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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Obituary: Bernice Rubens
Bernice Rubens
Bernice Rubens was applauded for her tragi-comic perspective

Bernice Rubens, who has died in a London hospital at the age of 76, became a surprise literary star in 1970 when her book, The Elected Member, stole the Booker Prize from a distinguished competition.

Rubens followed her unexpected victory with a string of books, as well as forging a second career as a documentary film maker.

She was born in South Wales, the daughter of Lithuanian Jewish refugees and it was her an unusual childhood that fuelled her fiction.

She later recalled: "I always had an outsider complex. But it's a benefit as a writer to be both an observer and to be part of life."

Humorous appraisal

Rubens read English at Cardiff University and, despite being a talented musician, moved to London to teach.

She began to write when her two daughters were small and her first novel, Set on Edge, was published in 1960.

Like much of her early work, it found critical acclaim but little popular success.

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens
The Elected Member was a surprise Booker winner
Her fourth book, The Elected Member, had sold only 3,000 copies when it became the second winner of fiction's biggest award.

It beat offerings from such authors as Irish Murdoch and Elizabeth Bowen, but Rubens was philosophical about her prize. "It's all right," she said, "as long as you don't believe you've written the best book of the year."

Rubens was short-listed again eight years later with A Five Year Sentence. Like much of her work, it told the story of an East End Jewish family.

Fans of her work were drawn to her bleak but humorous appraisal of the human condition, what reviewers called 'the tragic-comic Rubens effect'. Most of my novels are about survival, and that is a Jewish area," she said.

I think I'm a musician who is a bad cellist and a moderately good writer
Bernice Rubens

She did branch out though, taking the plunge with Sunday Best which led transvestites to write and thank her for her sympathy and accuracy.

During three decades, she wrote more than 20 books, two of which - I Sent a Letter to My Love and Madame Souzatska - were turned into films, the latter starring Shirley MacLaine.

Family subjects

Rubens got behind the camera herself to make a series of documentaries, concentrating on family subjects.

Her award-winning work, Stress, about the parents of mentally handicapped children, was shown on the BBC's Man Alive programme.

Shirley MacLaine in Madame Sousatzka
Shirley MacLaine brought Madame Sousatzka to life on screen
Her film work took her all round the world and to tribes in Africa, where her experiences instilled in her a conviction of the futility of psychotherapy.

She said, "A life without guilt is a life not worth living, because it is guilt that feeds the imagination."

Bernice Rubens' own writing was fed by her search for the contradictions in human emotions. After her brother's death, she explained, "I want to weep and mourn.

"Don't look for solace, go through it and suffer it. Then think about it, and find joy in the memory."

Rubens published two novels in the last three years and finished writing her memoirs shortly before her death.


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