Human flotsam: Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverThe handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.

Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).

The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.

Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!

Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.

Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.

This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.

Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):

Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.

A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.

Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.

Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:

But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.

Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.

Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.

What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.

There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.

I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.

Links to other discussions of this novel:

Jacqui Wine here

Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)

 

[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]

‘The poet of the prosaic’: Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton, Holiday (title quotation from the Guardian obituary, 2009)

What governs your choice of what to read next? The last two novels I opted for weren’t on my TBR pile (still teetering); I was inspired by two other bloggers – Susan Osborne at A Life in Books for the subject of my previous post, Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light, and Ali at the Heavenali blog for today’s, the (now rather neglected) 1974 co-winner of the Booker Prize that year: Stanley Middleton, Holiday. As she and others have summarised the plot and Middleton’s life admirably (1919-2009; wrote 44 novels – links at the end), I’ll commend to you her review for details on such matters. Here I’d like to examine a few key literary features in some extracts that demonstrate his scrupulous style and technique .

It’s the meticulous consideration of acutely observed details in the quiet lives of ordinary people that Middleton excels at; nothing wrong with writing about unexceptional provincial, middling people – George Eliot showed this in Middlemarch, while the blurb on one edition of the novel describes him as ‘the Chekhov of suburbia’ (a phrase also used of John Cheever). His debt to D.H. Lawrence is apparent, and he shares much of his fellow Nottinghamshire artist’s ability to relate ostensibly mundane subject matter in beautifully crafted literary prose.

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

The novel consists mostly of flashbacks in which, through the focusing filter of protagonist Edwin’s cultured mind (he’s a thirty-two-year-old university lecturer in the philosophy of education), we are given access to his every intimate thought – especially how he came to find his wife Meg’s tempestuous nature increasingly unbearable, especially when her moody outbursts became more hurtful after a family tragedy devastated them both.

Much of the narrative consists of accounts of the people, sights and sounds Fisher encounters as he wanders aimlessly around a shabby Lincolnshire seaside resort, processing these experiences as a starting point for his forensic dissection of his painful relationships, first with his unimaginative, undemonstrative parents, and then with his wife.

For example, early in chapter 1 he recalls his father’s behaviour on holiday at that same working-class holiday resort when Edwin was a child:

 Edwin hated his parents then, for the shopkeepers they were. Obsequious, joking, uneducated, the finger-ends greasy from copper in the till, they drew attention to themselves. When the retainer ushered his rabble round the stately home, Father Fisher asked the first fool question, chirped the witless crack, was rebuffed in all eyes but his own…Yet the old idiot had brains; he made his shops pay; he’d left his children tidy sums. And he’d read, though with a mind bent, young Edwin had decided, on trivialising.

 So much is packed into those few lines. The time-frames are suggestively telescoped, in a manner best exemplified by Dickens’ treatment of Pip’s adult recollections of his selfish younger self in Great Expectations. This is seen in the unobtrusive but crucial temporal adverbial ‘then’; does this signify that the narrating, adult Edwin no longer hates his parents? Is he recalling that hypersensitive boy’s bittersweet love/hatred with the more enlightened, forgiving insight of the adult? It’s a raw, painfully honest portrayal of father-son relations that resonates with me – also a grammar-school boy with working-class parents who’d left school at 12, who embarrassed their children as they grew up in a world their generation and class couldn’t fathom.

The relationship with Meg is portrayed with equal flaying precision. Here’s a passage from early in chapter 2; it’s Sunday evening in Edwin’s seedy ‘digs’:

Outside it was bright still, and calmer. On the dressing table he’d put his writing case, which lay open. Perhaps, not this day, he’d write to his wife, a mild letter of description, with no mention of himself, no recriminating, merely a message so that she knew where he was, and in her anger at him could learn what this house, this street, this seaside was like. He’d not apologize or sulk or shout, but put down physical facts about rooms and holiday artisans and lilos until she screamed.

Here Middleton’s technique shows in all its acerbically witty ambiguity. The narrator reveals his own deficiencies by highlighting his self-image as a mild-mannered, put-upon victim of a vengefully spiteful, shrewish, selfish wife, while unwittingly conveying the simultaneous impression to the reader that he’s far from blameless in this imploding marriage. He’s calculating and provocative, knowing exactly how to drive his volatile Meg to distraction. He’s also apparently unaware of his insouciant snobbery as he describes the hapless fellow holidaymakers with whom he spends the rest of the novel drinking, ‘chaffing’ and flirting (and while often patronising them – here with ‘artisans and lilos’). He frequently replicates many of the aspects of his father’s character that he hypocritically recalls finding so crass and limited.

In chapter 7 we see the first of these tepid flirtations: he’s chatting on the beach with two bikini-clad sisters, Patricia and Carol, and he pictures them innocently singing in a choir (music is an important feature in the narrative):

No such simplicities existed in real life. When these girls married, and they were the sort to become excellent housewives, their husbands would be plagued with their moods, and fears, and boredom, because this was universal; nobody was exempt. But at present he felt no qualms.

See what I mean about the patronising tone. Here again is the ironically indirect self-revelation of Edwin: he’s content to generalise about these two harmlessly simple, friendly girls in a manner that shows them to be limited, predictable, while he’s plainly, unknown to himself, projecting on to them his and Meg’s roles (note the telling metaphor ‘plagued’ and the tripled list of nouns signifying his idea of a wife’s typical shortcomings) in his own closely examined but fitfully understood married life.

The penultimate sentence there is cold and unbecoming, culminating in its pseudo-existential, intellectually sterile aphorism. The callousness of the last sentence is breathtaking: intelligent and cruelly humorous on several levels.

Another such aphoristic generalisation follows a chance encounter in the fens with a young man frustrated with having to care for his ailing father:

Fisher drove off, disconsolate, down in the mouth…He was in no mind to fault the young man, who spoke out of his own depression, perhaps, talked thus sullenly against a society that promised, proffered him nothing…Everybody judges from the point of view of his own inadequacy.

At the very moment of seeming to gain an epiphanic insight, Edwin simultaneously shows once again that he reads the world and its people in terms only of his own partially understood experience. He feels that society (Meg?) proffers him nothing; he too is depressed, and he surely does fault the young man for his cynicism in his family relationships, while failing to perceive his own. – there’s that characteristic use again of ‘perhaps’, suggesting an unconvincing attempt to seem tentatively fair in his mental assessments.

The truism that last extract ends on reveals Edwin’s tendency to turn an impressive-sounding phrase in his stream of thought, indirectly disclosed to us through the narrative voice, but its ironic aptness for his own condition isn’t honestly confronted or acknowledged here in his thoughts. I can’t help reading an unstated ‘else’ after ‘everybody’. This intimation is gently, wittily pointed up a few sentences later when Edwin snaps out of this reverie to conclude ‘He ought to go back to Meg. A prodigal.’

And here I’d better stop, though there is much else to say about Middleton’s achievement in Holiday. But I can’t resist one last quotation. This comes near the end of the novel, after breakfast on the final Saturday of his week’s stay in the boarding house:

They’d paid their dues, and the staff prepared to forget them. New faces that afternoon when the rush of bundling sheets had been scrambled through. Last corn-flakes, bacon, for the zombies, final jokes as if the holiday were still on, still provided pleasure. Fisher felt a stiffness as he braced himself against parting. It seemed entirely bodily, a matter of nerves, not reasoned, not even imagined.

Even as Fisher fleetingly seems to empathise with the staff, the free indirect discourse unerringly shows up his ambivalent, ultimately dyspeptic view of them. He’s both sharing their unkind view of his anti-intellectual fellow guests (‘zombies’) while also including the same staff in that generalisation. His genuine sense of Prufrockian stiffness and regret, so often presented in the narrative with apparent self-deprecating uncertainty, also indicates a conflicting desire to appear superior, more sensitive than others, more knowing. I find that sequence at the quotation’s end — ‘bodily’, ‘nerves’, and the pair of negatives — a brilliantly realised and nuanced demonstration of Edwin’s complex, not entirely endearing intelligence, ruthlessly skewered by Middleton’s clinically exact but never judgemental narrative technique.

I must read more of him. Thanks, Ali, for the recommendation.

 

Links:

Heavenali review here

Nicholas Lezard’s 2014 Guardian review here of the newly reissued paperback (with handsome covers) by Windmill Books: interesting parallels drawn with TS Eliot, the Fisher King, etc.

Sam Jordison’s Guardian 2008 review in his series on past Booker winners here.