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
Saturday 07 September 1996
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 2 Doctors remove 80 teeth from boy's jaw
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 Sir Winston Churchill’s family begged him not to convert to Islam, letter reveals
- 5 Naomi Wolf reacts to Isis 'conspiracy theories' critism after she questions whether beheading videos are real
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Last Tango in Halifax, BBC1, review: Cosy familiarity and real surprises are perfectly in step
Game of Thrones named most-pirated TV show of 2014
Exodus: Gods and Kings banned in the UAE over 'religious mistakes'
Marilyn Manson breaks silence on Lana Del Rey rape clip: 'I wouldn't make a video of that nature'
Millions of Britons struggling to feed themselves and facing malnourishment
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
Douglas Carswell tells Ukip to stop blaming foreigners as youth poll shows Nigel Farage is even less popular than Nick Clegg