Memories and interviews

  Colum McCann - Do you want to save the changes you made to Nureyev?
 

The computer message had been coming up every day for six months but I still hadn’t paid proper attention to it. I’d been working on a novel that centered on the second half of the twentieth century, taking as its centrifugal force the life of Rudolph Nureyev. I was at that familiar point writers dread -- ready to throw everything away and begin something new. On my computer I had named the file “Nureyev.” One morning I finally paid attention to the message that had flashed up on the screen:

Do you want to save the changes you made to Nureyev?

Yes
No
Cancel

What a peculiar question. For months already, by fictionalising the life of Nureyev, I had been doing that very thing: saving the changes I had made to a life, or a series of lives. I waited a long time and stared at the screen and wondered. Did I really want to save the changes I made to Nureyev?



All writing has problems in the machinery of remembering, in particular biography and autobiography, which is concerned with what once was, but is being written by someone who now is. Many of us survive by our ability to forget rather than to remember. Even now I can’t remember exactly what it was lead me to confront the novel in the first place. I recall, or think I recall, feeling that, after writing a rather quiet portrait of Northern Ireland (“Everything in This Country Must”), I felt that I needed to spread the canvas wider. I wanted to roam international boundaries and step across a broad landscape, even if that landscape was unfamiliar territory.

In a New York bar one night a friend of mine, Jimmy, told me a story that cleaved open a whole new fictional world for me.
Jimmy grew up in Dublin, Ireland, in the working class neighbourhood of Ballymun. As a child in the early 1970’s he had witnessed his father coming home most nights, drunk, to beat his wife and kids. But one night Jimmy’s father came home sober, carrying a television set. The family set the tv up in the room but couldn’t get a reception. Frustrated, they began carrying it around the room. When the tv was in Jimmy’s arms the first image flickered across the screen – through the haze he saw Rudolph Nureyev dancing. He never forgot that moment. He never could forget that moment. And he fell in love with Nureyev, as so many of us have done down through the years.

Years later – in Brooklyn – Jimmy still talked about Rudolph, bought books about him, dreamed of making a film of his life. Much of his dream life spun around Rudi.
This fascinated me. How does a Russian ballet dancer penetrate the home of a working class Dublin kid? What is it about our world that can be so simultaneously enormous and tiny at the same time? How is it possible to tell these stories side by side? Who legislates how we choose to talk about our pasts? And who knows what echo our lives will find in the most unlikely places?

I began to read about Nureyev. His very first public dance was, it seemed, at the age of six for the soldiers home from the horrors of Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow. Twenty-four million Russians died in World War Two. The fact that it was a quickly dismissed “fact” seemed very strange to me. Surely the very nature of Nureyev’s first public dance – and every dance thereafter – was shaped by the historical enormity of such suffering? But if every moment is shaped by its preceeding moment – if everything we are is everything we once were – then how is it possible to tell a story at all?

The most valid story is the one that we cannot ignore.
Personally I could not ignore that, in reading about Nureyev, my imagination had been sent spinning in a dozen different directions. His was an amazing twentieth century life – born in terrible poverty, he struggled to leave his provincial upbringing, became a great dancer in the Soviet Union, defected in 1961, was hailed as a political icon, a sex symbol, an international mongrel. Here, in one man, were all the great themes of the second half of the 20th century – exile, fame, celebrity, sexuality, art.

I chose to try and tell the story of one extraordinary man through the stories of those whom we might consider to be ordinary: so that the normal “trivialities” of the world bump up against, and become, the large stories of the world. It seems to me that one of the tasks of the writer is to say that our lives really do matter. Even the small silences – when we look out a window, or open a newspaper, or brush an umbrella against the person next to us on the Metro – have a mystery and an importance, or at least the potential to be mysterious and important. Too many of us survive by our ability to forget rather than to remember … and this is where the imagination, or the story-teller, must try to rediscover who we are by talking about where we once were.

And what about all those side stories, those stories from Jimmy and others around the world?
For good or ill, I’ve always been interested in the outsider and so I wondered what might happen if Nureyev’s story was told through the eyes of soldiers, exiles, rentboys, housekeepers, masseurs and perhaps even a version of his own self-conscious, elusive voice. Hardly an original approach – the idea has been ploughed by writers like Dos Passos, Doctorow, DeLillo – and so I do not claim newness, but it did seem enticingly dangerous to me.

My problem? Well, there were many. For one, I knew nothing about ballet. And secondly, I’d never even been to Russia. And thirdly, I was never sure if I could capture all those voices and if Rudolph Nureyev would emerge unscathed from what was, essentially, a scaffold of lies.
In this prism where we attempt to simplify life we suddenly realise that nothing is simple, not even simplification.
All writing is, in some ways, an act of arrogance – the simple notion that someone might want to listen to what we have to say often makes me feel elusive and embarrassed, but more often fires my spirit. Out of this arrogance I believe it’s a writer’s duty to create something that attempts a certain selflessness.
It became a long and arduous journey. It took almost four years. I gave it up on numerous occasions only for it to rebound and inhabit me once more. I grew sick of hearing Nureyev stories. I tired of reading about him. At one time in Saint Petersburg I ended up dancing onstage in the Kirov to the unbridled laughter of half a dozen ballerinas and a stupefied caretaker. I also ended up singing with Russian Mafioso in an Irish bar. And I met one of my characters in a graveyard. But that, as they say, is another story for yet another day.
I changed Nureyev, yes. But in some strange way it seems that I got at him also, or at least got at portions of his spirit. I don’t know if we can ever fully make a portrait of a human being, or the human heart with all its chambers. But Michel Canesi, Rudolph’s doctor, as good as broke my own heart when he told me that the novel was a good a tribute as anyone can possibly imagine to the memory of Rudi. I thank him for that. We all make our tributes in whatever way we can. We all dance. And we all want to continue to dance.
In the end, yes, I accepted the changes I made to Nureyev. I did not do so without trepidation. I am not a dancer, nor will I ever be. But I have been lucky enough to dance, albeit in the imaginative sphere. It takes a lot of volume to fill a life. That we fail in telling our stories, or the stories of others, is not the point – the fact that we try is sometimes enough.



Dancer, Colum McCann, 2003,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London