Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jeffrey Eugenides, Joseph Brodsky, Francine Stock and Stephen Hughes.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides has written his first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. "Jeffrey Eugenides' third novel begins in the early 1980s on a prestigious university campus," writes Katy Guest in the Independent. "Madeleine is loved by Mitchell Grammaticus, a spiritual-curious theologian, but she falls for the mercurial Leonard Bankhead ... The problem is (finds Madeleine), intellectually deconstructing love does not prevent her from falling head over heels with Leonard in the manner of an ingénue in an English novel."

In the New York Times, William Deresiewicz writes that The Marriage Plot is "about what Eugenides's books are always about, no matter how they differ: the drama of coming of age". It is especially great on "what happens after you graduate, when the whole scaffolding of classes and the college social scene you've been training your personality around is suddenly taken away, and you have to grope for a new way to be in the world."

Leo Robson writes in the New Statesman that "Eugenides, it appears, is out to charm ... The novel's language does not pretend to find things elusive or impregnable. Again and again, Eugenides picks up a subject ... or a process ... and sprints with it for an immaculate paragraph, flicking off a lively list of impressions." The novel "culminates in a gesture of completion that is in fact one of self-combustion, like the closing move of a Coen brothers film - the novel confirming its identity as divertissement, game or ruse."

Guest concludes that "Eugenides takes many risks. Writing humorously about literary theory is always hard to pull off. Likewise, focusing on characters as difficult to get on with as Madeleine and Leonard could easily go wrong ... [the novel is] a remarkable achievement."

Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky

Nicholas Lezard writes in the Guardian that "these essays, collected and published in 1986, won the National Book Critics' award for criticism; and a year later he became the then youngest ever Nobel literary laureate". Lesley McDowell observes in the Independent that "this collection begins with Brodsky's memories of growing up in the Soviet Union and progresses through his love of literature ... The loss of individuality is a loss prevented by art [and] by poetry."

According to the New York Times: "Admittedly, [Brodsky] is one of millions with such stories. Yet his story is unique because only he, among millions, chose to write it ... A person is, in Brodsky's title essay, less than one: He is never the sum of his experiences, since he is always in dialogue with, and beholden to, his past and future selves ... It is an allegory for the state of the writer, too, since language fails to communicate everything."

Lezard comments that "Brodsky wasn't even writing (or speaking) in his native language [which] makes this even better somehow. He certainly has a gift for the striking phrase ... Brodsky seems to write as if conscious that he is addressing an audience which needs to be brought up to speed from a standing start, yet without insulting their intelligence."

In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it Has Shaped Us by Francine Stock with Stephen Hughes

Philip French writes in the Observer that "Francine Stock, a former BBC TV current affairs reporter and now presenter of Radio 4's The Film Programme, has taken on the hugely ambitious project of a historical survey of the movies from ... the 1890s to this very year." Christopher Fowler asks in the Independent: "How and why do movies affect audiences, and what do they tell us about the times in which they're made? ... Stock's approach is to examine three key films from each decade, picking them apart to understand their influence, and adding examples along the way."

Fowler notes that "if the intention is to show that cinema's practitioners have manipulated us with ever-changing agendas, the chronology is far from exhaustive, so perhaps this is best approached as a personal history peppered with pleasurable asides." By contrast, French writes that "it is not a deeply personal book. The passing remarks on Stock's own life rarely get more revealing than watching Chinatown at the age of 16 in Guildford on the same day as the IRA pub bombings there in October 1974 ... and there is little that is idiosyncratic about her choice of films." Nonetheless, "there is much to enjoy in this book, and nuggets of information on recent cinematic developments to be mined".

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis