The bus and subway strike in New York is now into its second day
, and second bitterly cold morning. I didn't go to Washington yesterday, which seems wise, since the mob scenes at Penn Station looked like people waiting for a train in Madrid in 1940. I shall do the radio broadcast, about Lewis
and children's literature, including my own The King in the Window
anyway, but will walk the fifty or so blocks from home to a radio station to do it, good for the soul and sneakers. I wish they made Heelys in my size; Heelys
, for those without smallish and middle-sized children, are sneakers with drop-down wheels in their soles, which fall like landing gear when the child wants to glide somewhere. They are extremely cool, and allow a child who is being hectored by a parent on a fine point of conduct simply to sail away down the street, imperturbable.
Although the papers this morning are full of anger at the strikers, I didn't sense much actual rage on the streets yesterday, or even on the news and radio I heard throughout the day. Just a will to slog through it. Crowds are made up of irascible individuals, but tend to become stoical as groups, for a little while anyway. When I lived through the transit strikes in France exactly ten years ago ? at exactly the same time of year, too ? I thought that the Parisian willingness to endure it more or less uncomplainingly, even though a willingness to endure things more or less uncomplainingly is not typically a Parisian virtue, was the consequence of the old French traditions of sympathy with syndicalism. I'm now inclined to think that it's a more universal trait: at first, at least, we treat acts of man as acts of god, to be borne. The strike, for all the suffering it's causing, does have a snowstorm-like effect on the city. On some avenues the traffic is running bumper to bumper for hours, but elsewhere, where cars are banned outright ? so that a few avenues can be saved for emergency vehicles; I am slow on the uptake, and it took me a while to figure that out ? the effect is calming and nearly pastoral.
Last night, however, our family was compelled into virtuous cultural action; Martha, my wife, rose from her sick bed to accompany my son's fifth grade class out to Brooklyn, where they had long-held tickets to see an original-instruments, all-male version of Measure for Measure (all-male for Elizabethan authenticity, I mean). They car-pooled with other class mothers and kids, and we got steady every-ten-minute or so cell-phone calls from them as they inched along the FDR drive and across the bridge, a half-hour drive ending up taking about two. Anything for the Bard, such is the motto of my son's fifth-grade, even the long trip to Brooklyn in a transit strike.
The six-year-old and I, impelled into our own cultural hi-jinks, decided to go see Pride and Prejudice a few blocks away on 86th street. Actually, I pressed her to see P & P; she wanted to go see the Narnia movie for the third time. She identifies completely with Lucy, the overlooked little girl who leads the way to Narnia. She shares none of my announced Narnia-scruples; the cobbler's children have no shoes, and the critic's children have no crabby opinions, or at least not the crabby opinions of the critic. Pride and Prejudice was actually an easy sell, though, since it stars Keira Knightley, whom she knew and liked from Bend It Like Beckham, her favorite movie, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
P and P was fine; at least the ever-beautiful Keira looked more ravishing than ever as a brunette, though that slightly rabbity, toothy moue she does would be just as winning as she thinks it is if she did it half as often as she thinks she needs to. But, though I should have known this from my friend Anthony Lane's review, still I was shocked by how Bronteized the movie was! It has a very lovely German Romantic design, all moonlight and plaintive women at windows, but how wrong they are for the story. In the war between sense and sensibility, after all, Jane Austen is entirely on the side of sense ? her peculiar genius was to make sense seem sexier than sensibility ever does. But having Lizzie as an romantic heroine, staring out at the windswept ? well, not moors, but moorish things seen from mountaintops ? deprives the whole story of its motive, since Lizzie is just as outraged by Lydia and Wickham's running away as Darcy or the Countess or anyone else, and even more relieved when they are made respectable by Darcy's money. It ends with Darcy muttering at Lizzie, "Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy...." just like Danny Kaye in the dream sequence in Hans Christian Anderson. (Though in that one, obviously, he mutters "Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Anderson???" I have never had the chance to do this, since the one condition that my own Lizzie made on agreeing to marry me was never to have to use my name.) In the long, slow Wuthering Heights, or Lows, of the movie, we could hear the witch sneering in the Narnia movie and the dragon roaring in Harry Potter movie in the little theaters on either side of us, and I felt a touch guilty for dragging the baby to this one. But she sat rapt and upright, watching, right through.
And she seemed to enjoy it on the whole. "What was the moral of that movie, would you say?" I asked, as we walked together on the silent streets on our way out, with what I hope she knew was slightly mock sententiousness. "Get to know people," she said immediately, "Get to know people before you think you know them. But that's not, like, a moral, really, Dad, that's more, like, advice, Get to know people before you think you, like, know them. A moral is, like, Be wise." Then she glided away from me on her Heelys, down the busless street. I thought she had a real point about Jane Austen there; Austen makes moral drama out of material that we don't usually think of as belonging to the realm of morality. She makes what look like questions of manners into questions of morality, questions of the conduct of the table into questions of the choices of the heart, and shows us that manners in the end are really just the surfacing of morality. (I was startled, in the credits of the film, to see that Jenny Uglow was listed as historical advisor; she's the author of the wonderful Lunar Men, an account of the brave radicals, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood and a few others, who kept science alive in the English north while it suffered in the paranoid Napoleonic years elsewhere on the island. It is one of the books I kept with me even after my long book tour; it makes you feel echoingly radical just for owing a set of Wedgwood coffee cups.)
# # #
My sister Alison has a long thing about children and fantasy in Slate: we are becoming an on-line family, full of hyper-texts and cross references. Her point is that a fantasy story is less like an escape with dark symbols and more like a theory with rich ideas. Certainly writing The King in the Window, I was conscious that the machinery which came naturally, my own version of the marvelous ? the war of windows and mirrors, the sudden intercession of the shadows (to give away a plot point, but then it's Christmas, a time for giving ), the world of lost souls and brave wraiths ? welled up from inside. The "manners" of the book, its effects, are not exactly at odds with the moral of the book ? that of all things in this world or any other, thinking is best ? but it is at an angle to it. This ought to have been a contradiction but never felt like one to me ? well, it wouldn't to me, but hasn't seemed so either to the many children who have written to me about it. (Their critiques fall on other questions.) Children know that a machinery of the marvelous is a machinery, a thought-up thing, and that the power of thought-up things, even highly magical ones, is, in the end, a demonstration of the power of thought. The mind is the one great Heely we all possess, to glide away from the grown-up care.