In Webster’s, the definition of the phrase “to disrupt” is as follows: “to drastically alter or destroy the structure of something, as in ‘alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilized egg.’” Synonyms are words like these: distort, damage, buckle, and warp.
It happens that one of the most important phrases used to describe current business innovation is this same “to disrupt.” Anyone who knows of the aggressive use of new business ideas to destroy the purveyors of competitive ideas, or more importantly to enable the ruinous takeovers of new inventive companies by others for the purpose of appropriating technologies that they themselves did not have the imagination to invent, will recognize the term “to disrupt.” It’s often a matter of what is called “corporate consolidation,” a bland-enough term, one would think. Harmless. Sensible. The disruption involved, though, comes about with a satisfied grumble of self-congratulation and triumph from those in senior management who have destroyed something else for their own benefit.
But disruption does no one any good when it comes to the advancement of ideas and of the heart. All it does is destroy. Yes, you get to pump up your chest when you’ve gotten rid of available fresh thinking and imagination. But because there is little attention given to cooperative back and forth, the sharing of ideas, or the furtherance of the human soul, disruption is a rejection of that soul and a thumbing of the nose at it.
This is also, of course, a distinctly male undertaking. And although the phrase “to disrupt” is the current business terminology of choice, it comes from a very traditional idea: the development of monopolies, trusts, and so on. Fascist governments and the like. We even now have a disruption of the entire weather system, thanks to industrial aggressiveness and wholesale disinterest on the part of certain current governments in a proven scientific truth.
Disruption diminishes us. We are less human, less thoughtful, less innovative when it takes place because it serves the interest only of the disruptor. And these days, disruption seems to be a form of universal truth, accepted at most levels of business society. Opportunities for it are to be sought out and realized. So, your having succeeded in disrupting the competition is an accomplishment of great value, for which congratulation is in order. You are celebrated when you have destroyed them. You will be ushered into some hall of fame or other for having done that. You are the man of the hour, and perhaps one day you’ll run for president, and disrupt democracy.
“Eddy, 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.
He took in a breath as Eddy nattered a reply. This was the second gig in a month that Ernesto had gotten for Eddy y Los Locos to which the band had arrived late. This time, Eddy explained, the Express Passenger broke down. The Express Passenger was an aging Chevrolet van, quite used, from Eddy’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, Eddy 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, was that the Siena had broken down. The Siena was an even older Toyota vehicle that the band had named El Barco de Los Locos, also purchased 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 Eddy 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, shorted the band on its money because of their tardiness—“I had to do bird whistles, Eddy!”—and the other guys in the band escorted Eddy out of the place after the gig, so that he wouldn’t threaten the Argentine as well.
The musicians in the band were terrific, Eddy himself a timbales player of real note even though he was only 19. 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. Eddy had recently fired Joe, jealous of the band’s dependence upon the older man’s more steady demeanor, and the fortunes of Eddy y Los Locos were now waning.
During Eddy’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 was now 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. Now The High Line was charming, safe and vernal, the talk of touristic Manhattan. He remembered it from his childhood as a heroin-beset disgrace, thirty feet up.
Eddy’s rambling litany of excuses 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 a different purpose then. His father Cacho Goyeneche was the daytime shop foreman of a Post Office processing plant on the fourth floor. Little Ernesto 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. Cacho 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 was challenged by his father to find the squeakiest floor plank of them all. There were 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 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. The Virgin smiled, looking down dreamily from a swirling cloud. There were also two dollars in the envelope.
“You deserve it, hijo.”
Ernesto 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 was badly faded, and parts of the paper had fallen away at the edges, She still held a kind of floating, 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. They were 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 machinery, 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.
His father, whom he 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 rosemary lamb, who gave 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 was the first to teach Ernesto to dance tango, showing him how to essay multiple agujas, amagues and boleos with rough, legible grace. Cacho was noted especially by the few actual professional tangueros in New York for his milonguero abilities. This rare accolade, in 1993 when the boy was 8 years old and attending his first summer milongas in a patio behind an apartment house in Queens, made Ernesto feel singularly honored as his father led him through the dance. Cacho…Ernesto’s father, who died in Buenos Aires while visiting a dying cousin, when Ernesto was nine.
Recalling this, Ernesto felt his eyes turning to liquid. Eddy 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 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, Ernesto…especially about love.” When he learned that Cacho was dead, Ernesto knew that his father had been wrong about that.
A few weeks 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 were dancing a tango, in Uncle Timo’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 head against his mother’s as she crumpled a corner of the letter. He wished to run from this duty. There should be no need for it. He wished his father alive, to 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 Eddy y Los Locos, Ernesto recalled a visit to their house by Polaco himself, on tour from Argentina, and a musician friend. This was the man who had written Cacho’s favorite song, an immortal tango about his own father’s death entitled “Adios Nonino”. The little boy, five years old at the time, was stunned by his father’s surprised, noisy amazement when the other musician came 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 Eddy 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, eh? ¿No te rompen la cabeza? That’s like saying in English…like…something like ’Don’t they drive your heart crazy?’”
Because of the mystery of it, the boy had always cherished the question, and still did.
Terence Clarke’s new book, a story collection titled New York, will be published this year.
I read David Copperfield as a student in 1970, and until recently the single detail that I remembered from it was that of Uriah Heep’s handshake. Heep is a law clerk working for a kindly attorney named Wickfield, who has just taken over the very young David’s care. The boy has struggled through a years’ long, brilliantly described journey to free himself from the clutches of his cold, distant stepfather Edward Murdstone and Mr. Murdstone’s horrid sister. David is overjoyed by his new good fortune with Mr. Wickfield. But he does have to tend with Uriah Heep: “Oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.” Later, David mentions the trail of Uriah’s sweat across the page as he traces with one finger what he is reading. I could imagine the very paper disintegrating with the destructive acid contained in that finger’s touch.
I just finished reading David Copperfield once again, and there is more to it—a great, almost insurmountable deal more—than Uriah Heep’s perspiration. Young David has lost both parents, attended school, been abandoned and traveled alone and homeless through a vast English countryside. He has been treated sometimes badly, sometimes well by many and various people, he has entered the legal field, fallen in love more than once, gained, lost and regained many friendships, and been forced to deal with terrible people, who have had significant influence over his affairs, many times.
All the while, his adventures have been described by a fully adult David Copperfield, working alone with pen and paper on this autobiographical manuscript, telling the tale of his youth. Copperfield frequently interrupts the flow of the tale, to cogitate on what the events he has been describing from those years meant to his emotional development and his ultimate personal character. If ever there were an understanding witness to the boy David’s travails and difficulties, this older man Copperfield is surely that. When we are listening to his observations, told many years after the fact, he makes those observations with an always-clear eye, contemplative feeling, and compassion.
There is a distinct difference between this memoirist’s adult reflective style, and that which he employs to describe the boy David’s fractious growing up. The older Copperfield is calm and reflective. The younger David (who, when not in the arms of the few who really love him, is always on the run or being challenged, beaten, rejected, fooled by someone or relieved of his few pennies) is a seriously threatened, sweet-minded naïf (although, as he grows older, he eventually becomes wiser.)
On this new reading, I was almost incapable of following David’s youthful peregrinations in a calm state of mind. He is in some kind of crisis almost always, and the language is so full of movement, surprise, hurry and abrupt contemplation that even my breathing was affected by my reading. To use the old phrase, I could not put the book down, and until I started writing this piece, I could not understand what the actual writer Charles Dickens had done to make the book so electrifying to me.
But now I know.
The clue is that everything in Dickens’s writing pulses with movement. All of the detail that seeps from the end of his pen shimmers. This is so even when the simplest, most pedestrian every-day object is being described. Clothing, papers piled on a desk, a woman’s sleeping cap, the appearance of something as simple as the whiskers on a man’s’s face…nothing escapes Dickens’s attention and his wish for a kind of completion and humor that the reader, trying breathlessly to keep up, can not possibly expect before reading it. All, whether good for young David or ill, moves. Everything steps back and forth, looks to the side, reflects constantly changing light and color, and beats with life. The language Dickens selects describes in phenomenal detail, throughout the novel, the character being described, the place being visited, the vista being observed, in ways in which nothing is static. Everything is excited and, in its language, dancing.
For example, after a few hundred pages, we meet a certain Mr. Spenlow, who is considering training young David to become a proctor, a kind of sub-lawyer in the court system in London. Mr. Spenlow himself is not a central character, although his daughter Dora later does have a deep effect on young David’s emotions. But Dickens, in the paragraph in which he first brings Mr. Spenlow on stage, celebrates the very unusual manner and dress of this minor man, thus making him unforgettable. When I recall that Spenlow is just one of many, many characters described with such originality, I shake my head with wonder at the depth of Dickens’s ability.
“Mr. Spenlow, in a black gown trimmed with white fur, came hurrying in, taking off his hat as he came. He was a little light-haired gentleman, with undeniable boots, and the stiffest of white cravats and shirt-collars. He was buttoned up, mighty trim and tight, and must have taken a great deal of pains with his whiskers, which were accurately curled. His gold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the goldbeaters’ shops. He was got up with such care, and was so stiff, that he could hardly bend himself; being obliged, when he glanced at some papers on his desk, after sitting down in his chair, to move his whole body, from the bottom of his spine, like (the puppet character) Punch.”
With this passage, my eye was going over Spenlow so quickly, the author Dickens’s attention to the details of Spenlow’s appearance so hurriedly provided and then moved from, left behind for the next detail and then the next…and with such ravishing color and noisy precision…that I was a couple of paragraphs further along before I realized the wondrous manner in which Spenlow had been described. I stopped and went back. I have had to calm myself, reading this novel, so that I could enjoy what I was reading while I was reading it. But on dozens of occasions, I was so driven on nonetheless to the next event by the power of Dickens’s language that I had to go back, to read this or that sequence again.
I loved having to do so.
Terence Clarke is writing a new novel—The Splendid City—that has Pablo Neruda as its central character. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
Journalism was once a completely respectable profession.
Reporters traditionally have been trained writers, and for me one of their real virtues has always been that they write well — sometimes extremely well — on a tight deadline. Anyone who has struggled for years writing a novel — as I have, on several occasions — must of necessity marvel at the ability of a good journalist to tell a story, have it edited, perhaps re-write it and have it re-edited, all in a matter of a few hours before going to press or on camera. This is a charmed capability, and I have spent my entire writing life admiring good reporting.
Now we have Fox. Television journalism is of course nothing new, and has often been quite good. Jim McKay’s reportage on ABC of the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympic Games remains in my memory one of the most gripping examples ever of what good television journalism can do. Also, almost everything that came with television’s coverage of the Vietnam war was exemplary of what good journalism must do, which is to get the real facts, weigh all sides of the story, and then tell it as truthfully and clearly as possible, no matter the consequences. In war, the first casualty is truth, as we have learned in the engagements subsequent to Vietnam, with their “embedded” journalists and heavy military “minding” and censorship. The reporters in Vietnam kept the casualty alive and breathing for the duration of that conflict.
Fox News has now become the prime purveyor of yellow journalism. Originally the child of a circulation battle in the 1890s between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, “yellow journalism” sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers. It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Under the influence of the recently deposed Roger Ailes, Fox News has embraced the unbridled goal of increasing viewership and sales through neo-conservative shouting, so that, on that network, journalism has descended from any high ground it once may have occupied.
On Fox, commentators are no longer reporters; they are editorialists. They do not seek the facts and are not fair in their judgments. They turn the injudicious selection of certain facts to the service of their long-ago received political ideologies, gather themselves together for the camera, and once it’s on, they opine. This has all been documented and argued over for many years. But for the past decade or two, Fox has become so yellow that journalism itself barely exists there.
At such places, what may once have been healthy respect for proper journalistic practices has become a rabid pursuit of blowhardism and personal hubris. But Partisan Rant is not Journalism. A Rude Interruptive Voice is not Journalism. A Sneer is not Journalism. What qualifies Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, for example, to speak with such dismissive intensity when he’s exploring the few . . . well. . . ideas that he has? He brays about illegal immigration without having read much, it seems, about the proud history of illegal immigration to the United States, from the day the Republic was founded. He also makes the mistake of lumping traditional politicians from the Democratic and Republican parties together, implying that they are all…well, to be fair, Democrats more than Republicans… just a bunch of weak-minded, timid time-servers who can’t see, or won’t engage, the real issues facing the American electorate. And, of course, O’Reilly savages Black Lives Matter, seemingly knowing very little about it or its predecessors…the American Civil Rights movement, for example.
After the recent presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, much was made by several Fox TV commentators about the role the moderator played, NBC’s Lester Holt. Mr. Holt’s performance was criticized by Yellow Fox because, they believed, he could not possibly give balanced and fair treatment to Mr. Trump. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Mr. Trump himself ever gives balanced and fair treatment to anyone, one need only look at a sampling of Mr. Holt’s reportage in general to conclude that he is an honest, judicious, and fair man, as corporate news readers go. He is not a purveyor of Yellow TV. He represents the more traditional notion of journalism, in which all sides be considered and the truth be told.
Bill O’Reilly doesn’t do that.
The expatriate American journalist Larry King (not the television host) has written that “the British media [are] as untroubled by logical inconsistency as they are by a shortage of facts, lack of knowledge, or deficiencies in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.” The same could be said of contemporary American Yellow Fox.
Terence Clarke’s new collection of stories New York will be published early next year. He is the director of publishing at Astor & Lenox.
It came to me last night in a dream that I haven’t understood Donald Trump. It must be that, really, he’s a novelist. All this bother about his run for the presidency, and the many personal trials he has faced—his several bankruptcies, the failed marriages and businesses, so many pesky lawsuits—have all been side-bars to his real passion, which clearly is fiction.
Novels are usually made out of whole cloth. The story comes completely from the author’s imagination. It may have a thread of actual occurrence from somewhere in the writer’s life. A day spent wandering around Dublin, for example. A few months of the author’s youth spent in a blacking factory. A voyage across dangerous seas in search of the sperm whale. But for the most part—and the more of this, the better the book—a novelist will quickly abandon those few threads, so that whatever the reality of the inspiration, his or her story will wander very far afield, and end up being almost entirely made up.
In my own case, complete novels have sprung from a minor thought I had while taking a shower or a phrase overheard in conversation over coffee or a brief passage from a long-ago rock ‘n roll song. From almost nothing, really. Stories have surged from those few ephemeral beginnings.
Many novelists believe that fiction is indeed a series of lies. A novel is a string of conjured up falsehoods intended to plumb the mind of the reader and, if the book’s any good, reveal the depths of that reader’s soul to whomever he or she may be. It has little basis in the author’s actual day-to-day experience. It is fantasy, a story spun from airy nothing, so unlike the balanced truthfulness that is the essence of good fact-based journalism.
Yet fiction’s wandering fantasies are often much deeper than those to be found in mere fact. You can’t write a book of accurate journalism about something that actually happened, if it didn’t actually happen. That sort of thing is the territory of the novel, and the world has benefited profoundly from centuries of truly great fanciful untruths. The novel bestrides the world.
This has been so in Mr. Trump’s case. He has had a few shallow thoughts about this and that which have unearthed the deep-seated fear, anxiety and harried darkness of his true beliefs. He’s been very successful at making those worries plain to the people who so idolize him. He spins falsehoods that, to them, ring with truth… the very stuff of the novel. He’s made up stories the plots of which feature apocalyptic violence, protective nativist walls, the horrors represented by women, the abandonment of millions of refugees, the rewriting of the philosophical and legal structures that have been the basis for this nation since the writing of the Constitution…and many others. Fantastical plots all, filled with conspiracies and rank dangers, every one of them riddled with fictions.
Here’s a modest proposal. Donald Trump’s career as a novelist may have been jump-started by his attempt to win the presidency. He will fail in that yearn for political glory. But I hope he’s aware of where his true talents lie, and that his agent is working on a five-book deal for him. He’s a natural. Made up stories are his great strength, and therefore the Nobel Prize for Literature cannot be far behind.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published last year. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.
Filmmaker David Kennard sits back and gestures with genuine expansiveness. “It’s extraordinarily hard not to like the people of Porto.”
You see what he means when you watch his new film A Year in Port. The final piece in a trio of films Kennard has made (the others are A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne) this one takes us to Porto itself, a northwestern Portuguese city where the major operations of the port wine industry are located, and to the upriver Douro Valley. This is a wild place, through which runs the deep Douro River, of terraced hill- and cliff-side vineyards small and large, placed intricately along the banks of the river, and throughout the rugged hills that rise up from both sides of it. All three of these documentary films display the many difficulties to be found in growing grapes and making wine, no matter what kind. But for me, these Portuguese vines, many of them so old, yet still so remarkably fine, present the most challenging difficulties of them all…simply because of where they are.
Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Use with permission.
A bit of history…Wines have been made in Portugal since at least the 12th century. This film tells of the very long diplomatic liason between the United Kingdom and Portugal. It has lasted unbroken for 600 years and constitutes the oldest such ongoing relationship in the world. The principal beneficiary throughout has been the thriving mercantile trade between the two countries.
The British began importing port more than three hundred years ago, and that business proved so successful that a number of British vintner-merchants established their own manufacturing facilities in Porto. Thus, port wines often are notable for the distinctly un-Portuguese names attached to the companies that make them: Taylor, Cockburn, Symington, Croft, etc. Other European families also became involved, most notably for the purposes of this film, the Niepoorts of Holland, who founded their port business in 1842. Now, a number of the most important companies are still run by families from other countries, the current members of which can be even 7th or 8th generation Portuguese residents with double citizenship, speaking both Portuguese and their own native family languages fluently.
To this day, a good deal of nostalgia-fueled British culture defines many of the Porto operations. In the film we are brought into meetings with members of a few families, in which the history and now the future of the port industry is discussed. We sit down to meals that look like they could have been staged for an ongoing BBC series about aristocratic 19th century England. We even attend a proper cricket match in Porto.
There is significant affectionate humor in these scenes, but nothing obscures the fact that port is serious business to these people and to the country of Portugal, a distinctly international business the nuanced maintenance of which is never far from discussion.
Port is wine that has been augmented during its fermentation with specific quantities of cognac. The addition of the cognac brings an immediate halt to the fermentation, so that the vintner can be certain of the precise level of alcohol that exists and the subsequent integrity of the wine’s flavor. Also, the cognac strengthens the wine, as has been understood since the times when the long voyage by sail to England could damage the vintage and render it undrinkable.
The film takes us through a year’s production of port, and features remarkable specific aspects of this wine’s making.
Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.
The very Douro region is a formidable difficulty in its own right, a rugged, even primitive-seeming landscape the farming of which is exceedingly arduous. Almost everything must be done by hand here.
Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.
Then there is the “treading”, which is done by foot. This is the practice of squeezing the juice from the grapes by many people walking on them bare-footed in large stone tanks. The film describes illustrations found on the walls of Pompeii, destroyed by the Mount Vesuvius eruption of AD 79, of groups of workers treading grapes. The production of fine port is one of the very last wine making processes that still requires such a practice. In a distinctive, even heart-possessing, sequence in the film, we see how the same workers who pick the grapes in the Douro vineyards also tread them…mere hours after their having harvested the grapes.
And there is the singular influence of extremely small amounts of well-aged port from ancient vines, some of them more than one hundred years old. These vines dot the Douro hillsides in numerous tiny plots that have been owned by individual families of local farmers, families that in some cases have been here for centuries. The process of adding even just a few drops from one of these old vintages to samples of the new vintage, simply to bring distinction, authority, intensity or complex depth to that new vintage, is shown and discussed in the film by various port winemakers. For anyone who cares about the combination of mind, knowledge, art and basic “feel” that is required to formulate something of pristine quality, this sequence in the film is not to be missed.
Dirk Niepoort. Photo courtesy of InCA Productions. Used with permission.
One last essential feature of port making is described by Dirk Niepoort, until recently the 5th generation head of the Niepoort operations in Portugal. Making quality wine of any sort requires patience…sometimes many decades of patience. Niepoort worries that, in the era in which we live, moving slowly is not considered an option. Instant connectivity, computerization, the cloud…all of it demands immediacy. In an offering of advice toward the end of David Kennard’s stellar film, Niepoort says, “The times now are very fast. What I’m trying to teach my children is, please slow down…and think. Take your time. We have to give port time.”
Terence Clarke’s latest novel is The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
I have been a fan of Edith Wharton’s work for a very long time, and I recently had the real pleasure of re-reading The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and several of her stories. Not having gotten enough, I read The Custom of the Country for the first time as well as The Reef.
I came to Wharton through her friendship with Henry James, whose work I had idolized as a graduate student. I subscribed then to the silly notion that James was the god and Wharton an accomplished but, in the end, second-rate writer, when compared to the grand stylistic accomplishments of The Master.
I got over it.
It is no disparagement of James’s work to basically prefer Wharton’s. He is The Master, and there is no book on earth quite like The Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl. But I had read both authors before I myself became one, and so I did not understand the difficulties of writing novels or, more particularly, the kinds of social novels that I came to love writing myself.
Both James and Wharton write about wealthy society in the late 19th century United States and western Europe. He once said of his work, “Yes, I have trifled with the exordia,” a word that I believe can be translated as “the beginnings of things”. But James’s work exhaustively plumbs the depths of human emotion through its exemplary–extraordinary–vocabulary and deliciously complex sentence structure. He understands the English language almost as well as Shakespeare did, and his constant contemplation of how to express emotion most intimately is for me one of the grand achievements in English literature. So, when he talks about trifling with the exordia, I believe he is making a joke, because he goes so far beyond mere beginnings.
Edith Wharton is a different kind of writer. She was of course a very close friend of James for many years, and I can only try to imagine what conversation between them was like. Wharton’s writing is far simpler stylistically than James’s, but that notion is not intended to diminish her work at all. She writes a social scene in many ways more completely than he does because she has such an eye for the physical details of dress, setting, furniture, greenery, china, flatware…whatever…that fills the scene, and a gift for description that enables us to see those things with brilliant, revealing clarity. Also she has a splendid comic ear for conversation that often makes such scenes almost painfully funny…or just plain painful (i.e. The House of Mirth).
Despite my avid reading of her work, I haven’t known much about Edith Wharton, except that she was born Edith Jones and was a denizen from birth of highest New York society…so high that her family name is the source of the notion of having “to keep up with the Joneses”. I had read the reviews of R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Biography when it came out in 1975, and since then have intended to read the book itself, often impatient with myself for being so lazy about such an applauded work. How could I care so much for what Mrs. Wharton had done, while knowing hardly anything about her?
I just finished the book.
Lewis is himself a very fine writer. Whether describing a motor trip with James through some part of Europe or a dinner party with Bernard Berenson or Andre Gide or Marcel Proust at her apartment at 58 rue de Varenne in Paris, or an exchange of letters between herself and a lover (William Morton Fullerton) or a dear friend (Walter Berry), Lewis is unerring in the gracefulness of his prose, with a clear understanding of Mrs. Wharton’s heart and mind. Also, he will give occasional descriptive sketches of what she is writing at the moment that caused me to keep a list of stories or novels by Mrs. Wharton that I have not read. That list comprises about a dozen books, and my plan is to read them all…soon. Also, Lewis’s writing does not suffer from the barren academic pointlessness that burdens so much contemporary criticism. He’s clear, funny, erudite and thoughtful. If, in a moment of foolish error, you bump into examples of how academics write these days, you’ll realize what a great gift Lewis has offered us.
For a full and perceptive view of the life of the wonderful Edith Wharton, this book is where you should start.
This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.