Saturday, January 15, 2011

Somebody is reading this blog in Thailand

When the server sent word that a readership of this page had opened in Thai-land, it was almost as startling as if one had landed in Kansas. I don't know about one's betters, but immediately Whitman came to mind: I no doubt deserve my enemies, but I don't believe I deserve my friends. It's not that we're unaware that this 'web' thingamajig doesn't stop; it's that those of us who are rooted in agriculture reserve a kind of awe for meeting those who also are, in another parish.

Mind you, it would be just one's luck to have been discovered by some Cantabridgian remittance-man, on a post-baccalaureate sail for Billecart-Salmon to Phuket (where most of it seems to be shipped, these days). But to think of learning about the cultiv-ation of bamboo and the wearing of silk pants has led one to invite this reader to identify himself, and take over this page for a posting. Silly as this certainly must sound to one's cosmopolitan readership, farmers really don't get around very much, olive growers aside - a notoriously restless race, for millennia - if much to the advantage of literature and cuisine.
Yet even we who stay at home have purposes - Cole Porter wrote a song about it, not that statistics didn't favour its creation, among several hundred others. But we know it well, because it was cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929). I thought of this posting in gratefulness to a very considerate blogger, whose embar-rassment with our illustrations is unintended. And he does the thing the song enjoins, busy as he has to be, tending to others as far-flung from the Hudson as the Boston Common. Why Don't We Try Staying Home is in his stack of Bobby Short LP's, and one shouldn't be surprised if he knows it by heart. Once a Whiffenpoof . . 

Saturday commute xii

There can be torments, as you know -
Some gruesome things will 
scarcely show - that there he is.

Sometimes a male reaches out, in gender's circum-spect redoubt, of time or kind we all will pigeon-hole. But there we are, and no one else, think-ing, we can't do this again. Who said the word that's gladly said, as how a breeze restores a bed: a zephyr of reflec-tion, not a storm?

I wonder why the long 'a' has a deeper diphthong in male than in female; it certainly can't be a conditioned inclination to linger longer on the letters. Possibly, local speech plays an influence, but wouldn't that show up in two syllables? Trying to determine whether this difference is content-driven, the comparison word, unmale comes to mind, yet not exactly shining of innocence, often an epithet, not a description. In that word the 'a' is still more emphasised than in female, but the first syllable is regularly given greater weight as well, to enforce the distinction.

We are accustomed to being bound - or, in our better moments, wish to be - to rules of evidence whose default position is non-proof. But at the same time we're reluctant - or, in our better moments, need to be - to accept inadequate information as proof, in this case, of innocuous glottal accident. This is the way you, and this is the way I become acquainted with the intellectual drag of ignorance in its no longer neutral weight, through the Saturday commute from contemplation of a fact - a molecule of knowable substance whose structure we feign to dismiss, only to absorb it as undue weight. Some will feel these accretions as sediment of their own intent, some will assimilate them in a corpulence of sentiment retained as right. A willingness to know will seek companionship; a willingness not to know has it, already. What is that gravity that makes the latter turn upon the others, as Mrs Palin does, arraign-ing them for insult?

Friday, January 14, 2011

When Harold Nicolson was a writer, not a figure of gossip

for Anonymous

He had this to say, about Sainte-Beuve: Male ugliness, when fortified by a virile manner, is rarely not-iceable.

On a Friday evening, such kind considerations can be relevant, as our gentry venture forth upon the fog, headlamps damped to slip be-neath the veil. Well met are figures given to projection of some confid-ence, despite the doubtful aspect of their glare. Confidance, we supply, in pourings of some wit upon their crusted doubt, distrusting our own words. We visit Friday night, and would not be Laurent if we did not.

Harold Nicolson
Doubleday, 1956©

Who does not envy ladies their imperviousness to fashion?

Not long ago, admiring a film by Roberto Rossellini (a natural reflex, after all) on Louis XIV, we neglected many things, a hedgehog's strategem, of how to make sharing so few things, last so long. The giblet we reserved for today is only the scandal upon which the entire French state was erected, the curious tendency of males to take an interest in each other's attire. Only the other day, an especially shrewd blogger remarked on the solace of school uniforms, as a means of suppressing this curiosity in favour of others more pressing. Yet if one were but to venture only the most tentative navigation into blogdom, sites of 
extravagant fixation on boyclothes would seem to cast great doubt on the school uniform, for having only deferred a phase of infancy to be gotten past in real time. Now, left to their own, repressed devices, we find that great explosion of interest in men's clothing spilling virtually off the plate of abstract curiosity, into something resembling envy. And it's true, every morning we find dwellings spilling bodies as if born on that very day, and fewer and fewer years before their last excursion on the street. Where might this end?
I give you the latest thing in epaulettes. Does nobody recall the natural shoulder as the sine qua non in deltoid wear? Possibly Thierry Mugler could have been raised in his native Strasbourg to forcefeed geese, but somebody allowed a less humane endeavour to distract him. And now he fits right in, as beltloops fail restraint of flopping ends, and zippers chafe the throat's own claim for space. It isn't so much that something must be done, as that it's been done, to place men in the position of being taken for siblings at a birthday party. And what little treat is this, that I must have?
One has respect for the nervousness of those who observe a naïve tendency toward nakedness in our evidence, but the alter-native grows greatly more disturbing with each passing day. A blog can be a tuning fork, resonating in the key of every vessel on which it lights, or it can adopt the insulation of the female against these variations, by tolerating fashion as an aspect of personal style, fulfilling the individual, perhaps, but modestly eschewing any taint of imitability. The mastery of an original nonsense is threatened only by that chronically haunting sensation, one hasn't a thing to wear. 

Brett Kallio on brick
Boys, San Marino, ca 1955
Clashing with the International Style
Mathias Lauridsen

Thursday, January 13, 2011

At Eylau, on the Baltic

Overnight temperatures held at 30 degrees F on February 7-8, with several feet of snow already on the ground. In 1807, you did not want to be there. There would be no foraging, it had been done by others. There would no food for the horses, that couldn't be rip-ped from roofs of peasant hovels. There would be no linens for the wounded that couldn't be cut away from 12,000 tents. And on the morning of the 8th, with the wind at their backs, 72 Russian cannon opened fire on Napoleon's entire VII corps on foot, massed in a blinding blizzard under Marshall Augereau. No painting hangs of this inside Les Invalides.

Rather, we see the famous canvas of Murat's cavalry charge, deployed just before noon on fresh new mounts captured from the Prussians, followed swiftly by Lepic's Horse Grenadiers, drawn from the cream of the Imperial Guard. In a maneuver still on the curriculum at Sandhurst and St Cyr, the entire Allied line was broken and hurled back in the afternoon fog. Yet the day, an ostensibly immortal victory, was one of the great disasters in the history of France, shattering not only memories of Austerlitz but the mind of its architect for the rest of his restless career.

Twenty-three generals of France and 25 thousand of her sons were not, may we say, lost. They were all shredded by canister shot, knives, musket balls and explosives, to ooze into the ruined meadow in the thaws of March. This is what hap-pened to the price of Louisiana, and for auctioneers to hawk com-modes of Empire. Napoleon remained at Eylau, uncharacteristically, for several days; Baron Gros immor-talises his ashen face as he rides among the ghosts of the living and the dead, inhaling victory. He'd rest awhile, and restore his appetite, but Eylau exposed his weakness to his enemy and his men.

Now he'd dip hungrily into the youth of France from the student class of 1808, to raise an army of a hundred thousand more. Spring would freshen the ground for their advance to Königsberg, where they finally cornered Bennigsen, his nemesis at Eylau, with his back to the Alle River. Now, there was nothing to forestall that meeting in June on a tethered raft on the neutral River Niemen, a thousand miles from Paris, where the sovereigns of Prussia and the Russian empire appeared to sign away resistance. Paintings exalting the occasion hang from St. Petersburg to Paris, and are shown to impressionable children. We do not apologise for the right pictures. 

Alastair Horne
How Far from Austerlitz
Macmillan, 1996©

Jean-Paul Kauffmann
The Black Room at Longwood
Patricia Clancy, translation
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999©

Clément Chabernaud
Brett Kallio
Francisco Lachowski

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thinking, too, of the aviator

Snarls in transit, in temperate zones of both sides of the equator these days, are the least of weather's message of how little can divide winter from summer in such times. We find this a difficult perception to absorb, even from the viewpoint of viticulture, conspicuously vulnerable to meteorological sur-prise, as it is. 

I don't think it's a mistake to think of Moby-Dick's narrative of these extremes, and of the meaning of their endurance. The project of gaining a living feels upbraided as an immodest act, a Promethean sort of gesture, generosity and love mingling unintentionally with pride. A balance in the motives is continuously contested, whether or not one thinks this proper or makes reverent excuses for it. The aviator - call him, Ishmael - endures his down-time, world-wide; and yet when chaos afflicts the ground, we do not think of him, and have two choices left: to blame the white whale in the skies, who broods and beg-gars all belief in his obstruction of his flight, or the Ahab of global neg-ligence we know.

Photograph, Verbier, Tassos Paschalis

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We do not even know what it is

 for Clara

The other day, an unambiguously congenial visitor denounced one as an expert (he could have meant, in anything) - a wounding charac-terisation in almost every respect, respect aside: distancing, objectifying, diminishing. We have the example of Norwich, an expert on the republic of Venice, and on the city as we know it; but do not try to haul him out to the Lido.

The designation does two unwise things. It places Norwich in the awkward position of being appeal-ing for a little of what he knows, given that we have no intention of knowing all he knows. And it places Venice in the position of something we feel better asking Norwich about, given that he 'has it covered'. Meanwhile, before us, all of Norwich and all of Venice offer to be found.

On this basis, physics - the disposition addressed in our welcome, upper right - could not have advanced beyond the crack-ing of an egg. One's visitor, who called one an expert, is curious, and indeed has exploited the hues and substance of the egg in his art, its elements in his sus-tenance, its design in his perceptions, its life in his life. Expertise would be the falsest of readings of his disposi-tion, which is all he has and yet belongs to anyone, as his autonomous hunger.

We have had occasion to refer to wine. Beyond the slightest doubt it can be said, that the people closest to it do not know what it is. 
This suspension in ignorance is their pleasure. 
They are the last to accept the appellation of expertise, and the best of them would be the first to confide - circumstances permitting - that it possesses particles we have yet to perceive, much less to define. And so they go back to the ground, frames of reference trying to be taught.

This coral's shape echoes the hand

It hollowed. Its
Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.
Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.

Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,
Creates an absence like this stone
Set on a table with a whitening rack
Of souvenirs. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers' hands have never known;
The nature of the body of another.

Derek Walcott
  The Castaways
  and other Poems
  Collected Poems, 1948-1984
The Noonday Press
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986©

Monday, January 10, 2011

Holed up with dad at the Dorchester

Has anyone not been cooped up with his father in a small room at one time or another, getting from Point A to Point B? It will not be surprising, then, to find it acknowledged in print, that this can work a compromise in one's comfort, irrespective of the setting. 
"A small room in the Dorchester Hotel" is very probably not the smallest or the least comfortable of such way stations, but to a young man, such consolations can pale when compacting with the august figure's intimate habits is taken into account. And, may I say, they will be taken into account, once the first, reconciled, Well, won't this be nice assurances have dissolved in a cloud of his Floris, and one is the next to shave in his basin.

The short list of Laurent's own incarcerations of this kind has not included this particular ornament of international hostelry, but it hasn't been negligible, either; and churlish as it ought to strike one, given the natural tenacity of the heartstrings, to recall them as intervals to shove to the margin of filial fervour, they tend to leap there of their own accord.

For this primary reason, but in truth, for many others of unerring sympathy for human life, the memoir currently on one's lap strikes one as commendable to all, despite its inevitable lapses into comparative rarity. It's for its faultless, candid recollection of the reality of living busily that the rural reader, moreover, is likeliest to be drawn into its languours as well as its confidance of occasionally glittering, sometimes anguished occasions. 

Holed up together, they had to think up things to do. The weather was bad, and they couldn't cross the Channel.
"It was a boring and frustrating time, but there were two high points: we went to see Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V, and on the third day my father took me to lunch at 10 Downing Street with Winston Churchill."

Beats rising from the dead, in some circles. Like most people over 30, and most of them under who enjoy a Christ-mas Cracker, one identifies John Julius Norwich as a guy of great appetite for information - which is simply required substance in a man, as one has been suggesting, all along. His spectacular attachment to Venice, in particular, is further a sign of simple good sense. His leadership in the repeal of England's sodomy statute is only evidence of good breeding. That he got into a delicious spat with Mrs. Rodd over the usage of his own name is not vital to know, but because it touches upon one of the 2 or 3 most delectable visions of boyish fantasy, is enough to invest one's whole day with the flow of little scarlets, rolling from a croissant down one's shirtfront as a badge of honour. Guys live for a Mitford-ish squabble, and to be non-U and get away with it.

The destination of that long-impending Channel crossing was to be their home for a time, the well-placed house of Napoleon's sister, and then of the Duke of Wellington. But there are lots of Borghese palaces. The child of Lady Diana and Duff Cooper deserves what a child deserves: to develop, to explore, to achieve, to endure, and to be known as who he is. One's test of a memoir, a form demanding much consent to trivia, is the sight of these things. There's texture in this book one can trust, there's erotic vitality, there's great love and grievous loss. 

Trying to Please is written with warmth, dignity, and genuine, gracious genius for the form, in a language you can't help but recognise. Not because it's English - and off-handedly elegant, at that - but because it's visibly strenuous at the same time, the boy's own story, when one might have thought it couldn't be done. It has a very broad public, and I believe he knows it.

John Julius Norwich
Trying to Please
  A Memoir
Axios Press, 2010©

Matt Egan

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Birthday in Attiki

He says no with his head
but he says yes with his heart

he says yes to what he loves
he says no to the teacher

      he stands
      he is questioned
      and all the
      problems are posed

sudden laughter seizes him
and he erases all
the words and figures
names and dates
sentences and snares


        and despite the
        teacher's threats

        to the jeers of
        infant prodigies

with the chalk of every colour
on the blackboard of misfortune
he draws the face of happiness.

Jacques Prévert
The Dunce
Les Éditions du Point du Jour, 1947
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, translation
Éditions Gallimard
City Lights Books, 1958©

Sunday despond

and with the sun out,
at that

Moat of meaning

Today's first posting was prepared and published without awareness of assassinations accomplished and attempted in our politics, the day before; one had been occupied very happily, from breakfast until bed-time, in a visit with a friend on his holiday. 

If madness in the medical sense were as much a part of motive as it seems certain to be in defense of these acts, the occasion still far from shakes one's belief in the healing value of information. It becomes even more important to know where to look.


One hadn't supposed it would be germane to discuss the infantile phase of one's develop-ment so candidly in this setting, but again, one hadn't reckoned on the timelessness of that radiant text, The Adven-tures of Huckleberry Finn. Conscious of one's offshore readership, in particular, one can only say that if you'd like to be spared the necessity of glancing at our news, ever again - and one does apologise, for this necessity - you may extrapolate it from a text our schools, and lately our thought police, have been trying to suppress or amend since 1885 - not such a long time, from where you sit, but quite more than half our his-tory as a union, such as it is. But if it's any consolation, it's more poignant for us; the only thing more arduous than being an American, is trying to learn about the place if you are one.

In that text, our Mississippi unravels as a skein of reluctant illumination to the young hero, the more he progresses along its broad and stately flow into a dialect we have invented, to fog the inquiring function. The Mississippi is news again, for its wondrous obfuscations.

But first we come to the infancy of Laurent, and his parents' anxious efforts to occupy his meddlesome energies in some sociable way. It was only too bad for them, that they hit upon charades, at which he was uninhibitedly adept (the canine solution came later). Drawing the task of depicting a Governor of Mississippi, Laurent carried the field, unopposed. The umbrage, the indignation, the pristine valour of the noble cause of concealing one's soiled nappy, together with the confidence that to be cute is divine, were captivating in the garden of infancy.

Now there is another Governor of Mississippi, some 50 times older than this infant. But he is still running this jest; and he still has a claque of housemaids in the media (The Weekly Standard, Fox News) who run interference for his diapers and wreak havoc on our language at the same time. By the time this posting goes to press, he will have committed another cascade of misquotation to his laundresses at Murdoch, so one doesn't mean to make too much of the latest mess. But here it is - 

A visit by the poet of Birmingham gaol to Yazoo City in the early 1960s was of less moment to an adolescent adherent of the White Citizens Council than the rustle of skirts beneath his fender-sitting observation.

One hates to be tedious, but here panic is so pure as to deprive it of any semblance of play. All good ol' boy recitals of the Aw Shucks defense rest on his resort, the exculpation of gender helplessness. Real boys, it is claimed, are so famously the playthings of their parts as to be exempted from accounting for indecencies.

Mr Haley Barbour was frightened, not erotically distracted; but if he can't bring himself to say so, history can help. On August 28, 1963, Laurent - himself, acutely afflicted by adolescence - was riveted to the family television, marshalling all his own arguments for the inadequacy of the most immortal speech in American history since Gettysburg. Into the same room there happened to walk a fraternal undergraduate, at home on Summer holiday, to whom Laurent was able to turn, and try out his charade with some species of mockery. 

Laurent was told once, what nobody has evidently been able to say to Haley Barbour, since. "No. Cut it out. He's right. And you, listen."

Same womb. Same con-ditioning. Same gender. Same inheritance. The Governor of Mississippi needs a brother. Well, he can borrow one. 

Samuel Clemens, dba Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Charles L. Webster, 1885©

Laurent in full flight
San Marino, mid-20th C.

David in aviators, 1965