Sunday, 1 August 2010

Beryl Bainbridge

If I ever get round to make a list of my hundred favourite novels or a list of desert island novels, there will be at least three, possibly four, novels of Beryl Bainbridge, who sadly passed away last month. These will be: Every Man for Himself, Injury Time, The Bottle Factory Outing, and An Awfully Big Adventure.

In my more than two decades of (mainly) novel-reading, there is one novel, which I devoured in a day, a novel which was a page-turner, a novel I could not wait to get to the end of, and which, when it ended, left me feeling utterly flummoxed, indeed a bit stupid: Beryl Bainbridge’s Winter Garden. The plot of ‘Winter Garden’—an adulterous lawyer goes on a trip to Leonid Brezhnev’s Russia with his paramour  and gets drawn unwittingly into something which he does not understand (and neither does the reader)—is worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller and the MacGuffin is so ambiguous that the reader, like the hapless protagonist of the novel, is left chasing the shadows until the end.  I read ‘Winter Garden’, first published in 1980, a couple of years ago. I thought I had probably figured out what the novel was about, but was not sure; so I ‘googled’ it afterwards to see whether there were any reviews or discussions that would tell me whether my interpretation of this devilish little (just over 150 pages) novel was correct, but could not find anything that helped. (I once read an interview of Bainbridge in which she said—tongue firmly lodged in her cheek, I suspect— that readers should read her novels three times if they were to get what was going on in them. In another literary event she admitted that on several occasions she had been told by readers that they did not understand what she meant. So, I guess I am not alone in struggling to come to grips with her novels, although, of the dozen or so Bainbridge novels I have read, only Winter Garden remains abstruse.)

An Awfully Big Adventure was the first Beryl Bainbridge novel I read. First published in 1989, this was the last of the novels she based on her early life in Liverpool (it was later made into a film starring Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and an actress who played Stella, the female protagonist, the only thing about whom I remember is that she had perky breasts). I loved the novel. It was waggish and sardonic, yet the underlying pathos did not leave you unmoved. And it was all so understated. By that time I had already become a fan of the great Muriel Spark, and Bainbridge, with her coolly stylish and punctilious style, was in the same mould.

I then read most of Bainbridge’s subsequent novels, which, I suppose, would come under the general category of ‘historical fiction’. But there was a difference. While Bainbridge took a historical event such as the sinking of the Titanic or the Crimean war as the backdrop to her novels, her stories were not fictionalised versions of historic events; rather she focused on the obscure or not very well known elements of the historical saga, and made them interesting. Of these Every Man for Himself, Bainbridge’s take on the sinking of the Titanic, remains my all-time favourite. I would have no hesitation in selecting it as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Told through the eyes of Morgan, the rich nephew of the owner of the ship, Every Man for Himself had a fine ensemble of characters and told, in Bainbridge’s trademark meticulous, unostentatious prose, the story of the last four fateful days of the doomed vessel with devastating poignancy. This was followed by Master Georgie, Bainbridge’s take on the Crimean war, with the enigmatical surgeon, George Hardy, as the central protagonist. Master Georgie is a dark, intense tale. The reader gets to know the ways of Hardy, Master Georgie to his obsessively loyal Myrtle, from the points of view of others. Deliberately shunning the hyperbole usually associated with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, Bainbridge presents the readers with a disturbing, alarming, even, at times, tale. And if at the end of it you are left feeling that you still do not know Master Georgie all that well and are a bit puzzled by the emotional sway he holds over others, the elegant, beautiful prose more than makes up for it. According to Queeney came out in 2001, the last novel Bainbridge published. It tells the story of the relationship of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, as told through the eyes of Thrale’s daughter, Queeney. Bainbridge was inspired to write the novel after she came across a letter by Queeney in which she observes that the reason why she and her sister ended up damaged was because their mother hated their father. Like all of Bainbridge’s novels, it was complex, subtle, with subterranean currents the presence of which could only be guessed at by the occasional ripples they sent to the surface.

Most obituaries of Bainbridge I read divided her novels in two phases: in the first phase, which ended with An Awfully Big Adventure, Bainbridge drew extensively on her own early experiences. These novels are set in milieus in which she grew up or spent her formative years, and many have female protagonists that could have been fictionalised versions of Bainbridge herself. The next phase, which began with The Birthday Boys, consisted of what I earlier described as historical fiction. However, this is not strictly true. There is an early novel of hers, published in 1978, entitled Young Adolph. It is a historical novel in the loose sense of the term. Young Adolph is another of my favourite Bainbridge novel. It tells the story of the young and not very gifted (although he did not know it) Adolph Hitler, fancying himself as a painter, staying with his brother and sister-in-law in Liverpool before the First World War. As with most of Bainbridge’s ‘historical fiction’, the novel had a kernel of truth at its core. Hitler indeed had an older step-brother (from his father’s first marriage) who had married an Irishwoman. This brother had stayed in England, Liverpool for a few months before the First World War. What is not proven—there is certainly no historical evidence to back it and Hitler never mentioned it—is that Adolph Hitler ever visited him in England. Then there is Winter Garden, of course, which belongs to her early phase, and is in no way ‘autobiographical’. That said Bainbridge did draw a lot from her own experiences when she wrote her early novels. A Quiet Life, for example, is based heavily on her formative years in Formby, near Liverpool. She said in an interview that in the mid-eighties she felt as though she had written out her own past and was casting round for new subjects and ideas. The novels from her second phase are bigger in scope and all have male protagonists.  They also brought her wider, possibly international, fame and financial stability.

While my most favourite Bainbridge novel (Every Man for Himself) belongs to her second phase, in general I enjoy her earlier novels a lot more.

Almost all of Bainbridge novels end tragically. What characterizes her early novels is the unexpected juxtaposition of the comic with the grotesque. Her early novels are horribly funny, but the comedy has an edge to it, and, even as you laugh, you are troubled by something dark and vicious lurking underneath, ready to strike when you least expect it. Therefore, when the expected unexpected happens, you are still taken aback by its force. The Bottle Factory Outing and Injury Time (which I have reviewed on this blog some time back) are outstanding examples of black comedy. In The Bottle Factory Outing an outing of the employees of a bottle factory—Bainbridge brilliantly captures the apparent commonplaceness of the small worlds of working classes that makes you cringe—, spearheaded by a young unfulfilled woman, is unexpectedly interrupted by a murder. The Injury Time deals with the quotidian intrigues of the middle-classes—Edward, the protagonist of this novel, is having an affair with a chronically unhappy woman, and, to assuage her anger and his guilt, is having an evening party at her place for which a discrete work colleague is invited —which are suddenly overshadowed by violence and destruction. As William Trevor commented (in his review of The Bottle Factory Outing), it is as though ‘Muriel Spark [is] prevailed upon to write an episode of Liver Birds’.

There are, I feel, similarities in the writings of Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. Both wrote with great economy of prose, in a deadpan style—pans didn’t come deader than theirs—and the writing was cool, stylish and elegant. And they both wrote books that were slender in volume. The longest book Bainbridge wrote was her last, ‘According to Queeney’, which was still less than 250 pages. Novels such as Harriet Said and The Dressmaker are testimonies that you do not have to write tomes to produce quality.
Bainbridge began writing when she was an adolescent. She wrote a novella, entitled Filthy Lucre, when she was 14 (much later included in a volume of her collected stories). The first novel she wrote in her adult life was Harriet Said, which she wrote in her early twenties, when she was divorcing her husband. This novel did not find a publisher for a long time—it was rejected by one publishing company which informed Bainbridge that they did not publish filth—and was eventually her third novel to be published. She published a couple of novels in the 1960s, which attracted lukewarm praise and did not sell well (she once claimed that she earned £ 25 from her debut novel, ‘Weekend with Claude’). Much later, Bainbridge said that both the books were under-edited. She stopped writing for the next few years until she was ‘discovered’ (strictly speaking, rediscovered) by the novelist Allis Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) with whose son Bainbridg’s eldest son was friends. Anna Haycraft became her editor, and her husband Colin, who bought the publishing house ‘Duckworth’, became her publisher for the next twenty-five years. Bainbridge remained fiercely loyal to her friends and stuck with Colin Haycraft until his bankruptcy and death. However, the consensus amongst her obituarists seems to be that the rickety financial arrangements did not serve her interests well. Duckworth apparently paid her pittance—the highest she ever got paid was apparently £3000 (and that was in 1990)—and never printed more than a couple of thousand copies. Almost all her novels with Duckworth attracted very good critical reviews but sold poorly because of poor promotion. However, they sold well in paperbacks, and a few, such as An Awfully Big Adventure, were made into films, so Bainbridge, as she jocularly remarked, did not exactly starve. 

Beryl Bainbridge was not very lucky when it came to awards. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize no less than five times—only Iris Murdoch has been nominated more times than Bainbridge (and she won it once)—but did not win it even once. She withdrew Injury Time, which was published in 1977, as she was on the panel of judges that year.

In recent year Bainbridge was not very prolific. Her last novel, According to Queeney, was published nine years ago. At the time of her death she was putting finishing touches to what would have been her eighteenth novel, Girl with a Polka Dot Dress. While this novel, in keeping with her recent novels, has a historic backdrop—the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy—according to her publishers (who have announced that the novel will come out next year), it is more like her early, comic works.

Beryl Bainbridge once famously said that writing was easy; anybody could write. ‘You just listen to what people say and write it down. You think of a story, and then you write it down.’ This remark, I feel, is so like Bainbridge’s writing: unassuming, unpretentious, and absolutely brilliant.

Beryl Bainbridge’s death is a sad loss. She was a legend.