llich pickings Excising someone’s brain in order to write a novel might appear a little extreme, but fortunately, as Sue Wilson discovers, it’s only a fruitful ﬁctional device in Bernice Rubens’ latest offering.
The notion of picking someone’s brains is generally — thankfully — no more than a usefully graphic metaphor. but in Bernice Rubens' new novel Autobiopsy it is literalised with her characteristic trenchant panache as the starting point for a sharp. elegant meditation on the ﬁctional process. Following the death of his best friend Walter Berry — ‘the greatest novelist of our time‘ — fellow author Martin Peabody. unable to hear the thought ofall that genius being consigned to dust, cunnineg cxcises Berry‘s brain and proceeds to suction off the lifetime's-worth of memories. thoughts and emotions it contains. Using this material as the basis for a novel, Peabody is able to overcome his twelve-year writer's block, as well as ﬁnding the love which has evaded him all his life.
First and foremost. AtlI()/)i()p.s_\‘. alternating passages of Martin's life and his novel-in-progress. is a blackly buoyant combination of audacious fantasy and incisive comment on
human relationships. particularly family ones — Martin. the product ofa violent broken home. is basically ‘blocked’ thanks to the unresolved grievances he harbours towards his parents. As the narrative unfolds. however. it becomes increasingly apparent that it is, in addition, a witty exposition of the process of novel- writing. Not that this was Rubens' intention at the outset. ‘I never know what I'm writing about,‘ she says. ‘That’s the magic of ﬁction — it ﬁnds its own logic. It was my agent who ﬁrst said to me. look, this is a book about how you write a novel - that was the ﬁrst conﬁrmation I had as to what it
" w ' " ' ’9" Bernice llubens: vehemently deploresthe mastery oi
style over urbstmce.
was about; if someone had told me to do it I woold have said it was impossible.‘
The author of eighteen bewilderineg different novels. and winner of the Booker Prize in I970 for The Elected Member, Rubens has stated that all her work, notwithstanding its diversity, is informed and pervaded by her family‘s experience of the Holocaust. her sense of survivor‘s guilt. ls Autobiopsy’s theme of feeding off, exploiting, in a sense, someone who‘s dead, the latest incarnation ofthese feelings, I wondered? ‘Now you’ve told me. yes, you’re right.‘ she says, ‘but it wouldn’t
have occurred to me that that was what
I was doing when I was writing it. I’ve found that with others of my books. that I didn’t really know what they were about or where they came from. and l'm always very interested to see the reviews, because critics often explain to me what it is l’ve done.‘
The novel also contains some energetic sideswipes at contemporary ﬁction, at the ‘the decay of language in the modern English novel’. ﬁltered through the ﬁgure of Walter, who is deeply offended by ‘the neglect of cadence and rhythm in novel language and even syntax and basic grammar' and even more so by the fact that ‘writers got away with such neglect. and were even praised for it. so that a new standard of mediocrity threatened to hold sway for future generations.‘ Rubens, unsurprisingly, shares this offence; she vehemently deplores the mastery of style over substance, which she has described as ‘obscene’.
“To be a novelist you have to have more than just technique; in fact the less technique you have. the more likely you are to produce a good novel. You have to have something to say — you can't have anything new to say — everything’s been written about — but everyone's perspective is different. depending on the imagination. When one is assessing writers one should assess the lunacy of their imagination; not the subject-matter or technique they're using but what perspective or blur they‘re bringing to it to make it new, as if it's never been written about before.’
Autobiopsy is published by Sinclair- Stevensmt at £14. 99.
:- The wizardry
Undoubtedly Israel’s best-known novelist, Amos Oz is something oi a singular phenomenon. He has consistently maintained a prominent position within the country’s liberal establishment and, through the Peace llow movement (oi which he is a co- iounder) has become a vocal iigurehead oi domestic opposition to the Israeli govemment’s persistent lntransigence over the Palestinian question.
All oi which makes it particularly appropriate that the publication oi his latest novel ‘Fima’ should coincide with current momentous events in Israel - the putative wide-ranging settlement with the PLO and neigbouring Arab states. ‘It’s the biggest change that has happened ior decades,’ declares 01. ‘There is still a very long way to go, but the principle Is now established. For the last 60 years the Palestinians wanted Israel simply to be moved away, like a mobile exhibition, and ior many years the lsraelis have reiused to recognise the existence oi the Palestinian people. At least the two parties are recognising that they are two parties.’
In recent years 01 has attained that stellar status accorded exclusively to the Premier league oi international writers. lie has become the only
Israeli writer to be read widely abroad and his novels provide many people with their only source oi insight Into the lite and culture oi an odd, unpopular nation. ‘literature has to be a local, parochial, even provincial thing,’ he says. ‘lt’s one oi the miracles oi literature that sometimes the more local it is, the more universal it becomes. I am writing about my own people, and I ieel very lucky to have so many readers outside Israel as well.’
01’s novels (and ‘Fima’ is no exception) iocus on individual personalities attempting to make their way through the moral and political maze that is contemporary israel, usually experiencing a good deal oi sell-disenchantment along the way. Thanks to this approach, 02 has been hailed as Israel’s conscience - a label oi which he is somewhat wary. ‘l’ve never regarded myseli as a prophet,’ he says. ‘l’d say I am deeply preoccupied with ethical positions and morality. ‘Flma' is a novel about a comical character who is nevertheless obsessed with the most crucial ethical issues oi his time, both locally and universally.’
Ii that sounds a little on the heavy side, take heart, ior 02’s writing reads like a kibbutz-raised Saul Bellow. lie likes to dwell on the European context oi his work, and has aligned himseli with what he likes to call a Slavonic tradition oi concerned writers. ‘I enloy storytelling, it’s a large part oi what I do. I have very little taste ior bloodless, anaemic, storyless books. The narrative oi an everyday sequence
oi events is the best possible way to untold the heart, soul and consciousness ol my characters.’ llovels like ‘Black Box’ and ‘To Know a Woman’, along with essay collections such as ‘The Slopes oi Lebanon’, have continued 02’s leading position among a generation oi writers investigating Israel’s desperately coniused cultural identity. The key to understanding it, according to 0:, lies
mo: 'umm basis he a local, panchlal, even provincial thing.’
In the periodic explosions oi messianic iervour. ‘The Jewish situation has always involved two diiierent situations: there’s a pragmatic side, and also an ecstatic side. The messiah seems to be around the corner when Jews reach this ecstatic state, and it usually ends in disaster.’ (Andrew Pulver)
Fima is published by chatto & Hindus at £15.99.
72 The List 10—23 September 1993