Category: Archive

Art and Life

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“Dancer,” his novel about the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev that has been published simultaneously in the U.S. and Europe, has thus far received almost universally positive reviews. In Ireland, you can’t open a newspaper without reading a critique: the arts review television program “The View” has made it its main feature and Ireland’s premier radio station have named it “Book of the Week.” It can also safely be said that Colum McCann has established himself as not only one of the best writers in Ireland, but an international voice as well.
Apart from receiving most of the coveted Irish Literary awards, such as the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Award, the Rooney Prize for Irish literature, and the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award, he has received the Guardian Fiction Prize in England, his novel “This Side of Brightness” was long-listed for the coveted Booker Prize, and last fall he was the first recipient of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace.
At the Dublin launch, listeners heard author Jennifer Johnson introduce and read from the book, followed by readings from the author himself. The next day, over a pint in a South Dublin pub not far from his original neighborhood, Colum McCann talks about how he had wanted to do an “international” book, having covered Irish-American ground in “This Side of Brightness” and then Northern Ireland in “Everything in This Country Must,” his previous work.
But the inspiration, he said, began in his hometown, Dublin. “A few years ago I heard a story from a friend of mine who grew up in the Ballymun flats in the early 1970s,” McCann said. “One night the father came home carrying a television set. The whole family gathered around the television. At first they couldn’t get any reception, there was just snow, but then the first image appeared. It was Rudolf Nureyev dancing. And my friend, well, he fell in love with Rudy, or at least the idea of Rudy. I thought it was an extraordinary image and I began to wonder what it is about our world that allows a Russian dancer to penetrate the life of a working-class Dublin boy. The story seemed to reflect how simultaneously large and small our world has become. I felt driven to write a novel that tried to cross all sorts of boundaries and lives.”
McCann began to research the life of Nureyev, and was immediately enthralled by the charm of the dancer’s life, the recklessness and beauty of it. “I was struck by the fact that Nureyev’s very first public dance (at the age of 6) was in a hospital for soldiers home from the Russian front, which I hadn’t come across in the biographies. I wanted to know more, and then I decided to try to write about him.”
As a writer, McCann’s work has become steadily more crafted and confident through the years. The sad beauty of the short story “Fishing The Sloe-Black River” (1995), about Irish emigration, bears a style far from the structural complexity of his second novel, “This Side of Brightness” (1998). In the latter, the story of a Sandhog who dug the original tunnels for the New York subway, is juxtaposed in alternating chapters with the story of a the present day homeless man, one of the so-called “mole people” who now live in the same tunnels.
In “Dancer,” he takes the innovative step of choosing not to tell a definitive, factual story, but a myriad of stories. Nureyev’s tale, apart from sporadic diary entries, and one unobtrusive occasional narrator, is told by almost two dozen narrators, from the impoverished sister he left behind in his Russian hometown, to a Chilean dancer in St. Petersburg, to his shoemaker, his maid and a New York hustler, among many others. Margot Fonteyn’s point of view muses on the philosophy of art and life. In the section dealing with the razzmatazz of Nureyev’s life at the height of his celebrity, the miscellaneous voices of celebrities themselves — Jackie O, Warhol, Jagger are thrown in. The overall result is a splendid, multi-faceted look at a personality who was himself very much multifaceted.
“He used the world to create the stage of himself, in a way,” McCann said. “So there are many Nureyevs, according to who tells the story. There is Nureyev the dancer. Nureyev the political symbol. Nureyev the gay icon, the celebrity, the employer — everybody owns him in their own peculiar way, and so each person who did will approach his story down one significant avenue toward him. But what happens when you begin to approach it from hundreds of different avenues, which is really the way we all live our lives?”
Thus, conversely, while the series of voices make up a rich, layered tapestry of one man’s life, they also tell us the story of many more ordinary lives, giving the book an immense richness and fascinating breadth. In terms of time, the book starts in the midst of the horrors of World War II and continues up to the empty 1980s when the dancer began to burn out, and became ill from AIDS. Through the textures, details and emotions that fill its pages we get a feeling for this flamboyant, talented man who could be both obnoxiously arrogant and haunted with loneliness.
“Despite the fact that materially Nureyev had everything, as a result of his defection from Russia he could never have the one thing he really needed, which was to just go home to see his family and his mother,” McCann said. “Eventually, when he did get a visa in 1987, facilitated by Raisa Gorbachov, he went back to see her and she was too old and ill to recognize him.”
The meticulous detail throughout the book comes from painstaking research conducted by the author. “I got to read Red Army booklets from 1941, dance dictionaries, biographies, depictions of the gay world in the 1970s, articles about Nureyev, celebrity quotes, weather reports from southern Russia, you name it,” he said. “For instance, when I began to write the book, I knew nothing about dance. But then I began watching dance classes and then I went to Russia during the summer of 2001.”
At first McCann was disappointed in his efforts to get into the Kirov Ballet, due to the absence of its director. However, in his rambles round St. Petersburg, he chanced to meet Ilya Kuznetsov, one of Russia’s top dancers in — of all places — an establishment known as the Shamrock Bar.
“Since my translator wasn’t with me,” McCann said, “he spoke in Spanish and I spoke in French and after a while we were the best of friends. It was he who then took me into the Kirov and introduced me to all the dancers, took me around the place, so that I could see the costumes, changing rooms — it was great.”
In addition to two short story collections and three novels, the Dubliner is also interested in film. His first sortie into the genre came in 1996, when he adapted his short story “Fishing the Sloe-Black River” for the screen along with Brendan Bourke. He has two ongoing script projects under development (“Songdogs” and “Manlove”), and two years ago he co-wrote the screenplay for the Veronica Guerin biopic, “When the Sky Falls,” directed by John McKenzie.
More recently, he co-directed “The Last Run,” a drama set in New York, written and co-directed by Michael Carty and featuring the McCourt brothers. It also has a soundtrack that includes music by Shane MacGowan, Paul Brennan, The Cowboy Junkies and Mike Scott.
“It’s about a kid in the Bronx, an alcoholic,” McCann said. “He decides to give up his lifestyle, and over the course of four days the film follows his progress. But he keeps getting pulled back by family and friends and fate and whatever else. It’s feature length, and a real raw film. Very much an independent film.
“We had great fun shooting it, and some invaluable help from the NYPD, who actually helped us to film a whole scene down on the Westside Highway that would have been impossible without their cooperation.”
McCann hopes that the film will be completed in time for New York’s Tribeca film festival this coming April.
With a schedule of promotional appearances and media interviews that would put any rock star to shame, McCann is currently pretty busy with “Dancer” and not yet sure of what he’s going to tackle for his next fiction work.
“Some people say that you should write about what you know, but I don’t agree,” he said. “I think you should write about what you don’t know. That way there is more of a challenge, and you can learn about something that interests you, or has inspired you. When you finish one novel, it’s quite scary, because you simply don’t know what the next one is going to be. However, I think I have a pretty good idea that my next one will be about New York.”

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