Staple Note:
29 January 2019

¶ Ray Soleil talked me into venturing forth on an errand to Fairway yesterday. He seemed to think that I needed to get a little exercise, even if it was only a walk across the street and back. (Was it that, or the scrum at Fairway, that left me almost weeping with exhaustion when we returned to the apartment?) I wasn’t entirely sure that it was a good idea, because my right foot is still just a bit too swollen to fit into its slipper comfortably, but I agreed with him about the exercise. Even more, I wanted to go to the store myself, instead of sending Ray with a list, and I wanted to pay for my purchases myself, instead of sending Ray to impersonate me with the credit card. Ray had “gotten away” with doing that once, but I spent the entire time he was gone frothing with anxiety. 

Although the store was jammed, and my list was not short, we were on the checkout line within half an hour. As we turned into the final stretch, I put a hunk of reggiano parmegiano in the cart. For some reason, Fairway has a cardboard bin of plastic-wrapped wedges of the cheese right there at the corner of the long rear lane of the store and the aisle that leads to the registers. Why there? It’s the other side of the aisle that is lined with pieces of all sorts of different cheeses. The racks beyond the bins of Parmesan are filled with soups and spreads and ready-made sandwiches. And why is Parmesan given the impulse-buy treatment? It’s pretty pricey for pickup on a whim. And it was a whim, really, that seemed to motivate the attractive young woman just ahead of us to toy with and finally carry off a piece of the (to me) indispensable foodstuff. Falling into conversation with Ray, who had been helping me to decide just how big a hunk I wanted, she said that she had been “thinking about” Parmesan cheese all week, or at least since she read an article about its many health benefits. Ray said that he had read the article, too; when I put in that I’d missed it, he told me that it was online, which I suppose was an explanation. (I’ve grown very sparing about online reading.) Ray and the young woman fell into listing all the alleged benefits of Parmesan, making it sound like the El Dorado of nutrition. I said that I’d eat it if it were toxic. 

Later in the day, Ray sent me a link to Amanda Ruggeri’s parmesan piece. I learned that, on top of all the easily-digestible proteins, the vitamins and the minerals, Parmesan boasts a rind that is not only a great flavor-enhancer for stews and soups (I knew that) but also a balm for teething babies! It made me want to have another grandchild, just to see if it works. 

Did you by any chance see, years ago, Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, God Said, Ha!? If you did, don’t you agree that the funniest of so many funny lines in that basically rather dark monologue was Sweeney’s mimicking of her mother, who was bemused by the piece of Parmesan in Sweeney’s fridge? “You don’t have to go to all that trouble,” the mother wailed in her broad Midwestern voice. “It comes already grated in a little green can!” In the audience, we all said “Ha ha ha!” Ruggeri tells us that the stuff in the little green can is marketed, in Europe, as “Parmesello.” Even so, when I was a kid, long before I knew any better, I was crazy about the stuff. Adulterated with wood pulp though it may have been, Kraft’s parmesello and butter were all that I would tolerate on spaghetti.  

Bedding Note:
28 January 2019

¶ For many years, we have covered our bed with a hobnail-pattern white cotton spread from the Vermont Country Store. Every once in a while, we have to buy a new one — I use them as blankets.

Until very recently, we had a rather high queen-size bed. It was so high that only a king-size bedspread would graze the floor. The bed, as noted in earlier entries, began to fall apart about fifteen years ago. When we replaced it last fall, the mattress dropped a bit closer to the floor, but was still high enough to require Kathleen to climb aboard. The bedspread’s tassels, however, puddled on the floor, and got very dirty. I thought that I had better order a queen-sized spread.

I did, and it took forever to get here, what with the holidays and back-ordering. I didn’t open it up until today. And what do I find but that the tassels barely cover the side-rails. Kathleen’s battery of under-the-bed storage boxes is plain to see. Actually, in order to see it, you have to be in the bedroom in a noticing frame of mind. Nevertheless, instead of throwing the old bedspread away, as I was going to do, I took it downstairs for laundering. That will cost a fortune, but less than another new bedspread.

We have noticed that other people’s beds are getting lower — I can’t look at a low bed without being seized by phantom backache — and now we know by how much.

Housekeeping Note:
25 January 2019

¶ Although there are few things more satisfying— sometimes even amusing — than reorganizing messy desk and kitchen drawers, I can’t think of anything that I’m more likely to put off. Perhaps it’s a question of scale. Aside from frenzied searches for papers and utensils that it has suddenly become mortally urgent to find, drawers are mundane and their contents minute. Pencils, paper clips, letter openers, a pot of rubber cement. Post-its, in many different sizes. Latterly, ink cartridges and thumb drives. For volume, notecards, notepads, notebooks. It all seems so trivial — the mistake, I suppose, that allows me to rummage through drawers and, having found what I was looking for, to leave them in disorder. Almost everything is “more important,” more pressing than organizing drawers. Frowning over a drawer full of tumbled odds and ends, I sigh and close it — “I must get to that soon.” Which I don’t. 

Now, however, as I’m convalescing not only from an illness but from the stretch of fatigued anxiety that preceded it, and that to some, however small, extent brought it about, I’m possessed by the conviction that nearly everything is in the Wrong Drawer. In the book room, everything seems to be not only in the wrong drawer but in the wrong desk. That’s because I switched the two desks in here, moving each to where the other one was, only a few week before being felled by fever. The reason: in my Aeron chair, my legs fit under the the drawers of one of the desks but not in the kneehole of the other. Why it took four years to see this as a problem beats me. Moving into this apartment was a curious disjunction of order —  we knew where all the large pieces went —and rush — what to do with the immense quantities of little things? There was a great deal of shoving things into drawers simply to get them out of the way. Quite a few of those hasty, unconsidered deposits have never been sifted. 

With the result that, every time a drawer is cleaned out, there’s at least one cry of “So that’s where that was!”

I’ll treat the problem of drawers-as-tombs in another entry. 

Delivery Note:
The New Dispensation
24 January 2019

¶ When we order from the Chinese restaurant that we like (but have grown somewhat tired of in the late foot brouhaha), we call them up, tell them what we want, and identify the last four digits of a credit card number. We add a tip to the receipt when the food is delivered. It is all very simple and convenient.

There used to be a pizza place where we could do the same, but it closed. Other pizzerie, I find, cannot be reached by phone. You have to go through a Website, and the delivery is outsourced. Not talking to an actual human being is disconcerting. Rationally, I understand the superiority of the new way of doing things. The order and its specifications are printed out for the restaurant, not dependent on the vagaries of a cashier’s command on English. The order is paid for up front, and without cash. Best of all from the business point of view, the restaurant does not have to employ a delivery staff. But the “technology” is still in its early days. Even when the restaurant’s Web site is easy to navigate, it still bristles with questions and boxes that must be filled out even though God knows why. (For some reason, Google autofill leaves it up to the user to supply the name of his or her state.) And then the sites are “upgraded,” altered in a way that imposes a new learning curve. 

Despite all of this, I was so desperate for a change last night, and so determined to stay off my feet, that I ordered a pizza from a place called Vinnie’s, around the corner apparently. The transaction was smoother than I expected it to be, and the pizza arrived in about forty-five minutes. It was okay, perhaps a little better than okay. It was in any case a very welcome change from our few other options. We ate the pizza in the bedroom, from a tray table that I set up so that I could keep my right leg on the hassock, while Kathleen sat in the chair that is normally occupied by the three medium tote bags that constitute my virtual backpack. (I’m afraid that vintage snobbery prevents me, as a grown man, from wearing backpacks.) It was when we were done that we proceeded to the dining table, which is where Kathleen administers the infusions of Ceftriaxone. Then we watched an Inspector Morse (“The Last Enemy”), and so to bed.

I’m reading The End of the Affair, as I said I might, and finding it rather more harrowing than I remembered. More than other Greene novels that I can think of, though, it chimes concordantly with Shirley Hazzard’s recollections of Greene’s all but crippling inability to handle the agonies and ecstasies afforded by desirable women. In her portrait, he comes across as part displaced patriarch and part arrested adolescent. Ditto the narrator of the novel I’m reading, who seems to thrive on hating everybody. But I’m bearing with. 

Convalescent Note:
In Hospital and Out
23 January 2019

The saga of my foot infection — which got out of hand because, thanks to peripheral neuropathy, I was completely unaware of it until it got rather serious; I thought that a blister had gotten out of control, and was no more than a skin wound — will not appear on this Web log, at least not in any comprehensive way. I was in New York Hospital for five nights, the weekend before last, in order to receive big doses of heavy-hitting Vancomycin. (Remind me to tell you the latest thinking about penicillin allergies in people of my age.) Then they sent me home. 

The things to note going forward are that I have given up drink, as of a month ago now, and without regrets or cravings, and that Kathleen is administering daily infusions of another antibiotic, which sounds more daunting than it is, except that it is rather daunting the first couple of times. But we are old pros now. I include myself because I keep time. Four syringes are involved in the procedure, and the one containing the antibiotic is emptied by small calibrated degrees separated by forty-second intervals. I man the stopwatch on my iPhone. The two of us exchange minimal relays of “okay.” Once a week, a lovely lady who looks like Anjelica Huston and sounds like the late Glenne Headly pays a visit to take blood and to clean the dressing on the PIC line. I try to keep my feet up, but I’m often up and about the apartment, re-establishing tidiness and order in a necessarily neglected household. A bit at a time.

Thanks to the neuropathy (which is caused by drink and is irreversible), I have felt nothing in my foot. A healthier person would be taking something for pain, but not me. 

Reading has been a problem. Nothing quite clicked, at least until the other night, when I pulled down Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri (2000), a book that I enjoyed reading when it was new and liked even more the second time around. I think I’m going to re-read The End of the Affair, but I’ve ordered three titles that I haven’t read, including The Honorary Consul

Convalescent Note:
Getting Better, Slowly
9 January 2019

As threatened, I re-read Nora Webster. Then I re-read The Blackwater Lightship, which I was surprised to discover that I’d read in 2014. Now I’m in the early chapters of The Heather Blazing, but, fond as I am of this novel, I may have set it aside. I re-read it in 2014 as well, but the incident seems much more familiar than did that of Blackwater Lightship. I feel that I’ve spent enough time in Enniscorthy. 

Nora Webster was nothing like the quiet charming book that I recalled. Each of the many episodes seemed fraught — doubtless because I wasn’t feeling well. The antibiotic has done a great job on the wound, but it has also made me weak and somewhat inane. I try to avoid sources of anxiety, but literature is not at present an escape from care. Reading about the illness that overtakes Nora after she tries to paint her back-room ceiling was harrowing, and when Maurice, her dead husband, appeared to her in her bedroom — it’s the climax of the story, I think, but I’d somehow forgotten it — I was almost as unsettled as if something of the kind had happened to me.

On the housekeeping front, aside from the pile-up of dust — not yet really noticeable — nothing is in worse shape than it was before the fever struck. I went to Schaller & Weber and to Fairway on Monday — without incident. I took a cane with me for two reasons. One, I have been in bed for two weeks, and sometimes feel unsteady on my feet. Two, canes signal disability, and offer a modest protective advantage in the scrum of the busy intersection that I have to cross twice to get to Fairway. (In the pinball chaos of Fairway itself, the shopping cart provided plenty of stability and caddied my cane nicely.) I bought almost everything that I was looking for, and everything that we needed. But I was exhausted when I got home, carrying only two shopping bags — the rest were delivered — that the doorman took from me as I was walking toward the entry of the building, without asking. He carried them to the elevator — most helpful.

Yesterday, I went down to pick up last week’s wash-and-fold. I dragged the laundry bag upstairs like a child, something that I’d started doing before I got sick. When I had put the clean laundry away, I filled the bag with the contents of the hamper, as well as the bedlinens. (We celebrated my birthday on Sunday by changing the sheets). I dragged the laundry bag back down to the concierge. Along the way, I ran into our very helpful mail carrier. She had noticed the mail was piling up in the box, but also that she wasn’t seeing me. I explained my situation and added that Kathleen cannot open the mailbox eveen with my key, something that we’ll have to report to the building when I feel better. Changing the sheets, shopping at Fairway, and dragging the laundry up- and downstairs each left me as exhausted as if I’d built one of the Pyramids. That’s how it goes with Cipro. 

Tomorrow, I see the wound specialist at Lenox Hill to whom my internist is sending me. I’m apprehensive about meeting with a new doctor in a new location, but Kathleen will be with me (not only for moral support, but to fill out the forms — my handwriting is unreadable), Once that’s behind me, I expect to be something like cheerful.

More anon.

New Year Note:
3 January 2019

I have been very unwell, with an infected foot, and I am not entirely out the woods yet. But for the first time since before Christmas, I feel comfortable enough to post an entry. I wish all Daily Blague readers a very Happy New Year. 

How long it will take to get back to normal, I can’t say. This morning, I was just able to do a load of laundry. After more than ten days in bed, I was exhausted throughout the whole process. But I rallied. This afternoon, Ray Soleil helped me clear out the refrigerator. (As always, he did all the work.) I hope I didn’t overdo it, but it’s nice to see that the apartment is a little less dingy.

I’ve done a good deal of reading, as you may imagine, but almost everything has depressed me. One book, William Tryon’s novel, Elizabeth Alone, was almost unbearable. The fraught plot — four women in a women’s hospital, reflecting on their lives while recuperating from operations — was tough enough, but the side-stories about the men in their lives, each one as searing and intense as the best of Tryon’s short stories, made for an extremely concentrated atmosphere of trouble. In the bag that I kept packed in case I had to go to the Emergency Room (dread thought), I stowed a copy of Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, one of my favorite novels, and one that combines tranquility with great interest. If I don’t simply fall asleep, I’ll start re-reading it this evening. 

That’s enough for now.

December 2018

People Note:
18 December 2018

¶ To be honest, “facereader” isn’t right, because I didn’t really get a good look at the woman’s face. “Voicereader” would have been better, but “facereader” is what came out when the checkout clerk asked me if I was a mindreader.

At the Schaller & Weber counter, I was being taken care of when a petite woman of a certain age (older or younger? I couldn’t tell) sidled alongside me. Her hair was too dark and too curly, and from the corner of my eye I noticed an assertive lipstick. After she sampled a piece of ham or turkey that the counterman had handed to her, she pointed to a stack of loaves directly in front of me and asked what kind of bread they were.

They were not bread; they were stollen, which is of course bread basically but too larded with sweets for anything but breakfast. And the loaves were priced at $30. I had decided, while being taken care of, that $30 was too rich for me.

The counterman told the woman that the loaves were cake. She didn’t seem to hear this. She didn’t seem to hear anything that she didn’t want to hear. There was some inarticulate fussing. The stollen had caught her eye, and she had to have it. Her order complete, she pulled a loaf from the countertop and headed for the checkout desk. I could tell that she did not bother to check out the price.

My order complete, I quickly followed her. I heard her say “oh,” and watched as she carefully set the stollen loaf to one side, indicating that she didn’t want it after all. She had seen the price. She paid for everything else, and left the shop.

“I knew that she wasn’t going to buy it,” I told the checkout clerk. Whereupon she asked me if I was a mindreader, and out came my dimwitted reply.

Yes, bought the stollen. 

Thought Note:
17 December 2018

“Why is anybody a racist?” Kathleen asked.

Strictly speaking, no one is a racist, because there is no such thing as race. If it is understood, however, that “race” is simply a scientific-sounding way of referring to “people who don’t look or act like us,” and that nobody likes to be in a minority, then almost everybody is a racist, and I said so.

“Think about it,” I said. “You might say that you’re not a racist because you’re too well educated; you’ve had racism schooled out of you. But the truth is that, as a result of your schooling, you don’t like to be around stupid or uneducated people. Like everybody, you can take one or two stupid or uneducated people at a time — you might even enjoy their company. But you would be uncomfortable in a room full of them. Education simply changed the center of your comfort zone.”

Just trying to make sense of these uncomfortable times.  

“I suppose,” said Kathleen doubtfully. 

Holiday Advisory:

Yesterday was Beethoven’s birthday. It’s okay now to play Christmas carols. 

Gotham Diary:
Can’t Live Without
14 December 2018

¶ The clutter in the foyer has been reduced by half, but even I can’t see the difference, because the room is still a mess. And the dining table, which was already a fright, is now only marginally usable for its intended purpose.

It may get worse before it gets better. Most of what remains to be dealt with is paper, but there is an ABC Carpet shopping bag — itself made out of carpeting — that is stuffed with “components,” odds and ends of an electrical nature. I hope to be able to dispose of most of these items, but I’m afraid that my hope is based entirely on ignorance. Once I dig in, I’ll find things that I “can’t live without.”

Where do we learn, so to speak, that we “can’t live without” things that we never use, never even see? I blame Robinson Crusoe, where everything comes in handy sooner or later. 

Then there are some really big photographs of the original me. My parents had a studio portrait of me taken when I was eleven months old. It’s a cute picture, but it’s huge, the sort of thing that people used to display on piano lids. (If I inscribed it and had it framed, visitors would probably find it more disconcerting than droll.) There are two others, only slightly smaller, that appear to be enlargements of pictures that my parents took, some time earlier I should say. One shows me lying on their bed on my back, the other in my crib on my tummy. Unlike the studio portrait, in which I at least can discern signs of the Santa to come, the enlargements show a generic infant who is neither remarkably ugly nor winningly adorable. Frankly, I see elements of my character in these photos, too — the pain-in-the-ass elements.

Whenever I get to the last page of Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa, I think of my mother at the moment when she realized that she, too, had made a terrible mistake. 

Film Note:
13 December 2018

¶ There’s a long story about this week’s small Audrey Hepburn binge; it involves the frequency and enthusiasm with which Ray Soleil and Fossil Darling talk about Stanley Donen’s Charade. This was not the last movie that Hepburn made with an older leading man, but it is possibly the worst of the run. If you ask me, it’s Cary Grant who’s the problem. Suave and imperturble, Grant reprises his Roger O Thornhill role, from North By Northwest, thus inviting many odious comparisons. So much so that Audrey Hepburn compares unfavorably to Eva Marie Saint. And as for Walter Matthau! Donen’s film is hideously, unfunnily jokey. 

But then I decided to watch an older instalment, one that I may never have seen before, because I was too young to see it when it came out, in 1957 — although I still have the sheet music to the movie’s theme song, “Fascination.” Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon is one of his most auteurial movies, studded with sparkles of mitteleuropäisch self-indulgence and wallpapered with both the luxury of the Ritz Hotel in Paris and a band of csardas-playing “gypsies.” By some ingenious alchemy, Wilder presents Gary Cooper as exactly who he is: a rich American who doesn’t know how to act. And he turns this incapacity into catnip for Hepburn’s articulate but innocent teenager. That is where the film’s magic lies. For Hepburn does know how to act, and I have never seen an actress whose face and beauty have not quite set exhibit such extraordinary dramatic powers. In an early scene, the girl takes a match to an ashtray full of crumpled-up kiss-off notes — and Hepburn upstages the fire not just by being gorgeous but by feeding her final attempt, neatly tucked into an envelope, to the flames. In Love in the Afternoon, Audrey Hepburn is romance. 

Love in the Afternoon is so good that even Maurice Chevalier is genuinely appealing. 

Clerical Note:
12 December 2018

¶ Tucked under the front door this afternoon was a love note from the building management, a First Notice concerning non payment of rent. This occasioned several trips to the management office. 

I had paid the rent on Monday. I had slipped the envelope into the little mailbox that the management has installed in the wall next to its interior entrance. Could I remember the check number? I was asked. Miraculously, I could: 726. But the last check that the management had received from me was numbered 715 — last month’s rent. I went back upstairs to check. Yes: 726 was the check number.

When I returned to the office, I was met with a curve ball: was I, by any chance, a customer of Diner’s Club?

It became obvious at once. I had printed three checks on Monday, one of them to AT & T, one of them to the building management, and one to Diner’s Club. Then I affixed postage stamps to the two envelopes that needed to be mailed, but not to the rent check, because that was headed for the little mailbox downstairs — no postage required. Then, on my way out to run errands, I grabbed the envelope that didn’t have a stamp on it and slid it through the slot. At the Post Office, I mailed the other two bills. But the unstamped envelope that I deposited in the management office’s receptacle wasn’t the rent check. I had made a little mistake, and then compounded it by not looking at what I put into the management office’s  mailbox. The very nice women in the office remembered finding a Diner’s Club payment amidst other people’s rent checks. They hadn’t opened the envelope, and there was no return address (I can’t be bothered), so they didn’t know who the sender was, but they kindly put a stamp on the envelope and sent it on its way. Now, two days later, they made a connection, bearing in mind that I always pay the rent on time. 

I had brought down a blank check, which I filled out in payment of the rent. Whether I’ll be charged a late fee, and what will happen when check 726 arrives in the mail, remains to be seen. 

Believe me, it would all be much, much worse if I tried to make use of automatic online payments.

Rep Note:
Ham ‘n’ Cheese Redux
11 December 2018

¶ I’ve grown terribly tired of sandwiches. It’s the bread. I can’t find the right bread. The problem is, I’m looking for a bread that doesn’t taste like bread.

Or I was.

Some time ago, I began stocking Fairway’s pastries — palmiers, almond danish rolls, and, when available, croissants. The croissants are good, but of course they’re not fresh, as in right-out-of-the-oven fresh, so they’re a bit heavy and dull. But if you slice one in half (equatorially, as it were), and spread on plenty of mayonnaise and a soupçon of mustard, and then pile on thin slices of ham — my favorite ham at the moment is Schaller & Weber’s Swedish ham — and Swiss Swiss cheese (not that French Emmenthaler, which is also pretty heavy and dull), the result is not just a convenience but a genuinely appealing sandwich. 

Be sure to wear an apron, to spare your clothes the shower of flaky, buttery crumbs.

Progress Note:
Boombox Retrouvé
10 December 2018

¶ A fairly busy day, paying bills, standing in line at the Post Office, collecting packages at the conciergerie. I spent a lot of time sitting down, resting up. Maybe that’s why the clutter in the foyer went untouched, not even one weensy bin or bag so much as picked up off the floor.

Did I mention that the boombox DVD player turned up? No? I had been wondering where it was. It was zipped into a Bean tote bag and stashed up against the wall, beneath a desk. In my much smaller kitchen upstairs, I wedged it onto a counter corner, so that I could watch movies while drudging. Not infrequently, I would replay a DVD the moment it was over, partly because the movie was good but mostly not to break the mood. I did that three times, once, with Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. I can’t imagine such bingeing now. In fact, I can’t imagine watching a movie while cooking. Listening to music is the limit of multitasking, and if I don’t know the piece, I get distracted. 

I have to admit, age simplifies things. But what do I do with the boombox?

Book Room Note:
Reshuffling Clutter
7 December 2018

¶ A banner week for the book room! The histories of commerce and finance were duly Evernoted and reshelved. The book cart was seriously reorganized for the first time since acquisition (last September). And, today, Ray Soleil and I switched the two writing tables. We did this because, sitting in my Aeron chair, I couldn’t fit my legs in the kneehole of the larger desk, and so could not use the desk for marking up drafts of the writing project.

In the process, we removed all the clutter that had gathered around and beneath the writing tables, mostly in mesh bins. As a result, while the bookroom looks spruce enough to receive a French ministre (compared, at least, to what it used to look like), the foyer is littered with all that clutter, which I now, somehow, have to purge before Christmas. 

Marie Kondo would point to the bins and remind me, quite rightly, that not a single item in any of them has been touched in the three or four years since I bought the bins. I can hear her bellowing (in her petite Japanese voice), Heave-Ho! 

Great Books Note:
Speaking English Using French Words
6 December 2018

Ordinarily, it’s enough for me to say that I liked a certain book, and maybe a little bit about why. But every time I read Richard Watson’s The Philosopher’s Demise: Learning to Speak French, I’m overcome by the urge to insist that THIS is a book that every educated American, perhaps every educated Anglophone, really MUST read. And oddly enough, I suspect that my enthusiasm thrives despite the suspicion that I wouldn’t really hit it off with Watson. He’s an exemplary product of the Heartland, an Eagle Scout, athlete, and avid spelunker. He is fundamentally convinced that Real Men do not Speak French. He believes that Jacques Prévert’s verse is “detestable in any language.” The fact that Watson is also an eminent Descartes scholar would probably not make our conversation any easier. 

As the subtitle suggests, Watson did not try to learn to speak French until he was already a philosopher. A long time ago (c 1950), he learned to read French in college; in those pre-Sputnik days, you could learn how to read a language without having to master touristy questions about the location of the toilet and so on. Remember Mrs Fisher’s line, in Enchanted April, when, having been asked for the Italian word for “castor oil,” she replies that “her” Italian does not cover that sort of thing; hers is the language of Dante? I hope that reading courses will be revived at some point, because we could all use plenty beaucoup of Dante’s Italian! For twenty-five years or so, Watson noodled along happily enough as a Descartes scholar at Washington University in St Louis, where the need to speak French has not been pressing for some time. Then he was asked to deliver a paper at a premium Descartes event not only in France but in French. This, after months of intensive tutoring, he managed to do. Along the way, however, he was struck by a determination, stoic and all but fatal, that he must learn to speak French.

If you ask me, he went about it all wrong. What he ought to have done was to immerse himself in some congenial community of French speakers and punted. He claims in the book to have grown too old and stiff for serious cave exploration, but he might have rented a room in the home of a spelunker in which no one spoke English. After six months of saying “pass the butter” and “Are you really going out looking like that?” (or at least listening to the maman saying it), he would have developed a serviceable patois that could be ironed out by the course at Alliance Française. Going straight to the Alliance, without any immersion, was a mistake — as Watson learned. Don’t take my word for this, just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Altre Parole

The pith of The Philospher’s Demise is a love/hate latter to the civilization of France. The words “mean” and “nasty” pop up with unsettling regularity, while the compliments are largely indirect. Eventually, Watson, a biological teetotaler, concedes that French cuisine’s reputation for excellence does not depend on everybody’s drinking too much wine to care what’s on the plate. The most indirect compliment (as befits a modest Midwesterner) comes near the end, when one of Watson’s best French friends observes that he, Watson, could hardly speak a word last summer; “Now you won’t shut up.” Left unspecified: speaking what? A running gag throughout The Philosopher’s Demise features Watson’s continuing frustration with the unwillinigness of his French colleagues to chat with him. They are always too busy. They ask him to give them a call, but they don’t take the call. When Watson has finally cornered his prize pigeon, the leading French Cartesian agrees to speak French — but only if Watson will stick to English. “Your French is terrible.” 

Yes, but he could speak it.

Social Note:
Insulting Compliments
5 December 2018

¶ Once upon a time, it was considered rude to compliment one’s hostess on the delicious food at her dinner, or the handsomeness of her drawing room. To do so was to imply that things might have been otherwise.

It would also have been insulting to observe that the late president was a gentleman. And, as we now see, confusing, too. 

Gastronomic Note:
4 December 2018

¶ All Kathleen wanted for dinner was a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. So I made spaghetti alla carbonara for myself. And I noticed that it took a while, keeping me busy the whole time the water heated up. For one thing, I have taken to frying two pieces of bacon on the stovetop, instead of zapping them in the microwave (much less poking around the fridge for leftovers). It tastes better. I used make carbonara with pancetta, which I would slice and fry, too, and I turned to bacon because it was more convenient. But now I’m taking the same trouble with bacon — which I’ve learned I really prefer to pancetta. I ask myself: why do I, so lazy these days, so disinclined to cook in general, think nothing of standing up for half an hour to make spaghetti alla carbonara

Why? Because the result is unfailingly delicious. With this one dish, I produce exactly what I want to eat, every time. Sometimes I make too much, but usually there is not quite enough. Why just this one dish? Is it because I don’t really know how to cook anything else? Or is it because, like Kathleen, I want to eat only one thing?

Reading Note:
Stefan Zweig
3 December 2018

¶ For years, I resisted reading Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, because reviews of the NYRB republication had led me to expect a sickly, expressionist tale. But I couldn’t find anything in the shelves that was more promising, so I pulled it down. I began reading it late at night, so late that, the next day, I started out at the beginning again. I couldn’t quite finish it before bedtime, but I picked it up right after the Times the next morning, and was soon done. Sickly and expressionist it is not. 

Although the English title is not terrible, a more faithful translation of the original, Ungeduld des Herzens The Heart’s Impatience, perhaps — would be much better. “Beware of pity” is the hero’s warning to the reader, expressive of a regret repeated many times in the novel. But the heroine — think she’s a heroine — is impatient, too. She wants to be cured of the paralysis for which the hero, himself impatient to alleviate misery, pities her — and because of which he cannot love her. 

I gather from Joan Acocella’s introduction that the heroine is generally regarded as a witch, who fans her would-be lover’s conscience with searing waves of guilt. For my part, I found the hero to be a monster of callow vanity, so preoccupied by tending the flame of his self-regard that he doesn’t see that, like the worst of cads, he is leading a poor girl on. She, not unnaturally, takes his daily attention as a sign of affection, but he, understandably perhaps but somewhat less naturally, has simply become addicted to visiting the sick, or at least a a sick person who happens to be a pretty little girl living at the height of luxury. As one of the first novelists familiar with the teachings of Freud, Zweig presents characters whose motives are complicated in what has become a very familiar way. 

Against this psychological modernity, Zweig deploys well-worn melodramatic plot devices with the deftness of a topnotch prestidigitator. In the most exciting of the many scenes that presage the climax, the urgency of avoiding an impending thunderstorm prevents the hero from explaining to the heroine’s ailing father, who shouldn’t be out in this weather, matters that really require a calmer setting. I found the encounter fresh as rain, and far too satisfying to be hokey, which it might well have been in lesser hands. Beware of Pity is also shot through with the hero’s innocent and unconscious denunciation of the Austrian Army’s unpreparedness for the war that interrupts everything at the end. Zweig’s prose is the literary equivalent of architectural Vienna, grand but rarely grandiose, leavened by a wit that is psychological rather than verbal. Beware of Pity is truly thoughtful box of delightful treats.