Sunday, July 19, 2009

In Memoriam: Frank McCourt

The Washington Post reports:

Frank McCourt, who melted the hearts of millions of readers with "Angela's Ashes," a lyrically poignant memoir of his poverty-stricken Irish childhood, died of melanoma July 19 in New York. He was 78.

Mr. McCourt was a retired teacher in his mid-60s when he wrote "Angela's Ashes," an unflinching and unforgettable account of his family's misery in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and 1940s. It was his first book, published in 1996, and immediately won critical acclaim and a vast readership.

The memoir received the Pulitzer Prize and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks, including 23 at No. 1. In a review, Washington Post book editor Nina King wrote, "This memoir is an instant classic of the genre."

Indeed. He is missed...but he rejoices now with Angela, and with his father.


I note that I've received private Emails--from people whom I love and respect--expressing their disapproval of the writings of Frank McCourt, in particular his open hostility toward the institutional Catholic Church. They also believe that his accounts of his childhood suffering are, shall we say, "Irish storytelling", exaggerated for effect.

Well, with three dead siblings, I could hardly blame him for that; poetic license is, let us say, the privilege of the true poet. And I'll leave to God whether his dissent rose to the level of culpable heresy.

But there's an important story about Mr. McCourt that needs to be told.

At the end of his book "Angela's Ashes," he relates his return to the United States. He had been born in New York City, so he was a citizen by birth; however, he had been raised on the mean streets of Dublin. It was 1951 or so, and he had just turned 21. He came off of a ship in New York harbor, in the company of a shipmate, who invited him to a party.

There, on his first night on American soil, he engaged in an act of, ahem, sexual congress with a woman who he had just met and who, he knew, was already long married to someone else. His shipmate spent the evening with her friend.

As they walked home, his friend looked to him and said: "Ah, America, 'tis a marvelous country!" To which McCourt replied, "'Tis!" (Thus giving the title to his next work, his American autobiography.)

Compare this to Sayyed Qutb, the godfather of the Islamist movement, the executed revolutionist shot (for very good reason) by the Gamel Nasser regime in Egypt, and the intellectual guiding star of Osama Bin Laden and Mohammad Atta.

He, too, about this time--late 1940s or so--arrived in America on a ship, coming from his native Egypt to live among us and study. His first night in America he too was offered a night of sexual pleasure in the arms of a married woman--a Jewish woman, at that! He quite righteously recoiled.... then eventually went home and wrote fanatical treatises on the superiority of an inhuman, unbending Islam, over American decadence. He then went on to take part in a plot to murder Nasser; Nasser took a rather dim view of this and had him shot.

His pupils were the teachers of Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaida network.

I daresay that the universe may well have turned out much better (and 3000 dead Americans wouldn't be) had Qutb committed adultery instead of intellectual auto-eroticism.

Some sins are far worse than others. "It is better to be a prostitute," C.S. Lewis once said in Mere Christianity, "than a prig."

("It is of course better still to be neither", Lewis added.)

Be that as it may, I'd rather be Frank McCourt than Sayyed Qutb.

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