1928 – 2004
One of Britain’s most successful post-World War II novelists, the author of some twenty novels, winner of the Booker Prize (1970) and the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Award (1990), Bernice Rubens was invariably described by interviewers as, to quote one from the London Evening Standard, “Exotically swarthy, gypsily beringed, small, plump … at one remove from the seemly, London-Library circuit of modern letters.” She looked very Jewish and in her writing she never shied away from that which she knew best: life in the tight-knit, immigrant Lithuanian-Jewish community in Cardiff where she grew up.
Bernice Ruth Rubens was born in Cardiff on July 28, 1928. She studied at Cardiff High School for Girls and then at University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Cardiff, where she received a B.A. in English in 1947. In the same year she married Rudi Nassauer (d. 1996), a wine merchant and novelist from a family of rich, assimilated German Jews, very different from her own family. She had fallen in love with him because “he knew about Camembert and I did not.” When he left her after twenty years, during which he had numerous affairs, she refused to take his money, not wanting him to salve his conscience. The couple had two daughters. From 1948 to 1949 Rubens was an English teacher at Handsworth Grammar School for Boys in Birmingham, becoming a documentary film writer and director for the United Nations and others in 1950.
Rubens’s first novel, Set on Edge (1960), which was based on the life of her maternal grandmother, describes the mixed blessings of parental expectation, and although she went on to write about everything from the trials and tribulations of a male, Gentile transvestite (in the first person) to sinister goings-on aboard a cruise ship full of genteel widows, she frequently returned to Jewish themes and characters; as she explained it: “Everything that happens in family is more so in a Jewish family. In a Gentile family someone may have a cold. In a Jewish family, it has to be consumption.”
Nowhere is this more poignantly demonstrated than in the Booker-winning The Elected Member, a book which explored the controversial theories of R. D. Laing, who argued that behind every disturbed person there is a “disturbing” family. In this work Norman Zweck, a rabbi’s son and the apple of his parents’ eyes, becomes a drug addict at the age of forty-one. As a child, Norman had shown an extraordinary ability to pick up languages, but to highlight his genius, his mother lies about his age and even delays his bar mitzvah by three years. Saddened and shamed by what he sees as his son’s failure, Rabbi Zweck muses that to be driven mad by one’s own genius would not be so bad “an inverted nachus almost”—but drugs …?
Herself the third child in a family of four, and the only one not to play a musical instrument as a child (her sister and two brothers all went on to become professional musicians), Rubens was designated the “listener” from an early age. Her own favorite novel, A Five Year Sentence (1978), is all about solitude, and if family and relationships constitute one theme in her work, solitude—whether the result of exile or of alienation—is another. Yesterday in the Back Lane (1995) tells the tale of Bronwen Davies, who too is afraid to admit to having stabbed a man who flashed at her as a teenager. Bronwen guards her guilty secret even as an innocent man is sent to the gallows, and so after fifty years of yesterdays, she is still serving her own, secret life sentence, just as Harley Street psychiatrist Alastair will have to in A Solitary Grief (1991).
Rubens was first-generation British; her mother—a teacher, chemist and suffragist—was born in Poland and her father, a talented amateur musician, was just sixteen when he arrived in Cardiff from Lithuania which, thanks to an unscrupulous ticket salesman, he took to be New York for a full week. He became a tally man, a credit draper who took suits to the Welsh valleys and sold them for a shilling a week. Both parents were staunch Zionists. It quickly became apparent just how lucky her parents were to have escaped at all, and during Rubens’s childhood the family home was a refuge for some of the last Jews to flee Europe. One boy from Austria, whose name her mother picked from the long lists that filled the Jewish press in those days, stayed for five years, and they were eventually able to get his parents out too. All this had its impact, as did her father’s awareness of his own “guest” status in Britain, and many of her female characters are stunted by irrepressible feelings of gratefulness. For example, in Birds of Passage (1980), Alice, a widow on a well-earned cruise with her neighbor, desperately feels the need to be grateful to the dapper Mr. Bowers: “for each bowing and scraping of Mr Bowers’ feet, she felt the need to offer him at least her body, if not her spirit.” Writing in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine in 1987, Rubens explained how the “guest syndrome” she picked up from her father stayed with her right up until his death. “On that day, I ceased to be a guest. With my father’s grave, I could claim entitlement to roots.”
I, Dreyfus (1999) was Rubens’s most polemical novel. Its protagonist, Sir Alfred, has lived life as a “count-me-in Jew,” belting out hymns louder than anyone else in church and gleefully exposing his uncircumcised member at the urinals. Ultimately, this offers no protection; his Jewishness still screams out to all but himself. Gradually, he realizes that by denying his Jewish identity, he has been living in a wilderness, and it is only when he can accept himself for who he is that he is truly released from his cell.
The novel offers a bleak prognosis of antisemitism; as Rubens explained in the author’s note: “This novel makes no attempt to update the Dreyfus story. Rather it is concerned with the Dreyfus syndrome, which alas needs no updating.” Brothers (1983), her epic of survival, tells the tale of six generations of the Bindel family, chased halfway round the world by the Russian army, pogroms and the Nazis, only to return to Russia to find prejudice as rife and virulent as ever. In Mother Russia (1992), a tumultuous tale of that country’s passage through the twentieth century, Sonya’s husband divorces her because her Jewishness will hinder his party career; soon will come a time when such things will not matter, he opines, to which she replies: “There has never been such a time. Nowhere in the world.” Elsewhere, Mrs. Feinberg, the “token Jew” at the exclusive Hollyhocks nursing home of The Waiting Game (1997), is welcomed by Matron with an overunderstanding that “bordered on racism.” Rubens’s finely tuned ear for the unspoken truths that hide behind even the most inane social banter is crucial in pinpointing that particularly British brand of antisemitism.
Rubens’s work often reflects a concern for social injustice, the motivation behind her other career as a documentary filmmaker (for example Man Alive, about the plight of the mentally handicapped), but there is nothing soft about her work, and retribution ranks far higher than forgiveness; it was her acerbic brand of menace and tragi-comedy that won her such a broad and loyal readership and allowed her to escape marginalization.
Two of Rubens’s works were made into films: I Sent a Letter to My Love, with Simone Signoret (1981) and Madame Sousatzka, with Shirley Maclaine (1988).
Rubens died in London on October 13, 2004. At the time of her death she had finished a first draft of her memoirs.
Novels Set on Edge (1960); Madame Sousatzka (1962); Mate in Three (1965); The Elected Member (1969, as Chosen People, 1969); Sunday Best (1971); Go Tell the Lemming (1973); I Sent a Letter to My Love (1975); The Ponsonby Post (1977); A Five Year Sentence (1978, as Favors, 1979); Spring Sonata (1979); Birds of Passage (1981); Brothers (1983); Mr. Wakefeld’s Crusade (1985); Our Father (1987); Kingdom Come (1990); A Solitary Grief (1991); Mother Russia (1992); Autobiopsy (1993); Yesterday in the Back Lane (1995); The Waiting Game (1997); I, Dreyfus (1999); When I Grow Up (2005).
I Sent a Letter to My Love (1978)
One of the Family (1964); Call Us by Name (1968); Out of the Mouths (1970); Television Play: Third Party (1972).
Abrams, Rebecca. “Autobiopsy.” Guardian (September 28, 1993).
“Our Father.” Times Literary Supplement (March 27, 1987).
Shrapnel, Norman. “A Solitary Grief.” Guardian (May 9, 1991).
“Spring Sonata.” Times Literary Supplement (December 7, 1979).
“The Waiting Game.” Times (August 2, 1997); Williamson, Malcolm. “Mother Russia.” Guardian (March 8, 1992).
From Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Editor: Sorrel Kerbel. Copyright © 2003. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.