It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.
This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.
But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.
The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia.
Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.
Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton.
Middleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.
Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage. Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.
Mention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.
Miss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.
In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances. But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.
The Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences.
For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy. In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.
Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.
Let’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions, – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.
Just finished reading The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens – the first Booker prize winner on my list. This is an author about whom I knew absolutely zero only to discover that she was born in Cardiff which is about 12 miles from my home. So a local in a sense and I hadn’t even heard of her… oops.
Some quick searches on the Internet filled in some blanks however. The Guardian’s obituary gives some fascinating insights into Bernice Rubens’ approach to writing and the themes at the heart of her work. “I feel unclean if I don’t write,” she said once. “I don’t love writing. But I love having written.” What fascinated her was human relationships, particularly those within a family. She once remarked that, ‘I am concerned with the communication, or non-communication as is more often the case, between people and families’.
According to Janet Watts in this obituary, “Rubens showed the horrors that can lie behind net curtains and cosiness, polite conversation or an unexplained wink.” I didn’t detect any ‘horror’ in The Elected Member though she certainly reveals the secrets behind the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family and the misery they endure when they see their beloved son/brother suffer the effects of drug addiction. But ‘horror’ would be over-stating it.
It started with a lot of promise – the first scenes of Norman waking up after another tortuous night believing his room is invited by silver fish, were engrossing. Even though its some weeks since I read the book I can still picture those shimmering things crawling their way from the skirting board.
I liked the way Rubens let her story unfold gradually, peeling back the layers of the family to reveal some of the underlying problems and the answers to some mysteries (why does the daughter persist in wearing little white socks well into adulthood?).
But the ending was disappointing – just too neatly wrapped up in some cathartic coming together of the remaining family members united at the deathbed of the patriarch and (we are led to imagine); with Norman cleansed. Hmm…
And the verdict?
Good in parts but not wonderful.
Footnote – added February 2017
I read The Elected Member – the winner in 1970 – as part of my Booker Prize Project in which I am trying to read all the winners since the prize was initiated in 1969. You can view the books read to date and some of the longlisted/shortlisted titles I’ve also read by looking at the Project page.
Found a blog site today which sets challenges to read a certain number of the Booker prize winners each year. It’s been running for a few years already so has an impressive amount of commentary on various titles. It’s a little daunting to see how much progress some people have made towards reading all the prize winners. I counted today and my total comes to a fairly low score – eight. And that includes some that I read many years ago. I should finish The Elected Member tonight and will be on a long international flight at the weekend which will give me a good few hours of reading time. By this time next month maybe I’ll be in be into the heady heights of double digits……
To date here are the ones I’ve read
Blind Assassin – Margaret Attwood
Remains of the Day – Ishiguru
Staying On – Paul Scott
The Sense of an Ending – Barnes
Schindlers List – Keneally
Amsterdam – McEwan
Ghost Road – Pat Barker
Hotel du Lac – Brookner
The Elected Member – Rubens
Next on the list
Something to Answer For – Newby (if it arrives in time. if not, it will be In a Free State by Naipaul)
Check out this blog
Why blog about the Booker? I can’t remember now when the idea started. It might have been when I was stuck in traffic on the way to work and listening to a debate about why novel X won and novel Y didn’t even though ‘everyone’ except the judges thought it should have. Or it could have just as easily been on a day when I’d just finished reading some award-winning novel or other and wondered, not for the first time, how this could ever have been deemed worthy of a prize.
Either way, it got me thinking about who decides what is a great novel. The Booker is one of the most prestigious awards for literature; a celebration of the very best. It seemed a good place to begin my quest to understand why some books passed the test for the judges, and how many of those they chose at the start, would still be considered ‘great’ today.
I thought it would be interesting to read all the prize winners from 1969, the first year of the award. There were joint winners twice, in 1974 and 1992, which means I have a reading list of 42 novels to get through. I’ve read some of them in the past but to be fair, I will re-read those as well. Not sure how long this will take me……
I’ll post some comments about my experience along with comments from other (more expert) readers.