Monday, December 23, 2013


There are in my view both real sequels and quasi sequels. A real sequel is when the author of a book, say, Margaret Mitchell, or someone else writes a novel about what happened to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler after Gone With the Wind. A quasi sequel is really a repeat appearance, as when Conan Doyle or J. K. Rowling writes another Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter fiction, about the hero’s further, new adventures.

Both phenomena come about when a beloved protagonist elicits a repeat performance of some kind. Personally, I am no great fan of these procedures. But sequels of either kind have been wildly successful, and are in fact a tried old stratagem, as the careers of, for example, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas pere compellingly illustrate.

All very understandable, given the hard world in which fiction writers operate, although the same phenomenon prevails in spades at the movies and, to some extent, even in the theater, just ask Neil Simon. And now there is a stage version of Harry Potter in the planning. But isn’t a novel, say, a complete entity, self-sufficiently featuring a beginning, middle and end, and in no need of further elaboration any more than a lyric poem does. Although there is such a thing as a sonnet sequence—just ask William Shakespeare.

What is it exactly that hates endings and gives rise to sequels?  First of all, it is popularity. Why wouldn’t the cherished scoundrel Vautrin figure in several Balzac novels? Why shouldn’t beloved Harry Potter make more millions for J. K. Rowling? Why shouldn’t there have been a series of ever longer novels about the three beloved musketeers—really four, counting d’Artagnan—and their descendants?

Popularity, i.e., sales, have much to answer for, as well as the fact that it is safer to bring back a well-regarded fictional hero than to invent a new one. But something else also plays a part here: human inquisitiveness. Just as we are curious to know more about friends, enemies, celebrities, we are curious about what happened to fictitious characters after, say, they married and “lived happily ever after.” Tolstoy to the contrary, happy families are not all alike, if for no other reason than that, in real life, they seldom remain blissful forever. If, God forbid, there were a sequel to War and Peace, would everything be hunky-dory for Pierre and Natasha?

And to think that even Goethe saw fit to write a sequel to the so very satisfactorily completed Faust part one with a Faust part two. And, as we all know, Shakespeare brought back the rogue Falstaff in a sequel, The Merry Wives of Windsor, whether or not, as reputed, at Queen Elizabeth’s request, hardly matters. (The groundlings’ request, more likely.) Success plus curiosity begets sequels.

But there is a further trigger for sequels: our fear of mortality, our conscious or unconscious wish to live forever. Somehow or other, the persistence through sequels of a fictitious character translates into a sense of our own not coming to an end. I fully believe that young persons reading about Huck Finn’s striking out for the Western Territories suggests to them that he is immortal, and that they themselves will be around reading about his further adventures someday, somewhere.

To be sure, there are readers who don’t want sequels of contemporary novels. They are the ones aware of the backlog of great classics they haven’t read yet and want to catch up with more Dickens or Dostoevsky or D. H. Lawrence. They are very happy that, for instance, Robert Graves stopped at two Emperor Claudius novels: one sequel was quite enough.  But young readers especially crave sequels, and thus for example Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking novels have had sequels upon sequels in print, film and television series. For young German readers, there were (are?) the Wild West novels of Karl May that kept bringing back the great white hunter Old Shatterhand and his Indian chief friend, Winnetu. They can be thought of as very persistent, very numerous sequels.

And sequels persist. They may have not much more in common than an imaginary town or region, as the audiences of Horton Foote or readers of William Faulkner well know. It could be argued that a Steinbeck locale is at least as real as his characters, and that geography itself can provide sequels. In any case, continuum is a great human desideratum, and sequels of whatever kind cater to it.

Speaking for myself, I’d be perfectly happy if there were no more sequels, though I can also live with them. Among sequels I now include also revised second editions of previously published books. Scholarly works, dictionaries, encyclopedias keep coming out in new, more up-to-date, or merely expanded, improved editions, and such reissues can be infuriating.

What am I to do if I spent a tidy sum on, say, a history of the printed book, or of Shakespeare stagings, or of the Paris underworld through the ages, and out comes a new, presumably improved edition a few years later? Throw out the previous version, even though it was a first edition, and maybe had a finer binding, wider margins, better paper and larger print? Do I simply ignore the revised version and merely scowl at the one on my shelf as a sort of intellectual coitus interruptus?

I count myself lucky for not being a completist, and can ignore such sequels as the complete Waverly novels of Sir Walter Scott. Yet I cannot but admire anyone who  has read them all. Then again, there was the fellow who, seeking employment in a college English department, spouted excerpts from the least known ones among them, thereby conveying the impression that he knew the whole lot intimately from alpha to omega--without even having glanced at the rest.

And then there is that most pernicious kind of sequel, as when a major author revises a lengthy fiction of his own and both versions are considered important enough for us, if we are serious academics, to have to read hundreds of pages in quasi duplicate. This is very much the case of Moerike’s Maler Nolten. Or what about Great Expectations, for which Dickens first had a less happy ending, but at Bulwer-Lytton’s urging came up with a happy one? We have here a work that is its own sequel, and are we now, as teachers, responsible for both versions?

Nor let us forget that late nineteenth-century novels tended to come out on the installment plan, several chapters at a time over a long period, earning payment for each segment, and so prompting the author to make his novels doorstoppers. Robert Graves memorably came up with a considerably shortened version of one of the Dickens novels (David Copperfield, as I recall)) just by cutting the word “little” each time it occurred.

The matter of sequels makes one wonder: Is shorter better? Would Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, be better if it were less literally magnum? It is really a series of novels, each a sequel of the preceding and sizable in itself, with quite a parade of more or less ancillary characters. Yet these sequels with their large casts are in order, for we thus get a panorama of how personalities evolve and relationships change, and how memory in pursuit of the past rounds out our brief term on earth. Better than perhaps anyone else, Proust has validated the sequel.

But this does not mean that we want sequels from lesser writers. Do we need a tetralogy from Jeffrey Eugenides? Do we want Erica Jong to dredge up her checkered past for us in ever more novelistic searches? How many times do we wish Margaret Attwood to reinvent herself? Isn’t even late Hemingway an unnecessary sequel to  earlier Hemingway? To say nothing of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, of which even one may be de trop. How many epigones will grind out posthumous James Bond tomes? How often did Updike have to go Rabbiting without a strong case of sequelitis?  But at least his are bona fide, thought-through sequels. We have too many writers nowadays who don’t even know that they are writing sequels. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013


If we are going to deal with epigrams, we must first distinguish between wit and humor. Humor makes you laugh, as with every good joke that someone tells you. Like the loony in the bin telling the other loony who is painting the wall, “Hold on to your brush, I am about to move the ladder.” Or James Thurber writing, “Poe . . . was perhaps the first great nonstop literary drinker in the American nineteenth century. He made the indulgences of Coleridge and De Quincy seem like a bit of mischief in the kitchen with the cooking sherry.” Humor’s most renowned achievement may be the slip on the banana peel.

Wit is something else—something, if you will, much more serious while still funny. Unlike humor, which at most makes you slap your thigh, it pierces to the quick, wherever your quick may be, and elicits laughter almost as a byproduct. The epigram, witty rather than humorous, needs an object to skewer.

To be sure, that is a slight oversimplification. Not all humor is a thigh-slapper or a roller in the aisle. And not all wit must wound. Take Oscar Wilde’s “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going now for three hundred years.” This is a good-natured spoof that does not really hurt. Or take this, again from Wilde, “Truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Very often it is the inversion of a truism, as in his “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Sometimes an epigram is downright melancholy, as in Shaw’s “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” Or in Rochefoucauld’s “We have all enough strength to bear other people’s troubles,” and in his even stronger “In the misfortunes of our best friends, we find something that’s not unpleasing.”

The epigram, when it’s truly great, is the shortest, snappiest work of art or philosophy, and a burr to the memory. Take Stendhal’s “The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.” Thus the epigram tends to be the funny way of insulting  someone, in this case God. When it doesn’t offend, it is rather a mere aphorism, i.e., pregnant saying, than a witty epigram, as, for instance, in Lichtenberg’s “Nothing contributes more to peace of soul than having no opinion at all.”

Let us first look at the straight insult, usually merited, which embodies some kind of truth. Take this, to an overeager actor being directed by either Noel Coward or George S. Kaufman (multiple attribution is quite frequent): “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Even more succinctly, W.S. Gilbert commented on he Hamlet of Henry Irving or some other stage star (alternative targets are also frequent): “Funny, but never vulgar.” Manifestly, terseness adds impact to the epigram. Take this by Beachcomber, the nom de plume of a British humorist, “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” A double-edged sword that cuts brilliantly in two directions.

Such double duty we get also from Wilde’s “Poor Danton, to have come to such grief for having once in his life taken a bath.” That hits not only the victim of Charlotte Corday, but also the French in general, not known for their regular use of the bathtub as opposed to that of the bidet. Two for one we get, also from Wilde, in “[George] Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” A whole profession can be skewered, as in Christopher Hampton’s “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”

But back to the double whammy: Ava Gardner, about her ex, Sinatra, upon his marrying Mia Farrow, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.” Or take Noel Coward, about Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the movie version of his “Bitter Sweet”: “Like watching an affair between a mad rocking-horse and a rawhide suitcase,” with the only problem trying to figure out which is which. Sometimes the wit and his target are both made fun of, as in Charles Widor about a dissonant work of Milhaud’s: “The worst of it is that one gets used to it.” Or take Heine: “There is nothing on earth more horrible than English music, unless it is English painting.”

Music has yielded some memorable epigrams. Thus Shaw, early on as music critic: “There are some sacrifices that should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to Brahms’s Requiem.” Such things elicit amusement even without our agreement. Or take this, from Ravel: “Berlioz is France’s greatest composer, alas. A musician of great genius, and little talent.” (Reminiscent of Gide on who is the greatest French poet, “Victor Hugo, alas.” Which, in turn, suggests Cocteau’s “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”) After playing a violin piece, Albert Einstein asked the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky “How well did I play?” Answer: “You played relatively well.” Some epigrams are answers to a question.

Here is Stravinsky: “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Or Sir Thomas Beecham, asked if he ever conducted any Stockhausen. “No,” he said, “but I have trodden in some.” And Stravinsky again, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece I don’t like, it’s always Villa Lobos?”

Sometimes an epigram comes in duplicate. Take this dialogue: “Shostakovich: What do you think of Puccini? Britten: I think his operas are dreadful. Shostakovich: No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvelous operas, but dreadful music.” Now take Britten talking to W. H. Auden about Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “I liked the opera very much. Everything but the music.” Who plagiarized whom? I suspect the rather humorless Britten. And here is one to enshrine in music history, Oscar Levant about Leonard Bernstein: “He uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”

Literature, expectably, also offers some of the wittiest epigrams. Take this rather poetic one by Edith Sitwell about F.R. Leavis: “It is sad to see Milton’s great lines bobbing up and down in the sandy desert of Dr. Leavis’s mind with the grace of a fleet of weary camels.” Here the subtractable epithets “sandy” and “weary” contribute the necessary cadence. Or this from Philip Larkin, “’The Wreck of the Deutschland’ would have been markedly inferior if Hopkins had been a survivor from the passenger list.” Or Evelyn Waugh, somewhat less funny about himself than about others: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”

Here again is Waugh on Stephen Spender: “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” Or consider Gore Vidal on Hemingway, “What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?’ Or, more succinctly, about the death of Truman Capote, “Good career move.” An effective device is starting out as if in praise, and then sticking in the knife, as in Wilde’s “Shaw has not an enemy in the world; and none of his friends like him.”

About actors and actresses, theater and movies, there is such a wealth of epigrams as to merit a separate blog post to begin doing them justice. I confine myself to repeating a couple of my favorites. Thus Kenneth Tynan about Vivien Leigh in “Titus Andronicus”: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.” And Margot Asquith at lunch with Jean Harlow, who keeps sounding the T in Margot, “My dear, the T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.”

Finally, I come to my own modest contribution to the epigram, which comes down to a single entry in the anthologies, always misquoted, even by Diana Rigg herself, as follows: “Diana Rigg is built as a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” What I wrote was “Diana Rigg . . . is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This concerning a scene in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” where Ms. Rigg knelt nude in profile. Now “basilica” is obviously not something with which the misquoters are familiar, hence “mausoleum,” which, however, has nothing to do with anything. But neither, I confess, has basilica, a type of church that never had any buttresses. “Inadequate,” though, does make sense for what the actress herself has described as “I was only ever a B-cup,” referring to size; whereas “insufficient” refers to quantity, as if two were not enough. What I should have written is “cathedral,” an edifice that does have flying buttresses.

Isolated quotations of another Simon epigram do crop up now and then, but for an epigram to count, I firmly believe that it has to appear in several anthologies. So I find a couple exclusively in “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations,” and even there one misquoted and another cut to shreds. And I certainly haven’t made it to Bartlett’s even once. Something to look forward to.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


One of the great gifts of mankind is our memory. Without it, we could be greatly impoverished, though, as gifts go, it is a double-edged sword: a donor as well as a tormentor—sometimes a pot of gold, sometimes a Trojan horse.

I see memory as tripartite: good, bad, and whimsical. By this I would mean memories of good things, bad things, and surprising things. But that is a slight oversimplification. Memory of good things is mostly a good thing, but not entirely; memory of bad things is mostly bad, but not entirely; whimsical memory is neither good nor bad, but unexpected and puzzling. Let’s look more closely.

Good memory reflects on good things that happened to us: a lovely lover, a picturesque place, a happy experience in theater, opera, concert, museum or cinema. Or just plain luck, as when I found in the street two twenty-dollar bills. It is basically a good thing, on the principle of Tennyson’s, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.”

But there is the obverse of the coin, Dante’s “Nessun magior dolore/ Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/ Nella miseria.” Or “There is no greater hurt than remembering happy times in times of wretchedness.” And it needn’t even been misery; suffice for it to be daily drudgery and beastly boredom.

For this, there is solace in that great eraser, oblivion. Take Swinburne’s, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” (If there is any blame at all, it is for that “most,” where “more” would, strictly speaking, be better grammar. Yet a perfectly plausible argument can be made for “most.”) But of course the benefit of oblivion cannot be guaranteed as long as there is thought, as the Serbian poet Milan Rakich (I transcribe the name phonetically) wrote, “When the heart cries out, thought is to blame,” thought that, often, is precisely unhappy remembrance.

The problem is that happiness, like perfume, is not duplicated by happy memory, just as the scent from a bottle of perfume is not tantamount to that which emanated from a beloved person.  A superb landscape is not fully replicated by a photograph, and even a CD can only approximate the experience of great music hard at a concert.

The place where memory is blessed is in poetry remembered. There memorization is an undoubted boon. But nowadays, when the schools no longer prescribe it, memorization is becoming rarer and rarer. To be sure, do the younger generations even care for poetry? Unless, that is, it comes from a dubious surrogate, such as, say, Maya Angelou. The late Ernest Van Den Haag used to threaten me with a collection of her poetry, which he never enacted, and which, in any case, could be discarded before it became a clinging memory.

What does hurt is, for instance, memory of a Paris never to be revisited in my lifetime, or of the irreplaceable giant turtles of Galapagos, or of childhood Easter vacations in Dubrovnik or Abbazia (now Opatija). Or of a boyhood sweetheart. Or of my beloved dog Bari and cat Bibi. Or of marzipan potatoes, my favorite dessert, essentially unavailable in America, and by now as much conceivably even in their native Austria. And, apropos Austria, edelweiss, for which the Rodgers & Hammerstein song , however well remembered, is not quite a substitute.

Now what about bad memories, memories of unhappy things? Are they all bad? Like telling a female British journalist how I couldn’t grasp her collaboration with a certain lousy male journalist—who turned out to be her husband. This makes me, unrepentant, smile to this day.

Or the memory of having once hit my loving mother? Or of having, with my air gun, killed innocent sparrows. (Anouilh has a play dealing with that trauma.) Or having, as a Belgrade schoolboy, impressed by the son of the German Ambassador, given him on a class excursion my orange, pretending that I loved the rind as much, and eliciting his gloating comment, “Good, in future you can always give me your orange and keep the rind.” His father became a notorious Nazi.

Still, bad memories have their good aspect: one can derive from them what not to repeat. Think of Santayana’s famous dictum that whoever fails to learn from history is forced to repeat it, where history is tantamount to collective memory and can even stand in for the individual one.

I shudder to think of when my classmate Branko and I were looking out the window of my parents’ Lake Bled villa at the neighbor girls sunbathing. We were kneeling on a sofa, and I waited for the moment when Branko’s face was smack behind my posterior to break wind.

Or the time when a bunch of us schoolboys were on winter vacation skiing on Mount Kopaonik, and the winner of the slalom, I, was awarded a cake, which one shared that night with one’s dorm mates. There was one boy disliked by all of us for whatever footling reason, and I denied him a slice of the cake. Origin, perhaps, of my growing up a severe critic.

Funny how such childhood contretemps or peccadilloes can haunt the adult I seem to have become. How about the time during Latin class in my year at a British public school (the Leys, at Cambridge), when the chap next to me was asked to translate “husband” into Latin and was stuck for an answer. I whispered to him “Think of the English,” foolishly hoping that he would think of “marital” to lead him to “maritus.” Instead, he blurted out “husbandus.”

Venial offenses, these. Surely I must have committed much graver ones that I have conveniently forgotten. Which is a good thing about bad memories: that they lessen in time. As if the good things one remembers excused them. Thus, when I received in the mail the dollar bill owed to another John Simon, I dutifully forwarded it to the correct one. (Would I have done as much for a hundred-dollar bill?) But why did I not visit at the hospital my loving and beloved German prof, Karl Vietor, who, as he lay dying, sent me a supremely kind message through a fellow student who did visit him?

Or why did I not take to a film screening the woman who fast and flawlessly typed my very long doctoral thesis (in time for a prize that it, after all, did not win), only because I considered her too unattractive for a date where she could have been viewed as my girlfriend?

Well, enough of that. What about involuntary, whimsical memories? Day in, day out, there spring into my memory, totally unsolicited, proper nouns, titles, cognomens of characters in fiction or history, from sources that I may barely recall. Or mere common nouns, puzzling in their randomness, their lack of relation to anything concurrent? Sometimes I cannot even understand them, let alone associate them with anything of recent, or even remote, interest. It is as if all these things were rolling around in my unconscious, until, like a roulette ball on a random number, they came to rest at a small window into my consciousness. Or is this merely the beginning of Alzheimer’s?

I wish I could recall the exact word that came up seemingly from a literary work’s earlier version that I cannot even recall having read. The chance of this happening was perhaps one in a trillion, if that. O thou mischievous memory, what time I have wasted trying to comprehend thee!

In his lovely poem, “I Remember, I Remember,” Thomas Hood paints enchanting pictures of things and states remembered, and contrasts them with his dreary reality. Four lines from it run. “My spirit flew in feathers then,/ That is so heavy now,/ And summer pools could hardly cool/ The fever on my brow.”

I doubt whether any memories—good, bad or whimsical—can cool the fever on my brow. Yet such as they are, the whole lot of them, they can ignite the fever in my heart, which helps me be a more sentient human being, and that, surely, is a good thing.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


When Irwin Edman of Columbia University’s Philosophy Department was guest professor at Harvard, I took his course in aesthetics.  What I still remember from it is his quoting William James to the effect that there were two kinds of people, those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. This, ironically, implies that he who postulates that division is also of two kinds, thereby suggesting that everyone is of the dividing kind.

That insight has been with me through the years, serving a very sound purpose: reminding me that unaimity was possible only in universal recognition of duality. But what were the two kinds into which, by implication, everyone divides people?  Perhaps only men and women, as one of Plato’s symposiasts argued, according  to whom an originally single being was split in two, male and female. But are men and women truly of two kinds, or just of one, subsumed by humankind?

I have been wondering: perhaps in all sorts of respects there exists, or should exist, no quandary about dividing people into two, presumably opposite, categories. Thus there are everywhere activists and passivists, agents and abstainers, and that right there we have a useful division into two kinds.

Or how about if the two categories were intellectual and nonintellectual? (Certainly not anti-intellectual, which is a whole different ballgame and often, paradoxically, includes many intellectuals.) It used to be that men were considered rational and at least potentially intellectual, whereas women were thought to be instinctual, i.e., irrational. These differences may have been based on men receiving better education than women, which no longer holds true.

This alleged twokindedness may simply be based on women tending to be more emotional than men, but is that a marked and significant disparity to warrant such a division? I am reminded of an aphorism I came across years ago in an anthology. It was attributed to one Countess Diane, about whose identity I never unearthed anything. The Countess opined that love in men always begins in the senses and progresses, if at all, to the heart; in women, it always begins in the heart and proceeds, if at all, to the senses. There may be something to that, but if the difference is merely a different route of arriving at the same sort of fulfillment, is that enough to postulate two different kinds?

Now consider education. In all surveys of student aptitude where comparisons between regions or nations are being evaluated, the fields of inquiry are always only mathematics and writing. Why not also other forms of science and languages and history? Or even art? Are numeracy and literacy all that matters in a student’s evolving into homo sapiens by melding mathematicus and litterarius? And, incidentally, what is understood by “writing”? Will turning into scribblerius suffice? For that, a computer and spellcheck will do.

Perhaps it all comes down to memory: the memorious (to borrow a term from Borges) and the oblivious. Which means learning from experience and remembrance versus forgetting all--most frighteningly for me, friendships and love affairs. Understand: I am not advocating sentimentalist overloads, but I do believe that those with whom we shared one or another kind of intimacy should not be expunged from recollection. Why, for example, should we not retain formative memories of former lovers, by which I don’t mean undoing bodices or unzipping flies upon returnees’ request. But even that difference may not quite countenance division into two kinds.

But a fundamental difference of another sort may. I refer to persons who are primarily interested in What as opposed to those chiefly concerned with Why.

The former kind go for what at best is information, at worst gossip. The latter analyze, search for causality. The former happily endorse the status quo; the latter, through reflection, introspection, speculation, may effectuate change for the better.

But really better? In some ways, superior intellectuality, pure knowledge for the sake of knowledge, is centripetal and static; whereas the supposedly inferior, merely practical knowledge is ultimately superior, progressive. Though this qualifies for  division into two kinds, it leaves us hungry for what follows: which is truly better than which?

If two kinds are ultimately unavoidable, is not one—at least very probably—preferable to the other? Take, for example, the teacher. Is he expected to give identical passing grades (as nowadays, to the detriment of true education is de rigueur) to all students? Or are some of them good, some poor? Must not people in general be divided into worthy and worthless, smart and dumb, apt and inept? Or is such a divide unacceptable under political correctness?

Rather, at least morally if not politically, there must be that vital distinction. So yes, William James, all of us in one way or another divide people into two kinds, giving the lie to those who, if they exist at all, do not. As to which is better, opinions may vary, and about that difference at any rate we may be unanimously of one kind.

Friday, October 18, 2013


It is unquestionably a good thing that prizes in the arts exist. By and large, artists of all types are underpaid—if paid at all!—and monetary awards help them create or, in many cases, even just subsist. My problem is who or what, and on what basis, is rewarded.

I have never been on the selection committee for a major monetary award, but I have frequently been a voter on New York or national film and theater awards. (Come to think of it, I was once a juror for the Paris Film Festival, but apparently managed to jinx it: it promptly ceased to exist.) Relatively rarely have I agreed on which plays or movies won awards; quite a few of them I downright abominated. The same goes for important awards I only read about.

There is even worse: I frequently had little or no respect for the persons adjudicating these awards. In fact, I was somewhat ashamed—pained by the thought that readers might assume that I actually voted for some of those stinkers. As if my single vote could have made much of a difference by defying the majority.

I vividly recall a session of the National Film Critics’ Society where Hollis Alpert passionately argued for Charles Champlin’s election to the group. I found myself wondering not only about the proposed postulant, but no less also about his ardent champion. What thinking person would want to gain membership predominantly on the efforts of such an advocate?

I likewise recall leaving a meeting with Stanley Kauffmann, whom I respected, and wondered why he had voted for a certain idiot. To which he replied that in a group comprising that many idiots, what difference would one more make. My point, however, was that it further diminished the slender chances of something worthwhile prevailing. Which raises the greater question of who let in the other voters. There is the obvious answer: the jobs they unfortunately held.

Frankly, I can see why first-rate critics might not want to be members of such an organization, although I can also see why they might want to. Being a voting member gives you the (specious) illusion that your views somehow matter, even if not even the whole issue—the unimportance of the occasion--hardly does. So the Oscars are of real interest only in the speeches made by the winners and presenters: who will come off with dignity, and who will make an ass of him or herself? And perhaps also in who will wear what laughably outlandish attire, and who will be in good taste?

Still, not wanting to be a voting member also makes sense. One looks at one’s fellow voters, in a group small enough to fit around a table, and wonders what one has in common with most of these individuals, and what good membership is in an assemblage in which you are visibly outnumbered, and your vote cannot count for much over against twenty or thirty others. And there is such a thing as guilt by association.

And then there is also the dreadful business of political correctness. The Nobel Prize in literature is clearly the most important extant literary award. Now if you look at the list of choices through the years, you are bound to be prey to contrary emotions. Yes, they have chosen some wonderful, often obscure but eminently deserving winners. But no, why on earth would they have picked this or that one?

Some of it has to be P.C. A country that hasn’t had a representative in years, or at all, must—it is high time!—have a winner. And who are we to dispute the choice? How many Egyptian novelists and African poets have we read? Can we truly tell whether this laureate won for being a novelist or for being Peruvian? Or of any other country short on accolades? You may actually stand a better chance of winning if you are from Honduras or Mozambique than if you are from France, England or the U.S.A. Of course, the Nobel Committee will sternly deny that geography has anything to do with it, and they may honestly believe what they are saying, but does that necessarily make it true?

I am guessing that it does for the current winner, Alice Munro. Regrettably, I have never read one of her stories, but I am ready to believe that the award was justified, having read many glowing and credible critiques of her work. The very fact that she has published numerous volumes of short stories, but eschewed novels, speaks for her. Surely the short story is the undervalued and relatively unrewarded cousin of the novel, yet to have steadily favored it may be proof of some kind of artistic valor and magnanimity. Also speaking for the bountiful Ms. Munro, now in her early eighties, is that, before winning her Nobel, she declared that she would write no more.

To acknowledge some sort of limitation in oneself is praiseworthy, but it is especially noble (not Nobel) to know when to stop something you are famous for. Just think of the enormous number of artists in any field who did not know when enough was enough, and went on turning out repetitive, diminished, even worthless work. This even holds for singers, who surely ought to know when their song has turned into a croak.

Then think also how hard things must be for the members of the Nobel Committee who surely cannot know all the many languages in which numerous writers publish, given also that translations from many of them do not exist, and even if they do, cannot readily be trusted. Lyric poetry, for one thing, is virtually untranslatable. So how does one pick a winner among thousands upon thousands? It is no surprise that there have been a few Nobel lit winners who sank back into justified oblivion. The wonder is how many have not.

Lamentable, too, are some of the Pulitzer Prize winners for drama. Nilo Cruz leaps to mind. Am I then against awards? Not at all. If anything, I am for more of them. Imagine if every American who wrote a play got something like a Pulitzer. The result would be that, among heaps of tripe, no genuine talent would be overlooked.


Saturday, September 28, 2013


I recall a conversation with a minor conductor. MC: Do you like Bach? JS: Not at all. MC: How about Mozart? JS: Ditto. MC: Beethoven? JS: Hardly. MC (exasperated): Do you like music? JS: Absolutely.

Then there is a hostile review of my book “John Simon on Music,” written by Alan Rich. We knew each other quite well without any love lost. Rich was outraged about there being in it only one mention of Mozart, and even that in a quotation from someone else.

Well, there it is: I don’t like any music before some Schubert, and not even all of his. What is all this about? Let me try to explain.

It seems to me that before the Romantics, music was constricted. I do not dispute that the two Bs and one M were important composers, but for me they were all about technique and technical innovation, but ultimately—even the tonitruous Beethoven—not truly free. Emotion, as I understand it, does not come in until the Romantics, and has been with us at least until Stockhausen and John Cage.

Now it would be nice if I were a musician and able, with illustrative examples and technical analysis, to explain the differences between, say, a passage in Mozart and one in Debussy. But, however enthusiastic, I am only a layman lacking even a college course in music, and can speak only the language of fellow laymen.

It appears to me that Bach and Mozart (Beethoven was somewhat different) wrote predictable, mathematical music, limited in scope, not unlike a caged canary’s pleasant but anodyne chirping. It was also perfectly square, by which I mean that from the first two notes of a bar you could predict the next two. Beethoven was, at any rate, impassioned, but not in a fully melodious way.

There were, of course, changes in rhythm and dynamics, and some very modest surprises. But even when the music deigned to be fast and loud, it was still wallpaper to me, which, after all, can also be loud and repeats its pattern rapidly.

Absent, for me, is what some would call sentimentality. There is no ecstasy, a sense of pathos even in the lighter colors, a stirring up of one’s feelings, beauty so intense that it almost hurts. There isn’t that mercurial quality of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, a rhapsodic freedom to roam into supermelodiousness, into stirring harmonies and polyphony, into guarded poly- or atonality, into tunefulness that approaches the orgasmic as it fluctuates between gossamer and a kind of endearing grandiloquence. What can I say? Modulation, chromaticism, rapture.

To me, the top dozen geniuses among composers are Barber, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Faure, Janacek, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Following them there are any number of masters, of whom I want to call attention to only a few, who, not being obvious, are easily overlooked. Among these I cite Berkeley, Dutilleux, Guarnieri, Honegger, Ibert, Martin, Martinu, Mompou, Montsalvatge, Szymanovski, A. Tcherepnin and Tansman, though for a full list of them you will have to consult “John Simon on Music,” where you will find essays on most of them.

And then there are those whom I view as opera composers, even though they may have written quite a bit of other stuff. These would be Bizet, Britten, Gounod, Mussorgsky, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, though (especially in the case of Wagner) I may consider them quite uneven.

And let me pay tribute to three popular composers who may be distinctly minor, but splendid in their way and particularly dear to me. There is, first, Nino Rota, chiefly remembered for his magnificent scores for Fellini movies. But he composed brilliantly for other filmmakers as well, and wrote classical music and operas nowise inferior to his finest film scores.

There is something about Rota’s music that can bring me very close to tears, as does much of that of Kurt Weill. He, too, was, even in his early classical compositions. close to popular music, but that, in someone like Weill or the delightful Noel Coward, is nowise diminishing, the way some of the great book illustrators are no less admirable than famous painters.

Finally, there are two composers whom I cherish for one work only, but what a work! They are Jerome Moross, whose musical “The Golden Apple,” and Ennio Morricone, whose film score for “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” are, for me, immortal masterpieces.

Let me conclude by translating a small excerpt from an essay on music by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773-98), an important Preromantic, who had he not died so very young would have become an even more influential German writer, though he remains notable enough as is.

Music to me is altogether an image of our life: a touchingly brief joy that arises out of nothing and dissolves into nothing. . . .  I consider music the most wondrous of inventions, because it renders human sentiments in a superhuman manner; because it reveals to us, aloft over our heads, all the stirrings of our temperament, disembodied and arrayed in golden clouds of airy harmonies. Because it speaks in a language we do not know in our routine life, one that we learned we know not where and how, and that one is inclined to regard as the tongue of angels.

Just so, dear William Henry, if may translate also your given names, you who are known as the shy and melancholy Wackenroder, happy only when listening to music. I myself can be happy in diverse ways, but my music is surely very high among them.

Monday, September 2, 2013


When my father lay dying in a Florida hospital, he asked me whether there was God and an afterlife. I was in a quandary. If I said yes, I would have betrayed my sworn conviction. (Perhaps I should have anyway.) But I certainly didn’t want to say no. I chose a middle way: I don’t know. Let the poor man have his bit of terminal hope.

Even though he is a great universal panacea, I still find it surprising how many intellectuals believe in God and his (and their) Heaven, which I view as a survival of the superstitions of medieval Christianity. Even an intellectual like Bill Buckley wrote to me that he couldn’t live on without his firm belief in being reunited with his dead wife in Heaven. I wish I could believe in that happy supraterrestrial reunion.

Belief in God among educated persons today strikes me as peculiar indeed. In the Middle Ages one could entertain such a belief, though even as early as circa 200 A.D. the Christian bishop Tertullian said “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd. Faith, in my estimation, is the one thing one cannot take on faith.

How can one honestly believe in a God who is different in every religion, if not every single believer? Saint Nicholas at least has been recently disenfranchised, little Virginia and her mentor notwithstanding. Alexander Pope wrote, “An honest man’s God’s noblest work of art,” which Oscar Wilde very persuasively reversed, “An honest God’s man’s noblest work of art.” I can even be touched by the humble belief of the French poet Francis Jammes in “the God of the poor, the simple God.” Yet even that was well before the Holocaust.

To be sure, there had been Torquemada and the Holy Inquisition and several varieties of genocide. But after the Six Million, how can anyone take the notion of God seriously? And even that is not all. Medieval folk could pretty much believe in a Heaven above and a Hell below. But we, with modern astronomy, space travel, geology, how can we? Is there perhaps a black hole in the universe where Paradise is hiding? Nietzsche’s God is dead; mine was stillborn.

“God” in fact has become a favorite phrase component, a self-serving battle cry for all the nations “under God.” It is what politicians invoke as part of their patriotic platform: “One nation under God,” “In God we trust,” “For God and country” are remunerative slogans on banners, coins of the realm, in demagogic sales pitches and national anthems.  It is even a word devalued by common usage in “God knows,” “Dear God,” “My God,” “God grant,” “Goddamned,” “Godawful,” “Godforsaken” and the rest. It is no wonder—although it should be—that the related Bible oath still has legal standing.

Granted even the unlikely scenario that God should become outmoded, Christians would still have their Savior, the Muslims their Prophet, and the Jews their Moses, though, to Jewish credit, the latter is invoked far less than the other two. In this respect, the ancient Greeks and Romans should be commended for having had the most entertaining myths, and the gods closest to Wilde’s honest God. A little adultery by Zeus and some mischief by Aphrodite are far more forgivable than a jihad.

All right, let’s look closer. God is credited with the creation of the universe. But surely a god who knew what he was doing would not be guilty of such disparities, such inconsistency, such favoritism. Why does one planet get several moons, while another must make do with one? Why does one planet have people, plants and animals, which no other one has? Why bother creating stars that become extinct? Why are some earthly regions too hot, others too cold?

True, there is something miraculous about the good things humanity has achieved, disregarding for the nonce the bad ones. Even something astonishing about the existence of mankind in the first place. There remains the seemingly unanswerable question: why should there be something rather than nothing? About the development from the atoms upward—or sideways—already Lucretius had creditable answers. But not even he could answer the initial, basic question that will apparently forever defy us to answer.

Deism of old and Unitarianism more recently have come up with tolerable religions—a good word be said too for the Quakers. But the fundamental question remains. My father, with whom this essay began, believed in the quasi-divinity of Nature. Very nice as such things go, but still not an answer. Saint Paul preached an Unknown God, but that was merely a proselytizing subterfuge. Up his sleeve, he had the biblical one.

None of this should discourage atheism. Strictly speaking, agnosticism would be more logical, except for its smelling of a craven compromise. Nonbelievers too must have a creed, especially in their fight against religious excesses. A banner with “We Don’t Know” on it would not stir anyone to action. We have to fight the obvious wrongs of religion: the suicide bombers, the jihads and intifadas, the seemingly ineradicable anti-Semitism. And all the wars fought in the name of religion, which is to say most of them.  But we must be against the less obvious conflicts too. There are Shiites and Sunnis of one kind or another in all of us.

Some successes there have been even without atheist support. The two Irelands seem to manage to coexist more or less peacefully, although future clashes are not inconceivable. French Canada may secede from the English one presumably without bloodshed. Look, however, at the messes in Africa and Asia. Colonialsim has gone, but wasn’t it at least marginally preferable to what has replaced it?

There are those who believe that the moral precepts and restraints of religion keep some order in the word. That without religion, wholesale anarchy and mayhem would become unbiquitous. Yet Nietzsche called Christianity the one great curse, and so it may be. Certainly some of the world’s most inviting and rousing churches are in Harlem, but how much of an Earthly Paradise have they elicited? Are the Tea Party’s born-again Christians making a better world? I doubt it.

Bernard Shaw wittily observed that the problem with Christianity was that it has never been put into practice. Are then two millennia insufficient time? I quote the final words of his Saint Joan, though perhaps in a somewhat different sense from hers: “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Monday, August 19, 2013


We need games. We know what all work and no play does to Johnny, and who wants to be a dull boy? The popularity of sports is, of course, the prime example of the role of games in our everyday life. Just try to imagine a world without sports and what that would do to the personality of millions of people: What would the passion expended on sports turn to instead? More crime? More religious fanaticism? More assorted acrimony?

But, even more salient is what we read in the recent obituary of the historian Pauline Maier: “Politics,” she wrote, “in a real sense was the first national game.” (I am not sure about what she meant by “in a real sense,” but never mind.) And so it still is, as witness the televised political debates, most recently among candidates for mayor of New York: all vague promises and intense one-upmanship and a rather gamy one at that.

Even more with us than politics is language. The one thing in quotidian use is words, words, words, to quote Hamlet. And with those words comes wordplay, the games played with words, rather than with balls, bars, or weapons. Which raises the question of what sports and discourse have in common.

Take games in the panem et circenses sense: why our intense fascination with circus artistes? It is threefold. First, surprise. What the circus artiste and the artist (paintier, musician, poet, novelist etc.) have in common is the ability to astonish us. The ability, say, to stand on one foot on the high wire. Or, in the case of the artiste’s relative, the athlete, to be able to jump higher or farther than anyone else. So too to produce an astounding poem, painting or song.

After surprise, comes admiration, involvement. That is to say, our feeling as audience or spectators, somewhat presumptuously, of somehow being part of the achievement: what good is prestidigitation  or  a championship without an audience? In other words, a sense of participation, even from where we merely sit and watch or listen or read.

Finally, pride. Pride that we know all the baseball scores, or the various roles of an actor or ballet dancer, or how a magic trick is done. Or that we played poker with a movie star, or had dinner with a prima ballerina assoluta. Or that we know every aria in a given opera. In other words, a kind of identification.

Now take wordplay, which also reaps a triple response. First surprise: How amazing! Second, admiration: How damn clever! Third pride: How smart of us to get the joke, to recognize and cherish the achievement. Who else would have so appreciated this pun, this witticism, this stylish turn of phrase?

Probably the prime example of wordplay is the pun. Consider, however, the apt yet illogical response to someone else’s verbal winner: “My word!” Surely it should be “Your word!” yet so eager are we to partake and to appropriate it that we illegitimately ejaculate “my.”

Yes, the pun, which in its grander synonym is the paranomasia, carrying its own definition coming from the Greek for “beside” and “to name.” In other words, giving a word a parallel yet different meaning by some slight change in sound, spelling or merely context. Exhibiting a skill similar to (and perhaps no lesser than) some circus or athletic feat.

Puns have borne the unjust brunt of constituting in many minds—including that of one of my former editors—“the lowest form of wit.” To which my response is that anything good enough for a mainstay in both Shakespeare and James Joyce is good enough for me. Alternatively, even the lowest form of wit is vastly preferable to the absence thereof.

But really and truly, why “the lowest form”? Take only two examples from an admirable book, Walter Redfern’s “Puns” (Basil Blackwell, 1984). The year, I’d like to think, not coincidentally that of George Orwell’s masterpiece for bad or well.

Example 1. Redfern writes, “Exploiting the literal level of tired metaphorical phrases can reveal a subtext; here again the pun unearths: ‘An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.’” Attributed, I hope rightly, to John Buchan, an unfairly underappreciated writer. What exactly does this pun unearth? The courage of the atheist, his staunchness to go on without the lulling comforts of religion—which the irony nicely underlines.

Example 2. Redfern: “Sometimes we are offered an unlikely double helping, as in the Hollywood anecdote of the Jewish writer who went to the plastic surgeon. One of her friends remarked: ‘I see you’ve cut off your nose to spite your race.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the writer, ‘Now I’m a thing of beauty and a goy forever.’” This is rather like battling banjos, proof that punning can be a sport for two.

There is joy indeed in this. Just as a prize-winning sonata is a triumph for the composer, and a winning discus throw a coup for the athlete, a potent pun is a victory for the punster, to say nothing of the delight for his hearers. Of course, for the surprise factor to obtain, the pun has to be produced rat-a-tat, as a swift, unexpected comeback. Hesitancy, excogitation, greatly diminish the pun’s efficacy. Like, for instance, a greeting card well after the actual birthday, when it does not feel like a festive gesture anymore.

To be sure, when published in a piece of writing, time delay is no longer a problem, as when Kenneth Tynan’s review of “The World of Suzy Wong” came out in due times as “The World of Woozy Song.”  A spoonerism that, which is another form of wordplay. Similarly impressive was James Joyce referring to himself in writing as Germ’s Choice, a piece of heroic gallows humor considering how many maladies he suffered from. Names especially elicit punning; I speak as someone who has been duly kidded with Simple Simon and Simon Sez, though, regrettably, seldom if ever with Simon Pure.

A pun or some other wordplay performs handsomely as an aide-memoire. A truly great pun is unforgettable and stays with you for a lifetime. There are two examples I wish to adduce, though neither of them is English. First a German one, from a poem by Erich Kastner. (I have no umlaut, and “Kaestner” would not register with readers who don’t recognize it as a somewhat feeble but customary remedy for that lack.) Anyway, that lovable writer has a brilliant poem about the life of group performers of the Rockette variety, “Chor der Girls.” He refers to their “ewig gleiche Beinerlei.” Though nothing kills a joke like having to explain it, allow me to point out that in German “Bein” means leg, and “Einerlei,” sameness or monotony. Thus the eternal  sameness or monotony of a lifetime of  endlessly high-kicking chorines’ legs.

Now for a favorite piece of French wordplay, attributed, I hope rightly, to the great poet Alfred de Vigny, whose wonderful lyrics could use an occasional bit of levity. It is a distich of alexandrines: “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallamant de l’Arene a la tour Magne a Nimes.” (Again, please excuse my lack of accent marks.) In English: “Gall, lover of the queen, went in a spirited walk./ Gallantly from the Arena to the Magne tower at Nimes,” with reference to two landmarks of the town: the Roman arena and the famous tower. Punning hexameters from alpha to omega, a rhyming pun of epic proportions! Reminder: In French prosody, unlike in English, homonyms are allowed, the equivalent of rhyming words like “bread” and “bred” in English (bad) or “lait” and “laid” in French (okay).

Another popular form of wordplay is the palindrome: a word or whole phrase the same when read forward or backward. Most famous English ones are “Madam, I’m Adam” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” about the latter of which the excellent J. A. Cudden writes (in his invaluable “Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory”): “Attributed apocryphally to Napoleon, who, alas, spoke no English.” In his book, Cudden lists a good many other examples, as he does also of such related word games as he acrostic. Palindromes may serve no heuristic purpose, but what I would dub their ambidextrousness  is a pleasure to witness.

The acrostic, incidentally, has a good many practical uses, comparable to acronyms such as the IRA or the USA. But let me adduce a more literary example. a splendid love sonnet by the fine but underrated poet John Peale Bishop, entitled “A Recollection,” which is really an acrostic. It begins: “Famously she descended, her red hair/ Unbound and bronzed by sea-reflections, caught/ Crinkled with sea-pearls. The fine slender taut/ Knees that let down her feet upon the air” etc. Now if you read vertically down the first letters of the fourteen lines, you get “Fuck you, halfass.” Cognoscenti tell me that the obscene mockery was aimed at Nicholas Murray Butler, famous president of Columbia University. Be that as it may, the poem demonstrates how language can be simultaneously lyrical and satirical, with double meanings the stock-in-trade of wordplay.

Yet a further form of wordplay is what I would call the reversal, of which I immodestly quote one of my own examples that I had modestly forgotten until I was reminded of it by an interlocutor who recalled it. It seems that I referred to a certain female as being as homely as sin and as sinful as home.

Anagrams, too, are a popular word game, usable for comic effect. Thus Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, invented a Welsh-sounding town called Llareggub. A hint to the uninitiated: read it backward and see what you get--a comic way of being obscene.

And then there is the double meaning. A famous example has Buonaparte, as Napoleon was known in Italy, accosting a hostile Italian monk with the accusation that all friars were scoundrels. Came the reply, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” A dig too clever to be punishable.

Well, enough is enough. Too much play and no work make Johnny a dull jerk.
Sufficient unto the day is a reminder: unlike swordplay, wordplay never seriously hurt anyone, though it may have punctured many an inflated buffoon.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unwritten Memoirs

Memoirs make a wonderful read. You don’t have to be famous or even outrageous to produce a fascinating book of recollections. Even the humblest persons may have had enough of a roller coaster ride through life for an absorbing account. Of course, being a famous writer can make for spellbinding memoirs—think Gombrowicz, for instance—but most great writers have not bothered. They were probably saving up the good stuff for their fictions. Certainly the most celebrated British memorialists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were quite ordinary enough.

I myself never considered writing a memoir—at least until now, when I realize that not having kept a diary disqualifies one as a memorialist. Memory alone is not—to use a Borges word—memorious enough. And yet already a good many years ago, the worthy E. L. Doctorow, then working for a reputable publishing house, took me to lunch and tried to persuade me to write a memoir. It was only one of several suggestions, including a book about mathematics, for which I was about as qualified as piloting a space capsule.

But memoirs, would they have been as impossible? I am not a particularly modest person, but at that time I felt significantly qualified only for turning down such an undertaking. Yet perhaps it should have been a sufficient incentive to be prodded by so distinguished a person as Doctorow, even though he had not yet written Ragtime, to get up from that lunch and start keeping a journal.

Now I do wish I had kept one. To those who still (more rarely) propose my doing so, I reply, “Look at the opportunities I let slip by unrecorded and without which a memoir would be pointless.” Quite a few of them involve writers or future writers. Digging back into early days, I come up with watching a Harvard dance from the sidelines alongside of William Gaddis and hearing him jeer “Vive le sport!” as well as say some other things which I now regret not writing down.

Even more regretfully, I recall a much later lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite writers, and his then translator, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, after having written some glowing blurbs for his books. All I remember about that enchanting occasion is how beautiful Borges’s English was. Another time, I arranged for the near-blind Borges and his sighted companion to be put up in a friend’s large apartment free of charge during their New York stay. That time I did not even approach him, not wishing to make him feel obligated to reward me with a meeting.

I spent some time with the French poet Pierre Emmanuel, but all I recall is his love of women with heavy legs and thick ankles. I spent more time with a greater poet, Yves Bonnefoy, when I was writing my Harvard Ph. D. thesis about the prose poem as art form. All I remember from his conversation is his disapproving of my imputing in my thesis deliberate ambiguity to Rimbaud, something Bonnefoy claimed entered French literature only much later, with Paul Valery. I still wonder whether he was right.

There was a brief but stimulating relationship with two important German Swiss writers, Max Frisch and Friedrich Durrenmatt. To the former, I lost a girlfriend he memorialized in Montauk; the latter invited me to come visit him in Switzerland, I don’t know how seriously. I was also friendly and shared a girlfriend with, Hans Egon Holthusen, a then noted German poet, critic, and prose writer, now rather forgotten. Of our many conversations, I remember only two. One, about how I should wear more pointy shoes, the kind he favored. Another about how in attacking other writers I should use such safely unactionable terms as ass or asshole.

In Budapest, I got to know some Hungarian writers, notably the splendid Ferenc Santa, whose terrific short story “Nazis” I translated for my anthology Fourteen for Now. I now recall nothing of our lively conversation, at the end of which he gave me one of his novels that, to my shame, I still haven’t read. A perhaps even greater writer, Gyula Illyes, a poem of whose I had translated in verse, I unfortunately did not get to meet.

I also got to know a good many well-known Americans, as well as a lot of film people, but they would require a whole separate blog entry. Here let me record only my missed memoirs of some famous women. There was, first, the talented and beautiful French Canadian movie star, Genevieve Bujold. She had met me briefly at a film party, and, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a press agent that she would be in New York on such and such an evening on which I was to take her out. It was her imperious command.

Well, I took her to a delightful play by Alan Ayckbourn, which we both enjoyed. During intermission, the conversation somehow turned to feet. She declared that hers were very pretty, and promptly shed a shoe for confirmation. She was right. After the show, we drove around in a cab from restaurant to restaurant, all of which regretted, but their kitchen was closed. Not even my favorite French restaurant relented, though I told them that Mlle. Bujold was in a taxi outside, waiting and hungry.

We ended up in a then popular Hunanese restaurant, where, however, the specialties were not the dishes that she, a vegetarian, ordered. When I delivered her to her hotel, and hoped to get to see more of her than her foot, all I got was a chaste goodnight kiss and the enthusiastic suggestion to come visit her in Hollywood, where I would especially enjoy talking to her brilliant son. He was then eight or nine years old.

I did like the ladies of the ballet. I had had a lovely relationship with June Morris during my Paris Fulbright. However, a poem I wrote about us, she said, would shock her mother. A poem I wrote about and sent to Melissa (“Millie”) Hayden, a superbly down-to-earth broad, she repudiated as incomprehensible. Patricia Wilde was also a platonic friend.

I had a date with the Royal Ballet’s great Lynn Seymour, the recent subject of a rapturous tribute from the New York Times’s chief dance critic. Like Alastair Macaulay, but for a different ballet, I fell under the spell of the magnificent Miss Seymour. I took her to the City Ballet for Balanchine’s dance tribute to England, “Union Jack,” which I thought particularly appropriate. But Lynn was unimpressed, and made some unfavorable comments I wish I had recorded. Of our conversation, I remember only how earthy, tough and profane she was, deliciously so, but not at all the creature I had admired onstage. At that time, I found this disappointing; now I would have delighted in it.

My other, closer nexus, was with one of the greatest and loveliest ballerinas of all time, Suzanne Farrell. She had liked a piece I wrote about her and George Balanchine. And I remember how touched I was when, quite a bit later, I came upon her surrounded in talk with a group of admirers. She promptly left them, coming toward me to warmly greet me. This led to several lunches at the restaurant Santa Fe, near where she then lived. And to fine, unrecorded conversations.

I recall a couple of dates with her. One was to a performance of Horvath’s “Don Juan Returns from the War,” which we both liked. As we walked up Eighth Avenue, she joyously remarked, “This makes me understand something important about Mr. B.” as the ballet people called the glorious George. But what was that something?

Another time I took her to a drama critics’ award party. I had hoped to impress my colleagues with my date, the great and gorgeous Suzanne Farrell. Well, they weren’t in the least impressed, most of them not even knowing who she was. To her credit be it said that she was nowise affected by remaining unrecognized and unadulated. I now think it might even have come as a relief. But what did she say?

One last great lady, this time of opera, and one that I did not date, but had a very long, jolly phone conversation with. The film critics were awarding Diane Keaton for her role in “Annie Hall.” Because Annie is much concerned with wanting to be a singer, I thought the presenter could aptly be Beverly Sills. However, in an utterly charming and modest way, “Pinky” kept declining my most persuasive, affectionate arguments. I wish I had recorded her gracious and amusing objections, as spirited as they were witty. Still, in the end she yielded, and proved the most winning presenter. What were her words?

Selfishly I do recall her telling me, years later, that whenever she got a new issue of New York magazine, she turned first to my column rather than to the worthy music critic’s one. But I was not supposed to tell him that. If he reads this blog, which I very much doubt, he will surely no longer mind. If he does, though, let me say that I usually read his column before checking out mine.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


If you add up the number of practitioners of the seven cardinal (or, in lay terms, deadly) sins, I doubt if the number will equal that of those guilty of stupidity. Ergo: Shouldn’t stupidity make it as a deadly, conceivably the deadliest, sin?

I can say this with some confidence, having evinced some form of stupidity at all stages of my life, the memory of which haunts me despite all attempts at expiation. To be sure one of the problems with stupidity is that it often masquerades as something lesser, like, say, laziness, as in the following example.

Back in my graduate student days I was very friendly with a fellow graduate student in Comparative Literature, the brilliant future academic, Claudio Guillen. Handsome, witty and wise, he was also the son of Jorge Guillen, one of the greatest Spanish poets. Anyway, one day Claudio asked me whether I had ever made love to a Spanish girl. These young women, he said, offer up to you their breasts on a silver platter.

Now you’d think that with such a potent incentive, I’d have embraced the nearest Hispanic girl, even a mere Latino, even if she were no Penelope Cruz or Dolores del Rio. But I didn’t, and haven’t to this day. Is that sloth or stupidity? I rather think the latter, considering that I would have settled for a mere china platter.

Stupidity! Today you see it all around you. Sometimes it is relatively harmless, such as my getting on the wrong subway train or forgetting to fully turn off the bathroom tap. And, of course, one must not confuse the incidental stupidities of an intelligent person, or even of a mere intellectual, with those of a permanent, thoroughgoing stupid individual. Which reminds me that it is a bit stupid of the English language not to possess a single-word noun for a stupid person, such as German has in Dummkopf, or Russian in durak. Granted, we have such supposed substitutes as moron, cretin or idiot, but these are really unwarranted insults to people genuinely afflicted with those ailments.

In any case, the stupidities of intelligent people, though by no means inconsiderable, are no competition for those of the born stupid, which can be colossal, stupendous, tragic. Take for instance the murderous stupidity of some who own guns, even though they shouldn’t and wouldn’t if our laws were smarter. These fellows (we read about them daily) get into arguments they cannot win except by shooting the other chap dead. There follows equally deadly vengeance.

Additionally, there is the even greater stupidity that they often shoot, through misidentification, the wrong person, a mere innocent bystander. Or worse yet, because they are not only stupid but also poor shots, they kill a nearby four-year-old girl, or some poor wretch sitting too near his or her window.

That is the gun-toting stupidity. Now take the religious stupidity, which manifests itself as some sort of fanaticism. Hereabouts it often takes the Tea Party, born-again Christian form, whereby one bombs a clinic where abortions are legally performed.

Farther east, it produces such things as Muslim fanatics, who shoot little girls merely because they attend school. Or suicide bombers, who think they will be rewarded in heaven by seventy-odd virgins administering oral sex. This is particularly stupid for several reasons.

In the first place, girls good at blowjobs usually don’t go to Heaven. But girls who make it to Heaven for not practicing oral sex, what earthly, or rather unearthly, good are they? Or if they are, after all, adept at it and in Heaven, must there not be bitter competition between those chosen and those bypassed by the dead bombers? Or, if all must get their turn, how can one dead male satisfy all seventy plus without his being worn to a frazzle and doubly dead?

One of my readers noted another problem. If I converted to Islam and turned suicide bomber, and thus went to Heaven, how would I put up with those fellationist Arab virgins, all of whom would have Barbra Streisand noses? It is, as the King of Siam was apparently given to remarking, a puzzlement.

Another major form of stupidity is stealing masterpieces of painting from museums. Never mind the unremarkable stupidity of the museums; what about the monumental stupidity of the thieves? How can you possibly sell a master painting readily recognized as stolen from a museum? Can you count on some Oriental potentate to be dumb enough to buy something he’ll have to hide from both others and perhaps even himself? And even if such a millionaire nincompoop exists, how does the thief, from the other end of the world, find and gain access to him?

Apropos hiding, this can beget epochal stupidity. Take the recent case of a dumb Romanian who, with some native Dutch help, lifted seven masterpieces from the Rotterdam museum. He left this sevenfold deadly sin in a plastic bag with his mother in their native Romanian village well behind God’s back. The brilliant woman figured out that if the masterpieces were not found, there would be no evidence. And her son, who indeed was found, would have to be released from his incarceration.

So she hid the plastic bag in ever more ingenious places, culminating in a well-covered hole she dug in her garden. But even this did not seem safe enough, so she dug up the bag and carefully burned it to a crisp in her oven. Or so, perhaps mendaciously, she claims. Now any number of experts have scrutinized those ashes, and though there is no incontrovertible evidence, what they found is consistent with burnt canvas.

It might help if stupid persons recognized their own stupidity, and so took certain precautions, refrained from some rash deeds. But anyone who recognizes his stupidity is ipso facto no longer stupid, may even justly pass for a person of rare intelligence. If, on the contrary, such abstention were a common phenomenon, the people mouthing off on television would instead shut up and so get booted off, thus causing millions of stupid TV addicts to think twice—or even just once—before turning on the idiot box. (Again, my apologies to bona fide idiots.)

Many stupidities are harmful, but, I repeat, there are also harmless ones that prove soothing to their practitioners. Thus William Buckley, Jr., definitely a very smart person, wrote that he couldn’t stand remaining alive if he didn’t believe he would be reunited with his beloved predeceased spouse in Heaven. There are, granted, those cynics who believe that he would end up in the other place, but such determinations are not my point. Similarly, Nancy Reagan firmly believed that she would rejoin her Ronald in Paradise. If I could trust such distinguished believers, I would also believe in those seventy-odd Muslim virgins and their alleged ministrations.

But enough of this and back to my initial query: Why isn’t stupidity one of the deadly sins? Presumably because unlike, say, lust, sloth or greed, it is involuntary and uncontrollable. One is born with it and willy-nilly remains faithful to it. As the German proverb has it: Born stupid and void of any added learning. Bloed geboren, nichts dazugelernt.

Yet are those officially recognized deadly sins any easier to control? Does the lecher want to be a lecher, does the lazybones choose his sloth, is the miser a clandestine philanthropist? No to all.  How, when and wherefrom those compulsions came, they became destiny, just like stupidity.

Besides, intelligence and stupidity can cohabit in the same mind. Take the contestants in the TV show “Jeopardy.” They astound by instantly having the correct answers to the most diabolically contrived questions, often of the most esoteric, trivial sort. But then they will flub or be dumbfounded by the seemingly most obvious ones that anyone could answer.

What are these contestants then? Idiot savants? Perhaps. Or just smart people with certain ineluctable stupidities.