Rubens, Bernice (Ruth) 1923-
RUBENS, Bernice (Ruth) 1923-
PERSONAL: Born July 26, 1923, in Cardiff, Wales; daughter of Eli and Dorothy (Cohen) Rubens; married Rudi Nassauer (a novelist), December 29, 1947; children: Sharon, Rebecca. Education: University of Wales, B.A. (honors in English), 1944. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Playing the cello.
ADDRESSES: Home—213A Goldhurst Terrace, London NW6 3ER, England. Agent—Robin Dalton, 18 Elm Tree Rd., London NW8, England.
CAREER: English teacher at grammar school for boys, Birmingham, England, 1948-49; freelance film director and script writer, 1950—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Blue Ribbon Award, American Documentary Film Festival, 1969, for Stress; Booker Prize, 1970, for The Elected Member; Welsh Arts Council award, 1976; University of Wales fellowship, 1984; D.Litt, University of Wales, 1991.
Set on Edge (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1960.
Madame Sousatzka (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1962.
Mate in Three (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1966.
Chosen People (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969, published as The Elected Member, Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1969.
Sunday Best (novel), Eyre & Spottiswoode (London, England), 1971, Summit (New York, NY), 1981.
Go Tell the Lemming (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 1973.
I Sent a Letter to My Love (novel), W. H. Allen (London, England), 1975; stage adaptation by the author produced in New Haven, CT, 1978.
The Ponsonby Post (novel), W. H. Allen (London, England), 1977, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1978.
A Five-Year Sentence, W. H. Allen (London, England), 1978, published as Favours, Summit (New York, NY), 1979.
Spring Sonata, W. H. Allen (London, England), 1979.
Birds of Passage, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1981, Summit (New York, NY), 1982.
Brothers, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1983, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1984.
Mr. Wakefield's Crusade, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1985.
Our Father, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987.
Kingdom Come, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1990.
Solitary Grief, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1991.
Mother Russia, Orion (London, England), 1993.
Hijack, S. French (New York, NY), 1993.
Autobiopsy, Sinclair-Stevenson (London, England), 1993.
Yesterday in the Back Lane, Little, Brown (London, England), 1995.
The Waiting Game, Little, Brown (London, England), 1997.
I, Dreyfus, Little, Brown (London, England), 1999.
Milwaukee, Little, Brown (London, England), 2001.
Nine Lives, Little, Brown (London, England), 2002.
Author of screenplays One of the Family, 1964, Call Us by Name, 1968, Out of the Mouths, 1970, The Spastic Child, Stress, and Dear Mum and Dad; author of television play Third Party, 1972.
ADAPTATIONS: Madame Sousatzka was adapted as a film for Universal Pictures, 1988; I Sent a Letter to My Love was adapted as a musical, book and lyrics by Jeffrey Sweet, published by S. French, 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Adapting Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm for film.
SIDELIGHTS: Bernice Rubens is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter whose work defies easy categorization. Much of her work is marked by a dark humor, but she has also written chilling stories of murder, tales of family everyday life, and stories that could be compared to the kind of comedy of manners associated with eighteenth-century British novelist Jane Austen. While Rubens's early work was set within the Jewish community, in more recent books she has moved away from this familiar setting, placing her themes against more varied backdrops.
Rubens won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1970 for her novel Chosen People, published in England as The Elected Member. This, along with other early novels such as Set on Edge, Spring Sonata, and Brothers, presents a picture of "human misery, miscomprehension, of loneliness slipping into madness," found a Contemporary Novelists essayist. These books mock the sometimes-suffocating closeness of Jewish family ties, and are particularly pointed in their satire on overpowering mother love. After Rubens turned away from portraying life in predominantly Jewish North London, she continued to depict "the same tragicomedies of emotional crippling played out against a gentile background," explained the essayist.
Rubens wrote Mr. Wakefield's Crusade in 1985. The novel features a lonely, paranoid middle-aged protagonist, Luke Wakefield, who becomes involved in a mystery when he picks up a letter dropped by a man who dies suddenly at the post office. The first-person narrative relates Luke's investigations into the life of the recently deceased man, who, in the unmailed letter, confesses to the murder of his wife. According to Washington Post Book World contributor Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Rubens's central themes include "imprisoning solitude; the ambiguities of identity and sexuality; [and] lives precariously balanced on the emotional edges. . . . And she handles them with the savage scrutiny of character, the rather cruel humor, and the pathos of Russian novelists, somewhat diluted and strained through a British accent but potent nonetheless." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Thomas M. Disch found the book to be somewhat flawed, stating: "Mr. Wakefield's Crusade is a farcical mystery that sustains a great deal of expectations without yielding many laughs or a satisfying denouement. It does have a single neat idea, but the machinery that has been put in place to keep that idea hidden until the final pages is clanking and cumbersome."
The novel that followed, Our Father, is an imaginative story that follows the romantic encounters between Veronica Smiles, a middle-aged virgin, and God, as Veronica struggles to reconcile painful memories of her family and sordid events in the past. Veronica first meets the inscrutable and occasionally rude deity while alone in the Sahara Desert, where she is gathering material to write a book about her travels. God reemerges as an English gentleman whom Veronica marries, and He continues to intrude into her life embodied in various mortal characters. "Atonement," according to Linda Taylor in the Times Literary Supplement, "is possible, and it is the whole point of Our Father, which is the kind of psychological novel that aims to unravel and come to terms with a past in order to make a future at all possible." Though criticizing the work for its implausible plot and uninspired biblical humor, New York Times Book Review contributor Maggie Paley referred to the novel as "a kind of Freudian fairy tale," praising Rubens's "mature voice full of resonance and range . . . that reveals the most dreadful of truths."
Kingdom Come is an historical novel about a seventeenth-century religious scholar who claims to be the Messiah. Sabbati Zvi, the son of a humble poulterer in Asia Minor, earns a reputation as the Savior in Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. After attracting a substantial following, including an unnamed narrator who records the story, Zvi travels to Palestine, where he is apprehended by the Ottomans and apostatizes for Islam in the face of martyrdom. Rubens's "achievement is an impressive one," according to Savkar Altinel in the Times Literary Supplement. Altinel added, "Here is, at once, a moving portrait of a man caught between the crushing expectations everyone has of him and his all-too-human weaknesses." Martyn Harris also praised the novel in New Statesman & Society, "What Bernice Rubens explores in this very fine and subtle novel is the web of hopes and deceptions, both personal and social, which conspire to create a myth."
A Solitary Grief features Dr. Alistar Crown, an accomplished psychiatrist who struggles to come to terms with his first child—a daughter born with Down's syndrome. While callously refusing to look at her face during the first five years of his daughter's life, Crown is finally moved to sympathy by an unusually hairy patient named Esau, who forces the doctor to view his body openly and without loathing. Bryan Cheyette commended the novel in the New Statesman & Society: "It is a sign of Rubens's achievement, and the strength of her delightfully wicked prose, that Crown's most monstrous act disturbs, not because of its awfulness, but, more ambivalently, because it is a recognition of his failed attempt to reclaim his humanity." Noting Rubens's obvious distaste for the psychiatric profession and her contemptible protagonist, Judith Chernaik concluded in a Times Literary Supplement review, "What redeems her sorry parable is a trenchant prose and a narrative skill that maintains her grotesques and their unnatural acts just this side of disbelief."
Mother Russia, developed by Rubens from a script for a television miniseries, is an ambitious attempt to recount the history of Russia from the turn of the twentieth century through the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, and the Stalinist regime. The novel centers on the parallel development of two Russian children, one of aristocratic origin and the other proletarian, tracing their lifelong romance and interconnected events involving their families during the momentous first half of the century. Anthony Burgess reviewed the novel for the Times Literary Supplement and acknowledged Rubens's talent, though he criticized the novel's weak characterizations and melodramatic plot. Spectator reviewer Francis King observed, "It would be futile to claim that this book ranks high in Rubens's distinguished oeuvre. But it is certainly what she no doubt set out to make it: a terrific read."
With Autobiopsy, Rubens produced another dark comedy, this one involving an aspiring novelist who steals the brain of his dead literary mentor. The young writer stores the organ in his refrigerator and periodically siphons its contents for ideas to incorporate into his own work. However, through his use of the preserved mind, the living author becomes enmeshed in the psyche of his deceased idol and explores the secrets of the dead author's past to reconcile his own issues. Lesley Glaister, a contributor to the Spectator, commented that, while the novel's premise is morbid and some of its characters underdeveloped, "The most impressive aspect of this book is its illumination of the writing process: the inspiration, the blocks, the procrastination. . . , the exhilaration and the desolation."
Rubens's novel Yesterday in the Back Lane is narrated by Bronwen Davies, a fictional septuagenarian who agonizes over a traumatic lifelong secret. When a man attempts to rape the then-seventeen-year-old Bronwen on Christmas Day in 1943, she stabs him to death with a carving knife and escapes from the scene unnoticed. An innocent man is subsequently convicted of the murder and executed after a trial in which Bronwen's own mother serves as a juror. Though remaining silent on events of that day until the present, Bronwen still develops nosebleeds as a psychosomatic symptom of her intense guilt upon the mere mention of events or people connected to the tragedy. A reviewer for the Economist noted, "The theme is almost gothic, yet this is not a solemn story. Ms. Rubens writes with warmth and charity." Penelope Lively praised Rubens for Bronwen's "wonderfully compelling dilemma. She tells the story with a brisk simplicity that has the reader rushing through the pages, simultaneously repelled and sympathetic." According to Jessamy Calkin in the Observer, "Bernice Rubens has evoked a perfect picture of British restraint, and the result is sentimental and sinister at the same time. . . . This book captures the human condition and the constraints we place upon ourselves with graphic intensity."
In Nine Lives, Rubens takes a dark, comic view of the psychiatric profession, which she perceives as being destructive to the power of imagination. The main character, Donald Dorricks, is serving a life sentence in prison for murdering several psychiatrists; his method of operation was to set up an appointment for a consultation, then attack the doctor after putting the psychiatrist at ease. Dorricks feels no sense of repentance, believing instead that he has done the world a service by disposing of the doctors. The story is told through Dorricks's journal entries, and the comments of his wife, who was unaware of his murderous activities and now struggles to understand what drove her husband to do such things. "In her unwitting guilt and shame, she is an archetypal Rubens heroine," reflected Lisa Allardice in the Daily Telegraph. Allardice pointed out that the author does not seem overly concerned with realism, but is instead intent on illustrating how "our obsession with our own psyches is dangerous." Writing for the London Guardian, Ian Sansom claimed: "Nine Lives takes the material of true crime, of shlock, and of TV drama, and turns it into literature. The book might be described as a study in how ordinary people can do and connive in extraordinary evil."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 19, 1981, Volume 31, 1985.
Contemporary Novelists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14: British Novelists since World War II, 1982, Volume 207: British Novelists since 1960, 1999.
Back Stage, February 17, 1995, William Stevenson, review of I Sent a Letter to My Love, p. 44.
Booklist, February 1, 1992, Alice Joyce, review of Solitary Grief, p. 1001.
Books, April, 1987, p. 32; March-April, 1992, p. 22.
Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1987; October 14, 1988.
Chicago Tribune Book World, July 8, 1979; January 5, 1986.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 15, 2002, Lisa Allardice, review of Nine Lives.
Economist, October 28, 1995, p. 102.
Guardian (London, England), July 6, 2002, Ian Sansom, review of Nine Lives, p. 26.
Jewish Quarterly, summer, 1969.
Life, May 16, 1969.
Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1980; May 12, 1982; November 13, 1985; November 17, 1987; October 12, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 1, 1980.
New Statesman & Society, February 14, 1969; February 23, 1990, p. 36; May 17, 1991, p. 37.
New York, February 27, 1995, John Simon, review of ISent a Letter to My Love, p. 116.
New York Times, May 27, 1969; December 6, 1978; May 10, 1979; November 28, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1969; May 6, 1979; June 20, 1982; March 25, 1984; November 17, 1985; December 27, 1987, p. 11.
Observer (London, England), February 11, 1990, p. 65; July 5, 1992; September 24, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, March 16, 1984.
Saturday Review, July 26, 1969.
Spectator, February 15, 1992, p. 32; October 2, 1993, p. 29; September 23, 1995, p. 39.
Times (London, England), September 24, 1981; March 23, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, September 11, 1981; July 23, 1982; September 16, 1983; May 31, 1985; March 27, 1987; March 2, 1990, p. 214; May 3, 1991, p. 19; February 14, 1992, p. 23; September 17, 1993, p. 21; September 8, 1995, p. 7.
Variety, February 13, 1995, Jeremy Gerard, review of I Sent a Letter to My Love, p. 58.
Washington Post, May 8, 1979; December 14, 1987; October 14, 1988.
Washington Post Book World, June 15, 1980; April 8, 1984; January 12, 1986.*