Bernice Rubens Essay - Rubens, Bernice (Vol. 31)

Rubens, Bernice (Vol. 31)


Bernice Rubens 192?–

Welsh novelist and filmmaker.

A distinguished writer who has experimented with style in many of her novels, Rubens has maintained compassion for victims of emotional suffering throughout her fiction. Among the issues Rubens examines are the conflicts in personal relationships and the destructiveness of loneliness. Although most of her themes are pessimistic, Rubens infuses her best works with humor and irony.

In her first four novels Rubens drew on her ethnic background to delineate the inner struggles of Jewish family life. Set on Edge (1960), Rubens's first novel, details the ways in which the members of the Sperber family exploit and hurt each other. Many of the concerns of her early fiction are integrated in The Elected Member (1969; published in the United States as Chosen People), often called Rubens's most accomplished novel. In this work, a Jewish family disintegrates under the pressure of its various problems. Although the themes of these novels are of universal import, the significance of Rubens's families lies in the closeness of her characters and in the compassion she shows toward their plight. Critics find especially praiseworthy Rubens's realistic protagonists and her use of black humor, which balances the pervading bleakness of her work. Rubens won the Booker Prize for The Elected Member.

Sunday Best (1971) was Rubens's first novel not primarily concerned with Jewish characters. It is the story of a transvestite forced by a series of scandals to face his unpleasant childhood. In this work, as in all of her fiction during the 1970s, Rubens experimented with perspective. Her darkest novel, Spring Sonata (1979), centers on a four-year-old child who refuses to be born; when he becomes aware of the pain in the exterior world, he cuts his umbilical cord. Birds of Passage (1981), the story of a group of passengers on a cruise ship, was praised for its insights into the lives of its lonely, disaffected protagonists. Although some critics faulted the novel for its inadequate development of character, most agreed that Rubens was skillful in her selection of detail.

In her recent novel Brothers (1983) Rubens again focuses on the Jewish family. In this work she traces the fortunes of several generations of brothers from 1835 to the present. Also included are historical accounts of European anti-Semitism.

(See also CLC, Vol. 19; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)

John Coleman

Stripped of the heavy riddles, which it quickly is, [Set on Edge] turns out to be the story of a love-hate relationship between a Jewish mother and daughter somewhere in the provinces and down the years. Long-suffering Gladys is finally found a husband, but he dies on their honeymoon. Eccentric brothers and sisters-in-law nip in and out of the central tangle. No one is endearing in this packed, sharply written novel; in places, the spleen almost bursts its deft stitching. It leaves a bad taste in the head and the question: 'Why?' But several incidents of cruel, precise observation promise one that Miss Rubens will write a better, possibly a very good, book now this one's out.

John Coleman, "Murals and Miniatures," in The Spectator, Vol. 205, No. 6913, December 23, 1960, p. 1022.∗

R.G.G. Price

Madame Sousatzka has received a warm welcome that I wish I could join in. But I found the story of the child pianist with his cannibal mother, his devoted, autocratic teacher and the smooth impresario too sugary. The supporting eccentrics did not convince me that they were anything except properties and neither little Marcus's pianistic brilliance nor the melancholy insight of his teacher seemed to me to have much to do with music or human relations. Jewish warmth and humour and colour and passion for the arts come through too winningly.

R.G.G. Price, in a review of "Madame Sousatzka," in Punch, Vol. CCXLIII, No. 6378, December 5, 1962, p. 835.

Peter Kemp

When it comes to raising the reader's eyebrows in incredulity,… Bernice Rubens takes some beating. Spring Sonata is the edited journal of Buster, a foetal genius who refuses to be born, evades detection during a Caesarian operation, and lurks in his mother's womb for over three years. While she is accused of indulging in a phantom pregnancy, he makes use of materials sneaked into the womb during the Caesarian—a prescription pad on which to write his thoughts and a violin to express his musical talent. Bach wells out of the proud mother. And her relatives, finally convinced that she has a child, greedily plan a profitable concert tour for the odd duo. Whereupon, realising that the world will only exploit and harass him, Buster commits suicide by sawing through the umbilical cord with his violin bow.

Presumably making some sort of statement about creativity—those who refuse to believe the mother are castigated for lack of imagination—the book, despite its central oddity, relies heavily on stereotyped material. This is most apparent in its characters, familiar inhabitants of the Jewish Novel: a smothering mother of the 'With such good news, who needs the bad?' variety; an even more ethnic grandmother keening out 'Oi, veh is mir'; and a predictably prodigal son. In Spring Sonata, the clichéd and the bizarre grate discordantly against each other.

Peter Kemp, "Topless and Hopeless," in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2636, November 8, 1979, p. 642.∗

Angela Huth

Miss Rubens, no new literary figure, has written ten novels; she won the Booker Prize in 1970, and was short-listed for it in 1978. You would think, then, she was bound to be a household name like Bainbridge or Murdoch. For some unfathomable reason she is not. As Miss Rubens's most active fan I have been conducting a one-woman promotion service on her behalf for many years—converting, I like to think, dozens of readers to her entire works. I even wrote a panegyric on her for the World Service, calling her book, The Elected Member, 'The Electric Member' in my enthusiasm.

Why is she such a heroine to me? Birds of Passage, Miss Rubens's new novel, contains many of the answers. For a start she is funny and that, among women novelists, is a rare quality indeed. Her humour is gentle, poignant, never hilarious. It contains confusions: the possibility of tears beneath the smiles. She is never earnest. Her characters may search for themselves, but she spares us the embarrassment of making any such vulgar declarations, grants us the intelligence to discover for ourselves what they are up to.

Birds of Passage is the story of two elderly widows, Ellen Walsh and Alice Pickering. Neighbours for many years, brave of heart and hopeful of Something, they set off on a luxury cruise. The adventure they encounter would not have entered their wildest widows' dreams.

The shipping line employs a...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

Edith Milton

["Birds of Passage"] almost works as comedy: Bernice Rubens is quite funny, for instance, in her description of the Walsh and Pickering ménages when she describes their sexual and social lives in terms of the ritual care and trimming of the hedge between the two households. She also offers some poignant insights into the heart: "It had been years since anyone had held her, and it frightened her," she says of Mrs. Dove as she is embraced by her daughter. "She thought she might erupt like a long-dormant volcano, and her lava would rage with longings."

But the novel's comic and serious dimensions do not complement each other. Nor does Bernice Rubens's subject matter coordinate well with the distance of...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

The New Yorker

["Madame Sousatzka" is a] strange little story, set in London, about an eccentric piano teacher (famous for her Method) who polishes an amiable eleven-year-old prodigy's technique (he spends weekends at her Hyde Park house, which, despite its stylish address, is decaying) and then finds herself (along with her odd batch of boarders) loath to surrender him to success in the form of a crass, tin-eared impresario. This second novel by Bernice Rubens was first published in England in 1962; some of the nine novels that she has written since then—"Sunday Best," for example, and her most recent, "Birds of Passage"—are slier and more self-assured. Nevertheless, here are most of Miss Rubens' admirable hallmarks: a small...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Richard Deveson

It is 1835. Reuben and Benjamin, both aged ten, uncle and nephew though they have been brought up as brothers, are in peril of forcible 25-year conscription into the Russian army. Jakob Bindel, their father and grandfather, tells them how they must try to live: 'There is no cause on earth worth dying for, no God … no country … no principle … Only in the name of love is Death worthy. And friendship.' They must survive, he says. And, as generation of brothers succeeds generation, the Bindels survive, or try to survive. Five hundred pages' worth of accidents of history (though also of contrivances of plot) visit upon them a pogrom in Odessa in 1871, a Welsh mining disaster in 1908, incarceration at...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Publishers Weekly

The scope of [Brothers] is encompassing, impressive, daunting: 150 years of European Jewish history refracted through the experiences of six generations of one Russian family as it undergoes agonies and vicissitudes (exile, pogrom, holocaust) and—for the surviving remnant—the final triumph of diaspora…. Rubens tells the complex tale with persuasive authority, no small feat given the scale and the intricacy of detail, and may be forgiven her occasional lapses into excessive use of archival material and sometimes burdening narrative movement with plodding prose. (pp. 64-5)

A review of "Brothers," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 225, No. 4, January 27, 1984, pp....

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Robert Greenfield

In her 12th novel, Bernice Rubens has abandoned the small canvas for the large. Discarding the relatively modest yet always human situations that previously have been her subject matter, in "Brothers" the English novelist follows six generations of a Jewish family as they suffer through 150 years of unrelenting European oppression. The awful guilt that accompanies survival is a price nearly every character in this novel pays, over and over again….

Throughout, we are presented not so much with real characters as with names to whom action and lines of wooden dialogue are attributed. One after another, Bindels are born, bar mitzvahed (if they are male) and married, often in the space of a few pages....

(The entire section is 388 words.)