Francis King

All passion still not spent

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When I Grow Up

Bernice Rubens

Little, Brown, pp. 256, £

From her earliest years, one attribute dominated Bernice Rubens’s life: passion. It fuelled her impressive books, her personal relationships and her reactions to the world around her. It expressed her innate generosity of spirit, but could also deprive her of the ability to consider any viewpoint contrary to her own.

Of such passion there is little in this posthumously published memoir. Instead, the general tone is one of valedictory tenderness. Rubens writes far more about a close-knit and much-loved clan than about her successes, first as a maker of documentary films and then as the author of 25 novels, one of which, The Elected Member, won the 1970 Booker Prize, and many of which were subsequently filmed. When she does write of her career, it is to concentrate too much, albeit in an always amusing way, on the kind of embarrassments and humiliations that every writer has been obliged to endure when asked to deliver a lecture or take part in a bookshop signing or a British Council tour.

Like the Jewish immigrants in her novel Brothers, Rubens’s father, Eli Reuben, arrived in Wales from Latvia after a Hamburg tout had conned him by selling him a ticket to Cardiff instead of to Chicago. Intensely musical, he had brought with him two violins, his only portable wealth. Whereas three of his four children became professional musicians of distinction, Bernice became an amateur one, so enthusiastic that the flats which she occupied in rapid succession (‘Jews are very good at packing,’ she remarks at one point) always contained a grand piano and a cello. Money was never plentiful; but these were people with the determination and the ability to better themselves. Bernice writes disparagingly of her youthful self, ‘I stole, I swore, I lied and I sulked.’ But one gets the impression that here already was a character bursting with idealism, intelligence and ardour.

On two occasions, however, the passion of past years disrupts the gently reminiscent mood. One of these passages deals with the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, the other with Rubens’s husband Rudolf Nassauer. The paragraphs beginning ‘It was during that time that a Mr Elias Canetti came into our lives’ are devastating in their demolition of both the man and his work. Rubens’s conclusion that Canetti was ‘wicked, depraved, vicious and spiteful’ is one with which many people, myself included, would certainly agree. But to deny his remarkable talent seems to me perverse.

About Nassauer, also a novelist, she is almost as unsparing. Neglectful, selfish and sometimes even cruel, he had a number of affairs during their uneasy years together. When one of his mistresses had a son, the news totally devastated Rubens, who had produced two girls but never the boy that Nassauer had always wanted. A divorce followed. Some time after that divorce I met Nassauer for the first time in Rubens’s flat. Boastful, skittish and shifty in manner, he did not impress me. But it was pathetically clear that Rubens still loved him. The memoir confirms this, despite its scrupulous cataloguing of his misdemeanours and defects of character.

The blurb declares that Rubens had already completed this book by the time of her death. If that is the case, then one can only conclude that she must have lacked either the strength or the time to carry out a revision. For example, there is an amusing section devoted to the happy period when Rubens lived in Belsize Park Gardens. Because it is written in the present tense, readers will assume that this was her last place of residence. But in fact each time on the grounds that her oven had collected too much ‘crud’ (would it not have been easier and cheaper to clean the oven or have it cleaned than to up sticks?), she subsequently made three further moves. Surely an editor ought to have noticed this?

Though everything that this book reveals is of interest, its compass is maddeningly restricted. A biographer is now needed to do full justice to a life so crowded with literary achievements, transient but passionate love affairs, innumerable friendships, many brief spats and occasional bitter and long-lasting feuds.