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COVER REVIEW

The Queen's Throat

MAWRDEW CZGOWCHWZ: A Novel, By James McCourt, New York Review Books: 210 pp., $12.95 paper

July 07, 2002|PATRICK GILES | Patrick Giles is associate editor of Interview magazine.

To answer your first question: It's pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous." Next answer: It's the name of the heroine of this novel, first published in 1975, set in a kingdom of creativity, style, high standards and pleasure called Greater New York. Into that exciting and self-involved late '40s metropolis descends a goddess, a near-unknown Czech singer discovered by seven local opera fanatics. She makes back-to-back debuts at Carnegie Hall and the old Metropolitan Opera House, revealing a voice so large and magnificent it converts her last name from a tongue-twister to a self-description. Once Mawrdew Czgowchwz sings, the town, its new diva--and American fiction itself--are never again the same.

If, as Vladimir Nabokov once instructed his Cornell undergraduates, great writers are great enchanters, then James McCourt, in his first work, waved his pen to produce a place for himself among the major American writers of our day. Enchantment is the modus operandi of "Mawrdew Czgowchwz": action, characters, diction and tone whisk the reader into a state of blissful, jaw-dropping belief.

On page four of this long-awaited republication, the Times announces the return of the "falcon contralto" to the Metropolitan after a feud with its management and "in the wake of a hunger strike in which several thousand of her admirers had participated, and which resulted in a two-week sit-down demonstration in front of the opera house." This blithe gunning into imaginative overdrive occasions the first delighted reader gasp; that certified Times old-gray-ladyness in the face of the marvelous establishes that McCourt creates from a conviction, accomplishment and sense of humor far above most other writers. (The "Continued on Page 37, Column 1" a few lines later confirms suspicions.)

McCourt's story grows steadily and with flawless virtuosity; it also gets crowded (its 210 pages have as many characters--each and every one superbly named--as Dickens at his lengthiest). We follow Czgowchwz as her talent subjugates any and every music written for the female voice. But as another legendary legend, Elaine Stritch, affirmed on "60 Minutes" recently, talent also gets you into a lot of trouble: The whole middle of "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" details the treachery of envious conspirators out to get this supremely gifted artist. The inadvertent result--Czgowchwz is rescued into another, more glorious phase of personal and creative luminescence--is another of McCourt's flawlessly aimed and timed wand-strokes.

Alert fiction lovers might already be asking: How come I've never heard of this book, let alone read it or pretended to have read it? The obvious answer is the one offered by glib "Czgowchwz" readers when quizzed as to its subject: "It's about opera." American literature, which takes its tragic power awfully seriously, and opera, an equally tragic yet heedlessly extravagant and gregarious form, seldom fit each other. (And the latter is even less familiar to Americans than the former.) A first flip through "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" might create the impression it's merely an insider pleasure. It can facilitate enjoyment to know, for example, that the title character's initials match not only the first two letters of her author's last name (and almost those of Miliza Korjus, the soprano featured in the 1938 MGM film "The Great Waltz," who partially inspired the author) but also those of the real-life prima donna of this novel's golden age, Maria Callas. (The story literally sails off into the sunset right before Callas' 1956 New York debut.) It will delight the operatically challenged to discover that the novel's "Lois the switchboard girl" is not a McCourt invention and that, half a century after his story concluded, the real-life Lois still attends nearly every Met performance (a moving besting of fantasy by reality).

But this isn't really so much a novel about opera as it is a grand masque celebrating the harmony possible between art and life and the redemptive potential for greatness in both. It's through the fervor of her art that Czgowchwz ultimately wins "a life as distinct from a career." In McCourt's Gotham, life is not only enriched by art (to say nothing of gossip, which slithers through these pages like a happy snake in Eden), it is overtaken by it--and made as splendid and remarkable as we all hope life will someday be. Even his city's rare cultural lulls ("All in all it was all ... less. There were complaints in columns") are suddenly grazed by the fantastic ("The Pope saw Christ come and go").

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