Loved this story of the Titanic. Yet another look at Every man for himself theory.
"Almost at once, what we had felt faded, and nothing remained of the experience save for three wisps of smoke spiralling from the blown-out candles ..." (p.122)
Beryl Bainbridge had an amazing facility for sneaking up on a subject. Several of her impressive list of novels deal with subjects that, you might think, had been done to death (Adolf Hitler, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Scott of the Antarctic, to name a few), and yet she managed to make them feel fresh, and new.
The story of the Titanic, in the 100+ years since the disaster, has been told in just about any way a reader could possibly imagine. Overblown melodrama (I'm naming no names), forensic analysis, allegory of hubris (of the patriarchy, technology, capitalism, take your pick), or dispatches from the front lines of the class war ... to quote the immortal words of satire magazine "The Onion," WORLDS LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICE-BERG What on earth is a writer supposed to do with that?
Bainbridge's short novel goes back to the experience: what would it have been like to be a passenger on the Titanic? The passengers are usually rendered as bit-players in the tale of their own demise (or survival) -- it's the ship, and its final, excruciating two hours, that is the star of the show. Bainbridge reverses this: we are asked to care about a motley group of passengers (mostly first-class, with some from the lower decks, crew and representatives of Harland & Wolff), and briefly play along with their assumption that the worst things that are going to happen on their five-day crossing are embarrassingly unrequited crushes, social faux-pas played out in full view of the "crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me" of Transatlantic society, and creeping shame-faced into New York Harbor under cover of darkness, having broken no speed records. Oh, if only.
Bainbridge achieves this by masterful use of first-person narration, handing the telling of the story over to Morgan, a young man who has grown up in the society of the glittering, privileged first class, but whose dubious birth gives him plenty of reason to doubt whether he belongs, or even wants to count himself as one of them. Bainbridge plays it absolutely straight with Morgan's perspective: there are no clumsy references to what is to come, lurking just over the horizon as the great ship steams ahead, no laments of "if only I had known ..." What foreshadowing there is -- those wisps of smoke spiralling from the three candles; a tray of plates crashing to the bottom of a broken dumb-waiter; a little boy playing with a top, fading into ghostly transparency against the backdrop of the setting sun -- is delicate and heartbreakingly beautiful. Morgan seems to be writing his account in real-time, convinced of the invulnerability of himself and his world, and seeing it as all a bit of a lark, even as the end game begins, and we slip into legend, and the accounts that we are all too familiar with.
"... I distinctly heard voices uttering sentences that didn't finish. An hour and a half. Possibly. ... Hadn't we better cancel that ... As we have lived so will we ... If you'll get the hell out of the ... (p. 163)