I’ve just read Ned Beauman’s first novel Boxer Beetle, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (you can read the first chapter here). I read it in a couple of days, totally gripped by it. This is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read in quite a while. The definitely unkosher Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble (in which a woman has sex with the eponymous animal) is still top of the list but Boxer Beetle is quite amazing. Beauman is definitely not trying to charm with a gallery of likeable characters: the main narrator is a collector of Nazi memorabilia afflicted by a rare illness making his smell unbearable. While on the run from a mysterious killer, he follows the trails of a young Jewish boxer in the East End of London and an entomologist in awe of Hitler breeding incredibly nasty beetles adorned with a swastika just before WW2 . The book is fast paced, packed with info on all sorts of unlikely subjects, darkly funny and just fascinating.
I asked Ned a few questions and here are his answers:
Boxer Beatle is probably the most original and intriguing book I’ve read this year. What came first the Boxer or the Beetle?
Neither – they were inspired by two different Wikipedia pages I found on the same day! I thought each would make an intriguing subject for a novel, but then it occurred to me that I could invent something far stranger by putting them together. Most of my inspiration is totally serendipitous – I usually start with obscure facts rather than broad themes.
Women really stand out in your book, particularly Seth’s missing (and possibly idealised) sister and Erskine’s sister as the most if not the only positive characters in the book. Are you a bit of a feminist?
Actually, I think some would say that if I were a genuine feminist, I would be capable of writing female characters who were contradictory and flawed, rather than just beautiful and saintly. I do hope that, in fact, if I’m bad at inventing well-rounded female characters, it’s a purely creative failing that one day I’ll improve on, rather than because on some level I don’t see women as real people. (Please don’t check with my ex-girlfriends about this.)
How do you think your book would have been received had it been written by a non Jewish writer?
Well, I’m regrettably divorced from my heritage and I haven’t made much of it in the publicity. That said, the fact that two of my grandparents were lucky to get out of Nazi Germany would probably be useful insulation if anyone ever accused me of exploiting historical tragedy. Thankfully, nobody has so far.
Your book is absolutely fascinating and engrossing while dealing with nazis and insects, two huge phobias for most people, do you think it offers some kind of exorcism?
No. Insects are such a banal fear that I’m not sure you could exorcise that in prose, any more than you could exorcise a fear of heights. And are people really scared of Nazis in art? I don’t think Inglourious Basterds is a scary film because it has Nazis in it, or Stalag 17, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Cabaret. Or the computer game Wolfenstein 3D!
I know you are already working on your next novel, does it also have a Jewish element?
From an odd angle, yes. It begins in Weimar Berlin, so there are a few Jewish characters who end up in California, and also a few Jewish characters who don’t escape in time. My protagonist is no among either of those, but both groups play a larger part in his life than he wants/expects.
For more from Ned, you can read his blog. Do watch out for him in our JBW 2011 programme!