The Titanic, Beryl Bainbridge, and Me
I was not a fan of the James Cameron epic, The Titanic. Indeed, I recall whispering to my wife, Why won’t they die for God’s sake! during the interminable ship-sinking sequence. Although one should, perhaps, feel empathy for characters forced to thrash around to the excruciating sounds of Celine Dion warbling “My Heart Will Go On,” I did not believe in the doomed romance between Jack and Rose, did not care about the old woman’s necklace, her memories, her sorrows.
Every Man for Himself, Beryl Bainbridge’s slender 1996 novel about the Titanic disaster, provides a useful antidote to that film’s bloated melodrama. Bainbridge, who died in 2010, does not bludgeon us with the vast parameters of the infamous accident; instead, she shows us the small, strange mysteries of human interactions, and how love, rage, self-destructive urges, and altruistic yearning ebb and flow throughout our lives, whether we are comfortably drinking brandy in the stateroom, or staring down at icy waters about to engulf us.
Although Every Man for Himself won Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Award and was briefly a best-seller in the United States (Bainbridge believed, perhaps correctly, that people thought the novel was the basis for Cameron’s film; it wasn’t), it is not much read now and Bainbridge herself—declared a “national treasure” in England—is little known here. But reading the novel this past summer, I was struck by how well she had captured the essence of human foolishness—how even as catastrophe clamors in the background, we notice mostly minor, irrelevant details about our own lives.
As he is about to leap over the railing, Bainbridge’s protagonist Morgan observes, I remember looking down at my right shoe, still inexplicably shiny with polish, as I prepared to take a stride towards that figure braced against the rail. Then, the water, first slithering, then tumbling, gushed us apart…
Another character, an aspiring dress designer, is primarily concerned about a glamorous gown he has been trying to sell: What was he going to do about his dress?... it was unthinkable that Adele should wear it in a lifeboat. “There is the oil,” he wailed, “the dirt, the salt-spray…it will be ruined.”
A third character, the beautiful Wallis, of whom Morgan is enamored (but who spends her time on the ship drinking and having sex with older men), declines to go on a lifeboat because I couldn’t stand the idea of being cooped up with all those bawling children…
Bainbridge’s pellucid point : even as chaos eddies and swirls around us, we are who we are.
As I was reading Every Man for Himself this summer, I was reminded over and over of my own more or less mundane brush with disaster. How could I not be? The 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, accompanied by a daily media countdown of old/new horrifying details and memories, almost like a dreadful advent calendar of doom
Like so many residents of lower Manhattan, my experience of 9/11 was more as a terrified tourist of that moment than as a true participant. I was walking across 3rd Street from the E train; I had just taken my daughter to her Kindergarten class in midtown. I stopped at Sullivan Street because a small crowd was gazing south. I saw something—what was that?—hit the second tower and a plume of flame and smoke that billowed into the previously beautiful morning air. Holy Shit! I believe I said, and raced home to Washington Square Village where I watched on television an event actually unfolding a few blocks south.
My daughter’s principal memory of the event is of having a day-long play date with her best friend (after I hiked back uptown to spring her from the panicky school). My wife, who was on a business trip in Nashville, commandeered her rental car and heroically drove 17 hours to New York to be with us; she remembers ditching the car in midtown and walking through the surreal landscape of downtown Manhattan , having to show her NYU ID so that she could enter the below-14th Street lockdown.
For some reason, the day after that day, I found myself wandering the streets, despite the hideous clouds of burning plastic/metal/humanity which blanketed the neighborhood. I kept thinking—I don’t know why—I need new shoes. So, I stopped into one of the few stores open below 14th Street, and bought a pair of shoes. Yes, on the day after some 3000 people were incinerated, my principal conscious thought was to buy shoes for the new semester.
Well, we are who we are. Even then, I could not explain myself to myself. This is stupid, I remember murmuring to the nearly empty store. Everyone around me had the same frozen, dazed look, the one that asks, What has happened? What will happen next? What on earth am I doing here?
Despite my sense of futility that day, I bought a version of the shoes I usually wear. But they never fit. I’ve always suspected there was a curse on them; I can hear Fate’s whiny insinuating voice (sounding much like my grandfather): That’s what you get for doing something so trivial on a day of national mourning/fear/ dismay.
I kept those shoes around for years anyway, even though I couldn’t wear them. Why? Perhaps, as my own acknowledgement of the strangeness and mysteries of the human mind.
Auden famously declaims: About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters; how well they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking/dully along…
That observation still makes me shiver. That’s how I feel when I think about 9/11; that is the rich and eternally new truth that Bainbridge brings to the Titanic disaster in her excellent novel, Every Man for Himself.