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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wonderful Beryl B

I'm on Nightwaves on Radio 3 tonight, talking about Beryl Bainbridge with AN Wilson, and have been happily reading her novels in preparation. What a treat! We're discussing the 'Beryl Booker', the Man Booker Best of Beryl prize. As is well known, Beryl was shortlisted five times, more than any other author, although sadly she never won. There was a touching tribute to her at last year's Man Booker dinner (she had died in July).

Her five shortlisted novels were The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), An Awfully Big Adventure (1990), Every Man For Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998): a superb collection of brief but complex tales which can be read and re-read for their mordant style and psychological complexity. My favourite didn't even get shortlisted: According to Queeney (2000), her  study of the friendship between Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale, as seen by Thrale's daughter. With her last ambiguous and elliptical novels, Bainbridge makes the past seem profoundly strange and historical truth a slippery concept.

I used to see Beryl occasionally at dinner parties. Hers was a captivating personality, droll, eccentric and charming, though there was a thread of mischief running through, or even malice; her books, after all, are very dark. She was lovely-looking; like WH Auden, she grew into her wrinkles so thoroughly that her young face now seems strangely naked.

It was at such a dinner party that she made one of her pronouncements. We should all, she said sternly, looking round at the assembled writerly throng, keep notes of who we met at such gatherings. No need to make lengthy transcriptions of what was said; just a list of guests would do. It would be fascinating, she said, for future generations; just imagine if we found out that Lord Byron and Jane Austen had been in a room together, she said. I never took up the suggestion, but there was something thrilling in the idea that in Hampstead in 2008, we might be playing a part in the literary history of the future.

Beryl always looked very frail, but seemed eternal, indomitable. It was a great shock to hear she had moved on to that dinner table in the sky; no doubt holding her own with Lord Byron and Jane Austen. Her final novel, left among her papers at her death, is to be published in June by Little, Brown. It's called The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. Apparently at her funeral the mourners sang her favourite song, Rolf Harris's 'Two Little Boys', around the grave. I imagine that by the time they got to 'Did you think I would leave you dy...y.. ing' there wasn't a dry eye in the cemetery.

The five novels are all republished by Abacus. You can vote in the online poll at the Man Booker website for your favourite (www.themanbookerprize.com). The winning title will be announced next month. 

1 comment:

  1. I had met Beryl before, but then she was my tutor on an Arvon Course in the mid-1990s. She told me I could and should write, and as it were 'gave me permission' to do something I so desperately wanted to do. She even suggested I contact her agent. I went with another agent and was not published until 2009. But I will always be grateful to her for her literary mothering kindness and encouragement.