Martin Bauman

David Leavitt <em>Little, Brown, 466pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0316853658

"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy," George Orwell famously declared, "and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." Orwell's unsparing description would be a perfect epigraph to David Leavitt's new book about a writer writing about writing.

Martin Bauman - self-loathing, gay, Jewish and with a profound ambivalence towards sex - is the book's narrator. Eli Aronson - self-loathing, gay, Jewish and Martin's lover for much of the book (although he prefers sex with women) - is also a writer, but not as successful as Martin. Liza Perlman is a celebrated writer who, like Martin and Eli, is homosexual, Jewish and has problems with her self-esteem. The novel begins in the late 1970s, with Bauman attending the writing classes of Stanley Flint, a volatile literary publisher. Eager for approval, Bauman falls immediately under Flint's spell, and we follow him into a publishing desk job and then on to literary fame. Meanwhile, Reagan has become president, conglomeration is sweeping through the publishing industry and the HIV virus is beginning to terrify and kill in equal measure.

The novel takes us back to the themes of earlier Leavitt fictions - death by serious illness, infidelity in homosexual relationships, the difficulties of artistic growth - and we are immersed in the claustrophobic minutiae of the young writers' friendships and lives. Martin, Eli and Liza are neurotic, histrionic and manipulative. While they lack a capacity for detailed self-examination, they dissect, with a steady hand and eye, the pathologies of others. These emotional viscera are then mixed with gossip and small talk to form the bulk of the narrative.

There is a wonderful, languidly conversational quality to much of the writing. There is also a deep seam of irony in the book.

Just at the point when I thought that it had become unbearably parochial, Bauman declares that "no city in the world is more provincial than New York; nor is any realm of the city more provincial than literature, nor is any community more provincial than one composed of writers who hob- nob with editors, and are to some degree homosexuals".

At times, it feels as if Leavitt is using his unquestionable literary gifts to manoeuvre his readers into despising his characters, and even the book itself. Speculation about authorial motive would be risky were it not for the existence of Leavitt's other confessional books. His novella, Arkansas, related the story of a young writer called David Leavitt who is indicted for plagiarism by a poet whose life he appropriates in fiction. In fact, Leavitt was famously sued by Stephen Spender, whose life he allegedly plundered in his novel While England Sleeps.

The events of Martin Bauman also take place on the boundary between autobiography and narrative, between reportage and satire. At one point, a work produced by one of the characters is described as "an interrogation of the self and the border territory between fact and fiction". It will do as a fair representation of this self-reflexive book: whenever the self is interro- gated and held up to the light, masochism and venality shine through.

Reading Martin Bauman is, in the end, rather like eavesdropping on a series of expensive therapeutic monologues, in which a discerning and successful writer, unable any longer to grasp why he works, decides to demonstrate to the analyst his desire to return to pure writing, free from the demands of commercial success or reader expectation.

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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