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13 June 2012updated 09 Sep 2021 12:46pm

Revisiting Paul Bailey’s astonishing first novel, At the Jerusalem

By Leo Robson

Paul Bailey was 30, a lapsed actor and sometime shop assistant, when he published his astonishing first novel in 1967. It won an Arts Council Writers’ Award, an Authors’ Club award, and a Somerset Maugham Award, sold about 2,000 copies, and initiated a busy career – memoir, biography, lots of fiction – that has brought plenty of admirers but no bestseller or major prize (he has reached the Booker shortlist twice). Now reissued in an attractive hardback that, cheekily though gratifyingly, omits to reveal on its front or back cover that this is not a new book, At the Jerusalem remains a striking example of what Philip Hensher, on the dust jacket, calls “imaginative empathy” – a young man’s journey through an old woman’s mind.

Literature for Bailey has always been a vehicle of exploration. Confronted with John Braine’s How to Write a Novel, Bailey claimed that he “let out a wail” on encountering the injunction: “Always write from experience.” Like his hitherto secret admirer Colm Tóibín, who contributes a laudatory introduction here, he embraces curiosity and stoicism while abhorring confessional indulgences. Elizabeth Bishop is their favourite modern American poet, and Bailey once praised another of Tóibín’s pets, the Northern Irish novelist Brian Moore, for refusing to inflict “his private clutter on the reader”.

The novel’s title refers to a home for the elderly, converted from a workhouse during the 1880s. Faith Gadny, onetime chambermaid to the Honourable Mr and Mrs Crabbe, arrives there as a widow after her stepson, Henry, and his wife, Thelma, eject her from their suburban home (like “trash” or “waste”, she maintains). Mrs Gadny initially befriends a woman called Mrs Capes but soon finds her annoying. No one else makes a successful claim on her affections. But she isn’t a misanthrope. Rather, her attitude is the one evoked in a letter she writes to an old neighbour: “The people here are not of my kind, I mean nothing spiteful by that, it is the truth.” (In his new, probably final book, the poetry collection Inheritance, Bailey writes movingly about his mother, who “spent most of her life in service”.)

The Jerusalem women spend their time talking – about Jack the Ripper, modern art, the “annual outing” and, of course, the past. All they really have to hold on to are memories, but these do not provide a desirable distraction from illness or stasis. A woman called Mrs Affery tells Mrs Capes about “those evenings – there were many of them in the first years of their marriage – when Dan had knocked her from one side of the room to the other”. For Mrs Gadny, too, the past is a site of trauma. Her daughter, with whom, we learn, she was “as close as people can be”, has recently died of leukaemia. Her thoughts of husband Tom are split between the night he ejaculated into her fingers, which was the only time he said he loved her (“Or did he?”), and the evening of his somewhat sudden death (“My guts, he said”).

The novel is divided into three sections, with Mrs Gadny’s period of never quite settling in bookending a briefer description of the seven-and-a-half weeks she spent with Henry and Thelma and their unlovable children. Instead of using chapter breaks Bailey leaves a discreet line between vignettes, enabling shifts in pacing and register. Towards the end of the opening section we move from a long dramatic episode, in which Mrs Capes talks about her son, a ballet dancer who died, to a brief interlude evoking Faith’s feelings about the other women:

When it was wet there was no escaping them… You turned a corner and the creature’s yellow face above the tippet was coming for you… In the lounge – that hateful word – they sat about or slept with their mouths open.

The passage ends with respite, a silver lining:

After breakfast, after mid-day dinner, after tea you could sit in the grounds. If Mrs Capes was about, you could sleep or pretend to. There were graves, yes, but there were trees, birds; the sky was above.

Bailey captures Mrs Gadny through her dialogue and her letters, through the observations of other characters, through small pieces of visual description and the quick-fire notation of her thoughts. For a first-timer his command of technical resources is bizarrely smooth, if not virtuoso. Sometimes speech follows thought in quick succession: “Not ‘yes’ again. ‘Perfect.’” In a scene consisting exclusively of speech we know Henry is looking at his scrapbook of murderers when he says to Mrs Gadny in passing, “Here’s Christie. I’ve given him six pages.”

The effect is masterly – to borrow Bailey’s own favourite reviewer’s adjective – and recalls the work of perhaps the two most distinguished English fiction writers alive at the time it was published: VS Pritchett and Henry Green. One was a tragicomic realist, the other a tragicomic impressionist; both were chroniclers of what Bailey has called “the peculiar sharpness of London talk”. Bailey is also a specialist in this field. (I love Mrs Capes’s awestruck/baffled reflection that she “must have been the only Louise in our part of Camberwell”.) Bailey had surely read Pritchett when he started writing, though he has told interviewers – including me – that he wasn’t aware of Green until he was compared to him. He soon fell for the writer’s askew sensibility and spent years on a tantalising aborted biography.

Rereading At the Jerusalem, I was reminded of Pritchett’s reaction to Green’s first novel, Blindness, at a similar, 50-plus years’ distance. Writing in these pages in 1977, Pritchett averred: “Some very fine artists impose themselves, but Henry Green belonged to those who masochistically seek to let their characters speak through them.” “Masochistically” strikes the wrong note, but this is otherwise how Bailey proceeds. And though his first novel is a greater achievement than Blindness (which Green started when still at Eton, and which fails to be, as Pritchett acknowledged, “a sound whole”) it shows, as do his first-person comic novels, Peter Smart’s Confessions and Gabriel’s Lament, that he belongs in these elder writers’ company: as a writer of dialogue, a London portraitist, and a seeker after phrases that describe with exactness a certain inkling or terror or itch. I would struggle to name a novel by a living English writer more worthy of republication. 

At the Jerusalem
Paul Bailey
Head of Zeus, 240pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over