Bainbridge, Beryl (Vol. 22)
Beryl Bainbridge 1933–
English novelist, playwright, and essayist.
Bainbridge's fictional world is drab and claustrophobic, 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, 14, 18, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Beryl Bainbridge's books are commemorative. They are an attempt to save something from [the] flux. They are an attempt at preservation.
[Harriet Said, is set outside Liverpool] on the coast. The narrator is an adolescent girl, somewhat in the power of another, Harriet, who supervises her dangerous liaison with a middle-aged married man known to them as the Tsar. The girls are precocious and beady: but they also miss the point of certain developments in the adult life which surrounds them, and with which, as with fire, they proceed to play. A diary is kept (this, after all, is the Forties—a great age for diaries). They peer at the people of the neighborhood, and peep through curtains as the Tsar and his wife make love. Together with a brash male friend, the Tsar admits the nymphets to his house when his wife is away. There is a bit of drinking, a bit of piano playing. There is confusion, grief, remorse, but nothing in the way of congress. (p. 25)
Eventually the narrator is "had" by the Tsar, and it is like a visit to the dentist, no worse…. At the finish, there is isolation, and "responsibility" is mocked. For one thing, [the narrator] has suffered the loss of Harriet, whose role in her life she has come to comprehend.
This is an absorbing novel, with its own voice. But it is a little incoherent, and it is not always clear—at the tactical level, so to speak—what is going on…. This...
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Reading a Beryl Bainbridge novel has always been a special kind of experience, at once very funny, abrasive and intimate—rather like having a nasty sticking-plaster pulled off for you by an old friend: jokes, and the little unpleasantness briskly but tenderly dealt with, then drinks of relief all around. This new novel [Winter Garden] burns a good deal deeper than that; there is a minor operation to be performed, and drinks may be needed long before the end, as disquiet seeps in. If this writer's metaphors are ranged between "warm", as in, say, The Bottle Factory Outing, and "cold", as in Young Adolf, then Winter Garden opens and enters quite new and freezing latitudes, where even comedy fails to comfort.
The action concerns Ashburner (one need only optionally, and afterwards, seek any significance in the name), a conservative Londoner—an Admiralty lawyer indeed, he somewhere says—who goes out to Russia with a small official group of "artists."….
This is all a good deal more exotic than the usual Bainbridge territory, but the encounter promises high comedy, and none of that promise is disappointed. Miss Bainbridge's particular kinds of precision have always encouraged rather outdated epithets such as "dotty" and "dippy" and "loopy", and it is quite glorious here to see her dots and dips and loops inscribed across the vast, unblenching face of...
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After having read [Winter Garden] attentively, and yet without achieving total understanding, I went back and combed the text for vital clues. But they still eluded me….
Artistically, it's of small consequence because the book doesn't depend on plausibility of plot for any appreciable part of its achievement. It is a phantasy in which the Kafkaesque strangeness and the Waughian (isn't it time a pronounceable adjective like Wavian were adopted?) humour reside in the fine structure of Beryl Bainbridge's idiosyncratic prose.
Three British artists, of nebulous artistic allegiance and achievement, and Ashburner, an 'admiralty solicitor', tour Russia as guests of the 'Soviet Artists' Union'….
The book begins: 'One morning early in October, a man called Ashburner …' This seems a deliberate echo of the 'man called K' in Kafka's masterpiece The Trial…. But the truth is Beryl Bainbridge is not really a Kafkaesque author. Her mind attaches itself to the concrete and she is always splendid on, for example, details of clothing. She lacks the allegorical organising power, as well as the metaphysical vision, of Kafka. She doesn't naturally see the world as a spiritual labyrinth in which destiny is always arbitrary and often ghastly.
Her imagination is, however, dominated by a vein of anarchic, surreal humour….
In addition to robust wit and verbal...
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Beryl Bainbridge's funny and alarming [novel, Winter Garden,] sentences its hero—who is, by his own complacent admission, 'ordinary and boring'—to a course of accidental dislocation and anxious self-investigation. He wanders out of his marriage, pretending that he's off to fish in Scotland: instead, motivelessly, he flies to Russia with his elusive and erratic mistress who soon after they arrive unaccountably disappears.
Beryl Bainbridge's is a world of paranoid comedy, where nothing can be trusted to work, where the routine which used to govern the novel is grotesquely involuted or else suspended. Her hero's destination is significant, because the official Russia which the characters—junketing artists—visit is a society where the individual's will and his control of his own experience have been removed from him, and where an obfuscating bureaucracy turns the most elementary manoeuvre into a mystery—a society of politically imposed absurdism. Her deconstellated and bemused characters, aghast at the mishaps which befall them, look to solid objects as existential anchors and lucky charms, evidence that the world might after all be real and not hallucinatory; but these objects prove slippery and treacherous. The hero, translated from Chelsea to the land of Gogol, loses first his hat, then his luggage, later his bathplugs…. Not even his body is his own property…. [He] is warned that he may forfeit his nose: strangers...
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[Winter Garden] challenges the reader to catch clues to its tone, and also to what is actually supposed to be happening. It is, in fact, a bit baffling. The story is of a decent but very dull, virtually frozen man [Ashburner], who tells his wife he is going to Scotland for a rest, but instead goes off to Russia on a sponsored trip with some artists, including Nina, wife of a brain surgeon, with whom he is having (after many years of boring marital fidelity) an unsatisfactory affair. The Winter Garden is, primarily, a flowerless London backyard, but the title, like the cunningly-written opening chapter, requires to be taken rather carefully….
A dose of clap, and the pills to cure it, pass round the little party; this little plot is of course subsidiary to the main one, which is a conspiracy against Ashburner, or anyway looks like that. Meanwhile we have a record of the bureaucratic muddles and general bizarrerie of Russian life. There are some good jokes and some not so good …, a lot of local colour, and plenty of odd behaviour, some potentially sinister and some not. (p. 18)
[There] are clues of varying force and validity scattered about—an oddly-placed rug in an artist's studio, Ashburner's horrifying experience when, mistaken for Nina's surgeon husband, he is forced to witness a brain operation on some poor forked thing which turns out to have on its shaven head a scar resembling one on Nina's. These...
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["Winter Garden"] is razor sharp, most appealing and somewhat resembles a quicksilver Stravinsky-Balanchine ballet. An unusual combination of characters and events creates mystery and tension. Under the auspices of the Soviet Artists' Union, three English artists and the befuddled lover of one of them tour Russia on one of those cultural journeys meant to end war. The slightly shabby foursome are in disarray but determined to have an experience. Although Miss Bainbridge is typically English in her distance from her characters, she is not callous. She is a nonchalant comic whose dialogue is central to her success. Life and death, good and evil are not obtrusive themes in her work: obliquely, however, belief is. Against the leaden Russian sky, these English people form eerie figures, each making a small argument against artistic and spiritual monotony. Probably because Miss Bainbridge's manner is brief and remote she has mistakenly been considered minor. But in this graceful, disturbing thriller she has very major matters on her mind. (p. 9)
Miss Bainbridge takes special pleasure in human unpredictability. She shows that people are hardly ever what they appear—just put them in a new place, ask them a question, give them a choice and they will thwart expectations….
As is her custom, Miss Bainbridge leaves one on the tantalizing edge of understanding. (p. 28)
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