On Penelope Fitzgerald

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.

24 thoughts on “On Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read any Lively. Seems like I need to keep an eye out for her. Meanwhile, I have the Josipovici and am LOVING it. The dialogue! It sparkles! It makes one of my favourite dialogue writers, Nick Hornby, seem almost ponderous.

  2. I always get Lively and Fitzgerald mixed up; I’m not sure why. I’ve read a couple of Lively’s but haven’t yet tried any Fitzgerald, but thanks to your thoughtful post I’ve got a few more reasons to give her a try.

    As for the parking / barrier conversation, it sounds like something straight out of a Magnus Mills novel!!! I love how the English make simple things so complicated!

  3. I have read “The Blue Flower”, “Off Shore” and “The Bookshop”-Each one is small gem and creates a complete world-I never blogged on any of the works I read-maybe when I have read all of her novels I will be bold enough to try-I think I will read “The Beginning of Spring” next

  4. I love Penelope Fitzgerald too! Am duly noting down the titles I have not read…there is something comforting in the fact that she was a late bloomer.
    “The Bodleian in Oxford doesn’t have any parking at all.” Tee hee! Isn’t that the one that requires near academic sainthood to get in? (or have I–as usual–gotten in mixed up with something else)So sorry about that parking situation; maybe they’ll relent and allow actual patrons access…

  5. P.F. sounds like someone I would very much enjoy reading. When my Elizabeth Bowen kick is finished I will start reading something by her. What is the best novel to start with? (I walk to my local library…lucky me! Parking is on a downtown street with spaces tricky to find and meters to be fed, so I walk. It’s a pleasurable ritual.) I love the way you write about books!

  6. I’ve grown to appreciate Penelope Fitzgerald only recently. I loved Offshore. Talk about economical! And, as you say, “elegantly ambiguous.” I have The Blue Flower, think I’ll start it next! Thanks for this reminder of one of my favorite authors 🙂

  7. I know I shouldn’t but I mentally divide people into two groups, those who like Fitzgerald and those who don’t. I should have known you would fall into the first:) I think it’s about time for a re-read.

  8. Amateur Reader – couldn’t agree with you more. And delighted to find another fan.

    Lilian – I find late bloomers so reassuring! Mary Wesley is probably the best – I think she was in her 70s before she got published for the first time. There’s hope! And I’d love to know what you think of her if you read her. I think she’s a writer’s writer.

    Charlotte – I am SO happy that you are enjoying Josipovici! Now there’s someone else who manages amazing effects in seemingly effortless ways. And you meant to type ‘Fitzgerald’ didn’t you? I’ve done that enough times myself – those two are so easy to confuse!

    Kimbofo – lol! I do it myself, too. And you remind me I must read Magnus Mills. I have ‘The Scheme For Full Employment’ on my shelves and keep meaning to get to it. Would love to know what you think of Fitzgerald if you read her.

    Mel U – I would love to read your thoughts on Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve just bought a copy of Offshore and am looking forward to it very much!

    ds – you’re not mixed up at all – it’s also right smack bang in the centre of Oxford! I’m wondering when I will ever be able to get to the UL. Sigh. But there it is, and I must try and file it under ‘simple inconveniences’. I am delighted that you are also a Fitzgerald fan. Every time I read her, I wonder why I don’t read her more often (but possibly to string her novels out over a longer time!).

    Bej – how lovely to be able to walk to the library with ease! That sounds wonderful. I’ve enjoyed all the Fitzgerald novels I’ve read, but I would think The Beginning of Spring would be a good one to start with – I’d love to know what you think if you read her, and I’d love to know how Elizabeth Bowen has been striking you too. It’s ages since I read her, but I remember loving The Death of the Heart and The House in Paris.

    Gentle Reader – I picked up Offshore in a bookstore 3 for 2 offer last week and am looking forward to it very much! Will be most interested to hear your thoughts on The Blue Flower and delighted you also like Fitzgerald!

    Ann – I like to divide the world into two, as well! Just as a starting point, before the complicated divisions come into play. 😉 So nice to think you like her too, but not surprised given the exquisite beauty of her language use. 🙂

  9. Darn it Litlove, I really didn’t need to add yet one more author to my list! Do you think you could somehow contrive to read only horrible books and authors for awhile or at the very least write blog posts that discourage me from wanting to read them?

    Your library conversation made me laugh. Even if the staff didn’t like the decision and could do nothing about it they could have said something like, oh isn’t it dreadful! We are so terribly sorry for the inconvenience. I will pass along your feedback to the person in charge and here is their phone number/email in case you would like to give the feedback directly. That way no one had to argue and everybody could feel good. I’d be happy to come over anytime and provide some lessons 🙂

  10. Stefanie – you see! you see! I KNEW you would understand my issue with the librarians. We need you over here so badly – come quick! And lol! – I’ll try to read a few real turkeys over the next few weeks… the start of term will probably slow me down some!

  11. I desperately need to take some Annual Reading Leave. I never thought I’d have occasion to say this, but all these fabulous authors slipping through the hour glass really make me miss my research days…

    Litlove, you’ve destroyed my fantasy of life in Cambridge. Car parks? Bollards? Barriers? I thought it was all gorgeous old bicycles with wicker baskets…

  12. I loved ‘The Bookshop’ and must read more, the ending haunts me and it perfectly illustrates what you said about them being elegantly ambiguous – what are we to make of the town’s efforts to close the bookshop and how are we suppoused to feel about the authors decisions to make Florence’s helper (name is gone from my head) fail her eleven plus? I must get a historical novel of hers now.

  13. I like Stefanie’s empathic solution. I felt better just reading it. I know I won’t get to PF anytime soon but she does sound very interesting. I agree re the turkeys – please read a few duds so that slow readers such as me won’t feel so bad falling behind 😉

  14. I had a little bit of trouble with The Bookshop. I liked it but expected to love it, and that didn’t quite happen; I think maybe I needed more time to get used to her quiet tone and style. I never quite settled into it, and then the book was over. But I’m certainly planning on giving her another try, as I think eventually I may get what’s going on better. Next up is The Blue Flower, and I’m looking forward to it.

  15. I love it that there is a word like “bollard” — it sounds ridiculous and ponderous and silly all at once. Just like this insane solution to the parking problem! (And YES to Fitzgerald. A lovely writer. I wonder if the economy comes with age, or if she would have been that way had she come to writing earlier.)

  16. Doctordi – there are an awful lot of bikes with wicker baskets! lol! But we also have car parks and bollards and barriers. I do know what you mean about reading leave – I could use some myself. Believe me, I spend my free time visiting other book blogs and compiling a list of about 200 novels I’d like to start. Right now. 🙂

    Jodie – I read The Bookshop so long ago that I can’t recall it, but I know I enjoyed it very much and your insightful comment is certainly stirring some memories! 🙂 I’d love to hear how you get on with any Fitzgerald you happen to read. She is such a good stylist.

    Pete – Stefanie can always make it better! 🙂 And I will try not to make the next few books sound too enticing – however, I have just got hold of a copy of a book on body psychotherapy that is very intriguing that you might be interested in. Perhaps it’s better to leave mention of it for another day…. 😉

    Dorothy – if anything’s going to throw me with a book, it’s my expectations for what I’m about to read! I have read several people saying similar things about some of the early novels. I would suggest you try one of the historical ones, though. So far I’ve been hugely impressed by them. I’d love to know what you think of The Blue Flower when it makes it to the top of your TBR pile.

    Lily – lol! I hadn’t thought of bollard being a funny word, but you’re quite right – it’s very silly. The object is silly too – mostly black and reaching knee height which makes it easy to walk into them – ouch! I thought that your writing shared some of that cool economy of Fitzgerald, so I’m agreed it’s a frame of mind born from emotional maturity and wisdom. 🙂

  17. “Oh, Bollards!” sounds like an expression one would say when you ding your shin on such an object. and I do so love your posts! You have me thinking, ‘poor Penelope Fitzgerald!’ and wanting to go rescue her books from unappreciative bookshops or something. She is now on my wishlist.

  18. I have just finished “The Beginning of Spring” this afternoon and have to say “Wow.”
    I will be reading more of her books. Luckily, the public library here is equipped (and accessible).

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