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The Gods of Tango. A novel by Carolina De Robertis

The Gods of Tango, by Carolina De Robertis.

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

Photo: Gabriela Padhila

Photo: Gabriela Pailha

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

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

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

There is, however, a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland, of all places!

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

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

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

Big Nose in Buenos Aires

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You walk down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires at your peril. Potholes, immense cracks in the cement, deteriorating curbs, and sudden whole absences of pavement can plague every footstep. This is worsened by the fact that sidewalks in this city are often very narrow as well. You must walk with your head down, watching, which is perhaps why so many Buenos Aires citizens appear lost in thought, a bit resentful, and put upon. They’re afraid they’ll fall, and so they have to concentrate.

It’s the same in tango, which of course comes from Buenos Aires. Dancers of tango very frequently look as though they’re angry with someone, which cloaks them in an ambiance of dismissive arrogance. When women in tango have such a disdainful veneer, they appear to be implying to their partners “Okay chico, show me what you can do.” This look has as much to do with concentration as it does with dramatics. The difficulties of dancing tango well make it imperative that you pay attention, otherwise you’ll look like a fool as you stumble through some radical misdirection. One thing you learn quickly about the citizens of Buenos Aires is that they do not want to look like fools.

Weather makes the sidewalks even more perilous. Parts of Argentina — including Buenos Aires itself — are subject to violent hailstorms and heavy rain. When this happens at night, the sidewalks become simply un-navigable because you can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like globules of the cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain really seems more like a driven, concentrated cataract. It bangs against the ground and soaks you coming down and going back up. Generally it makes you feel like a rat in a sewer.

This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through just such torment.

Bea and I had been dancing tango one recent night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. It had been drizzling lightly when we’d gone into the club, bringing to mind a famous tango entitled “Garúa” (“Light Rain”), with its finely-rhymed lyrics of dark solitude:

(¡Garúa!
Solo y triste por la acera,
va este corazón transido
con tristeza de tapera,
sintiendo tu hielo.
Porque aquella, con su olvido,
hoy le ha abierto una gotera.
¡Perdido!
Como un duende que en la sombra…

Light rain!
Alone and sad up the sidewalk
Goes this spent heart
With the sadness of an abandoned shack,
Feeling your icy cold.
Because that cold, with its forgetfulness,
Has opened up a leak on this day.
Lost!
Like a ghost in the shadow. . .
)

But coming back out onto the sidewalk, we found that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water now coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.

Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battled the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm. I knew I’d be soaked in seconds if I moved further into the avenue to make my presence known. There was a flash of lightning, an immediate bang of thunder and, like shrapnel falling from heaven, hail. I glanced at Bea. She smiled, but I could tell she was as intimidated as I.

It was then that Narigón came to our aid.

The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard. His hands were very large, as were his teeth, and they were similarly soiled. He had been out in the rain and, although his clothing appeared for the most part only damp, his shoulder-length black hair was pasted in meanders to his cheeks.

At first I was intimidated by him because, though he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet. He’d been waiting outside the club for someone such as us, lost tangueros intent on a cab, but not so intent on one that we’d run out into the flood.

Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.

He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a word that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.

I assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. While the rain pelted the street and ricocheted from it, the rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked. He jumped back and forth, dodging taxis and other cars, his shoulders hunched beneath his jacket, his shoes splashing in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet must have been badly inundated within seconds.

In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. It took me a while because I had been watching him and admiring his dance-like movements in the run of all that rain and traffic. He’d been jumping around, bringing his fingers to his lips for loud whistles, waving his arms, all the while intent on the search for an empty cab.

As I searched my pockets, I considered my own admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. I myself have encountered have-not moments when a few extra dollars meant a great deal, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had the problems that Narigón has had. He was a very poor man, but standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.

I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.

Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”

Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this month.

Remembering Horacio Ferrer

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Horacio Ferrer died this Sunday in Buenos Aires. A noted Argentine poet and tango lyricist, he wrote the libretto for Astor Piazzolla’s opera Maria de Buenos Aires as well as the lyrics for Piazzolla’s iconic “Balada para un loco”. In the early 1990s, he was on tour in the United States with the great violinist Gidon Kremer and a musical ensemble, performing the narrator’s speaking role in the opera. I met with Horacio for an interview in Berkeley, California. He was a smallish man with a finely trimmed beard, impeccably dressed as a kind of late 19th century dandy. The outfit was both humorous and very elegant. For me, the experience was fraught with a certain danger, because it was the first one I ever conducted in the Spanish language. Horacio was quite kind to me despite my obvious case of nerves. The authority about tango with which he spoke in this interview was enhanced by his amazing voice, a deep, expressive stream of sound that was the very soul of his performance later that evening.

.***

Horacio: (arranging a scarf about his neck)…my voice has tightened up so much that it sounds like a double base, when really it’s more like a violoncello. (Laughter.)

Terry: I think it’s not very usual to find a popular music tradition that attracts lyricists of such high quality as the tango has attracted, poets like Discépolo, Manzí, Borges, Blázques, Espósito and yourself. Why in your opinion has the tango brought in poets of such quality?

Horacio: At the very center of the question, the “why” of the tango’s being so attractive to poets is, I think, the fact that the tango is itself entirely poetic. The music is poetic, the dance is poetic, the singing is poetic, and the world from which the tango evolves is poetic. It’s the world of the night, it’s the bohemian world where money has little importance, and to be sure where love has a great deal of importance, triumphant love or destroyed love, the affections, distant affection, a love of looking back through space and time.

So they’re all colors taken from the poetic palette. And besides, the tango is one of the few song-forms in this century that undertakes not only a lyric excursion but a reflective one as well. The tango thinks. The tango thinks about the truth without claiming to modify it. It simply meditates upon it, which is also part of poetry.

Terry: Frequently the music of more modern tango composers like Piazzolla, you and others doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Can you help us with your opinion of contemporary tango, especially the reason that no one dances, or wishes to dance, to the more modern tango tempos?

Horacio: There has existed a dance tradition in the tango from the very beginning of the tango itself, that has gone through diverse stages, but that has always been quite attached to the kind of ambiance from which tango originally came. Tango is tradition. So the dance did not accompany the great poetic and musical evolution of the tango, and it has now been seized upon, instead of by milongueros (i.e. classic self-trained tango dancers), by dancers of classic and modern ballet. Because that musical evolution cannot be left to go without the dance. Besides, it’s very good to dance to. Every milonguero chooses his own music and type of tango. That’s no sin. But it would be a sin were the more modern kind of music to go on without the dance.

Piazzolla changed the internal metronome of the tango itself, and the dance has been taken over by people like Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs…who’s a veritable creation herself, no? Also some of the work that el maestro Juan Carlos Copes has done. And many others, many of them not milongueros at all.

Tango has always profited from people, talents, and situations that don’t belong to tango. For instance it has stolen some of rock’s instruments: the electric guitar, the electric keyboard, the drum set. Tango’s always been a bit of a thief, in that it enriches itself without losing its virtue, and that’s what has happened in the case of the dance today.    

Terry: You write in your book The Golden Age of Tango about the influence of rock music.

Horacio: Of course. Why not? Fundamentally, all cultures contain vessels that communicate with each other. And sometimes cultures clash with each other. And in the case of rock music, a true clash took place in 1960 or so, with such extraordinary talents as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to be sure, and others. But in Buenos Aires, with so defined a personality, everything porteño, with its tango, its night, its bohemian ways, it was a clash that afterwards took on distinct consequences. Since the kids who were doing the rock music were living in the same places, the same city, the same night, with the same incitements as the tangueros, they started imitating the tangueros. And they began to find out that that art with which they had had such a clash was worthy of respect. And they started . . . given their abilities (because not all of them were good musicians or very good singers, and the tango is musically schooled while rock music is not). . . they started talking with each other, to figure out the harmonies the tango had, the tango’s counterpoint, its poly-rhythms, the tango poetic, and the singers . . . they began to like all that. And since they belonged in the same starry enclave, eh?, in the same night and the same pizza parlors and the same little black holes-in-the-wall and the same bars, they started going around with the tangueros. And I think they’ve done quite a lot quite well.

Terry: Can we talk about Piazzolla? Do you know that in English he had a New York accent?

Horacio: Of course. He spent his entire childhood there.

Terry: I’ve heard him speaking on the radio many times, and his accent is, well, strange for someone who, like he, was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, because for us the Lower East Side New York accent is fundamental to our culture. You know, Martin Scorsese and Coppola, The Godfather and all that.

Can you give us some comments about the elements of North American music, especially jazz, in Piazzolla’s music?

Horacio: I think that really there are not too many jazz elements in Piazzolla’s music. They’re there, but they’re not central. I think that Piazzolla’s idea…well, maybe he attained something different from what he proposed. I think he was very essentially a tanguista, playing the bandoneón. That instrument is very specific to the tango…other things can be played on the bandoneón, like Bach’s music, but the bandoneón is the very face of the tango, and he played the bandoneón.

Besides he came from a race of tanguistas, because he played in Troilo’s orchestra, who was a great innovator, and he was an admirer of Pugliese and De Caro, who had been the greatest of previous innovators. So that he was very involved, and all the elements of Piazzolla’s music are of the tango. What happens is that, in the harmonic and contrapuntal parts of his music, he finds things from other musical springs, like jazz, also from European classical music, with which he garnishes the dish. But the beef, the churrasco, was from Buenos Aires. The accompaniment, the decoration was from others…because, besides, he liked differentiating himself from the tangueros because he was different.

Terry: And María de Buenos Aires?.

Horacio: It came from two places: one is that, in 1965, I had written a book called Romancero Canyengue. It was the first book, or the first poems that had the good fortune to be in that book, in which I found that I had my own voice. The previous voice I had could have been OK, but it was like Manzí, it was like Espósito, it was like Lamadrid. But in that book I found myself…the voice in the tango. Piazzolla liked it so much that he told me, “From now on you’re working with me, because what you’re doing in words, I’m doing in music.” He invited me to do a piece. He said, “No, no, not a tango. Do a big work. I want to do something like West Side Story,” he told me. So I went about writing what he’d asked me to write…

Terry: I imagine your heart was beating.

Horacio: Please. Please. Of course! But that meant I would abandon everything else, and I like that kind of thing. And, well, I wrote it in 1967, starting in August or September. And in December Piazzolla came to Montevideo and I read what I had written to him…it was almost everything. And we went to a little bar in Uruguay, and on my bandoneón…because I played the bandoneón too…he wrote the music.   We finished it in Buenos Aires and we put it on for the first time on May 8, 1968. And it was so revolutionary.

Terry: Would you explain to us the importance of Buenos Aires to the heart of tango?

Horacio:   There’s a circumstance that makes Buenos Aires into the Paris of the Americas, but one which has a much richer root system, I think. Because Paris, which to be sure is a center of Anglo-Latin culture, like the French race itself, doesn’t contain anything that the Buenos Aires tango has in a very powerful way. The tango is a combination of the Indian and the American, which includes the Indian who, sadly, has now more or less disappeared, but who still remains in the gaucho and in the compadrito.

I was thinking just yesterday that if the cowboy is the North American equivalent of the Argentine gaucho, the cowboy nonetheless doesn’t have a literature. He’s got the movies, but no literature. The cowboy doesn’t have Martin Fierro. (Translator’s note: Martín Fierro is an epic poem by the Argentine writer José Hernández that was published between 1872 and 1879. It is the most famous work of Argentine gaucho literature.) Gaucho literature is a unique case, and it’s the very basis of the tango. That’s where the attractiveness of Buenos Aires comes from, no?, the city with a European aspect and an American content.

Terry: How was tango affected by the Argentine military junta during the Nineteen-Sixties and Seventies?

Horacio: That was a horrifying thing. Horrifying. The Spanish philosopher Ortega said, “A ‘military man’ is a warrior turned into a bureaucrat.” And those are bureaucrats, not warriors. They have lost all the guts the warrior has, and turned themselves into desk-bound cowards. Sadly, that’s the way it is. They brought their bellicose spirit to the citizenry, to the TV stations, to the ministries, the schools…a very lamentable thing. What happened…I hope we never forget it, because that happened in our beloved country, and it had better not ever happen again! No? It better not happen again! It’s an historical instance from which we can learn much, no? so that we can build a present that serves us into the future.

(Terence Clarke wishes to thank Guillermo García, of the group Trio Garufa , for his invaluable help with this interview.)

Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil…25th anniversary edition

Had I not read Alev Lytle Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil when it was first published 25 years ago, I would have continued thinking that a harem in Turkey was basically a gathering of women sequestered–imprisoned–for the deviant sexual pleasure of the pasha, sultan or whomever else was in charge. Like that of most other people in the west, my understanding of the harem was a salacious one, and very inaccurate.

Croutier’s book was therefore a revelation, and in its re-publication in a new edition this year, it remains one.

Alev Lytle Croutier

Alev Lytle Croutier

I learned once more in the preface that Croutier’s paternal grandmother and that woman’s sisters had actually been members of a harem: “Which really means a separate part of a house where women lived in isolation, having no contact with men other than their blood relatives. The term does not necessarily imply the practice of polygamy.” Those sentences begin Croutier’s sophisticated and fascinating education of the reader about what a harem actually was for her grandmother as well as for countless other women, at various levels of Turkish society, over the previous centuries.

We learn about the Grand Harem of the sultan, and what activities the women could engage in…the poetry of the harem, the shadow puppets plays they mounted, the secrets of flowers and birds, the riddles they shared, the stories they told, their outings, games, and many other activities.

“Women of the harem were renowned for their luminous complexions and satin skin,” Croutier writes, and therewith begins a tour of the grand harem baths.

“To wash and purify oneself was a religious obligation. This may perhaps explain the existence of so many baths in the Seraglio. The sultan, the Valide, and the wives all had private baths, while the other women of the harem shared a large bathhouse, which sometimes welcomed the sultan as well–the stuff of Orientalist fantasy…For harem women, deprived of so many freedoms, the hamam (i.e. Turkish bath) became an all-consuming passion and a most luxurious pastime.”

We learn every detail about the baths: the water used, the henna floral designs for special occasions, perspiration preventatives, the powders, the brushes, the spices, the depilatory called ada, which was a paste made of sugar and lemon (for which Croutier provides the recipe and the method for using the concoction)…everything.

We also learn who the sultanas were, the princesses and the relationships between them all, the organization of the harem, the social relationships between the various levels of harem hierarchy, pregnancy and accouchement within the harem, and the handling of childbirth.

The Grand Harem in the Topkapi Palace was one thing, in which many, many women lived in luxurious surroundings. These were the kinds of harems so much written about by western commentators, whose descriptions Croutier uses very often and quite colorfully. But one of the most interesting chapters in the book for me (because it was the least expected) is titled “Ordinary Harems”. A Turkish Muslim man of modest means could still marry four women legally, and they were his harem. The situation for these women was far more workaday and closely familial than for those in the royal seraglio, and Croutier’s description of the customs involved are very special…and even personal.

“Romance or not, families decided who married whom. My grandmother was promised to her father’s best friend when she was merely a child. When they eventually got married, she was fourteen and my grandfather was forty.

In this chapter, we see how a proper husband should treat his wives (for example, “Good husbands were diplomatic. They abided by the Qur’an and gave the impression of treating all their women equally…The husband alternated nights in the bedrooms, spending Friday nights exclusively with their first wives.”). She describes what the relationships among the wives could be like, what was required for household upkeep, the treatment of odalisques (i.e. house servants), and even the various preparations of the bodies of deceased wives for burial.

This chapter on ordinary harems was unusual for me because I had not realized that a harem was a reality in almost every level of the society that Croutier describes, and not intended solely for the sultan and others of the upper-class. The chapter is a view of everyday life in this society that may have gone unnoticed by western readers had it not been for Croutier’s study of it.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d'Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

John Singer Sargent: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 1880, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Used with permission.

Harem is quite lavishly illustrated with photos of various harem women (including some from Croutier’s own family in Turkey). Many of the illustrations come from Turkish artists of the historical period being covered, and there is as well a number of breath-taking paintings done by such Europeans as Eugéne Delacrox, Leon Bakst, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and others, all influenced by the popular European Orientalist movements of the period. I first saw one of my very favorite paintings in this book: John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris, in which an extraordinary woman, in contemplation of the essential perfume of amber coming up to her from a harem censer, is lost in lush, joyful contemplation. The setting–an alcove in some corner of a harem chamber–is severe, of bone-like white, while the carpets, the glorious censer, the woman’s clothing and jewelry and, especially, her hands and face, exude the sensitivity of private, sensuous dreaming.

In the 25 years since the first publication of Harem, the situation for women in Muslim societies has changed profoundly. Croutier has studied this, and writes in this new edition:

“The Internet has created a dynamic exchange in which a Moslem woman can be a traditionalist or an iconoclast, a housewife or an entrepreneur. The neutral ground of cyberspace allows women to learn about their rights within the religion, without the usual cultural or traditional barriers.”

This is all to the good, of course, and turning back is not an option. But Croutier herself misses one aspect of the old way.

“It never ceases to amaze me that all my research for this book was done without the Internet. Those old fashioned forms of research–long hours in the library, the manuscripts, the dust and bookish enjoyment of the search for knowledge–certainly had more of a romantic edge for me.”

The idea of a harem has always been of interest to the west, although the truth of the harem is often sacrificed to over-wrought sensualist fantasy. The reality of the harem, as presented in this fine book, brings the idea to lovely–and accurate–fruition.

Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Astor & Lenox. His new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published in early 2015. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.

A Year in Champagne

Champagne is magically joyful. Yet few understand the struggle involved in creating it.

Documentary filmmaker David Kennard is making a trilogy of films about three distinctive wines (burgundy, champagne and port), and Samuel Goldwyn Films recently bought the North American rights to the second of these, A Year in Champagne. It is scheduled for a spring 2015 release.

Like his earlier and much noted A Year in Burgundy, the champagne film is a vibrant, openhearted look at some of the people who make this very special wine. It takes us on a tour of the Champagne landscape and introduces us to the extremely complex undertaking of producing the most famous libation ever.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne is north and east of Paris, the most northerly wine-growing region in France. Unlike in Burgundy, where the weather in wine season is generally sunny and warm, in Champagne it is almost always more inclement than not, year round. So a good portion of this film seems to have been made under an umbrella. It features a lot of mud, cold and foul-weather gear. That the wine so noted for sprightly bubbles and light-hearted festivity comes from this often difficult setting is the first of many surprises in the film.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne, of course, is also the site of some of the most terrifying events in the history of war. There were two battles fought along the Marne River during World War I. The first, in September 1914, resulted in half a million casualties. The second, four years later, resulted in 300,000 more. It was butchery on an astounding scale. But such war has been fought in this part of France for millennia, between Gauls, Ostrogoths, Romans and many others. As one of the champenois interviewed for this film says, “History haunts the champagne region.”

In an interview, Kennard himself recounted how he has often heard such utterances as “We are a people scarred by war” and “We have been involved time and time again.”

Given these two deleterious elements, it is almost an astonishment that the wine called champagne exists at all. But when they talk about the wine they make, the vintners in the film constantly use language filled with expressions of joy. One advises us, “The important thing is to make sure that your glass is never empty.” Another suggests, “Drinking champagne is all about pleasure.” A third even offers the thought that “Champagne makes women more lovely and men more witty.”

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


A Year in Champagne gives the viewer an inside look at how this place besieged by conflict and cold rain produces the wine that is synonymous with celebration. From the buds on the vines in spring, through the summer growing season and the harvest itself, we learn from the vintners about the almost numbing complexity of the process. In a long and quite amusing sequence, the film spells out the forest of rules that each champagne vintner must follow every year in the preparation of the fields and vines. There seem to be hundreds of specific ways in which the vines must be secured, treated and harvested, and in which the wine — to be called champagne — must be made.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — the final product is the most famous wine in the world. One of the great virtues of this film is that it shows in detail the wine-making process, rules and all, and gives the answer to the question that everyone who enjoys champagne has: how do they make the bubbles? It is a much more difficult undertaking than you might have imagined.

The film explains a few other phenomena of which the viewer may not have been aware. At first champagne was an exclusively sweet wine. The English (most particularly the English royal family) wanted a drier version of it. Of course, when someone like Edward VII asks a vendor to do something, that vendor springs to action. Also, the bubbles in part require fermentation of the wine in the bottle rather than in the barrel and, early on, English glass was always the one most able to withstand the pressure that the bubbles produced. So England had a lot to do with making champagne as we know it now.

Early in the 19th century, champagne was a village industry, its product enjoyed by just a few connoisseurs. But with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871, Germans too learned about champagne. Over time, large German corporations stepped in and began buying up small vineyards, and it was the Germans who first industrialized the champagne-making process. Thus was champagne made available to the world. A look at some of the big names in champagne — Bollinger, Krug, Roederer and so on — reflects the German influence.

To be successful, a growing industry requires good marketing, and champagne was one of the first wine products to take advantage of the new branding ideas of the early 20th century. Several of the vintners in A Year in Champagne tell that, while other French wines emphasize the importance of terroir (the very makeup of the soil in which certain grapes are grown), the excellence of a champagne brand rests upon the abilities of the maker. So the marketing of those makers’ names is central to the product’s fame.

Used courtesy of InCA Productions

Used courtesy of InCA Productions


Champagne lifts the soul in a glorious way that one would not expect from the location, weather and history of the place where it is made. But as one of the vintners in this lovely film declares, “Once you open the bottle, the magic is there.”

This piece first appeared in Huffington Post. Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this year.

OMG!@e-speak

Johannes Vermeer: Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid

Johannes Vermeer: Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid

In the history of literature, the genre of the letter has been a very important element. Epistolary exchange has shed light on the lives of most of the important artists and historical figures — and some less important figures that happened to have written well — in the history of the world.

This light has revealed profound emotional difficulty and expressions of love… savored love, questioned love and destroyed love. Letters often exposed the high comedy of family disputes. The horrors of war were made memorable in letters from the front, while the onerous effects of preposterous government or  church intrusion on the sensuous spirit were brought into the open. The letter, as a form, shed clear light on just about everything.

Now we have email. When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I was heartened. With the birth of the telephone and, much later, the television, good personal writing had abruptly disappeared. It was easier to pick up the phone and call. It was more fulfilling to watch a game show than to write to your lover. So, most people gave up writing letters, and an entire literary genre almost ceased to exist.

Email held out the possibility for a resurgence of the letter-form through use of the Internet. Perhaps now people would write to one another again, a consummation devoutly to be wished. The letter is so important to the history of human affairs that its disappearance was like the withering away of a human organ, one that spirits the blood and makes it flow. Email would restore that organ, I hoped.

It has become apparent, though, that email has not risen to the challenge.

Letters hold together. Emails often have nothing to grab on to. Letters call for contemplation and soulful enjoyment. Emails call for very little. Letters contain cries for understanding, personal descriptions of terrible events or recoveries of soul. Emails tap-tap-tap across a depthless surface, asking only that they not be ignored, which they so often are. Letters contain a beginning, a middle and an end. Emails are dull wisps of nothing, written in as few characters as possible. It is this kind of artless dodging of anything important that is the norm in email and in its little brother, texting. And texting’s little brother, the tweet, is now the perfect email.

So my wish for the return of real writing has not been fulfilled. This is due to something I had not foreseen at all, which is that although the usual emailer may want exchange of some kind (perhaps a revised bill of lading, a recipe for goulash or Miley Cyrus’s URL), an email generally is not exchange. It almost never cares for good writing. The email is a depthless, short, ungrammatical demand. There are slightly meaningful emails, to be sure, like those that talk about one’s cat or how to screw in a light bulb. But even emails like these are random momentary conversations that go nowhere, or at least not far.

And now, horror of horrors, we have the Twitter novel, which somehow I feel is not destined — at least yet — to deny Dickens and all those others their insurmountable place in the pantheon. But it might. We will have seen the end of human transcendence on this planet when a chapter like number 42 in Moby Dick, on the whiteness of the whale, which is surely one of the most lyric and strange pieces of writing in the English language, is replaced by a chapter of 140 characters that have little to do with each other, as is the case with most tweets.

So, for the vast majority of this new language I propose the term “@e-speak.” The word could be an adjective, a kind of descriptive term that refers simply to the nature of the email/tweet itself. For example, you read a short little tweet, of a few impenetrable words and signs, with no capital letters and no punctuation, something about nothing written in illiterate language. It rattles with @e-speak inconsequence. That’s an adjective.

My use of the term would also make it into a noun. @e-speak is the language that, in another context, would be called gibberish. OMG!

Terence Clarke’s New York story “Everyone in L.A.” is available at Amazon.com. Visit him on Twitter