Category: European Diary

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Mnemosyne’s Tricks

Writers incline to solipsism, and I’m no exception.  To write is to presume that your words matter to others, and this places you at the center of the universe you’re describing, with its sun, its Earth—to say nothing of the small potatoes of associated planets—revolving around your person.  Thus the Copernican in me ever wrestles...

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Smound No5

There is only one smell commonly found on earth that is worse than the chemical smell of rotting orange rinds.  This, oddly enough, is a woman’s perfume—Chanel ?5.  As it recently emerged from World War II archives that Mademoiselle Chanel was, in her spare time, Agent F-7124 of the Abwehr, the Nazis’ military intelligence, I...

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People of the Book

Sometimes one opens the morning newspaper and, instead of fires, floods, or declarations of war, finds a parable.  This one hit me with the force of a subway train back in January, and I duly rushed it off as a post on the Chronicles blog, but stubbornly the retina refused to let go of the...

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Unquantifiable Differences

The biggest mystery and conundrum of our time is not whether Stalin died a natural death, or why the CIA had Kennedy killed, but the difference between the types of individual that rise socially in the West and, respectively, in Russia or China.  In the 1980’s my father wrote extensively of the problem of the...

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Soul Searching

Russians have bragged to themselves about their souls for ages, but for the past hundred years or so—roughly since Nietz­sche discovered Dostoyevsky, Henry James discovered Turgenev, and the assorted Bloomsbury folk discovered Chekhov—other European nations, Britain foremost, have been pitching in as well.  The dubious outcome of it all is that, alongside bast shoes, pinewood...

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A Thing in Itself

My Sicilian friend Manlio has something in him of the late Curtis Cate, who was a mutual friend of mine and Tom Fleming’s and a frequent contributor to these pages.  When Curtis died in 2006 aged 82, I did not think to write an obituary.  For some reason, one whose perennial argument with the heart...

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Whens, Ifs, and Buts

When did World War II start?  An American is entitled to think it started with Pearl Harbor, as, clearly, the world without the United States is only a world in part. But ask an Englishman, and he will say the world war began some two years earlier, when Britain declared war on Germany.  A Russian...

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Unfair Play

A few months ago I found myself stranded in Piccadilly.  There was a parade of women—of a decidedly Sapphic cast, I thought—carrying placards with slogans that admonished men for their proclivity to rape, violence, and pillage.  Most prominent was a sign that read “No Means No,” its message being, supposedly, that when a woman refuses...

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Si vis pacem

“All may have if they dare try a glorious life or grave.”  I saw those words—George Herbert’s, as it turned out—incised into the stonework of a church near Waterloo Station.  There was a little churchyard nearby, it was a warm spring afternoon, and I think I must have read those words over a thousand times. ...

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The Dogma in the Manger

As readers of this column may have noted, I hardly ever comment on events in Moscow.  Since 1984, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Russia, I have taken the view that the clever understand what transpires there without need for fresh explanations, while the daft, no matter how ingenious one’s explanations or persuasive one’s reasoning,...

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Up and Down in Palermo

The American billionaire Elon Musk, lately much in the news on account of his ambition to send apple pie, solar energy, Pay­Pal, and Ninja Turtles to other planets in our galaxy, was once a cash-strapped college student.  The experience, as he boasted to the Los Angeles Times, had taught him frugality: “I tried various experiments...

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The Buffalo Harp

Inutile asking me why this column is called that, or what a buffalo harp might be.  I honestly do not know, except that it is the name of an old ironmonger’s near my house.  One still happens here and there, in the less progressive European towns, upon those ancient shop signs, faded black or gold...

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Stairway to Heaven

There is, or at least there used to be before the days of Nestlé in every pot and a Nissan in every garage, the idea of a stairway to Heaven.  Jacob’s ladder, which the biblical patriarch famously dreamed about during the flight from his brother Esau, is a locus classicus, of course, but the idea...

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An Aix to Grind

As though in memory of those antediluvian Playboy “pictorials” in which the hapless young lady posed with whatever attribute of her metier the photographer had unearthed in the props room—an alleged student of architecture with a carpenter’s wooden compass, a presumed graduate of the police academy with a sheriff’s badge, a putative nurse with a...

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Of Rats and Men

There are people, in all likelihood a majority, who are by nature obedient.  Their lot is to play Sid Sawyer to whatever Aunt Polly comes along, whether the authority in question is a democratically elected leader or an up-to-his-elbows-in-blood dictator.  As though stuck in some epochal centrifuge, they go with the flow, tirelessly, unwaveringly, always...

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Time and Tide

I should like to live in a different time.  Not in the sense of being corporeally present in an earlier epoch, with all its physical plant, its local color, and a bustling mise en scène, but in that metaphysical sense, akin to tempo in music, which previous epochs never neglected to set.  Our own time...

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The Honest State

In the shadow of St. Peter’s in Zurich, a beautiful church with the largest clock face in Europe, I found myself chatting with a German tourist.  Curious to hear that I lived in Sicily, he asked me what I thought of Zurich.  “I love it,” I said.  “I feel so at home here.  It’s just...

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Professions and Professors

You know what you hardly see around anymore?  Professions.  Professors—hell, yes, one sees professors around, even in backward Italy, pinched, untidy, jealous of beauty, suspicious as cuckolds in Molière, speaking with the forked tongues of p.c. texts.  But surely “professor” is a title or rank, not a profession or vocation. At the dawn of the...

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The New Cinderella

The salient difference between Cinderella and her sisters, unfortunately for all you defenders and upholders of the Protestant work ethic out there, is not that she eats her bread in the sweat of her brow while they eat sweetmeats, try on varicolored gowns, and loaf about.  The salient difference between them is that Cinderella is...

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A Little Education

Wife’s away, and so, as befits children and bachelors, I sit at the breakfast table reading labels.  Here in Europe, labels are quite entertaining for someone with a semantic cast of mind, as many are printed in all the languages of the Community states, plus a few odd ones, just in case some of these...

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A Penny for Your Chomsky

“O chom kolonka?” asked my son on the telephone.  We’ve always spoken Russian to each other, he and I, even though Nikolai was born in London and never so much as visited the country of his father’s birth.  “What’s your column going to be about?”  I must admit I hadn’t known the answer till he’d...

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To Call a Rose a Rose

Political correctness is a politically correct name for hypocrisy, but I have long noted that its practitioners share one peculiar characteristic: They don’t know what to call themselves.  Political correctors?  To put it somewhat allusively, theirs is an hypocrisy that dare not speak its name. Since what seems like time immemorial, homosexuals have described themselves—and...

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All in a Stew

I don’t want to be harsh on people, but the emotional life of our epoch reminds me of central Moscow in the old Soviet days, a time when there was everything. There were billboards advertising cigarettes and the national lottery.  There were competent doctors and crooked lawyers.  There were chauffeur-driven limousines; there were girl Fridays...

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Souvenir of Florence

Among the great city states of Italy—for city states they remain, a world unto itself every one, despite the advent of the steam locomotive and the electric carrot peeler—Florence was never my favorite.  When I lived there, I loathed its American present as the art student’s medina, with its disheveled, Nebraskan, notionally female multitudes swarming...

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Under Sicilian Eyes

The last time I was in Austria was embarrassingly long ago, but I recall one characteristic moment.  We were staying in a tiny hotel that occupied the second and third floors of a handsome Viennese townhouse, and once, well past midnight, we rang the wrong bell.  Whereupon the paterfamilias of the first-floor apartment appeared on...

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Under the Volcano

It’s a small world, as the boat’s captain explained to me between puffs on one of the Antico Toscanos that my friends had been thoughtful enough to bring aboard, seeing I’m too poor to buy cigars, even the cheap Tuscan kind.  The African continental shelf, said the captain, is in continual movement toward Europe, and...

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Eating Cake

I made my way to Florence from Cortina d’Ampezzo, where for the past half-century the Italian bourgeoisie had pretended to ski while in reality merely promenading in opulent furs in front of the Hotel de la Poste in postprandial stupefaction.  This year, however, the resort was a ghost town, and not only on account of...

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Baudelaire in Russia

I have known since adolescence—though in Soviet Russia it was all a bit hard to believe, these United States of ours being, after all, the Manichaean pole of Light—that Edgar Allan Poe was completely unknown in America and would have perished in obscurity had he not found a literary agent in Charles Baudelaire and a...

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Aere Perennius

“Who?”  This was said in a tone of voice that could only be described as doubtful.  I was on the phone with an Italian friend in London, explaining that I could not call him back later that evening because I was off to a concert.  “It’s Gergiev, Valery Gergiev.  Don’t you know?  He’s the most...

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The Dream Dealer

When I hear of the books in the history of publishing that were self-published, I react like Lenin, who, on hearing of the 5,000 print run of Mayakovsky’s poem 150,000,000, scoffed that it was “a colossal waste of paper.” E.E. Cummings, for instance, published The Enormous Room at his own expense, petulantly dedicating it to...

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A Sad Coincidence

If you’ve read enough Dickens, England is the land of coincidence, so I was not surprised to hear that a friend had sold his Northamptonshire family seat to a Russian.  Nor was the congenital gambler in me incredulous when I learned that the new master of the estate was a keen reader of my stuff...

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Devil’s Mama

The rockets that, according to Khru­sh­­chev, were coming off his production line “like sausages” ran on kerosene and liquid oxygen.  So did Soviet foreign policy.  The kerosene was operational secrecy, an ingredient virtually unchanged since the 1920’s, whereby the regime concealed its expansionist aims.  The oxygen was maniacal braggadocio, which persuaded the West to see...

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Bulldozing Arcadia

Thirteen years ago I marched in one of the largest demonstrations in Britain’s history.  The Countryside March had brought together environmental activists and critics of transnational business, dyed-in-the-wool Tories and leftover beatniks, peers and paupers.  Today, if the ongoing Coalition versus the Countryside debate is any indication, it’s time to march again. In Greece, Megalopoli...

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The Capitalist Nonesuch

When the first of the truly modern “modern politicians” straddled the front page, even the meliorism junkies of the New York Times deemed it proper to lament the creature’s arrival and to bemoan its lack of substance.  But the journalists, as always, had no clue.  In an age when money is not only paper but...

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From JKF to DSK

When you ask a Russian of my generation or older about conspiracy theories, Kirov is the name that wanders into his mind as readily as the name Kennedy springs to yours.  Thirty years and an ocean separate these deaths, whose aim, in both cases, was not so much the elimination of a political rival as...

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Order No311

The document I am reading is public.  It is an official directive of the Russian government to the ministries responsible for directing the country’s electronic industry, dated August 7, 2007, identified as “Government of the Russian Federation Order No311,” and entitled “Strategic Development of Electronics in Russia 2007-2025.” Last February, totalitarian power in the person...

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Riding the Minotaur

The townhouse at 18 Belgrave Square consisted of 74 living rooms, salons, corridors, servants’ pantries, stair­­cases, anterooms, and closets, and in 1866 it was deemed suitable to become the new London residence of the Austrian ambassador.  The commodious townhouse had gone up early in the century as part of Thomas Cubitt’s development of Belgrave Square,...

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I’d Walk a Mile for a Hockney

On occasion I have written here about the evils of photography, while other readers of this magazine may remember my having voiced more general apprehensions with respect to the transformation undergone by the human mind in an age when, by pressing a button, a suburban housewife may proclaim herself Baudelaire or Monet.  Recently, I found...

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A Sicilian Mirage

Everybody laughed at me as usual.  The state of absolute passivity outwardly resembling the comatose, but distinguishable from it by voluntary alimentation and libation, was derided by my friends as unattainable.  A Sicilian mirage. Yet it had been an idée fixe for years, my vision of a holiday so impeccably philistine it would reduce me...

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And Now the Good News

Kierkegaard recalls somewhere that Caligula wanted to behead all of Rome.  One can almost see his point.  The news that comes over the transom is so uniformly bleak, so predictably monstrous, that it cannot but produce this kind of response in any number of men of good will.  After all, it is mankind itself that...

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Leaving London, 2005

On the way to the airport we were stuck in systaltic traffic, my taciturn Charon and I, and the weather mimicked the condition, blazing with sunshine like a Neapolitan urchin’s smile one moment, dourly hawking tickets to the Museum of British Cloud the next. At times the sky was the color of Delft tile, reminding...

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The Last Corrida

Paseo de Hemingway goes nowhere now.  I was at the last bullfight in Pamplona, the Catalan town beloved of Papa.  On a stuffy night last July, I watched as a bull named Andador, with a flick of the horns identical to the one that had secured Spain her place in the World Cup Final some...

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Retreat From Eden II

Last summer the inimitable Taki and I were staying under the same roof at the London house of our friend Natasha.  I have loved our angelically guileless hostess for a quarter of a century, Taki since she was a baby, but all this is just a pompous way of relating that, like I this fateful...

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Retreat From Eden

You do not need to be a reader of this column to surmise that the South of Italy is as close as one can get to Paradise without being a Nazi war criminal, in which case, needless to say, one resides in South America.  We’ve got everything in Sicily, from medlars in springtime and tangerines...

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Katyn 2

When, in 1934, Stalin had a Leningrad party boss killed—and then wept at the man’s funeral, railing at the enemies of Russia—a uniquely modern phenomenon, which I shall call state vendetta, was born.  State vendetta is somewhere between conventional warfare and mafia violence.  Where the narrow aim of the former is to suppress a specific...

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Italian Justice

I have always hated students, a class as concrete to my mind as workers were to Karl Marx’s, a race as particular in my imagination as the Jews were in Alfred Rosenberg’s.  Visiting a city like Florence, for me, is a painful experience, somewhere between what joining a gay-rights march would be for Taki or...

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Another Fake Rolexsky!

Of late I have been writing a good deal for Russian publications, including Snob, which has now given me a weekly column.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my mother tongue would provide me with something like material comfort.  A thorny path of spiritual improvement?  Possibly.  A way of finding better vodka,...

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Bonkers in Space

Tarkovsky’s Solaris came out in 1972, which was the year I’d left Russia.  It was not until a quarter of a century later that I watched the long and quaint film, and was strangely affected by it.  I had always thought that nothing on the screen, if it was any good at all, could not...

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A Chat With a Cabdriver

Britain was tense last October when the BBC announced that Nick Griffin, head of the British National Party, would be interviewed on one of its programs.  They’s fightin’ again at the BBC, said a London cabdriver.  It was front-page news for two weeks before the interview, and what began on the morning after could only...

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Crazy Russian No More

A quarter of a century ago, when I started writing for this magazine, I was the Russian.  Along with the sense of exclusivity it afforded, that simple tag gave its owner a clear run through the 1980’s and 90’s on both sides of the Atlantic.  I was the only Russian in any crowd, whether as...