Summer is the time when memories of other summers flood back. You lie on the beach, take a swim in the sea, or toss and turn at night unable to sleep because of the heat, and recall yourself doing the same in years past, or surprise yourself by remembering a half-forgotten, entirely different summer experience. The year is 1963. I’m on an army ship playing poker for high stakes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. None of us has any money, but once we arrive in Brooklyn, get discharged and receive our pay, we’ll settle what we owe and collect what we have coming to us. I don’t believe this will happen, but I pretend I do and win and lose fortunes with the composure of a dissolute prince in a nineteenth-century Russian novel.
Earlier this month, the South African artist William Kentridge and the American historian of science Peter Galison were on hand in Kassel, Germany to install and introduce The Refusal of Time, the work Kentridge created for the international exhibition dOCUMENTA (13). The work is, in part, the result of an extended series of discussions between Kentridge and Galison about the history of the control of world time, relativity, black holes, and string theory. A few days before the opening, I met with Galison and Kentridge at the Mercure hotel in Kassel to talk about the ideas and themes that inspired the work.
It occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.
In 1949, shortly after Israel’s War of Independence, the Hebrew writer S. Yizhar published a story that became an instant classic. “Khirbet Khizeh” is a fictionalized account of the destruction of a Palestinian village and the expulsion of all its inhabitants by Israeli soldiers in the course of the war. The narrator, a soldier in the unit that carries out the order, is sickened by what is being done to the innocent villagers. Sixty-three years have passed since Yizhar wrote “Khirbet Khizeh.” I wish I could say that what he described was an ugly exception and that such actions don’t happen any more. This week I find myself in Susya, in the South Hebron hills, whose inhabitants, if the Israeli Civil Administration gets its way, will be, quite literally, cast into the desert.
To be a perfectionist is normally to be a pain. Nora Ephron was a picky person, who worried about all kinds of trivial things. This can make one completely unbearable. Nora actually made it attractive by mocking it in herself. Those impossibly detailed orders for lunch or a latte in When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail are Nora to a T. I remember once we were with her at the Greenbriar in West Virginia, which had a famous, and what seemed an endlessly extensive, brunch buffet.
“Chinese police and prosecutors, do you think they don’t understand Chinese law? They definitely understand. But these people illegally kept me under detention. So you can see that once you enter the system, you need to become bad. If you don’t become bad, you can’t survive.”
The publication of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines in 1987 transformed English travel writing; it made it cool. For the previous half century, travel writing seemed to consist either of grim, extended journeys through desolate landscapes or jokes about foreigners. But Chatwin was as attractive as a person as he was as a writer. The New York Times review of The Songlines ran: “Nearly every writer of my generation in England has wanted, at some point, to be Bruce Chatwin, wanted to be talked about, as he is, with raucous envy; wanted, above all, to have written his books.” I was no exception. Aged twenty, I thought that even his untruths were immensely erudite.
Former New York Times editor Bill Keller thinks it sounds shocking that he agrees with the Catholic conservative Bill Donohue, but he need not be disturbed. Some of us have long thought he was closer to Donahue than he pretended. What he particularly liked is the way Donohue argues that half of Catholics should just leave the church they pretend to believe in. Keller puts the matter even more punchily. He tells the useless half, “Summon your fortitude and just go.”
One of the best traditions of English public life is the official inquiry, sometimes parliamentary, sometimes judicial. What gives inquiries their value isn’t the conclusions they come to, which can be perverse or distorted by partisanship, but the evidence they hear and place on record. And so with the Leveson inquiry into the press. Whatever recommendations Lord Justice Leveson eventually makes, we have been spellbound by the testimony he has heard. To add a certain amusement value, the last few weeks have been notable for utterly contradictory testimony from different witnesses, several of them present or former leaders of the country.
Someone is being economical with the truth, or just lying.
“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London Wednesday. “But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese leadership beginning late this year. The Communist leaders now lack self-confidence, but I have heard from my Chinese friends that after a year or two the new ones will take some initiatives, so more freedom, more democracy.”