Category: European Diary

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The Salami Fallacy

A few months ago in this space I described the Pecorino Effect, referring not so much to the Italian cheese as to the shopper’s inability to refuse any merchandise he has sampled, irrespective of what he thinks of the quality. 

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The Brazilian Cow

In the middle of the 19th century, Sydney Dobell wrote a poem that contained the following line: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”  This excursion into the absurd c. 1850 is readily recognized by readers

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The Blind Ape

In the 1970’s, one hardly ever heard the word atheist.  One had the impression that the impassive majority never considered the subject long enough to have made the term a part of their active vocabulary; while the typical exception

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The Ulema and I

On the flight to Bombay—which a British single mother with an addiction to horse tranquilizers, or a benefits administrator dispensing them, would call Mumbai—I came across a Times of India news report entitled “6,000 Ulema back fatwa on Terror.” 

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The Prism’s Prison

Sometimes it seems that I have become the master of a single plaintive note, sung by the disembodied voice of the patron saint of grasshoppers, Marie Antoinette, from somewhere beyond the tomb.  And it is true that often, when I

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Thin End of the Wedge

A shopkeeper in the Vucciria market in Palermo offers me a taste of local peccorino cheese on the tip of something that looks like a machete.  It is a classic Proustian moment.  The inner mouse accepts, nibbles at the wedge

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In Praise of Having Not

A splendid Traviata at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo the other night—with its colorful gambling scene at the close of the Second Act, when a jealous Alfredo wins an armful of banknotes only to throw them in Violetta’s face—made me think of

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A Sicilian Visit

In Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, an aging billionairess returns to the provincial town where she was born and announces to the townsfolk that she will leave them all her money, on one condition.  They must kill the man, himself now aging,

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Classifying Italy

The neighbor’s house sported a prato inglese that required ostentatious watering at the crack of dawn, and by the reassuring suppleness of the English lawn beneath our feet we all knew that our host was a gentleman, not some television

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Return to McSorrento

In the 1970’s, when I lived in America, McDonald’s, apart from being a fast-food chain, was a powerful symbol of everything that was wrong with that country.  Neither I nor anybody I knew ever referred to the leviathan as a

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Letter From a Hot Town

Cimabue the painter, passing on the road to Bologna, saw, as he walked through the village of Vespignano, a boy called Giotto drawing a sheep on a flat piece of rock.  This was the moment with which, more than a

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Curiosity as a Social Force

“Curious Barbara’s got her nose in a sling,” goes the Russian admonition against prurience, more puzzling, if anything, than the equivalent English adage concerning the killing, in similarly umbrageous circumstances, of the cat.  Why should Barbara meet with such a

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The Rhetoric of Fashion

“For his birthday his wife gave him a riding crop that cost 100 francs,” a writer called Arnold Ruge complained of his newly married friend, a fellow German émigré in Paris,

and the poor fool does not ride, nor has

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Lobar Warming

Scoffers may deride the proposition I find instinctively plausible, that the consonants and the vowels of speech are its masculine and feminine constituents, though the same scoffers would not think to keep a professor from speaking of male rhymes or

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Memoirs of a Bridegroom

If the typical life of a young couple resembles an Oriental bazaar, where the clamoring for jewels, perfumes, spices, silks, and other aphrodisiac appurtenances of fata morgana breaks on the morose tightfistedness of those who can afford them, in my

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Total Accuracy

I was married once.  Twice, actually.  No, just the once, really, because the union had been annulled before I married again for the second or, rather, the first time, on the legal grounds of mutual and substantial misunderstanding.  In reality,

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A Remembered Kindness

Lebanese restaurants in London used to position their shawarma near the front window, so that a passerby could always tell the time of day by the volume of the orotund mass of diced lamb remaining on the spit.  Now that

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A Pair of Charmers

There are two archetypes of the charming idler.  One, rather like myself, is likely to be unemployed de métier.  The other drifts in and out of employment, trading on social connections, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, pandering, dealing

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A Sense of Perspective

It may seem to the least demanding of readers that this column, though generously meandering of thought, is short of action.  The trouble, I must admit, is that I have no sense of perspective.  There may well be more references

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The Fig Leaf

All one can ever imagine of Eve is the fig leaf, but the whole issue is more universal, and at the same time somehow more prickly, than any isolated contretemps in the Legoland of the senses.  Say “glutton,” and in

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Promises, Promises

The world of pulp and prevarication, whose deluged plateau the young woman I was in love with had fled, called to mind a private letter of Pasternak’s written in the 1920’s.  There the poet described the icy slush of

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An Idle Character

The riddle of Svengali is only a riddle because men, in particular, tend to caricature their position as the breadwinning yang with respect to the theatrical female yin, supposing that what lies on the far side of the sexual divide

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Kierkegaard and the Camera

On a balmy spring day, a visitor to St. Mark’s in Venice, if he is adventurous enough to make his way to the top of the cathedral and look down, will see the subjacent piazza covered in a species

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On Tolstoy and Fiction

Andrei Navrozov’s dispatches from Europe are always interesting and well written, but in “Love and Fiction” (European Diary, May), he makes a comment that could use clarification.  According to Navrozov, Leo Tolstoy is not a writer

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Lana Turner’s Nose

In the spiritual suburbia whose probable attitudes to various emotional predicaments I imagine in these diaries, men tend to pride themselves on their rationalism and are much less interested in the alchemy of feeling than women, as shown by audience-share

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Love and Fiction

I said I had fallen conditionally in love, and now anyone apart from myself would have paused to wonder what on earth, if anything, this awkward phrase could possibly mean.  “Great!  A penniless foreigner, a writer courting failure, a serial

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Café Society

On the pavement flank of the café, my field of vision was being traversed, with the quiescent regularity of Attic horsemen galloping along the circumference of a drinking vessel, by strange women.  Making their way up the Fulham Road, past

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A Political Honeymoon

I had fallen in love with Italy because she was my twin, my mirror image, my other half.  Like me, she wanted to sit between two chairs, to have her torta della nonna and eat it, too.  She sought to

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The Art of Misanthropy

Photography is a mongrel art, half applied, half found.  But then the world we live in is a mongrel world, a hybrid that fuses extant custom and tradition—including, for instance, the constitutional principle of limited government—with the emergent totalitarianism which,

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Déjà Vu by the Gross

Off the back of the little three-wheel ladybug-shiny truck in front of the house, parked under an exuberant tree to which one of the neighbors had attached a washing line, early this morning I bought two yellow melons, three

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Eyeless in Love

The desire to spit is widely underrated as a motive.  Yet it was known throughout the university I attended, for instance, that the founder of Pan American Airways, one of its illustrious and discontented alumni, had built the PanAm skyscraper

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Of Love’s Compromises

Death is terribly tactful.  It comes to a man when he finally realizes that he understands nothing, thus saving his face.  Watched back to front, like the videocassette that you know is on fast rewind when you see the hooker

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Of Chance and Memory

Coincidence is the smile of luck, but it is also the laughter of misfortune.  A smile is singular, rather like tears; it appears meaningful insofar as it seems to have a precipitant cause.  Laughter, by contrast, is repetitive and

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Sex and Poverty

The poor smelled, and there was nothing to be done about it.  “Middle-class people believe that the working class are dirty,” George Orwell recalled, “and, what is worse, that they are somehow inherently dirty.”  His childhood nightmare was having to

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A Position of Poverty

It is all very well, strolling arm in arm through the hothouse of gloriously midsummer fiction, snatching a vermouth and bitters in the shadow by Fouquet’s, hailing a taxi some gilded moments later; it is all very well when you

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The Eudaemonic Serb

The Ritz Club, the casino arm of the venerable and resplendent hotel in Piccadilly, is, for the discriminating player with an 18th-century sense of what gambling is all about, “the other place.”  Apart from the late John Aspinall’s hallowed sepulchre

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Playing With Beauty

If I seem to have become obsessed with the isomorphism of love and gambling, it is because, like an unexpected number in roulette on a particularly hazardous night, the subject just keeps coming up.  Wherever I look, whether to a

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Genetic Roulette

Once, a long time ago, when, as a result of one of those complex misunderstandings that cast long shadows over the course of my life, I was getting married in a small town in Connecticut, my father showed up at

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Rotten to the Core

“Let us gamble with reason in the name of life,” urges Pascal in his celebrated statistical proof for the existence of God.  “Let us risk it, for the sake of a win that is infinitely great and just as probable

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A Sad Denouement

The greatness of man, writes Pascal in his Pensees, is great so long as man is conscious of his own insignificance.  “A tree, by contrast, is not conscious of its own insignificance.”  In other words, man feels his

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Seduced and Abandoned

I was reared in a cultural microcosm that undervalued experience.  More than that, it treated experience as a kind of monstrous blemish upon the face of thought, a defect that was deemed the more unfortunate for being the more noteworthy,