Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #14: Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge

There was a film on the BBC a few years ago that nearly broke my heart. Beryl Bainbridge, then 70, was convinced she was going to die within the year, given that both her parents had died at 71. Her nephew made a film of those “last” months, following her around London and her hometown, Liverpool. It was beautiful and incredibly sad to see the old lady, wheezing yet still chain-smoking, revisit her past. It turned out she had the dates wrong, and she did not die that year, but that was hardly the point. It’s rare to be allowed a frank view of how our heroes and heroines deal with age and death. Someone not familiar with her writing would probably have chosen not to see behind the weirdness of that story, but having read a fair bit of her work, I saw the same eccentricity that pervades it, and loved her even more. And the way she chatted about the stories that made her, you could tell she was an expert storyteller.
Every Man For Himself, then, was always going to be a wonderful piece of writing. I think it helped that I don’t know much about the historical background of this short novel. Yes, that’s right, people, I have never seen Titanic! I know the facts from the wonderful exhibit in Liverpool’s Maritime Museum, and that’s pretty much it. But I know how Beryl Bainbridge deals with history, and that is not the way the movie did. (Hence some slightly disappointed reviews on goodreads.)

The novel starts in medias res, and for a few pages, I had no idea what was going on. After a while it turns out the story is seen through the eyes of Morgan, the adopted nephew of millionaire J.P. Morgan, who struggles with both his past and his future on his way back to his family in America. Surrounded by his peers, all young, rich and carefree, he is drawn to a mysterious trio of people he first sees while waiting to board the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Scurra, the most mysterious of them all, seems to know everyone on board and catches Morgan unaware by analysing his fears and illusions, heightening Morgan’s depression and unease. All the while, the Titanic steams towards disaster…

The obvious genius of the novel is that everybody knows what will happen in the end, and every little detail gains significance, from snippets of conversations about bad omens to the way the people on the upper deck seem utterly bored with their lives, yet they will be the ones to survive. Bainbridge has a field day playing with the readers’ knowledge of events. She weaves little facts into the fictional story, and everything seems completely believable. I can see how people looking for the big drama would be disappointed up until the last few pages, which managed to choke me quite a bit, but I loved the way Bainbridge stubbornly focussed on Morgan’s point of view. As in any good story, he does grow and learn, and it’s mostly thanks to the mysterious and not altogether likeable Scurra, who plays the role of a Mephistopheles. (See, I’m so proud of making all those links. I spare you my “Master and Margarita” theory.) In conversation with him, Morgan discovers and begins to doubt his morals and convictions, and in the end sees his peers and (adopted) class for what it is – something that stubbornly clings to the splendour of the sinking ship and ultimately lacks the willpower to swim to safety.
Every Man For Himself is a short novel, and a beautifully understated one. There are so many aspects that could have been elaborated. But the Titanic’s journey was a short one, and Beryl Bainbridge manages to cram just as much life, death, questions, doubts, mysteries and tragedies into a short novel. It’s a work of art. The movie, on the other hand, had Celine Dion…

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2 thoughts on “Karo’s #CBR4 Review #14: Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge

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