Show Hide image

A L Kennedy: "The use of language is underestimated as a force"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, On Writing, is a collection of essays and blogs. How did you start blogging?
I like what I do. I like reading. That whole area of my life has always been very joyful and supportive and well supported.

It’s probably just me being evangelical – not about people being writers but about people having access to what writing can do. That’s why I go around and do a one-person show and that’s why I started blogging.

Writing has become one of your central themes, hasn’t it?
Yes. The use of language is underestimated as a force. It’s how advertising influences; it’s how politicians influence. The way you are defined by the law is framed in words. It influences every aspect of your life, so if you’re not in control of language, language is in control of you. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

The blogs, which function as a sort of diary, give a strong sense of the toll that writing has taken, particularly on your health.
When I was coming through, there weren’t any [writing] courses. You somehow had the idea that you should get a room of your own and that the more time you had, the more you would write; and then you’d get published and that would be it. That was all the information you had and, even with the courses, it’s pretty much all the information you have now.

Warwick, where I teach, is very good; the emphasis is on the words on the page. Still, you need to ask: do you have a comfortable chair? Are you working on a laptop, which means your head is in the wrong position or your hands are in the wrong position – or both? If you do that for four, six, eight hours, when you’re basically built to swing through trees and eat fruit, you’ll become ill.

In one essay, you talk about “being with people in art”. The way you work seems very communal.
I don’t know many writers who work in an ivory tower. That was only really possible for a very brief period when a particular class of person had vast amounts of leisure time. If you look at history, [you’ll find that] the people who told stories were primarily performers and it was always public or it was a communal activity and everybody did it.

What effect has the growth of creative writing courses had?
It depends on whether the course is good or not. Writing is not a communal activity when you’re doing it, putting words on paper. If your name’s on it, it’s your responsibility. It’s not a group decision.

A lot of courses and sessions and books are about making money; making people dependent upon a process that is unnecessary and upon which they should not become dependent.

Writing is the most self-contained form of self-employment. You don’t have to go on a course; you don’t have to have gone to university – but you do have to understand your craft. It is a craft and you can learn it, regardless of how you serve your apprenticeship.

Why do you think creative writing as an academic discipline has been so controversial – in this country, at least?
Because it’s not fit for purpose. It wasn’t designed by writers; it was designed by English departments. The idea that the English department should be the one that creative writing is attached to makes no more sense than it being attached to the anthropology department or the physics department.

Your background is in theatre studies. You write about actors a lot in the book.
Actors are extraordinarily good readers. In a way, they’re the most forgiving readers around because even if you’re producing unmelodious and unbelievable rubbish, they have to be out there wearing it and if it doesn’t cover them, then their arse is out of the window.

The cover of the book makes you look like a polar explorer. Is that a good metaphor for the writing life?
It’s completely polar. You’re walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks.

A L Kennedy’s “On Writing” is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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