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Reviewed: She Left Me the Gun - My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes

Tangled roots.

She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me
Emma Brockes
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £16.99

Emma Brockes describes She Left Me the Gun as an “anti-misery memoir”. The early life of her mother, Paula, in South Africa was unquestionably grim and Brockes has set herself the laudable challenge of telling that story “in a way that was in keeping with my mother’s delight at the world”.

Paula’s father, Jimmy, was a convicted murderer, a violent alcoholic and an incestuous paedophile. When Paula was in her mid-twenties, she had him arrested for domestic abuse. The case was brought to trial at the Johannesburg high court in 1958. Despite testimony from several of his eight children and medical evidence that the 12-year-old had been raped, Jimmy was found not guilty. The presiding judge was Justice Quartus de Wet – the man who would later sentence Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment on Robben Island. What makes Paula’s story even more remarkable is that Brockes knew nothing about it until just before her mother’s death from cancer, in 2003.

She Left Me the Gun is a triumph for three reasons. The first is the voice. Brockes is often very funny. Recalling how it pleased her mother “to be at a slight angle to the culture” in England, she observes that this is “the standard expat consolation: in my case – a British person in New York – looking around and thinking, ‘You people have no idea about the true nature of reality when you don’t know what an Eccles cake is or how to get to Watford.’” Crucially, she achieves her ambition of writing about the most painful of subjects without resorting to the tropes of misery memoir or therapy.

Then there is the material itself – not just the story of Paula’s childhood but that of the lives of her extraordinary siblings. When Brockes visits her alcoholic, born-again uncle Tony, he suggests that they chat over drinks at a casino. On the way in, he issues a warning: “If I ever catch you in here, I’ll beat you up.” He then proceeds to display an exceptional memory of the details of his impoverished childhood. Brockes notes everything down, a deep-sea archaeologist retrieving her murky treasures.

“Every now and then a plague of fleas would sweep through the house, and the cat would be blamed,” remembers Tony. “One day, the old man grabbed our cat and dropped it down the long drop [the toilet]. Mom sent John and me to get it out. We took the axe and cut down a tree with a long branch. We lowered the branch down and the cat shot up it, scattering shit, and it never came back.”

Finally, there is Brockes’s fearlessness and her resistance to glib interpretation of facts that are often tantalisingly opaque. She is unafraid to report one abused sister suggesting that another, unmolested sister was jealous not to be “chosen”. Paula’s stepmother appears to have been the reason the case fell through: at the last minute, she changed her story. For Paula, this was a terrible betrayal. The stepmother (with whom Paula corresponded for the rest of her life, addressing her as “Mum”) sent Paula a letter shortly after she emigrated. Amazingly, it was written on the back of a photograph – a photograph of Paula with Jimmy, the man who had raped her regularly throughout her childhood and adolescence.

Brockes reports all of this without trying to explain it. She understands that she can’t; that however much research you do, some things will always remain unknowable. It is the intelligence and the honesty of this restraint that make the book so powerful.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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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