Thursday, March 31, 2005

McEwan and Cervantes

Today, I have two small things about big books, old & new.

Over at Slate, Katie Roiphe offers an informed and extended version of the speculations about McEwan’s Saturday and its debt to Mrs. Dalloway that I floated earlier this week. (I was just guessing; Roiphe's read the book & confirms.)

Bud Parr has invited me to join the crew over at 400 Windmills (where they’re [we’re!] reading Don Quixote together). I’m very excited and will let you know when I add something over there.

UPDATE: I dipped my toes into the water at 400 Windmills with a tiny factual post: Edith Grossman is giving a lecture in New York on 4/28. She's the acclaimed translator of Cervantes. And a small post on not reading Cervantes, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Book clubs and reading in common

Although such things often fail, I love the idea of book clubs, reading groups, and reading projects. Having spent too much of my life already with A Frolic of One’s Own, I didn’t dare join the Gaddis Drinking Club: there’s not enough sauvingnon blank in the world for that. Still, my copy of Don Quixote arrived over the weekend and I’m ready to read along with the folks at 400 Windmills.

Other reading groups have had mixed results. Right after grad school, some friends enlisted me to join their group. We read Far from the Madding Crowd together and, on that first meeting (a month later than we’d hoped it would be; it’s a long book), my friend said she found Bathsheba an incredibly liberated person for that time period, the 1600s. Or was it the 1700s? Or… Confused and nervous, she looked to me. I flipped my Penguin over to the back: ”Far from the Madding Crowd was first published in 1874…” Suddenly, I became the professor of our group. We disbanded shortly thereafter.

In my little town in Indiana, I was an enthusiastic and regular participant in our Jane Austen Book Club. The motley group of women, professors, wives, and administrators all stuck in a tiny town would have been easy to mock; the comments of some were naïve in the extreme. But it was wonderful and welcoming to be in a room of twelve women from 25 to 80. Plus, we had champagne and cheesecake without fail. Very Oprah but very pleasant, too.

My best book club though was one I crashed: two of my very most beloved friends, a couple, were spending the summer apart and decided to read contemporary fiction in common as a way of having more to write to each other about. The next year, I added myself on as a third wheel. It was divine. We went to the bookstore and picked nine newish paperback novels to read, in any order. We were only to write to each other from time to time with our opinions of the books. No pressure; no rules. I was far from reading all the books (the Gaddis did me in, to be honest!), but what a lovely pleasure. I wrote up my thoughts in book reviews and then, as an unexpected benefit, found that I had learned how to review—something I began doing for real the next year.

We’ll see how the Quixote goes, but my experience of the virtual book group bodes well.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Productivity, lack thereof

Julia Briggs’ new biography of Woolf is out and reviewed in the Times of London (via The Elegant Variation). Another one! Christine Froula’s monograph, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde just came out in January and is supposed to be the best Woolf monograph. So, two huge tomes to read now, both very promising, both of which I remember knowing about from before their conception. I feel like one of those irritating aunts at holiday time: "I remember your mama before you were even born!"

Now, Jane Dunn, in the Times does not go so far as to say that Briggs supersedes the outstanding Hermione Lee biography, but she finds a lot to admire in Briggs and seems to find the book a worthy read. I bet it is but I also thought it was going to be more than a biography--a kind of intellectual history, a story of a life in books. Dunn makes it sound like less than what Julia told me it would be, but I cannot yet tell if that's a fault of the publisher, the author, or the reviewer. I have met all three women and admire them immensely. Especially Julia, who is so great—and has been so great to me—that I want to be her as much as anything. So I welcome these books wholeheartedly and with a pang, a terrible recognition that to be them, to continue even to be welcomed at their table at conferences, I need to complete my own. All I can think is that my own is far from done. Close, but not that close.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Four Stars

My parents were in town this weekend and so we were treated to a few meals at truly great New York restaurants (Otto with the beloved toddler, Le Bernardin without). The food at Le Bernardin was so good as to transcend the category of nourishment and enter the realm of art. How I love these amazing meals. But why?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, a family friend asked the same question of my dad. We were out to eat in a fancy inn along the Thames: my family of four and another, English, family of four. The other father, staggered at the prospect of the bill facing my dad (eight lunches!), asked him why he did such things. Because, he answered, whatever he did—reading, listening, looking, walking, eating—he wanted, at least once, to know what the best was like. Seeking the best is worthwhile.

Most food lacks mystery. Even a really great roast chicken bears some resemblance to what I often make on Sunday nights. I can imagine, for example, buying a better bird, rubbing it with fresh rosemary or putting thyme between skin and breast, roasting it in a more reliable oven for just the right amount of time and coming closer to perfection. However, like the best literature and the best paintings, the best food cannot be approached or imitated by an amateur, only wondered at. How did David Bouley’s kitchen create that citrusy-green apple foam in the amuse-bouche at lunch? How did Eric Ripert’s kitchen make the perfect foursome of fluke, two chile, two coconut, all distinct, all divine? How delicious to wonder through four courses!

Thursday, March 24, 2005


There’s a nice story in The Guardian about Michael Holroyd, who has just won a big prize for biography. He says “He will spend much of his winnings ‘buying myself time to write. That's what I need at the moment, time.’” If he, with all of his successes, needs time, where does that leave the rest of us plebians?

Buying time: the big trick of the writer’s life. This week is spring break. The papers are not yet graded, my entries here have been massively long, and, still, writing my book proceeds glacially. But, I’ve read most of Sula today and will finish it now. Strange to come so late to a great book: one wants to say, “Toni Morrison’s really good. Boy! That Sula sure is a novel. Mm-hmm.” But to whom?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Guardian's Domesticity, Saturday

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

I seldom read the excellent Alas, A Blog because I like to maintain my equanimity against what Alas calls “anti-feminist zaniness.” But, when this story from the Guardian crossed my desk twice today (first via the Vwoolf listserv), I felt like, idiotic though it was, I had to bite. It seems the editors of 13, a new collection of writing by young writers, the editors take women to task, writing:
On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell.

To underline their point, the folks at the Guardian have helpfully reproduced that famous portrait of Woolf, aged 20, with the caption: “Did Virginia Woolf's efforts fail to alter negative views of women writers?” Never mind that the photograph predates her writing life by two years and her first novel by eight. Such perpetuation of the image of Woolf as a delicate failure is disheartening indeed. As Brenda Silver has argued, even the picture we choose as the picture of our author affects readers’ impressions. It is time, I think for an older, bolder, and more authoritative Woolf to capture our imaginations.

Woolf wrote in 1929 of how, in a patriarchy, men get to decide what’s important—for example, sport—and what’s not— perhaps fashion, and she mocked the arbitrariness of this even as she railed against its injustice. The comments in the Guardian are silly and beneath contempt and it is, frankly a relief to skim through the letters from the many, many eminent women who say just that (including one from one of the editors, who feels misrepresented), and to see, too, that they’ve reprinted the whole introduction so we can decide for ourselves. Still, I found myself thinking about how to begin a rebuttal.

One might list great counter-examples—anti-domestic novels by women and domestic novels by men—I thought. Then I remembered this weekend's spate of reviews of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. A day in the life of an upper-middle class, middle-aged doctor in contemporary post-9/11 London surely sounds insular. McEwan himself acknowledges the tradition in which he is working: the novel focused on a single day in the life of an ordinary protagonist was the great twentieth-century innovation. But, in his interview with NPR, he quickly moves past Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses to identify himself with Saul Bellow. I think this is disingenuous in the extreme and may perhaps be gender anxiety.

Surely a novel about a man who sets out from his insulated Fitzrovia home to make the fish stew himself for a party he is to throw that night and finds, in doing so, that he must confront the ugly urban aftermath of war has some resonances with Mrs. Dalloway...

Elsewhere: If you want to help the Feminist Press, here's how. (Via Chekhov's Mistress's revamped headlines page.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sophisticated Lady

Terry Gross, host of “Fressh Air” (you have to kind of hiss that fresh like Terry does) on NPR rarely asks a dumb question, so I was surprised when I heard her ask Bobby Short if he ever thought it ironic that a middle class black boy (he was nine when he left) from Danville, Illinois became an authority on New York sophistication. Without missing a beat, Short mentioned Cole Porter (Peru, Indiana) and several other Hoosier cabaret greats. An Illini cabaret great is not so odd. Abashed, Gross let him go on. Short reminded her that his is an American dream: the small town kid makes it big in New York.

Short died on Monday at 80 and tributes from “Fresh Air” (which replayed a recent interview) as well as the Times follow on the heels of a Saturday spent listening to “Wall to Wall Sondheim” broadcast live from Symphony Space. Ultimately, I grew weary of the twelve-hour marathon, failing to be buoyed by the ever-indefatigable Jonathan Schwartz. But, I was moved to tears when Elaine Strich got up and delivered that great grande dame excuse about having a cold and being out of voice and, still, determined to come and pay tribute to “Steve.” (It was Sondheim’s 75th birthday.) She wound up her anecdote by seamlessly moving into her song, “I’d like to propose a toast. Here’s to the ladies who lunch…” She barked her way through that wonderful talk-song. Then, after much applause, David Green came out and said, “When I learned that I had to follow Elaine Strich, everybody said ‘Don’t!’” He proceeded to sing “Everybody Says Don’t.” Hurrah!

These show tunes and cabaret standards, in French and English, were my passport to sophistication when I was a little girl in Seattle and Seattle was a lumber town hoping that the latest Boeing strike wouldn’t force the city under. Listening to Bobby Short’s crisply articulated lyrics brought me back to my girlhood days when I would put a stack of records on the turntable and memorize not just the words but the situations. Listening, I prepared for all kinds of life experiences that I now know I will never have: saying goodbye to my lover in a small café, hanging myself after shooting my lover, mourning my loneliness from a penthouse apartment, mourning my loneliness while charging ten cents a dance. I also learned things that still come in handy, such as the relative locations of the Bronx and Battery (up and down respectively), the glamour of Broadway, the quickest way to Harlem, or the charms of the subway in summer.

When I first visited New York City twenty years ago this month, my friends and I walked by the Carlyle. I knew enough and was callow enough to scoff at the card in the window, “Bobby Short is still playing here!” (He had, after all, been playing there since 1968—most of my lifetime.) I didn’t know anything about him but I had decided that one of the first rules of sophistication is to scorn what you’ve heard of: if you’re from Seattle and you’ve heard of it, it must be passé. That lesson turned out to be a false friend. How I wish now that I had gone.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Windows on the World

When my friend in London gave me a copy of Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World last summer, I didn’t think too much about it. I thought the (English) cover was ugly and I didn’t understand the title. What a willful forgetting! It sat in a stack in my office and, eventually, I saw the cover and understood the title: two black columns, very close up, with a thin slice of sky between them.

Beigbeder, a handsome decadent, born in September 1965, is a novelist (this is his fourth or fifth), t.v., presenter, and minor (it’s hard to tell how minor from a quick Google search) celebrity in France. His book borrows liberally from the stark aesthetics of the nouvel roman of Robbe-Grillet (whom he visits at NYU in one of the chapters) and the self-indulgent self-referentiality of, well, the French.

The book is an excruciating read. I forced myself through it as a kind of penance for not having lived here in 2001 and for getting so much pleasure now out of taking the PATH into the World Trade Center site. Now, when the train pulls into that open-air station, I feel the exhilaration of arriving in New York City and have to remind myself that I am also in a graveyard. The PATH station today is full of huge mesh screens, windbreaks, I imagine, that have been printed with inspirational slogans and, for me, they work: Gene Kelly tells me that he walks faster in New York than anywhere and I feel, each morning I read that quote, that I could dance.

I know I’m not the only one who tried to make the tragedy manageable by zeroing in on a class of victims to identify with—the heroes of Shanksville, PA, the firefighters and rescue workers, the many lost of Cantor Fitzgerald—for me, the most poignant were the workers at Windows on the World. Beigbeder shares both my sentimentality—the waitress, Lourdes, is not his most successful character because she’s such a stereotype: the noble Latina martyr—and my skepticism about the restaurant, its wonderful cheesiness. It is just the place you might take your children once.

Windows on the World operates, in fiction, on similar principles to 102 Minutes the New York Times journalists’ nonfiction reconstruction of the time between the first airplane strike and the second tower’s collapse. Beigbeder’s novel begins with an apology: we know how it ends and we know the ending will not be happy. Nonetheless, he focuses in on a divorced father playing hooky with his two young sons, in New York City from Texas on a guilt-fueled extravagant vacation. The children are ordinary and rotten--pushing all the buttons in the elevator, hitting each other, spilling syrup, yelling--the father is hollow and sex-obsessed: they are not likeable characters.

Chapters about Carthew and his sons alternate with essayistic chapters about Beigbeder’s decision to write the novel; each chapter has the time for its title and the Beigbeder chapters purport to have been written at 8:37 AM, at 9:12 AM (or, occasionally, PM). These chapters are essential for emotional relief and occasionally rise to the brilliant essayist observation of Roland Barthes. The conceit of the first half of the book is that it’s written atop the Tour Montparnasse, Paris’ truly hideous skyscraper with restaurant/observation deck and it’s the source for some truly moving and interesting observation about the hopefulness of the seventies, skyscrapers and airplanes, the Franco-American playboy as icon and the lounge as his habitat, the generations of 1968 (his parents’,), 1989 (his) and 2001, and the stress of bringing a child to a fancy restaurant (he brings his beloved toddler one morning). As the novel progresses, Carthew and his sons grow more and more aware of the hopelessness of their situation and Beigbeder travels to New York. At the same time, the shallow Carthew rises to heroism while Beigbeder’s persona sinks into drunken self-indulgence. The chapters in which one of Carthew’s sons begs him to change into his superhero costume and use his top-secret special superpowers are achingly moving and make a lovely foil to Beigbeder’s own wistful what-ifs about helicopter rescues. By the end of the book, I liked the author less and admired his character more.

It took me weeks to read this book: I could only manage a few chapters at a time at first. Then, once the first tower collapsed, I had to get it over with. It’s a painful read. In the end, it’s a fascinating version of the story from a perspective that is neither entirely outside nor entirely in. (Beigbeder the narrator reveals, toward the novel’s close, that he has an ancestor named Carthew, making his persona a kind of cousin of his character.) It reminds us of all the reasons that the United States and France have been locked in a tense courtship and it does something that an American novel could not easily do (and, perhaps, no great work of French art could fail to do): it proceeds cynically to its soaring conclusion.

[The Times mentioned Beigbeder's book in a recent essay, but it's over a week old so you'll have to pay...]

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bella Anderson

My mother reminded me that it is twenty years ago today that my grandmother died. That means that twenty years ago tonight I was a college first-year coming home from a boring date with a German guy to have my roommate (she whom I just visited, in fact) tell me the news. My grandmother, Clara Bella Donna Matilda Wold Anderson, was a missionary’s daughter who spent most of her first eighteen years in China. As her father was the president of a seminary and her mother busy with ten children (and then ill, and then dead), she grew up with three mother tongues, Norwegian, English, and Chinese, which she spoke fluently, though with a peasant accent from the nannies and servants with whom she spent so much time. At eighteen, she boarded a ship to the U.S. and her step-mother said, “One less mouth to feed, one less pair of shoes to buy.” She graduated from college and was the only woman in her class in pharmacy school. She married my grandfather, moved to Iowa, and raised my uncle and mother working as a pharmacist for several neighboring towns all the while.

I can trace most of the things I like about myself back to her as well as many of my quirks and flaws—over-confidence, impatience, stubbornness. She, who once sawed a sofa in half and reupholstered it in order to have a sectional, might well have found herself in the predicament I am in tonight. I have a lovely new desk but the drawers came without handles attached. “Complain!” urged my mother, “Beware! Those are very hard to do. If you’re even a little off, they don’t work.” Undeterred, I drilled away. When I discovered the screws that came with it were too short, I went out and bought longer ones. Now, I have drawers with holes in the front. In them, I can keep a growing collection of handles, short screws, and longer screws with threads that don’t quite match the handle. How I can hear my grandmother’s loud, hearty laugh! Tomorrow, I’ll go to Target and get some sturdy twine and make rope handles and be done with it. Rope handles are very trendy, I hear.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The bass or the words?

I have two nephews on my side of the family (one on the other—all, of course, beloved). I hear from their father that one boy bounces to the bass while his brother cocks his ears for the lyrics. I don’t know if our beloved toddler is a bass or a lyric girl, but watching a child hear a great song for the first time only reconfirms the wonder of music. The Greatest Hits of the Clash had been on the stereo for a while, but when “London Calling” came on, our beloved toddler went straight to 1979, head banging and all. Last weekend, she practically sobbed when, trying to be considerate, a friend turned down Stevie Wonder’s groovy “I was made to love her” on his car stereo. “That’s my other favorite song,” she said, never having heard it before.

Much as I love a funky bass, the lyrics are the clincher for me. I became fanatical about lyrics at summer camp. With a bad singing voice, I found that I was allowed to sing only if I knew the lyrics—I could help carry the song through the hard parts and then would be tolerated (and glared at to pipe down) during the chorus. As I write this, Jacques Brel is on in the background. My French is just good enough for me to know how much I must be missing, but the songs are unbelievably fantastic: each one creates a small, melancholy world, all fog, concrete, and Gitanes burning down to the butt end. I particularly love “Au Suivant” (Next) in which memories of being humiliated at his army physical are equated with a new girlfriend, who, like that impatient army nurse seems to be appraising him skeptically, “au suivant!” I love the exotic sense of a life of many lovers but, more than that, the fear that one is always vaguely disappointing, not quite what was hoped for.

This sense of inadequacy is a major theme in Terry Castle’s moving, amazing tribute to Susan Sontag from the London Review of Books: "In my own case, Sontag’s death brings with it mixed emotions. God, she could be insulting to people. At the end – as I enjoy blubbering to friends – she was weally weally mean to me!" (Via The Page).

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More Regency Romance

The Believer has a section called idea share: it’s a place to post ideas which seem good but, for whatever reason, you have no intent to bring to fruition. Here’s mine:
3. Byron’s frustrated childhood love for Mary Chaworth lingered long in his memory, but now that she was married and separated from her husband, she wanted to see him. He, however, was reluctant to risk the disillusionment of a meeting and postponed and never made the visit.
If that’s not the germ of a smashing novel, I don’t know what is. Only one small alteration is needed: “and postponed the visit until the following March. Whereupon…”

Monday, March 14, 2005


My husband is a William Dean Howells scholar and so, by osmosis, I know as much about Howells as one can know without ever having read a word. Now, as we embark on what our second experience of house-hunting together, it seems it may be time to read A Hazard of New Fortunes at last:
The time had been when the Marches would have taken a purely aesthetic view of the facts as they glimpsed them in this street of tenement houses, when they would have contented themselves with saying that it was as picturesque as a street in Naples or Florence and with wondering why nobody came to paint it…It was to their nose that the street made one of its strongest appeals, and Mrs. March pulled up her window of the coupé. “Why does he take us through such a disgusting street?”

Mrs. March, c’est moi!

We went on a family househunting walk on Saturday: four hours exploring outer Jersey City by foot (and stroller for the lucky and beloved toddler). Up Montgomery Street and through the projects on Saturday morning, I was content and optimistic. Through the first house, still decorated with an unnerving combination of gay man and grandma kitsch, I kept my hopes up (there is, after all, a convent across the street). Kennedy Boulevard, which had intimidated in August, seemed grand, peaceful, and enviable. The second house, with a fantastic Tiffany-era mantelpiece bolted to the chimney with picture wire mostly charmed, only depressed a little. Then, we set off for the third house, just past Communipaw.

No sooner does my husband say “Communipaw is kind of a line” than it hits me and I want to swoon: a muffler shop, several gas stations with tattered flags flying in the wind; cars, struggling to make the light end up stuck in the crosswalk; trying to cross, five teens pass through the narrow spot between cars, only the sixth, with a gracious look of apology, thinks that perhaps a child in a stroller might have precedence; enormous fat people; music blaring. That’s the line. I don’t hope to cross it soon but I fear that the house we can afford is just over it.

UPDATE: Alas, this sad news story of a murder (a botched bodega robbery leaves a widow with four children) on Communipaw from a mile or so down the same road confirms my sense of "the line."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Cool Beans

Is it because I’m teaching The Waste Land this week or is it actual cruelty of our March (60 degrees on Monday and now, frigid and snowy)? Could it perhaps be the mountain of midterm grading? Or the plague that has felled my colleagues. Whatever the case may be, I have been feeling uninspired. In desperation, I turned from my blue books (which, this semester, were an appropriately sickly shade of pale green) to the web. Instead of my usual stops, I dug a little deeper (thanks to the extensive blogrolls of Michael Berube and Alas, A Blog) and found some places where I plan to spend more time:

Black Looks: this is a great African feminist blog that I can’t believe I haven’t found before. I’m enthusiastic and excited.
Cool Beans: Alas praised a post here and it was moving and led me to Yeah, but Houdini didn't have these hips which I fell in love with. It’s a funny phrase, but a terrible title. That said, it’s a great blog on being a feminist mom: another one I can’t believe I haven’t found before.
You Cried for Night and Out of the Woods Now: these are becoming more regular stops for reading about books and everything else.

So, some new stops and some online companionship. It’s amazing to me how the blogs I like best have really mastered something about voice: some of them make me immediately want to befriend their writers and I become, in my imagination, a gushing fan.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Your Wicked Ways

I have never read what we usually call harlequin romances before (well, not since Judy Bloom's Forever anyway)—in spite of my ongoing fascination with Byron—but I suspect this, my first one, will not be my last. Your Wicked Ways, by Eloisa James made me happy.

Back in January, I came upon the news, via Maud, that Eloisa James is the penname of Mary Bly. Who knew? She’s an old, though not close, friend, and she gave me a copy of one of her books. I have just devoured it and what a happy read: I see why people love these things. There is just enough familiarity (in, say the scenes of young wives talking to each other about the latest gossip interrupted by beloved toddlers) and strangeness (in, say, the fact that these same wives have servants instead of daycare and are heading off to balls) for it to be pleasant. You recognize the type and then get the pleasure of translating it to a richer and more glamorous place. I’m overcome with admiration for her imagination. There’s a great scene—really a sentence—of a huge carriage insisting on its right of way over that of pedestrians that seems utterly right: those horrible SUV roadhogs were around two hundred years ago and she’s captured how they drove. The writing is great—just what one wants genre fiction to be—that is, you almost never think of it as writing, you just float along with story as the plot leaps from one episode to the next.

I trust her historical sense and know that she researched her work. I assume most such novelists do. And I know from experience that many of my better students in British Literature had a jump the social context of Romanticism from their reading of Regency romance—Jane Austen has done the same for me. Nonetheless, how deliciously addle-brained of me to be sitting on the B-train thinking “Oh, so that’s how such-and-such was arranged in London in the 1810s,” as if I were reading Lawrence Stone or Davidoff and Hall. Still, I'd rather read this.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


When Katherine Mansfield died, Virginia Woolf thought, among other things, “a rival the less?” She knew—the question mark shows it—she was being nasty, but she did record in her diary the sense that her competition had thinned. This was both welcome and painful.

Why do we have rivals and what do they do for us? A friend recently wrote to me about our blogs and noted, with some pique, that a rival blogger barely deigns to notice him. Because they went to college together he cares; because my loyalty is all with him, I don’t care at all. When I in graduate school, I chose a rival and the thought of her can still make me tremble with unkind thoughts. I chose her because she was my better: I sought her friendship in the hopes of learning how to be more like her, to be smarter, a better teacher, more learned. I was ruthless. When she was ill, I stopped by her apartment, unannounced, with lovely soaps and coffee. That—and my sycophancy—was enough: I had purchased the right to be in her circle.

All along, I knew this to be hollow and instrumental. This was not simply the savvy or genuine interest we have in getting to know someone who might one day prove useful (an expert, an editor, a genius, or simply a generous and sympathetic mind), this was a campaign and it still amazes me that I waged it. It was not without cost to me. She could be cruel. She would toss out tiny specks of gossip like crumbs, but these crumbs were poison: upon further examination, the message of each was “I am more connected than you; I learn the important information faster.” But I still learned it faster than my more ethical friends and, in so doing, I learned some ways to compensate for the “gee whiz!” in my personality. Something was missing in my mind, in my training, in those days: she had it; I have it now. Making her into a rival helped me acquire it quickly.

A rival is poisonous but, in work as in love, a rival sharpens our swords. Without rivals, we might sink too quickly into complacency. Though the pleasure of work for its own sake, the sake of a loved one, or a small, appreciative circle is soothing and essential, sometimes we need a rival’s challenge.


Have you seen this lovely little parody? A mock-interview with an early witness of the printing press (Gutenberg is mad! No one wants a machine-printed book!).

Monday, March 07, 2005

Cabinet War Rooms

When I was in London last summer, I visited the Cabinet War Rooms for the first time. They were Churchill’s underground headquarters during WWII and have been turned into a breathtaking museum. I was reading Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day about a love affair conducted under the pressure of the blitz at the time and the novel combined with the museum—and in particular a woman secretary’s recorded reminiscence of what it was like to have to spend the night in the war rooms, walking down the corridor in a dressing gown, past sentries, early in the morning, to brush one’s teeth before work—to foster in me a nascent version of respect for those who worked in the government during the war, the first twinkle of admiration and curiosity for those in the military in many years. When I was little, my dad told me about visiting London in the fifties and finding it still bombed out; I remember him showing us around the Barbican where he had walked thirty years earlier. I was also a huge fan of “Danger UXB” on Masterpiece Theater, sighing each week as the devastating Anthony Andrews tried to detonate yet another unexploded bomb (or UXB). But, more recently, memories of Churchill and “the war effort” have been displaced by others. As a Woolf scholar, I’d been imagining the blitz from the perspective of a pacifist, not really thinking about the very different terror of those who were in the midst of conducting the war while bombs were falling.

This weekend, I was in Washington D.C. for the first time since September 11 and it made me think again about capitol cities in wartime. I visited my college roommates: one lives just ten blocks from the Capitol Building, the other is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. On Sunday, we (my one roommate, her husband, her beloved toddler and infant, my beloved toddler and I) all walked down to the Capitol. The barricades are intense--much more so than anything I’ve seen in New York—and depressing. There are soldiers and police around, but the presence is not what I’ve seen in London or Paris in moments of heightened tension. We are at war, it is true, and these precautions make some sense but there is something weirdly virtual about them, too. D.C. is not under attack now as London was in 1941, though it looks from all the concrete barriers as though some think it is—or might be. These barricades and fences make the city seem far less majestic and the country seem less like a democracy. I’m not sure if they made it seem like something else: I wondered if, decades from now, I would be dragging the beloved toddler through some new version of the Cabinet War Rooms—an exhibit detailing how, back in 2001, precautions were taken against a terrorist threat that, in retrospect, marked a terrifying hour and one of our finest or if, as I fear, that is no more the case than Bush is Churchill, let alone a great man of peace.

Friday, March 04, 2005

New Haven in the Vacation

One of my professors once told me that the only people who feel confident that they belong at Yale are those buried in the Grove Street Cemetery. She said that every time you start to savor the thrill of belonging, you learn that there is a yet more exclusive club to which you have not been admitted. Charles Lamb’s imagination took a happier turn, when thinking about a visit to Oxford:
I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks, as at one or other of the Universities….Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree or standing I please.

I had lunch in New Haven yesterday. It’s still true that an envelope from Yale makes my heart skip a beat--they’ve come to take back my degree at last, I think. Nonetheless, those were great years and just walking from the station to the campus, I could feel my brain buzz with the intensity of all those smarties gathered together—until, just a block from my old department, I saw a dozen young undergraduates walking in a pack. One popped a balloon that was advertising an open house at the Cambridge Arms and they all guffawed. Their Yale has a lot more in common with the ethos of our current president than mine. But how lovely to be there again, even for just a few hours. Sadly, I think, New Haven may be my arcadia.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


There is a moment in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia where, Septimus Hodge, a math tutor in 1816 (the play takes place both then and in the present day), sets fire to an unopened letter he’s just received from Byron: Now there’s something, he says to his shocked hostess, a letter from Byron that no one will ever read. Septimus is one of my favorite characters: witty and sweet, and fascinatingly reckless, he carries on an affair with a married woman while flattering her husband to his face and panning his (horrible) writing in print. It’s a powerful moment in a play that has a lot of fun with letters: as in bedroom farces and Regency romances, letters in Stoppard's play misfire constantly: challenges to duel reach the wrong person as do assignations and declarations of love.

As amusing as I find these conventions, I had a special jolt of pleasure coming upon this in Byron’s letters, a description of his flirtation with the married Frances Webster in a letter to his confidante, Lady Melbourne (October 8, 1813):
It was a risk--& all had been lost by failure—but then recollect—how much more I had to gain by the reception—if not declined--& how much one always hazards to obtain anything worth having.—My billet prospered—it did more—it even (I am this moment interrupted by the Marito--& write this before him—he has brought me a political pamphlet in M.S. to decypher & applaud—I shall content myself with the last—Oh—he is gone again)
Strangely, for all the affectation here, I had this sudden vision of how realistic all these romances are. It is really thrilling to read the letter of someone in the midst of this kind of romantic and sexual high-wire act. And Marito is genius: the little husband, so cruel. And such pleasure he takes in being consulted for advice by a man whom, for so many reasons, he does not respect. And then, what a high-wire act Stoppard is running, for isn’t this whole situation a major bit of the plot of his play?

I know, I know, Byron was a very bad man. I know he slept with his sister, etc. Still, I find him, at this distance, really electric to read. How fun it must have been to be Lady Melbourne (much better than poor Frances Webster who keeps bursting into tears, is only twenty, has a husband who thinks she is without passion when clearly she, poor girl, has plenty but not for the proper man—when she crosses the page, I do feel very sorry), but how fun to get such a letter. The right-now-ness of it is sparkling even two centuries later.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Here’s what happened in my local yesterday. At 11:15 or so, a man, in his forties, came in with his mother. “Do you want coffee?” the man asks and, as he does, his cell phone rings, loudly. “Hello? Yes. Look, we’ve got a closing in the hour. If this storm comes, I can’t make it this afternoon. I’m going to have to call you back.”

They were a beefy pair, friendly, very stressed, and loud. Soon enough, both were on and off cell phones; the son was in and out the door, loudly negotiating the final details on the closing of this real estate deal. The mother, threatening to close all her accounts with her brokerage, got even a little louder and the son turned to me, “Sorry about this.”

In came two ditzy bohemian college girls, grungy, and hung-over, with a suitcase and carry on bag. As they dithered over what to order, they began debating whether or not it was worth it for the sweet-faced one to change her flight. Mom chimes in, “Where are you going, hon? I’m not being nosy. I’m in the airline business and I have information.” From behind the counter: “she’s being nosy.”

The two girls quickly start in with a story, sweetface dominating, about whether or not it was possible to change her destination city of Portland, Oregon. “Why do you want to change, honey?” It turns out, they had met a couple of really cool Australian guys the night before who had invited them to lunch today at Peter Luger’s steakhouse. “It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” The Goth friend is feeling a bit skeptical, “Don’t you have to, like, call months in advance to go there?” Sweetface is undeterred, “They had a reservation.” “And they made it for four because they just knew they were going to meet you two last night?” asks Mom, hand on hip, eyebrow cocked. “It’s for six. They’re, like, millionaires, and it was really interesting to talk to them because they were explaining how, in Australia, you don’t have to go to college…”

“WHEN DID THEY CHANGE THE RULES IN AUSTRALIA?” asks Mom. “Well…I mean…” “Don’t argue,” says the son, looking down and shaking his head, “don’t argue. You won’t win. Don’t argue. Mom, we gotta go.” He goes out for a cigarette.

The girls’ pay for their breakfast burritos and get ready to go. “What time is it?” Noon. “What time is your flight?” One-thirty, out of LaGuardia. Mom throws up her hands, “you’re not going to make it, hon,” and leaves. The Goth girl admits she doesn’t really know where LaGuardia is. “I’m going to hit you!” says sweetface, grabbing her burrito, her suitcase and all three other purse-type items.

The Goth friend gets directions—from downtown Jersey City, across Manhattan, and into Queens to LaGuardia airport—from the café guy and, slightly shaky and near tears, sets out the door to face her friend who is sure to miss a flight to the West Coast just hours before a snow storm.

“Did you get that for your novel?” asked the café guy when they’d gone. I did.