Monday, 20 June 2016
A Weekend With Claude
A Weekend With Claude - Beryl Bainbridge
(I read the revised 1981 issue of what was her first published novel. The dust jacket describes it as "virtually a new book". Having not read the original I can make no comment on this.)
"With each circlet of grease I rubbed away one or more layer of romantic love and sat exposed with shiny nose and oily mouth, suburban, self-tormenting, waiting to be hurt."
I have been inspired to try to put together this post by the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week (which ended yesterday). I participated in a previous iteration of this event in 2012 and have been gradually accumulating a number of posts on novels by Bainbridge, who has become firmly ensconced in my own personal canon over the lifetime of this blog. In it's original form A Weekend With Claude was Bainbridge's first published novel, but given that the rather brilliant Harriet Said had been written before meant this didn't dampen my expectations.
The book is framed by scenes in the present tense where Claude, who deals in antiques from his home in the countryside, comes across a photograph in a desk that he is selling. It is the photograph that adorns the cover of my edition of the book. I don't know if the photo was set up to adorn the book or if Bainbridge used an actual photo to inspire the book. The most a quick google search will tell me is that there is much of a biographical nature in here so I guess that might indicate Option 2 but not with any certainty.
It does have the feel of something improvised and it certainly lacks the focus and exuberance of Harriet Said. As well as the framing episodes which focus on Claude we have chapters recounted from the point of view of Lily (second from right in photo (Bainbridge) - "she leapt from one piece of suffering to another"); Victorian Norman (on right - "In a decent society we should all be pushed to the wall - if not shot, then at least put outside the confines of the city, to roam like wolves in the great wastes beyond the gates.") and Shebah (Centre - "Shebah's one of those people who once seen are never forgotten. She wears bright red lipstick and her upper lip is quite hairy. Most people refuse to walk down the street with her. Norman says she looks like a demented nun, but I think she's more like a crazed pirate."). Other characters include Edward (far left - "He was awfully nice. Quiet, but very nice."), who Lily intends to use as a convenient father for the child she is carrying - the father having left; Claude's partner Julia, who tidied up the mess Claude was in after his first wife Sarah left him and the couple who are there to buy a desk but (as far as I remember and can be confirmed by a quick glance, are never named).
As the events recounted are in the past and the characters seem mostly connected by past events and interested in their history there is a sense that this is like watching a fireworks display made up of the fireworks falling back to earth, very little evidence of the energy and display that drove them there remaining in the sky. These are lives that are coming apart at the seams, more seedy than bohemian, dingy rather than debauched.
Claude is introduced as someone who has been patched back together by his second wife, having fallen apart along with his first marriage: "There was a time, after all, to cease being beautiful and a time to cease being young, and for him it had been when his wife left him." Most of the characters seem to revel in self-pity, and Claude is no different, blaming his ex-wife for taking what was probably less than her due: "When my wife left me, she didn't even take a toothbrush. But later, when I was ill, she sent a van and cleaned me out, lock, stock and barrel."
Claude seems to enjoy making his customers awkward with his louche behaviour, including a rather pronounced oral fixation.."'A child that's denied food when it cries is also denied love, I reckon. The withholding of food by the mother object is a withholding of love. And it doesn't just stop there. Most mentally disturbed adults crave sugar - you know, sweets and sugary drinks, all the fattening things.'" He follows this up with the sort of lines delivered by Gareth Keenan in The Office: "'That's why you girls like having your breasts sucked,' said Claude. 'You know instinctively you're giving the man both food and love.' He leaned forward and put his arm round the woman's shoulders and shook her. 'It's true, isn't it, girl? It's the truth, isn't it?
She was consumed with embarrassment and excitement. It was as if he'd shown her a pack of obscene photographs."
The bridge between Claude and the rest of the visitors is Lily who arrives trailing her diffident and awkward train of friends on the mission to convince Edward that it is he who has made Lily pregnant and she is the one he should marry. Lily is always conscious of the effect she and the others might be making. Everything seems to be an act. "We did look rather interesting in a sort of a way, and I felt rather proud and rather ashamed of us all." She had gone to boarding school in the building next door to Claude's house and she thinks back to those days, in particular one picturesque Christmas scene: "It was a bit like a Christmas card , and I think I felt like crying. I don't mean I was homesick or anything. It's just that sentimental moments like that generally make me forget how special I could be if only I had the chance, and I get all lost and puny and dwindle right down to almost nothing." She can't even share attention with the weather.
Bainbridge wanders into Ivor Cutler territory when she recounts the meeting of Lily and Victorian Norman. He comes to view a room in her decrepit house, subject to floods and falling apart at the seams. "I felt very like a landlady, which I was, and I behaved very formally at the beginning. I started to say that I liked to be quiet, but Norman didn't stop at a distance to listen; he advanced closer and closer, neck stuck out like a tortoise above his wing collar, till we were nose to nose, and my skirt began to smoulder. Oh ho, I thought, this is a right one all right, and then he spun me round and beat at my bottom with his flat check cap. After he had come to live in the house he said he couldn't believe his luck - me catching fire like that."
Lily loves drama and doesn't underplay it. "A knife thrust into the personality, Claude says, can lead to loss of life." However this might not be quite so dramatic, Lily as fragile as she is dramatic. However (minor spoiler alert...) everyone survives in this novel, not something one can be sure of when entering a Bainbridge novel.. But these are the sort of people who survive without prospering, except maybe for Claude.. ("I know he's had his troubles, his sufferings, though God knows he's done it in comfort, in opulence..")
Bainbridge is not one to sentimentalise her characters, or to lionise them either. She includes the stuff polite society would prefer to leave out, at least of funeral orations: "He omitted to mention that my father suffered from severe melancholia at least once a month; nor did he mention the misery he caused my mother, the long evenings she sat in the is bedroom with red eyes, the sugar bowl dented because it had missed her and hit the wall behind, the smashed window in the hall."
It is the messy end of Lily's relationship with Billie that is the real reason for this trip. Although they had never quite taken the plunge into marriage, or even living together ("Billie didn't actually live with me, in case my mother dropped in and accused me of being a whore.") Lily and Billie had been an item and there was some expectation the relationship might become permanent, at least in Lily's mind. When Billie leaves for Australia there are plans for her to follow but when he returns he doesn't collect her but instead leaves her with child, and a problem - "I simply have to get married this time, because of the baby not yet born, and that's why we all came here this weekend - for me to make Edward the father of the baby."
How does this pan out? Well there's plenty of fumbling and bedroom farce, broken antiques, attempted suicide and even a shooting. The three narrators have a rather ambiguous relationship with the truth and may romanticise their misery. But there is a ring of truth to their "rackety" lives, to the smell of mildew and disappointment. And there are plenty of suitably acid phrases:
"After a time one has to pretend that certain things matter in order to appear normal - it's all so feeble."
"I do understand her predicament - to be always missing the crucifixion she craves..."
"I get so irritated and my words are only a form of vomit."
There are also darker narratives lurking in the shadows of this book, and reconstructing them is another pleasure, if a rather unhealthy one....
There is also a presentiment of one of Bainbridge's future books: "I remember going to see Peter Pan when I was small and thinking how weird it was when Peter said to the lost boys that to die must be an awfully big adventure." I think An Awfully Big Adventure may be my next dose of Beryllium*.
* Beryllium is a chemical element with symbol Be and atomic number 4. It is created through stellar nucleosynthesis and is a relatively rare element in the universe.