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The NS Profile — Claire Tomalin

The award-winning writer and former <em>New Statesman</em> literary editor hangs up her biographer’s

You can tell a life over a thousand pages or sum it up in a sentence. Claire Tomalin, now 78, shrinks hers into a line: "My life was a sort of
series of random disasters." This may seem unfair. Tom­alin is often hailed as our finest living biographer, a writer who has defined the lives of English greats - Pepys, Austen, Hardy and now Dickens. Yet her version of events hints at her skill: a bad biography makes a life seem inevit­able, reconstructed from the outside, a series of consequential events ending in death. A good one - the kind she writes - shows the holes, the flaws, the messy inner reality; that life is lived in unplanned moments, not rounded chapters.

At first, Tomalin wanted to be a poet, she tells me, when we speak on the phone - she is at her home in Richmond, south-west London, where she lives with her second husband, the writer Michael Frayn. Between the ages of seven and 21, she wrote "an enormous amount" of poetry. "I still think that writing poetry is the most enjoyable human activity, a wonderful thing to do, [but] I realised I hadn't got a voice of my own, so I stopped."
Brisk, practical, unforgiving of imprecision or inaccuracy, Tomalin is as harsh a critic of herself as of anyone else. Just as she has no desire to prettify or excuse the lives of her subjects, she is scrupulously honest about her shortcomings. She knows that her latest book, Charles Dickens: a Life, will upset some of the novelist's fans (the ones who read A Christmas Carol every year, she says, and for whom he is a literary godfather). They will dispute her theory that he had an affair with the actress Nelly Ternan and was cruel to his wife, Catherine, and at times neglectful of his younger children.

Best and worst of times

Tomalin finds these episodes hard to accept, too. In the book, she describes Dickens's "dismaying loss of moral compass" and her instinct to turn away on uncovering his worst offences. Even now, when we speak of his wife, she sounds wretched. "How could he do that?" she says of a letter that Dickens wrote to a friend, in which he accuses his wife of not loving their children. "I find it very distressing, because he's not happy and no doubt he feels guilty; he feels remorseful. He is a man, like many men, who always needs to be in the right."

A desire to counter the male view prompted Tomalin to write biographies and led her to Dickens. In 1990, having already written the lives of the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and Katherine Mansfield, she published a book about Nelly Ternan, a bit-part in Dickens's life, a woman who shames him in the eyes of devotees but whom Tomalin characteristically wanted to rescue from the margins (the book was called The Invisible Woman).

“I wanted to write about women, because I wanted women to be brought to life out of history and given their due," she says. As she established herself, she recalls, she moved on to more celebrated subjects, but if she were to write another book, she'd pick her subject from obscurity again. Her interest is sparked by those on the fringes, "who had to fight . . . against great difficulties".

Tomalin knows difficulty and grief only too well. Her first son died as an infant. In the early 1970s, she worked on the New Statesman as deputy to the literary editor Anthony Thwaite. She left the job when she had her fifth child, who was born with spina bifida. In 1974, after her journalist husband Nick Tomalin was killed in the Golan Heights, she was persuaded to return to the New Statesman as literary editor.

After such suffering, she says now, "It was a very, very happy time. I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed being literary editor of the Sunday Times [her next role], because you could experiment on the Statesman. You could try out unknown people; you could make people's reputations; you could publish a lot of poetry. It was a very, very wonderful job."

When she walks through Lincoln's Inn Fields and passes the old offices, she feels the tug of nostalgia. Tomalin worked at the NS at the same time as Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Julian Barnes - a rare confluence of talent, though she wasn't aware of it then. "You're too busy to sit back and think, 'This is an amazing time.' There were always brilliant people coming up in journalism."

She took her job seriously (Clive James has written about the blue pencil with which she would fiercely mark his copy) but it left little time for writing books. Editing and bringing up four young children alone was demanding enough and personal ambition was postponed. It was only in late adulthood, after leaving the Sunday Times in 1986, that she "got into [her] stride" fully as a writer. Frayn, whom she married in 1993, has helped: they both write in their studies at home and he is her first reader (on an early draft of the Dickens book, he told her, "You'd better deal with the 'and then' feeling of the book" - the sense of a relentless list of events. Tomalin seems to have taken the criticism with good grace).

Back to mine

Now, she is in a new era: Dickens is her "last large-scale book". A biography is an act of total immersion, years - if you do it the Tomalin way - of sifting through letters, diaries and accounts. She describes the process as similar to carrying a huge weight on your head. Now that the weight is lifted, however, she feels bereft. "You're like a horse trained to wind a bucket in a well. If you're so used to tramping on all the time, when you stop tramping, you wonder what there is still to do," she says.

Far more than disaster, hard work has characterised Tomalin's life as a writer. After years of writing the lives of others, she now has to attend to her own. There are happy sides to this. She will see more of her grandchildren, and Frayn. "You know," she says, "I want to have a bit more of a life."

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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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