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 does not interfere, however, with [Bainbridge's] ability to work up climaxes and to secure the reader's attention at the strategic level. It may be that a question arises concerning the violent deaths she is apt to inflict, as [in Harriet Said]. Is she really a writer of thrillers, of what Graham Green regards as entertainments—fashionably black ones at that? (pp. 25-6)
[In A Weekend with Claud her] interest in isolation is expressed strategically—in the structure of the novel. Maggie and her friends go to stay in the country with the pretentious bearded antique dealer, Claud. A shot rings out, and a self-intoxicated elderly Jewish woman, Shebah, a virtuoso griever and outcast, is mildly winged. The same story is told and retold by members of this circle of friends—Maggie, Shebah, the self-assured Victorian Norman, as he's nicknamed—and a sense of the separateness of each one of them is conveyed. Maggie may at one or two points be felt to incorporate a portrait of the artist, or of part of her: she is fascinating, adored, doubted, slatternly, a manipulator of people's interest in her, a loser in love, a great actress—a poor punctuator, very likely. These friends need one another, in varying degrees: in varying degrees, too, they are alienated from one another, and disloyal, if not positively beady.
In this novel especially, the storytelling can be hard to follow, and the reader stumbles over a profusion of rare words that somehow seem doubtfully spelled. And yet none of this appears to matter very much, and the tactical successes are frequent and cherishable. In its best episodes, the book is wonderfully alert to the flow of feeling between the friends, to the … hostility, to the bitter humor which envelops its losses and departures. On this showing, Beryl Bainbridge...
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might be thought to belong to a particular line of English women writers: intelligent outcasts, some of them, specialists, some of them, in what makes families families. But there is probably no call to imagine this sort of sisterliness for her. At her most "feminine," she can be very like the male writer of the Forties, Henry Green, that specialist in inconsequentialities andlongueurs.
Another Part of the Wood, published a year later, is rather a similar book, though it has more of a story to tell. A second set of people from the English provinces, locked in a state of dependence and indifference, embark on an outing to the country. A boy called Balfour, with boils and a blemished complexion, and a bad case of shyness, is in the habit of helping a friend who has an estate in North Wales. This man, George, is preoccupied with the sufferings of the world, and, above all, with those of the Jews, and reckons that he can do something about them on his estate. Perhaps his glen may be brought to resemble, or does resemble, an Eden: "Evil lay beyond the glen."
From beyond the glen comes this party of friends and semi-friends, intent on a submission to pastoral. Their leader is the pretentious bearded Joseph, who is divorced (as in some sense are so many Bainbridge persons), and who has with him a small son and girl, Dotty. He is very opinionated, and a great narcissist and groomer of his appearance. And he is tired of Dotty, who takes on progressively, in the course of being shed, what seems like a kind of integrity….
Toward the end a drama starts which provides the novel with an urgent momentum: the small boy dies of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. This event, which is postponed and postponed, so that it is felt to be forever impending, may also be felt to be hideous: hideous because cunningly solicitous of the isolated reader's need to be entertained (and this is certainly a place where she does show solicitude for the reader), and because it may be suspected to belong to some shadowy sermon on Joseph's emancipated disregard of his responsibilities. The suspicion may impair our appreciation of the efforts made by the insipid, intrepid Dotty to escape from her contemptuous love of Joseph. The boy's death (while his father plays at being a businessman over a Monopoly board) will be harder to bear if we are persuaded that it is meant to teach this lesson, and also to entertain. (p. 26)
It may be that there is an Oedipal strain in her fiction: in Harriet Said a girl is fond of a father substitute and is plunged into matricide, while here a delinquent father is slain with intimations of child murder…. [Bainbridge's stories] are adamant that intimacy and teaming-up conceal hostility, desperation, and an outcast condition. And yet they also contribute a good deal in the way of qualifying evidence, in the way of relief. There are occasions when people help each other, when need answers need….
Bleak as it can be at times, her fiction has in it ties of affection. It has saving instances, merciful exceptions, thoughtfully averted glances. (p. 27)
Karl Miller, "A Novelist Worth Knowing," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXI, No. 8, May 16, 1974, pp. 25-7.
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 totalitarianism, which already contains so many quaint wrinkles….
Miss Bainbridge, concerned as always to say nothing we cannot readily recognize, is quite marvelously deft, and it seems a pity to breathe too heavily on her images. Questions stir about the artist in society, naturally; but Nina's fitful appearances come to embody the hopeless delusions and indulgences of any romantic idea; and the "winter garden", which in Chelsea was a sunless terrace where Ashburner's wife sometimes took skipping ropes on summer nights, becomes not only the whole sullenness of Soviet strictures, but beyond that a metaphor for both the labyrinth and the desert of life. Every detail—affectionate, ludicrous, or monstrous—homes in on the final sentence: "Even a man who is sensible and composed, he thought, must pale before life's contradictions".
Along the way, readers who like seeking trace elements will find a good deal of Stevie Smith, swooping and snorting along the trajectory between the real and the romantic; and of Pinter at his best, in the blandness and delicacy with which the writing excoriates the mind. This time, though, in the final chapter, where the glacial confusions threaten to embalm Ashburner for ever, there is something of Kafka too. Comedy is secreted everywhere, like honey; but it is a surreal little honeycomb, with sharp teeth. It seems a pity we cannot, on Oriental lines, designate Miss Bainbridge a Minor National Treasure. She would not herself object to the "minor", one imagines; and certainly deserves all the rest.
Anne Duchêne, "The Russian Outing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4048, October 31, 1980, p. 1221.
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 knockabout, Miss Bainbridge occasionally ejects lyrical insights which, in their abrupt appearance, resemble those flashes of joy which occur at the most unlikely times and which, in life as in art, redeem the prosaic….
Miss Bainbridge is in a transitional phase, moving away from the solid naturalism of early works like The Dressmaker, which contained only hints of mischief and fancy, towards a multifaceted play of the imagination. There are dangers in this. The present book evokes scene vividly but impressionistically. It is no longer rooted in felt experience. But the potential rewards are huge. Once she has left the Kafkaesque mode behind her, she should soon achieve full mastery of what now looks like an essentially lyrical and humorous talent. We can confidently expect wonders once the conquest is complete.
Paul Ableman, "Fancy-Free," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7947, November 1, 1980, p. 24.
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 are apt to tweak your proboscis abruptly in the street, because they can see it's getting frostbitten. His wife superstitiously wears cotton gloves to bed, being 'very proud of her nails'. She does well to protect her assets, since his body stages a gruesome uprising against his control of it, pimpling venereally and on one occasion luridly exploding: 'As a youth with a boil on his neck he had gone once to a Promenade concert. The orchestra had played a particularly thunderous piece, and when the percussionist had stood up to clash his cymbals the boil had burst.' Sex is an antic balancing act, a struggle to keep the lowly and accident-prone body from disgracing itself. (pp. 699-700)
Depriving these people of their faith in rationality, tormenting them with enigmas, Beryl Bainbridge has written a creepily jokey thriller…. [The] boil detonated by the cymbals in the Albert Hall may be her comic homage to The Man Who Knew Too Much. But the mystery is also an abstract experiment in form, a ludic exercise. The hero reflects on the action as if it were a modern picture, a design of bizarre logicality which refuses to correspond with the way the real world is conducted…. (p. 700)
Peter Conrad, "Losing It All" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2688, November 20, 1980, pp. 699-700.
[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 hallucinated glimpses of an overplot intrude into the narrative of normal behaviour with unfailing wit and laconic accuracy: 'The ground in front of the Metropole was being dug up by lady roadmenders,' and the like. Equally intrusive are a number of gnomic remarks …: 'love depended on the ability to like oneself and required an understanding of eternal regret' is one instance, and the last page is even more enigmatic. The decent hopelessness of Ashburner makes him a natural and uncomprehending victim, but at the end he is said to understand everything—the pattern, the lumps of paint that make the picture a picture, even without a bounding frame, if seen in their proper relations. This is an intelligible, if highhanded demand that the reader to likewise: then he too may see, as an emblem of the whole, 'a man and a woman in a bleak landscape, frozen in their tracks'.
It is useless, though, to pretend that the misfortunes of Ashburner make even that degree of unambigous sense. Nothing is straightforward; the flattest and most informative passage may look suspicious in this suspicious context; piecing this world together is a formidable, perhaps impossible task. It is not the first time Beryl Bainbridge has set such a task: unfocused or not quite focused terror is one of her interests. To achieve it she must sacrifice some of the aplomb to be found in other writers …, but there is, all the same, something about her sense of the world and its obscurer designs on our peace that may all the better match some of our own anxieties. (p. 19)
Frank Kermode, "The Duckworth School of Writers" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, November 20 to December 3, 1980, pp. 18-19.∗
["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)
Valerie Brooks, "Beryl Bainbridge and Her Tenth Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 1, 1981, pp. 9, 27-8.