Rating: 5 stars
Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Every Man for Himself, set on the RMS Titanic, is a mystery. The title hints at that mystery. Every man, and woman, that the young narrator, Morgan, encounters is a paradox. They are, seemingly, in it for themselves and don’t give too much away about themselves. Morgan spends a lot of time puzzling over other people’s opaqueness. He is uncertain whether other people are being straight. He admits early on that he isn’t always straight himself. People begin conversations without finishing them properly, leaving Morgan wondering about what they might be hiding. Or what he might be missing in the cryptic way he thinks they communicate.
His puzzlement at people’s mystery isn’t helped by certain of the passengers travelling under assumed names. Everyone else seems to know who they are, so why would they travel incognito?
Morgan’s own life is a mystery to himself. An orphan, he was raised by his aunt. He knows that his father died shortly before he was born, and that his mother died when he was still an infant. His cousin Jack shares with him some newspaper cuttings that hint that something grotesque happened.
The novel begins on the night the Titanic hit the iceberg, before jumping back a week to a mysterious death witnessed by Morgan in the street outside his uncle J P Morgan’s London residence. The man who died seems to be connected to some mysterious passengers who Morgan first encounters in a café on the morning of embarkation.
Morgan is part of a circle of young people, who are almost a precursor to the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. They are finding their feet as adults in the rarefied world of the moneyed elite. They have the innate confidence of the children of the wealthy. Morgan doesn’t quite fit the same mould and is less certain of himself.
There is a mysterious woman who travels second class but is often seen on the upper decks. She is one of the people Morgan first saw in the café. She associates with Rosenfelder, another second class passenger who has taken advantage of a cancellation and upgraded his berth, and Scurra, a man who claims to know Morgan’s banker uncle very well, but who appears to be travelling under a pseudonym. He seems to know everyone, in fact, but is a mystery to those around him. His lip is disfigured, and everyone has a theory as to how it happened. Scurra’s own explanation of it is as unconvincing as everyone else’s.
Scurra is a rogue. All the characters are well written, but I enjoyed his character most of all. Bainbridge writes people knowingly, sometimes as though she is winking at us and asking if we see what she sees. People are ridiculous at the same time as being callous at the same time as being vulnerable.
Scurra is an education to Morgan, although his motives are unclear. Some men enjoy being thought of as older and wiser, and some also enjoy the opportunities afforded by a younger person’s willingness to treat them as a guide. Scurra seems to be such a man. He challenges Morgan’s nascent Marxism. He mocks Morgan’s reluctance with one of the young women in his social circle. He tells him not quite enough about his mother for Morgan to feel satisfied. He laughs at him when the connection between the dead man and the mysterious woman in second class is revealed and she is relieved that the man is dead.
‘I don’t understand why she’s so cheerful,’ I burst out. ‘I expected her to leap for the ocean again. Is it possible she didn’t love him after all?’
‘You don’t understand women,’ he said, which was true enough. ‘Given the choice, desertion or bereavement, a woman will pick the latter every time. A sensible enough preference, don’t you agree? At least she knows where he is.’
And then, of course, his shoulders heaved with laughter, in which I joined because I couldn’t help myself. I guess it was his way of puncturing false concern. It’s bunkum to suppose we can be touched by tragedies other than our own.
The narrative is peppered with sensory observations of place. Bainbridge describes a location using the language of sound and light as much, if not more so, as she uses architectural or landscape terminology. As I was reading the Folio Society edition of the novel, illustrated with Bainbridge’s own paintings depicting the voyage of the Titanic, I wondered whether this served as an example of her writing and painting being part of a whole approach to interpreting the world.
As I watched, the quartermaster put up his hand to grasp the lanyard. A unified wall of anticipation rose from the quayside, to be drowned in the ship’s awesome boom of farewell as steam gushed from the giant whistles half-way up the forward funnels. They blasted twice more, scattering the seabirds wheeling through the black smoke billowing from the tugs now straining to drag the Titanic from dock to river. A weak sun came out and the paintwork glittered.
Just after noon we tumbled out on deck. The sun shone so brilliantly that a small boy standing only five yards distant dissolved into whiteness, the top he was whipping gyrating at the toes of his all but invisible boots.
Slowly we approached Queenstown, the green fields spreading back from the cliffs. In time I could make out the glint of windows beyond the harbour wall, the white moon of a municipal clock. On Spy Hill a church spire speared the mild sky. Tethered to the quay, bobbing like apples, two squat tugs rode the water. Presently, the screws churning up brown sand, we stopped engines and waited for the pilot to come out.
Human nature is a big part of the novel, particularly self interest, particularly ignorance of the feelings of others. Morgan means well a lot of the time, but his naivety about the world leads him to offend or to be viewed as a fool. Rosenfelder is a monomaniac, seemingly unscheming but resolute to the point of bloody mindedness in the pursuit of his goal. Scurra simply doesn’t care about others, only about his own satisfaction, no matter what itch he seeks to scratch. Scurra’s dalliance with a woman in Morgan’s social circle uses Morgan’s naivety as leverage. It leads to an awkward encounter for Morgan, who has been convinced indirectly by Scurra, the young woman and others in their circle that he stands a chance with her. I shivered with recognition at this, because who hasn’t been through something similar in their own youth? Bainbridge has Morgan do his best to be adult about it in a quietly written passage that captures the way personal mortification haunts us even when we know there’s no need.
What had happened was no more than a photograph snapped long ago, in another country, its chemical impression now fading. I even had the composure to apologise for my behaviour in the foyer, though it was somewhat tongue in cheek. ‘You must have been very frightened,’ I said. ‘It was the action of a brute.’
‘I’ve forgotten it,’ she answered graciously. ‘As must you. By the way, your dressing gown is being laundered. You shall have it tomorrow.’
While I was reading the novel, as the action moved to the inevitable sinking of the ship, the terrorist attack in Manchester happened. I found it difficult to read the passages about panicked people clambering over each other to get to the decks and into the lifeboats, as well as the passages about their confusion over what was happening, because the present day news was full of phone footage of the panic inside the concert venue in Manchester. It made me think about the way we presume the world around us is safe, and yet it can all be pulled from under us in the blink of an eye. I read something recently about the difference between humans and other animals not being about our advanced abilities in shared attributes such as language, culture, problem solving and learning from the past, but about the fact that we contemplate the future, constantly modelling it, and keep moving forward based on the experiences we gather in life. This comes across in the book through the character of Morgan, who is adrift at the start but begins to think more strategically about his future as he gathers experience. In fact everyone in the book, in one way or another, is thinking about the future and what they can get out of it. We would never do anything if all of our time was spent thinking about the threats around us and how to avoid them. We would never develop state of the art machines, we would never make and enjoy music, we would never write, never advance science and medicine. This is what makes us different: assessing the world around us and finding ways to improve it. This is what we continue doing, even in the face of failure, even in the face of terrorist threats.
Funny, the things you end up thinking about when you read a novel.
Every Man for Himself is a masterpiece. Even the description of Morgan’s experience in the ship’s final moments and in the aftermath of its sinking are beautiful. The Folio Society edition added to the beauty of the prose. Not just through the inclusion of Bainbridge’s paintings, either. I’m a fan of paper, and the pages in this book were smooth and weighty. It’s a good binding as well, encouraging the pages to fall open easily and the book to sit well in the hand. As an object, it’s a book that I’ll treasure. I’ll also treasure it as a piece of literature that draws together an understanding of human nature with a well researched take on an historical event.