The Outward Room

The Outward Room
Millen Brand
NYRB Classics, 304pp, $14.95

Eighty years on from their Depression-era heyday, most of the titans of the interwar American novel have fallen off the library shelf. The proof of their influence rests on the number of other writers - real and imaginary - who tried to emulate them. So Bob, the literary-minded barman of Patrick Hamilton's The Midnight Bell (1929), aspires to write a novel that will put him "in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy and Dreiser". Theodore Dreiser, that is, author of An American Tragedy (1925), a hulking masterpiece from the time of the Calvin Coolidge presidency, and as unlikely a template for the modern creative writing student as it is possible to conceive.

With its worm's-eye view of machine-age New York, Millen Brand's first novel (originally published in 1937) looks like an obvious candidate for Dreiser's seal of approval. And sure enough, the back cover carries a top-line encomium from the master ("Unsparing and honest, and at the same time refreshing and lovely"). However, one must point out that Brand's naturalism is not Dreiser's. There are no loving exercises in determinism, no grotesque strokes of fate with the capacity to seal a character's destiny for all time. What connects them is an undeviating procedural line, the feeling of material being worked out on its own terms, sentiment that is never sentimentality and, above all, the sense of a whole world quietly unfurling itself beyond the rooms in which most of the action takes place.

In strict narrative terms, not a great deal happens in The Outward Room. Harriet Demuth, the palely sensitive heroine, has spent several years in an asylum, traumatised by the death of a much-loved brother and not helped especially by a Freudian therapist obsessed with the idea of father substitutes. Lured by an unlocked door and a design fault in the security fence, she breaks out, hitches a ride and is eventually set down, friendless and penniless, in the big city. Then, with destitution looming, she falls in with a man named Kohler who invites her to live with him (chastely) in his rented room. Here, amid the sound of the upstairs lodger's dog diving for hambones on the stair and the chatter of the Italian children in the yard, romance blossoms.

This being 1930s New York, the scenes of psychological introspection in which Brand specialises are gradually undercut by straightforward social "issues". Kohler and his colleagues from the engineering shop are scheming to start a union. Meanwhile, his younger brother has taken extra pay to work in a dangerous coal mine in Ohio that looks as if it will bury him alive.

What most distinguishes The Outward Room is its distinctiveness of style: a kind of bedrock realism, forever struggling to portray things as they supposedly are, which achieves most of its effects by way of the impressionist flourish. When Harriet visits a Polish girl named Anna in the shabby apartment where her family lives, the heroine's thoughts come scrambled with the room's various conversations: "Cheapness, poverty. Unknown before, the living in tenements, Airshaft, El. In how many rooms of how many cities? Talking 'they're tearing down the building on a Hundred Seventh' saw the at least clean rooms, corridors of the hospital, 'was back again today, wants to buy clothes' here freedom broke the body, the mind . . ."

If this all sounds rather like the John Dos Passos of Manhattan Transfer (1925) and USA (1930-36), Brand's novel also answers a question in which Dos Passos, and Dreiser before him, would have taken some kind of interest. Why is the American novel of the 1930s - bleak, edgy and determinist - so very different from its cosy transatlantic cousin? Why do the Americans have Dreiser, Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, Studs Lonigan and the ground-down Joads barrelling down Route 66 on their flight to California, and we have to make do with Hugh Walpole and J B Priestley?

The answer, a trawl through the classics of US naturalism suggests, is less to do with geographical extremity, or even aesthetic conviction, than with the lack of a social security system. Brand's characters, like Steinbeck's, are aware that, without money, they will very probably die, and that losing your job means not, as in England, a humiliating trip to the labour exchange, but starvation.

Brand (1906-80) was a one-hit wonder. His later attempts to write a Proustian octet could never match the half-million copy sales of his debut. There was a McCarthy-era appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, details of which are provided in Peter Cameron's useful afterword, and a 20-year editorial stint at Crown Publishers. The New York Review Books re­issues are always worth reading, but this one is inspired.

D J Taylor's latest novel, "Derby Day" (Chatto & Windus, £17.99), has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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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