Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Naomi Alderman, Mick Jackson and Bert Trautmann.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

For Alice Fisher in the Guardian, the second novel from Naomi Alderman is "sturdily plotted and hooks you in: it's a good read if not unique". Its plot is reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty or The Secret History, while "if you've read all three you'll find it impossible to read The Lessons without attributing each story development to one of these predecessors". However, "Alderman evokes the shock of the fresh start at university well", and "she's particularly good at describing the arcana and intensity of Oxford life." Amanda Craig in the Independent argues that "Nothing could be more different, superficially, from Alderman's prize-winning debut, Disobedience", and warns that "at times the novel becomes brittle to the point of self-parody, and The Lessons will certainly annoy many who are automatically hostile to Oxbridge and elitism". However, "Alderman's sharpness of observation punctures the parties, sex, drugs, eccentrics and conversation while never quite descending into satire", and she concludes that "this is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy and, despite falling into an over-familiar genre, it is a pleasure to read." Damian Barr in the Independent on Sunday looks beyond Waugh's influence: "Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay - lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics", and "Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence." But "Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher."

The Lessons will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson

Mick Jackson's third novel is "is tightly packed with explosive emotion", writes Hilary Mantel in theGuardian; however, she finds the central character to be "a stereotype", which is unfortunate because "the book's success as a novel stands or falls by whether the widow convinces us, whether we are motivated to stick close and see her through ... All her opinions are weekend-supplement truisms, and her voice itself is uneven". Mantel's concludes that "Jackson has thought deeply about bereavement, and it seems shabby to dispraise a book so acutely observed", but "you need to pay your dues to fiction's form as well as its content." Of the eponymous widow Lucy Daniel in the Telegraph writes that "her droll monologue plays over a background of muddled grief", though "after a while the book seems to consist of nothing but asides." She feels ultimately that "in keeping with our widow's interest in the ascetic life, the book itself has an ascetic discipline." For Helen Rumbelow in the Times, The Widow's Tale is "spare, short, utterly contemporary", and "very funny". Like the other reviews, Adrian Turpin's recognises that the story is a "pilgrimage", though for him it is a "a writer's commonplace book moonlighting as a novel. For all its aphoristic tartness - which is reminiscent in places of Simon Gray's diaries - it never entirely convinces as fiction."

 

Trautmann's Journey by Catrine Clay

Simon Hattenstone in the Observer asks: "why did Trautmann agree to collaborate with this book? To ease his conscience, get the truth out there, or did he simply feel he had nothing to hide?" Catrine Clay's account of the Manchester City goalkeeper with Nazi origins is "a fascinating if dispiriting read", Hattenstone decides, summing it up thus: "Clay's book is not a conventional biography and it's certainly not a sport book. Rather than using the times to tell the story of Trautmann, she uses Trautmann to tell the story of Nazi Germany. In a way, he becomes an everyman, soaked in the blood and horror of the Holocaust." Miranda Seymour in the Telegraph writes that "much of the poignancy of Trautmann's story derives from the skill with which Clay develops our sense of the discrepancy between his experiences and what was actually going on", and, more sympathetically: "Trautmann's participation in Clay's book fits with his admirable commitment to the promotion, through sport, of Anglo-German relations". She sums it up by saying: "a thoughtful biographer has given depth and substance to the plainly told story of an uncommon life." Roger Moorhouse in the Independent writes that "Trautmann's Journey is a remarkable story, well told", and is keen to stress that "Though it is not short of affection for its subject, this is no hagiography. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority."

 

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue