The novelist and the Jewish pugilist

Ned Beauman on foxes, beetles and boxers.

At my cousin's wedding there was a lot of cake, a considerable amount of expressive dancing and some botched Hebrew from the rabbi. As raucous disco classics overtook the traditional klezmer beats, I learnt about Daniel Mendoza, an ancestor of my now cousin-in-law, from a solemn young man who -- once he was no longer eating mozzarella in a gazebo -- became something of a whirling dervish on that memorable Essex dancefloor. Daniel Mendoza was an 18th-century Jewish boxing champion. He reigned supreme in the ring until one opportunistic opponent -- "Gentleman" Jack Johnson -- grabbed his sidelocks and pummelled him into submission. Henceforth, boxers have had short hair. According to Wikipedia, Mendoza was "intelligent, charismatic but chaotic" and the first Jew to talk to King George III. He died in 1836, at the age of 72, leaving his family in poverty. (Since my cousin's wedding, a new Daniel Mendoza has been added to the clan; currently 14 months old and the proud owner of a T-shirt with a squid on it. Perhaps he will grow up to be a boxer -- but probably not).

This is why the phrase "Jewish boxing champion" caught my attention when I first heard of Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle. Among other things, Boxer, Beetle tells the story of a nine-toed gay Jewish pugilist called Seth "Sinner" Roach and a repressed beetle-fixated eugenicist whose interest in Roach is both scientific and sexual. The backdrop is 1930s London. In the present day, the tale of these two characters is linked to a Nazi memorabilia collector, Kevin Broom, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare condition that makes him smell of rotting fish: "Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases." Consequently, Kevin spends much of his time trawling Third Reich-related internet forums (and in a brief self-reflexive flourish, "nbeauman" appears in an online chat).

Both past and contemporary fictional worlds are conjured with a kind of Dickensian vividness and relish for the grotesque. There are characters called Horace Grublock and Leonard Bruisleand. The latter's effeminate son appears as "two unctuous costly pale limp shiny things, one of which was a silk dressing gown that contained the other". Noir influences are also at work -- the novel contains murder, a (Welsh) hitman and a quest for truth undertaken by Kevin. In the 1930s sections, the narrator's use of startling metaphor evokes the spirit of Chandler, as when a boxer "crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation".

Beauman's invocation of other authors is a combination of tribute and irreverence. The country-house scenes in which assorted fascists assemble bring to mind Ishiguro, Waugh and McEwan. Here, Atonement's Briony Tallis is re-imagined in the form of the precocious Millicent Bruiseland, a freckled 12-year-old who appears at opportune moments to make explicit sexual accusations about the adults: "Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!"

Far from being derivative, Boxer, Beetle has an expansive range that merges the outlandish and esoteric into a narrative propelled by wit and inventiveness. Here is a passage that illustrates this:

Gittins was a fat otter-faced bureaucrat in his fifties who for nearly twenty years had carried around a glass vial containing a small colony of cimicids -- bedbugs -- which every night he tipped out on to his hairy thigh so that they could feed on his blood as part of some obscure long-running experiment into mandible size versus nutritional preferences.

Beauman is now working on his next novel, The Teleportation Accident, and promises that another forthcoming work will feature urban foxes in a major way. A fascination with foxes is apparent in one particular episode in Boxer, Beetle, which becomes a rare moment of aesthetic wonder : "Mangy and thin, it had sinews like twisted telephone wires, a stink like a petrol station forecourt, and a coat the colour of a traffic cone left in a skip full of rainwater. It was -- if I'm not making myself clear -- impossibly beautiful. For perhaps a full minute, the animal stared at me with a strange scepticism and a boy's eyes." Personally speaking, as a fox enthusiast, this is possibly the best piece of fox-themed writing since Ted Hughes set pen to paper. Or Roald Dahl. A loftier encomium cannot be given.

"Boxer, Beetle" is now available in paperback from Sceptre (£7.99)

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.