Obituary: Robert Rubens
Wednesday 28 January 1998
Robert Rubens, who published six novels between 1964 and 1990, wrote of what he knew. As a young man in the 1960s, of great good looks, intellectual ability, and a certain degree of wealth, he had cut a swathe through the hearts of fashionable and literary London. In his last years, living in a tiny but exquisite room in Pimlico, he memorialised the society he had known in a vast roman-fleuve, which is as yet unpublished.
Rubens was an American and, moreover, a Philadelphian. He felt that the city where he was brought up, with its rigid social mores, had marked him - perhaps destroyed him. In the manner of a latter-day Henry James, his heart was set on Europe from an early age, and in later years there was no trace in his accent of his origins.
He arrived in London in 1961. He worked in a school and in a bookshop, and then as an assistant editor at the Transatlantic Review, founded by the millionaire Joe McCrindle to publish the best in contemporary writing. Rubens's first novel, The Operator, published in 1964, reveals in lightly coded form what came next.
His two principal female characters were based on leading novelists of the day; among male writers who knew him was Lord Kinross; and he ghosted the memoirs of the dancer and choreographer Leonide Massine, My Life in Ballet (1968). Rubens began giving parties in his new flat in west London, and by his fireplace one warm summer night Angus Wilson, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing all met for the first time.
Rubens always insisted that his happiest period was in the 1970s and 1980s. He worked for a period for Sotheby's book department in New York, and returned briefly to Philadelphia, but the early 1970s saw him established back in London, where he continued to give fabulous parties. He lived for a time in Majorca, and in 1993 returned to London for good.
His second novel, The Cosway Miniature, was published in 1980, and serialised on Radio 4. Only after A Night at the Odeon (1981), Artist Unknown (1985) and Shadow Between Us (1987), in North of the Park (1990), does a darkening of tone begin, which is continued in the novel sequence of his last years.
I first met Robert Rubens soon after his return to London in 1993. Initially, I found him rather formidable; he could certainly be a tease. Only after he had been diagnosed with cancer in July 1997 did I discover fully what sort of person he was: fantastically brave, endlessly optimistic and interested in others, fundamentally good.
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