Frau Grautisch lived near us in Cologne. She was at daggers drawn with Aunt Adelheid, and friends with me. I’d run into her only a couple of days before, when she was fetching a liter of beer from the Päffgen Bar. “For my Miebes,” she told me. “Once he’s put that lot inside him he’ll be ready for his bed. I don’t mind him drinking twice what he’s used to these days, just as long as he doesn’t go out to the pub. A woman who loves her husband and wants to keep him isn’t letting him out to the pub, not these days. Liable to shoot their mouths off, men are, here in Cologne. And when they’ve had a few they will start on about those stupid politics, cracking jokes and making filthy remarks, thinking it’s all among friends. Then they wake up the next day with a thick head, and some jealous person or other whose business isn’t doing well will have gone chasing off to the Gestapo or some Party office of what-have-you to inform on them. When I get home now, Sanna, I’ll find my old man sitting there grumbling. ‘Elvira,’ he says, ‘this place is no better than a concentration camp.’ ‘Fancy you not noticing that before,’ says I. ‘We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.”
(From Irmgard Keun’s novel After Midnight)
The Syrian Foreign Minister says that as of August 25, 2013, the United States has killed 2,548 people in drone attacks since 2005, based on “clear and compelling evidence.” Syria says it is considering a “limited, narrow act” in the form of a punitive military strike against the US, stating that “failure to respond would put Syrian credibility at stake.”
“Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
A mild disturbance next morning ruffled the staff. It began with the young gardener, Walter Traherne, who tramped into the kitchen in mud-spattered Wellingtons and overalls powdered with a lime green pesticide, declaring that moles were destroying the flowerbeds.
Walter usually strove for a D. H. Lawrence effect, lounging in doorways, his pelvis outthrust, fingering his black jawline beard, in an effort to make himself interesting to Nelly. Walter’s “toil-muscled, poetically rough-hewn son of the Earth” act had allegedly snared countless wives and daughters of palmy summer people in the area. But today he was all apocalypse, linking the moles with an invasive beetle species gobbling up phloem in the fir trees, and some type of hookworm infesting the local water.
“You can see the pattern, can’t you?” Walter violently insisted, Gauloise-package-blue eyes ablaze. Loose hoops of turquoise garden hose were bunched on his shoulder and his hand gripped the hose nozzle tersely. “First beetles. Now moles. Wormy water. A seawall collapsed out in Springs last week. If it’s not global warming, I’d like to know what is. But try telling that to those Board of Selectmen bastards.”
Nelly, basting a tray of squabs with a brush soaked in soy sauce, paused in her efforts and glanced at him warily.
“You suspect a pattern,” she said, in a therapist’s neutral voice. Normally, Nelly’s voice alarmingly combined rasping loudness with soft, lilting inflections. “The Whispering Foghorn,” Mrs. Hayworth called her. “She lives in a louder world than we do.”
Pinkish breast meat, visible through papery skins, revolted her. King of Birds, my ass, she thought. She studied Matthew’s narrow back hunched over the cooking island, the pen in his fingers tapping out a private anthem on the black granite counter. He wore a sleeveless denim vest with no shirt underneath. His shaved head and the squiggly black and orange tattoos on his arms and neck gave him a convict allure. “Don’t forget fennel,” she said.
As Nelly squigetted lemon juice over the soy sauce, Matthew tried and failed to imagine Walter as a green-spirited political bellwether. The man never has anything on his mind except pussy, thought Matthew, yet here he is striking civic-minded poses. He seems genuinely upset—that’s the jarring aspect.
“Snot a suspicion, it’s a fact.”
“Well,” said Nelly, straightening. She daubed her hands on a drying-up cloth. “Obviously we’re doomed. Why not spend your final moments elsewhere?”
Matthew chortled as he added fennel to his shopping list.
“That’s that,” he said, turning to Walter. “We had the number of an exterminator somewhere.”
“I hate the thought of killing them,” Nelly said. “Couldn’t they be trapped and released in the wild?”
“This is the wild,” Matthew pointed out, “as far as a mole’s concerned.”
(From my long-unfinished novel, Diving for Teeth)
Since returning from the Balkans I have had a raging case of stress dermatitis. It’s almost gone now. In fairness to New York, it started in Istanbul, got worse in Bulgaria, even worse in Romania and Croatia—and, FYI, you cannot buy any antihistamines over the counter anywhere in the Balkans, the only thing available is “Claratin,” which I don’t think is even how the authentic product is spelled, and it’s useless. In Berlin the pharmacies had two alternative products, both of no avail. In Paris, predictably, the whole problem went away and only flared up again after landing at JFK.
The problem, my doctor says, is that even when I don’t know I’m stressed out, I am. This is the same doctor who told me, when I was temporarily, improbably rich a few years ago and couldn’t figure out why I felt the same disorientation I felt when something terrible happened, “Your body doesn’t know the difference.” He also wanted to put me back on Klonopin, and even whipped out a prescription pad. I actually had to remind him what I went through getting off Klonopin.
Anyway, a dead month in a dead town. I saw the Paul Schrader-Lindsay Lohan-Brett Ellis film, The Canyons, which I liked a lot. Every minute it looked as if it were teetering on the edge of becoming a really ludicrously bad film, yet it never did and managed, in fact, to be a good one. It’s darker than films are generally allowed to get these days, and seems to have survived a real overkill of bad press from people who reflexively hate all three major participants, so good for them. I also saw In a World…, a smart, light, lovely movie about a woman trying to break into the movie-trailer-voiceover business by Lake Bell, an actress who’s also on my favorite cable show, Children’s Hospital. Just near the end, there is a very short scene with Geena Davis that really does leave the audience something to think about for more than ten minutes, which in my opinion is a soaring accomplishment. I saw something else I’m forgetting—I know I ducked into a screening of something that was either really great or really magnificently disgusting one day when I got caught in the rain, but I forget what or which it was.
Time Warner, my cable provider, is in an infantile row with CBS, which owns Showtime, which I subscribe to along with HBO and RAI and something else I don’t know the name of, Thrillmax or Doublemax or Climax or whatever, which is four or five stations of soft porn and brainless action movies. Time Warner’s version of this dispute is stupidly, truculently displayed where the stations that carry Nurse Jackie, Dexter, and other shows I like to watch normally appear. (I don’t really follow Dexter, but Charlotte Rampling is in the final season and I’m very pissed that I’m being charged to see her in it but unable to do so.) My Netflix, Hulu, AT&T, and YMCA accounts, and all other internet autopayments, were cancelled when I had to replace my bank card in Bucharest, since the bank changed the security code. Since then, I’ve become increasingly internet-phobic and decided not to pay anything online, so I’m leaving all that stuff in the present, cancelled state.
Relatedly, this month I read the new John LeCarré, A Delicate Truth; Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief; three books about Romania; Todorov’s The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust; The Rule of Barbarism, by Abdellatif Laâbi; and re-read Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics;” Kafka’s collected stories (most of them); as well as all 1,000 pages of Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy; plus two novels by Irmgard Keun, the Anita Loos of anti-Nazi Nazi Germany—proving, if proof were needed, that I can avoid writing without any help from Netflix, Hulu, or Showtime.
I would say how intelligent I think the British Parliament was in voting down any UK involvement in this completely insane US plan to bomb Syria, but I know how you despise the British Parliament, the normal inanity of which you have to deal with, whereas I don’t. I can’t believe the US is selling this in the same package they sold the Iraq invasion in, or that anyone in the US Congress besides John McCain and affiliated warmongers is buying it—even if none of them have any morals, these things cost a lot of money they could skim with much less risk of blowback. The truly incredible $53 billion intelligence budget (that we know of), added to the cost (that we know of) of another “controlled intervention,” added to the costs (that we know of) of the ongoing US military actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Et Cetera could at this point send every underprivileged child in the US through four years of a fucking Ivy League university, followed by graduate school, with enough left over to repair the infrastructure of at least ten major US cities, upgrade the entire US health system, and construct a high-speed rail system. That’s counting, or maybe not even counting, the gazillions we don’t know about because they’re classified and exempt from congressional oversight. Yet none of it’s enough to hire more than 33 translators fluent in Arabic at the FBI, a few more at the NSA, and a few more at the CIA. Where does all that money go? “Administrative costs.” Like all the money these poor damaged people pay the Church of Scientology to be turned into zombies.
And why is Hollande suddenly hot to trot, when a huge French majority is against him? I was completely in favor of France’s Mali intervention, but that too was a situation produced by our meddling in Libya—everything really does come down to Newtonian physics at this point. When Putin begins to sound like the voice of reason, we are in big, big trouble. He’s completely right and logical to ask: Why would Assad use chemical weapons when he’s already winning? And, as a friend wrote this morning, what’s so different about killing people with poison gas from killing them with bombs? Whose interests are served by a US “strategic strike,” if not those of Alvin Quackenbush himself? (I realize this email already contains many algorithmically key words like “bomb,” “intervention,” “Mali,” “Syria,” and, I suppose, “war,” but as a native writer of English, I’m really tired of spelling that name without a “u” after “Q.”)
You’ve probably been spared the Jay-Z video “Picasso Baby”—but really, M., I’m not suggesting you YouTube it, but it’s beyond anything. Art as haute bourgeois playpen, complete with pen. I like Jay-Z, who came to Havana with Beyoncé this summer, so I managed to watch the first 20 seconds, on the strength of my belief that he was thinking, It’s so easy to get a bunch of pretentious white people to make total assholes of themselves. Which I’m sure he was. Then the sight of former conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, scraggly beard and hair grown down to his ankles, lolling on a “staring bench” across from the star, looking for all the world like an overgrown, drooling baby in a high chair, really made me gag and turn it off. The asshole-in-chief in this instance was Marina Abramović, who floats in at the outset like Vampira, and who is scheduled to assist, I read somewhere, in raping the last virgin forest in Norway to make way for an Arts Center, in pursuit of one of her many fabulous dreams. Another of her many dreams about to come true is a Rem Koolhaas-designed, Kickstarter-funded temple to herself in Hudson, New York, following, I guess, a Robert Wilson opera entitled, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a glossy picture book of which a bookstore owner in Berlin showed me last month, with depressing enthusiasm over “all the fascinating New York downtown characters.” Which sounded like something on the Cartoon Network. What a changed lady this particular cartoon character is from the amusing Yugoslavian party girl I knew and liked, and, actually, cohabited with for several weeks, along with her then-art-partner-Ulay, in Bangkok 30 years ago; the daft, madcap, hard-drinking Vixen of Belgrade with whom, years later on the island of Hydra, I composed a scathing song about Intercontinental Hotel magnate Dakis Joannou and the obscene power of money, which we sang to his face at dinner the same evening. (At the time, St. M.A. was fresh from a slew of real-estate acquisitions in Brazil, if memory serves.) A friend recently described the more recent incarnation of Marina as a cross between Stalin and a postcard of the Virgin Mary; throw in Aimee Semple McPherson and it’s beyond my powers of nostalgic credulity to disagree.
Lest I leave you on a cranky note, you probably didn’t hear that two adorable kittens trapped on a subway track in New York were saved the other day, as an MTA driver kept his train stopped for two hours until they were rescued. Anthony Weiner’s spokesperson has already gone on record to say that the erstwhile congressman “would give his life” to save those kitties if he were mayor; Christine Quinn, now trailing the infinitely preferable Bill de Blasio in the mayoral polls here, has also put it out that she would have stopped the train to save the kittens. Well, she might say that and even believe it, until becoming mayor. I don’t think the actual mayor had anything to do with this—I find it hard to believe that people prepared to roll over bodies with a tank to get what they want would brake for two kittens, though stranger things do happen all the time: this pussy rescue is just an example of the fragile goodness Todorov writes about, which most people are capable of at least now and then—the same kind of fragile goodness that saved the Jews of Bulgaria.
Lots of love to you and C.,
PS Tonight, suddenly, inexplicably: Showtime has reappeared. With a Dexter catchup marathon. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I even watched Dexter—I have absolutely no idea what is happening on this series. There seems to be a serial-killer encounter group going on. If I am reading the episode I just saw correctly, Charlotte Rampling just debrained a hunky young trainee maniac, and is contemplating what appears to be his very small brain in a jar of formaldehyde.
In the kitchen, she found Matthew playing with Lily the calico, or Lily the calico playing with Matthew, it was never clear which it was, Matthew got Lily to swat at a Cat Dancer, but the cat only pretended to be hypnotized by it. Lily got more fun, it seemed, out of waiting until Matthew himself became hypnotized by it, and then strutting off with an attitude of complete boredom.
“They’re smarter than we are,” said Matthew, not for the first time.
The rain had thickened and poured in sheets down the slopes of the skylight.
“Speak for yourself,” Nelly said. “When she opens the can for herself I’ll agree with you.”
“But that’s where she’s smarter,” Matthew said. “She knows how to get us to open it for her.”
(More from my unfinished novel, Diving for Teeth)
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Excerpt from the Novel ‘Family Life’
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Meet the Nieratkos: Thomas Campbell Made a Skate Video That’s Actually Worth Watching
Sculpting Nudes in a New York Night Club