Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2009

The Elected Member (1969), by Bernice Rubens, Winner of the Booker Prize in 1970

elected memberThe Elected Member was the second winner of the 1970 Booker Prize, after Something to Answer For by P.H.Newby in 1969.  Bernice Rubens (1928-2004) was born in Wales and began writing in her middle thirties when the kids went to school.  She was shortlisted again in 1978 for A Five Year Sentence, and her winning book was shortlisted with some august company:

  • Iris Murdoch (Bruno’s Dream – on my TBR)
  • William Trevor (Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel -one to find for my TBR)
  • A.L. Barker (John Brown’s Body)
  • T.W. Wheeler (The Conjuction)
  • Elizabeth Bowen ( Eva Trout -which I read and enjoyed some years ago with the Booker Prize Yahoo group).

The Elected Member has been on the TBR for a while, and I read it as part of The Complete Booker Challenge.  I have 12 to go (not counting this year’s winner, of course) but I am making steady progress since joining this challenge…

It’s interesting to read ‘dated’ books like this, not yet classics, if they ever will be, but deserving their place in history because of a significant prize.  The official website lists the judges (Antonia Fraser, David Holloway, Rebecca West, Ross Higgins and Richard Hoggart) but doesn’t include a judge’s report so I can only guess at the reasons why this book was a winner.  I think it may have been because it tackles the emerging issue of drug addiction and links the causes to dysfunctional families – a very relevant topic in the Swinging Sixties and beyond.

The central character is Norman Zweck, mad as a snake, and probably so even before he started fooling around with amphetamines.   His dead mother was the archetypical over-mothering Jewish mumma, much given to histrionics and successful in bullying the entire family.  Papa is as much under her sway since her death as he always was, and Norman’s sister, the inappropriately named Bella, is still wearing short white socks in her approaching middle age because her mother had to readjust everyone’s age to maintain Norman’s status as a ‘child prodigy’ (nine languages by nine years old):

‘Oi veh,’ moaned Mrs Zweck, ‘what is it on your legs?’

‘Stockings,’ Bella said, trembling.  ‘Silk stockings from your drawer.’

Mrs Zweck gaped.

‘I’m fifteen,’ Bella reminded her.

‘You’re twelve,’ Mrs Zweck shouted.  ‘You hear?  You’re twelve.  Next year, please God, you are thirteen.  At your age in stockings.  Plenty time to be grown up.  Believe me.  Go change,’ she screamed at her. (p90)

Bella never gets over this, and indeed nobody ever gets over anything in this family.  They cherish ancient memories and grudges, the past forever intruding into the present and preventing anyone from enjoying successful relationships.  Esther, estranged from the family because she married ‘out’ can’t even leave her husband even though the marriage is a disaster.  It’s bizarre.  

It’s not a lot of fun to read.  There’s a lot of repetitive detail about Norman’s hallucinations, which persist in the psychiatric hospital thanks to ongoing supplies from ‘the Cabinet Minister’ and although there are no horror stories about ECG it’s clear that the primary strategy for a cure is to keep the inmates sedated almost continuously.  There’s a lot of tiresome screaming and shouting and repetition, which may be authentic  in some Jewish families (but not any I’ve ever met).   The writing is resolutely realism – no mucking about with modernism or nostalgia 19th century romance either.  Indeed the structure is a bit forced in places, as each traumatic memory is dragged up in order to present the family’s history.  Here we go again, I kept thinking, as Mr Zweck, or Norman, or Bella, or Esther told their part of the blame-the-mumma back story.  I wonder how Rubens got on with her own mother – was there an element of payback happening here??

Not having read the others in the shortlist except for the Eva Trout, I ought not comment really – but if they were running true to form, I bet the Iris Murdoch or the William Trevor might have stood the test of time better than The Elected Member.

Sam Jordison at The Guardian thought it better than I did.


  1. So many notable books from the past – and we have trouble keeping up with our own era. I admire you for taking on the complete Booker challenge. What a challenge that one is. I suspect the William Trevor would be the best from that year, but the title mentioned may be the only one of his I haven’t read!


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