Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway

 

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With some trepidation I knocked at Ernest Hemingway’s door and waited. And waited. Had I waited much longer I would have left, knowing his short fuse with reporters and lesser writers. With research we had found that the rap on Papa was that he was incredibly knowledgeable on a wide number of subjects, that he might regale me with some longwinded thing about fishing. And if he’d been drinking he was Henry VIII incarnate. All of our misgivings proved of no consequence, though; he’d been writing and, of course, not drinking.

He walked on the veranda, a glass of vermouth and crushed ice in his hand, a Panama hat perched back, and actually a bit earthy with his native aroma. He’d been fishing, as it turned out, and cleaning fish with a couple of his favorite crewmen. We shook hands, he smiled, and after a few icebreakers, our brief interview began.Throughout our brief time there, we found him cheerful, engaging, and helpful to this blogger. Until I mentioned passionless writing.

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GF – We’re doing a series on modern novelists writing without passion, and –

EH – Passion? Writing without passion? Jesus, man, how is that even possible?

GF – We’re in an era that’s been dubbed postmodern. And in this era, you see, technique rules.

EH – No shit! And is there some school these writers go to to learn this?

GF – Yes. There are hundreds of writing programs out there now, and technique is the main thing they’re taught.

EH – My god. I was being ironical in asking that.

GF – Well, sir, that’s the writing life these days, and –

EH – People buy this claptrap? And don’t say sir to me. I’m not a politician or a banker. Everybody here calls me Papa.

GF – In dwindling numbers, yes. But if we could return to the subject of passion…

EH – Papa. Say it.

GF – All right. Papa. (At this point a young woman appeared, whispered something, and left. He quickly informed me that a journalist from Cuba was waiting and asked if we could cut the talk short.) Can you give me, quickly then, your views on passion in the novel.

EH – Damn right I will! Send these kids to war, and if not war, send them into the seediest parts of any town and make them live there for a year, two years, as long as it takes for them to get it through their highly educated heads that that’s where passion is. On the battlefield! In the ghettos! In fact, how the hell do they have any stories without seeing how man treats his fellow man? Christ, what do you have out there, a bunch of Scott Fitzgeralds?

GF – The last few minutes of his response were profanity-laced, little of which would have contributed to passion in writing. I didn’t tell him I speak a little Spanish, and as I left, he was ranting to the Cuban journalist about the nincompoop that had informed him that writers in his era were putting out passionless writing. And people were buying it!

 

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The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Discontents

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If you don’t believe language is malleable, go back to original publications of the U.S.’s Civil War era and notice the differences in diction from then to now, the spellings, capitalization practices, and of course, punctuation. Slip back in time to the era of the French Revolution, find a really old copy of Victor Hugo’s work,  Les Miserables, and you’ll find in the work’s latter chapters where this malleability comes from.

But let’s talk punctuation here:

It was in the nineteenth century that the possessive of it contained an apostrophe, i.e., it’s, and sometime early in the twentieth the apostrophe slowly disappeared from standard usage. Still, it’s was taught as late as mid twentieth century. Even today, when the only accepted use of an apostrophe with it is a contracted it is, I still see it in informal letters and (gasp!) on the Internet.

Some things, like it’s, stubbornly remain in informal usage, while others such as the possessive of nouns ending in s are downright schizophrenic. I, for instance, refuse to knuckle under to today’s common usage of the possessive of such nouns as s’s. When I see a possessive of nouns ending in a double s (ss) as ss’s, it looks for all the world like a typist went to sleep with middle finger on the s key. So I stick, for the most part to s’.

And then there’s the Oxford comma.

I was taught to use it, but I didn’t know why, and when it began slipping from standard usage I stubbornly stuck with it. To compound matters, when I first heard of it, I thought it was a Southern thing, originating in Oxford, Mississippi. Not so. It had its early usage at Oxford University in England. Most of what you’ll care to know about its beginnings and evolution you’ll find here. It almost disappeared from use, and then reared its squiggly head in the aftermath of a lawsuit in Maine. It’s undeniable that it provides more clarity, and it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

There are other squirrelly punctuation usages, but these are the ones that get my hackles up. So let’s resolve here: standard usage is subject to problems and, well, to time itself, so let’s use what makes the most sense in our writing.

 

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Consultation No. 3 – With John Steinbeck

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Here we are up to our ankles in yet another imagined conversation with an American writer whose work has been, and continues to be, acclaimed for the passion of his characters, even when he leaves them subject on occasion to a side-splitting, acerbic humor. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog,  has been dead some forty years on the date of this interview, and I thought it prudent to put that sad thought to rest early.

GF: First, sir, even as I express my gratefulness for your agreeing to this interview, you have our deepest sympathies. You have left Charley to us all for posterity.

JS: With a sad look toward his scuffed shoes – “Thank you. He was a dear friend and companion.”

GF: Some of your larger work is rightly accepted into the American literary canon, but I’m curious: you’ve written so many novellas, these largely eluding such recognition. Why?

JS: It’s one thing to have your work accepted for literary reasons, but to have Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath vilified by lowbrow politicians, and by doing so to excoriate me and my views of American life, is the cheapest of shots. Do you think I gained the personal popularity of writers such as Twain by my literary efforts? No! I was considered a subhuman being by politicians and the press because I professed to be a socialist, even a communist, and so – to answer your question – the novellas were relatively easy writes. I had to do them, for money to live on.

GF: After all these years, do you regret writing so many short novels?

JS: “Of course not. Not every long-winded novelist can compress the essence of a novel into two hundred pages.” Another look to his shoes. “The money, as I said. Besides, men don’t read enough; they don’t have the patience with story that women do. I wanted men to read more.”

GF: You were the best, in my opinion, at writing with such mood. You didn’t have to argue politics or social situation in your books; you let your characters speak their sadness and despair, their woundedness, even as they left your readers with hope.

JS: That hope, it’s the only thing that keeps this country going. We always believe things will be better tomorrow. We always look the other way at slavery, abusive labor, cheap wages, genocide of America’s first people, the raping of the land, and countless wars in hoping that something good will come of it all. And this hope you speak of: money, not human values, underscores it all.

GF: All right. But can you leave us with something of a positive note?

JS: With an incredulous look, he says, “But I have. My novels. The essays, the novellas, from A Cup of Gold to Cannery Row, should  continue to speak to generations of young readers who want desperately not to leave their enthusiasm and idealism behind in their pursuit of a decent life.

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Consultation No.2: With James Joyce

We were very excited to, through the magic of imagination, talk with James Joyce about his writing, how he climbed down from the rarefied atmosphere of a classical education to wallow in the morass of humanity, as he put it over the telephone during our first contact with him for this talk. We were able immediately to divine that he didn’t suffer fools, so we tiptoed cautiously into his life and writing.

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GFB: We understand that you were something for a rebellious student. (He held his cane between his legs as he considered the comment.)

JJ: Naughty, rather. Hardly rebellious. We would have bloody well felt the headmaster’s cane across our bums had we been outright rebellious.

GFB: There’s a difference, then.

JJ: Of course. We boys had no vision necessary for rebellion. We were simply feeling our oats, as you might have it, expressing without an objective, you see?

GFB: Yes, I think so, although I’ve never thought about the difference between the two as significant.

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JJ: Such ability to discriminate is the difference between a cultured intellect and robust ignorance. One of the few benefits we gained from our approach to learning at the time.

GFB: I see. So let me skip ahead and ask you, when was it that you first came to view literature as a vehicle for personal rebellion?

JJ: What? Are you daft? I never came to view such a thing. I assume – or shall I – that you’ve read my Dubliners stories? (He began to twirl his cane, as if agitated.)

GFB: Sure have. As have almost every secondary school student of my era.

JJ: (Here, he relaxed and offered a weak smile.) And there you’ve struck the correct note. My era is different from yours, yours will be from the subsequent one. It’s the persistence of social habits that drives later generations mad. And so we writers challenge modes of thinking in what we put to the page.  If we didn’t, and later generations saw much change in attitudes, habits, and education, then our children’s children would go mad. That’s the trouble with religion, as I see it.

GFB: Trying to fit old ways of thinking into new social circumstances?

JJ: Quite so. We of dawning generations must feel something, and were we to stick with the tried and true, we would be known only for our madness.

GFB: Certainly no writer wishes that.

JJ: It’s a human trait to need something to believe in, and when the gods of our beliefs decay and turn to dust, we become caricatures of human beings. There’s no life in us, then.

GFB: Thank you so much, Mr. Joyce, for your insights. You have indeed been a giant in twentieth century literature.

JJ: Balderdash! The times compel us to do what small things we do. Were we not to accept our lot, what would come of us? Of our world?

 

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Consultation 1: With Victor Hugo

 

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Note: Since I’ve gone out on a limb and blamed my boredom with (particularly) current American fiction on a sense of ennui on the part of the authors, this post begins a series of imaginary interviews with authors who did manage to pin down the passion of their time and commit that passion to characterization and story. I had planned to deal exclusively with American authors and their works, but I thought, Who better to start with than Victor Hugo and his monumental work, Les Miserables?

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GF: Monsieur Hugo…

VH: Please call me Victor, won’t you? It’s not often that someone calls me out from this temporary state of blissful abandon to answer to the future. Or Vic. Either way.

GF: All right, Vic…

VH: Second thought, let’s make it Victor.

GF: Victor, I thought of you immediately for this project, because you come from passionate people, you lived in a passionate era, and you wrote perhaps the most passionate book in the history of European novels.

VH: (A long pause) Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose I wouldn’t have put that way, but you’re quite right. The richness of the novel, the personages who inhabit these works of art are all built on an undercurrent of passion.

GF: Please go with that if you will.

VH: Of course. All passion is built on love, you see? Amour. Even when you despise the actions of the landed elite, something in you is crying out with love, not just for the downtrodden, but for the elite themselves.

GF: How so? With the elite, I mean.

VH: But don’t you see? Love and hate always coexist, but love is always the stronger. Love isn’t always as showy, as demonstrative as hate and its flaming fireballs. Quite simply it endures. Take for example, my opus, Les Miz, as the philistines among you call it, in which I have my countrymen take down our monarchy and its wicked domination of the poor.

GF: I understand you watched it happen as you wrote about it.

VH: (Winking and smiling) So they say. Quite journalistic, don’t you think?

GF: Sure was.

VH: Permit me to preemptively reply to your next comment. You were going to say you Yanks have problems with novels that are -ah – too instructive, shall we say.
GF: Yes.

VH: But this is where your country’s overarching lack of subtlety comes into play. It was the characters, my friend, the characters! They and they alone gave my story its passion. The revolution was merely a backdrop.

GF: But your characters rampaged. They destroyed, they murdered.

VH: Ah, yes, they did. For love of France, for one another, for the simple human freedoms denied them. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Without love each stood alone against an oppressive regime. With it, they were France.

GF: All right, I suppose I can concede your point. But you can’t do ghastly things and call it love.

VH:  Yes, yes. But love is at the basis of it, you see? Regardless of its distortions.

 

 

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LBJ – The President Who Would Be Loved

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Why the near-wholesale absence from blogging? Where have I been? A changing world demands changes of me, too, it seems, changes I can barely describe, and far  beyond the scope of this blog, this post in particular. The same can be said – in spades – of those chosen by whatever device to the leadership of nations.

Times and the events that create them either season the men and women involved in them  – or they destroy them. Such can be said of Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ, 36th president of these United States, who ascended to the vice-presidency at the request of John F. Kennedy and became president upon the assassination of that beloved president.

Movies about persons at the forefront of history are difficult. Such people  are complex and their movement through historical events is uneven. They make mistakes. Sometimes they’re metaphors for series of events beyond their control, and sometimes events occur by the force of these persons’ will.

Oliver Stone gravitates toward subterranean elements of history: conspiracies, psychological failings, personality weaknesses. Rob Reiner on the other hand takes a gentler tack, as he did with Primary Colors, the Clinton takeoff on that couple’s ascendence to power. His vision of LBJ is cut from that same cloth.

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Woody Harrelson gives an inspired performance as Johnson, eclipsing the subtler but still fine performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh as his wife Lady Bird (yes, that was her name), Richard Jenkins as Senator Richard Russell, and Jeffrey Donovan as John Kennedy.

The conflicted Johnson rose from the “Solid South” of that era, a group of states underscored by the Civil War, and ascendence at the beginning of the Civil Rights era supported by Kennedy. Harrelson’s foil wasn’t Donovan’s Kennedy in LBJ; Georgia’s Senator Russell was. Friends and fellow southerners, these two men grew apart over Civil Rights, quarreled famously, but LBJ became that legislation’s prevailing instrument.

Perhaps Harrelson’s finest moment in this film  is one he shares with  JFK’s brother Bobby. “Your brother loved me,” Johnson proclaims (I’m paraphrasing here), “why do you hate me? Why don’t you love me, too?” Alongside Harrelson’s dominating presence, Michael Stahl-David’s (Bobby’s) rebuttal that LBJ wasn’t on the right side of history, pales to a whisper. But John Kennedy had been on history’s correct side, and Johnson knew it.

Where Reiner’s view of Johnson’s presidency fails is in its giving short shrift to  Johnson’s legislative skills, which made Kennedy’s view of America’s new direction a reality. Still Reiner has assembled a fine cast and their portrayals of these persons’ roles in that era sparkle.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak

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I’m afraid I’ve become jaded.

Rarely do the newest of fiction and nonfiction books, and even poetry, speak to me as they once have. Lately I’ve had to force myself to read them, something you might glean from the rare reviews I’ve been posting. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I simply read too many books with recurring structures, the same-old character types, the obvious conflicts and resolutions?

Or is there something lacking in these recent, highly publicized books? Is this why reading them doesn’t excite me as they once did?

As a writer I’ve been on a crusade to adopt what I deem the most workable of the postmodern structures, but I will forever maintain that the story is paramount, whatever other tinkering I allow myself to do. We should realize that the term postmodern signifies a belief that modernity is ending, as far as literature goes, but that it says nothing about what replaces modernity in the society that literature reflects.

So am I being a curmudgeon when I diss a lot of the latest acclaimed writing? I don’t think so, really. I read other reviewers reactions to these novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc. What has been slowly emerging is a respect for the technicality of these literary efforts. Along with that, however, is a palpable dissatisfaction with some perhaps intangible thing in the books they try so hard to like and rave about.

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So, what to do?

My answer is to go back to the masters of the past century. Mine is not a sentimental desire for what once was – although there’s a lot of that in the sensibilities that surround us these days. But I don’t think Twain, James, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, et al, would have us dwell too long on the past. They didn’t, for the most part. But in reading those early works of modernity, you get a feel for the energy of their time, the way that energy affected lives. That’s what’s missing, I think; the passion of the moment in which we live.We writers need to be able to translate that energy, that passion, into characters and structures that all but dictate the story of our time.

And so what you’ll see of me here will for a time be my consultations with the mothers and fathers of twentieth century literature. I’ll write about their stories, but I’ll also try to speak to their underlying energy, the things that propelled those magnificent stories.

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