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Books in 2013 - Reading the runes

A look ahead to some of the literary highlights of the coming year.

Last year, the organisers of the Man Booker Prize did much to repair the damage caused in 2011 by Dame Stella Rimington’s facile effusions about what constitutes “readable” and “enjoyable” fiction. They appointed a notably serious-minded judging panel, with Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, in the chair. Stothard said that the judges’ deliberations this time around had proceeded by “argued literary criticism” and he evinced as a criterion for those deliberations “the shock of language”, rather than the plots that “zip along” favoured by his predecessor.

The 2013 Man Booker shortlist is also likely to be the product of pretty strenuous literary critical argument: this year’s chair of judges is the Cambridge academic and author Robert Macfarlane. Joining him are his Oxbridge counterpart (and fellow New Statesman contributor) Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday Stuart Kelly, the writer, comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes and the broadcaster Martha Kearney.

One candidate for consideration by that august company is Fallen Land (Atlantic Books, May), the second novel by the American-born writer (and holder of an Oxford doctorate in 20th-century English literature) Patrick Flanery. Flanery’s outstanding debut, Absolution, was ignored by Stothard’s panel. His publisher will be hoping that this book, set during the financial crisis of 2008, gets a better hearing.

George Saunders isn’t eligible for the Booker, on account of being American, but his shortstory collection Tenth of December (Bloomsbury, January) is a reminder of his singular talent (and explosive humour). Saunders’s compatriot Dave Eggers publishes his latest novel, A Hologram for the King (Hamish Hamilton), in February. The protagonist is Alan Clay, a self-employed American consultant living and working in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. The New York Times praised this novel, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, for speaking on behalf of a “new America that has to think globally”.

Few novelists did more to import a distinctively modern American idiom into the language of fiction than Saul Bellow. In April, Bloomsbury publishes Saul Bellow’s Heart, a memoir of his father by Greg Bellow. Other literary lives due in 2013 include Deirdre David’s Olivia Manning: a Woman at War (Oxford University Press, January); The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing (HarperPress, February), Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier; a new edition of Benjamin Moser’s life of Clarice Lispector, Why This World (Allen Lane, May); and Kafka: the Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (Princeton University Press, June).

Literary correspondence is well represented in the catalogues, too, with the fourth volume of The Letters of T S Eliot, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, arriving from Faber & Faber in mid-January and with Italo Calvino’s letters from Princeton University Press in April. The following month, Faber publishes Here and Now, an exchange of letters between the novelists Paul Auster and J M Coetzee.

Faber is also one of several publishers marking the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. In June, it will publish Ronald Blythe’s The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1956-1958, an account of the time he spent on the Suffolk coast in the company of the composer. Blythe’s memoir is published in the same month as Britten’s Century (Bloomsbury), a collection of essays edited by Mark Bostridge. They will be preceded in early February by Paul Kildea’s major biography, Benjamin Britten: a Life in the 20th Century (Allen Lane).

Kildea’s book attempts to answer the question: “What was it in the 20th century that both defined and repelled [Britten]?” The historian Eric Hobsbawm, the composer’s near contemporary who died in October, devoted much of his career to understanding the 20th century. March will bring the posthumous publication of his Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century (Little, Brown).

Hobsbawm makes another appearance in David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Allen Lane, March) in a chapter devoted to class. This is one of six forms of human solidarity and collective identity that Cannadine discusses in the book – as is race. The defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War was, he argues, a “repudiation of the view that ‘race is everything’”.

Three notable memoirs by survivors of the Final Solution are due to appear this year: Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka (Allen Lane, January), Helga’s Diary: a Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss (Viking, February) and After Auschwitz: My Memories of Otto and Anne Frank by Eva Schloss (Hodder & Stoughton, April). Other aspects of the Second World War are dealt with in Norman Stone’s World War Two: a Short History and in Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy (both Allen Lane, both January).

Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White and the Making of a New World Order (Princeton University Press, February) examines the attempt to build a viable postwar monetary system, while the Second World War is just part of a much longer story told in Brendan Simms’s Europe: the Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (Allen Lane, April).

Those interested in non-European history will be well served, too – notably by William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury, February), which examines the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839- 42, Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (Allen Lane, March) and Rana Mitter’s China’s War With Japan, 1937-45 (Allen Lane, June).

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

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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