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Patrizia Chen

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Jane Austen and Tango

Posted: 05/24/10 12:51 PM ET

Jane Austen and Tango

My husband Kimball and I are crazy about Jane Austen.

Together, we've probably seen every single movie of her books and have followed each and every one of the many television series. The mighty BBC has given us immense joy, time and again, for our frequent Austen-themed weekends. Not only do we own a pretty substantial and impressive CD library, but our individual Kindles are overflowing with her work.

Our Jane is definitely the best. (We are on first names term, naturally) Pride and Prejudice? A stack of disks and obsolete tapes, beginning with the 1940 Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, fill our shelves together with, of course, the iconic mini-series with Colin Firth, the ultimate Darcy. The same goes for the various Emmas, and I'm not done boasting! We are also the proud possessors of a few versions of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, and even the wonderfully quirky Lost in Austen. They all have their place of honor in our apartment. After all, we've been married for twenty-two years and have had all that time to indulge our passion.

When we decide that, once again, it's that time of the month, we must have our Jane Fix and so the preparations begin. First, I plan a delicious dinner that can easily be consumed from a tray, slouching on our comfortable sofa. A simple plate of pasta alla carbonara, a salad and a tarte with spicy dark chocolate is the perfect solution for our stomachs, while our minds and souls are riveted by Elizabeth, Elinor or Emma's doings. Kimball dims the lights and, with just one click, we're ready to go.

"There must be lots of closeted Jane Austen lovers, out there..." says Kimball, kind of sheepishly. I just reminded him of how he kept drying his eyes last Sunday, at Emma's very last scene. The sign of a true man! (At least in the mind of this woman). And that's how, seated at my New York kitchen table, I suddenly know.

I just realized why I love Jane so much and always did. It's not just that I grew up with her, reading every single of her books (alas, in Italian); it's because her novels are pure tangos!
A stretch? I don't think so. Desperation, sorrow, joy, treason, social criticism, enduring tough love, comedy of manners, vanity; we can find all of this (and more) both in her writing and in the tango lyrics written by those superb musicians who lived and composed in Argentina, starting in the early 20th century. They were all emigrants, finally arriving in the promised land. The social standing is of course very different, as Jane describes the world of the British gentry and upper middle-class, while tango lyrics (letras) tell us, in general, of the poorest and the most desperate.

But the underlying passions are the same: impulse, emotions, desperation and finally the moral lessons we learn from life. After all, we are made of flesh and bone, and that's how Austen's elegant world comes to compare, at least in my mind, with one populated by night ladies, gauchos, emigrants and adventurers.

Let's begin with deception, which fills the Argentinean tango. It goes hand in hand with social climbing. One of my favorite songs tells us of a woman who enjoyed her lover's attention (and flowing champagne) until he lost his fortune. "I met you during good times and lost you during the bad ones," laments a desperate guy after his vampiresa deserted him, bringing down the curtain on their passion and her duplicity.

And if Bollywood can produce an Indian Bride and Prejudice, wouldn't it be great to transport Elizabeth and Darcy to a conventillo -- a tenement -- in Buenos Aires? In the dark courtyard of a casa chorizo - another name that perfectly describes the long corridors into which open rooms inhabited by entire families -- sits Elisabetta, the bright daughter of Italian immigrants. She's furious at Darci and refuses to dance with him. Surely her feelings are the same as her English counterpart, only expressed in a different way.

I can picture la mirada, the exchange of looks between those two, and the final passionate tango that will tell us all about their initial hate turning into love. Could the plaintive sound of the bandoneones transform a simple milonga into the fancy ball at Temperley? It certainly can provoke the same frenzied preparations, the choice of a simple, white percale dress, a special hairdo. As restrained and polished as Austen's world is, tango lyrics go instead for the jugular. Suffering is supposed to be screamed, sung loudly, its emotions as extreme as the Mediterranean blood that (for the great majority) has inspired this dance and its music.

Should I stretch my literary theory to this extent? It's enough to listen to the words of two beautiful tangos: Garua and Esta Tarde Gris, to see that a unity of sentiment between these words and those of Austen. Both deal with the light rain that at times envelopes Buenos Aires just like its equivalent in the misty English countryside. Could it be the insistent sound of tear drops?