Robert Rubens 1937-1998: A Memoir

By Hills, C. A. R. | Contemporary Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

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. …

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