The Work of Rosalind Belben
by M. J. Fitzgerald
In the last 20 years I have moved from the U.K. to Italy to the U.S., and there has been plenty of opportunity and encouragement to dispose of books. When I had to relinquish my flat in south London in the mid '80s, I was forced to be positively miserly; I put a lot of books in boxes and took them on the 2B bus along Norwood Road to the library as gifts. Some were very fine books, many held fond memories. But I was ruthless, sparing only a few. Among these were four novels by a writer called Rosalind Belben: Bogies, Reuben Little Hero, The Limit, and Dreaming of Dead People.
The early books Bogies and Reuben Little Hero seemed slight compared to The Limit, which in parts was gross and in other parts spellbinding. A mesmerizing description of an unreported hurricane begins with the ship's captain understanding that it is too late for the ship to avoid it, or skirt it, and that they are heading straight for it:
I observe gospel truth writ plain upon the barograph. Pressure has fallen, quite a lot, during the night, during one recent hour of our night. I look at the log. It has been entered thus: 2300hrs 1012, 0200hrs 1007, 0400hrs 1002, 0500hrs 997. Or 5mbs in 60 minutes. Falling, still falling. Now 996, it's no mistake. Where has the wind gone. Shifted. Turned completely, from SSW to ENE, soon will arrive strongly on the port bow.
Almost the best thing about these pages is Belben's dating of the unreported hurricane--10th of September 1967--which guarantees an authenticity to the whole experience. Was it this section that compelled to buy the next novel Rosalind Belben published?
Dreaming of Dead People grated on every self-conscious nerve. Reading it was at times as painful as the masturbatory activity Lavinia engages in for a while in one section, "The act of darkness." Too exposed, too raw, too personal I thought--although the section called "Owl", which charts the progress that leads to the putting down of a dog who can no longer be controlled, gave me an understanding of the love one can feel for an animal that no other book has done:
I had to blanket my mind, to hide all my conscious and unconscious thoughts from him: he must sense nothing, suspect nothinghe was more complicated than a horse. If I possibly could, I had to. I knew what to do, psychologically, and how to do it. I strained everything I had in me, to do that much for him. I think I succeeded, for the first and only time in his life.
I took all four books with me, and when Is Beauty Good came out while I was living in Italy, I went to all the trouble and expense of ordering it, but when it arrived I found I could not get through it, though I loved the opening pages, the philosophical question of the title, and sentences such as
If what is ugly didn't strike me as ugly, he thinks, I shouldn't mind staring at it, I shouldn't feel pained by my journey home; if I were indifferent, if each building, old and new, struck me indifferently, my journey home would not be a matter of seeing but of being jolted and dreaming of coffee and biscuits and sometimes cake
When I moved to the U.S., all five books came with me, jostling with the spaghetti and the Perugina Baci I stashed in the trunk, not sure that the Mid-West had even heard of either. (I was wrong about the pasta, right about the chocolates.) I placed them on the bookshelf in my office and forgot them. A steamroller of cultural differences was flattening me, and the all-pervasive assumptions about writers and writing, none of which seem to correspond to my own, were overwhelming: what was I doing here and why on earth had they hired me were questions that spun in my head. But I was no longer young enough to live like the birds of the air or the fish of the sea, and had to accommodate myself to this new world.
Choosing Spectacles, Belben's next work, reached me while I was in this state of mind, and it galvanized me. Not only did this fragmentary narration of the experience and thoughts of a man who has left Lithuania and wanders on small unspecified grants all around Europe, from Berlin to Israel to France, parallel my own in an uncanny way, but it somehow seem to me to refract in its particularity the story of every migratory group, the Somalis and the Mexicans, the Hmong and the Chinese. Rosalind Belben had written THE novel that showed the experience which the media and the intellectual elite endlessly talked about from their multicultural-awareness bog.
History is indomitable, and there will be more of it, fresh excitements, worse horrors, to lighten up the television screens. Washed up on the beach; and free, to return. In our former countries the great changes dreamed of are taking place, or have already, and there is no place left for us there, we are finished, and must live on, aware, it is really what exile means, not a temporary banishment but a rupture so total one can't catch one's breath.
I was finally a firm convert to Rosalind Belben. I forced the book on uncomprehending students on two occasions, to demonstrate the ultimate consequences of the hallowed tenet 'show don't tell', and how we have to adjust our reading when we are looking through one character's spectacles. Belben's use of fragmentation and ellipsis was too much for most of them--they were too accustomed to the description of emotions to recognize the manifestation of them in the very texture and punctuation of a piece--but the consciousness of a few was stirred away from the familiar to the sparsely charted territory of reading totally from within one consciousness, with only minimal props as titles and section breaks.
Belben's new book, Hound Music, has recently been published in the U.K. by Chatto & Windus. The ellipsis and particularity of punctuation remain, and the author's unique style is still present, but the consciousness of one has splintered into the consciousness of many; humans and animals think and act side by side.
In this novel she has clamorously succeeded in making real a period (19001902), the particularities of British landed gentry, and the details of turn-of-the-century upbringing in a world that, despite a shattering event, seems to be able to reorganize itself around change and remain essentially the same. She also succeeds in showing the sport of fox-hunting--so relentlessly condemned by animal activists that its practice has almost disappeared--as a complex and highly ritualized engagement with the countryside, with nature and with animals rather than a simple cruel slaughtering of the defenseless.
Though Belben is fearless and faultless in weaving within and without the consciousness of many, the main focus of Hound Music is on Dorothy, mother of five children and a woman as fully realized as Mrs Ramsey. In fact more fully realized, because unlike Virginia Woolf, who shies away from the complicated pattern sexuality makes in the fabric of one's life, Belben shows a fully sexual woman limited by her victorian upbringing from having a vocabulary for it:
She'd had a sensation so brief, so tantalizing now and irretrievable, that parting with it had proved to be, and was still, the most ghastly wrench. And, although convinced that restraint was a thing for which one lived to be thankful, she did at times wonder whether a life-time of that didn't border on the lunatic
Though she had taken to heart George's early strictures on her "moving" and all that kind of thing, she had enjoyed the consequences of being married—it was not unlike riding—she had entertained whole-heartedly all that she had stared in awe at her own reflection "afterwards" and put her hand up to her flushed cheek
This is the novel that should have won the 2001 Booker prize, but of course it was not even on the long short list. Never mind: it confirmed my hunch of twenty years ago that here is a writer whose novels have been worth hauling around the world.