Only the Drop

Gabriele Annan

  • Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 224 pp, £14.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 7156 2733 3

A man in a Thurber cartoon asks a woman: ‘But Myra, what do you want to be enigmatic for?’ Or words to that effect. The question kept coming into my head as I read Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel, which is set on the Titanic during the four days before she sank, and narrated in the first person by a survivor whose first and only name is Morgan. The title, Every Man for Himself, suggests that human selfishness is going to be the theme. In fact, almost everyone – or rather every man – behaves rather well, observing the women-and-children-first injunction when it comes to piling into lifeboats. ‘Every man for himself’ seems to refer rather to the inscrutability, the enigma of other people. There is a mystery about almost every passenger, and one of them, a middle-aged lawyer called Scurra, is opaque mystery all the way through, down to the scar on his lip – which some say he got in a duel, and others from the bite of a South African macaw. Morgan is only 22, and he develops a crush on Scurra, who is given to portentous and mostly cynical pronouncements. ‘Every man for himself’ is one; but the most portentous of all – because it opens and closes the book – is ‘Not the height, only the drop, is terrible.’ What can it mean?

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