Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 14)
Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–
Bainbridge is an English novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her fictional world is a drab, claustrophobic one, peopled by unhappy, unlucky denizens of the lower-middle class. The dreariness of subject and setting is, however, relieved by her satiric wit and spirited dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Nothing in Beryl Bainbridge's previous novels would lead one to expect she could launch out upon a tour de force of this nature. Young Adolf is a remarkable work. She returns to her funny and keenly observed lower middle class world, but now she presents it merely as a background for a startling portrait: the portrait of Adolf Hitler, a subtle embryo of the man himself….
If I have any complaint to make about a novel I have greatly enjoyed, it is that very little happens in Young Adolf….
The main ingredients of the novel are the city of Liverpool itself: grey, wet and cold as charity: and the still unformed character of the future dictator: vain, hyper-sensitive to snubs, temperamental, ambitious beyond his natural talents, with an urge to power, a prevision of some great destiny, but with no idea how it will be realised. It is a brilliant ébauche for the later figure that was to become so deeply etched upon the consciousness of his contemporaries. (p. 52)
Olivia Manning, "Beryl Bainbridge's 'Young Adolf'," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Olivia Manning 1978, reprinted with permission), Vol. 24, No. 2, November, 1978, pp. 52-3.
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Young Adolf is less of a success than its fascinating origins might have led us to suppose….
[By] forcing Adolf to suffer various Chaplinesque indignities, [Bainbridge] works a kind of comic historical revenge. In the course of the novel, Adolf is knocked over the head, bitten by fleas, drenched to the skin, dressed up in women's clothes. The slapstick purges old resentments, and largely frees Bainbridge from the task of 'explaining' Hitler psychologically. It must have been tempting to indulge in the ironies of hindsight, but in this respect the novel is aptly restrained: only as Adolf finally departs is a character allowed to observe: 'Such a strong-willed young man. It is a pity he will never amount to anything.'
For all that, Young Adolf is a disappointment—a brilliant idea, but one too sketchily (and perhaps too hastily) carried out. Bainbridge is good, as we'd expect, on Liverpool …, but remains a novelist more at home with the 1940s (and the present) than with 1912. Not only are many of the usual narrative tensions absent, but Bainbridge can't quite prevent herself from getting Adolf on the analyst's couch (persecution mania, fits, hallucinations, anti-Semitism and all). And when she does 'analyse'—'School had been rotten, and his father, and Linz and Vienna. Even his beloved mother had died rotten of a cancer. It was a rotten world'—the results can look disconcertingly vapid. (p. 630)...
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Beryl Bainbridge's novels are published in the United States but not much known there, which is something to be regretted. Like a family of gifted eccentrics, they are diverse, yet there are strong similarities, as there always must be in the work of an original and accomplished writer—perhaps it is the essence of accomplishment. In any case, Bainbridge's novels seem unlike those of other people, unless perhaps they resemble, in their economy and formal elegance, the novels of Henry Green. They are her own; the plots each with its lurking catastrophe are similar, the characters, each so memorable in his way, are similar too. Four simple distinctions are preserved: they are divided into males and females, and into a type that is large, fleshy and pale—those are the people with power and energy—and other, often more sympathetic people who are small, thin, odd and astounded, like Binny in Injury Time or like young Adolf. As in life, things divide men from women. They do not look at the world the same way. The men are imprisoned in conventions, slaves to little rituals to preserve self-respect or comfort. Their lustful impulses are often checked by bourgeois compunctions. The women, more passive, are oddly freer, social reforms just go on over their heads. They long to pass for normal but never to be normal, for they consider that they are normal. All of Bainbridge's books have a way of being about the assumptions of society about normality and...
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Beryl Bainbridge has written a great deal, with compassion and cunning, about the weak. Sometimes they are women, locked into some male-constructed paddock whose grass is growing thin but whose gate is rusted shut. Sometimes, but much less often, they are men. There is something of the pasha in the gaudy display and bulging bellies and bedroom tyranny of most of Bainbridge's men, but a few turn out as pathetic as only an aging pasha jostled by infidels can be. All of her novels, in more or less explicit ways, are about an increasingly bewildered and helpless England, the display gone shabby and the belly sagging and the knack of tyranny lost somewhere, a kindly but uncomprehending old country giving up hope of understanding the younger world, suffering some pain now and feeling the cold more.
But in this new, amazing short novel [Young Adolf], she has taken up a helplessness that doesn't finally resign itself. The idea is disconcerting. The young Hitler, escaping from the Vienna doss house, comes to spend a month with his relations in Liverpool. In their grotesque, hand-to-mouth household, he passes a few weeks. Then, as pallid, erratic, and hysterical as he came, he takes the train home again.
Adolf, we know, will triumph in the end, far beyond the close of the novel, in a supremely evil self-assertion. Here in Liverpool, he is almost a sympathetic character as he is engulfed in the mysterious purposes and...
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Beryl Bainbridge has an extraordinary ear for the speech of drifters, refugees, entrepreneurs of various kinds, Irishwomen; her characters [in Young Adolf] probably exist in the seedier back streets of Liverpool and other ports but then again she may just as well have invented them. She has an uncanny knack for capturing place and time; every detail seems exactly right, from the railway carriage to the Liverpool docks in 1912, to the bedrooms, kitchens and basements in which her oddly-assorted characters live out their dreams, plaster cracking, dry rot eating away.
The novel unfolds effortlessly, inventively; it is the writing of a natural. (p. 142)
Judith Chernaik, "Class and Time," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1979), Vol. 19, Nos. 1 & 2, April-May, 1979, pp. 140-43.∗
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