The Highlands are blue with snow, I’m blue with recent farewells, and I know that neither will last. Already, in the eerie chill, new things are budding: a rose outside my window, a story inside my head. I have a year to write it. But God, where do I begin?
How about the beginning? It is now ten years since I became hypnotised by the music of Astor Piazzolla. It was obvious to me that I would one day write a ‘tango novel’. Naturally, it would have nothing to do with me. It would be about someone else and her tango quest. Her story would be the story of tango itself: a story of immigration, dispossession, longing, fighting for your place in the world, being knifed in the guts, triumphing against all odds – that sort of thing, to the tune of one hundred years’ worth of tango music. But I didn’t write a tango novel. Reality kept interfering, which I saw as an annoying distraction – until I realised, a few months ago, that the distraction was focusing my mind on the only authentic tango story at hand. My story.
In Scotland, spring can be colder than winter. In non-fiction, the autobiographical self can be stranger than an invented character. Telling the naked truth can feel stranger than telling a fictional version of the truth. And yet someone said that if we want to truly know a writer’s psyche, we should read the fiction, not the autobiographical writings. And if the line between the two is blurred – as with Bruce Chatwin’s writing – all the more fun for critics.
But these are academic questions, and fortunately I’m under too much pressure from research and the writing itself to spend time pondering whether I am writing about Buenos Aires or my Buenos Aires.
I am in Buenos Aires – my fourth visit to my favourite city. It’s no wonder I’m humming Gardel’s signature song ‘Volver’ (‘To Return’) – as soon as I arrive at Ezeiza Airport and breathe in the beloved fumes of the city. Leaving and Returning is one of tango’s – and Argentina’s – enduring obsessions. Those who arrived here as immigrants had to leave Europe forever. Their great-grandchildren left Argentina in droves to escape the dictatorial ways of Juan and Eva Perón in the 1950s, then the murderous colonels of the 1970s. Some of them returned from exile. Some – like Julio Cortázar – didn’t. Yet others – like Jorge Luis Borges – happily dined with the colonels.
I spend the nights dancing in semi-dark tango clubs, and the days walking down interminable avenues, past leery men and lurching buildings that belong in Borges’s ‘fictions’. He called all his writing ‘fictions’ because, according to his vision of reality, everything becomes a fiction as soon as you write it down.
In a city where every second building looks tripped out, my personal prize for weirdness goes to the Palacio Barolo, a twin building to Montevideo’s nightmarish landmark Palacio Salvo. At the time of its construction in 1935, the Barolo was the city’s tallest building. The eccentric Italian architect designed it as an architectural equivalent to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is 100 metres high – to reflect, the 100 cantos, and Hell is on the ground floor, where the offices of Argentina’s secret service are housed. Purgatory is the first fourteen floors, and before Argentina’s economy collapsed, Heaven was a cupola lit by 300,000 lights. After its completion, the architect returned to Italy to build Fascist masterpieces for Mussolini.
Who needs fiction in the city of the Aleph? The Aleph, according to Borges, is a place in Buenos Aires – I’m not telling where – at which all experience converges. To glimpse the Aleph is to glimpse the totality of human existence. I think the Aleph is also the point all stories – fictional, non-fictional, and anything in between – aspire to reach for at least a fraction of the writer’s and the reader’s consciousness. No pressure…
The Edinburgh International Tango Ball takes place in The Hub. 300 people turn up from all over Europe. The women in stilettos, the men in suits – these are people I have known for years. But I realise that they are becoming fascinating strangers in order to enter the larger tango story. Strangers whom I know intimately. I feel a stranger among them and yet I am them, with their heartbreaks, fantasies and hopes. This book is as much their story as it is mine.
As I wade deeper into the story, I drift further away from the immediate experience. And yet I am circling closer to the heart of the experience. Just as fiction has a licence to lie, factual writing has a licence to this hot-and-cold paradox.
The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky introduced the term ‘ostranenie’ (defamiliarisation or distancing), by which he meant the formal way poetic language – and art in general – renders the tired, familiar world magically fresh. Whether writers know it or not – and most of the time we don’t, because we write with the guts as much as with the brain – we are all practising distancing in order to get close to the truth. There is no other way to do it without being burnt to a cinder.
At a Glasgow University conference on non-fictional journeys, I discover the work of American writer and journalist Vivian Gornick. I start with her ‘The Situation and the Story’, which is like a blow to the head – but a good one. Then I read her mother-and-daughter memoir ‘Fierce Attachments’, and that’s a second blow of the same kind, which makes the first one sink in deeper.
So this is what Kafka meant by saying that writing should be like the blow of an axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us – even in the middle of summer.
Gornick draws a crucial distinction between situation and story. The situation may be a place, a set of circumstances, a setting. The story, however, is what the hero or anti-hero goes through. In a personal narrative, the protagonist might be the author, or, rather, a specially crafted creation of the author’s inner self who becomes a ‘truth-speaking persona’. How did she discover that she was primarily a non-fiction writer? By rereading masters of the form like Joan Didion and going into “a trance of recognition from which I don’t think I ever emerged. I became enraptured, tracing out the development of the persona in memoir after essay after memoir. It was out of this rapture that I realised I was a non-fiction writer.”
The art of the personal narrative, according to Gornick, is to pull out a strong and trustworthy narrator from your “own agitated and boring self” in order to tell the larger truth of your story.
I travel to Spain’s coastal gay hub Sitges for Europe’s largest tango event. Six hundred dancers from all over the world turn up to strut their stuff. I go to Holland for a hippie tango camp in Austerlitz. Two hundred Dutch people with bikes and personal issues turn up to dance, knit and group hug.
The things we do for research.
A week of wholesome food and hill walks in the Devon countryside, at the Avron Foundations Totleigh Barton Arvon Centre. The course I teach – if teach is the word, which it probably isn’t, for all you can teach is the craft, not the art – is ‘Starting to Write’. Even though many on the course want to write A Novel, the most authentic writing emerges from reflected personal experience.
I read a superb memoir of Soviet childhood and youth – A Mountain Of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova. The opening paragraph tells you everything about the personality of the narrator and why you’re instantly won over by her: “I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky … But she didn’t. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo … She came from where they lick plates.” You know you are going to trust this narrator, because she is afflicted at once by extravagant fantasies and kitchen-sink dreariness. Gorokhova’s book is several masterclasses rolled into one: Cold War history, narrative structure, and the truth-telling persona of Gornick – someone who is “you and at the same time not you.”
Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m a fan of his eclectic fiction and his searing non-fiction. There aren’t many writers capable of the highest comedy and the blackest tragedy who have also run for president, punched Gabriel García Márquez in the face and maintained perfect hair and teeth. I also like him because he has written openly about sex and challenged the Latin American gender cliché (see Márquez’s Memories Of My Melancholy Whores) by having an attraction to older women, at least in his writing.
Vargas Llosa belongs to that rare omnivorous species, the literary polymath.
I have a penchant for polymaths. The specialist can be a little annoying, over time, like someone who eats only one type of food. But it takes a genius to be “a brilliant bunch of guys”, as someone said of Clive James, and Vargas Llosa is just that.
Winter closes in again. I must finish the first draft, but I’m wary of farewells. I’m wary of parting ways with my ‘other’ self, the one who rides the tide of the story with poise, and returning full-time to my messy, everyday self, who must stumble on through the messy business of living. The one who must chip away at the brute block of experience until a new shape magically emerges.