Dizzy heights: Richard Holmes's Falling Upwards is a history of the eccentric pioneers of hot-air ballooning
Show Hide image

Books of the Year 2013

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2013.

Each year we ask regular contributors to the Critics pages of the New Statesman, together with other friends of the magazine, to write about their favourite books of year. There are no constraints on what kinds of books they are able to choose, so the results are often intriguing.

John Gray  ❦  Ali Smith  ❦  Ed Balls
Stephen King   ❦   Rachel Reeves  ❦  Sarah Sands
William Boyd  ❦  Alan Rusbridger  ❦  Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Simon Heffer  ❦  Andrew Adonis  ❦  Craig Raine
Felix Martin  ❦  Frances Wilson  ❦  John Burnside
Jesse Norman  ❦  Alexander McCall Smith  ❦  Richard Overy
Jason Cowley  ❦  Mark Damazer  ❦  Lionel Shriver
Jemima Khan  ❦  Geoff Dyer  ❦  Laurie Penny
Vince Cable  ❦  Alan Johnson  ❦  Leo Robson
Jane Shilling  ❦  John Bew  ❦  Ed Smith  ❦  Richard J Evans
David Baddiel  ❦  Michael Rosen  ❦  John Banville
David Shrigley  ❦  Chris Hadfield  ❦  Tim Farron
Toby Litt  ❦  David Marquand  ❦  Robert Harris
Michael Prodger  ❦  Michael Symmons Roberts  ❦  Sarah Churchwell

John Gray

Frederick Seidel’s Nice Weather (Faber & Faber, £14.99), his first collection since Poems 1959-2009, contains some of the American poet’s most powerful and provocative work. From a smart background and formidably wealthy (he used to have Italian motorcycles hand-built for him), Seidel records the thoughts and sensations that go with his highly privileged life with a kind of savage glee. Now aged 77, he has become a great poet of mortality, spending his days looking for “green grandeur on a small enough scale to soothe your mind”. If you want a potent antidote against taking the human world too seriously, read Seidel.

Ali Smith

I loved Chloe Aridjis’s Book of Clouds in 2009, so it was exciting to read her new novel, Asunder (Chatto & Windus, £14.99), which, in a story about art, guardianship, damage and philosophy, revealed again the deftness and depth of narrative understanding of this subtle and courageous writer.

Among the 2013 debuts, I was taken with Melissa Harrison’s Clay (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Most reviewers seem to have mistaken it for realism, whereas Harrison, a nature writer if ever there was one, is reaching after something else – a communal style (reminiscent of that of Nan Shepherd a century ago) with a formal determination to meet shared needs. It’s beautifully written and doesn’t compromise.

Ed Balls

Is “fusion” cooking the new nouvelle cuisine, a fad that’s bound to fade? I’m not so sure. Counter-intuitive culinary crossovers generally don’t work. But the great cuisines of the world are all fusions. And Vietnamese cooking is one of the best – a wonderful mix of French and Chinese, with a dash of Japanese. My favourite (cook)book of 2013 is The Vietnamese Market Cookbook (Square Peg, £20) by Van Tran and Anh Vu, founders of the BanhMi11 street-food stalls in London. The recipes are not hard and the ingredients fairly easy to come by. But the balance of flavours is subtle and it is easy to get things out of kilter. I can recommend the pho ga noodle soup and the summer rolls, while the shaking beef with black pepper is sublime. For any amateur cook who likes new flavours and is willing to take risks, this book really is worth a try.

Stephen King

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Black Swan, £8.99) is a terrific novel, filled with characters and plot twists worthy of Dickens, but it’s also a grim and sometimes funny look behind the Bamboo Curtain, where the population has been strangled by a bankrupt ideology. A bit difficult but worth the initial effort. Once the story takes hold, the pages glide by.



Rachel Reeves

Andrew Adonis’s Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools (Biteback, £12.99) is a powerful reminder of how Britain’s schools, especially our inner-city ones, were transformed by the last Labour government. An older book with a connection to my constituency in Leeds is Richard Hoggart’s A Local Habitation (Chatto & Windus), a beautiful and poignant account of growing up in the working-class back-to-back houses of inner-city Leeds in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the book I’ve most enjoyed reading this year is Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo! (Puffin, £6.99) – to my baby daughter.

Sarah Sands

For sheer delight, I have chosen Richard Holmes’s book on the history of air balloons, Falling Upwards (William Collins, £25). The author uncovers human courage, recklessness and eccentricity, just as he did in his great book on the scientific enlightenment, The Age of Wonder. My favourite chapters cover the role of balloons in the American civil war and the Hilaire Belloc-esque true story of the early-19th-century French woman who became the darling of Paris for her firework displays launched from an air balloon. One evening, inevitably, her balloon caught fire and the crowds applauded wildly, assuming it was part of the act. Her final words were: “À moi, à moi.” As Holmes writes dryly, journalists have always liked air balloons because they offer the tantalising chance of catastrophe.

The other journalistically friendly book I would pick is Robert Harris’s novel An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, £18.99). It is a page-turner about the Dreyfus trial, truth better suited to fiction. It builds up to Zola’s J’accuse speech, the most stirring defence of a free press, ever.

William Boyd

Evie Wyld’s second novel All the Birds, Singing (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) is a dark, powerfully disturbing and beautifully observed story about a haunting, both physical and temporal. More significantly it’s a technical tour de force, almost Nabokovian in its structural intricacy. Two parallel narratives, one in the present, one in the past, run contrapuntally. But the narrative in the past is going backwards through time, informing the present with accumulating revelations as the protagonist’s memories of her early life unfold. This is an incredibly hard feat of literary organisation to pull off but Wyld does it with all the aplomb and adroitness of a wily old novelist. A tremendous achievement. I can’t wait for the next one.

Alan Rusbridger

James Goodale’s Fighting for the Press (CUNY Journalism Press, $20) is an account, by the New York Times’s counsel, of the crucial Supreme Court battle 40 years ago for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. The NY Times and Washington Post were accused of criminal treachery for publishing the trove of documents about the conduct of the Vietnam war. Nixon, determined to punish both newspapers for endangering national security, moved for prior restraint. The Supreme Court, by a 6-3 majority, voted that the papers should be free to publish – thereby making it almost impossible for news organisations to be censored in advance by governments. Goodale is a passionate defender of First Amendment rights and his insider account of this crucial struggle is surprisingly racy – and extremely important.

Alfred Brendel has given up performing but continues to write and lecture. His A Pianist’s A-Z: a Piano Lover’s Reader (Faber & Faber, £14.99) can be read in one sitting – in turns scholarly, practical and skittish.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

I J Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Vintage, £8.99) is a beautiful, strange novel about drab, dangerous lives. Kay’s imagination is exuberant, her language musical and her narrative both fantastically intricate and structurally sound. Modernity Britain (Bloomsbury, £25) is the latest episode of David Kynaston’s profoundly humane history of 20th-century Britain. His past is not another country inhabited by politicians and the famous. It is peopled by those whose lives are shaped, like ours, as much by food, music and weather as by wars and legislation.

Simon Heffer

Five books about wars impressed me this year: Roger Knight’s immaculately researched Britain Against Napoleon: the Organisation of Victory 1793-1815 (Allen Lane, £30); Philip Dwyer’s Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815 (Bloomsbury, £30), which gives, in depth, the other side of that coin; Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Allen Lane, £30), a superbly detailed account of a terrifying aspect of the Second World War; and, as various amateurs rehash and misunderstand how and why the Great War happened, two scholarly books that outline the truth. One, The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan (Profile, £25), provides a thoughtful and objective account of how the war came about, with prejudices stripped away in favour of fact; the other 1914: Fight the Good Fight (Bantam, £25), by Allan Mallinson, is written by a scholarsoldier and describes with clarity and honesty the early days of the British Expeditionary Force in France. All these books exhibit the benefits of genuine research and mastery of their subjects.

Andrew Adonis

The trials and tribulations of modern France yielded my two best books. Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson, £18.99) breathes deep pathos into the Dreyfus affair, electrifying the bitter divisions of Third Republic France, which led ultimately to its disintegration in 1940. Philip Short’s Mitterrand (Bodley Head, £30) takes up the story of the rebuilding of France after the war in an equally embittered and divided republic. The socialist president is presented as a disciple of Mazarin, a political maestro of extraordinary cunning and versatility in a career spanning right and left in the halfcentury from Vichy to the mid-1990s. The supreme political quality à la Mitterrand? “Indifference.”

Craig Raine

James Wood’s The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) was a source of continuous enjoyment even when I disagreed with it. Wood has high standards, he quotes well, he makes apt comparisons, he can unpick literary effects, he loves detail and he has a secret weapon – the parody. Paul Auster will never recover from Wood’s pitch-perfect imitation. Nor will Alan Hollinghurst, whose fruity cadences are caught perfectly: “Ralph’s cock was small but sincere; in the afternoon’s fading light ...” Michael Blakemore’s Stage Blood (Faber & Faber, £20) is a delightful anthology of score-settling – and why not? He seems to have forgotten nothing, including his seat “on the aisle, auditorium right in Row J”. A wonderful, detailed account of Olivier in Long Day’s Journey into Night: “he looked at me with a weak, grey smile and said, ‘That’s funny, I’ve got stage fright.’”

Felix Martin

Geoff Mulgan’s The Locust and the Bee (Princeton, £19.95) burst with intelligence as it presented a profound reflection on capitalism and proposed practical ideas for its future: Russell Brand would approve, I reckon. James Astill’s The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India (Wisden, £18.99) was reminiscent of C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary, both for the way it uses sport to explain a whole modern civilisation and for its sheer literary quality. But the most unusual new book I have read this year is the most recent. Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe (Picador, £20) is an ingenious and thoroughly gripping historical and archaeological bolt from the blue.

Frances Wilson

Two books about men behaving badly top my list. Brett Martin’s Difficult Men (Faber & Faber, £14.99) is the story of how psychodads such as Tony Soprano and Breaking Bad’s Walter White turned American television into the dominant art form of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The difficult men of the title are not, however, the TV characters themselves but the madmen who created them, cooped up together for months in the writer’s room. Rupert Christiansen’s lacerating memoir, I Know You’re Going to Be Happy (Short Books, £12.99), begins on the day that his father walked out on his mother. There is nothing heroic about this difficult man, who turned his back on the wreckage and never got in touch with his family again.

John Burnside

For the unashamed bird-lover, Birds and People by Mark Cocker and David Tipling (Jonathan Cape, £40): a meticulous and caring study of how humans think about, imagine, use, misuse and abuse the most miraculous of our fellow creatures, might well be the book of the decade, not just for its lucid and lyrical prose but also its exquisite photography. Meanwhile, in a year that showed the continuing triumph of superstition over critical thinking, Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands (Granta, £18.99) offered a perceptive and compassionate insight into the world of this much maligned and misunderstood animal.

Jesse Norman

Three books for 2013: one old, one recent, one new, all about politics but from very different perspectives. The old is V S Naipaul’s early novel The Suffrage of Elvira, a wonderfully vivid tale of twists and turns in a Trinidadian election of the early 1950s. The recent is Who Goes Home? A Parliamentary Miscellany (Robson, £14.99) by Sir Robert Rogers, clerk of the Commons – the perfect stockingstuffer, whether you hate politics or love it. And finally, the new: Caroline Shenton’s excellent The Day Parliament Burned Down (OUP, £10.99): this magnificent account of the great fire of 1834 will find many modern admirers ... as well as a few sympathisers.

Alexander McCall Smith

I have admired William Dalrymple’s writing ever since I read his remarkable account of the travails of Christians in the Middle East, From the Holy Mountain. Dalrymple is a writer who can make the most recondite historical issues come alive and with each succeeding book he becomes a more entertaining and enlightening literary companion. His latest offering, Return of a King (Bloomsbury, £25) is an account of the first Afghan War, a tale of imperial plotting and folly in a region that has suffered from every sort of indignity and tragedy at the hands of local and foreign rulers. It is quite simply brilliant.

Richard Overy

While publishers go to work overtime on the First World War, it is worth remembering that there are still unwritten histories from the Second. Two excellent books this year have illuminated very important but neglected stories. Rana Mitter’s China’s War with Japan (Allen Lane, £25) and Halik Kochanski’s The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Penguin, £10.99) are essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the sacrifices made by the Chinese and the Poles as a contribution to victory.

Jason Cowley

At more than 800 pages, Simon Heffer’s High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House, £30) is not, to borrow the author’s description of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, a “masterpiece of concision”, but it is the kind of elegant, accessible historical overview of a period that every young person interested in British politics and history should read.

John Gray’s The Silence of Animals (Allen Lane, £18.99) has a desolate beauty. Gray roams widely and reads closely – poetry, fiction, philosophy, politics. His vision of a godless world in which human progress is a delusion is as unsparing as it is consistent, and informs everything he writes.

I liked the Conservative MP Jesse Norman’s Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins, £20). Norman is no Burkean stylist – his sentences can be ponderous, delivered from a lofty height – but he covers the ground and admirably attempts to contextualise the thought. He’s unusual in the modern Conservative Party in that he isn’t a Thatcherite and so his book can also be read as a kind of manifesto for a different, more compassionate conservatism. Would that David Cameron had written such a book, perhaps back in the days when he worked so assiduously in PR.

Mark Damazer

Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher (Allen Lane, £30) is a model of research, lucid writing and mastery of context. Moore does not trade his privileged access to his subject and to documents for heroineworship. Time and again he analyses her many shortcomings – domestic, intellectual and political. At one point he even manages to write a sympathetic passage about Ted Heath. The book is also a reminder about the role of luck and chance in her early career – above all the hitherto undisclosed rigging of the vote when she was selected at Finchley.

How to Cure A Fanatic (Vintage, £3.99) by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz (first published nearly ten years ago and recently reissued) is a short, clear-sighted and unsentimental masterpiece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oz sees no virtue in pretending that there can be much affection between the two peoples – but clings, with not much optimism, to a two-state solution.

Lionel Shriver

Three novels stand out for me in 2013: Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda (Sceptre, £16.99), an incident-based novel set in Brooklyn that involves plenty of racial elements but that never degenerates into the usversus- them cliche. Vivid, compelling and beautifully written. The Son by Philipp Meyer (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) is a memorable epic set mostly in Texas that spans multiple generations, covering a polarising history with impressive even-handedness (meaning everyone behaves badly). Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (Virago, £14.99) is an unnerving portrait of obsession that makes you nervous about your mousiest of neighbours. Behind closed doors, those “ordinary” nobodies can get pretty weird.

Jemima Khan

Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Viking, £14.99), spans just three hours, on a wet Friday morning in North Waziristan, the heartland of Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border. By the end of the morning the lives of three young brothers – and of two powerful, haunted women – are turned upside down. It’s a heart-stopping thriller, as well as an important political commentary about oppression, occupation and war. Most strikingly, though, it’s a devastating love story. There are drones, Taliban and men in khaki, but it’s the women caught in the turbulence of modern-day Pakistan that make this novel special.

Geoff Dyer

The Unwinding by George Packer (Faber & Faber, £20) succeeds in being a fragmented yet entirely cohesive account of recent American history, built out of the stories of people both celebrated and unknown. For a combination of every kind of pleasure – laughter, meticulously delineated observations, slanted speculation about big ideas that are rooted in the smallest incidents – Billy Collins’s Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Picador, £9.99) is the treat of treats. Unlike the wedding guest waylaid by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the reader emerges from encounters with Collins as a wiser and far happier person.

Laurie Penny

Anyone sceptical that more can be wrung from the retold fairy-tale genre will be disabused by Six Gun Snow-White (Subterranean Press, limited edition), the gorgeous new novella by Catherynne M Valente. It’s a western adventure, vicious, dreamy and sad, on a par with her Hugo-nominated novel Palimpsest. On the non-fiction side, I tore through Selma James’s collected writings, Sex, Race and Class (Green Print, £15.95), and am currently enjoying Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury, £16.99), a haunting memoir by Jesmyn Ward, published in the UK in January. It’s the story of five boys she knew growing up, all of whom died young, and the time and the place that made them.

Vince Cable

British fascism is an endangered species, if not yet quite extinct. But imagine a Britain in which the fascists won: the subject of C J Sansom’s alternative history, Dominion (Mantle, £12.99). Britain caved in in 1940, signing an unequal peace treaty with a triumphant Nazi Germany. By 1950 the British Vichy is a demoralised, defeated, dirty (smog-ridden) country run by collaborators: Beaverbrook as PM, Mosley as home secretary, Enoch Powell as India secretary. Britain’s Jews face deportation and worse. The resistance – led by Churchill and Attlee – is active but on the run. You can imagine the rest. A brilliant page-turner and chillingly plausible.

Alan Johnson

Damian Barr’s Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is easily my favourite book of 2013. In a moving little speech to Baroness Thatcher at the end of this book, Barr imagines her being walked around her local park on the arm of a paid companion and tells her that “Few people passing would guess that you were once the most powerful woman in the world. I want to come to that park and watch you. I don’t want to talk to you or trouble you. I want to see you in person just once before you go. My other mother.” But Maggie went just as this book was being published and of all the biographies and memoirs of the great woman this is the most unusual and the most profound. Barr’s life developed at the rough end of Thatcher’s Britain. He is Scottish, the son of a miner and gay. But there isn’t a trace of bitterness in this beautiful book. Only the radiant eloquence of a man whose courage and humanity shine from its pages.

Leo Robson

I loved two novels likely to be their authors’ last – Jim Crace’s Harvest (Picador, £16.99) and James Salter’s All That Is (Picador, £18.99) – and two works of non-fiction that could have been written just for me: Alwyn W Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum, £25) and David Ellis’s Memoirs of a Leavisite: the Decline and Fall of Cambridge English (Liverpool University Press, £25). Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald (Chatto & Windus, £25) offers a perfect match of author and subject.

Jane Shilling

Anyone who read Emma Smith’s remarkable memoir, The Great Western Beach, must have wondered what happened next. Her sequel, As Green as Grass (Bloomsbury, £16.99) provides a partial answer, following Smith’s progress from her embattled childhood to character-forming adventures in France, India and the Bohemian world of post-war Soho and Chelsea. It is a beguiling evocation of what it is to be young, talented, hopeful and very slightly silly.

Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life (Jonathan Cape, £10.99) is a luminously strange fusion of biography, fiction and memoir, combining balloons, Sarah Bernhardt and lost love in an irresistible alchemy.

John Bew

Chris Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin, £10.99) does not quite end the historical argument about the origins of the Great War but it is the most lucid and commanding of all the books rushed out so far for the centenary. In Ireland’s Violent Frontier: the Border and Anglo-Irish Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, £57.50), Henry Patterson demonstrates how the IRA regularly used the Irish Republic as a safe haven during their campaign and raises the question of whether the Irish state did as much as it could to stop the murder.

Ed Smith

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene (Yellow Jersey, £16.99) intelligently, rigorously and politely debunks the “10,000 hours” myth. Epstein has the footnotes to back up the wisdom of grandmothers: nature and nurture are so conjoined and interrelated that glib “laws” and percentages don’t apply. What we do know, now more than ever, is that pretending genes aren’t relevant to success isn’t liberal or optimistic, as its proponents want to believe. It’s plain wrong.


Richard J Evans

My book of the year is Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (Allen Lane, £30). Overy bases his account on a staggering amount of research in the archives of all the main combatant countries. He shows just how inaccurate and ineffective much of the bombing was, and provides a sober and realistic assessment of its impact on the warring nations and on the civilians who bore the brunt of its impact. It is hard to imagine a more thorough account: a masterpiece.


David Baddiel

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is a depiction of a culture conditioned by the ideology and technology of an all-powerful internet giant. As a novel of ideas – particularly the idea that the public sharing of everything we are and everything we know may not, in the end, contribute to a greater sum of truth in the world – it’s as important for us now as 1984 and Brave New World were then.

Michael Rosen

This recommendation is specifically for Tristram Hunt: Thinking Allowed on Schooling by Mick Waters (Independent Thinking Press, £14.99) is a stream of rational thought arising out of experience and research with evidence-based criticism of education policy with practical alternatives. Waters has been a classroom teacher, head teacher and adviser.


John Banville

Norman Manea’s The Hooligan’s Return (Yale, £11.99), translated by Angela Jianu, is the first British edition of this superb memoir by one of Romania’s greatest writers, now living in the US. Manea manages to be down-to-earth and at the same time magical in summoning up the surreal realities of life under the fascists, first, and then the unspeakable Ceausescus. Kafka: the Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (Princeton, £24.95), wonderfully translated by Shelley Frisch, is Volume III of what will surely be the definitive biography. K is brought to vivid life by an author at once scholarly and entertaining.

David Shrigley

My favourite art book of the year is Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35 (Redstone Press, £35). It juxtaposes beautiful illustrations with texts from writers such as Daniil Kharms and missives from the Soviet state. The artworks are photographed: they retain the flat, matt, paper quality of the originals. It’s a lovely book and there’s nothing in it that is too familiar. I love the subheading, too: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.

Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf: the German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz (William Heinemann, £20) is an unexpected delight. The lives of the kommandant and Thomas Harding’s great uncle run in parallel, until they finally converge when Hanns tracks Rudolf down in the late 1940s. It’s amazingly well researched, resists judgement and above all is an utterly compelling read.

Chris Hadfield

Stephen King’s Joyland (Hard Case Crime, £7.99) is a magnificent read. Set in the style of a golden era whodunnit, the novel succeeds not only in keeping you turning the pages, but also in captivating your thoughts long after the book is finished. While it retains the backdrop of a classic King thriller, the novel shows a departure from the niche carved out by his previous works. Joyland is not a simple, pulp-fiction means to an end but a nuanced journey that leaves you spellbound.

Tim Farron

My book of the year was Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (Penguin Classics, £9.99), the gripping tale of an ordinary man’s mundane challenge to Nazi tyranny. The book is terrifying, inspiring and even, occasionally, funny – and is based on a true story. Another favourite was a bit of “Nordic noir”, The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg (Harper, £7.99), an absorbing story about grizzly murders in the present and in the distant past that seem to be connected. It’s grim in parts but Lackberg’s pacy storylines and intriguing twists keep you going.

Toby Litt

I’m into comics now – and there’s no better guide to the undiscovered wonders out there, between hard and soft covers, than Paul Gravett. His Comics Art, published as a gorgeous hardback by Tate (18.99), is the culmination of a lifetime’s reading, collecting and thinking. There are mind-blowing images on every page turn – from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Robert McGuire’s Here to Katie Green’s just-published anorexia memoir Lighter Than My Shadow.

David Marquand

Three very different books have impressed me most in 2013. The first is Dieter Helm’s The Carbon Crunch (Yale, £8.99) a forensically deadly attack on the failures and obfuscations of current debates on global warming. The world, he shows, now faces a “carbon crunch”, from which there is no pain-free exit. Helm’s book should be compulsory reading for the entire political class as well as for the bureaucratic elite and the commentariat. My second choice is Gwyn A Williams’s eloquent and stirring history of his (and my) native land, When Was Wales? (Penguin). It was published some time ago but is still a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of a distinctive Welsh political culture since devolution.

My third choice is Raymond Williams’s haunting The Volunteers (Parthian, £8.99) – both a dystopian picture of an imagined future in which the corruption of power is omnipresent and a fast-moving political thriller.

Robert Harris

Not a new book but still one of my most memorable reads of the year was Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo (Chicago Review Press, £20.99). It tells the story of how Truman, six months after he left office – without secret service protection or even a government pension – loaded up his Chrysler and went on a 2,500-mile journey from Missouri to New York, accompanied only by his wife, Bess, stopping off at ordinary motels and diners to the astonishment of the general public. A wonderful reminder of a more accessible, less mercenary age of political leadership.

Michael Prodger

In homage to the rule changes for next year’s Man Booker Prize, it’s two American novels for me. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little, Brown, £20) is a big and bold mixing of Great Expectations and Dostoyevsky, with industrial quantities of drugs and a stolen Dutch Old Master painting thrown in for good measure. James Salter may now be in his late, late eighties but his powers as a stylist are undiminished. All That Is (Picador, £18.99), an account of the romantic career of a man not unlike the author himself, is Salter at his bitter-sweet best.

Michael Symmons Roberts

John Drury’s magnificent biography of George Herbert, Music at Midnight (Allen Lane, £25), has made me see the poet-priest in a new light. So often in the shadow of John Donne, Herbert comes across as a passionate, troubled, even dandyish man, whose poetry was the stage for tormented dialogues with God. As a red Mancunian, I couldn’t fail to mention Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, £25), which, along with well-aimed barbs against old enemies, contains the shocking admission that even the most feared manager in football was scared of Roy Keane.

Sarah Churchwell

George Packer’s The Unwinding (Faber & Faber, £20) tells the story of the unravelling of America’s social and political bonds over the course of the past century, the hollowing out of its core principles, and the corruption, greed and inequality that have rushed to fill the ensuing vacuum. Packer’s story of ordinary Americans betrayed by the powerful fairly vibrates with outrage and grief, a harrowing, heartbreaking exposé of the reality of life there today. One of the most important books about America this year.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

Collection Christophel/Alamy
Show Hide image

Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496