April 15, 2020
I have never written anything that takes place where I grew up…that would be Oakland, California. If, like me, you were raised in the suburb hills of Oakland in the middle of the last century, there was little of interest in your surroundings and general conversation that would provide for great writing…or any writing. Gertrude Stein’s famous remark about Oakland…that there is no “there” there…is truth. It is the one line of hers that I care for because the sentence defines my childhood, which was spent in the vernal hills above Montclair. A middle-class suburb neighborhood of Oakland, in the 1950s it was notable most for its self-satisfied silence and its very white population. Nothing ever happened in Monclair, except for when I and my mother would go into the village to shop for food. There was also a very nice grass playing field at one end of the village, where I played touch football with my school friends. That was my cultural life, although there was the occasional movie at the Paramount Theater downtown as well as the Catholic church (Corpus Christi parish), for which I was an altar boy.
Oakland has not engendered fine writing among those with whom I grew up because there is so little in the middle-class neighborhoods of that city worth observing. I got up, went to school, and came home, like all the other kids. It was not until I got to high school and began reading actual novels, short stories, and poetry that I found so many worlds that were different from the one in which I was living. That experience blossomed for me big-time, instantaneously, when I arrived at the University of California in Berkeley. I did dawdle through my first two years, somehow thinking that the sciences were my chosen subjects for study. The trouble was that I always included one of those pesky, riveting history or, especially, English literature classes, every semester. In the end, I realized that Chemistry bored me and that Engineering was not to be endured. Trigonometry? No. There was no Computer Science at the time, other than whatever you needed a slide rule for. (If you were born after the founding of Apple Computer or so, you may need information about what a slide rule was.)
But when I read Geoffrey Chaucer, in an undergraduate class taught by the great Charles Muscatine, I discovered the path that I had to follow. I remember the actual moment. We were reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida, the wonderful and occasionally comic poem by Chaucer about the love of Troilus, a fine Trojan warrior, and Cressida, who, in a modern translation of one of Chaucer’s lines, “in beauty first, so stood matchless.” There are many machinations, twists and turns in this romance, but it comes to a bad end when Troilus becomes convinced that his love has been betrayed by Cressida. He is only partially wrong about this.
“And in this woe Troilus began to dwell,/that what through sorrow and love and unrest,/he often every day bid his heart burst.”
It was a requirement of the class that the students read the Chaucer in his original Middle English. The very last day of Mr. Muscatine’s class, he read a long passage from the final book of Troilus and Cressida. Those of us who had stuck it out and understood the finesse and wondrousness of what the poet had written were able to sit back, put our notebooks into our briefcases or book bags, and simply listen. The difficulties Troilus’s love faces in this moment, his pining loss of Cressida’s love, and his eventual death in battle form one of the saddest passages in literature, and Mr. Muscatine’s reading of it was worth the entire course. His teaching was always stellar for its clarity and its love of Chaucer’s poetry. This particular day’s listening proved it.
Mr. Muscatine, with whom I spoke personally just once, was a major influence on my education. He still is, posthumously. After that day, I abandoned all hope for my career as an engineer. Let somebody else estimate the weight-bearing difficulties of that freeway overpass. I wanted to read Walt Whitman…and the others.
But…to get back to the subject of Oakland, I still had only the life experience of growing up in those hills, among all those white people and their worries about how to get their lawns to grow. No one up there knew anything about Geoffrey Chaucer, and I knew little of life beyond those lawns except for what I had read in Berkeley. I realized even then that writing a novel about my experiences in Montclair would result in a very short book. I had to go somewhere. I had to get out.
I chose Borneo, living in which, far upriver, formed the kind of consciousness that would allow me to write. I did not realize it at the time, thinking that the Peace Corps simply provided an alternative to the Marine Corps and Vietnam that would still satisfy my wish to do something for my country. But when I came back to the United States, I knew what I wanted, even though it took me almost twenty years to begin writing specifically about my experiences on the island of Borneo.
Since my return, I have traveled very widely, and placed much of my fiction in those places in which I’ve lived that are not named “Oakland.” The theme for me has been that of the American living in places not his or her own. A different culture. A strange language. Surroundings easy to misunderstand. The adventurous plight of that American trying to understand where he or she is, is the general theme of almost all my fiction.
He never knew it, but Charles Muscatine had a lot to do with my search for the right plight.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, is being published today, April 15, 2020.)
April 5, 2020
Writing a novel is a threatening process…to your self-esteem, even in some cases to your emotional health. First, you have to deal with the task itself, which can take years and may be filled with false starts, page-wasting erasures of poor prose, and long periods of authorial silence spent in self-censure. There are moments when writing a novel is fun, but self-doubt is usually an issue, no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself.
So, you’ve finished one, and think “Gosh, there’s another story here. The one I’ve finished is not yet complete.” You ponder the problem, sometimes for years, and then begin another novel, and even sometimes that one doesn’t tell the whole tale. So, fatefully, you start a third.
In my own case, that was not the plan. I wrote a novel titled My Father In The Night, which was published by Mercury House (hardcover) and Ballantine Books (soft cover) in the early 1990s, and is about to be re-published in a new edition. The main character is a boy named Pearse, who lives in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco in the mid 1950s. He becomes enamored of the Beatniks who populated upper Grant Avenue at the time, a major no-no for Pearse’s Catholic conservative parents. A subplot involves Pearse’s grandfather M.J., who immigrated to the United States during the Irish Rising in the midst of World War I. The memory of his involvement in the murder of an Irish policeman has plagued the rest of his life. Therein lies the story.
In 1992, I finished the first draft of a novel titled When Clara Was Twelve. It tells of young Clara Foy, an American girl on vacation with her parents in Paris in the 1950s. She learns that her mother, while a girl herself in the 1930s, had a baby out of wedlock who was given up immediately for adoption. Another Catholic conservative family, for whom such an event is a major scandal. While they are in Paris, that baby, now a young woman named Emma, shows up again. Clara, thrilled, has to become the go-between in the troubles between Emma and their mother, and therein lies the story. (Setting the novel in Paris, of course, provided me with the thrill of writing about that city.)
That draft had taken me seven years, and I did not like it. It then sat in a drawer for twenty-five additional years, until I brought it out and read it again. It wasn’t bad! But it was way too scattered and overlong, with too many characters. (I am by profession an editor of fiction and nonfiction and concluded that, if a manuscript like this came to me, I would charge extra for helping this poor sot out of the hole he dug for himself.)
I edited it with little kindness. Three times, with help from some others. It finally became publishable and When Clara Was Twelve comes out on April 15, 2020.
These two novels share no characters. They are completely separate. Each stands on its own.
A year and a half ago, I was thinking about the two books and thought that maybe there was another story here. My emotions did sink with the prospect. One that took a few characters from the first and the second, and involved them in…a third?
I have an adult son who is a lifelong epileptic, and my father was an epileptic who died during his last seizure. I’ve written about them, an essay titled “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures.” Epilepsy provides a kind of literary metaphor that fascinates me (Dostoevsky, et. al.), and I decided to write a novel that uses a certain aspect of the affliction as a metaphorical tool to understanding how one particular creative mind operates.
The particular mind in this novel is possessed by Yvette Roman, a Parisian artist who is the daughter of the lost Emma who showed up in When Clara Was Twelve. It is now the year 2000, and Yvette is a renowned painter and printmaker who has come to New York City for a grand exhibition of her work in the Guggenheim Museum. Her mother Emma accompanies her, and they are visited in Manhattan by Pearse and Clara, who are now married to each other and are successful actors. Pearse himself has directed several plays and films, and they are both appearing in New York in a Pearse-directed version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The plot revolves around a mysterious painting that arrives in New York, which everyone thinks must be by Yvette, although she herself has no recollection of having done it. Was it her epilepsy that intruded on her creativity and blotted out her memory of the painting? Or, is it a finely done forgery? Therein lies the story, and the novel is titled The Moment Before.
I’m writing it now, and part of the task is to present the previously appearing characters in fresh ways, so that the reader who reads just this novel will not be left wondering where these people came from. It’s reasonably straight-forward, this novel, except when it comes to the idea of epilepsy as an artistic metaphor. I myself am not an epileptic although, as you can imagine, I know a great deal about it. (My son, by the way, is now forty-eight years old and remains thoroughly afflicted.) I have to write about Yvette’s seizures, and I have to write about making a fine painting, of both of which I have no direct experience.
But that’s where being a novelist comes in handy. You’re making it up, which for a novelist is the very playing-field itself. It is where the story resides, and therein is a story in itself.
April 3, 2020
In 1995, Orlando Paiva was visiting the United States, and stopped at Nora Olivera’s Sunday afternoon class and practica in Berkeley. These were very special sessions. Nora is noted for her exceptional teaching, especially in the way that she never molly-coddles the students. She tells you the truth about how you’re doing, directly, and if you’re having trouble, she always offers a way to resolve the problem. I myself had been studying for about a year, so I got a number of quite justified suggestions from Nora, and I can still recall almost the exact words she used for many of them. Precision, exactitude, and follow-through are the prime elements in Nora’s advice, and those who understand that her deep love of tango is what drives her realize how valuable those elements are.
She introduced Orlando to the class. At the time he was about sixty years old. He was very slim and gray-haired, and dressed in a pair of tan slacks, a navy-blue blazer, white shirt and tie. Not a demonstrative man in conversation, he yet exuded a kind of kindness that won over the students immediately. Nora later told me that he had a serious heart condition at the time, yet persisted with his tango no matter what. She asked him to perform for us. I don’t remember to which tango he danced, but it was slow and extremely elegant, with the nonetheless acerb bite that makes tango music often so revealing of deep, conflicted emotion. He took his partner into his arms and began dancing.
You could see immediately the care with which he pursued the dance. He walked very slowly, and I remember how he would let his trailing foot follow along, pointed back, the toe at an outward angle that simply underscored the grace with which he was moving. Straight-backed, immersed in the music, and very formal, he made his partner look beautiful because she too was so involved in the way he was dancing. You could feel her intensity, and part of that, I’m sure, was enabled by Orlando’s caring escort of her around the floor.
He performed none of the gymnastic irrelevancies that so often appear in the work of today’s show dancers. No kicks. No lifts. No impossibly fast tripping about. This man was a tanguero, and you could tell that by how respectful he was of his partner and of the music. He moved very slowly, and every step was a marvel.
The students loved it and responded with much shouting applause. I turned to Nora, my own noisy clapping appreciative of what I had just seen. But what I saw now astonished me. Nora, who knew Orlando well, was awash in tears. I cannot recall another occasion when I have seen her so taken by what she has witnessed. Later, I asked Nora if Orlando’s heart condition were one of the reasons for his dancing so carefully and slowly. She responded that, no, this is the way Orlando has always danced. “He is a great master, you see,” she said. That was all the explanation I needed.
The attached video gives you a good sense of what Orlando Paiva could do. The quality of the video is not good, for which, apologies. But please note how beautifully his partner Cristina Benavidez follows him. She is wonderful herself, of course. But Orlando gives her the opportunity to dance in so contemplative a way that her performance reveals her very heart. Watch with what attention the audience watches them. The response of the audience at the end will give you a good idea of what you’ve just seen.
Orlando Paiva died on November 28, 2006.
Terence Clarke’s latest non-fiction book An Arena of Truth was recently featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
March 6, 2020
Beatrice Bowles and I were visiting Buenos Aires in 2006, and were told about the club Viejo correo at Avenida Díaz Vélez 4820. Diaz Vélez is an interminably long thoroughfare, and on this particular night, we worried as very heavy rain coursed from above. Our taxi driver had to lean well forward over the steering wheel in order to be sure that his view of the road was clear. What was not obscured by the downpour itself on his windshield was blurred by the hurrying of his old, ragged wipers across the glass.
We got to the club, though, and were greeted by a couple of men at the door, armed with large umbrellas. They escorted us in, and we immediately noted the black and white tiled dance floor, gleaming smooth, that was surrounded by tables-for-four at which many dancers were sitting. What made the place immediately special for us was that the dancers were well-dressed. This is not something you normally see in Buenos Aires milongas. That city is infected with the same nuevo-homeless style of fashion, most prominently among men, that you see in almost every other American or European city these days. Levis, T-shirts, no verve, etc. At the Viejo correo, every man had on a tie and a suit. The women were all dressed with a preference for real elegance.
The Viejo correo is a local place, visited mostly by neighborhood dancers who all seem to know each other well and, we found, are exceedingly friendly. They were surprised that a couple such as we could even find the place, and they watched carefully as we danced. They seemed equally surprised that we could essay the tango with at least some panache. Many of the other dancers wished to talk with us, and when they found we also had Spanish, our evening filled with conversation.
Many of the men offered the cabeceo to Beatrice, and always thanked me when they escorted her back to our table, for not being offended by their taking her from me. It was clear to them that she could dance, and I was not about to intervene with her opportunity to be on the floor with authentic milongueros porteños. The entire experience, for both of us, was unique.
There was a further surprise. One of the renowned couples in tango at the time were Lito and Lidia Filippini, and we learned that they were going to arrive at the Viejo correo, to dance that evening. “Not to perform,” one of the men assured us. “They come here all the time, just to dance, like the rest of us.”
When the Filippinis arrived, they were greeted by almost everybody as they passed through the tables to their own, which had been reserved for them. They were an older couple, dressed just so, as were all the others in the room. And indeed they did not perform. Beatrice and I watched as they joined others on the floor. Their dancing was in no way flashy or overtly gymnastic. They too were real milongueros and danced with care and elegance spiced by the usual Argentine porteño intensity.
Beatrice and I danced a tanda, and we sensed we were being watched by the Filippinis. This can be an unnerving experience for dancers who are not professionals themselves. After dancing, we sat down at our table and, heads held in reserved silence, calmed our nerves with a few sips of malbec. After more tandas, we saw that the Filippinis were leaving, and as they approached our table, I nodded to Lito. To our astonishment, he and Lidia struck up a conversation with us. Where were we from? Were we enjoying Buenos Aires? Where else were we dancing? And then they both told us that they thought we were dancing well. It had been a pleasure for them to watch, they said. I reached out a hand to Lito, which he shook with enthusiasm, and we both thanked them. It was then that I noticed that the others in the club were watching the conversation. It was clear that they approved, too.
The evening, of course, astonished both Bea and me.
As you’ll see from the video that accompanies this piece, the Filippinis dance in an older style free of the balletic macho fireworks that so often mar contemporary tango.
Compás. Elegancia. Verdaderos milongueros.
(For another adventure from that evening at the Viejo correo, see my piece “Big Nose in Buenos Aires.”)
Release date: April 15, 2020. Available for pre-order now.
“This is as dramatic and emotional as it gets, and one hell of a ride. This family drama has the development and the amazingly executed storyline of a stellar novel. Clara is so much more mature than her age and she shows intelligence that makes her very special. She is determined to bring Emma into her family and she very much wants her mother to accept her. There were times when I was frustrated with Clara’s mother Lauren, but as the story progressed, I understood why she acts as she does. Faith and familial bonds play a very vital role in the story and the author allows the characters to explore all of that in their own way. I loved this story and wouldn’t be surprised if this novel becomes a TV special or a movie, because it has a lot of potential. Very moving and entertaining.”
–Rabia Tanveer for Readers’ Favorite
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.
Terence Clarke’s 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.