January 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)

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