What's the difference between present-day Dalston, east London and 1930s Berlin? Glass inquires of Booker-long-listed author Ned Beauman
Twenty-seven-year old Ned Beauman lives in Brixton, South London. He was the youngest nominee on this year’s Man Booker Prize Longlist with The Teleportation Accident. Only his second novel, this trans-atlantic, trans-temporal romp begins in 16th century Venice, drags it's jackboots across The Weimar Republic and then ends up floundering in a surreal Lovecraft-ian Westworld, 10,000 years in the future. Mainly focussing upon Berlin set designer Egon Loeser’s failings to re-enact his hero Lavacini’s ill-fated teleportation device, and his lascivious chasing of young starlet Adele Hitler (no relation), it also throws quantum physics, cold war espionage, ethnic cleansing and wartime Los Angeles into the mix. It's at the same time sharply humorous, historically profound and cosmically inventive.
Beauman’s first novel Boxer, Beetle, another slice of abhorrent comic-noir which fixates upon an obsessive collector of Nazi memorabilia was also wildly celebrated in critical and commercial circles, earning the author a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award in 2010.
So you've lived in Berlin, New York and London, and jetted forth between them all in your novels. Which of these cultural landscapes have informed your work most significantly? Actually, at the time I was writing most of the Teleportation Accident, I barely travelled, I didn’t leave London until I was most of the way through it. It is deliberate in the book that the first two Berlin chapters take place in a kind of united Berlin that is just east London in which the names have changed, and then when we see Berlin again later in the book that's actually our first glimpse of Berlin itself, which I was able to write having actually lived there for a while. So it works out quite well that my stay in Berlin came between the fake Berlin section and the real Berlin section.
Your depiction of 1930s Berlin seems to both affectionately and caustically lampoon areas such as Dalston and Hackney. In light of this, is this simulacra meant as a tribute to these areas or do you actually think east London is devoid of artistic worth? Neither in a way ... as complex as my feelings may be about east London, having lived there and worked there and gone out there a lot, I don't feel like it has any special quality of awfulness to it. I think it’s the same as every other hip area – people do their best to make it fun but inevitably in any area you go out in a lot, nine times out of ten, an evening is disappointing wherever you are, so you begin to associate it more and more with failure. But I certainly don’t think east London is uniquely pretentious or uniquely superficial and in many ways it’s pretty great.
You’ve spoken before about refinement of readership base and yourself as an elitist author. Does this mean you’re uncomfortable with your Booker nomination and the readers you'll now be exposed to? No, I’m totally comfortable with it.
But in a recent essay you penned for theawl.com you remark, “The qualities we expect of our authors today are not just irrelevant but hostile to the intellectual conditions in which good books are written.” As your public profile rises, do you think that this (media work) is something you will have to make peace with and adapt to? I mean in a way, my aspiration as an author is to become successful enough that I can sell books without having to do any of those things, though who knows, if the publishing industry starts falling apart and the only way I can still make a living as a writer without getting a part-time job is by becoming an absolute whore in promotional terms then I will happily do so. Having the opportunity to write full time is more important to me that my life dignity or public persona really. But I hope that will never happen. To what degree do the experiences of Egon Loeser’s run close to your own? I think it’s a more autobiographical novel than strangers will necessarily realise because, as I remark in the book, as soon as you set up (the story) in historical times people immediately lose their sense of suspicion ... A lot of people don't seem to believe in the 'fiction', they just assume everything you write must just be autobiographical, but as soon as you set something in the past it derails that for people. So in a way, this apposite history is more autobiographical than they realise.
Has your literary pedigree (Beauman’s mother owns Persephone books, reprinters of 20th Century Women's Classics) aided your development as an intellect and a writer? I definitely grew up in a house in which it was not considered at all weird to have an agent, an editor and so on and also to spend a lot of time in libraries and to talk about books at dinner. So I think that's definitely helpful but also, one is the funny things about Persephone is that those books couldn't be more different to the books I'm writing. So I’ve definitely been influenced by the lifestyle but not the aesthetic I guess.
Herr Loeser shuns the particular histories, politics and cultures of a city through his theory of “equivalence”, whereas English gadabout Herr Rackenham states, “I really think it's the present day that needs our attention.” To which school of thought do you identify more? In a way I kind of agree with them both, that’s the point of the book. Because all the time periods are the same, you don't have to explicitly write about the present day if you want to write about “the present day”. I am quite sick about writing about the 1930s and in my third book that I'm working on now is going to be set in the present.
The most noticeable thematic consistencies between your novels have been the city as a sentient being, the spanning of time, smut, collecting and the 1930s. Will you keep channelling this path or will you take a detour with your third book? No it’s very different, it’s much smaller scale. I think there are certain themes that will always exist in the work I write though, so there’s a lot about cities and the cultural environment and there’s a lot in it about wildlife in cities which you’ll find in more serious ways.
You reference many historical figures in your books but never directly feature them. Does the Beauman universe exist outside of reality and is your decision to always have them “off camera” a conscious decision not to compromise the sense of hyper-reality? I can’t really imagine ever doing that. You can never really know a historical figure as well as you’d know you own characters. If I ever did I’d go the whole way it’d be incredibly famous people like presidents and kings so there would be a literal disparity between what people know and what I'm making them say and do.
You've covered many genres in your writing including sci-fi, historical fiction, comedy and sexual farce. Are there any other genres you'd like to take on? Are there any left? I’m not going to write a romance novel, I don’t really like like cowboy stuff. What does that leave? I’d like to do something a bit more John le Carré. And one day I’d like to write a straightforward realist novel about human beings having emotions. In a way, that’s the genre that I find hardest to imagine.
Finally, and on that note, people have mentioned that your characters are hard to relate to, definitely cast in the anti-hero mould. Is this something you’ve consciously aspired to? I was quite surprised by the reactions to my first book in that people talked about not liking the characters so much. I had no idea that was a thing people were concerned about. But in a way that's one of the reasons that I tried to emphasise that in the second book. One of the reasons that Loeser is a borderline paedophile, borderline holocaust denier is because people had been talking about the characters in the first one being unlikeable so I thought to myself, what are the most unlikeable qualities you can possibly give a character.
by Benjamin Lovegrove
The Teleportation Accident (£16.99) is published by Hodder and Stoughton.