Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday commute xv: les très riches heures

A year ago today, this simple and instantly comprehensible photo-graph was published in a series of quiet aperçus of a ski trip. I have waited until today to re-publish it, without permission, as one of the handful of those queries we all receive in life, along the lines of, So, what the heck are you doing?

I have waited, but I haven't planned. Now, there is another ski trip, and illumination figures still as one of its fundamental qualities. It likely always will, it's the touchstone of all the fellow's images.

I'm looking for it, and so are you. Here's his advice, as I under-stand it. Don't come here, don't go there. Go where you lead your-self, possibly quite nearby.

When I was concluding a liberal education at one of the universities we note for the wrong reasons, and it was necessary to compose an impression of oneself for admissions committees at the next rail stop, I wrote one to the place in Connecticut in candid anxiety toward entering a trade school, after something approaching paradise. These remarks took the form of a comment on The Razor's Edge, by a man more famous today for his ex-wife than for himself, dreading the pursuit of that narrative of spiritual discovery in reverse. I commend that story to people who look at these pictures; they're from a tradesman, you could say, searching where he leads himself, wherever he is sent, a Learned Hand of light.

i and ii , Ivan Terestchenko

W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor's Edge
William Heinemann, 1944©

Learned Hand
Student of Santayana and William James
as an undergraduate; of Ames and Thayer
in the law school; Chief Judge of the US
2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, New York,
1941-1951; gentleman, skeptic, genius.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is it common knowledge that Lawrence Durrell could be funny?

Well, then, you can just hear Alice Brady reply, I won't have my child exposed to it. That bristling, bossy comedienne has served more than one generation as the Rosetta Stone of embonpoint vigilance against any species of male mischief, yea unto the middle ages of Edward Everett Horton. What a grateful ear turns later to her regurgitive inanity, of everlasting timing. At the core of the best writing for her (Kaufman and Yost in The Gay Divorcée, 1934 and Ryskind and Hatch in My Man Godfrey, 1936), a fey ribaldry hangs long after the beat, ironic in lustrous sympathy for play. In short, she's our heroine of disapproval.
A brilliant actress, made so sentimental by div-orce, who resents it in a man if he is interest-ing, rates a Day of Obligation of her own in any gentleman's calendar. By no means, our bones tell us, could she accept our assimilation of common knowledge. And who are we to quibble?

Our genius, then, for the Profoundly True Signif-icant Detail (ptsd) might owe as much to a search for something she over-looked, as it does for a lynchpin for our esteem. I grant you, to Aunt Hortense this portrait may only portray a louche way with cuffs, or an unpardonable sinecure for the hand. To us, it's a life's revelation in sel-ection of a watchband for secret swimming. It's ours to wear.

May it not seem untoward, then, to remark that if a man will be funny about one ptsd, it's incumbent upon him to be funny about them all. We can't have Durrell hurling us to the floor in stitches over Serbia - repenting for a tacky potboiler for boys - and not lifting us up on wings of hilarity over ritual circumcision. I know, I know; this page has done precious little to imply regard for the feature identified with that procedure. But it's not for lack of fellowship, may I say, but for scruple to be non-sectarian.

What a grace note of literary recovery it would therefore be, to find the diplomatic satires of Lawrence Durrell outside of common knowledge at this time, for their delectation by the innocent. To the fecklessness of diplomacy in an empire in decline, Durrell brought the succour of mirth, in the mode of Coward in Pomp and Circumstance, Farrell in The Singapore Grip, and even Saki in The Immortal Bassington. It fell to Durell, however, to exhibit the underlying juvenilia of the form. It was only fitting, then, that he'd turn his blithely errant instrument upon the ultimate Particular True and Significant Detail, give or take a warhead from Stanley Kubrick.

(Although sometimes attached to diplomatic settings, the satiric writings of Mitford, Waugh, and Greene could just as readily be set in a pharmacy. They are about human character and rules, of all things, and are therefore hope-lessly based in common knowledge. They are also intelligent, and can only embarrass diplomacy without defining it). Durrell's diplomatic satire is about the pathos of the task, itself, and the natural impression that its practitioners are suited for nothing else. Known as 'the Antrobus stories' for their primary idiot, they were published from the middle 50s into the middle 60s, until those miser-able Cantabrigians spoiled all the fun.

Having refined Ambassador Polk-Mowbray to a doddering fare-thee-well of feint and transparency at once, it must have been just crushing for Durrell to find Philby, Burgess, Maclean and later Blunt absconding with the franchise. No wonder he went off to Sicily, where such things are done more candidly. As a parting shot, then, his title story in the Sauve qui Peut collection finds Antrobus invited to the ptsd of the hour:

His Excellency Hacsmit Bey and Mme Hacsmit Bey joyfully invite you to the Joyful Circumcision of their son Hacsmit Hacsmit Abdul Hacsmit Bey. Morning dress and decorations. Refreshments will be served.

One cannot know whether to attribute this disarming of mortal horror to the sartorial specification or the promise of restoratives. But here, comedy this low is the staff of life with an English dog; and if anyone thought we might be drawn into an elevated approach to this Great Subject, we apologise for resort to this shabby excuse. We can say, without fear of contradiction by familiarity with these stories, these days, that they defy common knowledge in the endearingest way. 

And the ending? Every man for himself. 


Lawrence Durrell

White Eagles over Serbia
In England, marketed to children.
In America, marketed to adults.
Faber & Faber, 1957©
Penguin, 1980© 

Esprit de Corps
Sketches from Diplomatic Life
Faber & Faber, 1957©

Stiff Upper Lip
Faber & Faber, 1958©

Sauve qui Peut
Faber & Faber, 1961 et seq©

Source: Heywood Hill
Please see Context

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Procession, profile, proportion

We would know 
them anywhere.

Panache is not
the taking of pride.
It's the giving of it.

Edmond Rostand had it right, and it's a shame that his Cyrano is only wasted by study in childhood, where élan and generosity are inherent - happily evolving, heuristically but naturally toward bearing and finesse. One fine day, the familiar comes home for dinner, the implicit theorem chalks itself on the blackboard, the inchoate kernel of architecture rises up from the street, giving promised form to hope. We are acquainted with what we wanted.

It takes a civilisation to keep its gifts. In the week before this page opened in 2010, an august but genial guide to consumption took it upon himself in his column in The New York Times to advise us of where and how to enjoy a drink out of doors in his city. Here, verbatim, is his guidance on where to go about this at midtown -

But once you’re in the Salon de Ning: wow. The Peninsula’s Midtown location affords you, to the north, a sweeping view of the Trump Tower to the right, a sliver of Central Park going all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art dead ahead; the sleek towers of the Time Warner Center far to the left. You can set your elbows and your drink on a ledge that’s not obstructively high and take it all in while the sun sets, the city’s night lights come up, the traffic below lightens, the sound of it grows fainter, and a breeze ruffles your collar. This is what rooftop drinking is all about.

Probably not since André Soulé seated Mary Todhunter Clark and her mother at a marginal table at Le Pavillon has any arbiter so merited the praise, You have a nice restaurant, Sir, it's only a pity you don't know your New York. (Among her many other benefactions, she was then enduring a marriage to Nelson Rockefeller).

No one could accuse our merry hosts at this chain hotel of taking excessive care to conserve a sense of place, with their theme-park appointments and cultivation of degenerate dress. A parapet for elbows and booze says enough, of what it's all about. Yet it's our advisor's tour d'horison of construction vulgarities and eponymous regressions which takes our breath away at this altitude, given the alternative, chastising masterpiece in view. Not that anyone would appraise the Seagram Building from this perspective, any more than we'd judge a play by its intermission. But there it is. A coming home not of style, high or low, but of panache too radiant to refuse, a remission of distaste - a republic of its own, as Franklin said of our Constitution, if you can keep it.

Frank Bruni
The Tipsy Diaries
The New York Times
22 July 2010

A.F. Klercker

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Philip Johnson
Building and Plaza, 375 Park Avenue

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Costume paradox

The costume paradox, that mantle of tribal acquiescence and willed expression on which fashion is able to indulge mass production, is especially prevalently observed in that gender which is the more empowered to present itself in many occupations. Genet was a thief and he was a poet. The rôle of the urban spectator is far from being this fellow's only one. Time, occasion may be fleeting; he may yield to such contradiction in his costuming that his artifice is defeated. He will be fashionable. As Cocteau pled at Genet's trial, He is Rimbaud. One cannot condemn Rimbaud. On aime le flâneur.

He looked at me with his inconsolably woeful eyes, from which flowed an insidious intoxication, and he said to me in a singsong voice, 

If you want, if you want, I will make you the lord of souls, and you will be the master of living matter, even more than the sculptor masters clay. And you will experience the pleasure, ceaselessly reborn, of leaving yourself so as to forget yourself in others, and of attracting other souls until you absorb them into yours. 

Baudelaire, 1862

Graham Robb
  An Adventure History
  of Paris
Norton, 2010©

Edmund White 
The Flâneur
  A Stroll through the
  Paradoxes of Paris
Bloomsbury/St Martin's Press, 2001©

Charles Baudelaire
Le spleen de Paris
  Petits poèmes en prose
Edward K. Kaplan, translation
  The Parisian Prowler
University of Georgia Press, 1989©

Monday, February 14, 2011

Even Philip Johnson had a television house

I actively dislike television as a medium, and haven’t paid attention to it for more than a decade. The entire Bush regime passed beneath my nostrils without, at least, the cacaphony of its twang, the flare of its ears. But there were many reasons for dismissing the form, and only one against it, which is that one will be ignorant of what the Miller Brewing Company are up to at any given half-hour. I beg your pardon; that reason belongs in Column A. That said, television is almost more loathesome as a thing, and even more so in its liquid crystal sheen, a nightmarish Revenge of Escargots. But the insidiousness of television truly comes into its own by its being indispensable for enjoying the art it killed, cinema.

Thus, the concealing Giotto diptych panels, the rising Rauschenberg, the reclaimed root cellar or crypt, or the self-effacing outboard resid-ence in Shingle Style, discreet in its bespoke Shaker black, Expression-ist window, and remote garden - Mr Johnson’s solution, to the problem of where to hide the thing in his 47 acres of Lucullan New Canaan. Attention must be paid, he had to admit.

One can well imagine Mr Johnson, snug in his Belgians at last from the beastly flight from his penthouse office at 375 Park, spying his velvet reflection in his own walls, and whispering to himself, Ninotchka .. 

Quite right, Philip: we can’t have an impulse without an anodyne; and there we are, television. Slipping a sparkling pair of lilac Fiorucci’s over his suavely calved feet, our space planner of Western civilisation, the very restorer in our time of the procession in architecture, tromps his lacquered oeil on down to the TV house with a word to the chef at the Guest House, to prepare something suitable for comedy and send it on down.

The tradition of dinner theatre completely exempts Mr Johnson from any contemplation of habituating that refuse bin of gastronomy known as the TV dinner. But to us, the resemblance is remarkable; and it is for our friends’ convenience that we find ourself testing a dinner suitable for comedy, beneath the beaming screen.

Comedy has in common with television a reluctance to deal with bones. For the latter, they represent an insupportable distraction from the hypnotic panel; for the former, a very severe risk to mix with laughter. Best to forego the pigeon, then, and any thought of quail.

We will, then, bone video’s signature bird, chicken, and make the best of this con-cession by pummeling its breast in the style of a paillard, so that the foraging fork finds something, as the eye follows Garbo around her suite at the Meurice. We will season some stoneground wheat flour with tidal salt flakes and cracked white pepper, and dip the breasts lightly because we aren’t really breading them. Or rather, chef will, as we flail about in the pantry, raining curses down upon the maid for not replenishing the ice. (Garbo’s Polish lancer had it so much nicer). Emergency dash across the lawn, to Whitney for a tray of Fiji cubes, properly expunged of bubbles. Back to the credits, then, ensconced in one of the original chairs from Mies’ Pavillion, a quietly stirred gimlet condensing above our knee, the better to notice our ankle, crossed in rakish ease. Time elapsed: no more than an hour, from the purr from sight of that indelicate car.

At last we are in the film, in the proletarians’ bistro, trying with Melvyn Douglas to select a palatable nibble, tapping our irascible but otherwise flawless fingers on the base of our gimlet glass, hoping there’s some foccaccia laid in for the weekend. There is! Well, then, send some on down, with a whisper of that dear little oil we found in the Mani last Spring.

A shrewd choice for Lubitsch, foccaccia combines noiseless mastication with a pleasing salination of the palate for the naughty bon mot, should Whitney show up in time to mix another round. It enjoys being munched with olives, but Johnson is right to refuse the hazard of one’s slipping from the fingertips, at the very moment when Douglas lands on the floor.  

The chef, having properly rinsed and toweled and chopped Mr Johnson’s porcinis, will leave them to air as he filters their now-tepid bath through cheesecloth, reserving a generous half cup for the sauce. He’ll set aside another half cup of the estate’s own cream, and he’ll retrieve a half-cup of chicken stock from the larder. He’ll busy himself, albeit prudently, with plucking a tidy little pile of fresh thyme from its branches, for Mr Johnson to sprinkle as he might upon the finished plate.

But Ninotchka calls for nothing if not a gladdening tease, and so this is not going to be Mr Johnson’s stand-by from that trattoria in the Teatro di Pompeo; it’s going to be from chef’s heart-throb mentor in San Francisco, Joyce Goldstein of the late Square One (where Laurent dined religiously before it was shuttered by rent). To his beloved Roman preparation, chef will add toasted hazelnuts. Oh, Piemonte, how thou art missed in low Connecticut!

Setting aside, then, his olive oil, he will glaze the sauté pan with hazelnut oil, and slip the 4 half-breasts into it on medium heat, for 2 or 3 minutes per side. Properly malleted, they will cook tenderly through without crusting, and will be set aside, in a warm space. In the same oil, then, he’ll cook the mushrooms over slightly higher heat for 2 or 3 minutes, until they begin to throw off their own liquid. Then he’ll add the stock and the porcini bath, and simmer for a couple of minutes. 

So far, so good: no signal from the television house, that there will be 12 for dinner, and to slaughter a lamb.

At this point, then, the die being cast, chef will add the cream to the pan, along with the toasted hazelnuts, and simmer until thickened, while he goes in search of where he left the chicken. Aha! The oven; why, who’d have guessed. Slipping the chicken into the gently burbling pan, he will allow it to simmer for 2 or 3 more minutes, stirring to reduce the sauce accord-ingly. Mr Johnson does not care for an unctuous sauce, but he does like the chicken to exude its flavours into it. The stock and porcini fluids will see to it.

But now Garbo is recalled to Moscow, and it’s ur-gent to console the tele-vision house with hearty rustic fare. Grabbing a bowl of salad he can toss in situ, of bibb, hazel-nut oil, and Banyuls vin-egar, chef gathers up dinner on that witty Shaker table Mr Johnson designed for the purpose, swings by the cellar on his way down the slope, and astounds himself to make it all in one piece.

And what shall Mr Johnson pour with his porcini-infused poulet? He has several plausible choices, ranging from a Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny to a pleasantly malolactic Chardonnay from Chassagne-Montrachet, to a rosé from almost anywhere along the Mediterranean littoral. But he has one choice to requite the desire of the dish, itself, and that is a Barbera d’Alba, which has a craving of its own for mushrooms, and a more than passing passion for luscious fowl infused with nut and thyme. The cream, in turn, is restored to lightness by the grape’s inveterate acidity, and Nature’s blessed omission of tannin from its signature is bliss to the poultry’s well-tamed breast. 

An almost discernible frisson courses through Mr Johnson’s frame at the composed whiff of these comestibles, allowing Whitney to pour the wine, as he scatters the thyme about the serving plate, accepting a fragrant smudge upon his fingertips.

Well, now, Whitney: shall the commissars triumph, d’you suppose, over Melvyn Douglas in his abduction of Garbo from her garret? Oh, I think not, now that she’s seen Paris!

Time elapsed: Almost certainly.

Joyce Goldstein
Kitchen Conversations
  Lessons in Flavor from One
  of America's Most Innovative Chefs
  [Hazelnut Oil is Laurent's doing]
Morrow, 1996©

Evan Goldstein, MS, MW
Daring Pairings
University of California Press, 2010©

Philip Johnson
The Grainger
  House for Tea and Television
New Canaan

Clément Chabernaud, xi



La Guinelle vinegars, Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge
Chicken, Polyface Farm 
Barbera, Campè della Spinetta, Rivetto, Pio Cesare

Ascolta:  Where does it come from?

Our valentine

for Tom
in The Glass Menagerie


The second Adam since the fall,
His germinal
Corruption held the seed
Of that congenital heresy that men fail
According to their creed.

Craftsman and castaway,
All heaven in his head
He watched his shadow pray
Not for God's love but human love instead.

We came here for the cure
Of quiet in the whelk's centre,
From the fierce, sudden quarrel,
From kitchens where the mind,
Like bread, disintegrates in water,

To let a salt sun scour
The brain as harsh as coral,
To bathe like stones in wind,
To be, like beast or natural object, pure.


Derek Walcott

Crusoe's Island
  The Castaway and
    other Poems, 1965©
Collected Poems, 1948-1984
The Noonday Press
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986©


Sunday, February 13, 2011

I went out today without a telephone

I hadn't meant to be gone for more than a moment. I didn't even take a jacket, and my shirtsleeves stayed rolled up. It was virtually spring-like today in the Piedmont: gentle and almost fragrant. But this was also Sunday, when one enjoys a little negligence. (Boyhood's games were somewhat more than usually raucous, for this reason, after compulsory worship in itchy pants). Glancing at where the telephone always perches by its charger in the car, I saw that I was without it. I hadn't felt this breath of childhood liberty so self-consciously, ever before. And yet I recognised it instantly for what it is: a natural precondition of one's happiness.

It had nothing to do with good or bad, and everything with being accessible in a very different way, to what one can sense of the world. I learned what I'd always known: I dislike these things. Oh, not the old, stationary lines. I dislike how networks keep the young I know, on strings, for all their ostentatious effic-iency; and I found only today, they do the same to me, elbowing me a hundred times a day as some very incontinent servant. Their demand to be glanced at is quite repugnant to me, and I won't live with them. I think this is fundamental; they are the new Cross, and one is more than enough.

For the same reason, I'll be blogging much less frequently, but not so seldom that any continent reader will notice. I dislike the pseudonymity I'm compelled to adopt at this page, a distorting swap of one artifice for another. Yet merely to produce this slight testament, adopting even this puerile channel, one cannot but see this as unnatural space. 

I am descended from a man who got his ink on people's fingers, because he was himself. This is a false page, but it can host a true thing, if one keeps it as indifferent as paper.

Mathias Lauridsen