Novel of the week


Phil Whitaker <em>Phoenix House, 256pp, £12.99</em>

Authenticity and originality are two of the most overrated qualities in contemporary fiction. Novels are praised for no more than accurately representing new slices of life, and you have only to look at the inexorable success of biography to see the value placed on reality, as in hard facts, as opposed to fictional truth. Often the casualty of this subtle battle is imagination, as though novelists are collectively cowed by a crippling dictum to write only from experience. The result: the novel as a kind of reportage, notes from beyond the edge of innocence. Given this gloomily literal climate, it's refreshing to come across a novel that pays it so little regard.

Triangulation is Phil Whitaker's second novel, yet already he appears to know exactly what he is doing. This is no small achievement. Most writers early in their careers are rocket-fuelled by hope alone - the hope that their passion to set things down will also set them on the right track. This seldom works, and novelists are often shown to lack all conviction when things fall apart before the novel is done. Not so Whitaker, who clearly had a plan and stuck to it with a kind of calm, clinical determination; at times he exhibits an almost pathological attention to form and structure. That he has been a GP for the past decade may have something to do with it, but it doesn't explain his finesse, which I suspect is natural.

Whitaker's first novel, Eclipse of the Sun, was published in 1997, two years after he graduated with an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He won a Betty Trask award and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys prize, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award. Eclipse of the Sun was set in India, yet it was an India of the author's imagination: he had been there only once, nine years before, for two weeks. He researched the novel mainly on the Internet. The rest he made up. His second novel is similarly attached to authentic experience by a flimsy thread: it was initially inspired by a lecture on cartography and is partly set in an unnamed African state at the end of the 1950s. Triangulation is the term used to describe an out-moded method of surveying; it refers, too, to the triangular relationship at the heart of the story.

The first-person point of the triangle is held by a nerdy, well-meaning, yet subtly dangerous character, John. On retirement he takes a tortuous train journey to visit his one-time love, Helen. At least he hopes she will be there. His journey is, in truth, a journey of the heart, and its purpose is as unclear as his claim on Helen's affections is tenuous. She was always in love with another man, whose story is told in flashback through diary entries and correspondence from Africa.

What united the characters in the past is shown to be as shadowy and deceptive as their relationships once were to one another: all three worked for the directorate of over- seas surveys, an obsolete organisation that sometimes produced false maps in an attempt to benefit from forgotten skirmishes in dark corners of the empire. And as John travels closer to the geographical heart of England in search of lost time, there is the sense of his past - and all notions of empire - dissolving. Time and memory have played a trick, and this heart of darkness is no more than a set of redundant maps, a dimly recalled falsehood.

As a second novel, it is hard to praise Triangulation enough. Out of step with the times, it is written in a faintly archaic, syntactically immaculate style. On the one hand this style is impressive for its economy and elegance (while also being a perfect vehicle for nostalgia). On the other, it provokes suspicions of pastiche: has Phil Whitaker found his voice, or is he just a well-read, proficient mimic? There is also a striking absence of passion. Apart from that, it's just what the doctor ordered.

Candida Clark's novel, "The Last Look", is published by Vintage, £5.99

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes

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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