Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Hitchens, Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Published eight months after his death, this collection of observations about what Hitchens called “living dyingly” are drawn from the Vanity Fair pieces that he wrote throughout his illness. John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times, observes that “Hitchens’ wit doesn’t desert him till the last few fragmentary notes made in the last few sinking days; nor does his sense that he has, after all, been somebody, made it big in the most competitive arena of the most competitive country in the world.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Buckley calls the first seven chapters of the book “diamond-hard and brilliant” and offers a poignant description of the fragmentary jottings which make up the eight and final chapter: “they’re vivid, heart-wrenching and haunting — messages in a bottle tossed from the deck of a sinking ship as its captain, reeling in agony and fighting through the fog of morphine, struggles to keep his engines going.”

In the Guardian, Colm Tóibín calls the memoir “sad and oddly inspiring” and adds that Hitchens “writes with a calm and searching honesty about the idea that “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” He concludes with the claim that Hitchens “does everything to make sure that his voice remains civilised, searching and ready to vanquish all his enemies, most notably in this case the dullness of death and its silence.”

A review will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

The title of Chabon’s first novel in five years refers to the famous Telegraph Avenue that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, California. The jacket refers to it as a "Californian Middlemarch".

Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times that “[Chabon] draws an extraordinarily tactile, Kodachrome-crisp picture of the Bay Area world that his characters inhabit… while conjuring the music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that [they] love so much and that has given them their vocation. The result is a novel with the grooviest soundtrack since High Fidelity.” She goes on to say that “although the novel gets off to a somewhat sluggish start, it soon achieves escape velocity, demonstrating that Mr. Chabon can write about just about anything… and write about it not as an author regurgitating copious amounts of research, but with a real, lived-in sense of empathy and passion.”

“In keeping with a novel full of jazz, the prose glimmers with accidentals, chromatic flats and sharps and syncopated rhythms,” says The Scotsman, “this stylistic virtuosity would nevertheless be meagre unless it was harnessed to specific ethical and empathetic ends. And Telegraph Avenue is a big book in an almost 19th-century manner; it has births and deaths, separations and reconciliations, the loss of virginity and the loss of friendship, moments of madness and sudden clarities. It is, above all, about consequence and forgiveness. The final pages are genuinely remarkable in their ability to create closure without compromising on emotional complexity.”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Catherine Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, describes McEwan’s latest novel as “a genial, if flawed, foray into John le Carré territory – a wisecracking thriller hightailing between love and betrayal, with serious counter-espionage credentials thrown in.” Eileen Battersea in the Irish Times simply calls it a “glib beach read, marred by stagy dialogue,” and “a middlebrow spy spoof stuffed with self-regard.”

A review in the Economist declares that it is “not Mr McEwan’s finest book” and adds that, despite being “clever”, it is also “curiously forgettable. What it lacks is not so much an animating spirit, as a heart”.

Leo Robson, writing in the New Statesman, notes that the book “contains a certain amount of reflection on reading and writing, offered in the form of an ongoing argument between Serena and Tom which follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic . . . The couple disagree about modern fiction 'at every turn', and always for crass, gender-essentialist reasons.” Robson writes that “[Sweet Tooth] is a riddle, or perhaps a joke, in which a number of baffling, even boring, elements are clarified and justified by a final flourish. It rewards rereading, but not reading.”

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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