Commonplace 2021


“The deal also did little to assuage fears about how the country’s new immigration rules could complicate the lives of E.U. citizens living in Britain. People from other European countries have been allowed to apply for “settled status” in Britain, the right to stay indefinitely, and more than two million of them have been granted that status.” (from article by Benjamin Mueller in NYT, January 2)

“Since the 2016 referendum, the government has alienated many of the 3.5 million European Union nationals in the country, cynically treating them as bargaining chips in their negotiations with the bloc. Such people make a big contribution to British life — not just as City bankers, as they are often caricatured, but also as frontline medical staff, university teachers and entrepreneurs. Without them, the country would be greatly diminished. Alarmingly, large numbers appear to have left in 2020.” (Peter Gumbel, in Op-Ed in NYT, January 2)

“A historian has no right to just take memoirs and articles based on them. They have a duty to examine them critically and to verify them on the basis of objective information.” (Joseph Stalin, according to Geoffrey Roberts in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Capitalism might be wrong, but it was right to make the most of the pleasures and comforts that came with it.” (David Pryce-Jones, in review of Richard Greene’s Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene, in Literary Review, December 2020/January 2021)

“Being in love is a complicated matter; although anyone who is prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests.” (from Chapter 3 of A Question of Upbringing, by Anthony Powell)

“But Mr. Berners-Lee is taking a different approach: His answer to the problem is technology that gives individuals more power. The goal, he said, is to move toward ‘the web that I originally wanted.’” (from report in NYT, January 11)

“Brexit: a triumph of European statecraft? If the Union’s great breakthrough was to advance beyond a politics of rules to one of events, overturning one rule after another in pursuit of financial stability and border security, wouldn’t it have made more sense to concede to Cameron the brakes on migration he was asking for to win his referendum, rather than to risk Britain’s desertion by invoking immovable principles that are continually being moved? If, when necessity calls, the Treaty of Maastricht’s precise and detailed clauses on budgetary discipline and its prohibition of central bank purchase of government debt can be dismissed in the shake of a lamb’s tail, why not the far vaguer provisions of the Treaty of Rome on the free movement of labour? From the Realpolitiker standpoint advertised by van Middelaar, the logic of pragmatically dodging the blow to the EU from across the Channel should have been obvious. No such thought crosses the mind of his book.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“There, the enemy is on the contrary just what the elites of Europe themselves decry and fear most: ‘populism’. Democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern. The European Union is organised in such a way that it does not. But since it is good form to regret its ‘democratic deficit’, it would be better if it at least appeared to do so.” (Perry Anderson, in The European Coup, London Review of Books, December 17, 2020)

“In the break-up of a marriage the world inclines to take the side of the partner with most [sic] vitality, rather than the one apparently least [sic] to blame.” (from Chapter 5 of The Acceptance World, by Anthony Powell)

“All this makes Russian Roulette [Richard Greene’s biography of Graham Greene] an absolutely fascinating document, not so much for what it tells us about Graham Greene but for its take on the shifting tides of 21st century public morality. This, you will be interested to learn, is a world in which referring to a character in a 90-year-old novel as ‘the Jew’ is a matter for shocked disapproval, whereas breaking your marriage vows and neglecting your offspring is, well, just something a famous writer does.” (from review in Private Eye, 8-21 January)

“Whereas the Union ‘shall establish’ a highly competitive economy, it will merely ‘contribute’ to free trade. The reality so nicely captured in this distinction is that, not unlike the US or China, the EU is a mercantilist bloc, replete with subsidies (think only of the Common Agricultural Policy) and protections (think only of services) of many kinds, aimed at barricading outsiders from the privileges afforded insiders. That its neoliberal admirers in Britain should burn so much incense in honour of its internationalist calling is not the least irony of the hour, only underlined by the contrast between its practices and the purer free trade dispositions, proceeding to unilateral abolition of tariffs, of mid-Victorian Britain.” (Perry Anderson, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“Ian​ Hamilton once recounted in the LRB (22 October 1992) that ‘when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming “Hi, Norman!” in the index, next to Mailer’s name.’” (Gavin Francis, in London Review of Books, January 21)

“The supposed backsliding on the part of St John Clarke was certainly not because nay potential hostess objected to his being a ‘Communist’. On the contrary, as an elderly, no longer very highly esteemed writer, such views may even have done something to re-establish his name. The younger people approved, while in rich, stuffy houses, where he was still sometimes to be seen on the strength of earlier reputation as a novelist, a left-wing standpoint was regarded as suitable to a man of letters, even creditable in a widely known, well-to-do author, who might at his age perfectly well have avoided the controversies of politics.” (from Chapter 2 of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, by Anthony Powell)

“Theological truth combines historical fact with unassailable moral principle and a journey of imagination beyond the reach of experience. It cannot be called untrue – only unproven.” (from letter by Charles Keen in the Spectator, January 9)

“But the fact is that animals are not like us. They are us. We all belong to the same kingdom Animalia. We have tried again and again to deny it across the millennia, but it’s unavoidable.” (Simon Barnes, in the Spectator, January 16)

“I have never said that I want moderate Muslims. That is not my problem. I don’t ask a Catholic to be moderate. I don’t give a damn. When it comes to someone’s religion, that does not concern me. On the other hand, I demand of every citizen, whatever their religion, to respect the rules of the Republic, because he or she is a citizen before being a believer or a nonbeliever.” (President Emmanuel Macron, in NYT, January 30)


“‘Are you hideous, stunted, mentally arrested, sexually maladjusted, marked with warts, gross in manner, with a cleft palate and an evil smell?’ Morland used to say. ‘Then, oh boy, there’s a treat ahead of you. You’re all set for a promising career as a lover. There’s an absolutely ravishing girl round the corner who’ll find you irresistible. In fact her knickers are bursting into flame at this very moment at the mere thought of you.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“Half of everything is geography; the other half is Shakespeare.” (Robert D. Kaplan to David Patrikarakos in the Spectator, American edition, February)

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” (from Chapter 4 of The Valley of Bones, by Anthony Powell)

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who passively fear disaster, and those who plan for it.” (Cal Flyn, in Prospect, December 2020)

“There are two types of people: professional social scientists and amateur social scientists.”  (William Davies, in London Review of Books, February 4)

“The authors of travel books can be divided into two types: travellers who write and writers who travel.” (Hilary Bradt in Literary Review, February)

“There are two types of people in this world. The people who take, and those getting took.” (‘Marla Grayson’, in I Care A Lot, quoted on feature on Rosamund Pike in NYT, February 22)

“’If there’s two types of people in this world — people that are strong and people that are weak,’ he explained in an interview, ‘I’m among the strong percentage.’” (Daniel Banyai, owner of Vermont shooting camp, in NYT, February 24)

“‘Once grace, salvation, and the Divine Nature were subjects of study’, he wrote; ‘now the fact that they were so is the subject of study. Once theology was a pure and autonomous subject; now religion lies at the mercy of psychology, history, anthropology, and whatever other discipline cares to jump in’. Philosophy, which had spent these past few millennia trying to connect human experience to an external, transhuman reality and some sort of secure ground for our values, was interesting primarily as a historical curiosity or a genre of literature. As he wrote in ‘Keeping Philosophy Pure, ‘if philosophy comes to an end, it will be because that picture is as remote from us as the picture of man as the child of God. If that day comes, it will seem as quaint to treat a man’s knowledge as a special relation between his mind and its object as it now does to treat his goodness as a special relation between his soul and God’”. (Crispin Sartwell quoting Richard Rorty in Times Literary Supplement, February 5)

“He was a Sunni Muslim of Syrian descent in a Roman Catholic land.  .  .  Mr. Menem, who converted to Catholicism because it was a constitutional requirement for the presidency, assumed office five months early when President Raúl Alfonsín resigned as the long-troubled economy finally collapsed and looters invaded the supermarkets.” (from NYT obituary of Carlos Menem, former president of Argentina, February 15)

“’A great illusion is that government is carried on by an infallible, incorruptible machine,’ Pennistone said. ‘Officials – all officials, of all governments – are just as capable of behaving in an irregular manner as anyone else. In fact they have the additional advantage of being able to assuage their conscience, if they happen to own one, by assuring themselves it’s all for the country’s good.’” (from Chapter 2 of The Military Philosophers, by Anthony Powell)

“There’s a new spirit abroad in Prince Theodoric’s country, and, whatever people may say, there’s no doubt about Marshal Stalin’s sincerity in desire for a good-neighbour policy, if the West allows it.” (Sillery, in Chapter 1 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“How one envies the rich quality of a reviewer’s life. All the things to which those Fleet Street Jesuses feel superior. Their universal knowledge, exquisite taste, idyllic loves, happy married life, optimism, scholarship, knowledge of the true meaning of life, freedom from sexual temptation, simplicity of heart, sympathy with the masses, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity – particularly the last, in welcoming with open arms every phoney who appears on the horizon. It’s not surprising that in the eyes of most reviewers a mere writer’s experiences seem so often trivial, sordid, lacking in meaning.” (X. Trapnel, in Chapter 3 of Books Do Furnish A Room, by Anthony Powell)

“On the other hand, people rarely take the view that they have been rewarded according to their deserts, those most rewarded often the keenest to be revenged.” (from Chapter 1 of Temporary Kings, by Anthony Powell)


Letter to a Young Poet

The fall of a girl’s hair, the flare of a skirt –

the merciless daily things that break your heart

Are there for you to learn your skills from. The hurt

Of living is what stings us into art.

Cool your desires to ice, then start to play.

Compose it all like music: use what you need:

Secrets; strange worlds; failed love; friends gone away.

Each poem’s a rock-hard crystal, grown from a seed.

Dig down and find the past: dead kings; old war;

Wonder-filled days; riding your first steam train;

Mysteries; why men don’t whistle any more.

Honour the things that won’t come back again.

Remember politics, but don’t digest them whole.

(That shimmering emblem trailed across the sky

Will ravel out your mind, destroy your soul

And fill the world with less while millions die.)

Be sure of nothing: youth’s no time to be wise.

The Truth will let you in on its own plan.

Travel: possess the girl: enjoy each prize.

Don’t think too much about writing. Live while you can.

(By Colin Falck, published in the Spectator, February 13)

“There are also considerations of reticence and taste, and most of all, a realization that every human life is at once so complex and so simple, so perplexing and so clear, so superficial and so profound, that any attempt to present it as a unified, consistent whole, to enclose it within a rigid frame, inevitably tempts one to cheat or falsify.” (from Introduction to Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows)

“The world I had built up in my imagination was unlike any country upon land or sea. It was a phantasmagoria of Queen Anne country houses and Oxford colleges and libraries, of village cricket and nursery tea, of hollyhocks in cottage gardens and cathedral spires, of friends, friends, friends with whom I could be at ease, and of a deep swift stream perpetually gliding between green banks, while a young man (his contours still somewhat blurred) read poetry aloud to me.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 226)

“The world will never know my life, even if it should write and read a hundred biographies of me. The main facts of it are known, and are likely to be known, to myself alone, of all created men.” (Thomas Carlyle, from Froude’s Life, quoted by Iris Origo in Images and Shadows, p 241)

“On the contrary, I think that people of my age should have the courage to maintain a certain loyalty of the taste that they have acquired through many years of devotion to one of the arts, and frankly to admit what they do or do not enjoy. One need never again, for instance, listen to an opera by Wagner, if that happens to be one of one’s blind spots, nor read the novels of Stendhal, nor the works of Simone de Beauvoir, nor look at a picture by Dali.” (from Iris Origo’s Images and Shadows, p 266)

“People who sound insincere all the time, he [Shorty] thought to himself, should not expect others to notice the difference when they try to sound insincere.” (From Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, Chapter 18)

“A private grievance is never so dangerous as when it can be identified with a matter of principle.” (J. M. Thompson, according to Harold L, Schechter and Peter S. Deriabin in The Spy Who Saved the World, p 389, citing Alan Studner in CIA paper A Study of Treason)

“Few things in politics are sadder than a nostalgist unaware that the circus has moved on. In Britain, the main function of the works of Friedrich Hayek and his school now seems to be to supply a Zoom backdrop for the increasingly forlorn public interventions of the backbench libertarian MP Steve Baker.” (Jonathan Parry in London Review of Books, March 18)

“The Union fell apart without great bloodshed, as if on its own, and they were corrupted by the ease of the collapse and therefore unprepared for resistance. They thought that all evil had been contained in the USSR and now that there was no Union, things would take the right path; they did not understand that evil was a part of history and that democracy was a system for minimizing evil and not for the triumph of good. Now they were twice orphaned because the country of their birth was gone and the country in which they grew up was also gone.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, pp 67-68)

“The price of misfires, accidents, bad coincidences was very high in that world; in it, a ridiculous suspicion, a nasty rumor, a mean gaze had great power to control reality – because fractional people are more vulnerable than whole ones, it is much easier to present them as demons in the current political bestiary.” (from Sergei Lebedev’s The Goose Fritz, p 242)


“’What the obsessive man still wanted, when he wasn’t blissfully muttering in bed, was an apology,’ Bailey writes in Philip Roth.’ From whom? In short order: villainous ex-wives, the needy children of said ex-wives, feminists who accused him of misogyny, Jewish critics who accused him of anti-Semitism, The New York Times, John Updike, Irving Howe, his bad back, insufficiently devoted editors (‘your engine doesn’t throb any longer at the sound of my name,’ he chastised one), possibly the Nobel Committee. From the first page, the message is clear: Roth is owed.’ (from Parul Sehgal’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in NYT, March 31)

“The really big money comes in through the capital campaigns. These are fundraising events dedicated to financing a major school project: paving the locker rooms with gold, annexing Slovakia, putting out a hit on a rival headmaster. The campaign gets some cockamamie name – ‘Imagine the Future’ or ‘Quid pro Quo’ – and lasts several years. There has never in history been a private-school family that slid in and out of the institution without overlapping with one of these campaigns.” (from Caitlin Flanagan’s Private Schools Are Indefensible, in The Atlantic, April 2021)

“The church was the original multi-cultural project, with Jesus as its only point of identity. It was known, and was for this reason seen as both attractive and dangerous, as a worship-based, spiritually renewed, multi-ethnic, polychrome, mutually supportive, outward-facing, culturally creative, chastity-celebrating, socially responsible fictive kinship group, gender-blind in leadership, generous to the poor and courageous in speaking up for the voiceless.” (from letter by Rt Revd Prof N. T. Wright, former bishop of Durham, in the Spectator, March 27)

“The truth about anything is probably ‘a compound of two opposite half-truths’”. (Tom Stoppard in the ‘proto-mockumentary Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know, according to Andrew Hagan, in review of Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life, in New York Review of Books, April 29)

“Then I cheered myself up by reflecting that it was overridingly important to have renewed my assault, even verbally and vainly, on the tested principle that ever’y minute a girl is allowed to spend in official ignorance of a man’s intentions means two extra minutes of build-up when the time comes.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter One)

“The real trouble with liars, I decided as I belatedly got Weber out of his drawer, was that there could never be any guarantee against their occasionally telling the truth.” (from Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Three)

“But of course Regulation 82(c) of the By Jove and Great Scott Society states, No gentleman shall lay a finger on a lady if the lady should presume to have the effrontery to make the first move.” (Penny Vandervane, in Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, Chapter Five)

“Roth’s last years, from 2006 to 2018, were melancholy. He had serious back problems, knee problems, heart problems. He had a psychotic reaction to the sedative Halcion, became addicted to opioids, and went through an excruciating detox. Many of his friends got accustomed to taking him to the emergency room. Lisa Halliday was with him once when he was filling out the admission paperwork. The hospital needs to know, Roth explained, who to call if the end is near. If you are Jewish, they send a rabbi; if Catholic, a priest. ‘And if you say you’re an atheist?’ Halliday asked. ‘They send Christopher Hitchens.’” (from Elaine Showalter’s review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography, in TLS, April 9)

“I am a cisgender woman, in a monogamous 30-plus-year marriage with a cisgender straight man. However, I don’t identify as straight. Before marriage, I dated both men and women. If I were single, I would most likely do the same. I consider myself bisexual and am open about that identity with friends and family. And that’s how I fill out official forms, like the census. But I feel weird about doing that at work, a law firm, not because I’m embarrassed about identifying publicly as bisexual but because it feels fraudulent to put myself in that category when I live as a straight woman and don’t face the discrimination my L.G.B.T.Q. colleagues might. On the other hand, I feel that it’s important for leaders in organizations to be ‘out.’ Is it ethical to identify myself as L.G.B.T.Q. on client surveys or state bar forms that inquire as to race, sexual orientation, etc., for diversity-tracking purposes? Terri, New York” (question to the Ethicist, in NYT Magazine, April 18)

As a soixante-huitard, I recall this period intimately, and embarrassedly. While on the cultural barricades, we did not see ourselves as tearing apart social capital: we thought that we were tearing down the institutions of capitalism. But of course, the institutions survived and instead it was the destruction of civility, of mutually respectful dialogues, that we helped to bring about. I recall attending a meeting of the Oxford Revolutionary Socialist Students – not a parody – during which we were urged to stand up and denounce any suspect peers in the assembly.” (Professor Paul Collier, in TLS, April 15)

“Democratic politics presumes the existence of a proper opposition holding governments to account and offering alternative policies – the very thing which, infamously, does not exist at EU level. As there cannot be opposition within the system, there only remains opposition to the system (primarily in the form of anti-EU parties).”(Jan-Werner Mueller, inLondon Review of Books, April 22)


“Doom is savvy and endlessly entertaining, and if it reads more like a compendium than a treatise, this is because the book follows the rules of Olympian history-writing. The formula involves asserting a claim, or positing a framework of analysis – the ‘six killer apps’ of the West in Ferguson’s Civilization, for example, or the six elements of networks in The Square and the Tower (2017) – and then offering not an argument but a stream of examples. The approach is to use history without actually being it – that is, to avoid offering propositions amenable to scrutiny, contradiction and falsification. As a school, it is not Whiggish, Marxist, or liberal but mesmerist. Historians do other things besides make arguments, of course. They evoke, compare and bear witness. But when the object is to persuade, one wants to know which way the data actually point.” (Charles King, in review of Niall Ferguson’s Doom, in TLS, May 7)

“A good poem allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air.” (Seamus Heaney, according to Seamus Terry in London Review of Books, May 6)

The Answer Is, Of Course, Yes

“Ernst collapsed and died in 1933, a broken man, his future and his belief in Germany, Heimat and sense of belonging having been cruelly undermined. He, like his wife, like his daughters, had repudiated his roots. May asks this:

‘But what happens when you don’t just loathe and repudiate this root or that, but go for your oldest – and try to kill it? When you try to wipe a major part of the slate of your own heritage clean and start again? Isn’t there something here of the spirit of those social experimenters who thought that human beings could be made tabula rasa and then re-constituted, free of the despised past?’

The answer is, of course, no.” (Julia Neuberger, from review of Simon May’s How To Be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging, in Literary Review, May) 

“We talk about the United States: ‘They’re totalitarians without knowing it. Millions of people read the Reader’s Digest, that revolting crap. Intellectual nourishment of the lowest order. It kills the intelligence. Same newspapers, same radios everywhere, same soaps, same cities. It all ends up by producing standardized men who carry the totalitarianism of weak, emasculated beings in their veins. Anyone who tries to escape has no choice but to go mad, that’s how worthless he feels. The United States is closer than any country in the world to a totalitarianism of ants.’” (Otto Rühle: Serge disagrees.] (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 19, 1942)

“Distant religions that are far apart and totally different can be indulgent towards each other, but sects of the same religion must hate each other: family hatreds, competition forte possession of the same truth.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, January 22, 1943)

“A false Trotskyism is invented in order to refute it, given the impossibility of engaging in discussion with the real Trotskyism – or any other rational discussion. That two times two is five is proved by capital punishment. A moment arrives when the enormity of the forged or false allegation gives it an appearance so imposing that the average man is afraid to doubt it.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 26, 1943)

“Men need a sese of history comparable to the sense of direction of migratory birds. A metaphor more amusing than valid: it is an element of consciousness, quite distant from instinct, that we have been in the process of acquiring since the Encyclopedists.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, January 5, 1944)

“This conversation reminds me of what Bukharin said to Kamenev about Stalin in 1928: ‘If we follow him he’ll drag the country into the abyss and we’ll perish, and the revolution will perish along with him. If we denounce him he’ll accuse us of treason and we’ll perish.’” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, November 25, 1944)

“In the midst of historical catastrophe, most men choose neither their role nor their death. To see clearly from time to time – this is without question a tremendous privilege: to feel strong enough to uphold those authentic values that are more durable than empires, even totalitarian ones – this is to be among the chosen . . .  ” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May 1, 1945)

“Without imagination the other is never anything but a diminished caricature of ourselves. Rule: Never believe that my fellow man is really like me. The key to the imagination: Admit that the other is profoundly different.” (from Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, April 6, 1946)

“The only things Stalin’s armies were not receiving from their allies were mine detectors, which were declined on the grounds that, as the head of the Soviet military mission in Britain, General Ivan Ratov, explained to his hosts, ‘in the Soviet Union we use people’ to clear mines.” (from Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War, p 463)

“The diary notes for September 30, 2016, ‘Nice comfort supper in front of the TV, watching a documentary in appreciation of the late Terry Wogan’. To invert Harrah Arendt, the evil of banality.” (Dean Godwin on Alan Duncan’s In the Thick of It, in TLS, May 14)

“Bias and lack of judgement are two Foreign Office labels which, if once attached to you, never leave you and ruin your career. As far as lack of judgment is concerned, there is only one pitfall – a very dangerous one to avoid. One must never be right too soon. Bias is a more difficult bogey.” (from Robert Bruce Lockhart’s’ Diaries 1939-1965, November 20, 1943)

“Lomnitz and I are of the same generation, and many of my Jewish friends throughout Latin America who are in our age group continue to grapple with issues of identity, albeit in forms their grandparents would have had difficulty grasping. They ask: Are we Jewish Latinos or Latino Jews? Which is the noun and which is the adjective? Lomnitz does not seem to be afflicted with these doubts, or if he is, he has chosen not to discuss them here, except when they concern language.” (Larry Rohter, in review of Claudio Lomnitz’s Nuestra América in New York Review of Books, June 10)


“The pendulum has swung further still in recent years, with some asserting that migration may not have increased at all during the post-Roman period and that the inhabitants of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries did not care as much about their ethnic identity as Bede later suggested.” (Toby Martin, in review of Max Adams’s The First Kingdom, in TLS, May 28)

“This is the only way that an Asian American-Pacific Islander coalition makes sense — pointing the way toward alliances with other groups, from Black Americans to Muslims, Latinos to L.G.B.T.Q. people. Asian Americans are one political identity among the many that must come together for decolonization.” (Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English, American studies and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, in NYT, June 6)

“The story begins with George Kennan’s strategy of containment of the Soviet Union, first formulated in 1947, which marks the beginning of the Cold War,  . . .” (Marjorie Perloff, in review of Louis Menand’s The Free World, in TLS, June 4)

“He [Jean-Paul Sartre] was conscious of his ugliness  . . . but it was the kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it.”(Louis Menand in The Free World, quoted by Marjorie Perloff in TLS, June 4)

Lessons in Genetics

“The longing for nature is built into our genes.” (from obituary of Cornelia Oberland, in NYT, June 10)

“We are, after all, creatures of blood, hardwired to look out for own.” (Darrin M McMahon, in Literary Review, June)

“The Rosenbergs were not venal. If they were guilty, they were guilty of naivety: an idealistic belief in the promise that communism would bring a better world.” (Adam Sisman, in review of Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: a Cold War Tragedy, in Literary Review, June)

“Perhaps the secret to understanding Russian history lies in its grammar: it lacks a pluperfect tense. In Latin, English and German the pluperfect describes actions completely completed at a definite point in the past… Early Russian had such a tense, but it was erased. This grammatical lack costs its speakers dear. Russian history never becomes history. Like a stubborn page in a new book, it refuses to turn over.” (Igor Pomerantsev, quoted by his son, Peter, in Spectator, May 29)

“Mexicans emerged from Indigenous people, Brazilians emerged from the jungle but we Argentines arrived on boats. On boats from Europe.” (President Alberto Fernández of Argentina, reported in NYT, June 11)

“The​ philosopher Stuart Hampshire served in British military intelligence during the Second World War. When we were colleagues at Princeton he told me about the following incident, which must have taken place shortly after the Normandy landings. The French Resistance had captured an important collaborator, who was thought to have information that would be useful to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interrogate him. When he arrived, the head of the Resistance unit told Hampshire he could question the man, but that when he was through they were going to shoot him: that’s what they always did with these people. He then left Hampshire alone with the prisoner. The man said immediately that he would tell Hampshire nothing unless Hampshire guaranteed he would be turned over to the British. Hampshire replied that he could not give such a guarantee. So the man told him nothing before he was shot by the French.” (Thomas Nagel, in London Review of Books, June 3)

“Recent excitement about ‘perytons’, bursts of radio waves detected at Australia’s Parkes Observatory and nowhere else, died down when they were traced to a malfunctioning microwave oven in the observatory’s kitchen.” (from review of Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial by Chris Lintott in London Review of Books, June 3)

“A Pew poll found thar only about a third of U.S. Catholics believed central Catholic teaching that the communion bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass.” (from report in NYT, June 19)


“Now that God is dead, to take on Nietzsche’s famous formula – that is, when we no longer live in a world bounded by a shared unitary conception of the world Christianity once afforded us – how are we to live, and to judge whether we have lived our lives successfully?”  (Hugo Drochon, in review of Raymond Geuss’s Who Needs a World View?, in TLS, June 18)

“Kate Solomon writes, at the start of this concise Life of Amy Winehouse, that by the time of her death ‘we were all simply waiting for the worst to happen’.”  (Declan Ryan, in review of Kate Solomon’s Amy Winehouse, in TLS, June 18)

“Nor am I American, which would be a different form of killer of the French mode of being. I am nothing. Not only stateless in terms of citizenship but rootless by blood, déraciné par excellence.: truly without a fatherland or a father, a man who doesn’t know who spawned him, and whose mother deserted and betrayed her kin, her people; a man who belongs neither here nor there, unbaptized, with no religion, suspiciously polyglot, devoid of any tie to tribe, to any flag  . . .  But of course in search of all those things.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 24)

“In any case, Uncle Ferdinand would continue, any further special function could probably no longer be bred. Every newborn baby has all the possibilities of human life available – some quite unexpected, even surprising, and some so amazingly pre-programmed that one is tempted to believe in transmigration (of a very desultory kind); however, any further shaping of these pre-programmed possibilities is left, Uncle Ferdinand would say, to environment and education  . . . and, naturally, generations of belonging to a given milieu would also develop certain traits, features, and if not characteristics then certain tendencies that would, overall, identify the individual as belonging to this milieu. But nothing more than that.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 159)

“You may not believe it, Mr Brodny, but that’s what it was like. Uncle Agop’s Venezuelan tango orchestra and nigger band as well as Dada and the Constructivist vision, bobbed hair and Expressionism as well as the conveyor-belt production of superfluous consumer goods and political street scuffles, transvestite nightclubs and the ‘simple life’ reform movement, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Fascism, Greta Garbo and Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Mistinguette and James Joyce, Mayakovski and various secret police (et quelle est la différence entre le Négus et Léon Blum? Aucune; tous les deux ont unbe barbe, sauf Léon Blum) – all the things that now make the years between WWI and WWII seem like a paradise lost we owe to the return of the prodigal daughter, America.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 166)

“I’m driving to Paris to pull a twenty-two-year-old American girl out of some dump she’s holed up in, because her beautiful eyes are still full of the terror of the wide-open wastes in the New World from which she comes, where an arrow can come whizzing out at any moment from behind the rock outcroppings, and Grandma wears an Indian scalp on her belt; where the pistols in thigh holsters are still as loose as in the days of Billy the Kid; where the ears of sleeping Negro children are devoured by slum rats in the huge stone wastes of the cities  . . . in short, images for people for whom the pretense of GOD is an absolute necessity for enduring the thought of the world; eyes, alas, that did not try to recognize HIS revelation through European culture, certainly not in the cancerous proliferation of the Old World, in the horrible teeming  of the motorized army ants, the chewing horlàs who chomp on their morsels, zealously insalivating them, washing them down with a swig of beer wine Coca-Cola apple juice milk booze mead lemonade club soda – swallowing, jerking -up of the Adam’s apple, parting of the lips, tongue-dragon rolling forward and flicking a few food -gruel remnants from the teeth, a slight burp – excuse me, it’s just my stomach – and then the next morsel is shoved in . . . and behind it lurks the big cat NATURE, ready to devour them all.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 355)

“Although the states that joined the EC with Britain held referendums prior to accession, and they and several others went on to hold votes on treaties, there is one clear difference around the seriousness with which consent is taken: no EU state recognises a unilateral right of secession of any part of its territory in a way that such a right is understood to apply to at least the non-English parts of the UK.” (Helen Thompson, professor of political economy at Cambridge, in Prospect, July)


“It’s impossible to know how you will feel at the time, but thinking ahead, if I was in my 80s or 90s with dementia in a care home, I would not mind a Covid death, and might even prefer it to watching Cash in the Attic.” (“MD”, in Private Eye, 25 June – 8 July)

“There sometimes is a misunderstanding of what causes gas prices to increase. The supply availability of oil has a huge impact.” (Jen Psaki, Joe Biden’s press secretary, reported in NYT, July 7)

“Given his priapic tendencies, few would have cracked PWE’s codename for Duff Cooper – ‘The Vicar’.” (Andrew Roberts, in Introduction to David Garnett’s Secret History of PWE)

“Our brains evolved to think of people as members of groups; to trust and care for people who are like us and to be suspicious of people who are unlike us.” (Charles Murray, in Spectator World, July)

“There are two essential qualities of a great translator: a strong understanding of the source language and a fluidity of writing in the target language, which is equally — and arguably even more — important for readers.” (Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala Publications, quoted in obituary of Thomas Cleary in NYT, July 12)

“If I had to nominate an ideal poet, a Platonic poet, a conservator and repository of poet DNA, a poet to take after and on and from, a forsake-all-others-save-only-X poet, it wouldn’t be Byron, though it would be close. It wouldn’t be MacNeice, though ditto. It wouldn’t be Mandelstam or Akhmatova or Cavafy or Apollinaire or Ovid or Brecht or Li Bai or Bishop or Baudelaire or Les Murray or T.E. Hulme. It would be Heine. Harry or Heinrich or Henri Heine, to taste. Oscar Wilde’s older Parisian cemetery-mate Heine (1797 (?)–1856).” (Michael Hoffman, in NYRB, July 22) 


“We humans have been inextricably linked with war from the outset and it is this intimate connection with conflict that makes us human.” (Malcolm Murfett, in review of Christopher Coker’s Why War? in Literary Review, July)

“The illustrated newsmagazines leap at me, they almost harass me; like a total stranger grabbing my arm in the street and sputtering his conflict-laden experience-broth at me – from his marital problems to his philosophical ideas, his professional, athletic, and erotic perils, possibilities, prospects, his difficulties in raising his children, his traffic delinquencies, his thoughts on urban planning the fight against cancer food for the world ideas on American Russian Chinese Persian Venezuelan domestic and foreign politics Fidel Castro Onassis Anita Ekberg Karl and Groucho Marx – not because he mistakes me for an old acquaintance with whom he has often discussed such issues and problems (or because he recognizes me as especially open and receptive to them) but simply because he has pulled me out by sheer chance from several tens of thousands and I could just as easily have been another passer-by coming his way – he merely assumes in sovereign schizoid autism that whatever regards concerns occupies excites exasperates him is bound to regard concern occupy excite exasperate someone else, ergo that I must instantly be passionately moved and captivated  – ” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, pp 453-454)

“An yet all of us, with our various current histories, are contained in the entirety of current events – all present, whether as oil sheikhs or big bankers, lunar-rocket passengers or record-breaking athletes, movie stars or duchesses, popular singes, politicians, or gangsters, poisoners, bomb-throwers, or other foul-players – or else as amateur gardeners, animal protectors, good Samaritans, quiet book readers, anchorites, blissful navel contemplators, marijuana smokers. Everything exists in the superreality. Thus it is not reality in motion, like history, but rather the unchanging state of Being in and of itself, of which sometimes this and sometimes that becomes visible.” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 456)

“Hamburg, as we know, is called the Gateway to the World, and during those winter days it was worthy of the name. Never before or since has it been the scene of such animate transience as in the first phases of the mass migrations (not yet arranged by travel agencies but triggered by the advancing Russians), when the natives of Brandenburg (pushed by the Upper and Lower Silesians, who passed through Lausitz and the Magdeburg plains into the Hanover region, and from there northwards to Schleswig-Holstein, only to be shoved towards Hesse by the Pomeranians and East Prussians, who were driving the Mecklenburgers before them) advanced into Bavarian territory in order to avoid the Thuringians, who had likewise started moving, while the Rhinelanders, who had been evacuated into the Warthegau, tried to trade positions with the Poles who had been hauled to the mines in the Ruhr; however the Rheinlanders were severely hindered by the Sudeten Germans, who had been thrown westward and whose flanks were being attacked by Transylvanian Saxons and Bukovinan Germans  . . .” (from Gregor von Rezzori’s The Death of My Brother Abel, p 593)

“Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.”

“The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” (Dr. Steven Weinberg, in The First Three Minutes, quoted in his NYT obituary, July 26)

“Another cites Rachel Cusk, and indeed this might be read as a less brainy take on Cusk’s thesis that it’s the outwardly kind and sensitive blokes you really have to watch as they’re just as bad as the coke-sniffers and the control-freaks of only pretending to understand, while still getting back late from work and having their mates round for pizza.” (from review of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, in Private Eye, July 23-August 5)

“Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the air, but when he takes another swig from his hipflask and guns the accelerator, your head gets thrown back so far that you just have to make yourself enjoy the ride – even if you’re not quite sure you’re going where you want to go.”  (Colin Burrow, in London Review of Books, July 15)

“Indeed, in Unwiederbringlich, it might well seem that the only thing that is plainly and whole-heartedly disgraceful is just the lack of a sense of humour which prevents self-awareness, an ironical view of oneself, although even here one or two of the minor characters, e.g. Schwarzkopf, pompous though he is, see, exceptions to such a rule.” (Douglas Parmée, in Introduction to his translation of Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable)

“  . . . Peter Dwyer had ‘acquired that characteristic which marks the true Oxford nan – a refusal to take oneself too seriously!’” (Alan Jarvis, quoted in Mark Kristmanson’s Plateaus of Freedom, p 101)

“And if humour is also a defence, against, among other things, the accusation that one is taking oneself too seriously, Amis may have relied on his identity as a comic writer to shield him from the larger consideration – both private and public – of his stature as an artist.” (Rachel Cusk, in Foreword to Kingsley Amis’s Dear Illusion – Collected Stories)

The Schleswig-Holstein Question: Who Introduced Cricket There?

“While Christine was having this conversation with Julie Dobschütz, Holk and his daughter walked down the hall and then parted a hundred yards further on beside the round patch of lawn where they used to play cricket when there were visitors.” (from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 7)

“After Holk had left Asta by the cricket pitch, he went to the nearest greenhouse in front of which his gardener was hard at work.” (from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 8)

“You know everything and yet not enough. I think that only husbands and wives themselves can ever know what a marriage really is and sometimes even they do not know. An outsider sees every moment of pique and hears every argument, for strangely enough married couples don’t generally hide all their disagreements and quarrels from others, ye, it sometimes seems almost as if others are meant to hear them, as if all the most violent things were intended especially for them. But that gives a false picture, because as long as some love still remains, marriage always has another side to it.” (Christine to Julie, from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 9)

“Loose living only harms morals but the pretence of being virtuous harms the whole man.” (Ebba to Holk, from Theodore Fontane’s Irretrievable, Chapter 22)