Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Deborah Levy, Maggie O' Farrell and Harry Wallop.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

Alex Clark has high praise for Deborah Levy in the Guardian. She urges the reader not only to explore this “powerful...fragmentary...elliptical” collection of stories, but the rest of its author’s work, which includes the Booker short-listed novel Swimming Home, and offers a “strange, unpredictable journey”. Black Vodka contains a compendium of Levy’s distinctive traits. In "Cave Girl", Cass undergoes a successful sex change from male to female. "[The surgeon] really fiddled with my controls”, she says, and her brother finds himself entranced by the result. In ‘Pillow Talk’, (Clark summarises) “a Czech man living in London is interviewed in Dublin by a Japanese man, before having casual sex with a woman from Cork and then flying home to his Jamaican-born girlfriend.” Clark is continually impressed by these provocative identity games in which “national and cultural identity is used as a prism through which to explore shifts of attachment and belonging”. Even “what constitutes a person” becomes difficult to determine. Clark concludes by noting that “like their protagonists, these stories do not give up their secrets easily”, before assuring us that they are nonetheless “by no means difficult to understand”. Ought we to detect a hint of damning with faint praise here? Perhaps so, but the thrust of Clark’s review is clear nonetheless: this collection comes highly recommended.

In the Independent, Lucy Popescu identifies love as a key theme. In Black Vodka, she writes, love “is mystifying, at worst illusive”. The title story involves a relationship which cannot last, yet its mere “promise of love” unsettles the protagonist, who wakes after a fantastical though personal dream with tears on his cheeks, “transparent as vodka but warm as rain”. But whether depicting love, grief or the collision of cultures, Levy’s “elegantly conceived and executed stories” create “an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose”, economic and imaginative enough to propel this hypnagogic collection toward nightmare. Popescu cannot help note a particularly farcical topicality which creeps into one of the stories: “one character recalls eating horse steaks in Paris: ‘It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century’”.

Black Vodka was reviewed by Catherine Taylor in the New Statesman earlier this year.

Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O'Farrell

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour...” Maggie O’ Farrell’s latest novel addresses the issue of brittle family structures through a captivating story centered on an Irish family, the Riordans, in London enduring the heat wave of summer 1976. 

O'Farrell examines a family structure that is fragmented by tradition and rebellion, narrating the complex lives lead by each of its members. The Guardian’s Lucy Briscoe describes this as “a brilliant dissection of different generation’s attitudes towards the same predicament”. Charlotte Heathcote, in the Express writes that “weaving through all of these life stories is Gretta [Riordan]'s obsessive Catholicism. None of her three children are religious, much to her despair, but it turns out that she is less ‘holier-than-thou’ than she can even admit to herself.”

Heathcote elaborates on the effect of the heat wave upon the Riordans as they console Gretta. “As Gretta's three children congregate at their childhood home…skeletons are dragged out of cupboards, festering wounds are exposed to the air and the job of Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife is not made easier by a mother who likes her truth whitewashed and sanitised.”

Whilst Heathcote and Briscoe concur in their verdict that the novel does not disappoint, the Independent’s Leyla Sanai is somewhat bemused by O’Farrell’s conclusion, which she describes as a “Hollywood ending.” She does, however, praise O’Farrell’s writing as “deliciously insightful,” acknowledging her abilities in “observing the dynamics of relationships and astutely filleting them to the bone.”

Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System by Harry Wallop

Harry Wallop’s humourously written study into British consumer habits reveals the correlation between these choices and the construction of our identities. The Guardian’s Ben East states: “It might be obvious, but buying a 'fabulously British' Jack Wills polo shirt in Southwold immediately marks you out as different from the bling-obsessed young mum who frequents a retail park to buy a bright pink Paul's Boutique purse.”

With labels like “The Asda Mum,” The Middleton Classes” or “The Portland Privateer” (the latter used to describe the wealthy banking population’s preference to give birth to their in this prestigious private hospital), it is no wonder East is quick to conclude that, despite the ”achingly true observations,” Wallop’s book “serves only to reinforce existing stereotypes.”

The Telegraph’s Toby Clements writes that Wallop’s designations have evolved as sub-groups of the older upper, middle and working classes. Clements finds Wallop’s study a “breezy, enjoyable study” reinforced by “arresting research into our shopping habits”.

Deborah Levy with her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home (Photo: Getty Images)
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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