McCourt, James

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McCourt, James 1941–

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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...

(The entire section contains 1503 words.)

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