For Whom the Bell Tolls – A Review

There is a certain amount of nostalgia and some sadness in Hemingway’s best novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. How could there not be? It’s about the Spanish Civil War; that most terrible of events pitting the bad against the equally bad. The story is simple, the tale of an Englishman (actually an American, but we don’t know that till the end) who ends up fighting on the side of the communists (republicans?) against the fascist (monarchist? religionist?) government. His task? Blow up a bridge. His conflict? A sudden and growing romance with Maria; some existential conflicts about the meaning of the war; the desire to die a purposeful death that is also painless.

So shoot me, but I’ve now read quiet a lot of Hemingway (including A Movable Feast) and I think the challenge I have with his writing is that he is not an intellectual. His books are simple and straightforward, without nuance or any sense of understanding or any real exploration of the inner lives of the characters. His style is clean and crisp, built on simplicity and momentum not the infinite digressions that usually accompany literary fiction. There are many people who like this – I am just not one of them.

The closest Hemingway gets in this novel to giving Jordan a personality is the last four pages of the book where, after an accident that leaves him unable to move, he is providing cover for his fellow revolutionaries and waiting to die. Those pages are to a degree poetic and I found them charming, if the end somewhat abrupt and without resolution. The rest I found rather tedious.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this novel. Spain is a lovely place, full of history and significance and the civil war which rent asunder her social fabric in a time not too long ago was noteworthy in its violence and brutality but also in it being one without good guys. We are accustomed, we from America, to thinking of civil wars as an epic effort of violence to expunge that which is vicious from society; our own expiatory war the prime example – the violence which atoned once and for all time of the ‘original sin’ of slavery. The Spanish Civil War had nothing of this narrative. The fascists – who can like them? Backed by Hitler, wicked and violent and thick. But the communists, with their political project dripping with blood and a slavery more wicked than even our own? Well, those obviously aren’t the good guys either. Hemingway doesn’t go into any of this in the novel, at least in any meaningful way. There is nothing political (or at least intellectually so) about Hemingway’s writing that would make one believe he considered the implications of a war without heroes. But the novel does let us think about war; about its consequences; and above all it reminds us that it is to be avoided. This is not a novel that glorifies war, and for that – at least – I am grateful.

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Free Copies of Two of My Novels: From #Amazon

So I realized I have some free e-copies of “The Burning of San Porfirio” and “Lords of Misrule” to give away. You can get “Misrule” here; and click here for “The Burning”.

Or you can go to comments to get a free giveaway link.

First come first serve!! Enjoy.


 

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Those Slaveries Old and New

There’s an odd sort of current running through western progressive movements these days. Maybe one-hundred fifty years ago it would have been called a specter. It might be better summarized as a “revenge project”, as Michael Anton writes. But revenge for what? I have been spending some time in the former Soviet Union. The only places where communism took hold, if incompetently and under intense brutality. Marx’s real target – western Europe (England mostly, but perhaps Germany and France) were not susceptible to the infection for the simple fact that life was improving so dramatically during the industrial revolution that people believed the best path to the well-being of their children was to work hard. It is a historical fact that the reason communism (Lenin) was successful in the Russian Empire was Nicholas Romanov’s dogged and ill-advised decision to double down on feudalism and serfdom even while the rest of the countries of Europe were abandoning those slaveries old and new.

The rapid industrialization of Stalin was offering the peasants something they never had before nor could ever have hoped to attain; theater, opera, books to read, some health care, a break from the land, a job. Entertainment of sorts. To be sure, at the expense of freedom – but had people in Tsarist Russia ever been free? If the choices are between two types of slavery, one which offers a Charles Dickens novel and a chance at the ballet and the other which offers only the potato fields, which would you choose? Of course that is a fools choice, but often in life that is the only choice on offer.

I have been accustomed to ‘Banana Communism’ (my terminology, but you may use it) – that is to say communism which occasionally seizes third world tropical countries; Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba – Tanzania in the past; Angola for a season. Life behind the ‘Banana Curtain’ does not resemble that behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. It lacks the discipline, the sense of purpose, and most importantly it is coming from a very different place. Populism, largess from public coffers for ‘pan y circo’ – bread and circus. Fiscal indiscipline and revenge. It is not about rapid industrialization or national greatness. It is not about a great leap into the future, albeit a misguided one. These countries already have super-malls and five star hotels and theaters and public parks and universal primary education. It is instead a great leveling process. It is Khmer Rouge or Shining Path; the murder of all those with glasses or who can distinguish between the letters G and H. It is about revenge. That giant banana slug found when we pull back the peel. But revenge for what? Venezuela before Chavez was a land of beer and beach and parties. “…by far the most sinister feature of post-1960s leftism – the one that feeds all the others – is the spiritual sickness, the self-loathing and existential despair, with which it has infected the formerly confident and capable West,” as writes Anton. Or, from my favorite movie set in one of my favorite places, Tombstone, “What makes him (cowboy leader Johnny Ringo) do the things he does?” asks Wyatt Earp, to which Doc Holliday responds, “A man like Ringo has a great empty hole through the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.”

So it strikes me as odd that it is in fact banana communism which is on offer these days in the United States. A revenge project, as Anton writes. But revenge for what? And against whom? We are told that everything is about oppression – say those who feel empowered to bully their teachers and parents and employers and security forces and even the world’s most powerful man. “But how do we get oppression?” they ask, the start of their quest for the villains. Their answer, the evil starts as a tiny seed benign and un-noteworthy, preference. Because it is that preference which leads to prejudice which leads to racism and bigotry in a straight line to discrimination followed by oppression. Therefore, the new Marxists are always on the hunt for oppressors who show any preference for anything—especially if it is one’s own culture, one’s own food, one’s own music. These are dangerous signs of a coming bigotry and must be expunged.” As I have written.

The irony is not lost on me, though it is on them, that it is the elites who are the most vocal. Just like in the October Revolution or the Cuban Revolution, those living their lives are rarely consulted – though often they do get caught up in the madness. A good revenge plot is hard to turn down; free stuff, who would say no to that? I have also spent long periods in Africa, in five different civil wars. Africans, the folks who our progressives say are at the center of their revenge projects, are not vengeful at all. Most understand that history and time move about in waves of violence and injustice and opportunity – and are desperate for a chance at theirs (opportunity that is), for themselves and for their children. “Can I go to America?” asks the cab driver and the day laborer. “I know I could make it there!” And against whom are these revenge plots to be enacted? – because I myself am at the center of the progressive bulls-eye: the color of my skin, my sex, my faith, my politics. But am I an oppressor…? me who has spent 10 years trying to end African wars (and through great personal  hardship) – whose ancestor arrived in America fleeing English poverty just in time only to fight for the Union Armies to free the slaves; a war not his, for a crime not of his making, but nevertheless a destiny of his choosing – because he knew that in America all good things could be built.

It’s all very confusing, isn’t it? My message, my lesson to those who would throw down a banana curtain over top Trump’s new wall – to keep people in, not out, as all socialist projects end. Read, travel, learn. Talk to people you do not agree with, make common cause with injustices you do not favor, and allow the temperate hand of time and experience to lead you to wisdom. Because we really don’t want your banana communism; and I’ll let you in on a secret; if you were to succeed, you would be the artifice of your own destruction. Because the devil once released is very hard indeed to contain.

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“The Golden Fleece” – Stories from the Caucuses

caucuses

It is in the dark forests of our world where often the stories are born. It was in the great wooded areas of Bavaria where the brothers Grimm discovered and catalogued the ancient tales for their eponymous “fairy tales”. So too in the Caucuses, where the ancient silvan paths produced tales of the interplay between the peasants and the kings and the wicked supernatural Divs. But the stories of the Caucuses are older, long long before the brothers walked the black forests of northern Europe. These are the lands of Jason and his Argonauts, a story which was old even when Homer was penning the Iliad. Are they the first stories? Perhaps.

What struck me about the collection of Caucasian stories in “The Golden Fleece” is how universal they are. The struggles of average man in prehistory against the forces which sought to oppress him and take from him his happiness and prosperity. The wickedness of the kings. Love for a beautiful girl; the bounty of a great harvest; the joy of a celebration when chance or destiny has again delayed destruction. The Divs, magical creatures which might be demons or djinn and exist in all cultures and which were always causing mischief for the poor people of the lands.

Some of the stories had adapted to include Islamic terms and ideas as that religion subsumed what had been before and seized control parts of the Caucuses. Some remained steadfastly animist, without any hint of modern religion. Two of the stories intrigued me, because they appeared to be early versions of Rapunzel and of Snow White – making me wonder if the source for these tales was farther east and they traveled with the movement of peoples. Something for further study.

I recommend reading this book – it is through the ancient legends of people by which we can understand them better and make common cause with their timeless ideas and struggles. That is called wisdom.

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Cakes and Ale

For those who don’t understand #BREXIT, a simple solution would be to immerse themselves in W. Somerset Maugham. In his flowing prose rests the fine nostalgia of an England of yesteryear, an England as things were – for years and years, centuries even. Nostalgia is often given a bad reputation; it is seen especially nowadays as a safe-haven for those to flee who would rest unhindered in their prejudices. Just as the past is told of as a wicked place; longing for it, remembering it fondly, yearning for the way things were is the act of a bent man in denial of the perfect progressiveness unto now.

But, of course, that is not true. Those are the opinions of the young and the foolish. For nostalgia is nothing except that special polish which wipes away the rough edges of the past until it is smooth to the touch, gentle and lovely. Like a diamond, old and formed under tremendous pressure, taken and sanded down and cut until it sparkles timeless and perfect in the imaginations of men – so to W. Somerset Maugham’s stories of England. An England that people are still willing to defend, to fight for – an England who saw its way to two World War victories by men, sons of England all who would not give up on her so easily; and, in that, who do not see going out to vote as too great a sacrifice to again defend what they find good in themselves. Even despite – or perhaps especially – when they are told with such vehemence that it was never so; and worse, by those who themselves did not fight.

“Cakes and Ale”, my latest Maugham, is about that England. It is full of the scandals of the old lands. Illicit affairs; imperfect marriages; bankruptcy and divorce and even violence. And it is full of writers – it is a reminder that old England was created as much by its novelists as by its Lords; that we speak just as often of Tennyson and Shakespeare as we do of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria. Villages, towns with houses made of peat and reverberating with the memories of things that have not changed forever; of people who see just as much suspicion as opportunity in the salesmanship of those preaching progress – who know that behind the golden words of the propagandists lies just as likely chaos as does utopia; and in knowing so strive to preserve an order old and time worn and comfortable to the touch, even if it does at times constrain.

Yes, those who are confused about what has happened to their best laid plans for change might ought to read “Cakes and Ale”, “Human Bondage” and “Painted Veil” before they go and try and burn down something they do not yet understand.

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Different Idealisms and Many Types of Lords

“Joel D. Hirst’s masterpiece is a worthy best-selling novel brimming with poignant lessons about idealism, culture, and religion. It begs us to examine the current state of the world today, a world so divided by different idealisms and misruled by many types of lords. Hirst uses language as flavorful and vibrant as the culture in the Sahara but without giving in to unnecessary theatrics. The result is an extremely satisfying literary experience.” – read the entire review here.


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In Places Like Grenoble

Grenoble

Grenoble: the day after yesterday

Grenoble is quiet.  It reverberates with the muted echoes of a past of great significance; a famous novelist on tiptoes. An ancient soldier whose lance is set aside in a place of honor leaning against the wall in a darkened corner of a once-imposing castle which is now an art gallery for third-best works; ones which still resonate with history, though nobody can remember the artist.

There are no tourists in Grenoble – it is a university town and a research town and a town people pass through quickly on their way to the ski slopes of the French Alps or to Geneva on some business of international import. Tourists in modern times have become the ratification of meaning, of a past of consequence in a world where those things do not matter anymore. Sure they are insufferable, with their Instagram likes and their selfie sticks – but they do ease the silence of now.

Grenoble is utopian, in the way of an old sanatorium hidden away in the cleft of a mountain beside a river. It is safe and old and protected by so great a welfare state as the French have tried to build in response to the millennia of war after war. Crumbling a little bit, gritty and kind of run-down but full of the people and their memories of when things were happening – wars being fought, occupations, trials, discoveries, tribulations; kings and dauphines and plagues. To be sure, nobody wants to repeat the turbulence (except perhaps the young, who never lived the momentous occasions and think perhaps in their heart of hearts that those times would have filled the gaping caverns in their spirits. But there are fewer and fewer of them – the young I’m referring to, not the holes), for it was after all quiet stressful. But the quiet of now is so all-consuming…

Despite all this there is something comforting and nostalgic about walking through the ancient alleyways of Grenoble’s old town. It is as if there, the answer to the question “What next?” has at last been articulated; and while it is not a satisfying one, for it lacks energy and purpose, at least it has the benefit of being tangible and true and really not so bad after all the posturing and peacocking of places that still seek their own significance, that still believe utopias are to be achieved in defiance of the deafening silence of now in places like Grenoble.

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