Published: 7 October, 2010
by MATTHEW LEWIN
I WAS immensely relieved to find that Ned Beauman does not suffer from trimethylaminuria, the incredibly rare metabolic disorder endured by the narrator in his novel which makes him smell strongly of fish.
Indeed, Beauman, 25, smelled perfectly normal. He is a rather soft-spoken, somewhat diffident young man, which in itself was rather puzzling because his widely acclaimed first novel, Boxer Beetle, is anything but softly spoken and diffident.
It is, on the contrary, a confident and accomplished rummage around in the murky world of Nazi memorabilia collectors, entomology, artificial languages, the British fascist groups of the 1930s, eugenics, a diminutive nine-toed East End Jewish boxer who definitely could’a been a contender if he hadn’t hit the bottle, and a mysterious letter from Adolf Hitler to a closet homosexual pseudo-scientist.
The narrator, Kevin “Fishy” Broom, finds the letter from Hitler after stumbling on a murder scene, and embarks on research which (literally and shockingly) unearths secrets that have been buried for a generation.
The letter is to the fascist eugenicist-come-entomologist Philip Erskine, who discovers an eyeless beetle in a cave in Poland whose markings, when in flight, form a perfect swastika.
He names it Anophthalmus Hitleri – which Hitler regards as a gift more singular and unexpected than anything he had ever received from popes, tycoons or heads of state.
One section of the book is based at Claramore, an idyllic country house powered by weird and wonderful machines – and here Beauman pays homage to what he regards as
the three finest country house novels ever written: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
There are fascist gatherings, a butler who can feel no pain, an alcoholic in the attic (representing Sebastian Flyte) and a little girl who tells wild tales about events she claims to have witnessed.
“I love those books, and wanted to pay homage to them,” says Beauman. “It represents my feeling that I cannot possibly outperform those three writers, but at the same time it’s also a bit mocking – otherwise it’s all too boring.”
There is no doubt that Beauman writes like a dream, and that’s perhaps not that surprising given that his family seem to have writing in their genes. His father is writer and economist Chris Beauman, whose first wife is best-selling novelist Sally Beauman. His mother is Nicola Beauman, noted Hampstead author and founder of Persephone Books. One of his sisters writes history books, a brother writes children’s books and his aunt is crimewriter Jessica Mann.
Beauman was brought up in Hampstead, went to The Hall junior and senior schools in Swiss Cottage, and then on
to Winchester and Cambridge where he read philosophy. Later he did an MA in English at Sussex.
And he sure can turn a phrase. An example: “That evening, a tepid April rain fell on London with all the sincerity of a hired sales gimmick for umbrellas.”
A fascinating aspect of this novel, and perhaps a distinct sign of the times, is that much of it was derived from facts found on the internet – Wikipedia in particular.
“The boxer is based on a real 19th-century Australian boxer called Jim Hall,” says Beauman.
“The beetle, Anophthalmus Hitleri, actually exists (although it doesn’t have a swastika on its back) and is really sought after by Nazi memorabilia collectors. It’s also true that Hitler acknowledged that it was named after him and he wrote to thank the German entomologist Oscar Scheibel who found the beetles in a cave in Slovenia in 1933.
“I thought that each of these two things could have made a great idea for novels, but together they would be even more interesting, so it developed from there.”
Also interesting, and quite educational, is Beauman’s ability to find extraordinary words that sent me scurrying for a dictionary. He claims his vocabulary is not very good, but I was flummoxed by many words, including chitinous, xanthomelanous, syncategoramata and phrases like sequential iconicity, to name but a few.
He is already hard at work on his next book, called The Teleportation Accident.
“It’s about the exodus of intellectuals from Weimar Berlin to California just before the Second World War – people like Thomas Mann, and Schoenberg and Brecht and Fritz Lang,” says Beauman. “It follows a rather minor figure who, by accident, ends up part of the same group.
“In a way it’s an attack on my first book, in the sense that the first book embraces quite naively the structure of an historical novel, and nearly all historical novels are about people’s love affairs being disrupted by grand world events.
“But the second book is saying that for most people in most situations, most of the time, history is just like a fly buzzing in the background. History is not what disrupts love affairs; what disrupts love affairs is ourselves, or our jobs or our families. We are not all at the whim of history: history doesn’t really touch most people.
“Joyce said that ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. But I think it’s more like an alarm clock that you are trying to throw across the room so that it will stop ringing.”
• Boxer Beetle. By Ned Beauman. Sceptre, £12.99