The great actor Sir Ian Holm died recently. He was wonderful in Chariots of Fire, of course and people tell me he was fine in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I haven’t seen. But the movie I most loved him in was The Emperor’s New Clothes, a movie that imagines Napoleon coming back to France from St. Helena, and not being recognized. The former Emperor, down on his luck, meets and falls in love with a fruit vendor, and decides to help her fix her failing business. This has to be my favourite scene in the film, a moment that captures the importance of leadership and planning. So charming!
[Note from me – I wrote this in the spring. Hence the title.]
Plague Spring Reading
Absent this Plague Spring from the “books about a pandemic you should read right now” lists is Gore Vidal’s 1978 novel, Kalki. And what an awesome, in the truest sense of that word, world where one can have a pandemic reading list. Kalki is probably absent because Vidal is no longer with us. Were he alive, his famous ego would not let us forget his darkly funny telling of mankind’s demise at the hands of an American soldier who claims to be Kalki, the final avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.
I read it for the first time in 1981, when – bullied at home and with a mum and dad in a dysfunctional on again/off again marriage — I was an unhappy teenage girl. I pulled it off my parents’ well-stocked bookshelves one day in July of that year and could barely put it down. Kalki was over my head, and many of the cultural and historical references were lost on me, but that had never stopped me before. My parents’ bookshelves were the best thing about our home, covering the walls of two large rooms and one hallway. By the time I began high school I had already pilfered the parental inappropriate fiction section several times and read – among others – Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. In both cases I soon wished I had not made those selections. With the latter it was not because I had not liked the book, but because the story frightened me. As for the former, you may be able to imagine why an adolescent girl who was looking forward to leaving home and falling in love, felt regret at Alexander Portnoy’s monologue. Over time, though, I became a convinced Roth fan.
Shute’s 1957 novel concerns the lives of a group of people in Australia waiting for the toxic radiation from a nuclear war to reach them. And kill them. I found it terrifying: we were two years into the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Cold War dominated headlines. My anxiety must have been visible, because one of my brothers asked me what was wrong. I told him, and he joked that since Canada was right next to the United States we would probably die right away. No waiting for us! His response, by my family’s standards a thoughtful, nuanced and compassionate one, made me laugh. But it was the fact that he noticed my mood in the first place and gave me a chance to unburden that helped.
Kalki was also a tale of impending doom, but it did not upset me, perhaps because I thought the fanciful tale could never happen – as opposed to, say, a nuclear war. I can pinpoint exactly when I finished it: the night before Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer got married. I remember staying up and reading to the end. There was no need for me to set my alarm in order to be awake for the wedding, or to welcome two friends who were coming over to join me that bright summer morning. We prepared scones and Earl Grey tea and together we watched Diana – scarcely older than we were — take her first step on a cursed and charmed path. I loved Diana. I still do. I cried when she died and felt protective of her memory when Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles.
And I loved Kalki. Something in the misanthropy that dripped from every line spoke to miserable, adolescent me. It is full of Vidal’s favourite things – sex (of various combinations), aviation, pathological anti-Americanism, loony conspiracy theories, history, politics, Hollywood, debauchery and decadence. The pandemic in the story is spread through zoonotic bacteria, and deliberately so. It is effective and fast, rapidly wiping out everyone on earth but for five (selected by and including Kalki) people. Two of them are meant to become the new Adam and Eve, but we know what happens to the best-laid plans, especially in literature. The story ends with more of a Planet of the Apes than fresh start for humanity feel.
Vidal adds a note at the story’s end, stating that the bacteria he selected for his novel would not really have killed everyone “as promptly as Kalki wished…I have forgone verisimilitude in the interest of good citizenship.”
That was kind of him. And he was kind in 2007, when I saw him in conversation at an arts festival in Toronto and managed to get my tattered copy of Kalki autographed. I had appropriated the book from the parental collection all those years ago and put my name in the front cover to seal the deal. Two pages over from my flowery, youthful scrawl is his shaky – he was 81 at the time – dedication. He signed it in Italian, a tribute to his second country but also because he knew I spoke the language.
Shortly after Easter this year, I read it for the first time in almost 40 years. I was reminded that the date on which the title character carries out his deadly plan is April 3rd. That also happened to be the date my brother – the one who “reassured” me about nuclear war – died of coronavirus, after nearly a month on a ventilator.
I did not like Kalki as much this time around, and not only because of the death in my family. One’s tastes change as one ages. I see many things differently now.
I have even grown fond of Camilla.
I really have to thank Carl Reiner for so much of my childhood laughter, and, come to think of it, my adulthood laughter! I think The Dick van Dyke Show is probably the greatest sitcom ever (perhaps tied with The Mary Tyler Moore Show) – I grew up watching it in reruns in the 1970s – and The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming one of the funniest movies. Here’s a clip from the latter – I love the Norwegian reference, of course. And the mouthy little kid is so funny.
I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the 1990s and I follow its social media pages. One of the stories featured on the museum’s pages is the story of Shannon Allison, this extraordinary teacher in a Navajo community. So touching.
I am a huge fan of Woody Allen – I think he is America’s finest filmmaker, rivalled only by Scorsese or Spielberg – and so I read his autobiography as soon as it was published. I was immensely relieved that it was published, as the forces of cowardice and stupidity (otherwise known as “cancel culture,” a term I am beginning to find tedious) nearly prevented that from happening.
Apropos of Nothing is a good read, and the chapters about his childhood and parents utterly charming. You can see where he got his attitude and humour. I absolutely love his approach to work – you just keep doing it and doing it and you not only ignore reviews (good and bad), you don’t even bother reading or listening to them. You do not let them get you down and you cannot stop being busy.
Of course, people want to read the book because of his private life. I always admired, in the past, how he simply didn’t rise to the criticism and similarly as with his work, just continued his relationship with Soon Yi. He seems to have found a love match there, with decades of marriage and two children. No one would deny that what he did caused immense pain and hurt to Mia Farrow, but it seems clear to me that she, in turn, used her anger about the breach of trust in a most unproductive way. Too bad – she has enormous gifts. I don’t believe that he molested his daughter – he was investigated by some heavy-hitters and neutral parties and no one saw any reason to prosecute.
Up until the publication of his book, he hadn’t addressed the charges and didn’t whine when various projects of his were boycotted/cancelled. He addresses the charges in the book, and I’m glad. The escalating invective against him from Farrow and some of her kids, as well as from some weasel-ish actors – who got great benefit from working with him and then disowned him — was creating too much noise.
One thing he points out is that Mia’s son Moses, a quiet, private young man, has defended him and painted a different portrait of the actress and her family. If you are interested in this saga, it is worth your time to read it. I find Moses infinitely believable. I grew up in a family that was cult-like (as he describes the Farrow clan) and I know that families like this don’t appreciate those who say, “Wow! This cult sucks!” That was my role in my family and I paid a steep personal price for it. When people have a lot invested in a lie, they don’t appreciate truth-tellers and they will punish them accordingly, often with shunning (it’s a bit like being Amish!).
In short, I find Allen delightful and it is worth noting that no actress has ever accused him of being a harasser – of demanding sexual favours in return for a good role, and so on. I also think his female characters are among the most fully-drawn of any filmmaker. It is clear he likes women, respects them and sees them as whole.
The one thing in the book I found amusing – in a sad way – was Allen’s mystification at how the left-wing press has abandoned him. In particular, he laments his treatment by The New York Times. Heck, I could have told him that would happen, but his reaction is one of disillusion, as though he expected them to be fair because they are left-of-centre. Ha! Ironically, one of the best reviews he got was in National Review. I also liked this Guardian interview – Woody Allen comes out fighting.
So I recommend his book and all his films- yes, all of ’em. It is the mark of a true talent that even his bad films are better than most people’s good ones (also true of Scorsese and Spielberg). I realize that your mileage may vary, dear reader, but please don’t cancel Woody Allen. We need him in this often sad world.
This is a remarkable piece of writing. I don’t know the writer’s work well, but I seem to recall he did some excellent reporting on Syria and Iraq. The focus on architecture and its meaning is refreshing — I, too, am a fan of Sir Roger Scruton — and I can only hope he (the writer) isn’t entirely prophetic.
Ada Calhoun has written a book called Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis. Despite the cringey title, I really liked the book and Calhoun is a terrific writer. It was recommended to me by someone who knows that I (often) can’t sleep. Of course, sleep is not Calhoun’s main focus. Her focus is GenX women and where we are at, as we navigate middle age. I’ll highlight a couple of points that I thought were observant and bittersweet.
First, Calhoun makes a reference to the “infinite tolerance” policy of the parents of GenXers when it came to bullying and the “conviction that kids should fight their own battles.” Oh yes! And what a lousy idea. This was true in the general sense, at schools and in recreational activities – kids were nasty and you got crushed and adults did nothing. For me, it was true on a local and personal level – I had a brother (still have him but thankfully, have nothing to do with him) who made my life a living hell when I was a child and teen. He was twelve years older than me, and an adult when the real cruelty began (though I remember him beating me and tormenting me when I was, like, three and he was 15). Did my parents help? Don’t be silly. They helped him by joining in or by looking away. And my siblings (all older and many of them also adults) pretty much did the same.
A very peculiar approach to raising one’s children, yes? There must be a happy medium between fixing all your kids’ woes and simply neglecting them. (Note about said brother – he continued to try to bully me well into my adulthood, but thanks to the glories of the “block option” on email and on social media, he gave up and – so I’ve been told – found other prey.)
Second point I loved: Calhoun writes about a woman whose mother went from preaching Gloria Steinem’s famous “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” to behaving like Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Hilariously funny and totally my mum’s trajectory, as well, bless her. I even wrote a poem about her Mrs. Bennet phase.
I thank Calhoun for the book – I felt less alone and less nutty after reading it.
Readers, I’m in awe of this young guy. I am torn between just wanting to read everything he has written but also being madly jealous that a 24-year-old is this smart. Sheesh! When I was 24 I was still learning the alphabet. Here he is in conversation about current affairs, but you can find other clips and also, check out the link above for City Journal contributions. A special thanks to my clever nephew for introducing me to him.