Sunday, February 06, 2022

the last book I read

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge.

That's Mr., or perhaps even Dr., George Hardy to you - man of many talents, principally photographer and surgeon, occasionally even combining those two talents for experimental purposes. Obviously you can't wield a scalpel expertly with one hand and do some sort of selfie with the other hand, particularly not with one of those early cameras with the massive concertina lens and the hood and the explosive magnesium flash powder. So George has a photographic assistant, Pompey Jones, that he makes use of on certain occasions; Pompey being indebted to George for patching him up after a fire-eating accident.

We may as well meet the rest of the supporting cast of characters while we're here - there's Dr. Potter, husband of George's sister Beatrice, and then there's George's adoptive sister Myrtle, taken in by the Hardy family in Liverpool slightly accidentally at the age of three and intended to be shipped on to an orphanage, something that never quite happened. Myrtle has always looked up to George with a sort of puppyish devotion and has made herself useful to him in many ways, most notably at the age of twelve helping him to deal discreetly with the death of George's father - old Mr. Hardy having expired in rather inopportune circumstances during the physical act of coitus with a tuppeny-ha'penny prostitute in her foetid lodgings. Clearly this will not do, not least in terms of breaking the news to Mrs. Hardy, so some discreet shuffling around of remains is in order.

There are some odd episodes while the cast of characters remains in and around Liverpool - a bizarre episode where Pompey Jones is dragged along to a secret location to photograph George performing a cataract operation on an ancient ape, and further oddness where Pompey habitually sneaks into the Hardy residence in the early hours and moves various items of furniture around to see if anyone will notice. Eventually someone does notice, and unfortunately it's George's young wife Annie, who is spooked by an unexpected encounter with a tiger-skin rug and has a miscarriage.

We then jump forward four years and George, Myrtle, Pompey and Dr. Potter are on their way from Liverpool to Constantinople with the intention of bringing George's combined surgery and photography skills to bear in the bloody ghastly theatre of the Crimean War. Beatrice and Annie come along initially but it soon becomes apparent that this is no place for ladies and they return home; Myrtle is made of sterner stuff (and in any case would never abandon George) and stays. 

George makes himself useful assisting with the steady stream of casualties, and since some of them have been hit by cannonballs you can imagine there's a bit of stitching up and making good to be done. Pompey is working as a war photographer and Dr. Potter and Myrtle are making themselves useful where they can. War is not a tidy process with clear boundaries between participants and observers, though, and the party find themselves drawn into the conflict more and more directly, until eventually they are right in the middle being shot at and having severed limbs flying past their ears. 

This is the third novel from what one might think of as the second half of Bainbridge's career where her novels had a real-world historical setting; both its predecessors in that genre (The Birthday Boys and Every Man For Himself) having featured on this blog. Master Georgie is probably a slightly more oblique treatment of actual historical events than either of those two (I suppose in the case of The Birthday Boys that's partly because the characters are actual people who actually lived - and, shortly afterwards, died) and some aspects are slightly frustratingly oblique and allusive. The obvious example of this is that while it's obvious that George has occasionally struggled with repressed homosexuality, and that furthermore something slightly untoward has been going on between George and Myrtle (i.e. they've been fucking), most of the reviews take it as a given that Myrtle is actually the mother of George's children, something that I'm not convinced you could be sure of from reading the actual text. 

It's tremendously sly and clever, of course, and as the previous paragraph suggests makes some demands of the reader. It's perhaps a book that you admire for its craft and cleverness rather than engaging with the characters at a visceral level or being genuinely invested in the matter of whether they live or die among the flying cannonballs and gobbets of pulverised limb-flesh. Nevertheless Master Georgie was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1998 (the winner that year was Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, generally accepted as being his worst novel). Bainbridge was famously nominated for the Booker five times (in 1973, 1974, 1990, 1996 and 1998) but never won. 

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