Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Bela Kolarova exhibition, 31 Jan – 7 April, Raven Row, London

A retrospective of the work of Czech artists Bela Kolarova (1923-2010). This is the first major survey of her work outside of her home country. Kolarova’s “light drawings” and “derealised portraits” pioneered an art based on objects associated with domesticity and the feminine, rooted in the context of Cold War and exile. The works on display will cover Kolarova’s career, including documentary photographs from the late fifties, camera-less experiments, “arranged” photographs of objects and assemblages from the sixties, as well as make-up drawings and assemblages from the seventies and eighties.

Opera

La Traviata, 2 Feb – 3 March 2013, London Coliseum

Verdi’s masterpiece will be staged at the Coliseum. One of the Verdi’s most moving and popular operas, La Traviata tells the story of a courtesan sacrificing her hopes for her lover’s reputation.

In a new production, acclaimed director Peter Konwitschny uses modern uncluttered staging to present the tragic and moving opera. Compelling characters and famed melodies make this an engaging and emotional performance. Starring American soprano Corinne Winters in her European debut, British lyric tenor Ben Johnson and internationally acclaimed baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore.

Classical Music

One Night in Vienna, 27 January, Royal Festival Hall, London

Johann Strauss Dancers present a combination of Viennese music, song and dance in glorious period costumes. Conductor Rainer Hersch guides performers through Radetzky March, The Blue Danube Waltz, The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, Thunder and Lightning Polka, and Voices Of Spring, as well as Tchaikovsky, Lehar and many more. The Johann Strauss Orchestra performs with guest soprano Charlotte Ellett.

Festival

Burns Night Celebrations, 25 January, Edinburgh

“Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!” Wrote the eminent Scot Rabbie Burns in “Address to a Haggis.” If you are in Edinburgh this weekend there myriad opportunities to raise a glass to the poet. According to robertburns.org “Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts,” so take your pick. The Whiski bar and restaurant in Edinburgh will be hosting an evening of traditional Scottish fiddle music, accompanied by haggis neeps and tatties.

Theatre

Count Magnus: Two Ghost Stories by M R James 05-09 Febuary, The Brewery, Bristol

As if South-West England wasn’t chilling enough, the Nunkie Theatre Company will be bringing ghost stories to Bristol in February. Two short stories by antiquarian ghost story master, Monague Rhodes James will be performed at the Brewery Theatre.

150 years since the birth of M R James, Robert Lloyd Parry will be retelling his stories as a one man show. The first of these tales, Count Magnus, is a thriller set in Sweden about the consequences of travel-writer’s over-inquisitiveness. Denmark is then the setting for Number 13, a tale of a haunted hotel room.

Celebrate the poetry of Robert Burns this Saturday (Getty Images)
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear