Authors: Russell Hoban
Tags: #Literature, #U.S.A., #20th Century, #American Literature, #21st Century, #Britain, #Expatriate Literature, #Amazon.com, #Retail, #British History
To Dr Michael D. Feher
‘So there was the problem set for the sawyers – in a curved tree (butt or top it didn’t matter) to find that one aspect of it which was not curved – that one direction in which it could be sawn into two practically equal and similar halves from end to end.’
The Wheelwright’s Shop
– George Sturt
When she told me that her name was Bertha Strunk I said, ‘Is Bertha’s trunk anything like Pandora’s box?’
‘That isn’t something you can find out in five minutes,’ she said. This was at the Saturday evening tango class for beginners in the crypt of St James’s Church, Clerkenwell.
Why the tango? Are you sitting comfortably? It began with Mimi, my ex-wife, coming round with some things that I’d left at the house. ‘Your latest effort got terrible reviews,’ she said by way of greeting.
liked it,’ I countered.
‘I think you may be running out of ideas,’ she said.
I backed away from her and made a cross with my fingers. ‘Don’t say that!’
‘It happens,’ she continued. ‘
Hope of a Tree
does not develop organically from its original impulse; it’s a put-together
thing trying to pass itself off as a novel. I have to go now. See you.’
‘Please,’ I said, ‘be a stranger.’
When she left I had an awful dropped feeling in the pit of my stomach because I knew she was right. Altogether it was a delicate time for me; even before her visit I’d been uneasy about Pluto coming over my Sagittarian ascendant. ‘This a major mega astrological event,’ says Catriona, my astrologer. ‘Your quest for a new theme could take a long time, with retrogradation and the slow moving of the outer planet. Euphemisms such as transformations, deaths and resurrections of the spirit and cleansing with reference to depth psychology are often used in connection with this; also crisis, power struggles etc. Definitely a time for the shedding of habits, feelings, emotions or whatever which have lost their vitality or relevance.’ Thanks very much, Catriona. Most of my habits, feelings, emotions or whatever, probably all of them, have lost their vitality or relevance. ‘Your Pluto is in house (8th) area which is its own, death, loss of individual etc.,’ she goes on but I didn’t.
I couldn’t face the word machine and it was too early in the day to get drunk, so I went to the Royal Academy to look at the
Face the Music
exhibition: portraits of composers from all places and periods. Looking at various faces of those long dead I wondered how they’d feel about what’s happened to some of their music. Here’s Mozart, apparently without a care in the world. His
Piano Concerto 21
was taken over by the film
, the story of two doomed (by their own idiocy) young lovers, and will forever be associated with them by people ignorant even of the composer’s name. The slow movement must by now be his most widely recognised composition. I’d recently acquired the DVD of the film and I sat patiently through it. Unmoved. Films go out of date like bacon on the supermarket shelf. I doubt very much that
would win prizes if released this year even though Pia Degermark has (as film critic Roger Ebert has noted) beautiful calves.
Tchaikovsky now, magisterially bearded but looking doubtful – whatever his sins he didn’t deserve what Ken Russell did to him with
The Music Lovers
. Did Russell hate the composer or what? Not that the film has much to do with Tchaikovsky, von Meck and the other famous names under which the actors perform as directed. The film is some kind of a lunatic thing with a life of its own that has little to do with any reality, not even Ken Russell’s, whatever that may be. Pyotr Ilyich has suffered other indignities as well: some years ago his
Romeo and Juliet Overture
was mawkished into ‘Our Love’ and ‘The Story of a Starry Night’ and sung by various and sundry.
Vivaldi! He looks frail but he very aggressively put me on hold and kept me there while I trudged through as much of
Le Quatro Stagioni
as I could remember. Vivaldi, at a switchboard near you for how many more seasons?
So many names, so many faces, so much music! But wait, who’s this? What does the card say? Barbara Strozzi, the seventeenth-century Venetian singer and composer who was known as
La Virtuosissima Cantatrice
. What a woman!
Not a beauty but she had a slightly sluttish look that was irresistible. Her eyes, so languorous, so not caring, so haunting after three centuries and more! She leans back in her chair, her blouse well off her shoulders, her bodice lowered to expose her breasts, her left hand grasping the neck of a viola da gamba. Barbara Strozzi! Dead for so many years but she reached out of the frame and clasped me to her opulent bosom and opened her mouth to my tongue. OK, it was all in my mind but so is everything else. Perhaps I fainted, I don’t know. I didn’t fall down but it was a Road-to-Damascus kind of thing. A girl of twelve or thirteen and her mother approached as I stood there. ‘That man has an erection,’ said the girl.
‘Nonsense,’ said the mother as they moved on. ‘It’s probably his iPod.’
I didn’t want to see any more pictures so I left. When I got home I dug around in my CD stacks until I found my Barbara Strozzi discs. The tracks were mostly
, lamentations. I played some of them but they didn’t give me the Strozzi I’d seen in the portrait; they all had a downward spiral of sadness. OK, life
sad but the look in Barbara Strozzi’s eyes had a whole lot more than sadness in it. I wanted other music for her. What kind of music?
When I think of Venice I think of Francesco Guardi. There is a page of his
The Glory of Venice
catalogue from the Royal Academy. These quick sketches done in brown ink, almost calligraphy, show gaggles of men and women like brown leaves hurried on by the winds of time. Guardi’s gondoliers, workmen and pedestrians in the oil paintings such as
The Giudecca with the Zitelle
are also full of movement, but of a stagey sort, as if they might be in an opera. It is particularly evident in pictures where chiaroscuro is exaggerated that Guardi is a precursor of Daumier: he paints gestures and peoples them, all of his figures moving through time. The buildings too, though solid and full of detail, are in motion through time. Sometimes this motion is slowed down, as in the wonderful
Capriccio with an Arch in Ruin
. Here Guardi’s imagination is measured and reflective: even the dogs pause for thought and the boatmen are in no hurry. Although Barbara Strozzi was painted by Bernardo Strozzi (whose illegitimate daughter she probably was) there was something of a Guardi
in the look she turned upon me through the transparent centuries. There was music in that look – not her own
but something more coarse and sexual and a rhythm of controlled passion. I don’t know the dances of Guardi’s time and Strozzi’s, but for me the music and the dance became tango.
I looked at her portrait in the catalogue again and words came to me, from where I couldn’t remember: ‘I faced up to life and … what?’ My hand went to the
CD stacks and came up with Tita Merello,
. The little brochure quoted her as saying, ‘I faced up to life and it left its mark on me.’ It sounds better in Spanish: ‘
Le di la cara a la vida y me la dejo marcada
.’ I put the disc in the player and went to track 12, ‘El Choclo’. Her voice! It wound itself around me like the
that she was, like her body touching mine and leaning away, her leg gripping my waist and releasing in the skirmishing of the dance. Barbara Merello, Tita Strozzi!
So there it was: it was time for me to learn the tango if I wanted to follow the Barbara Strozzi thing wherever it might take me. A little googling brought me to Totaltango on the Internet and I sent away for
, a beginner’s course by Christine Denniston on CD-ROM, with animations and video clips.
From the text of the CD I learned that at the end of the nineteenth century in Buenos Aires, a city with a huge influx of men from Spain, the best chance for a man to get his arms around a woman other than a prostitute was to learn the tango. The men attended
in which the learners danced with experienced men and with each other, alternately taking the part of the follower and that of the leader. They had to be able to dance as women before they could become good enough leaders to make a woman want to dance with them. When they were ready for their first time out their instructor would take them to a
where he would ask a woman friend to dance with the novice. I imagined the music snaking through a blue haze of
cigarette smoke, sweat and pheromones as the women assessed the men whose hands were upon them. If the novice
wasn’t good enough he would have to go back to the
for months more of practice, patience and frustration.
I was struck by the psychology of the tango, that by learning the woman’s role as follower the man could develop the empathy that would give a woman the confidence to be led by him in a dance in which nothing is set and there are no words. Reflecting on my marriage I thought it might have worked out better if I had been able to empathise with Mimi more than I had. I tried to imagine us learning the tango together but it would have brought out the worst in both of us very quickly.
The contents of the CD were almost poetic, with such titles as ‘The Hunger of the Soul for Contact with Another Soul’. After a while I reached ‘Before the Embrace’ and from there I went to ‘The Hold’ with its overhead diagram of two upper bodies heart to heart. I thought of myself and Barbara Strozzi, bosoms touching, heart to heart. Then came the animated footsteps forward and back, this way and that, giving me the eerie sensation of looking up through a glass floor at disembodied feet. The video showed the legs and feet of leader and follower, going through their steps as often as I clicked on
. It was difficult to practise the steps while sitting at the computer and watching the monitor screen so I sent away for a set of three CDs in which Christy Cote and and George Garcia, appearing full-length,
would show me how to dance the Argentine tango. It was a treat to watch them: Christy, smiling all the time, and George, smiling less, made everything wonderfully clear, and I did the lessons in front of the TV with the remote control in hand to repeat and pause the action as necessary as they took me through the Embrace, the
Cambio de Peso en el Lugar
Paso al Costado
, and so on down the line. That was all very well as far as it went but doing it alone was not giving me much satisfaction. I was learning the names of the steps and how they looked when danced by professionals but I knew I wasn’t actually going to be learning tango until I had a partner to embrace.
So it was that on a Saturday evening in May I found myself on a Circle Line train watching the stops unreel towards Farringdon. The carriage was full of young people and vernal expectation but I am a November sort of person, and I thought of the big rain that always comes in November to leave the trees black and bare next morning and the ground covered with brown leaves. I’m only forty but I’ve got November inside me with grey skies, rain, brown leaves and bare black trees.
The Circle Line is some kind of metaphor: from South Kensington you can get to Farringdon eastbound via Victoria and Embankment on the lower part of the loop or you can do it westbound via Paddington and King’s Cross on the upper part of the loop. I took it eastbound.