Coming Up for Air

Sweet William

by Beryl Bainbridge
Braziller, 204 pp., $7.95

Heat and Dust

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Harper & Row, 181 pp., $7.95

Selected Stories

by Nadine Gordimer
Viking, 381 pp., $10.00

Jill

by Philip Larkin
The Overlook Press, 247 pp., $8.95

These are all pretty good books, or better than that; and all of them deal, though of course in very different ways as varying talents and interests dictate, with the constraints and distortions inflicted on individuals by society—and especially by forms of it that derive from the historical circumstances of British culture.

Beryl Bainbridge is probably the most gifted of these novelists; her talent has been very justly celebrated in these pages by Karl Miller (NYR, May 16, 1974). It is an odd and in a muted way fantastic talent, as is perhaps necessary in modern English writers who manage to escape the rather stifling conditions of normal contemporary competence. Her book that best demonstrates it is The Dressmaker, in which an illiterate GI is murdered by a dedicatedly deprived old lady in a small Liverpool house; she stabbed him in the neck with her scissors, “she was that annoyed.” But the pathetic slaughter with which Bainbridge likes to end her stories is little more than the gesture with which the disgust heaped up in the course of accumulating lacerating details, the pain of all the accurately depressing dialogue, is swept off the page. Though they are sometimes funny, and often very compassionate, Bainbridge’s novels cannot really bear themselves.

Deprived and exploited women are probably her main interest, their minds and bodies drained, like their environments, of value. Into the dreck of their lives erupts, at random intervals, the bizarre perception of an observer from another culture.

I just wondered, I’m not easy in my mind,” said Margo, watching Nellie picking at the ham crushed in the paper napkin, strands of silko adhering to her skirts, and Jack packing shreds of Kardomah tea into the bowl of his pipe.

How you can smoke that stuff beats me,” said Nellie. She stood up, grasped the dressmaking dummy in her arms, as if she was tossing the caber, and staggered the few steps into the hall. Parting the brown chenille curtains under the stairs with her foot, she trundled the dummy safely into the darkness.

Suddenly Nellie, a heavy old woman, is lifted out of the small period domestic detail and matched with a Highland athlete, running crouched with a tree trunk in his arms. Meanwhile the wretched girls dream of pleasure, of America. They are as empty of real knowledge as the wartime shops are of cigarettes or the future of hope. Fail-safe mechanisms ensure thought-control:

Don’t you think,” said Margo, when Nellie had gone, “that we had a rum childhood—I mean, thinking about it—“

Rum,” said Jack, not understanding.

Restricted. The way Mother was—all them rules, going to church.”

What rules?”

Don’t you think we were damaged?”

Don’t talk daft.”

He sat up, clutching his belly, filled with irritation at the way she carried on. Whenever Marge started to talk in this fashion it made him angry: he was defending something, but he didn’t know what. It was like when Lord …

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