American Masturbation

Alan Coren

  • Thy Neighbour’s Wife by Gay Talese
    Collins, 568 pp, £7.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 00 216307 1

Like most people with a Polish grandfather. I used to hang around a lot waiting for him to say something wise. Born in 1885, surviving until 1978, he looked, certainly during his last decade, like the repository of all the aggregated arcana of Central Europe: squat, neckless, ice-eyed and almost entirely silent, he spent his latter days sitting in a burgundy moquette fauteuil, gazing out at the Manor House traffic-lights, while who knew what flickered and crackled across his ancient synapses. Give or take the odd skin-tone, he might have been a displaced lama waiting for the Chinese to get out of Tibet, so that he could go back home and live forever. Unfortunately, he was very dumb. He passed nothing on to his heirs, or to their heirs, because he didn’t know anything. It was perhaps the most interesting thing about him: I have never met anyone who was simultaneously so old and so ignorant. Yet for all that, there was one occasion on which he actually came across with the goods: an authentic axiom, a shimmering aperçu, a musical saw.

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