Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography

Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography
Julian Assange
Canongate, 339pp, £20

Julian Assange is nothing if not a divisive figure. WikiLeaks's year of publishing triumphs - the Collateral Murder video, Afghan and Iraq war logs and a trove of 250,000 diplomatic cables - was accompanied by battles on all sides: Assange v the US state department, Assange v Sweden, Assange v his former media partners, and even Assange v his own legal team.

Against this backdrop, his autobiography was always going to find it hard to fulfil its promise as "one of the unifying documents of our generation". The text eventually published is an early draft of a partial manuscript, assembled from interviews with Assange conducted by Andrew O'Hagan. It covers his life until roughly a month before the press publication of the US diplomatic cables last November.

As such, there is nothing in the book to convey the pressure and the sense of injustice felt inside WikiLeaks during the publication of the cables. I was one of a small group of people in London at the organisation's core at the time, and Senator Joe Lieberman's successful call for US companies to cut off services to the organisation, or Sarah Palin likening staffers to terrorists, felt utterly different from that perspective.

O'Hagan's writing is at its best covering Assange's early life: a nomadic existence in rural Australia, replete with floppy disks hidden in beehives and nightly forays through secure servers. Yet even here, the strident note familiar from Assange's public pronouncements often vanishes, replaced with the mannerisms of a British aesthete. "It occurred to me on the steps of the court that I had travelled a very long way to see such snow," he muses after being granted bail on sexual assault charges in December. The language and tone are wholly uncharacteristic.

It is in depicting some of Assange's relations with women that the book conveys his personality most forcefully. "I felt I could be a good father to my son, but not a good mother," he writes about Daniel, the child he had when he was 19. "I was good at teaching, structuring, protecting, even at bedtime stories, but . . . hopeless at the other bits, the more mundane and less heroic parts of parenting." Later, dwelling on the "rising bosom" of the daughter of a Newcastle minister, he reflects: "It seemed I was exactly what she secretly longed for: a man willing to openly disagree with her father." And he refers to his 46-page report on his own rape case as "an exercise in scientific journalism".

The voice also sounds authentic when talking about betrayal. Assange is a man who, in his own words, trusts easily. Unfortunately, he almost always soon feels let down. At his Australian trial for hacking offences in the 1990s, his co-defendant testified against him. "It was a look I would come to know," he recalls wearily. "The look of betrayal, organised on the face to look like a high-minded interest in the truth."

Those who "betray" him always do so either through malice or to appease vested interests. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, for years the second most visible face of WikiLeaks, attracts four brief mentions, all either faint praise or carrying a hint of spite. The Guardian investigations editor David Leigh, mentioned but not named, apparently crosses him solely to earn one last scoop before retirement.

The desire to lash out against his enemies, often in colourful prose - the Guardian's "lily-livered gits in glass offices" is particularly fine - drains much of the immediacy from the book. All the characters apart from Assange are barely defined. No one else contributes anything much, either to the book or to WikiLeaks. Those who betray him show hardly any human traits other than glaring faults of character.

The Unauthorised Autobiography portrays Assange as self-interested to the point of obsession. There is no mention of, or justification for, WikiLeaks's darker decisions - such as its co-operation with Israel Shamir, an anti-Semite with close ties to figures in the Russian security services. It seems an organisation without flaws.

Whether the fault lies with Assange or with his publisher, which released this book without his agreement after he ducked out of the project but failed to repay a £250,000 initial advance, is not clear. Canongate has made some strange decisions. Besides Leigh, Heather Brooke and Nick Davies are identifiable but never named - perhaps as a shield against libel. Yet, in other places, the book boldly names individuals whom others fear to mention.

Herein lies the problem. There are too many competing voices: Assange's, O'Hagan's, that of the Canongate team operating without the oversight of either. As a result, Assange need not defend anything in it he does not like, and it often sounds nothing like him. The road to publication, his lack of candour and the book's bizarrely early cut-off leave every stone unturned. Never mind a unifying document: this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting.

James Ball is a data journalist at the Guardian

James Ball is a journalist at the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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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