Booker-winning novelist whose work focused on the more disturbing aspects of human behaviour
Thu 14 October 2004
Bernice Rubens had just completed her autobiography when she died, at the age of 76. She worked most days. "I feel unclean if I don't write," she explained. "I don't love writing. But I love having written." Though this was her third career - she taught English and made documentary films before she took up her pen at the age of 30 - she published 24 novels, which won critical acclaim, popularity and prestigious prizes. Her autobiography was her first work of non-fiction.
Rubens's fourth novel, The Elected Member, won the 1970 Booker prize, beating work by Iris Murdoch, William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen. She was almost unknown at the time. Though the book was a Literary Guild choice in America, at home it had been ignored by some newspapers and magazines and had sold only 3,000 copies. She did not win the prize again, although her ninth novel, A Five Year Sentence (1978), was a runner-up.
Her second book, Madame Sousatzka (1962), became a film starring Shirley MacLaine and directed by John Schlesinger; her seventh, I Sent A Letter To My Love (1975), was also filmed, with Simone Signoret; and her 13th, Mr Wakefield's Crusade (1985), was made into a BBC TV miniseries.
Rubens enjoyed the respected place she had achieved in the literary world. She was an honorary vice-president of International PEN and served as a Booker judge in 1986. She maintained close friendships with a chosen group of colleagues, including Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Bailey and Francis King. She could be combative with writers she did not like, famously disparaging Martin Amis for his backward-written Holocaust novel, Time's Arrow, both on radio and in her novel Autobiopsy (1995).
Success did not cure the insecurity that such aggression (quite convincingly) concealed, or change the wry, matter-of-fact view she took of her own writing. "Better than most, not as good as some," was her crisp verdict.
She was a compelling storyteller, weaving her novels from many strands: her own vivid experiences, her friends' and family's lives, centuries of Jewish tradition and history; above all, her remarkable and disturbing imagination. In everyday places - a suburban villa, an English public school, a home for the elderly - Rubens showed the horrors that can lie behind net curtains and cosiness, polite conversation or an unexplained wink.
Though her novels have many themes, she admitted that she really only wrote about one thing. Human relationships were the core material of her books, especially within a family. ("Everything that happens in a family is more so in a Jewish family," she said.) To this subject she brought her unsparing scrutiny, ruthless candour and a dark, unquenchable humour.
As her prolific output suggested, she was good at getting ideas for novels and fast in putting them down on paper. She only wrote one draft and she claimed she did not know what was going to happen in her ingenious plots before she wrote them. That would have been boring. But she knew her characters.
In these people lay the paradox of her fiction, which was (like them) at once intensely human and deeply bizarre. In the cavalcade of their lives - painful, funny, grotesque - death is a constant presence. A high proportion of her characters commit suicide or murder; some do both. What the others get up to may be more easily hidden, but in its own way it is no less extreme. Rubens got inside their minds, and what she found and showed there offered her readers little comfort. Fear; greed; fanaticism; cruelty; malignity (sometimes motiveless). Or the cold hell of loneliness, that itself begets monsters. She once admitted that she had lived in that all her life.
She was born in Cardiff. Her father, Eli Rubens, was a Lithuanian Jew who thought he was escaping anti-semitism for America when he boarded his ship at Hamburg around 1900. But the ticket tout had swindled him: he was shoved off at Cardiff. It was a fortnight before he realised he wasn't in New York. He married Dorothy Cohen, whose family had emigrated from Poland, and became a "tallyman", buying suits and shoes and selling them to miners for a shilling a week.
Eli had brought a half-violin with him, and his two sons and elder daughter all became professional musicians. Harold, his firstborn, was to suffer the tragic loss of his exceptional gifts to illness; Cyril, the youngest in the family (and for Bernice, "the love of my life"), became a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra. To her great sorrow, he was the first of her siblings to die, in 1997.
Bernice, Eli's third child, refused the half-violin. She wanted to play the cello, which was too expensive. So when the extended family visited and marvelled at the other children's playing on Sundays, she sat apart, feeling an outsider.
"You are an observer," her mother told her, perhaps in consolation. Later, she did learn the cello and the piano, and played them for the rest of her life. She liked to present herself as a failed musician rather than the accomplished writer she was.
She read English at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and married young. Her husband, Rudi Nassbauer, a wine merchant who also wrote poetry and fiction, came from a family of German Jews who held eastern European Jews such as Bernice's family in low esteem. Bernice bore two daughters, taught English at a Birmingham grammar school from 1950 to 1955, then went into the film industry. Her documentaries were well received, one entitled Stress winning the American Blue Ribbon award in 1968.
Another film took her to Java, where she was appalled at the failings of the international aid agencies and developed a deep respect for the traditional wisdom. Impressed by a local medicine man's treatment of a man who in the west would have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, she asked the healer if he had heard of Freud. "Does he live in Jakarta?" he replied. It was a bright moment in Rubens' lifelong loathing of the psychotherapeutic industry, later shared by the narrator of her 2002 novel, Nine Lives, who kills nine shrinks (and one dentist, by mistake).
Her writing began as she did, with her orthodox Jewish family in south Wales. She took the title of her first novel, Set On Edge (1960), from Ezekiel: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge." She dedicated it to the memory of her father, who died in 1958. It was a success: she wouldn't have continued if it hadn't been, she said later.
Her family provided her with material throughout her writing life. Madame Sousatzka was a story about a child prodigy very like her gifted elder brother Harold. The scapegoat hero of The Elected Member, driven by the pressure of parental expectations into drug addiction and incarceration in mental hospital, replayed a desperate period when Harold suffered a similar confinement.
Despite her aversion to psychiatry, Rubens prefaced this book with a line from RD Laing, who observed that patients who were "disturbed" often came from "very disturbing" families. While withholding judgment on the efficacy of Laing's practice, she admitted that she found his ideas - on a purely literary basis - "exciting".
Her third novel, Mate In Three (1965), drew less successfully on personal experience: her collapsing marriage. Rudi left her after 23 years, having fathered a son by another woman. Her sixth novel, Go Tell The Lemming (1973), covered their divorce. Rudi's departure shattered her, but her distress melted, in time, into friendship. He died in 1997. She spoke often of her ambivalence about living alone.
In her later books, Rubens moved from family life to broader historical subjects. Though she usually denied any religious feeling, her Jewishness had a central importance to her, and the theme of Jewish identity surfaced repeatedly in her fiction. It found its fullest expression in Brothers (1983), a 500-page novel that follows several generations of a Jewish family through a fight for survival that takes them from 19th-century Tsarist Russia to western Europe and Nazism, then back to modern Russia and its continued persecution of the Jews.
She talked and worried about anti-semitism and Israel, and her growing concern came out in her social relationships as well as through such recent books as I, Dreyfus (1999) and The Sergeant's Tale (2003). I, Dreyfus is a clever reprise of the French legal scandal at the turn of the 20th century in a drama of contemporary Britain. The book's hero, Sir Alfred Dreyfus, is a "closet Jew", a type of concealment that stirred his creator's anger and scorn. The novel tells of his journey through the trauma of his conviction and incarceration for child murder into a transformed relationship with his Jewishness and the suffering of his Jewish forebears.
Rubens felt more and more Jewish as her life went on, she said towards its end. But by an irony of her chosen profession, the Jewish consciousness that was to her a personal strength seemed to some critics a literary weakness, a diminution of her proven skills in creating and dwelling in imaginary worlds into what they saw as moralising or reworking history. She didn't care. Her best book was Brothers, she insisted: "because ... what it's about matters".
Her daughters Sharon and Rebecca survive her.
Paul Bailey writes: I have many happy memories of Bernice Rubens, my good friend of 24 years, but the happiest is also one of the earliest. We were in Leicester, where we'd recently met, on a tour for the Arts Council.
One day we were invited to talk to sixth-form students at a school in the city. We were met by two teachers, a man and a woman, who charmed us by asking: "Should we know your work?" We giggled, I remember, and mumbled something along the lines of: "Well ... " or: "If you want to." The man took me into a classroom, where I talked about Jane Austen.
Every so often, I heard laughter from the adjoining room, where Bernice was obviously entertaining the boys and girls. It transpired that the teacher had introduced Bernice as Denise Robins, the blue-rinsed queen of slush who was Barbara Cartland's only serious rival. Instead of being outraged, Bernice pretended to be Denise for an entire hour. When a girl asked: "How do you work, Miss Robins?" Bernice/Denise retorted: "Very quickly." Our friendship was lastingly sealed that afternoon.
Claire Armitstead writes: At this year's Hay Festival, Bernice Rubens was on fighting form. "Have you actually read my book?" she asked, fixing me with a beady eye as we made our way to the marquee in which we were to discuss her novel The Sergeant's Tale. "Of course," I stammered, with the slightly guilty knowledge that I had galloped through it overnight. "Oh, I don't mind if you haven't," she replied. "It's just easier if I know."
On stage, she was witty, candid, shrewd - and never more so than when a woman in the audience asked if she felt dissatisfied with any of her books. Yes there was one, she recalled, which she wrote just after the breakup of her marriage. "It was good therapy for me, but a rotten novel. You should always write in yesterday's blood." I, for one, won't forget that pearl of hard-won wisdom.
· Bernice Rubens, writer, born July 26 1928; died October 13 2004.