Beryl Bainbridge – the ‘Booker Bridesmaid’, shortlisted five times but never a winner – is an author whose books I always want to love. About ten years ago I read a couple of her early novels – The Bottle Factory Outing was one – and I remember failing to get through two of her (then) latest titles, Every Man For Himself and Master Georgie. It was as though there was a sheet of glass between her writing and my reading: I could see what she was doing, but couldn’t make contact. Like Margaret Atwood, only shorter. Then I saw a copy of Young Adolf in my local charity shop, and thought I should give her another go.
Young Adolf  was Bainbridge’s first foray into the type of historical fiction which has now become her speciality: reimaginings and extrapolations of real events. In this case, however, the event is putative only. Bridget Hitler – a name not easily forgotten – lived in Liverpool with her husband Alois (Adolf’s half-brother), and in her memoirs, she told of Adolf Hitler’s stay with them in 1912-13, when he was in his early 20s. Whether this really happened is unknown, but it didn’t stop Bainbridge from using it as a springboard for a diverting piece of fiction.
It’s a title that will carry a lot ahead of it, and rather like Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, it seems certain to bring about equal forces of attraction and repulsion in the bookshop browser. In that sense it has a knowing quality – you cannot write a book and call it Young Adolf and expect people to approach it without preconceptions – but I am quite sure Bainbridge wrote it with the best intentions, of intellectual curiosity and a desire to show that fiction can explore truth even where historically the facts are not known.
In the novel Adolf – one of the curious sensations the reader is going to have to get used to is being on first name terms with Hitler, if only to distinguish him from his half-brother Alois – is little more than a youth, weedy and feckless, “looking as though a good wash would kill him.” His arrival in Liverpool is the result of stealing the passage money which Alois had meant for their sister Angela, and pretty soon it’s clear that the whole Hitler clan is touched with undesirable qualities. Their father, ‘Old Man Hitler’ is a brutal thug, and Alois himself is not above a little unbalanced behaviour:
Once, before the birth of darling Pat, Alois had won on the National at Aintree and had taken [Bridget] to Monte Carlo for a holiday. His restaurant in Dale Street had been doing moderately well. He was pleased at the thought of his coming child. Strolling along the road above the bay he had been full of good humour, idly swinging his stick and murmuring on his his expansive way about the vastness of the sky above, the smoothness of the Mediterranean below. She was so accustomed to his chatter that she hardly distinguished his words from the droning of the bees in the wild flowers that grew beside the path. Turning to her, he had inquired: ‘What colour, do you suppose, is the sea?’ ‘Why, blue,’ she had answered. ‘Why, blue,’ he had mimicked, and squeezing her arm viciously had shouted: ‘The water is a composite of white and blue and green. It is a reflection of the earth and the sky, you docile bitch.’ For several days after this correction he had ignored her. She sat alone in their hotel room, with its view of the absorbent sea, and looked at her bruised arm in the dressing table mirror. Had he cared to ask, she could have told Alois, without stammering, that her skin in one particular patch above the elbow was turning black and blue, ringed with a faint tinge of mauve.
However the general tone of the book is comic, as Adolf struggles to find his feet and friendship in Liverpool, and exhibits paranoia in fear of a bearded man he believes to be pursuing him. Bainbridge is shrewd enough to limit his anti-Semitism to one outburst, so it cleverly seems an aberration rather than a defining characteristic (and indeed his best friend, Mr Meyer the landlord, is Jewish). However she can’t resist a couple of nuggets of dramatic irony, which sit uneasily and show too much of the novelist’s hand:
Mary O’Leary, another tenant in the building, gives Adolf a length of linen to make himself some clothes (“‘Brown?’ Bridget said dubiously. ‘It’s an odd colour for a shirt'”); and at a hostel, when he is assigned a number rather than a name, Adolf
longed to make a scene, to insist they brand these same numbers on his forehead or his wrist, thus drawing attention to their own lack of humanity.
Geddit? Bainbridge writes well, and in this case undoubtedly the presence of real people as characters gives the book an added weight which its often whimsical tone and brevity wouldn’t otherwise have. Whether that’s enough, however, I’m unsure, and I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to Bainbridge unless I see another of her titles for a knock-down price in a charity shop (though of course I’m always open to recommendations). A word of warning: the back cover blurb in the edition I read (pictured above) gives away the glib but neat last line of the book. Could have saved 218 pages then!