Penelope Fitzgerald: the getting of wisdom
When reading fiction one of the things I find as irksome as continuity errors (brown eyes in one chapter, blue the next) is bad grammar. You know the sorry score: irritatingly errant apostrophes, inability to distinguish between ‘there’ and ‘their’ or ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ – mundane horrors which give pause. Permanently. I mean these are my superiors, these published story-tellers: they should know better, no? Well, no. No more than an couple of pages into the first of a series of best-selling crime novels, I saw one character describe a cloth-eared chum as ‘distinterested in opera’. I discarded the book immediately (and haven’t read any others by that writer since). “Oh dear,” I sighed. “Oh, bother!” (Needless to say, no such expressions passed my lips: I am sparing your delicate sensibilities.) And I stomped off in search of a novel written by someone who cares about language.
The same process applies to blogposts, causing my heart to sink at the sight of those which begin with ‘So …’ These invariably continue in sense-slaughtering style and in what I take to be blissful ignorance of grammar and syntax. Although occasionally I do stick around to see if I can glean anything from material which inevitably appears childish and incoherent. In the case of online book reviews this can prove instructive. How? Yes, you’ve got it: if the blogger’s clearly a slipshod and shallow sensation-seeker, then anything they deem pretentious, over-rated or boring is probably going to be right up my street.
So when I encountered a blogger’s review of one of my favourite authors which opened with a complaint about said author’s career as a novelist having begun at around age 60, I growled happily. Aside from the fact that the novelist-in-question had been writing steadily for decades – as a journalist, teacher and biographer – before picking up her pen to write fiction, why on earth shouldn’t she ‘wait’ until that age? I read on. The blogger blindly interpreted the novelist’s late flowering as a distinct drawback to the writer’s ‘professional trajectory’, expostulating equally fruitlessly about the writer having published her four first novels in as many years. The blogger had failed to see that the very qualities in this writer which meant she not only recognised but also observed the constraints and demands of marriage, motherhood and bread-winning when partnered by an improvident drunk were the very ones which honed her unflinching gaze and breathtaking skills. So much so, in fact, that deploying them brought instant success to that great novelist, Penelope Fitzgerald. She whose novels speak profoundly, wittily and even aphoristically of the bonds of duty; of the values of responsibility and reliability – and of their sheer, bloody uselessness in the face of life’s unpredictability and unfairness. Florence, in The Bookshop, tries to reassure herself with platitudes:
‘“… while there’s life, there’s hope.”
“What a terrifying thought,” said Mr Brundish.’
Irony – often painfully mordant – is a stock-in-trade she uses almost musically with point and counterpoint. In The Bookshop (1978), a self-confessed lounger and scrounger passes unrecognised, and indeed often unjustly rewarded, while another character, equally straightforward but essentially decent and constructive, is treated as if she were a dangerous obstacle to be destroyed rather than merely circumvented. As a harsher, more underhand ethos extends metropolitan tentacles to the far reaches of East Anglia, the local representative of the old order dies attempting to halt its encroachment. Too late, for it is already entrenched; death is his only escape.
Complex, memorable images abound in these short, deceptively simple novels. The opening scene of The Bookshop describes a heron attempting to swallow an eel, both stuck in apparent deadlock because neither is entirely involved in the enterprise – a metaphor for the tale that is about to be told. In the same book a poltergeist (a ‘rapper’ in local dialect) almost figures as a character, so telling are its interventions. It appears at certain junctures as if providing further commentary. The reader may or may not suspend disbelief, a choice which is oddly irrelevant thanks to the author’s aplomb in handling the subject. The rapper also illustrates the writer’s characteristic combination of sharpness and vagueness.
The Blue Flower (1995) starts with a character arriving at a large provincial house in Germany on what is obviously annual washday. He – and the reader – are thrown into the midst of the action, just as clothes and bed-linen drift down into the courtyard from upper windows in ‘great, dingy snowfalls’. It is an arresting image, rendering the mundane mysterious. Penelope Fitzgerald does not take the reader by the hand and explain; she does not plant signposts in our way. She is subtle, and selects each word with precision for maximum effect and meaning. She can be elliptical, with questions of obscenity or even suitability relating to Lolita in The Bookshop left largely to the reader to consider. She treats the reader as an adult, intelligent and capable of following her many, often unpredictable, detours and insights as plot and characters unfold.
Her first novel, The Golden Child (1977), was written to entertain her dying husband. From then on (and, in a sense, his demise may have come as a relief), there was no stopping her. Her second, The Bookshop (1978), was short-listed for the (then) Booker Prize and the next, Offshore (1979), won it. Some say undeservedly, and the book many regard as her best work, The Blue Flower (1995), would have been the best choice (mine would have been The Gate of Angels). Now, of course, it hardly matters. There they are for anyone who may enjoy them: an extraordinary array of novels. They mark a clear progression starting with her earlier experiences – working in a bookshop in Southwold; living precariously on a narrow boat moored at Battersea Reach; working at the BBC in wartime London, and later teaching at the Italia Conti Stage School –
and moving on to explorations of the mind-body relationship; of metaphysics and physics; of the wellsprings of love and of poetic inspiration, and of the impossibility of seeing or understanding anything or anyone save through a glass, in varying degrees of darkness. Hers was a spartan life, hard-working and often unrewarding. She saw and knew and understood far more than most. Thus while her prose is easy to read, understanding all she has to say requires effort. A S Byatt, who knew Penelope Fitzgerald and admires her work (as do Julian Barnes and Philip Hensher), said of her: ‘she was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well.’ It’s a phrase which could also encapsulate Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing, with its beady focus on the gaps between knowledge and understanding – to invert de Buffon’s most-quoted comment, ‘la dame est le style même’. Penelope Fitzgerald can be amusing or serious or even, at times, both; but she is invariably multi-layered and profound, and her unique form of elegantly concise writing contains multitudes. The fact that she had to wait so long to unleash all that accumulated creative force was perhaps, in the end, our gain.
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