Another Memoir For McCourt

Writer Frank McCourt AP

Rome was a fearful place in the imagination of young Frankie McCourt - a place where Catholic sins were defined, a place of hellfire to lap around the damp ankles of a shivering Limerick lad.

So it's funny that more than a half-century later, the now grown writer Frank McCourt has made Rome his home.

"This was the center of all sins: guilt, redemption, art, sacraments, liturgy. Everything comes from here," McCourt said recently as he sipped white wine at a hotel atop the Spanish Steps. "You come here already with baggage. You're bringing back the baggage that they sent. And what they sent to Ireland was very strong."


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The author of "Angela's Ashes" - the account of his dire poverty and desperation as a boy in Limerick, Ireland, as well as "'Tis," a follow-up about his arrival in America - is working on a third memoir while on a three-month residency at Rome's American Academy.

This book, which he hopes to complete within a year, will delve into his time as a teacher, a matter he touched on in "'Tis."

Teaching, he said during an interview, is "the most significant of all professions." Yet he revealed profound doubts about whether he'd made a mistake teaching for 29 years rather than turning earlier to writing.

"I look at these people my age who were young novelists - William Styron and people like that. They were writing novels in their 20s. I was in the classroom in my 20s. I suppose I was learning," McCourt said. "What if I'd just said to myself, 'To hell with it, I'm going to write?' What would have happened?"

McCourt arrived in New York in 1949, escaping Ireland and his ghastly childhood. He was a shy young man, painfully aware of his lack of education, his thick accent. He feared he would seem laughable to the pretty girls in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, where he cleaned cigarette butts from the ashtrays. McCourt eventually moved on, to the Army and to college before working as a high school English teacher.

All that time, he watched his friends writing. McCourt, whose wet blue eyes are still young and full of wonder after 71 years, said that perhaps fear and lack of self-esteem held him back.

"There's always the 'what-if' factor in your life. When I was in the Army I thought, 'I'll go back and get a job as a busboy or a waiter and live close to the edge and write every day and starve.' I think what kept me from that was the Irish experience - poverty. I didn't want to be penny-pinching. I wanted things. I wanted to look good, I wanted clothes, I wanted food, I wanted to talk to women."

McCourt eventually did turn to writing, after retiring at 57 from teaching the young of New York. He wrote and acted in a play with his brother, Malachy, called "A Couple of Blaguards." Then, in 1994, he began "Angela's Ashes."

It was published two years later and became one of the biggest publishing successes in recent years. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, sold over 4 million copies and has been translated into more than 20 languages.

It was dark and tragic. Yet not as dark and tragic, it turns out, as it could have been.

"Sometimes in 'Angela's Ashes' I soft-pedaled a lot of stuff," McCourt said. "I could have made it grimmer, I could have made it more realistic. I knew if you push it too far - if you start describing how this lavatory was that we shared, the awful stink of it and the rats coming out, and the horror of it - people would put the book down and not want to look at it again.

"People have told me they couldn't get into the book for a long time because too many babies were dying at the beginning," he said with a small laugh. "It's not a good way to start a book."

His childhood suffering was compounded by a harsh form of Catholicism inculcated by parish priests who rained down religious threats on the poor lad sitting in the pews.

A terrible, imagined Rome may have haunted McCourt as a boy. The real city is not what he would have expected. Being in Rome, being in the heart of the Catholic world, McCourt reflected on the role religion played in his childhood in Ireland as opposed to its role in Italy today.

"Nobody gives a damn about the priests here, nobody cares," he said. "We respected the church and feared it and were terrified because they controlled us completely."

He summed up the differences between Italian Catholicism and the kind he experienced in Ireland: "Where you don't have good wine, the priests rule."

McCourt, despite his remarkable success, still seems at times like the young fellow he once was: slightly astonished by the mysteries of the world and by his good fortune after such a sorry start.

"To have achieved the dream that I always had, with all the years in the classroom, to be a writer ... that's what I wanted to be, that's what I achieved, that's what I am, that's what I'll die as."

He paused.

"Unless the muse deserts me completely - and then I go pleading for a job in the classroom."


By Tom Rachman
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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