A Conversation with Tom Jobim

by Clarice Lispector

English translation: Carlos P. Falcão

The Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector interviews Tom Jobim: "my symphonies remain unpublished". Published in Jornal do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), divided on three consecutive Saturdays [3, 10, 17, July 1971], entitled "Conversa meio a sério com Tom Jobim I, II and III. (A half-serious conversation with Tom Jobim)".
Reprinted in "Descoberta do mundo (The discovery of the world)" by Clarice Lispector.
The musician and composer deals primarily with aging, the creative process, drinking habits, success, musical partners, living in the United States, music, literature, death, reincarnation, industrial society, and love.

July 3, 1971

Tom Jobim was my best man at the First Writers Festival in Rio, in the launching of my romance "A maçã no escuro" (An Apple in the Dark). He was having a good time in our tent, holding the book on his hands and shouting to the public:

- Hey you there! Wanta buy?

I don't know, but the fact is that I sold all the books I had.

One day, a while ago, Tom came to visit me. We hadn't seen each other for years. He was the same Tom: handsome, charming and with that air of purity he has, half of his hairs falling sideways on top of his forehead. After one scotch the chat started getting more serious. I will reproduce here literally all our dialogues as I took notes and he didn't mind:

- Tom, how do you face the maturity problem?

- There is a Drummond verse that says: "Maturity, such a horrible gift." I don't know, Clarice, we become more capable but also more demanding.

- With maturity, we start being aware of a series of new things as never before; even our instincts, the most spontaneous ones, pass through such a filter. The space police is present. This police that is our true police. I have noticed that music has been changing with the broadcast media, with the laziness of going to the Municipal Theater. I want to ask you this question regarding book reading, for nowadays people are watching television and pocket radios, an inadequate media. Everything classical and more serious I wrote has never left my drawer. There should be no misunderstanding here: I consider popular music something extremely serious. Would people nowadays still keep reading books the way I used to as a kid with a habit of going to bed with a book to read before falling asleep? Because I feel human beings now have a sort of lack of time -- the trend is towards dynamic reading. What do you think?

-I will suffer should that happen, that someone reads my books on a dynamic, fast-paced method. I wrote them with love, care, pain and research, and I want back a minimum of full attention. An attention and interest such as yours, Tom. And the funny thing is that I have no more patience to reading fiction.

- But there you are denying yourself, Clarice!

- No, my books, hopefully to me, are not overloaded with facts but with their repercussion upon the individual. There are people who say music and literature will disappear. Do you know who said that? Henry Miller. I don't know if he meant now or in the next 300 or 500 years. But I think they will never go away.

A happy smile from Tom.

- For I, you know... I think the same way!

- I think the sound of music is absolutely essential for the human being. The use of the spoken and written word are just like music, two of the noblest things that raise us from the world of monkeys, from the animal kingdom.

- And the mineral one, too; and vegetable one, too! (He smiles) I think I am a musician who believes in words. Yesterday I read yours "O Búfalo" and "A Imitação da Rosa".

- Yes, but it's death, at times.

- There is no death, Clarice. I had an experience that revealed that to me. The same as there is no I. Neither the big I nor the little I. Besides this experience I am not going to tell you, I fear death 24 hours a day. The death of the I -- I swear to you, Clarice -- because I saw it.

- Do you believe in reincarnation?

- I don't know. The Hindus say that one can only understand reincarnation when you are aware of several past lives. Obviously, this is not my point of view. If there is reincarnation, it can only be reached through dispossession.

Then I gave him the epigraph of one of my books. It's a phrase from Bernard Berenson, an art critic. "A full life may be the one that ends up in such an identification with the non-I that there is nothing left to die."

- That is very pretty -- Tom said -- that's dispossession! I fell in a trap because without the I... I denied myself. If we deny any passage from one I to another -- and that means reincarnation --, then we are denying it all.

I am not understanding anything we are talking about but it all makes a lot of sense. How can we talk about what we don't understand! Let's see if we can get together in the next incarnation.


July 10, 1971

Later on we talked about the fact that the industrial society organizes and depersonalizes life too much. And if it was or not up to the artist the role of preserving not only the joy of the world but its awareness as well.

- I am against art for mass consumption. Sure, Clarice, I love consumption! But the moment the standardization of everything takes away the joy of living, then I am against industrialization. I am in favor of all mechanisms that make human life easy, but never the machine to dominate the human species. Of course, artists must preserve the joy of the world. Although art has been so alienated and has only brought sadness to the world. But this is not the art's fault because its role is to reflect the world as it is. It reflects it and it is honest about it. Cheers to Oscar Niemeyer!!! Cheers to Villa-Lobos!!! Cheers to Clarice Lispector!!! Cheers to Antonio Carlos Jobim!!! Ours is an art that denounces. I have written symphonies and chamber music that will never surface...

- Don't you think it is your duty to make the music your soul asks for? By the things you said I understand our best is made for the elite?

- Obviously that we, to express ourselves, have to resort to the elite's language, an elite that does not exist in Brazil.

- To whom you make music and I write to, Tom?

- I think nothing has been asked from us, and unprepared, however, we heard the music and the word without ever learning them from anyone. We had no choice. You and I work under inspiration. From our ungrateful clay where the gypsum comes from. Really ungrateful to us...The criticism I would make, Clarice, in this comfortable apartment here at Leme, is that we are some sort of rarefied human beings that can only give ourselves out at certain height levels. We should give out much more, all the time, indiscriminately. Now, when I read a Stravinsky score, I feel an irrepressible urge to be with the crowds, although the culture thrown away always comes back through the window. I am stealing CDA

- Maybe because we belong to a generation, who knows, that failed?

- I don't agree with that at all.

- It is that I feel that we have reached the peak where doors have been opened -- and by fear or for whatever I don't know --, we haven't gone through these doors all the way yet. And they have our names inscribed on them. Every person has a door with his or her name inscribed on it, Tom, and only through them whoever is lost can get in and find oneself.

- Knock on and it shall open up to you.

- I am going to confess to you, Tom, with the least trace of lie: If I truly had the courage, I would have gone through my door and without being afraid of being called mentally insane. Because there is a new language out there, both the musical and the written one, and both of us would be the representatives of the narrow doors that belong to us. In short, and without vanity, I am just saying that we have a vocation to fulfill. How does the process of music elaboration works out in yourself so as to end up in creation?

- I am just mixing up the whole thing but it is not my fault, Tom, nor yours. It is that our conversation is getting a bit psychedelic...

- Music creation in me is that compulsory...Yearnings for freedom are manifest.

- Internal or external freedom?

- The total freedom. If as a man I have been an adapted petty-bourgeois, as an artist I have got my revenge with the amplitude of love. Excuse me, I want no more scotch because of my voracity. I gotta drink beer because it fills up the large emptiness of the soul. Or at least impedes a sudden drunkenness. I like to drink just once in a while. I like to drink beer but I don't like getting drunk.

And some more beer was dully ordered.

July 17 1971

- Tom, every famous person, such as yourself, there, in the very bottom, is an unknown. What's your hidden face?

- The music. The environment was competitive and I had to kill both my mate and my own brother just to survive. The show of the world sounded phony to me. The piano in the dark bedroom provided me a possibility of infinite harmony. This is my hidden face. My escape and my shyness inadvertently brought me to the Carnegie Hall spotlights. I always ran away from success, Clarice, as the devil runs away from the cross. I always wanted to be the one that never goes onstage. The piano offered me, back from the beach, an unsuspected world with ample freedom -- those keys were all available and I foresaw the roadways opening up to me, everything was licit, and I could go anywhere I wanted as I long as I went as a whole. Suddenly, you know, that thing offered to a pubescent minor, the great dream of love was there and such an insecure dream was secure, wasn't it, Clarice? Do you know that the flower doesn't know it is a flower? I lost myself and found myself , meanwhile, I dreamed through the door lock by watching the breasts of my maid. Her breasts looked so pretty through that hole on the door lock.

- Tom, would you be able to improvise a poem that could be used as lyrics?

- He consented, and after a small pause, dictated to me:

Your green eyes are deeper than the sea.
Should I be as strong as you are one day
I would despise you and would live on space.
Or maybe I would love you.
Oh, this longing I feel for the life I have never had!

- How do you feel when you are about to give birth to a song?

- The labor pain is terrible! Banging my head against the wall, anguish, the necessary unnecessary... are the symptoms of a new song being born. The least I touch a song the best I like it. Any vestige of "savois-faire" scares me to death.

- Gauguin, who is not my favorite, said something one shouldn't forget, despite the pain it brings to us. It's the following: "When your right hand is capable, start painting with your left one; when your left one turns capable, start painting with your feet." Does that answer your fear of "savoir-faire"?

- Capability to me is very useful, but in the last instance, capability is useless. Only creation can be satisfying. True or false, I would rather have a crooked shape that tells me than an able form that doesn't.

- Are you the one who chooses your interpreters and partners?

- When I can choose interpreters, I do it. But life came very fast. I like to work with people I love, such as Vinicius, Chico Buarque, João Gilberto, Newton Mendonça, etc. How about you?

- It is part of my profession to be always by myself, without interpreters or partners. Listen, every time I am finished writing a book or a tale I have thought with great despair and all certainty that I would never write anything else again. How about you, what do you feel when you finish giving birth to a song?

- Exactly the same. I always think I died from the labor pains.

The beer came.

- The most important thing in the world is love. The most important thing to a person, as an individual, is the integrity of the soul, even though from the exterior it may look dirty. When she says yes, she means yes; when she says no, she means no. Despite all the saints, despite all the dollars. As to what is love, love is giving, giving... Giving oneself not according to one's I -- many people think they are giving, yet they are giving nothing -- but according to the I of the beloved one. The one that does not give becomes possessed with self-hatred and castration. Lonely love is foolishness.

- Was there a decisive moment in your career?

I only had decisive moments in my life. Including of going, at 36 years of age, to the United States, by the power of Itamaraty (Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations), and at that time I already enjoyed my striped pajamas, wicker rocking chair and blue sky with sparse clouds.

- Many times, creation in whatever domain involves thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Do you feel that in your songs? Think.

- I feel that a lot. I am an amorous mathematician, needy of love and mathematics. Without shape there is nothing. There is shape even in the chaotic.

- What were your biggest emotions in your life as a composer and in your personal life?

- As a composer, none. As to my personal life, the discovery of the I and the non-I.

- What kind of Brazilian music is most popular overseas?

- All kinds. The Old World, Europe and the United States are all completely exhausted on themes, strength, vitality. Brazil -- despite everything -- is a country with an extremely free soul. And that leads to creation that is conniving with all dimensions of the soul.




Published in the books "Descoberta do Mundo", Editora Francisco Alves, 1994, and "De corpo inteiro", ArteNova, 1975, both by Clarice Lispector.

Carlos Falcão is an American born and raised in Vila Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Presently he lives in Miami and runs the consulting company BrasTrans Inc.


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