Robert Rubens 1937-1998: A Memoir
Hills, C. A. R., Contemporary Review
THERE is a stretch of London I associate with him, the Pimlico Road. Along it we would drive in his smoke-filled box of a car, to the fashionable church we attended, or the flat of the elderly aristocrat, herself now dead, whom he called his surrogate mother.
Here was the little French antique shop that he particularly admired; the supermarket where we bought our snack Sunday lunches; the Spanish restaurant where he told me he had inoperable cancer.
I had then been friendly with him for five months. I had met him through a group of mostly unsuccessful writers. But he had published six novels: The Operator was one of the most notable debuts of 1964, and The Cosway Miniature had been on Radio Four. He had been born into a wealthy Philadelphian family, and come to London in his early twenties, quickly becoming intimate with many leading writers, and editing the short-story anthology Voices. I had admired his authoritative articles in Contemporary Review. But, despite all this, he was a rather forgotten figure by the 1990s. He was about twenty years my senior.
I saw him last on Christmas Day 1997. He went into the supermarket, at five in the afternoon, to buy napkins, which they gave him free. And I sat in the dark car, the lights of the square in the Pimlico Road giving me a sense of mystery and power.
We drove over the bleak railway bridge, and to his beautiful little casket of a room, on the very edge of plastered Pimlico, up the two shabby flights of stairs. He played a video about Simon Raven. Usually we met on Sundays, went to church, had lunch, read each other our work, watched a video, and I left about half-past six, very drunk. But today he went to sleep on his bed, because he was close to death.
Just as the video ended he awoke with a start, to see me watching him. Our farewell was fond, but quite brief. He called a taxi for me.
For the remaining twenty days of his life we spoke on the phone. We talked often of the frustrations of our childhoods. I told him of an incident concerning my parents, and he said: 'why not write that down?' I needed no other signal.
One paragraph of what I wrote was wrong, experimental within a generally sober style. He noticed immediately. He allowed me to read him the work again, until it was right. Six months after his death, the piece was published, the first story of mine that had been taken in a decade.
Probably many artists have had such a figure in their lives: the father, or perhaps the elder brother, that they never had; the first person of such sophistication with whom the writer has ever been friendly; the adviser, watchful, endlessly kind, holding his menace in check.
We were friends for eleven months. We spent a lot of time driving in taxis, usually at night. I was the editor of a magazine, and in it I had mentioned that many writers die in their very early sixties. Once, in the first month of our friendship, we were driving gloomily past the block of mansion flats where Wallis Simpson had entertained the Prince of Wales, and he asked me why I had written that.
I said I had read it in George Greenfield's Scribblers far Bread. But after he was diagnosed at just sixty he returned to the subject. Why had I said that? Had I known? Was I somehow psychic? I repeated: I read it in the book. And he had to be content.
The day he was diagnosed, and he invited me for lunch, I remained with him all the day. Very late, we walked a certain distance to an Asian shop to do some photocopying. He was beginning an ambitious novel sequence about the world he had known and I had spent all day encouraging him not to give up. But when I saw him struggle back from the photocopying shop I knew exactly how much chance he had of completing the ten volumes.
For I had read in a newspaper -- I'm not sure when -- that those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer usually lived only three months. I could hardly believe it possible, he was so full of life and hopes.
Yet at about six on the day, I had briefly left him, and walked the streets of Pimlico, noticing the transience -- the scaffolding on one house, the removal van outside another -- and been filled with such foreboding. How many joyful hours we spent in his room, with his desk and its view, one third rooftops and two thirds sky.
And how beautiful it was to let myself out late at night, the wind blowing sometimes, and the tall white houses of Pimlico out of some de Chirico dream, the enchanted streets perhaps never to end, although they would end so soon.
Sometimes in the early months he would come with me to the bus-stop on the Embankment, and we would have to run, because my last bus might be going, and I was filled with the thrill of our new friendship. He did not quite come to the bus-stop. He could not conceive of south London.
He never came to my flat, although it could so easily have been reached on the little train. It would then have been disaster. For then he would have known who I really was. He would not have appointed me his executor and beneficiary if he had known the bestial confusion in which I lived.
I did not try to hide it from him. I tried to describe it, although how could he, with his exquisite sense of decoration, have any idea? I would have been willing to let him come. For I wish everyone to know the whole truth, although I am not above deception.
Once in those early months, from his crowded cupboard, he gave me a copy of one of his novels, saying he would sign it once I had read it. I started it at the cold bus-stop on the Embankment, the elderly great-aunt sweeping into the room with her witty words. I wondered how I would disguise from him what I really thought of that sort of thing.
I was not the best reader of his work. Too much separated us culturally. I am friendly with many senior writers, but often only dutifully admire their books, while the one writer I really revere would never accept me, because the article I wrote about her was so cruel. I went through all his novels, and found much to admire. I encouraged him mightily with his roman-fleuve, almost flogging him through the five volumes he completed. Nevertheless, I would never have become keen on his work if I had not been friendly with him.
The others, the friends he rejected, thought I was a gold-digger. They also thought we were lovers. How stupid people are. Do they ever notice one's contempt? Of course they do. They aren't stupid. Yet I showered his trinkets on these people after his death. Why not? They were all valueless.
Of course my motives were mixed. Perhaps I hoped for a fortune that never came, from his mysterious American past. Yet I did my executor's work conscientiously, then forgot it. I have made little effort to win a posthumous audience for his writing, preferring to concentrate on my own ambitions.
Yet there was once, towards the end of the time I knew him, when I awoke early and heard the cry of a bird and felt such sorrow for him, knew so clearly what he must feel, that I almost went to him. Yet I did not. That is not done. And when I told him about this, there was no way of conveying what I had felt.
How kind you were to me. You unlocked for me the treasures of art, I who had been blocked in visual appreciation as a child, my painting was so poor. You forgave my foolishness, my transparency. You fielded my appeals for money, you who really had so little, and even phoned all my creditors on my behalf.
Yet you wanted me to work a magic for you, to turn you into the writer you had never quite become. Yours was a legitimate hope. You were fighting a hard world. You had been desired and flattered in your youth, beautiful, and endless lovers, male and female, famous writers, were at your feet. But we are all part of the hard world, and I as much as another.
Would you have dropped me in the end, as you were said to do all your friends, all your lovers, with harsh words and twisted face? I think you must have done. You could not have stood me all those years. What about that senior writer who rang me and said I was your final destination?
I haven't quite fixed you in my mind, though. But whom do we fix? The mother who loved me so much in childhood, whom I loved so desperately, I have no memories of her, her face is a blur.
Your face I remember. It wasn't pretty. It was bloated by your years of smoking and drinking, you used to almost smack your lips over some antique, it wasn't pretty. Your voice was a fake, those strangled English upper-class tones with which you maintained your position on such slender means.
Yet your kindness, your courage, the fun we had, I shall never forget them.
You died alone, as you would have wished. I would have wished to be with you at the end, but it wouldn't have been right. You just vanished from the world, Robert.
C. A. R. Hills writes the 'Clapham Omnibus' column in Prospect.…
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Publication information: Article title: Robert Rubens 1937-1998: A Memoir. Contributors: Hills, C. A. R. - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 278. Issue: 1620 Publication date: January 2001. Page number: 15. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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