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During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.
Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.
De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.
She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.
There is, however, a problem.
Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.
Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.
Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.
Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.
Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.
For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”
Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.
They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.
Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”
He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.
“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.
“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”
“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.
A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”
Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”
“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”
Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Your seeming so foreign.”
Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.
“The great one, who played so out of tune.”
“Yes. My father was a fan.”
“He was a musician?”
“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”
“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”
“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”
“Just the comedy?”
“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”
“He’s gone, your father.”
“A few years ago, yes.”
“And he enjoyed your playing.”
“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”
“Where did it come from?”
“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”
“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”
“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”
“He sold it.”
“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”
“And in yours, the Communists won.”
Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”
“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”
“This year, it’s fifty years.”
“And the piano’s been there…”
“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”
“Why haven’t you ever played it?”
Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”
“No. Rodney, I…”
“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”
Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”
“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”
“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”
Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”
The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”
“Do you remember which ones?”
“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”
“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”
“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”
Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.
“It broke his heart.”
They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”
Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.
Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.
Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.
“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.
Marta insisted on making coffee.
“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”
A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.
“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.
Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.
Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.
(This story is from my book New York.)
The news a year ago that the Chilean government exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains, to determine whether or not his death was caused by poisoning, brought a new, but not surprising, twist to Neruda’s life, even forty years after his demise.
Neruda died just days after his friend Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was murdered in the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. Neruda had been in poor health for some years, and it was assumed that he died of natural causes that perhaps were worsened by the emotional trial of losing such a close compatriot and friend.
But Neruda was no stranger himself to extreme punishment for his political views, and rumors have circulated since his death that he too was murdered while in hospital after Allende’s death, also on direct orders from Pinochet. The current ongoing government inquiry aims to determine whether Neruda indeed died on his own, or was assassinated.
Neruda was almost killed in 1949, when he was already a world-famous poet and a senator in the Chilean congress. Having been elected as a Communist, he had then been asked by Gabriel González Videla, the leftist candidate for president in the 1946 elections, to become his campaign chairman, while maintaining his seat in Congress. Neruda agreed and, bringing the Communist vote to the leftist coalition supporting González Videla, he helped ensure González Videla’s victory.
Once in office, however, González Videla abandoned the very supporters that got him elected. He not only failed to enact the policies for which he won office, he actively turned against them. The ongoing Cold War between western democracies and the Soviet Union brought great pressure upon González Videla, causing him, essentially, to betray his own electorate. He became the trinket of and enforcer for the Chilean wealthy and the U.S. (especially American mining and other corporate interests in Chile.) Disgruntled national figures like Pablo Neruda were basically marginalized.
Pablo Neruda was an extremely colorful, humorous and celebratory man who was not about to take such treatment without a response. He wrote an inflammatory article for a Venezuelan publication, in which he denounced González Videla’s presidency. On January 6, 1948, he stood up on the floor of Congress and delivered a stem-winder of a speech in which he accused the president of political betrayal, cowardice and even genocide against his own people. González Videla had re-opened a concentration camp that had been used by an earlier president to incarcerate homosexuals. Located in the appropriately named coastal town of Pisagua (Pisswater), the camp was famous for its miserable, even murderous conditions. In his speech, Neruda gave the names of all 628 prisoners being held there, many of them miners from the Atacama Desert region that had elected Neruda. (This region later became world-famous for the 2010 rescue of miners who had been trapped underground for 68 days.)
Within weeks of this speech, González Videla got the Chilean Supreme Court to strip Neruda of his senator-ship. His home in Santiago was set ablaze, causing him and his second wife Delia del Carril to go into hiding. In March 1949, after a year spent in isolation in various safe-houses around the country, Neruda had to run for his life. He escaped from Chile into Argentina, on horseback – escorted by a group of local trackers – through the high reaches of the Andes Mountains. It was the beginning of winter, and during this harrowing crossing, Neruda came close to death on a couple of terrifying occasions. He did make it to Argentina, however, and eventually was re-united with Delia in Paris.
On April 25, 1949, at the World Congress of Peace Forces at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, Neruda was introduced to an astonished audience. Everyone – including Gabriel González Videla – had assumed that he was dead. Amused by the opportunity to put that rumor to rest, Neruda reveled in the introduction he was given, by none other than Pablo Picasso. The audience erupted in sustained, noisy applause.
Now, there is controversy about the exhumation of Neruda’s remains. All the principal players in the 1973 military coup are dead, and democracy has returned to full strength in Chile. So, some commentators say that there is little good to be served in bringing up those murderous times yet once more. But there is at least one thing that will be served quite well. Ultimately, history seeks the truth. If Pablo Neruda died of illness, it leaves Augusto Pinochet innocent of at least one gruesome crime. If Neruda was assassinated, Pinochet’s legacy will be darkened even more than it already is…and appropriately so.
Incidentally, I first learned of Pablo Neruda’s escape when I began researching his life for a novel I planned to write about him. For me, the challenge lay in how to write a novel from the point of view of one of the greatest imaginative minds of the 20th century. This was either extreme hubris on my part or plain nuttiness. But I wanted to present Neruda’s vivid, unruly imagination, and to show how it could both exacerbate and ameliorate the extreme danger in which he and the others found themselves, deep in the disastrous mountains. That was the plan. That’s what the novel would describe.
Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His fame now is greater than ever.
Terence Clarke is doing the research for a new novel titled The Splendid City, in which Pablo Neruda is the main character. The novel is an imagining of Neruda’s 1949 escape from Chile. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.
“Excuse me,” the man said. He stood across from me in an elevator of the building in which I was working, at 8th and 34th in Manhattan. “I think you are not American.”
His accent was Hispanic.
A large smile appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?'” I had seen him many times on the elevator in the few months since I had moved into my office, but we had not spoken.
“Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?” I said.
“Could be, and I am from Cuba.”
“Yes, and you say ‘Good morning’ now and then. I’ve heard it.”
“Occasionally, even though I’ve lived in New York almost all my life.”
“Well, you’re right,” I said. “I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.” The man’s grin exposed many perfectly aligned teeth.
“Your seeming so foreign.”
I lived in Manhattan for two years during the late 1990s, and felt—the whole time—that I was little more than a tourist. I was aware of John Updike’s remark that “the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” Now that I was living in New York, I understood how accurate his observation was. There is no town in the world like this one. Sure, San Francisco has its rattling cable cars and Golden Gate. Paris its Louvre and that famous revolution. London its now-sapped British empirical glory. Dublin its James Joyce. Istanbul the Straits of Bosporus.
But hey! None of those is New York.
I came back to San Francisco and sat on my experiences of New York for 10 years, thinking that surely I’d be kidding myself if I attempted to write anything about the place. To do so, I thought I would have to have lived there all my life. I worried that the city is too enormous and too varied to be understood by anyone, without his having walked its streets since birth. But then I learned that almost half of New York’s population was born not only somewhere else, but in a language other than English. Hundreds of places somewhere else. I figured, if they can live here and not be kidding, so could I… and moreover, I had the ability to describe the experience.
Almost all the stories I’ve written about New York feature characters who are from elsewhere, almost all of them speaking English as a second language. But as was the case when I lived in Manhattan, these people in my stories are citizens of New York City in essential ways, the fact of their exotic birthplace being one of the most important. The languages alone in New York City (perhaps every language in the world is spoken in those few square miles by somebody) exemplify its ethnic and cultural madness…a very good thing, in my view. Those of our citizens who decry ethnic diversity, and who grasp desperately at the idea that the United States is an English-speaking, Christian nation whose white people are its political and cultural arbiters, clearly have not enjoyed a couple days in Manhattan. Of course, with such ideas as theirs, those few days might be terrifying for them. But for those who realize that the United States is, as touted, a nation of immigrants from every continent, New York is the city where you can find the resultant burst of extraordinary world fruition.
Two books helped me immensely, although neither had much to do with flights of fictional fantasy in contemporary New York. Eric W. Sanderson’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City contains everything you ever wanted to know about Manhattan as it was on September 12, 1609, the day that Henry Hudson dropped anchor off the island. The geological history of the island, how it once lay on the ocean floor, then was part of a vast mountain range, finally the sea-level vestige of that mountain range, and many other iterations along the way, are all included in this book. As well, the book tells how the verdant natural settings of the island have been changed by the influx of human beings since that day in 1609.
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace is THE history of what those humans did in New York up to the end of the 19th century. Overall it is my favorite book of history ever, and I had the pleasure of reading it while I was living in New York. That allowed me to go to places and surround myself in my imagination with occurrences that are so vividly portrayed in Gotham.
Both these volumes are fueled by the juggernauts of geology and history that made New York what it is today. For my fictional purposes, both presented the fluid, immense noise and excitement of New York, whether it be an island propelled by a tectonic plate into the east coast of what would become the American continent, or an explosively imagined settlement where much of the history of the American continent would be determined, written…and written about.
For a writer of fiction, one of the beauties of living in San Francisco, as I now do, is that San Francisco is a small, sophisticated city holding—barring the next earthquake—to the edge of the west coast. It has fine music, great opera, a ton of writers, wonderful art and terrific food. In my case, because of its relative quiet, it also provides a place of one’s own in which to think calmly about New York.
(Terence Clarke’s story collection New York will be published in book form next year. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.)
Critics, ever in the back seat, have yet written marvelously about the graphic arts. When I first read E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I thought that being an art historian would be something to which I could aspire. The book is still a must for anyone who knows little about the history of Western art and wants to know a lot more. At the time, I knew almost nothing about that history, having survived university without ever taking the time to go to the school’s art museum.
The trouble was that, by the time I did read Gombrich, I was in my mid-20s and married to an artist who had insisted that I read his book, maybe to make myself less embarrassing at art openings. I had also written a couple of unpublished novels. Those agonizingly arrived-at works nonetheless had convinced me that, really, I would be happier making my own art. The only disappointment was that my art would be made of the ever un-beautiful, gracelessly utilitarian typewriter script with which I had to work. The tools—and the talent—that resulted in Velásquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja were not to be mine.
I was able eventually to read sufficient criticism and history—John Ruskin, Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and others—to have serviceable enough knowledge to write about art. But it required my own imaginative powers to express how I truly felt about what I was viewing. I simply did not have the technical chops to explain how a painting works, either in terms of its shapes or the materials and tools used to make it. In the time-honored phrase, I knew what I liked.
The Mexicans interested me tremendously. For one, they weren’t Europeans, a single fact that goes a long way to explaining why they are so special. The unique mixture in Mexico of the vernal, myth-fueled sensitivities of the indigenous peoples and the crazy otherworldly enthusiasms of the Spanish conquistador artists made for something entirely unique. When I saw the great Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and the heart-chilling Orozco depictions of The Conquest at the then-orphanage in Guadalajara, I realized a more earth-bound pagan-animist consciousness than what I had read about in so much of western European, heaven-touring art. Diego Rivera’s earth-mothers and colossal Indian cityscapes and Jose Clemente Orozco’s flame-wrapped, man-angel swirling into the Guadalajara universe struck my heart.
I recently completed a novel in which I created a fictional Mexican artist whose work has the same combination of fruitful grit and celestial transformation of these and so many other Mexican artists. He comes to San Francisco, California and determines to paint murals across the entirety of the outside of the Cathedral of Saint Mary in that city (which actually exists, at the corner of Gough and Geary Streets). The local archbishop thinks the artist and his ideas crackpot, and therein lies the tale. Jesús Lázaro is the artist, and The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro is the book I’ve written about him.
When I started it, I knew that I would have to describe Jesús’s fictional art. What I had always thought necessary in writing about actual art became, precisely, the task at hand. But while the Mona Lisa has qualities that are abundantly evident, in my case the paintings I describe do not exist at all. So my writing took on all the responsibility of providing for the reader’s emotional response. The reader of my book can only imagine the painting, and I have to give him/her the words that bring that imagining to flower.
That’s difficult enough when you’re presenting some sort of social scene, which is the basic stuff of almost all fiction. But describing an entire individual piece of art that is so ephemeral as to not be there at all is a different task. Luckily for me, it was a lot of fun, which lightened the burden considerably. But nonetheless, I would love to see Jesús Lázaro’s paintings, wherever they may be, to see if I got them right.
(The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published in May 2015. This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post.)
In an essay in The Spectator in 1711, Sir Richard Steele wrote that it is “the worst way in the world to Fame, to be too anxious about it.” For almost all of us who took up writing in order to be like Ernest Hemingway, this is good advice. The Hemingway goal hasn’t worked in my case or, I suspect, in that of most others who have had so markedly specific an intention. Perhaps all others. This is so because such a goal has nothing to do with writing well. It has an awful lot to do with churlish envy, as well as what we know about Hemingway, that he marketed himself almost from the beginning in order to get where he got.
Perhaps his remarkable fame derives from the great interest there has always been in his adventurous life. But I think his adventures had little to do with his ability to write well, as he so often did. In his writing, he sought to please his one greatest fan, which was himself, and for this steadfastness he deserves the congratulation he gets.
When I began writing seriously, I had the theory that writing fiction was a public, not a private, endeavor. Because it is so intense a form of communication, it seemed foolish to me to write without the idea of getting published. Publishing with an established firm, either major or minor, was then the only way of getting your work in front of a public. So, without publishing, there was no communication, and without a public, writing to me wasn’t worth doing.
But then, as now, there was a gauntlet that writers had to run, to get to the golden moment of publication by a major U.S. publisher. Like a great moat surrounding an obdurately faceless castle, the army of literary agents floats about, thick with weeds and goo. Any writer who has spent time in these waters has a library of favorite phrases that he or she has learned from agents. “Your work has significant integrity, but needs to be fleshed out a bit more.” “Though excellent, it’s just not right for us at this time.” “You’re clearly a writer with great promise, and we wish you the best in your search for representation elsewhere.” “Couldn’t possibly sell this in today’s difficult market.” And many more.
The single best one my work ever evoked came from an agent employed by a West Coast firm, both now very long gone. The entirety of his communication to me read, “Wooden, foolish, a little bit trite… But, thanks!”
Until the advent of self-publication on the internet, two-thirds of the manuscripts published in the United States in any given year by major companies were represented by literary agents, and to this day, when you look at the submissions guidelines for most major publishers, they say that they will not consider “unagented” work. So that seems pretty open and shut. If you want to publish with one of the Big Six, you need an agent. Thus you go swimming — because you must — in the moat, an experience that, if you do not have a ribald, very well oiled sense of confident humor, will drive you nuts.
Dealing with the major publishers themselves — should you survive the moat — is much easier because you have a goal, they are demonstrably interested and they know who you are. It’s just you and your editor, and you have a common wish.
There is a second problem with the Hemingway ideal, a problem spelled out succinctly by Richard Steele. If you write to be famous, the quality of your work will almost certainly be damaged by the anxiety with which you’re writing. You have the memory of all those great books, written by writers you admire tremendously, and there comes the time, often, when you worry that what you do will never come up to the level of what they did. You finish writing a paragraph or two, then you recall Joseph Conrad writing about something similar, or Joyce or Greene or Ellison or Dickens or Austen, Eliot, Nabakov, Baldwin, Faulkner… You stop writing. Or you continue on, the shades of all these others standing behind you, dark, celebrated, bookish shades brimming with talent, writers now long dead except for their great fame. You sense them watching what you’re doing.
It doesn’t work, and you won’t make it.
When I finally understood this and backed off, my writing improved and I started getting published. Right away. It was a simple, one-to-one relationship. Now I pay occasional attention to the idea of fame, when I’m reading about Lady Gaga or some such. But I never allow such a thing to affect what I’m doing. Fame is something others bestow upon you. Good writing is what you bestow upon yourself, your own most faithful, loving, and observant fan. If you don’t write for the emotional benefit of that reader, I believe your chances for fame will vanish.