Alexander von Humboldt, On Everything

Andrea Wulf begins her astonishing new book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, with this:

They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000 foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.

Alexander von Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward.

Humboldt-Bonpland_Chimborazo

Humboldt and Bonpland at Chimborazo, Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1810

This took place on June 23, 1802, when Humboldt and his friends were climbing Chimborazo, a 21,000 foot-high volcano in the Ecuadorean Andes. It was one of innumerable such occasions of derring-do that marked Humboldt’s life. But he was by no means simply a reckless explorer. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest scientists of his time, a world-renowned figure for his many scientific discoveries, a revolutionary in his philosophical endeavors, a superb and extremely prolific writer and a friend and mentor to many other greats, not the least of whom were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Charles Darwin. When the king of Prussia, Frederick William III, introduced Humboldt to the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, he suggested that Humboldt was “the greatest man since the deluge.”

Alexandre_humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Reading this book, you will find out–in sumptuous, finely written detail–why Humboldt was so highly regarded by these and many, many other contemporaries. Even as a child in Prussia, he was an accomplished botanist, and the plant samples he later brought back from his many travels through far-flung territories in the old and new worlds formed the basis of contemporary botanical science. A noted geographer, he provided maps and geographic information about many areas of the world for which little or no such knowledge existed before him. He was a famous geologist as well as a discoverer and describer of bird and animal life everywhere he went. Humboldt discovered the magnetic equator, which is defined as “an imaginary line around the earth near the equator, where the lines of force of the earth’s magnetic field are parallel with the surface of the earth and where a magnetic needle will consequently not dip.” No one had understood this before him. He presaged what was to become an understanding of plate tectonics, and therefore of the makeup of the surface of the entire planet. Toward the end of his life, he made a close study of…well, everything, and wrote about it in his grand opus Kosmos.

Humboldt believed that the world is a single entity in which every element is as important as all others in the preservation of its own health. This was a revelation when he first proposed it, during a time when monarchies ruled, the earth was deemed inexhaustible, and Man supposed himself to be the ruler (and plunderer) of all he surveyed.

Because of the existential dangers present in the state of contemporary global weather and the destruction of the atmosphere, Humboldt’s views continue to be directly instructive to this day. His dozens of books describing his travels, his findings and his ideas remain today central to the history of science and to the basis for our understanding of the dangers of global warming (which he first observed accurately in the early 19th century.) Tangentially, the way he wrote about the interconnectedness of all nature was central to the development of the Romantic movement in western European literature, art and music.

My favorite chapters in this book are those dealing with Humboldt’s explorations of South and Central America between 1799 and 1804. He had made the acquaintance of a French botanist named Aimé Bonpland, and during those years the two men explored the great Orinoco River in Venezuela, Chimborazo and many other volcanoes, the Andes range, the vastness of Mexico, Cuba’s island offerings and those of many other territories. The scientific data and observations that Humboldt and Bonpland brought back were among the most accurate and compendious ever gathered.

Humboldt_and_Bonplant_in_the_Jungle

Humboldt and Bonpland, Eduard Ender, 1856

Humboldt met and was befriended by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson himself had a much noted interest in botany, geography, agriculture and scientific instrumentation, and Humboldt’s findings in the new world were of great personal interest to him. Humboldt believed that scientific knowledge was above politics and should be shared by all for the benefit of all. His conversations and correspondence with Jefferson, nonetheless, allowed the president to obtain an accurate understanding of Mexican politics and territory that was later to aid (for good or ill) the United States’s annexation of Mexican territory after the war of 1846-47. Generous in his sharing of so much information with Jefferson, Humboldt in large part gave the Americans the knowledge of what they eventually would obtain.

Politically, Humboldt was a deeply thoughtful, liberal-minded philosopher who advocated for representative democracy, the rights of indigenous people everywhere in the world and the notion that nature should be protected by liberal-democratic governments. The world, he would emphasize, is a finite, elegantly balanced place whose natural gifts must not be plundered. So Humboldt’s explanations of the dependence of the world’s matter, plants, animals and human beings on each other–explanations so vast and clear-minded–are more pertinent in our own time than ever before. Given the current state of perilous indifference to the ruination of the planet on the part of so many governments, Humboldt’s work should be required reading for every politician.

Andrea Wulf’s book is a paragon of research, thoughtfulness, considerable humor and fine writing. Her accomplishment in explaining this remarkable man to us is to be congratulated.

Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published last year. His story collection New York will be published this fall. He is director of publishing at Astor & Lenox. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

How To Write Fiction

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Ireland has ever been a fount of short fiction. So many Irish writers have distinguished themselves in this form that their names make up a kind of who’s-who of writing sophistication and genius: John McGahern, Frank O’Connor, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, Seán Ó Faoláin, Julia Ó Faoláin, Eoin McNamee and many, many more.

James Joyce, of course, holds a kind of sway over all Irish literature written in English, mostly because of Ulysses. Whether the novel deserves that sway remains open to debate. What some readers consider a work of great genius is held by others to be one of profound linguistic nuttiness. It is revered particularly by professors. The conversation about that will go on for as long as literature exists, so there must be something indeed to Ulysses.

I’ve read it. But for me Joyce’s best book is Dubliners. It was controversial well before it was published, at least as far as Joyce and a number of publishers were concerned. The publishers were squeamish about producing the book because of its for-the-time racy scenes. Women’s underwear is described with lovely clarity. Women themselves are shown to have sexual longings. Profound sensuous desire is actually described. Homosexuality rears its head. Anti-Catholic opinions are voiced by some of the characters (and even, subtly, by the narrator himself.) The English occasionally are spoken of by the Irish characters with the ironic chagrin that comes of having been subjugated by a colonialist power for centuries.

It took Joyce years from the completion of the manuscript, and submission to fifteen publishers — a couple of them more than once — for the book finally to come out. The first publishing company, Grant Richards of London, accepted it right away in 1905, but then refused to publish the book if Joyce would not agree to certain changes. They wanted its morals sanitized. The same happened with another company, Maunsel & Roberts of Dublin, some years later. Joyce told Maunsel & Roberts that he would pay for the printing if he could obtain the so-far completed press sheets from them, and their response was to burn the press sheets. Joyce, thinking ahead, had kept a copy of the proofs, and was able to pass them on to the original company Grant Richards, who decided finally to risk publishing the salacious book in 1914. Joyce was thirty-two years old.

Each story in this book is a treasure in which the emotional difficulties of the characters are observed and written about with subtle kindness and well-considered sympathy. A young boy looks for a gift for a neighbor girl with whom he has fallen in love. An old priest dies. A maiden who has decided to immigrate with her betrothed to “Buenos Ayres” decides instead that she cannot leave her ailing, cantankerous father. A group of men seated at a fireplace mourn the death and consider the life of the great Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.

The stories are for me must-reads, and I do read them, once a year.

In the final story, “The Dead”, Gabriel Conroy, who is a kind of spokesman for his family, attends an annual celebration on Christmas Eve, hosted by the Misses Morkan, two elderly sisters. The guests form a kind of mini-representation of middle-class Dublin society at the turn of the 20th century, with all their affections, difficulties and embarrassments. After the party, Gabriel learns from his wife Gretta that she was once in love with a boy named Michael Furey, who died from illness that was contracted while he was waiting, outside Gretta’s house in a fierce rainstorm, for some indication that she loved him. She has never forgiven herself for leaving poor Michael, whom she cared for profoundly, standing in the rain.

My favorite passage in English prose writing is made up of the last two paragraphs of “The Dead”. Here they are.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

If you want a primer on how to write fiction, please read Dubliners.

Terence Clarke’s New York stories are available as E-singles. They will be published as a book in 2016. His novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

 

The Novel?

Source: The Novel?

The Novel?

isIn the September 24, 2015 issue of the New York Review of Books, Jed Perl writes about the current state of an art form that has been declared dead or dying many times. That would be painting.

He quotes painter David Salle: “The web’s frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting.” The seemingly overwhelming influences of contemporary technology, branding and advertising, streaming devices, electronic games, the cloud and so on represent a collective threat to the time-honored traditions and deep emotional expression of oil painting.

Perl agrees that the threat exists, yet his opening line is, “Like the reports of the end of history that we have been hearing, the many reports of the death of painting have no basis in reality.” He then follows with a convincing and very refreshing description of the fine high health of painting in these times, despite how it may appear at first glance. “For this very reason painting becomes a steadying force–a source for stability in an art world were everything can seem to be up for grabs.”

Like the worry that painting is in assisted living, a similar knell has been ringing in recognition of the loss of the novel.

The six major publishing conglomerates in the world seem so inflamed by sales goals that fiction is accepted by them, more or less entirely, only when it fits certain cubbyholes in which, it turns out, seriously poor writing is thriving. The holes are labeled with unfortunate names: chick-lit, dystopian, paranormal, Christian, the end-time, the rapture and so on. So we’re treated every day with the violent demise of the entire world. Terrifying extraterrestrial robots destroy us all. We crawl through the smoking aftermath of the nuclear holocaust. Ghosts from beyond steal our souls. Blood-sucking undeads eat them, along with our entrails. Frothy young girls behave with frightful meanness to each other at school.

My unscientific survey of this phenomenon has revealed to me that none of the characters in these books seems to have ever read a book. Particularly, of course, the robots. This appears to be so as well in the case of the writers of such stories. There is little serious soul-searching in any of this almost universally bad writing. (An argument can be put forth that successful soul-searching in a novel is made possible only with good writing.) Conversation is monosyllabic. Plots depend on explosions rather than the heart’s understanding. The reader wades through floods of carnal waste. We celebrate the use of automatic repeating rifles and other weaponry that spread that waste far afield. We are regaled with imbecilic dialogue.

Worst of all, in the case of so much chick-lit, we observe a wholesale attempt to erase the notion that girls are capable of thought, adventuresome experiment, inquisitive inventiveness, speech that has intellectual depth, and true love. The fact is that girls aren’t worth much in any of these cubbyholes…except if they’re well armed.

So…is the novel…? Could it possibly be that novels…?

I’ve worried excessively over their current health because I write them. The ones that mean the most to me, and which I attempt to emulate in my own writing, are those that feature families or other cohesive social groups (in my case, failed artists, Borneo natives, the Irish and New Yorkers, to name a few) in complicated social situations that bring out creative inventiveness or gloriously dashed hopes on the part of the main characters. Sometimes the inventiveness results in a happy ending (as in Pride and Prejudice) while in others, the dashed hopes bring about total disaster (The House of Mirth).

The beauty of such novels emerges when the author writes so well that we find the characters’ ultimate fates entirely believable and, above all, completely engaging of our sympathy. When Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy, I celebrate. When Lily Bart takes that vial of poison, I weep. I thoroughly believe what has happened, and in what both authors have done.

I don’t find this kind of engagement in novels that feature the undead.

But I believe there is no sense in bemoaning the death of the novel. Even though the publishing giants have so restricted the kinds of novels that they’ll produce, they still succeed now and then in doing something terrific. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, for instance.

When I was getting my education in English literature and reading Austen, Dickens and all the others, I knew nothing about the actual history of the publishing business, and thought that all the authors in those times must have been attempting to operate at the level of these greats. Surely there was bad writing, but it couldn’t have been very plentiful. Now, though, after having made an effort to study that history, I realize that scribblers, blockheads and jobbernowls were plentiful in the past, just as they are now, thanks to the efforts of the major publishers. Plenty of awful writing existed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. So the efforts of greats like Austen emerged from a vast sea of silly verbiage being strewn across the page by others, just as does that of the fine writers–and there are more of them than you may think–who are at work now.

Also, as an interesting alternative, we can consider what a well-known New York literary agent whom I know said to me recently: “The great literature of the 21st century will have come from outside the major publishing scene, and there will be a lot of it.”

Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this year. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post

The Gods of Tango. A novel by Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina De Robertis.

During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.

Photo: Gabriela Padhila

Photo: Gabriela Pailha

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.

De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.

Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.

For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.

Ada

Ada_FalconThe tanguera Ada Falcón made her stage debut in 1910 at the age of five. Known then as La joyita argentina (The Little Argentine Jewel) she was an immediate hit as a singer during interludes between acts in Buenos Aires stage productions. At the age of thirteen, Ada made her first film and became an immediate star.

Her voice was mezzo-soprano, and so has a profundity not shared by the more usual women sopranos. When she sings a sad tango, there is nonetheless a kind of playfulness in her voice that seems to make fun of the possibilities for betrayal and desperation that fill so many tango lyrics. When she is singing of the disappointment life can bring…when she’s seen how the love she’s given away has then been thrown away…now that she’s given up what she had in such abundance as a child: innocence, trust, laughter…now that the only thing she has left from that time is the memory of the madreselva, the honeysuckle that grew up a wall, to the flowers of which she confided her closest secrets…when there’s nothing left at all, Ada still sings with a smile in her voice, fresh and genuine, and with a suggestion of jaded desire for the person to whom she is singing.

She is a Judy Garland-like figure. Evidently she did not attend school. Rather she had personal teachers who worked with her when she was not making movies or singing or making records. She was also quite remarkably beautiful, notably so. By the time she was in her twenties, she was driving around Buenos Aires in a fast, red luxury convertible, she owned a fabulous three-story home in the Recoleta neighborhood, and she was appearing in public wrapped in fur and glittering with jewels. In the early thirties, she made approximately fifteen recordings a month. She was a superstar, and when you listen to her recordings you understand why. There are few singers in any genre who approach their songs with as much casual authority, yet fine artistic judgment, as Ada Falcón.

She was not as successful in matters of love.

She fell for Francisco Canaro, who was himself one of the most successful tango orchestra leaders of the twenties and thirties. This man’s music is extremely popular to this day. Many of Falcón’s greatest recordings were made with Canaro, and I have listened to most of them, wondering how much of the passion that is so evident in her voice came about because Canaro himself was standing near her as she sang, behind her, watching her and marveling at the feeling with which she gave him back the songs that he had given her.

For an example, listen to Tengo Miedo, in which Falcón sings, “Tu cariño me enloquece,/tu pasión me da la vida./Sinembargo tengo miedo./Tengo miedo de quererte.” (“Your affection drives me wild,/your passion gives me life./Nonetheless I’m afraid./I’m afraid to love you.”)

In 1943, at the age of thirty-eight, at the peak of her career, Falcón abandoned it. Her retirement was sudden, completely unexpected and extremely strange. She began to appear on the streets of Buenos Aires in disguise, it seemed, her head swathed in scarves, shawls hanging about her shoulders, her considerably lovely eyes hidden behind slab-like sunglasses. She stopped recording. There were reports in the newspapers about strange nighttime peregrinations, about her odd dress, her raving. What was more unexpected was that she abruptly left Buenos Aires one day in the company of her mother, traveled to Cordoba, Argentina and there entered the Molinari Convent of Franciscan nuns.

There is a great deal of speculation about her decision to leave show business, the life she had known almost since birth, and to enter the contemplative life under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most center upon her love for Canaro. Because Canaro had a wife.

Evidently Falcón had been very guilt-ridden about her affair with a married man, yet overwhelmed by the love she felt for him. She had pleaded with Canaro to divorce his wife so that she could marry him. Canaro had agreed, but did not actually go through with the divorce action. He kept Falcón on one arm and his wife on the other, for years. There were family reasons, Canaro said. The Church, you see. We just have to wait for a while to keep it respectable. Careers. Obligations. Falcón waited, until the day on which Canaro admitted to her that he would never leave his wife under any circumstances.

Falcón, the theory says, went mad. She went to the streets, wandered the streets, swathed in craziness. Shortly thereafter, her mother took her away and she entered the convent.

Ada Falcón died in 2002, at niney-six, in the convent in Cordoba. She seldom left the convent, she never recorded another song, and it’s my guess that she never recovered her heart.

Terence Clarke’s seventh work of fiction, the novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this spring.

The New Ireland

c3805868a23ff33db810a282a03d323fI had a conversation last year in Finnegan’s of Dalkey–a phenomenal Dublin pub where novelist Maeve Binchy used to drink, and Bono now does drink–with an Irish attorney acquaintance. He had read my book of stories Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, all of which deal in some way with the Irish in contemporary San Francisco, where I live.

San Francisco’s Irish community was, and still is, a major element in the culture of the city. As in so many other U.S. cities, the Irish came here in droves in the 19th century. But the diaspora has come upon us once again in the few years since the Celtic Tiger stumbled so badly. A victim of the same muscle-flexing hubris and financial thoughtlessness that almost brought the United States to its knees in 2008, Ireland is only just now beginning to recover. In the intervening seven years, there has been a noticeable increase of young Irish living and working in San Francisco, people in their early to mid-twenties.

My attorney friend enjoyed the stories I had written. He was surprised by the accuracy of my dialog when spoken by an Irish character, given that I had indeed never lived in Ireland. I explained that my knowledge of those conversational idiosyncrasies came from two sources: the kitchens of my mother and her mother (where I had spent so much time as a child listening to them talking and laughing, with their female relatives, at almost everything being said) and the University of California at Berkeley.

The women in those kitchens spoke in ways that seemed simply American to me, always with mid-west Chicago accents. I thought that the way my mother and grandmother told stories was how stories got told in every kitchen in the United States. What I did not realize was that, although their accents were in no way Irish, the idiomatic expressions those women often used were unique to the Irish. That revelation came to me when, as a student at Berkeley, I began reading Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and all the others. Those writers worked in a kind of English dialect that I recognized from my mother. The turns of phrase, the wandering humor and laugh-inducing self-deprecation that had come into my own manner of speaking had originally come, I realized, from Dublin and its surround, from Cork City and Galway, where my great grandparents had lived.

But my attorney friend found fault with some of the stories I told in my book. “You’re writing about Irish sentiments from the 1950s or 60s, Terry. But not now.” He shook his head, his eyes softly observing the Finnegan’s pint before him. “No, not now, boy-o.”

Because of the duplicitous malfeasance of so many priests in Ireland–those most particularly who sexually attack children, and those who protect the attackers–the Catholic Church has lost its footing in that country. What was, until very recently, the single most repressed Catholic society in western Europe is now thoroughly revising its opinion of the Church. The most recent, and most stunning, example of that revisionism is the vote last month in the Republic of Ireland to legalize same-sex marriage. It is the first country whose entire populace has been asked to vote on the notion, and sixty-two percent of them said “yes”.

Ireland, of all places!

When I was writing my book ten years ago, I would no more have predicted such a vote than I would have claimed to be an English aristocrat. So my attorney acquaintance was right. Ireland is not the Ireland we once knew. But I was writing about a community of people who had arrived in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century, and I now realize that that was an eon ago. The stories are terrific, believe me, but the Irish in Ireland have changed profoundly.

I am more or less devotedly heterosexual. But this same-sex marriage is a grand thing, and God save the Irish for having voted it in.

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1.

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