I wasn’t in the most fabulous mood already when I arrived at the university library yesterday morning to find that half the car park had been cordoned off with newly laid bollards and cycle lanes. Only a thin strip of parking spaces remains, wholly insufficient for a space that was not sufficient to begin with. As it was Saturday morning outside of term time, I found the only space left, but when I went to check my books in I couldn’t resist (although I knew better, really) asking the staff about it.
‘People used to park all over the place. In front of the steps and alongside the flower beds. It was terrible.’
‘That’s because there’ve never been enough parking spaces.’
‘Ooh no, but the people who parked here weren’t proper library users. We had people leave their cars here and go shopping in town all day.’
‘We used to have a barrier system, and we collected tokens when we left the library that raised the barrier.’
‘That was years ago now.’
‘Yes, but it meant that only library users could park here.’
‘We had problems with the barrier system also. People got stuck at the barrier because they hadn’t used the library and couldn’t get out.’
‘Surely then you could embarrass them and fine them and that would solve the problem? Why can’t we have the barrier back?’
‘Oh no, we had no option to do what we did. We’ve no legal obligation to provide parking. The Bodleian in Oxford doesn’t have any parking at all. Really, you should have seen it, so dangerous with cars parked everywhere. And people who’d leave them here all day and go into town.’
‘You’re hardly going to prevent those people still parking here. You’re just reducing the number of spaces further for genuine library customers. Why can’t we have the barrier back?’
‘Really, we couldn’t have done anything else…’
The younger man who hadn’t spoken til now added ‘They did look into a barrier but it was a bit expensive.’
More expensive than a fancy tarmac job and at least fifteen cast iron bollards? I wouldn’t mind so much if we’re all supposed to be going green, but out the back of the library there’s a huge car park for staff. With a very forbidding barrier. I wondered about asking whether they’d like to give up some of their spaces to library users, but it wasn’t worth it. I went and collected my books in a very dark frame of mind, lightened only by thinking which of my blogging librarian friends I would like to see over in the UK, giving our staff a lesson in customer service, and by the thought that Cambridge might be turning into an outlying state of pre-revolutionary Russia, as described by Penelope Fitzgerald in her utterly brilliant novel, The Beginning of Spring.
It’s Penelope Fitzgerald I really want to talk about. Fitzgerald is one of those authors who hide on people’s bookshelves, looking shy and insubstantial, but she is arguably one of the great contemporary stylists. She was a late starter in writing, producing a biography of painter Edward Burne Jones as her first book when she was 58, followed by her first novel two years later, The Golden Child, supposedly written to entertain her dying husband. The next four novels drew heavily on her own life experiences – working in a book shop, living on a house boat, teaching at a drama school, working for the BBC in wartime – exquisitely written novels, often steeped in melancholy, demonstrating her powers of concision and her incomparable sentence-making. But it was the next four novels, her so-called historical works that demonstrate her at the height of her formidable creativity: Innocence (Italy in the 1950s), The Beginning of Spring (Russia in 1913), The Gate of Angels (Cambridge in 1912), and The Blue Flower (18th century Germany).
Her public persona was shy, distrait and scatty; she felt guilty towards her publishers when her books didn’t sell very well (she was 80 before she made any real money from writing) and when she won the Booker prize, it was made rather unkindly clear to her that many felt she didn’t deserve it but had been a compromise choice. Fitzgerald’s novels are not showily clever in any way; much like their author they do not draw attention to themselves, but her intelligent imagination rings clear through them all. And intelligence is something that she has in bucket loads; apparently her finals examination papers at Oxford were so brilliant that the examiner asked if he could keep them, and later bound them in vellum as if they were an objet d’art. This stellar start was belied by her later mundane, and somewhat chaotic, married life. Her son-in-law described Penelope and soldier husband Desmond as “two kind, intelligent and funny people who simply couldn’t manage the world”. And perhaps for me, this sense of sentient, sympathetic characters, pitted against a crazy world that is bound to have the upper hand over them, is something that pervades all her fiction.
I’ve just read The Beginning of Spring which certainly upholds the formula. The story revolves around Frank Reid, an English printer who inherited his business in Moscow from his parents, and who is neither completely at home in Russia nor completely alien to it. Instead he has ‘gone native’, learning to accept the sheer madness and the internal contradictions of his country with humourous grace. But when the book begins, Frank has been dealt a blow not from external circumstances, but internal, domestic ones. His wife, Nellie, has left him, but suffering a change of heart en route to England, she has returned their three children who now pose a problem of supervision. Why Nellie has gone is a mystery that the narrative places delicately to one side almost until its end, in order to focus on the arrangements Frank must now make in order to cope – pragmatically as well as emotionally – with her absence. The problem is that Russian friends seem indistinguishable from enemies, for instance the wife of his business associate, Kuriatin, and her sister: ‘Out of sheer tenderness of heart, they liked every emergency to go on as long as possible.’ And then there’s Selwyn, the accountant in his printing firm, who has turned into some sort of saint-like figure, meddling in gnomic ways amongst the poor and unfortunate, who brings the beautiful Lisa Ivanova, supposedly a simple country girl, to Frank’s household with profound consequences. The abiding pleasure of the novel is the contrast between Frank’s good-natured stoicism, his intelligent, sympathetic handling of the people who surround him, and the exotic incoherence of Russia, so evocatively and poignantly described. But Frank’s weak spot is clearly woman, where simple acceptance will not quite do, and where his own desires will blind him to the stealthy cunning with which Mother Russia sorts out her problems.
I find Fitzgerald’s work difficult to talk about because on the one hand, it is so effective, making it hard for me to see how she achieves her effects, and on the other, it is so economical, packing a great amount into every well-crafted sentence. One short anecdote from the novel might sum it up:
‘His father had always held that the human mind is indefinitely elastic, and that by the very nature of things we were never called upon to undertake more than we could bear. Frank has always felt doubtful about this. During the past winter one of the machine men from the Press had gone by night to a spot a little way out of the Windau station, and lain down on the tracks. This was because his wife had brought her lover to live in their house. But the height of the train’s wheelbase meant that it passed right over him, leaving him unhurt, like a drunken peasant. After four trains had passed he got up and took the tram back to his home, and had worked regularly ever since. This left the question of endurance open.’
And this is how her novels work – they show you something, undoubtedly something happens and of a plotted nature – but what we are to make of it is always left elegantly ambiguous. You can’t manhandle Fitzgerald’s novels into a tidy shape; instead she tells us an ordinary story that revels in the rich extraordinariness, the intransigent strangeness of life, and that brings the reader to a state of intense awareness. She uses language in a way that crystallizes and intensifies the world, and yet she also uses it with charm, wit and insight. I find it easy to forget between novels how very good she is, but it only takes the opening page of one to remind me.