Show Hide image

France’s real first lady

A Life
Simone Veil
Haus Publishing, 352pp, £16.99

This autobiography by one of France’s most popular and charismatic politicians should have been a page-turner. Simone Veil’s life – from her birth in 1927 into a modest and intellectual Jewish family in Nice, to her election last year to the Académie Française – has been a fascinating one. This woman, who survived Auschwitz but lost most of her family to the Holocaust, has become a symbol in France of strength and compassion. Responsible for the passing of the Veil law of 1975 that legalised abortion at a time when the French public, had it been asked, would probably have voted against it, she is undoubtedly the figure who has, by dint of the sheer prestige and dignity of her person, done the most to further the cause of women’s rights in France.

The great causes she has espoused and her unprejudiced heart – reflected by her key role in the campaign to compensate French victims of the Shoah, combined with her support for the recognition of France’s “righteous” and their role in saving 75 per cent of France’s Jews – make a discussion of her prose faintly improper. Yet neither admiration for Veil the woman nor her recent apotheosis by the Académie can disguise a simple fact: her story should have been written by somebody else. For the sad truth is that, in her own hands, the narrative of her exemplary life takes on a disquieting superficiality.

“The photos of my childhood prove it,” begins the memoir in the flat tone that will dominate throughout. “We were a happy family.” Later, she acknowledges her difficulties in describing this childhood idyll: “It was a happiness not easily conveyed in words, because it consisted of calm surroundings and little nothings . . .” Indeed, Veil often refers us to more accomplished writers for a better sense of what she is grasping at. In June 1940, “The atmosphere in France was exactly that described by Irène Némirovsky, in Suite Française.” And we can only guess at the experience of wartime captivity, for Veil’s words shut us out: “Living conditions in the camp [at Drancy] were psychologically difficult to cope with. Physically, they were also harsh . . .” The death march from Auschwitz was “a particularly horrific episode”.

Gradually, puzzlement at this detachment gives way to admiration for the woman behind the prose. Veil’s concern for fairness and balance, her mistrust of sentiment, and her restraint, all make her a poor storyteller but, I suspect, a wonderful woman. Occasionally we glimpse the burning spirit that must have kept her alive in Auschwitz: the beautiful creature sliding down the banisters in the castle of the commissioner of the French zone in postwar Germany, or leaving her young family to fly off on adventures with her friend, the daring aviator Jacqueline Auriol.

The reader will glean little sense of what it was like to be a woman in the 1970s acting in defiance of some of France’s most respected public figures and pushing through an unpopular reform with no political experience whatsoever. They will have to go to the archives to learn of the Gaullist MP Jean-Marie Daillet, who accused Veil of being prepared to see human embryos “thrown into gas chambers or filling the dustbins”.

Veil’s subsequent role as the first (elected) president of the European Parliament brought her into contact with most of the historic figures of the 20th century and, as a professional magistrate, her talent clearly is for judgement: we get a sense, not of what these people were like, but of whether or not they were morally reliable. Veil’s character assessments are unequivocal (she respected Thatcher but not Reagan, trusted Chirac but not Mitterrand, preferred Pompidou to Giscard) and, I would guess, bang-on. Her uncompromising nature has made her a stateswoman and not a politician, and her humility – “I have often obtained what I have in life by virtue of being a woman” – makes her an admirable human being, rather than a writer.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

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