Stone Arabia - review

Stone Arabia
Dana Spiotta
Canongate, 256pp, £14.99

Just over halfway through Dana Spiotta’s new novel, the narrator interrupts a series of thematic chapters to express the view that ordering events by chronology is “better” than ordering by category: “Things happened in a context, didn’t they?” The question is as good as rhetorical. From the opening sentence, the relationship between Denise, an office manager in her late forties, with her older brother, Nik, a post-punk musician who has turned recluse, is portrayed using conventional strategies of selection and emphasis, with a period of crux taking place against a broader backdrop of events both recent and long past.

It is possible that the book we are reading, though written in a mixture of third and first person, constitutes Denise’s reply to the vast serial project – parody letters, a “fantasy fanzine” – that her brother calls the “Chronicles”. At one point, Denise refers to “my chronicles, the fact-based ones”. It isn’t just the basis in fact that distinguishes the siblings’ accounts. The Chronicles don’t exist in Nik’s Chronicles, so Denise’s account is able to address with detachment the questions about fabrication that Nik plays out in dramatic form. If Nik’s Chronicles, which contain the reviews, positive and negative, that his barely distributed experimental music will never receive, amount to a denial of his retreat from visibility, then Denise’s makeshift memoir is on altogether easier terms with the sense of aftermath that hangs around her life, confronting as it does their mother’s mortality, her own ageing and the ways in which a golden past, or a past idea of a golden future, lingers over the present, emphasising and embarrassing its mundanity.

There’s an element of having things both ways in the treatment of the novel’s central theme, the relationship between authenticity and fabrication. Reality is one of the things that get lost when people cultivate dreams (about fame and fulfilment), as Denise did as a young woman in the 1970s, and fears (about decay and violence), as she does in 2004, and Spiotta exploits ambiguities that inevitably arise when you use words such as “real” and “really” frequently, but without rigour. Asked by Denise’s daughter, Ada, why he constructed a fake
parallel life, he replies that “it was real”. Denise, though generally dubious, concedes that Nik’s “life in the Chronicles wasn’t all that different from his real life”. But the border between the fake and the real, having been effaced or blurred, is occasionally restored for the purpose of irony, as when Denise says that she turned the television on “to see what was happening in the real world”.

Postmodern anxiety about such humanist illusions as origins and endings and epiphanies, though no more than cursory, does the novel a fair amount of damage. The opening paragraph enacts a see-sawing process that can be found at work in different forms throughout the book. We are first told that Denise “always said it started” when Nik was given a guitar for his tenth birthday; then that this was “the family legend, repeated and burnished into a shared over-memory”; and then that, regardless, Denise “really did think it was true: he changed in one identifiable moment”. Since we never leave Denise’s impression of things (“really did think”) in favour of something more authoritative or impartial, it isn’t quite clear whether it’s a case of the legend becoming the truth, or the legend happening to be the same as the truth; but the latter seems more probable. Spiotta wants to incorporate scepticism about the stories we tell ourselves but doesn’t go as far as insisting that we give them up and the novel is incapable of offering cleverness without a sense of shame, candour without an air of apology.

If the novel displays signs of broad philosophical or tribal conflict, then it suffers from an excess of clarity in its use of detail. Denise talks openly of her desire to accommodate empiricism to subjectivity, at one point de­claring herself “interested in recall, exact recall,
of what was said, who said it and to whom. I want to know the truth, undistorted by time and revision and wishes and regrets.” She is
obsessed with scientific recall – though she distrusts photography – while Nik finds it impossible to forget.

“Collage? Pastiche? A list? Rhetorical questions? Or tell a story?” the narrator asks, searching for a better way to “get at” things than the “recitation” of events with some family resemblance. It’s a wink to the reader. Spiotta’s answer has been to make a collage from all of those elements but the result is closer to a mosaic, the constituent pieces creating an image inscrutably smudged in some places, too baldly legible in others.

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

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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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