My second read for Beryl Bainbridge reading week, which I have had to rush to review – wanting to squeeze it to the final day of the week. What I neglected to mention in my review of A Quiet Life the other day are the excellent introductions to these recent Virago editions by Linda Grant. I always read introductions after the novel – the introduction in this book concern Beryl Bainbridges’s two early novels, this one and Harriet Said… which I read not long ago – a book group choice – and my favourite Bainbridge of the four I have now read.
A Weekend with Claude was Beryl Bainbridge’s first published novel, the novel was heavily revised by the author in 1981. It is a darkly comic story of friendship and failure in 1960.
“Claude looked across the stone courtyard to the open door of the house and saw Julia pass quickly in red slippers, going into the kitchen to prepare lunch. Against the wall, pressed close to the dried stem of the wisteria, was his youngest son’s pram. It was a big pram, an expensive pram, with the edge of a white pillow showing at the hood. He remembered that his other sons had slept out their milky days in a second hand pram bought for seven-and-six in Camden Town. A thrifty woman, Sarah, in many ways. Bending her golden head, heavy under its weight of hair, she had laid their children one by one in the cheap carriage on the soiled pillow and gone, melon-hipped and honey-mouthed, away from him into their house. Always away from him.”
The novel opens with the framing story of a couple coming to Claude’s antique shop, the shop in the barn of the house Claude bought originally for his wife and children. In the drawer of a desk they are interested in buying the woman finds a letter dated 1960 and a photograph. The photograph taken a few years earlier, depicts a group of people in the gardens of Claude’s house. The couple become strangely interested in the photograph, and with Claude inviting them into the house for coffee, bit by bit they learn about the people in the photograph, and the weekend they spent with Claude and his partner Julia. The people in the photograph are: Lily, Norman, Shebah and Edward.
Claude was of course the host of the weekend, a man still bemoaning his desertion by his wife Sarah, he now has Julia for comfort, a passive young woman whom we never really get to know as well as we might like to – she seems to be the only really likeable character – and I wondered more than once what on earth she was doing with Claude. It is primarily for Claude’s friend Lily that the weekend invitations have been issued. Lily, deserted by her former lover, finds herself pregnant, and it is Edward – who in the photograph stands a little apart – who has been selected as an unwitting candidate for her child’s father. Everyone else is on the secret. Also present are Victorian Norman, (so called due to the collars on his shirts) who has lived in a room in the same house as Lily. Norman describes himself at one point as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – he certainly is. Predatory, and selfish, he has little conscience, pawing unpleasantly at Julia in sight of his host. The final guest is Shebah, an ageing Jewish woman, a former actress, who in the photograph can be seen wearing a bandage around her leg, following an accident with an air rifle on that weekend with Claude.
There were aspects of this novel, particularly in the characters’ relationships to one another, that reminded me a little of some Iris Murdoch novels. Claude seems to be the flame around which this odd assortment of people flutters – though they don’t really seem to like him that much.
The story of that weekend is told in three voices, those of Lily, Norman and Shebah, with the framing story told in the third person, though the point of view is very much that of Claude. Lily is fragile, an old friend of Claude, as a girl she had attended a school close to Claude’s house. Before the weekend at Claude’s house Lily had been living in a house in Liverpool in which various people have lodged, including Victorian Norman. Lily has been abandoned, then reunited then abandoned again by Billie, finding herself pregnant – she sees Claude’s friend Edward as her way of providing a father for her unborn child.
“I don’t know whether I’ve had a nice time or not, though I suppose that wasn’t the object of the exercise. Anyway, it’s settled now, though it may be foolish to believe anything is really settled. This morning when I first got up, before Shebah was shot, I felt wide awake. Now I feel tired and would like a bath. I could have one, but it would mean walking away from them down the garden and into the house, and Edward would follow in case I was being molested by Claude, so it’s not worth it.”
Norman, as I have said is an unpleasant little man, his pursuit of Julia is rather unsettling, as Lily’s lodger he appears to be more Lily’s friend than Claude’s. Norman, self-educated, a factory worker, has a girlfriend who we never meet, though this doesn’t stop his roving eye. Shebah is a kind of ineffectual mother-like figure to Lily, they squabble a lot. No longer the attractive woman she once was, hair growing across her top lip Shebah is reluctant to reveal her age. So from these various viewpoints , we see that weekend with Claude. Each perspective, naturally adds something new to the story of the events of that weekend.
Though the novel has little plot, it’s a superb character study – the writing is excellent, intelligent and sharply observed, and although I don’t know how it differs to the original – a very good first novel (although technically it wasn’t her first – she had already written Harriet Said…).
Thank you to Annabel for hosting this Beryl Bainbridge reading week – it has been great seeing other reviews too – I have a few more titles added to my wishlist.