By Randall Babtkis, poet, writer, and MFA faculty member
Sometimes I wonder whether being an actor ought to be a prerequisite for undertaking a career in writing. Shakespeare comes to mind: Nick Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Bossy (check), kinetic (check), chafing and at times troublesome (check, check)--a melancholic who snaps between this world and that (CHECK!). These are qualities a writer might easily access to transform himself/herself on the page.
This July marked the passing of England's baroness of 20th century literature, Beryl Bainbridge. Knighted by the Queen in 2000, Dame Beryl began her professional life on the Liverpool stage. She writes in her last (though not final!) book "Front Row," “I was not a stranger to the world of the stage. At the age of five I became a member of the Thelma Bickerstaff tap-dancing troupe.”
She did find her calling as an actor, winning roles in children's television and as the ban the bomb girlfriend of Ken Barlow in the British hit series Coronation Street. She described herself in Who's Who as “actress, writer.” Better, I think, than actress, slash writer. And while her acting repertoire did not much expand after that, she became the author of 19 books. For someone with such dry humor, it's an awful lot of splashy ink.
Take "A Weekend With Claude" and see what you make of it. The New York Times suggests you think of Eric Rohmer. I liked it for the hostile atmospherics. Yet no one loses hope. And no one ever should. I spent two nights in fits of laughter in a tent with someone who I did not have much in common with reading "The Bottle Factory Outing" out loud.
The characters in Beryl Bainbridge's novels, regularly enough, are actors. They live lives where logic is of no consequenc, -as the stage allows. Following her expulsion from school at the age of 14, Beryl Bainbridge joined the Liverpool Playhouse Theater Company where she quickly won the role of a dog.
Bainbridge's novels are works of economy, wit, in which the momentarily senseless meets a mordantly resolute twin. Dark clouds appear to gather and menace everyone from antagonist to hero to costumier. I fell in love with Beryl Bainbridge for that and for the sense of tension, of shyness, of insecurity, of power and vulnerability mixed as one. Her writing is clear-eyed, laconic, and deeply tragic; scenes and settings pass quickly behind props like a well-oiled stage. It almost has the feel of the rickety projector images of another era, passing on a wall.
All sorts of little hells flicker with the hope to break loose.
In her later books, Dame Beryl moved beyond the autobiographical to the historo-graphical, another kind of cross-disciplinary leap the work takes. Shown a misprint, once, in her book, “egg yoke” for “egg yolk,” Bainbridge replies “Which word's wrong? Egg?” She sensed within her droll humor, the tragedy of, for example, Dr. Johnson; the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole; she mourned the fictional soul (nephew of J.P. Morgan, made up) of the "Titanic in Every Man For Himself."
She was finishing work on a first-person fictionalized historo-graphic on the Robert F. Kennedy assassination when she kicked the bucket.
I often think of a work of art as one act--together with a complex noun. Not the meaningless elements of a sentence, just the slightly irreducible person, place, or thing. The gentling slosh of deep waters at Lake Tahoe below a summer cabin where I first met William Shakespeare (RIP); my mother who bought two Truman Capotes home when I turned 12, so that we could read (and scream as we turned pages of) "In Cold Blood" together; my father playing harmonica while carrying on a simultaneous conversation about G-d (dead) and grain-fed chicken boosh for the wild huckleberry garden he was planting on the side of a tract house; the antiquarian Italian train in which I was curled up in my baggage with Trollope, hissing at Felix Carbury as a sea of pea gravel knocked us from the undercarriage. Art consciously demands sounds ricocheting in us; the cortical ping of another.
I have curled up with Beryl Bainbridge so often, we might have pinged together.
No, art is NOT there to transport us to our chimera, but to make us walk. You could say it exists to pull us uphill along several paths.
Do we choose those? I chose Beryl Bainbridge. One chill winter night when the name Beryl Bainbridge slipped out of Margaret Atwood's mouth in front of a crowd (I was in that crowd; it filled a room), I knew the sound somewhere deep inside already. Before Atwood could speak another word, I slipped out the door in search of "A Weekend With Claude."
Never having looked back.
This will be my passing comment on the musicality and originality of Dame Beryl Bainbridge's sentences, which surpass a lot of others, and which ricochet inside the crossbars encompassing this life I live today.