Wednesday, January 23, 2019


“Through more than thirty years of writing and behavior, Simon has shown us how easy it is to be a snake.” So ends an attack on me of a good many years ago on Salon by Charles Taylor, showing how easy it is to misjudge me from a widely held but unexaminedly researched, lazily hostile point of view.

People who have unprejudicedly read my criticism in magazines, or collected in book form, must know how mistaken dear Mr. Taylor is. “Dear” because he has, however belatedly and unintentionally, given me this occasion to set things to right.

Let me begin with the most commonplace attacks on me as an alleged disburser of gratuitous vitriol, a view of which a little more honesty and effort would have revealed me, on the contrary, as a good praiser frequently as well. In fact, one would probably find a positive review for every four or five negative ones, which seems perfectly justified when you consider how much trash is being offered on stage and screen, and only a little less so in literature. But that would not be viewed as  a legitimate proportion by the typical reviewers, who find it more profitable to gush than to discriminate, of which, in any case, they are rarely capable.

So let me start with the serpentine view of me, most conveniently promulgated on the basis of my satirical remarks about something which the poor actors could not control. But are not performers in shows and movies supposed to be appealing,
indeed exemplars of something all of us strive for, or do we go to the theater and  cinema to look at unsightliness? Except, of course, where the latter is predicated, or do we want the witches in “Macbeth” played by or acted as gorgeous women?

The old Hollywood dedicated to glamour knew what it was doing all right, even if its notion of beauty wasn’t always of the subtlest kind. This has changed, with populism insisting that it would rather look democratically at a homely Zoe Kazan or Jessica Hecht than romantically at a Laura Osnes, Laura Denanti, or Katrina Lesk. And yes, if we desire sets and costumes—again with meaningful exceptions—to be beautiful,
why not the faces and figures of performers? Are they not part of the spectacle? Or do young women aiming for stage or screen careers grow up yearning to be Barbra Streisands? Heaven help us, maybe they do. Still, I would like to think that, however unavowedly, they would rather be a Jane Fonda or a Sharon Stone.

Note that this does not mean that acting talent does not come first, only that aesthetics should not lag too far behind. Yet does not some of my wit at their expense hurt the actors’ feelings? No doubt it does, but that is the consequence of being a public figure and of lack of self-criticism. The early Maggie Smith and the greatly gifted Judi Dench would not have gone out for parts that required beauty queens, or else would have used their talents to make us believe that they could. Suffice it to say that I have never praised an actress for nothing but looks alone, take for example this from an early review of “Les Enfants du Paradis”:

“Maria Casares as the desperate wife. Who else could have made nagging, choking, marathon jealousy look so touching, lovable, even heroic? How that plain face of hers can become transfigured with the humblest happiness; how, in the agonies of rejection and anger, its ugliness remains profoundly human.”

Next comes the accusation of my alleged enjoying curmudgeonliness overmuch. There is no denying that writing a well-turned, well-deserved slam is fun, but so is a convincing rave. The only rather less enjoyable thing is writing a mixed review, chiefly neither praise nor disparagement. But even that should be readable as a specimen of justness, of the agility in sorting out the good and the not good in the mediocre. One must make the merely tolerable resonate as well as the enthusiastic, albeit with a lesser clangor.

What I would ask from any reader—and I admit it is no small thing—is to have checked out one of my critical collections in a library or bookstore, without necessary purchase, but enough to elicit either approbation or censure. As an example of a truly positive review, consider in “John Simon on Theater” the notice of “Private Lives” on pages 810-11, or that of “Barrymore” on pages 667-68, or yet that of “Comic Potential” on pages 782-84. Only someone who truly enjoys to accord praise could have written any one of those. Even some of what can be read standing up in a bookstore will dismiss the notion of me as an attack dog.

If you try to decide whether not to boggle at my negative reviews, try those of two other productions of “Private Lives,” pages 36-38 or 284-87. The latter takes apart Elizabeth Taylor’s Amanda, but should provide good enough reasons for doing so. As for my alleged homophobia, consider the praise lavished on some known homosexual playwrights or performers, of which you can find plentiful examples. I believe I acknowledged their talents quite irrespective of their, yes, private lives.

None of the foregoing, however, is intended as an elaborate justification of my criticism or me as an individual. I am sure that disagreement with my critiques is not excluded. Certainly perfection eludes me as much as it does the next person, though perhaps a little bit less than it does other reviewers, especially those in the dailies. If you want to use this very blog entry as inducement to proclaim disagreement, by all means do so. I am all for private or public debate as one of the best sources of discoveries. I only wish I had a better outlet for reviews than afforded by my blog entries and occasional magazine publication, especially now that The Weekly Standard has bitten the dust. The one thing I am perfectly confident about is that my views are thoroughly clear, unlike, say, those of French and American structuralists and semioticists. Also devoid of talking (or writing) from both corners of my mouth.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Of Love and Food

In a recent blog post I enumerated poems or parts of poems that have been amiably haunting me all my life. Yet there is one of them that, though frequently recurrent, I did not mention. It runs “Ce lourd secret que tu quemandes”—this heavy secret that you beg for.

It comes from a sequence of quatrains by Guillaume Apollinaire entitled “Vitam Impendere Amori’ (to overhang life with love,) an allusion to Rousseau’s “Vitam Impendere Vero,” to overhang life with truth. Apollinaire’s sequence was written about a troubled love affair with one of his several inamoratas, and its penultimate quatrain begins “Tu n’a pas surpris mon secret”—you did not apprehend my secret.
The entire concluding quatrain reads “La rose flotte au fil de l’eau/ Les masques ont pass├ęs par bandes/ Il tremble en moi comme un grelot/ Ce lourd secret que tu quemandes.” The rose floats along the water’s flow/ The masks have gone by in bands/ There trembles in me like sleigh bells/ This heavy secret that you beg for.”

I take this to mean that the romance of love is over, as are its disguises; what resonates inside the lover, is a deep-seated tremor, like unspoken sleighbells, which the beloved is reduced to seeking, probably in vain. I have no idea why that last single, solitary, out of context verse should so keep affecting me, perhaps because women could not find in me what they were craving, something very private that remained, however intense, uncommunicated. But perhaps it is just a verse that hangs on through sheer euphony, a musically modulated sound sequence.

So much for this matter; now for something entirely different. What about the presumptive birth places of various comestibles that they truthfully or falsely proclaim in their names, thus adding to their desirability? Take, for example, the so-called Belgian endives. Do they really all come from Belgium, and can they not take root for whatever reason elsewhere, say in our own USA? Is there something about the Belgian soil, climate, or cultivators that is so inimitably unique? Or is it just the exotic aura of foreignness?

Or what about Parma prosciutto? I am aware that in some markets it is available in a cheaper domestic version. But the imported kind from Italy, though quite a bit more expensive, is also tastier, At some outlets, in fact, there are numerous costlier versions, rising stepwise to real luxuries my kind cannot, and does not need to, afford. At the market where I shop, I have seen Prosciutto di Parma convincingly packaged and labeled in giant hunks. Wouldn’t it be nice to shlepp the whole thing home with me? And eating it, think affectionately of Parma’s favorite son in red and black? Similarly, I doubt if most Genoa salame has ever had a birthplace in Genoa. 

Now what about the balsamic Modena vinegar, different even in its opulently dark hue from the colorless domestic kind? I trust that it really does come from Modena,
But couldn’t it be replicated here—or is that already done? I don’t think so, as I see the name Modena proudly displayed on all its varieties, as ladies and gentlemen prefer brunettes to blondes. I truly believe that it does come from Modena, and not just because that sounds so pretty or that Modena suggests a la mode.

And how about ham? Here we run into a plethora of possibilities. Though not so denominated, much of it comes from Poland—either because it really does or because one thinks of wild Polish woods propitious to savory porkers. But one also thinks of Black Forest Ham (Schwarzwalder Schinken), even though most of the real Black Forest, subject to commercial deforestation, is practically gone by now, and is alive only in swine.

In France, there is a delicious ham, called if I remember correctly, jambon de Bayonne (but I may have it wrong, confused by tapestries from Bayeux). This brings me to obviously fictitious origins, such as the tasty Virginia ham, which, I would bet, does not necessarily come from Virginia. I also used to buy a lot of Danish ham, which I think was authentic, though I have a hard time envisaging  something Nordic as not made from reindeer.

Or think of Swiss cheese, Surely it originated, and still often does come, as Switzerland’s cheese, as if it had just skied down from an Alp. But it is a generic moniker and I have eaten Finnish Swiss cheese, just as good as any. And even in America. . . but let us not go there. I have also eaten Swedish meatballs in the heart of Manhattan.

Now what about salmon? Is it genuinely Scotch or Norwegian, or is it even, as honestly labeled, Scotch or Norwegian style? I would hate to think, though, that it might come from the Hudson or East River.

I am also puzzled by Turkish delight, which the musical “Kismet” correctly identifies as Rahat lokum. It is something that I would think can be persuasively fabricated (or whatever the word) nearer to us than Turkey. But, as I say, some of these titular attributes are fake. Have they even heard of hamburgers in Hamburg? Or in Moscow of a Moscow mule?

Ah, well, with potables there are as many nominally inauthentic as authentic ones. Burgundy, to be sure, comes from Burgundy, even as champaign (which the Times always capitalizes) comes from Champaign. Then again, most German and Austrian wines come with geographic names, like my current favorite, the Gruener Veltliner, where the green seems like a redundancy.

And now back to love, with which we began. Is music really, as Shakespeare’s Orlando would have it, “the food of love,” then what kind of food and what kind of love was he thinking of? If real food, no wonder opera divas, ostentatiously in love with themselves, are understandably of Wagnerian girth. Though, happily, recently not so much. And lovers of chocolate, Swiss or Belgian, should we not have to untighten our belts? By what miracle can I squeeze into 38 inch underwear and weigh usually something between 70 pounds and less? Luckily, though I am part Hungarian, I don’t drink Tokay, and though part Yugoslav, do not eat srpski sir, i.e., Serbian cheese. So it has become late, and I can go to bed lovingly thinking  of two favorite cheeses, Humboldt Fog, which I can sometimes afford, and Vacherin Liegois, which I really can’t.