What Does The Pandemic Have To Do With Tango?
August 8, 2020
As everyone knows, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Tango itself was affected by another plague that took place in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century.
The mosquito, and the Yellow Fever that it brought to Buenos Aires, killed eight percent of the population of the city in 1871 and reduced the overall population by one-third of its previous number as masses of people fled to safety.
This wasn’t the only such scourge to visit Buenos Aires. There had been other, smaller outbreaks of the Yellow Fever in 1852, 1858, and 1870. But 1871 was the worst year of the lot when, at its worst, five hundred porteños a day were dying from the disease.
A war on the part of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus Paraguay (known as The War of The Triple Alliance) had been fought between 1864 and 1870. It was a particularly difficult struggle. Paraguay was defeated entirely and suffered what some estimates put at two hundred thousand deaths. Bad as that certainly was for paraguayos, the aftermath of the war was also a singular disaster for citizens of Buenos Aires. Argentine soldiers returning from the war brought the Yellow Fever with them, and the rest is history. Polluted drinking water, untreated human waste, and the hot, wet summer climate so welcoming to mosquitos were singular elements in the spread of the disease. The major one was that of the overcrowded conditions caused by the enormous influx of immigrants during that time from everywhere in the world to Buenos Aires.
This immigration story is one of the most famous of this storied city.
As in New York City, Buenos Aires was the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of impoverished immigrants from across Europe and countries farther to the east. Mostly packed into the famous conventillos, which were large tenement blocks built both privately and by the government, these people suffered enormously from the Buenos Aires epidemic. They had nowhere to go and no money to get there even if they could escape.
The black population of former slaves, although small by comparison to most of the immigrant groups arriving in the port, lived south of the city in generally miserable, poverty-stricken, and overcrowded conditions. Better-to-do white citizens began building neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, in order to distance themselves from the black and immigrant peoples. A 2013 article in the International Business Times says this: “It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks [by military means] to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care.)”. That word “alleged” does little to reveal the truth of whether blacks were so treated, and I have not yet been able to determine the truth of what happened. What we do know is that the black population of Buenos Aires was reduced to almost nothing by the pandemic, whether or not they were surrounded by the army.
These losses account directly for the fact that one encounters so few black people today in Buenos Aires.
So…what does this have to do with tango? The basic rhythms of tango came to southern South America with black slaves from Western Africa, beginning in the sixteenth century. As with jazz in the United States, tango derived from those rhythms. Despite the many considerable elements in tango that came with other nationalities during the times of immigration, the basis for the music and dance forms is black. (Please see my recent piece, “Tango Negro”, for more of the details.)
We can only speculate about what tango music and dance would be like in our own time had the black population of Buenos Aires not been so decimated in the nineteenth century. My guess is that it would be much different from what we see today, in many important ways.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, is available in books stores everywhere and online.
July 15, 2020
In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”
This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.
The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.
Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English “word.”
So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.
Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.
Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.
With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”
Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published later this year in a Spanish-language translation by noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad.
July 3, 2020
Few black people live in Buenos Aires. This has not always been so. As in other countries, black slaves were brought to Argentina from the 16th century well into the 19th, a total of about four million people. Some became gauchos in the pampas, the great, flat plains that take up so much of the center of Argentina. Most others were sent to cities, towns and farming regions in the hinterland provinces. In Buenos Aires itself through those centuries, there was an ongoing population of about eight thousand black Africans who worked as domestics or in various craft labors.
If you ask a porteño why there are so few blacks in Buenos Aires now, you’ll get a few different answers, all of which are evasive. My favorite came from a well-born Buenos Aires society matron whom I met who was visiting an Argentine friend in San Francisco, where I live. “Oh, they didn’t care for it and decided to go somewhere else,” she explained. I think she actually believed what she was saying, especially given the air of wealth-bound cluelessness that her entire conversation exhibited. (But that’s another, and comic, story.) It is true that, for porteños in general, most of the black experience in Buenos Aires has simply been forgotten, erased or denied.
But, indeed, the blacks who lived in Buenos Aires didn’t “decide” to go somewhere else. Thousands were forcibly recruited into the Argentine army, to fight in the terrible war between Argentina and Paraguay from 1865 through 1870. A very large number of black soldiers died in that endeavor. Also, and famously, yellow fever infested the shores of the Rio de La Plata, on the southern bank of which Buenos Aires is located. It is generally thought that the fever was introduced by Argentines returning from the war with Paraguay. The pandemic invaded all the poorer neighborhoods of the south of the city, and thousands of blacks died from it. The current north of the city of Buenos Aires includes a few still quite wealthy neighborhoods that were first built by more moneyed whites trying to escape that plague. They left the blacks behind, for the most part convinced that blacks were the carriers of the disease and should be abandoned.
Through inter-marriage with whites, those blacks left were subsumed into the larger population and, in effect, black people per.se. almost literally disappeared from Buenos Aires.
But not their influence.
Most of the slaves came from west Africa. As in the United States, they brought their forms of music with them, particularly in the rhythms that later became known in Argentina by such names as habanera, milonga, traspié, murga, candombe, chacarera and others. European immigrants by the many thousands also brought their forms of music to Buenos Aires, and tango is surely a melting together of all these traditions. But it goes without saying that tango’s rhythmic base is African in origin. (For a more detailed description of the African influence on South American music in general and, more specifically, tango, click here.)
In 2013, Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro made a documentary titled Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango. You can find it on PrimeVideo.
Basically it has two parts. The first is an ongoing conversation with the stellar Argentine pianist and vocalist Juan Carlos Cáceres (who was to die in 2015.) Cáceres lived in Paris for decades but devoted much of his spirited music and deep scholarship to studies of the influence of blacks on the history of tango. He explains here many of these different rhythms, where they came from, and where they can be found in tango. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his musicianship is terrific.
The second half of the film features many black musicians still living in Argentina and just across the river in Uruguay, who well understand the rhythmic basis of tango and are attempting to keep those rhythms alive. The music they play in this film provides a clear demonstration of where tango came from, and is wonderful.
For a look at the Tango Negro trailer, click here.
(Terence Clarke’s 2019 novel, The Splendid City, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be published later this year.)
Love in the Time of Cholera
June 30, 2020
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “digression” as, “in discourse or writing, a departure or deviation from the subject.”
Fair enough. Clear as day.
My favorite digression in all literature is the entirety, from first word to last, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera…Love in The Time of Cholera. (If you don’t have Spanish, Edith Grossman’s translation to English of this book is one of the best from one language to another I’ve ever read. It is lyrical, kind-hearted, accurate, literate, humorous, and imbued with the many pleasureful oddities of García Márquez’s unique Spanish-language style.)
In this novel, Florentino Ariza is introduced as an enclosed, shy boy attempting manhood in a small late-nineteenth century city in Colombia. He is in love with a local beauty, Fermina Daza. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl story, progresses through the boy-loses-girl phase, and ends with the boy-wins-girl denouement.
The simplest story ever.
But this series of events takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to unfold and arrive at its successful end. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are by the last pages, of course, elderly. But their love is consummated…finally. During the half century of Florentino’s pursuit of Fermina (during which time he has six hundred and twenty-two affairs with other women) the reader learns about every kind of historical, political, social, and religious event in the Colombia through which the great Magdalena River flows. Cholera is always a factor in the background, and García Márquez uses the disease as a metaphor for love itself…the heat, the heart’s affliction, the very choleric intensity of love’s involvements.
Florentino bides his time for that half-century. After the failure of his youthful efforts at romancing her, Fermina marries a local doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is one of the most celebrated citizens of their city, an urbane, Europeanized sophisticate. Their marriage is a rich one, with many problems. In the meantime, Florentino begins work as a telegraph operator and is eventually employed by a local riverboat company (freight and passengers, up and down the Magdalena.) In time, he becomes its president, all the while pursuing the many very remarkable women he encounters during the half-century of his bachelorhood.
It is the period of time between the breakdown of Florentino and Fermina’s dalliance as youths and the death of Juvenal Urbino a half century later that the great majority of the digression I mention here takes place. The reader waits, and waits some more, only to wait even more, through hundreds of pages, as Florentino sometimes wanders, sometimes surges through his varied fascinating affairs personal and public. Fermina’s marriage is described in equally specific, breathtaking detail: her fervid happiness and unhappy disappointments, her mistaken rage-filled jealousies, the arrival of her children and their ascension to adulthood, her involvement in the church and her social standing as the important Doctor Urbino’s wife.
Here and there, infrequently, Florentino and Fermina encounter one another by chance. Little happens on those occasions. Little can happen. But Florentino’s fervor for Fermina only increases as the years pass.
The great Magdalena River, which runs south to north through the entirety of Colombia, figures importantly twice in this narrative. Although his entire professional life revolves around the riverboat company, Florentino Ariza makes only two trips up the Magdalena and back (one on his own as a younger man, the second with Fermina Daza, both now geriatrics.)
Both voyages are beyond memorable.
García Márquez uses the changing descriptions of the Magdalena during these two trips as rich backdrop to the emotions, triumphs, and disappointments through which Florentino Ariza passes during his entire life. In the first trip, the river is a life-filled treasure of forested, flood-filled flora and fauna in which a younger Florentino is overwhelmed time and again by lustful carnal pleasure. In the second voyage, decades later, the river has become a half-hearted sorry flow, de-forested and ruined. But it is on a riverboat going up this magnificently sad failure that Florentino receives, finally, the considerable deep love of which Fermina Daza is capable. The detailed sensuous transition in descriptions of the river is one of the novels many strengths. Novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote this: “There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter (on the Magdalena), symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too….”
Pynchon went on to write, “This novel is revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality—youthful idiocy, to some—may yet be honored much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable…. Love in the Time of Cholera [is a] shining and heartbreaking novel.”
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. García Márquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary…. The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”
Both these reviews, written when the book was published in 1985, are understatements. Love in the Time of Cholera may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The digression does go on for more than three hundred pages. You may be inclined to tell García Márquez to get on with it. But, while the pursuit of each other by the two characters is important and masterfully done, the digression itself is the novel, epitomized by its very last word, which is “forever.”
This is my favorite novel.
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel,The Splendid City, by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer, will be published later this year.
Trump’s Jacksonville Welcome
June 15, 2020
President Trump’s new plan, to accept in Jacksonville, Florida the Republican Party’s request that he run for a second term as president, has historical resonance.
Jacksonville was the site of Axe Handle Saturday, August 27, 1960. On that morning Arnett Girardeau, a black student home in Jacksonville for the summer from Howard University Dental School, went to Hemming Park in the downtown area with a few others, having gotten some news of potentially alarming activities there. “As we approached Hemming Park, we saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other Whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate battle flags taped to them. A sign taped to a delivery-type van parked nearby read ‘Free Ax Handles.’ Small fence rails bordered that section of Hemming Park. We could see bundles of handles in the shrubbery. No one attempted to conceal them.”
A group of young black students from the local NAACP Youth Council was planning on sitting in that day at the white lunch counter in Jacksonville’s W.T. Grant department store, which was walking distance from Hemming Park. (Blacks were required to dine at the blacks-only counter at the rear of the store.) A similar event had taken place two weeks earlier at Jacksonville’s Woolworth’s store, when eighty-four of the youths sat down at the white counter and waited to be served. The counter seated exactly eighty-four people, so there was no room in this instance for a white person looking for lunch. (This was part of the plan for all subsequent sit-ins in Jacksonville. The number of seats in whatever lunch counter would be assessed, and exactly that number of black youths would show up for the sit-in.) On that first day, the students remained seated at the whites-only lunch counter until the lunch counter was closed, without being served.
The hidden axe handles on August 27 were clearly intended for use by whites against these black students sitting in at W.T. Grant’s, and the resulting melee, which pretty much engulfed the entirety of Jacksonville, went far into the night.Radio stations warned white people to stay out of black neighborhoods, and vice versa. In one particularly memorable event, a truckload of armed white men (believed to have been Ku Klux Klansmen) arrived in a black neighborhood called Blodgett Homes, and began firing at various apartments. Perhaps to the surprise of these men, residents of the apartments returned fire. The truck retreated.
Named Axe Handle Saturday, the event was a signal occurrence in the civil rights movement in the United States. (A complete description of the occasion can be found in the book It Was Never About A Hot Dog and A Coke! by Rodney L. Hurst, who on that day was one of those black students.)
The University of North Florida was founded in Jacksonville in 1972. A new professor at the institution, Peter Kranz, with a doctorate in psychology, decided that this would be an appropriate location for a class he wished to institute, in which direct verbal confrontation between black and white students would be the key element. The one strict rule in the class was that physical attack would not be allowed. Otherwise, the verbal gloves were off, and the students were encouraged to speak openly and directly about how they felt about each other’s racial identity and actions.
It was the only such class ever offered in an American institution of higher learning, and it took place while Jim Crow legislation against blacks was still in full flower in Florida.
Each class lasted a single semester, and was held twice a year for six years, until 1978. (For a complete description of these classes and of their quite remarkable results, please see my book An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book was featured on a recent presentation of National Public Radio.)
Now, in 2020, President Trump is planning to accept the Republican nomination for president in Jacksonville. It is not an irony that this will be so. He is, after all, a throw-back to the whites-only sentiments of the Deep South of previous decades. But times have changed, in Jacksonville and the rest of the United States. I expect the president and his Republican cadre will receive a boisterous, if not entirely agreeable, reception in that city.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.
Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True
June 12, 2020
Having learned that this film by Kenneth Branagh is a dramatic recounting of William Shakespeare’s late-in-life return to his home-town Stratford from his famed glory as an actor and playwright in London, I expected the movie to have the same level of high, conflicted drama and boisterous derring-do as exist in so many of his plays. For me, Shakespeare has always been a celebratory character himself. He must have been, I’ve thought, simply on the strength of his fame as an actor and especially on what he wrote.
So, this film surprised me.
Here, Will Shakespeare, played by Branagh, is presented as a world-weary, almost defeated man whose fame, great as it is, has been left behind in the ruins of his Globe Theater, recently destroyed by fire. He returns to his family (his wife Anne Hathaway, played with stoical, closed-in reserve by Judy Dench) and two daughters. We learn right away about Shakespeare’s having left the family in Stratford twenty years earlier, to make his career as an actor, and his continuous absence during that time. Now, his wife Anne is well into old age, one daughter, Suzanna, is married very unhappily to a disapproving Puritan bore, and the other, Judith, remains a resentful spinster. Will himself has lost his muse (indeed, he was not to write another play), and turns his attention to gardening, at which he is not very talented.
We learn eventually of the death years before of Will’s beloved only son Hamnet and the overall guilt-obsessed come-uppances from which all the members of the family have since suffered. Especially Will. He has the poems that Hamnet apparently wrote as child, which Will has always thought presaged Hamnet’s own future genius as a writer. Hamnet died of the plague (or at least everyone has been led to believe so) and Will still feels guilt for his not being present to save his son. Hamnet’s death is the constant reminder to Will of his own failures as a father.
Two elements in this film fascinated me. Night during the early 1600s was, of course, devoid of light. Candles and the fireplace were the only sources of interior lighting during that time, and darkness is central to all the conversations held at night in the film, which are many. The candlelight is beautiful and compellingly effective to the mood of the piece. But many of the conversations in this reduced light reveal the guilt and vituperation that exists between Will, his wife, and daughters. The surrounding darkness underscores the pain of their exchanges. Will, seized with longing for his lost Hamnet, yet defends himself against the anger of his daughter, Judith. Because she was not born a boy, she resents the life to which she feels she was consigned. Hamnet was the star of the family snuffed out by the plague. Anne, Judith, and Suzanna have all been secondary to Will’s hopes for his son, even as the boy has so long been in the grave.
The second element I find so interesting in this film is its reserve. This is a sad story notable for the self-examination among its characters. As such it may not be every viewer’s cup of tea. It is usually very quiet. The characters are all to some degree self-punishing. There is little action in the film, and many of the scenes are notable for long sequences of conversation, shot from a distance, with many fewer cuts than is usual in our current-day obsession with shallow, hurried, and nervous film-making. No car-chases here. No gruesome splatters of blood. Rather, character is explored. Guilt is revealed, as are self-criticism and, sometimes, self-acceptance — once one’s own responsibility for terrible events becomes clear.
All these things make All Is True a very thoughtful film . Shakespeare’s character, as marvelously played by Branagh, reveals hurt sadness that I would not have expected from the man who wrote those incredible plays. But so be it. The story works. The sadness is truth. The guilt is palpable. The very occasional celebrations are hard won.
Just incidentally, there is a scene in All Is True that I would advise every actor to watch. Ian McKellen appears as the Earl of Southampton. He was a friend and supporter of Shakespeare’s early career as a poet. He is often suggested by Shakespeare scholars as the subject of many of the poet’s early romantic sonnets. In the film, the earl, now an old man, arrives in Stratford for a visit with Will, and the conversation between them (at night, in low light) is not to be missed. Self-revelation, love, and humor are all part of this scene. Sadness for Will is the ultimate result as the Earl departs the conversation as though he already has dismissed it. In this, two superb actors briefly explore dalliance, exchange, maybe love, and final disappointment, in all of which the viewer is thoroughly involved.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book about racial confrontation in the United States, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, was published last year, and is available everywhere.
On Being Sequestered
June 5, 2020
These days, the Covid19 virus has decided that we must all be given the chance to see whether we can stand ourselves. So, being sequestered at home is de rigueur for most citizens, especially those in cities.
The avoidance of personal introspection, the usual in high-rise office skyscrapers and other such places, is being foiled. Now, stuck at home, we must deal with ourselves instead of with the pursuit of the corporate summit, the elbowing aside of others in the way of that pursuit, the plot to do an end run past the schmuck senior managers, and other such.
I have witnessed all these and many more, during a business career that lasted twenty-five years. The printing industry (you remember printing, don’t you?), and the early high-tech software industry, in San Francisco and New York City. The most memorable for me was the most recent: a contract position as a senior marketing writer for a small, avidly ambitious, hotshot branding firm in San Francisco. I think I was hired by the CEO of that company, who was about thirty, because of my many published books. He introduced me on my first day in the firm as “a real writer.” This got a lot of laughter. I could not tell if the glee in the room was at my expense, since most of the staff were tech people and therefore uncommunicative. Perhaps they didn’t know what a writer is. Or maybe they were already, despite their being in their twenties, failures when it came to their childhood fantasies of adventure and derring-do. I would not be able to tell you.
In any case, my contract was for several months, and I spent the time in one of those frenetic, noisy group environments (long tables, multiple computers, countless programmers, and endless noise) that offer no escape, and drive crazy any employee who cares about his or her privacy. I was handsomely paid for the work I did helping re-brand a San Francisco Bay Area power-grid development company, and was let go a month before the end of my contract, without explanation. I suspect it was that I was unable to summon enthusiasm for writing poorly about the power grid. Writing poorly is the standard for branding firms. These companies make up all those one- or two-sentence word-play slogans that you see everywhere on the sides of municipal buses, on billboards, TV ads, and the internet. They are attempts at sales humor that are generally not funny. The power grid itself, of course, is not funny, and I couldn’t summon up the appropriate cutesy-pie prose that the CEO expected me to provide.
In whatever case, I was gone.
So, I returned to my home office, sequestered myself there, and got back to the novel I had been writing, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the main character. I am happy to say it was published last year to high praise.
This had been the territory I had occupied almost exclusively, by myself, for the previous several years. I sit at a round table in the bay window of the studio apartment that is my office. The windows give me views of the long, often sunny Russian Hill garden that my landlords maintain. It is very quiet here. There is a hum from the passing traffic on nearby Bay Street, but it is not particularly bothersome. I have a kitchen, a daybed, and a closet. Bookshelves. Bathroom. Art. Quiet.
I am alone for about seven hours a day.
Nowadays, those with whom I worked in those business offices are being required to do the same thing as I’ve been doing, and I am sure they are not prepared for it. Contemplation derives from silence. So, while they have been working in those offices, there has been little silence; thus, very little contemplation. Also, I hear them complain about how lonely it is at home, and how they can’t get any work done. My sense of it is that, in the past at the office, they have gotten a lot of work done, but that it has all been shallow. What they are suffering from, being sequestered, is the arrival of the need to consider their souls. That’s tough duty for most business people, while it is grist for the mill among “real” writers. So, these only recently sequestered people are encountering issues that they have so far successfully avoided.
Themselves, for example.
Terence Clarke’s most recent novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.
A film project: The Arena
Stay out of my face.
For information about this film project, click here.
The Long Confinement of “When Clara Was Twelve”
May 21, 2020
In 1985, an idea came to me. (I’ve had others. But this one turned out to be pretty important.) A twelve-year-old American girl named Clara Foy goes to France with her parents for a summer vacation in the mid-1950s. While there, she discovers that her mother, Lauren, as a teenager in California, had an illegitimate child, a girl. The family are conservative Roman Catholics. So, this new addition was a great scandal for them, and the baby was given up for adoption, much to Lauren’s deep sorrow. But now, that baby shows up again, a pretty Parisian woman in her twenties named Emma Dusel. When Clara learns of Emma’s true identity, she takes it upon herself to introduce her new sister to their mother. The resultant difficulties break up the marriage of Clara’s parents, and reveal the deep emotional troubles that Emma has had throughout her life. Clara stays on in Paris with Lauren, to navigate the troubles between her sister and their mother….
And therein lies the tale of the novel I subsequently wrote, titled When Clara Was Twelve.
This was the last book I ever wrote without first making a preliminary outline of the thing. I just started writing it, beginning with the title, and it is for that reason that the first draft took me seven years to complete. (I had by that time written just one other book, a story collection titled The Day Nothing Happened that was ultimately published by Alev Lytle Croutier at Mercury House in 1988.) Without a preliminary plan, you can wander and wander up and down the darkness-beset hallways of your manuscript, running into closed doors, turning back, scratching your head, going in some different direction to some other closed door. I suspect this is one of the reasons that so many wishful fiction writers give up so quickly, get a job somewhere in the military-industrial complex, and never give writing another thought (except to wonder every few years about what might have been.)
I did complete that first draft in 1992. But the writing was so loose-limbed and conflicted, the plot so much a gathering of confused and unrelated themes that, together, they made up a story that was way too long, and very short on plot. I let it sit for three or four months, read the thing again, and put it in a drawer. Literally. The one element I liked best about it was the title, which even then was When Clara Was Twelve.
The manuscript came with me through various turns of life and travels during the next twenty-five years. I never looked at it. Luckily it was also the first manuscript that I had ever transcribed to a computer. So, it was there, through subsequent computers, beckoning to me silently as I wrote and published other books.
What brought me back to it in 2017 was the beloved title and the fact that I so love Paris. (I had lived there for two years in the 1970s.) I released the manuscript from its confinement. The typewritten version was on sheets of paper 8.5 x 11 inches. The paper itself was now mottled brown and yellow. The writing was quite often confusing because the last edit I had made was with a pencil. So…my as usual clumsy penmanship, smeared erasures, lost logic from one point to another. Arrows. Underlines. Scratch-outs.
Nonetheless, I read it and to my astonishment found that it had merit! Yes, it was still confusing. The author did not know what he had here, and so was flying blind. But there was something to it. Clara herself was interesting. Her relationship with her mother was complicated, sometimes badly conflicted, but negotiable. Emma herself was so upset with her long-lost mother that the task Clara was taking on appeared often unsolvable to her.
And there was Paris.
It is easy to write badly. Every writer should understand this, and should understand therefore why close, intense editing is so important. But Paris gives you an advantage right from the beginning because it so lends itself to description. I subscribe to the notion that you should write about the surroundings in a particular scene in such a way that the surroundings themselves comment on the actions of the characters. A teacup can be described in innumerable ways. So why not describe it so that it helps reveal the emotions of the characters themselves? A teacup so described can help the reader understand better what’s happening in the mind of the person holding it, or in the mind of the person watching how it is being held. Etc.
Visually, Paris allows for this in just about everything that happens there. So, I had made a point of describing Clara’s reactions to the city differently, depending on what she was learning about herself, her mother, and her sister. As Clara’s observations of Paris became more sophisticated in the manuscript, so did her observations about herself.
I started editing the novel again, twenty-five years after completing the first draft. The process was no easier than before. The mistakes and failings that had existed in 1992 still had to be dealt with. But basically, I thought, it isn’t bad! I cut and cut, wrote and re-wrote. Suffered the renewal of exhaustion. Cut and cut some more. Brought scatological words back to my vocabulary that I had not used for decades. Savaged the thing…. Put it back together….
And now it’s out!
(Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15 and is available everywhere.)
The Irish War
A StoryRocket feature film project.
THE IRISH WAR: And not a shot was fired