Bernice Rubens

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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

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 108 words.)

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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

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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

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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 waiter who is also a long-time rapist. His victims for this trip are Ellen and Alice. Alice falls in love with him, Ellen loathes him. They both suffer their private agonies in silence, not confessing their plight even to each other. Meantime, by day, their affections are dallied with by lone gentlemen passengers. They get to know another lonely lady, Mrs Dove, and her aggressive half-lesbian daughter—a fine portrait of younger despair. All needing each other, their lives intertwine to the background hum of shipboard life (Miss Rubens, like William Trevor, is superb at maintaining the jostling of her subsidiary characters). Shadowing everything are the nightmare nights. Perhaps credulity is strained a fraction—surely after all these years someone would have reported the rapist? And at moments Miss Rubens glides towards farce, though never topples over. Always beneath the humour we are aware of the serious helplessness of these wretched people on their desperate cruise. (p. 793)

Angela Huth, "Electric Rubens," in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2740, December 17 & 24, 1981, p. 793-94.∗

Edith Milton

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["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 her perspective. I am willing, reluctantly, to admit that there may be women, like Mrs. Pickering, who are so dedicated to self-denigration that they would find violation thrilling. I know that others, like Mrs. Walsh, can be bullied and blackmailed into going along with almost anything; and I can see that an apparently ordinary man with a wife and two children might be in the grips of a compulsion to rape the middle-aged passengers of a ship's cruise. But both the man's need and the women's response to it fall into the category of pathological behavior. It is the sort of thing that might do nicely either as outright farce or as a serious, psychological novel; but it is quite wrong for Bernice Rubens's brisk, ironic approach, which serves to belittle her characters. She does not seem to like them much, or even to find them very interesting; and in the end they look not only silly and small but also as though they had been manipulated by the author to serve her own frame of mind rather than their fictional necessities. Despite its many good moments, "Birds of Passage" leaves the reader unsatisfied. (p. 25)

Edith Milton, "Worlds in Miniature," in The New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1982, pp. 11, 25.∗

The New Yorker

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["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 cast, mostly of curious and quirky loners who know that silence is a form of speech …; regular reports on the daydreams into which they tend to drift; and a plot that starts out simple and then, twisted and split to make way for these digressions, proves to be full of surprises.

A review of "Madame Sousatzka," in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 28, August 30, 1982, p. 90.

Richard Deveson

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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 Buchenwald—where a Bindel brother is driven to assist in murder so that he himself can survive—death in Auschwitz, and torture at the hand of Soviet 'psychiatrists' in the 1970s. Yet each generation manages to pass on to the next the original life-preserving injunction of Jakob Bindel. And Bindel brothers continue to survive.

Bernice Rubens's Brothers, a different sort of novel from any she has written before, is a brave, almost defiant statement of the philosophy that protecting oneself and those one loves is more virtuous than defending principles or beliefs; the latter she sees as a kind of baptism. Yet survival is surely only one aspect of the Jewish inheritance, which has also seen its martyrs, idealists and fighters. And in any case, isn't Jakob Bindel's injunction too vague to offer real guidance? What are 'love' and 'friendship', and what counts, or doesn't count, as defending them? Historical accident ensures that no Bindel brother is conscripted into the Allied armies to fight against Hitler: would that risk of death have been justified in the name of 'love', or would it too have been a kind of baptism?

This book is written with passion—rather depressingly, all the marriages of Jews with non-Jews are made to come to grief—and its subject-matter cannot help, as always, being both unbearable and stirring at once. Yet is also remains curiously colourless, as though it has been translated from another language. Conversations and situations often either seem anachronistic or belong to no particular time or place. If the effect sought is the simplicity of epic, the price (for all the considerable research) is a loss of historical authenticity—which isn't, anyway, helped by things like a reference to 'Leningrad' in the 1870s or reports of talk about Auschwitz among German Jews as early as mid-1940. And what Jewish tailor, in South Wales in 1903, would speak of teaching as a 'prestigious profession', however much he meant it? One is left wondering: would the book's passion, and its wholesale defence of the Bindel principle, themselves have entirely survived a profounder application of the historical and novelistic imagination?

Richard Deveson, "Loyalties," in New Statesman, Vol. 106, No. 2738, September 2, 1983, p. 24.∗

Publishers Weekly

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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. 64-5.

Robert Greenfield

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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. They then have children (two sons, usually) and begin their marionettelike march toward death. Miss Rubens seems determined to let nothing get in the way of the long span of recorded history she has set out to cover. Unfortunately, the first casualty of her intent is the quality of the writing.

At times, "Brothers" reads as though it had been written in a foreign language and awkwardly translated into English….

Miss Rubens uses phrases like "Bindeldom" and "Bindelhood" as though they referred to states of being. She creates compounds that have never before been introduced to one another, as in "the Jew-fear" and "The mighty Czar would brook no Christ-refusal." Certain incidents of plot challenge all laws of probability, as when one Bindel laughter, a Welsh-Jewish suffragette who has served time in jail for sabotage, just happens to meet an American naval officer wandering the streets of Cardiff before World War I. The officer is not only looking for her father, a tailor, but is named Saul Weinberger. Naturally, they soon marry and move to America.

The few vivid sections of this novel are overshadowed by long and barren stretches of writing that numb even the most patient reader long before the end. Miss Rubens's fourth novel, "The Elected Member," about a Jewish family in the East End of London, was awarded Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1970…. Perhaps Miss Rubens will soon return to the smaller frame she has proved herself better able to fill, leaving this sort of novel to those who regularly grind out such soap operas.

Robert Greenfield, "The Suffering Bindels," in The New York Times Book Review, March 25, 1984, p. 25.


Rubens, Bernice (Vol. 19)