Bernice Rubens AM BST 14 Oct Bernice Rubens, the writer who died yesterday aged 76, explored "the pathetic secrets of damaged souls" in a series of novels, many of which drew on her own Jewish family childhood in Cardiff; her fourth novel, The Elected Member, won the Booker Prize for Fiction in Despite the often grim subject matter of her books, Bernice Rubens wrote in an easy, humorous style in which gritty realism jostled with wild, gothic exaggeration. With murder, suicide, adultery and intrigue of every kind taking place in an atmosphere ranging from the borders of farce to the borders of melodrama, her plots were often absurdly over the top. Yet they were redeemed by her acute psychological insights, mordant humour and her warmth of feeling for her characters. The book explored the controversial theories of the psychologist R D Laing who argued that behind every disturbed person there is a "disturbing" family , through the central character Norman Zweck, a gifted only son who suffers a mental breakdown under the pressure of family expectations and is committed to an asylum. Norman is treated as a scapegoat for the failures of the rest of his family, including Rabbi Zweck himself and his two pathetic daughters.

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Share via Email Bernice Rubens had just completed her autobiography when she died, at the age of She worked most days. But I love having written. Her autobiography was her first work of non-fiction.

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, copies. She did not win the prize again, although her ninth novel, A Five Year Sentence , was a runner-up. Rubens enjoyed the respected place she had achieved in the literary world. She maintained close friendships with a chosen group of colleagues, including Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Bailey and Francis King.

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. 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. 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 But the ticket tout had swindled him: he was shoved off at Cardiff. 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 She wanted to play the cello, which was too expensive.

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. Bernice bore two daughters, taught English at a Birmingham grammar school from to , then went into the film industry. Her documentaries were well received, one entitled Stress winning the American Blue Ribbon award in 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.

Her writing began as she did, with her orthodox Jewish family in south Wales. 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.

Her third novel, Mate In Three , 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 , covered their divorce. He died in 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 , a 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.

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 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.

Her best book was Brothers, she insisted: "because 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.

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? Every so often, I heard laughter from the adjoining room, where Bernice was obviously entertaining the boys and girls. Instead of being outraged, Bernice pretended to be Denise for an entire hour.

When a girl asked: "How do you work, Miss Robins? Yes there was one, she recalled, which she wrote just after the breakup of her marriage.


Bernice Rubens

Shelves: bookers The Elected Member was one of the first Bookers I read the second book to win the prize, but I read a bit out of order in the beginning , and it was interesting to turn to it after some of the others. This is an almost entirely localized story. It hints at a larger history of immigration into England, but that really just serves to flesh out the history of the main cast. It follows a brief period of time in the life of Norman, the golden child of his Jewish immigrant family in England whose The Elected Member was one of the first Bookers I read the second book to win the prize, but I read a bit out of order in the beginning , and it was interesting to turn to it after some of the others. It follows a brief period of time in the life of Norman, the golden child of his Jewish immigrant family in England whose promise was cut short by bouts of what appears to be schizophrenia. The story is a merger of his family life and his experiences at a mental institution.


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Her best-known book is probably still Madame Sousatzka , memorably filmed by John Schlesinger and starring Shirley Maclaine. This is certainly the case in the emotionally harrowing A Solitary Grief. The tragedy occurs when his little daughter is abducted, her body found, and ironically he has to identify her. But in this case the hospice-bound Annie is at last able to seek, and bestow, forgiveness for the past.


The Elected Member


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