A Weekend With Claude by Beryl Bainbridge
This was Beryl’s second novel, but the first to be published in 1967. Her first, Harriet Said, was finally published in 1972. When A Weekend with Claude came out, Beryl was 24, however she radically revised and rewrote it in 1981.
It has a dual time-frame with a framing story starting in the book’s unspecified present, which I assume is several years after the events of the other story strand.
In the first, we meet Claude and his partner Julia. Claude is an antiques dealer with a barn full of furniture. A couple have come to buy a desk and Claude invites them in for tea whilst he does the paperwork. The woman buying the desk finds a letter and a group photo which Claude hurriedly reclaims, before starting to wax lyrical about the people in the snap and that weekend back in 1960 with Lily, Edward, Norman and Shebah…
Chapter two, and we go back to 1960 where Lily takes up the story:
I don’t know whether I’ve had a nice time or not, though I suppose that wasn’t the object of the exercise. Anyway, it’s settled now, though it may be foolish to believe anything is really settled. This morning when I first got up, before Shebah was shot, I felt wide awake. Now I feel tired and would like a bath. I could have one, but it would mean walking away from them down the garden and into the house, and Edward would follow in case I was being molested by Claude, so it’s not worth it.
We’re instantly put on guard by that statement ‘Shebah was shot’. It’ll be a while before we find out what happens! Claude and Lily are old friends, but not strictly old flames. Lily had been in love with another man Billie, but he went off then she found out she was pregnant. Edward came along at the right time to be an unknowing father, and Lily has engineered the weekend to coax him to ask her to marry him, and brought her friends and lodgers Shebah and Norman for moral support.
We return to the present briefly before ‘Victorian Norman’ takes up the story. They call him Victorian because he wears old-fashioned collars. Although he picks up the story, putting his own spin on Shebah getting shot, most of his narrative is concerned with trying to get off with Julia.
The tragedy of Claude and Lily lies in the regularity of their nonconformity. Everything being permissible, they are lost to the delights of the unpermitted. Julia and I, not being so emancipated, can appreciate to the full the bittersweet flavour of infidelity.
He’s always cornering her and trying it on – but someone always appears before it gets serious to put the kibosh him. We continue to alternate timelines, then Shebah gets her turn. Shebah is considerably older than the others, and is a sort of outrageous mother surrogate to Lily who indulges her. She feels rather neglected though, given Lily’s plans…
It could have been so charming, this weekend, in this ideal setting, the place so beautifully furnished and the pictures everywhere, but almost from the moment we arrived there were undertones and atmospheres and one or other of them would vanish into another room and whisper away, or there would be looks at each other, and those tedious half-finished sentences, like the half of a letter you find in the street, that you can’t make head nor tail of, no matter how you try. … They pretend to be interested in art and politics and books, and they seem to chat white intelligently for a time, but always, like a maggot eating its way across a particularly decayed and juicy fruit, there’s this sexual business, leaving a small trail of slime, and nothing else seems really to bring them to life.
I’m not going to tell you much more. There’s a lot of boozing and even more boredom; it’s not totally the weekend from hell – it could have been even worse, but it could have gone a lot better too.
The only truly likeable character in this disparate set of friends is Julia, who had taken a depressed Claude under her wing after his wife left him and took the kids. While we do feel a bit sorry for Claude and the others, we never really get to know Edward at all. As for the others, I didn’t like any of them and together they all brought out the worst in each other rather than the best.
Writing a story from different points of view is something that Bainbridge used to great effect in The Birthday Boys – in which she has five narrators who tell the story in sequence. Here, we have the framing device of Claude and Julia reminiscing about the photo, and then the three voices each tell their version of the weekend, with their own diversions and asides. Here, going over the same mostly boring events three times did drag a little at times, and each of the narrators complicates the others’ story further – it pays careful reading. Bainbridge observes her characters’ lives in deadpan detail, daring them to shake things up.
One funny thing I found was that this particular novel mentions many of Beryl’s own interests and obsessions, often things she would go on to paint and write other novels about. From the Titanic to poor Captain Scott, Peter Pan’s ‘awfully big adventure’ to Napoleon (Beryl painted many pictures of her lovers as him).
Apparently, this novel was well received by critics when first published, although it didn’t sell well. Like her next novel, which she also revised, A Weekend with Claude was published initially by Hutchinson. The revised versions were published by Duckworth, the publisher with whom she stayed for about twenty years, having a long affair with Colin Haycroft, the owner, and getting much advice on writing from Haycroft’s wife, the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis!
A Weekend at Claude is an interesting stepping stone on the way to later greatness. Having been out of print for ages, Virago reissued it a couple of years ago with an introduction by Linda Grant (8/10)
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Source: Own copy – an old Fontana paperback from 1983