The Breakfast Table

An Historian, and etc.

Patty, Patty, all is forgiven as our time together draws to its poignant close. Though I do know that you’ve been stepping out on me this entire week–with your events and “functions” and “affairs.” You “made some mistakes” one night, you said, when I asked you–it seems like years ago now–how you’d slept. What did that really mean, I’ve been wondering ever since. To make more than one “mistake” on a given night–I don’t know; it implies either a steep total of taxi fares or a bemused doorman, depending on where the mistakes were “made.” For my part, I missed the Kurt Andersen party (we could no more have gotten through this week without mentioning Kurt Andersen than we could avoid Yugoslavia), the PEN Literacy Dinner, with its conflicted liberals in black ties and fancy dresses strewn across the sidewalk outside, all in a dither about whether they should cross the waiters’ picket lines, and who knows how many other soirees, but it’s OK–as I keep saying (so you know it’s not true), all is forgiven.

I’m sorry, however, that I cannot verify the quiz, which our reader has called into question with such effective disgust. For one thing, I thought both parts–the list of countries and the multiple-choice part–were questions, as you may have noticed. For another, I was in such a Mental Panic (Funny Serbian Name sighting!) that I didn’t even notice that all the answers humorously meant zero and I stupidly went ahead and answered, thereby revealing myself as the doddering fool that I am and also missing the chance to obsessively create variations on the same null theme–as in “what upmarket refrigerator royalty rules over,” “just a touch more than the title of one of Bret Easton Ellis’ novels,” “the Ground the Chinese Embassy was inadvertently on when the missile accidentally arrived,” and on. So, obviously there’s no room left in my brain– occupied as it is now, like Kosovo itself, by Serbian invaders and 13 ways of looking at zero–to verify anything. Finally, I would not want to cross swords with Mr. Dennis St. Germaine or anyone else who can so blithely utter the phrase “an historian.” It’s true that to say “a historian” sounds not only wrong but like sneeze, but “an historian” connotes the presence of great verbal gentility, and I’m no verbal Gentile.

I’ve been saving everyone’s letters for years, but I’m no Joyce Maynard, either, unless she’s going to take the proceeds from the Salinger letters sale and put some kids through college, as I may have to do when this renovation of ours is over. Not to brag or anything, but 26 years at The New Yorker and four-plus here at Random House have delivered letters to me from I.B. Singer, Hunter Thompson, Alejo Carpentier, V.S. Pritchett, Elmore Leonard, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, John Updike, Michael Eisner, Groucho Marx, Ray Bradbury, Alan Silltoe, William Trevor, and etc. (Note to French estate burglars: All these letters are safely under lock et clef.) I do think it’s tacky, but what isn’t, I ask you?

I’m a guy, I guess, and so I have to confess that I packed last night and am wondering if it would be OK with you if I caught an early plane out of here after our next exchange. In my experience, women like to leave their luggage with the concierge or an historian and take one more walk through the Sally Gardens or the Joe DePome Museum, while the men are fuming in the taxis.

I also want to say, entirely seriously, for once, that I also have a few letters from the suddenly late Saul Steinberg. I don’t know if you know his work well, but he was a total world-class genius, and although he wasn’t ever a friend of mine, I feel privileged to have known him a little. His drawings explain more fully why we are in Yugoslavia but only up to a point and why we were in Vietnam and who we don’t know we are but are nonetheless than do anyone else’s visual efforts in this regard. The obit by Sarah Boxer in the Times today is very strong.