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Reviewed: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields

The anti-novel jihadist.

How Literature Saved My Life
David Shields
Notting Hill Editions, 224pp, £12

David Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness. “The only way out,” he argues, “is deeper in.” Yet readers of How Literature Saved My Life will be divided over whether Shields develops or merely revisits ideas that have earned him a reputation as “the poster boy for the death of the novel”.

Mixing original writing with quotes, as he did in his last book, Reality Hunger (2010), Shields demonstrates his commitment to collage and appropriation but his conviction that “the notes are the book” might signal a skeleton of memoir and polemic instead of a realised work.

For Shields, who reveres Proust but no longer has the patience to read him, the novel has “gone dark”. His aesthetic criteria feel limiting but his candour is attractive and the strongest passages concern his life. On a college-era relationship, he writes: “I was 19-years-old and a virgin, and at first I read Rebecca’s journal because I needed to know what to do next and what she liked to hear.” The romance is fraught with anxiety about performance and authenticity but there are intriguing symmetries between Shields’s snooping and the qualities he praises in Renata Adler’s 1970s novel Speedboat:

She’s doing everything she can to make me hyper-aware of her thought processes . . . I feel the strange rub of language, the way it not only evokes life but creates it, prophesies it.

Shields reads because he wants to watch others thinking and he writes from the compulsion to share his mind’s movements. He’s both audience and actor, as he was when reading Rebecca’s journal.

While studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Shields receives treatment for a speech impediment and is “overwhelmed by the paradox that as a writer I was learning to manipulate words but that as a stutterer I was at the mercy of them”. He contrasts the clinic and its “efficient demand for a liveable life” with the basketball gymnasium where, “When one person cheered, this cheer flowed into the bloodstream of the person next to you.” This book thrives on the tension between the world’s insistence on efficiency and Shields’s longing for community but writers must, he believes, confront “the marginalisation of literature by more technologically sophisticated and thus more visceral forms”.

His encounter with Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Guardians, however, was more visceral than his calls for immediacy: “I did something I do when I genuinely love a book: start covering my mouth when I read. This is very pure and elemental; I want nothing coming between me and the page.”

Must communion be direct, untrammelled by slow burn and subtext? Shields quotes Manguso: “I don’t want to have to hold my breath until the very end and then find it wasn’t worth it.” This sounds incongruous in Shields’s book, which celebrates artists’ attempts to articulate truth, and such impatience ignores the important role that disappointment can play in reading.

Shields is wary of what Geoff Dyer calls “self-karaoke” and Manguso warns: “The threat of writing to an audience becomes only more present a danger as time passes and renown increases.” In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields relishes his role as controversialist (“Fine by me”) and his weakness is less writing to please admirers than to deflect detractors.

Shields nominates the genre-bending Ben Lerner as “my doppelgänger of the next generation”. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner combines fiction, autobiography and criticism and dramatises his formal choices so that they become a significant part of his subject matter. Lerner’s book is a novel because the form affords imaginative freedom and invites renewal, yet Shields persists with generalisations about “tidy coherence” and work that “tells the reader pretty much where he’s going”.

It’s easier to cite celebrated, recent novels that leave readers not knowing what to think – Teju Cole’s Open City, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? – than to name a serious fiction writer who wouldn’t sympathise with Shields when he says: “I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time.”

Has literature saved Shields’s life? “Just barely,” he concludes, echoing Picasso (“A great painting comes together, just barely,” the painter once said). This book is worth reading because Shields is an invigorating polemicist, as well as a subtle and amusing memoirist, but is his disavowal of fiction for real? Is he committed, as Dyer has said, to “anti-novel jihad”?

As a child, Shields found play “fantastically unfulfilling”. Nowadays, he thinks that in David Foster Wallace’s fiction, “The game is simply not worth the candle,” but he concurs with a writing professor who recommends a “playful attitude” to material. Shields’s books yearn for meaning but they’re as mediated by performance as the culture they criticise. This doesn’t diminish their relevance but I was disappointed when, after interviewing Shields two years ago, he asked if I was writing a novel.

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

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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