Thursday, 7 February 2008

Book of the Month: Injury Time (Beryl Bainbridge)

Injury Time is one of the early books of the supremely gifted Beryl Bainbridge. Auberon Waugh found himself ‘laughing till the tears ran down’ his cheeks while reading this novel, which won the ‘Whitbread Award’ in 1977 upon its publication (Bainbridge went on to win this award again, decades later, for ‘Every Man for Himself’). The Lancashire-born Bainbridge—she is not sure whether she was born in 1932 or 1934— had written her first novel, Harriet Said, in the 1950s when she was a struggling actress in the Liverpool Repertory Theatre—she attempted suicide by putting her head in the gas oven (‘I was probably trying to draw attention to myself as I was feeling a bit miserable,’ she admitted, later), although, as she revealed decades later, it wasn’t in reference to her dashed hopes related to auctorial ambitions or an acting career which appeared, at the time, to be going nowhere, but over a heartbreak—although it was not published till the 1970s.

Bainbridge, in her distinguished writing career that has entered into its fourth decade—although her grandson, Charile Russell, in a touching documentary he made on his grandmother, complains, ‘She smokes too much, she drinks too much, and she hasn’t written a book in years’—has experimented adroitly with many genres. In ‘Injury Time’ she draws, to an extent, on a background of terror and crime in London—in which city the novel is set—in the 1970s. Edward is having an affair with Binny, an acerbic woman who tends to take offences when none is intended. The bumbling Edward has no intentions of leaving his wife and has convinced himself that that is what Binny wants, too. He nevertheless has adulterer’s conscience: he is aware that Binny’s tetchy and prickly demeanour covers a deep seated unhappiness and insecurities about her status as a mistress, and she yearns for those little things—choosing a birthday present for his family members, for example—which the spouses take for granted. Partly to expiate his guilt over this, Edward agrees to throw a dinner party with his paramour. However, with his middleclass inhibitions, Edward can go only so far. His wife—she never makes a direct entry and is always referred to in third person—who is a minor, P-grade, socialite, is not to know about this. Old Simpson and his wife, Muriel, who are famously discreet (although Simpson, who is himself having an affair, after a fashion—he has not managed, yet, to sleep with the object of his lust, a Latin American woman, though that is not due to lack of trying— unbeknown to his wife) warns Edward not to test Muriel’s lenience towards such matters, which she tolerates but doesn’t really approve of, too much. Everything is arranged perfectly, and it should be a night to remember so long as no one drops in unexpectedly. What unfolds is a funny, grisly, and ultimately horrifying tale, full of eccentric characters, with macabre twists. The ending, which, I think, is purposefully ambiguous but hints at the gruesome comeuppance awaiting Edward, leaves the reader with an ambrosially unquiet feeling. Graham Greene, the master of moral ambiguity, would have been proud to write this novel.

Injury Time, while it deals with the quotidian, almost pathetic, intrigues of a middle-class man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, is overshadowed, nevertheless, like many of Bainbridge’s novels, by death, destruction and violence. The gradual build up of an atmosphere—this, I think, Bainbridge particularly excels at—whereby the reader becomes aware, as the plot progresses, that notwithstanding the current affability and amiabilities, something awful is going to happen, is absolutely splendid. The violence, when it inflicts itself upon some or more characters, is often unexpected and senseless, as when Ginger, one of the gunmen who have forced entry into Binny’s house, rapes, first Binny and then Muriel. Bainbridge once said that she used the device of accidental deaths in some of her novels because of her conviction that a book had to have a strong narrative line: ‘One’s own life, whilst being lived, seems to have no obvious plot and is therefore without tension.’

Bainbridge is a perceptive and wry observer of the human nature. The description, for example, of Edward’s stream of inner thoughts in the midst of what is turning out to be a hostage situation is splendid not just because of Bainbridge’s sparse, almost clinical writing style, but also because it is true of human nature. This brings me to Bainbridge’s writing style. I love the sparse, no-words-wasted style; she has the gift of catching tones of speech which, while delightful on its own, also contributes towards building up the atmosphere of the story. Bainbridge herself is self-deprecating about her prodigious talent. ‘I am of the firm belief that everybody could write books and I never understand why they don't. After all, everyone speaks. Once the grammar has been learnt it is simply talking on paper and in time learning what not to say,’ she once wrote. If only it were as simple as that.

Bainbridge, who embarked on a literary career in the 1960s, was, for years, criminally overlooked by the critics, and was singularly unlucky in respect of awards—she shares the dubious distinction with Anita Desai of having been nominated for the Booker prize as many as five times, only to be piped at the post by another novel on each of the occasions—but has, in her autumn years, won the critical acclaim she had always deserved, much to the delight of her committed following.