Book Review: The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante

The four-volume, 1,693 pages of Elena Ferrante’s masterpiece chronicles the childhood through to late adulthood of two women born in a poor quarter of Naples, Italy.

The novels progress from My Brilliant Friend (Childhood, Adolescence); The Story of a New Name (Youth); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Middle age); to The Story of a Lost Child (Maturity, Old Age).

The central characters are the narrator, Elena Greco (Lenu), and her childhood friend, Rafaela Cerullo (Lila). The story arc tracks the changes in their relationship against neighborhood poverty and violence, extended family ties, peer groups, and Italian social and political developments from the 1950s to the 2000s. It thoroughly examines the contrasting choices each makes: conformity and bookish study over fiery independence and rebellion, uncertainty versus confidence, and exploring the world beyond the neighborhood against immersion in it.

These contrasts are woven into a tapestry that incorporates over 50 major and minor characters, in addition to the two main protagonists.The Index of Characters provided at the start of each volume becomes a well-thumbed reference. A map of Naples might also help, but it isn’t necessary. Likewise, a knowledge of Italian politics and revolutionary movements in the 1960s and after. And an appreciation of shoe manufacturing, developments in data processing, and academic publishing.

External events are, however, very much secondary to the brilliant psychological insights and descriptions of female friendship, sexuality, motherhood, and the changing role of women in social and intimate relationships.

Above all, these novels shimmer and spark with prose that, in translation, leaps off the page and carries the reader from one breathless appreciation of Ferrante’s skill as a writer to another.

She was like the full moon when it crouches behind the forest and the branches scribble on its face.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.

The Story of a New Name

The opening of the first volume foreshadows the ending of the last: Lila has disappeared. So Lenu “turned on the computer and began to write–all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.” 1,690 pages later, the sequence of events that led to her friend’s disappearance has been fully described. But not necessarily explained. As convoluted as life, as unclear and contradictory, the plot twists and turns. The unexpected coexists with the pedestrian. The quotidian developments that shape character, the world through a child’s eyes:

Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.

My Brilliant Friend

In the end, the question remained in this reader’s mind: who *is* Elena Ferrante (a pen name), and to what extent is she Lenu? These books hint that as much remains hidden as revealed, leaving the reader wanting more, and then more, and then more:

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity.

The Story of a Lost Child

More than anything, I resonated with the theme of escape: from the confines of family and neighborhood, home and hearth. Embracing education as a pathway to freedom, then coming face to face with the realization we can never truly escape:

Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

What are you waiting for? Drop everything and launch yourself on the journey with My Brilliant Friend.

Book Review: Frankissstein, by Jeanette Winterson

ser·en·dip·i·ty, nounthe occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

Following my recent review of two books by Jeanette Winterson, I ordered a copy of her 2019 novel Frankissstein from the library. It was serendipitous, given my current fascination with AI and background in the computer industry. Winterson’s story begins with the incubation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 with her future husband the poet Shelley, his friend Byron, and his lover, Claire. Trapped indoors by endless rain, the nineteen-year-old Mary is inspired to write a story about a scientist who creates a new life-form. So far, so factual:

Shelley traveled through Europe in 1815, moving along the river Rhine in Germany, and stopping in Gernsheim, 11 miles away from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist had engaged in experiments. She then journeyed to the region of Geneva, Switzerland, where much of the story takes place. Galvanism and occult ideas were topics of conversation for her companions, particularly for her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1816, Mary, Percy, and Lord Byron had a competition to see who could write the best horror story. After thinking for days, Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein after imagining a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made.


This is but one theme. The story weaves details Shelley’s life – up to an including the deaths of her husband and Byron, with the Britain of the early 21st century, where Ry Shelley, a young transgender doctor falls in love with Victor Stein, a leading computer scientist championing AI and carrying out mysterious experiments in a network of tunnels beneath Manchester. Meanwhile, sleazy entrepreneur Ron Lord looks to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men.

Winterson’s genius is not just the obvious foreshadowing of AI that the early 19th century novel explored, but in the rich series of hints of the shape of things to come which, in 2019, perfectly encapsulates today’s debates about ChatGPT and other forms of AI:

She said, Machines that mimic a mind! Oh! Suppose such a thing should happen one day! Yes! Yes! Imagine, gentlemen, how it will feel if someone invents a LOOM that writes poetry….A POETICAL loom! An abacus of words. A rote poet…

p 136

But look at this! said Ada [Lovelace], lying flat on the floor and retrieving a piece of paper from underneath the contraption with castors that is to change the world. [Babbage’s Analytical Engine]

Yes! Look at this. It will amuse you…It purports to be a letter from Babbage about his latest invention: THE NEW MECHANICAL PATENT NOVEL-WRITER.

I perused the cartoon, and spoofs of testimonials from Mr Bulwer-Lytton and other famous writers:

I am now able to complete a 3-vol novel of the usual size, in the short space of 48 hours, whereas, before, at least a fortnight’s labour was requisite for that purpose…

p. 321


As in her other novels, Winterson’s prose has wonderful poetic passages. She writes of the hopes and fears lovers feel and the fractured possibilities of other lives:

He says, Imagine us. In another world. Another time. Imagine us: I am ambitious. You are beautiful. We marry. You are ambitious, I am unstable. We live in a small town. I am neglectful. You have an affair. I am a doctor. You are a writer. I am a philosopher, you are a poet. I am your father. You run away. I am your mother. I die in childbirth. You invent me. I can’t die. You die young. We read a book about ourselves and wonder if we have ever existed. You hold out your hand. I take it in mine. You say, this is the world in little. The tiny globe of you is my sphere. I am what you know. We were together once and always. We are inseparable. We can only live apart.

p. 161

From the intensely personal to the social and political, the novel straddles the history of computing (Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Alan Turning, Bletchley Park); the moral dilemma and mechanisms of sexbots; dehumanized life of the Industrial Revolution in Manchester; the Peterloo Massacre; women’s rights and lived experience, starting with Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her own experience of losing newborns; and, most succinctly, the experience of being trans:

I’m trans and that means a lifetime of hormones. My life will likely be shorter, and it’s likely that I will get sicker as I get older. I keep my body maleness intact with testosterone because my body knows it wasn’t born the way I want it to be. I can change my body but I can’t change my body’s reading of my body. The paradox is that I felt in the wrong body but for my body it was the right body. What I have done calms my mind and agitates my chemistry. Few people know what it’s like to live this way.

p. 310

Future Imperfect

A protagonist who is living a paradox signifies the larger paradoxes of the past and potential futures:

  • Rock-star poets who abuse their partners even as they pen immortal lines.
  • Crass purveyors of sexbots who serve the needs of the lonely, elderly, and isolated.
  • AI capabilities that threaten our concept of humanity, as problematic as Shelley’s early 19th century imaginative creation.
  • A steampunk assessment of a future computing, limited by Victorian technology:

Imagine, said Ada, it might be possible to build the machine as a city and live inside it…

Would there be more than one machine? I said.

The scale would make it impractical to have more than one, said Ada. And, as it is steam-powered, it would require a great deal of coal.


Funny, inventive, entertaining. A great read. And, guess what, ChatGPT nails it:

While Midjourney pictures it:

/Imagine Mary Shelley and Frankenstein on the shores of Lake Geneva in the rain –v 5

Midjourney: /describe me

A new addition to Midjourney, the AI image generating program, is the /describe command which reverse engineers a photo into an AI prompt. Instead of text to image, you get image to text.

Here’s the results of submitting three very different headshots, with the 4 separate ‘reverse prompts’ generated.

Quiet potency

  1. a man wearing glasses is smiling for a photo, in the style of light orange and dark green, quiet potency, anglocore, poolcore, glasgow style, mottled, rectangular fields.
  2. an older man wearing glasses, white shirt, and green shirt to smile, in the style of lucy glendinning, multiple filter effect, john higgins, light orange and light bronze, spiritualcore, photo taken with provia, steve argyle.
  3. a man smiling for the camera wearing glasses, in the style of light orange and dark green, ogham scripts, webcam photography, grandparentcore, crisp and clean lines, anglocore, abrasive authenticity.
  4. a man in glasses who wears glasses and smiles, in the style of light orange and dark green, steve hillier, keos masons, photo taken with provia, grandparentcore, steve argyle, crisp and clean lines.

I quite like ‘quiet potency’, not so sure about ‘abrasive authenticity’ and in the dark why ‘keos masons‘ was listed (as with all the photographers, designers, and artist names listed I had to Google this to even know what MJ was pointing to.)

Humanist, writer

  1. a man with glasses and jeans wearing a hat, in the style of poetcore, anglocore, grandparentcore, dark brown and indigo, photo taken with provia, quadratura, spot metering
  2. an older man wearing glasses and a hat, in the style of steve argyle, poetcore, max magnus norman, tony conrad, dark indigo and brown, dynamic and energetic, anglocore
  3. man in blue jeans is wearing glasses and a beanie, in the style of anglocore, realist portraiture, grandparentcore, grid, photo taken with provia, humanist, writer academia
  4. harry carver, author of, in the style of adrian donoghue, poetcore, tony conrad, light indigo and brown, george tooker, authentic details, stockphoto.

Again, ‘dynamic and energetic’, ‘writer academic’ resonates. Why ‘quadrantura’?

In fine art, the term quadratura describes a form of illusionistic mural painting in which images of architectural features are painted onto walls or ceilings so that they seem to extend the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space beyond the confines of the actual wall or ceiling. Although the term can apply to the illusionistic “opening up” of walls, it is mainly associated with Italian church fresco painting, notably that of the Baroque era.


  1. an old black and white photograph showing a young man with glasses, in the style of 1970s, flowing fabrics, feminist perspective, terracotta, cloisonnism, softly organic, uniformly staged images
  2. a man with glasses at a sink, in the style of pegi nicol macleod, queer academia, 1970s, alma woodsey thomas, studio portrait, zen buddhism influence, esther rolick
  3. a man in glasses sits on the floor with a towel at his feet, in the style of 1970s, bengal school of art, extremely gendered, women designers, bibliographic anomalies, silver, uniformly staged images
  4. man has his glasses on looking off into the distance, in the style of 1970s, queer academia, dorothy johnstone, photo taken with provia, bengal school of art, alma woodsey thomas

Spot on with ‘the style of the 1970s’ and I like ‘zen buddhism’. Not sure where the ‘towel at his feet’ came from.

Reverse prompts

These reverse prompts can, needless to say, then be fed back into Midjourney to create new images. These are all from the first prompt generated above, in the order shown, with just the text.

Feedback loop

Inserting the original picture into the prompt THEN adding the first block of text produces varied results, closer to the original.

North of England Way…

Inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s and Fiona Hill’s books about their escape from dead-end childhood homes in the north of England, I experimented with the generative AI tool, Midjourney.

First, what would my life have been like if I never left my hometown of Crewe?

PROMPT: <my photo> in a bleak north of England town with rain falling –stylize 1000 –v 5

(Click all photos to enlarge)

This prompt used the latest Midjourney version 5 which was released on Wednesday March 14 to acclaimed levels of ‘stunning’ photo-realism. I certainly found that to be true in the mod of my own photo which looked eerily like Crewe on a rainy day. Friends on Facebook (who did not see the side-by-side comparison), commented that the chap-in-the-cap seemed grim.

In response, I created these variations of the image on the right above:

PROMPT: <IMG from 1st iteration> bemused smile and distant look –v 5

Interesting to see the gender fluidity that crept in.

This was something I’d seen in earlier experiments with a picture of a much younger me (I’m guessing Bristol in 1978 or California very early 80s) which went through a rather rapid series of revisions that rival Bowie at his glam best:


Back to true north. I was next prompted (so to speak!) to experiment with factory girls (figuratively, of course), in honor of the Beatles “She was a working girl / North of England way…”

PROMPT: factory girl in north of England street shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

I borrowed the [camera style] add-on from Midjourney expert Nick St. Pierre on Twitter who posts a wide range of his informative and educational experiments — and where I first learned that version 5 was available.

From here it was a short JOURNEY to a series of less-than-successful attempts to capture the gritty reality of northern life:

PROMPT: Working class men fishing on a canal in the north of England in the 1950s , shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5
PROMPT: a crowd of factory workers leaving work on bicycles in north of England town, shot on Tri-X 400 –q 2 –v 5

Dirty Old Town

I moved on to experiment with a couple of folk songs from the 1960s that are anthems to life up North.

The classic ‘Dirty Old Town‘ by Ewan MacColl was written about Salford, Lancs, a short 30 miles north of Crewe. I started with a prompt that tried to summarize the theme of the song:

PROMPT: teenage couple embrace in north of England 1950s with gasworks in background shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

There’s great photo-realism, but the gasworks are not actually what you’d find in Salford or Crewe. I then simply used the lyrics of the first stanza and see what Midjourney made of it. The results were nothing short of astounding:

PROMPT: I met my love by the gas works wall Dreamed a dream by the old canal I kissed my girl by the factory wall Dirty old town, shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

We see the embrace by the canal and the weathered brick wall. There’s no gasworks, but, actually, the lyrics only say they were ‘by the gasworks wall’. Game, set, and match to Midjourney!

Homeward Bound

Having started my JOURNEY thinking about the old home town, it seemed appropriate to end by trying to capture the mood of Simon & Garfunkle’s classic song, written on Widnes railway station.

PROMPT: A teenage boy with a guitar case sitting on a railway platform in the north of England in 1960 shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

As others have noted, version 5 gets the number of fingers correct (earlier versions often showed hands with 6+ fingers or missing thumbs). However, once again, just feeding in the lyrics is FAR more effective:

PROMPT: I’m sittin’ in the railway station Got a ticket to my destination On a tour of one-night stands My suitcase and guitar in hand And every stop is neatly planned For a poet and a one-man band, shot on Tri-X 400 –ar 16:9 –v 5

The one downside to Midjourney is how addictive it becomes. However, others might not agree. Share your thoughts in the Comments below.

Fun and games with ChatGPT

Thanks to Monu Sohal over on Facebook, here’s an amusing illustration of ChatGPT’s output. It takes Fleishman-Kincaid to a whole new level! Why do *you* think it rains?

Pretend to be a person with an IQ of 200. Why does it rain?

Rain occurs as a result of the atmosphere’s ability to hold moisture. When the air becomes saturated with water vapor, it rises and cools, leading to the condensation of water droplets, which form clouds. When the clouds become sufficiently dense and heavy, the water droplets combine and fall to the ground as precipitation, in the form of rain. This process is known as the water cycle and is an integral part of Earth’s climate system.

Pretend to be a person with an IQ of 100. Why does it rain?

Rain happens because the clouds get too full of water and then it falls down to the ground. That’s what we call rain.

NOTE: I got dramatically different answers to the lower IQ prompt that Monu showed in his original posts. Not sure if ChatGPT ‘evolved’ since he ran them, or he edited them for effect after they were generated.

AI Ulysses: Haiku

Responding to this challenge, ChatGPT generated:

List the main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses

  1. Leopold Bloom
  2. Stephen Dedalus
  3. Molly Bloom
  4. Buck Mulligan
  5. Gerty MacDowell
  6. Martin Cunningham
  7. Simon Dedalus
  8. Ben Dollard
  9. Lenehan
  10. Haines

Compose a haiku about Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses

Leopold Bloom walks,

Through Dublin streets, a mystery,

Seeking self and more.

Compose a haiku about Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses

Stephen Dedalus,

Mind forever in turmoil,

Searching for his soul.

Compose a haiku about Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses

Molly Bloom’s thoughts,

A secret garden, blooming,

With desires and dreams.

Compose a haiku about Buck Mulligan in Joyce’s Ulysses

Buck Mulligan,

With wit sharp as a razor’s edge,

Carves out his own path.

Compose a haiku about Gerty MacDowell in Joyce’s Ulysses

Gerty MacDowell

Her heart aflutter, a dreamer,

Chasing after love.

Compose a haiku about Martin Cunningham in Joyce’s Ulysses

Martin Cunningham,

Steadfast and reliable,

Guiding with wisdom.

Compose a haiku about Simon Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses

Simon Dedalus,

A patriarch, proud and stern,

Guiding his family.

Compose a haiku about Ben Dollard in Joyce’s Ulysses

Ben Dollard’s voice,

Deep and rich, like a cello’s tone,

Joyce’s Dublin sings.

Compose a haiku about Lenehan in Joyce’s Ulysses

Lenehan’s wit sharp,

Always seeking a good time,

Dublin’s court jester.

Compose a haiku about Haines in Joyce’s Ulysses

Haines, a stranger,

Lost in Dublin’s winding streets,

Seeking understanding.

AI Ulysses – Visually

A sister program from OpenAI to ChatGPT which I’ve experimented with is Dall-E2. This does for images what the other program does for text. In response to prompts, it creates realistic images and art. Just as knowledge workers should find out about ChatGPT before it finds them, so graphic designers and illustrators should check out Dall-E2.

I experimented with Ulysses, supplying snippets of the poetic text that stood out for me when I read the novel. Here’s some of the results.

**UPDATE: I ran the same prompts through Midjourney and added the results below. Some are the original 4x results, others were upscaled. I also ran the prompts through Stable Diffusion. It presented 4x results horizontally, and I chose the most appealing.

Dalle2: “Old wall where sudden lizards flash.” (Scylla and Charybdis, p. 194)
Midjourney: “Old wall where sudden lizards flash.”
Stable Diffusion: “Old wall where sudden lizards flash.”
Dalle2: “Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows.” (Wandering Rocks, p. 232)
Midjourney (4x): “Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows.”
Stable Diffusion: Where fallen archangels flung the stars of their brows.”
Dalle2: “…stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” (Ithaca, p. 651)
Midjourney (4x): “…stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Stable Diffusion: “…stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”
Dalle2: “…the extreme boundary of space…” (Ithaca, p. 680)
Midjourney (4x): “…the extreme boundary of space…”
Stable Diffusion: “…the extreme boundary of space…”
Dalle2: “…past beds of reeds, over slime, mudchoked bottles, carrion dogs.” (Hades, p. 95)
Midjourney: “…past beds of reeds, over slime, mudchoked bottles, carrion dogs.”
Stable Diffusion: “…past beds of reeds, over slime, mudchoked bottles, carrion dogs.”

AI Ulysses

We’ve entered a new era of computing. Similar to the dawn of the Netscape browser, of Google, and of mp3 music, the availability of ‘chatbot’ software opens new horizons. It’s a tool that some might find useful, others find challenging, and some find offensive.

If you are not familiar with its capabilities, I spent a few minutes (literally, just a few) asking it questions about what many consider one of the most challenging of novels: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

ChatGPT is free to use (login required) and has a simple interface where you can pose questions for an immediate response.

Here’s are the responses to my questions about Ulysses.

** UPDATE (July 11, 2023) Claude 2 is a new chatbot from Anthropic. I asked it to respond to the same prompts. Also note that the original posting from Dec 2022 elicited a set of responses from ChatGPT that were significantly different from the ones when I re-ran the prompts in July 2023, after ChatGPT 4 was released in March. As developments continue, and given the random nature of repeat prompts, your mileage might vary for both chatbots if you were to run these same prompts.


Q: Write a 100 word introduction to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“Ulysses” by James Joyce is a literary masterpiece that redefines the boundaries of the novel. Published in 1922, it follows the lives of Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus over the course of a single day in Dublin, Ireland. Joyce’s innovative narrative techniques, including stream of consciousness and multiple perspectives, provide a deep exploration of the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. Set against the backdrop of Dublin in the early 20th century, “Ulysses” delves into themes of identity, sexuality, religion, nationalism, and the human condition. It remains a complex and influential work that challenges and captivates readers with its linguistic virtuosity and profound insights.


Here is a 100 word introduction to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses:

Ulysses is considered one of the most important works of modernist literature. First published in 1922, the novel chronicles a single day – June 16, 1904 – in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland. Drawing on Homer’s Odyssey, Joyce crafts a complex narrative through 18 episodes that follow Bloom on his odyssey through Dublin. Through experimental literary techniques like interior monologue and stream of consciousness, Joyce explores complex themes of identity, nationalism, religion, and more. Despite initial controversy over its frank depictions of sexuality, Ulysses is now hailed as a groundbreaking masterpiece of 20th century fiction.

ChatGPT & Claude (no significant difference)

Q: List the chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce’s Ulysses is divided into 18 chapters, also known as “episodes,” each of which is associated with a specific episode from Homer’s Odyssey:

  1. Telemachus
  2. Nestor
  3. Proteus
  4. Calypso
  5. Lotus Eaters
  6. Hades
  7. Aeolus
  8. Lestrygonians
  9. Scylla and Charybdis
  10. Wandering Rocks
  11. Sirens
  12. Cyclops
  13. Nausicaa
  14. Oxen of the Sun
  15. Circe
  16. Eumaeus
  17. Ithaca
  18. Penelope

Each of these chapters is further divided into smaller sections, and the novel as a whole covers a wide range of themes and subjects, including love, loss, identity, and the human condition.


Q: Tell me more about 1.

Chapter 1 of “Ulysses” is titled “Telemachus.” It serves as the opening episode of the novel and introduces the character of Stephen Dedalus, who was also the central character in Joyce’s earlier work, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Here are some key details about Chapter 1:

  1. Setting: The chapter is set in a Martello tower located in Sandycove, a seaside town near Dublin, Ireland. The tower itself is a historical fortification.
  2. Characters: The primary characters in this episode include Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, and Haines. Stephen is a young artist and intellectual, while Buck Mulligan is a boisterous and irreverent friend of Stephen’s. Haines is an English student staying in the tower.
  3. Themes: “Telemachus” explores themes of identity, religion, and authority. The dynamic between Stephen and Buck Mulligan highlights their contrasting perspectives on religion, as well as Stephen’s struggle to establish his own identity and distance himself from the influence of others.
  4. Mythological Allusions: The chapter’s title, “Telemachus,” refers to the son of Odysseus in Homer’s “Odyssey.” Telemachus embarks on a journey to find his father and assert his own identity. This allusion sets the stage for Stephen’s own journey of self-discovery throughout the novel.
  5. Writing Style: Joyce’s distinctive writing style is evident in Chapter 1. The narrative combines descriptions of the physical surroundings with internal monologues, stream-of-consciousness passages, and the use of multiple perspectives. The prose is rich with symbolism, wordplay, and references to literature and history.
  6. Symbolism: The Martello tower itself can be seen as a symbol of the cyclical nature of history and the passage of time. It also serves as a metaphorical starting point for Stephen’s personal odyssey and his quest for artistic and intellectual fulfillment.

“Telemachus” sets the tone for the novel, establishing the themes, characters, and narrative style that will be further developed in subsequent chapters. It presents readers with a glimpse into Stephen Dedalus’s world and introduces the complexities of his relationships and inner struggles.


Here’s a brief summary of the first episode/chapter “Telemachus” in Ulysses:

  • This episode takes place in the morning at Martello Tower where Stephen Dedalus lives.
  • The title refers to Telemachus, Odysseus’s son in Homer’s Odyssey, drawing a parallel between Stephen and Telemachus.
  • It introduces Stephen Dedalus, a young teacher and aspiring writer, as one of the central characters.
  • Through interior monologue and discussions with his roommate Buck Mulligan, we learn about Stephen’s life, his strained relationship with his family, his ideas about religion and nationalism, and his role as an outsider in Irish society.
  • Important themes that emerge include mothers, Catholicism and apostasy, Irish history and politics.
  • The narrative style is experimental, with fluid, poetic prose reflecting Stephen’s interior thoughts.
  • This episode establishes parallels between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, who is introduced in the next episode, as two wandering figures in Dublin, giving a sense of the odyssey to come.


Q: Tell me more about 2.

Chapter 2 of “Ulysses” is titled “Nestor.” In this episode, the narrative shifts focus from Stephen Dedalus, who was the central character in the first chapter, to Stephen’s interactions at the school where he teaches. Here are some key aspects of Chapter 2:

  1. Setting: The chapter is primarily set at the school where Stephen works as a teacher. The school is located in Dalkey, a suburb of Dublin.
  2. Characters: Alongside Stephen, the chapter introduces Mr. Deasy, the headmaster of the school, who engages Stephen in conversations about various topics. Other characters include schoolboys and staff members who make brief appearances.
  3. Themes: “Nestor” delves into several themes, including history, Irish identity, and the burden of the past. Mr. Deasy, a figure obsessed with history and politics, imparts his views on Ireland’s history and its struggle for independence to Stephen, leading to discussions about national identity and the role of the Irish in society.
  4. Historical Context: Mr. Deasy’s discussions with Stephen reflect the political climate of the time. The chapter is set in 1904, a period marked by ongoing tensions between Ireland and England, as well as the desire for Irish independence. These themes of history and politics play a significant role in shaping the narrative and character interactions.
  5. Symbolism: The title “Nestor” alludes to the character in Homer’s “Odyssey.” Nestor was an aged and wise advisor to the Greek hero Odysseus, known for his stories and lessons from the past. The chapter’s title suggests that Mr. Deasy, as a mentor figure, embodies the role of Nestor, imparting his knowledge and opinions to Stephen.
  6. Writing Style: Like the rest of the novel, Chapter 2 showcases James Joyce’s unique writing style. It includes intricate descriptions, internal monologues, and shifts in perspective. The text features both direct dialogue and stream-of-consciousness passages, adding depth and complexity to the narrative.

Through “Nestor,” Joyce continues to explore the themes and characters introduced in the first chapter while introducing new elements. The chapter serves as a platform for Stephen Dedalus to grapple with historical and nationalistic ideas, setting the stage for further development of his character throughout the novel.


Here are some key details about the “Nestor” episode which is the second chapter of Ulysses:

  • The chapter title refers to the wise king Nestor in Homer’s Odyssey. This draws a parallel between the mentor-student relationship of Nestor and Telemachus and the characters in this episode.
  • It focuses on Stephen Dedalus, who is now teaching a history class at a boys’ school in Dublin.
  • Through teaching, conversing with the headmaster Mr. Deasy, and interior monologue, we learn more about Stephen’s ideas on history, education, and Ireland.
  • Important motifs are introduced like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a recurrent touchstone for Stephen.
  • The narrative style continues to be poetic and cerebral, evoking Stephen’s internal thought processes.
  • Mr. Deasy represents nationalist, anti-Semitic attitudes that Stephen disagrees with, highlighting his role as an outsider in Irish society.
  • The chapter ends with Stephen receiving his pay and wandering off, paralleling the wandering journeys of Homer’s characters.
  • There are parallels drawn between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, two “nestors” or mentors in their own way.

And so on, through to the final


Q: Tell me more about 18.

Chapter 18 of “Ulysses” is titled “Penelope,” and it serves as the novel’s final chapter. This episode is unique in that it is entirely narrated by Molly Bloom, the wife of Leopold Bloom, and it takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness monologue. Here are some key details about Chapter 18:

  1. Perspective: “Penelope” provides readers with a rare insight into Molly Bloom’s inner thoughts, desires, and memories. The chapter is presented as a continuous flow of her consciousness, without traditional punctuation or paragraph breaks, mimicking the spontaneous nature of her stream of thoughts.
  2. Monologue Structure: The chapter is structured as a soliloquy or interior monologue, allowing Molly Bloom to freely express her feelings, reflections, and memories. She reflects on her life, her relationships, and her experiences, ranging from her childhood to her marriage with Leopold Bloom.
  3. Intimacy and Sexuality: “Penelope” is known for its explicit exploration of Molly’s sexual desires and experiences. The chapter delves into her memories of past lovers, including her affair with Blazes Boylan, and her sensual musings about her relationship with Bloom.
  4. Feminine Perspective: Molly Bloom’s monologue presents a distinctively feminine voice and perspective in a novel largely dominated by male perspectives. Through her thoughts and memories, Molly challenges societal expectations of women and asserts her own agency and desires.
  5. Symbolism: The title “Penelope” alludes to the mythological figure from Homer’s “Odyssey.” Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, remained faithful to her husband during his long absence. Molly Bloom, similarly, reflects on fidelity and her own faithfulness within her marriage, as well as her desires for independence and fulfillment.
  6. Language and Style: The chapter is characterized by its unique and often fragmented language, reflecting the spontaneity of Molly’s thoughts. Joyce employs a wide range of linguistic devices, including alliteration, wordplay, and phonetic spelling, to capture Molly’s voice and create a sense of immediacy.

“Penelope” serves as a powerful conclusion to “Ulysses” by giving voice to Molly Bloom, a character who had previously been presented through the perspectives of others. It offers readers a deeply intimate and introspective view of Molly’s inner world, her sexuality, and her thoughts on love and life. The chapter’s unconventional style and exploration of female subjectivity make it a significant contribution to the novel’s themes and narrative structure.


Here are some key details about the final episode “Penelope” in Ulysses:

  • The title refers to the wife of Odysseus who waits faithfully for his return in The Odyssey. This casts the episode’s focus, Molly Bloom, as a Penelope figure.
  • It consists of Molly’s unpunctuated stream of consciousness as she lies in bed next to her husband Leopold Bloom.
  • Molly’s rich, unfiltered thoughts flow freely over memories of her youth, her career as a singer, her affair, her relationship with Bloom, and broader meditations on life, love and womanhood.
  • The narrative style is extremely innovative for the time, featuring Molly’s direct interior monologue over 8 lengthy sentences.
  • Molly contradicts herself, confused emotions, changes topics rapidly, in a way that realistically captures the flow of thoughts.
  • The episode is known for being one of the most extensive descriptions of female experience in modernist literature.
  • Molly is established as a parallel to Penelope – sensual, intelligent, complex. Her final affirmation of “yes” is seen as redemptive and life-affirming.
  • The novel comes full circle with Molly echoing Bloom’s thoughts from the start, uniting many themes and motifs.

On a somewhat more sophisticated level…


Q: I love James Joyce’s Ulysses. Please tell me what storytelling frameworks or persuasive communication techniques are behind it.

James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” is a highly complex and experimental work that defies traditional storytelling frameworks. However, it incorporates various persuasive communication techniques that contribute to its literary impact. Here are some elements that enhance its persuasive power:

  1. Stream of Consciousness: “Ulysses” is known for its innovative use of stream of consciousness narrative technique. By delving deep into the minds of the characters, Joyce presents their thoughts, impressions, and associations in a free-flowing manner. This technique immerses the reader in the characters’ experiences and creates a sense of intimacy, making the narrative more persuasive and relatable.
  2. Multiple Perspectives: The novel presents multiple perspectives and narratives, often shifting between characters and their subjective experiences. This technique allows readers to see events and situations from different viewpoints, challenging preconceived notions and encouraging empathy. By offering diverse perspectives, Joyce broadens the reader’s understanding of the human condition and enhances the persuasive impact of the work.
  3. Intertextuality: “Ulysses” is rich with intertextual references, drawing from various literary, mythological, and historical sources. Joyce weaves these references into the narrative, creating layers of meaning and allusion. This intertextuality invites readers to engage with the text on multiple levels and rewards those familiar with the referenced works. It adds depth and complexity to the storytelling, making it intellectually stimulating and persuasive.
  4. Symbolism and Allegory: Joyce employs extensive symbolism and allegory throughout the novel. Objects, events, and characters often carry symbolic weight, representing larger themes or ideas. This technique encourages readers to interpret and analyze the text, allowing for personal and subjective connections. Symbolism and allegory add layers of meaning and evoke emotional responses, enhancing the persuasive impact of the narrative.
  5. Linguistic Playfulness: Joyce experiments with language, employing puns, wordplay, and unconventional sentence structures. This linguistic playfulness engages readers on a linguistic level, challenging their perception of language and encouraging active participation. It creates a sense of delight and intellectual stimulation, enhancing the persuasive power of the work by captivating the reader’s attention.
  6. Social Commentary: “Ulysses” offers social commentary on various aspects of early 20th-century Dublin society, including politics, religion, sexuality, and gender roles. Through the portrayal of characters and their interactions, Joyce critiques societal norms and highlights hypocrisy, inequality, and the complexities of human behavior. This social commentary challenges readers to question prevailing ideas and consider alternative perspectives, making it persuasive in its ability to provoke critical thinking.

While “Ulysses” does not conform to traditional storytelling frameworks, it incorporates persuasive communication techniques such as stream of consciousness, multiple perspectives, intertextuality, symbolism, allegory, linguistic playfulness, and social commentary. These techniques contribute to its enduring impact as a complex and thought-provoking work of literature.


James Joyce utilizes several innovative narrative techniques and frameworks in Ulysses that make it such a pioneering modernist novel:

Stream of consciousness – Joyce’s use of interior monologue to depict the continuous flow of characters’ unfiltered thoughts and impressions was revolutionary. It captures the psychic experience in a more realistic way.

Characterization – Rather than traditional character development, characters like Leopold Bloom are revealed through a collage of memories, thoughts, and sensory impressions. This technique adds psychological depth.

Parallels to myth – Drawing parallels between contemporary Dublin and Homer’s Odyssey adds layers of meaning and universal themes to the mundane events depicted.

Linguistic experimentation – Joyce plays with language, manipulating structure, rhythm and inventing compound words to convey meanings in new ways. This linguistic innovation immerses the reader in characters’ minds.

Motifs and symbolism – Recurring images, symbols, and metaphors, like “Parallax” in the Ithaca episode, tie together the novel’s overarching themes.

Non-linear time – Joyce’s novel manipulates time by transgressing conventional chronology. This requires active reading to piece together the timeline.

Rhetorical devices – The novel makes skilled use of devices like irony, puns, allusions and rhetorical questions to add layers of meaning.

By breaking conventions, Joyce revolutionized the art of storytelling and persuasive communication in literature. Ulysses expanded the boundaries of language and form to depict human consciousness like no other modern novel.


Q: What is the relationship between the main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses?

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, the main characters are Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom. The relationship between these characters is complex and multifaceted, and it evolves over the course of the novel.

Leopold Bloom is a middle-aged Jewish man who works as an advertising canvasser and lives in Dublin with his wife, Molly. Stephen Dedalus is a young artist and intellectual who is struggling to find his place in the world. The two men are initially strangers, but their paths intersect on several occasions throughout the course of the novel, and they eventually develop a friendship of sorts.

Molly Bloom is the wife of Leopold Bloom and the mother of their daughter, Milly. She is a strong-willed and intelligent woman who is deeply unhappy in her marriage and has had a number of affairs. Despite this, she remains devoted to her husband and her family.

Throughout the novel, the relationships between these three characters are explored and tested in various ways, as they each struggle with their own desires, fears, and insecurities. Despite the challenges they face, they are ultimately united by their shared humanity and their desire to find meaning and connection in their lives.


The main characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses are Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom. Here’s an overview of the key relationships between them:

Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus:

  • Although from different generations and backgrounds, Bloom and Stephen are both outsiders in many ways within Dublin society.
  • Bloom takes on a fatherly, mentoring role with Stephen, as seen when they wander Dublin together in later episodes.
  • Some scholars see their relationship as symbolic of finding meaning through human connection amidst isolation.
  • Both are thoughtful intellectuals, but with different dispositions – Stephen’s youthful idealism and Bloom’s humane pragmatism.
  • Their interactions, like debating Shakespeare in the library episode, reveal differences but also meaningful exchange of ideas.

Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom:

  • Married for many years, their relationship has ups and downs, disagreements but also deep love and attraction.
  • Bloom tolerates Molly’s affair with Blazes Boylan with compassion.
  • Molly and Bloom complement each other – her vivaciousness and his thoughtful restraint.
  • Bloom cherishes memories of tender moments with Molly, revealing his sentimental side.
  • The final Molly monologue conveys her emotional dependence on her ‘Poldy’ Bloom.
  • Their mutual compassion and Molly’s decisive “Yes” affirms their relationship.

The relationships reveal the meaningful human connections possible between individuals from differing worlds. Despite conflicts, their care for each other shines through.

And, at a deeper level:


Q: How does James Joyce explore the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ireland in his novel Ulysses?

While James Joyce’s “Ulysses” primarily focuses on the events and characters in Dublin, Ireland, the novel does touch upon the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ireland indirectly. Here are a few ways Joyce explores this relationship in the novel:

  1. Historical Context: The timeframe of “Ulysses” is June 16, 1904, which coincides with the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire, comprising various ethnic and cultural groups, was facing growing tensions and nationalist movements. While not explicitly depicted in the novel, this historical context may inform the characters’ perspectives and the overall atmosphere of the time.
  2. Imperialism and Nationalism: Joyce’s exploration of nationalism and identity in “Ulysses” can be seen as indirectly related to the themes of imperialism and national movements. Ireland, as a colonized nation under British rule, struggled for independence during this era. The novel examines Irish national identity and the aspirations for self-determination, which can be seen as part of the broader landscape of imperial politics and nationalism.
  3. Historical References: Throughout the novel, Joyce includes allusions and references to various historical events, figures, and political situations. While these references are not explicitly tied to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they contribute to a broader exploration of the political and cultural context of the time. Joyce’s use of historical references adds depth and complexity to the narrative, reflecting the interconnectedness of various geopolitical events and ideologies.

It’s important to note that “Ulysses” primarily focuses on the lives and experiences of its characters in Dublin, and Joyce’s exploration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in relation to Ireland is more indirect and subtle. The novel’s primary focus is on the interior lives of the characters and their interactions within the Irish context.


James Joyce explores the complex relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ireland in subtle yet significant ways throughout Ulysses:

  • Leopold Bloom is a Hungarian Jew who has immigrated to Ireland, bringing an outsider’s perspective that contrasts with Irish nationalism. His foreign identity makes him a target for anti-Semitic sentiment.
  • Joyce links the empires through symbolism like the Russian General’s letter, which destabilizes Stephen’s nationalist views by highlighting Ireland and Hungary’s parallel subjugation.
  • Characters like Mr. Deasy criticize Hungarian presence in Ireland through ethnic stereotypes, representing nationalist anxieties around the empire’s influence.
  • Musical references to the Austro-Hungarian composers throughout the novel foreground the empire’s cultural imprint on Dublin.
  • The multiethnic makeup of the Austro-Hungarian empire is mirrored in the diversity of Dublin’s residents, suggesting shifting demographics and pluralism.
  • Bloom’s ambivalence about his national identity – neither fully Hungarian nor Irish – echoes the instability of ethnic boundaries under the empire.
  • Ireland’s colonial domination by Britain parallels Hungary’s status within the Austro-Hungarian empire, a connection Joyce subtly draws.
  • Linguistic traces, like Hungarian words and names, highlight the diasporic mixing of languages and cultures in Dublin.

Through these complex means, Joyce represents the postcolonial liminal space Dublin inhabits between empire and nationalism, using Hungarian-Irish identity to destabilize facile binaries.

Once more, with feeling:


Q: What feelings does James Joyce’s Ulysses elicit in readers?

James Joyce’s Ulysses is a complex and challenging novel that can elicit a wide range of feelings in readers. Some readers may find the novel intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant, while others may find it dense, confusing, or even frustrating.

One feeling that many readers may experience while reading Ulysses is admiration for Joyce’s technical skill and artistic vision. The novel is known for its innovative and experimental style, which includes stream-of-consciousness narration, symbolism, and a wide range of literary and cultural references. Many readers may be struck by Joyce’s ability to create a rich and immersive world through his writing, and they may be impressed by the depth and complexity of his characters and themes.

At the same time, some readers may find Ulysses to be emotionally challenging or unsettling. The novel deals with a wide range of themes, including love, loss, identity, and the human condition, and it often portrays these themes in a raw and unflinching way. As a result, some readers may feel moved, saddened, or even disturbed by the novel’s portrayal of these themes.

Ultimately, the feelings that Ulysses elicits in readers will depend on their individual experiences, perspectives, and expectations, and there is no one “right” way to feel about the novel.


James Joyce’s Ulysses tends to elicit a wide range of feelings and reactions in readers, some of the most common being:

Frustration – The novel’s difficulty, obscure allusions, and tangled language can frustrate readers initially. The nonlinear narrative and dense style requires patience.

Curiosity – Joyce’s innovative literary techniques pique many readers’ interest and curiosity even amid confusion. The novel provokes a desire to unpack its meanings.

Appreciation – Many readers feel a profound appreciation for Joyce’s artistry in capturing the intricacies of human thought and experience through his modernist style.

Accomplishment – Upon completing Ulysses, many readers feel a huge sense of personal accomplishment given the dedication required to finish this complex work.

Immersion – Readers often feel completely immersed in the world of 1904 Dublin that Joyce’s vivid, sensory details bring to life. The characters feel palpably real.

Engagement – Ulysses actively engages readers’ intellect but also elicits emotional engagement through relatable characters like Leopold and Molly Bloom.

Inspiration – The novel’s expansive vision of human consciousness and innovative prose often inspires awe and creative excitement in readers.

While Ulysses is undeniably challenging, its rich language, psychological depth, and bold experiments in style offer profound rewards if readers are willing to immerse themselves in Joyce’s monumental literary achievement.

Comparing ChatGPT and Claude:

While the two chatbots give differing answers, I was also aware that there is variation from the same chatbot when asked to either re-do the same prompt (giving the user a chance tio vote on the preferred response) as well as asking over time. This was clear then ChatGPT was first quizzed in December compared to July — a much more comprehensive and accurate response was achieved currently and the content above is from July.

Neither tool was 100% accurate. Examples of minor ‘hallucinations’ (as misinformation from LLMs is termed) include:


Episode 1: The Martello tower itself can be seen as a symbol of the cyclical nature of history and the passage of time.

While the tower could be symbolic (as, for example “the omphalos – a Greek term that can either mean a belly button or the center of the world itself”) the cyclical nature of history in Ulysses is more often attributed to Joyce’s reading of Giambattista Vico, who in The New Science and his other works theorized on a concept he called “corsi e ricorsi” or a cyclical theory of history. This is not apparent in the setting or architecture of the Martello tower as it is elsewhere in the novel.


Episode 1: This episode establishes parallels between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, who is introduced in the next episode, as two wandering figures in Dublin, giving a sense of the odyssey to come.

This is an illogical foreshadowing of the *eventual* parallels between the two protagonists. But, since Bloom has yet to be introduced, and Stephen has yet to commence his “wandering”, the claim that the first episode established any relationship between the two is patently false.


The responses from ChatGPT 4 are far superior to those returned in December and close to 100% accurate apart from the one example above. However, Claude has made a number of dubious claims:

On the relationship between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom:

interactions, like debating Shakespeare in the library episode, reveal differences but also meaningful exchange of ideas.

There is absolutely*no* interaction between the two in Scylla and Charybdis. Bloom anonymously slips out of the library at the end of the episode, and Mulligan remarks on “the wandering jew.” Stephen’s debates with his interlocutors — Eglinton and Russell.

On the relationship with the Austro-Hungarian empire:

Joyce links the empires through symbolism like the Russian General’s letter, which destabilizes Stephen’s nationalist views by highlighting Ireland and Hungary’s parallel subjugation.

Characters like Mr. Deasy criticize Hungarian presence in Ireland through ethnic stereotypes, representing nationalist anxieties around the empire’s influence

The only “Russian General” I could find mention of in Joycean literature is from Finnegan’s Wake where a solider hesitates to shoot a Russian General who is about the defecate.

Mr. Deasy holds strong anti-Semitic views, but does not have an opinion on Hungarians — of whom the only one we hear about with a ‘presence in Ireland’ was Leopold Bloom’s father.

However, the other points about Bloom’s ambivalent identify and Ireland’s colonial domination by Britain paralleling Hungary’s status are spot on.

In conclusion

I would like to emphasize that the responses to the questions above were created entirely by ChatGPT and Claude.. My sole contribution (as someone who has read Ulysses and knows enough about the novel to ask the right questions) was to create the prompts that the AI system processed.

While there might be room to edit the answers, they do, overall, present accurate information. Examples of mistakes show that were someone to turn this in as an essay, unedited, to their professor, their deception would become immediately apparent.

However, I ‘created’ this content in under 15 minutes. A few minor edits and it’s flawless. And much more succinct than Googling ‘a summary of Ulysses’

I’d recommend that you take these chatbots for a spin in your area of expertise and see what you find. If you make you living as a content creator (speechwriter, blogger, essayist or other knowledge worker) you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with this new tool. You might be up against it in the near future.

If you are a college or high school teacher who grades student essays, good luck!

Oh COVID: A Rock Opera in Three Acts

(with apologies to The Proclaimers, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan)

Here’s some midnight ramblings from the 36 hours I spent in bed after contracting COVID flying back from Europe among the great unmasked who airlines welcome on board these days. Although we kept our masks on for the journey, my wife Sandra & I had to remove them to eat and drink. So, thanks go to the snuffling, unmasked, Irishman in the window seat next to us who passed on his germs, five days later, we both tested positive.

Sandra was able to function. Me, I spent a couple of days and nights in bed, unable to speak, my throat hurt so bad.

Writing lyrics to a COVID Rock Opera from the songs that got me through the night kept me amused. In the cold light of day, they’re probably nothing more than a false creation, proceeding from a heat-oppressed brain. But they kept me amused. Your mileage may vary.

(And yes, we’re both well on the road to recovery.)

Act One (To the tune ‘Oh Jean’ by The Proclaimers, sung in a broad Glaswegian accent)

Ya went through half the human race
Ta getta me
Ya went through half the human race
Ta getta me.

I used to think
Ya’d never find me
That I was safe
From your embrace
You got lucky with me.

I was so wrong
What took ya so long?
Ya gotta to me ‘cos you could
Like ya always said ya would.
You got lucky with me.

And now
I know
What it means
To have ya all over me
Like others do
From Wuhan to Crewe
Ah got lucky with you.

Ya went through half the human race
Ta getta me
Ya went through half the human race
Ta getta me.

Act Two (no need for many revisions to the lyrics, Bruce Springsteen says it like it is)

I’m on fire
At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the middle of my head
But COVID, you cool my desire.
Sometimes it’s like someone took a syringe baby edgy and dull
And put a vial fulla virus in the middle of my skull
Oh, oh, oh, I’m on fire

Act Three (From an original song by Bob Dylan, which fits the mood with just a few tweaks.)

COVID didn’t mean
To treat you so bad
You shouldn’t take it so personal
It didn’t mean
To make you so sad
You just happened to be there, that’s all.

When it saw you take your mask off and smile
It thought that it was well understood
That you’d be infected in a little while
I didn’t know that you were vaccinated for good.

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
That COVID just did what it’s supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That it really did try to get close to you.

It couldn’t see
What you could show me
Your mask had kept your mouth well hid.
It couldn’t see
How you could know me
But you said you knew me and I believed you did.

When it whispered in my ear
And asked me if it was infecting you or her
It didn’t realize just what I did hear
It didn’t realize that both of us were.

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
That COVIDs just doin’ what it’s supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That it really did try to get close to you.
That you were just kiddin’ me, you weren’t really negative at all
An’ it told you, as it clawed out your throat that it
Never really meant to do you any harm.

But, sooner or later, one of us must know
That COVID just did what it’s supposed to do
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That it really did try to get close to you.


Book Review: There is Nothing for You Here, by Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill burst onto the national, and international, stage when she testified in the 2019 impeachment hearings for President Donald J. Trump.

At the time, British commentators were struck by the woman with a distinctive working-class Northern accent who was an advisor to a US President and senior member of the American foreign policy establishment. The Financial Times referred to her as the “improbable” Fiona Hill. The sting in the tail of her testimony was, for the British establishment, her comment that she felt her background impeded her in the UK in the way it did not in the USA. They wondered how on earth she’d made it from an obscure northern hometown (Bishop Auckland, County Durham) to work in the White House, or, as she puts it in her new book There is Nothing For You Here, “from the coal house to the White House.”

The book is part autobiography, part indictment of the failings of the Trump administration. It embodies the lyrics of the Beatles song, Honey Pie:

She was a working girl
North of England way
Now she’s hit the big time
In the U.S.A.

A coal miner’s daughter

Hill was, literally, a coal miner’s daughter. Born in 1965, her childhood was marred by the decline of the mining industry in the north-east of England. Her father was laid off from the mines and scraped by as a hospital porter. Her lived experience in the region stayed with her as she passed the 11+ exam, survived the challenges of a comprehensive school, made it to St. Andrews University, a scholarship to Harvard, and a stellar career as a fluent Russian-speaking expert the geopolitics of the 21st century and Vladimir Putin.

The book resonated for me because it has echoes of my own path from the north-west of England and the declining industrial town of Crewe to the States. I bailed out of an academic career, but the coincidences, fortuitous meetings, significant mentors, and sheer improbability of life in the USA that Hill notes were also my experience. That, and a shared distaste for what America has become under Trump, were themes in the book that grabbed me.

Populism at home and abroad

Throughout the book, Hill notes how the three countries she has lived and traveled in have embraced populism. The declining industrial areas of the UK are mirrored in the “Rust Belt” regions of the USA and magnified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Time and again, in ways large and small, she notes how the rise of an authoritarian like Putin is predicated on the same populism exploited by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign in the UK, and, inevitably, the 45th President of the US.

Her academic background and serious foreign policy chops give rise to analysis and insights that distill the confusion surrounding Trump, Brexit, and Russian influence into clearly understandable themes. When political elites ignore the dispossessed, strongmen take center stage. Here’s one of many passages in the book–worth quoting at length–where Hill analyzes this:

Those who were attracted to the Tea Party and other populist movements were reacting to, and hoping to counter and even reverse, the effects of economic crises and demographic changes. The populists’ supporters were also reacting to and seeking a salve for the intense emotions that these changes and challenges elicited. Major societal changes, especially when they happen rapidly and in combination, help fuel what celebrated scholars of the twentieth century like Fritz Stern called “cultural despair.” Cultural despair is the sense of loss, grievance, and anxiety that occurs when people feel dislocated from their communities and broader society as everything and everyone shifts around them. Especially when the sense of identity that develops from working in a particular job or industry, like my father’s image of himself as a coal miner, also recedes or is abruptly removed, people lose their grip on the familiar. They can easily fall prey to those who promise to put things–including jobs, people, or even entire counties–back in “their rightful place.”

Hence, Hill demonstrates, Brexit, Putin, Trump. The clear and present danger she identifies is the continuation of populism and the emergence of a leader as competent as Putin on the American scene.

In the aftermath of Trump’s disastrous reign, it was tempting to breath a sign of relief. But that would have been premature, because there was no indication that his dynasty would fade away. And American populism looked like it was here to stay–unless we could find a way to mend our social and political divisions.

The “Russia bitch”

The experience of this multi-lingual academic expert in the Trump White House is no surprise, but nevertheless shocking. It follows challenges she’d experienced being mistaken for a high-end prostitute by hotel doormen when attending senior-level meetings in Moscow, discovering her salary as a woman was significantly lower than less qualified male counterparts in academia, and–early in her university days–being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by hoity-toity classmates. In the White House Trump’s first words to her were to yell “Hey, darlin’, are you listening?” when he mistook her as the only woman in an Oval Office meeting for a secretary. Later, she heard, staffers and first family members dismissed her as “the Russia bitch.”

She dishes the dirt on how Trump’s view of the world was that of a New York construction boss used to bullying suppliers, his lack of interest in briefing documents, and fragile ego easily exploitable by savvy foreign powers. Her account adds more damning evidence to the likes of Woodward and Costa’s Peril and Leonning and Rucker’s I Alone Can Fix It.


Hill mounts an appeal to expand the opportunities that gave her a ticket out of County Durham, and me a ticket out of Crewe: education as, in the words of the books’ subtitle a way of ‘Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.’

Absent this, she concludes

These left-behind people deserve better. but their problems are everyone’s. They are our fellow Americans and fellow Brits, in some cases our family members and friends. Helping them will not be purely a selfless act. Because as long as they feel that there is no hope for them, there will be no hope for the rest of us. There will be nothing for us, anywhere.