Unhappy families: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her…

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverSo begins The Beginning of Spring, the third of the Penelope Fitzgerald novels I read in the Everyman trilogy. Set in Russia, significantly just before the twin catastrophes of WWI and the Revolution, it’s completely different from the other two, set in England in the recent past, and both wry comedies. This one is too, but it’s darkened and chilled by the harsh early spring of Moscow, and the Russian tendency towards tragedy and intrigue.

It’s only on a second reading that the little clues and hints as to why Nellie has left her printer/publisher husband become apparent. Here’s the first description of him, with Fitzgerald’s trademark economy with words, trusting her reader to ponder the layered significance:

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage.

Does this mean that Muscovites are a dramatic lot, and only histrionic behaviour will register? Or that Frank finds it difficult to engage with souls as ardent as Nellie’s (don’t be fooled by her music-hall name)? Maybe he’s just not very good at acting – in all senses of the word.

She’d left him a note to tell him she’d left him. He knows it’s a momentous message, as they rarely wrote to each other in this way:

It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

 

These are Frank’s thoughts, indirectly narrated. But has he intuited that she was unhappy with her marriage? Fitzgerald is too subtle an artist to tell us. The possibility is hanging in the air somewhere in Frank’s vicinity. We are party to his perplexity and slow-dawning realisation.

He wonders how much he’ll miss her and the children:

…he couldn’t tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later.

Fitzgerald shows this entire marriage and its fissures, this perplexed husband, his wife and their natures, in the first three pages of the novel.

What follows is an intriguing examination of Frank’s response to this crisis. It reads at time like a domestic sketch by Turgenev or Chekhov, but has an unmistakably English take on marital disaster. There’s the semi-comic figure of Frank’s Tolstoy-worshipping accountant, Selwyn, who writes soulful poems in Russian ‘about birch trees and snow’. Like his spiritual master, Selwyn delights in ‘charitable enterprise’:

With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.

Frank tends to patronise him, realising much too late that he’s underestimated him. Selwyn’s selfish philanthropy is presented with deceptive lightness; he’s more dangerous than he looks here; Fitzgerald’s prose is always poised to surprise.

The children, when they mysteriously reappear in Moscow, sent back ‘like parcels’ by their bolting mother, are preternaturally astute – far more so than Frank – as they were in Offshore. Jacqui Wine has written well about this (link at the end), so I’ll refrain from doing so here.

The formidable Mrs Graham, the English chaplain in the city, is one of several brilliantly depicted characters (Nellie’s brother, Charlie, who turns up to try to help Frank in his extremity turns out to be genial but delightfully useless, is another). Frank, we are told, was not afraid of her, ‘or at least not as afraid as some people were.’  Here she is when Frank goes to seek her advice about Nellie’s desertion of him:

‘Mr Reid?’ she called out in her odd, high, lightly drawling voice. ‘This is an expected pleasure.’

‘You knew I was going to come and ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

Restless as a bird of prey which has not caught anything for several days, she nodded him towards the seat next to her.

 

Such vivid, witty characterisation is only one of this novel’s rich rewards. As in the other two novels in the Everyman edition, there are some wonderfully pithy narrative comments. Here’s one chosen at random; Frank’s children are in the kitchen, gossiping about the young woman, Lisa Ivanovna, perilously pretty and apparently fragile, who he has recruited to care for them in Nellie’s absence:

Perhaps children were better off without a sense of pity.

As ever these seem to be Frank’s thoughts we’re privy to; for once he’s probably right: they cheerfully transfer their affections from their mother to Lisa with the insouciant rapidity of youth. And these thoughts are filtered through the sensibility of the poised, non-judgemental, omniscient but reticent narrator – who prefers to withhold as much as she discloses. For that’s how are lives unravel in reality: unmediated, mysterious.

As with Offshore and Human Voices, which I wrote about last, I’d recommend this short, wise novel. It has one of the finest, most startling last sentences of any novel.

Mansky_District,_Krasnoyarsk_Krai,_Russia_-_panoramio_(6)

Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. By Александр Ромашенко, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60549878 (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

There’s one scene near the end which I found baffling, and I’d love to hear what other readers made of it if they’ve read it more successfully than I have. Lisa has unwillingly taken Dolly, Frank’s little daughter, deep into a birch forest in the country at night. In a clearing –

Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa…Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’

Then they go home.

What’s happening here? It seems like a witches’ sabbat, a mystical-spiritual meeting maybe. Or political? It seems a sort of epiphany, but for whom? Who is Lisa communing with?

As noted above, Jacqui has an excellent review of the novel at her blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Music and silence: Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices

 

Broadcasting House

Langham Place, damaged by a bomb in the Blitz; in the background, BBC Broadcasting House, looking like the Queen Mary. Attribution: By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20532090

 In my previous post I suggested that the three novels in this trilogy published by Everyman are all very different in subject matter and approach. The first two, however, have a London setting in what, for Penelope Fitzgerald, would have been the fairly recent past.

She worked for the BBC during the Second World War; Human Voices is set in Broadcasting House (referred to in HV as BH, built in Art Deco style to resemble an ocean liner) during the Blitz of 1940, and lived in a Thames-side barge in the early 60s, which is the setting for Offshore.

 Both novels concern small, unworldly communities, peopled by characters whose eccentricities are exposed with detached amusement; they aren’t judged. The riverside and the BBC are refuges for the lost, a place of solace for the lonely. The characters are shown in shifting patterns, interacting with those around them (there’s little conventional plot), and the reader is left to consider what their minor dramas signify. It’s that tone of humorous, often ironic sympathy, with an underlying menace and even violence that gives them both their distinctive effect. They both end with a distressing scene of catastrophe.

Tube shelter

Tube station air-raid shelter in the West End during the Blitz. By US Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s inevitable that Human Voices has a more sombre impact, given that the BBC was attempting to keep the public informed of the war’s disastrous progress; in 1940 France, like most of Europe, had fallen, and invasion of England seemed imminent. The BBC, a microcosm of the nation, was struggling to maintain its task: to broadcast continuously in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances. The lifts don’t function fully (to preserve energy), senior staff more or less live in BH (and their marriages implode as a result) and confusion is rife: ‘The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.’ The building is often shaken by bombs. Casualties are commonplace, even among BBC staff. A Blitz spirit prevails in the building as it does outside.

A central theme of the novel is the insistence by the BBC that they avoid what is now notoriously referred to as ‘fake news’:

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

The author isn’t frivolous. Despite her cast of amusing, bumbling and obsessively selfish or flawed characters, Fitzgerald has a serious message here. She did this in Offshore, too: the occasional step away from narrative detachment and levity to pronounce something of profound significance. Even with the ironic undertone in this example, her point is telling. All wars are reported mendaciously. People are always lied to by their leaders. This applied in 1940, in 1980 when this novel was published, and it still applies perhaps more than ever before today. Neither will the truth necessarily make you free.

Once the characters in the BBC have been introduced, it’s apparent that the institution has a crippling hierarchical structure. In this respect it resembles one of the stuffier English public schools or less prestigious military regiments (from where most of the senior staff were – probably still are – recruited). Referred to by the initials of their post, like DDP and RPD, they are comically self-important and often deluded about their own merits. Very like the characters in Offshore, in fact – where another hermetically detached community clings to its customs on the margins of ordinary life.

Once again I commend you to other blogs for plot summary. I’d like just to pick out a few salient features.

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz. By H.Mason – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1342305/The-Blitzs-iconic-image-On-70th-anniversary-The-Mail-tells-story-picture-St-Pauls.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19771597

Annie Asra is employed by the organisation when she is just 17, and she’s a breath of fresh air. She’s refreshingly blunt and outspoken without being cruel – qualities which her colleagues are unfamiliar with.

Broadcasting the truth is discussed by Waterlow, one of the more eccentric BBC producers, responsible for drama and the arts (as precarious in 1940 as they are now), with Annie, when she asks with characteristic forthrightness why he seems to have so little to do.

The BBC is doing gits bit [he thinks that imitating her Midlands accent is amusing]. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The oppostite could also be true!

Annie refuses to be so cynical, or to accept that ‘truth’ is relative. When she asks what the BBC could possibly find to broadcast ‘that’s got to be true’ in his terms:

He gestured towards the piano.

‘We couldn’t put out music all day!’

‘Music and silence.’

The most important broadcast described in the novel is the ten minutes of silence that followed when Jeff, one of the two central characters, a senior figure in the BBC, ‘pulled the plug’ on a French General who, it was assumed, would speak extempore in praise of the continuing struggle against the Germans by the surviving Free French forces, but instead had launched into a defeatist harangue.

It’s typical of Fitzgerald’s wry take on the world that she shows Jeff being reprimanded for his initiative.

The novel’s title seems to be taken from Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘then human voices wake us and we drown.’ Radio is mostly about voices (no TV in 1940). The voices in this novel also serve, as perhaps they do for emotionally paralysed Prufrock, to attempt to reconcile real life – the Blitz, war, death, cruelty, tragedy, comedy – and something more transcendent and mystical, like music and silence. When a central character dies at the end, it’s for his voice that he’ll be remembered, rather than his kindness to others.

Annie’s love for her boss, the serially predatory but deeply vulnerable Sam, isn’t entirely convincing in its resolution, but the novel is worth reading – like Offshore – for its quietly compassionate presentation of characters trying to get by in a dangerously confusing world, and for its well-crafted prose. Here’s just one closing example.

Annie is shown as a child helping her piano-tuner father:

When at last he took out his hammer and mutes, ready to tune, his daughter became quite still, like a small dog pointing… [He continues tuning:] It was a recurring excitement of her life, like opening a boiled egg, the charm being not its unexpectedness but its reliability.

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.]