One of the last wishes of writer Frank McCourt, who died on 19 July, was for his ashes to be scattered over the River Shannon in Limerick, the city he made famous, if not notorious, in his Pulitzer-prize-winning account of his desperately poor childhood there. When he left for the US, he said he was "a shabby, unappealing character with no self-esteem".
Jean O'Sullivan found a very different person when she interviewed him in Paris for The Eyes in September 1997.
"My teachers were all trained by the Marquis de Sade," says Frank McCourt
Anyone who hasn't heard of Angela's Ashes by now must be living on another planet. Released last month in France, Frank McCourt's Pulitzer-prize-winning memoir of his early years has dominated the best-seller lists in the U.S. and much of Europe for over a year. An unsentimental child's-eye-view account of an unrecognizable Ireland, it has been translated into 15 languages, has put Limerick on the map, and has catapulted the unassuming former teacher into the stratosphere of literary stardom.
Angela's Ashes conjures up the life of the poor in this harsh and unforgiving society during the 30s and 40s, and, for the first time, gives them a voice. But the central paradox of this account of misery, near-starvation and untimely deaths from galloping consumption --and what explains its universal appeal-- is that it's a very funny book, teeming with characters and anecdotes. Irish Eyes met Frank Mc Court when he came to Paris to launch it.
Q: You describe scenes of the most unimaginable hardship without a trace of anger or bitterness. How did you manage to keep such a light touch?
A: I didn't want to impose myself upon the reader, to be always saying "Here I am, Look at me!" I just wanted to tell the story. A book came out recently called The Culture of Complaint, about how people are always blaming, always suing, always looking for scapegoats. My pupils in the States used to wonder why the adults were always whinging. It's so immature. So I just said to myself, don't complain. Just tell the story and tell it straight.
Q: In spite of all the misery, your father and mother still managed to tell stories and sing songs. Do people find that surprising?
A: Well, what else was there to do? We had no TV, no radio, no books, just the language and ourselves. There was a lot of sitting around the fire, talking. Sometimes my mother --Angela--went to the cinema. That was a huge treat. She loved Clark Gable. When she came home, she'd make a pot of tea and tell us the whole story, frame by frame, dialogues, descriptions, the lot. I remember being enthralled by her ability to recapture a whole movie -- Reap the Wild Wind, with Ray Milland, was one -- and letting my imagination work, looking at the images in the coal fire.
Q. No matter how bad things are, there are others even worse off than you. The 'barefoot boys', for example, like your friend Paddy Clohessy. There's a harrowing description of a night in his house which is not easy to forget.
A: My mother always said, "you could be worse off." There were times I didn't believe her. We were on the edge of being committed to an orphanage.
Q: Even though the book begins in Brooklyn, most of the events take place in Limerick. Is it true that busloads of tourists are visiting South's, the pub where you describe having your first pint?
A: Yes, there's this guy in New York running Angela's Ashes tours. It costs $1 250. The fifty dollars is is for the St Vincent de Paul,Society, who kept us alive. I've often been asked to pose for photos in front of my old house but of course it's gone now. The whole area has changed. It's hard to find a decent slum any more!
(As Frank was speaking of fame, Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife, Rebecca Miller, who were staying in the same hotel, came over to greet him. They had a chat about theatre in Galway, bookshops in Paris, and work in progress, then moved on. )
Q. I'm getting two celebrities for the price of one here.
We were talking about fame...
A: I had a dream the other night that I was signing books in a bookshop and the Pope came along looking for a signature! It must be something to do with being in Paris. It's been a long tour. Three weeks is my limit away from New York.
Q: We never hear what happens to Angela's ashes as she's still alive at the end of the book, when you return to America. What's the sequel going to be like?
A: I did set out to write the book up to her death in 1981. But the part about my childhood was so long that my publisher said the American years could be another book. I really want to write about is my teaching career.
Q : Why? Were you influenced by your own teachers?
A: God no. My teachers were all trained by the Marquis de Sade.
Q : So how did you become a teacher?
A : Well when I arrived in the States I worked in menial jobs. I was a shabby, unappealing character with no self-esteem to speak of. Then I got drafted into the army, which then financed my studies under the GI Bill. NYU took me on probation for a year, even though I had no formal education. And I became a teacher.
Q : Your brother Malachy has got a book coming out soon, I believe?
A : Yes. Malachy is more of a professional Irishman than I am! As a teacher, I was more in the mainstream of American life. Then there's my brother Mike. When people ask him if he's going to produce a book, he says "I'll write one when they're all dead!"
Article and interview by Jean O'Sullivan
"En quoi ce récit nous concerne-t-il, nous qui ne sommes ni pauvres, ni irlandais?" demande Christian Sauvage dans Le Journal de Dimanche la semaine du lancement du livre de Frank McCourt, Les Cendres d'Angela, qui était déjà en voie de devenir best-seller. Avant de fournir lui-même la réponse:
"Dieu sait si l'on identifie à ce petit Frank qui voit mourir ses frères et soeur, qui risque lui-même de mourir de thyphoïde, qui voit ses parents s'humilier de misère, de l'alcool. Affaire de talent et de compassion."
C'est Françoise Triffaux, éditrice chez Belfond, qui s'est d'abord identifiée au petit Frank. Elle a répéré Les Cendres d'Angela bien avant que cela ne devienne un phenomène littéraire outre-Atlantique. Affaire de talent et de goût...
Le traducteur, Daniel Bismuth, lui aussi est tombé sous le charme du style McCourt dont il a su rendre et le lyrisme des balades que chante McCourt père à la fermeture des pubs et les répliques ironiques de sa femme Angela.