Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich

When I picked this up in the sale bin of East Ave books in Adelaide for $1 I was hoping to get insight into the surreal nightmare of the US’s current state. A better dollar I will never spend. It was published early 1990s, which was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want a hindsight constructed narrative. Trump is no more than a casually mentioned billionaire of a type towards the end of Ehrenreich’s account of the middle class and its relationship to the other classes in the US during the course of the twentieth century. She explains the rise of the new Right in the US as well as the new Left. The book is highly readable whilst being dense; it’s both deeply and widely researched. I will be reading all her books. I think everybody should read this one.

The story she tells in this one is painful. She shows the rise of the middle-class, how they made themselves a financial and politically important group based on professionalising what they did and excluding others. She talks of its permanent insecurity as a consequence. Even though I’ve always known about it, her analysis of the exploitation of the educated youth and their university-student-led rebellion of the sixties and seventies when university students were actually mowed down by troops in the US was particularly illuminating and excruciatingly sad; staff in universities trying to protect their status from the questioning of the kids who were expected to work at derisory rates in their young professional years. Staff more or less on the side of the troops. None of this has changed, one might add. She documents the discovery by the middle class, to its great astonishment, that there were poor people in the US and she examines the way in which the middle class then set about categorising them and determining how to relate to them. She shows the fabulously patronising attitudes to those below them and the trouble it has ultimately caused.

I am really baffled and scared and disappointed by the way small ‘l’ liberals around the world (whom I tend to refer to as ‘nice white people’) treat certain groups as nothing but scum and even when that scum attempts to have a voice we as a whole have treated it with nothing but the utmost disdain. You’d think, for example, that Brexit might have had the impact in the US election of making the Democrats wary of going the same way and yet, there we had Clinton and her party not even ‘just’ treating the supporters of Trump as morons but calling them that in public as official policy, one might say.

I can see, however, from this history of the middle class in the US and its relations with others that it is perhaps inevitable that this is how things are, the liberals treating poor working class people as scum at worst, as people to be patronised at best, and being hated for it. (There is a presumption that these people are white in the US, a presumption which is obviously at odds with the facts, but so much of how the middle class sees the world about it is not in accord with reality.) Ehrenreich for example discusses the impact of TV, which made middle class Americans thinks that all white people had what they had, there wasn’t anything else on TV, whilst at the same time making white working class people both aspirational and angry that there was no representation of how things really were. Fascinating to read.

And there is the question of where exactly all this started, the ruthless ruination of the working class by the middle class which is still being played out, though the middle class is discovering its own capacity to be ruined by the same thing, really. Technology. To quote at length a key passage:

The profession of management was born on the front lines of the early twentieth century battle between labour and capital, and its story illustrates the tensions between the working class and the emerging middle class. Since the story has been so well told elsewhere, I will be recklessly brief: until the early twentieth century there was no profession of management – or for that matter of engineering. The reason, as the virtual inventor of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, later observed ruefully, was that ‘the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.’ Manual and mental labour had not yet been sorted into distinct occupations; skilled craftsmen dominated both the technology and the organisation of the work process. This left the employer in the vexed situation of being unable to comprehend or control the labour he paid for. Only the workers could judge, for example, how long a given job should take, and hence how much they should be paid.

Taylor’s contribution was to show how the intellectual command of the production process could be stripped from the workers and concentrated in a more reliable cadre of middle class managers and engineers. Through a careful analysis of the production process, the complex and intellectually demanding work of the craftsmen could be broken down into simple repetitive motions to be divided among less skilled workers. Henceforth, no mere worker would be able to comprehend or control the entire process; each would be reduced to a few repetitive motions such as turns of a wrench. Meanwhile the manager or engineer, armed with a stopwatch, now oversaw the work process, determining who would do what and, crucially, how fast it should be done.

Henry Ford’s assembly line sealed the new division of labour into the hard steel of heavy machinery. America’s working class began to be transformed into an army of wrench turners, required neither to think nor to create – in fact, usually required, not to think or create. The creative functions (such as designing new products were removed from the shop floor to the engineer’s work station; the day to day decision making was lifted into the clean and quiet offices of management. This ‘rationalisation’ of production did not succeed in taming the working class, which rose up with a new burst of militance in the 1930s. But it did greatly enhance the day to day power of employers over their blue collar hirelings, while – not incidentally – providing employment for growing numbers of educated white collar men.

Outside of the industrial workplace, other professions consolidated themselves by offering to ‘mediate’ class conflict or by usurping skills that had belonged to the working class. Social workers and teachers provided invaluable services to the urban poor, but in an ideological context that stressed ‘Americanisation’ (patriotism as opposed to class or ethnic identity) and middle class gentility – or as they insisted on calling it, ‘right living’. Medicine achieved its professional monopoly in part through a campaign to discredit and outlaw indigenous healers, especially midwives, who had played a key role in every ethnic working class community. (This was dubious ‘reform’, since as late as 1910 mid-wives were achieving lower rates of still births and maternal mortality than the profession physicians who sort to eliminate them.) Public health officials introduced the sanitary measures that eventually curbed epidemics of infectious diseases, but they also incurred lower class resentment by their heavy handed policing of immigrant ghettoes.

As it happens I am reading Gaita’s wonderful After Romulus at the moment and this passage in Fear of Falling brought into mind nothing so much as this, by Gaita. It is in the context of talking about goodness in the world and the hours Hora would spend telling stories of good people.

Simone Weil, when she was a radical activist working at the Renault factory in France before the war, said that only the very greatest literature was good enough for those who suffered the afflication of soul-destroying work. She read her translations of Greek tragedies to large groups of workers. When I hear talk of elitism in discussions about literature and art more generally, I remember that, and I remember my father and Hora in the kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of slivovitz. After Romulus pp. 23/4

Nice white people: it may be that we are moving into a period where in the same way we have destroyed the lives of poorer people in our society, people who would do physical work if we were prepared to pay them to do it, we too will largely be destroyed by technology. It could be that we will be part of a world we ourselves have not only permitted, but positively nurtured, of a handful of multi-billionaires who own everything, who live in gated ghettoes with the secrets of medicine and DNA and pure water whilst the rest of us live Orxy and Crake style, or even worse, most of us won’t live at all. We won’t even be needed, after all, as beasts of burden.

But hoping for the best that this isn’t going to happen or that people still have the power to stop it in its tracks, we have to find ways to live with our neighbours. Our actual physical neighbours, the poor people we have created out of our own greed and aspirations. It isn’t enough to buy freetrade coffee whilst treating one’s neighbours as scum because they are white and poor. There are reasons people are both these things, and we can look at ourselves for the explanations.

This is the note that Fear of Falling ends on, exhorting the middle class to do the things it needs to do to stop the fall. Going on for 30 years later, one can see that she has been paid no heed. I find Gaita inspirational, his belief in goodness. However, I do sometimes wonder, when I watch nice white people’s relationship to other white people, if it is symptomatic of needing to detest and look down on somebody and who, after all is left? One may no longer be racist or sexist. That pretty much leaves other white people. Ones that aren’t like us.

I hope that isn’t true.

Peter Pan’s First XI by Kevin Tefler

I’m not sure who this book is for. Little of it will keep the cricket buffs happy. It doesn’t, in my opinion, give enough insights into JM Barrie to warrant a substantial book. I guess it gives a snapshot view of an upper English class whiling away their lives – wasting them perhaps? It’s a little picture of the silliness of that particular class at a particular time.

In other words, I like the idea of the book more than its execution, which I don’t think is the fault of the author, there simply isn’t enough there to hold one’s attention for the required period.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

When I was seven my father disowned his family. It was, he explained at the time, because he did not want us to be raised in the culture of violence and ignorance that made his family what it was. Although from the stories I heard from him, I had some picture in my mind of what that meant, it was really only upon reading this series that I have a clear sense of what we escaped. In fact, my father’s family is Calabrian from the area where John Paul Getty III was held after being kidnapped. Far more violent than the pussy Neapolitans.

So, on a personal level what I got from this was an inkling of what my life might have been like, had my father not made that decision. The culture is violent, the people, all relationships on all levels. The language is not violent, it is violence. That is the purpose of dialect, to express violence and threats and anger and powerlessness and vitriol and abuse.  It is a weapon. Having read these books and lived through the sometimes terrifying behaviour of my father I wonder whether it is learned or genetic. I do so hope it isn’t something I can’t undo in me.

I felt part Elena so often I stopped counting. Not just because my father, despite his best intentions, could not save us entirely from this life because he could not save us from himself, but for so many decisions she made as a child, growing up, and then as an adult. It’s an excruciatingly painful business, watching a person in a book do incredibly idiotic things as she does in her personal relationships all the time, knowing that one has done them all with no better capacity to explain than this series does.  How could she have got involved with Nino, even as a teenager, let alone as an adult. The only thing that makes me realise that it is permissible within the constraints of the book is that I’ve done the same stupid, stupid things.

I was unable to put down the first volume until I’d finished it. The most fantastic end to a book I’ve ever read by the way, and endings are impossibly hard to do. Two weeks in Melbourne, back to Adelaide and I discover that there is one shop where I can buy them. Imprints Booksellers, thank you! I bought the other three volumes and read them back to back over the course of a week. Does one need a review after that statement? A friend in Melbourne who is an Italian literature academic started reading the first and called up uni to say she wouldn’t be in that week. Unputdownable does not in the slightest exaggerate the effect of these.

Peter at East Avenue Books put me onto this series. It’s a secondhand bookshop in Clarence Park specialising in literature – if you live in Adelaide you must go there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chinese Bed Mysteries by AE Martin

I hope to put together a more detailed picture of AE Martin at a later date. I became curious about him because we sold an extremely rare set of The Gadfly, a short-lived Adelaide magazine put out by CJ Dennis between 1906 and 1909. Martin was the assistant editor and that was in his early twenties. Others involved included Alice Grant Rosman.

He went on to have a fascinating life in the circus, becoming a promoter who brought shows to Australia. Consequently we can have faith in his picture of the carnival freak characters he portrays in this whodunnit. It was his world.

After WWII he reinvented himself and became a writer of popular regard after winning a substantial prize offered by the Australian Women’s Weekly.

More on him anon.

As far as this one goes, it is very much set in its period, dated in every way one could imagine. That didn’t bother me at all, it was alternately charming and sociologically illuminating, but some people will hate it. 2.5 stars?

Apparently it was published first as The Bridal Bed Mysteries.

Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.

The Second Tree from the Corner by EB White

I had no idea that this writer of charming children’s books wrote prolifically for adults too. He was a newspaper man and one of the things that stands out in this collection is his discussion of the way in which newspapers have to fill their pages and the consequent lowering of the standards of what is written. Like now, except that newspapers were not a bottomless internet pit. His credentials to be this critic? Well, he was the rewriter of The Elements of Style, which might be the most famous of its genre.

He writes of war, of sport, of the nuclear threat, of robots, of cheating at chess. He writes of many things in ways that speak now. Amazing!

He is humorous like this, from a section called ‘Answers to Hard Questions’ where he harvests questions to newspapers searching for advice and gives his own take.

L.D. writes: Is there any likelihood that the temporary physical condition a man is in would have an effect on his offspring? In other words, should a man hesitate about becoming a father during the time he is suffering from hay fever? – Health column in the Chicago Tribune.

This is a question many a man has had to face, alone with his God. Sensitivity to pollen, the male element of flowers, is at once an exalted and a pitiable condition and inevitably suggests to a prospective progenitor the disquieting potentialities inherent in all propagation. Like father like son is the familiar saying: big sneeze, little sneeze. There is little doubt that allergy to hay, so deep-seated, so shattering, is inheritable; and it is just as certain that a sensitive man, during the season of his great distress, is as eager for life and love as in the periods when his mucosae are relaxed. We cannot conscientiously advise any man to abstain from fatherhood on a seasonal, or foliage, basis. The time  not to become a father is eighteen years before a world war.

There it is, that fabulous juxtaposition where he kicks you in the gut, no warning, just kapow. Fantastic. Brilliant line. Brilliant timing. I’ve read it two dozen times now and it still makes my insides curl up.

This is what you got when  you read The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly between 1935 and 1955, the time span of the chosen pieces.

Mrs Wienckus

The Newark police arrested a very interesting woman the other day – a Mrs Sophie Wienckus – and she is now on probation after being arraigned as disorderly. Mrs Wienckus interests us because her ‘disorderliness’ was simply her capacity to live a far more self-contained life that most of us can manage. The police complained that she was asleep in two empty cartons in a hallway. This was her preferred method of bedding down. All the clothes she possessed she had on – several layers of coats and sweaters. On her person were bankbooks showing that she was ahead of the game to the amount of $19,799.09. She was a working woman – a domestic – and, on the evidence, a thrifty one. Her fault, the Court held, was that she lacked a habitation.

‘Why didn’t you rent a room?’ asked the magistrate. But he should have added parenthetically ‘(and the coat hangers in the closet and the cord that pulls the light and the dish that holds the soap and the mirror that conceals the cabinet where lives the aspirin that kills the pain).’ Why didn’t you rent a room ‘(with the rug that collects the dirt and the vacuum that sucks the dirt and the man that fixes the vacuum and the fringe that adorns the shade that dims the lamp and the desk that holds the bill for the installment on the television set that tells of the wars)?’ We feel that the magistrate oversimplified his question.

Mrs Wienckus may be disorderly, but one pauses to wonder where the essential disorder really lies. All of us are instructed to seek hallways these days (except school children, who crawl under desks), [The US expectation of nuclear attack against them colours much of White’s writing in this sort of way] and it was in a hallway that they found Mrs Wienckus, all compact. We read recently that the only hope of avoiding inflation is through ever increasing production of goods. This to us always a terrifying conception of the social order – a theory of the good life through accumulation of objects. We lean toward the order of Mrs Wienckus, who has eliminated everything except what she can conveniently carry, whose financial position is solid, and who can smile at Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. We salute a woman whose affairs are in such excellent order in a world untidy beyond all believe.

If, like me, you don’t know the reference to Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, pancocojams discusses it here. It’s a song about paying rent.

I challenge the reader not to be moved by this, surely every bit as pertinent now as when it was written.

The Dream of the American Male

Dorothy Lamour is the girl above all others desired by the men in Army camps. This fact was turned up by Life in a routine study of the unlimited national emergency. It is a fact which illuminates the war, the national dream, and our common unfulfillment. If you know what a soldier wants, you know what Man wants, for a soldier is young, sexually vigorous, and is caught in a line of work which leads towards a distant and tragic conclusion. He personifies Man. His dream of a woman can be said to be Everyman’s dream of a woman. In desiring Lamour, obviously his longing is for a female creature encountered under primitive conditions and in a setting of great natural beauty and mystery. He does not want this woman to make any sudden or nervous movement. She should be in a glade, a swale, a grove, or a pool below a waterfall. This is the setting in which every American youth first encountered Miss Lamour. They were in a forest; she had walked slowly out of the pool and stood dripping in the ferns.

The dream of the American male is for a female who has an essential languor which is not laziness, who is unaccompanied except by himself, and who does not let him down. He desires a beautiful, but comprehensible, creature who does not destroy a perfect situation by forming a complete sentence. She is compounded of moonlight and shadows, and has a slightly husky voice, which she uses only in song or in an attempt to pick up a word or two that he teachers her. Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a fern, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place. For millions of years men everywhere have longed for Dorothy Lamour. Now in the final complexity of an age which has reached its highest expression in the instrument panel of a long-range bomber, it is a good idea to remember that Man’s most persistent dream is of a forest pool and a girl coming out of it unashamed, walking toward him with a wary motion, childlike in her wonder, a girl exquisitely untroubled, as quiet and accommodating and beautiful as a young green tree. That’s all he really wants. He sometimes wonders how this other stuff got in – the instrument panel, the night sky, the full load, the moment of exultation over the blackened city below….

Fantastic. He’s a genius hidden away in the ephemeral nature of the daily (or weekly, or monthly) press.

This book came my way because a stranger died. She left behind a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s observation of the world as reported by the novelist, the poet, the children’s writer, the essayist. A history you can see and touch – I simply cannot understand how a USB stick can possibly have the meaning of a room of books. This is one of those I kept and I regard it as a complete treasure, falling apart paperback with cheap yellowing paper. A couple of the pieces in it puzzle me as to their presence. But mostly, oh wow. Sheer bliss.

What about this one?

Censorship

We are delighted with the recent censorship ruling in the matter of motion-picture harems. Some scenes in a Paramount picture now in production are set in a harem, and after careful deliberation the censors have decided to allow this type of polyform allure provided the boudoir does not contain the sultan. The girls can mill about among the pillows, back and side having gone bare, but no male eye must gaze upon them – save, of course, yours, lucky reader. This harem-but-no-sultan decision belongs in the truly great body of opinion interpreting the celebrated 1939 ruling on the exposure of female breasts in the Flushing World of Tomorrow, which provided that one breast could be presented publicly but not two, and thereby satisfied the two seemingly irreconcilable groups: the art-lovers, who demanded breasts but were willing to admit that if you’d seen one you’d seen them both, and the decency clique, who held out for concealment but were agreed that the fact of concealing one breast established the essential reticence of the owner and thereby covered the whole situation, or chest. That subtle and far-reaching ruling carried the Fair, as we know, safely through two difficult seasons, and we imagine that the aseptic harem will do as much for Hollywood.

and on the poet:

You read, perhaps, about the man who stole four tyres from a car in Norfolk, Virginia, and left a purse and a diamond ring untouched on the front seat, with this note: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, we like your jewels but your tyres are new.’ the papers said it was a case of a thief who had a flair for poetry. This is palpable nonsense. It was a case of a poet who was willing to attempt desperate thing, even larceny, in order to place his poem. Clearly, there was a man who had written something and then had gone up and down in the world seeking the precise situation which would activate his poem. It must have meant long nights and days of wandering before he found a car with jewels lying loose in the front seat and four good tyres on the wheels. Poets endure much for the sake of their art.

The Hour of Letdown is a sci-fi chess story.

THE HOUR OF LETDOWN

When the man came in, carrying the machine, most of us looked up from our drinks, because we had never seen anything like it before. The man set the thing down on top of the bar near the beerpulls. It took up an ungodly amount of room and you could see the bartender didn’t like it any too well, having this big, ugly-looking gadget parked right there.
“Two rye-and-water,” the man said.
The bartender went on puddling an Old-Fashioned that he was working on, but he was obviously turning over the request in his mind.
“You want a double?” he asked, after a bit.
“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please … .” He stared straight at the bartender, not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.
Many years of catering to the kind of people that come into saloons had provided the bartender with an adjustable mind. Nevertheless, he did not adjust readily to this fellow, and he did not like the machine — that was sure. He picked up a live cigarette that was idling on the edge of the cash register, took a drag out of it, and returned it thoughtfully. Then he poured two shots of rye whiskey, drew two glasses of water, and shoved the drinks in front of the man. People were watching. When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.
The man gave no sign of being the center of attention. He laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar. Then he drank one of the ryes and chased it with water. He picked up the other rye, opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in. 72
The bartender watched grimly. “Not funny,” he said in an even voice. And furthermore, your companion takes up too much room.” Why’n you put it over on that bench by the door, make more room here.”
“There’s plenty of room for everyone here,” replied the man.
‘Tain’t amused,” said the bartender. “Put the goddam thing over near the door like I say. Nobody will touch it.”
The man smiled. “You should have seen it this afternoon,” he said. “It was magnificent. Today was the third day of the tournament. Imagine it — three days of continuous brainwork! And against the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly, ending with the opponent’s king backed in a corner. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over. You know how much money it won, all told, in three days of playing chess?”
“How much?” asked the bartender.
“Five thousand dollars,” said the man. “Now it wants to let down, wants to get a little drunk.”
The bartender ran his towel vaguely over some wet spots. “Take it somewheres else and get it drunk there!” he said firmly. “I got enough troubles.”
The man shook his head and smiled. “No, we like it here.” He pointed at the empty glasses. “Do this again, will you, please?”
The bartender slowly shook his head. He seemed dazed but dogged. “You stow the thing away,” he ordered. “I’m not ladling out whiskey for jokestersmiths.”
” Jokesmiths,” said the machine. “The word is “jokesmiths.”
A few feet down the bar, a customer who was on his third highball seemed ready to participate in this conversation to which we had all been listening so attentively. He was a middle-aged man. His necktie was pulled down away from his collar, and he had eased the collar by unbuttoning it. He had pretty nearly finished his third drink, and the alcohol tended to make him throw his support in with the underprivileged and the thirsty.
“If the machine wants another drink, give it another drink,” he said to the bartender. “Let’s not have haggling.”
The fellow with the machine turned to his new-found friend and gravely raised his hand to his temple, giving him a salute of gratitude and fellowship. He addressed his next remark to him, as though deliberately snubbing the bartender.
“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally, how you want a drink?”
“Certainly do,” replied the friend. “Most natural thing in the world.”
There was a stir all along the bar, some seeming to side with the bartender, others with the machine group. A tall, gloomy man standing next to me spoke up.
“Another whiskey sour. Bill,” he said. “And go easy on the lemon juice.”
“Picric acid,” said the machine, sullenly. “They don’t use lemon juice in these places.”
“That does it!” said the bartender, smacking his hand on the bar. “Will you put that thing away or else beat it out of here. I ain’t in the mood, I tell you. I got this saloon to run and I don’t want lip from a mechanical brain or “whatever the hell you’ve got there.”
The man ignored this ultimatum. He addressed his friend, whose glass was now empty.
“It’s not just that it’s all tuckered out after three days of chess,” he said amiably. “You know another reason it wants a drink?”
“No,” said the friend. “Why?”
“It cheated,” said the man.
At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.
The friend frowned. He looked as though his dignity had been hurt, as though his trust had been misplaced. “Nobody can cheat at chess,” he said. “Simpossible. In chess, everything is open and above the board. The nature of the game of chess is such that cheating is impossible.”
“That’s what I used to think, too,” said the man. “But there is a way.”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me any,” put in the bartender. “The first time I laid my eyes on that crummy thing I spotted it for a crook.” 74
“Two rye-and-water,” said the man.
“You can’t have the whiskey,” said the bartender. He glared at the mechanical brain. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?”
“That’s simple. Ask it something,” said the man.
The customers shifted and stared into the mirror. We were all in this thing now, up to our necks. We waited. It was the bartender’s move.
“Ask it what? Such as?” said the bartender.
“Makes no difference. Pick a couple big figures, ask it to multiply them together. You couldn’t multiply big figures together if you were drunk, could you?”
The machine shook slightly, as though making internal preparations.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine,” said the bartender, viciously. We could tell that he was throwing in the two nines to make it hard.
The machine flickered. One of its tubes spat, and a hand changed position, jerkily.
“One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty-eight,” said the machine.
Not a glass was raised all along the bar. People just stared gloomily into the mirror; some of us studied our own faces, others took carom shots at the man and the machine.
Finally, a youngish, mathematically minded customer got out a piece of paper and a pencil and went into retirement. “It works out,” he reported, after some minutes of calculating. “You can’t say the machine is drunk! ”
Everyone now glared at the bartender. Reluctantly he poured two shots of rye, drew two glasses of water. The man drank his drink. Then he fed the machine its drink. The machine’s light grew fainter. One of its cranky little arms wilted.
For a while the saloon simmered along like a ship at sea in calm weather. Every one of us seemed to be trying to digest the situation, with the help of liquor. Quite a few glasses were refilled. Most of us sought help in the mirror — the court of last appeal.
The fellow with the unbuttoned collar settled his score. He walked stiffly over and stood between the man and the machine.
He put one arm around the man, the other arm around the machine. “Let’s get out of here and go to a good place,”he said.
The machine glowed slightly. It seemed to be a little drunk now.
“All right,” said the man. “That suits me fine. I’ve got my car outside.”
He settled for the drinks and put down a tip. Quietly and a trifle uncertainly he tucked the machine under his arm, and he and his companion of the night walked to the door and out into the street.
The bartender stared fixedly, then resumed his light housekeeping. “So he’s got his car outside,” he said, with heavy sarcasm. “Now isn’t that nice!”
A customer at the end of the bar near the door left his drink, stepped to the window, parted the curtains, and looked out. He watched for a moment, then returned to his place and addressed the bartender. “It’s even nicer than you think,” he said. “It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?” Text taken from here.

As for The Morning of the Day They Did It, I see online one comment by  Bill Christensen: “Absolutely first-rate story by White makes me think I completely misunderstood Stuart Little. A man who works on a Stratovideo plane in the nascent television industry writes the story of the end of the world. This story is so up-to-date you’ll whimper with fear by the end. Highly recommended.’ Unfortunately I can’t find the text accessible online and it’s too long to type out, but I see that it is in at least one sci-fi anthology, it is absolutely deservedly mentioned in many contexts, as you’ll see if you google it. To quote White himself, who was beset by requests to reprint it and declined them all ‘Got  my reasons. One reason is that I’m not sure it’s a public service to describe the end of the world, even in a spirit of satire. People are jumpy, right now, and I see no reason to explode paper bags.’

The man’s so damn quotable. These, from a Paris Review interview of the late sixties:

Feuds did not threaten The New Yorker. The only feud I recall was the running battle between the editorial department and the advertising department. This was largely a one-sided affair, with the editorial department lobbing an occasional grenade into the enemy’s lines just on general principles, to help them remember to stay out of sight. Ross was determined not to allow his magazine to be swayed, in the slightest degree, by the boys in advertising. As far as I know, he succeeded.

and

Magazines that refuse unsolicited manuscripts strike me as lazy, incurious, self-assured, and self-important.

and

I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

and

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

and

If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.

and, asked about permissiveness (as it used to be called) in writing:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

and, of his future:

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis

What stayed with me, long after I had read A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit  by Alan Lightman, was the tone of regret, that powerful, haunting emotion. He writes of his own regrets in discovering in his thirties that his chosen life was over. He was a physicist, he no longer had any expectation of doing anything that mattered.

When I directed an astrophysics conference one summer and realised that most of the exciting research was being reported by ambitious young people in their midtwenties, waving their calculations and ideas in the air and scarcely slowing down to acknowledge their predecessors, I would have instantly traded my position for theirs….None of my fragile childhood dreams, my parents’ ambitious encouragement, my education at all the best schools, prepared me for this early seniority, this stiffening at age thirty-five.

and of maths:

About four o’clock, I went down to tea. Every afternoon, the mathematicians in Fine gather on the second floor for tea. At the back of the room loomed a large photograph, a conference of great mathematicians from the 1940s. They were lined up in rows, staring off into space.

One might think that, living in their beautiful worlds of sublime isolation and perfection, mathematicians would be the happiest of all people. However, many don’t seem at peace with their chosen profession. Mathematicians are ruthlessly self-critical. In most professions, it is possible to tell yourself and others that your accomplishments are significant, whether they are or are not. Not so in mathematics. In the community of mathematicians, there is a disturbing consensus on what is important, and the standards are painfully high. ‘Mathematicians are more aware of the failures than any other professionals,’ says Professor Gian-Carlo Rota of MIT. Of his own work, Rota says that only one or two moments have brought him any pleasure. Looking back on his long career, Hermann Weyl…told a colleague that he considered his life a failure. Near the tearoom of Fine, I ran into Simon Kochen, the past chairman of the Princeton mathematics department. Kochen, a trim and articulate man, leaned in a doorway and said that ‘the moments of joy in mathematics are few and far between. Most of maths is pure frustration. Results, when you finally get them, are obvious.’ (Isn’t that the goal of a good proof, anyway, to reduce the proposition to a near tautology?) Many mathematicians keep most of their calculations permanently in file drawers, having decided that their results are not worth publishing.

Apostolos Doxiadis takes this strange world and creates a story soundly based in fact, but a most splendid piece of fiction nonetheless. It’s a thriller and a tragedy and frankly I rather think that I held it up in front of my eyes while shovelling food down my gullet from time to time. That unputdownable.

The author is absolutely qualified for the task, having been a mathematical prodigy but whose first love was writing. He not only translated it from the original Greek, but significantly rewrote it in the process. So, I think even the most sniffy individuals on the subject of translation could let their guard down for this one.

I’m surprised more of my GR friends haven’t read it. An unhesitating five stars.