Colum interviewed by Declan Meade, Stinging Fly Magazine, 2003
This is ostensibly the story of the life of Rudolf Nureyev and the lives of the people around him. What inspired you to write this novel?
“Ostensibly” is a good word. This is not a biography. It’s a story, a novel, a tale. For a long time I toyed with the idea of calling it “a false portrait.”
Recently I have begun to have doubts about the word “fiction.” Everyone is a story-teller, whether their stories are “true” or not. I suppose the job of telling stories is to probe the small, anonymous corners of the human experience that are sometimes beyond what we would normally term non-fiction or history. But then, lurking over your shoulder, there’s the inescapable force of public events and the moments of history. As a writer you want to see inside the dark corners in order to make sense of the room that has already been swept clean (or clean-ish) by historians, critics, and journalists. The story-writer has to follow a sort of reckless inner need in order to go on a journey into an unreliable or perhaps previously undocumented area of the human experience. Poets do this also of course. So too do historians, but in a different way.
But to get to the story of inspiration, well, it’s an Irish inspiration of sorts. A few years ago I heard a story from an acquaintance of mine about how, as a seven-year-old who lived in Ballymun in the early 1970s, his father used to come almost home every night and, well, beat up his family. But then one night the father came home, sober — carrying a television set. The whole family gathered around the television. At first they couldn’t get any reception, there was just snow, but then, later that night, when the boy carried the TV around the room, the first image finally appeared. It was Rudolf Nureyev dancing…dancing in his arms essentially. And my friend sort of, fell in love with Rudi, or at least the idea of Rudi. So much so that now, thirty years later, living in Brooklyn, he is still obsessed by Nureyev.
I thought it was an extraordinary image and I began to wonder what it is about our world that allows a Russian dancer to penetrate the consciousness of a working-class Dublin boy. The story seemed to reflect how simultaneously large and small our world has become. Living in New York, away from Dublin, meant that I could connect and dis-connect with that particular story (which is not in the novel, by the way, it was the inspiration towards the novel). And so perhaps I could connect and disconnect with all the other stories, or rumours, or facts also. In the end, I felt driven to write a novel that might try to cross all sorts of international boundaries and intersect, perhaps, with forgotten lives.
I was, naturally, led to the biographies of Nureyev. I was immediately enthralled by his life – the charm of it, the recklessness, the beauty, the ruin. And I was struck by the fact that Nureyev’s very first public dance (at the age of six) was in a hospital for soldiers home from the Russian front. It was a fact largely glossed over in most of the biographies. I wanted to know more. And so, from that moment, I decided to try to write about him…or rather write about him by writing about others. The problem was that I’d never been to Russia and I knew next-to-nothing about dance. And so I began reading everything I could lay my hands on. And travelling. And becoming more and more curious.
Tell us a bit about the amount and nature of research involved. How do you move from accumulating all these facts to writing a work of fiction?
First of all I consciously avoided anyone who knew him well. That left my imagination open to go where I might push it. I read the biographies, including Diane Solway’s “Nureyev,” which is a great book. And then I started reading, as they say, “outside the box”. I would have been lost without the libraries, in particular the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, which is one of the greatest in the world. There, I was able to find Red Army booklets from 1941, dance dictionaries, biographies, photographs, films, slides, depictions of the gay world in the 1970s, articles about Nureyev, celebrity quotes, weather reports from the southern parts of the Soviet Union in 1983, you name it.
I began watching dance classes and then I went to Russia during the summer of 2001. In Russia, I didn’t do the traditional sort of research. Rather, I walked a lot and talked with what might be called “ordinary” people. Of course ordinary people are always the most extraordinary – they live outside the confines of accepted history. I put myself in strange situations in order to try and understand that particular history and culture. I hung out in cafes in St. Petersburg, sat for hours on end in the stairwells of apartment buildings, went to steambaths, sat in the grounds of military hospitals, walked the graveyards. I went to Nureyev’s hometown in Ufa. Amazingly, very few people there knew him. He was sort of like a rumour. That, in itself, helped contribute to the novel.
One night, in Saint Petersburg, I ended up drinking with local mafia bosses. In fact we ended up dancing on the tables with some of the artists from the Kirov. It’s a long story, but these things happen. All these experiences helped form a mosaic through which I tried to understand Russia, both contemporary and past. It was much the same with ballet. I’d never even been to a ballet before I started this book. Then I started to go, in New York first, and then in Saint Petersburg, and suddenly I was captivated. I attended performances, watched classes, talked with dancers. I was struck by the grace and beauty and violence of it all at the same time. And my daughter, Isabella, began dancing too, at the same time, totally independent of my project. Watching her dance gave me a whole new appreciation for it and a strange link with Nureyev’s youth.
There was a lot of political discovery for me also. In the research I was looking for the dust that settles between left and right, the contradictions between the absolutes. But the conflicting ideologies are always there in the human stories – the story of Yulia, for instance. Ideology is unavoidable, of course. But being too aware of it can “disease” a book. It struck me, after writing the book, that Rudolph Nureyev’s life could be taken and interpreted as a metaphor for the life of the Soviet Union. It could be said that he lived the life of his country in advance, right down to the physical disintegration of the body and then, indeed, the curious ongoing “resurrection,” whereby his reputation is now being rehabilitated now in the former Soviet Union. One hopes that the Russia we see today will not be a country without a theory.
You employ a wide range of styles and storytelling techniques throughout the novel? I’m thinking here of first-, second- and third-person narratives, straight narration, journal entries, letters, flight reports, etc. Was that part of a challenge you set yourself? How did that evolve?
At one stage, early on in the process of writing the novel, I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of hundreds of different characters – it seems crazy now – each one different and never repeating. In the end I couldn’t sustain this. I began to feel like it was just a literary exercise. It didn’t have the heart that I wanted. And I missed some of the characters I had created – I wanted Yulia, the dance teacher’s daughter, to come back, for instance. I missed her. I missed her voice. In the end she finishes the novel for me. That’s a strange way to put it, but in some ways I felt, like a ventriloquist: these voices, imagined or not, had a duty to be heard. The other thing is that I just had a great time writing the novel…I was learning all sorts of things from all sorts of different angles.
All the time I was aware of John Dos Passos and how he had dealt with multiple narrative viewpoints and the camera-eye technique that he used in his novel U.S.A. I wanted to see what might happen to a story if it became a chorus, even a dissonant one, where everyone gets up and sings in different voices. It seemed an interesting way to tell a life — the big and the small moments shouldering up against one another. The shoemaker and the hustler and the soldier and the nurse could tell their sides of the story, while Warhol and Fonteyn and even Jimi Hendrix could be included also.
I ended up approaching it in a more-or-less chronological manner, so it blended a certain amount of experimentation with quite traditional methods. But its construction was unique for me: all the time I felt that I was writing something new. Now that I’m finished I’m not so sure it’s new at all. Other writers create new things: Berger, DeLillo, Edna O’Brien, Doctorow. I realise that now. I’m still learning. I hope always to learn and someday write something, well, new. It goes back to the notion that you always fail. If you don’t fail in some way, then you’re in difficulty: the difficulty of sameness. I want to tack that Beckett quote up on every wall I work in front of: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Some sections were easier to write than others. The major problem was trying to make it all seem simple. But that’s the art of dance as well…making all that violence that you impose upon the body seem simple and, god save us, organic. What I mean is, I was just trying to tell a good story and attempting to use the proper language to tell it. I don’t see it so much as Nureyev’s story per se, but as an embrace of many different worlds. I wanted to talk about the international aspect of where we all currently are.
The primary advantage to having so many different narrators is that you can hold the story up like a prism – the light shining through will give different beams every time you shake it, or turn it, or distort it. And that seemed to me particularly apt for a story about the reflections of a star, an international celebrity, in the lives of ordinary people.
In some ways the novel is a progressive history of dance. It becomes a dance – both in terms of the way the language is structured and also how the narrators take centre stage for a while and then move off to allow other narrator/dancers to appear.
There is a very large cast of characters involved, including some very famous cameo appearances. I’d love to know which, if any, of the main characters were either entirely fictional or composite characters?
Basically everyone in the novel is “fictional” or “dreamt,” apart from the very obvious ones. For example, Rudi had three sisters. In the novel, he has one. She’s an imaginative composite. She shoulders quite a lot of the narrative. His dance teacher, Anna, is based on a character who taught him how to dance at age 11. Victor, who carries much of the New York narrative, is based upon a runour I heard about a gay character living in New York in the 1970’s…I have no idea whatsoever if Victor and Rudi knew each other or not, but I made them best friends. So Victor is essentially made up from scratch.
The only bit of absolute poaching I did for the book was to take Andy Warhol’s diary entry and reproduce it verbatim. Curiously enough it was one of the things people pulled me up on. “That can’t be true,” they said.
Ingmar Bergman at one stage in his life said: “Sometimes I must console myself with the fact that he who tells a lie, loves the truth.”
Same goes for plot developments, if we can avoid giving too much away.
I wanted to be fairly true to Nureyev himself. I didn’t want him fathering some child in Paris, or living in China, or something ridiculous where the accepted facts become farce. No. The basis of the facts are there. The story-line is largely true to his life. On the broad canvas it’s fair…but it’s an abstract fairness, if you will. It’s an abstract portrait, concentrating on lines and brush-strokes and traditionally-neglected parts of the canvas. The darker reaches that the eye doesn’t necessarily go to. Is it factual? No. He wasn’t in Caracas in the early 1980’s, as far as I know. But facts are mercenary things: they can be used and exploited in so many ways. I wanted to create a texture that was true. I also wanted to question the idea of story-telling. Who owns a story? Who has the right to tell a story? Who and what legislates what becomes a supposed fact? If the historian pushes the story-teller aside, shouting No, No, No, then, fuck it, the story teller should shout back and say, Why not? Why not? Why not?
Imagine you were at the bar last night. Who is going to tell the story of that night? The bartender? The waitress? Your friends? Or you? Or maybe a composite of everyone who was there? Maybe even the ones who didn’t see you. After all, the ones who didn’t see you might have an insight also: they might create an atmosphere or might, indeed, have noticed something about the bartender who claims a truth. It’s six degrees of separation and preparation and instigation.
And so, for me, Rudolph Nureyev’s first public dance is governed as much by the soldiers he danced for – and what they fought for – as for Nureyev himself.