December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¶ Vanessa on Virginia: 

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

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

Hardwick says the damnedest thing: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy New Year! (31 December)

Comments are closed.