Bernice Rubens Essay - Critical Essays

Rubens, Bernice (Vol. 19)


Rubens, Bernice 1927–

Rubens is a Welsh novelist and documentary filmmaker whose fictive territory is middle-class Jewish family life, her theme, noncommunication. She is "interested in the links between sanity, madness, the ever changing meaning of those terms. I inhabit that limbo, that no fixed abode, loitering there without intent." This interest is reflected in the central position of victims and scapegoats in her work, most notably in the Booker Prize-winning The Elected Member. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

David Haworth

Bernice Rubens is one of our finest Jewish writers and The Elected Member fully bears out that claim. She has a large compassion, and an intelligence which makes her compulsively readable. She is deeply committed, yet objectively truthful, about the Jewish world and people she describes, and neither is patronised by her humour. Her theme is persecution; the 'elected member' is the born victim of a family, the butt and scapegoat of relatives' anxieties and concerns. Norman Zweck, a barrister, is addicted to an hallucinatory drug, and is tortured not only by that but by the reactions to his predicament by those around him…. 'Look after us cold and chosen ones,' Zweck screams to a deity who is difficult for him...

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The Times Literary Supplement

The Jewish mother has been ridiculed and blamed before. In The Elected Member she is savaged—after her death, it is true, though the author still manages to score a bull's-eye by choosing the beloved and precocious son as victim and agent of all the suffering this perpetually "aggravated" mother is responsible for….

Norman is seen as the family's scapegoat, the receptacle all families create to contain their collective guilt and suffering. The receptacle has overflowed, and Norman has blasted more lives than his own. His mother hovers, almost comically, behind a youthful homosexual passion, which led to a suicide and to the youngest sister's sterile marriage. Jewishness as much as...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Roger Garfitt

There certainly is insight of feeling in Bernice Ruben's novel Go tell the lemming…. The book tellingly pinpoints the cruelties of the situation, the selfishness of the husband's indecision, his bland pretence that all is still well, and Angela's helpless inability to condemn him for it…. Rejection makes Angela destructive in her turn, until she meets complete destruction at the hands of someone whose rejection is even more painful than her own. This is the culmination of several intelligent attempts to offset Angela's suffering, and create some perspective within the novel: but the other characters never grow beyond the schematic. (p. 675)

Roger Garfitt, "Safe...

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The Times Literary Supplement

The characters Bernice Rubens creates in her novels generally feel violently and venomously and on a grand scale. Their emotions are "urgent", "deep", "strange", and their natures divided and contradictory….

[The] principal theme of most of her novels [is] the grotesque contrast between the familiar, predictable surfaces of life and the madness, hatred and suffering underlying them. In Sunday Best there was an effective, chilling tension between the narrator's account of his compulsive and extraordinary nature and the bland picture offered of him by someone else. [In Go Tell the Lemming] there is no such tension … The poison poured so carefully into [the] Doppelgänger's...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Gay Clifford

[I Sent a Letter to My Love] focuses on themes of loneliness and deprivation, on the pain of hopes and expectations arbitrarily but surely aborted by circumstance. Amy Evans has lived all her life in a Welsh seaside town; as a child her mother hated her for being the ugly and rebellious antithesis to her crippled brother Stanley…. Now a middle-aged woman, Amy still finds her life circumscribed by Stanley's gracefully passive wheelchair existence. She attempts to break this cycle of failed and frustrated loving by advertising with a box-number in the local paper's personal columns. Only one "gentleman with similar needs" replies: her own brother.

The second half of the novel concerns the...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Ferdinand Mount

Black farce very often thrives on stock characters and stock incidents. The grotesque needs the familiar to bounce off. Yet the presence of too many such stock elements suggests that the author's imagination is not actively engaged and instead is being towed along by established literary stereotypes. Throughout The Ponsonby Post there is an embarrassing contrast between the evidence of Bernice Rubens's talent—her irony and zip—and the evidence that in this case we are dealing with slipshod work, not helped by a bumper crop of misprints….

The more the book comes to resemble a thriller and the less a social satire, the more comfortable the author seems….


(The entire section is 217 words.)

Olga Rosenbaum

The twilight world of U.N.O. and the W.F.O. and their agents in Java is the setting of Bernice Rubens latest novel The Ponsonby Post. To the Third World, which sometimes appears to be lying fallow waiting for ideological and agricultural cultivation, come the improvers. For the most part cynicism has eroded their commitment to the organisation, which sent them, or to the country which is their host—willing or otherwise. The officials' and administrators' lives are played out in pampered luxury, enlivened by the time-honoured ingredients of drink, gambling and sex. (p. 52)

A wide variety of characters is brought into the novel, and Bernice Rubens maintains control of them so that profusion...

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Martha Duffy

I Sent a Letter to My Love is a short, winning novel, almost an entertainment. (p. 46)

Rubens, who has written several other novels, seems a natural fiction writer, an expert at ringing changes on the commonplace…. Rubens's characters are, from the start, stunningly believable, and she is not afraid to let them change, be inconsistent, reverse themselves. Amy's moods are as shifting as Welsh weather. Her slides from brazen action to stiffened shyness are unforeseeable, and usually funny. Rubens has a formidable with but she uses it lightly, almost off-handedly. The ending is both cruel and melodramatic. If the author had pumped it up at all, the book would have been spoiled. But she deals...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Valentine Cunningham

A Five Year Sentence simmers with the brutal. It runs red with the blood of Jean Hawkins's menses and her late deflowering, just as her Five-Year Diary (her retirement present) grows 'blood-red' with obedient ticks. For each of this extraordinary novel's raft of believably grey, lost, wanting-to-be-loved people from the wasteland tracts of outer London, living is a matter (in the narrative's favourite word) of colonise or be colonised. And Miss Hawkins is a colony…. It all adds up to an unbeatable account of yearning submission and bullying oppression among ordinary people….

Valentine Cunningham, "Poor Mouths," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman &...

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Anne Tyler

["Favours"] is a study of an elderly spinster who becomes addicted to the services of a paid lover. (p. 28)

Bernice Rubens has a firm, brisk style, but she shows a disquieting tendency to shift her viewpoint inappropriately….

It's significant, too, that Miss Hawkins remains "Miss Hawkins" throughout the book; she never becomes "Jean". Nothing that happens in "Favours" shows any unexpected side of her, or says anything new about loneliness or dependency. Miss Hawkins continues to be a kind of cartoon old maid—a thin, dim creature so stunted by a life without love that the reader can't love her either. (p. 29)

Anne Tyler, "Unlikely...

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Harvey Curtis Webster

One comes away from this grim novel [Favours] reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett. The resemblance is not stylistic: Where Compton-Burnett tended to use dialogue to achieve her effect, Bernice Rubens employs a rather thick mixture of narrative and stream of consciousness. No, the similarity goes deeper: For the author's characters, as for Compton-Burnett's, life is a sorry business—mere existence—whose strictures are dictated by an uncaring someone or something.

Although God is not mentioned in Favours, there seems to be at work in the novel a primal force more indifferent than Thomas Hardy's Immanent Will. The two protagonists are Miss Hawkins, sometimes referred to as Jean, and Brian...

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Nicholas Shrimpton

Spring Sonata is neither a collection of gloomy gynaecological horrors nor a solemn attempt to create a convincing foetal consciousness. Instead it is an exuberant comedy which uses its womb with a view to get a fresh perspective on that old satirical butt, the Jewish family. Our unborn narrator may be unprecedentedly youthful. Naive, however, he is not. (p. 643)

Though even the more sombre chapters are peppered with racy jokes, there are some serious concerns. Buster is a musician, a potential violinist, and he relishes the womb as the ultimate ivory tower. Should the artist, he wonders, try to preserve such isolation and untroubled integrity? These aesthetic reflections, however, and the...

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Gerry Clark

Bernice Rubens, a very proper British writer, has written a very proper British novel. Sly and witty, Sunday Best is as entertaining an afternoon's divertisement as has been published in many a day. (pp. 203-04)

Ruben's writing is delightful throughout. Wickedly understated and tongue-in-check, she never lets the parody slip away from her and become farce. George is odd, but rapidly wins the readers' sympathy because of his vulnerability and talent for honest appraisal. His dowdy wife, Joy, and his crazed mother are also presented touchingly and believably. The writing, part straight-ahead narration and part first-person memoirs, is deceptively simple, and exceptionally clear.


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