For years now, I have been grateful for the brief warnings that conclude New York Times film reviews. Brutal violence. Check. Nudity. Check. Smoking. Book that ticket. Not far into Danzy Senna’s sparkling foreword to the new edition of Robert Plunket’s My Search for Warren Harding, I read this:
Sensitivity readers, be warned: the protagonist of this novel, Elliot Weiner, is cruel, racist, fat-phobic, homophobic, and deeply, deeply petty.1
And so Weiner describes the culmination of his cynical campaign to seduce Jonica, a grotesquely fat woman, like this:
When I got back, she was still lying on the rug, looking up at me.
What can I say? You can guess what happened next.
As for her body, I won’t go into details but will say this: she had a lot of dimples. Everywhere.
Senna: “it’s not empathy we are here for.”
But then this book first appeared in 1983, a distant, depraved, and callous time before we had sensitivity readers to protect us from such horrors as a truly appalling anti-hero. Plunket has said that Warren Harding “could never be published today” but has added that it was hard then too. On its release, it was widely praised as a comic masterpiece (it is), but it quickly went out of print, eking out a life in garage sales and secondhand booksellers and passed from hand to hand, venerated by those in the know. These included Larry David, Seinfeld’s cocreator. Senna reports the rumor that writers for the show were told to imitate the book’s tone. And, as she notes, anyone who has seen Elaine Benes’s notorious dance moves will find something familiar in the unconvincingly heterosexual Weiner’s description of what happens when his girlfriend Pam hits the dance floor:
She is one of those people who “abandon” themselves to the beat, clapping their hands over their heads and emitting little yelps. To make matters worse, she studied modern dance in college and thus considered herself a Movement Expert. The things she does—I can only describe them as Martha Graham routines. Her arms fly out into space, she makes sudden turns, then she half-squats, her head flung back in ecstasy.
Weiner’s tastes lie elsewhere:
My biggest passion . . . is Morris dancing. Morris dancing, in case there are one or two of you who have never heard of it, is a type of old English folk dancing, always performed by men. It can get pretty wild, since it involves a lot of swinging of clubs.
Since Warren Harding, there has been only one other published book for Plunket, Love Junkie (1992), which was optioned for a possible movie by Madonna, although nothing came of it. Plunket’s third novel, a complicated-sounding project he envisaged being packaged as a coffee-table book, didn’t find a buyer. By that time its author had decamped to Sarasota, Florida, where, as Mr. Chatterbox (a name stolen from Evelyn Waugh, an author whom Plunket, unsurprisingly, admires), he was the gossip columnist for Sarasota Magazine. He also wrote about real estate and other topics (a quick search online turns up an article on Marlene Dietrich for The New York Times, in which he maintained, possibly accurately, that she was a devotee of Tupperware). Now nearly eighty, Plunket is (sort of) retired and lives in a trailer park (“My mother would have been horrified”), delighted by the fame he had always expected, although not until after his death. His claim, contained in the preface to the new edition of Warren Harding, to have been in the schoolhouse on 9/11 with George W. Bush when he heard the news from New York City is true, but I am not entirely convinced that a woman named “Karen,” whom he describes as a hospice nurse with a copy of the 1983 edition, is real: “She’s my favorite. She often reads passages to her patients so they can get a comforting last laugh.”
Weiner is thus an unreliable narrator created by an unreliable narrator. This may go some way to explaining why, as a character, he is so believable. Adding another layer of unreliability is Henry James’s The Aspern Papers (1888), the book that, more than any other, inspired Warren Harding. Plunket, who is gay, has long admired this work. It also spoke to him “in a special way.” He only understood why after concluding that the novella’s unnamed narrator was homosexual, but unknowingly so.
The unreliable narrator Weiner is, I suspect, considerably more self-aware (although the unreliable narrator Plunket has said not). A policeman discovers a copy of Bound and Gagged (“On the cover was a blonde woman tied to a dentist chair”) in Weiner’s trash, leading the magazine’s possessor to worry that he would be added “to some secret list of sex offenders”: “Was I going to get rounded up every time a youngster disappeared?”
Weiner reproaches himself for not having followed his usual procedure for disposing of pornography. This is an elaborate business, involving cutting it up into one-inch squares, mixing in “something totally innocuous, like People magazine,” putting the cuttings into a shopping bag, and, after dark, scattering the contents into various New York City litter baskets (“Once I made it all the way to Grand Central”).
I couldn’t help wondering what the nature of that pornography really was.
The Aspern Papers revolves around its narrator’s endeavor to get hold of letters written by Jeffrey Aspern, a legendary, long-dead poet (he “hangs high in the heaven of our literature”) to one of his former mistresses, the now aged Juliana Bordereau, who still has them. The idea came from the true story of a retired sea captain who had tried to obtain letters from an old woman that had been written to her by Shelley many decades before. She had probably been one of the poet’s former lovers. She was certainly one of Byron’s, but then who wasn’t?
Aspern’s “early death had been the only dark spot in his life, unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others.” There had been an impression that he had “treated her badly.” Juliana Bordereau lives in seclusion with her niece in a Venetian palazzo that “had an air not so much of decay as of quiet discouragement, as if it had rather missed its career.” Bordereau has no interest in handing over the papers, and so James’s protagonist decides that the only way to get to them is to become a lodger in the palazzo, and then woo the niece: “‘Ah,’ cried Mrs. Prest, ‘wait till you see her!’”
James’s protagonist is in the grip of an obsession, while Plunket’s is merely ambitious. Weiner is a historian with a particular interest in Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth president of the United States, “never . . . a fashionable specialization.” His main rival, “Paterson Decker from Yale,” had tracked down the young woman with whom Harding had fathered a daughter. Indeed the real-life mistress, Nan Britton, lived until 1991, which is why Plunket, keen to avoid any legal troubles, changed her name to Rebekah Kinney when reinventing her as the Juliana Bordereau of the Hollywood Hills. Decker’s attempts to approach Kinney have been unsuccessful, but Weiner has no intention of being so easily rebuffed. What Kinney might say could make a nonsense of the book on Harding that he is writing: “She alone could refute all my meticulously thought-out theories.” And what had happened to Harding’s daughter? What could she tell? We never find out: the real-life Elizabeth Ann survived until 2005. Plunket renamed her Blanche Marie, and ruthlessly cuts her life conveniently short. But there was another question: were there papers?
In the real world, no. Britton destroyed them. But another Harding girlfriend (and, incidentally, possible German spy) named Carrie Phillips had kept a bundle of love letters, some of which were entertainingly spicy. They only became public long after Plunket’s book was written. Among other revelations, they show that, like Shelley and Aspern, the twenty-ninth president was a poet:
I love you garb’d
But naked more
Love your beauty
To thus adore . . .
Kinney lives in a somewhat dilapidated mansion near the Hollywood sign, with her granddaughter Jonica (yes, the regrettably obese and cynically seduced Jonica) and Jonica’s infant child, Warren, the product of a failed marriage to “a hillbilly songwriter” who “would stay away for days at a time and had traded her brand-new color TV for a half-ounce of marijuana and a puppy.” As I read those words, the last traces of Henry James’s Venice slipped away.
We laugh at him, but, if sometimes shamefacedly, we can laugh with him too.
Posing as someone doing graduate work at ucla, Weiner rents the mansion’s pool house. The hunt for hints of Harding is on, picking up speed when Jonica, unaware of her presidential lineage, reveals that her grandmother has a big trunk of letters and other memorabilia from her grandfather. But, although not without interest themselves, the papers are little more than the MacGuffin propelling the plot, a sprawling, often absurdist picaresque, punctuated by set pieces such as a dinner party, a yachting trip that ends in disaster, a visit to a thrift shop, a charity function, a poetry reading for senior citizens, and a feminist play—All My Sisters Slept in Dirt: A Choral Poem. And then there is the seduction of Jonica, whom Weiner sees as the key to the contents of that trunk. But all this is subordinated to the book’s through-his-own-words self-portrait of this most monstrous, ridiculous, and snobbish of Morris dancers, a comic creation of genius. We laugh at him, but, if sometimes shamefacedly, we can laugh with him too:
I was doing my own cooking because Freda, the German . . . housekeeper, spent all day up in her room watching soap operas. Eve was terrified to ask her to do anything because of rumors that she has survived Auschwitz. And not as an inmate, if you get my drift.
In her debut, the beguiling and clever Metropolitan Stories (which I reviewed in these pages in November 2019), Christine Coulson, who worked for twenty-five years at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicted the Met as a home for ghosts and secrets, and an unexpectedly permeable frontier. The divide between the works of art on display and the humans who looked at, or after, them turned out to be not as firm as we thought.
That divide crumbles again, if only metaphorically, in Coulson’s second book, the elegantly wrought One Woman Show, a novel in which the life of the fictional Caroline Margaret “Kitty” Brooks Whitaker (born 1906) is imagined as a series of portraits, each described in a style that recalls the labeling of artworks in a museum.2 The Met limits such labels to seventy-five words and so, almost always, does Coulson.
“In a small Rococo flourish, Kitty likes to steal.”
But carefully arranged within Coulson’s precisely pointed prose, even strictly rationed words can deliver an abundance of meaning. Kitty was born in an age when women, all too often, were treated as passive objects. In her case, as a girl delivered somewhere close to the summit of the American upper class, that meant that she would likely be placed on a pedestal, an agreeable destination for some, a prison with a better view for others. Kitty, we soon learn, will be one of those others, an “object” with (as so often in the earlier Metropolitan Stories) agency. Thus, after its conventional early stages (“careful restraint and balanced presentation”), Coulson’s description of a “portrait” of the six-year-old Kitty ends with the revelation that “in a small Rococo flourish, Kitty likes to steal.” And so she does, until nearly the end of her life.
Decades later, this child of Edith Wharton’s New York enjoys a fling with Picasso. Well, as with Byron, who didn’t? But Kitty the thief took things into her own hands:
The artist’s legendary appetites are no match for Kitty in full force. She seduces with industry and abandon, replacing traditional modes of expression with robust techniques based on curvilinear forms. Picasso, awed by the stark and savage edges beneath Kitty’s gilding, handles her as if she were made with bronze.
She has come a long way since the days when, aged nineteen, she married her first of three husbands, William “Bucky” Wallingford III:
Considered the apex of early twentieth-century production, Kitty is thoroughly polished, bound in white silk, and decorated with a clutch of pristine lily of the valley.
In imagined picture after imagined picture, Coulson gently (and not so gently) examines what the canvas reveals and what it conceals. When it’s Kitty’s father’s turn, there’s not a Morris dancer to be seen, but “the distinctly handsome qualities of his wife, Minty, are often remarked upon with more than a hint of insinuation.”
Then there’s Kitty’s realization even as a ten-year-old that the golden glow of her extraordinarily comfortable life emanates from the bars of a cage:
She charms guests at tea with porcelain manners, rippling with charisma like gilding along a rim. But a hum of humiliation jitters below the surface of this exhibition. Even at age ten, Kitty senses a suffocating tyranny on the horizon. Not the war in Europe, but the fragile need to be forever cared for according to someone else’s tastes and appetites.
And so Coulson guides her readers through Kitty’s life and, when they intrude, times. Her lapidary, impeccably composed “labels” typically finish with a punch line, here with an extra twist: “After too much gin, Corkie leaves the wedding with a waiter who claims to be a Symbolist poet and mime.” That there might be more to this seducer—a reasonable guess; he was the one doing the claiming—than Symbolist poetry (if there was even that) made me laugh. Silently.
Kitty’s baby dies moments after it is born, “vanishing like an erased line”:
Like a faint fissure from within, the clutching memory of those few seconds will break Kitty below the surface, a persistent interruption beneath her varnish.
Occasionally snatches of different conversations can be heard, helping to frame, so to speak, the labels. Meanwhile, the description of a Braque given to Kitty shows what Coulson is trying to do: “Multiple views of the same objects are united in a single picture frame, fragmenting the image with shifting and repetitive forms,” a theme subsequently expanded upon in an excerpt from a lecture purportedly given at the Met:
Cubism introduced the . . . concept of the fragmentary standing for the whole. For Picasso and Braque, it was a game, a sleight of hand. . . . [I]n the Cubist world, a sliver can conjure an entire form, complete and unbroken. Our eye, our mind, our imagination, are left to fill in what is missing. And what a pleasure it is do so.
The year 1940 saw the publication of Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe), the best-known novel by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati (1906–72). It’s now available in a new translation by Lawrence Venuti (who has also written an informative afterword) and has been reissued as The Stronghold.3
Superficially, The Stronghold is about stagnation (or worse). Its inspiration came from Buzzati’s stint on the night shift at the newspaper Corriere della Sera between 1933 and 1939. In an interview he gave in 1966, he recalled finding the work dull and monotonous. As time passed, Buzzati wondered whether this was all he could ever expect. Would the “inevitable dreams” of youth atrophy, and would the “momentous” (if unspecified) opportunity for which he had been waiting ever come along? Might he end up like his colleagues on the edge of their retirement, “who would leave behind a pale memory destined to fade quickly”? He is not the only person stuck in a boring job to have had thoughts like that (trust me on this), but to be able to transform this dreary experience into the haunting story of an officer stuck for decades in an outpost on the edge of an empty desert is a striking example of how far irritation can take a talented writer.
Would the “inevitable dreams” of youth atrophy?
The Stronghold opens with a newly minted lieutenant, Giovanni Drogo (a surname that pops up in other writings by Buzzati, possibly as a kind of alter ego), heading for the Fortezza Bastiani, the fort on the frontier to which he has been posted. As he draws closer to his destination, he encounters a Captain Ortiz, who tells him that the fort’s garrison watches over a vast desert named after the Tartars who may have been there in the distant past but are now no more than a legend, “No one has ever crossed the desert, not even in wars past.” “So,” asks Drogo, “the Fortezza has never served any purpose?” “None at all,” replies the captain, who reveals that he has been stationed there for eighteen years. Located in the mountains, it is quite some distance from the nearest village, so there is not much in the way of diversion. But “one gets used to it.”
The fort itself is unprepossessing; soldiers pace slowly; a bugle sounds; but everything seems to stagnate “in a mysterious lethargy.” And yet, Drogo “gazed at it, hypnotized. . . . And an inexplicable ardor penetrated his heart.” For his part, Ortiz stares intently at the building’s yellow walls, “almost bewitched, as if he were eyeing something portentous. . . . A faint smile, a mixture of joy and sadness, slowly lit up his face.” Inexplicable, hypnotized, and bewitched are all words that can convey a suggestion of the supernatural, a connection subtly reinforced by how Buzzati has located the fort in a country that, if it is Italy, is an Italy unknown to cartographers, and by the apparent willingness of certain officers to remain at this out-of-the-way post for a very long time, despite the damage to their career prospects. Later, Drogo learns that fewer of them—perhaps a lot fewer of them—were doing so voluntarily than he had been told.
An old man who works with the garrison’s senior tailor has informed him that these officers are waiting for, to quote from that 1966 interview, their own “momentous opportunity” to arise. In their case, that might occur if invaders emerged from the desert giving the fort’s defenders a chance to shine in battle, an expectation that, we learn later, added meaning to their lives, gave them some hope, and was genuine enough. Even so, left hanging was the question posed, in a different context, in the last two lines of C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a poem that influenced this book.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
Young officers regularly quit the fort not long after they have arrived, but the old man, sensing, maybe, that Drogo may be more easily enticed to stay tells him to get out while he’s still got time. But the lieutenant rejects one easy route to an early exit. He doesn’t know why—another inexplicability—but “he can’t leave.” That decision taken, Drogo felt “exaltation transform into a strange ache, quite similar to happiness”—similar, but presumably less. More prosaically, he had become “instilled with the lethargy of routine. . . . Four months were enough to lure him into the monotonous rhythm of service.” Well, that and, on occasion, “heroic fantasies”: “The king, the king in person, has bent over him to say, Bravo!”
Months, then years, pass, but Drogo is still young, no need to worry. Ortiz repeats the old man’s advice: others have succumbed to the Fortezza’s routines, and, “basically old men at thirty,” are rendered incapable of moving on. But, in time, Drogo’s insouciance inevitably starts to fade.
An oblique response to Kafka’s The Castle, a book Buzzati admired? Perhaps.
Three main interpretations have emerged of Il deserto dei Tartari since it was first published. They are not mutually exclusive. An oblique response to Kafka’s The Castle, a book Buzzati admired? Perhaps. An allegory of life under fascism? Arguably. That’s despite being set—at a guess—in the middle of the nineteenth century, leaving the fort uncertainly located in time as well as place, and thus adding to the book’s dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality. Venuti argues that there are signs, from the color of the fort to references to jackboots, that fascism was in Buzzati’s sights. And it is no great stretch to think that references to an unfriendly “kingdom of the north” reflect anxiety over Mussolini’s troubling German ally (though The Stronghold was published in German in 1942). But the unflattering depiction of the garrison’s behavior that Venuti also regards as evidence to support his thesis is better seen as part of a broader attack on militarism (Buzzati had detested his time as a conscript in the 1920s) and the dehumanization that comes with it. An absurdly rigid application of a rule about passwords compels one of the fort’s soldiers to shoot another:
“It’s me, Lazzari!” he shouted. “Don’t you see it’s me? Don’t shoot, Moretto!”
But the sentry was no longer the Moretto who would frankly joke with his colleagues. He was just a sentry at the Fortezza, wearing a uniform made from dark blue cloth with a leather bandolier, absolutely identical to every other sentry in the night, an ordinary sentry who had taken aim and was now pressing the trigger.
A classic case of existential angst? Given Drogo’s dismal trajectory and some moaning about the meaning of life, it could be. But this is not a book that needs to be interpreted rigidly to be appreciated. Although relatively little happens—tales of stasis can be like that—the skill with which Buzzati conjures unease helps make The Stronghold a remarkably compelling read. And so do his descriptions of the fort, its inhabitants, and the territory they watch:
Even through the closed window the colonel’s brittle steps could be heard. The bayonets were arrayed in a line, forming so many silver strips in the dusk. Echoes of the bugle arrived from improbable distances, the same sound as before, perhaps, sent back by the maze of walls.
The democracy that was cobbled together in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was weak, shallowly based, and profoundly flawed. Nevertheless, dismantling it after Boris Yeltsin had lurched off the stage took time, care, and guile as well as brute force. And no one, probably, used more guile than Vladislav Surkov, the darkest star of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (2014), Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant nonfiction look at Russia’s Noughties. Surkov—an aesthete, former bohemian, and cynic primarily interested in power and not ideology—rose to become the Kremlin’s preeminent “political technologist,” retooling its propaganda for a still nominally democratic era while gleefully playing postmodern games designed to undermine any serious political opposition.
The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli was first published in French (Le mage du Kremlin) in 2022, almost exactly two months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, although the book had been completed about a year before. Now we have an English translation by Willard Wood.4 In the book, Empoli—an Italian and Swiss journalist and writer whose résumé includes a stint as a senior advisor to the former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi—uses Vadim Baranov, a fictional version of Surkov, to deliver an account of how Vladimir Putin’s regime has reshaped both Russia and its relationship with the West. The best way to understand Putin’s time in power is, obviously, by studying the work of experts in this field as well as, sometimes, journalistic reports. But turning to fiction creates an acceptable space for a more speculative approach. The fictional turn can be valuable when trying to arrive at an approximation of the truth in countries where truth is hard to find.
Instead, he mostly contents himself with tinkering at history’s edge.
If anything, Empoli does not take enough advantage of the freedom that fiction offers him. As an outsider, he may have realized that he lacked the insight necessary to do any more. Instead, he mostly contents himself with tinkering at history’s edge. Baranov is, for no obvious reason, given an aristocratic heritage and a beautiful, razor-edged girlfriend, Ksenia. She goes on to marry Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the real-life oligarch who turned increasingly to politics, taking a path that led to a ten-year-long imprisonment. On Khodorkovsky’s dispatch into exile in the West, Ksenia divorces him and has a child with Baranov—a story with, so far as I am aware, no connection, however tendentious, to a reality that might justify its appearance in this book, even if Surkov did work for a while with Khodorkovsky in the 1990s. Ksenia comes across as a plot device tacked on to add some sex and, yes, “romance” to a novel that would otherwise have none.
The Wizard of the Kremlin has two narrators. The first, but not for long, is a Frenchman visiting Moscow to carry out some research into Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937), the author of the dystopian novel We (1921), a protest, in part, against the policies of the new Bolshevik regime. It was not published in the ussr until 1988. One evening, the Frenchman replies with a line from We to a tweet by a “Nikolai Brandeis,” a pseudonym occasionally used by Baranov. There is no guarantee that this Brandeis is that Brandeis, but a Brandeis replies, suggesting a meeting. The narrator accepts: “At worse I’d make the acquaintance of a student with a passion for literature.” Instead, he is driven by Mercedes to a townhouse just outside Moscow, which, in sharp contrast to the usual oligarchical display, looks like “the home of an old-school professional.” There, he is greeted by an “elderly butler” clad—Jeeves, avert your eyes—in corduroys, and then by Baranov: “You expected gold faucets, maybe?”
The more significant historical inventions in the book consist of the retelling by Baranov of conversations in which he and other protagonists set out their thinking with clarity and concision—thoughts they would never have shared with many (or any) others. The content of these conversations, and the additional color that Baranov provides to help explain them, are plausible enough. As a result, The Wizard of the Kremlin works well as an introduction to some of Russia’s recent history or, at least, the West’s current understanding of Russia’s recent history. Although almost all the book is made up of one long monologue, thanks to the subject matter and some sharp writing, this is much more interesting than it sounds. It helps that Baranov, like Surkov, is something of a wit.
One of the stories he tells is of watching an overconfident Boris Berezovsky, at the time Russia’s most powerful oligarch, misread Putin, someone he had backed as a suitable—and suitably malleable—successor to Yeltsin. Within a few years, Berezovsky is in exile and in due course “commits suicide.” Baranov, meanwhile, is seemingly unable or unwilling to realize that his postmodern tricks are emboldening and strengthening a regime with an older, cruder view of power. As imagined by Empoli, Baranov, realizing he is falling out of favor, resigns in 2020 (Surkov himself has said that he resigned, which may or may not be true). There are reports that Surkov was put under house arrest in 2022. They too may or may not be true, but he seems to be out and about now. Putin may regard him as a potential asset who could be deployed again, but if I were Surkov, I’d keep clear of open windows for the moment.
- My Search for Warren Harding, by Robert Plunket; New Directions, 272 pages, $18.95.
- One Woman Show, by Christine Coulson; Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $25.
- The Stronghold, by Dino Buzzati, translated by Lawrence Venuti; New York Review Books Classics, 216 pages, $17.95.
- The Wizard of the Kremlin, by Giuliano da Empoli, translated by Willard Wood; Other Press, 304 pages, $16.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 54
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com