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All the King's Men

Robert Penn Warren <em>Prion, 438pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 1853753483

To describe All the King's Men as "a great political novel" is as condescending as calling Moby Dick "a great fishing novel"or Middlemarch "a great West Midlands novel". Perhaps it is better to say that, along with Henry Adams and Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren is one of the few American writers to have produced a novel about politics which has survived and deserves to prosper.

In the opening chapters, modern readers might fear that a plot which seemed original in 1946 has been reduced to cliche by subsequent imitations. Willie Stark is a petty official in an unnamed southern state. He loses his job for exposing the local cabal, but earns belated recognition when his warnings about a fraudulent contract to build his town's school are vindicated by the deaths of children. Flatterers from the state capital persuade him to run for governor. Stark takes the campaign and electorate seriously, but pulls out when he discovers that he's been put up by the city boys to split the opposition vote. We meet Stark again four years later. He has secured the governorship by turning himself into "the Boss", a vicious populist who can cover up embezzlement and worse while earning the adulation of the red-necked mob.

The danger of being instructed yet again that power corrupts, and that youthful idealism must give way to hard-headed pragmatism in the real world's university of life, moves closer by the page. But All the King's Men avoids platitudes, in part because it is a political novel with peculiarly apolitical obsessions. Stark is a caricature of Huey Long, the grandiose and depraved governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, who nevertheless revived his state with Keynesian deficit financing and public works. Yet Warren mentions the Great Depression just once - and then in passing. We are given a discourse on ends and means, but no understanding of why the end of relieving the deepest slump in the history of capitalism might justify many means. Like Primary Colours, Joe Klein's inferior substitute, All the King's Men does not discuss the gushing source of American corruption - campaign financing. Rather, Stark's vice is his belief that anyone who crosses him can be brought to heel by the exploitation of sex, money, flattery or fear. In a passage that is repeated like a chant, Jack Burden, Stark's morally blank aide and the novel's cool narrator, is told to find the secret of a judge who won't get into line.

"But suppose there isn't anything to find?"
And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not on the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

The dialogue is saturated with biblical fatalism. There are lyrical passages on highways and landscapes, and confident assertions on the human condition, which can all sound archaic to a cramped and ironic postmodern sensibility. But then, if you were to give many contemporary writers Warren's themes, they would babble something about the ends never justifying the means and leave it at that. Warren's strength is that he sees ends and means, pragmatism and utopianism, as a dialectic in which the roles of man of action and man of ideals swap and collide and transform the combatants into unexpected forms. Finding the judge's dirty secret brings disaster to Burden and to many who love him, but it also forces him to come to terms with his life's failures. Stark is brought down not by his contempt for decent means - which will clearly take him to the Senate, and perhaps the presidency, if he has the courage to stick to his lack of principle - but by his love of his son and mistress, and by his desire to leave one unsullied achievement for posterity. There is a marvellously drawn female politico, of a type you bump into daily at Westminster, who is determined to be as mean as the boys, but is undone by customary ruthlessness provoked by unaccustomed sentimentality.

There may always be something, but it may not always be predictable.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo

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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