The year of reading dangerously: books to look out for in 2014

The <i>New Statesman</i>'s culture editor takes a look forward at the books set to dominate the year.

On the morning of 28 June 1914 the Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired two shots from his Fabrique Nationale semi-automatic pistol. One of them killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. A month later, the world was at war – a hundred years later, we are still living in its shadow. The publishing industry began its centenary activities early, with histories by Margaret McMillan, Jeremy Paxman and Max Hastings last year. In 2014 the flood of doorstop books continues. Historians are tackling the prelude – in That Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge (Viking, January) – and the epilogue, in The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order (1916-1931) by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane, May).

Contemporary literary responses are collected in No Man’s Land: Writings from the World at War (Serpent’s Tale, January), while The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe, April), edited by Neil Astley, makes the connection to current conflicts and the nebulous war on terror. Why are we still so obsessed with the Great War, and so anxious about our commemorations? Frank Furedi tackles this head-on in First World War: Still No End in Sight (Bloomsbury/Continuum, January), arguing that those four years of horror bled into a century of entrenched culture wars.

Naomi Klein would argue that there are greater disasters on the horizon. Her The Message (Allen Lane, September) is a call to arms in the face of catastrophic climate change. In Russell Brand’s issue of the New Statesman last year Klein advocated direct action, reasoning that “It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less fucked.”

We are not short of impending crises. In On Liberty (Allen Lane, September), Shami Chakrabati shows that our democratic institutions are under just as much threat as our environment. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid (Allen Lane, February) examines the UK’s disastrous relationship with housing. Our right to shelter is as fragile as our right to privacy, a theme picked up in two books on last year’s NSA scandal – The Snowden Files: The True Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Faber, April) and No Place to Hide by Snowden’s contact Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton, May) – and an account of the News International saga, the rather grandiosely titled Hack Attack: the Inside Story of How One Journalist Exposed the World’s Most Powerful Media Mogul by Nick Davies (Chatto & Windus, April). Our right to protest? Equally at risk, as the Kremlin’s treatment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot showed: Words Will Break Cement: the Passion of Pussy Riot by Marsha Gessen (Granta, February) tells their story.

Rhiannon Cosslett and Holly Baxter, co-founders of the Vagenda blog and authors of The V Spot on, would approve: their first book, The Vagenda (Square Peg, May) shows readers how to tackle insidious media misogyny through “articulate activism”. Read it alongside Laura Bates’s shocking catalogue of true stories in Everyday Sexism (Simon & Schuster, May) and Laurie Penny’s essays on gender, Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury, July).

On 18 September, a referendum will ask “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The historian Linda Colley does some groundwork with an examination of what has held the UK together – and what is driving it apart – in Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books, January) and the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray presents his vision of an independent Scotland in Independence (Canongate, June).

A contender for “big idea of the year” is Sapiens by Yuval Harari (Harvill Secker, September 4), a number one bestseller in Israel, and nothing less than a 360-degree history of humankind and a prophecy about our future: its publisher claims it will change “the way we view our world”. Michael Lewis has changed the way we view the financial world in books such as Moneyball, The Big Short and Liar’s Poker – his new, as-yet untitled book in April (Allen Lane) is bound to be an event, as will the second volume of Simon Schama’s snappily written The Story of the Jews (Bodley Head, September).

Back on home turf, there are plenty more histories, both sweeping and specific. David Kynaston’s superb Modernist Britain series continues with A Shake of the Dice, 1959-62 (Bloomsbury, September). Two Labour MPs take on British institutions: Chris Bryant in Parliament: the Biography, Volume One (Doubleday, March) and Tristram Hunt in Ten Cities that Made an Empire (Allen Lane, June). That magic “ten things” formula is applied to pop music, in A History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus (Yale University Press, September). The New Statesman science columnist, Michael Brooks, goes one better with his account of “11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise”, The Edge of Uncertainty (Profile, October).

Various historical figures are to be disinterred in 2014. To coincide with the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, the joint chief curator of royal palaces Tracy Borman attempts a biography of the “real” Thomas Cromwell (Hodder & Stoughton, September). Boris Johnson paints Winston Churchill as a “resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians” in The Churchill Factor (Hodder & Stoughton, October) and Churchill’s own biographer Roy Jenkins is given the definitive, doorstopper treatment in John Campbell’s account of a “well-filled and well-rounded” life (Jonathan Cape, March). Across the Atlantic, John Updike gets his first landmark biography in Adam Begley’s Updike (HarperCollins USA, April).

Life stories of the still-breathing include Alan Johnson’s follow-up to his extraordinarily successful memoir This Boy, There’s a Place (Bantam, September); in the year of Monty Python’s reunion, Terry Gilliam’s neatly timed autobiography (Canongate, October); Vivienne Westwood: The Authorised Life Story, co-written with Ian Kelly (Picador, October) and Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned by the creator and star of the cult American comedy Girls, Lena Dunham (Fourth Estate, October). Hillary Clinton’s memoir (Simon & Schuster, June) will be read closely by those curious about her intentions for the 2016 presidential elections.

In fiction, several major British novelists have offerings in 2014. Martin Amis returns to Auschwitz in his 14th novel, The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, August); Hanif Kureishi tells the story of an elderly Indian writer and his white English biographer – echoing the real-life relationship between V S Naipaul and Patrick French – in The Last Word (Faber & Faber, February); the Cloud Atlas author, David Mitchell, goes back to the future in The Bone Clocks (Sceptre, September) and Sarah Waters sets The Paying Guest (Virago, September) in 1920s London. Will Self publishes Shark, a sequel to the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella (Viking, September), and Ali Smith follows There But for The with another intriguingly abbreviated title, How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, August). There’s also a novel from Nick Hornby (Viking, September) and new books from two acclaimed Irish storytellers, Colm Tóibín’s 1960s-set Nora Webster (Viking, October) and Sebastian Barry’s The Temporary Gentleman (Faber & Faber, April), picking up the story of the McNulty family at the end of the Second World War.

Some Granta Best of Young British Novelists alumni have headline billing and some are still waiting in the wings – but this could be a breakthrough year for Adam Foulds (In the Wolf’s Mouth, Jonathan Cape, February) or Andrew O’Hagan (The Illuminations, Faber & Faber, June), both of whom have novels circling around the Second World War.

Two American masters return in 2014. Fans of Marilynne Robinson will be giddy at the prospect of a new novel, Lila, which lands in October from Virago, after two prime cuts of short stories: Can’t and Won’t (Hamish Hamilton, April) by Lydia Davis, the translator and author who won the Man Booker International last year, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark (Faber & Faber, March), her first collection in 15 years. You never have to wait that long to hear from Joyce Carol Oates, who, at 75, still publishes novels at the same rate as the Beatles released LPs. In January, there’s Carthage (Fourth Estate, January), about a troubled Iraq war veteran, and in June, a collection of Gothic novellas, Evil Eye (Head of Zeus, June). Oates has something of a kindred spirit in the macabre film director David Cronenberg – God knows what evils he will dream up in his debut novel Consumed, first announced in 2008 and now finally coming from Fourth Estate in September.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


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.