Authors: James McCourt
JAMES McCOURT was born in New York City and attended Manhattan College, NYU, the Yale School of Drama, and the Old Met. He is the author of
Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged,” Time Remaining
and has published stories in
The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Grand Street
The Yale Review
. He lives in New York City.
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM has published five books of critical prose, including
The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire
, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three books of poetry, including
Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems
. He is a Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
NE THING I
love about James McCourt's first novel,
(1975), is its formal deviation: it strays from fiction into dithyramb, rant, cavatina, stunt, exercise, letter, self-portrait, manifesto.
Another thing I love about
is its unpronounceable title's haughty paradox.
The title is pronounced “Mardu Gorgeous,” but its spelling, a Slavic clot, proffers difficulty, a task a mouth can never accomplish. Thus, from the obstreperous outset, this novel about operaâperforce devoted to the oralâpresents the written as foreign, as obtuse, as a screen. Paradox: this supremely talky novel mines the unspeakable.
Who is Mawrdew Czgowchwz? Heroine, eye of the novel's apostrophizing Petrarchan hurricane, she is also the author: Mr. McCourt is the “m.c.,” or emcee, of the text. (At least one friend of Mr. McCourt, in real life, affectionately calls him “Mawrdew.”) Ms. Czgowchwz recalls the twentieth century's greatest dramatic-lyric M.C., Maria Callas, to whom this book is the complicated Irish valentine. Maria Callas contains multitudes, but, except for an early Isolde, and her mature
, La Divina's repertoire skimped the British Isles: counteracting, McCourt brings Irish salience to Maria.
The other diva behind Mawrdew Czgowchwz may be Victoria de los Angeles, whose career McCourt has faithfully tracked, traveling around the globe to hear her performances, befriending her, and profiling her for the old
(inexplicably, the piece was never published). De los Angeles's vocal longevity and the variety of her roles mimic Mawrdew Czgowchwz, as if this novel empowered the later years of her endless career.
Partly Callas, partly de los Angeles, Ms. Czgowchwz is an amalgam of every great singer. After all, her repertoire surpasses anyone's: Callas, unlike Czgowchwz, never sang
The main literary progenitor haunting
is Ronald Firbank. Like his predecessor, McCourt is a difficult, gnostic writer traveling under comic incognito. His Firbankian touches include ellipses (“...!”); unattributed dialogue (Ã la Ivy Compton-Burnett); characters captured in stylized cameos (“Throwing out his shapely, manicured right hand...”); static tableaux; and apropos names (Valerio Vortice, La Principessa Oriana Incantevole, CÃ©geste, Dame Sybil Farewell-Tarnysh, Achille Plonque, Contessa Cassia Verde-Dov'Ã¨), the name, like an escutcheon, encapsulating a persona. However, Firbank is but one fey pole of McCourt's literary genealogy; the other is James Joyce, with whom McCourt shares Irishness and a commitment to verbal condensation, musical language, and myth. McCourt retroactively queers Joyce by crossbreeding
with such camp novelettes as Firbank's
Additionally, preoccupied with
, McCourt slims down Proust's dreaming corpulence, and demonstrates that, while Proust equates
and other art forms (sonata, cathedral, photograph), the homology can go a step further: McCourt likens
to an ephemeral night at the opera. Thus McCourt, immodestly modeling his work on modernist epics, miniaturizes them, or turns them into air.
rests on two rhetorical bulwarks: the line, the list.
A line is a poetic unit of measure, and McCourt's novel, though ostensibly prose, is actually a poem, as his second novel,
, an elegy for the great New York poet James Schuyler, was to prove. A line, however, is also what one waits on, outside the Metâthe
Met, McCourt would hasten to add. (The old Met's death occasioned this elegiac novel, whose first chapter was originally published in 1971 in
New American Review
, when the disastrous opening of the new house at Lincoln Center was still fresh in memory.) To wait on line requires surrenderâdaily duties subordinated to the quest for operatic attendance. McCourt's readers, too, have learned to be patientâbecause his difficult prose requires slow reading, and because over fifteen years separated the appearance of
From the beginning, his career presupposed comeback.
The list: the novel begins with an enthralling roster of dramatis personae, and the novel employs listmaking as organizational scheme. Several chapterettes are structured around split-screen lists, various characters' activities enshrined in parallel dependent clauses:
While, alone at her faithful Depression Corona, with a bottle of Rock & Rye and a carton of Luckies, Dolores pounded out her column for a tentative tomorrow...
While Gloria Gotham walked out of Grace Jackson-Haight's beige boudoir, having interviewed Thalia Bridgewood...
While Tangent Percase wound up his meditations...
While James O'Maurigan, chief among those who had followed Mawrdew Czgowchwz out the great doors in the back wall of the Old Met in the dawn following the
triumph, stood in Central Park...
While Jonathan Stein sat home reading Leibniz...
While His Scarlet Eminence and Msgr. Finneagle sat playing their esoteric version of Monopoly...
While Roxanne Sauvage sat home on Staten Island watching
The Ways of Life...
Another list is the roster of namesâthe inner circle granted post-performance accessâthat a singer leaves with the backstage door attendant. Hospitality grounds the listmaking mania of McCourt's recitative: he makes room for backstage visitation, expands the opportunities for divine audience.
As much as
navigates opera, it negotiates New York City, or Gotham, as McCourt calls it; the old Gotham, whose byways the novel charts, was a place of fast talkers and schmooze artists.
's high-speed scat seems less an imitation of Callas than a memento of gay loudmouth monologists, two of whom acquired textual incarnation in 1968, while
was presumably gestating: Gore Vidal's
and Andy Warhol's
a: a novel.
, not a novel in McCourt's meticulous tradition, is an error-strewn transcript of twenty-four hours in the life of Ondine, a garrulous speedfreak with a cruel wit and a devotion to Callas;
, an homage to Parker Tyler and to camp cinephilia, is the monologue of a film-besotted sadistic transsexual. Warhol's and Vidal's novels tried (with less finesse than McCourt's) to capture the sound of pre-Stonewall urban gay argot, a lingua franca of dropped hairpins and insider references to film and operaâa weft of arcane allusions that turned the simple sociable act of
into performance art, though many of these wordy queens did not manage to encase their riffs in any permanent artistic container, whether film or fiction. (Frank O'Hara, however, did: his great long poems, including “Biotherm (For Bill Berkson),” “Second Avenue,” and “In Memory of My Feelings,” share
's lush aversion to termination.) The weird drag persona of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, like Myra Breckinridge, gives voiceâand, almost, a bodyâto
, or to the sensibility of men, and women, too, who, in the 1960s and earlier, put their considerable mental resources into connoisseurship, aesthetic partisanship, and standing on line. To call
the great novel of the opera queen is less accurate than to call it the great novel of the gay virtuoso gabberâthat creature of lists, parentheses, digressions, apostrophes, opinions, and contradictions. Oscar Wilde belongs to this tribe of loud-mouths. So do Dorothy Dean, costar of Warhol's
, and Charles Nelson Reilly, game-show stalwart.
Although McCourt does not hesitate to connect connoisseurship to what a sociologist might call a “gay fan-base,” his novel skimps eroticism, despite its romantic ending, and despite the prose's nonstop orgasm. Rapture is reserved for the voice of its heroine and its plural narrators (Rodney, Jameson O'Maurigan, Mother Maire Dymphna, and others contribute to the polyphony). Energy's displacement from eroticism to music has nothing to do with the “closet” or with prudishness, for music is not a code for sexuality: rather, music
a sexuality. (Listen to McCourt: “She sang four Mahler songs so profoundly that the spontaneous quality of the act itself was subsumed in a longing moment that seemed to have been absolutely destined to occur, to be accomplished only and for all time then and there in merely that way.”)
, enacting the adoration that gay (and non-gay) fans have bestowed on the likes of Callas, announces musical performance as the highest form of physical experienceâsurpassing sex. This pleasure consists equally in listening and singing: the fan's experience is not a pale simulacrum of the diva's, but its necessary mirror. Any attempt to look elsewhere (in sex, in economics) for the sources of the worship that La Czgowchwz incites would dilute McCourt's message, which is that musical performance sacredly blows apart our meager sexual definitions.
preaches the body's commitment to preposterous idealisms, prime among them lyric time's divine prison.
McCourt's is a cartoon universe in which everyone wants to be (or to be near) the diva. There can be only one Mawrdew Czgowchwz: stardom posits one person's extraordinariness at the cost of everyone else's ordinariness. Mawrdew, however, grants magic to anyone in Gotham who joins her cult; thus stardom, democratic, admits all to its list. Despite the novel's erudite references, it has a utopian class-catholicity, like a dream vision of Manhattan before real-estate inflation ruined it. McCourt's New York is a zone, now vanished, where the elite may have ruled, but where a host of others gamboled in the high-end froth; his New York conversationally splices downtown and uptown, Rialto showgirl colloquialisms and neo-Victorian ekphrasis (McCourt is a Paterian). The character Rotten Rodney Bergamot commands the widest range of idiolects: for example, in a fit of librettist spleen he says to the composer Merovig Creplaczx,
“Do me a smart favor, buster! Get me a drink or I'll get myself another, shall we admit lesser, composer. And a word to the wise, Solange: Hollenius wasn't plugged in his high smart prime for no smart reason! Here I come through a holocaust to offer you on a silver cocktail tray the
toy idea since
And you treat me likeâlike Scribe!”
He slipped a worn recording cut by the late Clichette, supreme diseuse, onto the Victrola, poured a brimful snifter of the most expensive Scotch he thought he recognized, and lay back on the indigo suede couch to brood.... At length he broke off, thick-voiced and Dexamyl-omnipotent, shouting at Merovig, rooms away: “I swear anything you like, Miro,
Puvis de Chavannes
has the makings of a fucking