Jump to 2006, when Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian novelist, died. I wrote an appreciation of him — a “personal appreciation,” I called it, because Mahfouz had had a lovely effect on my life.
I said that I was terribly disappointed, however, in what he had written as an old man, in Al-Ahram. Mahfouz wrote, I said,
that the “so-called war on terrorism” was “just as despicable a crime” as the 9/11 attacks. He repeated the woeful argument that counterattacks “give terrorism additional justification.” But worse — far worse — was to come later: when he defended, excused, and flat-out glorified the suicide bombers in Israel.
In ensuing years, I have talked to many people about this — about Mahfouz in his last days. I have talked to people with intimate knowledge of Egyptian society and politics. And, you know? I think Al-Ahram
made it up. I think they put things under Mahfouz’s name — under the name of the country’s literary hero — that he did not say or think.
Was reading a review in the current NR. You subscribe to National Review, right? Good, good. It was by Elizabeth Powers, and was about Keats. There is a new biography of the poet.
“Had Keats lived,” writes Powers, “I think he would have worked in the mode of Goethe’s late, strongly structured novels . . .” She later notes that “Goethe lived to be 82.” Keats didn’t make it past 25.
I thought of Mozart and Haydn — the former dead at 35, the latter at 77. And how about Elliott Carter, who died a few months ago? He was 103. Schubert was 31.
We could go on . . .
Yesterday, had lunch with a friend who works as an accountant — one of the big firms. He was talking about Sarbanes-Oxley. Terrible for business, he said. Terrible. But not his business: They’ve made untold millions off it.
I thought of a cynical old expression in golf: “Every shot pleases someone.”
Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank — these pairs of names may be the death of us. (Just kidding: A failure to come to grips with entitlements will be the death of us.)
I was talking about golf — and a recent Wall Street Journal column began as follows: “In 1999, a golfer named Payne Stewart . . .”
I couldn’t help wincing at that. To someone like me, that’s a little like saying, “In 1931, a baseball player named Babe Ruth . . .”
In Monday’s Impromptus, I mentioned the Ivory Coast — and said I had not yet been able to bring myself to say “Ivory Coast,” without the “the.” “Sudan,” yes (rather than “the Sudan”). But Ivory Coast, no.
Several readers wrote to say, “How do you feel about ‘Ukraine’ and ‘the Ukraine’?” Ah. I remember when I first started to think about “Ukraine,” which felt so unnatural in my mouth (after years of saying “the Ukraine”). This was sometime in the middle or late 1980s, when I was in graduate school. Robert Conquest came to speak.
And he explained that many anti-Communists and anti-Soviets liked to say “Ukraine,” indicating that the place ought to be its own country, with its own identity, rather than a mere region of Russia, or the Soviet Union. He himself said “Ukraine.”
And if it was good enough for Conquest . . .
Incidentally, Paul Johnson will still speak of “the Lebanon.”
A little language — or more language, I should say? A few weeks ago, I was reading a Toby Young column. And, in the very first sentence, I ran smack into a word I didn’t know. That sentence read, “Sometimes I wonder whether Ed Balls really does possess the political nous he’s credited with.”
“Nous”? “Greek Philosophy. Mind or intellect.” I must knuckle down to the Greeks one day . . .
Speaking of the Greeks, I saw Les Troyens the other night. This is the opera by Berlioz (The Trojans). The performance was at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was reviewing it.
The second part of the opera takes place in Carthage, where Aeneas and some of his fellow Trojans had fled, or wandered. I got to thinking, “Where the hell is Carthage, precisely?” It’s now a suburb of Tunis, and has a population of about 20,000. Dido and her court had come from Tyre. “Where the hell is Tyre?” Lebanon, population 120,000, something like that.
These thoughts are sobering, and they reinforce a lesson, at least for me: Places that are great and important fall into nothingness. Think of how Portugal once bestrode the world! Great swatches of people in South America, Africa, and elsewhere speak Portuguese because the Portuguese were such world-bestriders.
And now . . .
I wonder what’s occasioning these thoughts in me, really . . .
Yesterday, I was talking to Kevin Williamson about tattooing — everyone’s covered in tattoos. I said, “Just think: In 50 years, the nursing homes will be filled with crinkly old bodies, covered in tattoos. Yikes, what a pretty sight, huh?”
Kevin uttered a phrase that will stick with me a long time: “grandmas with tramp stamps.” All those m’s and p’s. Practically worthy of Keats!
Okay, I’m going to end with a story about my nephew, stories about whom are irresistible (to his uncle, anyway). File this under “They Grow Up So Fast.” Two seconds ago, he was a babe in arms, “mellow,” as my grandmother called him, and cooing. Now he’s ten. At dinner the other night, he uttered some witticism, cracking up the table. I didn’t hear what he said. I asked him to repeat it.
He patted me on the leg condescendingly and said, “Can’t relive the moment, big guy.”
How the hell did that happen?
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