their unsolicited business advice, as though they hadn’t just worked someplace for a year or two but built storied careers. They were aspirational. I wanted, so much, to be like — and liked by — them. 

That there at the end is the other strand of Wiener’s story. She is herself a high-functioning Bohemian, by which I mean that she will never make enough money in publishing to support the casual life to which she aspires. It takes money to live mindfully; without it, you can’t think of anything else. (Plus, where are the men?) It would be easy to imagine that Wiener’s search for the good life in San Francisco is doomed by her attachment to the arts scene, but it would also be hasty. Wiener does leave the ecosphere eventually, of course, but not before scoring a nice if not indecent equity windfall and finding an appealing boyfriend, with whom she is still engaged as of the Acknowledgments. Wiener presents herself as deluded and naïve, and often invites us to laugh at her, but evidence of idiocy remains invisible. She expresses envy of the entrepreneur’s beautifully maned girlfriends, but it is apparent that her “zaftig figure and ample rack” are not exactly disadvantages — although they may, I suppose, provoke the unconscious misogyny that litters the book like peanut shells at a ballfield. About this and other issues Wiener reports concisely and without burdensome commentary; res ipsa loquitur, and, if it doesn’t, the reader would probably find explanations irritating. 

Glued as she was to computer screens for work, Wiener did find herself in San Francisco (as distinct from the Valley), where echoes of the Sixties are occasionally louder than normal echoes. I was reminded of the Sixties, too, by the earnest hope for a new and better world that would come into full view as soon as the author and her cohort turned the next corner. Somehow, they believed, these young people would manage to preserve all the freedom and baggagelessness of childhood right into adulthood, and while technology would provide the principal energy assist, tools left over from days of dope and doses would not be shunned, nor would positively transcendental investment in the material body. Of all the frights in Uncanny Valley, this retour aux années Soixante was the one that made me flinch. Don’t, I wanted to beg, don’t take me back! I watched with horror as history not so much repeated as reversed itself, for the hangover after youthful optimism is in Wiener’s account not the shambolic stab at respectability that characterized the Seventies but a militant postwar authoritarianism too well engineered and understood to need to raise its voice.  

When I was a boy, computers were beginning to assist large systems, corporate or municipal, with the operation of basic functions. Now, of course, they do a great deal more than assist; in the next big war, wherever it takes place, computers are far more likely to be targets than human beings. Which is probably a good thing even if our power and water systems depend on them, and their loss would throw us all into chaos. But what about regular people, owners of the eyeballs targeted by the Pied Pipers of Silicon Valley — do they, do we, really need computers? Do we need the efficiency that puts people out of work while sucking up our attention? I like to think that we don’t, even as I type up this entry on my old Hewlett-Packard. 

I read most of Uncanny Valley at bedtime, and I recommend not doing likewise. What I read didn’t keep me awake, exactly, but it did scare me. The book has the tone, for these ancient ears, anyway, of a dystopian science-fiction fantasy set on a baroque but inhumane space station patrolling a neighboring galaxy. Wiener writes very well, I have to admit, although I had to look up a lot of the words. What at first struck me as grammatical errors came to be seen as differences of style and usage, but it’s almost impossible for me to forgive the phrase “graduate college.” (In prepositions lies the poetry of spoken English!) Although Wiener is to be congratulated for capturing not just the tone of Joan Didion’s prose but the point of it as well, she is gifted enough to warm hopes that she will develop a tone all her own. (17 January)

¶ Over the weekend, I finally got through a book that I’d picked up last summer because of the bits that Karl Ove Knausgaard quotes in his Hitler thing (“The Name and the Number”) in the final volume of My Struggle. They turned out to be the best bits of Victor Klemperer’s LTI (Lingua Tertium Imperium; The Language of the Third Reich). In Knausgaard’s extracts, Klemperer reported the appalling conversations that he had with an “Aryan” colleague after the Nazi takeover; the woman rapturously claimed that she felt reborn. I was curious to read more, but there wasn’t any more, not really; Knausgaard had copied it all in. And, on the whole, the rest of the book was not so, shall we say, cinematic. LTI was what it professed to be, a philologist’s rueful notebook devoted to the fads and illiteracies of Nazi speech. A good deal of Klemperer’s material, I suspected, is essentially untranslatable, a matter of nuances utterly peculiar to German — not least those of his ironic anger, which depends on that most perishable of sensibilities, linguistic humor. (The LTI project would probably have been equally untranslatable from any other original language.) On top of this, Klemperer appears to have thrown the book together very quickly from his notes, so that Hitler sometimes “is” and sometimes “was.” (The book bears a dedication dated Christmas 1946.) Finally, the Bloomsbury Revelations edition of Martin Brady’s translation is a cheap job, printed with scanted ink in an ethereally dim sans-serif type. Sorely missing is an editorial apparatus providing background information, a timeline, and a map of Klemperer’s refugee route from Dresden. Worst of all: as might be expected, the language of the Third Reich was not very interesting at all, but pathetically meager. The banality all but occludes the evil! Klemperer is noted for the diaries that he kept during the Reich, and perhaps it is wise to have read those before undertaking LTI. 

Now: what to do with the book? I will never read it again, certainly. As narratives with guest appearances by the Gestapo go, it is bleak rather than terrifying, but I groaned every time I picked it up. Somehow, Klemperer’s being a Jew took second place to the dulling migraine of Germany’s prolonged subjection to fake news constructed from bogus vocabulary. There are, however, things that I may want to look up, to refresh my memory or to support a point of which I am not yet aware. In other words, LTI is a reference book, and perhaps it belongs with among the dictionaries, not the histories. But it is a marginal book, as I hope I’ve made clear. As a material book, it is one of the worst in my collection. (An intentional synaesthetic effect on the part of Bloomsbury?) Ought I to try to keep it? What with reading Jonathan Israel’s History of the Dutch Republic, the most immediate way to describe my library is to say that I’m as out of shelf-space as Philip II was out of money for paying troops. 

I will soon be facing the same choice with regard to Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex. What a title! I like to imagine the kind of rocket it would have set off fifty years ago. In those days, it would have signified authorship by some sordid hanger-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory; simply to have mentioned it in polite society would have induced choruses of coughing. Oh, it’s a very nicely published book, utterly conventional and no pictures. But the text is almost as gruesome as LTI, and in much the same way. A society has gone clean off the rails, led perhaps fatally astray by the promise of a wonderfully scientific new way of fixing things that, in this later case, does little more in fact than dump piles of indelible pornography on the screens of adolescents. Like LTIBoys & Sex is a compendium of evidence that a nation is going to hell in a handbasket. So this is how it is done… (27 January — Mozart’s birthday)

 

§ It’s very hard for me to come away from Peggy Orenstein’s Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Sexuality with a warrant for comments, because, love aside — and, even then, not entirely to the side — none of the items mentioned in the subtitle existed “in my day.” (Boys and love? I don’t think so.) Porn existed, sort of, on a grubby fringe that decent boys were known to avoid (whatever some of them may have got away with). Porn was really too disgusting for conversation. I do remember listening, with five or six classmates in somebody’s dorm room, to an LP that purported to be the sound-track of a man and a woman coupling on an extremely noisy old-fashioned bed — the kind with sagging, exposed springs underneath the mattress. (I remember this disc because, about five or ten years later, it came to seem hilarious, like the rumor that uncircumcised men enjoy sex “50% more,” or a ventriloquist on the radio.) I also remember someone pointing to a dusty shop-counter at the rear of a corner store: it looked like it was crawling with what we didn’t yet call STDs. Outside the comfort zone of ladies and gentlemen, I was too nervous to dream of any kind of pleasure. The only subtitle that I’d have expected to see on a book with Orenstein’s title would be Dirty Jokes

Nothing in Orenstein’s book suggests to me that “things are better today” — not that anybody asked. Certainly not for girls! And not really for boys, either. Indeed, I came away with the ghastly suspicion that what critics have been calling “permissiveness” for fifty years is nothing but transactional lubrication on the assembly line of commodification and consumerization. I remember a time when the link between “sex” and “entertainment” consisted of naughty girls in heels, top hats, and not much else. Now, everybody is a potential sex entertainer. The fear of becoming one motivates quite a few of the dubious escapades reported in Boys & Sex. The broadcast of local gossip at light speed has made smartphones into instruments of blackmail. What if word gets around that I’m no good?

We — boys my age when I was a boy — were ignorant and naïve, and we knew it. Orenstein’s boys are ignorant and knowing. Which is worse? It’s an idle question; you grow up in the world you grow up in. Nevertheless, I want to fall to my knees in gratitude for having been schooled almost all the way through in single-sex institutions. (Also, for there being no fraternities at Notre Dame.) It was never the girls that I’d have minded. It what what their presence did to the boys. Apparently, it still does, although everyone is chill about it. 

The one sentence that burned itself into my grey matter, though, has nothing to do with sex. 

As financial challenges have mounted — especially at the kind of moderately selective, flagship state schools attended by Xavier and Emmett [two of Orenstein’s interviewees] — administrators have come under pressure to lure wealthier, out-of-state students who can afford their higher fees. So they have actively rebranded college life as four years of “fun,” introducing and array of low-pressure majors for those who want to spend (at least) as much time drinking as studying. (137)

Listen, I had a lot of fun in school, really a lot. It was actually educational, because I had to use my head to make it, or at least my nerve. I don’t know what’s more shameful, today’s resort-cum-classroom colleges or porn that’s all too accessible to young eyeballs. I suspect that the bull sessions that took up a lot of our evenings when I was in school would have been staggered into silence by the prospect of either, much less having to decide which was worse. (31 January)