December 4, 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Beginning of Spring

Posted in Fitzgerald Penelope at 8:00 am by John Self

When I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop earlier this year, I enjoyed it but was not overwhelmed by it. I was overwhelmed, however, with the range of enthusiasm for Fitzgerald in the comments to my post; I became so caught up in it myself that in the months since, I’ve picked up three more of her novels, including The Blue Flower (her last, and many say her best) and The Gate of Angels. But where better to begin than here, now, as winter sets in, with The Beginning of Spring?


It is apparent from the start that this an altogether more ambitious prospect than the two inches of irony which constituted The Bookshop. It ticks many of the boxes one might expect of literary-fiction-by-numbers: a foreign setting, an historical setting, swathes of characters sweeping through its pages. But it has a laconic expressiveness, and a sense of mute control, which makes it memorable and unusual, and which belies its appearance as a nice, respectable Booker shortlistee. I am drawn to the response which Jan Morris gave to it:

For the life of me I can’t decide how properly to respond to this book. Whether it contains a latent moral or allegorical message, or whether it is simply a tour de force of craft and imagination I have not the faintest idea. I only know that it is one of the most skilful and utterly fascinating novels I have read for years. I cannot imagine any kind of reader who would not get a thrill from this gloriously peculiar book.

Let’s begin with the title. The Beginning of Spring – one of those titles with perfect internal rhythm which Martin Amis called “almost a guarantor of minor work” (I’ve never been able to work out if he intended that as insult or praise) – makes it clear that in the book we are on the edge of things, with change imminent. We are: the setting is Russia, 1913, with a world at war, and a country in revolution, not far off.

The central characters, though, are British. Frank Reid, who has taken over a printing firm from his father, comes home one day to find that his wife, Nellie, has left with their three children. “Possibly when Nellie signed her passport it had put ideas in her head. But when had Nellie ever allowed ideas to be put in her head?” When Frank wooed Nellie, “it was a brilliant day” of “bright green grass, clipped green hedges, alert sparrows, stained glass windows washed to the brilliance of jewels, barometers waiting to be tapped.” Now he is alone in an inhospitable Moscow.

[T]he sky seemed to fume with a warning of frost … The waiters who had to serve the tables outside the café were wearing their overcoats over their long aprons. In two weeks the statues in the gardens would be wrapped in straw against the cold, all doors would be shut and all windows would be impenetrably sealed up until next spring.

Frank discovers, or remembers, the utter foreignness of Russia – “the magnificent and ramshackle country whose history, since he was born, had been his history” – and its incompatibility with his English heart as he struggles to come to terms with the sudden change in his life. Changes run throughout the book – “It’s still winter,” says one character; “It’s nearly spring,” responds another – and “the tilt of the year” as the seasons change matches the tilt of the country and the people in it, like Frank, struggling to stand upright as it moves beneath them.

Frank turns to the Russians he knows – employees, family friends – for assistance and guidance, and finds them unknowable in their own ways, from an assistant who is guided by the works of Tolstoy, to the family of a business colleague who “out of sheer tenderness of heart … liked every emergency to go on as long as possible.” There are sleek and evocative portraits of Moscow society, “a city which in its sluggish, maternal way cared, as well as for the rich, for the poorest of the poor. Bring me your broken shoes, your worn-out mattresses, your legless chairs, your headless beds, and in some basement workshop or hole in the wall, I will make them serviceable, at least for a few months or so. They will be fit to use, or at least fit to take to the pawnbroker’s.” Fitzgerald’s ability to portray a Russia which is simultaneously home to Frank, and unknowable to him – familiar but foreign – is isolated in scenes involving a burglar-assassin, a housekeeper, or a performing bear.

First it shifted a little from foot to foot, as though to put them down was painful, then it gave, after a good deal of prompting, what was said to be an imitation first of a Cossack dance, then of an old peasant carrying a heavy load and falling down on the ground, then, as it was led out of the room, of an English governess simpering and looking round over her shoulder at the men. The fur under its collar was worn away, perhaps from doing this particular trick so often. Sometimes it was rewarded with an orange, but, as a joke, the bear-man would take the orange away so that everyone could enjoy its disappointment.

The Beginning of Spring is one of those books which simmers on in your mind and continues to release its flavours for some time after completion. Despite its mastery of place and personalities, it doesn’t stint on plot, and the storyline winds back and forth to the very last line of the last page (so, no skipping ahead: which also explains why I’ve said so little about the events of the book, including the very strange scene near the end which ties in with the UK cover illustration at the top). Early on, one character tells Frank, “Life makes its own corrections.” Surely it does: just nine months ago, I thought I was through with Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels. Now I think I want to read them all.

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22 Comments »

  1. I’m just about to read this myself actually. It’s sad how few bookshops seem to stock it — you rarely see more than one or two Fitzgerald books in the same place. I think she deserves a reappraisal and an elevation to ‘classic’ status…

  2. Sarah said,

    i enjoyed but wasn’t particularly impressed by The Bookshop, and so haven’t read more of Fitzgerald’s work. She does have quite a following though, and this novel sounds like a meatier read. Maybe I should give her a second chance.

  3. KevinfromCanada said,

    I think your final para captures the strength of PF’s work perfectly — it “simmers on in your mind and continues to release its flavors.” As the contrast between The Bookshop and The Beginning of Spring shows, she is also not at all averse to changing locale or approaches to “plot” (we can add Italy and the Thames in and that is only a start). I’ve still got a couple novels to go — I’ll admit that when I feel like Fitzgerald I’ve tended to go back and reread (I am a big fan of second reads and she is an author who definitely rewards rereading) rather than try to finish the list. I know I will get to it eventually.

    I do find it interesting that the automatically-generated posts brings up Loving Frank as “possibly related” because you use Frank Reid’s first name a lot. Amazingly, there actually are similarities between the books — but I would not recommend to book clubs that they set the two of them as a joint project.

  4. Charles said,

    So glad you’re going to read more. Maybe the 1950s Italian one, Innocence? The Jan Morris response of wonder and bafflement speaks for many, I think. The covers of her other novels carry similar responses: ‘How does she do it?’, ‘I kept on asking myself, how is it done?’ – these from Michael Dibdin and C. K. Stead, both – like Morris – writers themselves and so with a professional interest in technique. The books don’t stint, as you noted here, on plot, nor on characterisation and place and set pieces, yet they are the opposite of writing-by-numbers. A unique combination, perhaps, of certain so-called English virtues (dry wit, understatement, all that) with a complete and selfless openness to the strangeness, the unknowability, of others.

    The brevity of the books is part of it. Re-reading has been mentioned above. Re-reading Fitzgerald, I find that certain scenes, episodes, that I remember as perhaps occupying whole chapters turn out to have been achieved in a couple of paragraphs, a page and a half.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments all – Sarah, I was exactly in your position, and I am now quite excited about the rest of Fitzgerald’s output, so I do recommend you give her another go. Jonathan, I look forward to reading your underthoughts in due course.

    Kevin, I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of Loving Frank – though I see from that Possibly Related Post that the author was kind enough to join in a book group discussion via speakerphone even though she was on the way to pick up her son from the airport – a courtesy which I am sure Fitzgerald would extend to us if they had bluetooth in the afterlife.

    The point about rereading is an interesting one – I am a great rereader in theory, but so rarely seem to have the will to get around to it these days, with so many new titles to get through (and ‘getting through’ doesn’t seem quite the right approach to the unknown jewels of literature). Charles’s point about the misremembered length of scenes is an excellent one, and I think I know exactly what he means – as though the book not only continues simmering after being closed, but expands then to fill the mind of the reader.

  6. I’ve been putting off reading Penelope Fitzgerald for no other reason than because I haven’t purchased one of her books and didn’t know where to start. This is a good help, and it appears she’ll be a wonderful author to get to know. Thanks, John!

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    Trevor: I’ll tout the two Everyman’s Library volumes, each of which contain three novels and show up on amazon for $17.25. Fitzgerald’s are short enough that the size is not overwhelming when you put three under one cover.

  8. KevinfromCanada said,

    John: Loving Frank is a novel about Mamah Cheney’s tragic affair with Frank Lloyd Wright which starts with him designing a house for her and her husband, has them cohabiting in Europe and then in Taliesin (this is the period when he builds his Prairie houses) and ends with her murder (all of this is real history so not a spoiler). So you get celebrity, architecture, love and murder — maybe not in that order of importance. Book groups love it — it has 198 reviews on amazon.com and is number 60 on their overall list. I have actually read it, so I am confident in saying that I think it would be safe for you to continue to ignore it.

  9. Phew, that’s a relief then! PF passes the test at last, we just had to give you time:-) It’s a special key needed to unlock her books and once you find it there’s no going back. I am currently reading her letters very slowly and deliberately and her eye for the ordinary world was quite astounding, nothing showy or prima donna-ish about her, just a very extraordinary ordinary person. I have one last book left to read for the first time, Innocence and I’m saving it because once that’s read somehow I know I’ll feel bereft even though I agree with Kevin, PF warrants many rereads.

  10. JRSM said,

    I’m one of those demented Fitzgerald fans, so I’m glad you liked this one. The SPOILER SPOILER fate of the bear made me very sad.

  11. nico from Chile said,

    More incentive. I have the ‘Blue Flower’ in my shelf. I enjoyed immensely ‘Offshore’, that crazy non-place and those characters!! that’s such a beautiful and concise novel(la)! And what a paradox, here, in the southern hemisphere, we are almost at the gates of summer!

  12. KevinfromCanada said,

    Nico: Offshore is actually a real place, or at least was when that novel was written. Even now if you wander along the Embankment, you can see similar “settlements”.

  13. workingwords100 said,

    Interesting review. I like the setting and how Frank feels more at home in Russia than in England.

  14. workingwords100 said,

    I am going to have to create my own little “face” for the comments section and profile.

    hate the color pink that WordPress put on me.

    This must be one of the software updates.

  15. Scott said,

    Very interesting to see this review. I started “The Bookshop”, and wanted very much to like it, but I too felt underwhelmed. I had hoped to go back and start again, or pick up where I left off, but never did. I will be looking into this novel now and her other work.

  16. nico from Chile said,

    Thanks Kevin, I was actually making an oblique quotation/wink at Mark Auge’s concept of non-places, sorry! I know: academic bullshit!!

  17. I am glad you are talking about someone whose books I already have as I have been cut off until next year from buying books.

    I would never normally think I would have liked either The Bookshop or The Blue Flower but was ravished by Penelope. Both are fabulous but of the three I have read already The Golden Child is my favorite and utterly different from those two. She is amazingly able to write about anything apparently.

    Happy Christmas and all that humbug!

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone – once again, I’m delighted to see how much enthusiasm Fitzgerald engenders in such a wide range of readers. She really deserves to be better known – she’s hardly unheard of, but still is not spoken of as reverentially as, say, Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark, to name a couple of contemporaries.

  19. The tragedy is that is Fitzgerald wrote her best books in the late ’80s and early ’90s — in other words, her 70s. She never had time to accumulate the honours, media attention, university theses and so forth that authors accumulate when they are “national treasures” in their own lifetime. Fitzgerald is only starting to be treasured now.

  20. I enjoyed The Beginning of Spring too, and the more i read of her work the more I like it. The Blue Flower is definitely her best though

  21. [...] Self was swayed by PF’s ferociously loyal [...]

  22. [...] John Self has an enjoyable recent post about the same [...]


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