April 2019

Scholarly Note:
30 April 2019

¶ Yesterday, I broke down and ordered a new copy of Cassell’s Latin dictionary. The old copy had fallen from a stack of dictionaries precariously piled on a stool, and the front cover partially tore away from the book. (The spine was already a disgrace.) I’ve had it since college, when the Cassell’s dictionaries came in a uniform black cloth binding with gold lettering and gold doodads — just what a smart reference work ought to look like. The current edition wears a butterscotch color. I have already replaced my Cassell’s Italian dictionary (essential because it identifies the words that are pronounced sdrucciolo, with the accent on the antepenultimate syllable). That one, of course, is covered in green.

Tucked in the Latin dictionary was a slip of legal-pad paper, with a phrase on it that I was trying, more than thirty years ago for sure, to translate. (You must bear in mind that the academic achievement of which I was most fiercely proud in my schooldays was having avoided the macho reek of Caesar by never submitting to Latin classes. Now, of course, it is one of my simplest, deepest regrets.) I remembered exactly where I encountered it: on the inner dome of the old Cunard Building on Lower Broadway, which by my day had become a branch of the Post Office. One afternoon, waiting in line to buy stamps, I looked up and saw

Existimat enim ove mare teneat eum necesse rerum potiri.

I was curious: did ove mean “sheep” or “eggs”? Neither word seemed particularly apt in the setting. My research got no further than indicating the ablative singular of ovis, sheep. Say what? And I couldn’t find potiri in the Cassell’s. Still can’t; it isn’t given, as the present infinitive of potior, “to be master of.” Thwarted by not one word but two, I gave up. Somehow, the slip of paper remained. 

There was no Google then. Now there is. I typed in the entire phrase, and immediately had it traced for me to Cicero, who attributed the thought to Themistocles. 

He holds that the master of the sea must inevitably be master of the empire.

Okay, I can see that. (It certainly suited Cunard.) But where does ove come in? (Google also solved the potiri mystery.) Maybe you know. 


Rep Note:
Easter Ham
29 April 2019

¶ Didn’t someone once quip that a good definition of eternity is “a young married couple and a ham”? The fact that ham does not freeze well stretches out the ordeal. I was wondering what I was going to do with the leftovers of the half-ham that four of us enjoyed at Easter. 

Looking for general inspiration for dinner, with no thought at all of ham, I opened Judith Jones’s little book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, and there, right in front of me, was a suggestion for cooking a slice of ham. It did not involve a sauté, but rather called for baking the meat in milk, after smearing mustard on it and tossing in sage leaves and sprinkling on brown sugar. 

I’m looking forward to trying it again, and, when I do, I am going to read this entry, so that I don’t make the same mistakes.

First of all, hacking away at my ham was not easy, or easy enough, so my slice — which was really three pieces, corresponding to the pig’s muscles, that were no longer held together by fat after the Easter baking — was too thin. Well, it was just right, really, but I ought to have cut back the oven time, at least by half. And I oughtn’t to have turned off the oven and let the dish sit in the cooling oven while I waited for Kathleen to get home. It would have been better to pop the dish into a preheated oven the moment she arrived. Twenty-five minutes later (Jones calls for an hour, and I obeyed), it would have been perfect. And the milk would have been somewhat liquid, instead of a black paste. Come to think of it, it would have been nice to soak the ham in some liquid capable of drawing out some of the salt; I don’t know if there is such a thing. But for all its shortcomings, my bit of ham was very tasty, and Kathleen liked it, too.

The riced sweet potatoes that I served alongside it were perfect. I had had the idea of putting the ricer over an aluminum bowl, which I could pop into the oven with a knob of butter (the potatoes go cold very fast). Hitherto, I have riced the potatoes into the bottom of the double boiler in which I steam the potatoes. The bowl was much easier to work with — and to clean, certainly. 

Medical Note:
Ulcers Revisited, But Not Found
26 April 2019

¶ Quoth the doctor: I’m not worried about you anymore. Looking into my eyes, he saw that the corneal ulcers had “cleared up.” I certainly felt better. My eye had bothered me a bit in the early morning, but I decided that this was dehydration, and, sure enough, by the time the doctor saw me, at about ten-thirty, the irritation had quite gone away. 

“But nobody’s ever heard of corneal ulcers,” I said.

“I have,” said the doctor.

“Yes, but that’s you.” I’m sure that the eminent ophthalmologist has heard of all sorts of things, but there is an unwritten rule that patients on the Upper East Side stick to well-known disorders. Inexplicable, unheard-of illnesses are infra dig, associated with faraway places where they don’t know everything the way we do. I am aware of this because I am prone to the inexplicable and the unheard-of. And I’m the one who never leaves the neighborhood! 

I am to continue the antibiotic drops, at a lower rate, through Sunday.

What next. (I’m not asking.)

Reading Note:
Dawn Powell and the Smiths
25 April 2019

I’ve been reading Dawn Powell this week, and for the first time since I discovered her thirty years ago I am doing so without wondering when she is going to catch on with the reading public, when everyone is going to recognize her as a great American novelist. The “great” has always seemed at least slightly in doubt; the books that I know are somewhat clouded by Powell’s inability (or unwillingness) to resolve the conflicts in her prose between satire and “literature.” In that, she is very American — important books shouldn’t try to make you laugh (unless they’re by Mark Twain, who by the way never makes me laugh). And yet her way of being American is wholly at odds with being “American.” She has a way of suggesting, in a very unladylike way, that America is a crock.

Also for the first time, I was wondering if Dawn Powell is funny. Sure, she makes me laugh — she is a born wisecracker. But the laughs can be widely spaced, and they can be triggered by passages that, as to both tone and topic, are less than seamlessly joined to the stories in which they are lodged. In Turn, Magic Wheel, for example, Johnson, the junior partner at the publishing firm, McTweed & Co, is the star of a sort of isocolonic burlesque that has nothing prosodically to do with the rest of the novel. Johnson is desperately but unsuccessfully trying to distinguish himself from all the other “And Companys,” Ivy League grads just like himself with “agreeable deep voices left over from old Glee Clubs.”

He tried to break away from this insidious chain. He married a chorus girl, instead of a Bryn Mawr girl, a very pretty one from Face the Music. But all the other And Companys that year had married chorus girls from Face the Music and furthermore, like Mrs Johnson, the girls were all private-school products and all wrote an occasional poem for F.P.A. or the weekly magazines, dealing with the curious effect nature had upon them and how, in sum, it made them feel alone. 

Powell goes on to work this topsy-turvy rhetoric to a very high pitch. It is the purest, most refreshing water — to the oil of Turn‘s major concern, Effie Callingham’s immolation in abandonment, to which it adds the faintly undercutting wink of a melodrama by Edward Gorey. If it weren’t such a riot, the “And Company” bit would be the most abject filler. 

Worse, Powell lets many of her hilarious setups lead to situations that are not amusing at all but just plain mortifying. And I do mean mortifying for the reader. When staid Mary Donovan, in Angels on Toast, greets her husband at the door by writhing out of her clothes and imploring him to teach her the hoochy-coochy, which, she now knows, is more to his taste than her kind of waltz, we earnestly avert our eyes — too much information! And, perhaps because Angels begins on a Pennsylvania Rail Road express train from Chicago to New York — a beloved type of setting for comedy in the Thirties and Forties — it occurred to me that the notorious Production Code protected us not just from adult sexuality but from the laughter-killing embarrassment that so often accompanies it. For all the occasional resemblances — Powell was a well-paid Hollywood scriptwriter for a while, and her settings all seem borrowed from RKO’s art director, Van Nest Polglase — Angels on Toast is too gritty, too heavier-than-air to be mistaken for a screwball comedy. It’s just not fun

I tried to think of a movie that also dons the wings of screwball, only to plunge into the drink, and there it was: the film made by Alfred Hitchcock as a favor to his good friend, Carole Lombard: Mr & Mrs Smith

Nobody likes Mr & Mrs Smith. Hitchcock fans are annoyed because its chirpy score and want of corpses mislead them into the erroneous conclusion that it is not like other Hitchcock movies. Screwball fans dislike it for reasons that I have already suggested: it is really rather unpleasant for a comedy. Almost everything curdles. Consider the nightclub scene, and compare it to the nightclub scene in that purest of screwballs, The Awful Truth. (Both clubs are even named after states!) At the Virginia Club, Lucy Warriner and her new beau walk in on Jerry Warriner and his new — floozy. The floozy sings a sappy song with a vulgar “wind effect.” It ought to be very embarrassing, and it is, but only for the characters, from whom Leo McCarey separates us with the most adamantine Bergsonian circle. Nothing about them excites our sympathy. If Lucy Warriner gets bored, she can always go to Tulsa — a line made quite unaccountably funny by Cary Grant — and when we see that Lucy shares the judgment cloaked by Jerry’s crack, we don’t feel sorry for her; we think what an idiot she is to seek happiness in the arms of Daniel Leeson. 

At the Florida Club, the floozies are not delicate Southern Belles but lamé-clad truckdrivers. They are gross, and we are repelled. Instead of fooling around for the nonce, David Smith can’t wait to quit their company. The one bit of fun turns ugly. To impress his erstwhile wife, Ann, who is sitting with somebody else at a nearby table, David mimes a conversation with the woman to his left, a lady not of his party. She is a gorgeous, mystically transfixed blonde with a sausage-curl pompadour just so, and David should be so lucky. When the woman suddenly realizes what David is doing, she alerts her boyfriend, a pug whose first response is to envision knocking David’s block off. To extract himself from the general imbroglio, David gives himself a nosebleed, with a saltceller wrapped in a napkin. Instead of being allowed to leave, he is stretched out unceremoniously on a bench of chairs; his “date” knows how to deal with nosebleeds. “Cut my throat,” he begs. The blonde’s boyfriend smugly remarks that he knew something like this would happen. 

To underline how not funny all of this is, Hitchcock packs the set with double the lawful occupancy. Nobody, fancy dress notwithstanding, can make a move without pushing someone else. The dance floor is even worse. From the moment David is led to his table by a maitre d’ who looks like he could use a machete, the Florida Club is crossed off our list of silver-screen destinations. 

Angels on Toast and Mr & Mrs Smith don’t really have much in common — maybe nothing. Like all of his films, Hitchcock’s screwball is straightforward and devoid of diversions. More than most examples of its genre, the story seems to be controlled, once the premise is laid out, by nothing more complicated than gravity. It seems inevitable that Ann and Jeff should go — from the Florida Club! — to the World’s Fair, only to get stuck in the rain on the parachute jump. Not just gravity but causation itself contributes little to the resolution of Angels on Toast. Its almost arbitrary ending is saved from total ambiguity only by a very funny line, almost as good in its way as “Nobody’s perfect.” Both works, however, illustrate the perils of going against the grain without developing an altogether new grain. They will always have admirers, but not very many.

Medical Note:
A New One
24 April 2019

¶ As I was trying to drift off last night, my left eye developed a pain. It was quite a bit stronger in the morning. Usually, these things take two or three days to make a nuisance of themselves, but not this time. So I called the ophthalmologist’s office and snagged an appointment for the end of the day.

I don’t know what made me so diligent. Usually, it takes me two or three days to take the nuisance seriously. But I’ve already got something going on in what seems to me to be the Eustachian tubes — don’t hold me to it — and the new problem was unwelcome surplus. Besides, the ear issue was on-and-off, by no means a constant ache, while the eye was out-and-out sore. So I braced myself for the doctor’s polite smirk when he informed me that I had conjunctivitis or — a relatively rare disorder to which people with my cocktail of autoimmune dysfunction are prone — iritis. If I had only described the condition clearly enough, he wouldn’t have needed to see me. 

I showed up at four, and was in the doctor’s office shortly past five. Par for a last-minute exam, and better than the emergency room.

The ophthalmologist had a look. This is always awkward, given my immobile neck, but we managed. Then the doctor slid back in his chair, looking sideways.

“What is it?” I had to ask.

“Corneal ulcers,” he replied at last.

Corneal ulcers? I had never heard of corneal ulcers, so I had no idea how worried to be. I stalled. 

“How did I get corneal ulcers?” I asked, with an incredulous edge.

“Bad luck,” said the doctor.

But it wasn’t all that bad. He prescribed some drops and a salve and told me to come back on Friday. He didn’t think that a serious problem would develop. He did say, however, “I’m glad you came in.”

Festive Note:
Easter Dinner
23 April 2019

¶ Easter dinner might have been perfect, but I ran out of gas. No, I don’t mean that literally; the kitchen was fine! But I was rather like a car that just slows to a stop when there aren’t even fumes in the tank. Had I planned a little better… It is ever thus, and the problem is that months will go by before my next “dinner,” and I’ll forget Sunday’s lessons.

Writing things down doesn’t seem to do any good, because there’s always something that makes advice from the past questionable. Such as “set the table on the day before.” That would have been a good idea this weekend. The energy that went into setting the table — it wasn’t much, but it was exactly what I needed later, and didn’t have, to make a nice hollandaise sauce. Even thinking about the table made it a little harder to organize the cooking. The ham and the potatoes were both overdone, because I thought they’d take longer. (No, I wasn’t working from recipes.) The ham was okay, but the potatoes were merely edible. Both would have benefited enormously from a sauce — a nice pan gravy with wine for the ham. The asparagus were as good as asparagus ever is without hollandaise. (But a tad limp. I am wondering if, in my old age, I really like asparagus anymore.) If I hadn’t been thinking about the table — Kathleen polished all the flatware, by the way, a great help — I’d have had no distractions from thinking about cooking times. 

The soup, a curried butternut squash purée, made days in advance, was excellent, especially when graced with a slurry of bosc pear. I had the idea of grating the pear without realizing that the result would be not little flakes of fruit but a mush that had to be scraped from the grater. I had thought of grating the pear right onto the hot soup, but when I saw what was happening I got out a small bowl and did the grating into that. Then I spooned the result — tasty but not attractive — into the purée. Perhaps I ought to try grating slices of dried pear?

Ray Soleil made his fabulous mousse, so there was no way I could go wrong on dessert. And the whole day passed without so much as the mildest expletive. There were no hassles, no frustrations. Just that bottleneck when it was time to serve the main course. No counterspace for separating eggs. (I had prepped the butter.) No room to move the roasting pan from the stove. So I put what I had on plates and sighed. 

The plates — Herend Market Garden, bought years ago at Bluck’s in Bermuda — were just right for Easter. They were lovely.

Hilarity Note:
Major Yuk
22 April 2019

It has been so long since my last bout of helpless, gasping laughter that I began to think that I had outgrown such delirious breakdowns, that I had encountered all the stupefyingly funny things in the world.

Hammacher Schlemmer to the rescue.

The cover of the current Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue features — disappointingly — a wind chime on the cover. True, it’s a wind chime that is forty inches in length, with a resonance that approaches that of tolling church bells. But it won’t set you back a thousand bucks, much less a hundred thousand. The first things that I look for in any new HS catalogue are the items with six-figure prices. Motorized submersibles (submarines) for your swimming pool. Other dangerously high-powered vehicles that, according to mild suggestions from the accompanying text, you had better not plan on operating off your own property. Levitating golf courses. (I know they haven’t, but give them time!) I thrill to the very idea of paying small fortunes for preposterously unnecessary novelties, sight unseen.

You can’t ask, Who buys these things?, because the whole catalogue stinks of the probability that these astronomically expensive quasi-armaments and science-fantasy toys, crafted to terrify and delight children of all ages, don’t really exist at all, but have been dreamed up solely for the delectation of the enviable staff of copy writers who toil away at company headquarters on Le Saint Drive, somewhere in deepest Ohio (undoubtedly a nuclear bunker), as periodic relief from the tedium of writing pitches for more banale offerings, such as The Germ And Mold Destroying Air Purifier.* On the evidence of the new catalogue, however, management has clamped down on such frolics. The most expensive item that I could find (to describe it might open me to charges of picking on guileless customers) goes for $3700.  

Each offering in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue exists in two modes. First, there is the photograph, which often shows the item in use. On page 3, for example, a man is shown wearing The Cold Lipolysis Body Shaping Belt and The Sun Blocking UPF 50+ Panama Hat. (Not in the same picture, and possibly not the same man.) Second, there is the copy, which takes the task of describing the item as a point of departure for flights of prosody that, while unlikely to be chosen for the Norton Anthologies, reward an oenophile-like appreciation. “Available only from Hammacher Schlemmer” — a startling number of write-ups do not begin with this claim — “this is the air airconditioner that delivers powerful cool air while producing a gentle hum equivalent to a rain shower…” Isn’t that clever? It’s not silent, but it’s not noisy, either — it’s a summer’s day! Or, consider The Authentic Sleep Sound Machine. The copy never repeats the claim of authenticity, nor cites a source of authentication — an uncommonly brazen stroke for this band of slyly bold men and women! The secret of Hammachler Schlemmer connoisseurship is to read a paragraph or two from every page until cognitive giddiness sets in. The reader giggles, like a baby catching on to a game of peek-a-boo. Giggles lead to chuckles, and chuckles, eventually, to outright weeping. Thus the Major Yuk — a seizure that might be mistaken for hysterical sobbing (Fossil Darling’s term; I have never asked how he spells it) — is attained.

I thought that The Star Wars Imperial Tent — half of a Death Star, looking rather as if George Lucas were letting the air out of a special effect; “sleeps three stormtroopers” — finished me off. I could neither see nor hold the catalogue through my convulsive tears. But I was wrong. Hours later, staring at the ceiling, I was overcome by reflections on the plethora of health-aids that Hammachler Schlemmer peddles, two of which (for example) promise to get rid of unwanted fat by alternative adaptations of a convenient, specially-designed belt, one of which freezes the fat (cryolipolysis, according to Wikepedia, although, as we have seen, HS omits the “cryo” part in its handling of the Cold Lypolysys Body Shaping Belt) while the other deploys “600 nm wavelength red light” to do the job. Thinking what the medieval-looking Cervical Traction Back Stretcher could do to you if you didn’t follow the instructions very carefully, I quipped to Kathleen, “Doctors must tear their hair out when they get a patient who’s been trying out these miracle cures.” Or at least I meant to. I was already shaking with laughter, and it took no few than nine tries to articulate the words “miracle cures” so that Kathleen could understand me. 

Time was when the late Veronica Geng used to induce such fits with every new issue of The New Yorker.

* But they do exist, and you can see them, sometimes, in Hammacher Schlemmer’s showroom on East 57th Street. 

Annual Note:
Happy Birthday, My Dear
19 April 2019

It is Kathleen’s birthday today, and I wish I had a present to give her. If I did have a present to give her, it would be a pair of earrings from Gale Grant, the costume jewelry shop on Lexington Avenue. It’s very difficult to buy things for Kathleen. She knows exactly what she wants (when she sees it), but the algorithms are not forthcoming. I could probably choose a scarf at Hermès that she would like enough to wear, but she would be furious at the expense, and she already has plenty beaucoup scarves. With the earrings, I have an excellent record. To some extent, my score is helped by the limited collection of plain gold-plate earrings with clips. A grande dame even when I met her forty years ago, Kathleen has never had her ears pierced. This cuts down the availabilities. It is also something of an advantage that costume earrings do lose their lustre, eventually. 

Kathleen has, however, given me ample opportunity to study her taste in earrings by taking them off when she gets home from work and leaving them all over the house. I am too transfixed by her magnificence to take a close look at earrings when she is wearing them. The tactile contact that I get from ferrying them back to the bedroom is far more instructive.

The thing is, I do not go out of my way to buy Kathleen earrings, as I explained last year. The last time I was in the shop, I bought two pairs, one for our anniversary, which was coming up, and one for Christmas. I fully expected to pass by again before April, but thanks to the antics of my right foot (all cleared up now and nearly forgotten), I have not been to the dentist since last fall.  I could have made a special trip, I know, but I’ll be going to 60th Street in two weeks. 

Kathleen’s birthday present to herself appears to be learning how to use an app called Garageband to make ringtones. Although she turns her phone’s volume way down during these little tutorials, it still fills the air with the scratchy racket that ceased being interesting a week after the introduction of first-vintage transistor radios (which guys had to hold to their ears). On my way out of the bedroom to come in here, I told her that leaving her to play in peace was my birthday present. Quite sure of the impending appearance of a new pair of earrings, she contented herself with a sarcastic smirk, also circa 1959. 

Seasonal Note:
Spring Fever, Reflected in Tranquillity
18 April 2019

¶ Spring, although keeping on the cold side, seems to have arrived. And with it, memories of old excitements. Spring! The very air was dance music. At the barber shop yesterday, Cookie, the junior barber, who can’t be as young as I think he is because he has been young like this for many years now — Cookie was dancing, slightly but perceptibly, whilst cutting a customer’s hair. Rock ‘n roll pulsed from the speakers. Spring used to be the one time of year when I could bear rock ‘n’ roll. Now, though, I asked Tito, who was cutting my hair, if he couldn’t turn down the sound a little. He went over to the receiver and turned it down a lot. “Thanks,” I said, “but you didn’t need to turn it down that much.” “It was getting on my nerves,” he remarked. Even though Tito is only slightly older than Cookie, he prefers Aïda. “Why didn’t you complain before?”  

It used to be great fun to be foolish in the indulgence of spring fever. Now it is fun to remember foolishness without repeating it.  

Afterward, I walked to the Shake Shack. I had already walked to the barber shop but was feeling fine. At the Shake Shack counter, my order was taken, somewhat unusually, by a guy who appeared to be in a managerial position. Instead of giving me one of those blinking-light alarm doodads that go off when your order is ready, he told me that if I had a seat outside he would bring my tray to me. It was just nice enough to sit outside in comfort — I was wearing a heavy cardigan — and very nice to be waited on, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about being treated as an old man. Maybe the manager-trainee was treating me as a big old man, someone best got out of the way in the crowded area where people wait for their burgers. In any case, I felt like a first-class rube when I took a seat outside without a buzzer. Had I just bought a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge? I did have my receipt…

When the guy brought me the tray, he asked me to make sure that the fries were still warm. “I’ve been running around,” he said. 

I forgot to tell Kathleen about my odd experience at Shake Shack, but when she heard about Tito turning the sound down she asked, “Didn’t Cookie object?” “Of course not, I replied. “I am the Capitán.” Ludicrous but true. 

And from the Shake Shack I walked home. Then I got tired. 


Rep Note:
Chicken Livers and Wild Rice
17 April 2019

Here’s the crazy thing: I know I didn’t make this up. I got it from somewhere. I could have sworn that the idea came from either Judith Jones’s little book about cooking for one or the Guarnaschelli Joy of Cooking, but there’s not a hint of it in either, not under “chicken livers” and not under “wild rice.” What made me think that the two belong together — which they certainly do? 

In addition to being tasty, it’s a Chinese prep dinner dish, ideal for weeknights. Aside from one long-simmering ingredient (rice), everything is sliced, minced, soaked or otherwise dealt with in the ten minutes before heating the skillet, and set aside in its own small bowl. The counter has a tidied-up air before cooking even begins! (And of course the bowls go straight into the dishwasher.) Cooking itself is boom-boom-boom. Done. 

When it’s time to eat, heat up a regular skillet (not non-stick) and melt some butter. Toss in four quartered mushroom caps and sauté them until — is there a word for what happens to mushrooms when they have absorbed all the fat they can take and begun to exude water? — then. Turn up the heat a bit and add three or four halved livers, from which the white cords have been removed, and cook them, turning often, until they have browned nicely. (I added some more butter.) Stir in a  mixture of minced shallot and parsley — you decide how much; I use a small shallot and the leaves from two parsley sprigs — and cook for a minute or less. Then pour in a measure of dry white wine, to deglaze the pan. (Scrape up all the brown bits until the bottom of the pan is clean and “slidey” again. ) Correct the seasoning. Finally, toss in four or five sliced grape tomatoes. When the wine has reduced to the thickness of a sauce, spoon the livers onto piles of hot wild rice and serve.

I think you’ll find that in order to follow this recipe you’ll have to make it your own first, either by printing it and marking it up or recreating it with a standard ingredients list (“four quartered mushroom caps”). It’s very simple, but you’ll have to figure out for yourself why it’s simple. (Perhaps you don’t find mincing shallots and parsley “simple.” I use a mezzaluna.) How much is “a measure of wine”? In this case, it was all that was left at the bottom of a bottle of Sancerre. (There was just enough, but if there had been less, I could have added some water.) I myself can hardly explain how I stood over the stove working with all the assurance that comes from having made a dish countless times — when in fact I had just “made it up.” (I do have a lingering question: should the livers have been cooked before the mushrooms, or perhaps together with them?)

Since it’s standard to cook a cup of wild rice at a time, I have lots left over. It’s all going to go into a salad for Easter luncheon — rice, plumped currants, grapes, and I don’t know what else.  

Reading Note:
Butcher’s Crossing
16 April 2019

Over the weekend, I read John Williams’s 1960 novel, Butcher’s Crossing

I hadn’t heard of this book until a few weeks ago, when Leo Robson mentioned it in an essay on Williams in The New Yorker, occasioned by NYRB’s republication of Williams’s 1975 National Book Award co-winner, Augustus. I already knew something about Williams, having vaguely followed the low-key brouhaha about the rediscovery of his academic novel, Stoner, which I read in 2015. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Stoner, because it was set at the University of Missouri, and I’m an awful East Coast Snob. (In truth, I’m an Easterner whose academic sojourns in the Midwest taught me that life there would be a living death.) I was also depressed by the novel’s complaisance about the mortality of a humanist professor’s career. (Professors of literature deal in immortal subject matter.) But Robson’s comments about an “alternative canon,” in which the emotions excited by a work of fiction are brought about indirectly, without explicit mention, struck a nerve; I saw at once that the novels that I liked could be distinguished from the novels that I didn’t by just this rule alone. (It also explained why I’m bored by most of the mid-century American greats.) My first move was to re-read Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which Robson seemed to consider a reconciliation of the conflict. Perhaps that misrepresents Robson. In any case, I found that Herzog‘s device of offloading its hero’s exuberant romanticism onto imaginary, unsent epistles, while telling his story straight, was a successful balancing act. (Herzog was already my favorite Bellow.) 

Then I picked up Butcher’s Crossing. By this time, I had come across other reviews of the republished Augustus that also mentioned Butcher’s Crossing, so without much effort I was in the familiar position of knowing a fair amount about a book that I hadn’t opened. But of course that impression is always false. Reviews and passing summaries usually convey no more than the writer’s favorite plot bits. So while I knew that the hunting party in Butcher’s Crossing would be caught in the mountains by an early blizzard, forced to weather the winter with nothing to do (one reviewer mentioned cabin fever — no, it’s the blurb on the back cover!), I had no idea how important this ordeal would be for the protagonists — or for their story.

The novel is divided into three parts. The outer two take place in the meager settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a jumping-off place for buffalo hunters in the later years of Reconstruction. The central section follows the eccentric and daring hunt in which four men engage. The instigator, Miller, claims to have discovered a hidden valley in the Colorado mountains in which thousands of buffalo spend the summer. It has been eleven years since he made this discovery, and he has never succeeded in finding someone to bankroll his return. Insofar as Butcher’s Crossing has a hero, it is Will Andrews, the young Harvard greenhorn who rolls into town in search of Emersonian transcendence. It takes Andrews no time at all to decide to pay for and take part in Miller’s proposal. Miller takes Andrews’s money (not all of it) and repairs to a nearby town to buy provisions. While there, he also engages a seasoned buffalo skinner, Schneider. The fourth member of the party is Miller’s handicapped Number Two, the man who will drive the wagon driven by oxen and then do the cooking in camp. 

The narrative is of two types, which differ in relation to the passage of time. Numerous quite-long passages chronicle the events of a day, usually one dominated by a learning experience for Andrews, such as the first day of shooting buffalo (rather disturbing), which included Will’s introduction to skinning (much moreso). In others, the story fastens on actions and impressions that recur with a regularity that is monotonous for the characters but not to the reader. Most notably, Chapter VII of Part II covers the snowbound seven-month stay in the hidden valley — in a mere twenty pages. The following chapter, of about the same length, begins at an only slightly quicker level of detail as the men emerge from the melted snowdrifts to reorganize their animals and their equipment for the return to Butcher’s Crossing. The second half of this chapter describes the two-day descent from the mountain and the climax of the attempt to bring the wagon of buffalo hides across a river engorged with snowmelt. Although, throughout Part II, I learned more about the gruesomeness of buffalo hunting than I wanted to, I was never for an instant bored. Harrowed and upset, often; but never impatient. Considering the scope of its event, Butcher’s Crossing is a remarkably quick book. 

This is one of the secrets of its power. Early on in Part Two, there is a two-paragraph description of the benumbing of Will Andrews as the party traverses the Kansas plain. It is not very long, and I read it to Kathleen to suggest the impossibility of adapting the reality of Williams’s novel for film. “Day by day the numbness crept upon him until at last the numbness seemed to be himself.” (Real hardship, we ought to note, lies entirely in the future at this point.) Williams does not explore Andrews’s thoughts, but rather suggests that the young man has stopped thinking; instead of the emotions that Andrews might have felt in Boston, where he could afford to be heedless of his body, we are presented with the ever more limited responses of his body to the discomfort of riding a horse through endless terrain. We respond with plenty of emotions of our, but the prose is clear and dry, and as unlikely as possibly to strike different readers in different ways. 

Almost as astonishing as Williams’s ability to conjure the horror of The Heart of Darkness in language as level-headed as a newspaper account (but don’t try this at home, young ‘uns!) is the complete absence from Butcher’s Crossing  of the classic emotional engine of action fiction, especially of Westerns: betrayal. There is no deceit, no personal falsity, no misconduct either venial or criminal. Nobody takes unfair advantage of anybody (although Schneider constantly accuses Miller of doing so). There is hubris, to be sure, but without genuinely shameful behavior to darken it, such high-octane foolishness seems almost as innocent as virtue. If you give somebody you’ve never met before the money to make some purchases at the dry-goods store across the road, he’ll return with whatever it was that you wanted and some change. At no point is Butcher’s Crossing the tale of a dude being taken for a rube. Andrews’s contact in Butcher’s Crossing, a dealer in hides who doesn’t want him to join Miller’s party, nevertheless warns him to do everything that Miller tells him to do, and this turns out to be very sound advice. The purity of heart common to the men (and one woman) of Butcher’s Crossing creates a sort of negative frustration, an imaginative freedom that takes its deepest breath when the novel is finished. 

One caution about finishing Butcher’s Crossing: try to avoid letting it happen at bedtime, when everyone else is asleep. The immediate aftertaste is one of vast desolation. This is not really Williams’s doing. It is simply the slag of dreadful emotions that he has conjured and dismissed. Midnight is not the best time for saying goodbye to Will Andrews. 

Except for the general direction he took, he did not know where is was going: but he knew that it would come to him later in the day. He rode forward without hurry, and felt behind him the sun slowly rise and harden the air.

Note the position of the sun: a real Western. 

Spills Note:
Two in Two
15 April 2019

Tomorrow, if I make it that far, I’ll be hoping that things don’t always come in threes.

Last night, reaching for a cutting board in the kitchen, I knocked a bottle of peanut oil off the counter. Because it was plastic, the bottle didn’t break, but the screw-top popped off, and about half the half-full bottle’s contents poured oozily onto the floor. The floor had just been professionally cleaned on Saturday.

Most of the oil came up after paper towels took an hour to absorb it. Hands and knees will be involved in scrubbing up the remainder.

Then, this morning — just now — I reached for the German dictionary to look up a word, and the Spanish dictionary next to it tipped over. It fell gently, and although it did not disturb the bowl of cereal at my left, it did hit it. That ought to have been a warning. Impatiently, I pushed the dictionary back up. It came right back down — with the full weight of my ancient Cassell’s Latin dictionary behind it. This time, the bowl tipped, too, and milk spilled onto and over the desk — puddling on a manuscript from which it dribbled into my small collection of LPs. Milk everywhere, in short.

I bellowed, indicating low levels of serenity. Then I cleaned up the mess.

The cause of both spills was my lazy accommodation of a perpetually stiff neck. In neither case was I looking at what I was doing. That isn’t going to change. What I’m learning is how to arrange things so that accidents … are less likely. 

WP Update:
Ripping Out
12 April 2019

¶ At the beginning of the month, I printed out the section of the writing project that I am working on, and for a day or two I actually thought that it was ready to show to Kathleen. Thank goodness I didn’t. The growing sense that something was missing — an important element of my main idea — was resolved only by adding a few short passages, and a rather meager paragraph, to the once-apparent perfection of the printed draft. This threw everything out of proportion.

Working on the problem this afternoon, a matter of reading and thinking rather than writing or editing, I realized that I had never properly stated my main idea at all. The two pages in which I talked around it instead of explaining it would have to go, even if that meant losing some nice sentences and some interesting, lesser thoughts. That’s as far as I got today. Sometimes, a day of wretchedness and frustration end up with nothing but the certainty that pages of material can’t be fixed. Only amputation will do.

The writing project is teaching me, among many other painful lessons, that talking around things is a tendency of mine, not just an occasional misjudgment. It begins with nothing less innocent than the desire to soften the bluntness of crude assertions by making an oblique approach. As I proceed, this tactic degenerates into a game of twenty questions. At some point, I decide that only a dunce would not have figured out what I’m talking about, so I never do state what I came to say.

Or so it seems. I suspect that what’s really going on is that I don’t fully understand my big idea. (The giveaway is that fear of “crude assertions.”) The indirect approach is a well-worn way of concealing, or attempting to conceal, the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about, as I saw with painful clarity this afternoon. And the only way to find out what my big idea really is is to attack the difficulty of expressing it head-on.

I’m reminded of the first paper that I wrote in prep school. Accustomed to easy A’s in the past, I did not put too much effort into a short essay about a play, required summer reading, that I hadn’t actually read, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The paper came back marked “E” — Blair’s grading system being rigorously logical at the the time, proceeding directly from “D” to the next letter of the alphabet, instead of skipping over to “F.” For a moment I drew wild, ignorant relief from the supposition (which however I couldn’t take very seriously) that “E” stood for “Excellent.” Another straw to clutch was my not knowing the meaning of the big word in the teacher’s comment. I could guess, but I didn’t know. Mr Dorn had written, “This paper is a tissue of circumlocutions.” In this salutary way, my real education began. 

Rep Note:
Ragù Boscaiola
11 April 2019

I can tell you how I made the sauce, but not what it tastes like, because while I was in the middle of making it, Kathleen told me on the phone that she didn’t feel up to sausage. So I also made some butter sauce, as we call that very simple Marcella Hazan concoction of canned tomatoes, split onion (removed after cooking, like a bouquet garni), and lots of butter. Butter sauce on thin spaghetti, with just a little parmesan, hit the spot. 

For the ragù, I sautéed a handful of minced mushrooms with a spoonful of mirepoix, and then added the meat from an Italian sausage that I had skinned and then defrosted. I tossed in about a cup of quartered mushroom caps. When all of this was cooked, I stirred in some beef broth and let it simmer down. I did the same with a splash of white wine. Finally, I tipped in the contents of a regular can of pulped tomatoes, and let this cook down for a while.

I say, “finally,” but I’m going to pour in a little bit of heavy cream when I reheat the sauce for dinner — one of these days. As I used to do forty years ago, I shall serve the ragù on cavatappi noodles. Forty years ago, I made up a sauce with most of these ingredients but without knowing what I was doing. I called it Pasta Morales, in honor of Kathleen, whom I had just fallen in love with. The ragù was always hearty, but otherwise uneven. Sometimes there were too many mushrooms; sometimes there wasn’t enough actual sauce. A few years out of law school, I decided that the dish was too rustic for Manhattan. (Oy.) I know that I wrote down the gist of a recipe, but I’m not sure that I still have it.

What does “Morales” have to do with Kathleen? Clues: A Chorus Line, 96th Street, and the problem of spelling “Moriarty.” There are still classmates who call her “Morales.” They might even have trouble remembering her actual name. 

Tricky Note:
10 April 2019

¶ Early on in Huxley’s Crome Yellow, which I’m re-reading, a poet muses on the French sentence, “Le galbe évasé de ses hanches.” I had to look up the words! Until I did, it sounded gnomic, rather like “Le Prince d’Aquitaine à sa tour abolie.” (I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Is the tower there or not?) It turns out to be rather more prosaic. As the poet wonders, is there a French novel that doesn’t contain the statement? The flared curve of her hips.

How I got this far without having so much as seen the word “galbe” — which I’d have taken for the name of some priestly vestment (how lazy!) — I have no idea. I knew that hanches meant “haunches” — but I don’t really know what haunches are, or didn’t until now. As for évasé, I ought to have known that one. I suppose it’s related to le vase, “vase.” I specify the article because la vase is “muck.” I wonder how many French hostesses have been asked to put fresh-cut flowers in some filth. 

Spark Note:
Pod Person
9 April 2019

¶ For two weeks now, if not longer, the dining table has been graced by a couple of piles that any smart person would sweep right into a garbage bag and be done with. I am hoping to sweep them into something else: right now, my thinking is settling on a cubic Amaretto di Saronno tin. (Yes, we’ve still got two of these, ubiquitous in the late Seventies and early Eighties, although one is missing its lid.) But I have to know, before I commit, where the tin is going to be put.

One is a pile of virgin postcards, purchased by our parents in later life. The ones that Kathleen’s father gave her when her mother died (and he was “cleaning out” by giving everything to his daughter to deal with, and guess who got stuck with that job) feature sights of Bavaria and Virginia. There’s one of the Hall of Mirrors at Ludwig II’s replica of Versailles, which it does resemble, but with an added element of horror that brings The Shining to mind. In the current American climate, the photographs of Old Dominion patrician homes seem obscurely but palpably racist, as if carrying a scent. 

The ones that my stepmother gave me after my father died were purchased in Britain and Ireland, on one of their coach trips there. (I think that there were two.) Even more than the other set, these views of Edinburgh and Dublin seem to come from an earlier time. The color of the postcard of the garden front of Blenheim is strangely washed out, enough to suggest hand-tinting.

The other is a pile of old Polaroids. Not so old that they’re black-and-white, but dating from the late Seventies. Most of them show the gang of graduate students with whom a few law students like myself shared a dormitory on what used to be the “religious” side of a lake at Notre Dame. (I stayed for two of the three years.) One of the grads was from the start a very close friend; he would be my best man when I married Kathleen. He died several years ago of early-onset Alzheimer’s, after a few years of silence that I mistakenly attributed to our disagreements about the second President Bush.

There’s one photo of me that I can barely talk about — so I’ve propped it up against the cache-pot in which I deposit new mail every day. What it says to me has changed completely in the past couple of months. It used to be a picture of me when I was young and trim and, arguably, cool. I’m wearing a brand-new jacket, purchased in the men’s shop at the Greenbrier Hotel, that I would wear if I could still fit into it, and a pair of dark aviator sunglasses that complements my broad grin. Looking at it used to make me feel wistful. Now it fills me with relief and a sense of close escape, because that person is gone. The Polaroid captures the pod person that for so many decades I drank in order to be, in order to muzzle the growls of my impatient mind that made other people so uncomfortable. I didn’t want them to like me; I just wanted them not to bite first. Now that I am too old to be bitten without giving gross provocation, I don’t need to be that fellow anymore, which is how I lost fifty pounds, and just might fit into that jacket again, if I still had it. Which is not to say that I would wear it. 

Reading Note:
After Herzog
8 April 2019

¶ When you’ve just finished Saul Bellow’s Herzog, what do you read next? The book now atop my reading pile was John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, but I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a Western. I wanted to remain in the company of cosmopolitan, well-read characters, men and women who, like me, were likely to be bored rather than stimulated by the Great Outdoors. But I wanted a little more focus, a little more discipline; Moses Herzog has a lot to say, but he has a hard time finishing a thought. Whether Bellow himself could compete with own his novel’s pyrotechnics is arguable, but in any case Herzog gave me my fill of funny fireworks. Without too much fuss, I chose Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening. It proved to be just right. It both kept the vibe of Herzog going and made me forget that I had just read it. 

The embarrassing thing was my growing doubt that I had ever re-read Starting Out in the Evening. I have re-read the novels that followed it, each several times, but in the case of this notable book of 1998, I had returned not to the original but to the excellent film adaptation, starring Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose, which came out about ten years later. I’ve seen the movie so many times that the pungent comment of ageing writer Leonard Schiller about the undertaking of young graduate student Heather Wolfe — So, you’ve embarked on a project of questionable merit — put Langella in the room, right there next to me. 

This time, of course, I’d chosen to read Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening because I had just read Bellow’s Herzog. Mixing media would have defeated the purpose, which was, as I say, to prolong the atmosphere of mid-century intellectual life as sustained by incidentally academic American Jews.  Why Jews? Jews were still asking genuine questions and trying to frame workable answers; while WASPs had adopted the French vice of declaring what they wanted to hear — sadly for them (the WASPs) in rather inferior language. And by “intellectual life,” I mean real life, with families and apartments, sibling rivalries and unreliable friends — not to mention (the word comes up in Morton, too) “cocksmanship” — as lived by very smart, bookish people.

You may be asking, how did the second novel stand up to the first? Herzog has been a classic since it appeared. One feels obliged to add the modifier “coruscating” somewhere. The title character never steps out of the spotlight and never runs out of entertaining shtick — quite a performance! Starting Out in the Evening is in every way more modest — Leonard Schiller’s is only one of four points of view — but it is also immensely lovable, even if people who aren’t in the habit of reading good books might have a hard time seeing what’s so lovable about it. It’s true that, toward the end, the hard lines  that serve as so many trenches throughout most of the narrative — Schiller’s obscurity, Heather’s ambition, the impasse between Ariel and Casey about having children — are softened enough to suggest happy endings all round — not that the actual beginnings of such endings are evidenced by the novel. But what I mean by “lovable” is the moment in which Heather, having indulged in pouring forth some extravagant, insincere hopes for Schiller’s much-deserved celebrity, and basking in the pleasure of have “obviously” moved the old writer, is painfully surprised when he reached across the table not to caress but to smack her. What’s lovable is the exchange that follows this take-down. Schiller returns to his cup of coffee without saying anything, while Heather, much against her will, helplessly weeps. Eventually, she pulls herself together enough to say, “I’m sorry everything got so fucked up.”

To which he says — try to imagine Moses saying this to Madeleine — “You gave an old man some excitement.” That’s lovable. There is nothing remotely so appealing in all of Herzog

Reform Note:
Défense de Fumer
5 April 2019

As I was heading out this afternoon, I saw that a notice had been posted on the lobby floor by the elevators. I could tell, from the thick blocks of verbiage, that it was a new notice, not the one advising tenants about HVAC filter changes from two weeks ago.

Now what.

Now hear this: no more smoking anywhere in this building. Not in tenants’ apartments, not on tenants’ balconies — nowhere. Public or private, no smoking. As of 1 June. (Which is not a lot of notice, when you consider the matter.) Needless to say, no smoking in the driveway. Nowhere “on the property.” 

I don’t smoke; I gave it up in 1983. Kathleen doesn’t smoke, not even once in a while, as she used to do. But we have a friend, a man who comes to dinner now and then, who will have to be told that slipping out onto the balcony for a Chesterfield is no longer permitted. 

The prohibition is being touted as a health measure, but it will presently appear as a term, presumably non-negotiable, in the leases, putting it on the level of “no pets.” No need, that is, for the building to defend the ruling. 

Ray Soleil, who was with me, shrugged and said, “That’s the way to take care of legalized pot.” I suppose he has a point — a slightly cynical, baby-with-the-bathwater point. But it would never occur to me to smoke marijuana. So wasteful! I always bake it into something. Or I used to do. I haven’t even seen the stuff in years. 

Pantry Note:
Not Eternal
4 April 2019

¶ For dinner this evening, we had steak and potatoes. We might as well have dined on cardboard.

The steak had been in the freezer for a while. Possibly since November or December. It was a rib steak from Fairway, the one cut that I expect to age well. A few hours of marination in olive oil, salt and cayenne, however,  did nothing for this one. Although the interior of the steak was still a nice pink, the meat tasted well-done, overcooked. Which is to say that it had lost all flavor.

As for the potatoes, they weren’t the russets that I’d had in mind. Those had sprouted, in the depths of a vegetable crisper. They hadn’t been around nearly as long as the steak in the freezer, I thought. But the sprouts were robust, more than a quarter-inch long. Time was when I’d have plucked them off and baked the potatoes anyway. I’ve since read that this is not a healthy thing to do, and, without further investigation, changed my ways. 

I had some small, “heirloom” potatoes that I’d bought at Schaller & Weber. Ordinarily, I would steam them, and then toss them in butter and parsley. But I decided to roast a few of them, tossing them in oil and butter and seasonings (but not parsley) before rather than after cooking. The result was a loss of flavor that matched that of the steak. Blindfolded, I could not have told you what they were; I might have settled on pasta so overcooked that it was disintegrating. I sprinkled them with salt. This made them taste like salt.

Kathleen insisted that it wasn’t as bad as all that. But I moved several squares closer to a decision against freezing meat other than chicken and seafood other than shrimp. Oh, and Agata & Valentina’s fennel sausages, which I wrap individually before cryolation. The ban will (eventually) encompass ground meat for burgers: if it’s not going to be used within its safe span of refrigerator time, don’t buy it. 

A few nights ago, I learned that even anchovy filets, sold “fresh” in oil by A & V for millions of simoleons per pound, are not eternal. Neither are the capers that the store sells from an adjacent tub. I found this out the other night with a puttanesca sauce that was anything but racy. 

Perhaps by the end of the year, I’ll be capable of shopping on Monday for a week’s worth of dinners, using up everything that I’ve bought before Monday comes round again. The difference between mere cooking and actually keeping house!