Saturday, December 27, 2008

Post-Christmas Musings

Rick's aunt Micaela lives less than a mile down Riverside Drive from our apartment, so she is a frequent dinner guest, especially on celebratory occasions like Christmas and Chanukah. Every time she comes she brings (besides a bottle of champagne or a specially selected wine) some small object from her apartment. In the spring she gave me lovely mother-of-pearls earrings. This time it was a Merlot from Washington state, where her daughter and son-in-law live, and a copy of The New Yorker (click on image to enlarge) from January 29, 1938.

Yesterday, the day after Christmas, was a very lazy day. I spent some time reading the old New Yorker. There were some familiar names among the contributors: James Thurber, reporting on crime in Nice, and S.J. Perelman, being very cranky about the number of home-making magazines with articles "about a couple of young people who stumble across a ruined farmhouse and remodel it on what is inelegantly termed spit and coupons." If you've seen Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House (which I have, recently, a truly painful house restoration fantasy), you'll know what he is talking about. It wouldn't be the New Yorker if there wasn't an account of a lamentable social phenomenon, in this case the effects of unemployment on otherwise hardworking, decent (not only decent but also downright admirable) citizens. ("Why can't the government get things right?" is the implication.) It was by a writer named John McNulty, a byline not familiar to me. Then there was Genêt, the pen name of Janet Flanner, who wrote "The Letter from Paris" for half a century. During my first graduate school incarnation, several decades ago, this was my favorite feature of The New Yorker.

On January 29, 1938, Genêt reported on the appearance of three books. She began in the trademark New Yorker voice, that of a worldly, ironic, sensible "Yankee" : "To people who find Gertrude Stein difficult to read in English, it may be a relief to learn that her next book has been written in French, though as a matter of fact Miss Stein's French reads a great deal like her English." The book, in a series on French painters, was a homage to Picasso. Well, who else could write better on Picasso? Stein knew him well and, according to Genêt, had "lent about thirty of her Picassos for the recent great State exhibition." That sounds like she had a few more than thirty. Genêt also discusses André Malraux's L'Éspoir,  "a sort of novelized journal" of Malraux's experience of the Spanish War, "gained while serving as the head of the first international flying escadrille." I believe Genêt when she says it is "twice over a man's book."

What interested me was the report of a new story by Colette, "Bella-Vista," which I was not familiar with but which, Genêt claimed, "was ready for some future anthology of the world's great short stories." (Now that I think of it, Micaela resembles Colette.)

Back in that early graduate career I used to read a lot of Colette's novels and stories. It was the time (late 1970s) when I had my first apartment, in which certain objects began to accumulate: a mahogany desk; a bookcase for my German reference books, the sight of which gave me great pleasure; a collection of Bel Canto recordings; a bedspread from Mexico; a porcelain tea pot with a floral patten; a profusion of jade plants and ferns in colorful pots from Mexico (I was studying in Texas then, just a few hours from Piedras Negras); lace curtains on the windows. By the time I acquired my first cat, my surroundings were coming more and more to resemble the evocative interiors that play a supporting role in the novels of Colette. I didn't live in the Midi or have a garden in my backyard full of asparagus, tomatoes, and radicchio, but it seemed a kind of wisdom then to be concerned only about the pink cactus that was about to flower, or to appreciate the clink that the wine bottles make when they are being carried to the well to be stored for drinking later with dinner.

Indeed, it all sounds very much like a painting by Matisse, for instance, this one from 1905, entitled "Open Window." This in turn reminds me of the small book by Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. Scarry is concerned about the attacks made by postmodernists against beauty, on the charge that it distracts us from concerns for justice. She makes an intricate argument for the way that Beauty trains us mentally to be more perceptive. She approaches the subject by elaborating on the experience we have all had in moving beyond youthful enthusiasms. Think of the tackiest paintings you loved at 18, say those by Walter Keane, which turn out to have been painted by his wife, Margaret.

With training, we leave such enthusiasms behind and grapple with more difficult paintings that, on first glance, might appear ugly. Scarry's example is Matisse's palm trees, which she always found ugly. But, then, one day she began to like those palm trees. And so, this process of intellectual self-correction can be applied to the moral world: we go, according to Scarry, from perception of "the fair" (lovely faces) to receptiveness to "fairness" (as in equal distribution of goods). Ingenious, as I said..

Some of the attractions of Manhattan, as advertised in the 1938 New Yorker, included The Women by Clare Booth at the Ethel Barrymore; Gertrude Lawrence in Susan and God ("A Comedy by Rachel Crothers," a revival of which I saw last year at the Mint Theater in Manhattan); Golden Boy by Clifford Odets; and A Doll's House starring Ruth Gordon. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians were performing at the Roosevelt Grill at Madison and 45th Street. A two-page color insert featured "America's Fourmost Whiskies": Old Overhold, Old Taylor, Old Grand-Dad, and Mount Vernon. A full-page ad for Tiffany & Co. offered "Quality, Smartness and Variety Moderately Priced." I could go on, but enough for today.

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