Monday, June 18, 2007

24 hours in DC, then back to Paris

This is somewhat mad, I agree, a twenty four hour detour from London to DC and back to Paris. I have been teaching in my law school's Europe program this summer, just having spent a very lovely week in London. The students in this year's program are excellent, attentive despite the obvious distractions of London. I'm here with my wife, daughter, and our niece, a student at BYU who has just announced her engagement. We've done some plays, some museums, all the usual tourist stuff.

In addition, my younger brother is a seventh or so year associate in tax and private equity in London at Debevoise and Plimpton, and we have had a rare chance to hang out with him and his filmmaker wife, in between her filmmaking (and filmmaking money raising trips) to her native Hong Kong. We spent a nice evening at their Islington apartment eating Kit's fabulous duck, a marvelous chocolate-pear tart and listening to the trubo-charged folk-rock of their ukelele band, in which Kit plays one of eight ukeleles and John plays fretless bass guitar and also serves as producer and mixer and recording engineer. The band has been playing weddings and some arts festivals. If you think that ukeleles are just these little twangy things - like I did - you - we - are greatly misinformed.

I also had a chance to have coffee with Anthony Dworkin, an old friend and editor of the Crimes of War Project website. I was legal editor of the original Crimes of War book, under the general editors Roy Gutman and David Rieff, and Anthony, a journalist and writer who has gradually emerged as a leading expert in these areas, is bringing out a second edition of that book in August 2007. A lot has changed - the important areas of emphasis have changed - of course since the first edition in 1998. If you have the first edition, you need the second edition, and if you haven't seen it at all, you should check it out at the end of the summer - it is one of the most handsome books in the area, well written and expertly edited, and with fabulous illustration and design. Anthony is one of the smartest writers in the general area of security, laws of war, etc., and I hope that he puts all the work he has done over the past decade into a book on the general question of American policy and international law.

Alas, John Ryle was in Sudan this week, not London, and Philip Bobbitt was traveling someplace else too.

Meanwhile, I am actually in DC as I write this, not London. Family went on to Paris, and the students went on to Brussels, where I am not teaching. I have returned to DC for a meeting with folks from the Hoover Institution on counterterrorism policy. I then get on a plane and return to Paris tonight, in time to teach on Tuesday. Crazy schedule, yes, but I thought the meeting was a very important one for my work and writing. In Paris - besides the usual tourist things - I plan to go on a special search for French chocolate, admire in the bookstores first editions I can't afford of Blaise Cendrars and Rene Char, and see the exhibit at the National Library on the centenary of the birth of Rene Char. And purchase another copy in French of Leaves of Hypnos, which has somehow disappeared.

On the airplane back to DC, I read and finished a really funny, viciously sweet, British novel by the London writer AA Gill, Starcrossed. It is explicitly a rewrite - a very, very explicit rewrite - of that sappy 90s Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant romantic comedy, Notting Hill, complete with the American superstar Lee Montana ("rear of the year in fourteen countries, darling") and a London bookshop clerk and aspiring poet, John Dart. It is sexually punchy - I'd love to give it to my fourteen year old to show her that I can like chick-lit if done properly (well, in some alternate universe, maybe), but the sex is too lurid and nasty for her, or at least for Daddy to give to her, although not as much so as in AA Gill's also wonderful earlier London comedy of manners, Sap Rising. It's vicious and tellingly bitchy in many of its asides and social observations; Gill is an expert, so far as I can tell as a non-English outsider, at English comedy of manners. Yet in the end, though, despite all Gill's efforts, and the efforts of the reviewers, to show that he is a nasty prick and misanthropic, even misogynist novelist (this novel did win the bad sex award, and with good reason), he is a romantic, indeed a sentimentalist, who can't resist a sweet and happy ending - think The Red and the Black as farce with a happy, Hollywood ending to the battles between Julian and Mathilde. I thought it was both hysterically funny as well as rather wise on the question of romance and celebrity. I was actually moved, to my own surprise, by the way in which Gill wrapped the last third of the novel into a sort of take on Antigone, and ended the book with a speech by the Chorus - maybe it was just too long a plane ride, but I found myself thinking back to that fabulous production of Oedipus Rex at the ART at Harvard a couple of years ago that I saw by accident on a free evening passing through Cambridge MA in 2004. (Ms. Montana is in London because she has rather unwisely decided to show the world that she can do serious, RSC theatre, even cast as Antigone, with interesting results.) I was also taken with the fact that, against considerable odds, Gill himself is still quite in love with the idea of poetry, even contemporary poetry, and literature as actually revelatory of something in the human condition. Anyway, I liked it (interesting - I find myself saying that rather defensively), whereas Notting Hill made me cringe with embarrassment, it was so sappy.

(The earlier book, Sap Rising, elicited squeals of delight in some quarters and howls of protest in others, which made for a remarkable set of jacket reviewer quotes. The Guardian: "Do not buy this book." Evening Standard: "He writes so brilliantly." AN Wilson: "Extremely badly written, hideously and unamusingly obscene." Marie Claire: "A clever, sexy story." New Statesman: "Frightful pile of garbage." ... Well, perhaps the TLS got it exactly right: "This is a dirty book.")

Okay. Off to my meeting and then back to Paris.

(Ps so here's more about Gill, from a Guardian interview, here.)

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