September 07, 2011
There was the matter of the bullet hole, just above the stairs leading to the ground floor. “My mother-in-law tried to murder me,” she said matter-of-factly. It was a narrow house on a residential street in Camden Town, in north London, the only one slathered in ivy, and probably the only one as cluttered as Beryl’s was. I’d been invited there in September of 1977, as Beryl and I had corresponded for a year before I moved to London to begin my career as a writer. Having left New York—and a teaching position—when, at the time, one couldn’t get an editor to read without an agent, and one couldn’t get an agent without having been published, and I was damned well determined to become a writer, I’d decided to see if I could shop a full-length interview with her to the New York Times Book Review, killing two birds with the proverbial single stone. The New York Review of Books had covered her, but she was still under the radar among general readers in America. And, of course, apart from wanting her to gain a larger audience, I was hoping I might be signed on as a regular reviewer at the NYTBR. Which might well, ahem, get the attention of mainstream publishers. The people at the Times said, sure, go ahead, we’d love to see it (which, as I’d unfortunately soon learn, is markedly different from, sure, go ahead, we’d love to buy it, or sure, go ahead, and if we don’t want it we’ll pay you a kill fee.)
A stuffed buffalo greeted you in the front hall (the hallway, and her publisher at the time, Colin Haycraft in full stagger, appears on the jacket of the original UK publication of Injury Time), life-size plaster saints resided in the kitchen, and her work room at the top was full of books, framed photos, every manner of collectible, and, lolling on the sofa, a dummy of Hitler to commemorate the publication of her novel Young Adolf a year later. Soon, Hitler would be amended to become Neville Chamberlain. All he needed was a different tie.
Of all the writers I’ve known, Beryl Bainbridge—by then not yet a Dame—was the least pretentious, the least-self-regarding of all. To her writing was just another activity, as had been, in years previous, painting and acting.
She had no airs about her; she enjoyed nothing more than having a drink or three at her local pub with a friend, or bumming smokes from a young interviewer while explaining how she was trying to quit by puffing on her foul cabbage-leaf cigarettes (a cure that lasted all of twenty minutes or so before she finished off my pack). Being a writer was simply about the end-product, not the personality behind it. There was no angst in it, no suffering or self-doubt in the way she approached her profession. This was partly due to her arrangement with her publisher at the time, Gerald Duckworth and Company, located in an old piano factory (known, to be precise, as The Old Piano Factory) not far away in Camden Town. She had a solid working relationship with her editor, Anna Haycraft (who was also the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis), and, as she told me, while for other writers it was (and still is) a twelve-to-eighteen-month process, she could deliver a finished typescript in May and have a bound copy in her hand in September.
What took the death of her publisher to bring to light was that she was basically working for nothing, earning very little (though some of her books had been filmed either for TV or, as for Sweet William and, later, An Awfully Big Adventure, the big screen), not realizing that one could actually make some dough in this profession. Though she had a devoted following for many years (and I’d discovered her when I’d read her 1974 novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, based on her own experiences working at a bottle factory to supplement what she made as a writer. It was, and still is, like nothing else I’d ever read), her real breakthrough came when she began writing historical novels of a kind not seen before her, and really not seen since. She applied her wry view of human nature to such events as Scott’s Antarctic expedition, the sinking of the Titanic, the Crimean War and the private life of Samuel Johnson, and these, finally, along with a new publisher, began to bring in glowing reviews, much larger readerships and some welcome money.
There is a case to be made that she was one of the great modern writers, one of the truly original voices of English prose. Shortlisted—and many believe robbed—five times for the prestigious Booker Prize (various of her books had won other prizes), her brilliant Master Georgie was awarded a special and especially pointless Booker prize in honor of its author. The fact that it took her dying to earn this is something very much in keeping with Beryl’s sense of irony. Her death seemed somehow impossible; in life she was vivacious, extremely funny (she was from Liverpool, after all), and as generous as she was modest.
The last words uttered by a dying person possess a kind of magic; the spell is all in the timing. Generally they’re pretty banal (Humphrey Bogart was reported to have said, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis”—about as perfect a Bogie comment as one might have heard in one of his movies). The last words of writers, though, the ones that really matter, are usually what they’ve written last. Proust died while still working on A la Recherche du temps perdu, the minor but albeit-pivotal character of Forcheville on his mind. Swann’s betrayal resonated right up until the end of his creator’s life.
Bainbridge was dictating The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress in the hospital, knowing she was dying of cancer. It was left to her editor in the UK, Brendan King, to complete it based on her notes. A few close friends of hers have conjectured that because she knew she was dying she couldn’t bring herself to finish the work, as though by reaching the final page she would also run out of life. This time, death won. Just as she’d told us it would, in book after book before this.
When asked why death played such a prominent role in her fiction, she said, “What else is there for a writer to write about? It’s the one thing we know nothing about, isn’t it?” The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, in many ways her most enigmatic work, published here in the U.S. a year after her death, refers in its title to a mysterious woman seen running from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, exclaiming “We got him!” moments after Robert F. Kennedy, by then on likely to become the Democratic nominee for president, was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan in June 1968. It’s as though, following Bobby’s brother’s assassination in 1963, someone had written a novel entitled The Man on the Grassy Knoll. Both were shadowy, half-seen characters, footnotes of history vanishing into the murk and whisper of conspiracy theories moments after the events they witnessed. And perhaps even participated in.
Often in Beryl Bainbridge’s novels an innocent—usually a young woman—is drawn into what appears to be a situation ripe for comedy only to realize that something utterly horrible has happened. It’s a case of small lives leading to great consequences. It’s a level playing field, her fictional landscape, and before you know it you’ve wandered into the end zone of mortality. As she said in a piece first broadcast on BBC Radio 3, “We die of many things, accidents, tumors, infections, old age. There is only one way to be born, but Death has ten thousand doors for men to take their exits.” Whether it’s the narrator of her first novel, Harriet Said, Stella Mans in the autobiographical An Awfully Big Adventure, seventeen-year-old Rita in The Dressmaker, Brenda in one of her finest and most representative works, The Bottle Factory Outing (much praised by Graham Greene), or even the narrator of perhaps the best fiction published about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, a young, seemingly unworldly person comes within the grasp of something—the influence of an older, not always benign, person, or the grinding inexorability of history—that will change him or her forever. Seeing only the edge of catastrophe, all they lack is the larger picture, the great gift of hindsight.
What makes her fiction stand out is her sense of timing. There is nothing predictable about her plots—she hated books in which you knew just what was going to happen on the next page; disorientation is vital to her storytelling skills, and this lends a calmly nervous air to these short works of fiction, beautifully exemplified in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. This is a novel full of questions. Who is this woman? Why is she so determined to find this Dr. Wheeler that she flies from London and travels across the continent in the company of a decidedly dodgy character named Washington Harold? (To me the name doesn’t seem as puzzling as it has to some reviewers; back in the Sixties people assumed all manner of identity; I knew “Boston Boots,” “New York Boots,” and even one or two “Gandalfs,” and when I learned their real names I also discovered they weren’t real, either.) And what exactly is Wheeler’s connection to the Kennedy campaign?
Having as a young girl watched footage shot at the Belsen concentration camp, Beryl says in the same BBC broadcast that her first works of fiction “centered on death. In the very first one a child died, in the second two children committed a murder, in the third an elderly woman put an end to an American soldier, and in the next a clergyman killed his wife. There were several others that revolved around dying, and when I had used up the stories in my head I turned to events in history, in particular the Crimean War, the sinking of the Titanic and Captain Scott’s fatal journey to the South Pole.” To that would be added her penultimate and pitch-perfect historical novel, According to Queenie, dealing with Samuel Johnson.
Her first excursion into historical, or rather conjectural, fiction was with Young Adolf, published in 1978, in which, because she’d read that Hitler had possibly spent five months with his brother and sister-in-law in Beryl’s native Liverpool in 1912, we see in darkly comic setpieces how the future tyrant came to adopt his trademark haircut and salute (the latter having to do with a music-hall turn). But her primary source for her writing was her own life. She once told me that she had no imagination and had to rely on her memory, and when I asked if the unexpected tragedies in these books were also drawn from life, she said that as one needs a plot in a novel, all she had to do was to add a fictional story line and let her life fill in the spaces. It all seemed rather simple. But it took her consummate artistry to make it work.
Offhandedly she happened to mention to me a trip she’d made to the United States in the Sixties. She said she was young and rather impressionable (and also the mother of three very young children who remained behind in England), and the whole project struck me as being very much of its time, a road trip that meandered from one coast to the next with some man she’d met. Once I’d read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, however, her trip seemed odd to me. Because of her age and circumstances it seemed less of a Sixties lark than of a kind of search for something she hadn’t yet defined. She wrote in her journal during this time, “When it grows dark things move up beyond the pines. I always think of bear or something equally dramatic. A car full of teenagers comes riding round and round the picnic area. They sweep their headlights across the leaves and throw cans out of the window. The only things we do are what Harold wants. He never asks if I would like to do anything. If I do ask he says no. It’s a bit miserable, as I feel a bit far from home and I refuse to beg. I long to go into a café and drink coffee and talk to people. All we do is drive like hell and that makes me want to go to sleep… Theme of the new book should be a journey but in what form? This is the same route as Nabokov took for writing Lolita. Lie in the truck all day and think of that.” This was the origin of The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, and the man the protagonist Rose travels with is also named Harold. Washington Harold, in fact.
A dental assistant from North London, Rose has just arrived in America in the uncertain days following the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., seeking a Dr. Wheeler, who played an obscure role in rescuing her from what clearly was a troubled childhood and adolescence, and to that end has hooked up with Washington Harold, also looking for Wheeler, with whom she will travel across the country in search of the man. Ultimately they will end up at the Ambassador Hotel on the night Bobby Kennedy has won the California primary. “And now onto Chicago,” Kennedy said a few minutes past midnight, and then he died.
It’s this combination of historical fact and autobiography that in a way most marks the fiction of Beryl Bainbridge. Though she writes quite openly about her early life in a work such as A Quiet Life, one senses a rather more tumultuous decade or so before she left home. Her father was schizophrenic: “normally a charming and lovely man, he became a monster when the rages came,” she told The Paris Review in a 2000 interview, intimating that she was plunged into a dark and adult world very early on and sought out every means of escape just as quickly.
So we sense with Rose in this final novel that directly joins the two strands of Bainbridge’s writing, the autobiographical and the historical. Her past comes to Rose in italicized passages, wisps of memory much like the enigmatic childhood moments in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” Presented almost as snippets of fiction, they clearly help her objectify her memories. It’s the telling detail—the minuscule—that endows her characters with a kind of humanness that seems to evade other, more vaunted authors. Every time a new novel of his appears, Jonathan Franzen may be the writer-of-the-moment, but his characters seem flat compared to Bainbridge’s. Her people don’t occupy space quite in the same way Franzen’s do—his exist as though they were collectibles, preciously contrived, coddled into life, ultimately disposable. Instead we meet hers as people somehow familiar to us, a half-remembered face from a bus or outside a pub, someone we’d run into now and again at the market or the fishmonger’s. A lightness of touch belies a depth of feeling and understanding. Whether writing about Liverpool in the early Fifties or the Crimean War a century earlier, Bainbridge’s characters reside in a universe that is utterly consistent and equal. We walk the same earth, cross the same streets, ride the same buses. But we sense that her people are fated for some greater understanding of their place in the narrative, that one day they will be able to find themselves within a larger history.
The journey Rose is on remains cloaked in mystery. She knows why she needs to see Dr. Wheeler, as does, for his own reasons, Washington Harold, and it’s only towards the end that we sense that secrets are being kept from us that will dent history in a tragic and bloody fashion. There are hints that Wheeler knows something about hypnotism, which reminds us that following Robert Kennedy’s assassination Sirhan Sirhan’s attorney claimed that his client had been under the control of another, that he’d become a kind of Manchurian Candidate for whom a visual cue—perhaps even a girl in a polka dot dress—had compelled him to shoot the senator. Though Beryl Bainbridge’s novels never truly give up their enigmas, though there always seems to be something obscure at their hearts, it’s this unwillingness to come utterly clean that makes her so eminently rereadable. She was a superb writer with a unique point of view and voice, and though she will be missed, we have a shelf full of her works to look forward to all over again.