On My Debt to Stephen Benatar, British Novelist
I met Stephen Benatar for the first–and so far only–time on a hot sunny afternoon in June of 1989, when I stepped into James Smith & Sons on New Oxford Street
to buy my (now ex-) husband a walking stick. Serendipity, one might say: it was the last day of my first trip to England, the place I’d wanted to visit from the day my imagination latched onto it; the visit itself had been marred by the continued depressive episodes of my bipolar traveling companion, and finally, that afternoon, I’d walked out of the hotel in Bloomsbury in an act of self-preservation. I was still, then, under the innocent impression that if I could just find the one thing I could do to fix everything, it would be all right; and somehow buying a present might be that one thing. (The ironic stupidity of buying a weapon for a person prone to violent outbursts when manic is another story.)
The inside of the narrow shop was dizzying. Shelves and shelves of umbrellas and walking sticks stretched every which way. I did not have time to ogle them all before a well-dressed man circled from behind the high counter to wait on me. I described the gift I wanted, details elicited by his careful questioning: blackthorn, for a man six feet tall; I even had to describe the size and shape of my husband’s hand, the better to choose a comfortable knob. The salesman marked the stick we finally selected, and, when I had opted for the brass cap rather than the gold (the money question), he then handed the stick off to a silent assistant, who disappeared through a dark doorway beyond the counter. Then he and I sat down at a table in the corner, had a cup of tea, and waited.
I didn’t understand then, but do now: when you travel alone–even just shop alone, as I was doing that afternoon–people will talk to you as they will not when you are with someone. It’s as though having company provides a sort of insulation. This was my first such experience. The salesman asked all manner of questions about where I lived, and what I did for a living. I must have admitted my aspirations as a writer, because the next thing I knew, he had told me of his published novels. On the back of a business card, he wrote out his name and titles.
Wish Her Safe at Home. When I Was Otherwise. The Man on the Bridge.
I don’t remember much more of the conversation now, I’m afraid. But I do remember being in awe of my great good luck. How often does one stumble upon a published novelist in an umbrella shop in a foreign country, and end up sitting about chatting? Which is what Stephen Benatar and I did that afternoon, until the assistant reappeared from
the bowels of the shop, still silent, holding the cut and capped blackthorn stick. I paid and left, the stick, wrapped, in hand, and the business card tucked safely in my pocket.
Suffice it to say that upon my return home, I ordered the two available of Stephen Benatar’s books from interlibrary loan at the Bangor Public Library. I read them and found them distinctly odd. The three elderly characters of When I Was Otherwise unnerved me as they degenerated along with the house they lived in. Wish Her Safe at Home‘s Rachel Waring downright frightened me, but it was not until I had finished the novel that I realized it: her loss of her grip on reality was so gradual and so completely convincing that I was ensnared before I knew what was happening. I wrote about my reactions, perhaps more candidly than I might today, in a letter that I sent to the author care of James Smith & Sons, as that was the only address I had.
Imagine my surprise some months later to receive a package in the mail. In response to my letter, Stephen Benatar had sent me a note thanking me for my reactions, though he thought the word for Rachel Waring was not “degeneration” but “liberation”; he’d enclosed his other two novels, books I had been unable to get through the library. Such Men are Dangerous was as unsettling as the first two. But it was The Man on the Bridge that hooked me, and twenty-one years later still has me hooked.
Benatar’s debut novel is the story of John Wilmot, a young man on the make in 1950’s London. He becomes involved with an older artist, Oliver Cambourne, who sadly loves John far more than John knows how to love in return. When John callously throws over Oliver to elope with Elizabeth Sheldon (who, coincidentally, shares my birthday), the repercussions of his actions are heartrending and much more than John ever expected, nor knows how to deal with. More than anything, this is a novel about how a person learns that actions have consequences, and how one must accept responsibility for them. The brilliantly drawn characters and the strong plotting notwithstanding, it is this theme which has kept me coming back to this novel since the day it arrived in my mailbox. It is the reason why I love this book. And it is the theme which I have found playing out in my most recent project, a work that I owe to Stephen Benatar and The Man on the Bridge.
Does Stephen Benatar know what his book has meant to me? Three years ago I wrote to him again, this time in care of his publishers (oh, the joys of internet research), to let him know. His reply was immediate and gracious. “Thank you so much for you kind and lovely note–all the more precious to me for having been pondered on for eighteen years,” he wrote. “It delights me to think The Man on the Bridge has meant so much to you, it truly does, I feel really grateful for your letting me know.” He concludes by suggesting, when I next get to London, that we might meet up. Well, that will be next April, Mr. Benatar. And I look forward to it. Perhaps by then, my project will have borne fruit, and I will finally be able to return your favor of twenty-one years ago.
* More info on Stephen Benatar: http://www.nybooks.com/books/authors/stephen-benatar/ .