Monday, January 08, 2007

We Are the Future!

It sounds so cultivated, so refined: Pages from the Goncourt Journals. I especially like the use of the word “pages.” “Selections” would be too prosaic. “Extracts” too mechanical (as if each entry was a rotten tooth needing to be removed). But “pages” strikes just the right note – as if the reader was so sensitive that she wouldn’t want to read it too fast, not more than a few pages at a time or the experience will be spoiled. “Quiet, children, please – I’m trying to savor pages from the Goncourt Journals!”

So who were the Goncourts? They were Edmond and Jules (born in 1822 and 1830, respectively), two French brothers who pursued a literary career in the 19th century. Together they wrote novels, plays and journalism. In 1851 they began keeping a journal. After Jules death nineteen years later, Edmond decided to continue writing it alone which he did until his own death in 1896. They knew just about everyone worth knowing in French literary circles during this time and they recorded every nasty bit of gossip, slander and insult that they could.

Refined, these journals are not.

The entry for April 14, 1875 is a dramatic, though not atypical, example:

Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.

We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea…

Spanning over forty years, these journals provide an unvarnished look at life in late 19th century France – the dinners, the receptions, the theatres, the salons, the court, the political coups, the barricades, and, of course, the brothels, always the brothels. The brothers held little back and their candid if brutal assessments of their contemporaries are one of the chief pleasures of this dish fest. Ah, and what a list of contemporaries is served up to us: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola (“what a whiner that fat, pot-bellied young fellow is”) Turgenev, Napoleon III, Anatole France, Oscar Wilde (“this individual of doubtful sex”) as well as other lesser known figures such as Sainte-Beuve and Theophile Gautier who at one point admits that he prefers his whores to be pre-menstrual so that he never has to worry about unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, no American authors appear in these pages. It would have been interesting to get the brothers opinion of Henry James (And, oh, what he could have contributed to a discussion of writers with constipation!).

This was a sordid little beau monde, a world in which the French Empress could complain about being socially upstaged in public by prominent courtesans. Not that those at the top were any better. Take, for instance, the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s brother and President of the Legislative Body. After his death in 1865 the Goncourts note:

The dead man’s friends were extremely worried over the disappearance of a little casket which Morny always kept on his bedside table, a casket containing portraits of all his conquests in all strata of society, photographed naked – usually with flowers decorating their privy parts. They are afraid that his personal valet has stolen it with the intention of blackmailing the ladies involved.

Not surprisingly, syphilis is, in effect, a major character in the journals. It was, after all, the little corkscrews (left) which killed Jules and the pages in which Edmond records his brother’s final dementia and death are stark and powerful. They will move you to tears.

Despite the gossip and dirt there’s no denying that the Goncourts are simply great writers. Edmond certainly knew these journals were masterpieces and in 1886 he began publishing an expurgated version of them. (A full unexpurgated version wouldn’t appear in France until 1958.) Whether describing Paris during the Commune or recreating heated literary arguments or just recording the events and thoughts for the day they write with an immediacy which is gripping. They took a seemingly ephemeral literary form (the journal) and turned it into an art. I’m almost tempted to call them “the first bloggers” except that honor would probably have to go to their predecessors in turning the mundane into the sublime – namely, Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire, both of whom turned the letter into great literature.

Once during a literary argument in a restaurant Edmond shouted out at the other guests: “We are the future!”

One can only hope.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Costa Del Bill

I admit it – I’m a big fan of Fox News Channel. Honestly, I am. If I get a chance to watch TV news I’ll almost always tune them in. And I’m not alone – they have the highest rated news shows on cable TV. And why are they so successful? Simple – they’re entertaining. They’re fun to watch. Like a circus. Or a freak show.

Now, the trick to watching Fox News is to not take it too seriously. After all, if you want real news read The New York Times. But if you want a good laugh Fox News Channel is probably the most entertaining network on TV, aside from Comedy Central. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that the best shows on the two networks (The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes on Fox; The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central) have developed a strange symbiosis – echoing and mocking each other.

I admit that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity can be annoying to watch but whenever they start to irritate me I play this sort of game with them. When they start to fulminate about immigration or Hillary Clinton or the French or whatever the outrage du jour is, I begin to picture them not as sitting behind the desk in some fancy, state-of-the-art TV studio but rather sitting on the beat-up old sofa in the basement of their Mom’s house (where they live). Instead of a nice suit, a baseball cap (Mets, probably) and a ratty T-shirt (with maybe a mustard stain on it) and crappy Bermuda shorts and so on. You get the picture. And what’s amazing about this "transformation" is that it really fits these guys. It’s a match. You can try this game on other TV news broadcasters, too, but it doesn’t always work. For instance, if you do it to Jim Lehrer of The Newshour with Jim Lehrer it’s just not believable. You start to think “Wow, he’s so smart. Why is he still living in his Mom’s basement?” And don’t even think of trying it on people like George Will or Bill Kristol or Fareed Zakaria.

Personally I find O’Reilly far more entertaining that Hannity. The latter is little more than a partisan hack dutifully reciting RNC talking points, but O’Reilly is a genuine showman – even his divaesque behavior is engaging. To put it in terms of offensive ethnic stereotypes: O’Reilly is the classic Irishman with the gift of gab, whereas Hannity is the classic Irishman happy carrying water for The Big House.

Now the best part of O’Reilly’s show is the end, which always follows a certain pattern. First, he reads the mail and comments on it. Then he plugs the latest O’Reilly-themed crap you can buy on his website. Finally, he looks into the camera, smiles, and addresses the viewer directly, “Thank you for watching The Factor and, remember, the spin stops here...(big smile)….because we’re looking out for you.” Looking out for me? That is so creepy. I don’t want you looking out for me. I’ll look out for myself, thank you very much. He really should drop that last line. It blows his whole normal-guy-from-Long-Island act. There are few things less inspiring of trust than some slimy, grinning political propagandist saying he’s “looking out for you.”

But after watching O’Reilly for years, it’s become clear to me that a certain sliminess is an integral, and even appealing, part of his persona. In fact, now that I think of it there is only one other person whom O’Reilly resembles with that winning combination of charm, cleverness and sleaze - Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman in the Superman movies. Think about it. They’re both unctuous, devious, ego-centric, somewhat seedy and up to no good. They’re both warm to the idea of bombing the west coast. Heck, they even look similar (sort-of):

(So if O’Reilly is Lex Luthor, then John Gibson would have to be Otis. And Miss Teschmacher would have to be Ann Coulter…or Michelle Malkin…or Laura Ingraham…)