Colum McCann


Life
1965- ; b. 24 Feb. 1965, in Dublin, and brought up in Deansgrange, Co. Dublin; son of Sean McCann, a journalist (Features Ed. with Irish Press) and writer on Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan; ed. St Brigid's National School, Foxrock, and Clonkeen College, Deansgrange; grad. Rathmines College of Commerce (journalism); wrote first piece as interview in Ballymun tower block, winning Journalist of the Year Award for series on battered women in Dublin; briefly worked on Connaught Telegraph (Mayo); grad. Rathmines, 1984; summer trip to New York (aetat. 19), where he found work with Universal Press Syndicate - teaboy and reporter; returned to Dublin and worked journalist; secured a column in Evening Press;
 
left Ireland, 1986 for a trip to Cape Cod (Massechussetts), and stayed on [aetat. 21]; bought a typewriter in Cape Cod and took off to travel through in America by bicycle for 2 years, from Massachusetts to San Francisco via Texas and New Mexico (‘the magic of being lost, of shucking the past’), covering 12,000 miles and thirty states, living rough and working at casual jobs en route; narrowly escaped death at hands of Indian ex-prisoner in California; worked with delinquents in Texas at Miracle Farm nr. Brenham - with close friend Terry Cooper; commenced BA at Texas University, 1988; won the Hennessy Award, 1990, though unable to afford the trip from Texas to receive it; worked in Texas Showdown Saloon on Guadalope St. and commenced Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994);
 
met Allison Hawke on a short trip to New York, 1990, and married her, 20 June 1992 (with whom three children - Isabella, John Michael and Christian), travelling with er to Japan, where she was studying Japanese, 1992; returned to New York, 1994; issued Fishing the Sloe Black River (1994), stories, which took the 1994 Rooney Prize and was later filmed by Brendan Bourke (son of PJ Bourke; d. 2013), 1995, a stage-adaptation of two stories as monologues also being made by Colm Murphy of the UCD Dram. Soc. (Dec. 1995); issued Songsdogs (Phoenix 1995), his first novel, later adapted to screen; issued This Side of Brightness (1998), a novel, is the saga of Nathan Walker and family in New York 1916, long-listed for the Booker-Man Prize and nominated for the IMPAC Award (Dublin); issued Everything in This Country Must (2000), short stories dealing obliquely with the N. Ireland Troubles, shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize;
 
winner of inaugural Princess Grace Memorial Prize of the Ireland Fund of Monaco, October 2002; Dancer (2003), based on the life of the Russian ballet-dancer Rudi Nureyev; divides time between Dublin & New York where he lives with his wife Alison and three children incl. a dg. (b.1998); his father-in-law was among those to escape Twin Towers in 9/11; read at Listowel Writers’ Weekend, 2004; contrib. intro. to Hennessy Book of New Irish Fiction (2006); issued Zoli (2006), the life of a Romany woman who learns to write and is exiled by her community when her poems are published and celebrated by a wider audience;
 
issued Let the Great World Spin (2009), an “9/11 allegory” - acc. to himself - exploring the lives of eight New Yorkers and set on 7 August 1974, the day of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers [NY Trade Centre]; reached New York Best-seller list and selected for American National Book Award, Nov. 2009; appt. Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government (Autumn 2009); currently teaches creative writer at Hunter College, NY, with Peter Carey and Nathan Englander; has contrib. to the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and GQ; appeared at Cheltanham Literature Festival with Colm Tóibín;
 
winner of US National Book Award, and International Impac Dublin Literary Award, 2011; issued new story, Bone, on the online website; suffered facial injuries in an assault in New Haven while attending a conference on empathy at Harvard, July 2014; ‘hosted’ Bloomsday celebrations with extracts and address on Ulysses, 2-5pm at 58 Stone St. NY, 16 June 2015; leading speaker at “Black Irish Identities: A Symposium” (19 Sept. 2015), introduced by John Waters; McCann has introduced Dubliners in the new Penguin edition.
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Colum McCann
Colum McCann

See Colum McCann website - online.
Works
Short Fiction
  • Fishing the Sloe-Black River (London: Phoenix House/Orion 1994), 192pp. [title story et al. incl. “Round the Bend and Back Again”; “Breakfast for Enrique” [about AIDS in NY]; “Along the Riverall”; “Cathal”s Lake” [swans as counter-image of Northern Ireland]; “Sisters” [Brigid and Sheona; anorexia; nationalism; sexual abuse];
  • “The Year of the Green Pigeons”, Irish Times, Weekend (23 Dec. 1995), p.6. [‘a seasonal short story’];
  • Everything in This Country Must (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2000), 160pp. [Phoenix pb. rep. 2000].
Novels
  • Songdogs (London: Phoenix 1995), 212pp.;
  • This Side of Brightness (London: Phoenix House; NY: Metropolitan Books 1998), 248pp.;
  • The Dancer (London; Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2003), 292pp.;
  • Zoli (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2006), 352pp.;
  • Let the Great World Spin (London: Bloomsbury 2009), 350pp.
Drama
  • Slanesman, a mini-play for Crow St. Theatre, in The Irish Times (8 March 2013) - online.
Miscellaneous
  • Intro., Benedict Kiely, Collected Short Stories (2001). Also, BBC3 broadcast, 3 April 2004.;
  • ‘Waking up to a country I do not understand’, in The Irish Times, Weekend (6 Nov. 2004), p.1 [see extract];
  • Dermot Bolger & Ciarán Carty, eds., The Hennessy Book of New Irish Writing, intro. by Colm McCann (Dublin: New Island Press 2006);
  • ‘The World is Sometimes Too Full for Us’, in The Irish Book Review (Summer 2006), pp.20-21 [see extract].
    [...]
  • ‘The Home Place: Coming Home’, in The Irish Times (28 Sept. 2013) [q.p.; see extract].

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Criticism
Major studies
  • Susan Cahill & Eóin Flannery, eds, This Side of Brightness: Essays on the Fiction of Colum McCann (Oxford: [OUP] 2010) [q.p.; forthcoming in Jan. 2010];
  • Eóin Flannery, Colum McCann: The Aesthetics of Redemption (Dublin: IAP 2011), 272pp.
Sundry articles
  • Maureen Murphy, ‘New Opportunities for New Irish’, in The Irish Review (Winter 1991/1992);
  • Mary Morrissey, ‘Fictional Voices that Strike Home’, Irish Times (28 May 1994), p.8;
  • John Dunne, [omnibus review], review of Fishing the Sloe-Black River in Books Ireland (Sept. 1994), p.201 [extract];
  • John Dunne, ‘Ancestry of Act’, review of Songdogs, in Books Ireland (Oct. 1995), p.244 [extract];
  • [Shirley Kelly,] ‘The Moral Complexity of Life in the North’ [interview], in Books Ireland (Summer 2000), pp.165-66 [extract];
  • Desmond Traynor, review of Everything in this Country Must, in Books Ireland (Summer 2000), [extract];
  • John Kenny, review of Everything in This Country Must, in The Irish Times [Weekend], 9 April 2000, p.11 [extract];
  • Michael Kerrigan, review of Colum McCann, Everything in this Country Must (Phoenix 2000), 143pp. in Times Literary Supplement (2 June 2000), p.11 [extract];
  • Eve Patten, review of Colum McCann, Dancer , in The Irish Time (8 Feb. 2003 ), “Weekend” [extract];
  • Maureen Boyle, ‘Fiction Isn’t Lies; Memoir isn’t Truth’, review of The Dancer [with works by Nuala O’Faolain & Kate Moss], in Fortnight [Belfast] (May 2003), p.16-17; espec. p.17 [extract];
  • Shirley Kelly, ‘The Tormented Dancer’ [interview], in Books Ireland (Feb. 2003) [extract];
  • Eve Patten, ‘The politics of literacy’, review of Colm McCann, Zoli, in The Irish Times (23 Sept. 2006), Weekend [extract];
  • Eóin Flannery, ‘Terrorised Youths: Colum McCann’s Short Fiction - Fishing the Sloe-Black River and Everything in This Country Must’, in Essays on Modern Irish Literature, ed. John Strachan & Alison Younger (Sunderland UP 2007), pp.169-83;
  • Eóin Flannery, ‘Troubling Bodies: Suffering, Resistance and Hope in Colum McCann’s “Troubles” Short Fiction’, in in The Irish Review, Nos. 40-41, ed. Aaron Kelly [Cork UP] (Winter 2009), q.pp.;
  • Susan Cahill, ‘Corporeal Architecture: Body and City in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness’, in Etudes Irlandaises, 32, 1 (2007), pp.43-58.
  • Eamonn Wall, ‘Winds Blowing from a Million Directions: Colum McCann’s Songdogs’, New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora, ed Charles Fanning ed. (Illinois UP 2000), pp.281-88.
  • Susan Cahill, ‘Corporeal Genealogies: Colum McCann’s Songdogs and This Side of Brightness’, in Irish Literature in the Celtic Tiger Years 1990 to 2008: Gender, Bodies, Memory [Continuum Literary Studies] (London: T & T Clark 2013) [Chap. 4].
  • John McCourt, ‘Eastern European Images in the Irish Novel from Charles Lever to Colum McCann’, in Ireland, West to East: Irish Cultural Interactions with Central and Eastern Europe, ed. ed. Aidan O’Malley & Eve Patten (Oxford, Bern & NY: Peter Lang 2014), pp.227-40.

See also Alastair Macaulay, review of Royal Opera House “Tribute to Nureyev” (TLS, 9 May 2003) [as extract].


There is a Colum McCann webpage at www.colummccann.com - incorporating biography, photo-portraits, notices, and interviews.
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Commentary
John Dunne
, [omnibus review], review of Fishing the Sloe-Black River in Books Ireland (Sept. 1994), p.201; ‘in beating about the bush; the best collection I’ve read in the last few years’.

How Irish Times  reviewers greeted McCann’s novels (to 2006)
  Zoli  (2006)
 
“Zoli is too much of an abstract, drawn to represent the plight of an ethnic constituency ...

In the end, the “researched’ quality of the narrative undermines its intimacy, while the breakneck attempt at cradle-to-grave inclusiveness comes at the expense of chronological clarity and imaginative depth.

Despite its over-reaching, however, there is a great warmth in the novel, sparked by the authors genuine sense of commitment to this woman in her actual and fictional forms.”
  Dancer  (2003)
 
“Expansive and engaging, these individual tales showcase McCanns skilful development of interiority, and display too his well-honed prose – clean now of the verbal jewellery which sometimes threatened to overload his early short stories, but still registering the range and inventiveness which brought him to attention as a writer.”
  This Side of Brightness  (1998)
 
“Colum McCann has never been afraid to take risks, and they have richly paid off here. “This Side of Brightness is a commanding, intricate, achieved novel which is as much about the rise and fall of the urban experience, as it is about the life and times of Nathan Walker.”

  Songdogs  (1996)
 
“McCann writes convincingly about both his milieux, and his descriptive, intensely lyrical style is so seductive you almost miss the strangeness of his vision – but dont on any account miss the portrait of the relationship between elderly father and grown-up son.”
 

John Dunne, ‘Ancestry of Act’, review of Songdogs, in Books Ireland (Oct. 1995), p.244; a tracing of the life of a father who drifts to Spanish Civil War, then Mexico and America as a photographer, ending up in Mayo as cantankerous old man; ‘songdogs’ of title refers to songs of coyotes that created with world in Navajo myth; also a mother; set in notes comparability - even influence of - Desmond Hogan’s fiction, esp. Curious Street.

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[Shirley Kelly,] ‘The Moral Complexity of Life in the North’, interview with Colum McCann in Books Ireland (Summer 2000): McCann says of This Side of Brightness that ‘it was sparked off by a story I heard at a party about a how one of the construction workers was filled when he was sucked through a hole in a tunnel. I started to go down into the tunnels and discovered all these people living there. I made friends with a couple of them and I still go down there now and then.’ (p.165). On his new collection: ‘It’s strange. You never initially know why certain voices or certain textures appear in your work. Sometimes it’s better not to be too acutely conscious. It’s only afterwards, when the stories are written, finished, that you have to take a sort of intellectual stock. [...] I work in a sort of emotional blizzard. Nothing is mapped out and I try to move forward, sometimes blindly.’ Further, discusses the use of the ‘voices of children’ in the novella “Hunger Strike” dealing with a young boy who flees to Galway with his mother as his uncle succombs in the Strike. Note also, Desmond Traynor, reviewing Everything in this Country Must, remarks that McCann’s story “As If There Were Trees” appeared in the Shenanigans anthology. (pp.165-66.)

Desmond Traynor, review of McCann, Everything in this Country Must (2000), remarks that his story ‘As if there were trees’ appeared in Shenanigans anthology. (Books Ireland, Summer 2000, q.p.)

John Kenny, review of Colum McCann, Everything in This Country Must (Phoenix House 2000), in The Irish Times [Weekend], 9 April 2000, notes ‘his emergent style of terseness and ascetic lyricism’ in This Side of Brightness (1998); new collection displays an intensification of the formal rigour evident in even his first stories’; contains two short stories of equal length and a novella of 100 pages focused on contemporary society and polics in Northern Ireland; in “Wood”, a young son and wife of stroke-striken and sceptical Presbyterian prepare marching poles for local Orange lodge; notes flawless appositeness of McCann’s style as mouthpiece of child narrator in shorter pieces; in title story, Katie relates how her mother and brother were killed and how the resentful father would prefer a horse to drown than to be saved by British soldiers; “Hunger Strike”, novella, deals with new Galway life of young boy and widowed mother as his uncles starves [in Long Kesh]; reviewer criticises intermittently falsity of political references (‘he thought to himself that he was a boy of two countries’); remarks ill-advised conclusion to Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983); further quotes, ‘Daddy says he’s as good a Presbyterian as the next, always has been and always will, but it’s just meanness that celebrates other people dying.’; calls Eugene McCabe the non-pareil in this area; remarks that McCann ‘gives primacy to to the private human moment and avoid the denaturalistions of news-bulletin politics’; compares the writer’s aesthetic with McGahern’s insistence on showing not simply telling; ‘fine cadences and a robust topicality’, ‘his increasing success in splicing aesthetic seriousness with the social concern allows an unusual volume a density beyond its physical slightness [End].’ (The Irish Times, 9.4.2000 [Weekend], p.11; incl. photo-port in South-side centre-city Arcade.)

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Michael Kerrigan, review of Colum McCann, Everything in this Country Must (Phoenix 2000), 143pp. in Times Literary Supplement, 2 June, 2000, p.11. Remarks, ‘If the subtitle of this book has the ring of the sort of penance hande dout at ‘Confession, that I siony fitting in a work characterised more by piety than challenging insight or liteary inter4est. Solumn Stations of the Cross, these stories commemorate Northern Ireland’s sufferings without illuminating them. Notes that closing lines from Paul Muldoon’s “Dancers at the Moy” supply epigraph for collection as a whole and finds their substance echoed in the title story of the carthorse; “Wood”, family sawmill, poles for Orange march. Further remarks, ‘The jarring details of rural poverty remind us that McdCann is a writer of great flair. His use again of a naïve, youthful narrator does, however, cause one to wonder if he isn’t, both morally and aesthetically, coasting here. Three decades since the Troubles started, can this sort of wide-eyed dismay really be an adequate response?’ Kerrigan concludes: ‘Oh for a bit of Muldoonian mischief’! For all McCann’s undoubted talent, these stories are as decorous as a genuflection; his robust non serviam would have served us all far better.’

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Maureen Boyle, ‘Fiction Isn’t Lies; Memoir isn’t Truth’, review of The Dancer [with works by Nuala O’Faolain and Kate Moss], in Fortnight [Belfast] (May 2003): ‘[W]e learn about Nureyev more through his effect on the lives of those around him. The novel is written [in] narrative as a kind of relay where the baton of the story is passed from person to person as they become central to hsi life: from the first war-weary soldiers to whom he is a small blond child who dances near ther beds; to his first ballet teacher who says of him that “[he] was somehow born within dance, that he was unlettered in it, yet he knew it intimately, it was a grammar for him, deep and untutored”; to Tom Ashworth, the little Englishman[,] who lives in a London boarding house and makes shoes for Fonteyn and then for Rudi when he arrives in the West.’ Considers that the novel captures Nureyev’s loneliness and how much was lost in the move to the West, an aspect of the story lost in the Cold War propaganda of the time; quotes McCann’s admission to ‘condensing two or more historical figures into one or distributing the traits of one person over two or more chracters’, and his direction to read the best biographies to find out what is ‘true’ of Nureyev. (p.17.) Quotes passage on Ashworth, shoe-maker to the London ballet: ‘and just by sketches alone he intuits the life of this foot [Nureyev’s], raised in barefoot poverty and - from the unusual wideness of the bone structure - barefoot on concrete rather than grass, then squeezed into shoes that where too small, coming to dance later than usual given the smallness yet breadth of the foot, 7 EEE, then a great violence done by excessive training, all hard angles but a remarkable strength. [...]’ (quoted in Maureen Boyle, ‘Fiction Isn’t Lies; Memoir isn’t Truth’, review of The Dancer with works by Nuala O’Faolain and Kate Moss, in Fortnight [Belfast], May 2003, p.17.)

Alastair Macaulay, ‘A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev / Royal Opera House’, in Times Literary Supplement (9 May 2003), p.18: ‘It is ten years since Rudolf Nureyev died. From St Petersburg to Toronto, there have been galas, film seasons, written and spoken tributes. (There has even been a Nureyev novel, Dancer, by Colum McCann, which comes closer to catching Nureyev’s essence than the first two posthumous biographies.) Doubtless the sheer spread and quality of these commemorations have somethin gto do with the fact that there are two wealthy Nureyev foundations. Still, his place in history is secure. [...]’.

Shirley Kelly, ‘The Tormented Dancer’ [interview with Colm McCann], in Books Ireland (Feb. 2003): McCann gives an account of the origins of his new novel [Dancer]: ‘I was looking for an international story and the book grew out of a conversation I had with a friend from Ballymun. He was telling me how his father used to come home drunk every night and beat his wife and children. It was in the early seventies and one night, when this guy was about seven, his father came home sober, carrying a television. They plugged it in and nothing happened and the father went ballistic again. But later that night Jimmy woke up and carried the television around the room to try and get a decent reception and the first thing he saw on the screen was Rudolph Nureyev dancing. And I thought it was extraordinary how a Russian ballet dancer could penetrate the consciousness of a seven-year-old working-class Dublin boy.’ Further, ‘I describe myself as an Irish writer, and my heart is still in Ireland to some extent. It’s home in the sense that my parents still live there and I return there four or five times a year, often enough not to get sentimental about it. But I’m a new Yorker too. This is such an international place that it’s hard to think of oneself as an exile. I’[m just one of millions of people that come from other places. The thing about New York is that you can come here and immediately become a New Yorker. You couldn’t come to Dublin, say, from anywhere else in the world and immediately, or ever, become a Dubliner.’ Asked would he be a writer if still living in Ireland: ‘I don’t think so. At least my writing would have developed differently. Living in a different place to where you grew up, I think you develop a heightened awareness. And I certainly push myself harder here. I’m not sure I would embrace difficulty to the same degree if I were at home.’ (p.9.)

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Eileen Battersby, ‘From the ballet stage to the page’, interview-article with Colum McCann, in The Irish Times ( 16 Jan. 2003 [Weekend]: ‘[... T]he novel is not really a book abou Nureyev, or rather “it is not an attempt to present the facts and figures of his life - we already know them”. Instead it is a fiction engaged with telling a story, the story of one man’s life, a contradictory, volatile individual who happens to be a famous Russian ballet star, and the impact that one life had on the lives of those who hovered in his wake. [...] Most importantly, though, it draws on what has become a recurring McCann theme, that notion of exile. It is also about alienation, the history of the 20th century as seen through the lives of the famous from different contexts, the arts, politics, society and how these worlds converge. “And I hope that this doesn’t sound pretentious, but it is also an attempt at a portrait of an artist. It’s not so much a book about Nureyev as the quest for the unknowable. He is all sorts of things. A dancer, a sex symbol,, a gay icon. But it is a book about storytelling and history and fiction.”’ Further quotes McCann: ‘It’s not a ballet book, it’s a novel.’

Eve Patten, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, review of Colum McCann, Dancer, in The Irish Times (8 Feb. 2003), Weekend: ‘[The] refusal to smooth out the awkwardness of Nureyev gives Dancer the same degree of emotional intelligence as Janice Galloway’s recent departure into bio-fiction, in her novel of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann. If he doesn’t exactly capture his subject’s life, McCann stages it perfectly and frames it from a series of unpredictable perspectives.’ Further: ‘The novel’s opening pages tell of how the frozen, broken bodies of Russian soldiers were bathed in welded metal vats when they returned from the front, an image recalled much later in the book in the erotic yet repellant description of Nureyev, naked, beautiful and vulnerable, immersing himself in a gay bath house in New York. Here, through McCann’s careful and understated compositional arrangement, the invisible patterns of history are suddenly illuminated. [...]’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

Eve Patten, ‘ The politics of literacy’, review of Colm McCann, Zoli, in The Irish Times (23 Sept. 2006), Weekend: ‘[...] Within this context, Zoli’s story is foremost an engagement with the politics of literacy. Like Papusza, she becomes a celebrated performer among her own people, but when her poems and songs fall into the hands of an English/Slovakian scholar, Stephen Swann, she finds herself exposed to a gadze world desperate to use her - to read her - as a symbol of authenticity and originality. In the camp, she hides books under her skirts, respectful of the Romani belief that print culture belongs to an outsider system of control and oppression. Yet in the city, she performs on stage and radio, visits bookshops and reads Mayakovsky, until her immersion in literature and strategic co-option by the communist ministry of culture leads to crisis. Caught in a cultural no-man’s land, she is a filter for the novel’s reconceptualisation of illiteracy and orality, authorship and knowledge. /But is Zoli more than a filter, a historical representative? [...]’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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Mike Peed, ‘Walking the Tightrope of Big City Life’, review of Let the Great World Spin, in The Washington Post (15 July 2009).‘As the narrator of Colum McCann’s new novel sees it, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers. “Those who saw him hushed,” McCann writes. “It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.” In “Let the Great World Spin,” Petit’s stunt acts as a centerline on which McCann hangs the stories of a dozen spiritually disheveled characters, each searching for an alcove of silence in a clamorous city. A recovering drug addict wonders if Petit, famed also for his juggling, can keep aloft the shards of her broken existence. [...] McCann can craft penetrating phrases - a smoker resembles “his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall” - but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. McCann relies on streams of short sentences that can seem lazy and distracted. “Pureness moving” describes a break-dancer 140 pages before the exact phrase is used again to describe Petit. Perhaps the repetition is deliberate, but, either way, the line doesn’t land a punch. By book’s end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.’ [For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.]

Niall MacMonagle, review of Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, in The Irish Times (29 Aug. 2009), Weekend: ‘[...] This Man on Wire, this Angel in Air is an otherworldly, thrilling, exciting, inspiring presence. US soldiers were returning from Vietnam, Nixon resigned on August 9th and McCann’s memorable phrase “Another day another dolor” rewrites the American dream. Petit’s astonishing achievement becomes a release and a contrast for characters with broken, troubled lives. / The novel begins in 1950s Sandymount, where Ciaran and John Corrigan spend their childhood, but swiftly moves to the South Bronx in the 1970s where the younger, now a monk and known by his surname, lives in a housing project among hookers and drives “a van for old folk in the local nursing home”. Tillie and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter, ply their trade and Corrigan’s apartment is open house: “the girls” use his bathroom – “it’s not much. Just a little gesture”. So far, so saintly. But in a world of fur-coated, neon swim-suited, high-heeled whores, Corrigan, a doer of good deeds, struggles with “the mess of myself”. Cut to the Upper East Side where affluent Claire Soderberg – this chapter is called “Miró, Miró on the Wall” – is one of a grieving group of mothers whose sons died in Vietnam. Cut to artists Blaine and Lara, Upstate cabin-dwellers who, having lived a hedonistic, arty life in New York, quit drugs and embraced rural simplicity. / It’s an ambitious and carefully mapped work. A fatal car crash allows for a gradual interweaving of lives in a neatly jigsawed plot.’ [...; for longer extract, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or as attached.]

Rosita Boland, ‘Tracing what’s left after the dust settles’, interview with Colum McCann, in The Irish Times (22 Aug. 2009), Weekend: ‘McCann sees his job as a novelist as being “to inhabit those little dusty corners that nobody else is necessarily going to value on the six o’clock news”. The characters in Let the Great World Spin who live in those neglected dusty corners include a hooker and her drug-addicted daughter, and a woman who has lost her sons to the Vietnam war. / There is also an Irish emigrant who is a St Francis-type character, giving away all his possessions and living in poverty in a South Bronx housing project. / “Hopefully the book will emotionally engage you on such a level that your world gets shifted sideways for a little moment and then you will look at things in a slightly different way,” McCann says. There is a coda at the end of the book, set in October 2006, where all the characters’ stories fuse together in varying ways. In 1974, the war the world was watching was in Vietnam. By 2006, global attention was on Iraq, in the final years of the Bush presidency. In the coda, there are moments of hard-won redemption for some of the characters. / “The last chapter is an Obama metaphor for me,” McCann says. “Things turned. The narrative turns. It’s open-ended.”’

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Tim Adams, review of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann , in The Observer (30 Aug. 2009): ‘[...] In some senses, this new novel knocked at his door. McCann, who grew up in Dublin, and who has lived across Europe and in Mexico, settled in Manhattan more than a decade ago. On the morning of 11 September, his father-in-law had been working on the 59th floor of the north tower, the first to be hit. He got out, staggered uptown to his daughter’s place, ash-covered. McCann has recalled elsewhere how his own daughter, then four, went to hug her grandfather, and then recoiled at the smell of burning – she thought he was on fire. / That instinct – of the proximity of calamity – is as close as McCann’s book gets to the facts of 9/11. Until a coda set in 2006, the lives he describes are all played out in 1974, in the shadow of Petit’s crossing. But it is a “Twin Towers” novel none the less and, moreover, one to bear comparison with the very best – Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Clare Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. / Petit’s feat is mirrored in the book in the life of Corrigan, an Irish emigre to the Bronx who looks for his equilibrium in the riskiest of places.’ [...; for longer extract, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.]

Kim Forrester, review of Let the World Spin, at Kimbofo (22 Nov. 2009): ‘[...] Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for Irish writers and stories set in New York, so I rather suspected that Let The Great World Spin would be right up my street, seeing as it ticked both boxes. But there was something about this book that didn’t gel with me and I’ve spent the best part of a week trying to figure it out. / I think the problem is not so much the scope and the huge canvas that McCann uses, nor the diversity of his characters - an Irish monk, a prostitute and an Upper Eastside housewife among them, all expertly drawn - but that the book reads very much like a collection of short stories strung together (pun not intended) by Petit’s high-wire act. Some of these stories interconnect, others, such as the very brief chapter about Fernando, a 13-year-old subway graffiti artist, do not. And, as ever with books of this type, there is a danger that the reader will like some characters better than others, so that certain chapters become more exciting, or more dull, than others, leading to an inconsistent read. / But I don’t want to sound too harsh, because there’s no doubt that McCann knows how to write beautifully, painting pictures in just a handful of words [...; for longer extract, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.]

The Irish Times (21 Nov. 2009): ‘Earlier this year in an interview in this newspaper Colum McCann expressed some disappointment at not being included in the long-list for the much-hyped Booker Prize. His recompense in receiving the National Book Award this week is not to be under estimated. Along with the Pulitzer, this award is regarded as America’s most eminent literary prize. McCann’s achievement in becoming the first Irish writer to win it places him alongside some of the iconic names of contemporary American fiction. / The judges noted McCann’s “lyrical gifts” which are abundantly displayed in Let The Great World Spin. This book, which has been described as “the first great 9/11 novel”, is not, only a showcase of the author’s finest writing to date, but also a remarkable triumph of storytelling and insight into the human spirit. An imaginative paean to his adopted city of New York, McCann’s interweaving of different lives and stories deserves all the plaudits and acclaim that this life-affirming novel has received. [...]’ (For longer extract, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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Eileen Battersby, ‘I decided to write the great Irish novel but couldn’t. I wasn’t messed-up enough’, interview-article, in The Irish Times (Thurs., 16 June 2011): ‘[...] Let The Great World Spin is an international, full-hearted and openly emotional novel that takes place largely in New York, and McCann agrees that the city is one of its major characters. He also agrees that, although he has lived there for so long (18 years), he still looks at it through the eyes of an emigrant. “I watch everything. An outsider always has an advantage.” / There are no answers in his novel. “I didn’t want to offer any, I think everything is open-ended. The events of 9/11 were shocking but you know, the New Yorkers are surprising. There was no anger, everyone was very calm. The most noticeable thing was in the stores, all the shelves where the eye wash stuff was usually kept were empty. The real reaction came later, in Iraq. That’s when we saw the anger.” / His response was very different from that of his friend, Don De Lillo. “Let the Great World Spin  was a three-year project and I was working on it when Falling Man   I love that book came out. It’s funny, you know I had begun the book with this line, “The prospect of a falling man.’ Throughout the novel, the characters are aware of the man walking a tightrope suspended between the twin towers. It is seen as exciting, although there is the anticipation that he might fall.” / McCann remarks that whereas De Lillo approached 9/11 directly, “he has the ash falling on the first page, I had to go further back, to the aftermath of Vietnam and then forward to Philippe Petit. I think in the future that the things that will remain from this period, the stuff that will be remembered, will be the workings of capitalism that’s what the towers represented and the wire walk, and of course the image of the towers falling.” / But the tightrope walker is not the hero, John Corrigan is. He is a Christ figure. [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or as attached.)

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Quotations

‘... [M]emory is three quarters imagination and all the rest is lies.” (Songdogs - quoted by McCann in interview with Robert Birnbaum [see infra.]
“Goodness was more difficult than evil. Evil men knew that more than good men. That's why they became evil. That's why it stuck with them. Evil was for those who could never reach the truth. It was a mask for stupidity and lack of love. Even if people laughed at the notion of goodness, if they found it sentimental, or nostalgic, it didn't matter -- it was none of those things, he said, and it had to be fought for.”(Let the Great World Spin)

“Where happiness was not a possibility, the illusion of it was always more important.”(Zoli)

“There is always room for at least two truths.” (TransAtlantic)


Waking up to a country I do not understand’, in The Irish Times, “Weekend” (6 Nov. 2004): ‘I have often thought that I am a peson of two countries: having grown up in Ireland and then having spent a considerable amount of time in the US [...] I do not understand the triumphant [accent] on the front of the newspapers. I do not undersand you, Ohio. I do not understand the mother of the dead soldier who voted for her commander-in-chief [...] There is so much that I admire about this country but I am at a loss to gather it together and present it. I am sad. I am raw. I am empty [...] He comprehends the depths of shallow language. He knows how dangerous it is to photograph a coffin [...] He understands the stupidiies of complexity. He recognises the value of aggressive cynicism. He knows that wars remains war, no matter what language we give them [...] He also knows that while poor people commit terror, rich people commit war, but the rich have enough money to pretend that it’s right. He can say shock and awe. He has said it. One only hopes he will not say it again.’ (p.1.)

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Identity (interview with McCann at Identitytheory.com, 25 Feb. 2003) - Birnbaum: ‘ One last question, how important is it for you to maintain your Irish identity?’ McCann: ‘Probably it’s pretty important to me although I pretend it’s not. I’m a New Yorker because I live in New York and that’s where I will be now for quite a while but I’m definitely, definitely Irish. And I’ll always be an Irish writer. No matter what. No matter what happens. Nobody can take that away. If I never set a book that touches the notion of Ireland or Irishness again, it still won’t matter to the claim, in fact, that I’m a Irish writer. Irish identity is important to me. But I wouldn’t go back there to live. But I love the stories, I love the songs I love the sound and I love the feel of it. I like being Irish. I don’t want to become one of these “Oirish” people, if you will. Over the top, wearing my flat hat backwards and swigging pints of Guiness and singing Molly Malone. Although I do that too, every now and then. Because, why not? I couldn’t become an American, if you will. I definitely could become a New Yorker. It’s important to me and the sound of the language and the feel of the stories and everything like that. Although it must be said that American writing is much more interesting than Irish writing right now.There’s a couple of great Irish writers who are doing really interesting things. But in general it’s not the heyday of Joyce and Beckett and those sort of days. I wonder if those days can ever comeback? Is it possible to write a novel like Ulysses anymore?’ (For full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

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A Novel Choice” [Irish Times/James Joyce Centre lect. series]: Colum McCann selects Night by Edna O’Brien [‘With a nod to Joyce and a wink at Beckett, this is a short, brilliant, beautifully-written mediation on the intricacies of an Irish past’]; Nothing Happens in Carmincross [‘Kiely is at his most nuanced, poignant and masterful in this novel, where an exile returns home for his niece’s wedding in Carmincross.’]; A Curious Street by Desmond Hogan [‘A fractured mosaic of Irish history told by a British army soldier as he sits in an army barracks in Belfast. Almost single-handedly and with very little fanfare, Hogan has paved the way for today’s generation of novelists’]. (See The Irish Times, 27 Sept. 2003, aAnnouncing a lect. series based on the ten 10 most voted for novels on a list provided by the commissioned lecturers to be hosted by The James Joyce Centre, 23 Oct. - 27 Nov. 2003.)

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The World is Sometimes Too Full for Us’, in The Irish Book Review (Summer 2006), pp.20-21: ‘The old adage is that you write what you know. It seems fairly simple and straightforward - after all, it’s a logical and philosophical impossibility to write about what we don’t know.You won’t find loaves of bread under breadcrumbs. However, if we write about what we know, or seem to know, or pretend we know, there comes a certain stage where we must figure out exactly what it is that we really do know. And that degree of self-knowledge is as slippery as trying to establish what it means to tell the truth.’ [...] ‘Certain writers have, down through the years, brought the walls down on the universal - McGahern springs immediately to mind - and carried them seamlessly into the local. Others like Ondaatje step into whole new landscapes each time they write. Great writing, and indeed great reading, doesn’t only confront what we know, but it delves profoundly into desire. We go forth on our journeys precisely because we know we can never go back: that old footstep doesn’t exist anymore, we cannot remain unchanged, there will be no arrival home.The unfolding of our imaginations is unaccountable and splendid. Mystery is forgiving. / Instead of writing what we know, we write towards what we want to know.’ [...] ‘Writers are the worst people to talk about their own work. Most of us have no idea what the deepest implications of our words are upon readers. Good writing is an act of empathy rather than a declaration of truth. Beware of the writer with an absolute idea: they are in danger of becoming politicians.The best writing might actually come from those people, or places, or things that we don’t really know. We make a shotgun leap into the unknown, only to pick up pieces of shrapnel along the way, wounds that later help us to uniquely create our own cures. / The best writing, then, is suggestion and mystery. After all, it is the reader who must complete it. It is the reader who becomes the final writer.’ (p.20; for full text, see infra.)

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The Dancer (2003) - an extract:

‘Each night he waits for the cue, stretches, meshes his fingers. Onstage, Margot unspools a length of chaines, sweeps, descends and is still. He touches his left ear for good luck, waits for a moment beyond the quietness, breaks the wings, takes fight, is released.
  Music reaches into his muscles, the lights spin, he glares at the conductor, the tempo is corrected, and he continues, controlled at first, each move careful and precise, the pieces beginning to fit, his body elastic, three jete’s en tournant, careful of the landing, he extends his line, beautiful movement ah cello go. The lights merge, the shirtfronts blur. A series of pirouettes. He is at ease, his body sculpted to the music, his shoulder searching the other shoulder, his right toe knowing the left knee, the height, the depth, the form, the control, the twist of his wrist, the bend of his elbow, the tilt of his neck, notes digging into his arteries, and he is in the air now, forcing the legs up beyond muscular memory, one last press of the thighs, an elongation of form, a loosening of human contour, he goes higher and is skyheld.
  The audience leans forward, necks craned, mouths open. He descends, lands, and is off again, towards her, the wind rushing past his ears, a-blur of unbroken energy to where she is waiting, headbent. He plants his feet before her, she accepts him, he lifts her upward, she is light, she is always light, he stays away from her ribs, bruised from rehearsal. A bead of sweat spins out from his hair. His face against her thigh, her hip, her stomach. Both of them burning away, they are one movement, a body nation. He allows her down, a gasp from the hall, they are alive - a french audience, the good ones are always french, even in Lebanon New York Buenos Aires vVienna London they’re always French - and he can smell her perfume, her sweat, her approval, he moves stage left and off. She will control it now, her solo. Standing in the shadows. he regains his breath, tissues his face. dams the sweat, his chest rising and falling, begins to calm, ah yes this darkness an embrace.
  He scuffs in the resin box for traction, waits as she receives her applause. Here it is now, take it, grasp it, explode!
  He returns from the wings already in mid-air, moves through four caprioles, keeping his line long until the sound catches up, an instant of conjunction, a flash of muscle and he sweeps the stage with his body, owning it, no limits. Eight perfect entrechats-dix, a thing of wonder, the audience silent now, no body anymore no thought no awareness this must be the moment the others call god as if all the doors are open everywhere leading to all other open doors nothing but open doors forever no hinges no frames no jambs no edges no shadows this is my soul in flight born [168] weightless born timeless a clock spring broken he could stay like this forever and he looks out into the haze of necklaces eyeglasses cufflinks shirtfronts and knows he owns them.
  Afterwards, in the dressing rooms there are exaggerated complaints to keep themselves going - you changed your perfume, you sweated too much, your chaines were abysmal, you missed the cue, you stayed out too late, you pirouetted like a donkey, let’s do it better tomorrow Rudi - and they exit the stage doors together, arm in arm. laughing, smiling, the crowds waiting, flowers and shouts and invitations to parties, they sign autographs and programmes and shoes, but as they walk away the dance is still in their bodies and they search for the quiet point the still point where there is no time no space only pureness moving.’ (pp.167-69.)

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Let the Great World Spin (2009): ‘Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.’ (Quoted by Peter Quinn on Facebook - online; 19.12.2015.)

 

Ulysses: ‘There is a priceless copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the New York Public Library. A first edition. Signed by Joyce to his friend James Stephens. / The collision of book and place is sacred. The library is probably the finest in the world. So too, of course, is the book: the most acclaimed novel of the 20th century. So when I had a chance to see the copy in the winter of 2011, I immediately said yes. I got on the subway. Got off at 42nd Street. Walked along Fifth Avenue in the slush. Shook out my umbrella. Walked up the steps, past the famous lion statues, into the library. Up to the third floor. Into a rare-book room where the curators greeted me warmly. / The book was laid out on a piece of blue velvet, opened carefully and methodically. The curators wore gloves. They treated the book with proper awe. I was supervised every moment of the way. I didn’t even get to touch the pages. I leaned over the book, breathed the phrases in. The ineluctable modality of the visible. / Part of the charm of books, of course, is that they disintegrate. Although the language lasts forever – in both a digital and imaginative sense – no book can be protected forever. There are simple laws of nature. Even if we sealed our books in hermetic tombs, some distant day entropy will gnaw at the pages. It’s called age – it’s the most democratic thing in the world and it happens to the best of us, even Joyce. / So when the book was carefully closed and lifted to be put away, a tiny flake of page fell from inside on to the blue cloth beneath. This happens. That’s life. Books will flake. It was just a crumb, really. Slightly smaller than a thumbtack. It sat on the blue felt cloth. The library staff didn’t notice it. They took the book away. To be wrapped, protected, properly humidified. But the flake still lay there on the cloth. I stared at it. It would soon become dust. / I got ready to leave. Unhooked my jacket from the back of the chair. Thought about it again. Looked down at the flake of Ulysses. / And then I did what anyone with a fondness for Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb and ate it. Or rather let it dissolve slowly. [...; &c.]’ (‘The Home Place: Coming Home’, in The Irish Times, 28 Sept. 2013; see full text version - as attached.)

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References
Ciaran Carty
& Dermot Bolger, eds., The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction (New Islands 1995), incls. story [with Mike McCormack, Michael Taft, Marina Carr, Eoin MacNamee, Mary Costello, et al.]; also in Shenanigans (Sceptre/Lir 1999).

Irish Film Association (Glucksman Ireland House NY 1996), catalogue lists Fishing the Sloe Black River, ‘an eloquent cinematic look at modern emigration and the effect it has on a rural town today’, dir. Brendan Bourke (15 mins.), based on the story by Colm McCann.

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Notes
William Maxmell (given as epigraph of The Dancer): ‘What we, or at any rate, I refer to confidently as a memory-meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion-is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.’ (Maxwell, So Long See You Tomorrow; quoted in ‘Colum McCann, Author of Dancer talks with Robert Birnbaum’, on Identitycom online - or copy.)

Book of the Year” (2000) [Irish Times annual feature]: Colum McCann disinterest in blockbusters and lists Sara berkeley debut novel Shadowing Hannah, Emer Martin’s More Bread or I’ll Appear; Gerard Donovan, The Wreckers, and a forthcoming novel by Derry-born Sean O’Reilly, Curfew as well a Claire Keegan’s Antarctica and Blanaid McKinney’s Big Mouth. (The Irish Times, 24 June 2000, p.10.)

Book of the Year” (2002) [Irish Times annual feature]: Colum McCann expresses admiration for William Kennedy’s Roscoe; Molly McCloskey’s The Beautiful Changes, Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel, Alexander Hemon’s Nowhere Man [‘confirms and cements everything that Question of Bruno suggested’, and Hugo Hamilton’s The speckled People. (Irish Times, 30 Nov. 2002).

Summer Books” [annual column], in The Irish Times (24 June 2000), compiled by Rosita Sweetman: Colum McCann ‘stay[s] far away from the “blockbusters”; speaks of books by younger Irish writers ‘that don’t seem to get quite enough fuss made about them’ and cites Sara Berkeley’s Shadowing Hannah; Emer Martin, More Bread or I’ll Appear; and ‘an extraordinary collection of poems by the Wexford-born Gerard Donovan entitled The Wreckers; also forthcoming Curfew of Derry-born Seán O’Reilly, and Claire Keegan, Antartica.

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Love/Hate: ‘Tóibín is a huge fan of the 19th century novel and lists Henry James and Jane Austen as his major influences; McCann says he would “die of boredom” if he had to read 19th century novels, he loves the more modern stuff and name-checked James Joyce’s Ulysses (which he reread earlier this year during a stint in hospital) and Don DeLillo.’ (See Kim Forrester, ‘Cheltenham Literature Festival: Colum McCann and Colm Tóibín’, at Kimbofo’s Typepad [review pages] online; accessed 21.11.2009.)

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Kith & Kin: Colm McCann is the son of Sean McCann, author and journalist who has written more than 25 books covering a wide range of subjects ranging from roses to Irish history and sport. His main hobby is rose growing, for which he has been awarded many international prizes. He lives in Dublin. (See COPAC record for Irish Wit from Behan and Wilde to Yer Man in the Pub (Dublin: O’Brien Press 2009) - online.)

Query: We Fell Like Snow (London: Orion Phoenix 1997), 256pp, concerning based in the history of Irish and Afro-American builders of New York subways [unlisted COPAC, Amazon, &c.]

Cold-clocked: Colum McCann described an attack on him in the USA while attending conference on Empathy at Yale University supported by Narrative 4. He came to the assistance of a woman in a quarrel and was ‘cold-clocked’ by the man involved, and left with a broken cheek-bone and missing teeth. He described the event as ‘a shocking, cowardly attack in broad daylight on a busy street’. (See The Irish Times, 3 July 2014 - online.)

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