Rubens, Bernice (Ruth)

views updated

RUBENS, Bernice (Ruth)

Nationality: British. Born: Cardiff, Wales, 26 July 1928. Education: Cardiff High School for Girls; University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff, 1944-47, B.A. (honours) in English 1947. Family: Married Rudi Nassauer in 1947; two daughters. Career: English teacher, Handsworth Grammar School for Boys, Birmingham, 1948-49. Since 1950 documentary film writer and director, for the United Nations and others. Awards: American Blue Ribbon Award, for filmmaking, 1968; Booker prize, 1970; Welsh Arts Council award, 1976. Fellow, University of Wales, Cardiff, 1982. Address: 16-A Belsize Park Gardens, London NW3 4LD, England.



Set on Edge. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1960.

Madame Sousatzka. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962.

Mate in Three. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.

The Elected Member. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1969; asChosen People, New York, Atheneum, 1969.

Sunday Best. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971; New York, Summit, 1980.

Go Tell the Lemming. London, Cape, 1973; New York, WashingtonSquare Press, 1984.

I Sent a Letter to My Love. London, W.H. Allen, 1975; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1978.

The Ponsonby Post. London, W.H. Allen, 1977; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1978.

A Five Year Sentence. London, W.H. Allen, 1978; as Favours, NewYork, Summit, 1979.

Spring Sonata. London, W.H. Allen, 1979; New York, Warner, 1986.

Birds of Passage. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1981; New York, Summit, 1982.

Brothers. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1983; New York, DelacortePress, 1984.

Mr. Wakefield's Crusade. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Delacorte Press, 1985.

Our Father. London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, DelacortePress, 1987.

Kingdom Come. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1990.

A Solitary Grief. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1991.

Mother Russia. London, Chapmans, 1992.

Autobiopsy. London, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993.

Yesterday in the Back Lane. London, Little, Brown, 1995.

The Waiting Game. London, Little, Brown, 1997.

I, Dreyfus. London, Little, Brown, 1999.


I Sent a Letter to My Love, adaptation of her own novel (producedNew Haven, Connecticut, 1978; London, 1979).

Hijack. New York and London, French, 1993.

Screenplays (documentaries; also director):

One of the Family, 1964;Call Us By Name, 1968; Out of the Mouths, 1970.

Television Play:

Third Party, 1972.


Bernice Rubens comments:

(1972) I am never consciously aware of the actual matter of my work and never think about it unless the question is directly raised. There seems to be a terrible finality about assessing one's own work, because such an assessment might bind you to that evaluation forever. I am open to the most radical changes in my thinking and outlook. I hope it will be reflected in my work. My first four novels were essentially on Jewish themes in a Jewish environment, for in that environment I felt secure. My fifth novel, Sunday Best, was an attempt to challenge myself to step outside that familiarity. I noticed that my radical change of location did not involve as radical a change of style, which seems to remain simple, direct, always empty of what in school is called "descriptive passages," for these frighten me. As to the matter of what I write about, I can only be general. I am concerned with the communication, or non-communication as is more often the case, between people and families. A general enough statement, and in this general sense my books will always be about that theme.

* * *

The salient feature of Bernice Ruben's writing is her maddening refusal to fit neatly into any single category, while proffering the same unchanging, unmistakably individual vision of humanity. Some of her novels approach sheer slapstick (Set on Edge ), others a Hitchcockian murder story (Mr. Wakefield's Crusade, Sunday Best ), others a case study of the strains of family life (The Elected Member, Set on Edge, Spring Sonata, Brothers ), others again a comedy of manners (the expatriate set in The Ponsonby Post, a cruise in Birds of Passage, eccentric lodgers in Madame Sousatzka ). The variety is considerable, but they all present the same picture of human misery, miscomprehension, of loneliness slipping into madness.

Her earlier novels pillory the claustrophobic closeness of Jewish family life, pointing an accusing finger at the Jewish matriarch with her devouring, ambitious mother love. Her first novel, Set on Edge, takes its title from the words of the prophet Ezekiel ("The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge") which ought to hang as a motto over any analyst's couch. Mrs. Sperber burdens her daughter Gladys with guilt, and at the close of the novel we watch Gladys taking over her mother's role as the accuser as well as the provider. Mrs. Crominski in Madame Sousatzka, Mrs. Zweck in The Elected Member, Sheila's mother and grandmother in Spring Sonata all provide good Laingian material, parading their maternal guilt. Indeed Bernice Rubens shows her romans to be very much à thèse here, particularly in her Booker prize winner, The Elected Member, with its epigraph from R.D. Laing himself ("If patients are disturbed, their families are disturbing ").

Her novelist's imagination, however, refuses to be circumscribed, and she turns away from the familiarity of Jewish life in North London to find the same tragicomedies of emotional crippling played out against a gentile background. The transvestite George Verrey Smith in Sunday Best, the lonely spinster Jean Hawkins in A Five Year Sentence, the sad homosexual Luke in Mr. Wakefield's Crusade are all walking wounded on the battlefield of life, maimed by a loveless childhood, free of guilt because they are the victims, the sinned against rather than the sinning.

Faces with such unspeakable misery, Rubens chooses to laugh, and her echoing laughter is truly shocking. She is a witty writer, with a brilliant sense of comedy: Jenny's client in Madame Sousatzka, in his shirtsleeves, masquerading as a carpenter; Mrs. Sperber in Set on Edge taking her rolled-up corset to bed with her like a child with a teddy bear; the parade of too many Hitlers at the fancy dress party in Birds of Passage (like "the Hall of Mirrors in Berchtesgaden"), all these are very funny set pieces. There are many such moments of high comedy in Rubens's novels, but she is equally skilled in the use of sly verbal wit (Luke's comment on the "posh deaths" in The Times, Betty Knox in Birds of Passage asking her husband how many people had witnessed her humiliation "as if he were responsible for the gate"). In her recent novel Kingdom Come Rubens returns to the Jewish theme but with a difference, telling the tale of Sabbotai Zvi, the founder of a seventeenth-century Middle Eastern messianic sect. The comic scenes, the flip echoes of the New Testament, oddly enhance the underlying terror of her story.

Like all witty writers she uses language with great careif a single right word (like "gate" in the quotation above) is enough to make a reader laugh then words must be treated with proper respect. Her writing is spare, as befits the bleak landscape of her vision. Her sombre, plain sentences can be very moving (the chilling prayer that closes The Elected Member, "Dear God, look after us cold and chosen ones," has such power). There is a striking absence of description. Although she provides those recognisable authentic touches that mark present-day novelsAlice's silk dungarees inBirds of Passage, the shuffling post office queue in Mr. Wakefield's Crusade her characters move against a blank background, almost faceless themselves. This technique, particularly remarkable in Birds of Passage where full descriptions are provided of the supporting cast and yet we never see the two protagonists, Ellen and Alice, is obviously deliberate. By blurring the faces she is calling our attention to the turmoil behind. It is the human mind and the human heart that interest her, and if her interest strikes us at times as chillingly clinical (as, again in Birds of Passage, in the description of the two women's reaction to rape: "The women were reacting in diametrically opposed fashion to exactly the same agent, though neither knew of the other's connection") then our shocked reaction is exactly what the author intended. Her purpose is to shock, as well as to amuse, and to achieve this dual purpose she will stop at nothing. Such deliberate excesses (as the episode of Betty Knox's soiled skirt in Birds of Passage ) are of course all the more startling in a writer so much in control of her material.

To dwell only on her attention to her craft, however, is to present a false picture, for she is a writer of imagination, with a penchant for the bizarre, the grotesque. The fetus which refuses to be born, playing the fiddle and writing his diary in his mother's womb (Spring Sonata ), is the product of no ordinary imagination, and comparisons with Gogol's Nose are not entirely out of place. The same rich imagination is at work on the plot of Mr. Wakefield's Crusade (over which the plump shadow of Alfred Hitchcock seems to hover) and on the domesticated madness of A Five Year Sentence. These are excesses of imagination, shocking and frightening as they are fully intended to be, for they are a part of Bernice Rubens's world in which the dullness of pain can only be broken by a loud laugh or a scream of terror.

With two epic novels, Brothers and Mother Russia, Bernice Rubens marked what was be a complete change in her subject matter and treatment of her characters. Rubens has put aside her cynical observations on society, but she has not lost her acute powers of analysis. Instead she projects compassion directly, rather than through accidents of farce or the comic. Brothers and Mother Russia particularly embody her new style and also show her gift in sustaining, very ably, the threads of extremely long narratives. Both have similarities in that they trace the progress of families and their paths of destiny. In Brothers, the Bindel family, who are Russian Jews, survive through each generation of various persecutions, from 1825 to the 1970s, because they learn the message that is passed on, that "There is no cause on earth worth dying for. Only in the name of love is Death worthy!" The panorama is vast, taking in the Odessa, Wales, and Buchenwald. If at times the Bindel's accident of fate seems rather contrived to fit "real" historical events they are involved in, the cumulative effect of Brothers is a sensitive account of Jewish oppression.

Mother Russia, which opens in the year 1900 and ends in 1985, is both the history of two families and a twentieth-century history of Russia, the USSR, and the second Revolution of Gorbachev. Although extremely long, the appalling trials of Anna Larionov, formerly an aristocrat, and her peasant husband Sasha Volynin, who becomes a writer, are profoundly moving. Both born on the first day of the new century, on the Larionov estate, they are inseparable, even through family betrayal, Stalinism, and Siberia, until they return to die at the place they were born. "All that matters" Rubens writes, "is the loving. Without it there is no beginning. And without a beginning there is little reason to reach for the end," emphasising her philosophy of Brothers.

A Solitary Grief is a tragedy about Doris, a Down's Syndrome baby, and the inability of her father, Dr. Crown, to look on her face. "Physician heal thyself" might be the hidden motto for this novel, for the father is a psychiatrist who has no ability to analyse himself. Both he and his daughter are victims, common enough Rubens characters, but Doris functions more "normally" than her father, until he murders her for complex reasons, involving the betrayal and death of a man society judged to be hideous because of excessive body hair. The details are grotesque, but instead of evoking a response of humour, as it would had it appeared in her earlier work, Rubens now rouses deep compassion. Less convincing because it moves in the realms of fantasy is Autobiopsy, where the brain of a dead world-famous novelist is kept in a freezer, and his hitherto past secret life, is syphoned off by a friend who plans to turn it into a book. The improbability of the plot perhaps strains the imagination, although if the book is a failure, it is a quite brilliant one.

Hana Sambrook,

updated by Geoffrey Elborn