Ernesto danced tango occasionally with Julietta Medina, a woman who had had three husbands, two of whom she had left. The third was Benjamin Arden, a retired American investment banker, a tall and quiet New England Protestant who had attended Choate and Harvard. He was quite well spoken despite his shyness, gray-haired and usually clothed in New England tweed, a blue dress shirt and an old-school tie, and he treated Julietta with extraordinary kindliness. He was many years older than she. They lived on Sutton Place and were of such polished elegance that they seemed simply out of place dancing the Argentine tango, so beautiful a dance, so working class…
When he danced tango, Ernesto made a point of dressing more conservatively than he did when he was booking music acts. He shopped at Century 21 on Cortland Street, always buying from a cousin of his mother’s named Marco Olivera. Marco would call Ernesto when a special sale was going on, and would put things aside for him. So…when he danced tango, Ernesto wore black suits from Uomo, the closest things to Hermes ties and handkerchiefs that Marco could gather together, Cole-Haan Collections shoes (always black, and always resoled with suede), glasses with special Yves Saint Laurent black frames, and a Rolex watch that had been the only luxury item his father had ever owned…a gift from Polaco. With his tall, smoothly slim body and somewhat Iranian-style good looks, and especially because of his gentlemanly kindness on the dance floor, Ernesto never lacked for dance and conversation at the milongas.
Julietta was of Paraguayan extraction, very dark with extremely dark eyes, who was known among the tango people in Manhattan as a silent queen-like beauty who kept to herself. She dressed only in fashionable, museum-board designer luxury, noted by the other women dancers for her shoes, which she bought exclusively – and very often – from an Argentine company of considerable fame itself named Comme il faut. She spoke no Spanish, having been raised in East Side Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Julietta and Benjamin had a great deal of money, and had traveled the world, staying in the most remarkable hotels anyone could imagine. They had once described for Ernesto how they received an expensive gift every Christmas from the general manager of the Danieli in Venice, where they stayed for a month each year. A hand-written letter as well from that same general manager.
Julietta was so fine a tango dancer that she was complimented for the sensuous flow just of her walk. Her walk was itself a composed dance.
One evening, Ernesto and she were dancing at The Lafayette Grill, to the tango Tengo miedo, recorded by Ada Falcón with the orchestra of Francisco Canaro. This tango is no longer well known, but Falcón sings it in such a way that Ernesto felt it to be an undiscovered treasure. The lyrics tell of a woman afraid to love her lover. The irony of the performance is that, when Falcón declares her fear, she does so with a smile in her voice.
Ernesto asked Julietta if she knew the lyrics to this tango. When she replied that she did not, he translated them for her as they danced.
Tengo miedo… “I’m afraid…” A pause, in which he could feel Falcon’s search for the correct words, which she delivered with considerable enjoyment, as though she were looking up at her lover and saying, with a smile, “Yes. Yes, I will.” “Tengo miedo…de quererte.” “I’m afraid…to love you.”
Toward the end of the tango, Ernesto sensed that the emotional state in which he and Julietta had begun dancing had changed. For one thing, the front of his suit jacket was damp. The music came to an end, and as he released Julietta from the embrace he saw that she was in tears.
“It’s just that…your translation…it reminded me of my father,” she explained. “I…I loved him so.”
“What did he do?” Ernesto asked.
“Oh…” Julietta shrugged. “He was unusual for someone from Paraguay. He was in shipping. He owned ships.” She put the fingers of her right hand to her lips as she surveyed the dance floor. She wore a ring of black jade. “I stopped seeing him after I finished school. Sarah Lawrence. He wanted to see me. But I refused. I was very mean to him. And then…then he died.”
“What happened?” Ernesto asked.
“I think…I think he died of sadness.” She sighed, looking for a moment at the ring, caressing it with her fingers. “Sadness for me.”
The following day, Julietta and Benjamin took Ernesto to a cloth and button store on lower Broadway staffed by elderly orthodox Jews, men who knew the location of each remnant in the store – a store filled with thousands of such remnants – where each bolt of cloth was, each button, each sequin. The store was long, very narrow, and very dusty. The daylight coming in from outside the broad front window was for the most part cut off and sequestered by piled up bolts of cloth.
Julietta shopped there for embroidery and brocade, cloth that reminded her, she said, of her mother, who had died long ago in Paraguay, when Julietta had been twelve. She and Benjamin invited Ernesto to coffee afterwards in their apartment, and Julietta told him about the messages she had received from her mother, when she had been a little girl.
Her mother and father had been divorced, and her father had basically stolen the two year-old and brought her to New York. He had forbidden his former wife to visit them or to talk to Julietta on the phone. So the mother had sent letters to Julietta that she had sewed into remnants of embroidered lace and brocaded silk. The letters were secret. All her father knew was that his ex-wife was sending Julietta the sewn gifts, and he allowed the girl to receive them. Julietta suspected that his doing so absolved him of the guilt he must have felt being so cruel to his daughter and his wife. Each letter was a soulfully made present to a little girl far away, and each one of them had made her suffer terribly.
She showed Ernesto several of them that day. She had catalogued them by date and had stored them singly in protective manila envelopes. The letters themselves contained bits of family news and were written in very simple Spanish. Each was framed in cloth, pink, green, light blue, made playful by the lace that her mother had sewn to the cloth, by the colored thread that held the lace to the paper, by little tassels, cloth buttons, quilted little squares of velvet, gold brocade, bright cotton and silk, silver and white.
“The maid had to read them to me,” Julietta told Ernesto. “In secret, of course. I couldn’t understand the Spanish.”
“Why haven’t you ever learned Spanish?”
“I couldn’t stand it! Spanish was my father’s language, even though he spoke English to me. He spoke Spanish on the phone every day, doing business. It was like a gun or something. He was always so formally dressed, shirt and tie. Perfect. His black hair combed, so handsome. And everything he said on the phone sounded so disapproving.” Julietta’s lips pursed, turned down. “Condemning.” She let out a breath. “I refuse to speak…the Spanish.” She smiled, her lips quivering with grief. “That’s what he called it. ‘The Spanish’”.
Ernesto read a few of the letters, translating out loud into English the forty-year-old news about the new bishop at the cathedral, about her mother’s servant Locala, a Guaraní Indian woman who made such wonderful coffee, and Locala’s sister Marisol who had six little children, all of whom prayed every Sunday for Julietta’s soul.
Julietta nodded, joyful in her memories. When Ernesto looked up at her, she was seated in the sunlight coming in the window, in a chair for which she had done the needlepoint work on the chair back herself, a pair of dark red roses on an ebony background. Benjamin sat across from her, a saucer and cup of tea in his hands. He had heard this story many times before, it was obvious. But he listened in silence nonetheless, allowing Julietta her sorrow.
She had handed the man at the Jewish sundries shop a fifty dollar bill, to pay for a selection of colorful remnants, a few pearlescent buttons, some red velvet tassels and a quite frayed but nonetheless somberly beautiful piece of blue Chinese silk. The man, in his seventies, wore a wrinkled white shirt and black pants. His white beard was stained below his mouth with yellow. He also wore a black yarmulke, and he counted out the change from a drawer in the counter in a hurried manner. He had had to interrupt his cutting of a large piece of cloth with a pair of heavy scissors, and he appeared to resent the distraction. He put the items that Julietta had bought into a white plastic sack and handed it to her with the change, thanking her without looking at her.
The three shoppers passed back into the flow of Broadway.
“What do you do with the remnants?” Ernesto asked as they stood before the shop awaiting Benjamin’s driver. The folded cloth showed through the plastic, as though shrouded by a cold fog.
For a moment, Julietta remained silent. “I donate them to the Catholic girls’ school in my neighborhood.” She put on her sunglasses, and looked back over her shoulder at the shop window. “For the girls’ art classes.” The view through the window was almost fully blocked by the ends of the bolts of cloth. “I like their selection here. Their prices. They’ve got everything.” The glasses hid her eyes. “But mostly, Ernesto,” she murmured, “I come here to weep.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published on April 15, 2020.
“Chuy, life’s too short, man.” Ernesto laid his glasses on the desk and rested the side of his head on his right palm, looking out the window. “Too short.”
He took in a breath as Chuy nattered a reply. This was the second gig in a month that Ernesto had gotten for Chuy y Los Locos to which the band had arrived late. This time, Chuy explained, the Express Passenger had broken down. The Express Passenger was an aging Chevrolet van, quite used, from Chuy’s cousin Lester Bedoya in Long Island City, which the band’s rising promise had allowed them to buy. They had removed all the seats in order to carry the band’s equipment, Chuy at the wheel. The other musicians, for whom there was no room in the van, would arrive by subway. The previous excuse, a month before, had been that the Siena had broken down. The Siena had been an even older Toyota vehicle that the band had named El Barco de Los Locos, borrowed from Lester. It too had no seats.
At least on this second occasion, just the night before, the band had arrived, although an hour late. The first time, the band had not shown up at all, and Chuy had actually traded blows with the club owner the next day, on a Staten Island street corner, who had insulted him for being Puerto Rican. This time, the owner of the restaurant/bar in Brooklyn, a friend of Ernesto’s father from Argentina, had shorted the band on its money because of their tardiness – “I had to do bird whistles, Chuy!” – and the other guys in the band had had to escort Chuy out of the place after the gig, so that he wouldn’t threaten the Argentine as well.
The musicians in the band were terrific, Chuy himself a timbales player of real note even though he was only 22. But he had taken over the management of the band as well, from Joe Corteza, the pianist who had his head on straight, had two kids, no drug issues, and could organize the band well enough to get them to gigs on time. Chuy had recently fired Joe, jealous of the band’s dependence upon the older man’s more steady demeanor, and the fortunes of Chuy y Los Locos had begun to wane.
During Chuy’s explanation, Ernesto surveyed West 23rd Street and the buildings across the way. His small talent-booking office was on the fourth floor of an old factory building now filled with art galleries, like almost all the buildings on this stretch of 23rd. It had become a very posh and self-important neighborhood. Comely, aggressively young, artfully dressed women walked around everywhere, a daily excitement for the 26 year-old Ernesto. The fashionable bohemian look of the many gallery visitors belied the clear poverty of the occasional artist seen sneaking around. The High Line was just a block away, and it symbolized for Ernesto the neighborhood’s change. He remembered it from his childhood as a kind of public dump and shooting gallery for junkies, thirty feet up.
Chuy’s anger caused Ernesto’s mind to wander, and he had a sudden, affectionate recollection.
As a small child 20 years ago, he had often visited this same building, which had had a different purpose then. His father Cacho Goyeneche had been the daytime shop foreman of a Post Office processing plant on the fourth floor. Ernesto had loved the sound of the loose planking when he would walk across the shop floor on weekends, hand in hand with his father, when the machinery was silent. His father would have extra paperwork to do, and would bring Ernesto along for company. It was a sound that child and father both enjoyed, especially when Ernesto had been challenged by his father to find the squeakiest floor plank of them all. There had been thousands of thick planks, all of them many years old, most of them slivered along the edges, thick, warped and poorly painted.
“Che chico, look around. You’ll find it.” His father would come out of the office now and then, to supervise the search. With so many loose planks, the quest was complicated and, for the boy, serious fun. Ernesto could never be sure which was the loosest. The day Ernesto finally found The Number One Plank, as Cacho had called it, Cacho brought him back to the office, sat him down across the desk, and brought an envelope from a desk drawer. Ernesto tore it open and found a paper sticker with an illustration of The Virgin Mary on it, like the ones they gave out to the best students every Friday at Saint Edmund’s School in Queens, where Ernesto was in the first grade. She smiled, The Virgin did, looking down dreamily from a swirling cloud. There were also two dollars in the envelope.
“You deserve it, kid,” Cacho said.
Cacho ran around the desk and hugged his father. He pocketed the two dollars and told Cacho that he would stick the sticker onto his bedroom mirror. Ernesto still had the mirror, in his own apartment. While The Virgin Mary had faded badly, and parts of the paper had fallen away at the edges, She still held a kind of deteriorated court over Ernesto’s bedroom.
During the week, millions of pieces of paper, envelopes, letters, personal packages, messages from home, messages to home, greeting cards, birthdays cards and every other sort of mailed item swirled, were processed and flew through all the Post Office machinery, Monday through Friday, eventually brought together in neat, paper-banded groupings that were then dumped into large canvas mailing bags. The noise in the shop made speech almost impossible. There was such a clattering metronomic racket everywhere that, of course, Ernesto could not actually hear the squeak of The Number One Plank when he visited during the week. But this was another order of thrilling excitement for the boy. Even in such chaos, his hand held tightly by his father so that he would not wander toward the dangerous machines, he could feel the press of the loose plank against the bottom of his shoe and, so, knew that it was squeaking. The sound itself was a secret…knowable, the little boy thought, only to his father and himself. Ernesto had often thought since then that no memory could be so pedestrian, yet so deeply evocative of the feelings he had for his father.
The caress by the wood of the bottom of his Converse tennis shoe.
His father, whom he had loved for the way he danced and, especially, the way he dressed when he danced – the perfectly ironed white dress-shirt, the jet-black silk necktie and just as black double-breasted suit, the black suede dance shoes with suede soles, his straight black hair laid flat against his skull with shiny Pomade – was Ernesto’s connection to his aunts, uncles and cousins back in Buenos Aires. He was the man who had begun Ernesto’s journey toward becoming a stellar asador, noted especially for his rosemaried lamb, who had given Ernesto more than a dozen recipes for chimichurri, the best being the one that contained cilantro and therefore was “no chimichurri at all, hijo,” because no such vegetable was grown in all of Argentina…his father, who was the first to teach Ernesto to dance tango, who himself expertly essayed multiple agujas, amagues and boleos with rough, legible grace, noted especially by the few actual professional tangueros in New York for his milonguero abilities, a rare accolade in that city in 1993 when the boy was 8 years old and attending his first summer milongas in a patio behind an apartment house in Queens, being led through the dance by his father… His father, who died in Buenos Aires while visiting a dying cousin, when Ernesto was 9.
Recalling this, Ernesto felt his eyes turning to glisten, and he laid his forehead onto the fingers of his right hand. Chuy didn’t notice, and kept talking.
The cousin was Roberto Goyeneche, and Ernesto’s father had at least been able to visit this cherished, famous relative – one of the greatest ever singers of Argentine tango – before Roberto died in 1994. Roberto was followed quickly by Cacho himself, who had a heart attack the day after the singer’s funeral. The last memory that Ernesto had of his father was that of laying his forehead against the side of Cacho’s closed coffin, returned to New York City from Buenos Aires. Ernesto’s mother Geraldín’s right hand patted the back of his head, caressing the boy.
Cacho Goyeneche had often reminisced about his cousin Roberto – known as “Polaco” because of his pale skin and his skinniness – especially when he and Ernesto would listen to the recording Polaco had made of the tango Muchacho, about a little boy who does not yet know the sadness of losing love, or what would come to him when he finally found love.
“Children,” his father would say. “They know so little, hijo…especially about love.”
When he learned that Cacho had died, Ernesto knew that his father had been wrong about that. Ernesto’s soul melted within him when his mother told him that “your daddy’s…” Geraldín, sitting next to Ernesto on his bed, began sobbing. “He’s gone.”
A few days after the news, Geraldín sat with Ernesto on the couch in their living room. She leaned far forward and pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes. She had an opened letter in her right hand. She lay it on her lap and read from it, a description by her sister-in-law of how Cacho had died. “We had been dancing a tango, in Uncle Timmi’s house, for the memory of Polaco. Cacho was always so good at tango. And fifteen minutes later he was gone, too. So alive in one moment…and the next, his soul suddenly vanished. Ay Geraldín…” His aunt had been unable to complete the sentence. Ernesto laid his hands on his mother’s, crumpling a corner of the letter, himself wishing to run from this duty, that there be no need for it, that his father be alive and take his wife into his arms, to dance.
A priest eulogized Cacho in Saint Edmund’s parish church. Ernesto himself spoke at the funeral, but could not finish. Now, years later, still looking out his office window, still muttering imprecations at Chuy y Los Locos, Ernesto recalled a visit to their house by Polaco himself, on tour from Argentina, and a musician friend of whom Ernesto’s father had been a true fan, a man who had written an immortal tango about his own father’s death entitled Adios Nonino. The little boy, five years old, had been stunned by his father’s surprised, noisy amazement when the other musician had come in the front door of the house behind the celebratory, much-welcomed Polaco.
“Maestro Astor,” Cacho whispered, shaking his head and taking Astor into his arms. “Welcome!” He turned toward Ernesto. “¡Chico! ¡Imagináte! Astor Piazzolla!”
Cacho had to explain to the boy who Astor was, and when Polaco and Astor stayed for lunch – spaghetti al limón y crema, a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and sweet basil, salted, peppered and sprinkled with olive oil, and a great large loaf of Italian bread that they all broke up with their hands – Astor asked that the child sit next to him. He accepted a hunk of bread with a large clod of butter on it that Ernesto had constructed for him. Polaco and Astor both complimented Geraldín’s rustic cooking, especially the quality of freshness of her home-grown tomatoes, which, in Astor’s words, “leant music to this salad, señora.” Later in the afternoon, Cacho described that particular Saturday as the most important day in his life. “Except, of course, the day you were born, chico,” his father hurried to say to the un-offended, equally happy Ernesto.
Once he was able to get Chuy off the phone, Ernesto sat silently as he recalled his father sitting in his office in the processing plant, on the following Monday afternoon, in a white shirt and tie, looking out the window onto the shop floor. Ernesto and Geraldín were visiting, having ridden into Manhattan on the “E” train. Ernesto, as always, was amazed by the rush of so many pieces of paper through so much cockeyed machinery.
“Each of those envelopes contains something, no, Ernesto?” Cacho said. “They’re like tangos, no? Like Astor’s tangos. Each one with some surprise. With a secret, a heart of some kind.” He laughed. “Secretos.” His thin, dark face broadened with a smile. “Secrets. ¿No te rompen la cabeza? That’s like saying in English…like…something like ’Don’t they break your heart?’”
Because of the mystery of it, the boy had always cherished the question, and still did.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published on April 15, 2020.
I tire, little by little as each evening’s milonga passes by, from the lack of imagination on the part of most of the disk jockeys. You would think that, in the history of the tango form, only forty or fifty were ever written and recorded, and that those recordings are the only versions allowed at most milongas.
Over and over again. Again. Again.
Before I went to Buenos Aires, I assumed that this was a problem just in the United States. The Americans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the history of tango music: who wrote, what tangos they wrote, and who recorded them. After all, there are actually thousands of tangos, written and performed by thousands of musicians, small groups, and orchestras. The variety provides excitement itself to the study of the music, and the possibility of dancing to so many different kinds of tango is riveting to anyone who knows the depth of that variety.
All you need do is study the history of the music. But few in the United States have made that effort, and most assume that the forty or fifty to which we must dance every week ad. infinitum are the very essence of the tango form.
It astonished me to dance at milongas in Buenos Aires and to find that, for the most part, the same sensibility is the rule there. The same tangos. The same repetition. The same boredom.
Then my love Beatrice Bowles and I traveled to Istanbul (where, by the way, we found some of the best social dancers of tango we’ve ever seen), Amsterdam, Paris, New York and other major venues. The music was basically the same in all these places as well. Those ricky-tick Thirties orchestras, heavy on the bass-line and constantly repetitive, with Germanic insistence on a one-two beat and lots of whining violins and similarly un-inventive bandoneón licks.
You may think I exaggerate. But I guarantee that if you go to a couple dozen milongas anywhere in the world, you will dance to the same tangos by the same orchestras in each one. And if you’re hoping for contemporary tango, something out of the ordinary, music that will re-energize your dance and ask something of you and your partner…as they say in New York, “Forget about it!”
My favorite exchange about the music came during a milonga for which I myself was the disk jockey. This was during a series of milongas Beatrice and I put on at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. It was on a Friday evening, part of weekly Friday events held by the museum, to which various bands and musical groups of every sort of popular music were invited. In our case, the milonga we organized was intended to be like those long-time notable ones held in Buenos Aires… La Confitería Ideal, Sunderland Club, et. al.. We got a few hundred dancers and, because the Friday events were free to the public, a few thousand onlookers. For us, these events were simply thrilling, as I think they were for the dancers and the audiences.
During one of them, about halfway through, a man approached me with a disgruntled look on his face. I had watched him dancing, his movements being pedestrian and out of tune. He asked me, “When are you going to play some damned tango?” I had not played one of the forty or fifty about which I’ve been complaining in this piece. I was playing singers and orchestras not particularly well known, and I was playing a lot of modern tangos…but tangos which, though contemporary, were eminently danceable. In my humble opinion, the music was memorable, and I was told so by many of the dancers who emailed me later to thank us for the fine evening…and the wonderful music.
I explained to the fellow before me that everything I had played was notable for being tango… in fact, well within the traditional tango form, and that the one goal I have as a disk jockey, no matter the particular numbers I play, is to give the dancers the opportunity to really dance and enjoy themselves. “You’ve got to have more variety,” I said. “And better-played music,” I said. “Music that’s interesting,” I said. The fellow turned on his heel, and I did not see him after that. I presume he left.
I for one was glad to see him go.
To read more of Terence Clarke on tango, go to his website. His new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, comes out this April.
One of my very favorite tangos is “Quedémonos aquí,” with music by Héctor Stamponi and lyrics by Homero Espósito. It has been recorded by most of the major singers of tango since it was first written. The lyrics form a single suggestion from one lover to another, that they remain where they are at the moment…presumably in bed…rather than getting up and returning to the irresolute tango life of forgetfulness, alcohol’s hopelessness, and all those things that have drained them of blood itself in the fruitless lives they’ve been living.
“Amor, la vida se nos va,
quedémonos aquí, ya es hora de llegar!
¡Amor, quedémonos aquí!
¿Por qué sin compasión rodar?
¡Amor, la flor se ha vuelto a abrir
y hay gusto a soledad, quedémonos aquí!
Nuestro cansancio es un poema sin final
que aquí podemos terminar.
¡Abre tu vida sin ventanas!
¡Mira lo linda que está el rio!
Se despierta la mañana y tengo ganas
De juntarte un ramillete de rocio.”
“My love, life is passing us by.
Let us stay here. Right now has the hour arrived.
Love, let us stay here!
Why fall pitilessly to pieces?
Love, the flowers are just now blooming
and there is such pleasure in solitude. Let us stay here!
Our weariness is an endless poem
to which here we can bring an end.
Open a life that has no windows!
Look how beautiful the river is!
The morning awakes and I would
bring you a bouquet of morning dew.”
The lovers are caught in a debate with themselves over the state of their souls. Do we continue this irresolute tango life (the bars, the boliches, the lies we tell each other, and the foolish search of the bottom of the glass) or do we turn to the soothing beauties of nature, the soul-healing qualities of sunlight and clear, rippling waters, of flowers and the delicacy of the morning dew? The choice is clear. But in the midst of the exhaustion that our wasted life has brought to us, can we make that choice?
As you can see, this tango is not light reading. Big questions are at its core, and the music that carries these lyrics is some of the saddest I’ve ever heard. The irony for me is that this entire tango and its plea for freedom from self-doubt is made up of the tango life itself that the lovers are questioning. As such, it is eminently danceable. A remarkable example is a recent performance by Ariadna Naveira and Fernando Sanchez, to “Quedémonos aquí.” Often these days the videos of tango are filled with excessive hurry, big-time gymnastics, and way over-dramatic gesture. Not in this one. When Fernando and Ariadna are finished dancing, there is a demonstrable silence before the applause comes. I believe this is so because the audience is stunned by the beauty of what they’ve just seen.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be available in bookstores and on Amazon after April 15, 2020.
It came as little surprise to me, to not care for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It is unreadable, which is reason enough not to read it. I did try, once I achieved the last word — “Yes” — of Joyce’s previous Ulysses, Molly’s use of it being for me the finest moment for the word in the English language. But I admit it had taken me quite a while to get to that last word. Ulysses is a linguistic tour-de-force for those who care about the minutiae of words and their internal sources, and a pain in the neck for someone who relishes a good plot. Really, Ulysses needed a strong-minded editor with a sense of story.
There is a plot in Ulysses, large parts of which are very worth reading. The first chapter, in the Martello Tower in Sandymount, for example, is a moment of fine sustained comic writing. Some of Leopold Bloom’s odessyan wanderings from funeral to pub to restaurant to brothel as the day of the novel unfolds are famously filled with Dublin neighborhood details and more-than-occasional wonderful description. Bloom’s encounter with Gerty McDowell on the Sandymount strand is a fine example. “Mayhap it was this, the love that might have been, that leant to her softlyfeatured face at whiles a look, tense with suppressed meaning, that imparted a strange yearning tendency to the beautiful eyes, a charm few could resist.” Gerty’s longing for love and the sadness that her longing brings to her (that suppressed meaning) gets the best of Joycean attention, and even more of Bloom’s. Also, very occasionally, there are moments of convincing moral confusion or failure, as when Stephen Dedalus, returned to Dublin from Europe to visit his dying mother, refuses her last wish of him. Buck Mulligan, who lives in the Martello Tower, first describes the moment: “You wouldn’t kneel down to pray for your mother on her deathbed when she asked you. Why? Because you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way. To me it’s all a mockery and beastly.”
Throughout the novel, Stephen worries memorably about his refusal of his mother.
But Ulysses is easily twice as long as it should be, and spends way too much of its capital on the history of language and the internecine conflicts within the various tongues of which English is made. Ulysses is a great source for pedagogical noodling on the part of devoted academics. But this is a miniscule, and not very interesting, readership. If you really care for fine fiction of plot-driven completion and a good story, look elsewhere.
Page 114 of the original manuscript of Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake is worse. Far worse. I admit that I have never been able to make anything of it. I also admit to having read only the first fifty pages or so, which makes no sense to the dignity of my wish to dislike this book. You have to have read something in its entirety in order really to dismiss it. I did use the time-honored practice of reading ahead, to see what was possibly out there that might make it worthwhile to continue in Finnegans Wake. It was that tactic that had brought me, after all, to the glories of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I rejoice at having begun impatiently to shuffle the early pages of that novel, an action that brought me to one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. The same for A House for Mr. Biswas.
But Finnegans Wake doesn’t give back. It defies the reader in every moment, although at least it is the possessor of the finest title of a universally unread book that I have ever found. The most precisely elegant criticism of the book that I know came from Irish novelist Roddy Doyle some years ago, when he appeared at the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue, to celebrate the publication of his novel A Star Called Henry. A man with a heavy Dublin accent raised his hand to ask Doyle, “So what did you think of Finnegans Wake?” Doyle did not hesitate. “The first page was all right. But the rest of it was the biggest piece of shite I ever read.” I wondered on that occasion whether Doyle had indeed read the rest of it. Given my own experience with the book, I expect he had not…and has not.
It may not sound like it. But I write all this negativity with some pain. For me, the James Joyce who wrote Dubliners was one of the great writers of the twentieth century and, in my opinion, beyond. I read that book once a year, and — I hope with others who have read it — the last three paragraphs of the story “The Dead” are my favorite English prose paragraphs of all. I believe that, to some degree in the writing of the later Ulysses, and greatly so in that of Finnegans Wake, Joyce was losing his mind, perhaps because of the terrifying pain of his ocular difficulties, maybe because of his constant disastrous money troubles, or his amazing consumption of alcohol. I see the alcohol often in Joyce’s later writing, especially, and formidably, in Finnegans Wake.
For me, the last word on Finnegans Wake comes from Stanislaus Joyce, James Joyce’s younger brother. They had a lifelong relationship, sometimes very close and affectionate, often at difficult emotional odds with each other. James was getting a lot of flack from people who had supported him emotionally, financially, and with publishing help throughout the composition of Ulysses. Ezra Pound was instrumental to the early publishing of much of Ulysses’s chapters as Joyce was writing it, and had difficulty understanding what the exile Irishman was up to with Finnegans Wake. Yeats, Elliott, and others of such literary grandeur, who had touted Ulysses to friends and readers, were flummoxed by Finnegans Wake. But Stanislaus Joyce stands out among all these as a bearer of the kind of truth that exposed his brother’s follies to all…or at least to James himself until the letter Stanislaus wrote on August 7, 1924 finally became public.
The letter excoriates James’s work in Finnegans Wake, and it gives no quarter. “I have received one installment of your yet unnamed novel in the transatlantic review. I don’t know whether the drivelling rigmarole about half a ball hat and ladies’ modern toilet chambers (practically the only things I understand in this nightmare production) is written with the deliberate intention of pulling the reader’s leg or not…. Or perhaps — a sadder supposition — it is the beginning of a softening of the brain….. It is unspeakably wearisome.” The several-hundred-words-long sputter of brotherly vitriol that Stanislaus’s letter represents must have been terrible for James to read, no matter how much he may have wished to dismiss the criticism it expresses. (James often questioned Stanislaus’s intellect by comparison to James’s own.) But so well-written a dismissal of a major writer by a person of such longstanding familial importance to that writer is difficult to find anywhere in the history of literature.
In any case, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to look into Finnegans Wake, read Dubliners instead. Dubliners is the very antidote to “drivelling rigmarole.”
Terence Clarke’s sixth novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published on April 15, 2020.
I would not usually think of Argentine tango in terms of the Roman Catholic papacy. But with the release of the new film, The Two Popes, the relationship is made clear, at least in the life of one of its two main characters.
A fictionalization of the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger, a German cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and his successor Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit who was made Pope Francis I in 2013, the film is a tour de force effort by its two main actors. Ratzinger is played by Anthony Hopkins with his usual detailed depth of gesture, speech, and feeling, while another accomplished British actor, Jonathan Pryce, plays Bergoglio in what looks to me to be a spot-on accurate look at Bergoglio’s personality. They become involved in a long personal struggle over the future of the Catholic Church during a time when that organization, as it still is now, is under justified fire for its inability to address long-term, self-inflicted problems. This “debate” is the reason to see the film, and it is riveting.
But, there is a second plot in it, in which a young Bergoglio makes his decision to become a priest, and the seasoned Jesuit Bergoglio is made to deal some years later with “The Dirty War.” This struggle resulted in the disappearance and murder of 30,000 Argentine citizens at the hands of that country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s.
As a young man, Bergoglio is something of a Buenos Aires bon-vivant who is an ardent tanguero. He is in love with a young woman, also a tanguera, and they attend a Buenos Aires milonga that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the famous dance halls in that city. At the same time, the young man is struggling to understand whether his calling to the priesthood is legitimate. That would of course require that he give up his relationship with the young woman. To her great disappointment, he does enter the Jesuit order, but not before we get to see the lovely ambiance of tango and its dancing (even by Bergoglio and his girlfriend themselves) during that remarkable time. (Incidentally, young Bergoglio is played by the superb Juan Minujin, a noted Argentine stage and film actor who is as porteño-looking a man as you can get.)
Just because he becomes pope does not mean that Cardinal Bergoglio loses his love of tango. Late in the film, he and Ratzinger have achieved a kind of rapprochement in their different views of what The Church should be. Ratzinger has always believed that The Church should not compromise any of its doctrines. Bergoglio is portrayed as a far more liberal force who has a realistic view of the feelings and behaviors of hundreds of millions of actual Catholics. The Church has refused to deal realistically with these behaviors, and he is the one person who can understand and bring about the changes needed.
The two men don’t necessarily agree at the end of the film, but there is profound respect between them. In a remarkable scene, after Ratzinger has stepped down as pope and Bergoglio has taken over the office, Bergoglio visits the former pope. As he is leaving, he asks Ratzinger if he knows anything about tango. Of course, Ratzinger does not, and Bergoglio proceeds to give him a quick lesson in the tango basic. They fumble. They don’t do well. Ratzinger is embarrassed. Bergoglio is amused. But it is the moment of actual friendship with which the story comes to its end.
This moment, too, is not to be missed.
Regarding the historical accuracy of the film itself, there are numerous moments in it that mis-portray to a degree the relationship between the two men. You can read about these in detail here. But the film itself tells a gripping story about opposing political ideals that clash memorably. The movie is directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, who co-directed the terrifying City of God.
The Two Popes is a stunner. Take it for what it is worth to you on any level. You’ll enjoy the tango.
Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, which takes place in Paris, will be published on April 15, 2020.
The next time María Volonté comes to where you live, drop everything and go see her in concert. You’ll hear intense tango, sung with Buenos Aires porteño charm and streetwise knowledge, delivered with grace and deeply felt passion. Some written by others; originals by María herself. And there’s more. María is an accomplished jazz singer as well, and you’ll see that she can carry her own in any North American or European jazz venue, no matter where.
María Volonté was born in Ituzaingó, a city in the Buenos Aires province, about twenty miles from downtown Buenos Aires itself. “I lived with my parents and my five sisters in a large, bright house. My father worked as a project draftsman and painted watercolors in an exquisite way. But above all he was a great showman who had been frustrated. He had spent the greatest portion of his youth acting, reciting, and singing in cinemas, theaters and cabarets. But as soon as he got married, his first wife made him know…clearly…that vaudeville and the delights of conjugal life were not compatible. After that, he devoted himself to transferring all his fascination for the world of the stage to his daughters.”
Of greatest importance to Maria’s father was music. “We used to sing and listen to tango, folk music, bolero, flamenco, jazz, opera, musical comedy, French and Italian songs, Portuguese fado….”
When María was five, her father brought home a new invention, a home tape recorder, and one of the first things he did was to ask María to sing for him. It was an ancient Neapolitan song “Catari (Cuore ingrato)”. Listening to herself for the first time, she wept, and she remembers the moment to this day. “There was so much secret pain in that melody, so much generous love! That day I discovered, unknowingly, that singing is to allow oneself to be pierced by passion.”
María’s father bought her first guitar when she was ten. “Something within me changed forever.” As she progressed through secondary school and beyond, she sang with friends, all kinds of music. “We used to sing folk tunes or rock songs written by Argentines. And thereafter in the 1970s we would mix the Argentine songbook with music by people from other countries…the Chilean Violeta Parra, Paco Ibáñez from Spain, el cubano Nicolás Guillén, another Spaniard Joan Manuel Serrat…. It was wine and song into the wee small hours of the morning, and it was shaping my courage and warming my voice.”
María Volonté in Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.
Married in the early 1980s, María and her husband lived in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. A subterranean folk culture was thriving in the city during those years, and she was an active part of it, paying her early dues as so many musicians must, wherever she could. “I sang outdoors at the Plaza Dorrego. I sang in many, many bar rooms. I sang in sheds.”
Her musical eclecticism was not to be denied. But María knew even then that there was one sort of music that was meant for her. “I clearly realized that my destiny was in tango.”
Maria Volonté’s home is still Buenos Aires, where she lives with her second husband, American writer, musician, and photographer Kevin Carrel Footer. But they concertize together extensively in North America and Europe, visiting the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) once or twice a year. You can see them together in a recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert video.
On her website, you’ll see some other fine videos of María at work. You’ll get a sense of the breadth of material with which she works, and you’ll see especially what a true tanguera María Volonté really is. Her recordings are available on Apple iTunes.
(Thanks to Ricardo García Blaya and TodoTango for the quotations from María Volonté. Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published in 2020.)