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McCann's Nureyev

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Colum McCann's 'Dancer' can only be described as a 'tour de force', which is a term most reviewers used. The book is separated into four 'books'--the first one deals with his years in Ufa, the most poignant part of the book for me. Book three went on too long, I felt, about the underbelly of his life. But through it all, there is the gorgeous prose of Colum McCann. Read it!

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I am reading it, and just finished "Book One," which is about half the novel. It gets off to a brilliant, if harrowing, start -- in the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. You think that it can't possibly maintain that level, but it comes very close, at least in Book One. It has enough ballet scenes to satisfy fans, but McCann's canvas is much wider -- it encompasses "love, art, fame, exile" -- as the jacket has it. I enthusiastically echo atm711's recommendation.

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Buy this book and read it. I have never read a ballet novel that rose above the level of execrable. This one is a masterpiece. That the NY Times gave it a merely descriptive review should only alert you to the noncommittal torpor into which their book section has drifted of late.

I went to a reading Mr. McCann did here and everyone spent the evening cooing about Nureyev; I saw him here, we worked together there, seeing him on tv inspired me to........ nobody said a word about how brilliant this book is, least of all Mr. McCann, who seems genuinely surprised by it, as if he awoke one Easter Sunday and discovered each of its pages in baskets hidden in his house.

What's slick about the book is that the presentation reflects the subject. As monumental, as unerringly unique as Nureyev's achievements were, and in spite of his incivility to most of the people he encountered, EVERYONE could relate to him in some very personal way, so the book examines him in short vignettes from the viewpoints of the people around him, some of them historical, some fictional, some not even identified.

At the reading Mr. McCann said that he had made up a name for one of Rudik's teachers, and when he visited the real teacher's grave in Russia, the woman who tended the cemetary had his fictional character's name! Now that's either really remarkable, or it's really first rate blarney; either way I admire him for saying it. It's precisely the risk that great artists are addicted to.

The book shows the immense power of our art form to draw all the threads of history into the fabric of the present and the future. It also demonstrates how a dancer starts with mud, blood, and determination and creates the airiest of fantasies.

Mr. McCann is an ecstatic with his feet firmly on the ground, so Nureyev is the perfect hero for him. One segment, I believe the only one from Rudik's POV, that describes one turn around the stage in about 3 pages (I don't have it here, you will know it when you read it) reminds me of that central chapter in Great Gatsby about the party at Gatsby's house that ends "one girl tosses down a drink for courage, steps onto the floor, and the world flies away...." That is, the descriptive power is so realistic and yet the subject matter is so transcendent that we are launched on a miraculous centripetal joyride into the unknowable. Melville's rapturous, rhythmic descriptions of the sea come to mind too.

Whatever you think of Nureyev you shouldn't miss the experience of reading this book. I personally feel all those "Man of the Century" lists three years back were rendered meaningless by omitting him from nomination, not because of his greatness but because so much of what happened in the 20th century flowed through his life. McCann has given us a work of literature as audacious, entertaining, and pitilessly brilliant as its subject.

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