The Good of the Novel

The editors of this volume have done an unsatisfactory job - in establishing the parameters for the commissioned essays, in selecting the contributors, and in writing their introduction to the book, which has a great deal of preparatory and justificatory work to do but fails to do it. The essays gathered here, 13 in of them all, are concerned with "the contemporary anglophone novel", but only in the negative sense that the contributors, invited to write roughly 6,000 words on a novel published in the past 30 years, were prohibited from writing about novels written in languages other than English. The result is unflattering to the contemporary anglophone novel, which seems to have produced nothing more experimental than Ian McEwan's Atonement; and it does not reflect much better on contemporary anglophone "criticism", said to have been "reinvigorated" by the demise of theory, but which emerges here, for the most part, as unvigorous, unadventurous and not really critical.

Of the ten male contributors, only one (Amit Chaudhuri) has chosen as his subject a novel written by a woman (Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things). The book doesn't aim to be comprehensive, but surely it doesn't aim to be negligent or lopsided, either, and there is nothing on Marilynne Robinson or Anne Tyler or Angela Carter, but an essay each on McEwan, Amis, Roth, Coetzee, DeLillo, Auster - not all of them written by "the most strenuous and perceptive critics of the present moment", as we are told. The omission of someone who answers to that description, Adam Mars-Jones (a Faber author), points up the absence, too, of the kind of forensic disparagement in which Mars-Jones specialises.
Ray Ryan and Liam McIlvanney say that the project was motivated partly by the sense that "the novelness of novels" is returning into view - and along with it, "a criticism that approaches novels as novels". Instead of explaining why, for example, non-academic criticism, which was hardly affected by literary theory, is thriving in the age of post-theory, the editors quote or paraphrase (among many others) W H Auden, Robert Burns, Milan Kundera, "the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray" and Saul Bellow - all within the space of seven overassertive, underargued pages. One of the many novelists mentioned on the hoof is Zadie Smith, inevitably identified as the author of White Teeth rather than, more pertinently, of a lecture, "E M Forster's Ethical Style: Love, Failure and the Good in Fiction", which not only talks about "the novel as novel" but also examines the relationship between aesthetic approval and moral improvement: the Good represented by good novels.

On their way, the editors ask a series of narrow, essentialist-type questions that suggest a cohesive project: "What is it about the language used in a novel that creates a world different from that of poetry and drama? What distinguishes fictional prose from journalism, biography, or non-fictional prose? . . . How good are these novels? What kind of good are they?" Either this litany was written after the essays were delivered, in which case it provides a skewed portrait of them, or it was written beforehand and the contributors paid it little mind. In reality, the book is a hotchpotch.

Frances Wilson considers Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy in terms of its reception, as a popular author's "unpopular" book; Ian Sansom offers a gonzo exercise about teaching American Pastoral to undergraduates; Jason Cowley, editor of this paper, has written a breathless rumination on, or rummage around, the career of Martin Amis, but he has done well to choose a novel (The Information) which, due to its dramatised and mouthpieced concern with the writer's anxieties, and due to the dramas that accom­panied its publication, facilitates discussion of such subjects as talent, ambition, reputation and the afterlife of novels.

The species of critical writing most prominently on show is the review-essay, the conventional purpose of which is to adjudicate in the process of explaining. But the books under discussion here have already been read and admired, so adjudication is replaced (at least notionally) by thoughts on a particular novel's "novelness". Tessa Hadley, writing about J M Coetzee's Disgrace, fails to offer such thoughts and produces a numblingly relentless essay - which James Wood avoids doing, partly because his prose has more spring and partly because his chosen novel, Atonement, is more varied in plot and point of view, but mainly because he shifts between invasive close-up and a contextualising wide shot, asking, among other things: "Why should we believe that fiction can disinterestedly comment on its own distortions?" Wood favours such spaciousness even when not specifically demanded to supply it - in the final line of his magazine review of Disgrace, he invoked the "very nature of novelistic narrative, which inherently tends towards the dramatic corrugation, rather than the thematic flattening, of ideas".

This is the kind of thinking missing from Hadley's perceptive piece. Similarly, Robert Macfarlane (on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty) offers intelligent admiration, but nothing more exploratory, or exciting.

Benjamin Markovits, in his piece on Colm Tóibín's The Master, does pause to consider - or define - "the novelist's task" and "the job of the novel", but his critical thinking is higgledy-piggledy and his rhetoric way off. Instead of portraying Tóibín's "simplicity" on its own terms, he identifies a blanket policy of rejection: he "has never taken seriously Nabokov's advice, to avoid starting successive paragraphs with the same word"; "elegant variation, metaphorical flights and grammatical complexities" are "tricks that Tóibín forswears". I do not wish to strike below the belt, but as an account of plain style this is reminiscent of Martin Amis ("Much modern prose is praised for . . . its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue").

At the other end of the scale, Michael Wood's piece serves as a reproach to the others in three ways - it is energetically written, broad in its thinking and concerned with a little-known novel. Briarpatch, by the crime writer Ross Thomas, was given 27 words in the Guardian thriller column, which described it as an "American can-of-worms novel". Wood shows that Thomas portrays detection as a way of reading the material world, and if he risks going a little far, so what? He is a true critic, and always entertaining.

As I read this collection, what I longed for was not thoughts on "what is distinctive and indigenous to the novel form", but the wit and suavity of a critic such as the Anglo-American Wilfrid Sheed, author of the novels The Critic and The Hack, as well as various collections. Sheed, who died in January, was able to make a newspaper column into an occasion for spry reflection, though he was right to define criticism as "what every reviewer would like to write if he had the time". The contributors to this volume have been given the space in which to write a piece of criticism; but most of them have rejected the opportunity, or have proved incapable of exploiting it. l

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

The Good of the Novel
Edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99

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

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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