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GP 13 September 2006: Can You Forgive Her?

Restaurant Nippon Restaurant Nippon in New York City first came to our attention in Tokyo in July 1976, but it took us ten years to make it there—much to our regret.  As we said in “New York’s Best Japanese Restaurant,” it has several claims to fame, some of which are enumerated on its website.  It was first to bring fugu (Japanese poison blowfish) into the U.S. legally, and it grows its own buckwheat for soba in Canada. 

But that’s not the half of it.  Mr. Nobuyoshi Kuraoka, the owner, has run the New York Marathon with his staff.  He has a keen collector’s interest in Spanish painting and has imported, as we remember, Spanish eels for one of his restaurants.  When one of our colleagues was looking into the background of Japanese cooking techniques, he reached back into some history books to search for the roots of a delicacy.  In other words, he goes beyond technique—the province of an ordinary restaurant—to deepen his recipes with cultivation.  And, for that reason, we will have to capture from him the secrets behind a spicy dish he just prepared for us. 

Anthony Trollope.  Perhaps it is this cultivated atmosphere that moved one of our number on a recent Nippon evening to bring Trollope into our discussions.  Many of us had not given him a great deal of thought, but we realized, as we talked, that this post office surveyor turned novelist, son of a failed barrister and writer mother, enjoys great currency even in the present day.  We thought of Trollope presentations on public TV and remembered that they were a great deal easier to take than say Jane Austen, also a writer about domestic intrigue.  Trollope is the right kind of culture: very, very accessible but not without insight.  The Trollope Society, very active on both sides of the Great Atlantic, is just one sign of his ongoing appeal.  Several of our readers write to tell us they are Trollopians: 

I went on a terrific jag of Trollope reading about 3 years ago, before retirement.  The voice of the narrator amused me greatly.  In Flaubert, it is restrained, acting with an invisible hand, not foreshadowing what comes next.  But Trollope will even tell you that the mini-crisis of the moment is to be overcome, and things will turn out right for the lady in question.  –French professor 

The nearest I ever came to reading him back then was when I learned my
expense account tabulation at a MAJOR NATIONAL PUBLICATION, after my first month’s effort, was rejected—because it was too low!  I was told to take people to lunch every day, whether I had a receipt or not; whether they were real or not.  I went for long, literary solo lunches. By the end of my first year writing there I had exhausted all the characters in Dickens and started on Hardy.  Trollope would have been next, but I moved on to Merrill Lynch. –Journalist and now a Trollope reader. 

Trollope and Dickens used to be my favourite reading for train journeys.  Both were nice and long.   Trollope was not too demanding, so you could pause, look at the scenery, and then return anew to the story.  His are stories with a little social commentary.  – Management consultant who has even put in some time in Ireland, like Trollope 

So what makes Trollope so accessible? 

An Escape into the Ordinary.  In the 18th-century novel, the workings of society unfolded, and we saw how it got in and out of its scrapes.  But the 19th is more about the development of character and about those misfirings of the brain circuits that lead, temporarily, to plot complication.  The ambivalence and copious emotional repression we find there surely set the stage for Freud and the Age of Anxiety. 

For some creatives, art is an escape from the ordinary; for others, it is an intensification of it.  We are fond of saying that art should be a way of dealing with life for those who do not want to accept it as it is.  Trollope had it both ways.  He was so smitten with his characters and the very act of writing that he distanced himself from the rest of us.  But, oddly enough, whether talking about the upper classes (“the Upper Ten Thousand”) or the middling classes, he grappled in detail with commonplace affairs.  He had, as James said, a fine “appreciation of the usual.” 

Can You Forgive Her?  Written after the Barsetshire novels, just at the beginning of the Pallisers series, it is a rather finely constructed work, done at the midpoint of his career.  It turns on Alice’s jilt of Grey and their subsequent coming together:

I shall never cease to reproach myself.  I have done that which no woman can do and honour herself afterwards.  I have been—a jilt. 

But after much complication, Grey is able to press his love on her: 

Of course, she had no choice but to yield.  He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy. 

In the end it is a love story laced with that dialectical perverseness of the human spirit that keeps us apart and finally brings us together.  Not at all a monumental matter, but terribly important to the individual and to the race.  It’s a love story, once fondly reviewed by John Bayley, who, as we have said, is no slouch at true love himself.  Yes, we can forgive Alice for her ricochet relationship with Grey, because forgiveness and comity are the stuff of existence when we are at our best.  Trollope finds a richness in small matters. 

No Books at All.  Trollope is quite a read, each work nattering on at great length, with 40 or so novels in his portfolio.  Are the Trollopes to be no more?  We received an anguished missive last week from the editor of one of the most prominent business journals in America.  Once in the publishing world, he bemoans the fact that the Dallas Morning News seems to be committing hari kari: 

Weeks, the book reviewer, indicates that “there are currently no plans to replace” either book staffer with any full-time employee. The changes will be felt throughout the paper’s arts section: Also leaving, with the buyout offer, by mid-September, are the movie critics, TV critics, food critic, “and even the arts editor himself.”  Weeks observes, “We will go from one of the best-staffed cultural departments in the country for a paper our size to one of the flimsiest.” 

The newspaper industry, which traditionally has enjoyed very fat margins, is not blessed with agile management that adjusts well to a changing world.  Instead of re-inventing its product, it slashes costs, hoping to grab back some of its traditional high profits.  As part of the process, it even guts the areas where it has a chance to establish a deep franchise—such as culture.  Well, books and the arts are out, and the newspaper in Dallas, long a force supplanting an undernourished educational system like other newspapers in America, goes anorectic.  The newspaper and Dallas begin to lose their cultural franchise.  Without culture, we would argue, there is no value-added product or service economy—the only hope, we have said, for prosperity in the advanced Western economies. 

The Dallas paper has had two rounds of layoffs in the last 5 years, beset by problems.  The current round of buyouts may take its staffing down another 20%.  We may be without books—and newspapers.  Oddly, the Morning News does not do that good a job at reporting the local scene, even though it has hung onto its metropolitan staff. 

Corporate Culture.  About twenty years ago we began to hear a lot about corporate culture, at the very moment when companies started becoming less differentiated from one another.  ‘Culture’ here really refers to a sum of corporate behaviors, i.e., little habits: it does not refer to the life of the mind. 

It is reasonable to say that corporations and institutions should think harder about their cultural vitality.  It is possible that culture can put a mark on a company’s product and services that give it a leg up in the marketplace.  Culture, in fact, is part of our economic infrastructure. 

But, more importantly, culture is what binds us together.  We complain about being atomized, fragmented, polarized.  Culture is about the only glue that works.  Much in the way that Alice and Grey are pulled together by love—even though they could have gone their separate ways—a passion for Trollope amongst fairly disparate people links them together into a literary society.   Culture, likewise, can tie a company to its customers and employees.  Or unite a fractious country. 

Infusing a company with culture is more a matter of attitude than bucks.  We are not, of course, talking about the overpriced paintings and prints companies engage art consultants to put on their walls.  Or about vast grants to public broadcasting.  Or about endowments to expensive museums which will probably succumb to declining attendance in the years to come, as we said in “Rec Wreck.”  That is a substitute for cultural enrichment.  We are talking about a little Trollope reading in the enterprise.  Or maybe a poet sitting in the general counsel chair, as is the case with one Japanese investment bank in New York city.  Simple things that unite people behind learning.  Accessible culture that’s easy to come by in every crevice of the corporation. 

Mr. Kuraoka has an enduring enterprise, not because he has fine knives from Mrs. Kawano at Korin that cut sashimi paper thin, but because he has a cultural filter to interpret and enrich the global business society in which he exists. 

P.S.  There’s more poetry a-brewing in corporations than we realize.  We talk about some of this in our Poetry and Business section on the Global Province.  In one of our enterprises, we even had a resident poet who kept the staff bemused. 

P.P.S.  Corporations started getting into euphemisms about culture at about the same time that the garbage department became the Environmental Protection Administration.  Just as culture and the environment were losing out. 

P.P.P.S.  Cultural richness in companies is often something of an accident.  The American office of a South African mining company located itself in a former headquarters of the New York Central Railroad.  The boardroom had a grand 19th-century mural that led to a sense of expansiveness as well as several interesting events attended by visitors.  Yale University enjoys singularly good architecture simply because it had one president who made a difference, A. Whitney Griswold: it has not been blessed with such a visionary since.  He brought Kahn, Rudolph, Saarinen, and more to Yale. 

P.P.P.P.S.  We find it interesting to contemplate whether a career in the practical world is a goad to good writing—or just an annoying impediment on the way to greatness.  T.S. Eliot worked in teaching and publishing and put in time at Lloyd’s Bank.  Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and Wallace Stevens toyed around with insurance.  Trollope had a long tour of duty in the post office.  Somehow the law generates the writers we like: the great Henry Fielding, father of Tom Jones, became Chief Magistrate of London.  John Mortimer, a lawyer, gave birth to the immortal Horace Rumpole, drinker of Vino Thames Embankment and practitioner around the Old Bailey.  Since Western society has never been so in need of creativity in all our endeavors, it’s a worthy question to know what conditions stimulate men and women to flights of imagination and invention.  Do we require another Protestant Reformation? 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  An encouraging note.  We are heartened to find out that the Slow Food Movement—an Italian invention that postulates that everything about food making and dining should be a civilized endeavor—has taken hold in so many countries.  As we said in “La Dolce Far Niente,” the secret of Italy is its commingling of art, life, and commerce.  Present day Italy has hit a few speed bumps, but it can recover if it will redouble its efforts to put some beauty in every turn of the road.  Chances are that there is a very active Slow Food USA chapter near you.

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