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a quiet life

5 february 2011

The late Beryl Bainbridge's Quiet Life (1976) is a "growing-up-miserable" novel, and very good of its type. It elaborates the message of Philip Larkin's famous poem "This Be the Verse." Such novels are common enough: the most recent one I'd read was Le confessional by Georges Simenon, from the 1960s. Simenon's story of mangled male youth comes largely in reported dialogue, but it is still very much a "told" story. A Quiet Life is a "shown" story, with some reporting of protagonist Alan's moods and feelings, but mostly just direct presentation of his banal, exasperating teenage existence.

Such non-rhetorical presentation of a life is modernist, a kind of low-key modernism that Bainbridge shares with her contemporary Muriel Spark, and that both got (through several filters of influence, surely) from the terse popular-modernist fiction of Ernest Hemingway. Exposition is at a minimum. We don't learn people's surnames, or their addresses. I'm not 100% sure what part of England A Quiet Life is set in: somewhere in the northwest, on the coast, but it's specified only indirectly, via hints, and I've never been there and can't take the hints.

Nor is A Quiet Life big on backstory. How did Alan's parents reach the muddle that is their postwar life, the mess that provides him with such an anguished adolescence? We know a little, through family lore that slips out in fragments of conversation, that are pieced together (quite possibly incorrectly) by Alan and his sister Madge. Unlike Le confessional and other more explicit fictions, A Quiet Life doesn't even give us competing narratives and ask us to adjudicate. It gives us competing incomplete impressions. That's modernism, again, a modernism that writers by the 1970s were taking for granted as the default mode of fiction (and that postmodern writers like John Fowles reacted against by reviving the elaborately narrated structures of earlier fiction, as in The French Lieutenant's Woman [1969]).

While I seem to be fitting A Quiet Life into familiar generic territory, I don't think it's just another standard-issue novel. Bainbridge has too individual a voice to be confused with anyone else, even Spark. In Bainbridge's world people do slightly off-kilter things: though not for the sheer sake of wackiness (as in more deliberately burlesque fiction like the near-contemporary Year of the Hare, or the novels of Pynchon or Vonnegut). Instead, Bainbridge's eccentrics are sharply realist types. Their bizarre behavior comes from simple drives: sexual desire, avoidance of embarrassment, petty pride, avarice, self-humiliation. One would call Bainbridge's view of the world "naturalist" if it led to inevitable outcomes – if her characters demonstrated predictable types. But in her quirky realism, characters flourish as individuals because they are played upon by a permutation of simple basic drives.

Alan and Madge start the novel by meeting a quarter-century after its main story. Their mother has just died; their father died that quarter-century ago. (All this is revealed in the first few pages; the novel does not depend on strategic suspense.) They've grown up in the same household, with the same parents, in the very close quarters dictated by reduced circumstances and exacerbated by the desire to make those close quarters seem grander to visitors: in short, they all live in their kitchen, because the sitting rooms of the house are too fine to be used by anyone except the company that never comes.

"A close family," Alan reflects, in the sense "stifling" as much as "intimate" (217). But he and Madge have diametric opposite personalities, for all its closeness. This isn't a reductive matter of gender, either. Alan buttons up; Madge unbuttons. It's not a stereotypical boy/girl difference; we might easily imagine a son of the same parents who acted out, and a daughter who responded with repression.

Alan and Madge are simply what they are, individuals coping differently, "adding some extra" (Larkin's phrase) from sources that don't proceed mechanically from inheritance or environment. As a character study, A Quiet Life far exceeds its apparently formulaic genre.

I have little sense of whether A Quiet Life is much read or appreciated at the moment. Among Bainbridge's earlier novels, it has a lower profile and "concept" than the outrageous Bottle Shop Outing or the sinister Dressmaker. And Dame Beryl became much better known for her later series of historical novels about England, notably The Birthday Boys and Master Georgie. But A Quiet Life is a substantial success, and deserves a wide audience.

I scored my copy, a 1978 Signet paperback, from the clearance shelf of an Austin used-book store. Marked down to 25 cents from a stagflation-era cover price of $1.75, with groovy swirly airbrush drawings of Madge and Alan in hairstyles and clothes their late-1940s selves could not possibly have worn. Large type, thick pages, and big margins, though: a comfortable reading experience.

Bainbridge, Beryl. A Quiet Life. 1976. New York: Signet, 1978.