Beryl Bainbridge: Spectator ab extra
Back to Table of Contents >

In 2015, MacLehose Press published a translation of German author Timur Vermes’s funny, clever novel about Adolf Hitler. Look Who’s Back begins with Hitler waking up in 2011, apparently transported 66 years into the future at the moment of his death in 1945. The rest of the novel follows Hitler while he roams about present-day Berlin. He is mistaken for an extremely good impersonator and soon has an enormous following on YouTube. The set-up also allows Vermes to ventriloquise a quirky, transgressive commentary on modern Germany as Hitler tries to navigate our world:

This Germany was different, but some of its aspects reminded me of the Reich I was familiar with. Bicyclists still existed, as did automobiles, so probably newspapers still existed too. I looked around. And under my bench I did find something resembling a newspaper, albeit printed far more lavishly. The paper was in colour, something new to me. It was called Media Market – for the life of me I could not recall having given my approval to such a publication, nor would I ever have approved it. The information was totally incomprehensible. Anger swelled within me; how, at a time of paper shortage, could the German Volk’s valuable resources be squandered on such mindless rubbish?

Vermes’s novel, narrated entirely by Hitler, is a bravura performance that makes the most of its ingenious central concept: jokes at Hitler’s expense, jokes at our expense, copious verfremdungseffekten, pages of humorous conversations with Hitler and his innocent interlocutor talking at perfect cross-purposes (though that does start to get a little less humorous after a while). Irreverent and energetic, Look Who’s Back thoroughly deserved its front-row seat on the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones.

But in that case, so does Beryl Bainbridge’s 1978 novel, Young Adolf. The concept might not be quite so splashy, but the end result is even more startling. In 1976, after a writers’ tour of Israel, Bainbridge read Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler and was fascinated by the (unsubstantiated) claim that Hitler briefly lived in Liverpool from 1912-13. Where Vermes allows Hitler’s colossal ego full rein at all times, Bainbridge is interested in a different version of Hitler: the unformed, uncertain 23-year-old student-drifter. ‘The world thinks of a monster, and you’ve got to make a character out of a younger man who is not yet a monster,’ she told an interviewer in 1979. ‘That was a great difficulty. In the end I think I bypassed it, I think I failed there.’

Here, as elsewhere, Bainbrige is an unreliable witness to her own work. In the same interview she describes her Adolf Hitler as a ‘cardboard figure, almost clown’. But while there are farcical elements in Young Adolf, there is also – disconcertingly, boldly – plenty of pathos. Which could so easily be hammy, but Bainbridge never exaggerates; she has her head down at all times, focused on the telling detail. There is very little commentary or analysis here, very little of anything except for telling details, one after another, until we are persuaded by sheer accretion. This is how Bainbridge tackles all her diverse subjects: by zooming right in, selecting, cropping, witholding.

In Young Adolf, the real comedy lies in this unlikely juxtaposition of Hitler and the domestic sphere. Young Adolf is an unwanted house-guest in Liverpool, wearing out the patience of his half-brother Alois and his sister-in-law Bridget. They do their best to get on with their lives despite Adolf’s tendency to spend whole days lying on the sofa. It’s nearly Christmas, and Alois and Bridget are making presents for ‘Darling Pat’, their baby son. Bridget is sewing Pat a new outfit:

The table was spread from morning till night with pieces of calico and Scotch wincey and flannelette. Alois moaned perpetually about the cotton threads adhering to his coat. Finally, as soon as he stepped over the threshold he took to placing his hat inside a bag fashioned out of newspaper. He said it was damaging the pile, having to attack the brim so regularly with the clothes brush.

The relentlessness of these trivial details in the context of Adolf Hitler quickly becomes hilarious, as funny – though much subtler – as anything in the Vermes. And when we’re not laughing, we’re feeling uncomfortably sympathetic. Adolf is homesick, though he has no real home to go to; he is desperate to please Bridget and impress his hated older brother; and when the baby is passed his way, he quite likes it:

The baby was tired. He keeled over and lay with his cheek resting trustingly on Adolf’s shoulder. They yawned together, lying there with the lamp hissing on the table. When Bridget came and took him away, Adolf missed him. [my italics; a lesser writer would have been content to stop at the menacing irony of the baby’s proximity to Hitler.]

The period detail in Young Adolf is similarly deft, and superior to that of Master Georgie (1998), the novel about the Crimean War which won Bainbridge her posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ award. (Bainbridge was up for the Booker five times but never won; in 2011, the Booker committee opened her shortlisted books to a popular vote). Admittedly Young Adolf is set in her hometown – Liverpool – within her father’s memory. It wears its research lightly and resists falsifying the past as a quaintly horrific place to live. This is the Hitlers’ Christmas meal. It is attended by various friends and a family of paupers, who have so many children they run out of chairs:

The doctor wanted to separate the children and string them like beads among the company, but Meyer said it would spoil their appetites; he settled them cross-legged on the stone floor with their backs to the wall and gave the eldest boy, Gordon, a cup of beer. Everyone agreed the young had an astonishing time of it now, what with health and public education and generally being treated as persons of some importance. The boy sipping his drink, who was nearly thirteen, had been employed for two years, according to Mrs Prentice, in the soap works in Blundell Street and wasn’t allowed to work after seven o’clock at night. When she thought of her own brother at half Gordon’s age, ferreting up and down chimneys and having the brine rubbed into his knees so that he wouldn’t bleed too much when climbing between the bricks, she thanked God for the decent times they were living in.

Young Adolf makes for a sharp contrast to Bainbridge’s ghoulish fascination with the Holocaust, as reported by Brandon King in his biography Love By Any Means. He makes a case for Beryl falsely remembering ‘being taken, along with the whole of her school, to the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool to see “the unexpurgated version of the film taken by British troops entering Bergen-Belsen”’. ‘There is no record of any such visit,’ King notes, ‘and not a single pupil or alumni of the school remembers the event.’ He also shows Bainbridge altering a diary entry (for inclusion in a newspaper article) ‘to reflect the view of herself as a writer moulded by Nazi atrocities against the Jews in the Second World War’.

King worked for Bainbridge during the last 23 years of her life (from 1987-2010). He acknowledges in his introduction that he has a difficult challenge, thanks to Bainbridge’s tendency to radically re-write her own life story. Born in 1932, she routinely gave her birth date as 1934. ‘After she became a public figure, amending the date of her birth had the effect of heightening the dramatic events of her youth whenever she recounted them.’ These ‘dramatic events’ include her relationship with a 24-year-old German prisoner of war named Harry Franz, which began when Beryl was fourteen (or according to her falsified birthdate, just twelve). Harry is sixth on her list of the 17 boyfriends she had between 1944 and 1949. ‘On an emotional and imaginative level, however, the relationship was hugely significant: thoughts of Harry would preoccupy Beryl for the next two or three years, and his memory left a lasting, idealised image of what the experience of being in love was like.’

In fact, Bainbridge fell in love repeatedly from this point until the mid 1970s. These affairs dominate the first half of the biography, overwriting her career as an actor, then as an artist, and her role as mother to three children. It is genuinely hard to keep up. Her marriage to the artist Austin Davies involved two periods of engagement, during which time several other men proposed. Meanwhile, Austin himself slept with other women. One of them, Anne Lindholm, needed an abortion. After their divorce, he was scrupulous about providing for Bainbridge and their two children. But he cuts an unattractive figure during the course of their relationship, exhorting Bainbridge not to eat too much (‘I would not like you to grow fat’), and offering no sympathy after she was violently raped by a stranger in London. (Although penetration was brief, Bainbridge ended up with a dental plate with a false tooth to replace one she’d lost in the struggle.)

The next great romance after Austin was con artist Alan Sharp, who hid details of his various marriages and children from Bainbridge and provided the material for her wonderful novel Sweet William. Bainbridge’s third child Rudi was Alan’s, although Austin took Rudi on as his own, and her surname was officially changed from Sharp to Davies. Then came an American computer programmer called Harold Retler (they travelled across the States together in a VW campervan). Then another struggling artist, Don McKinlay. At this point – 1968 – she was still capable of being entirely uprooted by each new passion, and experiencing crashing dejection when it failed to last. ‘How does love grow?’ she wrote to Don McKinlay:

It is embarrassing at this age and time to use the word… I should prefix it by if thats what its called, well sort of, kind of, something like it, but I cannot truthfully do so, being fully hung up, overboard, delirious, foxy, beyond myself, thru and under and over you with the emotion labelled by that word.

In the mid-1970s, Bainbridge’s romantic life quietened somewhat and the writing began to take off: ten novels in as many years during her most productive period.

I’ve just at last, late after 20 years of jittering about, found who I was, or at least what I wanted to do. So I write me books, and go to work and clean the house, never answer the phone or go out at all socially, lock the door, threaten the children with dire doom if they let anyone in to me. I don’t even open letters except just sometimes. This is all whilst I am writing a book, as I am now. I have a couple of gentleman callers on alternate Wednesday afternoons and I go to bed at four a.m. every night (or dawn) of the week and get up at seven. I look about 130. When I am not writing a book I sleep a lot, do a bit of painting, see just a few people and try to fall in love. But only briefly – no more terrible heartbreaks and pangs.

It is a shame that Brendon King only arrives at this point on page 355, with just over 100 pages to go and more than half of Bainbridge’s life left to tell. Even though he saw her regularly, King himself is notably absent from the account of her last two decades. He makes a couple of brief appearances, amounting to less than a page. He would have witnessed at least the tail-end of the messy, scandalous relationship Bainbridge developed with her publisher Colin Haycraft at Duckworth & Co. Bainbridge had been ‘discovered’ part-way through her career by his wife Anna Haycraft (who was once Anne Lindholm, the woman pushed into aborting Austin’s baby). The two women struck up a friendship, but for the last fourteen years of Colin’s life, he and Bainbridge were lovers. When Anna was dying in 2005, she refused to let Bainbridge visit. Both here and on the subject of Bainbridge’s complex financial relationship with Duckworth & Co, King is at pains to remain as neutral as possible. The reader must glean what they can from what direct quotation King provides, such as this note from Bainbridge to her friend Penny Jones after a night of particularly heavy drinking (there were many). She was worried that she had been indiscreet about her love for Colin.

Pen-Pen: Please could you give me a brief ring at work and just tell me if I did. I mean I have a recollection of telling someone I was madly in love with him. You know who. Did I imagine it or did I tell you – worse still did I vanish anywhere with Anna and tell her? Did I tell him – himself? It is 5 oclock in the morning – I am going for a walk as I can’t stop laughing.

Laughing. The amused spectator of her own involvement and confusion. There is a lot, you sense, that King feels he can’t say, and this caution extends to the fiction, too. At no point does he offer any real analysis of the novels. Instead we have a few paragraphs of quotations from contemporary reviews, presented as a reliable verdict. Bainbridge herself was hard on Sweet William (1975), describing it as ‘very disjointed’. King quotes Peter Ackroyd in the Spectator, who wrote: ‘It may be that Beryl Bainbridge is too close to the experience to give it those hard edges and that strain of wilful comedy which generally mark her work.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. What is remarkable about Sweet William – and Bainbridge’s fiction in general – is the entire absence of sensational embellishment and emotional excess that drenched her real life. They are dark, dry masterpieces of restraint. In Sweet William, the wilfully unseeing protagonist, Ann, allows herself to be duped by William, the Alan Sharp figure. Soon she is jobless and pregnant, sharing William with two other women and pretending not to notice. It is the sharpest, funniest depiction of romantic doublethink you could wish for, and clear-eyed about sex as well. This is Ann at the start of the novel, with the man she will leave for William:

He bent her over the sofa and made love to her standing up. It didn’t work very well because he was too drunk; every time he lunged forward she was pressed against the upholstered arm, and dust filled her nose.

Ann repeatedly half-challenges William about his extracurricular activities, but he always has an answer:

‘You shouldn’t do that,’ she whispered. ‘It’s not right.’

‘What isn’t?’ he said.

‘Lying on our bed, with her. Without your clothes.’

‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘Don’t be so bloody narrow. I’m like a brother to her.’

‘Her’ is Ann’s cousin Pamela, who is suffering from a recent abortion: ‘After all, Pamela had lost a lot of blood and was still weak, or pretending to be.’ This toughness is maintained right to the very last page, taking in a wonderful set piece at Ann’s family home that matches the Edna O’Brien of The Country Girls for merciless observation:

Supper time was festive, with a glass of sherry to celebrate her homecoming, and ham cut from the bone. George Patterson had been in hospital with heart trouble. Aimée Hughes had had a breast removed. Mrs Munro’s sister’s child had produced a baby without arms. Mrs Glendinning had gone peacefully in her sleep – the only way to go. Mrs Munro herself was being treated for hypertension.

‘Why?’ asked Ann, shocked.

‘Nerves. She runs the whist-drives. She does all her own gardening.’

There is one strange recurring problem with Bainbridge’s prose – strange because it seems so basic. She struggles, sometimes, to make it clear who is moving where, when, and doing what – to make visible the spatial reality of her creation, without being confusing or boring. There isn’t too much of this in Sweet William, but Master Georgie and Injury Time both demand slightly tedious re-reading at points. This is from Injury Time, Bainbridge’s comic novel about infidelity (inspired by her relationship with Clive de Pass, a married father of six who performed legal work for her publisher):

Muriel picked up the newspaper parcel and took it into the front garden. As she approached the bins she thought she heard voices behind the hedge. Curious, she stepped out onto the pavement. She saw a woman pushing a pram and a taxi coming along the street in the same direction. The woman looked over her shoulder at the taxi, and at that moment the police car on the corner edged into the road. The taxi swerved, scraped the side of Simpson’s Fiat parked at the kerb and, accelerating, drove left, past the block of flats. The police car reversed, mounted the pavement, rammed a plane tree in a circle of earth and with siren hideously wailing sped round the corner in pursuit. The woman, trundling the pram ahead of her, ran straight at Muriel.

Not unintelligible by any means, but it requires concentration and the payoff is minimal. There is a lot of this in Injury Time, some of it describing physical farce in such slow motion that comedy becomes impossible. Still, the novel is absolutely worth your time (not that any of Bainbridge’s slim volumes will take up much of that). As well such local pleasures as ‘his father’s hand scuttling into a leather glove’[my italics] it contains what must surely be one of the best rape scenes in all fiction. It’s nothing like Bainbridge’s account of her actual rape, but it’s entirely convincing, from the victim’s involuntary smile (‘She was showing all her teeth and grinning in the darkness’) to her self-consciousness while undressing (‘She hoped her feet didn’t smell’) to her perverse determination to prove herself ‘uninhibited and matter of fact about the whole business’. When it comes to the moment of penetration, she is ready for him. ‘It wasn’t anything to do with wanting it – the rudeness of the whole thing accomplished the necessary lubrication’.

It goes on, with Bainbridge seeing it all, one thing at a time, sifting, pointing, naming, telling. From the letters and diaries and journalism that King quotes from so liberally, it’s obvious that this was the way she watched the world, when she wasn’t high on love. The gaze of very good writer with gifts to spare. In her account of her mother’s funeral, she recalls dossing down ‘among the snuffling velvet cushions of the settee in the dining room’, with her mother laid out upstairs, ‘the hard centre of an Easter egg, in a coffin frilled at the edges with white paper.’ Or how about this early draft of the novel that became The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (posthumously completed by King):

She takes hold of his wrist and feels the cold curve of his watch and kneels upright, guiding him, holding his middle finger like a teacher helping a child to write its alphabet, tracing the capital of her cunt with him until he finds trembling the clung looseness of her labia…

Thinking of the alphabet: one last thing that shouldn’t go unmentioned, as it did in John Carey’s review of the biography for the Sunday Times. Bainbridge was severely dyslexic. Her spelling and grammar, preserved throughout by King, were, as Carey puts it, ‘terrible’. But no one should imagine this made her stupid. It signals exactly the opposite: a mind powerful enough to overcome a disability that would prevent most people from going anywhere near a life of words.



'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera