Our Belle Époque Blows

This last summer I was passing through Washington DC on my way out west; and during my layover I took a few hours to visit with an old friend. It was a warm summer morning as we sat on the outside furniture of the hotel patio drinking coffee and talking, as we always do, about topics far and wide. That day we kept circling back to the same theme, the wasteland that America’s literary scene has become. Oh, I don’t mean there aren’t writers – there are more than ever. And I don’t mean there isn’t talent, that is always there; even in such unlikely places as oxygen-less soviet Russia.

Our remunerations were more on the nouveau aloneness of writing.

Gone are the days of a hungover Hemingway wandering into “Shakespeare and Company” to commiserate with Ezra Pound and Sylvia Beach; the smell of pigeon still on his breath.


Accidentally bumping into Paul Gauguin and Henry Matisse beside the Seine painting over-and-over again the same foul waters. Fighting with F. Scott Fitzgerald over prose. Taking an angry drive down to the Riviera to drink absinthe as an excuse for the madness and the folly of those times; all sponsored by the powerful, rich yet colorless aristocrats who subsidized the erratic lives of those authors and artists as a way to enliven their own dull lives.

Where can I find the pub where those of us who want to can go listen to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as they get drunk on warm English beer and argue about religion and faith and its role in literature?


Alas, the answer is unsatisfying. Because nowadays that contest happens on social media. Creepy people stalking each other in “Secret” Facebook group pages, hitting ‘like’ as the greatest expression of our artistic passion – or that new little frowny face as the ultimate articulation of our rage. Authors are famous for their emotional outbursts – are they not? Dramatically hitting “frowny, frowny, frowny” as our definitive act of antimony. Crawling out of bed in our tiny condos to walk over and switch on the laptop, stopping for a bowl of Cheerios before we dive into our online worlds; sigh. I have become nostalgic for the days of dressing up, elegant balls and late-night trysts and the midnight motorcar rides with like-minded enemies; Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez drunkenly brawling in a Madrid bar – never to speak again.

And I think of my other virtual author ‘friends’, who I’m sure would agree with my assertion that our generation’s Belle Époque sucks. They, I’m sure, also ask that most prescient of questions: where are the generous sponsors of art-for-arts-sake? The nobles and aristocrats and elites whose drawing rooms overflowed with novelists and poets in the books of W. Somerset Maugham? The answer – such as it is – is that now they fund politics, the rich colorless people do. The Koch brothers supporting cardboard online ‘journals’ and George Soros pouring money into amplifying the whines and temper-tantrums of the unenlightened. To be sure, the government hasn’t helped – not that it should. Filling out those online applications for funding at the ironically named “National Endowment  for the Arts” where my application, filled out in triplicate upon carbon paper and stamped with the appropriate seals and signatures, is analyzed by a bureaucrat for whether I am of the requisite gender, race, minority and political background to be considered. As if a government bureaucrat can identify art; as if that’s what the government should be doing in the first place.

To say nothing of the “publishing houses” that produce volume after volume of Clive Cussler and Dan Brown for the lining of their pockets and at the expense of the next generation of great American novels. Is there anywhere for us to go, in a generation where the world’s greatest literary prize, the Nobel, is gifted to a wealthy peddler of three-minute-jingles? I often wonder if Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Edgar Allen Poe and Jean Paul Sartre would have made it in the world of Harry Potter?

Back to my friend – invariably our conversation drifted into the territory of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if only’. I do have a ‘what if’, perhaps it’s actually more of an ‘if only’. So here goes: there’s a remarkable hotel in the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes. At about 12,000 feet, it was built in the 1600s by the Franciscans as a monastery and a refuge for travelers, sitting as it does equidistant between the sweltering valley below and the great colonial city of Merida; upon a footpath that was haunted by the ancient ghosts of that old place, making night travel impossible. The wary travelers would move expeditiously up the path to wait out the perilous night under the protection of the monks; then on they would go the next morning. It is a magical place.


Such an impact did it have on my imagination that it figures prominently in my 2nd novel, “The Burning of San Porfirio”.

‘If only’ I sold ten million novels, or a movie was made of “Lords of Misrule”. If only I had the wherewithal to sponsor my own époque; I’d buy that monastery and turn it into the epicenter of a new literary movement – we’d call it the époque de liberté. Sitting around the wood-paneled bar at the ceiling of the world nestled in a crevice in the Andes, fighting out the ideas of liberalism and talent and authority – faith and freedom and religion. ‘If only’, of course, Venezuela itself hadn’t become a totalitarian dictatorship.

Now wouldn’t that be better than sitting in ruffled pajamas with day-old coffee in a Santa Clause mug staring at your Facebook account?

‘If only…’

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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9 Responses to Our Belle Époque Blows

  1. pjlazos says:

    I hesitate to “like” this post as you may mistake my liking for triviality. I, too, long for that kind of writerly connection. We’ve become an isolationist society and writers are just another casualty. Growing up, we’d gather with my Greek relatives and argue about life in all its conundrums until throats were raw. That kind of discourse is what moves society – heck, the world – forward, and without it, we are just automatons, destined to live a soulless life. Sad for us all.


  2. Pingback: On Fate and Writing | Joel D. Hirst's Blog

  3. Pingback: Borges | Joel D. Hirst's Blog

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