November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But any poetry is strictly accidental. (11 November)

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

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

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

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

***

What Would Mr Rogers Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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