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It seems at times as though the Oxford Lieder Festival’s project of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’ really has taken over the city.  A gruelling schedule is required to tackle the immense task of performing the entire body of lieder Schubert ever composed, over 600 songs, in just three weeks.  Highlights from the first week of the festival included an opening concert in the Sheldonian Theatre showcasing lieder and partsongs from across Schubert’s career and a performance of Winterreise by the mighty pairing of tenor Ian Bostridge and composer-pianist Thomas Adès, fresh from gaining critical acclaim for their spellbinding reading of the song cycle at the Aldeburgh Festival in June.

Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès

Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès

Picking out recommendations from the plethora of remaining events is not an easy task, but two late-night concerts instantly stand out.  The first is Imogen Cooper playing the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D960) in the intimate surroundings of the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 23rd October, 10pm). This sonata, Schubert’s last, is some of the most hauntingly melancholy music the composer ever wrote, opening a door to a unique and moving soundworld from its very first bars.  Imogen Cooper brings a wealth of experience in this repertoire, as well as the sense of control and lyricism it requires.

Secondly, Wolfgang Holzmair’s recital of Songs of the Night and the Stars is another exciting prospect. Accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, founder and director of the festival, the Austrian baritone will be exploring this important theme in Schubert’s song output.  It is a real sign of the growing stature of the festival that it is able to attract international artists of such standing.  Performed in New College’s beautiful ante-chapel, this recital has all the ingredients for creating a truly special atmosphere. Holzmair is following this up with a programme of Songs of Evening and Twilight, accompanied by Graham Johnson, in the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 30th October, 7:30pm).

The festival is not just attracting world-class performers of Schubert’s lieder to Oxford, though, but also an impressive range of scholars concerned with

Susan Youens

Susan Youens

his music.  Susan Youens, a renowned authority on lieder and Schubert in particular, is leading a study day on Die schöne Müllerin (Sunday 19th October, 11am-3:45pm in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College), a perfect way to prepare for Christoph Prégardien and Roger Vignoles’s performance of the cycle in the evening (Sunday 19th October, 7:30pm, St John the Evangelist). Moreover, throughout  the festival, the pianist and scholar Graham Johnson is holding a series of lecture-recitals covering Schubert’s ‘Life and Times’.

Amongst all this celebration, we should not forget that in Schubert’s Vienna only fragments of his music were ever heard in public, short songs and choral pieces inserted into concerts that mixed composers and genres with abandon.  Whilst Schubert’s songs and piano pieces may have been popular in the private salons, many of the great late instrumental works were probably only ever heard by the composer inside his own head.  However, in March 1828, just months before his death, Schubert achieved one of the highlights of his tragically short professional career: a public concert in Vienna with only his music on the programme.  The expanding of this event, unique in Schubert’s lifetime, to a full three-week extravaganza may not quite represent a literal adhesion to the notion of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’, but the richness and variety of the festival sends a powerful message about why this man’s music continues to matter so much.

G. Masters

For more information about the Oxford Lieder Festival, please visit their website.

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On first entering the set of The Oxford Greek Play’s production of The Furies – with its geometrical shapes, hard panels juxtaposed with soft, cavernous drapes, all drenched in an angry, nightmarish dark red – you are immediately gripped by an expressionist world of oppressive menace. This symbolic treatment, setting the play in an abstract no-where that aims to evoke the interior landscape of a psyche, seems to be the preferred treatment given by most directors to Greek tragedy. But conventions often exist with good reason, and the only measurement here should be effectiveness. The gravitation towards an expressionist staging of Greek tragedy comes from wrestling with the very real problem of making an alien and seemingly unrealistic poetic language appear truthful and convincing to the audience – all the more important for an original-language production. On this count, the production succeeds marvelously as it has the rare power to make the audience shiver. Arabella Currie, both director and translator of the helpful surtitles, imparts a remarkable unity of vision, taking care to use all resources at her disposal to create an immersive psychological world.

This production has the bravery to be fraught with contradictions. The chief problem a modern Furies (traditionally translated as The Eumenides) poses is its inherent misogyny: it is, as written, a blatant propaganda piece justifying the patriarchal basis of Athenian law. The play, for all its mythic symbolism, represents a definite historical moment: the eclipse of a matrilineal society by a patrilineal one. The male principle overpowers the female: the male is the superior virtues of daylight — logic, civilization, cool-headed justice; the female is “mother night”, earth, blood, animalistic revenge. As Clytemnestra’s ghost says to the Furies: “what are you for, except to do evil?” Aeschylus’ moral polarity couldn’t be made clearer.

Textual faithfulness may seem very difficult in the face of such ideology, yet this production unflinchingly faces the play’s discomforting values. Orestes, whose pain is rendered by Niall Docherty with a powerful reserve that steers clear of melodrama, may stumble at first before Athena, but he finally stands tall, every inch the man, when he is vindicated. Jack Taylor’s Apollo struts with Euripidean swagger, just as much a cocky macho mortal as a god, and never loses his certainty in victory even when the Furies outnumber him and surround him. Particularly uncomfortable to watch is the constantly-highlighted passivity of the Furies despite their formidable menace: Apollo grips them by the throat, one by one, and handles them at will; after the trial, they lie prostrate while Orestes stands triumphant. Athena, whose androgyny is well-conveyed by Kaiya Stone in her measured masculine stance, is convincing as an able judge, and Stone’s acting accentuates Athena’s wisdom so effectively that it almost makes one forget the horrific content of her verdict. Most crucially, Clytemnestra’s quiet desperation and impotent rage is conveyed sympathetically by Hannah Marsters in what is perhaps the stand-out performance. In support of the cast, the lighting effects faithfully reproduce the movement of a world from underground darkness to divine light, as the blue gloom and smoke is replaced by a resplendent, almost blinding golden glow. No attempt has been made to spare the gender politics of the text. Precisely the opposite: it has been highlighted, insisted upon. One cannot avert one’s eyes.

the-furies_s

Unwavering dedication to spectacle bridges the gap of two millennia to impose its visceral grip on the audience; the mythic poetry is not declamatory, or else mangled with faux-realism, but pierces to the heart with help from the stage’s visual and sonic imagery. Although the director employs a number of purely routine methods, such as dissonant percussive music punctuated with prehistoric flute-calls, copious smoke, and echoing sound effects, they do not draw attention to themselves and remain in the background to be experienced subconsciously. The staging creates a feverish dreamscape and there are some truly inspired images, such as Orestes carrying a transparent shroud wrapped with the burden of Clytemnestra’s body, or the Furies with their bodies contorted in such a way that they seem to be disembodied limbs. The awakening of the chorus from sleep into song, with its whirl of music, dance and rhythmic stamping slowly building up into a powerful contrapuntal frenzy, is a thrilling triumph. All this is capped with a superb command of the Ancient Greek language, spoken with such fluency that it seems not a dead but a living language, with its alternating register of spoken dialogue and poetic music.

However, the production also works extensively against the grain of the language as written, in its attempt to impose its own interpretation. Pythia, instead of confidently declaring the theme of the play in her prologue, spits out inarticulate ravings. Athena comes to her verdict only after a visible process of excruciating birth-pangs. Most crucially, the production ends not with the triumph of Athena but with the Furies occupying her altar, and their final speech, instead of demonstrating acquiescence, is bitterly ironic: Aeschylus’ platitudes about justice, prosperity and happiness is delivered with such defiant vehemence that the sense of the words threatens to break down into meaninglessness under the strain of so contrary an interpretation. The way the language of the play sometimes becomes only another spectacular effect is in fact the most significant flaw in the overall philosophy of the production. It is sometimes difficult to register the words being spoken at all; most notably, Orestes’ entire prayer to Athena is drowned out by the overly-loud orchestra, while the chorus also presents a difficulty in their most hyper-ventilating neurotic moments. However, this is not to suggest that it is the production’s duty to let the audience, most of whom are illiterate in the classical languages, hear every word, and it is clear why bold effects may be preferred in imparting the sense of the play. There may be no good solution to the difficulties of original-language Greek tragedy productions. From a spectator’s perspective, what is most important is that the actors speak with a confident command of their language; in this regard, the acting is near-perfect.

The task of bringing a Greek tragedy to life as closely as it would have been originally spoken is a truly delicate task, and it’s harder to think of a more challenging project than The Furies, so great is the gap between Aeschylus’ devout moral certitude from our modern sensibilities. A great production must face the task and strive to reconcile ancient and modern in an aesthetically-pleasing and convincing whole. Notwithstanding its flaws, The Oxford Greek Play production achieves this, and that is the most important success that any play can hope for.

E. Kamalabadi

‘The Furies’ is running at The Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 19th October. Tickets can be purchased from the Playhouse website.

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From personal experience, mentioning the name William Morris in public is most likely to garner one of the following reactions:

  1. He’s the one that did those flowery wallpapers, isn’t he?
  2. William Morris, the socialist?
  3. Who?
William Morris Trellis wallpaper

William Morris Trellis wallpaper

It is a rare occasion (and a real joy) when the odd person has not only heard of Morris’ interior decoration hobby, chumminess with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and/or his zealous socialism, but that he was an avid medievalist. Though I hesitate to call Morris a scholar, it must be admitted that his intense passion for the archaic, the Romantic, and the lovely elements of medieval texts allowed him to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy towards creating many original translations of both French lays and Norse sagas. It is the latter that I am primarily concerned with here, though I direct anyone interested in Morris’ French lay translations to seek out his Lancelot du Lac cycle, which he handwrote into four volumes, though he never completed it.

Morris called Sigurd the Volsung his masterpiece, claiming in the preface that he thought it equal to the great tale of Troy. It is an epic poem in four books covering the thirteenth century Norse text Völsungasaga, the history of the Volsung family. Much like Morris’ wallpaper designs, Sigurd the Volsung is composed in a flowery style that grates after the first thousand lines of rhyming couplets, until you resign yourself to the monotonous rhythm Morris found “authentically” Norse. In fact, Morris believes the entire venture to be a great tribute to the mysterious spirit of the “Northmen” that he so admired. The truth is a little more complicated: in my opinion, the only thing Norse about his poem is its source material. Morris claims the characters of the prose Völsungasaga and drives them to dance around in a Romantic fashion, within the English conception of a rhyming epic poem. The result is more humorous than his intended solemn, dramatic tragedy: the severe and stoic Gudrun becomes a wailing maiden, Sigurd himself is pretty much a knight, and if not for the occasional aside describing the wild landscape, one would be forgiven for forgetting the events transpire in Iceland.

William Morris 'Sigurd the Volsung'

William Morris ‘Sigurd the Volsung’

If you feel hesitant about delving into an epic poem or if you are seeking a closer approximation of Norse literature in English, Morris’ earlier work The Story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs will provide. This close translation of the Völsungasaga was a collaboration with Morris’ Icelandic friend Eiríkr Magnússon, whose interests in promoting Icelandic culture largely protects the text from Morris’ artistic flourishes. The result is that their edition of the Völsungasaga compares well even with modern translations, such as Jesse Byock’s (2000) or R. G. Finch’s (1965) translations, both titled The Saga of the Volsungs.

Ultimately, Sigurd the Volsung is a testament to Morris’ personal experiences of Iceland, his love for the medieval, and his remarkable energy. To write an epic poem in between managing his printing business, working through relationship troubles with his wife, and his numerous other projects suggests the strength of feeling that the Norse world must have provided to him. Icelandic literature was his escape from the mundane tasks that English life burdened him with; his trips to Iceland at peak moments of struggle illustrate the physical freedom the country provided him with. In letters written home to friends, Morris admitted that Iceland was ‘all like a dream to me, and my real life seems set aside till it is over’. It is this personal attachment to the country that can be found in Sigurd the Volsung and so the poem reveals Morris’s perspective of the Norse mind, rather than the authenticity of the original sagas.

G. Pouzanov

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As regular readers of this website will no doubt be aware, student film in Oxford has experienced an exciting growth in recent years. The formation of the Oxford Broadcasting Association (OBA), which grew out of the Oxford University Film Foundation (OUFF), is now encouraging this thriving scene to develop even further. Its tagline, ‘making student film happen,’ is an appropriate mission statement: OBA hope to avoid the insular clique-like feel that can so often befall student film societies, instead opting for an inclusive approach that provides anyone, whether experienced or total beginner, a platform to start creating.

As a meeting point at which other societies overlap, OBA also aims to catalyse new collaborations. Alongside The Preview Show and Hacked Off Films, whose events the Oxford Culture Review have previously covered, plans include partnerships with non-film-related societies. The upcoming 24-hour film challenge, for example, held in association with the Oxford Poetry Society (OPS), promises to be an exciting project. The winning poems of an OPS competition will be assigned to groups of aspiring student filmmakers, who will adapt them into a collection of ‘filmpoems’ to be screened at an OPS poetry reading event and, with permission from the filmmakers, posted online.

The association boasts a remarkable list of professional equipment available for cheap hire, a detailed inventory of which can be found on the OBA website. As well as funding successful entrants to the 24-hour challenge, the OBA plan to financially support a few films each year. Such opportunities for subsidisation, which are certainly hard to come by for young filmmakers, also offer an excellent introduction to independent film production, both in terms of the equipment used and the organisation required.

For those yet to set hands on a camera, OBA are organising workshops aimed at beginners. On Tuesday 28th October (Week 3) a workshop will take place teaching basic camera operation and audio recording, while the following week (date TBC), Oxford University producer Tom Wilkinson will be running one focusing on crucial aspects of filmmaking.

There are plenty of opportunities for those not keen on the production side of filmmaking too: OBA welcomes student screenplay submissions all year round, offering feedback and putting writers in touch with student filmmakers that might be interested in producing their work. A yearly screenwriting competition is also held, with the deadline for scripts at the start of Hilary Term. From those submitted, a collection of screenplays will be produced by a student production team with OBA’s equipment and screened at the Phoenix Picturehouse.

Throughout the year there will be a series of talks co-hosted with the Oxford University Media Society, with an impressive selection of guest speakers. The next term alone will include talks from heads of studios (Eric Fellner of Working Title Films; Barnaby Thompson of Ealing Studios), heads of film-supporting organisations (Amanda Nevill of BFI; Amanda Berry of BAFTA) and directors (Roger MichellNotting Hill and Enduring Love; Susanna WhiteGeneration Kill and Nanny McPhee). While OBA is university-supported and student-led, these events are by no means limited to students. All film enthusiasts are welcome to hear the speakers, as well as to attend screenings and take part in workshops.

For anyone (student or non-student) that is interested in these events and would like to know more about getting involved with OBA, please join the Facebook group (OUFF – Oxford University Film Foundation), sign up to the mailing list, visit the website and look out for future Film in Oxford entries, which will provide highlights of OBA events over the next year.

J. Wadsworth

The 24-hour film challenge launch will be on Thursday 16th October (Week 1, 8.30pm, Turl Street Kitchen) and is open to students only. For further event information and an OBA termcard, please visit their website.

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“Susanna Starling sings her own original material plus unique interpretations of English folk and vintage jazz/cabaret, accompanied by nothing but her upright double bass.”

With this description from Susanna Starling’s new website in mind, I arrived at her gig at Warneford Chapel (in association with OCM) with a touch of scepticism, mixed with a curiosity to hear just what this would be like. In short, Susanna Starling does not disappoint: in the small setting of the nineteenth-century Warneford Chapel with its low light, intimate space, and oak panelling, the combination of voice and double bass was beautiful. The understandable nerves produced by such an intensely small performance space evaporated soon enough, and Starling’s candid patter between songs gave a real sense of invitation for the audience to engage, not just watch.

Susanna Starling

Susanna Starling

Her voice, although occasionally on the losing side of the battle between it, her instrument, and the acoustic, has a refreshingly controlled sound, resisting the urge to simply belt out the songs, but rather going for something distinctly more understated and ‘folky’. That said, there is an unmistakable power behind the sound, which was brilliantly unleashed in her rendition of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’, where her flair as a dramatic performer really shone through, with the added bonus of a virtually flawless transition from singing in English to German. Another particular highlight of the first half was a set comprised of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s ‘Feeling Good’ – her upper range was a real joy, again showing consummate control of her voice, and presenting the two songs side by side in a totally different, but fabulous, style to most other versions. Of her own material, the setting of W.B. Yeates’s poem ‘Wandering Angus’ was a gorgeously lilting piece, never allowing the melody to upstage the words, and shows a glimpse of her talent as a songwriter as well as a performer.

The second half, where the Delly Welly Boot Band, resident of White Horse Live folk club in Stonesfield, joined Starling on the stage promised to be a continuation of the standard of the first. One of the few media clips I could find online was of Starling singing ‘The Bonnie Wee Lassie’ with them (below), and we were indeed treated to this particular number, a bluesy rendition of a traditional song that worked fantastically well, with sensitive accompaniment from the Band and the now expected brilliance of Starling herself. However, bearing in mind that the gig was advertised as Susanna Starling with the support of the Band, I wasn’t sure about the end result of the half. While the Band are obviously great instrumentalists, in particular their fiddler Judith Henderson, it stopped feeling like Starling’s gig, and the mix of music from traditional songs and a couple of instrumental numbers, to Led Zeppelin and Leonard Cohen felt overly broad.

The two instrumental sets, the first a pretty Cornish hornpipe called Duw Genes (Cornish for ‘goodbye’) and the second an unnamed tune, were expertly led by Henderson, and branched out from the usual Irish and Scottish folk genres favoured by many fiddlers, showing her interest in Eastern European and Middle Eastern traditions. Other than that, the second half seemed very much weighted towards the more popular genres and away from the folk/jazz fusion of the first. As ambitious as it was to attempt such a wide range of genres, it felt like the vocal abilities of the Band fell a little short of the demands of such a spread, and may have benefited from reining in the variety, or allowing Starling to lead the vocals more often. She seemed to be pushed a little more into the background, and I was disappointed that she only really got two songs in which to shine in the second half of a gig that was ostensibly hers. There is no doubt as to the talent in the room from all the players, but I did leave feeling like I could have heard more from Starling herself.

For all that, the gig was a real joy to attend, and Susanna Starling proved my scepticism about the potential of the voice and bass combination completely wrong. I could have happily listened to her for the full hour, and I can’t wait to see what she does next with the combination of genres and her own material. The balance between her and the Band may not have been quite ideal, but nonetheless, it was an hour of great music by fantastically talented players, with Starling’s talent shining through, and definitely setting her up as one to watch out for in the future.

C. E. Queripel

For more information about Susanna Starling, please visit her website; Oxford Contemporary Music’s upcoming events can be viewed on their website.

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Review: ‘J’

Everything about the presentation of Jacobson’s new novel, J, screams that it is a book to be ‘taken seriously’. From the stark black and red minimalist jacket cover (not the colours of Fascism by coincidence), to the blurb declaring it to ‘be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World’ and the quoted critical acclaim that announces Jacobson as ‘A great, great writer’, the design places J outside of Jacobson’s previous comic oeuvre.

j-cover1

Set in a dystopian future after a catastrophic event known only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the narrative follows Kevern and Ailinn, two misfits who find love against the odds in a world filled with violence, hate, and secrets in a case of mass social trauma. WHAT HAPPENED, we later find out, was the systematic annihilation of the world’s Jews. This revelation immediately alters one’s perception of the entire novel; consequently, the final eighty pages of J are easily its finest, as Jacobson’s writing begins to live up to the promises of the book’s design. Particularly disturbing is the final position he finds for Judaism in society, that it must flourish in order to restore the ‘hate balance’, allowing people their scapegoat so that they stop taking out their unresolved hatred and anger upon each other.

The climax of J tackles some particularly uncomfortable ideas with alarming accuracy; J is effective for the same reason that Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 study of the Holocaust, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, caused such uproar. Both expose with devastating effect the idea that the apathy of ‘good people’ is the easiest way for evil to prevail, and that prejudice, shame, and fear can lead people to do unexpected and terrifying things. This has resonances across the political field today, particularly after the election of various far-right parties in the European elections and in light of recent campaigns for widespread participation in combating gender equality, climate change, and sexual prejudice to name but a few, making J an extremely timely psychological study. Presenting the possibility that any one of us could be someone who metes out destruction in J, whether by standing by while others play active roles (like Rhoda’s schoolteacher), or by raising a hand to strike the first blow ourselves (like Edward Everett Phineas Zermansky), makes you ask the question, ‘What would I do?’ And very often, this is the most terrifying question of all.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

However, the impact of presenting questions like this within novels lies in their execution, and unfortunately the desire to be taken seriously was the overriding impression left on me by the first 240 pages of J. Chapter titles such as ‘Call me Ishmael’ in self-indulgent references to Moby Dick lie alongside unsurprising, ubiquitous mentions of Wagner (for where would a novel about anti-Semitism be without a mention of opera’s most famous anti-Semite?), and jarring sentences such as jazz being ‘Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.’ Perhaps the greatest problem lay in the discrepancy between the seriousness of Jacobson’s subject matter and the intrusion of his more comic tendencies, as in the following passage:

A compliant society meant that every section of it consented with gratitude – the gratitude of the providentially spared – to the principle of group aptitude. People of Afro-Caribbean origin were suited by temperament and physique to entertainment and athletics, and so they sang and sprinted. People originally from the Indian subcontinent, electronically gifted as though by nature, undertook to ensure no family was without a functioning utility phone. What was left of the Polish community plumbed, what was left of the Greek smashed plates.

While this is a novel entirely about racial stereotyping and prejudice, jokes such as these that creep in under the skin of the narrative seem somewhat misplaced. Thankfully, the majority of the most grating writing is contained in the diary entries of the deliberately dislikable art teacher Zermansky, but for me the first two thirds of J undermined the brilliance of its final pages.

That J will stand alongside Orwell and Huxley is, perhaps, a somewhat optimistic publisher’s claim (I’m surprised more parallels haven’t also been drawn with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic We). It initially tries to be too many things; a love story, a morality tale, a thriller, a political satire, a culture lesson, a dystopian vision, a character study, and an ethical treatise, to the point that it starts to fall short of being any. Of course, life is tangled and difficult and full of these contradictions, but J is at its best once it finds its true target and hones in on it. If you can make it through to the chapter entitled ‘Götterdämmerung’ (yes, another Wagner reference), then I urge everyone to read J as there can be no more important message than that of the psychological study that it eventually turns out to be.

L. C. Broad

‘J’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £18.99.

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Burial Rites, by the Australian author Hannah Kent, was released last year to great critical acclaim, shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and winning multiple other awards. The novel is based quite closely on a true story: that of the last executions to take place in Iceland, in the January of 1830. As you have probably guessed, it is not a cheery tale.

The novel’s style is varied. While much of it is a straightforward narrative, letters and other documents are used with subtlety to provide exposition and give insights into characters’ mentality. Agnes’ streams of consciousness provide the most emotionally charged sections of the novel, appearing with increasing frequency towards the climax of the novel to reveal her history with murder-victim Natan. Her physical descriptions of the world are vivid and effective. The crumbling turf walls of the buildings, the blood of slaughtered sheep, the phlegm, the dung, the cold, all of the intricate descriptions of the characters’ commonplace world are spread thickly through the novel to bring forth the daily horrors of peasant life to modern eyes.

Through these, Kent is able to conjure the Iceland of two centuries ago as a cruel, hard land, breeding cruel, hard men, and to explore unflinchingly women’s place in such a landscape. It is easy to forget that Iceland – now known for its geothermal energy and tremendous natural beauty – was until recently still a society of subsistence farmers scratching a poor living from marginal land. Indeed, the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783, followed by a famine which killed perhaps one in four Icelanders, would have been within living memory for some of the characters (although this event was not specifically mentioned in Burial Rites).

burial rites 7 PB

Male sexual power over women is a theme running throughout the novel, ranging from Natan’s manipulation of Agnes to an awareness of the general position of young women in a brutally patriarchal society. The vulnerability of servant women to predation by wealthy farmers, and the double standards applied to male and female promiscuity are important themes in Agnes’ character history.   

The position of Iceland as part of the Danish Empire is also used with subtle skill. Throughout Burial Rites, Denmark is almost exclusively mentioned in relation to punitive and arbitrary colonial power. Various accessories to the murder are transported to and imprisoned in Denmark, while the axe used to execute Agnes and Fridrik is sent from Copenhagen. Although this is not hugely crucial to the plot, it does serve to underline the isolation of Iceland as a nation, and, by extension, the characters. The characters are mostly very well-drawn and believable; Agnes is a grimly plausible victim of circumstance and society, fallen into depression after the implosion of her only chance of happiness, and the degradation of her trial and imprisonment. The other female protagonist, Margrét, is the wife of the farmer assigned to house Agnes until her execution. She is also eminently realistic as an emotionally conflicted wife and mother, afraid for her children with ‘the murderess’ on her premises, frankly annoyed by the extra mouth foisted upon her poor farmstead, but also with deeply humane impulses toward Agnes. The narrative of her being gradually won-round to affection for Agnes may seem a little clichéd, but is convincing and powerful.

The family’s two daughters, Steina and Lauga, however, are drawn less imaginatively, one is astute, beautiful and one-dimensionally unsympathetic to Agnes, the other unattractive, inelegant, klutzy but with a more developed moral centre. They are at times too close to a cartoon angel and devil sitting on Margrét’s shoulder. However, it is difficult to see what else Kent could have done with them: they are historical characters known to be living in the farm at the time, so they required some presence in the narrative.

Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent

Kent also makes effective use of the Old Icelandic Sagas, and their cultural resonance in later Iceland. This is not overdone, but there is a sense that the characters see Iceland of the 19th century as being extremely drab compared to the noble and exciting ‘Saga Age’ – Anges’ love-struck description of Natan as a ‘saga-man’, for instance. There is a deliberate irony in this; whilst the Icelandic Family Sagas might work on a grander scale, dealing with the blood-feuds of wealthy and powerful magnates, they still concern the same jealousy, pride and moral ambiguity experienced by the characters of Burial Rites. Although the literary technique of the novel is very different to that of the sagas, the imagery woven through is very similar: the mountains and moorland, the proud farmers and cramped farmhouses and, eventually, bloody murder and a burning farmstead.

Both this novel and the best of the Icelandic Sagas are also profoundly human, and humane, stories, dealing with ordinary people in extreme situations and the morally ambiguous choices they must take. Specifically, Kent draws frequent parallels between Agnes and Gudrun Osvifsdottir, and the murder of her lover Kjartan Olafson in Laxdaela Saga. In general, there are some similarities between the two characters: both are determined and morally ambiguous women involved in fatal love affairs. But the exact similarities implied by Burial Rites seem a little forced: Gudrun has far more agency than Agnes ever does, and the structure and outcome of Kjartan’s killing is noticeably different to that of Natan. 

Burial Rites is an excellently-written and meticulously researched novel, and a very confident debut work. I look forward to seeing where she goes next.

K. Finn

For more information about ‘Burial Rites’, please visit the author’s website.

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