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Try as he might, Julian Barnes' personality keeps breaking through

Through the Window - review.

Through the Window
Julian Barnes
Vintage, 256pp, £10.99

In this collection of essays on “fiction and its related forms”, Julian Barnes does a convincing impression of regal self-assurance but another personality keeps breaking through. This shadow is a reminder that Barnes earned and consolidated his reputation with autobiographical novels in which he presents a version of himself as rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive. In his fiction, Barnes manages to forge some ironic distance from this perspective; but writing in his own voice, he is confined to it, with unpalatable results.

Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye-pokes. While exploring George Orwell’s relationship with Englishness and the English language (in “Orwell and the Fucking Elephant”, an incisive and original piece), he interrupts proceedings for a footnote: “Airport novelists irritated by their lack of status (a spectacle as comic as literary novelists moaning about their sales) habitually invoke one of two comparisons to prove their own worth: Dickens, who would have applauded their broad appeal, and Orwell, who would have approved their ‘plain’ (ie banal) style.”

In the course of praising Penelope Fitzgerald, he makes various detours to disparage those who disparaged her, never troubling to explain that his knowledge comes from Fitzgerald’s own letters, hardly unbiased testimony. Barnes offers a first-hand account of a “young male novelist” whose “turkey-cocking” apparently “disfigured” Fitzgerald’s memorial meeting. The passage comes under the index entry for “anonymity, writers granted”, but if it really is Barnes’s intention to protect Philip Hensher from the scorn of Fitzgerald lovers, then “young male novelist” is both sexist and ageist, employed to prejudice the jury and to strengthen his case against behaviour he refuses to identify.

Hensher is far from Barnes’s only nameless victim. Sebastian Faulks, identified only as a “better-known” English novelist, receives a dressing-down for liking Fitzgerald in the wrong way. Kazuo Ishiguro is knocked twice – first in a wonderfully well-informed but predictable essay about translations of Madame Bovary, where he is the “British novelist” who tries to “make things easier” for his Scandinavian translators; then in one of the three essays about Ford Madox Ford, where Barnes recalls an encounter with “one of our better-known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford”. (Note the difference in phrasing between this allusion to The Remains of the Day and a subsequent reference to “my friend Ian McEwan”, who “unconsciously borrowed” the names of Ford’s characters in his “brilliant novella” On Chesil Beach.) Ishiguro apparently pleaded with Barnes to “‘pretend I haven’t read The Good Soldier’”. It seems that he was willing to grant – to use his verb – an injunction but not a super-injunction.

The desire to bring Ishiguro down a peg or two is consistent with a more general reluctance to praise younger writers. Lorrie Moore was 40 years old when Barnes wrote: “I hesitate to lay the adjective ‘wise’ on one of her age.” And Michel Houellebecq would have had the half-smile wiped clean off his face on learning that he was “the most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier”, a description that confines Tournier to being potentially weighty. In Barnes’s view, the greatest critical crime, except for knocking a writer he likes (how dare Forster call Ford “fly-blown”?), is to be premature or excessive with praise, but while he has altered the Ford essay to reveal the Ishiguro Injunction, he hasn’t taken the opportunity to update us about Moore’s wisdom or Houellebecq’s weight.

The book’s preface sets down a number of large claims – “Fiction . . . explains and expands life . . . Novels tells us the most truth about life . . . Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin” – but Barnes has difficulty justifying them, primarily because his strength lies in his learning rather than his intuition, and in historical evocation rather than critical analysis. Once background and biography are dealt with, he has little to say; his usual solution is to invoke the negative examples of anonymous straw men. Offering the reader passages from Fitzgerald’s novels, he asserts that “almost any other novelist would have . . .” and “another novelist would have been content to write . . .” Ford Madox Ford is applauded for setting a failing marriage against the First World War, in Parade’s End, where “more conventional novelists might have set the madness of war against the calm and balm of love and sea.” (It isn’t true, as Barnes maintains, that Ford never uses the word “subconscious”.)

Sometimes the flattering comparisons are named and shamed. Chamfort is compared favourably to Connolly, La Rochefoucauld, Wilde and Quotes of the Week. Ford makes Graham Greene “look old-fashioned”. Before describing the joy he experienced on rereading Updike’s Rabbit books, Barnes takes a pop at a writer whose work doesn’t, or probably wouldn’t, hold up well: “When a writer you admire dies, rereading seems a normal courtesy and tribute. Occasionally, it may be prudent to resist going back: when Lawrence Durrell died, I preferred to remain with 40- year-old memories of The Alexandria Quartet rather than risk such lushness again.” Is that prudence, or just presumptuousness?

A particularly odd example of Barnes using contempt as a tool of praise occurs in the Fitzgerald essay, when he complains that her final novel, The Blue Flower, was excluded from the 1995 Booker shortlist, “the prize going that year to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People”. When the Fitzgerald essay appeared in the Guardian, the reference was cut, presumably on the grounds that the prize went to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People a decade earlier. The actual winner, Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, isn’t an accepted object of metropolitan ridicule and wouldn’t have served the same intended function, of raising Fitzgerald’s omission from the shortlist to the level of self-evident injustice. Barnes might have pointed out that the 1995 jury only used five of the six possible shortlist places but he went for the suavely cut corner instead.

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

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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