Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose
Old faces are forbidding or beautiful for what is expressed in them; in a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful both for what is there and what cannot yet be there.
—Randall Jarrell. Pictures From An Institution. (Gift of Michael Schoop)
One can hold a scrubbing brush with two good fingers and the stumps of two others even if both joints of the thumb are gone, but it takes considerable practice to get used to it.
—Frank Norris. McTeague. (Gift of Brooks Headley)
“The Gnome in the Garden: Tony Blair and Britain’s ‘Heritage’” in Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin, 2008), 219-232. Quotation from page 221.
Headnote: Tony Judt’s one-sentence appraisal of Tony Blair is not directly about Tony Blair at all; it is an observation about the nature of Mr. Blair’s “inauthenticity,” a complex and invisible moral quality subject to endless dispute treated here as if it were as obvious as a hat. To call someone “inauthentic” is merely an insult, to observe that someone’s inauthenticity is completely uncontrived is a classic and refined insult all the more effective for being presented as a matter of placing this quality in the correct category.
There is nothing contrived about Tony Blair’s inauthenticity.
The Second World War. New York: Penguin, 1990, page 142.
Headnote: John Keegan is a widely respected British military historian. He is a former Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He ordinarily takes a classic stand. In his military histories, he often engages in analysis by presentation, as he does in this passage on the Balkans. His treatment of the Second World War is strongly presentational; it unfolds like a guided tour. All the hard choices involving management of detail and arrangement of material are made silently, so that what is obviously one presentation of a very complex cluster of events seems like an inevitable view of a single thing: the Second World War seen from the obviously correct perspective.
“Crossroads of Europe” is a catchphrase designation for the Balkans, conveying little more than unfamiliarity with the region by those who use it. The Balkans, spined and herringboned by some of the highest mountains on the continent, offer few highways, and none deserving to be called a path of conquest. No single power, not even the Roman Empire at its height, has dominated the whole region: cautious generals have consistently declined to campaign there if they could. It has been a graveyard of military operations ever since the Emperor Valerns succumbed to the Goths at Adrianople in 378.
The Second World War. New York: Penguin, 1990, page 540-541.
Headnote: This presentation of Franklin Roosevelt as a war leader concentrates on style and does this partly by contrast: Churchill did this, Hitler did that, but Roosevelt did the other. This is an interpretation, of course, but it advances almost wholly by the deployment of fact. He started work at ten, lunched off a tray, took few calls at night, and so on. The language does not call attention to itself—Keegan is intent on his presentation of Roosevelt—but it is carefully chosen, and the passage ends with a virtuoso dismount. When the reader gets there, he is ready to accept Keegan’s interpretation of how Roosevelt directed American strategy—and the New Deal—as if it too is a fact on the same order as what time he started work in the morning and how he had his lunch served.
. . . Roosevelt was able to hold aloof from the business of directing war, an activity alien to his temperament. Such an aloofness was not granted to any of the other leaders. Churchill, of course, revelled in high command, dedicated his days (and nights) to war-making, had rooms, suites, even whole houses adapted to his needs as a wartime Prime Minister, preferring his “siren suit” to any other garb (though he also kept handy his uniforms of an honorary colonel of the Cinque Ports Battalion), demanded a constant diet of Ultra intelligence intercepts and lived in hour-to-hour intimacy with his military advisers. Hitler turned himself into a military hermit after the opening of Barbarossa, seeing few but his generals, even though he found their company grating. Stalin’s wartime routine conformed strangely in pattern to Hitler’s —secretive, nocturnal, troglodyte. Roosevelt scarcely altered the pattern of his life at all after Pearl Harbor. Unthreatened by air attack, he continued to live at the White House, occasionally vacationing at Hyde Park, and there pursued a timetable that drove the methodical and purposeful almost to distraction. [General George C.] Marshall’s day was measured to the minute: his only relaxation was to visit his wife in his official quarters for lunch, which was served as he stepped on to the veranda from his staff car. Roosevelt lunched off a tray brought into the Oval Office, did not begin work until ten in the morning and took few telephone calls at night. . . .
. . . Unlike Churchill, who was constantly on the move—to Paris (before the fall of France), to Cairo, to Moscow, to Athens (where he spent Christmas Day 1944 while the sound of gunfire between British troops and ELAS rebels rocked the city), to Rome, Naples, Normandy, the Rhine—Roosevelt travelled little. His mobility was, of course, limited by his physical disability, which was the result of poliomyelitis and which a discreet press disguised from its readership almost completely. Nevertheless he travelled when he chose, but during the war his travels took him only to Casablanca in January 1943, Quebec twice (August 1943 and September 1944), Cairo and Tehran at the end of 1944 and Yalta in the Russian Crimea, in February 1945. He saw nothing of the war at first hand, no bombed cities, no troops at the front, no prisoners, no after-effects of battle, and probably did not choose to; he directed American strategy as he had directed the New Deal—by lofty rhetoric and by rare but decisive strikes at the conjunctions of power.
Burgundy, Morvan. Michelin Green Guide, 1992.
Cistercian architecture first appeared in Burgundy in the first half of the twelfth century (Cistercium was the Latin name for the town of Cîteaux). It is characterized by a spirit of simplicity in keeping with the teaching of St Bernard, who had a considerable influence on his times. He strove against the luxury displayed in some monastery churches. With a passion and a violence that were extraordinary, he opposed the theories of the great builders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, such as St Hugh, Peter the Venerable, and Suger, who considered that nothing could be too rich for the glory of God: “Why,” he wrote to William, Abbot of St-Thierry, “this excessive height in the churches, this enormous length, this unnecessary width, these sumptuous ornaments and curious paintings that draw the eyes and distract attention and meditation? We, the monks, who have forsaken ordinary life and who have renounced the riches and ostentation of the world . . . in whom do we hope to awaken devotion with these ornaments?”
There is however a certain grandeur in the sobriety and austerity that he advocated. The uncluttered style and severe appearance truly reflected the principles of the Cistercian rule, which regarded as noxious everything that was not absolutely indispensable to the development and spread of monastic life.
The Cistercians almost always insisted on an identical plan of construction for all the buildings of their order and themselves directed the work on new abbeys. The Abbey of Fontenay is a good example of the standard plan. This design and its architectural techniques are to be found throughout Europe from Sicily to Sweden. Every new monastery was another link with France and craftsmen followed the monks. It was the turn of the Burgundian Cistercian monasteries to spearhead the expansion of European monasticism. In 1135 the Cistercians adopted Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, a recent foundation (1132); there they were to build on a large scale what was to become the wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England.
Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage, 1993.
The brown rat is an omnivorous scavenger, and it doesn’t seem to care at all whether its food is fresh or spoiled. It will eat soap, oil paints, shoe leather, the bone of a bone-handled knife, the glue in a book binding, and the rubber in the insulation of telephone and electric wires. It can go for days without food, and it can obtain sufficient water by licking condensed moisture off metallic surfaces. All rats are vandals, but the brown rat is the most ruthless . . . Instead of completely eating a few potatoes, it takes a bite or two out of dozens. It will methodically ruin all the apples and pears in a grocery in a night. To get a small quantity of nesting material it will cut great quantities of garments, rugs, upholstery, and books to tatters. In warehouses, it sometimes goes berserk . . . One night, in the poultry part of the old Gansevoort Market, alongside the Hudson, a burrow of them bit the throats of over three hundred broilers and ate less than a dozen.
By Kim Phillips. (Gift of Brooks Headley)
In Grand Crossing, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, the average monthly spending on the lottery is $60 per household. Grand Crossing lies just west of the South Shore neighborhood, home of the much-lauded community-development-oriented South Shore Bank. Jeffery Boulevard, the busy commercial thoroughfare where the Bank’s headquarters are located, is lined with thriving small businesses—hair salons, pizzerias, Black-owned clothing stores. But traveling from South Shore to Grand Crossing you pass a boarded-up apartment building, an abandoned grocery store, a deserted TV repair shop. A little bit further and you come to Stony Island Avenue. The businesses here are distinctly different than on Jeffery—there’s a Checker’s, a Church’s Fried Chicken, a Burger King; a neighborhood has started to become a ghetto. Next to a shuttered bar there’s an ad for a pawn shop—“Need Cash Fast? Top Dollar for Broken Gold.” Go under the highway that passes over the neighborhood; you’ll find a sudden proliferation of storefront churches, one of which, the House of Deliverance, has obviously been abandoned. At Cottage Grove there’s a Currency Exchange and a store that advertises itself as selling liquor—and as an afterthought, food. Beyond, there’s nothing but ramshackle buildings, no businesses as far as the eye can see. Only the passing of an occasional bus reminds you that you’re connected to the rest of the city.
The Hot Zone. New York: Random House, 1994, page 27.
Headnote: Preston’s passage presents an aggressive virus through its visible effects. The writer already knows what he is presenting here; there are no discoveries made in the course of the writing. The passage presents what the writer has come to know, and takes the position that anyone else in his position would see what he sees once he has pointed it out. The writer takes no credit for arrangement or selection.
Marburg virus . . . affects humans somewhat like nuclear radiation, damaging virtually all of the tissues in their bodies. It attacks with particular ferocity the internal organs, connective tissue, intestines, and skin. In Germany, all the survivors lost their hair–they went bald or partly bald. Their hair died at the roots and fell out in clumps, as if they had received radiation burns. Hemorrhage occurred from all orifices of the body. I have seen a photograph of one of the men who died of Marburg, taken in the hours before his death. He is lying in bed without any clothing on his upper body. His face is expressionless. His chest, arms, and face are speckled with blotches and bruises, and droplets of blood stand on his nipples.
The Peloponnessian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1980 , pages 151-156.
Headnote: Thucydides has views—of human nature, religion, the unreliability of the mob, and the inevitable degeneration of democracy—that he means his reader to come to share, but he takes the stand that, far from arguing, he is simply presenting things as they are to a reader who, like him, has a classic mind. He is the original master of the classic feat of presenting his interpretations, evaluations, and judgments as if they are specific, hard, visible facts no different from the many facts that surround them.
In this way the public funeral was conducted in the winter that came at the end of the first year of the war. At the beginning of the following summer the Peloponnesians and their allies, with two-thirds of their total forces as before, invaded Attica, again under the command of the Spartan King Archidamus, the son of Zeuxidamas. Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.
They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians. Previously attacks of the plague had been reported from many other places in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere, but there was no record of the disease being so virulent anywhere else or causing so many deaths as it did in Athens. At the beginning the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick. Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
The plague originated, so they say, in Ethiopia in upper Egypt, and spread from there into Egypt itself and Libya and much of the territory of King of Persia. In the city of Athens it appeared suddenly, and the first cases were among the population of Piraeus, where there were no wells at that time, so that it was supposed by them that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs. Later, however, it appeared also in the upper city, and by this time the deaths were greatly increasing in number. As to the question of how it could first have come about or what causes can be found adequate to explain its powerful effect on nature, I must leave that to be considered by other writers, with or without medical experience. I myself shall merely describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again. I had the disease myself and saw others suffering from it.
That year, as is generally admitted, was particularly free from all other kinds of illness, though those who did have any illness previously all caught the plague in the end. In other cases, however, there seemed to be no reason for the attacks. People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and with vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallor: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. Many of the sick who were uncared for actually did so, plunging into the water-tanks in an effort to relieve a thirst which was unquenchable; for it was just the same with them whether they drank much or little. Then all the time they were afflicted with insomnia and the desperate felling of not being able to keep still.
In the period when the disease was at its height, the body, so far from wasting away, showed surprising powers of resistance to all the agony, so that there was still some strength left on the seventh or eighth day, which was the time when, in most cases, death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, producing violent ulceration and uncontrollable diarrhoea, so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this. For the disease, first settling in head, went on to affect every part of the body in turn, and even when people escaped its worst effects, it still left its traces on them by fastening upon the extremities of the body. It affected the genitals, the fingers, and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some, too, went blind. There were some also who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends.
Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. Here in particular is a point where this plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards. Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else. But dogs, being domestic animals, provided the best opportunity of observing this effect of the plague.
These, then, were the general features of the disease, though I have omitted all kinds of peculiarities which occurred in various individual cases. Meanwhile, during all this time there was no serious outbreak of any of the usual kinds of illness; if any such cases did occur, they ended in the plague. Some died in neglect, some in spite of every possible care being taken of them. As for a recognized method of treatment, it would be true to say that no such thing existed: what did good in some cases did harm in others. Those with naturally strong constitutions were no better able than the weak to resist the disease, which carried away all alike, even those who were treated and dieted with the greatest care. The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in this way, would lose their powers of resistance. Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. When, on the other hand, they did visit the sick, they lost their own lives, and this was particularly true of those who made it a point of honour to act properly. Such people felt ashamed to think of their own safety and went into their friends’ houses at times when even the members of the household were so overwhelmed by the weight of their calamities that they had actually given up the usual practice of making laments for the dead. Yet still the ones who felt most pity for the sick and the dying were those who had had the plague themselves and had recovered from it. They knew what it was like and at the same time felt themselves to be safe, for no one caught the disease twice, or, if he did, the second attack was never fatal. Such people were congratulated on all sides, and they themselves were so elated at the time of their recovery that they fondly imagined that they could never die of any other disease in the future.
A factor which made matters much worse than they were already was the removal of people from the country into the city, and this particularly affected the incomers. There were no houses for them, and, living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law. All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could. Many people, lacking the necessary means of burial because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, adopted the most shameless methods. They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.
In other respects also Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness. Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless but now inherited their wealth, people now began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before then they used to keep dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honour, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honourable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life.
This, then, was the calamity which fell upon Athens, and the times were hard indeed, with men dying inside the city and the land outside being laid waste. At this time of distress people naturally recalled old oracles, and among them was a verse which the old men claimed had been delivered in the past and which said:
War with the Dorians comes, and a death will come at the same time.
There had been a controversy as to whether the word in this ancient verse was “dearth” rather than “death”; but in the present state of affairs the view that the word was “death” naturally prevailed; it was a case of people adapting their memories to suit their sufferings. Certainly I think that if there is ever another war with the Dorians after this one, and if a dearth results from it, then in all probability people will quote the other version.
Then also the oracle that was given to the Spartans was remembered by those who knew of it: that when they inquired from the god whether they should go to war, they received the reply that, if they fought with all their might, victory would be theirs and that the god himself would be on their side. What was actually happening seemed to fit in well with the words of this oracle; certainly the plague broke out directly after the Peloponnesian invasion, and never affected the Peloponnese at all, or not seriously; its full force was felt at Athens, and, after Athens, in the most densely populated of the other towns.
Such were the events connected with the plague. Meanwhile the Peloponnesians, after laying waste the Attic plain, moved on into the Paralian district as far as Laurium, where the Athenian silver-mines are. First they laid waste the side that looks towards the Peloponnese, and then the other side facing Euboea and Andros.
The Peloponnessian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1980 , pages 241-244.
When the Corcyraeans realized that the Athenian fleet was approaching and that their enemies had gone, they brought the Messenians, who had previously been outside the walls, into the city and ordered the fleet which they had manned to sail round into the Hyllaic harbour. While it was doing so, they seized upon all their enemies whom they could find and put them to death. They then dealt with those whom they had persuaded to go on board the ships, killing them as they landed. Next they went to the temple of Hera and persuaded about fifty of the suppliants there to submit to a trial. They then condemned every one of them to death. Seeing what was happening, most of the other suppliants, who had refused to be tried, killed each other there in the temple; some hanged themselves on the trees, and others found various other means of committing suicide. During the seven days that Eurymedon stayed there with his sixty ships, the Corcyraeans continued to massacre those of their own citizens whom they considered to be their enemies. Their victims were accused of conspiring to overthrow the democracy, but in fact men were often killed on grounds of personal hatred or else by their debtors because of the money that they owed. There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there.
So savage was the progress of this revolution, and it seemed all the more so because it was one of the first which had broken out. Later, of course, practically the whole of the Hellenic world was convulsed, with rival parties in every state—democratic leaders trying to bring in the Athenians, and oligarchs trying to bring in the Spartans. In peacetime there would have been no excuse and no desire for calling them in, but in time of war, when each party could always count upon an alliance which would do harm to its opponents and at the same time strengthen its own position, it became a natural thing for anyone who wanted a change of government to call in help from though there may be different degrees of savagery, and, as different circumstances arise, the general rules will admit of some variety. In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards, because they are not forced into a situation where they have to do what they do not want to do. But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances.
So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect.
Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made, they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the sweeter from having been taken, no openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.
Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable —on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy—but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice not by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.
As a result of these revolutions, there was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion. As for ending this state of affairs, no guarantee could be given that would be trusted, no oath sworn that people would fear to break; everyone had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to expect a permanent settlement and so, instead of being able to feel confident in others, they devoted their energies to providing against being injured themselves. As a rule those who were least remarkable for intelligence showed the greater powers of survival. Such people recognized their own deficiencies an the superior intelligence of their opponents; fearing that they might lose a debate or find themselves out-manoeuvred in intrigue by their quick-witted enemies, they boldly launched straight into action; while their opponents, over-confident in the belief that they would see what was happening in advance, and not thinking it necessary to seize by force what they could secure by policy, were the more easily destroyed because they were off their guard.
Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962)
(San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), pp. 129-135
In the twenties, the Rue Sainte-Anne, a narrow street running from near the Théâtre Français end of the Avenue de l’Opéra to the Rue Saint-Augustin and skirting the Square Louvois en passant had been rendered illustrious by a man named Maillabuau, a gifted restauranteur but a losing horseplayer who had no money to squander on décor. He turned his worn tablecloths into an asset by telling his customers that he wasted none of their contributions on frills—all went into the supreme quality of his materials and wines. A place with doormen in uniforms, he would say—a place with deep carpets and perhaps (here a note of horror would enter his voice) an orchestra—was ipso facto and prima facie a snare. He would then charge twice as much as any other restaurant in Paris. My memories of visits to Maillabuau’s—visits that I had enjoyed only by stratagem—were so pleasant that I had chosen the Hôtel Louvois in order to be near it.
All during my year at the Sorbonne, the Guide du Gourmand à Paris had served as the Baedeker for my exploratory splurges when I had money enough to try restaurants off my usual beat. The author addressed his book to the gourmand, rather than to the gourmet, he said, because it was impossible to like food if you did not like a lot of it; “gourmet” was therefore a snob word, and a silly one. This predisposed me in his favor. But it was his subject matter that held me captive. The restaurants were categorized as “of great luxury,” “middle-priced,” “reasonable,” and “simple,” but all were warranted “good,” and there were about a hundred and twenty-five of them. At the head of the “luxury” group was a “first platoon” of six restaurants (of which today only one survives, and that scarcely worthy of mention). Maillabuau, despite the worn tablecloths, figured among the ten others in the “luxury” group. In my own forays, “reasonable” was my ceiling, but I liked to read about the others—those financially unattainable Princesses Lointaines. I knew the description of Maillabuau’s by heart:
Sombre, almost lugubrious front. If the passerby is not warned, never will he suspect that behind that façade, having crossed that modest threshold, he can know the pure joys of gastronomy! How to know, if one is not a gourmand, that here the sole is divine, that the entrecôte Bercy has singular Chambertin) are the year that they should be, and that the marc resembles embalmed gold? How to know that only here, in all Paris, are made ready the fat squab guinea-hens anointed with all the scents of the Midi? Staggering bill, which one never regrets paying.
I had no thought of crossing that modest threshold myself until one warm morning in the late spring of 1927, when it occurred to me that my father, mother, and sister would be arriving in Paris in a few weeks—they were waiting only for the beginning of the summer holiday at the Connecticut College for Women, where my sister was now a sophomore—and that in the natural course of events they would ask me, the local expert, where to dine. My mother and sister favored the kind of restaurant where they saw pretty dresses and where the plat du jour was likely to be called “Le Chicken Pie à l’Américaine,” but my father had always been a booster for low overhead and quality merchandise; they were the principles that had guided his career as a furrier. Russian sable and ermine—with baum or stone marten if a woman couldn’t afford anything better—had always been his idea of decent wear. His views on fur were a little like J.P. Morgan’s on yachts—people who have to worry about the cost shouldn’t have them. Foxes began and ended, for him, with natural blacks and natural silvers; the notion of a fox bred to specifications would have filled him with horror. Seal had to be Alaskan seal, not what was called Hudson seal, which meant muscrat. Persian lamb had to be unborn Persian lamb, not mutton.
As I had anticipated, when my family arrived in Paris they did indeed consult me about the scene of our first dinner together. So Maillabuau’s it was. When we arrived before the somber, almost lugubrious front, my mother wanted to turn back. It looked like a store front, except for a bit of scrim behind the plate glass, through which the light from within filtered without éclat.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” she asked.
“It’s one of the best restaurants in the world,” I said, as if I ate there every day.
My father was already captivated. “Don’t give you a lot of hoopla and ooh-la-la,” he said with approval. “I’ll bet there are no Americans here.”
We crossed the modest threshold. The interior was only half a jump from sordid, and there were perhaps fifteen tables. Old Maillabuau, rubicund and seedy, approached us, and I could sense that my mother was about to object to any table he proposed; she wanted some place like Fouquet’s (not in the Guide du Gourmand). But between her and Maillabuau I interposed a barrage of French that neither she nor my sister could possibly penetrate, though each chirped a few tentative notes. “I have brought my family here because I have been informed it is the most illustrious house of Paris,” I told him, and, throwing in a colloquialism I had learned in Rennes, a city a hundred years behind the times, I added, “We desire to knock the bell.”
On hearing me, old Maillabuau, who may have thought for a moment that we were there by mistake and were about to order waffles, flashed a smile of avaricious relief. Father, meanwhile, regarding the convives of both sexes seated at the tables, was already convinced. The men, for the most part, showed tremendous devantures, which they balanced on their knees with difficulty as they ate, their wattles waving bravely with each bite. The women were shaped like demijohns and decanters, and they drank wine from glasses that must have reminded Father happily of beer schooners on the Bowery in 1890. “I don’t see a single American,” he said. He was a patriotic man at home, but he was convinced that in Paris the presence of Americans was a sign of a bunco joint.
“Monsieur, my father is the richest man in Baltimore,” I told Maillabuau, by way of encouragement. Father had nothing to do with Baltimore, but I figured that if I said New York, Maillabuau might not believe me. Maillabuau beamed and Father beamed back. His enthusiasms were rare but sudden, and this man—without suavity, without a tuxedo, who spoke no English, and whose customers were so patently overfed—appeared to him an honest merchant. Maillabuau showed us to a table; the cloth was diaphanous from wear except in the spots where it had been darned.
A second refroidissement occurred when I asked for the carte du jour.
“There is none,” Maillabuau said. “You will eat what I tell you. Tonight, I propose a soup, trout grenobloise, and poulet Henri IV—simple but exquisite. The classic cuisine française—nothing complicated but all of the best.”
When I translated this to Father, he was in complete agreement. “Plain food,” he said. “No schmier.” I think that at bottom he agreed that the customer is sure to be wrong if left to his own devices. How often had the wives of personal friends come to him for a fur coat at the wholesale price, and declined his advice of an Alaskan seal—something that would last them for twenty years—in favor of some faddish fur that would show wear in six!
The simplicity of the menu disappointed me; I asked Maillabuau about the pintaudou, fat and anointed with fragrance. “Tomorrow,” he said, posing it as a condition that we eat his selection first. Mother’s upper lip quivered, for she was très gourmande of cream sauces, but she had no valid argument against the great man’s proposal, since one of the purposes of her annual trips to Europe was to lose weight at a spa. On the subject of wines, M. Maillabuau and I agreed better: the best in the cellar would do—a Montrachet to begin with, a Chambertin with the fowl.
It was indeed the best soup—a simple garbure of vegetables—imaginable, the best trout possible, and the best boiled fowl of which one could conceive. The simple line of the meal brought out the glories of the wine, and the wine brought out the grandeur in my father’s soul. Presented with one of the most stupendous checks in history, he paid with gratitude, and said that he was going to take at least one meal a day chez Maillabuau during the rest of his stay. The dessert, served as a concession to my sister, was an omelette au kirsch, and Maillabuau stood us treat to the marc, like embalmed gold. Or at least he said he did; since only the total appeared on the check, we had to take his word for it. The omelette au kirsch was the sole dessert he ever permitted to be served, he said. He was against sweets on principle, since they were “not French,” but the omelette was light and healthy. It contained about two dozen eggs.
The next day we had the pintaudou, the day after that a pièce de boeuf du Charolais so remarkable that I never eat a steak without thinking how far short it falls. And never were the checks less than “staggering,” and never did my father complain. Those meals constituted a high spot in my gastronomic life, but before long my mother and sister mutinied. They wanted a restaurant where they could see some dresses and eat meringues glacées and homard au porto.
So in 1939, on my first evening in wartime Paris, I went straight from the Louvois to the Rue Sainte-Anne. The Restaurant Maillabuau had vanished. I did not remember the street number, so I walked the whole length of the Rue Sainte-Anne twice to make sure. But there was no Maillabuau; the horses at Longchamp had eaten him.
The Road Back to Paris, reprinted in Liebling Abroad (Wideview Books, 1981), pages 15-20.
Headnote: Liebling’s piece is a presentation of what it means for France to go to war in 1939, but it is not a description either of France or of war. It is highly idiosyncratic because it depends upon his happening to know three individual people and happening to know enough about their personal history to connect them with the previous war. But it is not reflexive: it does not begin with hedges about the inevitable inadequacy of any meditation on such a vast subject as a nation at war; instead, it unhesitatingly moves to three individuals and their experience, as if this were a natural and inevitable way to think about this subject. It is remarkable that a reader of this passage who knows nothing that Liebling knows about these people accepts this eccentric motion without resistance, without even feeling that it is eccentric. His treatment of each of them, confined as it is to one or two paragraphs, is ruthlessly selective and clearly redacted from a vast store of unmentioned experience. The work of redaction is completely invisible, so that the reader enjoys the product without noticing there was any work involved. Liebling eschews the roles of teacher and rhetor: ostensibly, he is neither teaching nor trying to persuade. From the first words, Liebling has assumed a reader who recognizes the appropriateness of his presentation, but who, for merely accidental reasons, lacks acquaintance with his material.
On Sunday, September 3, 1939, everybody with the price of a newspaper knew that Great Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, which had already invaded Poland. I was living down on East Thirty-third Street then, but I drifted up toward the New Yorker office because I thought that even though it was a Sunday I might find someone there to talk to. It was a hot afternoon, I remember. Wolcott Gibbs had a radio going in his office. I went down the fire escape from the main editorial office on the nineteenth floor to the cell on the seventeenth where I did my writing and sat there for a while, at moments glad because France still had pride, at others feeling guilty because I would not share the fight or the risk. I was sorry that I had left daily newspaper work four years before then, because if I had stayed on a paper I might have a chance to go to the war. The New Yorker appeared a cul-de-sac.
As I sat there I thought of M. Lebourgeois, a traveling salesman I had met in the billiard room of the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc at Vire in 1926, and also of M. Perrin, the patron of the hotel in the Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine at Paris, where I had lived for two years while pretending to study medieval literature, and my good friend Henri, who was the French representative of an American silk firm. All three had shared the quality of having escaped from a great danger with honor intact. None of them had come through the war unwounded, and none had achieved any great position since the armistice of 1918. But each took immense pleasure in not having been killed and in not having to be ashamed of himself.
When M. Lebourgeois had patted his stomach, while telling me of the table d’hôte at a favorite hotel in his territory, he had clearly been glad that the stomach had survived—the bullet had broken his left leg, which bothered him hardly at all except in wet weather. The merchants of the United States, M. Lebourgeois had told me, had absolutely the right idea—le big business. Undoubtedly, in that country of large orders, he had said, it was a pleasure to be a salesman. The retailers had vision; they were not like these retrograded types of the Department of Calvados, who bought a few articles at a time and those only with the most apparent misgivings. He had had one period of relative affluence, he had said—almost le big business, it had been—directly after the war, when he had gone about selling to small communities those life-size cast-iron figures of poilus which served as war memorials in most of rural Normandy. On the base of each statue was the inscription “Morts à l’Ennemi,” and under it the twenty or thirty names of the late heroes. The figure of the poilu was always poised on the ball of the right foot, the bayonet stuck out before him, the iron face constricted in defiance. “These opportunities don’t recur often in a man’s lifetime,” M. Lebourgeois used to say when he told about it. “Figure to yourself—it is necessary to have a war before you can sell something in this bugger of a department.” If M. Lebourgeois was sufficiently fortunate to survive this new war, he might make more sales, I figured to myself.
M. Perrin, my landlord, had taken a Chinese pleasure in disingenuous self-abasement. It was a privilege he had earned in the war. If he had deprecated himself before that, nobody would have contradicted him, because, as he used to say, he was a small, insignificant man without capacity or cultivation. Then, in order to survive, it would have been necessary for him to assert himself. He would have disliked that. But he had won the Legion of Honor for bravery under fire, and although he always shrugged away references to his decoration, he never left the ribbon off his coat. Also, he had been a captain. Intelligence is not requisite for a captain of infantry, he used to assure me. An officer of artillery or engineers, that required culture, but a captain of infantry, and especially one who began the war as a private, might be very stupid. It was a matter of luck, of survival, one might say. We would sit at a table in front of the Soufflet—which was later to be replaced by a gigantic modernistic chain-store café called Dupont—watching the Danish and Rumanian students and their girls, and the little waiter with the reddish eyes and the carroty mustache would not be so brusque with M. Perrin as with the other clients. M. Perrin’s suits had been shiny, but the ribbon had given him an air. Almost, one would say, an instructor at the Ecole des Chartes near by. The instructors’ suits were shiny too. The possibility of such a mistake had flattered M. Perrin, and he had tried by his manner to convey to strangers the idea that his ribbon was an academic honor.
M. Perrin was a native of Lille. He had lived with his wife, a large, hot-tempered Orleanaise, his mother, who was very old, and his daughter, who was adolescent, on the street floor of the hotel. Without the red ribbon to enhance his dignity, without the head wound he had received at Douaumont to explain his flightiness, M. Perrin, it was easy to see, would have been familially submerged. “My wife is very bitter after gain,” he had sometimes said over the apero. But he had never refused to accept payment of a bill which she had harried some student into meeting. His mother had been in Lille during the occupation of 1914-18. Her confidence had never wavered, she had once told me, since the day when she had seen some German officers eating lettuce. “They put sugar on it,” she said, an indication to her of cretinism on a national scale. The reason I thought so long of M. Perrin was that he had lived in what he and I and everybody else had thought was a comfortable aftermath. Another decoration would bring him no satisfaction commensurate with the first. Neither would another head wound.
Henri had been most pleased to survive the war of any of them, because to him it had seemed especially horrible. He was a sensitive man, extremely tall, with a long, doleful countenance, watery blue eyes, and a great, drooping Gallic mustache. In 1914 he had been in the United States—it was there I had first known him—and he had returned to fight. Sometimes I used to have dinner with Henri’s family in their apartment on the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet, a neighborhood roughly equivalent to Central Park West, and after we had eaten, Henri would tuck a violin under his chin and his daughter Suzette would go to the piano, and then he would play and sing “J’Avais Perdu la Tête et Ma Perruque,” from Les Cloches de Corneville. His son Jean, who had spent most of his young life in America, would sit silent, uninterested, and slightly embarrassed. Jean liked to talk about automobile engines, using a good deal of American slang. “He should be a handy man around a tank now,” I thought, “he’s just the right age.” Henri had preferred to talk about “before the war,” a period, he would say, when Paris really had been fit to live in. Eglée, his wife, had sometimes pretended to be bored by his reminiscences. I reflected that Henri, with luck, would be able to talk someday about “before the war before last.” As a matter of fact he was not to survive this second war. He was to die of cold and malnutrition and chagrin, “but principally of chagrin,” his daughter would later write to me, in Paris in February of 1941.
G. H. Hardy
A Mathematician’s Apology.  With a foreword by C. P. Snow. Cambridge: University Press, 1967, pages 88-92.
Headnote: Given that Hardy begins with a claim, you would think that he is going to offer an argument. Instead, he offers a demonstration that depends upon an appealing grammar of understanding. To present the superiority of serious mathematics over trivial mathematics, he assumes our familiarity with something he takes to be trivial—chess, in this case—and guides us through a piece of serious mathematics. His position is that if he can just show us an example of the best mathematics, it will of course be obvious to us that it is serious in contrast to chess, which, however intricate it may be, is always trivial. He takes the stand that any reader can see the truth of his claim. He is a guide who selects the appropriate proof and walks us through it. The claim is open to many objections and qualifications, but Hardy relies upon a basic premise of classic style: truth does not require argument, just an unobstructed view. The reader may lack that unobstructed view by lacking mathematical training, but this is merely an accidental lack which Hardy will remove by lending us his training.
A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way “trivial” mathematics. However ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful—“important” if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and “serious” expresses what I mean much better.
I am not thinking of the “practical” consequences of mathematics. I have to return to that point later: at present I will say only that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, “useless,” then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics; that very little of mathematics is useful practically, and that that little is comparatively dull. The “seriousness” of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is “significant” if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. Thus a serious mathematical theorem, a theorem which connects significant ideas, is likely to lead to important advances in mathematics itself and even in other sciences. No chess problem has ever affected the general development of scientific thought; Pythagoras, Newton, Einstein have in their times changed its whole direction.
The seriousness of a theorem, of course, does not lie in its consequences, which are merely the evidence for its seriousness. Shakespeare had an enormous influence on the development of the English language, Otway next to none, but that is not why Shakespeare was the better poet. He was the better poet because he wrote much better poetry. The inferiority of the chess problem, like that of Otway’s poetry, lies not in its consequences but in its content. . . .
It will be clear by now that, if we are to have any chance of making progress, I must produce examples of “real” mathematical theorems, theorems which every mathematician will admit to be first-rate. . . .
I can hardly do better than go back to the Greeks. I will state and prove two of the famous theorems of Greek mathematics. They are “simple” theorems, simple both in idea and in execution, but there is no doubt at all about their being theorems of the highest class. Each is as fresh and significant as when it was discovered—two thousand years have not written a wrinkle on either of them. Finally, both the statements and the proofs can be mastered in an hour by any intelligent reader, however slender his mathematical equipment.
I. The first is Euclid’s proof of the existence of an infinity of prime numbers.
The prime numbers or primes are the numbers
(A) 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, ...
which cannot be resolved into smaller factors. Thus 37 and 317 are prime. The primes are the material out of which all numbers are built up by multiplication: thus 666 = 2 . 3 . 3 . 37. Every number which is not prime itself is divisible by at least one prime (usually, of course, by several). We have to prove that there are infinitely many primes, i.e. that the series (A) never comes to an end.
Let us suppose that it does, and that
2, 3, 5, . . . , P
is the complete series (so that P is the largest prime); and let us, on this hypothesis, consider the number
Q = (2 . 3 . 5 . . . . .P) + 1
It is plain that Q is not divisible by any of 2, 3, 5, ..., P; for it leaves the remainder 1 when divided by any one of these numbers. But, if not itself prime, it is divisible by some prime, and therefore there is a prime (which may be Q itself) greater than any of them. This contradicts our hypothesis, that there is no prime greater than P; and therefore this hypothesis is false.
The proof is by reductio ad absurdum, and reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.
“The Classical Endgame” in Easy Guide to the Panov-Botvinnik Attack. London: Cadogan Books, 1998, page 26.
Headnote: The classic writer has no hesitation in using a word or term that does not belong to the diminished vocabulary of Basic English, provided it is the right phrase to use to present what the writer wants to present. The classic writer takes the stand that the reader is competent and the language is sufficent; the reader will already know this perfectly accurate and normal phrase, or, if not, look it up. In the classic stand, the writer is using the phrase not because it is rare or decorative or learned and not to draw attention to either the writer or the prose, but simply because it is the right phrase. A classic writer can present a nuanced technical matter to a highly specialized audience by assuming the classic stand and taking its technical vocabulary for granted as a branch of the language. In this scene, the technical terms do not count as jargon—they are not substitutions for straightforward terms already in the language and their purpose is not to exclude possible audiences while demonstrating the writer’s membership in a private tribe. Instead, they are simply the right words, and the reader is competent to know them or learn them.
In “The role of the bishop,” Aagard takes a thoroughly classic stand to present an extremely narrow technical subject in the game of chess—the role of the bishop in the bishop ending to the classical endgame of the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, which is a strategy for White against the Caro-Kann opening. He is using as his illustration a game in 1995 between Onishchuk and Summerscale, who is the “young Englishman” Aagard mentions.
The role of the bishop naturally differs from White to Black. For White there are two important ways of using the bishop. The first one is the natural development square e3, from where it threatens a7 and has the following latent manoeuvre:
26 bishop-b6! rook-d6 27 bishop a5!
White takes the d8-square from the queen’s rook, and thereby makes the defence of d5 very hard.
27 . . . rook-e8 28 rook-c5 bishop f4!
A good decision by the young Englishman (an international master at the time). Defending the pawn would tie down his pieces and almost surely lead to defeat. Instead he gives up the d-pawn, and in return gets his rook to White’s second rank.
29 rook-cxd5+ rook-xd5 30 rook-xd5+ rook-e5!
After 31 rook-xe5+ bishop-xe5 the black king is ready for the dish of the day.
31 . . . rook-e2 32 bishop-b6 bishop-e5 33 rook-d3
Onishchuk believes he is better here, and although he may be right, Black was still able to make a draw by at the right time sacrificing a pawn on the kingside to push the h-pawn.
The second role the bishop can play is closely connected to the black d-pawn. Alone or together with the king, it can block the pawn, and at the same time keep an eye on the key squares b4 and a5 on the queenside . . .
Georges Perec: A Life in Words (London: Harvill, 1993), pages 11-12.
Headnote: The writer Georges Perec was born in Paris to a family of Polish Jews. His father was killed in action during the German invasion of France in the spring of 1940, when the writer was just a few months past his fourth birthday. His mother was deported and killed at Auschwitz, and his paternal grandfather never made it out of the Jewish neighborhood in eastern Paris where his intrepid wife–who survived the war in an Alpine village with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson–ran a small grocery store. In gathering information about his family, Georges Perec consulted his aunt Esther who, with her husband, David Bienenfeld, raised him. The following selection from David Bellos’s biography offers a presentation of the writer’s paternal grandparents by considering their relationship to Jewish faith and practice.
David Peretz was a traditional Jew and a pious man, an unworldly observer of the Talmud and Torah, of the kind gently mocked in many of I. L. Peretz’s stories of life in the shtetl. It is quite possible that he was a Hasid, or close to the Hasidic movement . . . since his daughter, Esther, when explaining the family background to her nephew in 1967, spoke at some length about what Hasidism was: a cult of joy through prayer and song, a fervently religious branch of orthodox Judaism, intent on achieving spiritual elevation through strict observance of the law. Long after the family had left Poland, when David Peretz was a kindly old man behind the counter of a Paris grocery store, his wife was not keen to leave him in sole charge. He might give away the whole stock of sweets to children who came in and asked for them.
[He] . . . was married in 1895. His bride Rojza Walersztejn, was short, dark-haired, energetic, and just sixteen. She became a mother within a year. She held different views from her husband and soon became the family provider, setting up a business to supply timber to local builders. David spent much of his time in prayer rooms but was not allowed to bring his piety into the home: Jewish rites were not observed by Rojza, according to Esther’s later account of her home life in Poland. In fact, if we are to believe a scribbled line opposite Rojza’s name in Perec’s notes, his grandmother refused even to give alms to the poor. Giving alms is the very basis of traditional Jewish social life; you cannot refuse to give alms without making quite a stir in the world in which David and Rojza lived. In the eyes of a Hasid, or an orthodox Jew, refusing to give alms is tantamount to refusing to be Jewish.
Georges Perec: A Life in Words (London: Harvill, 1993), pages 348-349.
Headnote: Ouvroir de Littéature Potentielle (OuLiPo), a private initiative of the French writer and editor Raymond Queneau and a few mathematicians, sounds as if it is a parody of the French Academy. Its sense of fun is a surface feature of an intensely serious effort to “generate” literature by using mathematical concepts. Its crowning success to date is its signal contribution to Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi (1978), which David Bellos translated as Life: A User’s Manual. The passage on OuLiPo from Bellos’s biography of Georges Perec shows a confident and knowing selection from a much larger array of facts. Bellos deftly avoids going down at least a dozen side-paths in his three paragraphs (Surrealism, Pataphysics, Bourbaki, Queneau’s interest in vernacular French, what kind of mathematical concepts can “structure” literature and how, and so on). The passage has some of the virtues of an entry in an ideal reference work, one whose editors pick the best person they can find to write an article and then get out of the way. Because it is not an article generated by an editorial template, it projects a personal authority and a certain informality, as if it were the ideal spontaneous answer of a well-informed friend to whom you addressed a question. “David, what on earth is OuLiPo?”
The name OuLiPo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Workshop for Potential Literature.” The idea arose in 1960 at a ten-day conference at Cérisy-la-Salle, a country estate in the Cotentin, not far from the Normandy beaches, used, like Royaumont, as a cultural center. The conference itself, entitled “Une Nouvelle Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française,” in imitation of Du Bellay’s 1549 manifesto for the enrichment of the French language, was held to honor [Raymond] Queneau for his long efforts on behalf of néo-français–“French as she is spoke”–a campaign crowned by the popular success of Zazie in the Metro (1959). What emerged from Cérisy-la-Salle was a group intent on the further study of a different aspect of Queneau’s achievement: the overlap between, or intersection of, mathematics and poetry. The first meeting of the group was held in Paris in November 1960; soon after, members began convening for an irreverent monthly lunch party, with huge ambitions.
The founding group consisted mostly of writers and mathematicians. Not all the writers could do mathematics, and not all of the mathematicians (Claude Berge, François Le Lionnais, for example) were writers. Some early members (Ross Chambers and Albert-Marie Schmidt) were literary historians, and some (notably Latis, but also Queneau and Le Lionnais) were Pataphysicians. There were fewer than a dozen of them to begin with. Under Queneau’s guidance they undertook a vast programme of investigation into the formal devices used by writers over the centuries (“analytic OuLiPo”) and into the literary potential of patterns that could be cannibalised from formal languages such as mathematics, logic, computer science, and–why not?–chess (“synthetic OuLiPo”). OuLiPo was not a sect, or a chapel, or a campaign for an “ism”; indeed it was not really a writers’ group at all. It was a research team that aimed to fashion new tools for writing and to refurbish old and forgotten ones. Its operational model was Bourbaki, the group of anonymous French mathematicians who had reinvented their entire discipline by starting afresh from first principles.
Membership in OuLiPo was not secret, as was that of Bourbaki, but it was meant to be confidential. Queneau wished to create something quite different from the surrealist movement, which with its infighting and public disputes, had hurt him deeply thirty years before. OuLiPo’s constitution stipulates that a member is a member once and for all time. No one can be expelled; deceased members are excused from attendance at meetings but are not allowed to withdraw. (Only by committing hara-kiri at a properly constituted meeting, specifically, explicitly, and exclusively in order to resign, can a member win the right to claim ex-membership. No one has yet taken advantage of this provision of the group’s constitution.)
La vie mode d’emploi (Paris: Hachette, 1978), pages 131-133; English version from Perec, Life: a User’s Manual, translated by David Bellos (Boston: Goldine, 1987), pages 95-97.
Headnote: The narrative presentation of Madame Moreau, from the beginning of chapter 23 of La vie mode d’emploi, concentrates heavily on things one can see, making adroit use of lists (of jobs, of tools, of her activities during her active years), while narrating a radical and mysterious movement of the invisible will that transforms of a woman who was half of a mom-and-pop enterprise into the formidable head of a major business–a transformation she neither liked nor understood.
Madame Moreau détestait Paris.
En Quarante, après la mort de son mari, elle avait pris la direction de la fabrique. C’était une toute petite affaire familliale dont son mari avait hérité après la guerre de Quatorze et qu’il avait gérée avec une nonchalance prospère, entouré de trois menuisiers débonnaires, pendant qu’elle tenait les écritures sur des grands registres quadrillés reliés de toile noire dont elle numérotait les pages à l’encre violette. Le reste du temps, elle menait une vie presque paysanne, s’occupait de la basse-cour et du potager, préparait des confitures et des pâtés.
Elle aurait mieux fait de tout liquider et de retourner dans la ferme où elle était née. Des poules, des lapins, quelque plants de tomates, quelque carrés de salades et de choux, qu’avait-elle besoin de plus? Elle serait restée assise au coin de la cheminée entourée de ses chats placides, écoutant le tic-tac de l’horloge, le bruit de la pluie sur les gouttières de zinc, le lointain passage du car de sept heures ; elle aurait continué à bassiner son lit avant de se coucher dedans à prendre le soleil sur son banc de pierre, à découper dans La Nouvelle République des recettes qu’elle aurait insérées dans son grand livre de cuisine.
Au lieu de cela, elle avait développé, transformé, métamorphosé la petite entreprise. Elle ne savait plus pourquoi elle avait agi ainsi. Elle s’était dit que c’était par fidélité à la mémoire de son mari, mais son mari n’aurait pas reconnu ce qu’était devenu son atelier plein d’odeurs de copeaux : deux milles personnes, fraiseurs, tourneurs, ajusteurs, mécaniciens, monteurs, câbleurs, vérificateurs, dessinateurs, ébaucheurs, maquettistes, peintres, magasiniers, conditionneurs, emballeurs, chauffeurs, livreurs, contremaîtres, ingénieurs, secrétaires, publicistes, démarcheurs, V.R.P., fabriquant et distribuant chaque année plus de quarante millions d’outils de toutes sortes et de tous calibres.
Elle était tenace et dure. Levée à cinq heures, couchée à onze, elle expédiait toutes ses affaires avec une ponctualité, une précision et une détermination exemplaires. Autoritaire, paternaliste, n’ayant confiance en personne, sûre de ses intuitions comme de ses raisonnements, elle avait éliminé tous ses concurrents, s’installant sur le marché avec une aisance qui dépassait tous les pronostics, comme si elle avait été en même temps maîtresse de l’offre et de la demande, comme si elle avait su, au fur et à mesure qu’elle lançait de nouveaux produits sur le marché, trouver d’instinct les débouchés qui s’imposaient.
Jusqu’à ces dernières années, jusqu’à ce que l’âge et la maladie lui interdisent pratiquement de quitter son lit, elle avait inlassablement partagé sa vie entre ses usines de Pantin et de Romainville, ses bureaux de l’avenue de la Grande Armée et de cet appartement de prestige qui lui ressemblait si peu. Elle inspectait les ateliers au pas de course, terrorisait les comptables et les dactylos, insultait les fournisseurs qui ne respectaient pas les délais, et présidait avec une énergie inflexible des conseils d’administration où tout le monde baissait la tête dès qu’elle ouvrait la bouche.
Elle détestait cela. Dès qu’elle parvenait à s’arracher, ne fut-ce que quelques heures, à ses activités, elle allait à Saint-Mouezy. Mais l’ancienne ferme de ses parents était à l’abandon. Des herbes folles envahissaient le verger et le potager ; les arbres fruitiers ne donnaient plus rien. L’humidité intérieure rongeait les murs, décollait les papiers peints, gonflait les huisseries.
Avec Madame Trévins, elles allumaient un feu dans la cheminée, ouvraient les fenêtres, aéraient les matelas. Elle, qui avait à Pantin quatre jardiniers pour entretenir les pelouses, les massifs, les plantes-bandes, et les haies qui entouraient l’usine n’arrivait même plus à trouver sur place un homme qui se serait un peu occupé du jardin. Saint-Mouezy, qui avait été un gros bourg, un marché, n’était plus qu’une juxtaposition de résidence restaurées, désertes la semaine, bondées les samedis-dimanches de citadins qui, équipés de perceuses Moreau, de scies circulaires Moreau, d’établis démontables Moreau, d’échelles tous usages Moreau, faisaient apparaître les poutres et les pierres, accrochaient des lanternes de fiacre, montaient à l’assaut des étables et des remises.
Alors elle revenait à Paris, elle remettait ses tailleurs Chanel et elle donnait pour ses riches clients étrangers des dîners somptueux servis dans des vaisselles desinées spécialement pour elle par le plus grand styliste italien.
Elle n’était ni avare ni prodigue, mais plutôt indifférente à l’argent. Pour être la femme d’affaires qu’elle avait décidé d’être, elle accepta sans efforts apparents de transformer radicalement ses manières d’être, sa garde-robe, son train de vie.
[Madame Moreau hated Paris.
In 1940, after her husband’s death, she took over the factory. It was a very small family business which he had inherited after the 1914-18 war and which he’d run in relaxed prosperity with three cheerful woodworkers at his side whilst she kept the books in big, black-cloth-bound registers with ruled paper and pages she had numbered in violet ink. The rest of the time she led an almost peasant-like existence, busy with the backyard chickens and the kitchen garden, making jams and pâtés.
She’d have done better to sell up and go back to the farm where she’d been born. Rabbits and chickens, some tomato plants, and a couple of beds for lettuces and cabbages–what more did she need? She would have sat by her fireside amongst her placid cats, listening to the clock ticking, to the rain falling on the zinc drainpipes, and the seven-o’clock bus passing by in the far distance; she’d have carried on warming her bed with a warming pan before getting into it, warming her face in the sun on her stone bench, cutting recipes out of La Nouvelle République and sticking them into her big kitchen book.
Instead of that, she had developed, transmogrified, metamorphosed her little business. She didn’t understand why she’d done so. She had told herself it was out of fidelity to her husband’s memory, but he would not have recognized what had become of his old workroom with its smells and shavings: two thousand people, millers, turners, fitters, mechanics, installers, electricians, testers, draftsmen, roughers-out, model-makers, painters, warehousemen, treatment specialists, packers, drivers, delivery men, foremen, engineers, secretaries, publicity writers, commercial agents, and sales reps, making and marketing every year more than forty million tools of all kinds and calibres.
She was tenacious and tough. She rose at five, went to bed at eleven, dealt with all her business in exemplary fashion, punctually, precisely, firmly. She was authoritarian and paternalistic, trusted nothing and nobody save her own intuitions and her own mind; she wiped out all her competitors and took a share of the market larger than anyone had predicted, as if she were mistress of both supply and demand, as if she knew instinctively, on launching each new product, where the real opportunities lay.
Up until the last few years, until age and illness virtually confined her to her bed, she had divided herself tirelessly between her factories in Paris and Romainville, her offices in Avenue de la Grande Armée, and this luxury flat which was so unlike her. She inspected the shopfloors at a gallop, terrorised accountants and typists, insulted suppliers who didn’t keep delivery dates, and chaired Board Meetings energetically and inflexibly, making all heads bow when she opened her mouth.
She hated it all. Whenever she could tear herself away, even for only a few hours, she went to Saint-Mouezy. But her parents’ old farm had gone to ruin. Weeds grew wild in the orchard and vegetable garden; the fruit trees no longer produced. Damp was eating the walls, unsticking the wallpaper, warping the doorframes.
Madame Trévins would help her to light a fire in the fireplace, open the windows, and air the mattresses. She who had four gardeners at Pantin to tend the lawns, flowerbeds, bushes, and hedges surrounding the works couldn’t even manage to find a local man to keep an eye on the garden. Saint-Mouezy, which used to be a sizable little market town, was now a mere juxtaposition of houses restored as second homes, empty all week and chock-full on Saturdays and Sundays with townsfolk who, as they brandished their Moreau hand-drills, their Moreau circular saws, their Moreau portable work-benches, their Moreau all-purpose ladders, laid bare old beams and old stone, hung coachlamps, and rallied to the attack on barns and cartstalls.
Then she would come back to Paris, don her Chanel two-pieces, and for her wealthy foreign customers would give lavish dinners served in crockery designed especially for her by the greatest of Italian designers.
She was neither a miser nor a spendthrift, but simply indifferent to money. In order to become the businesswoman she’d decided to be, she accepted without any apparent effort a radical transformation of her habits, of her wardrobe, of her style of life.]
“Letter One,” The Provincial Letters. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin, 1967. pages 31-40
Letter Written to a Provincial Gentleman by one of his Friends on the Subject of the Present Debates in the Sorbonne.
Paris, 23 January 1656
How wrong we were! I only had my eyes opened yesterday. Until then I thought that the arguments in the Sorbonne were about something of real importance and fraught with the gravest consequences for religion. So many meetings of a body as famous as the Faculty of Paris, at which so much has occurred that is extraordinary and unprecedented, raise expectations so high that it seems incredible that the subject should be anything but extraordinary.
Yet you will be very surprised when you hear from the present account the upshot of so great a commotion; which is what I am briefly going to tell you now that I am fully informed on the subject.
There are two questions under examination; the first of fact, the other of law.
The question of fact is whether M. Arnauld is guilty of temerity [translator’s footnote: a technical term for an error short of heresy] for asserting in his Second Letter: “that he has carefully read Jansenius’s book, that he has not found in it the propositions condemned by the late Pope, but despite this, since he condemns these propositions wherever they may be found, he also condemns them in Jansenius if they are there.”
The question is whether he can, without temerity, thus express doubts as to whether these propositions come from Jansenius when the bishops have declared that they do.
The matter comes up before the Sorbonne. Seventy-one doctors come to his defense, maintaining that his only possible answer to those who asked him so often in their writings whether he held these propositions to be in the book was that he could not find them, but none the less condemned them if they were there.
Some, going even further, declared that however hard they looked they could never find them there, and had even found quite contrary ones, earnestly requesting any doctor who might have found them to point them out: something so simple that it could not well be refused, since it was one sure means of dealing with all of them, including M. Arnauld; but their request has been constantly refused. So much for what happened in that quarter.
On the other side stood eighty secular doctors and some forty from the Mendicant Orders, who condemned M. Arnauld’s proposition but would not examine whether what he said was true or false, going so far as to declare that it was not a question of the truth, but solely of the temerity of the proposition.
That is how they settled the question of fact, which causes me little concern, for whether M. Arnauld is guilty of temerity or not my conscience is not affected. If out of curiosity I wanted to know whether these propositions are in Jansenius, his book is nether so rare nor so bulky as to prevent me from reading it in full and clearing up this point for myself without reference to the Sorbonne.
But, if I were not afraid of being guilty of temerity myself, I think that I should share the opinion of the majority of the people I see; so far they have believed on the strength of public assurances that these propositions are in Jansenus, but they are beginning to suspect the contrary because of this strange refusal to point them out, so strange, indeed, that I have never yet met anyone who claims to have found them there. So I am afraid that this censure may do more harm than good, and give those familiar with its history quite the opposite impression to what has been concluded, for people are really becoming suspicious and only believe things they can see for themselves. But, as I said before, this point is unimportant, because it involves no question of faith.
As for the question of law, it seems to be of much greater moment in that it affects faith. Thus I have been particularly careful to find out about it. But you will be pleased to see that it is just as unimportant as the other.
The point at issue is to examine what M. Arnauld said in this same Letter: “that the grace without which we can do nothing had failed in St Peter when he fell.” You and I both thought that this meant examining the basic principles of grace, for instance whether it is not given to all men or whether it is efficacious, but we were quite mistaken. I have become a great theologian in a short time, as you will see.
In order to know the truth of the matter, I saw M. N., a doctor at the Collège de Navarre, who lives near me, and is, as you know, one of the most zealous opponents of the Jansenists. As my curiosity made me almost as eager as he, I asked him if they would not formally decide that “grace is given to all men” so that there should be no more doubts expressed on that score. But he rebuffed me rudely, saying that that was not the point; that there were some of his party who held that grace is not given to all; that the examiners themselves had said before the whole Sorbonne that this opinion was problematic, which view he shared himself; and he confirmed it for me from a passage of St Augustine which he described as famous: “We know that grace is not given to all men.”
I apologized for misunderstanding his views and asked him to tell me if they would not then at least condemn the Jansenists’ other opinion, which has caused so much fuss: “that grace is efficacious and determines our will to do good.” But I fared no better in my second question.
“You do not understanding anything about it,” he said: “that is no heresy, but an orthodox opinion. All the Thomists hold it, and I maintained it myself in my doctoral thesis.”
I did not dare put any more of my doubts to him; and indeed I no longer knew what the difficulty was when, for my own enlightenment, I begged him to tell me what made M. Arnauld’s propositions heretical.
“The fact,” he said, “that he does not recognize that the righteous have the power to fulfil God’s commandments in the way in which we understand it.”
I left him after this instructive talk, and, very proud of knowing the nub of the matter, went off to find M. N., who is getting better and better, and was in good enough health to take me along to his brother-in-law, a Jansenist if ever there was one, but a very good man for all that. In the hope of a warmer welcome I pretended to be one of their fervent supporters, and said:
“Could the Sorbonne possibly be introducing into the Church the error: ’that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments’?”
“What are you saying?” my doctor said. “Are you describing as an error so Catholic a view, which only Lutherans and Calvinists oppose?”
“What,” said I, “is that not your opinion?” [Mark Turner’s clarification: the speaker is asking: Isn’t it your (Jansenist) opinion that the Sorbonne is in error when it asserts: “that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments?” The answer given to this question is “No, we Jansenists do not believe that the Sorbonne is in error. We Jansenists agree with the Sorbonne. It would be heresy to deny that all the righteous always have the power to fulfil the commandments.”]
“No,” he said, “we anathematize it as heretical and impious.”
Surprised at this answer, I realized that I had overdone the Jansenist role, as I had overdone the Molinist one previously. But, feeling quite uncertain how he would answer, I asked him to tell me in confidence whether he held that: “the righteous always have real power to observe these precepts.” My man became very excited at this, though with a holy zeal, and said that nothing would ever make him disguise his feelings; that this is what he believed, and that he and his friends would defend it to the death, as being the pure doctrine of St Thomas and of St Augustine, their master.
He addressed me so earnestly that I could not doubt him. With this assurance I returned to my first doctor, and told him, with some satisfaction, that I was sure the Sorbonne would soon be at peace; that the Jansenists agreed on the power of the righteous to fulfil the commandments; that I would vouch for it, that I would get them to sign it in their own blood.
“All very fine!” he said; “you must be a theologian to appreciate the finer points. The difference between us is so subtle that we can barely point it out ourselves; you would have too much difficulty in understanding it. Just be satisfied with the knowledge that the Jansenists will indeed tell you that the righteous always have power to fulfil the commandments: that is not what we are arguing about. But they will not tell you that this power is proximate: that is the point.”
This was a new word to me, and unfamiliar. Up till then I had understood the business, but this term plunged me into obscurity, and I think it was only invented to confuse people. So I asked him to explain it, but he was very mysterious about it, and sent me off, with no further satisfaction, to ask the Jansenists if they admitted this proximate power. I fixed the term in my memory, for my intellect did not come into it, and for fear of forgetting it, I went straight back to my Jansenist, to whom I said forthwith, after the opening courtesies:
“Please tell me whether you admit proximate power.”
He began to laugh and said coldly:
“You tell me yourself in what sense you mean it, and then I will tell you what I think about it.”
As my knowledge did not extend that far I found myself faced with the impossibility of answering him, but all the same, to save my visit from being fruitless, I said to him at random:
“I mean in the sense of the Molinists.”
Whereupon my man, quite unmoved, asked:
“To which of the Molinists are you referring?”
I offered him the whole lot together, as forming a single body acting in the same spirit, but he said:
“You do not know much about it. Far from all having the same views they are in fact quite divided amongst themselves. But as they are all at one in their intention of destroying M. Arnauld, they have decided to agree on this word proximate; they will utter it in unison, though each man means something different. Thus they can all speak the same language and use such apparent consistency to form a considerable body and constitute a majority, the surer to crush him.”
This reply amazed me, but without accepting such an impression of the Molinists’ evil designs, which I am not ready simply to take at his word and which is none of my concern, I concentrated merely on discovering the different meanings given to this mysterious word proximate. But he told me:
“I should be glad to enlighten you, but you would find such inconsistency and gross contradiction that you would hardly believe me. You would be suspicious of me. You will feel surer if you hear it from their own lips, and I will give you the addresses. You need only to see M. Le Moine and Father Nicolaï separately.”
“I do not know either of them,” I told him.
“Well,” he said, “see if you know any of those whom I am going to name. For they follow M. Le Moine’s opinions.”
I did in fact know some of them. Then he said:
“See whether you know any Dominicans, who are known as neo-Thomists, for they are all like Father Nicolaï.”
I knew some of those he named also, and determined to profit by this advice and settle the business, I left him and went first to one of M. Le Moine’s disciples.
I begged him to tell me what it meant “to have proximate power to do something.”
“That is easy,” he said, “it means having everything necessary for doing it, so that nothing more is needed in order to act.”
“And so,” I said, “having proximate power to cross a river means having a boat, boatman, oars, and so on, so that nothing more is needed.”
“Quite right,” he said.
“And having proximate power to see,” I said, “means having good sight, and being in good light. For anyone with good sight in the dark would not have proximate power to see according to you, since he would need light, without which no one can see.”
“Spoken like a scholar,” he said.
“And consequently,” I went on, “when you say that all the righteous always have proximate power to keep the commandments, you mean that they always have the grace necessary for fulfilling them, so that they lack nothing as far as God is concerned.”
“Wait a minute,” he said, “they always have what is necessary for keeping them, or at least for praying to God.”
“I quite understand,” I said; “they have all that is necessary for praying God to help them, without it being necessary for them to have any fresh grace from God to pray.”
“You have understood correctly,” he said.
“But then do they not need an efficacious grace in order to pray to God?”
“No,” he said, “according to M. Le Moine.”
To save time I went to the Dominicans and asked for those whom I knew to be neo-Thomists. I asked them to tell me what is meant by proximate power.
“Is it not the power,” I said, “which contains everything needful for action?”
“No,” they told me.
“What? But, Father, if this power is short of something do you call it proximate, and would you say, for instance, that a man in the dark, with no light, has the proximate power to see?”
“Indeed he has, according to us, if he is not blind.”
“I do not mind,” I said, “but M. Le Moine understands just the opposite.”
“That is true,” they said, “but that is how we understand it.”
“Agreed,” I said, “for I never argue about a name so long as I am told in what sense it is being taken. But I see from this that when you say that the righteous always have the proximate power to pray to God you mean that they need extra assistance to pray, otherwise they never will pray.”
“That is fine,” answered my Reverend Fathers hugging me, “fine; for they must have in addition an efficacious grace, not given to all, which determines their will to pray. And it is heretical to deny that this efficacious grace is needed for prayer.”
“Fine,” I said in my turn, “but according to you the Jansenists are Catholics and M. Le Moine a heretic, for the Jansenists say that the righteous have the power to pray, but that they still need an efficacious grace, and that is what you approve. While M. Le Moine says that the righteous can pray without efficacious grace, and that is what you condemn.”
“Yes,” they said, “but M. Le Moine calls this power proximate power.”
“What! But Reverend Fathers,” I said, “it is playing with words to say that you are in agreement because you both use the same terms, when you mean different things.”
The Fathers did not answer. At that moment the disciple of M. Le Moine turned up so opportunely that I found it extraordinary, but since then I have learned that they meet quite often and are constantly involved together.
So I said to M. Le Moine’s disciple:
“I know someone who says that all the righteous always have the power to pray God, but that they would none the less never actually pray without being determined to do so by an efficacious grace, which God does not always grant to all the righteous. Is he a heretic?”
“Wait a moment,” said my doctor; “you might catch me out. Let us then take it in easy stages: distinguo; if he calls this power proximate, he is a Thomist, and so Catholic, if not, he is a Jansenist, and so a heretic.”
“He does not call it,” I said, “either proximate or not proximate.”
“The he is a heretic,” he said: “ask these good Fathers.”
I did not ask for their verdict, because they were already nodding agreement, but I said to them:
“He refuses to admit this word proximate because no one will explain it to him.”
At that one of the Fathers was about to offer his definition, but he was interrupted by M. Le Moine’s disciple who said to him:
“Do you want to start off our squabbles again? Did we not agree not to explain this word proximate, and both to utter it without saying what it signifies?”
The Dominican admitted this.
That showed me what they had in mind, and as I got up to go I said:
“To tell the truth, Reverend Father, I am very much afraid that all this is pure quibbling, and whatever comes of your meetings, I venture to predict that, even if the censure is passed, peace will not be established. For even if it is decided that we must pronounce the syllables prox-i-mate, is it not obvious to anyone that if they remain unexplained each of you will claim the victory? The Dominicans will say that the word is understood in their sense, M. Le Moine in his, and so there will be far more argument over explaining it than introducing it. For, after all, there would be no great danger in accepting it without any meaning, for it is only the meaning that can do any harm. But it would be something unworthy of the Sorbonne and theology to use equivocal and captious words without explaining them.
“Now, for the last time I ask you, Reverend Fathers, to tell me what I must believe to be a Catholic.”
“You must,” they all said in unison, “say that all the righteous have proximate power, leaving aside all question of meaning: ’leaving aside the Thomist meaning and the meaning of other theologians.’”
“In other words,” I said as I took my leave, “one must pronounce this word with one’s lips to avoid being called a heretic. Is this word Scriptural?”
“No,” they told me.
“Does it comes from the Fathers, the councils, or the popes?”
“What about St Thomas?”
“Then why is there any need to say it, since it has no authority behind it nor any meaning in itself?”
“You are stubborn,” they said. “You must either say it or be heretical, and the same with M. Arnauld. For we are in the majority, and if necessary we shall bring in enough Franciscans to ensure victory.”
Leaving them with this solid argument, I have just come away to write you this report. From it you can see that none of the following points is in question or condemned by either side: 1. That grace is not given to all men. 2. That all the righteous have power to fulfil God’s commandments. 3. That in order to fulfil them, and even to pray, they still need an efficacious grace which irresistibly determines their wills. 4. That this grace is not always given to all the righteous, and depends on the pure mercy of God.. Consequently the only risk left lies in this meaningless word proximate.
Happy the people who know nothing of it! Happy those who came before it was born! For the only cure I can see is for the gentlemen of the Academy to use their authority to banish this barbaric Sorbonical word which is causing so much dissension. Otherwise censure seems certain, but I can see that the only harm it will do is to bring the Sorbonne into contempt for such behaviour and deprive it of the authority it needs on other occasions.
However I leave you free to decide for or against the word proximate; for I love my neighbour [translator’s footnote: the word “prochain” means both “proximate” and “neighbour”] too much to use this excuse to persecute him. If you find this account to your liking, I will continue to keep you posted of any developments.
I am, etc.
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas 1997
Two of the most immediately obvious differences between English and French are the inflected article in French and the explicit distinction between the whole of something and part of something. Les enfants gâtés means the spoiled children and is a set-phrase used in French where its English equivalent would never be used. A French art historian, one of my guests at a leisurely lunch in a luxurious Paris restaurant, said after we resolved the problem of choosing between two especially attractive desserts by ordering both, “Nous sommes vraiment des enfants gâtés!” No one at the table was under fifty, and there was no sense of reproach in the phrase. I cannot imagine anyone saying in such circumstances in English “We really are spoiled children.” But the phrase in French also insists that we are some spoiled children. In French the partitive some (des) cannot be omitted; otherwise you would be saying that we are (all) the spoiled children (in the world). This is not an issue in English. “Shall we have chicken or fish?” is good English but its literal equivalent would be bad French. In French, in order to sound normal, it would have to be “Shall we have some chicken or some fish?”
One day in May 1985, I was walking in the Marais, an increasingly chic area on the right bank that has the greatest concentration of seventeenth-century buildings in Paris, and stopped in a salon de thé I had never noticed before called Les Enfants Gâtés. I loved it at once and continued to do so for years. A salon de thé is not a café, of course, nor is it a restaurant. Unlike a café, it has no bar; unlike a restaurant, it serves anything on its menu from the time it opens (usually noon) to the time it closes (usually six or seven in the evening). A salon de thé implies casual leisure. A customer can have tea (chosen from a long list of teas), coffee (unlikely), or chocolate but might also have lunch (quiche or a salad), perhaps followed by a dessert (le cheesecake, for example). There is often reading material in a salon de thé and the chic ones have charming servers who manage to give you the impression that they are not working but rather serving you as a friend would serve a friend. These servers have a certain chic of their own, and help to create an ambiance because that is really what a salon de thé has to sell—an ambiance. In many cases, there is nothing distinguished about the food; all of it is ordered from outside anyway, and in principle, anyone can open a salon de thé and serve the identical food.
Parisian Salons de thé were once something reasonably close to what an American who had spent a little time in England would expect a tea room to be, quiet oases of a middle-aged person’s idea of comfort. These institutions are, in my own experience, uncommon in the United States, although self-consciously sophisticated hotels in big cities often serve tea in their lobbies at about the hour tea is normally served in the United Kingdom. There are still middle aged salons de thé in Paris (a classic of the genre is The Tea Caddy, facing the exquisite little church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre.)
Les Enfants Gâtés has little in common with The Tea Caddy. Not only is its core clientele younger, but the atmosphere is hardly one of detente; the defining posture is rather affected indolence. Affected indolence is, of course, work. Its accomplished practitioners are self-conscious about how they look and who is noticing them while apparently being completely absorbed in reading A Suivre or smoking a cigarette. Someone accomplished at this sort of performance gives no evidence even of noticing the devastatingly beautiful young woman in the skin-tight leather outfit who has just uncoiled herself from her battered leather armchair and is now unhurriedly walking the full length of the room deftly slipping between tables she does not glance at on her way to what could never be called by its English cognate in an American establishment, la toilette.
Except for the fact that there were too many low tables and battered leather armchairs in the room, the premises of Les Enfants Gâtés might almost have been a 1967 graduate student apartment at the high end of graduate student prosperity in the vicinity of one of the more reputable universities in the United States. A poster of Louise Brooks, a poster for Baby Doll, just the right combination of the exquisite and the (apparently) careless. The feint but persistent suggestion that “We don’t take anything too seriously here,” combined with those carefully selected three dozen teas and a ritual of service as carefully choreographed—albeit in a very different style—as the tea ceremony in a sixteenth-century Kyoto tea hut.
On an early visit to Les Enfants Gâtés, perhaps on my very first visit, I encountered one of its three owners, Laurent, and had the first of many pleasant talks with him. Whenever I was in Paris on Sunday, I stopped in for “le brunch.” The tiny kitchen impossibly overextended, the two (smashing) servers continually on the run but always projecting the laid-back tone that is the signature of this place, and a steady stream of would-be customers turned away while Laurent encouraged anyone who might be feeling a little pressure to leave to have another drink, to relax, to read another band dessiné, to enjoy the sense of being an enfant gâté.
On an ordinary afternoon, it was a place that offered a sort of personal haven. I often walked there the first day I arrived after the long flight from Chicago. It was just the right distance, and I could have just the right sort of meal when I got there. Once when the leaden curtain of jet lag caught up with me before I got back to my bed, I dozed off in my easy chair, and then fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up after a few hours, surprised to find myself in a private nook at Les Enfants Gâtés on a quiet afternoon, the server said, “I knew you had just arrived today, so I thought I’d just let you sleep.” I was sitting at the same half-hidden table that serves as a retreat for a top model—easy to recognize because she hides under a large hat—who lives in the neighborhood.
Les Enfants Gâtés is not the sort of place that exemplifies the virtues beloved by La Défense de la langue française. For one thing, a lot of its customers do not speak French. The music that is sometimes oppressive is almost always American, so are most of the actors, actresses, and films seen in the pictures and posters that hang on the walls. Laurent is more Jack Lang than he is Musée des monuments français. He has a Parisian’s love of Paris, to be sure, and can speak with almost Proustian feeling about the Place Maubert and the Place de la Contrascarpe, but the cities that have captured his imagination the way Paris has captured mine are Amsterdam and New York.
Laurent is filled with enthusiasm for the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Broadway and 86th Street. A huge bookstore on several floors with armchairs and a café! And Amsterdam’s “brown cafés” have been an inspiration to him. In fact, they have led him to alter Les Enfants Gâtés’s self description. Salon de thé has been painted out of its shop sign. It has been replaced with a word apparently borrowed back from Dutch: caffé (with two f’s), a word he thinks better suited to describe his establishment’s ambience. Perhaps it is. To some French people, borrowing an originally French word from Dutch might be a sign of just how bad things have become, but just beneath the ruthless chic of Les Enfants Gâtés and its self-conscious internationalism, there are bedrock French virtues: a profound respect for the fidelity of its customers that translates into a personal recognition and transforms a business into a privileged encounter; and a sense of métier, even if that métier is the creation of an ambiance. Although it is never allowed to surface, there is a rigor and a sense of continuity in a place like Les Enfants Gâtés that, if it exists at all in New York, is probably confined to the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Frick Collection.
The last time New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday, Les Enfants Gâtés was open. It was almost empty, and Laurent received his clients in a sort of analogue to the way generations of French people have received their relatives on the Jour de l’An. There was no overt sentimentality, just the unspoken sense that he regards his clients as his family. This tender and familial side of Les Enfants Gâtés runs like a vein of gold just under the surface of the place and even if it too is a performance, its art is beyond the reach of any Barnes & Noble.
copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas, 1988
The week that Richard Nixon described as the greatest in history—an astronaut had walked on the Moon and Edward Kennedy had driven off a bridge—was the first week I spent in Amsterdam. I was there to see the Vermeers. There are four of them in the Rijksmuseum and three more at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, fifty minutes away by train.
I had begun my trip in Vienna, as far East as there are Vermeers, and then followed a jagged line West: Berlin, Braunschweig, Dresden, Frankfurt. But the Dutch towns were best because there it still is possible to see the spatial relations the painter knew and the objects he loved: the low windows, narrow streets, seventeenth-century brick façades, the unself-conscious Turkish carpets on wooden tables. The only discordant note was the shock of seeing European papers with red, white, and blue American flags plastered above hysterical headlines proclaiming to the inter-galactic ages America’s newest stunt: “Men from the Planet Earth Set Foot on the Moon.”
Even Le Monde had a stupid headline, but I saw with relief that someone there had kept his head. In the left-hand column there was an editorial entitled “Oui, mais pourquoi?” I bought a copy and turned the corner into the Thorbeckeplein without knowing where I was going.
The Thorbeckeplein, if it could be transplanted to Albany or Minneapolis, might properly be called sleazy. If I had been more knowledgeable about it, I should have been more surprised than I was to find there, tucked in among the strip-joints and other places of naughty entertainment, an inviting little sandwich shop—a broodjeszaak—called De Drie Musketiers.
I was served by its owner, a short, bald, moon-faced man of seventy-five, glowing with energy and good humor. He was immensely excited about the Moon landing. Le Monde did not fool him for a minute. I was American. Subtle discouragements went unnoticed. He was going to treat me the way an American should be treated today.
He exasperated me. I responded to his effusions by pointing out to him in my most acid tones that I had had nothing whatever to do with the Moon landing, that if I had been consulted, any fool who wanted to go to the Moon would have had to pay for the trip out of his own pocket; I ended by asking him to tell me just how he personally was better off for it.
He gave me one of those beatific smiles seen mainly on the faces of babies and decent old people and said, “You know, you remind me of my father. He hated machines. When I was seventeen, I built a radio—enormous thing. I was crazy about it. My father hated it. Didn’t want it in the house. When I came back from my summer vacation, it was gone. He had buried it in the back yard and refused to tell me where. Buried it!”
How can you help loving a man like that? Besides, his food was excellent. I had lunch at his shop every day. He ran around energetically taking orders, making “broodjes,” fetching hot food from the dumb-waiter that carried it down from the kitchen, and dispensed his charm.
One day a stout American woman marched up to him and enunciated in the manner of a first grade reading teacher “DO—YOU—SPEAK—ENGLISH?”
“Anglisch, French, Dutch, German,” he shrugged, “Do you want to eat or is this a survey?”
Mr. Rosenthal and I became friends. He would sit at my table when he wasn’t too busy. He joked about his neighbors, asked if I thought he should get a stripper to entertain at lunchtime, told me about his shop. He had had it twenty-five years, and, like its owner, it had aged well. There were ancient Coca-Cola signs in Dutch behind the counter and another sign headed “PRIJS LIJST” which looked like “PRUS LUST” to me but advertised meals at low prices instead of the attractive if incomprehensible cupidities it conjured up in my imagination. His prices were really very low. “So many young people in the summer without much money,” he explained once, “They have to eat too.”
So there in Dutch, German, French, and “Anglisch” he advertised “Extensive meats of f3.75.”
Some days I would bring young women to lunch with me. On these occasions, Mr. Rosenthal would pretend I was just another customer. Next day he would give me his impressions.
“That one was a real beauty. Makes me wish I were young again.”
“Such an expression! She didn’t like my veal?”
“That one has bubble gum in her head, but what beautiful hair!”
“Vermeer should have painted girls like that! I always like them to show some evidence of being alive. Why don’t you bring back the pretty one with the red hair?”
Vermeer didn’t paint girls to his taste; he didn’t paint old men of beautiful character either. But, as he sat at the big table in the window and joke with his friends, Mr. Rosenthal might have been a subject for Frans Hals. I used to sit half-way down the narrow room—with the counter, like a huge Vanitas, at my right—looking out the big front window onto the Thorbeckeplein. It was in that little shop that I came to know the very Dutch comfort of being in small room with large windows.
One day a French group came in at the height of the lunch hour. Mr. Rosenthal was running around at such a pace that I was a little uncomfortable watching him. Surely at his age . . . .
The French group included several small children; one was a boy of about three who was overtired and crying. He wandered around the table unhappy as only a tired three-year-old in a foreign country can be unhappy.
The old man couldn’t stand it. As he whisked by with a platter in one hand, he swept up the stupefied little boy in the other. Then, while he continued to dash around the shop, he jabbered atrocious French at the tyke, fed him bits of cheese, showed him the dumb-waiter, and by a torrent of energy and will amused him into a better humor.
It got so that if I were going to be out of town for a day—in Delft or The Hauge—I would warn Mr. Rosenthal, “I won’t be in tomorrow.” One day I came by very late—six o’clock was his closing time. I had got involved in ancient numbers of Oud Holland at the library and had forgotten the time. There was a chair propped in the door—his sign that he was closed even though there were still customers in the shop. I was going to walk on, but he saw me and quickly pulled away the chair.
“Come in, come in,” he said, “for you I’m always open.”
No one else could combine such sentiment with such briskness.
The day had to come. My last lunch at De Drie Musketiers. When I finished, he refused to give me a check.
“From me,” he said. “A way of being sure you’ll come back.”
It was raining the next time I was in Amsterdam. I had been on the train from Frankfurt all day, and it was almost five when I got in. I dropped my bags at the hotel and rushed off immediately to the Thorbeckeplein to get there before Mr. Rosenthal closed. I concentrated my anxiety on the danger that he would be closed for the day; it held off other possibilities.
He gave me his standard beam as I walked in, pointed me to my usual table and said, “So. One May cheese, one roast beef, one coffee, one apple cake.” My standard order. It was as if I had been to The Hague for a day.
The gossip that summer ran to politics. “This Nixon—such a wicked man!” My last day, I gave him a present. A good print of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, which he said he would hang over his counter.
“When you come back again you’ll see it, and in the meantime I’ll look at it and be reminded that you’re on your way.”
As it happened, I was on my way a long time. My job disappeared. My work on Vermeer was interrupted while I looked for another one.
The paintings too experienced unexpected hard times. The Guitar Player at Kenwood House was stolen and damaged. A Lady Writing a Letter was stolen, and The Love Letter, from the Rijksmuseum was stolen and mutilated while on loan to an exhibition in Brussels.
It had been heavily restored. I was doing some seventeenth-century restoration work myself shortly afterward. In the course of it, I was sent to Holland to see the restored Love Letter and discuss some technical details with the people who had worked on it.
I went to my usual little hotel in Amsterdam and was pained by what I saw. Its once prosperous owner had been badly hurt by a sharp decline in the demand for the kind of accommodations she offered at the greatly increased prices she was forced to ask.
I went to the Thorbeckeplein my first afternoon but didn’t rush. De Drie Musketiers was gone. The wicked man’s “new prosperity” had delayed my return too long.
After a careful look, I could see where the door of the shop had been. It was now a night club with glossy photographs of an ample blond “exotic dancer” no longer in the first blush of youth. I seemed to know what had happened to Mr. Rosenthal. Finally I heard from the counterman in a much less pleasant broodjeszaak down the street—one of a chain—that he thought the old man had died.
I didn’t return to the Thorbeckeplein. With Mr. Rosenthal gone, it was sleazy.
The restoration work on the Vermeer was, within its cosmetic limits, good. “Professional.” Of course, the restorers had the luxury of an almost unlimited budget. I don’t suppose a casual museum visitor will notice how little of Vermeer’s paint clings to the surface. You can still see his idea, still grasp his character as a painter. The picture is, after all, over three hundred years old. Time will leave its mark.