A Família McCourt
Frank McCourt died on 19-7-2009.
Everyone knows the troubles he's seen . . .
a fine life, to be an Irish writer in New York, with a Pulitzer prize in
your pocket and millions of hungry readers hanging on your every anecdote.
For a man who suffered an epically tormented Limerick childhood - then
waited 40 years to describe it in a triumphant memoir of hunger, disease
and aching family loss - Frank McCourt is making the most of a gilded old
age. The author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis must rank among the busiest
70-year-old writers in the world.
He's off to England soon, to
talk about his writing at the
Sunday Times Hay Festival. He is just back from Bombay and a cruise down
the Nile, where a couple of lectures on board ship earned him a visit to
Luxor and the pyramids. Last week he was in upstate New York, receiving an
honorary degree, his ninth.
there are his literary commitments. "My wife just set up a file
drawer called Frank's Projects," he chortles with relish.
wants to rewrite a play he wrote a couple of years ago about "the Irish and
how they got that way".
has contributed a masterful denouement to Yeats Is Dead, a "crazy"
serial novel, to be published next month in aid of Amnesty International, in
which a dozen or so Irish writers take it in turns to write chapters of
is collaborating on a church mass, Missa Manhattan, something he has wanted to
create ever since he heard Missa Luba, an African- inspired interpretation of
he is talking to a friend, a television producer, about making a documentary on
saints. Anyone who has read Angela's Ashes knows McCourt is fascinated by saints.
"Virgin martyrs especially," he grins.
of which pales to inconsequence compared to the real reason McCourt is looking a
little worn as he arrives at a high-rise Manhattan studio to have his picture
taken. He is about to face one of the world's most formidable photographers, but
his silver hair is uncombed, his grey suit rumpled, his shirt open at the neck,
and slightly askew.
looks as though he has just stumbled out of bed, but the truth is the opposite.
He has been up for hours, working on the book that is propelling Frank McCourt
in an entirely new literary direction - away from hypnotising accounts of family
blight, dying mothers and Irish poverty into the boundless realm of a fictional
New York school.
is writing his first novel. "It's about the chemistry of teaching," he
says, "about the process, the conditions, the circumstances of teaching.
And it's much harder. I'm not just dipping into my memory, I'm creating."
had sat there earlier that morning, in his favourite writing chair, with a board
across the arms in front of him, scribbling away in his notebook, fighting to
resist the siren call of the life that filled his first two books. "This
novel is trying to drag me off in another direction, to Ireland, and I don't
want to go there. Not for the moment, anyway. I want to stay in the classroom."
hardly lacks for material in New York. Having left Ireland as a teenager,
McCourt served with the US military in Germany and studied at New York
University under the provision of the GI Bill, which encouraged education of
soldiers - "the most glorious piece of legislation ever passed in this
country," he says. After four years he became a teacher, and remained one
until his retirement in 1987.
average American saw the Irish as a simple people, just off the land with mud on
their boots," he says. "When I arrived in New York, I didn't know the
difference between asparagus and turnips. But dogged is the word. I was not
particularly bright, but dogged."
a characteristic McCourt flourish, he recalls his first day as a teacher: "It
was the middle of March, the teacher I was replac- ing had quit, I walked into
the classroom and they were all throwing things across the room. After four
years of studying education at New York University, the first words out of my
mouth as a new teacher were: 'Stop throwing Bologna sandwiches.' "
believes that teaching has never been properly written about in a novel, not in
Tom Brown's Schooldays, Goodbye Mr Chips or any number of tales of English
public schools. He evidently wants to do for the profession what Angela's Ashes
did for Irish poverty.
is virgin territory for a writer," he says. "It's very difficult to
write about the chemistry of the relationship with the 35 kids you want to teach,
when they are resisting. This is the drama, the tension of the profession.
You've resisted your own boring classes elsewhere, you know the nature of
resistance and it's up to you now to get through."
is the hero of his novel, by any chance, going to be a tall, handsome Irishman
who endured a difficult childhood in Limerick? "Oh yes," jokes McCourt.
There will be sufficient parallels with his own life for lawyers to be called in
to scrutinise the manuscript, notably for references to McCourt's first wife,
Alberta, who does not appear to have forgiven him for the way he portrayed her
in Angela's Ashes.
have to be careful because there are people still alive who taught with me, and
I have ex-wives, there's a parallel in the novel between the teaching and the
domestic life," says McCourt. "A lot of lawyers will be hired for a
careful textual read."
he spins out the anecdotes from his teaching days - cajoling his kids into
reading Shakespeare, making hard-boiled New York teenagers chant Mother Goose
nursery rhymes, and singing Finnegans Wake in class - it seems clear that in
style and texture, the new novel may not be too different from 'Tis, which
covered some of McCourt's early life as a teacher in America.
will be reserved on whether that is a good omen. McCourt knows that the success
of Angela's Ashes owed most to his lyrical evocation of a real and desperate
boyhood in Limerick. 'Tis, the sequel set in New York, sold well, but was
derided by several critics. Can he create something as memorable as either book
I look back at the writing of Angela's Ashes, I was just telling a story in the
simplest possible way, because that's all I'm capable of," he modestly
declares. "I could never be a Proust or even an Evelyn Waugh or anyone like
that. I could never have that subtlety and complexity and cleverness."
is also wary of repeating himself. His youngest brother, Alphie, recently became
the third McCourt brother - after Frank and Malachy - to write about their
mother's death, in an article for the Washington Post. "I thought Alphie
might write about something different, but he didn't," says McCourt,
smiling wanly. "I'm so weary of the family stuff, the dying mothers and so
mostly, he's not weary at all. "You know I could always go and sit on a
beach in the south of France and look at the bare-breasted beauties passing by,"
he muses. "I could have done the same thing after Angela's Ashes. You might
have thought, he's done it, Jesus, this old fart after 30 years, he writes a
book and gets the Pulitzer prize, that's enough, let him give himself a break."
eyes shine. "But it's the story-telling itch, I suppose, and the teaching
itch. You can't stop. Besides, I enjoy it."
The Sunday Times, 27-5-2001
21 June 2001
Frank about memoirs
by Brendan O'Neil
I have spent five years immersed in myself, my life,
my squalor, my ups, my downs - and now I'm feckin gasping for air.'
Frank McCourt, dirt-poor Irish kid done good, wants to write fiction. Having told the world about his 'miserable Irish childhood' in 1930s Limerick in Angela's Ashes and about his adventures in New York in the follow-up 'Tis, he now wants to prove that 'there's more to Frank McCourt than feckin Frank McCourt'. 'I'm tired of telling my life story. I long to write a thriller or a romp or a story from the point of view of a woman or a gay Irishman. You know, just to turn things on their head.'
But why not stick to a winning formula?
Angela's Ashes might have been a
'sometimes painful experience' for McCourt, but it sold five million copies and
counting, was made into a film by Alan Parker, won its first-time author a
Pulitzer Prize, and earned him a house up the road from US playwright Arthur
Miller ('Jesus, it's weird having a neighbour who was hitched to Marilyn Monroe',
says McCourt). 'Tis might have been
less of a hit with the critics, but it was another transatlantic bestseller. And
as one critic said, 'There's gold in them there memoirs'.
But there's only so much life you can write about', says McCourt. 'Before long, you run out of life. I want to exercise my imagination in a different way. With Angela's Ashes and 'Tis I was never interested in glorifying myself - I just wanted to tell my story, to tell the truth as I experienced it. Now I want to write about some glory or other, with heroes and fictional characters. It would make a change from writing about me and my brothers and my father leaving and my mother dying and the consumption killing people left right and centre and the shoes falling off my feet. I'm grateful for what the memoirs gave me - but it's fiction for me now.'
But McCourt has his detractors - like those who reckon he's been writing fiction all along. Angela's Ashes may have been A Phenomenon, but there was also The Backlash - with the book provoking the kind of vitriolic reaction that hasn't greeted a personal memoir since Christina Crawford accused her actress mother Joan of child abuse in Mommie Dearest in the 1980s. For every review and article hailing McCourt as a great writer, there seemed to be somebody ready and willing to accuse him of exaggeration, 'anti-Limerickness', or of telling downright lies. 'Ah yeah', says McCourt, 'the backlash'.
According to some reports, there was a book-burning
atmosphere in McCourt's childhood home of Limerick. Gerry Hannan, a dj on
Limerick 95 radio station, achieved minor celebrity status as McCourt's most
outspoken critic, collating a book of memories from the people of Limerick that
contradicted McCourt's version of events, and challenging McCourt to sue him if
he had the guts ('See you in court, McCourt' was his fighting talk). And when
Alan Parker and his crew descended on Limerick to film scenes for the celluloid
version of McCourt's life, some claim they were chased out of churches and
streets by anti-Angela's Ashes mobs.
But McCourt is having none of it. 'The stuff about people being hostile to me in Limerick is completely and utterly blown out of proportion', he says. 'It was actually a very small, very concentrated, very localised reaction, and the media pumped it up.' So when I ask if he ever ventures into Limerick now - thinking that the last place in Ireland you would want to be unpopular is 'Stab City' - McCourt sounds aghast. 'Of course I do. I was there just two weeks ago - and I always get a warm response. I wish I could peddle some grand line about prophets not being recognised or accepted in their hometowns, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't be true.'
According to McCourt, 'the negative stuff has been given too much ink': 'The media loves a backlash because it makes good copy. They didn't want to write about the fact that Angela's Ashes and 'Tis sold thousands in Limerick; that when they made the film people swarmed out in their hundreds to be extras; that I got an honorary degree from the University of Limerick; that I was received at the City Hall by the mayor; that the city has an Angela's Ashes tour that draws people in from around the world. But a few disgruntled accusations? Hold the front page!'
McCourt says the Limerick authorities even wanted to put a plaque on his childhood home - until they realised it no longer existed. 'All the old slums are gone', says McCourt. 'You can't find a decent slum in Ireland anymore.'
But if the scale of the accusations was 'pumped up',
what about their content - that McCourt has twisted the truth, or even lied
about his childhood? Some argue that it's impossible for a 65-year-old (McCourt's
age when he wrote Angela's Ashes) to
recall so vividly conversations and events that happened when he was six, seven
or eight. While others claim that life might have been hard in Limerick in the
1930s, but it wasn't as bad as McCourt makes out (children dying from cold and
starvation, mothers begging priests for leftover bread), and that there was more
kindness in the city than McCourt suggests. So is
Angela's Ashes the whole truth and
McCourt thinks his critics are missing the point. 'Angela's Ashes and 'Tis are not autobiographies, they are memoirs - and they are not the same things. An autobiography is an attempt to bring up all the facts, and to stick to them, faithfully and chronologically. But a memoir is an impression of your life, and that gives you a certain amount of leeway. If an autobiography is like a photograph, then a memoir is more like a painting. So I've always said to my critics, This is my impression of my life, so what are you gonna do about it?'
For McCourt, memoirs have more in common with fiction than with journalistic fact or autobiography. 'Memoir is like the twin sister of fiction', he says. 'There is a crossover between recalling events that actually happened and your interpretation or impression of those events. This doesn't make it dishonest; it is just what the genre is about. If people want absolute fact they should stick to autobiographies - or the National Geographic.'
So what does McCourt think of today's memoir mania,
that some say he is responsible for? 'Don't blame me!' But walk into any
bookshop and you'll see shelves groaning under the weight of memoirs - and it
sometimes seems that the authors are competing to see whose life was the most
degraded and depressing. There are child-abuse memoirs, eating-disorder memoirs,
and, of course, the miserable Irish childhood memoir. In the wake of
Angela's Ashes, the miserable Irish
childhood memoir has almost become a genre in its own right - with even two of
McCourt's brothers offering their own versions of the McCourt upbringing.
There are lots', says McCourt, 'that's for sure. But I don't think it's really a "memoir mania". Nobody ever complains about a "fiction mania" do they? But there does sometimes seem to be this tortured approach in memoirs - my life was harder than yours, my pain is bigger than yours. I know that's a bit much coming from me, after Angela's Ashes and all - but one of the good things about a memoir is looking for something bigger than yourself, you know; something important in your life, rather than just the life itself.'
But finally McCourt is moving on, and turning his hand to fiction. 'I'm trying to write a novel about teaching. It's very early days - it's not even in its embryonic stages yet, it's still waiting to be conceived.
'And who knows, it might end up as a memoir.'
Frank McCourt has written chapter 15 in Yeats is Dead!, a new multi-authored novel by 15 Irish writers published by Jonathan Cape.
DANNY BOY: The Beloved Irish Ballad
New American Library
Beyond question, the melody
variously known as "Danny Boy" or "Londonderry Air" is one of the great tunes of
all time. Its measured rising and falling cadences would grace the catalog of
Franz Schubert or any of the other great classical vocal composers.
Many different sets of words were attached to the tune after its first publication in 1855 --- but those that have become indissolubly identified with it ("O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, from glen to glen and down the mountainside....") were written in 1910 by an English lawyer and song-lyric cobbler named Frederick E. Weatherly, who probably never set foot in Ireland.
They were actually intended for a different tune, but when Weatherly's
sister-in-law sent him some years later the familiar melody from her home in
Australia, he saw that it was a perfect fit for his earlier verses. Thus an
"Irish" classic was created from a melody that may be Scottish and words by an
McCourt gives us this information straightforwardly enough, but he fleshes them out with a good deal of barely relevant material. It seems strange to arraign a book of 95 pages on charges of padding, but the complaint seems justified. McCourt solicited opinions about the song from Irish celebrities (including brother Frank) and speculates at length on such side issues as who is singing the song and to whom it is addressed (one possibility among several: it is the song of Danny Boy's gay lover!). The author's tone varies between straight historical writing and folksiness, including occasional cutesy use of "tis" and "t'was." McCourt also grinds a personal axe or two. He thinks ill of those Catholic dioceses that have banned the singing of "Danny Boy" at funerals because it is "secular."
There are some fascinating bits of trivia here, however. Victorians hesitated to refer to the song as Londonderry Air because, to their prudish ears, it sounded too much like "London derriere." Irish nationalists never use that title either, because they want no mention of London in the title. Wordsmith Weatherly was once in legal partnership with one of the sons of Charles Dickens. And another of Weatherly's lyrics was the popular "Roses of Picardy," set to music memorably by Haydn Wood. Wood studied under the composer Sir Charles Stanford, who quoted "Londonderry Air" in one of his Irish rhapsodies. Make of that what you will. This is a curious little book, entertaining in its quirky way but almost undone by its relentless folksiness. "Londonderry Air" remains a musical treasure, regardless of its origin.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com)
Apr. 4, 2004 9:45
Irish eyes are smiling
By MIRIAM ABRAMOWITZ
Frank McCourt always felt that reading was 'like having jewels' in his mouth. Little did he know, writing would put them in his pockets
Standing behind a podium before a large crowd of Jerusalem middle-school children in Rehavia's Gymnasia school, Frank McCourt seems moderately uncomfortable. It isn't the 60-odd years between him and the students that disturbs him - nor is it a cultural dissonance.
"Is there any way I can sit down near the students," he gently asks. "I feel like a politician standing up here."
In less than 10 seconds his microphone is shuffled forward, a chair appears out of nowhere, and a glass of water is rushed to his side.
McCourt is accustomed to this celebrity treatment. Angela's Ashes, his 1996 memoir about his damp and miserable childhood in Ireland rocketed him from the humble life of a retired public-school teacher to the pinnacle of literary fame; his debut book has now been published in more than 30 languages and was quickly adapted into a successful film.
Visiting Israel for the first time as a "cultural ambassador" sent via a State Department program called CultureConnect, an entourage of embassy and consulate representatives are his constant escorts.
McCourt is unfazed by their attentions, though. He is anxious to engage the children, and once sitting in their midst, looks altogether at home.
Home for McCourt these days is New York, his birthplace and residence until the age of four. From that point on, his life in the family's native country, Ireland, would make their hardships in New York look petty. Due to the tremendous success of his memoir, millions are now familiar with the years that followed: besieged by hunger and penury, ever plagued by the cold and his father's alcoholism.
The privations in Limerick in the Thirties and Forties were devastating. Starvation was a way of life for many.
"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all," he writes in the first lines of his memoir.
It would seem exaggerated if not for the bare facts of it. Three of his siblings did not survive. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and typhoid were rampant killers in "the lane."
It is a tragic story, but not one McCourt thought anyone outside his family would be interested in. So it came as a rather mind-blowing surprise when the story struck a chord with people all over the world. When it hit the shelves, Angela's Ashes jumped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for a staggering 117 weeks, selling more than four million copies worldwide.
McCourt's first foray into writing rendered him a certified publishing phenomenon.
His popularity was met with critical success as well, earning him numerous accolades for his work, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His second memoir Tis', was also catapulted onto the bestseller list upon its release. All this for an unknown, retired schoolteacher.
DESPITE HIS accomplishments as a writer, it is clear McCourt remains a teacher at heart. His eyes beam with enthusiasm when talking to children.
Upon meeting him, one is instantly charmed by the singsong cadence in his voice which accompanies his indefatigable humor, a humor born of years of great sadness and hardship. And there is nothing finer than watching this Irishman warm to a story.
"When I was a child, Ireland was ridden by a disease called tuberculosis," he explains to a small Jerusalem audience. "We called it consumption, or for a serious case, galloping consumption. When I look at pictures from my childhood, I see most of the boys in my class are gone, carried off by TB or alcoholism. So many succumbed to the drink," he explains. "This fascinates me about Israelis. People say, 'My God, what a place, there's no peace at all. Every day there's a new conflict.' I think I'd have to drink three pints of Guinness a day."
McCourt jokes about drinking and about the situation in Israel, but takes neither lightly. He took pains to avoid falling into the stereotype of the drinking Irishman, but explains that in Limerick, it wasn't easy.
"I think the weather has a lot to do with the temperament of the Irish people. Even when the sun is shining, it shines through the rain. George Bernard Shaw talks about that, about the skies of Ireland and how they can drive you mad. It's the reason pubs are so popular."
McCourt encountered quite different weather conditions during his stay in Israel.
The warm atmosphere put him in a pleasant disposition, although his day was predominantly spent being shuffled between various schools and lectures. Despite the hectic schedule, McCourt took time to speak exclusively with the Post about his past, his latest book, and the frenzy of success that accompanied his first. He talks quickly but deliberately, as if in a whir of memory, associations constantly fermenting.
"I'm fascinated with the levels of society here," McCourt says. "Everybody in Israel has an interesting life because of the way you live every day.
"As a child, of course, I didn't see my own life as interesting. It was only once my students began to ask me questions about my life, when they seemed to be interested that I became convinced my life was worth recording.
"But I was always taking notes, notes about Ireland, about growing up. I've been keeping notebooks for 30 or 40 years now."
BIRTH OF A WRITER
When Frank McCourt talks about his writing, he does so with a certain nostalgia. In a largely illiterate community, his love of reading and writing was formed at a very young age.
In a climactic chapter of Angela's Ashes, Frank finds himself near death from typhoid fever, spending several months in quarantine. There were perks, he remembers: a hospital environment with steady meals, clean sheets, and best of all, books. It was there that he was first introduced to Shakespeare.
"I don't know what it means and I don't care," he writes, "because it's Shakespeare and it's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words."
His love of language gave way to big dreams early on.
"I used to think that I'd like to write elegant prose, piling clauses on top of clauses, and it would go on for a page and a half until you had no idea what you were talking about. I soon discovered the value of simplicity and clarity."
Part of the appeal of your books is that spare, direct narrative. How did you
come to write so honestly about yourself?
It wasn't a 'process.' It had to do with the experience of working with a bunch of kids. With them you have to be very clear and explicit about what you're saying. They're not good with generalization or ambiguity. You have to get to the point and keep the energy going.
That's the appeal of this program [CultureConnect] to me. To stir the kids up a bit.
You mentioned that you had rare access to books as a child.
In the beginning there were no books. They eventually established the Carnegie library. But I was always reading. Anything.
Books would sometimes come into the lane. I remember finding out that somebody had a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And that was passed from family to family practically. It eventually came to me; I read it and then passed it to my brother. Books were as rare as diamonds. There were comic books, though, and there were newspapers. You just read everything. One couldn't be discriminating in Limerick. If it was printed, you read it.
Was Mark Twain then one of your biggest influences?
It was like the first experience of sex. I loved Dickens too. There was always Dickens. Oliver Twist, and English boys books. People would bring them back from England, books of growing up in English boarding schools. Far removed from our experience. And English detective novels [McCourt speaks now in a stream of memory]. Agatha Christie too... that was what interested me... but then again, maybe that's because it was all we had. The thing is, there was nothing else. We had no television, no radio.
As you were writing your memoirs, were you surprised by the depth of detail in
There was a columnist in the New York Times once, Anna Quindlen, [who wrote a book about her life]. I don't understand how she remembered such details of her life when she was just 14. But when your life is uncluttered, when its bare and you have nothing, you remember the things you have.
So you felt confident writing from a child's point of view.
I was comfortable writing in the present tense. In a child's voice. People ask why I don't use punctuation. Well, children don't use punctuation, and I'm not particularly good with it anyway. I am very good with periods. I'm weak with commas and useless with colons and semi-colons. I think I found a colon in the book the other day. It was not my doing. It must have been the publisher.
You must have taken some liberties with your writing and memories - dialogue, for instance.
Yes - but not really. There's something liturgical with the Irish language, with the way people greet each other and talk. All I had to do was recreate what actually happened.
A TEACHER'S EVOLUTION
Although he never attended high school, McCourt was well-read and persuaded an admission officer at NYU to admit him, using the GI bill to pay for tuition and working nights doing manual labor. After graduating, he began to teach in the public school system.
He recalls his emigration experience in his second bestselling memoir Tis'.
"To arrive here was like emerging from an Irish womb," McCourt said in a 1998 Reader's Digest interview. "I might have had the English language, but I was unequipped: no education, no self-esteem; I was not a very fine specimen."
Teaching would be a salvation of sorts for McCourt, triggering memories of his own childhood for the notebooks he kept.
"I'd write on the right page," he explained, "and on the left I'd leave space for notes and thoughts for future masterpieces. So I started writing about my mother and father."
In the back of your mind did you ever think your notebooks would evolve into a
I used to think I'd like to write plays, like my favorite writer Sean O'Casey. But I didn't. I started teaching, and there's no time to write when you're teaching. None when you're a high school teacher. It's easier to be a reporter at The Jerusalem Post. You can do your job and then go on and write a book if you like. Your head is filled. I mean, can you imagine having kids like this [referring to the mildly rowdy Gymnasia students] all day long? Five days a week. You'd have to be a saint. But maybe I've developed sainthood, I don't know.
Do you miss teaching?
Yes, but it's very hard though, to do it all day long. When you get home, the first thing you do is throw yourself on the floor, and your head is ringing with all these voices. It's better to be a university professor. Scholarship is easier, that's pleasurable. You go home and read. You don't have to assume all the roles that a high-school teacher or elementary-school teacher does. With kids, you have to be a disciplinarian, a scholar, a priest, a rabbi, a counselor.
When I look back though, I have to give myself some credit for surviving and perhaps prospering, because I learned something about writing during those years. I learned something about myself and the human heart. In Ireland, the only introspection we were allowed was a day before confession, to examine your con-science and find what sins you've commit-ted. A good exercise for writers, actually. Writers are usually full of sin, otherwise they'd have nothing to write about.
What does the new book you're writing focus on?
It's about teaching. The new book will pick up where Tis' ended off. In this book I want to get into the craft of teaching, show what it's like in the class room day after day after day. There's a rhythm in the school year, a texture. There's a chemistry you form with your students. You can smell when they're drifting away from you and how to bring them back. You're like a sheep dog in a way. You know when you're losing their attention and sometimes you don't know what to do. Then you get angry and you yell at them and you lose it completely.
The only subject that will get everyone's attention is sex.
A STAR IS BORN
WHEN ANGELA'S Ashes was turned into a Hollywood film, Frank McCourt's fame jumped from enormous to overwhelming. Only one other movie had a bigger opening in Ireland than Angela's Ashes, and that was Titanic. For a small-town boy from Limerick, it was a thrill and terror all at once.
One of the children in the audience mentioned The Lord of the Rings as his
favorite book. You replied that watching the movie before reading the book could
kill it. Do you think watching the film of Angela's Ashes before reading it
could kill the experience?
I think it might. People would say it was dreary, humorless.
Alan Parker, the director, said he wanted to be faithful to the book, and he was. Too faithful - to the wrong parts of the book.
There are other moments in the book that are a little lighter.
How much involvement did you have with the script?
I had nothing. Nothing (he says this adamantly, as if to avoid any responsibility for it).
I think if I'd done it... well, let's just say they didn't ask me to write the screenplay.
Did you walk away with a feeling of disappointment?
A bit, yes, a bit. Well, [he says, backtracking], I think it was an honorable, an honest effort. But it didn't capture the craziness. That's what I was after. The craziness of poverty. People are made mad by it. Because every day you're hanging on. Your mother has to go out and beg and get a loaf of bread somewhere. You have to find ways of amusing yourself. And most of all you're dreaming... dreaming of the day your belly will be filled, when you'll have clothes, shoes.
Were you aware of your poverty in relative terms as a child?
Beyond the streets that we lived in we saw people were comfortable. We saw people in houses and we'd pass them and smell bacon frying in the morning; you'd see other kids well-dressed and riding new bicycles. You'd see all of that, but you didn't have the intellect yet to say 'what's going on here?' Which is what I was trying to get across to the kids [in the Gymnasia]. There's another world out there.
I did have one moment of celebrity when I was 11 years old. I got typhoid and went to the hospital. And the day I left, after three and a half months in the hospital, I went home and people were hanging out their doors, waving at me and cheering me, because I survived the typhoid. I almost died, and suddenly I felt people noticed me.
How did the celebrity of a big blockbuster book compare?
It hit me very hard. I didn't understand it.
My wife always had faith, and my editor did, too. I didn't believe them though. I thought, 'every week thousands of books are published.' I didn't say to myself, there must be something about this book that will get it noticed in the New York Times. Not that I'm excessively modest, but I said to myself, "why do people like it?"
It was like a wave that rolled over me. It was on television, I was in interviews, and the radio. And I was paralyzed by all of it. It started to happen very fast and continued into the making of the movie. Then I wrote the second book and it showed up on the bestseller list.
It was surreal.
You must be exhausted from talking about it.
I remember once, in Sydney, I had interviews from six in the morning until six at night. Afterward, I went back to the bedroom where Ellen [my wife] was waiting for me. I had spent the whole day talking, and she was lying on this big acre of a bed, and I said to her, "I'm coming over to your side to get away from myself."
RELEASING THE PAST
ONE OF the foremost themes in Angela's Ashes is religion; often a source of guilt and fear, but also an inextricable part of McCourt's identity. The influence of the Church in Ireland is something that McCourt says one couldn't possibly understand unless they had experienced it.
"When we were born, we learned that we were created in sin. This is the fear that I lived with - that if one day I were hit by a truck or run over by a subway train I was going to hell for all my mortal sins. I wrestled with this all the time."
Do you still consider yourself a Catholic?
No - well, actually, it's like the Mafia, once you're in you're in. The only way out is in the coffin. But I'm fascinated by what it did to me, or what it did for me. And what a powerful and extremely ingenious institution it is.
What's your reaction to what's going on in the Church today?
We knew that all along. Anyone who was a kid growing up in Ireland knew this was happening. But you didn't open up your mouth about it. You didn't even mention it to your friends.
There was a priest who came onto me once when I was a kid. He was supposed to encourage us to go away and join an organization called The White Father - but that was his gimmick. He was supposed to be recruiting boys.
And he tried. He told me once he wanted to give me a physical examination. I'm sure I was ready for having it [he says raising his eyebrow with sarcasm]. I said, 'I don't think so.'
But nobody knows what the priests were doing overseas, in Africa and India and the Philippines. They got away with it because nobody reported them. And now they're all acting 'oh, surprise.' What they hell did they think they were doing all these years? Certainly not being celibate.
Were your memoirs a final confession of sorts?
No. There is no end to it. My concern now is the stuff that's foisted on kids all over the world by various religions and how people are indoctrinated and brainwashed and bullied.
Have you let go of all the guilt associated with being Catholic?
Yes I have.
My relationship with Ireland is such that now I can look at in a fairly comfortable way. In the beginning I felt a hostility. I'd see a schoolmaster and I'd want to punch him in the nose, but the years passed, and they looked old and weak. I feel a sense of ease now. The country moves me.
The long struggle against the English led to so much literature, poetry, and plays. And I keep saying that I'm so glad the English invaded us and beat the shit out of us, because they helped us produce this body of literature - Yeats, and Seamus Heaney, Sean O'Casey and James Joyce. So I can go back now on my own terms. I can go to Limerick and look at every shop, every brick lane, every church, and everything has a different memory for me. And that's a rich experience.
By Frank McCourt
Scribner, 258 pp., $26
Crafting a good memoir is every bit as much work as crafting a novel. It is an act of creation to cull a compelling story out of the chaos of existence. If this work is not done well, the result is not an involving story, but a shapeless, rambling mess of self-aggrandizing anecdotes.
Despite Frank McCourt's previous triumphs crafting memoirs, his ''Teacher Man" begins inauspiciously. In Chapter 1, after summarizing his first two days on the job as a high school teacher, McCourt announces: ''Otherwise, there was nothing remarkable about my thirty years in the high school classrooms of New York City." The reader may feel a certain amount of trepidation about what will fill the remaining pages if this is the case.
Such fears initially seem groundless. McCourt describes the disconnect between his training and the reality of teaching as well as anyone ever has -- ''Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations" -- and his account of his first two days of teaching sings.
But, after the first two days, we reach the ''unremarkable" part of McCourt's career, and ''Teacher Man" goes into a death spiral of tedium. Faced with tough students he doesn't know how to teach, McCourt begins telling them and his readers stories from his childhood. Alas, McCourt has already poured his best childhood material into ''Angela's Ashes," so here, he serves up the dregs: He actually includes a lengthy passage recounting the day his mother bought him a suitcase.
The rest of the memoir continues in this fashion, with scenes from McCourt's teaching interspersed with increasingly ill-chosen, tangentially related anecdotes from his life outside the classroom. What results is a book that fails as both an account of McCourt's teaching and of his life. This is, in large part, because the McCourt depicted in ''Teacher Man" is something of a cipher. The bulk of the anecdotes here are presented with a minimum of reflection or introspection. Indeed, McCourt, the author of three memoirs, includes this rather curious admission: ''There is an activity called 'pulling yourself together.' I tried, but what was there to pull together?" If McCourt has no self, whom exactly is he writing about?
McCourt acknowledges being forced into therapy by his wife, but he doesn't say why he might have needed it, and his sneering account of his group therapy serves only to show his contempt for the other participants. McCourt also recounts an extramarital liaison without explanation. Indeed, he recounts a number of his sexual adventures to no apparent purpose, culminating in a repugnant episode involving a woman he sleeps with despite his hatred for her personality and his disgust at her ''vast, blubbery body." What are we to make of this?
McCourt's stinginess with his thoughts and feelings about his personal life would sit easier if he were a more generous narrator of his teaching career. But here, again, he simply reports events without much commentary. He acts violently against students twice but doesn't stop to tell us whether he feels contrite, whether he thinks these incidents have any bearing on his fitness to teach, or how it feels to act on a teacher's darkest fantasy. When writing about his early career McCourt seems scornful of students, parents, administrators, and his younger self; indeed, his recollections of his first few years of teaching are so sour that they provoke the question of why he kept teaching at all, but this question apparently doesn't interest him.
Of course the author and readers of a memoir may be interested in different facets of the story, but ''Teacher Man" is such a hodgepodge that it's impossible to discern which facets of the story interest McCourt himself.
For some readers, his skill as a prose stylist may be enough to carry ''Teacher Man." He has an undeniable gift for turning a phrase, as in this passage about his post-divorce life: ''I could never tell them how . . . every night I struggled to drown out the sounds of rowdy sailors off freighters and container ships, how I stuffed cotton wool in my ears to muffle the shrieking and laughing of women . . . how the pounding of the juke box in the bar below . . . jolted me nightly in my bed."
Yet as ''Teacher Man" drags on, McCourt's style starts to feel predictable. The inexplicable forays into second-person narration, the Irishisms, the flights of fancy -- we have been here before, and now these seem not innovative storytelling techniques, but gimmicks.
Though only half of ''Teacher Man" is about teaching, McCourt still manages to succumb to the pitfalls that plague most teaching memoirs: He complains about low pay, disrespect, and the idiocy of the administrators, and he renders the students as two-dimensional types in cute dialect. Finally, at the end of the book, McCourt sinks to the most contemptible convention of such memoirs: poaching the interesting or tragic life stories of the students to make the teacher seem more interesting and heroic.
After two wildly successful memoirs, many readers will buy ''Teacher Man" on the strength of McCourt's name. Those looking for an involving story will be disappointed, as will those hoping for a fresh look at teaching. Even those interested in McCourt as a person will find reading this odd, cranky book a frustrating experience.
Brendan Halpin is the author of the novels ''Donorboy" and the forthcoming ''Long Way Back," as well as two memoirs, including one about teaching.
December 4, 2005
'Teacher Man: A Memoir,' by Frank McCourt
Review by BEN YAGODA
IT was by no means a done deal that you would be reading these words. To review "Teacher Man," I had to read "Teacher Man," and to read "Teacher Man," I had to get my hands on it. This proved challenging because no sooner had the advance copy entered the house than my teenage daughter snatched it and repaired to her room. I thought I had a chance when she was done, but my wife beat me to the punch. I was standing in wait when she turned the last page, and I grabbed the book. My mother-in-law, visiting from out of state, had her eye on it, I knew, but my glare told her she'd have to pry it from my cold, icy hands.
Yes, Frank McCourt, the author of "Angela's Ashes" and " 'Tis," has done it again - distilled from the mash of his life a strong and alluring narrative brew. You start reading, one story leads to the next, and all of a sudden two hours have passed. The wonder is that an entire household would have picked up on that from a set of galley proofs bound in plain blue paper.
"Teacher Man" has less heft than its predecessors in a couple of senses of the word: it is less packed with incident, passion and regret, and it's shorter. But it complements them. More than that: it completes them, with a strong, satisfying and - could it be? - happy ending. Animating the earlier books was a paradoxical tension. These were narratives of the absolutely highest level, richly textured and unputdownable. Yet McCourt depicted himself as tongue-tied and shy and capable of thinking up good comebacks only on the way down the stairs following his many painful encounters. Where did that fellow turn into the great yarn spinner, the Pulitzer Prize winner who stands atop best-seller lists, arms akimbo?
As it turns out, in the classroom. In 1958, 27 years old and a recent graduate of New York University, courtesy of the G.I. Bill, McCourt took a job as an English teacher at McKee Vocational and Technical High School on Staten Island. On his first day, at the start of his first class, one youth hurled a sandwich at another. All McCourt could think to say was, "Stop throwing sandwiches." A third youth replied (and McCourt's rendition of the patois of New York teenagers is priceless): "Hey, teach, he awredy threw the sangwidge. No use tellin' him now don't throw the sangwidge. They's the sangwidge there on the floor." McCourt writes:
"The sandwich, in wax paper, lay halfway out of the bag and the aroma told me there was more to this than baloney. I picked it up and slid it from its wrapping. It was not any ordinary sandwich where meat is slapped between slices of tasteless white American bread. This bread was dark and thick, baked by an Italian mother in Brooklyn, bread firm enough to hold slices of a rich baloney, layered with slices of tomato, onions and peppers, drizzled with olive oil and charged with a tongue-dazzling relish.
"I ate the sandwich."
The episode was emblematic of his life as a teacher, which would last another 30 years. Admittedly ill equipped for administering the conventional high school curriculum, McCourt conducted his classes with panic-born stealth and cunning: sometimes eating a sandwich, sometimes moderating oddball dialectics, sometimes singing Irish folk songs, sometimes studying the narrative strategy of recipes, nursery rhymes and excuse notes, but most often just telling stories. "My life saved my life," he writes. He recognized from the start that this played into the hands of shrewd classroom veterans who knew you could always avoid the lesson plan by getting the teacher up and rocking on a hobbyhorse. But that didn't matter. He perceived that the best way for his students to learn something was for him to learn something, and the best way to achieve that was to interpret and share his life and hard times. Not that he handed them rehearsed and well-worn yarns; those are dull and unsurprising to speaker and listener alike. No, he told the kind of stories whose paths and endings are a revelation.
McCOURT ended up teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. There his classroom style merged with a conception of writing that was less about putting words on paper than about active observing and imagining: "Every moment of your life, you're writing. Even in your dreams you're writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head. . . . You see someone you like and you say, Hi, in a warm melting way, a Hi that conjures up splash of oars, soaring violins, eyes shining in the moonlight. There are so many ways of saying Hi. Hiss it, trill it, bark it, sing it, bellow it, laugh it, cough it. A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head."
McCourt retired from Stuyvesant in the late 80's, in part because of a nagging rhetorical question: "Who was I to talk about writing when I had never written a book never mind published one?" His one, two and now three masterly memoirs show that he learned his own lessons well. "Teacher Man" is an irresistible valedictory, about a man finding his voice in the classroom, on the page and in his soul.
Ben Yagoda is the author, most recently, of "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing." He has just finished a book on the parts of speech.
Frank McCourt learns as much as he teaches in America
Reviewed by Floyd Skloot
Sunday, December 11, 2005
By Frank McCourt
SCRIBNER; 258 Pages; $26
Frank McCourt published his first book, "Angela's Ashes," at the age of 66.
A memoir embedded in the poverty and misery of his distant Irish childhood, it had a carefully controlled voice, that of a naive and baffled little boy from the Limerick slums. Its characters and setting were vividly realized, its language fresh and its mix of humor and sadness deftly balanced.
"Angela's Ashes" was a best-seller, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and was followed in 1999 by " 'Tis." This sequel carried McCourt's story forward from the point of his arrival in America as a teenager, culminating with the start of his career as a New York City high school teacher. Though no longer a child's, the narrator's voice in " 'Tis" remained naive and baffled as McCourt experienced himself still an outsider, the immigrant and novice teacher with a brogue, buffeted by a world he could neither control nor comprehend. Funny and touching, it left a reader wondering what happened in the ensuing three decades of McCourt's life. How did this Irishman who never felt he belonged anywhere get from being an American high school English teacher in his early 30s to an acclaimed debut writer in his late 60s?
"Teacher Man," the third in McCourt's series of memoirs, is meant to tell us that. It traces his career at four New York City public high schools and a community college, flashes back to material covered in his previous memoirs, pauses occasionally to offer reflections on pedagogy and American teenage behavior and briefly covers his aimless doctoral studies during a return to Ireland. But the writing lacks McCourt's familiar energy and control of tone, immediacy of scene, outrageous humor, richness of character and setting.
"Teacher Man" seems listless, forced, as his previous two memoirs never did, its sporadic moments of passionate brilliance only reminding the reader of how disengaged the rest of the book seems. It is difficult to imagine Frank McCourt writing something as flat and didactic as this statement of classroom insight: "Kids want to be cool. Never mind what parents say, or adults in general. Kids want to hang out and talk street language."
McCourt presents himself once again as naive and baffled. An outsider. "If there was a circle I was never part of it. I prowled the periphery." But the act wears thin when he is speaking of himself as a grown man, a teacher meant to impart knowledge and clarity to young students typically presented as wiser and more worldly than he is. McCourt seems to realize this, and no longer relies upon the innocent's voice and tone that carried his earlier books. Instead, "Teacher Man" speaks in a knowing, avuncular manner, summarizing rather than creating scenes, relying upon ironic commentary or one-sentence paragraphs, like notes for a lecture:
"Instead of teaching, I told stories.
Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching.
I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.
And you called yourself a teacher?"
Inner-city classrooms, the machinations of educational bureaucracy and rigid curricula are all alien to McCourt. They remind him of his church-dominated childhood; the strange byways of the midcentury Manhattan, where he landed as an immigrant; the military in which he served. There is an unaccustomed note of self-congratulation as he writes about how he succeeded despite them:
"I learned through trial and error and paid a price for it. I had to find my own way of being a man and a teacher and that is what I struggled with for thirty years in and out of the classrooms of New York. My students didn't know there was a man up there escaping a cocoon of Irish history and Catholicism, leaving bits of that cocoon everywhere."
Much of "Teacher Man" consists of anecdotes about students and colleagues. They are seldom presented as fully developed characters, however, but as figures used to illustrate his idiosyncratic approach to teaching, which relies upon autobiographical storytelling, as though 30 years of experience in the classroom were, in essence, rehearsal for McCourt's memoir writing.
There are scattered passages that suggest the sort of ingenious teacher and engaging writer McCourt has been. In one, he uses students' obviously forged parental notes of excuse as the basis for a lesson in imaginative writing. In another, he treats cookbooks as literature and stimulates his multiethnic classroom to share their traditional foods.
"When I talk to those kids I'm talking to myself," he writes near the book's end. "What we have in common is urgency." But despite his insistence, "Teacher Man" seldom evokes urgency on the part of McCourt or his students. It settles for something that McCourt clearly never settled for as a teacher, and never settled for as a memoirist before: the safety of disengagement.
Floyd Skloot received the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction for his memoir "In the Shadow of Memory." The follow-up, "A World of Light," was published in September.
Francis Gilbert reviews Teacher Man by Frank McCourt.
It is impossible to read Frank McCourt's new memoir, Teacher Man, about his life as a teacher in New York, without the incessant rain of Ireland drizzling into one's thoughts.
McCourt's first book, Angela's Ashes, published when he was 66, won the Pulitzer Prize, has sold millions of copies throughout the world, was turned into a successful Hollywood movie, and has astonished and moved anyone who has read it. In it, McCourt writes in the most luminous prose about his poverty-stricken but bizarrely inspiring childhood in Ireland. His mother, Angela, brought up the family while enduring the vicissitudes of a drunken husband, the deaths of three children, and the barbarous edicts of a repressive Catholic church. At one point, she was reduced to begging for food and clothing.
McCourt survived these horrors and emigrated to New York where he scraped a living doing menial jobs. Later, he was drafted into the United States Army: a story which he tells in the engaging but less magical sequel, Tis.
His escape from such a terrible upbringing and numerous hardships as a young man, means that when he takes a solid teaching job in this new book, the reader feels that it is a remarkable triumph. This is why this memoir about teaching is unlike any other I have read: relatively mundane events and incidents shine against the backdrop of that pathetic, abused child.
In Teacher Man, McCourt recounts the story of his travails and triumphs during four decades of teaching in the New York public school system. He taught teenagers and adults in four high schools: two working-class schools and two more middle-class ones. He estimates that in all he taught 12,000 pupils. Being imaginative, sensitive and well-read, he struggled with the robotic authorities and irate parents who suggested at various points in his career that he should find another job.
As a teacher in the British system, I was fascinated to learn that during the 1950s and 1960s the American education boards, for all their backward thinking, put motivating the students at the heart of the curriculum; an injunction which is sadly lacking in most of the school policy documents which are issued in Britain today. It was this imperative which forced McCourt to come up with some of his most innovative ideas, such as getting the pupils to write a suicide note in response to a depressing poem, cooking their own food to improve their vocabularies, chanting recipes and obscene nursery rhymes to stimulate their imaginations, and relating many of the set texts to their own lives so that they could see literature's true significance.
The high point of McCourt's teaching career was his time at Stuyvesant High School, perhaps the most respected state-run school in New York. Here he flourished because he was allowed by the enlightened authorities to teach what he wanted.
There is nothing hugely original about the stories that McCourt tells here. If you had not read Angela's Ashes and Tis then Teacher Man would be unexceptional. But if you have, then the book is transformed.
July 20, 2009
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Columnist
Read this article, here