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Posh Bingo

This year's Booker judges don't inspire much confidence.

The judges for this year's Man Booker Prize were never likely to be given a free pass, pri­marily because, on paper, they don't look up to the job. Take the chair, Dame Stella Rimington. An able and intelligent woman - but you wouldn't ask John Bayley to be a consultant on Spooks. And Rimington's status as a novelist doesn't much help matters. Do we really believe that the author of Secret Asset would have recognised the virtues of, say, Midnight's Children or Life and Times of Michael K or How Late It Was, How Late?

It was one of this year's shortlisted novelists, Julian Barnes, writing almost 25 years ago, who provided the most damning account of the prize's decline. After describing it as "increasingly an affair of the book trade", he reflected that, "whereas in 1972 the three judges were Cyril Connolly, George Steiner and Elizabeth Bowen", in 1987 Trevor McDonald, "by virtue of having written a biography of Viv Richards", was "at least more 'literary' than one of the other judges". Those were the days. Even the most legitimate of the judges for this year's prize, Susan Hill, a judge back in 1975 (together with Angus Wilson, Roy Fuller and Peter Ackroyd), is somewhat questionable. She would grind her axes all day long if it weren't for that chip on her shoulder.

At the press conference held on 6 September to announce the 2011 shortlist, the judges didn't do much to settle doubts. The political columnist Matthew d'Ancona made a meal of praising Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, drawing parallels between events in the novel and the Damilola Taylor case as well as the London riots - before insisting that topical parallels are irrelevant. Both d'Ancona and Hill, speaking in praise of Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, used the term "patois" - as if to reclaim the word (from David Starkey) on behalf of literature, or anyway the Man Booker Prize.

It was equally perplexing to hear the time-honoured "we judge the book, not the reputation" line being used about the exclusion from the shortlist of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child, given the praise being lavished on this particular book: "a masterclass in the art of the novel", "an extraordinary achievement", "probably the best novel this year so far", "If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn't win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world".

But there were also signs of proper critical intelligence. Most of those came from Gaby Wood, the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, who gave Barnes's The Sense of an Ending the kind of eloquent praise missing from the reviews, which merely fawned. I am by no means alone in thinking ill of Barnes's book, but those who have whispered their disparagement in my ear tend to vanish like good Germans, as Wilfrid Sheed once put it, when asked for public corroboration.

Anyway, unless Carol Birch (Jamrach's Mena­gerie) ruins his night, the novelist who advised his fellow practitioners to think of the prize as posh bingo seems about to have his numbers called, proving in the process that it's not all about "pulling out the big one": "Sometimes the judges prefer you to pull out the small one." (Last year, I looked like the neighbourhood weirdo when I expressed doubts about The Finkler Question - but it is enlightening, a year on, to see the book's one-star reviews on Amazon nudging the 100 mark while the five-star reviews dawdle in the low twenties.)

The literary director of the prize, Ion Trewin, emphasised the number of independent publishers represented - a point that stood up better for the longlist, which contained books from such off-trail outfits as Sandstone Press, based in the Highlands, and Seren in Bridgend, but works less well when he needs to lean on Granta (publisher of Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers). What is most notable about this year's shortlist is how nearly plausible it looks, given the preposterous longlist. The old prizes-for-everyone remark offered by judges - "We could easily have chosen another 13 books" - rings true indeed. Could have, and should have: David Bezmozgis, Philip Hensher, Hisham Matar, Ali Smith, Ross Raisin, Hari Kunzru, Belinda McKeon, David Miller, Tessa Hadley, Edward St Aubyn, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Mars-Jones, Dermot Healy.

Although the judges put on a fairly good show, in some cases it was all too obvious that they were putting on a show. The former Labour MP Chris Mullin described himself as “a simple country boy" - a simple country boy, he implied, who couldn't be expected to understand complicated city things like Literature. Mullin also said something about how friends, knowing the Booker's form, had urged him to pick a "readable" book - as if Howard Jacobson were a 21st-century descendant of Robert Musil or James Joyce.

I think we can all agree that if a book is to be given a prize, it ought not to be unreadable, but some of us recoil from the use of "readable" to mean (essentially) "can be read without struggle/thinking/turning off the telly". And people who have been selected for their skill as readers should not be making a point of using "read" as a noun. "An excellent read." This is what people say when they think they are talking about books that don't demand too much of readers but are really talking about books of which readers don't demand too much. Books such as A D Miller's Snowdrops, a well-written thriller which has made this year's shortlist.

These days, prizes generally speak louder than words, especially if those words take the form of literary criticism. But the Man Booker Prize still has principles - a vision, even - and it articulates these in the calibre of its judges, and of the novels they reward. Failures of the former all too obviously threaten the latter. And if things continue as they are, it isn't hard to imagine a time when the prize will be seen as a way not of celebrating novels, just of selling them.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on 18 October. For more information about the prize, visit:

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 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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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