James McCourt Essay - Critical Essays

McCourt, James

McCourt, James 1941–

James McCourt is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

James McCourt re-orders priorities [in "Mawrdew Czgowchwz"]. Like La Tosca, his creatures live for art and live for love. They are operaphiles, and opera is the most important thing in the world—at last someone has had the courage to say that.

This excuses them and McCourt from the charge of frivolity, which might otherwise have been leveled at the likes of Halcyon Q. Paranoy, Dame Sybil Farewell-Tarnysh, Merovig Creplaczx and Tangent Percase, people who casually utter gems like "What is laughter but somehow the cabaletta to grief?" and "Not for the squeamish?—Who are they, a sect?" and "Reality does not occur, it is enforced."

Amidst follies thick as post-performance traffic, McCourt tells the tale of Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced "gorgeous"), "the diva of the moment," the ultimate opera singer of the fifties. Ever since her solo flight from newly Russified Czechoslovakia ended in a crash landing on the Champs Elysées, she has held the imagination of the world in thrall. The lady combines the onstage temperament of Callas with the offstage amiability of Tebaldi and a soupçon of De Los Angeles melancholy and Nilsson wit. She is the first "oltrano," possessing a range of three and a half octaves to F-sharp in alt and a repertory that includes Mélisande, Orfeo, the Queen of the Night, Norma, Brünnhilde, Katisha, both Dido and Cassandra in "Les Troyens," both the Marschallin and Octavian in "Rosenkavalier," and both Leonora and Azucena in "Il Trovatore."…

"Mawrdew Czgowchwz" is not a parody of anything in particular, but a mélange of fantasies, the author's daydream of what the world could be if a few discrepancies in the perfection of reality were set to rights, something like Nabokov's "Ada" or Vian's "Mood Indigo." This is a world where hunger strikes occur to protest the Met's firing of a singer, where blizzards vanish in a day, permitting audiences to attend the opera, where crowds gather and respond on cue, as do clouds. Everyone is wise and good save for a few wicked on whom divine retribution swiftly falls. Central Park is free of muggers and available for masquerades.

McCourt declaims his love for opera as it should be and for old New York as it never really was and brings to the task extraordinary talents for epigram, for style, for juxtaposition, for sheer nonsense. He shines a light on the arabesques of the English language at an unusual angle, so that weird and wonderful configurations pop out of it.

The result is delectable but may be too cluttered for some tastes. The style keenly recalls Ronald Firbank, whose appeal is a specialized one, despite recent claims for his universality. The prose is luminous enough to be lurid. Events are almost too busy being described to happen. McCourt has Firbank's vast supply of improbably stylish phrases, his knack for sketching a character lightly but complexly, his eye and love for nonsense in the name of social amenities. But he is less far out. He has not Firbank's taste in perversity—the most scandalous event in "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" is the rape of the diva by her conductor minutes before her first Isolde. Firbank's novels are perceived through a hazy scrim of non sequiturs, compared with which McCourt's prose is straightforward. McCourt is as florid as the Bel Canto composers but, as someone once said of Puccini, "he gets on with it."

"Once upon a time (time out of mind)" begins this remembrance of things past that never were; McCourt escapes time not only by recapturing the Old Met that no longer exists outside memory, but also by gilding his memories in so literally fantastic a manner that only mind could contain them. But for the delectation of what other minds is this one displayed? "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" is not written for any isolatable cult—knowledge of opera would give added pleasure but the novel exists independent of that. The reader must be prepared, however, to follow the silver-tongued writer throughout an outlandish landscape, unquestioning. Reason would be out of place here. She would upset the ecological balance of a rich and delicate world. From which, into "time out of mind," McCourt ultimately sends his gorgeous heroine, and the Czgowchwz moment goes on and on. (p. 6)

John Yohalem, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 26, 1975.

The tale of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, a Zuleika Dobson of the opera world, the ultimate diva with a working range of three and a half octaves, is a work of altissimo camp. This could be suffocating. But James McCourt is an ecstatic fabulist, robustly funny and inventive, and touchingly in love with his subject. His work gives him pleasure, and so it's a pleasure to watch him work. (p. 61)

McCourt is unfailingly exact about every detail of operaphilia and about such '40s esoterica as the murder of composer-conductor Alexander Hollenius by Christine Radcliffe. I noted only one infinitesimal misquotation of a Cole Porter song title. He writes a joyous cadenza on the Old Met waiting line: "Like the more heroic, if not necessarily more valiant, bread lines, soup lines, and picket lines of the venerable prewar urban populist network, the postwar opera line stood for something … which since the demolition of the Old Met has forever and for ill been lost, forgotten, even forsworn." (pp. 61-2)

McCourt's novel is both special and precious, in the most honorable senses of those words. (p. 62)

Walter Clemons, "Opera Madness," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 27, 1975, pp. 61-2.

It's hard to imagine what we would have made of [Mawrdew Czgowchwz] a dozen years ago, before the appearance of Susan Sontag's "Notes on 'Camp'." That essay provoked considerable excitement because it mapped out a sensibility we hadn't known how to deal with before. Not in America, anyway: Wilde and Firbank we had accommodated, but they were English (or Anglo-Irish) after all, and everybody knows how odd foreigners can be. Now camp is one of the reviewer's favorite words, shorthand for all kinds of excess and silliness. Paul Morrisey's Frankenstein, Bette Midler and the Pointer Sisters, wedgies and flamingo-emblazoned rayon shirts, Burt Reynolds in the buff—too much our tacky popular culture takes to its bosom is described as camp, and we have to start from scratch with our definitions. We need Susan Sontag back, and she is back, in a way: the publicity handouts list her (along with Lewis Mumford and Joyce Carol Oates) as one of the early supporters of this remarkable book.

It's the real article, le vrai camp….

A funny, loving, uneven fantasy. It's true camp because despite all the glitter it's fundamentally serious. The novel playfully suggests the completeness, the absolute value of the esthetic vision. McCourt acknowledges storm troopers, breadlines, the Cold War. But he knows, with Yeats, that "poets … are always gay," that Ophelia and Cordelia "do not break up their lines to weep." When MC jumps her cue and sings the Liebestod in Erse, she does so gloriously, but it is a shocking intrusion of life, MC's life, into art, the interrupted performance a symbol of universal chaos. Civilization's great task is to bring MC back, in the words of her therapist, to "her libidinal life's task," "performative utterance." In celebrating the supreme importance of performance, with its divinities, its bloody Olympian battles, its fiendishly demanding but adoring believers, McCourt says some weighty truths—indirectly, comically—about civilized life and the heroic worth of these shining secular rites.

And he says them, much of the time, with great verve and inventiveness. The accounts of MC's appearances—in opera, in concert, at parties by the baby grand—are an undiluted joy, and at the same time a knowing send-up of the language of music criticism, hilarious and thoroughly convincing. I have to admit the book is less winning in carrying out some of its more workaday novelistic tasks. McCourt has taken Firbank as his mentor, I think, and while the names of the characters would not shame the creator of Miss Miami Mouth—Halcyon Paranoy, the Countess Madge O'Meaghre Gautier, Achille Plonque—the characters themselves often turn out to be a lot less interesting than they sound. The prose is mannered to a fare-thee-well, yet it doesn't often have the Master's other-worldly wit or his lunatic genius for skewered syntax. And, sad to say, there's something warmed-over about the ecclesiastical and witchcraft foolery. But Mawrdew Czgowchwz is all style and assurance when it cleaves to its subject. It's also nice to see someone paying such tender homage to Gotham, the City, without which there would be no temple and no rites, no gods, no worshippers. The poor old girl hasn't had a song like this sung about her for a long time. (pp. 26-8)

James Boatwright, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 8, 1975.