Show Hide image

Sheila Heti: "There’s this neurotic relationship between art and life"

The Books Interview.

The title of your new book, How Should a Person Be?, reminds me less of the modern cult of self-help than of Michel de Montaigne and an old essayistic tradition.
I love Montaigne. I didn’t study English literature, I studied philosophy at university, so Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – these people are among the most important writers to me. So my interest is in the big questions more than it is in storytelling.

You’ve described the book as a “novel” but it enacts, in the way it’s written, an anxiety about what kind of thing it is exactly.
Right. Is it a play? Is it a novel? Is it a diary? I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word. I’d rather call it a novel than anything else but I wish there was another word I could call it. I love fiction and I’ll write fiction again but when I was writing this I was asking myself: “Why am I doing this? Why am I making up a person and making them do things?” It just seemed so arbitrary to me, what that person was going to do. It felt silly – I didn’t know why I was doing it all of a sudden. It seemed very much as if I was inheriting a tradition but it wasn’t coming out of any need.

The book seems almost to flaunt its assembled character, the fact that it’s knocked together from disparate elements. Is that deliberate?
“Assembled” is a nice way of putting it. But I wrote this book the way I did because I had to. It’s not an injunction to the rest of the world to do things this way. It’s just the way I had to do this particular book.

I think it’s a bit silly to have such strong feelings about how art should be, as someone like David Shields does. That’s the one place where there shouldn’t have to be rules. To bring rules in is a little defensive.

One of things I’d do when I was writing the book was carry around these notecards with me. At one point, in fact, I wanted the book to be notecards that people could carry around with them.

But then I did also figure that I needed a narrative, though I like the idea of a book being unfinished in some sense.

Some reviewers have compared this book with Andy Warhol’s 1968 novel a, which is based on transcribed conversations. Have you read it?
I know that book. But the big difference between it and my book is that it isn’t entertaining – or isn’t interested in entertainment. It’s so banal, so comprehensive, there’s no editing.

It’s really admirable as a work of art and it’s interesting as an experiment, but it doesn’t really give pleasure. And I believe in doing that – even if the pleasure is difficult. I believe in entertainment.

But, like Warhol, you are interested in the public performance of personality, aren’t you?
Yes, how to negotiate all the representations of ourselves. I was talking to my brother about this last night – he’s a stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedians have a very important relationship to Twitter. For them, it’s a place to try out material.

My brother said, “If I reply to people on Twitter then I’m breaking this very defined persona.” He just can’t figure out whether to be himself or to be this persona.

The book is a performance of a particular version of yourself isn’t it? The narrator is called “Sheila”, after all.
There’s been a lot more confusion about that than I anticipated. Because I named the character “Sheila”, people assumed I named her “Sheila Heti”, which I didn’t. I’d never call a character “Sheila Heti”. It’s got to be close but not that close!

Sheila in the novel is deeply preoccupied with questions of artistic authenticity, isn’t she?
A lot of those ideas came from reading Otto Rank’s Art and Artist. He talks about how the problem for the modern artist is that there’s this neurotic relationship between art and life. What I was thinking when writing this book was: how can you bring the studio into your life, or life into the studio?

Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

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