Last year’s COVID shuttering was probably less of a blow for the Frick Collection than for other New York museums, as the Frick had planned to close for major renovations and temporarily relocate to the former site of the Whitney. Frick Madison opened in March, but I was glad that, at the end of 2019, I got in a visit to Henry Clay Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion and some of the world’s greatest paintings.
The most memorable part of that trip, however, turned out to be a reunion with the bronze angel—forged in 1475 by Jean Barbet—that overlooks the fountain in the Garden Court. The slim, comely figure points his left index finger in a way that people used to do in mimicking Bogart-style gangsters. Or maybe it’s what the bartender in a polo shirt does when you ask for another round: You got it. I’d forgotten that when I first visited the museum in 1992, I came away thinking of Barbet’s sculpture as “the necessary angel of earth” from Wallace Stevens’s “Angel Surrounded by Paysans,” the final poem in his 1950 collection, The Auroras of Autumn.
There’s a phrase in Julian Barnes’s 1991 novel Talking It Over that has stuck in my mind all these years even though I’d forgotten the plot—“Everything Starts Here.” Before consulting my Vintage paperback from 1992, all I could recall of the book was that it’s one of those intimate “relationship” novels where people with very-British names wind up fighting in a French village. The the book reminded me that it’s a love triangle told from the perspectives of Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian.
“Everything Starts Here” is the title of a chapter that begins in the voice of Stuart:
But then Gillian came along, and everything starts here. Now. I love that word. Now. It’s now now; it’s not then anymore. Then has gone away. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed my parents. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed myself. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t ever get myself across to other people. That was then, and then’s gone. It’s now now.
I was recently sitting between friends, a couple, at a movie theater, waiting out the seemingly endless stream of commercials for Peak TV filler. The he of the couple would lean across me to whisper “Yes” or “No” to his partner in regard to giving some series a go. They were usually in alignment, but when it came to Amazon’s Carnival Row, he vehemently declared “NO.” She worked in theater lighting; “Yes,” she countered. He was resolute: “Nothing—with—wings.”
His reaction owed to the fact that he taught an undergraduate short story writing course in which his students were solely interested in fantasy—lots of dragons and interspecies wing-flappers, lots of GOT homage. (This is a school where the tuition is well over $50,000.) His students explained their decisions as partly lucrative (“there’s a lot of money in YA fantasy”) and partly to express themselves, to put their “rampant imagination” on display. When responding in class to a story about a gender-fluid elf, my friend brought the Wrath of Kahn down upon himself by asking “Aren’t all elves gender fluid?”
Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.
What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less.
The excitement generated by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech almost immediately became bigger news than the speech itself, prompting Winfrey to make a public demurral that she doesn’t “have the DNA” to run for president of the United States.
But the import of her message and the way she delivered it should not get lost within the cult-of-personality frenzy that has already spawned a hot market for Oprah 2020 merchandise.
We are all complicit in the sorry state of political speechcraft in 2018, tolerating a low bar despite Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. And this is because we only understand speeches as the tools of powerful men. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest communications problems was her inability to not give a man’s speech. She also fell into the storifying sand trap—touchy-feely anecdote with a first name, three banal sentences, and no resonance whatsoever.
In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Having always fancied using that title for a book, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.”
Spark identified herself as a “Catholic writer,” like a fair number of her peers in the days when people made religion a factor of identity. I gravitated toward her fiction and that of other Catholic writers—primarily Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene—even though I wasn’t any kind of believer. The dark humor in Spark and O’Connor was definitely a draw, but the real power of their writing lies in the mystery of the central conflict, which you can read as sacred or profane. There is the stark familiarity of everyday life—with the seemingly arbitrary distribution of suffering and joy—but also the strangeness of an overlay that allows for epiphany if you’ve made the commitment to look.