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Vapors (De fil en aiguille)

What a glorious day yesterday was! Clear and bright and comfortable, it was perfect weather for a long walk. Unfortunately, I had the vapors. I simply couldn't wake up. In the morning, I sat at the computer for a while in a stupor. There were a few letters to answer, but I wasn't quite up to them, and since there was nothing easy to do I went back to bed, intending to finish Jean Dutourd's Au Bon Beurre. I did finish it, too, in the late afternoon and after much dozing. I have no idea why I was sleepy in the middle of the day. 'Twas even worse than Monday.

There's a 1969 translation, apparently, of M Dutourd's 1952 novel, The Best Butter. That's not a very good handle, if I may say so. At the Poissonards' Shop would be better. During the Occupation, Julie and Charles-Hubert Poissonard run a food shop in the Ternes district of Paris (XVIIe). They specialize in dairy products, preserved meats, and canned goods. M Dutourd tells the story of their frauds, adulterations, gougings and betrayals in a voice that recalls Evelyn Waugh: the narration is quite deadpan, even (faux) ingenuous, and only the innocent suffer. When I wasn't laughing, I was gasping. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who can read it. Prepare to consult the dictionary frequently. M Dutourd writes in a clear, almost classical style, but his vocabulary is immense - and that's part of the fun.

I was only slightly troubled by the sober reflection that, no matter how assiduously I work to improve my French, I am never, ever going to have a vocabulary to match my English. They say that French doesn't have nearly as many different words as English does, and this makes perfect sense, given English's double past, with words of both Germanic and Latinate derivation for almost everything. But each time I open Larousse, the words that I don't know seem to have multiplied like toadstools.

By seven o'clock, I had gotten out of bed, showered, dressed, and made the bed. I settled down for a couple of hours of paperasse - dealing with paper-stuffed desk drawers. I want you to know that I've kept David Owen's almost-famous article from last fall, "Green Manhattan" (The New Yorker, 18 October 2004), among my working papers, and, to be honest, it's only now becoming really current. If you read the comments posted to yesterday's entry, you will have caught Amy's remark about her husband's "peak oil prognostications"; if I'd been in finer fettle today, I'd have written a long letter attempting to console Max about the shock of looking at the peak oil problem too closely. Here's what David Owen has to say about it:

On a shelf in my office is a small pile of recent books about the environment which I plan to read obsessively if I'm found to have a terminal illness, because they're so unsettling that they may make me less upset about being snatched from life in my prime. At the top of the pile is "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil," by David Goodstein, a professor at the California Institute of Technology...

I will spare you Professor Goodstein's prognostications. The other day, I got into trouble with a reader for appearing to condescend, by saying that I'd known something or other for years. Let's see if I can avoid doing that again. I took geology in college - rocks for jocks. (It was slightly more demanding than the nickname suggests, and I, of course, was no jock.) And my father was in the pipeline business. It didn't take a slide rule to see that the time required to create the earth's oil deposits was on a very different scale from the rate at which whizbang humanity was burning it up - and this at a time when China was communist and carless. I was arguing with Dad about reserves in the late Sixties. "I'll be dead by then," he finally conceded - before going on to win a "Gloomy Gus" reputation among his colleagues. I don't expect that the people who died in time to avoid the coming shock are going to be remembered fondly. That would be us, maybe.

Today, unless the vapors strike with redoubled force, I am going to visit the Cloisters, for the first time in an age. Ms NOLA's enjoyment of free Friday afternoons is about to come to an end, so we're going to beat our way to the northern tip of Manhattan if it kills me.

There are many beautiful things at the Cloisters, and I don't think that anybody can complain about their overall arrangement. But I'm feeling naughty. Let me say in advance that I love the synthetic nature of this branch of the Metropolitan Museum. For all the pillars and posts that are authentically antediluvian, the museum's fabric belongs magnificently to the Thirties, to an era of very sound institutional construction. Someday, mark my words, the Rockefeller bits (almost everything) will be as noted as the medieval fragments. I'm exaggerating, of course; there is, after all, the Fuentidueña Apse, a genuine structure (think bandshell) with a glorious painted Christ, that's - I can never get over this one - on "permanent loan" from Spain. (It's impossible to read this information without hearing "We want it back! It's a loan.") I've been to a few genuinely medieval sites, and they're cold and black and almost menacing. And they never have all the painted and sculptural goodies that are on view in Fort Tryon Park. I know I'm being crassly American, and I know that we have no right to have the Merode Altarpiece. But there it is, a manifestly improved version of the originals. Five cloisters, too. Now, who had that in Europe? And nobody French can complain about what I'm writing here, after all the defacements of the Revolution. No having cake and eating it too on this score.

The very best "you must know this" detail about the Cloisters is the protestant monastery (what can that mean?), quite similar to the Cloisters in silhouette, that the Rockefellers built right across the river, on what was then their personal property, now Palisades Park, to "harmonize" with the Cloisters. Now, that's opulence!


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