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Paul Bailey Biography

Paul Bailey comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Peter Harry Bailey in Battersea, London, 1937. Education: Sir Walter St. John's School, London, 1948-53; Central School of Speech and Drama, London, 1953-56. Career: Actor, 1956-63. Literary Fellow, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and University of Durham, 1972-74; visiting lecturer, North Dakota State University, Fargo, 1977-79. Awards: Maugham award, 1968; Arts Council award, 1968; Authors' Club award, 1970; E.M. Forster Award (U.S.A.), 1974; Bicentennial Arts fellowship, 1976; Orwell Memorial prize, for essay, 1978. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1982.



At the Jerusalem. London, Cape, and New York, Atheneum, 1967.

Trespasses. London, Cape, 1970; New York, Harper, 1971.

A Distant Likeness. London, Cape, 1973.

Peter Smart's Confessions. London, Cape, 1977.

Old Soldiers. London, Cape, 1980.

Gabriel's Lament. London, Cape, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.

Sugar Cane. London, Bloomsbury, 1993.

Kitty and Virgil. Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 2000.


A Worthy Guest (produced Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1973; London, 1974).

Alice (produced Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1975).

Crime and Punishment, adaptation of a novel by Dostoevsky (produced Manchester, 1978).

Radio Play:

At Cousin Harry's, 1964.

Television Play:

We Think the World of You, with Tristram Powell, 1980.


An English Madam: The Life and Work of Cynthia Payne. London, Cape, 1982.

An Immaculate Mistake: Scenes from Childhood and Beyond (autobiography). London, Bloomsbury, 1990; New York, Dutton, 1992.

Editor, The Oxford Book of London. New York, Oxford UniversityPress, 1995.

Editor, First Love. London, Orion, 1999.


Theatrical Activities:

Actor: Plays—roles in The Sport of My Mad Mother by Ann Jellicoe, London, 1958; Epitaph for George Dillon by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton, London, 1958; and other plays.

(1991) I write novels for many reasons, some of which I have probably never consciously thought of. I don't like absolute moral judgments, the "placing" of people into types—I'm both delighted and appalled by the mysteriousness of my fellow creatures. I enjoy "being" other people when I write, and the novels I admire most respect the uniqueness of other human beings. I like to think I show my characters respect and that I don't sit in judgment on them. This is what, in my small way, I am striving for—to capture, in a shaped and controlled form, something of the mystery of life. I am writing, too, to expand and stimulate my own mind. I hope I will have the courage to be more ambitious, bolder and braver in my search for the ultimately unknowable, with each book I write.

* * *

Paul Bailey's first novel, At the Jerusalem, has been rightly acknowledged as one of the outstanding literary debuts of the 1960's in England, and among the reasons why it attracted attention when it appeared was that it departed so markedly from our usual expectations of first novels—autobiographies in thin disguise. What came as a surprise was to find a first novel by a young man in his twenties about old age and its attendant tribulations. Yet Bailey's achievement did not, of course, lie in merely writing about the elderly and their problems, but in doing so with such sympathetic understanding and sensitivity while maintaining sufficient detachment and objectivity to avoid any trace of sentimentality. There is no falsification, no whimsy, none of that awkwardness and emotional uncertainty that tend to afflict writers when dealing with the old. Bailey's depiction of an old people's home, the Jerusalem of the title, and especially of the central character, Mrs. Gadny, whose fairly rapid decline after entering the home is charted, carries complete conviction. Quiet and unpretentious as At the Jerusalem is, it is also an extraordinary feat of the imagination.

In retrospect, we can now see that At the Jerusalem introduced many of the themes and preoccupations which have come to be integral components of the Bailey world: isolation, suffering, death, suicide, old age, the pain of loss, psychological collapse, role-playing in an attempt to bear or ward off reality. If At the Jerusalem is mainly a study of disintegration—Mrs. Gadny's fate is to be taken to a mental hospital—Bailey's second novel, Trespasses, partly set in a mental hospital, is about an attempt at reintegration after personal breakdown and fragmentation. Surprisingly for a Bailey novel, Trespasses ends on a note of muted optimism, but much of the book is pervaded by anguish, leading to suicide in the case of one character and mental collapse in the case of another. Technically, Trespasses is much more adventurous work than the fairly orthodox and straightforward At the Jerusalem. Some sections of the novel are collages of short, fragmented monologues, appropriate enough for the subject but demanding considerable concentration and imaginative involvement on the part of the reader, who has to construct the total picture from the pieces like a jig-saw puzzle. This intricate cross-cutting between different minds is a most economical way of revealing characters and events; narrated in a conventional way, the novel would be very much longer and far less intense than it is, and the technique justifies itself as the pieces finally cohere into a highly organized pattern.

Bailey's pursuit of poetic concentration, a concomitant of his increasing technical sophistication and artistic discipline, is taken a stage further in his third novel, A Distant Likeness. Like Trespasses, the novel is fragmented and elliptical so that the reader again has to work hard to piece the information together. Bailey is almost as sparing of words as Webern was of musical notes. The book, about a policeman in charge of a murder investigation, is another study in disintegration, resulting in this case from the policeman's inner contradictions. Many critics have felt the "distant likeness" to be between the policeman and the murderer, but the sentence from Simone Weil's Notebooks that provides the novel with its title, "Privation is a distant likeness of death," is perhaps the key to the interpretation of this complex book. Bailey's subject is privation, and it appears in various forms. A Distant Likeness has been compared to

Crime and Punishment, but Bailey's novel is not so much like Dostoevsky as a distillation of a super-refined Dostoevskian essence. The extreme compression can be likened to T.S. Eliot's miniaturization of epic form in The Waste Land, a parallel that suggests itself because of similarities between the imagery of the two works.

After the minimalist austerity and purity, as well as human bleakness, of A Distant Likeness, Bailey altered course somewhat, producing a much more relaxed novel in a comic, even picaresque, vein, Peter Smart's Confessions. Here the Dickensian side of his talent, evident but not prominent in his earlier books, is given freer rein, although he maintains his usual technical and stylistic control, never wasting words. Peter Smart's Confessions is a kind of bildungsroman, dealing with the development of a sensitive and artistic boy surrounded by philistinism and other forms of paralyzing opposition. Yet much of the interest lies in the gallery of eccentrics and extraordinary characters with whom Peter comes into contact rather than in Peter himself. The later stages of the novel are more desultory and less subtle than the brilliant first half, but the novel as a whole opened up new possibilities for Bailey.

Old Soldiers is his most completely satisfying novel since At the Jerusalem and is also about old age, the two main characters being men in their seventies with unforgettable memories of World War I—hence the title. Technically, the novel is not as "difficult" as Trespasses or A Distant Likeness, but it resembles them in its brevity, imagistic density, and dependence on suggestion rather than statement. As usual, much is left unsaid. Bailey's treatment of the two very different men, who are nevertheless drawn together after their paths cross, again reveals one of his central concerns as a novelist to be the essential isolation of human beings, the way in which everyone lives and dies alone. He exposes the vulnerable core at the heart of all individuals, the strategies by which people try to disguise their vulnerability and protect themselves from the daily assault of reality, including the inevitability of death. This marks him as a descendant of Conrad, a novelist he greatly admires. Yet if Bailey peels away the deceptions and self-deceptions, the masks and pretenses, by which his characters live, he does so with enormous sympathy for their predicament. Bailey respects the uniqueness of individuals, and possesses the true novelist's fascination with people of every description.

Since Old Soldiers in 1980, Bailey has undertaken a great deal of literary journalism and broadcasting, become an important advocate of Italian literature, and written a couple of non-fiction books, but has published only two novels, Gabriel's Lament and Sugar Cane. This is by far his longest work of fiction and encompasses over 40 years of English life, from the early years of World War II on. The lament of the title is Gabriel Harvey's belated expression of grief at the age of 40 when, in the closing stages of the novel, he discovers the truth about his mother's disappearance nearly 30 years earlier in 1950. What Gabriel learns in Minnesota when he opens a strange bequest from his father, a box of letters, is that his mother Amy had committed suicide within a few weeks of leaving home, supposedly to take an extended holiday. Although Gabriel has become a religious scholar and successful author, much of his life—his adolescence and adulthood—has been profoundly affected by Amy's mysterious absence as well as by the overbearing presence of his outrageously eccentric father, Oswald, one of Bailey's most brilliant creations and a comic character of Dickensian stature. Thirty-five years older than his wife, Oswald, whose lifestyle is transformed by an unexpected financial windfall, eventually reaches the Shavian age of 94. In one sense, the story of his life that Gabriel unfolds is one of loneliness and perplexity, but it is also hilariously funny at times because of Oswald's unpredictable behavior and speech. Oswald may make Gabriel suffer, but he simultaneously makes the reader laugh. Bailey achieves a delicate synthesis of the tragic and the comic in Gabriel's Lament, which like his other novels succeeds in widening our sympathies and extending our imaginations.

—Peter Lewis

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