Carnival & Lent 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
Ran after
Slipped on the 
Greece and 
Broke all the 

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) 

Comments are closed.