Vocal Eccentricity and Musical Exceptionalism in James McCourt’s fiction”

This paper aims to examine the representation of vocal virtuosity, eccentricity and singularity in James McCourt’s fiction, particularly in his novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz (1971). It focuses on the role of the operatic voice as it is represented in James McCourt’s writings, especially within the context of the musical eccentricity of opera.

The recurrent protagonist in James McCourt’s novels, Mawrdew Czgowchwz, is a diva whose voice is totally out of line with any other existing voice. The vocal category to which it belongs is the otherworldly oltrano. In McCourt’s fiction, that extraordinary voice is related to extravagance, and it tends to be associated with fetishism and extremism, which presents the reader with a specific form of musical exceptionalism, namely that of opera fanaticism.

This paper aims to demonstrate that: (a) the notion of eccentricity constitutes a fundamental mode of representing vocality in literature and that the notion of exceptionalism derives from virtuosity and vocal singularity; (b) the representation of vocality in McCourt is inherently related to gender ambiguity, from which stem new aspects of exceptionalism, such as androgyny or travesty; (c) eccentricity rubs off on the very structure of the text, so that it leads to an exceptionally singular style of biographical writing itself. Indeed, in Mawrdew Czgowchwz, the style of the text rests on a hyperbolic use of language based on lists, foreign vocabulary, or neologisms, which create tongue-twister cornucopia effects of literary musicality.

Hence, this presentation highlights the notion of musical exceptionalism as both a literary theme and a textual structure.


Key-words: fiction – music – voice – gender – eccentricity – exceptionalism – virtuosity – musicalization of fiction – biography.



Dr. Marcin Stawiarksi teaches at the University of Caen, in France. He completed his Ph.D. thesis, entitled “Temporal Aspects of Music in the 20th-Century Novel: Conrad Aiken, Anthony Burgess and Gabriel Josipovici” at the University of Poitiers in 2007. His research focuses on the intersections of music and literature as well as representation of time in fiction. His recent work includes a volume about Gabriel Josipovici (https://lisa.revues.org/5735) and several papers, the most recent of which is «‘Voice-trace’ in James Chapman’s How Is this Going to Continue? » (Sound Effects: The Object Voice in Fiction, Jorge Sacido-Romero, Sylvia Mieszkowski (eds.), Brill, Rodopi, DQR Studies in Literature, vol.59, 2015).