I read yesterday morning of the death of one of the most original voices in British literature, Dame Beryl Bainbridge. I’d first discovered Beryl’s works in the mid-70s after reading Graham Greene’s praise of her novel The Bottle Factory Outing. It was on a trip to London in the early 70s that I managed to find the title (unavailable then in the US), along with everything else I could find by her. Once I read it I knew that Beryl’s was a unique voice and one that would influence me in some way that I couldn’t yet foresee. She’d also influenced a generation of other writers, and her powers of observation, her mordant wit, and her ability to mix in a completely convincing way the tragic and the comic, can be seen in the works of many authors, including this one.
Before moving to the UK in 1977 I wrote Beryl and asked if I might interview her. She wrote back immediately and told me to call to set a date once I’d arrived.
I’d had a tentative arrangement with the New York Times Book Review for the piece; though I’d carelessly not requested something in writing from them. I called Beryl and arranged to spend a Friday morning at her home on Albert Street, in the Camden Town neighborhood of north London, renting a cassette recorder and arming myself with a packet of twenty Silk Cut cigarettes. At the time, she’d just published Injury Time, and was trying to kick the smoking habit by puffing on the cabbage-leaf version of Silk Cuts. As we chatted that morning she proceeded to smoke all of my cigarettes, foregoing the healthier brand.
Upon arriving, I found her in the midst of trying to give her 13-year-old daughter Rudi what looked like breakfast. Seated beneath a huge reproduction of “The Last Supper” (once one walked past the stuffed buffalo in the front hall), Rudi—who went on to become an actress, just as her mother had been years earlier—complained just like any other kid. Beryl looked at me and said, “You read Sweet William?” It was a novel that had come out a year or two earlier. I had read it, of course. “That’s my Sweet William baby.” Being the little redhead who appears in the final chapter of the book. That was my first inkling that Beryl’s material was not solely a matter of her imagination.
We went up to her office/bedroom combination on the top floor of the house and there spent some four hours discussing her life and work. By then she was a famous author in her native Britain. But to Americans she was someone published by the small-but-adventurous publisher Braziller and who roundly received excellent reviews in all the usual places.
Though my interview with her was never published, and the tapes and transcriptions are now long lost, I do remember asking her why her work was so concerned with death. “Well,” she said, “it’s really the one great mystery all authors have to deal with, isn’t it. I mean books are kind of a hedge against death, but it’s always there, it’s always something we’re aware of.” She’d become obsessed with death, she said, after seeing footage taken at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
She’d grown up near Liverpool (a time chronicled in her A Quiet Life), had had a summer affair with a German prisoner-of-war when she was all of thirteen and had gone on to become an actress, then a painter, finally taking up writing later in life, in her late 30s. She told me and other interviewers—and repeated it often—that all of her work was based on her life’s experiences, that she’d had a poor imagination and depended on memory to carry her through. What she added to these, though, was a kind of wicked humor and a taste for the macabre that made her a true original. And yet such an event as when her former mother-in-law tried to murder her was woven into The Bottle Factory Outing. On the way down after the interview, she pointed out the bullet-hole in the stairway.
Later she turned her hand, with great success both artistic and popular, to the historical novel. Her novel of Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition, The Birthday Boys was her first attempt. It was followed by Every Man for Himself, perhaps the best work of fiction on the Titanic disaster; Master Georgie, dealing with the Crimean War, and her last published novel, According to Queeney, about Samuel Johnson. In her last years she’d been working on The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress, about the mysterious girl so garbed, seen at the moment of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and never identified.
Beryl was never taken in by the mystique of being a writer. She said to me, “I enjoy going out, doing the grocery shopping, meeting a friend for a drink at the pub.” She enjoyed the sheer ordinariness of her life, even after she was honored by the Queen. Yet the range of subjects in her fiction, from the speculative early years of Hitler in Liverpool (his brother Alois had lived there) in Young Adolf, to the bedside of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, show an acute intelligence and a generosity of imagination that gave her a privileged access to the souls and hearts of her subjects.