Bernice Rubens

Booker prizewinning novelist who favoured the bizarre
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bernice Rubens was the prolific author of 25 novels who, paradoxically, wrote very slowly - regarding a good day as one in which she produced three decent sentences. A Booker prizewinner in 1970 for her novel The Elected Member, she is probably best known for her second novel, Madame Sousatzka, which John Schlesinger filmed with Shirley MacLaine in the leading role in 1988.

Bernice Ruth Rubens, writer: born Cardiff 26 July 1923; FRSL 2001; married 1947 Rudolf Nassauer (died 1996; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1970); died London 13 October 2004.

Bernice Rubens was the prolific author of 25 novels who, paradoxically, wrote very slowly - regarding a good day as one in which she produced three decent sentences. A Booker prizewinner in 1970 for her novel The Elected Member, she is probably best known for her second novel, Madame Sousatzka, which John Schlesinger filmed with Shirley MacLaine in the leading role in 1988.

Her books veered intoxicatingly between serious history, wild black comedy and gothic excess. She favoured the bizarre: in Spring Sonata (1979) a foetus refuses to be born; in Autobiopsy (1993) a writer uses his dead mentor's brain for inspiration. Her black comedy could be very black - in Birds of Passage (1981) two elderly women are repeatedly raped by a steward on a Mediterranean cruise. One of them finds the experience a sexual awakening, the other plots murderous revenge.

Her common themes were both domestic and international - she moved with ease from family tensions to Jewish history, culture and morality, often setting fictional and real-life characters together against a backdrop of the major 20th-century events.

Bernice Rubens was born in Cardiff in 1923 (though she later said 1928), the third of four children of Eli Harold Rubens, a Lithuanian Jew who had arrived in Cardiff at the turn of the century believing it to be New York. "He was conned," Rubens explained:

That wave of immigration at the turn of the century was based on a monumental swindle. Ticket touts at Hamburg - the main taking-off point in Eastern Europe - were charging them for a passage to South Africa and then putting them on boats to Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull - or Cardiff.

Her father had a brother waiting for him in America:

He had been in Cardiff for a couple of weeks before someone pointed out to him that he wasn't actually in New York.

Rubens was brought up in poor circumstances in an end-of-terrace house near the Cardiff suburb of Splott. The family took in lodgers and her father made a living as a tallyman or credit draper. He would buy shirts or a pair of shoes and go into the valleys where he sold them to miners for a shilling a week. Bernice went with him once:

I saw for myself how very deeply he was loved by those families. They were chapel-going folk and my father was a religious Jew - maybe that was part of their close understanding. He was so soft-hearted that he would waive the last payments towards the end because the stuff was usually worn out by then.

When she was four she went to kindergarten and at seven to Roath Park Primary, a tram-ride away from her home.

Her father was a talented musician. He had brought a violin with him to England and the children were encouraged to play music. Her brothers and sister all later became professional musicians. She did play cello and piano, but not to the same standard. "I was brought up in a kind of isolated state inasmuch as I was the only non-musician," she recalled. "But I became a listener, which is so important for a writer."

Rubens took her 11-plus early and went to Cardiff High School, which her sister Beryl also attended. Because the family still had to be careful with money, the sisters shared the Panama hat that was obligatory wear in the summer term.

Although she regarded the gym teacher as "a sadist", Rubens was good at sport (she swam every morning for most of her life). Her English teacher inspired her love of literature but Rubens also "loved" grammar because "it tunes the ear, rather like doing a good crossword". She thrived at the high school and she played in the school orchestra.

Rubens did well in her School Certificate - English, French and History - so well that she got scholarships to go to Cardiff University. She took her degree in English and often said she didn't find the fact she was still living at home a hindrance to her social life. (Although she also said that she was a "good" girl.) She spent a lot of time in the union and was president of both the socialist and music societies.

Later, she regretted studying English. "It is very hard to sit down and write with George Eliot breathing down your neck." She got a 2:1 and toyed with the idea of doing a doctorate but decided it was too much work.

After the Second World War the family became more prosperous. It had a car, a fridge, a telephone and a new house in the middle-class suburb of Penylan. Each August the family would decamp to Porthcawl, 30 miles from Cardiff, for the month. Eli would join them at weekends. Later, Rubens wrote a novel about these family holidays - I Sent a Letter to My Love (1975) - which in 1981 was made into a film, Chère inconnue, set in Brittany and starring Simone Signoret.

In 1946 Bernice Rubens moved down to London and a year later married Rudolf Nassauer, a wine merchant from a rich, assimilated Jewish family who was also an aspiring novelist. She later described it as "a good and productive marriage, although not always happy". The unhappiness was because he was often unfaithful to her.

They had two daughters. She began writing at 35 in 1958 whilst her children were at nursery school and just as she was also beginning a career in the documentary film industry as a director and scriptwriter. Her first novel, Set on Edge (1960), was a comedy about parental expectation. She followed it with Madame Sousatzka (1962) about an infant prodigy and a mad but talented piano teacher.

In her third novel, Mate in Three (1966), she wrote about the state of her marriage. She frankly admitted later that the book was bad:

Oh, my worst book was Mate in Three. It just didn't do it for me. Some of my books haven't worked and I know which ones they are - I don't need any critic to tell me.

Rudi Nassauer left her in the late Sixties. At the time she refused to take his money because she didn't want to ease his guilt. She was "devastated" at the time but later said:

I think I was meant to be alone from birth. I am unfit to live with. Maybe all the time I was working towards this . . . aloneness.

After the breakdown of her marriage she apparently took to acting as Miss Haversham for comic effect among friends and also famously said: "The greatest revenge is to live well." She wrote about the breakdown of her marriage in Go Tell the Lemming (1973). Later she and her ex-husband became good friends.

Before that novel, however, she had won the nascent Booker Prize, in its second year, for The Elected Member (1969). It explored the then fashionable theories of the rogue psychologist R.D. Laing, who believed that the source of an individual's mental illness was the family. She followed this in 1971 with Sunday Best, a story about a transvestite schoolmaster. Other novels in the Seventies included A Five Year Sentence (1978), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Rubens was also writing and directing documentary films. They included a series on Indonesia for the UN and a Man Alive documentary about parents of the mentally handicapped. She was also a British Council representative. Her experiences were used to good account in The Ponsonby Post (1977).

She produced pretty much a book every couple of years from now on whilst busying herself with other commitments: in 1982 she became a Fellow of Cardiff University and in 1986 was a Booker Prize judge. (She wanted Robertson Davies to win. Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils won. She commented on the winner: "It was one of the silliest books I have ever read in my life - you read it on Monday with pleasure and forgot it on Tuesday.")

In the Eighties and Nineties her writing pace never slackened. Her publications included: Brothers (1983), Mr Wakefield's Crusade (1985 - turned into a television series in 1992), Kingdom Come (1990, winner of the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction), A Solitary Grief (1991), Mother Russia (1992), Yesterday in the Back Lane (1995), The Waiting Game (1997) and I, Dreyfus (1999, shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction). Milwaukee (2001) and Nine Lives (2002) followed. Her last book, The Sergeants' Tale (2003), was probably her grittiest. It is set in 1947 around the struggle of Israeli terrorist groups to force the British army out of Palestine.

She wrote every day, declaring, "I feel unclean if I don't write." She worked in an attic room - her "hole in the sky" - with her desk set up beside a grand piano, a cello. She once explained:

I do a nice sentence, then I think, that deserves a little tinkle on the piano. I do another sentence and then I have a go on the cello.

The quality of her work could be patchy. This might be attributed to the fact that she only ever wrote one draft of her books and never plotted them in advance:

I never know where I am going in a book, and that makes it exciting. I know and direct the characters, but if I knew the plot . . . that would be boring.

Writing was her life but it wasn't an uncomplicated relationship. She said once: "I don't love writing, but I love having written, if you know what I mean." And throughout her life her pace never slackened - she was writing her memoirs almost to the end of her life.

Of death she said in interview:

I don't want to die, but I am not scared of it. Although there is a sadness when you realise you're going to anyway . . . As long as I'm writing, I feel that I'm kind of immortal.

Peter Guttridge

I knew Bernice Rubens, in a sense, long before I met her, writes Beryl Bainbridge, in that her brother Cyril was the chief violinist in the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s. Indeed my ex-husband, Austin Davies, painted his portrait. I met Bernice some years later, when she and I, along with Melvyn Bragg, Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, John Bailey and Iris Murdoch, toured Israel on a British Council visit. The thing I remember, apart from us all getting tipsy at a reception of the British Consul's in Tel Aviv, is that Bernice told me a very rude joke just as we entered the Good Shepherd Café.

After that she and I met frequently . . . argued . . . and as the years went by boasted about our beloved grandchildren, and turned up at Booker prizegiving nights with one or other of them on our arm. My Bertie or Charlie rented a suit: her Joshua or Dash flaunted something more outrageous. Once a fortnight Bernice and I met for breakfast in the Delancey Café, Camden Town, to gossip and tell secrets. We smoked together for 15 years; then both of us were medically advised, ordered, to give up nicotine. Both of us pretended to do so, looking anxiously out of the window through a mist of smoke.

We taught together on various writing courses, in France, in Wales, at Arvon. If any rows broke out among the students, I hid while Bernice sorted things out. The week before she became ill we spent a weekend with close friends on the Isle of Wight. We talked about medicine a lot, a subject she hated and once, at a seaside café, she walked off and sat on the wall and stared out at the water. Later she said it made her feel calm, that the contemplation of ocean and sky had given her peace of mind.

Bernice Rubens was not an easy person to bond with, not if you had an exalted sense of your own importance. She had a rigid and unshakeable belief in the truth, as she saw it. Everything was either black or white. I loved her, and admired her courage and her capacity to care about so many things and to stand by her beliefs.



Comments