What I Read This Week - 23rd June

I'm on holiday! Or at least, I'm in California, visiting places I used to know well, which is like being on holiday but with the added disconcertion of half-remembering things that aren't there anymore and wondering why their absence seems so significant to me and to no one else. There's also the pleasure of easy familiarity, the thrilling abundance of oranges and avocados, the quality of the tacos, the ocean, the afternoon winds, and the threat of bats entering the house after dark. The days are long and warm. I can't really seem to write much (well, at all), and I can't seem to read anything except novels - first Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, which I read in one giant gulp, sitting outside in a pool of sunshine for so long that one side of my neck and not the other was sunburned, and now Marilynne Robinson's Home, much more slowly, and mainly in the evenings, sometimes on the balcony with a cold beer. I use the time difference as an excuse not to follow anything that's happening online, or not much of it, anyway. But here are a few things that, fairly arbitrarily, have caught my eye recently (the two LRB pieces are almost cheating - I read both in hard copy form, with a glass of juice squeezed from the orange trees outside the house): - Why Women Still Can't Have It All (Anne-Marie Slaughter at the Atlantic)

The audience was rapt, and asked many thoughtful questions. One of the first was from a young woman who began by thanking me for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all’ talk.” Just about all of the women in that room planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make.

I used to think I'd never have to think about this sort of thing (why? did I think that because other people had already considered it - and lived it - I was somehow off the hook?), but nowadays it's one of a few things that's nearly always on my mind, in some way or another. ( Retrospective clarification: I hope I don't come across as arrogant here. I don't think about it in exactly Slaughter's terms. My professional ambitions particularly are much vaguer and generally humbler; I don't necessarily imagine that I'll ever be influencing US foreign policy or running a major corporation or whatever. In a way that's what interests me most about the issue: it's still an issue, pretty much no matter what you choose to do ).

- On Identity and Decontextualization: Notes on Going Home (again) (Mary Anne Oxendale)

I don’t look back on my life and see a timeline stretching back into childhood. I see, let’s say, a group photo of about twenty or so people, all living their own very distinct lives.

- Making a Costume Drama out of a Crisis (Jenny Diski at the London Review of Books)

This ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ is the single motif that conditions all the plots of the books and programmes, which otherwise are undistinguished stories of love and money lost and won. Mostly the nothing that will ever be the same is the centuries-old entitlement of a small group of highly privileged people, for whom, for various reasons, we must feel sorry, both before and after the changes (in the old world they are limited in their opportunities by their class, and in the new by their lack of preparation).

I used to love a good costume drama. I still do, if it's done tactfully enough. But reading Diski's piece, I found I wasn't as at odds with her view as I'd thought I might be. It seems perhaps that the collective cultural nostalgia - nostalgia, of course, for a thing most viewers never actually knew - associated with programs like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs has been replaced by a kind of blind desperation. I've seen episodes of each and maybe there were a few highlights - who can forget Maggie Smith wondering what a "weekend" is? - but by the end, all things considered, I felt pretty much like I'd been beaten round the head by the stick of heavy-handedness. It's like we can't let these fictional characters have their dignity; we have to force them into situations straightforward enough for us to view easily from a modern (and comfortably superior) vantage point, or at least herd them into pitiable places (poor little rich girl; poor little poor girl). The corollary to the overriding message that 'nothing will ever be the same again!' seems to be that we, even in our often ugly present, should be grateful for the freedoms we have - including the freedom to fantasize about floating around a cold manor house wearing moth-bitten silk and shining rubies. That's inevitable - a modern representation of the past is always viewed through a filter; Brideshead Revisited would surely be a very different beast had it been written in this century, not the last. But I wonder: should we be worried that the story we seem to want to impose again and again on the recent past is such an overwrought one?

- Issues For His Prose Style (Andrew O’Hagan at the London Review of Books)

But at times it strikes you that the cult of specificity in Hemingway is a drug you take in a cheap arcade: lights flash on the old machines and a piano plinks overhead. One evening it came to me as a small revelation that he takes too much pride in the nouns. [...] Hemingway will never say someone had a drink when he can say they had a vermouth. [...] In A Farewell to Arms, there are forty occasions when someone has a drink.