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

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 opportunitism 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) 

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