This Day in Jewish History

2004: A Musically Incompetent Award-winning Author Dies

Silent in a musical family, Bernice Rubens became a prolific writer who would die as she finished the first draft of her memoir.

Bernice Rubens, the first woman to win the Booker prize: Shown
Wikimedia Commons

Self-proclaimed as the ‘listener’ in a family of musicians and a ‘loner by nature’, Bernice Rubens, the author of 25 novels and the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize, died on this day, October 13, 2004, just after finishing the first draft of her memoir.

Rubens’ work is characterized by dark humor and a propensity for the bizarre. Her grim plots are wide-ranging, marked by history as well as her personal experience and sense of comedy. Exploring loneliness and human relationships, she especially enjoyed writing about families, once remarking, “Everything that happens in a family is more so in a Jewish family.”

Although only about half of her novels deal directly with Judaism, Rubens’ considered her work to be permeated by an "awareness of survival" linked to her Jewish upbringing.

What, this is Wales?

Bernice was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1923. Her father, Eli Rubens, was a Lithuanian Jew who meant to abandon Europe for New York. He got as far as Cardiff, and only realized he hadn't made it to America after a week in Wales. In any case, he stayed and married Dorothy Cohen, a teacher, chemist, and suffragist. Bernice was the third of four children.

Eli worked as a tallyman, bringing suits to the Welsh valley to sell for a shilling a week. Bernice grew up in an end-of-terrace house that also served as a refuge for Jews fleeing the war.

A sense of survival and gratitude, along with the melodies of the violin, made the family ties run strong. Her two brothers grew up to become classical violinists. The youngest, Cyril, played for the London Symphony Orchestra.

Believing she lacked musical talent, yhe future novelist proclaimed herself the listener of the family..

Bernice was educated at the Cardiff High School for Girls. She was awarded a BA in English at the University of Wales, and soon after graduation moved to London.

Somebody needs to know about Camembert

In 1946, Rubens moved to London and married Rudolf Nassauer, because “he knew about Camembert and I did not.” Rudi was a wine merchant and aspiring novelist from an assimilated Jewish family, with whom Rubenshad two daughters, Rebecca and Sharon. But their marriage was undermined by his affairs and after 20 years, he left her after fathering a son to another woman. While Rubens stated that “the greatest revenge is to live well,” she refused to take money from her ex-husband, to deny him the gratification of having a clean conscience.

Her marriage provided the basis for her least favorite novel, "Mate in Three" (1965). Her newfound loneliness proved cleansing and cathartic, and she delved deeply into work. She never remarried, instead focusing her energies on her novels and screenwriting, including documentaries on mentally handicapped children. She also worked in Indonesia on a UN-produced documentary.

Bernice wrote in an attic, accompanied by a piano and a cello. A slow writer in practice, she considered it a good day if she put out three good sentences. She once mentioned how after every couple of words, she would give a ‘little tinkle on the piano’.

Rubens only began writing at age 35, after her children started nursery. Her first novel "Set on Edge" (1960), a comedy on parental expectations, was well received: if it hadn't been, she said later, she probably wouldn’t have continued writing. Ten years later, Rubens became the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize for "The Elected Member", about a Jewish lawyer who becomes a paraboid amphetamines addict.

Her novels "Madame Sousatzka" (1962) and "I Sent a Letter To My Love" (1975) were adapted to film, and "Mr. Wakefield's Crusade" (1985) was adapted for television.

Although successful during her lifetime, Bernice always introduced herself as a failed musician rather than a writer. She loved sitting in cafes with friends, especially with fellow novelist Beryl Bainbridge, smoking and chattingabout writing and their grandchildren.  Rubens died of a stroke at 81.