Terence Clarke

Finnegans Wake? “Lots of fun,” says he.

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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.

FW-p.114-Sketchbook-DPS-300Page 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.

“The Two Popes”

 

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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.

La Divina María Volonté

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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.”

31a27ee4-716c-49ac-9b24-d83d93982b06María 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.)

On Marilyn Yalom

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Historian and writer Marilyn Yalom died on November 20, 2019. I had the good fortune to know her, to have read much of her work, and the greatest fortune of all: to work with her on one of her stellar books.

I was sitting a few years ago in the back seat of Irvin Yalom’s automobile, stuck on an afternoon with Irv and his wife Marilyn Yalom in the usual jam of cars attempting to get onto the Bay Bridge. We were in the middle of the San Francisco financial district. Most sunlight was being blocked by the new tech-related skyscrapers just then going up. A great many pedestrians, hurtling from their offices in furious lunch-hour escape, were further slowing traffic. What with the myriad cars, trucks, buses, and citizens, we were making no progress up the street.

So, we had some time to talk about books.

The Yaloms are both celebrated for their writing, each having achieved a level of fame and distinction that is reserved for very few. Irv’s work has been noted by the world, and Marilyn’s is by no means diminished by her husband’s well-deserved fame. I’ve been a fan of her writing for years, particularly her books A History of The Wife, How the French Invented Love, and Birth of The Chess Queen. Marilyn combines a love of deep scholarship and historical accuracy with a sophisticated writing style that makes her books among the most readable I have encountered.

With Ivory Madison, I had recently cofounded the publishing company Astor & Lenox. Marilyn was asking me about that, and was charmed by the fact that we had named our company after the two lions in front of the New York Public Library at 476 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I asked her what she was writing just then, and we chatted also about a few of her other books, until she asked me what kind of books we wanted to publish.

“Books like the ones you’ve written,” I replied. My tone of voice was a little breezy, and I worried that it would be thought insincere by Marilyn.

Indeed, there was silence. A few cars up ahead moved, but not far.

“Well…I have one,” she said, “that you might find interesting.”

“You do?”

“Yes, it’s called Blood Sisters. About the French Revolution told by women who were actually involved in it.”

I was unfamiliar with this book, and Marilyn explained that it had been published in 1993 by Basic Books. She had particularly enjoyed the research she had had to do for it, for a couple of reasons. Women in the revolution have received short shrift from most historians, and their stories basically have been under-represented. The research itself was a kind of joyful undertaking, Marilyn said, because so many of the journals she read were written by highly educated women in superb French, a language in which Marilyn was completely fluent.  (Among many other subjects, she taught French at Stanford University and, in 1991, received the honor of Officier des Palmes Académiques from the French Government.)

Blood Sisters features women like Madame Germaine de Staël, the Duchesse de Tourzel, who was the governess of Queen Marie Antoinette’s children, and the Duchesse d’Angoulême, who was with the queen during the last days before her execution.  There are others not so highly placed in the French society of the time. Élisabeth Le Bas, née Duplay, was one who had to negotiate her way through the dangerous post-revolution streets of Paris, and lived to tell about it. Even those journals that were based on oral tellings by illiterate or poorly educated women were special for Marilyn, like the story of Renée Bordereau, called “Langevin,” a peasant who participated in the revolutionary battles fought in the Vendée, in the west of France. Women like Langevin were often on the very front lines of the revolution, serving, as did Langevin herself, as basic infantry. Her stories include grisly accounts of her own dispatching of royalist soldiers on the fields of battle.

“All of it was exciting,” Marilyn said. “It was wonderful.”

I asked her if the book had ever been re-published, or did she have the rights to the book so that she could arrange for its re-publication.

Marilyn looked over her shoulder into the back seat of the car. “I do have the rights.” She smiled broadly.

A few days later, Marilyn gave me a copy of Blood Sisters, and I can write that it is the only academic book I’ve ever read that is also a riveting page-turner. Derring-do, contemplative sadness, bravery in the face of great personal disaster, tragedy itself, the contemplation of certain death, victory in war…all of it presented in Marilyn’s clear, deft hand.

I showed it to my colleague Ivory, who read it as avidly as I had, and we agreed that we wanted to publish it as soon as possible. We asked only for a different title, one that would more directly signal what the book is about.  It became Compelled to Witness: Women’s Memoirs of the French Revolution, and was published by Astor & Lenox in 2015.  Author Gail Sheehy wrote of this book, “Acting as a literary medium with a latter-day feminist eye, Yalom breathes life into these women memoirists and weaves their miniature epics of personal survival into the larger pageant of French history. A wonderful book.”

A special treat for me was to work with Marilyn on the nitty-gritty re-editing of notes, references, quotes, and bibliography for the book. These are treadmill editing tasks that I normally avoid at all costs. But working with her was always a pleasure because she brought such humor and additional information to these notes, which made the book even richer for me personally.

Marilyn Yalom was an exceptional historian, a very fine writer who was also a devout francophile, and a vivid conversationalist. Along with everyone I know who knew her, I will miss her deeply.

A Story with Tango: “The Three-Cornered Hat”

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Business start-up guy Trevor goes to The Three-Cornered Hat, a milonga in New York City. There he meets and is astonished by Marianita Miró, whom he first saw at Carnegie Hall dancing tango on stage with the immortal Gaviota. Trevor decides to ask Marianita out, but the endeavor fails, much to Trevor’s ultimate good fortune.

This story is one from my collection titled New York. To hear my reading of it, CLICK HERE.

 

Rubén Juárez: The Voice. The Instrument.

It is almost unheard of that a fine bandoneon player will sing, or that a passion-driven singer will play the bandoneon. The incomparable Rubén Juárez was celebrated for doing both.Ruben Juarez, sings and plays bandoneon

Starting out as a sometime rock and folk singer, Juaréz became a friend of Julio Sosa, a major star on the Buenos Aires tango scene who died in 1964, only thirty-eight years old, in an automobile accident. Juárez went on to devote himself exclusively to tango.

Argentine writer and poet Héctor Negro wrote about him in the magazine Los Grandes del Tango:

When he appeared on the great tango stage, there was something of a celebration on the part of old and new devotees alike, writers from various generations and different perspectives…commentators, musicians, and regular people in general. It was one of those rare cases in which someone young and new was accepted without resistance of any kind, almost unanimously recognized as a figure with a very promising future.

There was no doubt about his singing: his interpretive force, his presence, and his personality were overwhelming. He played with new themes and demonstrated that he could light up the classics as well. He was truly a figure of popular song and the stage.”

Star of stage, screen and television

Juárez made many recordings and had full careers on television and in film as well. My personal favorite recording of his is almost not tanguero, although the song itself is Malena, one of the most famous tangos ever written. At first it sounds almost like a blues tune. But as soon as his bandoneon enters in, it begins a gradual change to something more tango, and the conclusion is entirely, clearly and vibrantly tanguero.

Juárez was known for his stage appearances, and you can see an excerpt from one of them in a 2008 performance of the tango Pasional. Here Juárez showcases his rough, insistent voice (rougher and more insistent as he got older), and accompanies himself on bandoneon. I love this performance because Juárez is alone  for almost the entire song, without any other instrumental accompaniment than his bandoneon. Yet his singing is filled with anger and sadness, and he uses repeated chords, extensively, to emphasize the troubled betrayal of love about which he is singing.

“No sabras, nunca sabras
lo que es morir mil veces de ansiedad.
No podrás nunca entender
lo que es amar y enloquecer.”

(“You won’t know, will never know,
what it is to die a thousand times from worry.
You’ll never understand
What it is to love and go mad.”)

My love, Beatrice Bowles, and I had the good fortune to see Juárez in concert the year before he died, at Torquato Tasso, a small club devoted to contemporary tango that still is in operation. It is well worth a visit the next time you’re in Buenos Aires.

Rubén Juárez died in Buenos Aires in 2010. For a fine late recording of his, I recommend El Album Blanco, which is available on Apple iTunes.

Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published in March, 2020.

Adriana Varela: From Rock to Tango

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Adriana Varela may not be for everyone. Her voice is not pretty. It seldom floats and will not ease you into dreamland. But I became a fan of her voice the moment I first heard it. I feel that, if you want to hear how Buenos Aires can sound when portrayed in song, you should go to Adriana Varela and listen closely.

Varela has been a best-selling recording artist of tango since the early 1990s. Starting out as a rock singer, she paid little attention to the still accepted notion, of traditional tangos of the 1930s through 50s being those most worth listening to. So…large string and bandoneón sections playing lyrical, even romantic, versions of tangos. Chestnuts, every one, pretty as can be. But we dance to them over and over ad nauseum at the milongas, no matter where the particular milonga may be held…in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, London, Istanbul, or wherever.

Varela’s voice, however, is pure porteño, which is to say, Buenos Aires!…rough, direct, and filled with irony, often humorous, often angry. When you walk down almost any street in that city, you hear this voice and that language. It is recognizable to anyone who has enough Spanish to understand what is being said, and especially how it is being said. There is no other accent in the Spanish language quite like it.

Early in her singing career, Varela made the acquaintance of the great Roberto Goyeneche. By now internationally famous, his voice was anything but soft and pleasing. When you hear it, you know that this man, too, knows the streets of Buenos Aires’s massive urban landscape and the difficulties it can present.

The circumstances of their first meeting have become famous. Varela was singing in a Buenos Aires club one evening, and she spotted Goyeneche sitting at the bar. It was known that he did not care for female tango singers, and he spent her entire set silently nursing the whiskey before him, his back turned to the stage. At the end of her set, beset by nerves, Varela stepped down from the bandstand and approached the great man. When Goyeneche realized that the young woman was trying to get his attention, he turned to her and, without provocation, said, “Che piba, (Hey, girl) you’ve got it!” From then on, they were fast friends.

For an example of Varela’s work, watch her studio performance of Mano a mano (“Hand in Hand.”) It’s a tough-minded tango, one of Carlos Gardel’s greatest. The lyrics tell of the crazy love the speaker has for a very high-spirited young woman he knows, although one with questionable morals. She is sought after by the worst of the local two-bit gangsters…and she often gives into them. But the speaker loves her no matter what. As the singer puts it in the last verse:

“Y mañana, cuando seas descolado mueble viejo

y no tengas esperanzas en el pobre corazón,

si precisás una ayuda, si te hace falta un consejo,

acordate de este amigo que ha de jugarse el pellejo

p’ayudarte en lo que pueda cuando llegue la occasion.”

Sadly, I can’t translate the lyrics to include the rhymes they contain, which are terrific. But here’s the essence of what they say:

“And tomorrow, when you’re broken down, an old piece of furniture,

and there is no hope in your poor heart,

if you need a hand, if you need some advice,

remember this friend here who would risk his hide

to help you any way he can, whenever you need it.”

The Spanish translation by Jaime Collyer of Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is currently seeking publication in South America.