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.


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.


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




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?


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



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.


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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A Modern Desultory Philippic


There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.


All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.


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Losing Faith in Democracy


Democracy In Retreat:The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, by Joshua Kurlantzick

This is more of a treatise than a piece of literary nonfiction, and as with most such pieces of writing, the overlong title virtually tells the story. The author has done an admirable job of collecting data and anecdotes to support his thesis here, which is one of high hopes dashed.

The U.S., he writes, has been the primary nation actively trying to export democracy, and perhaps too zealous in doing so. His concern isn’t our misadventures in Vietnam, South America and more recently, Iraq. Instead, it’s our more peaceful efforts to create democracies around the world. However, there has been altogether too much emphasis on the various electoral processes in doing so, and too little emphasis on policies, including the educational, to support permanent democratic reform. As a result, many democracies of the twentieth century have failed, returning those countries to oligarchies, dictatorships, or other, more repressive forms of representative government.

The poor, of course, have borne the primary disappointments here, but in many countries, it’s the middle classes that have become disenchanted with the democratic process. In all too many cases, upsetting the status quo has shrunken and disturbed the middle classes, which were both part of the ladder of societal ascendance and a buffer between poor and rich, between the disenfranchised and the powerful. Much of the frustration, in the author’s opinion, has been that more repressive societies, such as China, seem to achieve economic success while many democratic countries founder economically due to the decision-making inefficiencies of most democratic states.

To this reader, the author spends too much time citing one case history after another and too little trying to map our way out of this quagmire. Still he does a service in tacitly insisting that perhaps democracy is a product of social evolution – little more than a mere accident in the establishment of the U.S.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars


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Poverty and Violence


Literature is rarely taught or even thought of as a socio-political device, but it often is, has been since Homer. The best writers are the best, most legitimate observers of society, and Cormac McCarthy has been the best of both in recent years of these United States. In his novel, Child of God (click for a previous review), he grapples with the consequences of generations of abject Southern poverty, a poverty from which there seems no escape. As these generations of the poor wear on, violence becomes the overwhelming consequence, the only escape from servile humiliation.

What’s the answer to such lives? McCarthy, correctly, doesn’t say; that’s not the novelist’s responsibility. His responsibility is only to pose the problem.

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Find Truth, Tell It



With today’s media having been gobbled up by bottom-line-must-be-in-the black types, it’s hard for the book game to cultivate writers, and so we must do it ourselves. As I implied in this early post, writers have always found it hard to comment on their various societies, their foibles, their fledgling promise. We feel the pressure of politics, religion, and customs, aspects that support creaking social structures and deter us from looking at the unvarnished truths of our world. But this we must do; the power of the written word endures while politicians, preachers, and purveyors of the status quo wither and turn to dust. We writers and the fruits of our labors are the closest thing to immortality available in this evanescent world.

So be strong, writers. Don’t be swayed by the temporary comforts of politics, of religion and custom. Tell the truth, as you see it. Even though we’re mere chroniclers, our dedication to Truth, as Plato would have termed it, will outlast them all.


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