Friday, July 24, 2009


Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself is an exquisitely
constructed novella based on the voyage of the Titanic,
spoilt only by too many minor characters—one gets
confused. When you have to start looking back through
the pages to find out who someone is and how they fit in,
the writer hasn’t done their job properly. Sometimes, also,
Bainbridge’s need to pack in necessary information about
the structure, machinery and fittings of the ship slows
things up; but really, most of the writing is of the highest
order of fiction. Set mainly among the upper classes it’s a
little like The Great Gatsby at sea. After touring the engine
and boiler rooms, the plutocratic young narrator writes:

We had spent our lives in splendid houses and
grand hotels and for us there was nothing new
under the sun, nothing, that is, in the way of
opulence; it was the sublime thermodynamics
of the Titanic’s marine engineering that took us
by the throat. 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.

Hence the core appeal of the Titanic disaster: it freezes in
time an emblematic moment symbolizing the Western
world before, two years later, it struck the First World War,
already out there in the water, directly in the path of
civilization, huge, epochal, implacable, waiting for events to
collide with it.

There’s also a blistering sex scene in Bainbridge's book: just
one; and it rips the story open, as the iceberg rips open the
ship with a ‘long drawn-out tearing, like a vast length of
calico slowly ripping apart.’

Published in 1996, a year before the famous film, the novel
book may or may not have influenced director James
Cameron; certainly some scenes seem to find their echo in
the movie. And still there are nests of Titanophiles around
the world, still debating whether or not the band really did
play 'Nearer My God to Thee' as the deck tilted or whether
Captain Smith stayed on the bridge to the last. Their really
big moment comes in less than two years from now, when
14 April 2012 rolls around and the centenary of the Titanic's
sinking arrives. Expect the ship to hit the fan.

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