Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Literature

Manchester Literary Festival, until 23 October

Over the coming week Michael Chabon will be reading from his new novel Telegraph Avenue at the beautiful Whitworth Gallery, poet laureate and patron of the MLF Carol Ann Duffy will perform a selection of poems culled from her extensive back catalogue at the grand City Hall, and Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford will discuss his first novel since 2006, Canada. Next week’s line-up also includes Amiri Baraka, David Constantine, Patrick Gale, Penelope Lively, Iain M Banks and evenings curated by Faber and local presses Comma and Carcanet. Full details of venues, prices, dates and times are available in the festival brochure.

Art

RA Now, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly W1J 0BD, 11 October – 11 November

An open studio of grand proportions, RA Now offers a snapshot of the work being produced by living Royal Academicians, who will exhibit side by side for the first time. A total of eighty artists working across multiple disciples from sculpture to architecture will feature, including Antony Gormley, David Hocknet, Allen Jones, Tracey Emin, Richard Long, Jenny Saville, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Grayson Perry. If you have a bob or two, all the work will be auctioned by Sotherby’s on Tuesday (9), two days before the exhibition opens to the public. Funds are being raised to support the Academy’s Burlington development project. Christopher Le Brun, President of the RA, said: “This is a unique opportunity to view and buy significant works donated by renowned artists. The Burlington Project’s aim is to make the Academy the leading international centre for visual culture for the twenty-first century, offering an independent voice for art and artists.”

Festival

Ether Festival, Southbank Centre, Oct 5 – 19

Tonight the Southbank’s annual festival of innovation, art, technology and cross-arts experimentation opens with the Brant Brauer Frick Ensemble, who blend the electronically-roduced minimalism of techno with the virtuosity and complex theory of classic music. With a twist of soul groove thrown in. Here’s a video of them in rehearsal in Berlin. The festival will include a John Cage centenary celebration, plus new and established producers, artists and conductors including Ghost Poet, Jonathan Harvey and former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton performing with the London Sinfonietta. A number of the concerts and events are free. Also at the Southbank this week the Booker Prize shortlist will come to life as authors read and discuss their work with Radio 4 presenter James Naughtie.

Music

Radiohead, 02 Arena, 8, 9 Oct

Radiohead and their impressive stage and light technicians will fill the 02 arena with a wall of music and visual effects next week as the band play songs from their most recent album “King of Limbs” alongside choice selections from every album since 1993’s “Pablo Honey”. Quite a leap from the Jericho Tavern in Oxford where the band played their first gig in 1986. The 02 dates will be the band’s first in the UK since 2008, Rolling Stone had this to say about their return to the stage in Miami earlier this year: “Radiohead began the opening night of their first US tour in four years with a perfect description of their new state of rhythmic and creative elation; a silvery rushing momentum and exultation that set the pace of virtually everything that followed. Radiohead are one of the greatest touring bands of the modern rock era. They have also been one of the most reluctant. But, in Miami, everything in the drive, shine and delight said they were glad to be back.”

Film

The 56th BFI London Film Festival, cinemas across London, 10 – 19 October

This year’s London Film Festival opens on Thursday, clogging up a good number of the capital’s cinemas with back-to-back premieres, talks, restored classics and red carpet divas. Beyond the disappointing bookends of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, both of which look mediocre (I could be wrong...), there lies a wealth of cinema waiting to be discovered. Check out Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sapphires, Amour and The Stoning of St Stephen for art house excellence from the US, Australia and France. The BFI website and Time Out are two of the best place to search for leftover tickets.

Christopher Le Brun, Grason Perry and Allen Jones. 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