The 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.
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.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.]