“I was reminded of the time a close friend visited my house ten minutes before the arrival of a gentleman caller. I hinted it would be better if she left, but she said he wouldn’t notice she was there. To prove her point she plonked lumps of the children’s Plasticine in the middle of her forehead and chest, stuck darts in them, poured liberal quantities of tomato sauce down her person and lay flat on the sofa, groaning.
He won’t take it in, she said. Just wait and see.
Sure enough – he came in, glanced at her, sat down and complained that he’d had a devil of a day.” – Beryl Bainbridge, Diary
There’s a rather strange, hard to interpret story told in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. When Hades kidnapped the daughter of Demeter, Persephone, the goddess of harvests, wandered about the earth looking for her and refusing to do her job re the harvests. She came, starving and thirsty, to a hut in which an old woman named Baubo sat. Baubo tried to cheer the goddess up, but she remained wrapped in gloom, refusing to eat, until the old woman thought of a prank: she lifted up her skirts and flashed her private parts at the godddess, who then burst out laughing and accepted refreshment.
This story was preserved by the Christian apologists, notably Arnubius and Clement, who found the whole setup appalling. It is the type of humor that has long been considered appalling in the West, down to the present day, which is why it is generally an underground kind of humor. The Christians certainly didn’t see anything funny about Baubo’s strip act; and indeed, the poet spends no time explaining what was so funny about the crone flashing her moneymaker. The joke is a sort of secret between Demeter and Baubo.
I would put Beryl Bainbridge down as one of the holders of that secret. For Bainbridge, in some of her novels, particularly Injury Timen(1977), masters the difficult art of combining disasterous circumstances and sexual absurdity even unto rape and murder with the kind of laughter that wells up, in some, at funerals or solemn events – the laughter of embarrassed alienation I suppose you could call it. Or of an even more embarrassing recognition that the solemnity eerily recapitulates the serious play of children.
Bainbridge is in rare company in this regard. In America, there are traits of the Baubo style in some of Dorothy Parker’s short stories; in the seventies, Iris Owens, after writing pornography under various pseudonyms, gave it a shot with After Claude, introducing, in Harriet, her narrator, one of the most unlikeable protagonists to ever rampage drunkly through a novel and refuse to leave the apartment of an ex boyfriend . The British sit com Absolutely Fabulous and the comedian Sarah Silverman have a bit of Baubo in them. Perhaps the writer who most explicitly explores the secret is Christina Stead, whose character Henny, in The Man who loved Children, coalesces her whole life around it, pitting this mystery against her hated husband Sam’s totalitarian optimism.
… what a moral, highminded world their father saw! But for Henny there was a wonderful particular world, and when they went with her they saw it: they saw the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the chilfren restless as an ell, that she saw. She did not often take them with her. She preferred to go out by herself and mooch to the bargain basements and ask the young man in the library what was good to read, and take tea in some obscure restaurant, and wander desolately about criticizing shopwindows and wondering if, in this street or that, she would yet, ‘old as I am looking like a black hag’, meet her fate. Then she would come home, next to some girl “from a factory who looked like a lily and smelled like a skunk cabbage”, flirting with all the men and the men grinning back…”
Bainbridge died a revered novelist in England, but most of the reverence was for the historical novels she wrote after Young Adolf in 1978.
Historical fiction is an uncertain category which, on an expansive interpretation, encompasses everything from War and Peace to Gravity’s Rainbow; but on a narrower interpretation, concerns those fictions in which some past incident is re-enacted with an abundance of detailing, in response to a miniaturist’s compulsion to get the décor right. It reminds me of the compulsive pleasure some people find in building model boats in bottles. Toby Litt has suggested that historical novels are written and read in bad faith, vacillating between the transcendence of imaginative freedom and the facticity of information – those details! This doesn’t bother me so much. What does bother me is the sense of thwarted play, the sense that the writer is operating within some manufactured enclosure that limits her reach for reasons extrinsic to the aesthetic act – those details again.
Bainbridge’s career as a novelist neatly splits, then, between those first novels, with their Baubodian humor, and the novels of her last period, in which the world given was not so much Bainbridge’s as the period in which she placed her characters. The first novels troubled even those reviewers that conceded the brilliance of the style. The rapes, murders, psychotic children that formed the background against which totally self-involved characters worried about other things produced a laughter that the reader felt, vaguely, should be suppressed. In America, Injury Time was reviewed by Katha Pollitt with such incomprehension – Pollitt thought the novel was trying to make some op ed point about the awfulness of modern times – that I can only feel that some vast cultural gap lay between the writer and the reader.
In fact, the urban locale of Injury Time with its obscene drunks sitting in rubbish by the side of the street, it casually criminal transvestites, its fat upper class men so confused by the ceaseless moral double accounting they keep in their head as to be totally vulnerable to the least glitch in practical life are things that I can look up and see, here,now, in Santa Monica, 2016. It is the world in which beggary has returned, symptomatic of a much deeper illness in capitalism. In that sense, far from writing in the style of the op ed, Bainbridge was seeing how the op ed mindset in the governing class was more and more detached from the reality of the street.
The odd couple at the center of the novel, Edward, an upper class accountant, and Binny, his “mistress” (as Edward tells others, since Binny hit him when he once called her that), a woman of no visible means of support living in a house in some outer fringe of London. In brief, the plot revolves around a dinner party that Binny holds for Edward, one of his clients, Simpson, and his client’s wife, Muriel. The dinner party is interrupted, and the house taken over, by a criminal gang that is being chased by the police. They remain in the house for perhaps a day, smashing it up, humiliating Edward and Simpson, and trying to find a way out of the police siege. In the course of the hostage taking, the leader of the gang, Ginger, rapes Binny.
This of course doesn’t’ sound like a laff riot. That it is funny owes everything to Bainbridge’s style. There are hints of the camp genius of Joe Orton in her dialogue (the characters throughout fail to communicate with each other on the simplest level, due to misunderstanding, drunkeness, panic, exhaustion, and their false assumptions one about the other), and partly her way of using the dramatist’s trick of shifting the spotlight from one character to the other as they mull thoughts that are at utter variance with what the other characters are either thinking or trying to convey.
Comedy is a soap bubble, and you can’t simply take out a slice of it and show it around, because it won’t be funny anymore. Its all too pop-able. Everything in the novel is brilliantly timed – from the way we receive “information” (all recited facts suffer from terminal deformation as they are passed from Edward to Binny to Simpson to Muriel) to the way the confusion of the hostage taking is allowed to remain confusing, for different reasons, for each of the characters. That is a very difficult thing to do, since the authorial impulse is to clear up confusion, rather than let it play itself out. The latter seems, to the cautious author, to come dangerously near to confusing the audience, and in the realistic paradigm of fiction, confusing the audiencce is a grave fault. But confusion is as much a part of the world as clouds. And all Bainbridge’s characters are as seriously confused as, well, I am, and you are, reader. Clarity is a rare thing.
Enough – I would like to quote at length, but I’ll forebear.