Jan Morris's Travels Round My House on Radio 3: Unbotheredly contemplating death

Anthony Sattin went through scrapbooks and photo albums picking things out for comment. There hung over the whole interview the discomfiting threat that any mention of gender reassignment would be considered not just prurient and vulgar, but (worse) borin

Jan Morris: Travels Round My House
Radio 3

A long interview with the 86-year-old Jan Morris at her home in Wales found her unbotheredly contemplating death. She keeps a gravestone already inscribed by a local stonemason (“at the end of one life”) under the stairs. Morris has long talked about her belief that the soul inhabits the body for a brief time only to move on – this is no development arising from recent ill health. A fall down the stairs resulted in a brain operation that Morris mentions as though it were a mere verucca. “What I had in the end was trepanning,”’ she says, vaguely, “like the Incas.”

The interviewer, Anthony Sattin, went through scrapbooks and photo albums picking things out for comment, and Morris was particularly charming and casual on the whole Everest incident. Morris, reporting for the Times and the first to break the news of Edmund Hillary’s ascent just as the country prepared for the coronation, used runners to sprint the 180 miles back to Kathmandu to deliver despatches in code. “Had you ever been up a mountain before?” asked Sattin. “Not a big mountain, no,” replied Morris, as though big were neither here nor there. There was a potent implacability in her voice that came and went, a continual opening and closing – but ultimately a flat determination not to mention her gender reassignment or any of the anguish and ambiguity that surely came with it. There hung over the whole interview the discomfiting threat that any mention of it would be considered not just prurient and vulgar but (worse) boring, and the admittedly “awed” Sattin did not push. At no point did you urge him to keep trying his luck.       

As a child I lived in a house in Oxford next door to Morris when she was still male but living as a woman, preparing to travel to Morocco for her operation in 1972. My father says that the issue was never discussed – whole evenings spent around the table without reference, just a sense that something massive was afoot. My mother remembers seeing Morris’s obvious five o’clock shadow and thinking it unusual but since nobody else was talking about it, then why should she? Which all sounds terribly civilised but it’s worth pointing out that it is no small feat to refuse to mention one’s central controlling obsession – and to remain silent while others wonder. That is power. Dimly, the rest of us spoon our spaghetti, and keep schtum.

The 86-year-old Jan Morris.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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