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Rubens, Bernice 1927–

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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

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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 to identify. The plea and the uncertainty are Miss Rubens's underlying theme and she has made something excellent from it.

David Haworth, "Fathomless Moments," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 77, No. 1979, February 14, 1969, p. 230.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 maternity is held accountable for the unrelieved tragedy and guilt. The mad are chosen as the Jews are chosen to remind the rest of human pain, and an introductory quotation from Dr. R. D. Laing comes as no surprise.

This element of ritual and of inevitability conflicts with the author's account of particular wounds, for she is at her best when she forgets her lessons and allows the story to absorb her. The explicitness of the symbolism threatens to reduce the characters to automata, to creatures snuffed out by a sequence of events they never had the least chance of escaping. Norman comes nearest to self-assertion through his drugs. He indulges whims, denies family loyalties and, when his drugs supply runs out, he tries to electrocute himself. He's sternly brought back, though, to face the music, and portentous music it is. Myths are stories and myths grow out of stories. But it is very difficult to illustrate a myth and be believed.

"Scapegoats Galore," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3496, February 27, 1969, p. 201.

Roger Garfitt

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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 Audacity" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Roger Garfitt), in The Listener, Vol. 90, No. 2329, November 15, 1973, pp. 674-75.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

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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 ready ear spreads to infect the novel's cast and episodes, so that the reader is bereft of any focus likely to inspire pity or understanding.

"Not in the Script," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3740, November 9, 1973, p. 1361.

Gay Clifford

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[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 subterfuges Amy adopts to protect and sustain his fantasies and her own. It implies forcibly the way sexuality is conditioned by the frustration of non-sexual needs, by mental rather than physical experiences. The story is essentially about non-possibilities, about people whose resilient imaginations race beyond the mean, illusory choices their world offers. Unfortunately, the harsher—even tragic—implications are resisted: the tone wavers ambiguously between sniggering at the idea of a fat old woman squeezing her bum into new trousers, and bleakly indexing how even the most unlikely lovers apprehend their need for love and their unlikeliness with equal clarity.

It is difficult to narrate events through a character whose understanding is necessarily limited without making that character a patronized object, or the style incongruously knowing; and it is difficult to use regional idiom without caricaturing it. Miss Ruben's has not entirely overcome these problems: the Welshness is jokey rather than vivid, and it is unclear whether passages of more powerful writing are intended to convey Amy's or the author's vision of this painfully needed yet accidentally incestuous love. More savagery and less sentiment would have allowed us to see the disparity between emotional needs and actual possibilities as a predicament which is not exclusive to the old, ugly and grotesque, and conversely, that such people's lives may have a dignity and significance which deserves better than a sob.

Gay Clifford, "Bleak Lives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3828, July 25, 1975, p. 821.

Ferdinand Mount

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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] guerrillas remain curiously beyond criticism, bathed in the soft glow of nineteenth-century holy oleographs. There are rich pickings to be had from the misunderstandings and mutual corruptions which result from these post-colonial collisions between West and East, between bloodless clock-bound rationalists and the inscrutable, unreliable natives who are in touch with primitive, sensual forces. Yet this genre has its own characteristic danger … which is to rely too heavily on the colourful incongruities of the collision and not bother much about the characters.

Ferdinand Mount, "Jolliment in Java," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3926, June 10, 1977, p. 697.

Olga Rosenbaum

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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 does not lead to confusion. Sure of her touch she can, at the beginning of the novel, tiptoe up the edge of farce and get away with it…. But too often in her portrayal of some of the Europeans and of the Javanese, Bernice Rubens lets her sympathy and compassion become exaggerated. The story loses its credibility, and becomes a joy-ride for those who wallow in sentimentality.

Large political and emotional themes are touched on. The interaction of the rebels, the local police and the foreigners is explored to some extent, as well as the effect of the foreigners on the local culture and of the latter on them. Emotionally love is seen in many forms…. But throughout the novel there is an uncomfortable mixture of sentimentality and of the superficiality of the detective story. (pp. 52-3)

Olga Rosenbaum, "Sentimental Joy-Ride," in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1977), Vol. 25, No. 3(93), Autumn, 1977, pp. 52-3.

Martha Duffy

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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 out the Evanses' fates quickly, modestly, and evenly, like Beryl Bainbridge (to whom the book is dedicated) or Muriel Spark before them. (pp. 46-7)

Martha Duffy, "Women in Love," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 12, July 20, 1978, pp. 46-7.∗

Valentine Cunningham

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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 & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2480, September 29, 1978, p. 416.∗

Anne Tyler

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["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 Heroines," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1979, pp. 13, 28-9.∗

Harvey Curtis Webster

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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 Watts….

Miss Hawkins is destined to be Brian's victim. The habit of obedience she acquired as a child at an orphanage—where love of Christ excluded love of the orphans—has stood her in good stead….

The weaknesses of Favours revolve around Brian. He is, first, a little hard to believe in, an overmethodical gigolo (though this may be precisely the kind of gigolo a mother-smothered man would evolve into). His commercial success is equally difficult to go along with…. More important, a third of the way through the novel, Rubens begins switching the point of view back and forth between Miss Hawkins and Brian. This seems to me to ruin the tone Rubens is striving for: The bleakly Dreiserian attitude that has prevailed until now too often becomes one of amusement at the expense of the characters.

Rubens' condescension is most pronounced in the climax. (p. 21)

Favours is difficult to assess. Is Rubens obliquely attacking a social system that requires retirement? Is she trying to convey a disdain for a God who creates old age? Is she, like Compton-Burnett, expressing an almost cool acceptance of the way people are? The last I would guess, without much assurance. Yet whatever Rubens' intentions, there is no doubt that she has created an interesting, well-written novel—one of those minor, haunting tales [that are often neglected]…. (p. 22)

Harvey Curtis Webster, "Grim Romance," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 15, July 30, 1979, pp. 21-2.

Nicholas Shrimpton

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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 brief solemnities of Prologue and Epilogue, are firmly subordinated to the central comic theme. Bernice Rubens takes the modern family apart as ruthlessly an anybody in the business. Her distinction is that she makes us laugh while she is doing it. (pp. 643-44)

Nicholas Shrimpton, "Womb's Eye," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2536, October 26, 1979, pp. 643-44.∗

Gerry Clark

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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.

Gerry Clark, "Fiction: 'Sunday Best'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 6, September, 1980, pp. 203-04.

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Rubens, Bernice (Vol. 31)