Terence Clarke

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On the Fire at Notre-Dame

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

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

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

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

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

“The rose window?”

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

Clara’s eyes widened.

“Circled by the stars.”

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

“Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?”

“And we can see it?”

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

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

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

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

 

Great Cruelty

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April 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Sweet Voice of Ignacio Corsini

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April 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Rejection

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March 15, 2019

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

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

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

I didn’t get it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For International Women’s Day

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March 8, 2019

For International Women’s Day today, I hope you’ll read the attached excerpt from my new book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book chronicles a class that was offered at the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville, during the early 1970s. Despite the federal government’s efforts to erase discriminatory laws from the legal systems of southern states, Jim Crow remained a healthy institution. The class at UNF was made up of a dozen students, equally black and white, and gender-balanced. It was based on the notion that, in the matter of race in the United States, reconciliation is sought, while confrontation is shunned. Sadly, the formula has not worked. The core element of the class was racial confrontation, in which in-your-face truth-telling about the troubles between Blacks and Whites was the single subject. The one restriction was that physical attack was forbidden. As Dr. Price M. Cobbs, co-author of the seminal Black Rage, writes in his foreword to An Arena of Truth, “This book shows Kranz’s courage, and especially that of his students, as pioneers in the development of an authentic conversation about race.”

Marguerite was a black student.

***

Marguerite describes some very important events in her life after Pete Kranz’s class.

“The day I walked into the class, in 1973, I think I had a kind of awkward politeness around white people, in which no matter what Whites may have done in the past, you still maintained that awkward politeness. But that was a barrier that I was able to shed because of the class.

“In 1976, I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, to work for the state government. There was an incident one day, in which a white supervisor treated one of her black employees in a way that I didn’t feel was fair. At first I didn’t think I should get involved. You know, stay out of it, Marguerite. It’s not your business.

“But then, a while later, I myself was up for a promotion. At the time, I had two years of college education. I was to be interviewed by my white supervisor, who was a woman I knew, a woman I worked with every day. When the interview started, she asked me one or two questions, and then her phone rang. She picked up the receiver, and it was clear to me that this was a personal call, from a friend or someone.  I waited, and continued waiting, until the scheduled time for the interview to close arrived. She was still on the phone. She interrupted the conversation, to end the interview. That was it! I was out of there!

“Another woman in our section was also interviewed, someone who started with the state just a few days after I started. She had a high school diploma. She was white, and she got a full interview…no phone call. And she got the job.

“I went right to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

This federal organization had been founded during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Part of its mandate, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was to administer and enforce civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

“I may not have done that, had it not been for Pete’s class. It was a confidence I now had, about not feeling that awkwardness I talked about, when it came to dealing with this particular white supervisor. Maybe she thought I should have been grateful for simply having gotten the interview. But I felt that the supervisor and I were on the same playing field, and I won the case! The EEOC said I should have gotten the job. I got the back pay, and everything that went along with it.

“Now this was supposed to be a supervisory position, and when I finally got there, I learned that there was no supervision involved, and that basically nothing for me had really changed. So I complained again. This time, the position was restored to what it was supposed to be, and an EEOC officer was also to become part of our department staff.

“This was great. But then there was a new statewide election, and the new Secretary of State declared that he was under no obligation to honor any agreement made by his predecessor.

“So, I sued the state, for discrimination against black Americans in hiring and promotion. I got eighteen people, all black and all representative of the areas of employment in that part of the government, and we did a class action suit. (By the way, except for two of those people, who were senior aids to government officers, the rest of us worked in the basement of the old state building—a new one had just been built—and we were kept unseen.) The class action lasted for nineteen years, and at the end of that, those whose names were still connected with it received a suitable settlement. It happens that I myself had left the suit. Our attorney explained to me that, because I had gotten compensation from my first suit, the possibility for my getting additional compensation could hamper the progress of this class action suit. So I dropped out. I didn’t want to get in the way.

“In the meantime, a lot because of the class action, conditions changed in the State government’s hiring and promotions practices.

“I never felt isolated after that. I didn’t have that awkwardness. And I think a lot of what I did in those times was due to ‘Human Conflict: Black and White.’”

(An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White is available in book stores and from Amazon. It was published on March 1.)

With Gavito

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February 26, 2019

I believe it was in the Russian Samovar, a restaurant on West Fifty-second Street in New York City, that Carlos Gavito placed a hand to his forehead, stared down into his drink (some sort of whisky concoction that was colored red and pink, and perhaps even had a little paper umbrella in it), and offered his opinion. At first, I thought it was a sad observation, an effort at covering over the unintended comedy of what he had just seen. As it turned out, though, Gavito was in the first moment of an offer to me that changed my understanding of tango and milonga. I would leave New York a year later with knowledge that has stayed with me ever since.

Gavito was one of the best-known tango dancers of his generation. Born in 1942 in Buenos Aires, he was noted for perhaps the most svelte dancing style anyone had ever seen. When he moved, you watched him. He had many wonderful partners throughout his stellar career…extraordinary women all of them.  But really, you watched him. He was world famous, the lead dancer among that group of performers who toured the world with Forever Tango in the 1990s.

That evening, we had been sitting together at the bar. It was 1998, and I had been studying tango for four years. I had only a meager understanding of how tango is an expression of the national consciousness of Argentina. As such, if you really want to understand the dance, you have to know the history of that country (and particularly of Buenos Aires.) You must be able to speak Spanish and understand at least to some degree the unusual manner in which the language is spoken in that city. I had not at that time visited Buenos Aires, although I had a good command of the kind of generic Spanish that is taught in schools. But I knew little of the slang that is spoken in Buenos Aires and the very unusual accents that you hear everywhere on the streets. You should know those things if you wish to understand the color that makes tango lyrics so earthy, humorous, and often desperately sad. Also at the time I did not know the history of tango’s many rhythms and how they had arrived in Buenos Aires. A study of that requires an understanding of the enormous immigration to that port city of peoples from almost everywhere in the world during the nineteenth century. I can think only of New York City itself for a similar example.

In any case, I was dancing tango at the Russian Samovar (a weekly milonga there hosted by the inimitable couple, Carolina Zokalski and Diego Di Falco, with whom I was studying at the time.) All was well, as far as I could tell, especially in view of the fact that Gavito was at the bar, conversing with a woman companion, and occasionally turning away to watch me. I was studying with him, too. So, his opinion of what I was doing was important to me.

The tanda came to an end, and in a moment, a fast milonga came on. I asked the person I was dancing with whether she would like to do some milongas with me. The answer was “Yes,” and off we went.

After that tanda, I joined Gavito and asked his opinion of what he had observed. He laid his forehead onto the palm of his right hand. Slowly, with kindness and not a little chagrin, he said “Che, the tango was all right. But…” He sighed with actual despondency. “My God!” he whispered, shaking his head. “My God, the milonga was bad.”

I now know that what I had been dancing was simply a very fast version of the tango that I knew. I did not realize then that the milonga is a different dance creature altogether and requires way different talents than does tango itself.

But Gavito allowed me to recover from my own unhappiness with his pronouncement, when he said, “Listen, Terry. You give me two hours, and I will give you milonga.” I took him up on his offer a few weeks later and have never forgotten what he taught me.

Terence Clarke’s story collection, New York, is available in bookstores and on Amazon. 

El Colectivero Polaco Goyeneche

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Roberto Goyeneche is not everyone’s cup of tea as a singer of tango. Although to this day one of the most famous singers of the genre, his arrangements and delivery are sometimes thought to be so unusual and innovative that the general public, especially the dancing public, doesn’t pay the kind of attention to him that I believe he deserves.

Born into a working-class family in the Saavedra neighborhood of Buenos Aires in 1926, Goyeneche’s voice was discovered through one of those chance occurrences that sometimes take place, which usher the newcomer into immediate stardom. As a young performer, Goyeneche had to work as a colectivero,a municipal bus driver, in Buenos Aires, to support himself while trying to make a name in show business. He had gigs. He was singing for a band here and there. But he wasn’t making a living wage as a cantor.  He was definitely an oddity as bus drivers go, though, because of his constant singing of tangos, solo, while driving.

One day, a man named José Otero was riding on Goyeneche’s bus and heard the voice coming from the man at the wheel. Otero was the manager of Horacio Salgán’s orchestra. Salgán, an accomplished pianist whose star had been rising during the 1940s, had already attained a certain fame in the music and recording industries. Otero offered to introduce Goyeneche to Salgán, and suggested that the young man sing a couple tangos for him.

The audition was a great success. No one had heard a voice like this, especially with the unusual manner in which Goyeneche essayed quite well-known tangos. There was a kind of lackadaisical-seeming precision in his delivery. He would start slightly behind the beat or before it, speed up, slow down, arrive at the end with the orchestra, right on time…or maybe not. Himself an adventurer musically, Salgán valued what Goyeneche could do. This was a style of singing that I believe was influenced somehow by the jazz idiom and its embrace of improvisation…as was Salgán’s music itself.

So, in 1952, Horacio Salgán hired Roberto Goyeneche. Success was immediate, and, despite his Basque background, Goyeneche was quickly nicknamed “El Polaco” because of his skinniness and his light-colored hair. Eventually he won the attention of the very famous Aníbal Troilo, who hired him in 1956. (Troilo himself had considerable daring as a musician. A legendarybandoneonista, he had hired a young musician named Astor Piazzolla in 1944, whose career as a performer and composer later sky-rocketed to the world stage.)

Goyeneche’s career lasted almost to his dying day, in 1994. His last recordings reveal a singing voice almost destroyed, gargly, off-tune, way rough. But for me, that Goyeneche voice is simply the last iteration of a great talent that went through many innovative changes throughout his career. The recordings made by Goyeneche as an old man are some of my favorites. For an example, listen to his rendition, with Piazzolla before a live audience, of Astor’s famous Balada para un loco.

The Argentine journalist Ricardo García Blaya wrote “El Polaco Goyeneche appropriated to himself many of the classic tangos. Why do I say that? For the simple reason that he re-created innumerable tangos the versions of which had already made their own name…identified with other singers. But with Goyeneche’s interpretation, those tangos became emblems of his repertory.”

(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as its central character, was published on January 1.)