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Absolution | No Time Like the Present

Visions of life beyond apartheid.

Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £12.99

No Time Like the Present
Nadine Gordimer
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £18.99

The South African novel under apartheid was a relatively straightforward thing, a piece of propaganda or protest, anti-imperial allegory at its most indirect. The novel of the post-apartheid years - coming up to 20 of them - is required to be subtler and more discerning, comfortable with paradox and shades of grey, alert to what the journalist Rian Malan has called the amicable coexistence of "mutually annihilating truths". Towards the end of Nadine Gordimer's magnificent new novel, a former combatant reflects that there's "irony that didn't exist in the clarity of the cadres, you were for or against, simply a matter of life or death, apartheid the death-in-life". One complication, one site of irony, has been the emergence of new kinds of language in South Africa - the quasi-religious language of reconciliation and rehabilitation and a political language of promises and pledges, mottos and mantras.

Thankfully, there are novelists up to the task of making sense of these languages in language of their own - in Gordimer's case, a bespoke style, at once rich and pure, which combines modernist intransigence with a fable-like naiv­ety. The American writer Patrick Flanery uses a number of styles in his first novel, Absolution, an attempt both to calculate the costs of the armed struggle against apartheid and to scrutinise the ways in which the costs are calculated, the private and vested always getting in the way of a sober historical reckoning.

The protagonist of Flanery's tale is Sam Leroux, a young academic who returns to South Africa from the US to write a biography of Clare Wald, the celebrated and reclusive author of Cacophony, Dissidence and In a Dry Country. Wald has something in common with Gordimer, who fell out with her own generally authoritative biographer, Ronald Suresh Rob­erts, and something in common with J M Coetzee, whose views on state censorship she shares, but it's clear enough which of these writers has had the more decisive influence on Flanery. An inquiry into the ethical accountability of the writer and the ethical and epistemological problems of "life-writing", written (some of the time) in the present tense and using third-person autobiography, Absolution invites comparison with such books as Slow Man and Summertime. But Flanery is a warmer writer than Coetzee, his relationship with the reader more conventional, and the book's flaws are generally earthbound ones - flaws of craft rather than vision.

As a character, Sam is a truth-seeker, but as a narrator, he has a tendency to withhold, and for spurious reasons. If the book is to function as a thriller, then Sam must not only conceal things but also inform the reader, quite obtrusively, of the concealment. On the first page, when he arrives at Clare's house, he recalls a meeting, five years earlier in Amsterdam, and then writes: "There was the other time, too, of course." Soon after, he insists: "I can't allow myself to think of the past, not yet." The upside of such compromises is a terrific amount of excitement and tension, just as the tidiness, the ounce-perfect freighting, of certain developments bring with them the benefits of Flanery's historical intelligence.

The novel builds up a glorious mosaic of forms, though some of the pieces are slightly chipped. Sam's unfolding account of his return to South Africa and his encounters with Clare is vivid, especially in its evocation of Cape Town and Johannesburg, but also prone to melodrama. Flanery gives him a second means of self-exploration (a third-person memoir of his childhood) but then has the adult Sam, the Sam we know, poking through, to inform us that the character is "me, or some version of me".

Clare's private diary, addressed to her missing daughter, an anti-apartheid campaigner, is identified as "this fractured narrative of longing and lamentation". Only the excerpts from Clare's "volume of fictionalised memoirs" and the transcripts of (invented) Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings are offered to the reader without anxiety, apology or justification. Yet what emerges is a portrait of South Africa as a land of aftermath. Children live under a cloud of anger or guilt about the actions of their parents, and vice versa. Survivors of apartheid speak not of their fortune but of their isolation. They are the ones left behind, victims of other people's risks.

The South Africa of today is seductive territory for a novelist - seductive enough to attract the attention of someone born in California - not least because of its symbolic compactness, its hint of psychic trauma. The idea of the Rainbow Nation, a remarkably convincing mirage, flourished not because the problems had been dealt with but because some had been dealt with (legalised racism, authoritarian rule) and others ignored (Aids, the need for land reform). What's left is notionally a multi-ethnic dem­ocracy, but a multi-ethnic democracy with only one electable party in which the old problems of race, by no means solved, have been joined by new ways of construing identity, of building barriers.

Gordimer manages to tell a great deal of this story in No Time Like the Present without unbalancing or overloading her portrait of a marriage. Steve and Jabu were united by the "ethos of liberation" and became comrades and lovers during the "Struggle". But in the years of "freedom", when they are forced to make decisions about lifestyle and child-rearing as well as survival, their most basic priorities, the tastes shaped by their upbringings, become newly prominent. "You never know when you've rid yourself of the trappings of outdated life, come back subconsciously," Jabu thinks, after Steve (white, middle-class, Jewish) suggests that they move to a suburban enclosure. Yet Jabu is sympathetic, recalling that, on visits to her Zulu homeland, "she finds what her studies by correspondence would call an atavistic voice of submission replacing the one in her throat".

Steve and Jabu have few difficulties with their first child, Sindiswa, who was "born at a time when the new life of freedom was just three years old, child of change". But Sindiswa's younger brother, Gary Elias, though he takes his first steps "in the security of the suburban house", is a child of renewed upheaval. On a trip to London, he has "the air of someone nowhere, self-misplaced". His very presence on the holiday feels like a reproach, reminding Steve and Jabu of problems left behind in South Africa - university students in his case, "the exploited" seeking legal representation in hers. It's a relief when Gary Elias shows enthusiasm for visiting Jabu's father, a Methodist preacher "who could read the being of male children".

Public life in the new South Africa is presented as topsy-turvy, out of joint. Government ministers show a taste for Cuban cigars not out of "brotherhood with Castro" but to exhibit their capitalist rights, their capitalist riches. The Struggle has produced heroes but heroism cannot help but have "an imperialistic halo", its emphases on individual achievement so at odds with the idea of the "cadre". As Gordimer puts it, "an irony (again)", "contradiction (again)". For Steve, it's just a tale of dashed hopes and decline, with the younger generation becoming "inured to disturbance". He proposes a move to Australia and fights hard for the idea but he's never quite comfortable with it, for the same reason that Malan found it "odd" that Coetzee emigrated to Australia. Why remove yourself from the drama "while it's still under way"? A free South Africa is all that Steve and Jabu have ever cared about; life elsewhere, whatever its comforts, would be no life at all.

Gordimer's style - prophetic in its tone, primitive in its punctuation, Latinate in its syntax - is occasionally reminiscent of Henry Green in his early novels, Henry James in his late ones. Abstract nouns are given concrete use - "a single sensuousness" refers to a man and woman making love, "an emerging awareness" to a child's mind rather than what it possesses. Question marks are withheld (for questions, anyway). Synonymous verbs are set down side by side without so much as a comma to separate them. The result is about as far from being like a windowpane as prose can get but it succeeds in its only aim, of hacking through the thickets of false consciousness to find a realm of hard-worn truth.

The novel opens with the thought that Glengrove Place, where Steve and Jabu lived during "clandestinity", must have been named "by a Scot or Englishman for features of a home left behind". Language, harnessed to power, cannot be relied on to describe or define, only to contort and dissemble. Gordimer sometimes takes a phrase, liberates it from speech marks and damns it in its own utopian terms: "Jacob Zuma will change all that hasn't been changed to make better the better life for all." An obscurantist rhetoric, all self-serving euphemism and corner-cutting doublespeak, emerges as the language not just of the African National Congress but of the whole republic during this age of corruption and failure.

Gordimer's title might sound glib but it opens all kinds of thematic territory and prompts a powerful question: when will South Africa have a present? Its "process of becoming" seems an interminable one. If the present isn't suffering from a "hangover", as one character puts it, it's being burdened with impossible hope. Gordimer might have been a descendant of the European novelists of the 19th century but history prevented it; her freedom to become a practitioner of bourgeois realism is inextricably tied to her country's dream of conventional civilian life.

It's a dream that the new novel, though contemptuous of false optimism, is reluctant to abandon in despair. Occasionally, Gordimer uses the word "immediate" to suggest not a substantive, fully accomplished present but a transitory sense of now, as when Steve and Jabu are distracted from talking about Australia and their vision of a life after post-apartheid: "Normal life takes up attention and energy. The immediate on its track."

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.