For those with Beryl on the sea

Peter Parker reviews an exhilarating new novel about the Titanic disaster; Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge Duckworth, pounds 14.99

Although Edward VII died in 1910, the age to which he lent his name rolled on in its stately, opulent way for another few years, before foundering in the trenches of the First World War. Even before 1914 there had been intimations of catastrophe, however - notably in the dark year of 1912. In April the supposedly unsinkable R.M.S. Titanic went down on her maiden voyage with the loss of some 1500 lives, and in November came the news that Captain Scott and his companions had died in their attempt to conquer the South Pole. The previous year J.M. Barrie had published his own novelisation of Peter Pan, in which Wendy, on learning that the Lost Boys are going to be made to walk the plank, tells them: "I feel I have a message to you from your real mothers, and it is this: 'We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen'." This hope was echoed and fulfilled both by male passengers on the Titanic, who stood aside as women and children were helped into the lifeboats and by the doomed Scott, scribbling his final messages to civilisation.

Other last words give Beryl Bainbridge the title for her extraordinary new novel, which follows The Birthday Boys (about Scott) and An Awfully Big Adventure (about Peter Pan) in being intimately concerned with death, and the death of innocence in particular. The Titanic captain's widely reported farewell to his crew was: "You have done your duty, boys. Now every man for himself." As in The Birthday Boys, Bainbridge has used real characters and events and made of them something that is both a psychologically convincing recreation and a wholly new and highly individual work of art.

The Titanic sets out on Bainbridge's fatal journey with its full complement of real people - New York plutocrats, representatives of the White Star Line, W.T. Stead and other celebrities of the day - but the author has also smuggled aboard a number of characters whose names do not appear on history's passenger list. It is a measure of Bainbridge's skill that one needs to consult that list in order to work out who is invented and who merely reanimated. Her narrator is a young American called Morgan, an obscure (and fictional) nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan, owner of the White Star shipping line. Although travelling first class, Morgan had worked in a lowly capacity in the design offices of the ship's builders. Family connections have made him an intimate of a group of young English and American aristocrats, also on board, and he becomes involved with a number of rather more mysterious individuals: a dress designer from Manchester, a singer, an insolent young seaman from Liverpool and a man with a scarred lip, called simply Scurra. It is this last character, first introduced in a brief prologue, who carries most weight in the novel.

A famous scene in Noel Coward's Cavalcade, in which a honeymoon couple on the promenade deck of a liner have been contentedly chattering away about life, death and destiny, ends when the woman removes her cloak from a rail, thus uncovering a lifebelt bearing the legend R.M.S. Titanic. Coward's coup de theatre seems crude now, but contemporary accounts of the voyage are studded with remarks and incidents which acquired a hideous irony in the wake of the disaster. Bainbridge's narrative sensibly embraces hindsight rather than attempting to avoid it: her story is, after all, told in retrospect by a survivor. Some of the irony is straightforward, but elsewhere it is more complicated. Morgan's recollections of blasting away at red squirrels in the company of two directors of the shipping line, for example, brings to mind another apparently thriving species shortly to vanish: the leisured class thronging the upper deck. The wonderful opening sentence of Morgan's reminiscences shows, with Bainbridge's customary economy of means, the sudden, eruption of death into a season more usually associated with life: "At half past four on the afternoon of 8th April 1912 - the weather was mild and hyacinths bloomed in window boxes - a stranger chose to die in my arms." The later significance of this event, we discover, is carefully signalled with that seemingly testy "chose".

Bainbridge's description of the unfolding disaster - at once frightening and funny - is done with a series of small, deft touches: stairs which look perfectly level, but which unbalance someone descending them; male passengers, called up from their warm berths onto the cold deck, "with their naked throats and ankles the colour of lard"; a woman unrecognisable because "she had creamed her face for sleep and her eyebrows had disappeared". The apparent simplicity of this short, beautifully written book should mislead no one. Here is a writer who knows precisely what she is doing and who does it with unemphatic but exhilarating panache.

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