A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It is a rare delight to encounter a book of such apparent simplicity as Master Georgie. The narration – split between three voices – is compelling and smooth, the prose wonderfully uncluttered. It is overloaded neither with explicit themes or complicated ideas. There is no sense of a writer trying to be clever. Master Georgie is storytelling of the finest order.
And yet I use the phrase ‘apparent simplicity’ advisedly, for the simplicity of style masks a cunningly composed narrative which questions how one can ever know something simply by looking at it. In Master Georgie, Beryl Bainbridge confronts the reader with an oddly compelling statement: you cannot know these characters.
When war breaks out in the Crimea George Hardy, surgeon and photographer, sets off to provide whatever services he can offer in support of the British effort. With him travel his adoptive sister Myrtle, amateur geologist Dr Potter and photographer’s assistant and fire-eater Pompey Jones. The narration is split between them, starting in the cold back streets of 19th century Liverpool, travelling through sweltering Constantinople and on to the battlefields of the Crimea. As each seeks to shed light on Master Georgie (as Myrtle terms him) a picture begins to develop of everyone but him. He remains the dark spot on the plate.
The Crimean War was the first to be extensively documented by photography and one gets the impression that Bainbridge spent a great deal of time searching for inspiration for her characters by looking at these pictures, only to come up with more questions than answers. That is how the book reads: a snapshot of a long dead, anonymous person who can never be resurrected, not even through literature. Master Georgie is all about what lurks beneath the surface of a photograph: the context, facets of themselves people choose to hide from the world, the misinterpretations that people ascribe to surface images. At one point a fellow character enquires as to why Myrtle often looks sad. “It’s the way I am on the outside”, she replies. “Inside, I assure you I’m quite happy.” This seems to sum up Master Georgie nicely.
There is an element of satire here, too. There are two targets for this: specifically the bombast of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ and generally those who gallantly march off at the first hint of war assuming victory. It reminded me very much of The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell with its portrayal of out of place Britishness, a pompous sense of worth that is never fully punctured, even while confronted by death, disease and defeat. There are some absurdly funny moments. The wealthy British bring trunk -loads of possessions and are accompanied as far as the Constantinople by their spouses and children as though for a bit of a summer jaunt. There is a funny scene when, having arrived in Constantinople, they go to the opera only for it to descend into a brawl over a perceived indiscretion towards Myrtle.
The satire is not biting though, and surrounding it is a tender portrayal of life, war and the consequences of our actions. Like the best war books, one comes away feeling that it was all so bloody pointless.
Yet none of this is to say that Master Georgie is an easy book. It is slippery, never quite giving the reader what one wants or expects. The drama is quiet, unassuming. Some of the supposedly dramatic aspects – particularly the shared and mysterious guilt the synopsis promises – didn’t really resonate with me at all. The prime feeling I came away with was puzzlement: I knew I had enjoyed the prose and the journey without really engaging with any of the characters; without being able to identify why. Others I know have reacted to it with utter indifference. Yet the fact remains that I enjoyed reading it, and it continues to challenge and interest me a month later. This was my first Beryl Bainbridge novel but I’m certainly going to read more by her in the coming months.
Abacus, 1998, 9780349111698, 212pp