Tales from the duvet


Graham Swift <em>Picador, 248pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0330450182

To say that the action of Graham Swift's latest novel is mostly horizontal might give the wrong impression. Tomorrow is set in a double bed, but the springs are squeaking through restlessness, not passion. While her husband and children lie asleep, art dealer Paula Hook is thinking about the day that is to come. Something will be revealed, the back cover promises, that "will redefine all their lives". It's her husband, Mike, that's going to do the telling. Their teenage twin children, her "angels", are currently unaware of what is about to change:

As he asks you to sit, side by side, on the sofa (we've even discussed such minor details), you'll do a quick run through in your minds of all those stories that friends at school have shared with you: inside stories, little bulletins on domestic crisis. It's your turn now, perhaps. It has the feeling of catastrophe.

Before dawn breaks, Paula thinks her way through her own version of events. "You're sixteen," she tells them, "and the night's not young, but here's a bedtime story." Given Paula's ominous hints - she admits that "we might be wrenching you forever from your childhood" - the narrative that follows could hardly be said to be soothing. It does, however, achieve an impressive level of banality. Paula thinks about the time she and Mike first slept together ("We were undulating . . . Not just pillow talk, you might say, but billow talk"), their first bottle of champagne ("I kept my cork. It's precious beyond reckoning"), and the purchasing of their first bedspread ("vast, crimson" and "slinky-thin"). She talks us through Mike's occasional pangs about his job as director of a popular science magazine when "he'll come over all self-searching and conscience-stricken about having deserted 'real' science to become a money-maker", and touches, on occasion, on her own knowledge of art history, on "lovely Poussins and a gorgeous Watteau". There is a long disquisition on the naming of their former cat, Otis, and the question of whether one is a "cat person" or a "dog person": "The world divides, they say: cat people and dog people."

Paula's sense of the world's other divides seems limited. She is not quite a snob, but this is partly because she rarely extends her consciousness far beyond Dulwich, or the duvet. It's a complacency matched by her narrative style - a mixture of mincing quotation marks, cliché and recherché puns. The problem is not, in the first instance, the way this irritates and rankles. In catching her voice, Swift attempts to convey the sense of her own particular dreariness. It's the timing that makes you incredulous. When it comes to breaking bad news, there's softening the blow with a few niceties and a cup of sweet tea, and then there's the narrative equivalent of Chinese water torture. If Paula is to be imagined to be rehearsing a serious conversation, she's doing a rotten job of it. If, on the other hand, you take the imaginative scenario more loosely - in truth, Paula is keeping no one waiting except the implied reader - one is still left wondering why it takes her so long to explain what the big secret is.

In Paula's defence, she does keep asking for forgiveness. "Forgive me," she pleads. "Will you be able to sympathise with me?" "After I've said a bit more," she admits, "you may think it's all the most blatant twaddle." Unfortunately, you often do. This is not because one thinks Paula is either deeply misled or deeply villainous. She never quite gains the dimensions that would allow us to form such judgements. Accidentally subjected to behaving in a certain way, due to the demands of Swift's narrative, it's rather hard to care about her "twaddle" at all.

Tomorrow has all the hallmarks of a novel that, rather like its narrator, prefers to have everything worked out in advance. Characters are set up to chime neatly with his main themes. The tiresomely ubiquitous upper-middle-class couple, with a scientist husband balanced by an artistic wife (it's always the men who are the scientists), allows for a nod to the art/science debate without ever fully engaging with it. There is a neatly poised quotation from Ulysses and a smattering of allusions to Macbeth. But acknowledging these various literary ghosts does not add the weight or depth this novel needs. In the end, one suspects that Swift has become so attached to his narrative form that the question of whether it actually works has been sidelined. This is not Swift at his best. "Life," as Paula says, "is short, my darlings."

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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