Knowingly Undersold: Mark Bostridge Recalls the Difficult Birth of Beryl Bainbridge's Final Novel

Article excerpt

My last conversation with Beryl Bainbridge took place over the phone in May last year, during the general election campaign. She was in a bit of a quandary about where to place her vote. David Cameron was a new kind of Tory, wasn't he? I assured her that Cameron was very much of the traditional school. "Well, in that case," she replied distractedly, "I suppose I'll have to vote for old Frank [Dobson]."

Beryl was much more interested in reporting the progress she was making on her latest novel. At last the finishing post was in sight. She was writing and rewriting, cutting out extraneous material so that the book said just as much - or as little - as she wanted. It was a finely balanced exercise. She used to say that she hated books where you read a page and could tell immediately what was going to happen next. Her own novels were painstakingly designed to give away no more than was necessary, even to the extent of forcing readers to retrace their steps in a fruitless exercise to attempt to establish exactly what had taken place. "Darling well have brekkie at the beginning of July," she said as she signed off, "when it's all over."

Beryl had told friends that the cancer for which she'd been operated on several years earlier had returned. At dinner in April she had appeared fragile, suffering unduly from the cold, the sparkle of her conversation uncharacteristically dimmed. But it came nevertheless as a great shock to learn of her death in the first week of July after a short spell in University College Hospital, London.

My first thought, after the news had sunk in, was for Beryl's novel. It seemed cruel that she should have died without seeing the book in print. The pain and misery of writing it had dominated much of the final decade of her life. For the first time in her career, she had found herself suffering from writer's block. Previously she had kept up an extraordinary rate of production, publishing a work of fiction every other year over almost three decades, but this 18th novel had almost defeated her. She was worn out and drinking more to compensate for the feeling of detachment she experienced whenever she went to a literary event or party. And she found it impossible to write without the perennial cigarette in hand. She was jubilant when she found a doctor who permitted her to smoke, having realised that writing was more important to her than life.

I suggested to Beryl my own solutions to her dilemma-an autobiography, perhaps. "But my life's all in the novels!" she exclaimed, and at times she did appear to have difficulty distinguishing between the fictional re-creations of her life and actual events. She remembered the first novel she wrote, Harriet Said, completed in 1958, and how one publisher had described it as repulsive beyond belief. The twist in the tale was based on a trip the 16-year-old Beryl had made to Paris with a business acquaintance of her father's. …