Roving thoughts and provocations

Iran Opens Its Fist

Gary Sick

Justin Lane/epa/Corbis

He came to New York. He saw almost everyone. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, may not have conquered, but at least he seems to have persuaded John Kerry and Barack Obama that his proposals for negotiating an end to the US-Iran conflict deserve to be taken seriously. When President Obama picked up his phone in the Oval Office on Friday to bid farewell to President Rouhani with the Persian phrase Khodahafez (“God be with you”), there was the sense that a tectonic shift between Washington and Tehran was taking place.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway

Edward Mendelson

Reading the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, with its story of a shrewd but otherwise unexceptional woman trying to untangle a vast unsolvable mystery, I remembered the excitement I felt when I first read his earlier novel on the same theme, The Crying of Lot 49. As I thought about The Crying of Lot 49, I belatedly realized that it tells a story very much like the one told by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In tone, setting, character, and incident, Mrs. Dalloway is a world away from The Crying of Lot 49, but both books have the same overall shape and both describe a lonely and reluctant quest for meanings that can never be obvious. There are greater books, but none that move me in the same way.

Libya: In Search of a Strongman

Nicolas Pelham

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, many feel that only a strongman can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

Verdi vs. the Fanatics

Garry Wills

Liz Lauren/Chicago Opera Theater

There is no denying that Verdi’s Joan of Arc tugs against some of a modern audience’s values. When, for instance, Giovanna is accused of witchcraft, she is unable to deny it because she has fallen in love with the Dauphin she is striving to make King. Why does she feel that a love for an unmarried Christian man, one not even sexually satisfied, must paralyze her with guilt? The Chicago Opera Theater director, David Schweizer, decided that the only way to be convincing about such an obsession with sexual purity is to make the opera show “the perpetual heart-rending consequences of religious fanaticism.”

How Different is de Blasio?

Michael Greenberg

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York, what can reasonably be expected to change? As a councilman his policy was much the same as Michael Bloomberg’s: to work with real estate developers to ease the way for large-scale projects. De Blasio was a staunch supporter of the enormous Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn. He also helped to push through the City Council two development-friendly rezoning laws in the Gowanus neighborhood that included no affordable housing. But only de Blasio, among the major Democratic candidates for mayor, strongly opposed the NYPD’s stop and frisk program from the outset of his campaign. And it seems certain that New York police chief Ray Kelly will be replaced if de Blasio wins.

Nicole Holofcener’s Beautiful Imperfections

Francine Prose

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Under Nicole Holofcener’s skillful direction, the actors in Enough Said never seem to be movie stars impersonating real people. She’s not afraid to let her characters be at once flawed and appealing, strong and weak, damaged and healthy, generous and self-centered; even the most clear-sighted must cope with disabling blind spots. They seem like human beings, and if they behave heroically, as they often do, theirs is the sort of heroism that enables an ordinary person to get through an ordinary day without needing to defuse a ticking bomb or save their families from a spectacular, special-effects apocalypse.

Clogging the War Machine

David Cole

Pool/Reuters/Corbis

Over the last few days, critics have called President Barack Obama weak, indecisive, rudderless, and even a threat to the presidency for not ordering an immediate military strike on Syria. Had Obama acted alone, however, he would have violated both the US Constitution, which requires prior congressional approval, and international law, which forbids the offensive use of force absent Security Council approval. Instead, he is now pursuing a path that accords with the rule of law, and may in fact be more effective at deterring further use of chemical weapons. Indeed, it may even prepare the way for a diplomatic strategy to end the underlying civil war.

From Cocaine to Fascism

Alexander Stille

Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, the early twentieth-century novelist Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power, and greed. Cocaine, his most successful novel, describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances; the principal occupation of the characters is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels: “Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”

How to Save the Syrians

Michael Ignatieff

Molhem Barakat/Reuters

We may be at a turning point in the Syrian agony, when diplomatic action combined with the threat of force moves the Syrian regime toward putting its chemical weapons under international control. If this happens it will be a victory for international law, for the authority of the UN Security Council, and for peace. But it is only too obvious that thus far the peoples of the democratic states have failed in our responsibility to protect the people of Syria.

Spaghetti Lessons

Charles Simic

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

I came to Italian food late. My grandmother and mother made noodles and macaronis, but nothing else that could remotely be described as Italian. In my mother’s family, garlic and olive oil, two of life’s peerless delights, were regarded with horror, as something people of suspect ethnicity and class coated their food with. It was on a pizza that garlic in obscene quantities first entered our home. As for spaghetti, it may have been served in a bowl, but it came out of a can bought at the supermarket. It took me years to reach the high-school level in Italian gastronomy and begin to dream of university. As I ate my way into higher wisdom, I also learned about the culture that came with the food.