This is intended to be the beginning of a new series for the group: Literary LGBT History. We'll analyze books and writers in a discovery/recovery effort. This first diary presents the work of the (perhaps) cult writer James McCourt.
Why? We all know that fiction is one of the best sources for historical research (if you've ever read Sister Carrie, you know that the first 70 pages are a social history of life for working women in Chicago, circa 1900). Memoirs are helpful too, even if they masquerade as fiction, and even if people sometimes bend the truth (if it's disguised as fiction, it's not lying). This writer has nothing to lie about, and a memory like the proverbial steel trap. He also knows stuff, and he knows how to tell a story.
About the author:
From The East Hampton Star, we learn that McCourt was born July 4 1941 in Flushing Hospital. He grew up in Jackson Heights near the #7 IRT line, and went to Catholic schools. He graduated from Manhattan College in 1962. He then earned an M.A. at New York University and went on to study acting at Yale Drama School.
From his partner, the photo editor Vincent Verga:
After Lindenhurst High School, I went to St. Bonaventure University, and then to Yale Graduate School where in 1964 I met my life-partner, the writer James McCourt who had a deep and abiding friendship with the musical genius Victoria de los Angeles. (Her love and her art became a cornerstone of our lives together.) Jimmy and I went to live in London for nearly 5 years before returning home to NYC for the publication of his story Mawrdew Czgowchwz and for the making of a life in the city of my dreams.From his literary agent:
James McCourt is the author of the MAWRDEW CZGOWCHWZ, as well as NOW YOYAGERS and QUEER STREET, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2003. He is also the author of three novels including TIME REMAINING, which Harold Bloom called one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. He has published two short story collections and his work has appeared in the Yale Review, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review.and from Dennis Cooper (of all people), who is a fan:
McCourt is that rarest of contemporary American authors -- a true iconoclast, a devoted high stylist, and a holder of the unfashionable opinion that prose is a natural extrovert and beauty that deserves the brightest polish, the best accessories, the most extravagant costumes. McCourt's work has been described as a marriage of Ronald Firbank's meticulous, delirious camp and Don DeLillo's maximalist historiography, which wouldn't be too wildly inaccurate if McCourt weren't a whole lot more mischevious and uninhibited than DeLillo.The opus:
FictionAs for "chronicler of gay New York," yes, the dates put his work as a kind of sequel to George Chauncey's book. McCourt's project, however, is vastly different. We know there were gay people in the big port cities after World War II, so they didn't have to be discovered or uncovered. McCourt is chronicling a specific type of gay life, the gay culture that has supposedly disappeared because we've become more assimilated: opera, cinema, "knowing" and sex wherever you found it (some people, like me, refer to this as the "Church of Cole Porter"). Something else that probably wouldn't come to mind for some of you. McCourt is eight years older than I am, but since he was 20 in 1961 and I was 20 in 1969, four months after Stonewall (which I'm just using as a point of reference), we might as well be from different generations.
Mawrdew Czgowchwz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975)
Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged” (stories) (Viking, 1985)
Time Remaining (stories) (Knopf, 1993)
Delancey's Way (Knopf, 2000)
Wayfaring at Waverly in Silverlake (stories) (Knopf, 2002)
Now Voyagers (Turtle Point Press, 2008)
Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (W.W. Norton, 2003)
So, the three essential books.
About Mawrdew Czgowchwz. The publisher (Random House) says:
Diva Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous") bursts like the most brilliant of comets onto the international opera scene, only to confront the deadly malice and black magic of her rivals. Outrageous and uproarious, flamboyant and serious as only the most perfect frivolity can be, James McCourt's entrancing send-up of the world of opera has been a cult classic for more than a quarter-century. This comic tribute to the love of art is a triumph of art and love by a contemporary American master.Well, yes. On one level, it's a retelling of the Maria Callas*-Renata Tebaldi "feud"
(the singers weren't feuding, their fans were, and in a precursor to the disco era, this was gay men vs. older Italian women), although there's a little of Victoria de los Angeles** in Mawdrew as well. It's also a memorial to the Old Met, which was located at Broadway and 39th Street from 1883 to October 1964, when it moved to the brand-new Lincoln Center.
(Historic American Buildings Survey, May 1966, VIEW FROM SOUTHEAST. - Metropolitan Opera House, 1423 Broadway, New York; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
But then, HOO-boy, this is an absolute tour-de-force. Church of Cole Porter? Unabashed opera queen is more like it. Parts of it had me in tears on the rereading. This is an essential book. So what if the last 30 pages don't work very well? Here's McCourt describing her Met debut as Violetta in La Traviata, as she negotiates the big aria at the end of the first act:
Bolting from the sofa, silencing the delirious applause at the end of the "Ah, forse e lui," she let out two "follie! that were "louder and wider than anything heard in Italian opera since Emmy Destinn" [Paranoy, next day in a broadside proclamation distributed everywhere] Shock waves hammered the listening throng. The Principessa Oriana Incantevole heard and fell to her knees in the Neri box raving of miracle cures. The three "gioire's" were each of them bigger than anyone's "hojotoho's." Disbelief, suspended, choked itself and dissolved.You get the point. Her debut as Isolde is even more dramatic.
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 is 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.”)Besides, any book that has voodoo spells and characters named Lavinia O'Maurigan Stein and Merovig Creplaczx . . . VERY worth reading, and not just to prepare you for the rest of his work.
Time Remaining, which is composed of two stories (actually, a short story - "I go back to the Mais Oui" -- and a novella -- "Time Remaining [A Chance to Talk]"), is McCourt's AIDS novel (it's a memorial to the poet James Schuyler), and here it gets even more complicated because he's discussing men who are are between 10 and 20 years older than he is, his "mothers," as the older generation would have it. The pronouns may get confusing in this section. The first time I read this, almost twenty years ago. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the power of the book, and I was absolutely sure I would assign at least the first story if I ever got the chance. If you want the material you might get from an oral history of gay New York between 1955 and Stonewall told by a very garrulous gay man, this will do it, but you really need to read Mawrdew Czgowchwz first.
"I go back to the Mais Oui" (and I'm not even sure which bar or performance space this refers to) introduces us to Delancey, a performance artist, remembering most of the characters from Mawrdew Czgowchwz and some of a group of drag queens who called themselves the "Eleven Against Heaven," and a soiree musicale at a big house in East Hampton in 1956 that is interrupted by the news that the painter Jackson Pollock had been killed in an automobile accident nearby. Also a trip to the eastern Mediterranean and a summer in Cherry Grove. Allusions, and allusions, and allusions, and maybe I'll write a book about my life beginning with the reform school I was sent to as a teenager. An entr'acte, if you will, to the main event.
"Time Remaining" is the main event, an interrupted monologue by Odette/Danny O'Doyle, another surviving member of the "Eleven Against Heaven," who has just returned form a grand tour of Europe, undertaken to dispose of the cremated ashes of eight of them in exactly the way each man wanted his ashes disposed of. This monologue is conducted (with Delancey in attendance) on a night run on the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station to Montauk. The novella gets its power from the sheer weight of all the memories Detta is recounting, especially since it tells you what was possible after the war for one of the gay war veterans Allan Bérubé discusses in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.
Here, we get a sense that the old gay culture is becoming moribund because so many of our most interesting people have succumbed to AIDS, which is probably true. Ayn Rand and the spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess appear in this section, as do complaints about gay Republicans and ACT UP (here called ACT/OUT):
What if I agreed not to put down ACT/OUT if they would agree to stop calling me and my kind retro masochistic self-loathing detritus of the bad old days? History is written by the winners, dear, and in this case by the survivors -- a history that contains all the abreactions, all the compensations for disallowing the complicated feelings of the actual losers, the dead?Mostly gay New York, but also gay London and gay Paris and gay Milan and gay Venice and gay Vienna and Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Read, read, read!
And then there's Queer Street, which might as well be labeled "cultural literacy for the young queen" because it is a compendium of what the socially ambitious young man in New York needed to know and be conversant with to be (accepted? welcomed?) by his older peers. Turns out George Chauncey reads the book that way too. McCourt has called this "the back story to Time Remaining.
The first time I looked at it, in bookstores, it appeared to be one bon mot after another. The second time, I thought it was simply McCourt doing a data dump of all his unpublished notebooks. This time, while I think the book definitely needed an editor, I found that there are parts of it that constitute required reading if you want to know what gay New York was like in the 1960s and into the 1970s. And the good part is that it's all true.
As Chauncey writes,
Gay men who knew the 1950's and 60's will find in this book a nostalgic compendium of names of long-forgotten bars, bathhouses and subway ''tearooms'' (public restrooms), novels and novelists, Warhol superstars and pornography superstuds. But those born after 1950 may find many of Mr. McCourt's references so allusive as to be elusive, since they often appear in lists without explication or description.I'm on the time border here. I know (and have been to) some of the places he's talking about, but nowhere near all of them. I experienced some of the compendium in the 70's: Uncle Charlie's (uptown, downtown, the restaurant), Julius, the 55th Street Playhouse, the Adonis. I can't (or is it "won't) tell you how much I learned at the Everard Baths, and yes, I have memories of the Continental, the Club and (especially) the St. Mark's.
Some of the topics that McCourt explains in depth: Bette Davis, "All About Eve," Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp [Gay liberation, above all, really endangered high camp], "Vertigo," The Astor Bar, City of Night, stardom, Luchino Visconti, Douglas Sirk, Joe Ackerly, Ronald Firbank, the poets James Schuyler and James Merrill, Larry Kramer and Gay Men's Health Crisis, (the transgressive) Mae West, Joe Gage, and, of course, Thuh Opra (with a ten-page discussion of "diva" by an avid student of the subject). At the risk of being too didactic here, that list as it is significant to gay life is essential knowledge, so off to the google with you for the items you don't recognize.
I could blockquote you into oblivion from this book, but I won't. However, when I say "true," I mean
Old Queer Fuck on the Park Bench:
"I hate to be a pill . . . but the facts are these: it was neither Larry Kramer's hysterics, the courageous reporting of the New York Native, Everett Koop's blinding-hot moral flash or anything less that turned the tide of AIDS recognition in America and of AIDS research funding by the American government. It was nothing less or other than Ronald Reagan's sentimental -- goddamnit -- feelings for a fellow guy he just happened to like a whole hell of a lot from their Hollywood days, a guy called Rock Hudson who came down with the goddamn thing. And if you don't think them's the facts, go look them up.
Of course, there's also this:
Visiting Los Angeles, time and time again . . . purpose: to get it all down -- the mystery, the mutability, the enveloping allure of this force field antipodal to New York, and always reforming the idea of it as the birthplace of that reactive and ultimately benighted twentieth-century homosexual hypothesis, Gay Liberation.Well, okay. The fact is that there is a New York vs anywhere else dynamic, especially in gay life. In Queer Street you get the impression that Gay Liberation caused a rupture in the lives of McCourt and his circle. From my vantage point, whatever.
Yes, it needs an editor. So read it in pieces! Beside, there's a reference to Walter Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction!" Queer Street is erudite on a subject that isn't always covered with erudition, and it doesn't neglect the idea of sex altogether. And you don't have to wander through a forest of footnotes.
Three significant books by a writer you may not have heard of. Enjoy the discovery, and marvel at the representation of (at least) pre-Stonewall New York by a man who can turn a phrase.
For further familiarization:
*Maria Callas, "Vissi d'Arte," Puccini, Tosca:
**Victoria de los Angeles (McCourt's muse), "Jewel Song," Gounod, Faust:
(I wanted her live, but the performance details for this were just too significant; from the Met, and Pierre Monteux conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in May 1913 in Paris.)
Okay, so I'm an opera queen of sorts too (yes, I saw Eileen Farrell in La Forza del Destino in Boston courtesy of the Met tour). It used to come with the territory!
4:20 PM PT: Thanks, DKOMA and JTown!