Around November last year, I was in a Waterstones bookshop near Holborn, on my way to the London rooms of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a good boozing session. In the bookshop, I was approached by a very courteous and affable gentleman who introduced himself as Stephen Benatar, and asked me if I’d be interested in reading one of his novels. I ended up having a chat with him. Eventually, I decided to buy one of his novels, and, not being able to decide which one to go for, I asked him to choose for me, and he chose his first – published back in 1981 – The Man on the Bridge.
I have Googled him, and found that, as a novelist, he is very well regarded by the few who know him, but that, not having had the luck to draw winning tickets in the lottery that is the publishing industry, he takes somewhat unusual steps to publicise his work. It appears also that he has set up a small publishing house specifically for the purpose of keeping his works in print; and it is good to report that since my meeting Mr Benatar that November evening, one of his novels, Wish Her Safe At Home, has been reprinted by the prestigious NYRB Classics.
After handing the book to me, Mr Benatar stepped away so as not to pressurize me into buying. But all the same, I must confess that I felt somewhat uneasy. On the one hand, I had no doubts that the publishing industry is not so structured that the cream always rises to the top: much that has risen to the top strikes me as meretricious, and I have no doubt that there is much of value that passes by barely noticed. But on the other hand, my to-be-read list was already so infeasibly large, that a book I have never heard of by an author I had similarly never heard of seemed an unlikely candidate for an addition. However, the passages I sampled at random seemed intriguing, and, since I was running a bit late for my appointment at the Whisky Society, I decided quite quickly to try out one of his books. So The Man on the Bridge it was. I didn’t read the novel immediately: I had a few other things lined up first. But recently, some five or so months since that November night, I gave it a try; and I am glad that I did.
It would be rather lazy to describe The Man on the Bridge as a gay novel. Certainly, at the centre of it is a gay relationship, but the novel is not specifically about being gay as such: it is about people who happen to be gay. Its themes are love, betrayal, disillusion, loss, grief, redemption, and so on – in other words, themes that have been around for as long as the novel has been around, or, indeed, as long as humanity has been around. Some would say that all this is old hat – that these themes have all been dealt with before. I wouldn’t go along with that. Yes, these themes have been dealt with before, but each time they manifest themselves, they do so in a different way; and this is because everyone experiences these things differently: no two human beings are identical. When so many novelists of today are addressing the big issues of our times (not necessarily because they have anything of importance to say about these issues, but simply because they are of our times); or are writing self-referential “texts” exploring the unreliability of “texts”, or whatever; it is refreshing to find a work – and so intelligent and so sensitive a work at that – focussing on what, I’d guess, will continue to be the perennial theme in literature: the endless intricacies of humans, and of how they relate to each other. I doubt these intricacies will ever become old hat.
The story is told in the first person, and I think it’s generally a good rule to treat all first person narratives as essentially unreliable. As we read the opening chapters, we don’t need to read too closely between the lines to see how limited the narrator’s viewpoint is. His name is John Wilmot; he is a young man – still a teenager – in London in the late 1950s, and, like many a protagonist of 19th century French novels (Eugène Rastignac, Julien Sorel, Frédéric Moreau, even D’Artagnan), he is a provincial who has come to the capital determined to become a social success. He is good-looking and, like most good-looking people, he knows it. He is picked up by middle-aged, successful artist Oliver Cambourne, and, despite imagining that he is not himself homosexual (the word “gay” is never used in this novel, presumably because it did not have in the 50s the meaning it has now), he appears happy to go along with this, as being Oliver’s lover opens for him doors to a world that he longs to enter. Remarkably, despite the rather obvious fact that it is Oliver who is picking him up, he presents it as if it were he, and not Oliver, who was the principal actor in this episode.
The developing relationship between John and Oliver is depicted with the surest and subtlest of brush-strokes. It soon becomes obvious (although the narrator does not appear to see this) that Oliver is besotted with him. I did wonder at times what precisely Oliver saw in John, but one should not underestimate the power of physical beauty. However, Oliver’s passion is not quite reciprocated: John is, admittedly, also besotted, but only with himself.
The writing is very subtle indeed. For instance, although Oliver is a successful artist, at no time during this part of the novel does John mention Oliver’s paintings. So we have no idea what sort of artist Oliver is – whether he is a talented artist, maybe even a genius; or whether he is merely a purveyor of knick-knacks for the rich. We are not told this because John himself is not interested in what Oliver does: his primary interest – indeed, his sole interest – is himself. Naturally, despite his lack of interest in Oliver’s work, he expects Oliver to take an interest in his novel. (For, of course, he is writing a novel: a novel is “self-expression”, after all, and how can so wonderful a self as his own not be worth expressing?) Now, it is obvious that John is not capable of writing a good novel, since he lacks that most essential quality that any novelist should have – the ability to empathise with others, to see the world through others’ eyes. John seems to take it for granted that his first novel – he has no doubt that this first will be followed by others – is a masterpiece, and the scene where Oliver tries to be polite about it so as not to hurt his feelings is hilarious. Needless to say, John’s reaction even to polite criticism is to go into a huff.
Such a relationship is bound to end in tears, and it is no surprise when it does. But it would be unfair of me to go into the details of the plot, as it takes certain turns and twists that are intended to take the first-time reader by surprise. But nothing in the plot is forced: although certain incidents may surprise us, these incidents are, in retrospect, entirely logical outcomes of what has gone before, and entirely consistent with the characters as presented. John, of course, develops through experience, and here we see the benefits of the first person narration: although we are invited to read between the lines in John’s narration, the direction in which John’s perceptions and consciousness develop come as much a surprise to us as they do to John himself. This probably wouldn’t have been possible with omniscient third person narration.
The organisation of the novel is superb. Elements that had seemed merely incidental detail in the early parts of the novel reveal their true significance much later: the novel is very economically structured, and nothing seems wasted. The incidental characters come vividly to life – especially the eccentric writer Marnie Stark, who appears very tellingly in two important scenes; and the pacing of the whole thing is masterly. In short, given how very assured the writing is, it’s hard to believe that this is Benatar’s debut novel: throughout, he seems to have a firm grip on technique, and makes difficult things seem easy.
The only aspect I had some doubts about was the religious dimension. Once again, Benatar is careful to lay the foundations of this unobtrusively in the early chapters of the novel, but for all that, this was perhaps the one aspect of the work that left me less than convinced. In our secular and disbelieving age, it’s difficult to represent religious experience without appearing mawkish: the usual method is to have the story narrated by a non-believer who witnesses the power of faith, and who is left struggling with his or her disbelief. This is what happens in, say, Brideshead Revisited or in The End of the Affair. And this is also, more or less, what happens here. But here, the workings of religious faith aren’t really witnessed at first hand; and the religious vision, related at second hand, seems to me less than convincing. However, I do appreciate that this is very difficult to bring off, and one shouldn’t, perhaps, expect too much in a first novel.
But despite this criticism, I found myself very involved in what I read, and, at certain moments, emotionally gripped – far more so than in many a novel I have read by heavyweights of contemporary literature. Benatar writes very clearly and lucidly: there is no linguistic flamboyance, no verbal firework: but the very precision of his prose I found expressive, and, indeed, affecting. I like the fact also that he writes about those age-old themes that will always, I think, be of importance to us: amongst other things, The Man on the Bridge reminds us that there’s life yet in the traditional novel.
I certainly want to read more of Benatar’s works: the one recently reprinted by NYRB Classics – Wish Her Safe at Home – seems particularly highly regarded, and I think is likely to be another addition to my to-be-read list. Indeed, if I had known that November night how accomplished a writer Stephen Benatar was, I’d have invited him to join me for a few drams at the Malt Whisky Society! (Whether he’d have accepted is, of course, another matter…)