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John Jeremiah Sullivan: "Everybody is stuck in a more or less absurd and tragic situation"

The Books Interview.

Do you see long narrative essays of the kind collected in your book Pulphead as a distinctively American form? It’s not something I’d jump to say, because I think of the essay tradition I’m writing in as quintessentially English. For me, some of the most interesting precursors of that tradition are to be found in the magazine writing that was happening [in England] in the 18th century –Addison and Steele and that circle.

This summer I read for the first time Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet The Storm, about the massive hurricane that hit England in 1703. Everything we think of as being unique to New Journalism is already present there. And that’s a good thing to me, because it means when you do this sort of writing you’re standing on more solid ground than you might otherwise think.

But I suppose it’s true that in the last century Americans took [the form] over and infused it with a new energy and a kind of hybridity. You see so much of that in American non-fiction writing over the last hundred years – different forms and modes of non-fiction mingling willy-nilly. It’s nonfiction that is playing by literary rules.

You mentioned the New Journalism. Your work doesn’t condescend towards its subjects in the way that a lot of New Journalism did. My view of life tends to be that everybody is stuck in a more or less absurd and tragic situation, just by virtue of the reality of death, if nothing else. So I don’t think of it as a great moral deed to extend empathy and compassion to people who wouldn’t otherwise seem to deserve it. I’m not surprised people end up weird and hobbled. I suppose that the New Journalism fed on a kind of sarcasm. It was horrified by America – that was one of its motivating forces. And so it went out with a satirist’s scorn. But I tend to be suspicious of that.

A good example of that attitude is your essay about Michael Jackson.
Right. I read the interviews he gave to black magazines like Ebony and Jet and couldn’t recognise the person being written about. So it was a humbling and instructive thing for me to discover that a lot of the stuff I thought I knew about Michael was really just bullshit –white media judgementalism and passive aggression. That’s not to say he wasn’t a deeply weird and problematical dude. But those magazines ended up capturing more of his humanity than the bigger magazines did.

There are several pieces about music in the book. Is music particularly important to you? Yes. I grew up in a very musical household. My mother played the guitar and sang folk songs. My brother was a professional musician for a while. Instruments and music were all around me. And because of my brother, who’s a pretty accomplished nerd when it comes to musical history, I grew up hearing a lot of intense arguments and conversations about what made a certain piece of music good or bad.
And the inescapable subjectivity of that sort of discussion captivated me.

In many of your essays, it’s as if you’re excavating something previously hidden. Is that how you see what you’re doing?
Yes, definitely. Deep, long, excessive research is something I enjoy, the way some people enjoy video games. I’m always happy when a subject comes along and I can feel it tugging me towards the rabbit hole.

Is that what the subtitle of your book – Despatches from the Other Side of America – is getting at? One of the fun things that magazine writing made possible for me was to explore some of the nooks and crannies that were left, both in the country and in the personalities of individual people. The thing about America that I still love is the occasional naivety and earnestness and genuine oddity, the ecstasy of self-definition, that we’re prone to. So that’s what I meant by it.

Have you ever been tempted to try your hand at writing fiction? In the past couple of years I’ve started messing with fiction. If you’re primarily interested in human nature, as I am, you can only go so far in non-fiction. You’re talking about real people and you don’t want to wound them. Fiction gives you a freer hand. You can go all the way into the darkness.

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America” is published by Vintage (£9.99).

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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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