Monday, September 14, 2015

The Absurd

A time when puny Roberta Vinci—bless her!—derails the elephantine Serena on her route to the Grand Slam, the moment is rife for a discussion of the Absurd, which I deliberately capitalize. What a presence it has in our lives, both for the good, as for Vinci, and the bad, as for Williams.

This is also the time when Brian Kellow’s biography of Sue Mengers, “Can I Go Now?” hits the bookstores, to mixed reviews: pretty good in the Sunday Times, pretty bad in the daily one. What absurd grandeur that woman had! I wish Brian had consulted me about the admittedly not very prime time story about my lunch with Sue Mengers. This was during her prime time—and perhaps also mine—during a brief visit to Tinseltown, when she invited me to lunch. The object was to bring the one critic who was a nonbeliever in her star client, Barbra, into the church—or should I say temple?

I wish I had a transcript of our conversation. Sue deployed all of her charms and hegemony among Hollywood agents to entice me into having lunch with Streisand, panegyricizing about her wit, her smartness, her charm as she strove to effectuate a conversion of Saul-into-Paul magnitude. This proved no more likely to succeed than to convince Barbra of the need for a medial A in her name. But it was all worthy enough of at least a footnote in the bio.

Ah, yes, the Absurd. How it dogs us at every other step—to fully catalogue it would have added another labor to Hercules, surely the hardest. I am barely up to it, but at least I can advert to a few salient examples, and some worthy quotations from others.

For instance, I have always loved the name of an African head of state: Good Luck Jonathan, the first part of which he did not evince when it came to recovering the 300 abducted girls from his country. Well, as the song has it, maybe some other time. Or, for a nearer example, take the coiffure of Donald Trump, which in itself would be enough to make his presidency absurd. It is easily the worst since that of Anthony Burgess and Moe of the Three Stooges.

There had to be a philosophy of Absurdism, of which Albert Camus—“the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth” plus all his other writings—is the finest proponent. And how appropriate for the stage to have spawned he Theater of the Absurd. Here the chief proponent—Samuel Beckett having, however absurdly, declined having anything to do with it—there remains Eugene Ionesco, who at a lunch argued with me that his “Macbet” was superior to Shakespeare’s similarly titled play. Actually, Ionesco did very well by the Theater of the Absurd, “Rhinoceros” and “The Bald Soprano” being his most popular successes, although I prefer “Jacques or the Submission” and “The Chairs.”

But to revert to philosophy. I. M. Bochenski, in his book “Europaeische Philosophie der Gegenwart” (European Philosophy of the Present) has, as one of several epigraphs (I translate), “Modern Man, i.e., human beings since the Renaissance, is ripe for burial.” This attributed to Count Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, about whom there is regrettably nothing further in the book. Yet that is perhaps a bit too strong from someone unexposed to the works of America’s younger dramatists, and thus spared (to borrow a title from Carlo Emilio Gadda) the acquaintance with grief, or, if you prefer, the depth of the absurd.

It occurred to me to look up the entry Absurdism in the American Heritage Dictionary, and find, to my surprise, the following: “A philosophy, often translated into art forms, holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them into direct conflict with the universe. “True absurdism is not less but more real than reality. (John Simon).”

What a remarkable quotation, if only I knew just where it came from and contextualize. Could this come under the heading of Jonathan Swift’s famous exclamation, “What genius I had then”?

Let me start with a humble but telling aspect of quotidian absurdity. Until fairly recently people had no problem with correctly pronouncing “groceries” as if it were spelled “grosseries.” Then along comes some idiot or bunch of idiots proudly mispronouncing it by false analogy as if it were spelled “grosheries.” This would be correct if the spelling were “grocieries,” with an I after the C softening it from an SS sound to an SH, as in word like “glacier,” where there is such an I. But not so in “groceries.” Yet so ubiquitous has this blooper become that people who know better don’t even notice it on television or elsewhere. But all it takes in our democratic society for one ignoramus to come up with such an absurdity and promptly the sheep will follow.

Or take the world of fashion. Almost anything you see on runways or in magazine and newspaper pictures is absurd: anorexic models wearing things that no woman in her right mind would want to touch with a ten-foot pole unless she was a six-foot pole herself. Some women realize how ridiculous and uncomfortable those gladrags would be on them; others know that they couldn’t afford them if they were foolish enough to want them. But on and on the parade goes, as long as there are gay men to design them and Anna Wintours to promote them.

And how about those absurd opera singers? Rabid opera fans or persons with underdeveloped sensibilities can tolerate an Isolde who could use a slimming potion more than a love one {“It is only the voice that matters,” they say) or a Lohengrin who could more suitably ride on an ox than be drawn by a swan--although there has lately been some improvement in the average avoirdupois, but still here are plenty of Stephanie Blythes unblythely around.

A rather different kind of absurdity are the wretches who keep buying lottery tickets hoping for the big prize, who, even if they win a pittance, will have spent much more for years on lottery tickets than their win amounts to.

Still, there is also the good, the positive absurd. Surrealism sometimes provides that. Take the piquant perversity of some of those clever Belgian painters, Magritte, Delvaux  and Ensor. Does it have something to do with the drama of a country and language split in two? So, too, perhaps with such rather less talented Spaniards, Miro and Dali, think Basques and Catalans. But then where are the Canadian equivalents?

Monday, August 17, 2015


Her name was Ljiljana, Serbian for Lilian, and she was my first love. To be sure, in kindergarten I was smitten with Milica, who did not reciprocate, but that doesn’t count anyway. One had to be in the gymnasium (the European equivalent to high school) to experience the pangs of real love.

Ljiljana Nizetic (pronounced LYILyana NIZHetitch), to give her her full maiden name, was a couple of years younger than I, and the sister of my classmate Branko. There was also a younger sister, Vesna, a tomboy. But as my recently deceased, somewhat older friend, Voja, remarked, “Everyone was in love with Ljiljana.” I’m not quite sure just who everyone was, but I fully believe it.

She may well have been the most beautiful young teenager in all Belgrade. I have one photograph of her at maybe twelve, standing in front of our villa on Lake Bled, wearing a folk costume and looking adorable. The only other snapshot of her, age sixteen, is of quite a young woman already, wavy hair down to her shoulders, as she kneels amid tall grasses and blinks into the sun.

She was shy as a little girl, and did not in any obvious way respond to my sleeve-worn love. But many, many years later, in her penultimate letter, she said that all the other young girls envied her for being my inamorata, and that she was rather proud of it too. But that was all; not so much as a kiss, ever.
Take the evening when my mother and I left Belgrade, thinking mistakenly that it wouldn’t be a definitive break. My father was already in New York, but my mother, in the company of an old family friend, was waiting anxiously for me at the railway station. We were to catch a train to take us to Genoa on the first leg of our exodus to America. Where was I?

I had gone to say good-bye to Ljiljana, Branko and the other Nizetices at their apartment, luckily not too far from the train station. I had acquired a fancy Borsalino hat for the journey. When I tore myself away, very late, I grabbed someone else’s similar hat, much too big for me.

I ran all the way to the station, but if Mussolini had also made the Yugoslav trains run on time, this one would have already left, with serious consequences for us. Even so, I got two hard slaps from the old family friend. Another mother and son, our friends and traveling companions, were waiting for us in Genoa. We caught a train for Rome, but from there, the other mother didn’t want to take the boat to Lisbon—German submarines were said to be active around—so we flew instead. On the plane, I was slightly unfaithful to Ljiljana, writing a poem for a friendly Swedish opera singer, Margit von Ende, traveling with her lover, Berlasina, a famous Italian soccer referee. But on the beach at Estoril I made up for it, gazing longingly at a young  girl who looked a bit like  Ljiljana, and whom I desperately and foolishly wanted to be her.

Towards the end of World War Two, I was in the Air Force, but because of problems with my inner ear, at a non-flying job, teaching shell-shocked pilots French and German, supposedly as a transition to civilian life. Somehow Ljiljana and I managed to correspond a bit. She was in Prague, in medical school. Her father was a distinguished ophthalmologist, which Branko too was to become in Belgium; she, however, became a pediatrician. In one of her letters, she wrote that she fantasized that when American planes flew over Prague, I was in one of them. Little did she know that I never even came close to a military plane.

Years pass, and my then girlfriend, Patricia Marx, and I are traveling through Europe, and hit Belgrade.  Naturally we look up Ljiljana, by then a respected physician. Pat and she hit it off well. Though Ljiljana was lovely, she was rather petite, and I liked taller women. Because Pat worried about her prominent father’s hearing about our traveling together unmarried, we pretended to be respectable spouses. I can still see Ljiljana getting into her car and saying to me, in Serbian, how much she liked “my sweet little wife.”

More years pass. I am in various Yugoslav cities lecturing on behalf of the State Department about American literature, about which I know precious little. My expertise, if any, being about European literature. But so great was America’s prestige in Yugoslavia that anyone who could lecture, however vaguely, about anything in the U.S.A. was welcomed with open arms.

I saw Ljiljana again, now married—lovelessly, alas--to one Marjanovic, a medium-high Communist functionary. More important, she was in what was to be lifelong mourning for her dearly beloved son, Zoran. In his early twenties, he happened to be outside a children’s playground when a ball landed at his feet. Bending down to throw it back, he suffered a lethal stroke.

Ljiljana showed me a photograph of Zoran, a handsome young man, which she handled like a sacred icon. We were sitting in her living room, her husband having sequestered himself in another room. Every night, she said wistfully, he would go off to the kafana (pub) for booze and cards with his chums, but not this night, because of my presence. Otherwise she would have so liked to sit with me amorously on a park bench, but as it was she felt she couldn’t leave the house.

We talked about all sorts of things, though I recall only her indignation at the Swedish tax bureau’s persecution of Ingmar Bergman. There was a bust of her and an oil portrait, both capturing her loveliness, and I made her promise to send me pictures of them, which she never did, probably out of shyness. She did, however, give me as a parting present one of her favorite books by Andre Maurois in French, and inscribed it to me. Shamefully, I never read it, and now, like her last letters, it too has disappeared. I do remember one thing she said: that she had seen the novelist Ivo Andric in the street , blowing his nose into his fingers, not a very nice thing for a Nobel laureate to do.

Years go by again, and we are now in the recent past. Somehow we exchange a couple of letters each. She writes those letters in her large, bold, openhearted handwriting. In one of them she assures me that my Serbian is still fine and my style extremely poetic. She fills me in on her life as a widow, but there are also flashbacks, such as to when she drove me on a visit to the house that my family had owned and I grew up in. It was now a music school, which she deemed a fitting afterlife.

What I do recall from her last letter is “Did ever a woman of 84 get such a glowing tribute?” She also included a funny postcard from Branko, who now, along with sister Vesna who lovingly tended him during his last infirmity, was long dead. She herself was happiest alone, in a villa her family owned on one of the lesser islands off the Dalmatian coast. I can see her puttering and gardening there in the company of her memories.

Finally, postmarked 02.04.13, but dated 26.03.13, a very brief letter came from London with a curious cancellation that reads “Royal Mail supports PROSTATE,” then something illegible, and finally “Delivering first class care for men.” It was from Philip Nizetic, who must be a son of Branko’s, and said “Dear Mr. Simon, It is with sadness that I am writing to you of my aunt Ljiljana’s (Nizetic-Marjanovic’s) death last month in Belgrade. Warmest wishes, [signature illegible].”

I immediately wrote back to him asking for further particulars, but got no answer.  I take a modest satisfaction from having made an 84-year-old woman feel briefly young and beautiful again.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


What is being a sports fan really about? Is it just like an addiction to chess or light beer or mashed potatoes? Well, no; it’s more than that. It makes you a citizen of a parallel world.

A famous sonnet by E. E. Cummings ends: “listen, there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door; let’s go.” With a somewhat different signification, Shakespeare wrote in ”Coriolanus”: “There is a world elsewhere.”  But a catchphrase like that surpasses and outlasts its original meaning. Many of us have been looking for and happy to embrace another habitat in a world of sport.

This alternative world is much more forgiving than our basic everyday one. If the player or team you root for loses, you can put on a brave smile and declare, “Just wait till next year.” It is a more sustainable loss than any other kind; you can even, with impunity, switch to another sport and win there.

But what if your team or player wins? True, your triumph is vicarious, but less so than a mere win at cards, say, or at pick-up sticks. Why? Because it is in an activity that the whole first world can watch on mass media, which for all is a form of projection into, participation in, a great game with the playing field not merely even but also universal.

I am basing this largely on my own experience, and my feeling of intense identification with this or that famous sports figure. But this identification is just as possible with an entire team. Take for example the orgiastic oneness with the American Women’s Soccer Team, winners just now of the World Cup. Do not the tens of thousands watching their triumphal progress through the Canyon of Heroes, as two tons of confetti at tax payers’ (i.e., your) expense, are wafted halo-like onto their heads absorb you into their victory?

I myself idolize my Serbian ex-compatriot and fellow Belgrader (former in my case, but still), tennis champion Novak Djokovic. Whenever he wins, and nowadays he usually does, it is very much as if I were winning a bit too. The only things comparable might be movie fandom and adoration of pop musicians, whether singers or instrumentalists. But even there, there is a significant difference. Those stars are not always around, at best in your record or video collection, but that is not happening in the Now, as a TV broadcast is. And somehow your having to handle a disc or a DVD makes it feel more manufactured, less universal than a program you watch with perhaps millions of others.

With actors or actresses, lust enters into the reckoning. As a heterosexual man, for example, you cannot quite escape some yearning, probably unacknowledged, for the likes of Jane Fonda, Mary Louise Parker, or Laila Robins. And then there is the fact that they are impersonating, being someone other than themselves, that makes for some distanciation--to say nothing of th’ expense of jism in a waste of shame. Djokovic, on the other hand, is always Djokovic, absorbing you as unmitigatedly himself. 

What promotes identification is also steady availability thanks to the Tennis Channel, ESPN, or some additional channel. This allows for close, extended contact such as I do not have with actors who are often on hiatus. Not to mention actors who rub me wrong: a Streisand and a Minnelli, say, who put me totally off. There is no one in sports who does quite that to me, although creatures like Svetlana Kuznetsova or Madison Keys come close. It may help, though, that we know little or nothing about the private lives of any of them.

Sports are simply better covered than the arts in just about any publication. The sports section of the Times keeps me company through my long breakfast as no other section, save the Arts or the Book Review, does. But in regional newspapers there is only sport accounted for, whereas movies, to say nothing of theater or literature, hardly exist.

Charismatic sports figures are depicted and written up extensively in the papers, and an aficionado can spend hours with them—not to mention attending them in action if one has the time and the means to do so. This, usually, provides al fresco benefits to boot.

And sports have their history too. There is no shortage of fan-historians who can recite for you the scores of baseball games long past including the names of batters and pitchers, with at least as much gusto and detail as most theater fans can come up with details about seemingly forgotten shows. But what am I getting at with all this?

I am trying to demonstrate that there is this other world of sports in which we can immerse ourselves, get passionately involved with, fill our thinking and conversation, and thus ward off the more humdrum, onerous, and potentially hurtful real world. I, for instance, spend hours upon hours watching tennis on TV, driving my uninterested wife nuts with the sound, and then spend more hours discussing it on the phone with a likeminded friend. To my mind, it far outclasses as escape the widespread passion for pop music, even as the sound of rackets hitting balls is subtler than that of most modern pop music, and I’ll even throw in Glass and Reich.

So it is also for you and me that the starting bell tolls or the pistol pops, that goals are scored and basketballs tossed, that fantastic jumps are made with or without pole over high bars, or down into the deep end of pools. For us also that losing shoulders are pinned down with half or double nelsons, that a baton is deftly passed from one runner to the next, that capped heads bob up from pool’s edge to pool’s edge, or heavy gloves thunder onto opposing chins. It is for us too that eternally young and charmingly bedizened persons pirouette on the ice, that foils and sabers are crossed and that skis fly through the air to dizzying distances and that teams or individuals leap gazelle-like across hurdles crowding upon them.

It is also for our emotional participation that a fully or partly inflated football is thrown across considerable distances, that archery conjures up memories of more glorious ages. I could go on and on, but think I have made my point sufficiently.

And as I am writing this, I have just watched the great Novak Djokovic once again wresting the Wimbledon trophy away from the grasp of magnificent Roger Federer, which fills me with a glow that will last me at least till nightfall. For childless me it is, I imagine, what a little boy’s flawless recitation of a poem or a little girl’s baking some prize-winning cookies is to a proud parent.

Only, I’d like to think, even better.

Monday, June 22, 2015

In Memoriam: James Salter

Saturday, June 20, 2015. I read in the Times that the writer James Salter has died at age 90. He was a month younger than I, and a schoolmate in my senior year at the Horace Mann School (in the Bronx, according to the Times, though we thought of it as Riverdale). We were friendly, if not quite friends.

But then, how was one to be friends with Jim? All through the years I tried, but he remained mostly aloof. On the other hand, he was very affable when we talked at a birthday party for Bill Becker of Criterion Films, perhaps in part because his second wife, Kay Eldredge (whomI knew and liked at New York magazine) had been my tablemate. She assured me that they would soon get together, as once before, with my wife and me, which, however, did not come about.

My earliest recollection of Jim, though surely not the first contact, was at Commencement at Horace Mann. I was going down to the basement to empty my locker; he was coming up the stairs having emptied his. Earlier, the headmaster had introduced him to the audience as “the schoolboy poet,” and me as the country’s top Latinist on that year’s college board exams.

Jim was one of the five or six members of the Poetry Society, to which I also belonged, but whose meetings I couldn’t attend because they conflicted with a chemistry class. We had both published poems in the annual poetry yearbook, which I have kept until recently when it got lost.

Anyway, on the staircase, Jim greeted me with “Hi, John, I didn’t know you were such a Latinist,” and I responded with, “Hi, Jim, I didn’t know you were a poet.” He was then known as Jimmy Horowitz, his real name, which he changed (eventually legally) to Salter, to avoid anti-Semitism, first at West Point, and later in the Air Force. I was told that Salter was his mother’s maiden name, though the obituary had it as Mildred Scheff.

I then lost track of Jim until George Plimpton’s publication party for his “A Sport and a Pastime,” attended by too many glitterati for Jim to have wasted much time on me. But I did acquire a copy of that novel, yet cannot now remember whether I read it or not, but must have at least skimmed it, given that it contained enough sex to be turned down by any number of publishers.

It tells the story, I gather, of a Yale graduate’s perambulations and wild sex in France with a young French working-class girl, as reported by a not entirely reliable third party. Here I must note that Jim was a tremendous ladies’ man, being very good-looking and doubtless a silken enough talker to melt many a maiden’s resistance if any there was—resistance, that is, not maiden.

I remained ignorant of much of his early writings (several with flying themes), as well as the dozen or so short film documentaries he created with his friend Lane Slate, such as “Team Team Team,” about football, which surprisingly carried off the relevant prize at the Venice Film Festival.

In the Air Force, he flew over a hundred missions and, in the Korean War, downed one MIG. He had worked his way up to colonel by the time he quit soldiering in 1957, never forgetting those precious years.

He made some features in Hollywood, notably “Downhill Racer” (1969), with Robert Redford, which garnered good reviews, including mine. I noted that the skiers “spoke in a kind of Hemingway of the slopes, which, however, does not lapse into parody.” I further opined that it “does not get beyond the level of competent, intelligent entertainment,” but also learned, possibly from Jim himself, “how much guff the scenarist had to take from Paramount,” and “to what extent the script had to be softened and watered down.”

So formidable had Jim become as a writer of fiction, travel, drama and even poetry, that a group of writers living like him on Long Island, who had their own club, never invited him to join, feeling that he was way too much above the rest of them. As the obituary stated, he had married Ann Altemus  in 1951, living with her for a quarter century  before their divorce, mostly in the Hudson Valley, a very genteel, gentile life, both spouses having affairs on the side. It is that divorce that inspired Jim’s masterpiece, “Light Years” (1976).

In it, Jim’s special talents became most manifest, eliciting praise from all sides, especially for his sentences. The editor and critic Michael Dirda wrote that “Salter is the contemporary writer most admired by other writers . . . He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.” James Wolcott, who called him ostentatiously America’s “most underrated underrated author,” also mentioned that “even his verbless sentences remain sturdy.”

In reviewing Salter’s 1985 memoir, “Burning the Days,” for the Times, Richard Bernheim praised the “chiseled sentences and deft evocation of moods.” And the novelist Richard Ford wrote elsewhere, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” And when he received the Pen/Malamud Award, the citation stated that his writings show the readers “how to work with fire, flames, the laser, all the forces of life at the service of creating sentences that sparkle and make stories burn.”

So what are we to make of this recurring motif, the extolled sentence in Jim’s writing? I would say that it proclaims him preeminently as a stylist, with reference to the great attention paid to, and effect achieved with, every single sentence, so as to maximize that expressivity also known as beauty.

I am glad to learn that he was also lauded for what turned out to be his ultimate work, the novel “All That Is” (2013), a fitting coda, I gather (I haven’t read it), to a major literary life.

A life, be it said, not lacking in tragedy, as when one of his children, a grown daughter, took a shower in his unfinished house in Aspen, and was electrocuted, with him having to retrieve her dead, naked body. He remarked, “I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child.”

The obituary cites a number of notable honors, but also points out that he never achieved the wider popularity that he believed constituted true greatness, The most a book of his sold was 12,000 copies. There is something elliptical verging on ever so slightly cryptic about his writing, forcing the majority reader into doing something he wants to avoid: stop and think. A favorite device is skipping in a rendered conversation to specify who said which.

We once ran into each other in the men’s fashion department of Bloomingdale’s, and I recall his commenting with a certain amount of envy about how well I dressed, though I am sure that he did it just as well. Another time I got a phone call from him inquiring about how good a certain actor was who was interested in getting produced and starring in one of Kay Eldredge’s plays. I gave the actor an acceptable grade, but the play was never heard about again.

And then there was the single time when Jim, Kay (whom he married after many years of their living together), my wife and I were dining at a downtown Soba Noodle spot shortly after 9/11. At a nearby table sat Yoko Ono, whom I intercepted as she was leaving. In a brief conversation she recalled that I was the only critic to give a good notice to a musical she had written--New York Rock--which the WPA Theatre had mounted. This led to an acquaintanceship and her sponsoring my blog.

As concrete evidence I have only one 1994 typewritten picture postcard  from Jim, which I came across in my copy of his Pen-Prize-winning “Dusk and Other Stories,” one of which, “Cinema,” I discussed with my students at the Sarah Lawrence College Center for Continuing Education.

Anyway, the card is clearly a giveaway from a stay at New York’s Ritz-Carlton, and reads in full: “Dear John, what beautiful handwriting. If I did not know you I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence [Note the irony in that statement]. I’m going to be away in Wyoming and Colorado, not for sport, for about 10 days. Will call you sometime after I get back.  Best, Jim   Salter, Sagaponack

The call, of course, never came. But the card is puzzling. On hard, cardboard-type paper, it had to have been run through a typewriter, yet, miraculously, shows no sign of any sort of mangling. Next, what did Jim need a hotel in New York for? And why is the return address Sagaponack, when he resided in Bridgehampton? And why does the postmark read Hicksville? The signature is handwritten, sort of like J i m—why the spaces?

As I said, there was something a bit mysterious about James Salter.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Chide That Name!

Whether you realize it or not, names are a part of language, and a by no means unimportant one. I am not even referring to such a somewhat esoteric phenomenon as a proper noun becoming a common one—e.g., Sandwich, Mackintosh, Wellington boots—but to proper names improperly used and a threat to correct usage.

Consider the shocker when a prize-winning racehorse bears the misspelled name American Pharoah. Pharoah, alas, is a fairly common misspelling of pharaoh, but it does not usually get this kind of publicity and fame. The Times of May 23 has an article, “American Pharoah’s Misspelling Mystery,” that sheds light on the matter.

You cannot, of course, blame the horse itself, which, however much horse sense it may possess, does not know with what moniker it has been blessed or cursed. Its chief owner is a rich Egyptian, Ahmad Zayat, owner of Zayat Stables, and you would expect an Egyptian, of all people, to know how to spell pharaoh. But oh no. To be sure, I wonder how many Americans can spell Roosevelt correctly.

Still, no matter what Ahmed Zayat may or may not know, surely there ought to have been a decent speller in his stable—his son, Justin, perhaps. It turns out, however, that not even the Jockey Club took steps to rectify the error. As James L. Gagliano, the Club’s president and CEO put it, “Since the name met all of the criteria for naming and was available, it was granted exactly as it was spelled.”

It now emerges that the Zayat Stables hold an online contest for the naming of their horses, and thus there was the invitation to the public in 2014 to name their crop of two-year-olds. And who won the contest for naming this future champion? It’s all there in the Times: Marsha Baumgartner, of Barnett, Mo., depicted in the paper with her husband, Dave, and described as “a 64-year-old registered nurse in a tiny central Missouri town.”

Unfortunately, though there is a register for nurses, there is none for illiterates. If you inspect the picture, you will find two typical unglamorous Midwesterners of the small-town variety, she even, as one suspects from her chubby cheeks, overweight, but when it comes to learning and refinement, clearly lightweight.

When asked, she commented: “I don’t remember how I spelled it; I don’t want to assign blame. I looked up the spelling before I entered.” That she won’t assign blame is understandable, given on whom it would fall. It also figures that she doesn’t remember how she spelled it, since she managed to forget the spelling in the comparatively short time between looking it up and sending it out.

There is also the question of where, if she isn’t fibbing, she did that looking up. Does she own a reputable dictionary? Or did she find the word in some other worthy publication, say the Sears catalogue or the Farmer’s Almanac. “Pharaoh,” I suspect, is one of the most misspelled words in America, whether the perpetrators are from the ranks of born-again Christians or college students.

What I find somewhat more surprising is discovering that the Jockey Club found the name within the rules, “which include an 18-character limit (Pioneerof the Nile was rendered that way to conform to the guidelines) and a ban on obscene or offensive phrases.” Personally, I consider “pharoah” not just offensive, but actually nothing less than obscene. And, speaking of “less,” Melissa Hoppert, author of the Times article, states that up to six names per horse can be submitted, although “the average is two or less.” Though “fewer” would be correct here, even that seems problematic where “one or two” would be more natural.

T. S. Eliot has written compellingly about the naming of cats, and thus influenced the nomenclature of the musical of that name. Nobody has weighed in on the naming of horses, which strikes me as bizarre in the extreme. But then again, no more so than the naming of some people.

Consider if you will the name of a promising black tennis player, a young man named Frances Tiefoe. Yes, Frances, not Francis. Now whatever may have prompted the parents to give their son a girl’s name—ignorance being the most charitable interpretation—you would think that he himself, with or without friendly advice, would see fit to have his name legally transgendered.

Well, some tennis players do have odd names: no fewer than two women—one white, one black—are called Madison (Keys and Brengle), and one can’t help wondering whether it is derived from a president or an avenue. But a male Frances is unique.

Why does any of this matter? Because where famous persons or equines are concerned, such misguidedness becomes influential and widespread. And the instigators don’t even need to be famous. I doubt whether the first person who mispronounced “grocery” as “groshery” was a celebrity, yet behold the result.

Egypt, for example, is an unlikely culprit. But look: not only Pharoah, but also Pioneerof the Nile. Does it have to be an Egyptian river? Were there no pioneers of the Amazon? Never mind, though. Misnomers will always be among us, only let it not be on account of a prominent horse or sportsman. Granted Tiefoe is not yet celebrated, but he could well become so. And then what might be the names of his future male colleagues: Mary, Josephine, or, tomorrow, Tamara?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Gunter Grass

With Gunter Grass, who just died at age 87, I had a brief friendship. I translated for him on a popular radio show, and I introduced him at his reading at the Y. I also met his charming first wife, Anna, a Swiss dancer, and acquiesced in his friendly cavil: why must I everywhere find some fault, i.e., be hypercritical (though not of him). Our ways parted amicably, and there was no further contact. Incidentally: can a critic be hypercritical? An architect, hyperarchitectural? An ophthalmologist, hyperocular?

He was a major writer. Though of interest in his early poems and later plays, and of real charm in his drawings (I never saw his sculptures), it was with two of his early novels, “The Tin Drum” and “Dog Years,” that he achieved international stature: two novels of lasting luster, both of which I reviewed with due enthusiasm. Later, even as good a novel as “The Flounder” seemed a bit overlong: too many over-drawn-out parts among the indisputably brilliant ones.

He did also publish his political writings, many of them stomping speeches for Willy Brandt, but political writings tend to be primarily of specific, temporary interest, and only secondarily transcending into universality, into permanence.

Especially remarkable in his later years was his outing of himself. That he had been a member of the Hitler Youth can be readily excused, comparable to our youthful joining of the Boy Scouts. But subsequent time in the Waffen-SS was less innocuous, even if, as the Times obituary pointed out, it was “near the end of the war, and [he] was never accused of atrocities,  [though] the fact that he had obscured the crucial point of his background while flagellating his fellow Germans for cowardice set off cries of outrage.”

There was something likable even in Grass’s appearance. It is nice when an artist makes no attempt to look like one, avoiding the aura of regimentation of even that harmless bohemian kind. Grass was of medium stature, rather stocky, and with a walrus mustache more befitting a German general or emperor. That, and a certain glint in his gaze, gave him the aspect of a canny peasant whose wit had let him ascend to the ranks of the solid bourgeoisie, which in Germany has a way of looking even more bourgeois than its equivalent in other countries. He rather reminded me of the successful upstart Lopakhin in Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard.”

No other major novelist since Rabelais has, to my knowledge, made as much of eating—indeed gourmandising—as Gunter Grass has. And not only eating, but also cooking. He was himself a pretty good cook. Consider the following, from the memoirs of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s preeminent literary critic. Not especially fond of Grass’s writing, R-R nevertheless accepted a dinner invitation from Grass: “He would, with his own hand, prepare a meal for us [R-R and his wife, Tosia]. I accepted despite my memory of a soup made by Grass, which I had recklessly eaten in the summer of 1965, on the occasion of the wedding of . . . Walter Hoellerer . . . . It had tasted disgusting. I expected the worst. But then a critic must have courage. . . . He served us fish. Now I hate and fear fishbones. And I did not realize that there existed any fish with quite so many bones. . . . Anyway, it was both a torture and a delight. Undistinguished as he may have been as a producer of soup, he was magnificent with fish. The meal was risky but tasty—and it had no ill effects whatsoever either for Tosia or myself. Yet it had some consequences. What was left of the fish, mainly its numerous bones, was sketched by grass the following day. And very soon this fish was at the center of a novel by him. It was a flounder.”

I would guess that having a grocer father was that much more likely to produce an esurient son. And so we have cooks popping up everywhere in his writings, most notably in the play, “The Evil Cooks.” But also in “The Flounder,” where we get a wonderful of nine (or eleven) noteworthy female cooks through the ages, some real  some fictitious. Hence the “or eleven.” As the critic Peter Demetz put it, Grass “initially intended to write a prose epic about the primary role of food in world history, but that at a later stage, coming to grips with an irrepressible crew of formidable women—some fictional, some real—who did the world’s important cooking, he confronted recent feminist ideas about women in culture at large. “The Flounder” is an ample, exuberant, and skillfully structured narrative about eating, cooking, procreating, women and a cunning fish . . .”

The book contains among other things, as Patrick O’Neill has written, “a generous selection of recipes for outlandish dishes,” but all sorts of details deal indirectly with food. In reviewing “The Flounder,” John Updike has written, “when at the end [Ilsebill]’s husband/narrator, watching her undergo a Caesarian operation, notes that ‘I also saw how yellow, like duck fat, Ilsebill’s belly fat is. A piece of it crumbled off and I could have fried two eggs on it,’ his tortuously ramifying theme of food is brought to a point that hurts.” This passage exemplifies Grass’s important use of the grotesque, and the way he so often manages to use springboards leaping back to food or cooking.”

Of equal importance is that he is writing fables, i.e., books in which there is an element of the fabulous. And fables almost always feature symbolic animals. Observe only his titles, in which cat, mouse, dog, toad, female rat, flounder, and snail make their appearances, even if the mouse is only a hypertrophic Adam’s apple, and the toad only a voice. These animals live; the flounder talks, the snail keeps a diary.

Eventually Grass got what was long prophesied for him, the Nobel Prize, although by that time most of his books were also seriously questioned and even, as in the case of “My Century,” poorly reviewed. Nor did it matter that he reused some of his subjects, as, for instance, the grinding poverty of Calcutta appearing in both his fiction and nonfiction.

My own notice of “The Tin Drum” for Partisan Review and reprinted in my collection “The Sheep from the Goats,” as well as being the lead essay in Patrick O’Neill’s anthology “Critical Essays on Gunter Grass,” satisfies me upon rereading, as not all of my earlier writings do, though some amaze me with their prescience. I recognized in Grass what Salman Rushdie did in his introduction to “On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983.” He spoke of “books which give [writers] permission to travel . . . become the sort of writers they have it in themselves to be. A passport is a kind of book.” And, inversely, a book can be a kind of passport.

It has been pointed out that Grass was a precursor of the “magic realism” that came to us much later from writers in South America. As Rushdie observes, what the wildest fantasy leads to may seem on one level absurd, but is hopeful underneath. And thus liberating.

P.S.: I regret not having the umlaut for the U in Gunter. The customary substitute, an added E as in Guenter, seemed to me awkward and alienating.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Stupidity, I am sorry to say, is no joke, as it is portrayed on stage, screen and TV. It is the second worst crime against humanity and a very close runner-up to evil. It is neither necessarily heedless (it can be the very best and most considered that some persons can manage) nor headless (as it lodges snugly under many a cranium). It can crop up even in the oldest and wisest, perhaps most strikingly there.

It has many forms. It boasts in equal profusion crimes of omission and of commission. It can pop up in the most unexpected places, such as the philosopher who on an icy day steps out without his overcoat, or the accomplished cook who gets burned more than once. It can make heroism look stupid—rightly so—in those brave in a bad cause or heroic in a foolish war. How right Brecht, who was often wrong, was when he wrote, “Happy is the nation that has no need for a hero.”

Take the populations of the mightiest nations and ask yourself how many of those billions are immune from stupidity within or without. In the absence of statistics, I would venture an educated guess: close to zero per cent if you include minor or infrequent stupidities. As I suggested, it is protean in form, and ubiquitous in habitat. It includes even seemingly dutiful attempts at avoidance, as in those who year in, year out seek out psychotherapy that does them no good. As Karl Kraus remarked: “Psychiatry is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.” Nevertheless, one must admit that, used in moderation, it can be beneficial.           

What makes stupidity especially sinister is that, like certain forms of cancer and other illnesses, it is impossible to diagnose before it is too late. With the passage of time, one may even look back benignly on earlier years’ stupidities. Yet how effective is recognition when it comes to reparation? It neither redeems past stupidity, nor resists the future kind.

In any case, does being wise about some things protect from being stupid about others? When it was finally realized that the earth is not flat and that the sun does not revolve around it, did mankind in other matters become smarter or better? Of course people are no longer burned at the stake as in Galileo’s time, but where is the improvement in so many other respects?

Granted, some stupidities are harmless or even useful. It is good that Erasmus was able to come out with his satire “In Praise of Folly.” But then look at the cost of not one but two atom bombs to end the war against Japan. They did, however, generate one harmless dumbness. The charming British actress, Sara Miles, had such loathing of anything Japanese that only the most desperate effort could prevail upon her to play a scene with a Japanese actor in a movie. “O.K.,” she finally relented, “I will do one scene with you. But I’ll never forgive what you people did to us at Hiroshima.”

It is especially easy to be stupid, or at any rate ignorant, about many things in our era of science and technology. I myself couldn’t explain even why, when I press on a switch and, lo, there is light. My only consolation is that , reciprocally, most scientists or technocrats have not read Proust. And even if they have, what could  they glean from it?

Stupidity, by the way, doesn’t have to be gigantic in order to matter. To be sure it can be enormous, as when Lloyd George and Haig and the rest of them caused innumerable inexcusable casualties in World War One. This was caused by that very arrogance, that stubbornness that causes our much humbler stupidities. Great ones depend on great power. But the principle is essentially the same. Which of us hasn’t through stupidity lost a friend, a lover, a spouse?

You cannot tell me that Andreas Lubitz, the wretch who intentionally ran that German plane into a French Alp, killing also 149 innocent others, wasn’t, beyond depressive and whatnot else, also stupid. Why couldn’t he sensibly kill only himself by some private means? Did the mass murder give him a sense of power? That he was going to make history and reap immortal fame? Or did he stupidly think that dying in such extensive company makes it go down more easily? Or that jumping out of a window was somehow more difficult? And what about the stupidity of the people who thought him fit for piloting?

But for large-scale stupidity is there anything worse than war? Well, yes, a religion that, discounting your stupidity, allows or indeed encourages you to wage it. Aren’t almost all wars, to say nothing of jihads, caused by religion? The excuse that suicide bombers or ISIS misread the teachings of Islam won’t wash: any religion that lends itself to such misreading is clearly to blame. And fanaticism is surely one of the monumental forms of stupidity,

I am writing this as Easter is approaching, and wonder how many of us qualify as dumb bunnies, who not so much hide as lay an egg. And, speaking of eggs, how many greedy fools among us wouldn’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs if such a fowl existed?

There is an old joke about two loonies painting an asylum wall. The one holding the ladder says to the one on top of it, “I am about to move the ladder. Hold on to your brush.” That, only slightly exaggerated, is the archetype of stupidity. The only difference is that from this stupidity only the top loony will be hurt. From other, typical stupidities it is usually more than one person who suffers.

Now there are stupid men who want their women to be submissive, stupid. As Baudelaire said to a woman in a poem, “What matters it to me that you be wise? Be beautiful and be sad.”  That is the view of a sexist or sadist. Stupidity in anyone very much does matter to both possessor and victim. Yet what about the men who lust after the beautiful bimbos on TV talk shows? They look absolutely smashing until they open their mouths. After that if you still wish you could have one of them, it is you who are stupid.