The Forgotten Waltz

The Forgotten Waltz
Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing," says Gina Moynihan, the narrator of Anne Enright's fifth novel. But it can be a treacherous and ungovernable thing, too, providing the illusion of wisdom about events and circumstances that are, by definition, no longer present to us. Gina knows this. Not only is she constantly hedging her account, but she is perfectly attuned to the tricks that hindsight plays. After recounting the start of her affair, adulterous on both sides, with "the love of my life", Seán Vallely, she says that "perhaps this is not how it was . . . I might be imposing the lover I now know on the memory of the man I slept with then." Even the title of the novel hints at her mixture of fallibility and self-awareness; in a first-person narrative, a forgotten thing must be acknowledged as forgotten.

New Year's Day 2007 was not the first time Gina (born 1974) kissed Seán (born 1957), but that is how she thinks of it. As for the first time she saw him, this is something to be constructed, piece by piece: "I met him in my sister's garden in Enniskerry . . . There was nothing fated about it, though I add in the late summer light and the view . . . It is half past five on a Wicklow summer Sunday when I see Seán for the first time." This is also the first time she gives his name; it's almost as if that has been added in, too.

Most of this umming and ahhing comes in the remarkable opening section, which takes up more than half the book. Afterwards, unfortunately, things are never quite the same. The second and third sections, which seem to state what was earlier implied, felt, to this reader, underpowered and even unnecessary, after the 117 impudent and imaginative pages Gina spends recalling, or trying to recall, or confessing that she might have misrecalled, the details of an affair that ended two marriages - what she sportingly calls "the story I tell myself about Seán".

The opening section is also notable for its glimpses of the last days of the Celtic Tiger, when Gina's job was enlivened by the collision of IT and the EU, and when the house she owned with her husband, Connor, "a happening geek", was appreciating at "about five cents a minute", and her brother-in-law Shay was "coining it", and the eyes of her sister Fiona were "suddenly wet from the sheer la-la-lah of pouring wine and laughing gaily and being a beautiful mother forward slash hostess in her beautiful new house".

Gina may not be able to remember what she saw or said or did during this period, but she can remember what Seán's wife was wearing on New Year's Day 2007 - "a black Issey Miyake pleats dress edged with turquoise". At such moments, it is difficult to determine whether Enright's presentation of Gina's memory is inconsistent, or whether Gina just has her own priorities. Earlier on, when talking about her affair with Seán, Gina refuses to tell the reader "who put what where" - an omission which, being apparently voluntary, neither adds to nor subtracts from a sense of the vividness of her somatic or sensual memory. It is quite plausible that she is by turns tell-all and coy, but if she has a habit of forgetting the essential while retaining the incidental (or sartorial), this ought to be more lucidly patterned, or emotionally logical.

Yet the fleeting confusions of Gina's monologue are irrelevant next to her creator's amazing ability to engage in lyric flights while keeping her feet on the ground, her way of returning to certain intimate details and of making jumpy little jokes, her habit of using colloquial phrasing to moor Grand Statements, and her rushing, exquisitely turned perceptions.

There is a good deal less of this, and a good deal more of somewhat irritating habits, in the final hundred pages, over which Gina, lying alone on the ice-cold morning of 5 February 2009, explains the (symbolically linked) consequences of giddy and carefree 2007. These include the economic bust, the inheritance of her mother's house and, most intriguingly, the occasional presence of Seán's subtly shrewd 11-year-old daughter, who suffers from epilepsy.

Here Gina gives direct voice to that sense of a rock'n'roll record scratching to a halt, which the novel's opening section, by drawing our attention to the distance between lived experience and retrospective construal, had already imparted quite powerfully enough. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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