Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reading List: Literary Fantasias

I read Mawrdew Czgowchwz on a beach, and chuckled through it happily. It's a linguistically exuberant, insouciantly implausible fable in which the outsider is insider, love conquers all, and everyone's operatic dreams come true. McCourt creates a fantastical version of New York City in which everyone's identity is defined by their connection to opera; those of the city's denizens who are oblivious to the art remain gray, undifferentiated masses, but sympathetic policemen can be relied upon to respond to the irresistible strains of Puccini. The book is so packed with references to and literary riffs on "opera culture" (the sorts of audience members, conductors, and singers one seems to find in all times and in all places) that I am quite positive that I missed some (possibly many) of McCourt's metatextual gestures. I still enjoyed, however, the cast of characters that included a strawberry-ice-cream-eating warlock, a mysterious cook, and a certain Countess Verdi-Dov’è.

The plot, meanwhile, celebrates its own impossibility. The heroine of the title (whose last name is pronounced "gorgeous," a device extensively played upon) is a diva who creates her own fach and sings everything from Ulrica to Isolde. "For all that is bewitching in the idea," to borrow a phrase from Elinor Dashwood, I found that locating so many fantasies of opera-goers in this one figure, ultimately undermined the wish-fulfillment pleasures I got out of reading it. Her supporters and intimates are the "Secret Seven" who first discover her voice, and become her ardent champions in a situation of rival divas which echoes history but ascribes to the singers' partisans the dedication of political radicals. And this politicization is typical of the book's Weltanschauung, as it were: opera is not only art, but also politics, religion, even sex. McCourt gleefully raises, and even seems to controversially answer, numerous questions about what makes opera, its artists, and its audiences what they are. But the book remains resolutely ludic. The verbal fireworks of Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica, while equally high-spirited, treat their subject more seriously, and for my taste, more satisfactorily.

I actually bought this book instead of getting it from the library, and I'm glad I did. The poems beg to be savored, as Dove finds an extraordinary variety of voices for her characters and situations. The narrative they tell is compelling, and haunting: the history of George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a child prodigy whose performances on the violin were praised in the assembly rooms of Europe, and whom Haydn took under his wing. Bridgetower was still a young man when made the dedicatee of what is now known as Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. Then what happened? There was a falling out, over a woman, and the dedication was wrathfully expunged. Bridgetower's career waned, and he ended his days in obscurity. And? And Dove takes the reader on a breathtaking journey through the salons and bedrooms, seaside promenades and crowded streets, palaces and theaters of Europe of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The reader follows Bridgetower's career from Hungary to England to Vienna through France and Italy to Poland and back to England. Music history, art history, social history, gender history are all there, scrupulously researched and distilled into precise, provocative poetry. And, not least, there is the history of race as identity and construct. How did eighteenth-century Europe's opinions on exotic Others shape the experiences of Bridgetower and his audiences? There are, of course, many imaginative leaps to be made in filling out forgotten history, but I was very impressed with how Dove used intertwining narratives to comment on each other. The collection would be worthwhile, I think, for the poems on the creation of music alone. The histories Dove tells, or constructs, are tragic ones; but it's a gorgeous book, and glorious in its affirmation of the power of music to transcend tragedy.


  1. I've been wondering about Mawrdew Czgowchwz...

  2. @DTO It is self-mocking as well as self-indulgent, but the indulgence in artifice got on my nerves a bit. And there's a romance which I found disappointing (I thought it chose to be sentimental rather than exploring the interesting issues it raised, or could have done.) Still, some fun ideas and fun prose.

  3. These both sound like interesting reads. The first one sounds to me a bit like Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series, in which books are the be all and end all of life itself. I'll have to see if I can get my hands on them both.

  4. @Christie Interesting comparison... it hadn't occurred to me, though I read the first two books in the "Thursday Next" series. The McCourt is fun, but the Dove comes highly recommended; though our dear Ludwig van B. doesn't behave very well, he's sympathetically/compassionately portrayed.


Start a conversation!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...