“Dancer” by Colum McCann

A novel that captures the wild, glorious life of Rudolf Nureyev -- beautiful, arrogant and brilliant -- and the tragic country he abandoned.

Topics: Books,

Early in Colum McCann’s novel “Dancer” you realize that this fictionalized account of the life of ballet genius Rudolf Nureyev isn’t really about Rudolf Nureyev. The first half, especially the unblinking initial 10 pages, a hypnotic rush of brutal war imagery and an unfurling of the devastation that a winter campaign visits on men, is about Russia. The last half of the book, after the young peasant dancer becomes a beloved, controversial icon, revels in the strange glow of celebrity. Obviously, the contrast between the two could not be more stark. The effect is similar to watching Nureyev explode from the stage to the air: an unearthly transformation, an angry spectacle, an overwhelming charge.

It’s all part of McCann’s technique: He starts wide and slowly closes in on Nureyev, swirling around and around him like the whirl of sand that produces a genie. When the dust settles, there should stand the beautiful, arrogant dancer, hands on hips, jaw clenched, leg muscles tight — or so we hope. Certainly, McCann briefly summons up Nureyev, and right down to the startling size of his you-know-what, but Nureyev, whoever he is, disappears just when McCann gets close. At times, this can be frustrating; by the end of “Dancer,” McCann proves his method to be entirely appropriate for his elusive subject.

The novel begins with the dancer as a poor rebellious child. McCann depicts the gray, claustrophobic, war-torn despair that Nureyev will eventually leave behind: “The local guards stood weary against the pillars under red metal signs for rural electrification that swung in the breeze — Our Great Leader Is Bringing Electricity to You! — and a smell penetrated the air, foreshadowing the soldiers, sweat and rot, and each winter afternoon a 6-year-old boy, hungry and narrow and keen, sat on a cliff above the river, looking down at the trains, wondering when his own father would be coming home and whether he would be broken just like the ones they were lifting from beneath the steam and the bugles.”

McCann’s attention to Russia eventually makes Nureyev’s departure, and his glamorous life afterward, all the more stunning. Very soon after his father returns from the war, the boy begins taking dance lessons in secret, a surprising betrayal to his poverty-stricken family. We don’t see inside the young dancer’s mind, but at the same time we know that this is Nureyev — head held impossibly high, walking proudly, his back to the world — brave enough to believe that he owes a greater duty to his gifts than to his homeland or even to his family.



A convincing rendering of a historical figure, and a notorious one, is a risky task; McCann’s solution is to shift perspectives among various people in Nureyev’s life, from his first ballet instructor to his resentful sister to Margot Fonteyn to his British shoemaker. Some might be disappointed that McCann only attempts Nureyev’s point of view once, and in rigid, diary form. And it does feel somewhat slapdash compared to the fiery, flourishing passages that McCann devotes to minor characters. The result, however, is remarkable: What McCann imagines so beautifully is the way a hero walks through life somewhat differently from the rest of us, the mere breeze of his passing setting off a thousand ripples of change, both good and bad.

Still, you can’t help but wonder what, say, a long passage about Nureyev’s close friend Victor Pareci’s insane, drug-addled social life, for all its fun and romp and speed, really adds to the novel. It’s 30-some pages of “and after checking the baths thoroughly Victor still finds no sign, so he steps out in the street, looks right and left, even jogs to the corner, but the avenue is curiously quiet and sinister, not a soul breaking its shadows, dangerous times, there have been beatings of gay men, but you live your life only as long as it lives you, so Victor starts to walk,” and so on.

Eventually, Pareci disintegrates from AIDS, not an altogether surprising end to the same sort of promiscuous life that Nureyev enjoyed. Nureyev lives longer (he too died of AIDS in 1993, but McCann doesn’t write about that), dances until he’s 50. People decay around the brilliance of the dancer; he is hurt but he goes on just as he had as a child. How? Why? “Dancer” is full of simple answers, yet McCann is wise enough to allow a sense of mystery to shroud them.

Ultimately, McCann’s decision to hold Nureyev at arm’s length captures something more interesting than a psychoanalytical probing might have revealed. When someone is as famous, as beautiful, as breathtakingly talented, as infuriatingly self-absorbed — and brings people so much pleasure — as Nureyev, those around him want more than he can possibly give, because he seems to be more than just a man. Rather than serving up his own version of Nureyev’s soul, McCann prefers to conjure awe, and the way the human heart breaks for loving something it wants but cannot possess. Nureyev still seems more than human to me, a feeling of wonder best celebrated, and left unchallenged.

Our next pick: The author of “Clockers” tells the story of a guilty white guy whose good deeds yield dire results

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>