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France in the New Century: Portrait of a Changing Society

John Ardagh <em>Viking, 800pp, £20</em>

Every ten years or so the journalist and historian John Ardagh writes a book about the French. He began in the 1960s, with The New French Revolution, which evolved into The New France, then spilled into France in the 1980s and later into France Today. This vast new tome, 800 pages of small type, seems to include every word of the previous books plus whatever else Ardagh wished to add to his verbal cassoulet.

Reading the result is an extraordinary experience. Irritation and tedium jostle with moments of interest and illumination as page after page of statistics, percentages, description - and, most of all, the thoughts of John Ardagh - stun the reader. Does one care this much about the French? The answer is yes. Does one want to know, to this extent, what Ardagh thinks about them, that he had "copious civet de chevreuil and a home-made apple pie" for "74 francs prix fixe" or in which town someone stole his mac and typewriter? No.

Almost all of French life is in these pages. Thus the book will be of inestimable value to any journalist who wishes to know that less than 10 per cent of the French workforce is unionised (against 39 per cent of ours) and that French employers add 41 per cent to their wages bills to pay for their marvellous public services, while British employers pay only 18 per cent for our wretched equivalents.

Ardagh ignores nothing of superficial or of practical interest. He provides an intelligent record of France's modernisation and of the practices and systems that have brought the country to its enviable position as the world's fourth-largest economy, after the USA, Japan and Germany. He also clarifies the mysteries of French bureaucracy and the social welfare system, and explains how the French live and prosper within their unique combination of paternalism and individualistic laissez-faire.

Ardagh is best of all on recent French political scandals, which have caused so much morosite in the French psyche. This loss of belief in politicians of all parties and a longing to preserve a European version of life in the face of American globalisation emerge as the two defining qualities of late-20th-century France. The exposition of the Juppe and Jospin regimes is fair to both and underlines how fortunate the French have been with the arrival of the Protestant Jospin, whose upright personality was a tonic for a people exhausted by the corruption and scandals of the Mitterrand and Chirac years.

He is also excellent on the elite who have run France for centuries: a corps of people far less attached to the moneyed or upper classes than our British version. The collection of Ecoles - des Mines, des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Nationale d'Administration, Polytechnique and so many others - seems to bring forth a management structure far more useful, and certainly more attractive, than our own establishment. Indeed the great bonus for inhabitants of the British Isles in reading this book is the painful revelations it makes as to how and why we live as we do. No one can read the chapters on French engineering, on their car industry, their public health and transport systems - and the continuing government support for the same - without an agonising lurch of the heart about our losses during the Thatcher years.

Equally miserable to read is the account of the French in Europe, a clear exposition of the enormous benefits that EU membership has brought in terms of wealth and improvements to their quality of life. The French people are as suspicious of Brussels as any Brit, but have the wit to see why this union has been, and will continue to be, worthwhile. It makes one cringe over the jingoistic and short-sighted misery inflicted on us by many of our leaders and most of our newspapers.

All these things, however, could have been supplied in a book one-quarter the length of this. The amount of repetition is as remarkable as it is exhausting, with Ardagh relating many of his facts three, four or five times. This can only be because the Ardagh word processor has extracted sections from his previous books and pasted them into this one, without reflecting that we need to be told only once that Catherine Trautmann was a "popular Socialist mayor" of Strasbourg before becoming Jospin's minister of culture, or that Philippe Bourguignon has made a tremendous success of Disneyland Paris. As we trot round France with this man of benevolence and moderation, this "prudent centrist" who absorbs and exudes facts like a pair of electric bellows, we are often touched by his ponderings and impressed by his encyclopaedic knowledge. But it also feels like playing an eternal game of Trivial Pursuit.

Ardagh is a man of set opinions. He loves Brittany, is warmish towards the "good" left and fond of egomaniacal if benevolent dictators (you feel he'd vote for Ken Livingstone); so we get a lot about these subjects. He is too obsessed with Jean-Marie Le Pen and far too uninterested in the real French right to give the latter serious attention. The current crumbling of the French right, even worse than that of our Conservative Party, thus remains unexplored.

The worst analytical fault of the book, however, is the lack of insight into how the French got where they are today in terms of recent history. For Ardagh, French modernisation began with the May 1968 uprisings, to which he often refers. He avoids almost entirely anything to do with France's activities during the Vichy years, which is rather like writing a book about Germany and Britain today without taking into account what 1939-45 meant to them. In this kind of history, the vigorous activities of the Vichy government, and of French collaboration in general, are characterised passively as "the German Occupation" - an attitude towards recent history that most of the French themselves no longer accept.

This vast plum pudding of a book longs for editorial attention. Inside it are many choice bits and pieces struggling to get out. Until that happens, it must remain a book for the reference shelf and not the pleasant and informative guide to France today it could, and should, have been.

Carmen Callil, former publisher of Chatto & Windus and founder of Virago, is writing a book about a family in Vichy France

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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