Novel of the week

The Siege

Helen Dunmore <em>Viking, 304pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0670897183

In the winter of 1941-42, the dead of Leningrad lay hoary in their unheated apartments, or abandoned at the gates of frozen graveyards. Every day, another several thousand starved bodies joined their number. In Hitler's programme of total destruction, aerial bombardment and encirclement would ensure the gradual extinction of life in Leningrad without recourse to a dangerous invasion. Only one supply route was left: the "road of life" over Lake Ladoga, 20 miles to the east. This would eventually save Leningrad and help turn the course of the war; but for weeks, little was getting through, as trucks plunged under the fragile ice. Daily rations dropped to 125 grams of adulterated bread, and whispers of madness and cannibalism echoed down the food queues.

In her well-judged evocation of the siege of Leningrad, Helen Dunmore refuses to wallow in the gore. Instead, she fills her ravaged necropolis with a rich historical and social context. This is a novel about the art of getting by. Its Zhivago and Lara are Andrei, a training medic, and Anna, a nursery teacher. They try to hold together the fragile remains of Anna's family: her brother (who is young enough to be her son) and her sickly father, Mikhail, a writer of average attainment. The dramatic counterpoint is provided by the former actress Marina, a long-time admirer of Mikhail and, like him, a political liability.

Beyond the novel's classically Russian conflict of generations, Dunmore is most interested in exploring the rules of the Soviet habitat: how officialdom could and had to be flouted; how women shouldered the "double burden" of home and work; how the private had to be clawed back from the omnivorous sphere of the public. Specifically, in the case of Anna and Marina, Dunmore shows how vital social bonds could replace natural antipathy. In Soviet history, mutual assistance between citizens was the only refuge from the madcap plans of bureaucrats and "high-up ones"; in Dunmore's book, these survival skills are stretched to their limit.

As Dunmore wrote this novel, she was steeped in the fascinating bottom-up histories of Soviet society that have flourished in recent years. Perhaps inevitably, the research risks crowding out the fiction, with the characters extrapolated too neatly from the historiography to come fully alive, and the dialogues weighed down by an excess of detail. "We are all social historians now," wrote Orlando Figes in his account of the 1917 revolution, A People's Tragedy. But the novelist has to be wary of taking contemporary history's discoveries too literally.

However, with her fine and understated poetic talent, Dunmore captures the siege's sense of estrangement and disorientation in bold, unexpected images. Her Leningrad, filtered through the dizziness of hunger and absolute uncertainty, justifies its explicit derivation from the St Petersburg of Pushkin and Gogol, a city floating on bones and water, transient and macabre. On the city's vast streets, Anna sees snow devils instead of people. In a grim parody of the purposes of the Soviet communal apartment, she finds herself in a bombed block of flats, hunting in the dark for wood, fighting among faceless shadows for her own square metre to destroy. Although Dunmore is indebted to the Russian canon, she brings to bear her own stony, resolutely English and often surprising cadences.

No major Russian novel has emerged from the siege of Leningrad. A foreign author cannot fill this gap, and the Russian reader would find too much in Dunmore's book that is overfamiliar: necessarily, The Siege is an attempt to bridge not just history, but also cultures. As such, it admirably sidesteps all the harmful cliches about the Russian capacity for sacrifice and endurance. But this type of historical fiction runs on grooves that are ultimately limiting for a writer of Dunmore's ability.

Oliver Ready is a former literary editor of the Moscow Times

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat

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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