Open City

Teju Cole’s debut novel is a fine account of an elusive Nigerian <em>flâneur</em>’s encounters with

Open City
Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £12.99

Openness is the condition and the boast of every city: openness to new people, ideas, experiences. Yet an "open city", as Teju Cole points out in his justly acclaimed debut novel, is also one that preserves itself by refusing to fight: "Had Brussels's rulers not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble. It might have been another Dresden."

So, is openness a sign of strength or of weakness? The question can be asked with equal pertinence about post-11 September 2001 New York, where most of Open City takes place, and about Julius, the novel's erudite, evasive narrator. In his aimless wandering and with his homing instinct for sites of ruin and loss, Julius is clearly a literary descendant of W G Sebald. The form of Open City, and something of its tone, will be familiar to any reader of The Rings of Saturn. Cole sends his narrative proxy on long walks, during which he muses on literature and history, helped along by brief encounters with friends, strangers and ghosts.

Yet while Julius, like Sebald's narrator, is saturated in the European past - the book is full of observations about van Eyck, Mahler, Barthes - his own memories are African and his scene of action is American. Born in Nigeria in the 1970s, Julius now lives in New York (in both of these ways he resembles his creator, though Cole is an art historian and his character is a psychiatrist). But when he explores the city, from the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan down to Chinatown and Wall Street, he sees it with an alienated eye that is as much a poet's as an immigrant's: "The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counter-instinctive death drive, into movable catacombs . . . all of us re-enacting unacknowledged traumas."

Inevitably, for a novel set in New York in the mid-2000s, the main trauma is the attack on the World Trade Center. "I remembered a tourist who once asked me how he could get to 9/11: not the site of the events of 9/11 but to 9/11 itself, the date petrified into broken stones," the author writes. It is a subject that has undone many more experienced writers; but Cole understands that the best way to get there is sideways, just as Julius finds his way to Ground Zero accidentally-on-purpose.

“I often think of the long 19th century, which, in all parts of the world, was one interminable bloodbath, an orgy of continuous kill­ing, whether in Prussia or in the United States, or in the Andes or in West Africa," Julius muses. The reflection is redeemed from banality by the way he picks as an example of barbarism the very century we think of as a time of peace and progress. Our own era of peace, Cole suggests, is similarly illusory: "We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world." And the disaster for which New York was not prepared keeps coming back, in Open City, in the form of uninsistent metaphors: bodies packed into subway "catacombs", or, in the book's closing image, flocks of pigeons hurling themselves against the Statue of Liberty.

Yet Cole declines to turn exile and identity and violence, those timely topics, into mere occasions for editorialising. Rather, he treats them metaphorically and lyrically. In the first paragraphs of the novel, Julius tells us about his habit of taking long evening walks in Manhattan, his observation of migrating birds, and his preference for listening to classical music on internet stations from Europe: "I generally avoided American stations, which had too many commercials for my taste." These are three emblems of displacement, and they quietly define the novel's concerns just as they define Julius's personality - solitary, spectatorial, shy of commitment.

Julius's ironic self-consciousness is his best quality; it is what makes him a good narrator, and presumably a good psychiatrist: "I viewed each patient as a dark room, and . . . going in­to that room . . . I considered it essential to be slow and deliberate." It also gives him an unusually broad empathy with the past, whose remnants he finds even in the perpetually renovated landscape of Manhattan. Walking near City Hall, he thinks of the old African Burial Ground that was unearthed there in the 1990s: "Many of the skeletons had broken bones, evidence of the suffering they'd endured in life. Disease was common, too: syphilis, rickets, arthritis." But in another, visionary episode, when a man giving Julius a shoeshine begins speaking in the voice of a 19th-century slave, Cole allows him to offer a Christian endorsement of his own enslavement: "After a while,
I had enough money even for my own freedom, but I preferred the freedom within that house and that family to the freedom without. Service to Mrs Berard was service to God."

As these incidents suggest, it is questions of race that most insistently challenge Julius's privacy. Cole writes very well about the ex­perience of being African in America and the way it places Julius at an angle to Americans both white and black. Several times during his walks through New York, other black men approach him with an expectation of solidarity: "looks on a street corner by strangers, a gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being 'brothers'".

As the quotation marks suggest, however, Julius is too jealously private to enter into that kind of friendly conspiracy. We see him rebuff a postal worker who wants to share his terrible Afrocentric poetry, and slight an African cab driver: "I wasn't sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me." And the more we learn about Julius, the more troubling his disclaimers seem. An old girlfriend, Nadege, is mentioned several times, but we never learn much about her, or their relationship; he is content to drift apart. He talks about a close male friend, but never gives his name.

More enigmatically still, Julius refers several times to a rift with his mother - a German woman who fled war-ravaged Europe and settled in Nigeria - but refuses to explain what caused it. Only a few episodes from his childhood, always introduced as though at random, begin to hint at the sources of his detachment: a scene of brutality at his military boarding school, his boyhood theft of a Coke from the family refrigerator.

It all leaves the reader unprepared for a revelation that comes near the end of the book - a shocking story from Julius's past which may or may not be true, but casts a retrospective shadow on everything we have learned from and about him. This is the one moment when Cole can be seen manipulating the book's plot, which otherwise unspools so naturally. Yet the contrivance is justified, finally, as a way of making explicit the book's constant question: is the hero's refusal to be claimed - by ideology, community, family - a moral victory, or a surrender? Even more than his perfectly sustained tone and his ruminative intelligence, it is Cole's ability to keep that question open which makes Open City such a compelling book.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His book "Why Trilling Matters" will be published this autumn by Yale University Press

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

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.