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Fiction Courses Are A Fiction

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These days, you are besieged by books and online courses purporting to teach you how to write fiction. These are seldom invented by successful fiction writers. Rather, such “courses” are taught by people who believe they have found formulae that, if followed, will result in a best-seller. That the best-seller may be dreck doesn’t matter.

Edith Wharton wrote, “One is sometimes tempted to think that the generation which has invented the ‘fiction course’ is getting the fiction it deserves. At any rate it is fostering in its young writers the conviction that art is neither long nor arduous, and perhaps blinding them to the fact that notoriety and mediocrity are often interchangeable terms….The trade-wind in fiction undoubtedly drives many beginners along the line of least resistance, and holds them there.”

No course will take you beyond that line. What will do it is fiction itself. Instead of spending $19.95 on something with a title like “How To Write That Novel Of Yours,” spend it on The Red And The Black. Edith Wharton herself teaches you admirably in The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, or The Custom of The Country. Dickens. The James Joyce who wrote Dubliners. The Toni Morrison of BelovedThe Red Badge of Courage. Love in the Time of Cholera. All the Light We Cannot See. Now and then George Eliot. Sometimes W. Somerset Maugham. Very occasionally Hemingway and many, many others, all of which transcend the how-to-write-fiction course simply by being so compelling in the stories they tell, and especially in the ways they are told.

Read those. There lies your course.

Edmundo Rivero: The Ugly Man Who Sings So Pretty

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To understand at least part of Edmundo Rivero’s unusual appeal, one must know that he suffered from acromegaly, which results from excess growth hormone after the growth plates themselves have closed. (The growth plate is the area of growing tissue near the end of the long bones in children and adolescents.) Among the symptoms of acromegaly are the enlargement of the hands and feet, and sometimes of the forehead, jaw, and nose.

It is for this reason that Rivero was known by his fellow musicians, affectionately, as “El Feo” (“The Ugly Man”). His fans more accurately referred to him as “El Feo Que Canta Tan Lindo” (“The Ugly Man Who Sings So Pretty.”)

Born in 1911, young Edmundo Rivero worked as an itinerant singer in the Buenos Aires dance hall circuit. He came to the notice of Julio de Caro, whose orchestra was getting significant attention for its live gigs as well as for its rising fame on records. From then on, Rivero’s career flourished until his death in 1986.

Rivero’s singing and playing were in every way extraordinary. He had a very fine, resonant bass-baritone voice, and was noted as well for the high-level accompaniment of his principal guitarist, who happened to be Rivero himself. Trained classically on guitar, as a youth he also mastered the rhythms of pampas gaucho music and was present for the rise of Buenos Aires urban tango, begun by the great Carlos Gardel and nurtured by countless other fine musicians.

Rivero was one of them.

In 1947, after many years with different bands and with frequent appearances in tango-based movies, Rivero was hired by orchestra leader Aníbal Troilo. Troilo was a superb bandoneonista who had a clear-eyed vision of the kind of musicianship he expected from his players and singers. A few years later, after all, he would feature the legendary Roberto Goyeneche as his lead singer (See my piece from a few months ago titled “El Colectivero Polaco Goyeneche.”) and had already hired another bandoneonista with an unusual interpretive style named Astor Piazzolla. With Troilo, Rivero recorded just twenty-two songs, but one of them was titled Sur. A huge hit, it is a nostalgic remembrance of an old working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood for whose residents tango had deep emotional sway. Sur became a kind of anthem to tango itself. It is one of the most famous tangos ever recorded.

Having found fame and fortune, Rivero left Troilo in 1950 and started a solo career. During this decade a full orchestra including a bank of violins was seen as necessary to any successful musical career in Buenos Aires. Rivero made a bold gesture. Tired of all the heavy orchestrations, he took up his guitar and started doing tango with just his voice and his instrument (with, occasionally, a fellow guitarist or two.) These are some of my favorite recordings by Edmundo Rivero.  Significant soul flows from them, especially because they are so contemplative and lonely.

Click here for a rich selection of Rivero’s music.

Terence Clarke’s new non-fiction book An Arena of Truth is now in bookstores and on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Line of Dance

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(Photo: Beatrice Bowles)

In tango, the line of dance seems a reasonable enough idea. A number of couples dancing are asked, by custom, to dance in a more or less circular line that borders the edges of the dance floor, all in the same direction. This is done in order to keep collisions between couples at a minimum and to further the promise of dancing gracefully while at the same time cheek by jowl with numbers of other tangueros.

You would be surprised, however, at how often this custom is not observed. As a leader, you’re attempting to circle the floor in the line of dance, and some other leader in front of you is coming the other way. You take evasive action, ruining the moment that you and your partner have set up, and sometimes a bad stumble results, or a graceless, sudden stop, or an actual run-in with either that other leader and his partner, or with the poor people following behind you.

It’s even worse if you are a follower. (I’m speaking here of the traditional female role of the follower. But the same scenario exists no matter what the sexual orientations of the leader and follower may be.) If your leader knows what’s happening and is trying to follow custom despite the guy up ahead, or if your leader is a dolt and is taking you in the wrong direction, you may be stepped upon, angered, bruised, or worse. And if the collision includes the sharp heel of a woman’s shoe landing on the side of your foot and bruising or puncturing it, things are even worse.

The injured person is escorted, weeping, to a chair and ministered to. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hospital visit has occasionally been the result.

As a less experienced dancer than I am now, I thought that the simple solution was to get out of the line of dance and head for the less crowded space in the middle of the circle. Two events relieved me of that opinion. Beatrice Bowles and I were once dancing at the Club Español in Buenos Aires. It was a very crowded night, and anything out of the ordinary or too showy in the dance was next to impossible. There was, however, one person who seemed oblivious of all this. About sixty, with a gut, he was dressed in a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts, and running shoes. His partner was similarly poorly frocked and porcine. He danced up and down in the middle of the floor, all the while instructing his partner on how to do tango. At least, I think that’s what he was saying, although I don’t have enough German to have understood entirely what he was ordering her to do. The search for escape on his partner’s face, however, gave me a direct clue to what she thought of his advice.

Everyone in the line of dance found this fellow foolish and invasive, and there’s nothing to equal the sound of a bunch of Argentines agreeing that someone else is a…well, as they say in Buenos Aires, a boludo.

A few weeks later, when I mentioned to the great maestra Nora Olivera what I had seen, she nodded and then shook her head. “The worst dancers are always in the middle of the floor,” she said. Since then, I’ve looked out for this, and found it to be true.

It’s important to honor the line of dance. In fact, I think it’s the first rule of tango. Leave the line of dance, and you will be, so to speak, up a creek and, if she has her head on straight, without a partner.

 Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is available in book stores and on Amazon.

On the Fire at Notre-Dame

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My next novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will come out next year. It takes place in Paris in the 1950s, and tells of an American girl Clara Foy, who has come to that city with her parents for a vacation. Various things transpire, however, that cause Clara and her mother Lauren to remain in Paris while Clara’s father Martin returns to the United States. This is a coming-of-age novel in which Clara turns from an intelligent childish naif into a young woman capable of life-saving decision. The family are Catholics and, having just arrived in Paris, Clara wishes to go to Confession. She wonders if, here in Paris, God has to be addressed in French.  Lauren decides to take her to Notre-Dame Cathedral, to see if that’s so.

Please note that in the 1950s, Paris buildings had not yet been cleaned, an effort that took place in the 1970s. So the exterior of the cathedral appeared then to be covered in black soot.

Clara insisted on going to Confession. There was no need for it, she being reasonably certain that she had sinned little since they had arrived in France. She smiled as she decided she had been too excited to sin. But she wanted to do Confession anyway, just to see what it was like in a place like Paris, and Lauren agreed to take her.

As they approached Notre-Dame in the late afternoon, a flight of sparrows swooped in speedy disarray toward the plaza before the cathedral, and then climbed at an angle over the Seine. They turned up the cathedral’s facade, climbed even higher, and disappeared above the roof. Though it was late, the sunlight was barely diminished at all. Lauren and Clara sat down on a stone bench, and the birds appeared again, clattering toward the river and the trees that lined the quay on the left bank. Notre-Dame itself rose like an ornate sailing frigate against the sky. Its centuries of soot made the exterior appear to have just come through a conflagration.

“Inside, it’s different,” Lauren remarked as they shielded their eyes against the bright light. “The cathedral goes up as high as you can see, and when the light is right, the rose window is like a star.”

“The rose window?”

“You’ll see. It’s a round stained-glass window. Huge. There are more than one, but the northern one is really special. It’s like the eye of God.” Lauren glanced at Clara, who had clutched her missal close to her chest as she listened. “Heaven and earth.”

Clara’s eyes widened.

“Circled by the stars.”

She told Clara how you could get lost in the window when you followed its patterns, like the holy lines of God in illuminated manuscripts that led everywhere forever. The rose window twirled about in the air, in blues, dark poppy-like reds, and metallic yellows.

“Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?”

“And we can see it?”

“It’s filled with glow, Clara. Of every color.” Lauren looked down at her own missal. “The softest kind of light you can imagine.”

A moment later, Lauren crossed herself as she entered the cathedral. The inside of the holy water font was slimy, and her nose wrinkled as she noticed a ring of faded green running around the font, just at water level. Clara hurried past her.  She paused at the slippery marble as well, pulled her hand from the water and shook it, and then surveyed her fingers. She wiped them on the side of her skirt.

Sunlight illumined the windows, so that the scenes of saints, courtly knights, and miracles were animated with gold. Light crossed the cathedral at an angle, in shafts of fine dust. The votive candles along the side-aisles gave off a drab vibrancy, as though it were a task to recall the dead souls for whom they burned. Still, there was considerable warmth as the light dispersed into the reaches of the cathedral. Above—way, way above—lighted chandeliers extended the glow into the vaulted ceilings, where Lauren imagined the angels reposed in the grayest corners farthest away.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame grasped her heart. Her breath was taken by almost everything in it…by the sculpted tableaux of saints contemplating heaven, of dead knights laid out on coffins, and of skeletal Death itself surreptitious in its search for others to take away. All these things were obscured by the simple enormity of the air contained by the cathedral. Lauren felt she was in some kind of gloriously organized sky, simultaneously dark, bright, and surprising with candles, paintings, and altars everywhere she looked.

 

Great Cruelty

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April 4, 2019

Whether you know little about The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, or a great deal, this book will hold your attention from the first page to the last. But, a warning: This is a book about great cruelty on all sides.

Author Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the conflict mostly from the Catholic Irish and Irish Republican Army’s point of view. Gerry Adams (now retired from his chairmanship of the Sinn Fein political party, who was once a senior officer in the IRA [although he vociferously denies it to this day]) is a principal figure. The Price sisters, Dolours and, to a lesser degree, Marian, who were soldiers in the Irish Republican Army and involved in various terrorist operations (some of which included disappearing and killing turncoat IRA operatives known to the organization to be “touts”) are also major figures. Brendan Hughes, the fierce leader of the Provisional IRA (The Provos), who was instrumental to the planning of many horrific bombings and other IRA attacks, is also a principal in. this book.

There are many, many others, all of whom are described in fine detail by the author.

The book begins with the abduction of Jean McConville in 1972. A Belfast widowed mother of ten, she was disappeared by the IRA because, it was suspected, she was a spy for the British forces in Belfast. McConville was never seen again.  The book ends with the discovery, almost fifty years later, of McConville’s fate and the identities of those ultimately responsible for her disappearance and assassination. In between, the fascinating story of The Troubles is told from the point of view of numerous individuals, the disappearance of McConville being the single event upon which Keefe hangs his entire tale.

A major event in the book is the Boston Project, begun in 2001, in which interviewers from Boston College in the United States spoke with many of the people who had been involved in The Troubles, Irish and English alike. This takes up perhaps the last third of the book. It is a tale of the genuine wish by a respected academic organization to engage in truth-telling, which goes badly awry because of the poor legal advice that that organization received, or ignored, or assumed was iron-clad and legitimate. Many people engaged in The Troubles were interviewed, with the guarantee that the tapes and transcribed interviews would be hidden away in Boston College library archives until everyone involved had passed away. Because the guarantees offered by the Boston Project to the interviewees were poorly drawn up and without merit legally, many of the interviews were obtained by Northern Irish police investigators, who then acted upon them. This particular story, ancillary to The Troubles themselves, makes up one of the most compelling parts of the book.

I doubt that you’ll read a better book about this very sad chapter, among the many such in the history of Ireland.

 

 

The Sweet Voice of Ignacio Corsini

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April 2, 2019

You may never have heard of Ignacio Corsini. But in his day, he was one of the most popular singers of tango in Buenos Aires. Noted for his sweet, high falsetto voice, he recorded for RCA Victor and other labels over a career that lasted from 1912 to 1961.

Known as “el caballero cantor” (“The gentleman singer”), Corsini also had the pleasure of being a close friend of Carlos Gardel during Gardel’s great years of world stardom. Indeed, they frequently played cards together in Gardel’s home at Jean Jaurès 735 in Buenos Aires. (If you visit this humble abode, which I hope you will, you’ll easily imagine the two maestros, sitting in shirt sleeves at a table on a warm day in the sunlit center patio of the house, trumping one another with humorous back and forth, laughter, and enjoyment of the game.)

It happens that the two men shared the experience of how they arrived in Buenos Aires. Born in Toulouse, France in December 1890, Charles Gardès was brought to Argentina at the age of three by his mother Berthe. She raised her boy on the wages she got from pressing clothes. He grew up speaking Spanish, his friends referring to him as Carlitos, and eventually was to become a street singer, Carlos Gardel, a calling that led finally to his amazing career as a stage and recording artist and film star. Throughout his adulthood, Gardel lived in the Jean Jaurès house with his mother.

Ignacio Corsini was named Andrea as a small child. Born in Agira, a Sicilian village, in 1891, he was brought by his mother to Buenos Aires in 1901, part of the enormous Italian immigration to Argentina during that time. When the boy came of age, he got jobs as a herdsman and an ox-cart driver.

These rugged occupations were not to last, though, because Ignacio could sing, and his high voice was sought after by porteños who valued folkloric music and the songs of the pampas and the gauchos. Asked once why his voice was so high, he replied,

Birds taught me the spontaneity of their singing, without witnesses, and in the great scenery of nature.”

Living in Buenos Aires, you could not escape tango, however, and Corsini eventually became interested. His recorded tangos of the 1920s were instantly popular, and his recording career lasted for many years thereafter. He may have suffered from the great overshadowing fame of Carlos Gardel. But you’d never know it, listening to his voice. Corsini’s singing is a marvel, and his popularity was justified.

My personal favorite Corsini recording is the one he made of La pulpera de Santa Lucía, a kind of folkloric waltz, eminently danceable as tango. The song has been recorded many times by countless others, and it remains a signature element in the history of tango and song in Argentina.

“Era rubia y sus ojos celestes
reflejaban la gloria del día
y cantaba como una calandria
la pulpera de Santa Lucía.

Era flor de la vieja parroquia.
¿Quien fue el gaucho que no la quería?
Los soldados de cuatro cuarteles
suspiraban en la pulpería.”

“She was light-haired, and her heavenly eyes
Reflected the glory of the day,
And she sang like a lark,
The grocery-girl of Santa Lucía.

She was the flower of the old parish.
Who was the gaucho who didn’t love her?
The soldiers from all four barracks
Would sigh there in her grocery store.”

 

On Rejection

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March 15, 2019

“It’s clear to me, Mr. Clarke, that you should give up the study of literature because you have no talent for it.’

I sat in the professor’s office, a twenty-two year-old fifth year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1965. I had changed my major from European History to English Literature the year before. The study of history was, and remains to this day, a major subject of enquiry for me. But I’d made a kind of existential change. Poetry mattered more…Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, et. al. Novels also mattered more…Dickens, Wharton, Ellison, and so on. I had discovered the wish to write my own stuff, and I wanted to write a novel like one of those. My very first publication had come in the pages of the university’s literary magazine that year…a piece of short fiction titled “Your mouth ain’t no prayer book, even though your lips do flap like Bible leaves.”  My soul had been stirred. Sure, the French Revolution was interesting. But, to me, Emily Dickinson was a mind-shattering revelation.

This fellow was a Milton scholar, already on the road to academic greatness, it was felt by his colleagues, at the age of twenty-seven. I was a student in his graduate seminar on John Milton’s work. I didn’t understand Milton. His Puritanism, and its importance to English and American history, was one thing. His place in the panoply of English poetry was quite another. I disputed none of that. But I didn’t get Milton’s wordiness. He is difficult to understand. Where Shakespeare is clarity itself, laced with subtle linguistic subterfuge and complication…while Pope is a paragon of humorous reason and spectacular rhyme…while Donne is a poignant explainer of death and sadness, Milton was for me a jungle of misplaced wanderings and overlong sentences, whose command of the rules of grammar needed a lot of help.

I didn’t get it.

This professor had once opined in class that, while no one would ever wish Paradise Lost any longer, every word in it was essential. I knew that I, at least, wished it a great deal shorter. In class, I was flummoxed by the professor’s self-possession. Insistent upon an answer to whatever question he posed, he was yet unable  to clear up my pesky questions about Milton’s extreme wordiness and grammatical inaccuracies.  The professor was buoyed to authority by his manner of dismissing opinions other than his own, except for those from like-self-assured scholars, about the work of the great Puritan. The professor declaimed, and you listened. It came to me only years later that, indeed, he had been just twenty-seven at the time. So, one can depend on the idea that, like me, he too was too young to know himself.

I left his office that day with his opinion of me solidly in mind. I went for coffee, certain for the moment that he was right. I didn’thave talent for literature, and I continued believing it…for a while. I completed my bachelor’s degree in English from Berkeley, worried about whether I deserved one, while all the while continuing to doodle on my own. More stories. The proverbial slim volume of verse. Two years reading and composing on the Left Bank of the Seine with my then-wife, a very talented painter finding her own way while at the same time giving birth to our only child, a son, Brennan. A reading of my poems, with the American Ted Joans, at Shakespeare and Company. Another published story, in English, in an unknown literary throwaway.

Some years later, after I had published several novels, all of them reviewed memorably, I thought again about the Milton scholar. It goes without saying that I had not followed his career. I know that he became quite famous in academic circles for his work on Milton, and that he has pursued a second career as an observer of American culture, politics, and academic issues. But I have done little to follow up on his accomplishments.

For many years, I eschewed the memories I had of him. In my deep heart, I still do. But his advice on that day immediately revealed to me an element in my personality that anyone interested in a creative life in literature, or of the arts in general, must have. Rejection is the norm in the arts. For example, my personal favorite rejection-slip from the many I’ve received, from a poetry journal in California in the 1970s, read, “Trite. A little wooden. But, thanks!” That editor has been dead for many years, although not as long as his journal. That level of rejection, though, is essential to the making of successful literature. Of course, it hurts. But it is a beacon call to the determination to write well. If you want to do so, you should hope for such snide disapprobation..

Of course, when you’re in your youth and don’t know what’s really involved in writing something of value, you’re deeply hurt by criticism such as what I got from the Miltonist.  But although I have no plans to contact him to offer thanks, I do realize that, even though he did not know it at the time…indeed was being a self-important snot…he gave me a boost.

But in the end, the work of English Literature academics like this man is of second-tier importance. In their journals, papers, and struttings before classes, they give themselves heavy congratulations. But when they don’t write literature themselves, they display the fact that, really, they have little talent for it.