The Voice Behind The Prose
I finally understand what I like about her most.
She was cruelly funny. Cynical. Erudite. Surreal. Succinct. A blunt-spoken woman with a chaotic love life, two suicide attempts, twenty novels and a love of Liverpool pubs, and she wrote less like an angel than a demon.
There were plenty of attempts to nail down Beryl Bainbridge’s writing style in her lifetime. The author was one of the grandes dames of the UK’s literary scene whose novels landed her five shortlistings for the Man Booker prize (and the label of perennial Booker bridesmaid – it’s outrageous that she did not win for ‘The Birthday Boys’).
Bainbridge isn’t feted as much in her home city as other more populist Scouse writers such as Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Carla Lane, Roger McGough, Helen Forrester, Kevin Sampson or Jimmy McGovern. As far as I’m concerned she was above all of them.
After reading her last few hard-to-find books I think I understand what it is I like about her most, and this is a point that may cause some argument. It seems to me that she saw clearly and wrote without gender, and this set her prose free. I can detect only a neutral voice behind her words, but this doesn’t make her dispassionate. Powerful emotions are always there, understated but devastating in their effect.
Some authors never vanish behind the words. Will Self, Brett Easton Ellis and Martin Amis spring to mind, poking through the prose at you, in the same way that familiar actors simultaneously exist as themselves and their characters. There are authors who fail to see their male gaze falling upon their female characters or simply don’t care (Hemingway and Mailer, dear God), and female authors whose male characters do far too much emotional soul searching. What I look for is the clearness of water that lets you see down to the shining pebbles on a stream bed. On balance I find this more in female authors like Hilary Mantel, who cuts to the heart and dissects it.
Thanks to author appearances on social media (forced onto us by the reduced availability of book PR) readers are used to knowing a lot about the voices behind the prose. This turns us into publishing mouthpieces, so it’s a shock to read Bainbridge talking about her manuscript of ‘A Weekend with Claude’ this way:
‘I honestly don’t think it is a publishable proposition … it doesn’t really begin to be a novel … I think publishers would also object to there being no chapter divisions, the multitude of mis-spellings, and the fact that a great many words can only exist in your own imagination. Thinking about it dispassionately, I cannot help feeling that the book doesn’t have much to say at all. My greatest quarrel, however, is with the quality of the writing, which lacks the imagery and force necessary to lift it out of the rut.’
I suspect her honesty was utterly beyond her control. These days, when authors are compromised by the demands of publishing demographics, it’s a rare quality to possess, especially if you want to make a living.