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Andrew Solomon: “Gay parenting is never accidental, or casual or careless”

The meaning and power of love.

George, aged three, comes into the room. “Hi, George,” says his father the author Andrew Solomon. “Are you going out?” “Yes, I’m going out.” “I hope you have a lovely time. Where are you going?” George ignores the question. “Daddy, are you coming?” “I can’t come right now because I’m doing an interview, but I’ll do something you with you a little later.”

George looks pensive. “OK. Bye, Daddy.” And off he goes.

George appears towards the end of Solomon’s recent book about exceptional children, Far From the Tree. In the final chapter, he recounts his son’s conception and birth, and the journey to parenthood he undertook with his partner, John. As gay men, they had to navigate their way through egg donors and surrogacy, but then, finally, there he was, a baby. “Gay parenting is never accidental, or casual or careless,” Solomon says. “It doesn’t mean it’s always done well, but because it requires so much effort and planning and focus, I don’t think people go into it lightly.”

Solomon, a New Yorker, spends half his time in London. We sit in the elegant living room of his house in Kensington and when George ambles in, you can see the parental flush of adoration rise in his cheeks. George, clearly, is exceptional to him – he tells wonder-struck anecdotes about his son’s love of trucks – but he is not exceptional according to the categories of the new book: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender. For each of these, Solomon interviewed parents about their experience of bringing up a child entirely different from themselves, a child who had fallen far from the tree. The stories are harrowing but also enlightening as you meet parent after parent who never thought that such a difficulty would befall them, and yet amid the struggle found ways to cope with and celebrate the unique presence of their child. They are forced, quicker than most, to go through what nearly every parent must: the recognition that their child is in some ways a stranger. Or, as the author puts it in the opening line of the book: “There is no such thing as reproduction.”

Solomon spent ten years on the book, his fourth. The previous three covered Soviet artists, his mother’s illness and death and, in The Noonday Demon, depression. “It’s all about people who are in an incredibly awful situation who managed to bring some kind of greatness out of that situation.”

In The Noonday Demon that person was often himself; it begins with a fiercely honest account of his battle with mental illness. The follow-up, Far From the Tree, is an act of public service, designed to help those in isolated predicaments and to give a voice to children routinely sidelined by society.

He evolved enormously through writing the book, he says. “In the first place, I was made uncomfortable by people in pretty much all of the categories in the book, and so I had a rather intense process of coming to terms with my fears and anxieties.” It also meant that he became more accepting of his family – of John, of George. “I’m less inclined to foist my standards on everyone else. I still do it a bit, but it’s a little more under control.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Solomon as a man of standards. He dresses and speaks as the perfect east coast gentleman, and has the backstory of a man who gathers achievements and institutions with casual ease – a top First in his graduate studies in England, lecturer at Cornell, fellow at Yale, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and so on.

But that’s to give the wrong impression – he is also a man who likes to write and talk in the most frank and human terms about love. Far From the Tree taught him that the love felt for a disabled child often intensifies in defence against the world’s presumption that the disability is a disaster. His next book – based on the PhD he is finishing up at Cambridge –will examine a different kind of love, between mother and child.

“People said to me, I know you had a depression, but you’re mostly a fairly cheerful person: why do you keep writing on these grim topics? And I said, OK, why don’t I try to write about love?” Romantic love seemed to be well covered by the poets, so he opted for the maternal kind, partly out of an awareness “that we’re bringing up a child without a mother, effectively”, and the process might help him grapple with that absence.

It all comes back to the child, to George. One night, Solomon says, they were putting him to bed and “John said, ‘We love you more than the sun and the moon.’ And I said, ‘We love you more than the ocean and the sky.’ And John said, ‘We love you more than the trees.’ And George said, ‘More than the dump truck?’” Solomon laughs. “That’s become our byword for real love.”

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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