2020
Convalescing

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


Photo by Walter Wade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Δ From a letter to a friend: 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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