January 7, 2010

My comments are mostly about books and reading. I don’t do comprehensive reviews. Instead I write about some aspect that gets my attention.

For information about American silver and for slide shows related to my courses, see the Pages listed on the right.

Halfway up the Mountain

April 18, 2014


I’m halfway through Thomas Mann’s long novel The Magic Mountain. Halfway there, but halfway to where? I’m not sure at this point and would like to record my impressions before I climb any farther.

The Magic Mountain has the reputation of being a difficult book, but I don’t find it so. Rather slow moving, yes, as Mann introduces his characters rather leisurely and then let’s us hear them deliberate on the various issues which confront them. Mann’s first successful novel was Buddenbrooks, published when he was only 25, and it is a young man’s book. I enjoyed every minute of his revelation of the family ethos and the family secrets – the uncle who drank and sang silly songs, the aunt who was divorced twice, the son-in-law who went to prison. The Magic Mountain, written over twenty years later, is not a young man’s book, even though the central figure, Hans Castorp, is just entering into his adult life. The anticipated beginning of this life – with school completed, a suitable position secured – has been delayed by his journey to the Sanitorium Berghof.

When you are young you have all the time in the world. Castorp as a boy contemplates a family heirloom:

 A familiar feeling pervaded the child: a strange, dreamy , troubling sense: of change in the midst of duration, of time as both flowing and persisting, of recurrence in continuity – these were the sensations he had felt before on the like occasion, and both expected and longed for again, whenever the heirloom was displayed.

The heirloom persists and time persists, but the people whose names are engraved on the family silver do not persist. Mann knew this when he wrote Buddenbrooks, but his appreciation of time is now much more acute, more personal. At the Berghof time changes its meaning for the patients who lie there, taking the “cure.” The sentence is never a day or a week, but measured in months, the number of which may be indefinitely extended.

Castorp tries to understand the world in which he has been placed, within which time seems to advance slowly and yet so fast that its passing is hardly noticed. He begins by contemplating what is outside himself: the atom, organisms, social structures – all evolving.

 But in that case, Hans Castorp mused, then in the moment when one thought to have come to the end, it all began over again from the beginning! For then, in the very innermost of his nature, in the inmost of that innermost, perhaps there was just himself, just Hans Castorp, again and a hundred times Hans Castorp, with burning face and stiffening fingers, lying muffled on a balcony, with a view across the moonlit, frost-nighted high valley, and probing, with an interest both humanistic and medical, into the life of the body!

In his Foreword, Mann describes Castorp as a “simple-minded, though pleasing young man” and we also learn in the opening pages that he is “still too young to have thrust his roots down firmly into life.” All of us are in a flow of time that is on the way to death, but most young men do not think about it. Mann does think about it and places Castorp in a situation where he must think about it also. His reflections have moved beyond those of a simple-minded young man.

The novel is rich with a number of additional themes. The magic mountain has an international clientele, so we learn the characteristics of the Germans, the Italians, the “good” Russians and the “bad” Russians and how they see each other. Sanitorium life is comfortable, enclosed within itself. Castorp is the orderly German who had planned a technical career and who now follows the rules. A fellow patient, a revolutionary humanist points this out.

 “Don’t you believe them, Engineer, never believe them when they grumble. They all do it, without exception, and all of them are only too much at home up here. They lead a loose and idle life, and imagine themselves entitled to pity….”

Castorp, his cousin Joachim, and the other patients we meet have dropped out of (risen above?) the requirements of life in the flatlands below. They rest in the mountain air, take walks, eat five meals a day, and have no responsibilities except to take their cures, to get well. On page 343 of 716 pages in my edition, no one has recovered yet.

New Silver Booklet: Lady Hamilton 1932

April 12, 2014

LadyHamiltonad2If you want your wedding dress to match your silver pattern, you could do that in 1932 when Oneida introduced the Lady Hamilton pattern in silverplated flatware. This modernist design continued to be popular right up to the time of American entry into World War II, when Oneida stopped manufacturing flatware, but continued to advertise the pattern. After the war they marketed it again until the 1950s.

The results of my research into Oneida Community patterns and products appear in my book The Community Table, self-published in 2004. That book is now out of print. I am replacing it with my American Silver Booklets, available to all, free. Click here to see and read available books on the history of Oneida and such popular patterns as Grosvenor and Deauville.


Arnold Bennett, Clayhanger

April 8, 2014

clayhangerThis may be the best book you never heard of. Some months ago I enjoyed Bennett’s better-known novel The Old Wives’ Tale  so much that I wanted to read more novels by him. Next was Anna of the Five Towns , which I liked, but I like Clayhanger even more. All the books have the same setting – the “five towns” which are the heart of the English pottery district in the 19th century. Bennett grew up there and knew the towns, the shops and industries, and the people well.

In Clayhanger, Bennett does many things. He tells the story of a father and son and their years of quietly-suppressed conflict. The controlling ways of a father who feels entitled to dominate his children is a theme in the other Bennett novels also. He tells of young Edwin Clayhanger, entirely the product of his environment, who yearns for beauty but has no imagination to see it where it already exists.

Edwin had to readjust his ideas. It had never occurred to him to search for anything fine in Bursley. The fact was, he had never opened his eyes at Bursley. Dozens of times he must have passed the Sytch Pottery, and yet not noticed, not suspected, that it differed from any other pot-works: he who dreamed of being an architect! “You don’t think much of it?” said Mr Orgreave, moving on. “People don’t.” “Oh yes! I do!” Edwin protested, and with such an air of eager sincerity that Mr Orgreave turned to glance at him. And in truth he did think that the Sytch Pottery was beautiful. He never would have thought so but for the accident of the walk with Mr Orgreave; he might have spent his whole life in the town, and never troubled himself a moment about the Sytch Pottery.

Bennett shows us what it is to slave at demanding work when you are poor and uneducated and have no choice, the situation of the elder Clayhanger in his youth. He shows the satisfactions of even modest security after years of struggle. Darius, Edwin’s father, is unsympathetic to Edwin’s aspirations, not because he is uncaring but because he bears the marks of his own experience.

 Darius had a painful intense vision of that miracle, his own career. Edwin’s grand misfortune was that he was blind to the miracle. Edwin had never seen the little boy in the Bastille [local poor house]. But Darius saw him always, the infant who had begun life at a rope’s-end. Every hour of Darius’s present existence was really an astounding marvel to Darius. He could not read the newspaper without thinking how wonderful it was that he should be able to read the newspaper. And it was wonderful! It was wonderful that he had three different suits of clothes, none of them with a single hole. It was wonderful that he had three children, all with complete outfits of good clothes. It was wonderful that he never had to think twice about buying coal, and that he could have more food than he needed.

In describing life in the five towns, Bennett paints a cultural reality where even the best falls short of what it could be. Edwin completes a rather expensive education in a well-regarded school, the education which had been denied his father.

 Knowledge was admittedly the armour and the weapon of one about to try conclusions with the world, and many people for many years had been engaged in providing Edwin with knowledge. He had received, in fact, “a good education”—or even, as some said, “a thoroughly sound education;” assuredly as complete an equipment of knowledge as could be obtained in the county, for the curriculum of the Oldcastle High School was less in accord with common sense than that of the Middle School. He knew, however, nothing of natural history, and in particular of himself, of the mechanism of the body and mind, through which his soul had to express and fulfil itself. Not one word of information about either physiology or psychology had ever been breathed to him, nor had it ever occurred to any one around him that such information was needful. And as no one had tried to explain to him the mysteries which he carried about with him inside that fair skin of his, so no one had tried to explain to him the mysteries by which he was hemmed in, either mystically through religion, or rationally through philosophy. Never in chapel or at Sunday school had a difficulty been genuinely faced.

This story is set in the real world where people must work and where the great philosophical questions of who I am and what my obligations are must be dealt with entirely in practical terms. Edwin is not a passive victim. He struggles, not always successfully, to meet his obligations not only to others, but also to himself.


Turnstall / Bursley today

The Kill: Saccard’s Opulent Paris

April 2, 2014

CureeI was reading Emile Zola’s The Kill (La Cureé) alternately with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, so I was struck by de Waal’s description of the Paris inhabited by Zola’s Aristide Saccard during his years of prosperity. The Kill is the third book in the Rougon-Macquart novel series in which Zola portrays the corrupt France of Napoleon III. (The “kill” is not a murder, but the piece of the fox awarded to the hounds after a successful hunt.) For a detailed description of the events in the novel, see Lisa Hill’s plot summary.

When Aristide Rougon leaves Plassans (Aix-en-Provence) for Paris after Louis Napoleon’s coup of 1851 he is poor and must continue to live a frugal existence on his clerk’s salary. An advantageous second marriage gives him the capital to speculate successfully in the real estate of Paris. The city is being transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann, who creates boulevards and parks, including the Parc Monceau, next to which Saccard builds his mansion.


Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

Parc Monceau, painted by Gustave Caillebotte

During the Second Empire, the [d’Orleans] family sold lots within the park to real estate developers, who built luxurious town houses, reducing the size of the park by half. The remaining part of the park was purchased by the city of Paris in 1860. All that remained of the original folly was the water lily pond, the stream and the fantasy “tombs,” including the Egyptian pyramid.

In 1860 the park was purchased by the city, and in August 1861 Parc Monceau became the first new public park in Paris to be remade by Baron Haussmann as part of the grand transformation of Paris begun by Emperor Louis Napoleon. Two main alleys were laid out from east to west and north to south, meeting in the center of the park, and the alleys within the park were widened and paved, so carriages could drive the park. An ornamental grill 8.3 meters high was installed along a newly created avenue, Boulevard Malesherbes, Curving paths were laid out around the park for strolling.


Parc Monceau today

Parc Monceau today

The house Saccard builds dramatizes the opulence he has achieved. After a rather precise explanation of its structure, Zola goes on to describe the decorations.

The display of decoration was profuse. The house was hidden under its sculpture. Around the windows and along the cornices ran volutes of flowers and branches; there were balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts; and here and there were fanciful escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent. The higher one looked, the more the building bust into blossom. Around the roof ran a balustrade on which urns, at regular intervals, stood blazing with flames of stone; and there, between the bull’s eye windows of the attics, which opened on to an incredible mass of fruit and foliage, mantled the crowning portions of this amazing spectacle, the pediments of the turrets, in the midst of which the naked women reappeared, playing the apples, adopting poses amidst sheaves of rushes.

So. Fruit and flowers and naked women, but none of them real – just stone representations without any softness at all.


Hotel Menier, Paris

Zola used as his model for the mansion he calls a “fireworks display” the Hotel Menier, which still stands today in its favored position by the park. After finding the beautiful Hotel Ephrussi, the home of the Parisian branch of his family, Edmund de Waal visits the nearly Hotel Menier.

But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.

That’s an interesting error, calling Saccard a rapacious Jewish property magnate. Rapacious yes, Jewish no. Saccard was a Rougon and nowhere does Zola hint that any of them were Jewish. If, as de Waal suggests, some wealthy Jews were sharp-dealing scoundrels, it does not follow that Saccard was Jew. Many 19th century authors would at least hint at the probability. In Zola’s Money. this same Saccard must deal with the Jewish banker Gunderman. Saccard’s feelings about Gunderman may be those of the character or his author; we cannot be sure. We can be sure, however, to find casual anti-semitic jibes in well-regarded authors right up to the time of World War II.

What I Read in March 2014

March 30, 2014

PainterDownesGood Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. The very English Mollie Panter-Downes published journalism and stories in The New Yorker for many years. She is best known for her Letters from London. This collection preserves her short stories, set in the English Home Front during World War II.

GrassIsSingingDoris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing. This is Lessing’s first novel, a “Doris Lessing” before there was a celebrated writer. The story is set in the South Africa in which Lessing grew up. Life on the farm is somewhat reminiscent of the American South in its darker, hardscrabble days.

spiderwebPenelope Lively, Spiderweb. Retired anthropologist leaves the field (Greece, Egypt, Orkney) to settle in a rural village. She finds that kinship and tradition affect behavior there as elsewhere. The point? Not quite sure.

NarrowsMichael Connelly, The Narrows. Connelly is like Trollope — if you create a good character, don’t limit him or her to one novel. In this thriller, he reunites FBI agent Rachel Walling with retired L.A. detective Harry Bosch and the serial killer known as The Poet.

BullyPulpitDoris Kearns Goodwin, The BullyPulpit. This is what is sometimes called a chunkster. In 750 pages, plus notes, Kearns Goodwin tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, S. S. McClure and his muckrakers and what they all had to do with each other.

HareEdmund De Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. In a wonderful blend of memoir and family history, de Waal tells of five generations of the Ephrussi family. Wealthy Jewish bankers in Paris and Vienna, they passed a collection of netsuke down the generations to the author, who tells their story, which is also the story of his family.

CureeEmile Zola, La Cureé (The Kill). In this novel of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series devoted to the France of Napoleon III, a Rougon recreates himself as Saccard and profits from real estate wheeling and dealing in a thoroughly corrupt Paris.

FallingSue Kaufman, Falling Bodies. A very 1970s tale of a New York family enduring their self-described “tough year.” Everyone is affected, everyone acts a bit crazy, nothing is resolved, but life goes on. The 11-year-old son seems to be the best of the lot.



The Hare with Amber Eyes

March 27, 2014

The Hare with Amber Eyes

When Edmund de Waal inherited his great uncle Iggie’s collection of Japanese carvings, netsuke, he went looking for family places, to recreate the history of his inheritance, both physical and familial. In Paris he finds the Hotel Ephrussi.

It is utterly beautiful. As a boy I used to draw buildings like this, spending afternoons carefully inking in shadows so that you could see the rise and fall of the depth of the windows and pillars. There is something musical in this kind of elevation. You take classical elements and try to bring them into rhythmic life: four Corinthian pilasters rising up to pace the façade, four massive stone urns on the parapet, five storeys high, eight windows wide. The street level is made up of great blocks of stone worked to look as if they have been weathered. I walk past a couple of times and, on the third, notice that there is the double back-to-back E of the Ephrussi family incorporated into the metal grilles over the street windows, the tendrils of the letters reaching into the spaces of the oval. It is barely there. I try to work out this rectitude and what it says about their confidence.

Hotel Ephrussi in Paris.

Hotel Ephrussi in Paris.

De Waal writes of things and of memories. He likes to carry a small carved object in his pocket, to feel its shape as he walks about.

I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been. I want to be able to reach to the handle of the door and turn it and feel it open. I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it – if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.

I know what this means. Objects do not have to be valuable to have power. In a drawer, usually forgotten underneath some trivets, I have a steel strip with a black finish, 2 inches by 9 inches. Raised brass letters read “H. W. Greider.” The plate has a screw hole at each end because it was once mounted on my father’s office door. When I hold it I have a heaviness in my chest as I remember visiting that office, admiring his rolltop desk, old fashioned even then. The modern touch was an early digital clock which flipped the numbers mechanically. They must have given him the plate when he retired. I found it in his desk at home when we cleaned out the house. I cannot use it for anything, but I cannot throw it away either.

Of the earlier owners of his touchstone into memory, Edmund de Waal knew only his uncle and grandmother personally. The others – Charles Ephrussi, friend of Renoir and Degas, and Victor Ephrussi, wealthy Viennese banker and, ultimately, victim of the Anschluss – he recovers from letters, documents, visits to places where they lived.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe founder of the family fortunes, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, left Berdichev in Ukraine to establish the family’s grain trading and banking business in Odessa. Sons Leon and Ignace were dispatched to Paris and Vienna to expand the banking in these two great capitals. Edmund de Waal, great-great-great grandson of the original Ephrussi traveled to Paris, Vienna and Odessa. His account of Paris in the 1880s, when Charles Ephussi acquired the netsuke, is interesting, but what spoke to my heart is his account of the fortunes of the Ephrussi in Vienna. They built the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse. It is grander than the Paris hotel, but not as beautiful. Sometimes they made mistakes, but mostly they flourished – until the Anschluss. They got out too late.

It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan.
You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.

And so, nothing is permanent, everything may change, we must leave it all behind, as indeed each of us will when we finally close our eyes. Meanwhile, the objects speak, and I am very glad to listen.

The Bully Pulpit

March 23, 2014

BullyPulpitLet’s start with the bad news. I am a reader and admirer of Doris Kearns Goodwin and her works, but this book is just too darned long. I bogged down after the first 500 pages or so and had to push myself to finish. It’s too bad, really, because all the material is so good. The subtitle says it all:

 Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.

 What we have here are three books, rolled into one. Yes, it helps to demonstrate the relationships between TR, Taft and the journalists, and those relationships are important, but we sometimes lose the big picture in the details.

Now the good news. I learned wonderful things about TR, his temperament, his marriages, his role in the progressive movement and his third-party candidacy in 1912 which ended by putting Woodrow Wilson in the White House. I learned even more wonderful – and surprising – things about William Howard Taft. I grew up in Cincinnati, the political base of the Tafts, and they were big names in local politics, so much so that I assumed they were boring. Who knew that William Howard Taft helped to organize the government of the newly-acquired Philippines and insisted on equal treatment for Filipinos at all social events, something the military could not bring themselves to do! I knew that Upton Sinclair helped bring us food and drug laws with his muck-raking novel The Jungle, but who knew that Ida Tarbell dug the dirt on Standard Oil and the Rockefellers! And there is more. It is a surfeit of good things.

I leave you with a thought for today, spoken by Theodore Roosevelt in Philadelphia in 1905.

  “Neither this people nor any other free people,” he declared, “will permanently tolerate the use of the vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”


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