Knowingly undersold

The difficult birth of Beryl Bainbridge's final novel.

My last conversation with Beryl Bainbridge took place over the phone in May last year, during the general election campaign. She was in a bit of a quandary about where to place her vote. David Cameron was a new kind of Tory, wasn't he? I assured her that Cameron was very much of the traditional school. "Well, in that case," she replied distractedly, "I suppose I'll have to vote for old Frank [Dobson]."

Beryl was much more interested in reporting the progress she was making on her latest novel. At last the finishing post was in sight. She was writing and rewriting, cutting out extraneous material so that the book said just as much - or as little - as she wanted. It was a finely balanced exercise. She used to say that she hated books where you read a page and could tell immediately what was going to happen next. Her own novels were painstakingly designed to give away no more than was necessary, even to the extent of forcing readers to retrace their steps in a fruitless exercise to attempt to establish exactly what had taken place. "Darling we'll have brekkie at the beginning of July," she said as she signed off, "when it's all over."

Beryl had told friends that the cancer for which she'd been operated on several years earlier had returned. At dinner in April she had appeared fragile, suffering unduly from the cold, the sparkle of her conversation uncharacteristically dimmed. But it came nevertheless as a great shock to learn of her death in the first week of July after a short spell in University College Hospital, London.

My first thought, after the news had sunk in, was for Beryl's novel. It seemed cruel that she should have died without seeing the book in print. The pain and misery of writing it had dominated much of the final decade of her life. For the first time in her career, she had found herself suffering from writer's block. Previously she had kept up an extraordinary rate of production, publishing a work of fiction every other year over almost three decades, but this 18th novel had almost defeated her. She was worn out and drinking more to compensate for the feeling of detachment she experienced whenever she went to a literary event or party. And she found it impossible to write without the perennial cigarette in hand. She was jubilant when she found a doctor who permitted her to smoke, having realised that writing was more important to her than life.

I suggested to Beryl my own solutions to her dilemma - an autobiography, perhaps. "But my life's all in the novels!" she exclaimed, and at times she did appear to have difficulty distinguishing between the fictional re-creations of her life and actual events. She remembered the first novel she wrote, Harriet Said, completed in 1958, and how one publisher had described

it as repulsive beyond belief. The twist in the tale was based on a trip the 16-year-old Beryl had made to Paris with a business acquaintance of her father's. "He seemed to me about 60, but I suppose he was 40. It seems a bit daft, but I can't remember whether we had an affair. At the hotel, I do remember the concierge at the desk saying, 'Courage, mademoiselle,' as we were going upstairs. That's the first novel."

I pressed on Beryl the idea of writing a book about Dr Crippen. We were both fascinated by the survival until the late 1960s of Ethel Le Neve, Crippen's mistress, and Beryl pointed out the site of the old Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town where Crippen's wife, the unfortunate Belle Elmore, had performed. But when, one Christmas, Beryl presented me with her copy of The Trial of Dr Crippen in the Great Trials series, I realised that the idea had no appeal for her.

For a time she was attracted by the idea of a novel that would play with different notions of time, suggested by Time and the Conways, a play by one of her heroes, J B Priestley. The novel she eventually decided to write, however, took its inspiration from a trip she had made to the United States in the late 1960s. The book would begin and end at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and the plot would revolve around the mysterious sighting of "a girl in a white dress with polka dots" who reportedly ran from the scene of the crime.

Beryl's The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, published on 26 May, is a bitter-sweet masterpiece. It possesses all the elements of tragicomedy associated with the Bainbridge name, and at the same time leaves us with an unforgettable self-portrait of the author as its heroine, Rose. Like Beryl, she has a hatred of confrontation, born out of a dysfunctional upbringing, and a native intelligence that is constantly underestimated.

People found it easy to patronise Beryl. As Lynn Barber once said, she practically did the job for you, telling you how clever you were and how stupid she was. Yet, underneath it all, she was proud of her achievements as a writer and consistently strove to make the next book as good as, if not better than, the last. Publishers took her seriously, too. She may have been paid peanuts by Colin Haycraft, but his successor at Duckworth, Robin Baird-Smith, gave her a hefty sum for her 1996 novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, and saw a solid return on his investment when the paperback sold more than 100,000 copies.

If anything overshadowed Beryl's genius as a novelist, it was the warmth of her personality. Ronald Harwood, raising a glass to her memory at the "Beryl Booker", the public competition to select the best of her five shortlisted titles, put it well. "Beryl Bainbridge," he said, "was a terrific writer and a glorious woman." l

Mark Bostridge's most recent book is “Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend" (Penguin, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis