Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge

Bainbridge, Beryl - Every Man For Himself

Hubby and I spent a week in France last summer to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. 30 years! Where did they go? When you’ve no kids, you live in a Peter Pan-like bubble where you never seem to get any older and time doesn’t seem to pass until…bam! A significant anniversary hits and it’s hard to ignore that the clock is ticking. (Although perhaps everyone feels like that, not just the sans-children; my Dad once told me that his experience of life was that he got married one day – a mere thirty-something – and woke up the next day drawing his pension.)

But back to France. Hubby came up with the uncharacteristically romantic suggestion to celebrate our 30th anniversary in Normandy, where we’d honeymooned. (At the time we’d planned to go to the “South of France” – beautifully non-specific, as destinations go – and set off from Liverpool in a second-hand Astra, too young and stupid…this was pre-internet, you understand…to appreciate how long a drive it would be. But this time, older and wiser…and with the benefit of Google…we’d research it properly and get to see everything we missed before.)

We went to Rouen, with its famous cathedral; Bayeux, and the tapestry (misnamed because it’s an embroidery, as they were falling over themselves to tell us in the “Tapestry” museum); the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer (think opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan”); and Granville, a picturesque seaside resort near Mont St Michel and the location de la miel de lune.

In Rouen, we happened on the Panorama XXL (“a unique and spectacular cultural place which exposes the largest panoramic works in the world” according to the blurb on the web site) which was showing ‘Titanic’, a virtual exhibition of the wrecked ship on the sea bed – the closest thing to diving down there without actually getting wet, I imagine. Titanic has a French-connection: it sailed from Southampton to Cherbourg before heading to Ireland, then to New York…

As luck – or synchronicity – would have it, one of the books I’d taken to France was Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, winner of the Whitbread (now Costa) novel award in 1996. The book opens with a man dying in the arms of a stranger on 8th April 1912; it ends on the early hours of 15th April 1912, the day the Titanic sinks with the ‘stranger’ on it. The main thrust of the novel concerns the four days from when the ship sets sail from Southampton on 10th April 1912.

The title smacks of class irony. “Women and children first” is synonymous with shipwrecks whereas, in the real world, it is “Every Man for Himself”. Statistically, women and children are far less likely to survive a sinking ship than men.  Those with the best chance of survival are…the male crew. Quelle surprise! Beryl Bainbridge, like me, is a Scouser. Perhaps that’s why she sees it and calls it.  Take, for example, a conversation between a crew member and a first-class passenger, as the ship is sinking, about a possible other life-boat: “the officers is keeping it for themselves. Leastways, we weren’t told to get it down.”

(To be fair to history, the Titanic bucked the trend in that more women and children survived than men – but only because Captain Smith ordered officers to use guns to uphold his order to save women and children first.)

In the days before Titanic hits the iceberg, the ‘stranger’, actually the narrator, Morgan, is obsessed about hooking up with fellow passenger/acquaintance Wallis, who in turn is obsessed with fellow passenger/unknown/fixer Scurra. In a way, the thrust of the story is a love-triangle that, as the reader knows, will ultimately lead nowhere. (“Every man for himself” is also something said by Scurra to Morgan in connection with their rivalry over Wallis.) It is also a social satire, where Bainbridge takes aim at class privilege, entitlement, and snobbishness.

The real interest of the story, though, lies in waiting to see how each character fares/acts when (as the reader knows) the inevitable happens. In that sense it’s like Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only on the anticipation of it.”

In addition to the Wallis/Scurra/Morgan triangle, Bainbridge treats us to an endearing cast of grotesques: the statuesque Adele, apparently abandoned pre-voyage; the tailor Rosenfelder, seeking his fortune in New York, for whom Adele becomes the ideal model; the Strausses, an old couple who seem to hold each other up as they walk.

But at the end there we are left only with “things caught upon the water – chairs and table, crates, an empty gin bottle, a set of bagpipes, a cup without a handle, a creased square of canvas with a girl’s face painted on it…”

Like picking things out of the gloom in Panorama XXL (a doll’s head, a suitcase) it’s the small things, the tiny human details that really bring home the scale of the tragedy.

Rating: *** Highly recommended


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