The Titanic story naturally lends itself to sentimental screen treatments. That’s the mode, after all, that best obfuscates any qualms we might have about being entertained by real-life death and destruction. If you are looking for an antidote to such fluff, next month also marks the reissue, with considerably less fanfare, of the late Beryl Bainbridge’s masterful vision of the Titanic’s voyage, “Every Man for Himself,” which won the Whitbread and was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1996.
The novel shows us the Titanic’s now familiar features—the Grand Staircase, the glittering dinner gatherings, the comparative gloom of the lower decks—through the eyes of a fictional character named Morgan, an adopted nephew of John Pierpont Morgan, who had financed the parent company of the White Star Line, and therefore was the indirect owner of the doomed ship itself. Morgan the nephew, an orphan in the great literary tradition, knows a bit about the ship even before he boards; he apprenticed at Harland and Wolff, the firm that designed the boat, concerned, as he explains, in a typically sardonic manner, “mostly with the specifications of bathtubs.” Bainbridge lays out a subtle, oblique plot involving a mysterious older man named Scurra, who is at once a father figure and a rival to Morgan, and an unattainable young society girl, of whom Morgan observes, “Dancing with her was like holding cut glass.”
The Titanic, being a cruise ship, was garish and slightly absurd even in its own time. Bainbridge brings a refreshing irony to the story, freeing the boat and its passengers from their museum-diorama arrangements and filling their veins with blood and their heads with foolishness. When the ship first leaves the dock, a woman complains, “I expected more of a show.” Markers of snobbery are casual and precise. One character says to another: “Promise to shoot me … if you ever catch me sporting a bowler at sea.” Morgan notes Benjamin Guggenheim’s mistress: “She had pouting blue eyes, a small mouth and a mother, so it was said, who had hoed corn.”
Such humor and nuance about the Titanic, over the past hundred years, have been overwhelmed by storytellers who have turned a series a technical errors and bad luck into a floating morality play, an examination of the demise of the Edwardian ruling class, and an expression of modern man’s folly in the face of the natural world. Bainbridge dispenses with these notions quickly, or, rather, she captures them all in a single flourish. Morgan, upon inspecting the Titanic’s massive engine system, muses,
“Dazzled, I was thinking that if the fate of man was connected to the order of the universe, and if one could equate the scientific workings of the engines with just such a reciprocal universe, why then, nothing could go wrong with my world.”
Bainbridge’s ability to distill, and almost disguise, major ideas in brisk and seamless prose allows her to tell the story of the Titanic in fewer than two hundred pages. Later in her career, Bainbridge wrote several similarly short historical novels. “Young Adolf” followed a twenty-three-year-old Hitler on a visit to Liverpool. “The Birthday Boys” was an account of Robert Scott’s fatal—and, as it turned out, second-place—arrival at the South Pole. Her last novel, “The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress,” left incomplete and published after her death from cancer, in 2010, was a seedy road-trip farce that ends with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. These novels offer peculiar versions of history, concerned mainly with marginal people who end up, despite their natures, in the middle of big doings. A reader getting all his history from Bainbridge would certainly have an odd yet absorbing conception of the twentieth century.
These novels are invariably described as “slim”—which is something of a coded word among book reviewers. It refers, of course, to a book’s physical properties, but also hints at another kind of novel: big, rangy doorstops containing narrative and intellectual multitudes. In length, and in what is traditionally considered literary ambition, these novels are indeed slim—though I prefer the word sleek. They are condensed as if placed under extreme pressure. Or, like microscopes set to an extreme magnification setting, they zoom in on a spot that may or may not be representative of the larger whole. The central story in “Every Man for Himself” could have taken place anywhere—and, indeed, is not “historical” at all, but rather comes from the author’s deeply personal and idiosyncratic understanding of human relations. In 2009, Bainbridge explained how, after doing some research on the Titanic, she created the novel’s narrative architecture: “In the rest of the book, involving the characters, I just remembered things that had happened in my own life. There’s really no need to make anything up.”
Bainbridge is too sophisticated to fill her story with heroes or villains. Shortly before the ship strikes the iceberg, Scurra tells Morgan, “My dear boy … have you not yet learned that it’s every man for himself.” He is warning him against naiveté in his romantic engagements, but the line reminds us of the chaos to come, and challenges our comfortable moral sense that we would surely have behaved better in the same circumstances. Earlier, Morgan states firmly that “it’s bunkum to suppose we can be touched by tragedies other than our own.” Perhaps that’s what became most clear when the ship began taking on water.
By the end of the novel, our sense of the cosmic importance of the Titanic has suitably been diminished, and yet, in the book’s final pages, the essential terror of a giant ship sinking in the dark returns with startling force. The images are undeniably captivating: the glassy, starlit sea, the looming, jagged black-blue icebergs, and, most of all, that vertical mass, already half gone and with the power cut and sparks twisting down, bobbing there for a few moments before plummeting into the North Atlantic.
Yet worse than that, and worse than all the floundering on deck, the mishandled lifeboats, and tearful farewells—worse even, somehow, then the massive ship cracking in two—is the moment just after the last lengths of the stern slipped beneath the ocean, signalling some dark place in the brain that imagines death as a downward-pulling gravity on the body. That moment will be appropriately terrifying on the big screen next month in 3-D, but holds even more power in prose: “Then silence fell, and that was the worst sound of all. There was no trace of the Titanic. All that remained was a grey veil of vapour drifting above the water.”