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Reviewed: The Scientists by Marco Roth

Young Americans.

The Scientists: a Family Romance
Marco Roth
Union Books, 208pp, £14.99

In the autumn of 2004, Marco Roth wrote an obituary (he called it an “autothanatography”) of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida for n+1, the New York-based literary magazine he founded with three friends. The critic and literary theorist Edward Said had also died the year before. With the deaths of Derrida and Said, we were witnessing, wrote Roth, the passing of the “last great generation of intellectuals”.

The fashion for “theory” in the United States, Roth thought, had been the expression of a “hope for the future of thinking and education” on the part of “intelligent, angry and alienated Americans” – Americans not unlike Roth himself. However, despite the patina of political radicalism it acquired when it crossed the Atlantic from Europe, theory wasn’t going to change the world. Yet it could and did, Roth insisted, “change individual lives”, redeeming the “discomfort some people felt about subject and object, language and self”.

Roth develops this thought in his memoir, The Scientists, his first book. He was, he tells us, one of those awkward, unsettled young Americans who found, if not solace exactly, then a kind of negative affirmation in theory – ratification of their sense that the world is largely indifferent to human projects and that we live at the mercy of vast, impersonal forces (“language, desire, economics, evolution”) over which we have no control. (In one of several deftly handled comic set pieces, Roth describes an undergraduate friend of his letting his hands glide, with a mixture of “salaciousness and pedantry”, over a copy of Paul de Man’s The Resistance to Theory, a work in which theory’s unconsoling truths were refined to a sort of icy perfection.)

For Roth, the lessons of theory were as much spiritual (though Derrida and de Man would have hated the word) as they were intellectual – theory offered a way of reconciling oneself to the ineluctability of “ordinary human misery”. From an early age (he’d been a precociously adventurous reader as a child), he writes, “It [had] seemed perfectly natural to me that . . . literature was a kind of mirror of the self.” Roth is too intelligent, however, not to see that this habit could appear theoretically suspect. He recalls later, when he was in graduate school, confiding to an acquaintance that he was working on a book about the relationship of literature to life and being told that the project was “deeply disgusting”.

After graduating from Columbia in the mid-1990s, Roth went to Paris with the intention of “apprenticing” himself to the “master”, Derrida. Things didn’t work out quite as he’d hoped. He arrived in the French capital in late summer but Derrida didn’t begin his seminar until mid-November and was frequently absent on teaching trips abroad. And when Roth secured a slot to deliver a presentation to the great man, he got the date wrong.

The Scientists is not just an intellectual memoir, a memoir of reading, however. It is also a memoir of Roth’s father. He had travelled to France on what he wittily calls the “Eugene Roth Jr Memorial Scholarship Fund”, in reality a reasonably substantial chunk of the money he inherited when his father died from Aids. Eugene, a scientist, was infected when his son was 14 – he was working on sickle-cell anaemia and was pricked accidentally with a used needle. The young Marco was made to keep his father’s condition a secret from all but the family’s closest friends.

Characteristically, Roth’s anatomy of his relationship with his father is also an inventory of the books that Eugene gave him when he was a teenager. By his father’s graveside, Roth summons a list to mind: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons – books about families, certainly, designed to soothe the unruly feelings of an adolescent but also artefacts of a central European, liberal, upper- middle-class culture on the brink of destruction. This was a culture that Roth’s parents had sought to preserve in facsimile on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, regularly throwing open their apartment on Central Park West to chamber recitals and poetry readings. Roth’s elegy for his father, therefore, is also an elegy for a New York Jewish intellectual milieu that has all but disappeared.

One of the things Roth learned from theory was that most human lives don’t describe a satisfying narrative arc. The stories we tell about ourselves are assembled from fragments and there is nothing settled or definitive about the way pieces are put together. He received a rather brutal reminder of this truth when his aunt, the novelist Anne Roiphe, published a memoir that seemed to suggest that Eugene had not told his wife or son the whole story. When he learned of his aunt’s insinuations about his father’s sexuality, Roth feared “becoming what a French literary theorist would call ‘the narrated’ . . . [a character] in someone else’s drama”. To his credit, he has managed to make the story his own.

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

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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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