Richard Beard - set free by constraints

Richard Beard.

Richard Beard.

RICHARD BEARD, an ‘experimental novelist’ and author of non-fiction, is nothing if not versatile. His books have addressed such subjects as rugby union, grave-robbing, sex changes, Eurodisney, and cigarette addiction.

Clever, thought-provoking, and often very funny, Beard’s books have attracted glowing reviews, all of which should ensure plenty of interest in the writer’s forthcoming reading at Cúirt in the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday April 25 at 8.30pm, where he will share the stage with John Banville.

Lazarus and maths

Beard’s most recent novel, Lazarus is Dead, re-imagines the friendship between Lazarus and Jesus.

“It starts with the information that is in the New Testament, which is not very much,” Beard explains, over a morning phone call from his London home. “Lazarus appears in the Gospel of John and his story provides one of the most famous verses in the whole Bible – ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus cries for Lazarus and nowhere else does he cry. Also, Lazarus is described as Jesus’s friend and he is the only person in the gospels who is called that.

“I put those two things together and decided to write about their friendship and what it would mean to be a special friend of Jesus. They don’t live in the same place, they don’t do the same things, they only come together late in the story so that suggested to me it hadn’t been an entirely smooth friendship and that was the genesis of the story. I do like re-tellings of the gospel story: there is a long tradition of this and the gospels themselves are re-tellings, it’s the same story told four times.”

Beard’s novels are notable for being written under specific constraints or challenges; for instance, in his debut novel X20, the narrator writes something down each time he feels a craving for a cigarette, while in Damascus the action unfolds on a single day, November 1 1993, and all the nouns in the novel are taken from that day’s issue of The Times. It is an approach strongly influenced by the ideas of the largely French-based Oulipo group of writers and mathematicians.

“I first encountered Oulipo as a reader,” Beard reveals. “I loved reading, in particular, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Harry Matthews. It was a great reading experience. Then I got interested in how they made the text, I saw it can make writing easier to have constraints. If you start off with constraints that you have to overcome it provides a challenge and helps you focus as a writer and you start generating text. It’s a much easier way to write, I think, than starting with a blank piece of paper and trying to describe the human condition.”

Disney and rugby

In writing his novel The Cartoonist, Beard found himself coming up against the very real constraints of copyright laws which prevented him from setting the story in Eurodisney, as he had planned.

“I wanted to set the novel in Eurodisney and didn’t know there was a law against it,” Beard declares. “It’s a natural extension of that corporate possessiveness that goes into the little symbols that are part of our everyday language: © and ™. We’ve become used to them but they’ve been generated by people who want to protect their own version of the world.

“With The Cartoonist, I had to find a way to tell the same story but it’s not actually set in Eurodisney – while at the same time it’s obvious to the reader that it is Eurodisney. The fact that you can’t set stories within the territory of Eurodisney seems to me a good example that constraints are a part of the world we live in, so therefore you are writing about the world. Some people complain about Oulipo or say experimental writing is not grounded in the real world but I’d argue that it’s absolutely grounded in the real world.”

Beard’s forays into non-fiction have included two books on sport; Muddied Oafs: The Last Days of Rugger and Manly Pursuits, a query into Australian sporting excellence. Would he ever envisage writing a novel about sport?

“I’d like to do that,” he replies. “There’s a very clear plotline in novels about sport that can be exploited, you see it all the time – the climactic cup final with the underdog and I’d like to play with that. I just have to find the right model. I think rugby is a fantastic game, and an underwritten game so it would probably be in that field. The other sport I like very much is cricket but that’s probably an over-written sport, there’s a huge amount of literature on cricket, a lot of it very good so rugby is the place where I would look.”

What will Beard’s next book be? “I’m writing a sequel to Lazarus is Dead,” he states. “While Lazarus was dealt with in the last book, the next book is about the disciples and what happens to them after the death of Jesus and as they travel around the ancient world. It’s called Acts of the Assassins.”

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and


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