This novel opens with a scene of war which is destined to become a classic: trudging back from the front through a ravaged and icy wasteland, their horses dying around them, their own hunger rendering them almost savage, the Russian soldiers are exhausted as they reach the city of Ufa, desperate for food and shelter. They find both, and then music and dance. And there, spinning unafraid among them, dancing for the soldiers and anyone else who¿ll watch him, is one small pale boy, Rudolf. This is Colum McCann¿s dancer. Rudolf, a prodigy at six years old, became the greatest dancer of the century, redefined dance, rewrote his own life, and died of AIDS before anyone knew he had it. This is an extraordinary life transformed into extraordinary fiction by one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation. One kind of masculine grace is perfectly matched to another in Colum McCann¿s beautiful and daring novel.
He depicts the complexity of character, the ramshackle and banal poverty of humdrum totalitarianism, the coexistence of intense and meaningless frivolity, vindictive insecurity, and ruthless artistic perfectionism, in a careful reconstruction of time, place and personality.
McCanns realisation has a sense of true integrity to it. A sense of understanding, and carefully crafted character, that, though ficitional, seeks to uncover the character entirely on it's own terms.
As a biography, it is of course, fictional. As fiction, it shares in character with other great work the feel of carefully crafted and ruthless truth.
I think mostly everyone has seen, whether they know it or not, a little bit of Rudolf Nureyev dance. He was a superstar and his early performances can be found on youtube still but I knew nothing about him apart from the fact that he was an amazing ballet dancer who had defected in the early 60s. This book wasn't exactly a biography because it had amalgamations of people, and suppposings flung in amongst the facts, but there was enough truth about it to be informative.
The actual style of the book was weird for me. Speech wasn't shown conventionally, the book was split into books with very few chapters within them and perspective would shift from one character to another from page to page without telling you who it was you were reading so it kept you on your toes as you were reading. It was a little confusing at times, but it was engrossing enough that I wanted to stick with it anyway.
It covered 'Rudi' Nureyev's life from child-hood to his trip home and ended with the auction prices his belongings had sold for after his death. He was a complex character - a perfectionist who was at times deeply unlikeable but at others you almost wanted to shelter him. His relationship with Margot Fontaine was portrayed beautifully, which (combined with her financial issues) explained why they continued to dance together for so long (she still danced with him when she was 69 years old and he was 50). Rudi was decadent and used and discarded men for pleasure yet never really found any deep, lasting love or pleasure in life. The most touching part of the book for me was his visit home to see his dying mother in 1989, nearly 30 years after his defection. He showered his sister and niece with gifts and refused to leave his mother until she recognised him, but she never did.
It was a good book and has me curious as to maybe reading a different account that would perhaps be a little more thorough. I just don't know enough about him to know which parts of the story were fictionalised and enhanced for dramatic purposes (he even admits some of the celebrity accounts weren't accurate, which is a shame because they were fascinating) so eventually I might get an actual biography and try and find out what is right and what's not.
Still though, it was definitely worth a read so not going to complain too much.
And, quite frankly, I found a number of the individual stories much more interesting and compelling than the overall story of Nureyev. I would have been happy to have a novel or short story about a Russian nurse in World War II or the daughter of a political dissident living in Leningrad or teacher in Ufa with a brother who defects to the West or a gay hanger on in the 1970s (though that one is pretty well covered in Holleran's Dancer from the Dance).
As the novel exists, it was okay. I would have stopped reading except it was for my book group. Pre- and post-AIDS gay life is well depicted. Ballet culture is always interesting. The theme of sacrifice for art (including to some extent, celebrity as a sacrifice) was interesting. But I would have rather been reading something else.
Born in a peasant village of Tarter parents, Nureyev exhibited talent at a very young age and was fortunate to come in contact with a exiled Russian ballerina who taught him the basics. From there he went to Kiev where he made a name for himself. It was to a trip of the Russian Ballet to Paris that he defected. This caused his family a huge amount of trouble and disgrace.
He went on to become perhaps the most outstanding dancer of his time seemingly being able to hold himself in the air during his leaps. He found a soul-partner in Margot Fontaine even though she was 20 years older. His personal life, however, was a total mess involving many who surrounded him only for his fame.
There were parts of this story that I truly enjoyed; other parts that I almost skipped. A long "stream of consciousness" chapter with Victor, his lover as the main focus left me totally cold. The book was interesting enough that I read and watched several videos of Nureyev. There are parts of the books that are beautifully written especially the final chapters when he is allowed to visit for 48 hours back to his home town to see his mother and sister.
I'd recommend it to interested readers, and to readers interested in dance or in novels told in experimental or varying designs and levels.