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An optimistic paean to the healing powers of art

Artful - review.

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £20

Boundaries and borders are places that Ali Smith has excelled in both depicting and leaping over in short story collections such as Free Love and Other Stories and in her novels Hotel World, The Accidental and There but for the. In her new book – part-essay, part-fiction – she probes the borderline between fiction and fact, between the dead and the living, art and life. “There’s a kind of forbidden magic on the border of things,” Smith writes. Artful transports the reader to this magical terrain, a place in which the tantalising possibility is raised that damage can be healed, that what perishes can be brought back to life.

This slim volume tackles weighty themes: drawn from lectures that Smith gave at Oxford University, the book is organised into four sections: “On Time”, “On Form”, “On Edge” and “On Offer and on Reflection”. She employs the ingenious fictional device of a ghost haunting the narrator, a dead lover who has left behind a series of lectures about art and literature, unsettling in the process ideas of authority, truth and identity.

Some writers of fiction have managed not only to conjure other worlds but have also offered insights into the apparently mysterious process of crafting those alternative realities. One thinks, for instance, of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, which dives into the netherworld of the mind. Smith does the same in this book.

With its blending of criticism and fiction, Artful belongs in a genre of its own. One of its central ideas is that narrative is capable of containing anything – not least unbearable pain. This is a book about mourning: the narrator mourns for her dead lover, trying different ways of coping. She finds the greatest solace in art, in poems and song lyrics that give insight into the nature of loss and make bearable what otherwise would have broken her. (Smith uses song lyrics as section headings and her frame of reference is wide: there are allusions here to Hermes, the Greek god of artfulness, Dickens’s Artful Dodger and Beyoncé.)

This is also a book about wounds. “Time Achilles-heels all wounds,” the narrator recalls her dead lover saying. She wonders how this vulnerable place, or “unprotected heel”, makes itself known. Another running theme is the relationship between language and loss. Smith asks how language might not only express but in some way salvage what has been lost. The absences Smith chronicle range from the loss of life to the loss of a poem in cyberspace (an eventuality treated in Jackie Kay’s poem “”, which elucidates the nature of attachment).

Smith also reflects on the possibility of finding a home in language. In “On Form”, she starts by asking what the most suitable structure might be for a story but ends up giving us something altogether more profound – a medi tation on how language can “form a place for you to live”, how rhythm “becomes a kind of dwelling place for us”. She quotes the critic Lorna Sage discussing the peripatetic writer Katherine Mansfield, for whom the short story form was the one place in which she “felt at home . . . being so little at home anywhere else”.

Smith also mines the natural world for imagery. Her lover is reading a book about how certain creatures “made homes for themselves out of whatever they had to hand”. Elsewhere, she writes about “the bacterial kick of life force, something growing out of nothing”, and about how, “Even after the worst storm damage, a tree, so long as there’s some green in the break, can be healed and mended and carry on growing.”

This is a joyful and optimistic paean to the healing powers of art. Smith makes much of a line of Philip Larkin’s: “What will survive of us is love.” She is asking how love might be carried in language and how what is lost can be recovered through the act of “imaginative involvement”. Artful is an invitation to “make use of short daylight”, as Mansfield once wrote. It will be entertaining reading for anyone interested in the art of writing, and also of living, well.

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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