Lunch yesterday with Phil Hamburger. At 84, he retains hope. He says of Anna, his wife, “the news of my wife is that she is more beautiful than ever.” And he’s right. The two of them are remarkable in their flexibility, their interest in life, their humor, their extraordinary vitality. He is so frightened of the Republican mania that he’s worried about some violence happening to Clinton or his family. When he said this to Anna she said, “I don’t speak to insane men before 10 in the morning.” To which he replied, “But you’ll talk to me at 10:01?” Phil and I talk politics but mainly spend time laughing at other people. He tells me a story that happened New Year’s Eve 1962. A drunken friend, another writer, gropes Phil’s wife in a taxi. The wife tells him to stop, he doesn’t, and Phil intervenes. He stops groping and then says to Phil, “I was in the book store yesterday. You know your last book’s been remaindered?”
When Anna and Phil die, there will be no one like them to take their place, and there will be a hole in the world; a very different one from what will be left by my mother, because she has been living in death and they have been, to the last, living their lives. Phil always takes me to the Century Club, and I am always surprised that I’m let in. After lunch, I go to the Periodical Room of the New York Public Library to work on my story. I am always happy when I walk in the Fifth Avenue entrance and see the expansiveness of the halls. The spacious innocence of the New York Public Library. And always, I think of my father, who had his fatal heart attack there. It was the last place he saw that was not the site of his dying. An hour’s good work, I finished a draft, and although I know it will take me many weeks, perhaps months, of revision and polishing, I feel something has been done, and that’s a feeling I like. It took an hour of listening to music and another of reading Katherine Mansfield to cleanse and refresh my soul so that, four hours later, I could do a good hour’s work. The wastefulness that is a part of our calling.
Penny phones to say that Gov. Pataki is planning to slash the budget for pre-K education from $125 million to $18 million, and no one is paying attention. I’m trying to get the Times to do an op-ed. Which means I’ll spend my weekend doing that instead of writing. But it seems like something I can do to help, and I say I want to help. I envy writers like Nabokov who think they have no responsibility to be or do good. The paradox is that perhaps they do the most good by simply doing their work in the most full way. Penny and I talk a lot about the time we spend, ineffectually, worrying, worrying about being good, and about how that very concern may make us less good. We note how often we fantasize about the funerals of people who make us feel guilty for not giving them enough. We have come to the conclusion that we would prefer killing someone to disappointing them. I am always vulnerable to the accusation: I care more about you than you do about me. When someone says that to me, I would sell my house, quit my job, do anything to appease them. But then I want them to die.