Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I just finished a highly important and enjoyable book, two virtues that do not all that often appear in tandem. It is The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Subtitled “A History of Proper English,” it is by far the best history of the English language, excitingly and amusingly told in part though striking quotations and entertaining anecdotes. It is based on extensive research, and references a vast number of impressive sources, proving in equal measure history and usage guidebook, as Publishers Weekly rightly observed. Also a splendid example of how to write informatively and wittily on a subject that should be of interest to everyone involved with the English language—by, for instance, speaking and writing it—and indispensable to anyone professionally engaged with it.

Among the innumerable fascinating data I gleaned from it, I single out here the admirable pages about censorship, which succinctly but thoroughly adduce scary and ludicrous specimens of censorship as well as taboo. (The chapter that comprises them is drolly entitles “Unholy Shit.”) That Hitchings is also a theater critic for the London Evening Standard further endears him to me. It may even induce me to seek out his earlier books.

Hitchings discusses Thomas Bowdler, whose The Family Shakespeare (1818) was a popular edition of Shakespeare’s plays that “omitted any words that ‘cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’—stripping away anything sexual, yet retaining the violence.” A slight compensation for his extensive impoverishments is Bowdler’s one posthumous contribution to the English language, the verb “bowdlerize.” One review of the work accused Bowdler of having “castrated, cauterized and phlebotomized” Shakespeare, which got me thinking about, among other things, castration.

I perceive it as a cruel and unusual punishment, even when it is mandatorily imposed on pedophiles. These, currently very much in the limelight, what with certain low practices in institutions of higher learning, should sternly be punished. That should involve jail sentences and, afterward, preemptive measures such as electronic and other surveillance, housing restrictions, and so forth. But not castration, however much it may have formerly done for young boys’ singing voice. It is not even surefire protection against misdeeds, as it does not wholly eliminate the libido, and can prevent only penetration, but not molestation.

This brings me to the story of Abelard and Heloise, and the dreadful emasculation of the excellent man by the hired thugs of the vicious Canon Fulbert, who incorrectly believed that his niece, Heloise, had somehow been ruined by Abelard, her loving and beloved teacher (and secret husband), a great and noble philosopher and theologian.

Their story has been treated in various works of literature and theater, one of the latter, Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” performed on Broadway by Keith Michell and Diana Rigg in 1971. I quote from my review, as reprinted in Uneasy Stages.
                                                                                                                                                                  The play is billed as “inspired by” Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard though “inspired” is hardly a word I would use in this context. All I remember of that dryish book by a fine scholar and translator but unwieldy novelist is the character of Gilles de Vannes, modeled on Miss Waddell’s beloved teacher George Saintsbury . . . the only character in the [Millar] play who has any life. Abelard and Heloise have fired the imaginations of such diverse writers as Alexander Pope and George Moore, and there are respectable but uninspired plays on the subject by Roger Vailland and James Forsyth. To these Millar’s work may be appended as the last and least.

For Millar does not convey anything to us: neither life in the Middle Ages nor the conflict of God and Eros during the heyday of the Church; neither Abelard the great dialectician and teacher, nor Abelard the masterly poet. But perhaps one could bypass all these in favor of the tragic love story (and castration is arguably more tragic than death, if only one had the language, the poetry, the fervor. But if you write lines like [here I skip three incriminating samples of dialogue], you are not fit to write a play about these lovers—at best perhaps, about the Windsors or Onassises.

The production contained a most discreet (not to say castrated) nude scene, showing the lovers only on a darkened stage, briefly, and in profile, but sufficient to elicit from me that Ms. Rigg “is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This remark has fueled comments, amused but mostly disapproving, in numerous publications, notably in Ms. Rigg’s delightful book about negative criticism, No Turn Unstoned. In it, the charming and highly literate actress observes, “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

I now regret having written this, but at least I incurred a slight punishment. Absolutely everyone who quotes my line has it wrongly “a brick mausoleum,” whether derived from Ms. Rigg or from any of several anthologies of quotations that incorrectly include it. Now “brick mausoleum,” besides denying me the alliteration in B, makes no sense. A basilica is an early form of Christian church built on an ancient Roman model, and much simpler, chaster, narrower than the later cathedrals, and definitely devoid of anything like a flying buttress. A takeoff on the expression “built like a brick shithouse” for a bosomy woman, it has appropriately some relevance to medieval architecture, but none whatever to a mausoleum. Unfortunately, the wits or wiseacres who misquote me know nothing about a basilica, not even the word. Oh well, grander people have been misquoted in the prints: Marie Antoinette never said that thing about eating cake, and Voltaire never said that thing about fighting to the death for someone’s right to disagree with him.

One other play involving castration, a just slightly better one (play, that is, not castration) is Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” The hero, Chance, has seduced the ingénue, Heavenly, and caused an abortion that left her sterile. He evinces what Kenneth Tynan has called “an obscure awareness” that he must let himself be castrated by the henchmen of Heavenly’s father, a beastly Southern political boss, by way of expiation of his guilt.  Moreover, as Tynan writes, he “begs us, in parting, to understand him, and to recognize ourselves in him.”

“For my part,” Tynan continues, “I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure.” And he goes on to make pertinent, perceptive comments, including wonder about why the action begins on Easter Sunday: “Is castration to be equaled with resurrection?”

Well, come to think of it, I can recall another play of sorts, where it is equaled with redemption, two kinds of it no less. In Yugoslavia in my high-school days, religious instruction was compulsory. One day when the instructor was late, I improvised a  little miracle play, based on a picture from one of my father’s books with the caption “Saint Origen castrating himself for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.” (Note: not Tennessee Williams’s Heavenly,)

So, for my playlet, I picked the prettiest girl in the class and had her kneel before me as I brandished a ruler representing a cutlass, and, turning my rapt gaze at the ceiling, loudly proclaimed, “I castrate myself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The pretty blonde was supposed to supplicate me not to do it.  Just then the instructor arrived, and, though I am not quite sure about Origen (it seems the Catholic church has revoked his sainthood), I was barred from further religious instruction, which I hailed as a most welcome redemption.

That may have been the only time in dramatic and religious history when castration, even if only mimed, has proved beneficial.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


There is a great deal about critics that Americans do not understand. First of all, the difference between what a critic writes for public consumption and what he is in private life. The two are hardly identical.

This comment is provoked by letters to or about me, by talk in the chat rooms, and by occasional references to me and my work in the prints. What it boils down to usually is that I am a good or witty writer, but that my criticism is too cruel or mean, and that I must be a very bitter and unhappy man indeed.

That stuff is based on two, as I see it, misconceptions. First, that criticism must never be that ferocious (I would prefer stern, strict or severe); and second, that such a critic must be a frustrated and embittered human being. Let me try to correct these egregious errors.

Why should a critic in private life be what he is on the page? Does a surgeon go to a party with a scalpel at the ready to cut up his fellow invitees? Does a gardener arrive hoe in hand and start belaboring the hostess’s Persian rugs? Is a cook wielding his spoons not only in the kitchen but also all over the house? Would a ballerina wear her tutu at the supermarket? The tools of one’s trade are not glued to one’s hands or hips.

So, too, with a critic. He (or she) experiences a play exactly the way any civilized audience member does, although he (or she) does not hoot his approval or disapproval loudly at he end, does not talk or fidget in his seat during performance, and does not leap to his feet for standing ovations—although he might if an event truly called for a standing ovation. All this as a normal human being, not as so much of today’s audiences as lunatics laughing loudly at the feeblest jokes (or even none), and beleaguering the stage door as a crowd of maniacs wielding devices for autographing or photographing.

No, the critic is just another human being, whose job it is to write a review rather than a play, short story, or political column. And one who doesn’t allow a stomach ache or spat with his spouse to color his judgment and take it out on the piece under review. If necessary, he’ll count to a hundred before starting to write. Only, please, don’t take that hundred literally; it might also be a night’s sleep.

What may set him off, though, is that he will have certain standards, certain expectations that set him off from the average theatergoer who, worse luck, may also be a reviewer.(Kindly don’t ask me to go again, for the nth time, into the difference between a mere journalistic scribe, the reviewer, and someone to whom dramatic criticism is a branch of literary criticism—who writes for a literate readership and perhaps even, he hopes, for the future.

Well, here goes anyway. The critic may make some allowances, but he cannot forget that there once was a Moliere, a Chekhov, a Wilde, a Tennessee Williams or, in criticism, a Shaw, a Beerbohm, an Eric Bentley, a Kenneth Tynan.. Clearly, I am thinking here of theater criticism; but a similar distinction obtains for criticism of all the arts. In other words, why shouldn’t a current contender be held up for measuring, mutatis mutandis, against past champions? Is there any reason why Rodgers and Hart shouldn’t be able to stand up to Gilbert and Sullivan?

Yes, yes, you say, but must a mere shortcoming be savaged?  It may be all right for Edward Albee not to be up to Strindberg, for Arthur Miller not to equal Ibsen, for David Mamet not to be another O’Neill. Granted. But what if “Urinetown” cannot even compete with “Our Town”? What if “The Book of Mormon” cannot even hold its own against “Cabaret”?

And why shouldn’t the critic become outraged when drivel like “Passing Strange” or “Once” is hailed as if it were the like of “Pal Joey” or “Lady in he Dark”? But even if our reviewers did not go ape over garbage, as they all too often do, should one not tear into such unpardonables as the Sam Waterston “Lear” or a Frank Wildhorn musical? What, for heaven’s sake, was the kick in the butt invented for?

Consider, if you will, what Jacques Barzun wrote as a blurb for one of my books—it could have been for any of several others: “Not because he is violent in expression but because he feels strongly and thinks clearly about drama, about art and about conduct, I think John Simon’s criticism extremely important and a pleasure to read. And by the way, who has decreed that violence in a playwright is splendid and violence in a critic unforgivable?”

Or here is what Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1966 to the editor of Esquire about why he should hire me rather than Pauline Kael as film critic: “Simon has a much wider and deeper cultural background . . . I mean he knows and has thought more about other ‘fields’–-ugh—like books, theater, and art—and also because his work seems to me to show an interest in what I think is the point: whether the film is any good aesthetically . . . a much richer and more daring kind of criticism than Pauline’s.”

And here is Wilfrid Sheed in response to Andrew Sarris’s attack: “Sarris’s case against Simon is not so easy to make out, since Andy tends to scream and pull hair when he fights: but it seems, like most Simonology, to take off from Simon’s Transylvanian accent, and the remoteness from American reality which that implies. Simon is, to be sure, not your typical American boy. He staggers under a formidable load of cultural baggage, gathered at a time and place (middle-century Central Europe) when and where it did seem possible to grasp all that Art was doing; to make, as Mr. Simon can, a good fist at criticizing music, painting, sculpture, theater, the works.”

I rest my case, except about that jocular “Transylvanian accent,” which Sheed, incidentally, did not subscribe to but merely used as a comic summary of Sarris’s argument.. My accent is admittedly slightly foreign, but not, as Andrew would imply, Draculan or Lugosian. I would say it is more like that of an American or British actor trying to sound Continental European, and, I am happy to report, has proved rather pleasing to some charming American women who have lent an ear--and more--to it.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Lovers of poetry may wonder what happened to meter and rhyme. If one looks at modern poetry, one finds little meter and even less rhyme. Which raises the troubling question “What is poetry?” to which centuries have not provided a compelling answer.

Most famous among English attempts is Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order.” But what are the best words, what is the best order? That could be debated till the cows come home. So let’s take T.S. Eliot’s almost equally famous, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from them.” This raises more questions than it answers. Can there be a human being devoid of personality? Devoid of emotions? And why would one want to escape from them? Are they bad things? And if escape is needed, are there no better ways than through poetry?

Let’s try another famous poet, Pablo Neruda. “Poetry is a deep inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the content of religions.” In other words, poetry is the need for religion in its basic, verbalized form. But what if you are an atheist and can still write poetry? And is a comic poet really a seeker of God?

Famous, too, is Wordsworth’s definition: “Spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” This is patently self-contradictory: where powerful feelings are in overflow there is no tranquil recollection; where tranquil recollection prevails, feelings are no longer powerfully overflowing.

Then there is Poe: “I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty.” Is there poetry other than in words, except as a metaphor? And is satirical verse, for example, a creation of Beauty—with a capital B yet?

Or consider that notorious mystifier Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is a search for the inexplicable,” he writes; and “Poetry is the supreme fiction.”  What makes a fiction supreme? Is, for instance, a congratulatory birthday poem a fiction, let alone a supreme one? “Search for the inexplicable” is not bad, but it describes the why of poetry, not the what.

There is also A. E. Housman’s famous warning that poetry is what makes the skin bristle and should not be thought of while shaving because that incapacitates the razor. Charming, but surely a very personal, hardly universal, reaction to poetry; besides, does a bristly skin, whatever that exactly is, present that much of an impediment to a razor? And if it did, would we, to test whether something is poetry, have to promptly start shaving?

Well, let us forget about what is poetry and return to rhyme and meter. These, I assert without being startlingly original, are very useful poetic tools. They serve to make poetry musical and memorable. The musical aspect makes it enjoyable as music does; the memorable aspect makes it portable. It also enables us to recite it more easily for the delectation of others and ourselves. And for all our modern hostility to didacticism, we do learn something from poetry that is useful: that others have felt like us and how they dealt with it.

In the days before portable radios, the Walkman, and the more recent inventions like the Blackberry and all those things with a prefix in “i,” remembered poetry was our most comforting companion, and profited from any mnemonic devices. Which, as noted, were pre-eminently meter and rhyme. Blank verse—iambic pentameter—was particularly ingrained in our minds thanks to Shakespeare and the verse drama and is thus more easily recalled. And if there are such things as i-pods and i-phones and the rest, does it mean that memorization is passé?

Does the motorcar eliminate the horse-drawn carriage? No; we still enjoy such things as a romantic carriage ride through Central Park. Does the electric shaver doom the unmotorized razor? The Sweeney Todd kind, perhaps. But not the good old Gillette, which costs much less and requires no elaborate upkeep. Not even the bow and arrow have fallen completely prey to the gun. We still have archery as a not unpopular sport.

We still like rhythm. And isn’t meter a well-defined rhythm? It needs a bit of  variation to avoid becoming doggerel, but it is one of the things that make verse easier to memorize than prose. Many people can recite speeches from Shakespeare from memory; but can anyone recite paragraphs of Faulkner or Fitzgerald? I don’t think most people remember the line “To be or not to be, that is the question” merely for what it says and not as much for how it rolls off the tongue. Those three lovely iambs in the first hemistich, then the neatly bisecting caesura, and then a switch to the two balancing trochees, plus that extra syllable of the so-called feminine ending.

Or take the almost as well-known “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” Again, iambic pentameter, with the popular variation in the first foot to a trochee, good in beginnings where we like an accented syllable to start us off with a bang. But then we have the docile progression of four iambs, with that repetition aurally replicating the soothing in question.

As for rhyme; it even helps the poet to create. Suppose he writes a line that ends in “night.” Now he looks for a rhyme that is not the obvious “might” or “right” or “white.” (Rhyming dictionaries exist to help in the search,) And he comes up with things like “dynamite,” “plebiscite” and “troglodyte.” Each one of these can propel him in an original, unusual direction.

Beyond that, rhyme means symmetry and closure, and aren’t those good, desirable things? Doesn’t the saying “makes no rhyme or reason” entwine rhyme with the great good of reason? “Cela ne rime a rien” say the French, equating rhyme in its absence with the lack of good sense. Rhyme betokens order, harmony, fulfillment of expectation—all good things. So, poets, how about a return to rhyme and meter?

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I sometimes wonder about the phrase “too good to be true.” Latterly because in a review of Bruce Jay Friedman’s memoir, “Lucky Bruce,” the reviewer cites a Long Island lunch group of writers as successful as Friedman, Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller and a few others as rejecting “James Salter from the clique because he is too good a writer.”

Is there such a thing as being too good or too true a writer, and being rejected for it by a group of published, established fellow writers? Can you imagine Proust or Kafka or Joyce being rejected by a literary coterie—or worse yet, by a publisher—for such a reason? “Sorry, Monsieur Proust, we cannot publish your book because you are too true, too good a writer”? Can someone be too good a writer for anything or anyone—a clique, a publisher, a readership?

I wouldn’t think so. I can think, however, of other reasons to be thus rejected. Take the case of James Salter. He is indeed a good—but surely not too good—writer, which could be resented and rejected by writers conspicuously less good, envious and exclusionary. Bernard Shaw wittily entitled one of his plays with the reversal of that formula, Too True to Be Good. So Salter may be too true a writer, or even too truthful a person, to be tolerated by lesser writers afraid of his calling their bluff, questioning their exaggerated self-esteem.

True enough. If I were Friedman, Puzo or Heller, I might be leery of regular lunches with the likes of Proust, Kafka and Joyce, or Thomas Mann, Faulkner and Borges. This even if they were willing to join my group, which they might decline, and which unpleasantness to forestall I would not ask them to join. Their mere presence, however collegial, might be a thorn in my ego.

So there is no such thing as too good a writer, only other writers not feeling good enough. Is there, however, too good an anything? Is there too good a medicine, a building, a soup, a companion, an automobile, a gardener, a tailor, an actor? There may well be too good a suit or dress, but not for an excess of goodness, merely too steep a price.

But let’s get back to the phrase “too good to be true.” You would think it included in Nigel Rees’s Dictionary of Cliches, or in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Cliches or in his A Dictionary of Catch Phrases. Why is it missing from such worthy compilations, none of them too bad to be true. Is it that Rees and Partridge have never come across it? Seems highly unlikely.

Maybe, though, it is considered a maxim by the powerful writer Anonymous that has attained proverbial status and is listed in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations along with such other gems as “A fool and his money are soon parted” or “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “Time is of the essence,” all of which make it into that great dictionary of quotations. So why not “too good to be true,” surely as frequent and famous as the included? Yet in no such dictionary (I own quite a few) does it appear, not even as a proverb, if that’s what it is, an inclusion that would conveniently excuse a dictionarist from tracking it down its source.

If the saying were slightly different, say, “too good to be desirable, “ I might guardedly find some justification. To be told that you are too ill to be cured, too stupid to be tolerated, too unsightly to be looked at, this may be all too true, but not desirable to utter or to hear. But neither would it be as euphonious, as effective, as memorable. “Too good to be true” is catchy for several reasons.

Take first the assonance in four out of its five components, all but “be.” Then take the pleasing progression from an iamb to an anapest. They go harmoniously together, each accentuated on its final syllable. Lastly, the very fact that each of the five words is a monosyllable of the kind English abounds in, and that rolls easily off the most untutored tongue. Such things readily ensconce themselves in the memory.

So can we agree that nothing is really too good to be true, except perhaps your winning the grand prize in a lottery for which you bought only a single ticket? That might justly elicit the swift, spontaneous exclamation. It is evidently true, but hold on, is it also too good? Would not winning have been better? But perhaps too good for all those others, the envious losers? Still, why should we enshrine envy as a maxim, as something too good?

True, the gloriously surprised lottery winner might in the first overwhelming moment of triumph exclaim, “This is too good to be true!” Yet even he would, after enjoying the benefits for a time, conclude that it feels deliciously right, but hardly too good to be true.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


In The New York Times Book Review of September 25, Maureen Dowd reviewed Roger Ebert’s autobiographical “Life Itself.” The highly favorable notice contained the following: “Ebert tries to avoid gossip and ‘hurtful’ comments about actors. ‘I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look,’ he writes. ‘They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.’”

Needless to say, in her laudatory review, Dowd does not take issue with this statement, so the burden falls on me. It is a foolish assertion of Ebert’s for any number of reasons. First of all, because it makes him one of those ill-informed people who claim I made that procedure my specialty. I never went out of my way to attack actors for their looks; I attacked then, when I did, for something more relevant: not looking like what their parts called for. That, as I repeatedly stated, does matter.

If a set designer’s sets look poor or inappropriate, we criticize them with universally conceded impunity, even praise for our perceptiveness. The same goes for our criticism of a production’s costumes. Now, of course, it will be said that sets and costumes have no feelings, and cannot be hurt.

True, but their designers can be hurt more than actors can. If I say that actor X, in the hero’s role, looks like a garden gnome (which I haven’t actually), future directors and producers may, being ever so much more humane or purblind, disagree and ignore my “unfounded” slur. If, on the other hand, they agree with it, what harm have I done?

With sets and costumes, though, it is a different matter. Because opinions pro and con in those areas are much less emotionally charged and more debatable, sympathies can be more easily shaken than about faces, and poor reviews may actually damage a designer’s opportunities.

I do not hold with pussyfooting criticism of any kind.  If I say that actress Y in the role of the leading lady looked like a cigar store Indian (I actually did), I was saying so because she glaringly didn’t fit the role: two dashing young men would not have fought a deadly duel over her.

Now, I know that some reviewers would merely say of a visually thoroughly unsuited actress that she is miscast; or if she is many years too old, that she is too mature for her role. But those statements do not make much of an impression. A critic is a salesman for his reviews, and to sell them, he needs to make a powerful effect. Ergo the cigar store Indian.

There are other things to be considered. If a performer is brilliant, such talent easily eclipses any deficiency in her looks. Take, for instance, Edith Piaf. Her looks were definitely wanting, but never made me note a lack that she glowingly transcended. OK, she was more a singer than an actress, but I have been just as tolerant of, say, Rita Tushingham or Peggy Ashcroft, whose talents dazzled. And surely sovereign talent is what we are entitled to get from a performer.

In other words, actors can definitely help their looks, often even without surpassing talent. Wigs, makeup, costuming and, onscreen, clever photography can also do the trick. It doesn’t matter how it is arrived at as long as it is done. And then there are all those roles for which looks are not necessary. In some cases, albeit rare, good looks can even be inappropriate and distracting.

Among these cases I include not only such obvious examples as the witches in “Macbeth,” but even Lady Macbeth herself, who, though she shouldn’t look repulsive, need not be a great beauty in that very much leading part. This seems especially true in Britain, which, for whatever reason, does not have so many beautiful women, and thus also beautiful actresses, as can be found in other countries. But who would have found fault, say, with Celia Johnson for not having had Hollywood good looks?

And, speaking of Hollywood, what does anyone who considers thespian comeliness unimportant make of the fact that looks of actresses, and to only slightly lesser extent actors, was capitalized on and greatly contributed to the movies’ success? So why not criticize looks in a medium where looks have been paramount—and not only at Paramount?

But never mind crassly commercial Hollywood; didn’t even so great a director as Ingmar Bergman set tremendous stock by the looks of his leading ladies? And if beauty can be of such importance, cannot its absence be equally important and duly reprehended?

As for me, I take beauty seriously everywhere, even in dogs. I am ill at easy with unsightly canines, no matter how vaunted the supposed superior intelligence of mutts may be. I am all for pure breeds, except, of course, in breeds like bulldogs, where ugliness is prized. But they look funny, and this is where comedy comes to the rescue. An unsightly actor or actress can be just the thing in comedy or, better yet, farce. There lack of looks actually scores.

Accordingly, I have no problem with Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”; it is only as an unfunny girl, especially when, as in “The Way We Were,” the smashing Robert Redford is in love with her, that she really bothers me. Of course, in real life handsome men often marry plain women, but art plays by other rules than life.

All of which reminds me that Peter Bogdanovich once described my film criticism as being “about as much help as a legless man teaching running.” And why not? May not a legless man value running more highly than those who take it for granted, and so dedicate himself to studying it and guiding runners from his wheelchair?

I have, in any case, one consolation: rat-faced and legless as I may be, I can still be a perfectly adequate critic of performing arts and even actresses’ looks. Unlike actors, a critic does not depend on his looks, only on his writing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


All schemes for improving humankind appear to be hopeless. The masses are definitely not kind and, I fear, barely human. Where even quite ordinary individuals manage to rise above ordinary callousness, the moment they merge into a crowd, they become intolerant and intolerable.

Among other seemingly gratuitous pursuits, I have often pondered what could make man and womankind more human. Are there not enough kind humans around even to form an active core of gentility? For, of course, gentility would be the solution.

Gentility or, by its other name, manners. Optimists, if there are any of those, would assume that although intelligence cannot be generated, and stupidity thrives and multiplies even without teaching, manners, at least theoretically, ought to be teachable. Even dogs can be trained to behave as well as cats, which are fastidious by nature.

But what about people? Couldn’t they be taught good manners? To be sure, there have been elegant, seemingly well-behaved persons who, secretly, were criminals. Not for nothing do we have a play entitled “A Woman Killed With Kindness.” It is conceivable that even Dr. Mengele and Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) had good manners. On the other hand, can you imagine an off-the-field football team, let alone  an army, with good manners?

Still, the majority of persons exhibiting mannerly behavior do this not as a cover-up, but because inwardly too they are considerate and gracious. With those people we have no problems. But can anything be achieved with instinctual loudmouths, boors, bullies, laggards, drones, know-nothings, mugwumps, fence sitters, the various kinds of fanatics or phlegmatics?

Probably not much. Nonetheless, what if, unlike what’s usual, we made an effort? Perhaps the real problem is not so much young rowdies as unqualified or nonexisting teachers. Heaven knows schooling of the traditional kind is generally either failing or not in the curriculum. As an intermittent college faculty member, I can vouch for the untutoredness of even elite school graduates, even by the time they are college upperclassmen. The rub is the lack of learning on the secondary-school level, and, no less drastic, in the home.

There have been times within human memory when parents were willing and able to teach their offspring a thing or two at home, or at least encourage them to become creditable autodidacts. As Jacques Barzun has eloquently pointed out, there is not much real teaching and learning in the schools; instead, there is an abstraction called education, windy palaver instead of getting down to brass tacks.

Given ineffectual parents and teachers, how could manners possibly be acquired? Good question, alas. Perhaps some kind of books could help: books on etiquette, if only they were wittily and charmingly written. Could even worthy works of fiction and drama influence mannerly behavior? Perhaps even certain games, in which finesse triumphs over brashness and opportunism.

I would like to think, for instance, that intelligent reading of Bernard Shaw’s plays might make a difference. Or any number of plays by Giraudoux and Anouilh, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, possibly still crying out for adequate translations. All of them are foreign; make of that what you will.

And, while I am fantasizing, just think what could be achieved if important phone calls were taken by courteous human beings rather than impersonal machines. If this makes me a Luddite, so be it. And what if computers and their e-mail spoke not some jarring jargon, but simple, good human language?

As I implied in the beginning, probably impossible. But couldn’t we at least try?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Obituaries should be read by everyone. We already know that life can be stranger than fiction—although contemporary fiction goes a long way toward strangeness—but what we should also know is how fascinating obituaries can be. No wonder many readers of the New York Times begin their reading with them. After all, deaths are in a dead heat with taxes in inevitability and universality, so that every life, tersely summarized in an obituary, should be of commanding  interest and importance to any mortal.

Take the September 4 obit of (to quote the headline) “Rev. Eugene A. Nida, 96; Spurred Bible Translations.” Now I have a modest interest in the Bible as literature, but a greater one in Dr. Nida, who, I read, traversed the globe from pole to pole by plane, train and canoe to oversee the translating of Scripture into more than 200 languages.

Margalit Fox, the obituarist, points out that Nida’s efforts were to make the Bible’s language as accessible as possible in all those languages, including English, where the Good News Bible, possibly at Nida’s instigation, translated “Behold the fowls of the air” as “Look at the birds flying around.” That is certifiably colloquial, but surely less appealing than the King James version. The latter, by the way, owes much of its popularity to its English being archaic enough for exoticism, but not enough so to defeat comprehension.

Yet what is most informative, indeed instructive, about the Nida obit is its last paragraph, which concludes: “’I am sorrowful’ gets a variety of translations for tribes within a small area of central Africa:  ‘My eye is black,’ ‘My heart is rotten,’ ‘My stomach is heavy’ or ‘My liver is sick.’”

This gives us a lot to think about.  If there can be that much difference between adjacent tongues, does that not imply sizable differences between less neighborly ones the world over? To be sure most languages do not—naively or poetically—locate sadness in diverse parts of the anatomy.  Still, even without checking up, I can assume that “sorrowful” resonates differently from what I imagine as its counterpart in German and French Bibles.  It is peculiar even in English, as is “fowls of the air.”

How? Well, “sorrowful” has a literary, or perhaps romantic, aura that the commonplace, expectable “sad” would not have.  It suggests a Byronic hero going about (or flying around) in a showily melancholy state. A modern sports fan, for example, after his team loses, can hardly be described as “sorrowful.”

As for “fowls,” they mean to us chickens or ducks or geese, but certainly not pigeons and sparrows. We are inadvertently nudged to imagine the air around us populated by, say, hens and turkeys, the better to befoul us with bird droppings, but also, conversely, to provide the needy with easily available sustenance.

What this means is that foreign languages may well be more alien, less fathomable, than we realize. The moment another language waxes even moderately poetic like our pre-Nidan biblical English (never mind such difficult poets as Mallarme and Rilke, or, in reverse, Eliot and Pound), we find ourselves more left out than we might imagine.

Still, in Europe and America, thanks to education, travel and dictionaries, these differences have been reduced. But what about other parts of the world, where differences in language may intensify other kinds of difference into hostility and bloody strife?

I have no wish to exaggerate. Even within the same language there can be incomprehension and lack of tolerance. Most Germans read their classical poets—Goethe, Heine, George, Rilke—just as most French people read theirs—Villon, Ronsard, Baudelaire, Verlaine—and such delectable modern ones as the German Erich Kaestner and the French Jacques Prevert, without its making them more tolerant of their neighbor nations, or even of their very own Jews. Did it even keep so many Germans from becoming Nazis that they read, memorized and sang settings of beloved poems by Heine, a converted Jew?

What I really wonder about, though, is those contiguous African tribes. Now that they have, thanks to Rev. Nida, the Bible in their own lingo, does that make them better Christians? Better human beings? Does it stop their slaughtering one another even if they are as neighborly as Sudan and the just recently created South Sudan? It looks as though the confusions of the biblical Babel (which begat the English “babble”), though surely contributive to mutual intolerance in, say, Israel and Palestine, were not the only reasons for the deadly enmity. Does possession of, for all I know, well-translated Bibles in Syria, Libya and Iran make those countries, even intramurally, less murderous?

Alas, poor human nature—plagued by social, political, economic, religious as well as linguistic disparity—whose fault is it that you are so unnatural?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


One of the major monstrosities is rewriting a classic. That is what Suzan-Lori Parks (playwright), Diane Paulus (director) and Audra McDonald (star) are perpetrating with their forthcoming Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. Partly rewritten, it is to be called Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, allegedly with the blessings of the executors of the Gershwin and DuBose Heyward estates.

Absurd right off is retitling the classic as “Gershwin’s” after you have arrogantly de-Gershwinized it. If the offenders were honest, they would call it “Parks’s” or “Paulus’s” unless they have obtained the go-ahead from the composer and lyricists in the Great Beyond. Unlike the executors, the authors do not stand to profit from a revival, however travestied.

Stephen Sondheim, in a cogent and witty letter to the New York Times, has pointed out the preposterousness of an undertaking that treats composer George Gershwin, bookwriter and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, and co-lyricist Ira Gershwin as needing the two P’s, Parks and Paulus, as baldies needing a toupee. (The pun is mine; if you dislike it, don’t blame Sondheim.) The supposed explanation was that the principal characters needed backstories and fleshing out to become rounded flesh-and-blood characters, which is bloody nonsense.

Unlike—perhaps—major characters in a novel, the principals in an opera or musical (which of the two the show is has been the subject of unending and pointless debate) require no such ministrations. The story, lyrics and music of a classic will satisfy all demands. Provide a cast of gifted singing actors or acting singers, and the production’s living is easy.

I realize that I am not saying anything very new, but what is raised here is the larger issue of rewriting the classics to bring them “up to date,” or to bring in a new, young audience, presumably wanting more “reality.” Is then a Porgy who sets out to retrieve Bess from New York with his goat cart less believable than one who needs only a cane—not even a pogo stick—for the journey, and who, in one misguided version, asked “Bring my coat” for “Bring my goat”? A goat makes much more sense, even if, unlike the protagonist of Edward Albee’s ludicrous The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, he is not in love with the critter.

But it’s that damned happy—or at least happier—ending that is supposed to keep an audience contented. Thus the 2P Porgy, needing only a cane, is less of a cripple and so more likely to satisfy Bess and the audience. If audiences were desperate for happy endings, half of our plays and three quarters of our operas would not have survived. As if a good death scene weren’t as satisfying as a final embrace—think Shakespeare’s Othello or Verdi’s Otello.

Well, all this may not be news. What may be news is my contention that the history of the arts is as important as history itself. A human being is three things: what he is, what he thinks he is, and what he would like to be. Now history records the first of those things, but scants on the other two. For them, we have to go to the literature, fine arts, and even music of ages past.

However, to get back to that goat. I read in today’s Times that an experienced hiker in Olympia Park was gored to death by a 300-pound goat. That, of course, was a wild one—the goat, I mean, not the hiker. Still, while a trained goat would behave itself, and not even demand rewrites in its role, it might be a good idea to weigh it as well as the Porgy, and avoid excessive weight disparity. But goat there must be if the production is not to get my goat, not to mention Stephen Sondheim’s and that of other right-thinking folks.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


This is an obituary for the art of letter writing. Of course, there are people who do not believe that e-mail and its electronic relatives have killed epistolary beauties, but they seem to me overly optimistic or purblind. Even the wonderful Thomas Mallon, in his splendid Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, writes about 1997, “ just as e-mail was reaching Everyman and beginning to kill or revive (there are both schools of thought), the practice and art of letter writing.” Note that out of modesty or prudence or politeness (not to offend anyone) he speaks of revival via e-mail.

I don’t believe this for a moment. I do, however, believe that some hardy and gifted epistolarians who were able to conquer the typewriter, taming it into submission to their style, may also still be literate on e-mail, though surely not on Tweeter and the rest of the ungodly inventions. But oh, what was surely lost! You need only read (I sincerely hope you will) Mallon’s marvelous Yours Ever, over 300 pages of sheer delight—not only from the adduced letters, but also for Mallon’s wise and witty commentaries—and you will be sure that, whatever he may or may not say, Mallon considers letter writing a gravely imperiled species, if not quite yet stone cold dead.

It is not just that handwritten letters look a bit different from typewritten and e-mailed ones, even though that “bit” of difference is enormous. It is so many things that I hardly know where to begin. It is first (and more about this later) that the handwriting, as Buffon might also have said, “c’est l’homme” and also, in our less paternalistic times, “la femme.” Ad almost so as in writing  “le style” in writing, is style in speech, tone of voice, hairdo, clothes and any number of other things.

Consider merely what letters are written on. I always resented those on a page of cheap lined paper from a pad or torn from a loose-leaf notebook. That, to me, was like someone going out in the street in his underwear. There is the kind of stationery, but also how the writer uses it. Does he write on both sides of even transparent paper, how much margin does he leave, how many words he gets on a page, what color ink he uses (pencil? Heaven forfend!) , whether he thinks me worthy of a second page, etc. etc.

Then there is the handwriting itself. Is it large a la Hancock, or tiny, in the manner of the Swedish writer Per Wastberg?  Is it vertical or slanted, the kind taught in school (when such things were still taught there) or something more individual, is it hasty and messy, or finely crafted and beautiful? I recall that the tycoon Huntington Hartford would not employ anyone whose lower-case g was not closed as in a number 8, but had an aperture at the top of the lower half. That was some sort of nonsense graphology,  a discipline to be reserved for detective work and court cases.

And what about the things one can do with an envelope? They culminate in Mallarme’s admirable rhyming quatrains, with which he addressed letters to friends, and which the worthy postman, often apostrophized in the first line, always managed to deliver in an age when even mailmen, at least in France, read poetry. They were published as Les Loisirs de la poste, the leisure of the postal service, whose leisure is getting costlier by the minute. In my Harvard days, I too, in emulation of my beloved Mallarme, attempted something similar, addressing with quatrains letters to a Radcliffe girl named Diana Frothingham. I don’t recall whether they reached their destination, but I do remember some of my horrible rhymes, notably the dubiously culinary “brothing ham.” It might better have been ”nothing am,” inasmuch as it never led to getting into that charming but very Protestant New England young lady’s pants.

There are even such niceties as the choice of stamps. I used to—and still do—whenever possible not settle for the basic, humdrum stamp of the requisite denomination, but busied the postal employee with displaying the special issues, and picking the prettiest, or the ones most appropriate to some of my correspondents. I still preserve the original stamp design created for the Canadian mail by a girlfriend who gave me a framed print version of it. The poor woman is long dead, but her stamp, at least in this format, survives. Like the nightingales of Heraclitus, in William Cory’s rendering of the famed Greek epigram, “For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.”

But let’s get to the most important aspect of the handwritten letter. It required some feeling, because of the effort, however minimal, involved. And it required some thought, because it could not be produced as quickly and thoughtlessly as e-mail. This partly because the letter on paper would survive, certainly in human possession, and perhaps even beyond, if it managed to get itself into a printed book.

You really must read at least Thomas Mallon’s remarkable Introduction to Yours Ever, in which, for all his seeming tolerance, he writes, “the relative ease of e-mail feels undeniable, as does . . . the glaze of impersonality over what pops up on that computer screen.” That Introduction comprises, among other things, an invaluable brief history of letter writing, from its alleged beginning with “Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, [writing] the first letter, from Persia, sometime in the sixth century B.C.” or, as Alvin F. Harlow in a 1928 book insisted, much earlier, though unrecorded. From there all the way up to 2009, when Yours Ever was published.

Although Mallon alleges tolerance of it, I cannot really countenance the new language or simplified spelling of computerese, a true atrocity. Even the individual typewriter had its recognizable idiosyncrasies, as Mallon points out. But not so e-mail and the rest. I personally cannot imagine genuine emotion in an e-mail, not even if it’s printed out on paper. Long live snail mail, I say, even if it is not escargot and edible.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


The other day I read about the Williamstown Theater Festival presenting Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which title is used again and again even though it is wrong. I have waged a campaign, to no apparent avail, on behalf of the correct A Doll House. Not calling the play that is a serious mistake.

Ibsen’s point is that the husband, Torvald, has turned his wife, Nora, into a doll—not a full-fledged human being, but a plaything for himself. Their house is like that still popular toy: a miniature dwelling with a doll as its miniature mistress.

Now if you call the play A Doll’s House, you make Nora the proprietress, in command, which is precisely what Torvald and the mores of that time would not allow. The house is Torvald’s, the husband and master’s, and the play might accordingly be called A Doll Owner’s House. Ibsen’s true meaning is conveyed only by A Doll House, without the apostrophe and the final S, i.e., the possessive case. Other languages have translated it correctly. Thus in German it is Ein Puppenheim, a doll house, rather than Heim einer Puppe, a doll’s house.

This somehow led to speculation about title mistranslation and manipulation in general, most significantly of the titles of foreign films, a particularly nefarious practice. They are the ones with which the crassest liberties are taken, in most cases to lure people in under falsely provocative pretenses.

Ingmar Bergman alone has been the victim of numerous mistitlings. Take the film that first brought me to Bergman, but almost deterred me by its American title, The Naked Night, which doesn’t even make proper sense. Still, it made me think that it was yet another of those Swedish sex movies in which lovers go skinny dipping and the camera lingers pruriently on the heroine’s naked body.

Of course the film was nothing of the sort, although it does contain a very different instance of nude bathing, appalling rather than alluring. The actual Swedish title is The Clown’s Evening, which has several meanings, not least the twilight or downfall of the circus artiste, but perhaps also of other than circus people, stultified in their private lives. The British title, Sawdust and Tinsel, is nearer the mark, because there is in the film a bitter conflict between a man of the circus and a man of the theater.

Consider now the retitling of The Face as The Magician. True, the protagonist is a magician of sorts, but what is more important is that he is in disguise, as is his lovely wife, for safety’s sake disguised as a male youth. But their true faces are revealed, making a vast difference, and implying that all art is a kind of disguise, salutary in some ways, but not the bare truth. The Magician may sell better than The Face, but it derails the viewer’s attention.

Similarly, The Communicants was retitled as Winter Light. Yes, it does take place in a snow-bleached Northern winter, but the film is really about communion with the Divine and communication, or lack thereof, among humans. They try to communicate and commune, but with only mixed results. There are wintry hearts in the story, but light, if any, comes only in a very ambivalent ending. The title change reflects the striving to avoid narrowly Christian implications, but is its vagueness any kind of real gain?

Much more objectionable is the turning of the Swedish for A Passion into The Passion of Anna. That could suggest a woman in heat, whereas the film deals with the very different passions of the four principal characters, inviting also thoughts of Christ’s passion. Altogether it evokes the conflicted and conflicting  passions of all humanity, which the changed title cravenly bypasses.

To be sure, Bergman is not the only one to suffer from mistitling. Take Ermanno Olmi’s wonderful Il posto (the job), about two young persons’ desperate need to find gainful employment. In English, it became The Sound of Trumpets, from an almost throwaway line in the dialogue, but having nothing to do with the plot. It has since reverted to its original Italian title, yet again eschewing simple literal translation. Why could it at no time become The Job?

This calls attention to a more recent trend, the retaining of the untranslated original title, usually Italian, as in La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura. I Vitelloni, La Notte and many others, presumably on the assumption that people could figure out the meaning while also basking in the newness, the exoticism of the foreign title.

At other times there was literal translation, albeit foreshortened. Thus what was in the Italian The Nights of Cabiria became a mere Cabiria, perhaps gambling on the suggestiveness of that mysterious foreign word. On the other hand, I can understand the decimation of Lina Wertmuller’s yard-long titles. So it is that Swept Away by an Unusual destiny in the Blue Sea of August became the terse Swept Away. Even more frugally, Film of Love and Anarchy, or At Ten o’Clock This Morning at the Via dei Fiori in a Well-known Brothel was preshrunk into Love and Anarchy, superb films regardless of titular tribulations. But was even the witty Everything Orderly But Nothing Works needful of condensation into All Screwed Up, conceivably because of a far-fetched suggestion of screwing?

However, there are also cases where a literal translation was retained, but not making much sense in English. So with Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, where in French this means painting the town red, but the English of The 400 Blows means nothing at all. Then there are the tiny, inconspicuous changes, as with that Ibsen play, which nevertheless are misleading. Why would DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves become The Bicycle Thief, when there are at least two characters to whom the title refers? I can see why Rossellini’s Paisa (homeland) was changed to Paisan (homeboy), because the latter had some resonance even for Americanized Italians. But the film is not about a single person; it is about Italy under German occupation.

I could go on and on, but what’s the use of griping? Why in a dishonest world should titling be an exception? But flagrant error, as in Doll’s for Doll, should not be tolerated and prevail. I was once invited to a Midwestern production of the Ibsen play with a seductive note about how my title correction was scrupulously observed. Even so, I didn’t attend. There are matters even more important than fiddling with titles.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Although I am an atheist, I do not dismiss religion; in fact. I envy a bit those who have it. But I don’t understand it; perhaps someone can provide me with a credible explanation.

I can see where people in the Middle Ages believed. But today? We have explored the universe and found no Paradise in it. It is said that space is infinite, and somewhere in it God may be ensconced. But the earth is far from infinite, and we can now affirm that it houses no Hell in its bowels. And even if it were a hollow sphere, how could there be room in it for all the baddies since the beginning of time?

Well, you might say we need not take everything in the Bible literally. But what would a nonliteral afterlife be like? And can you be selectively Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever? Can you partly believe in the multiplication table? Or in astrology? Can you be partly Vegan or halfway superstitious? Can you be semi-agnostic? Or half-humble?

I believe you must either swallow religion whole or you are not religious. So then how can persons with first-rate intellects be believers? Like, for example, T. S. Eliot.

Of course, intellectuals may seek recourse in Tertullian’s famous credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd, I take faith on faith. But why should religion be exempt from logic? Falling in love is. True, but there, palpably, is the love object. Even the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, who fell in love with the unseen Countess of Tripoli, did so on beholding her picture.

I find incomprehensible, for instance, the belief of some perfectly intelligent people that they will be reunited in Heaven with a predeceased spouse. What of the man twice widowed and thrice happily married? Will he become polygamous in Heaven, even though he was perfectly monogamous on earth? And how will the three wives feel about it? Yet how many Christians believe such a thing, even though Holy Writ tells them that in Heaven no marriage is.

Still, I can sympathize with believers. It is human to be afraid of death, or unreconciled to it, and so invent a remedy: the afterlife, the soul’s immortality, its basking in supraterrestrial bliss. But can one perceive the soul as detachable from the body? And, by the way, when does the good Christian go to Heaven? Upon his demise or at Christ’s second coming? Both are advocated. Furthermore, what about those cremated by the family, hacked to death by a madman, or blown to smithereens by some fanatic?

What I have especial difficulty with is uniforms, the regimentation that rejects individualism. Must every Jewish man wear a skullcap, even if, for children, it can be motley rather than black? Must there be prescribed hair- or head coverings? Must a woman’s whole body be hidden from view in a standardized way? I can see wearing an artful cross on a necklace, but even that may be ostentation, zealotry, or proselytizing.

There is also the matter of ritual. I see no pressing need for circumcision, sitting shiva, weekend confinement and other restrictions. Or total immersion. To say nothing of practices such as human sacrifice, suttee, footbinding.

And then there is churchgoing at specified hours. This might seem harmless, except that it involves sermons by preachers who are not in the class of John Donne and genuflections and uncomfortable pews. But probably the most problematic thing about religion is that it breeds intolerance toward noncoreligionists (though it denies any such thing.) In the past, this produced persecution and burning at the stake, but there is unpleasantness even in the present. Is anti-Semitism dead? Far from it. And what about Muslim suicide bombers? Is there no developing anti-Islamism?

One of the arguments for religion is that it keeps the underprivileged from murdering the privileged, that it stops crime from running riot. I am not sure to what extent that still prevails. If it does prevent criminality, it is as good as the system of law, with which no one in his right mind would want to do away.

But what about its interference with our rights? To consensual sex, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, freely available contraceptives and, above all, abortion. The chances of forced parenthood benefiting an unwanted child are slim, and even adoption by the right people is an iffy proposition. Whatever doesn’t harm other people, not mere embryos, should be allowed.

That religion creates a certain clubbiness—favoring the coreligionists—is unavoidable and would, without religion, take other forms. As indeed it does, on the basis of the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes, or even your IQ.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I have now caught the Diana Paulus production of the musical Hair for the third time, having seen it in Central Park and again on Broadway before now. This is the National Company, which has been touring and, after a two-month stint on Broadway, will resume the tour.

Galt MacDermot’s 1967 musical, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado has two claims to fame: brief nudity and the introduction of rock to Broadway.  (I am not sure of the proper order of importance.) It is an anthem to the youth- and counterculture of the late 1960s, with its celebration of pacifism, free love, drug consumption, and resistance to the draft as a protest against militarism and the Vietnam War.

And something else: a tribute to the eponymous hair. The characters, East Village types, sport long hair, the hallmark of the then new bohemianism. There are two epithets for hairiness: hirsute, if it’s a mere matter of its presence; hispid, referring to its bristliness. And then there is something more specific that had me thinking about hair these days: newspaper pictures of Rebekah Brooks, editor of London’s News of the World, which was shut down by its owner Rupert Murdoch for having caused a major scandal.

Brooks claims that she knew nothing of the staff’s hacking into the private lives of royalty, assassination victims’ families, a murdered 13-year-old girl’s voice mail, or about hiring shady private eyes for prying and making highly illegal financial deals with the police. She has refused manifest culpability by relying not only on the passionate support of Rupert Murdoch, but also on rather close connections to Prime Minister David Cameron. The case is under investigation, though previous investigations yielded largely nothing; the more recent ones only the arrest of a couple of individuals. Ms. Brooks, despite calls for her resignation from many directions, defies them and brazenly stays on.

 But what about hair? Ms. Brooks wears her enormous red and curly tresses cascading in bold disarray, sufficient to shelter a couple of rat’s nests. Supremely unappetizing, she appears in newspaper photographs looking like the leader of some gypsy tribe or an especially arrogant teenager.

Well, what about long hair? We know that it was the fashion for men and women in ages past, though the women often tamed it in a variety of hairdos, and the men stopped it at shoulder length. As we see it in paintings and early photographs, we respond to it diversely. On women, if long and neat, it is sexy and appealing. But only up to a certain age. When the wearer is well into middle age—though opinions clearly differ about when that sets in—it looks delusional and unseemly.

Why? Because women’s hair has always been a sexual  lure, perfectly respectable but eminently erotic. And somehow—after 40, 45, 50 or whatnot—a woman is supposed to desist from sexual provocation. The exact age limit was never codified, and even its intimations varied from era to era, but long white hair on a crone may always have smelled of witchcraft.

Hair, perhaps because of its role at the pubes, has tended to be viewed as arousing. On account of its aphrodisiac quality, many European woman do not shave their armpits. Paradoxically, however, other women have been shaving off their pubic hair, presumably to appear more naked, more enticing. Such depilation may look unnatural, but is what passes for natural necessarily desirable? Nothing is more natural than an uncombed head of hair, or a loosely flowing hairdo. Yet bear in mind that Casey Anthony, while on trial for murder, kept her hair demurely upswept. But the moment she was found innocent (unjustly, as many of us think), down came her hair freely. Was it resumption of her good-time-girl status?

And what about men? I know women who find long male hair hugely attractive, indeed seductive. Others don’t. It seems to me that the more silky, undulant, and flowing it is, the more it looks feminine and an abrogation of masculinity. On the other hand, it does call attention to itself, and being noticed is the beginning of any kind of relationship, amorous or not.

There is no denying either that running one’s hand through a loved person’s hair is pleasurable. It doesn’t even have to be a lover; perhaps just a child, not even necessarily one’s own. Still, I believe that every youngster resents parental ruffling of his hair. It is a form of playfulness when the recipient doesn’t feel particularly playful. In a sexual situation, however, it is always welcome.

Women’s long hair, at any rate, has earned literary, indeed legendary, tributes. Think Rapunzel or Melisande or Lady Godiva. Think of the title of one of Debussy’s most popular piano pieces, “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.” Think of O. Henry’s charming story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Recall that when Rossetti buried his love poems with his beloved young wife, it is with her long red hair that he intertwined the manuscript. (Never mind that later he dug it up.)

That Muslim women are supposed to cover their hair attests to its perceived erotic role in that culture; shaving the heads of Frenchwomen who cohabited with Nazis during World War Two testifies to hair’s all-important allure. I am guessing that the self-induced baldness of so many young blacks has to do with their viewing its crinkliness as inferior to the smooth Caucasian kind. Even removed, hair asserts its importance by its very absence. Think if you will of Samson.

Hair is prominent in poetry and song. I cite only two notable examples, Alexander Pope’s “Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,/ And beauty draws us with a single hair”; and Stephen Foster’s “I dream of Jeanie with the  light brown hair,/ Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.” And let’s not even go into its eulogy on television by Rogaine and the likes.

Finally, hair embodies the relativity of all things human. A copious head of hair on a woman is excellent; a hairy chest on a man is questionable; hairy legs on either sex are anathematized. And what of a beard, a mustache, or bushy eyebrows? How desirable are they? Why is hair under the nose considered better than above it?

Hair, I say, is the great mystery, the carrier of glory and ignominy, an object of affection and revulsion, an instrument of romance and rebellion. No wonder that a show called Hair, if I may put it so, keeps cropping up.

Friday, July 1, 2011


Is there any doubt left that Leos Janacek (1854-1928), though born into the middle of the 19th century, was arguably the first truly modern composer, and a great one to boot. He composed superbly in every conceivable genre.

Janacek’s later music far surpasses the earlier, and if he had not died prematurely at age 74, when he was on a roll, from consequences of his unrequited love for an unworthy woman, who knows what further masterpieces he might have written. But the woman’s daughter was lost in the woods, and Janacek gallantly searching for her caught a chill that led to a fatal pneumonia.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” of 1922-23, premiered in 1924, was the seventh of Janacek’s nine operas, known in Czech as “The Adventures of Vixen Sharpears.” It is  based on a short novel by the journalist Rudolf Tesnohlidek, whose handwriting was hard to read, so that the typesetter mistook sharp feet for sharp ears, a fortuitous improvement.

It was Tesnohlidek’s editor on The People’s Paper who made the young pessimist write a text to some 200 drawings by the optimistic artist Stanislav Lolek, a text its author thought little of, but which nevertheless came out in book form the following year. (An excellent English translation, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is heartily recommended.)  It seems to have been the housekeeper who brought the Vixen to the master’s attention.

Janacek’s libretto from the novel is much less satirical but more poignant. The animals of the forest and barnyard talk among themselves and understand human speech, but there is no communication between man and beast. This despite the animals’ very human behavior.

The aging Forester captures young Sharpears and she grows up in his yard. She defies the wife’s disapproval and the grandson’s teasing, has a friendship with the dog, and manages to kill the rooster and hens and feast on them. She is punitively tethered, but bites through the rope and escapes into the forest. Various animals, birds and insects live there, and provide commentary on or counterpoint to the main action.

The clever Vixen manages to maneuver the infuriated Badger out of his den, which she takes over. A male fox, Goldenmane, courts and wins her. Married by the Woodpecker, they start a family of many little foxes.  The poultry dealer and poacher Harasta shoots the foolhardy Vixen dead. When the Forester rests at his favorite spot, he mistakes one of the Vixen’s daughters for her mother. Similarly the Frog whom he catches proves the grandson of one he caught long ago. Time has moved on and wrought its changes; the Forester, nostalgically reminiscing, catches the forest’s autumnal mood, shared no doubt by Janacek, now 70.

Along with the largely animal story line there is also the human one. This takes place chiefly at Pasek’s inn, where the Forester and his cronies, The Parson and the Schoolmaster, drink beer and play cards. It emerges that the Forester is not overeager to go home to his formidable wife; that the Parson in his youth had a misadventure with a girl that soured him on women forever; and that the Schoolmaster was in love with a village girl, Terynka, who ended up marrying Harasta. The Forester recalls the amorous beginning of his marriage, its passion now spent. The only fully happy relationship is that of Sharpears and Goldenmane.

In the recent New York Philharmonic version of the opera, the orchestra and its conductor, Alan Gilbert, did solid work. During passages when there was only music all was well. But the theatrics, costumed and directed by Doug Fitch, and choreographed by Karole Armitage, were a less felicitous matter.

There is, to be sure, a problem for theater having to share space with a very large orchestra. Still, Fitch using every kind of gimmickry, made good with last year’s similar offering, Ligeti’s “Le grand Macabre.” But that was a postmodern clown show with no claim on the emotions. Janacek’s delicate and profound work does not take kindly to Fitch’s shenanigans.

Fitch turned the “Vixen” into a kind of kiddy show, largely defanged and cutesy. Thus whereas Janacek’s libretto contains one sunflower, Fitch had some 35 in back of the orchestra, turning a forest into a flower patch. Up front, three or four trees were represented by transparencies suggesting nothing much.

Other things, too, suffered in the relatively narrow space in front of the orchestra, even supplemented by a runway that zigzagged into the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall. With only one level, the Badger’s burrow was a kind of hut. The hens were costumed as lower-class housewives with rubber gloves for crests (the costumes were mostly made of mundane objects transformed with mixed results ), the rooster was a soprano with heavily padded shirtfront. These fowls did not get killed by the Vixen, presumably so as not to alienate children and benighted adults.

The smaller animals were played, as the composer wished, mostly by children, who sang sweetly and executed the simplistic Armitage choreography adequately. Instead of a major ballet number for the Dragonfly, Armitage had one for what was meant to be Terynka (who could guess it?), looking much too sophisticated and even kneeling to commune with the tethered vixen.

The scenery could not deal with Pasek’s inn, reduced to a small, solitary counter plunked down in the middle of nowhere. So the alehouse atmosphere was lacking.

The singing was respectable throughout, with Isabel Bayrakdarian a delightful vixen, vocally, visually and histrionically. She has sung the part in her native Canada in Czech, and found it both onerous and inapposite to sing it in English, given the necessary changes and Janacek’s vaunted musical approximation of Czech speech and animal sounds. Goldenmane, meant to be another soprano, was sung nicely by the mezzo Marie Lenormand. Joshua Bloom’s baritone did handsomely by Harasta; Keith Jameson and Wilbur Pauley satisfied as Schoolmaster and Parson, respectively. As the Forester, the respected bass Alan Opie sang opulently and feelingfully. The closing scene for him and the new generation of beasties was properly moving. Here the pathos of aging and death expectancy is beautifully subsumed by the sense of nature’s renewal, which the music conveyed through fearless motivic iteration.

Sadness and ecstasy were both here, as in most Janacek endings, and what cavils one had with the production were erased through the composer’s genius.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This is a blog post about tennis. Please bear with me on the somewhat circuitous path leading to it.

The aristocratic German nymphomaniac, Countess Franaziska von Reventlow, has in her charming memoirs a chapter entitled “The Era of Pauls.” (It sounds better in German, “Das Zeitalter der Paule”—kindly excuse the computer’s lamentable lack of umlauts.) In the early twentieth century, Schwabing, the bohemian suburb of Munich, was the German equivalent of swinging Paris and Vienna, and the Countess made full use of it, notably during one phase when all her lovers were named Paul.

I have never had simultaneous namesakes in my romantic life, but, distributed over a good many years, Patricias have been of importance to me. Before the definitive, supreme Patricia—my amazing, beloved wife—there was the film and TV professor Patricia Mellencamp, and, still earlier, the radio interviewer Patricia Marx (now Ellsberg), with whom I traveled through Europe.

In those days, I was better known as a film critic, and in Stockholm we socialized with, among others, the distinguished film director Bo Widerberg, best known hereabouts for Elvira Madigan, a fine film but not, in my view, his best. Bo invited Patricia and me to his studio, where he regaled us with bits of his forthcoming feature on the Movieola. While we were watching, he was summoned to the telephone, and, in the cat’s absence, the mice had fun.

So after some fooling around, Pat smuggled in a text reading Klippning (editing) by Patricia Marx och (and) John Simon, which amused the returning Widerberg no end. He also invited us to the premiere of his new documentary, The White Sport, for good or bad never released in this country to my knowledge.

Why “the white sport”? Well, aesthetically, because in those days tennis was played, exclusively and blessedly, only in white; but also, socially, because, exclusively and unjustly, only persons of white skin were able to participate. So the politically liberal Widerberg used the documentary not only as a tribute to the beauties of tennis, but also as a passionate denunciation of its racism. I don’t know what The White Sport did for my politics (if, indeed, I have any), but it certainly turned me into an ardent tennis fan. So here we are at my present topic.

I am only a selective sports fan, and then chiefly if the sport is televised. I do watch the Olympics, both the summer and winter variety, major figure skating events, and soccer when it is World Cup time. But tennis is my true love, albeit only at grand slam time on TV. Right now I am gearing up for serious Wimbledon watching. (Need I tell you how upset I get when bunglers pronounce it as “Wimbleton”?)

Stimulating as the three esses—soccer, skating and skiing—can be, tennis is the only truly beautiful sport that also requires brainwork. Beautiful even nowadays, when tennis dress evokes the Mardi Gras or  trunk dress-up parties. Well, perhaps a little humor is welcome; even the ancient Greeks had, along with their dramas, satir plays. Though happily no longer played in long pants by the men,  tennis still, to my eyes, looks best in white, maybe with a touch of added color as in, for instance, Novak Djokovic’s shirts.

The aesthetics of tennis, however, are much more than dress deep. Still, clothes, though they do not make the man and woman in tennis, are a part of the show.  Thus the barnstorming gladrags of the Williams sisters do not enhance their appearance, but the stylish outfits of tall and comely Maria Sharapova contribute to her appeal. Maria does, nevertheless, present a problem.

It all began with Monika Seles, who seems to have invented the grunt. A totally unnecessary and unbecoming feature of the game of many female and even some male players, it may help them release energy, or so at least they believe. Still, quite a few top players are perfectly able to dispense with this often earsplitting and tasteless addendum. Perhaps the worst offender in this respect is Francesca Schiavone, although she would be unappealing enough even without it.  Tennis, to be sure, is not meant to be a beauty pageant, but good looks, in men as well as women players, do not hurt, especially when you consider that far too many tennis women look like unsightly men in drag.

Martina Hingis used to be the one to watch, not only for physical beauty but also for elegance of play. These days there is rather too much hitting the ball hard from the baseline, and not enough stylish finesse. Of course the truly great players, male or female, combine powerful baseline drive with comeliness of movement and subtle placement of the ball. Still, such stylish play as, for example, serve and volley, is comparatively rare nowadays, although chip and charge, its somewhat poorer cousin, persists. Luckily, there are a few all-round players who can do everything and then some.

Here I instance Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at their best, who amaze us with, among other things, their  spectacular defensive play, the ability not only to return seemingly unreturnable shots but even score winners off them. Yet there is something beyond either great defensive or attacking play, beyond tactics and strategy, something I would call natural grace.

Roger’s movements are nearly balletic, and I am not referring to acrobatics such as hitting a ball between the legs with back to the net, and even winning a point with it. I mean sheer beauty: litheness, easefulness, elasticity, poise—well, yes, grace. Djokovic, a witty Serb, has this too in his—dare I say it?—a somehow witty way; rubbery, perhaps, rather than silken. There is something wonderfully tongue-in-cheek about the way he goes successfully after an apparently unreturnable shot. Or the way he mounts a sequence of shots like repartee from a great comic actor.

But then there is Rafael Nadal,  He, too, has an all-around game. He can return serve like a brick wall, retrieve fantastic shots like a golden retriever, place winners into corners or on the lines, serve aces as almost any of the major servers champion, and  has been for some time number one in the world. Yet I have scant use for this Spaniard. On the court at least he is without charm, though off court, I gather, he can be quite appealing. His playing, however, is robotic, charmless, humorless, hard-bitten, almost bestial.

Among the women, there are quite a few highly competent players, but not, as of now, charmers among the winners.  Ana Ivanovic had the lovable winner quality for a moment, then promptly lost it. Sharapova is too haughty. For Wozniacki, Clijsters, and Kuznetsova, epithets must be drawn from the tubbier reaches of the animal kingdom; the pleasanter-looking Dementieva and even Bartoli, are unfortunately too unreliable players.

Most attractive and promising these days is the lovely German, Julia Goerges, now ranked sixteenth or seventeenth, but who, I hope, is climbing higher. She has already beaten all the graceless dynamos at least once or twice, and her blog postings, especially in German, are perfectly charming. I am rooting for her to make it to the top, although she may be just a bit too delicately feminine to steadily overpower the cows.

At any rate, tennis is no longer the racially white sport. We have Monfils and Tsonga among the men, and , of course, the Williams sisters, great, charmless power hitters, sort of female Nadals. Althea Gibson was a far more appealing player, as were Chandra Rubin, Zina Garrison and, somewhat differently, Yvonne Goolagong.. Among men, Arthur Ashe was a prince, with and without a racket.

Elegance, ultimately, is what I look for, and wearing white, for me, contributes to it. The only time I published anything about tennis was a profile of Mary Pierce for Vogue.  I yearned to do Hingis, but, alas, John Heilpern had beaten me to it. So I was given Pierce, a good player, but an erratic and, I am afraid, uncharismatic one. I found her French mother rather more interesting. But, at any rate, Pierce favored white; my profile began with “White is Mary Pierce’s favorite color,” a sentence Pierce found to her liking.

There is no getting around it: tennis is the most elegant sport, with the possible exception of fencing, which I took up during my Harvard days, only to have it be discontinued for austerity reasons during World War Two.  Figure skating, though lovely, lacks the head-to-head competitiveness, what with winners determined by several often chauvinist judges and questionable scoring. So now good-bye computer and hello TV screen; Wimbledon is calling, more alluringly than the estimable Bali Hai ever did.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I read on the Internet that Anthony Weiner’s (or Whiner’s) troubles stem from a typo he committed on Tweeter: @ instead of D, turning a private misdemeanor into a public offense. Typos are pesky things, and must have caused quite some trouble in the history of publishing—someday surely a bestseller on this subject will cash in handsomely.

Yet even if typos don’t ruin someone’s marriage and political career, they can give a fastidious writer a nasty headache. I have had my share of inflicted typos, although some are harmless enough and even a good source of laughter.

For example: I wrote in my review of High in my column in The Westchester Guardian that Kathleen Turner, as a nun in mufti, wore a pants suit, which came out in print as “ants suit.” This had me wondering what an ants suit might be: An outfit impregnated with an insect repellent to protect you in case you stepped on an ant hill? A technological wonder that could transmute ants into an inexpensive textile suitable for suits?

In another recent review—of War Horse—I compared the pleasure of catching the show to receiving my first major literary award. That became my “fist award.” Now this might make sense if I were a pugilist or could put my fists to an unusual type of intercourse, but since neither applied, this fist caused me quite a fit.

Still, typos, I repeat, are of two kinds. The innocent errors that could not have been committed by the writer, and the culpable ones, that could mistakenly be chalked up to the author. That kind truly hurts.

Moreover, it hurts not only the writer, but also the critic reviewing the book or article in which it occurs, unable to determine whether the guilty party was the author or the typesetter, assuming that such a creature still exists and hasn’t been supplanted by a robot.

It is interesting to note that some genuine mistakes can escape censure by not even looking like typos. For example, a “who” for a “whom” has become so firmly lodged in writing as well as parlance that even a strict traditionalist might forgo making an issue of it. But a “whom” for a “who”—an accusative where a simple nominative is called for—is gross and leaves one disgruntled. Yet even the venerable New York Times abounds in this indisputable authorial error, now that it has seen fit to dispense with the luxury of a resident grammarian along with some other niceties.

Similarly, when I read on the Internet the article entitled “The Twitter Typo That Exposed Anthony Weiner,” I feel justified in blaming its author for referring to a hacker “whom [sic] Weiner claimed had cracked his account.” This whom-for-who fallacy has become so popular that it threatens the supremacy of the misplaced nominative in things like “Thank you for inviting Jane and I to your wonderful party.” That one, impossible to gloss over as a typo and ubiquitous, may well become—disastrously—acceptable colloquial English.

I wish I could recall offhand an example of the rare but not unheard-of occurrence of a felicitous typo, which produces a merry verbal gaffe. Something like an elephant that held a midget in his trunk, or the famous student boner,  ‘The Templar asked Rebecca to become his mistress. The brave girl reclined to do so.”

Who knows? A lucky typo may even become accepted usage, say, “ants suit” for an ill-fitting garment that causes skin irritation. But enough about typos and on to their cousin, the misquotation. I am the victim of a particularly irritating one. In a 1971 review of a play called Abelard and Heloise, I wrote, “Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This in reference to a nude scene revealing her as somewhat deficient in the chest department.

To be sure, a basilica, unlike a cathedral, does not have flying buttresses; still, liking the alliteration of “brick basilica,” I took this architectural liberty.  Now it seems that someone unfamiliar with basilicas misquoted this as a “brick mausoleum,” in which faulty form it has become just about my only contribution to various anthologies of quotations, as well as to Miss Rigg’s own charming memoir, No Turn Unstoned.  This is unfortunate, because it would suggest some connection between the gifted actress and death, which I never intended, but which makes my sally worse than it was, and destined to haunt me unto my grave—no mausoleum either.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I just read about the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Serbian ethnic cleanser, and my thoughts went back to Yugoslavia, the lost country of my childhood. Of course, everyone’s childhood is a sort of lost country, but Yugoslavia literally is: it no longer exists. Serbia, however, exists, as does its and the former Yugoslavia’s capital, Belgrade, where I was growing up. But Serbia was never truly my country, because my father was a Hungarian who came to it to make his fortune (he did), and my mother, though technically Serbian, belonged to the Hungarian minority, and never even leaned to speak Serbo-Croat properly.

Emotionally, I felt intensely Yugoslav, and proud of my Serbo-Croat literacy. I had published, at fifteen, a poem in the country’s leading literary magazine, The Serbian Literary Courier, which no other boy my age could boast of. To be sure, it was only a rhymed rendering of “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, whom I took to be a woman—Joyce—but it was a pretty good translation, if I say so myself.

So now I would be a man without a country if it weren’t for the United States, to which my family emigrated to our everlasting gratitude, and in whose Air Force I served during World War Two. Never, though, near either front, European or Asian. Still, being in the service, expedited my American citizenship. I was 16 ½ when I came to this country and speak with a slight accent some people find charming, though I’d be happier without it.

Here is how I might have lost it. At age 13, I went to public school in England—the Leys School, Cambridge, to be exact—where I hoped to go on to the famed university. But war broke out, England was being bombed, and my father recalled me to Yugoslavia the following year, before I could shed my accent. I recall that in the military, a fellow soldier (from Brooklyn, I believe) asked me where I hailed from originally. When I told him, he opined that it accounted for my “broken lingo.”

It was nowhere near broken. By that time I had been a junior at Harvard, whence I was drafted, and to which I returned upon my discharge. But it was too late for me to acquire a Boston, Hahvad, or any other kind of American accent. It amused me, however, that I had landed in my second Cambridge, where I took my sweet time earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. I enjoyed being a Cantabrigian, and would have gladly settled in Cambridge, had not the gods wanted it otherwise.

Certainly I sounded foreign enough to Lorne Michaels when I appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a skit about a good critic played by Jon Lovitz, and a dishonest critic played by me. Chatting backstage, Lorne asked whose army I was referring to when I spoke of my military service. “Ours, of course,” I replied, feeling at that moment very patriotic. “How else do you think we could have won the war?”

It had been a funny year as an English schoolboy, trying unsuccessfully to learn cricket from an odious little brat named Burtsall. He was the only one willing to give me cricket lessons in the Leys School basement, but he was such a pest that I had a powerful urge to slap him. Artful dodger that he was, though, it was only in the common room that he dropped his guard. There was a shilling’s fine for rowdiness there, which protected him. So I went up to the prefect, deposited my shilling in advance, and slapped the hell out of Burtsall. But because this was considered a sneaky, unsportsmanlike attack, the fine was redoubled. Thereafter, even without mastering a perfect English accent, I at least learned British fair play.

I have had my quarrels with both my beloved countries, the United States and Britain; with the English language, properly used, never. (See my book Paradigms Lost.) French, which I know well, may be more delicate, more elegant, more melodious, but English has the richest vocabulary, offers the writer wider horizons. At how many intersections of synonyms or near-synonyms have I pondered which to choose: heavenly or celestial, feverish or febrile, fury or rage? Even from the same etymon, did I want instinctive or instinctual? For the sake of rhythm or euphony, should I pick doctor or physician? And so on endlessly—or ad infinitum.

Language is, in a sense, my country. But Country (capital C) matters to me only during World Cup soccer or grand slam tennis. Even there, I find myself rooting more often for foreign teams and players. Country, otherwise, matters mostly abroad, where some nations are respected, others reprehended. Time was when being American, even by adoption, was hugely prestigious; today there are probably fewer envied Yankees than ugly Americans. I myself do not fancy the thought of being taken hostage or, indeed, getting killed as a mere naturalized American, whose ancestors were never slave owners or warmongers.

Well then, how much does Country matter? In the old days, an American consul could do wonders for you in a foreign country. Being American opened doors when you sought favors, closed them when you needed security. Nowadays I wonder whether an Albanian passport doesn’t provide more protection than an American one.

It might well be a better world in which nationality or ethnicity of any kind did not matter. In my younger days, when I was writing the language column in Esquire magazine that turned into the book Paradigms Lost, I was vastly amused when visiting Yugoslavs gloated about what they called one of theirs teaching the Americans English; next week, some visiting Hungarians relished what they called one of their own doing the same thing. There even exists a book about Hungarians who made it big in America, in which I am one of the chapters, although I never considered myself Hungarian for all the pleasure I derived from reading the very great poets of Hungary in their own language. Translations of lyric poetry always lose a good deal; the great exceptions—and even those of verse drama—are Richard Wilbur’s superb translations of Moliere and Racine.

Then there are the people who, based on my accent, assume I was born in Austria. The truth of the matter is that my smart parents had the good idea of having me learn a foreign language as it were in the cradle by means of a trusted German nanny. So my first language was German. Hungarian I learned from my parents, who spoke it at home., and during a summer in a Budapest kindergarten. Serbian I could then pick up from everyone else, at school or in the streets. I even attended a German-Serbian elementary school. So, for a bit, Germany or Austria was my second country. French came quite a bit later in private lessons from a delightful Frenchwoman.

My country? On occasional visits to Stockholm and meetings with Ingmar Bergman and other Swedish film and literary people—not forgetting a theater date with Bibi Anderson—made me wish Sweden were my country. And when, as a 13-year-old English schoolboy I traveled back to Belgrade on vacation, the Swiss were wonderful to me. A wretched French hotel concierge directed me to the wrong train, and all kinds of trouble ensued.. In Basel, I chose to change trains, and a nice porter who carried my baggage absolutely refused to take money from a boy with an English public school cap.

At the little Swiss border town, where I had to wait to catch the next day the  train I should have taken in Paris that morning, the station personnel were perfectly charming. They turned me into some sort of mascot, and taught me all kinds of things about each train that was passing through. At night, they wouldn’t let me pay for a hotel, but made me as comfortable as possible on a waiting-room bench, and sent me rested and cheerful off on the proper train. That I spoke good German may have helped, but I truly felt that Switzerland was my country.

I have had pleasant experiences also with the Dutch and the Italians, including their police, the carabinieri. Only about the French do I have reservations. Not about the upper classes, which, though somewhat cold, are erudite and witty. And certainly not about the lower classes, which I found good-humored and warm-hearted. Only about the middle class, which, in my admittedly limited experience, struck me as penny-pinching, standoffish, and xenophobic, and aptly called petit—or petty—bourgeois.

Take, for example, the couple from whom I rented a room for most of my Fulbright year in Paris: an engineer and his wife. She would drop in on me repeatedly to admire the books I bought with my allowance—mostly Pleiade editions of the classics—praise me for my French, and boast of having gone to school with the great French actress Edwige Feulliere, whom I revered. But always she informed me that I was by no means to expect her to help me meet the star. Not once did this good woman invite me to have a cup of tea or glass of wine with her and her husband in their living room, or even let me set foot in the rest of their apartment.

On the other hand, the lower-class couple, from whom a fellow Fulbright scholar rented his room, could not have been more delightful even to me, and, because I frequently and lengthily phoned their tenant, proclaimed me jovially le roi du telephone. Just as friendly were the flics (cops) at the prefecture, where I had to report for my carte de sejour. Because they liked my French and my humor, they amiably offered to get me a joint French citizenship, which I equally amiably turned down. Only partly because I did not want to become canon fodder in the then raging Algerian War, and partly because, despite their insistence that it had to be otherwise, I could claim not a single French ancestor.

I remain an admirer of everything about France except the French bourgeoisie. And since that is the class I would have been born into were I French, I never imagined France to be my country. Actually, I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, if only the world would offer me joint citizenship with the United States. World-United, what a good thing that would be!