The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

The Barbican Center, London EC2: Bauhaus - Art as Life, until 12 August

The largest Bauhaus exhibition to be staged in the UK for 40 years, this show comprises a rich, diverse spectrum of work from the infamous art school known for its utopian ideals to shape post-world-war society through their philosophy of “art as life”. The show celebrates the varied artistic faculties that comprised the school during its “turbulent” 14-year history, displaying an engaging scope of work from both Bauhaus masters and students, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Gunta Stölzl.

The Queen's Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, until 7 October

The Buckingham Palace gallery space opens its door for its largest ever display of the Renaissance polymath’s anatomical drawings. The artist intended to publish his groundbreaking series of medical sketches based on human and bestial cadavers, though his death in 1519 meant the staggering collection was effectively lost for almost 400 years. Today we can acknowledge da Vinci’s pioneering contribution to cataloguing and deepening our understanding of the human body. 

 

Music

Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Jazz Festival, until 7 May

This self-proclaimed “start to the summer” runs through the bank holiday weekend and features top British and international jazz stars, including the acclaimed Guy Barker Orchestra and festival artist in residence Paloma Faith. Supplementary events like the Screening Room, a specially designed “boutique cinema”, and the Jazz Fringe Stage, featuring un-signed talent, make this vibrant event a staple in the summer music calendar.

 

Opera

Barbican Center, London EC2: Einstein on the Beach, until 13 May

Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson’s seminal and rarely preformed avant-garde work finally gets a revival almost twenty years after its last UK production. The non-narrative, four-act opera features Glass’ classically minimalist score composed for synthesizers and woodwinds as well as abstract dance sequences choreographed by Lucinda Childs. At five hours long (the audience is permitted to enter and exit at their liberty), this is unconventional theatrical immersion on a dazzling scale.

 

Literature

The British Library, London NW1: Writing Britain - Wastelands to Wonderlands, opens 11 May

This new exhibition charts the literary role of the British landscape - from the foundational legacy of romanticist William Blake through to 21st century mavericks like JG Ballard. Featuring over 150 works and a myriad of supplementary videos, letters, photographs, maps and drawings, the exhibition promises to “allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the work’s creation, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.”

 

Bauhaus - Art as Life at the Barbican Centre (photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder