I’d heard such frequent and lavish praise for Penelope Fitzgerald – and her books were so, well, beautifully slim – that I’d been meaning to read her for ages. Now I think back on it, probably some of that praise was about other Penelopes (Lively, Mortimer) and I confused them in my mind. But for whatever reason, I finally picked up one of her novels, The Bookshop, spurred by the quote on the cover from Philip Hensher: “Of all the novelists in English of the last century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.” Ooh. And indeed wow. Greater than Greene then, than Nabokov, than Woolf, than Bellow … than Joyce? Let me at it!
The Bookshop (1978) was Fitzgerald’s second novel; her first, The Golden Child, having been published a year earlier at the ripe age of 61. And not hurrying certainly gave her some source material from her life to write about: four of her first five novels were based on her own experiences, in a drama school, a houseboat community, and working at the BBC. The Bookshop, also inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life, is about a woman, Florence, who opens a bookshop in the fictional town of Hardborough, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Fitzgerald would win the following year with Offshore).
It’s a short, pleasing read, with a witty approach to the frustrations and hostilities inherent in trying to make changes in a parochial environment. Florence knows that “to leave a mark of any kind was exhilarating,” but is up against it on all sides. “She’s got a shop full of books for people to read,” says one villager to another. “What for?” comes the reply. When she does get the store open, she is forced to diversify into greetings cards (“‘They really ought to be divided into Romantic and Humorous,’ said Florence. These, indeed, were the only two attitudes to the stages of life’s journey envisaged by the manufacturers of the cards”) and a lending library, for those who wish to borrow rather than buy. She is forced to become not just a purveyor of literature but a businesswoman:
Now vans and estate cars began to appear in increased numbers over the brilliant horizon of the marshes, sometimes getting bogged down at the crossings and always if they tried to turn round on the foreshore, bringing the publishers’ salesmen. Even in summer, it was a hard journey. Those who made it were somewhat unwilling to part with their Fragrant Moments and engagement books, which were what Florence really wanted, unless she would also take the pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.
No doubt this, and the other amusing dealings in the book, was a catharsis for Fitzgerald. The real test for the shop comes – the book is set in 1959 – when Florence decides to stock Lolita. This cause for concern could go either way (“‘I mustn’t let myself worry,’ she said. ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ ‘What a terrifying thought that is,’ muttered Mr Brundish”), and adds a frankly needed touch of structure and drama to the last third of the book’s 150 pages.
There is much in The Bookshop to like, and it put me in mind of a gentler Muriel Spark in its style and approach. But if there is century’s-best greatness here, it wasn’t shouting loudly enough for me to hear. I suspect that Fitzgerald has written better, meatier stuff, and if anyone can guide me in the right direction, I’d welcome it. I was, in the end, inspired to look out the extraordinary quote by Philip Hensher – he’s normally so hard to please – to see where he originally said it. It was a review in The Spectator of posthumously published stories, and it went like this (my emphasis):
It is really not inconceivable that there is a last novel, or that more short stories will surface. A tenth novel would have the value, in English literature, of an unknown work by Lawrence, Conrad or Waugh. That is not to overstate the case. Of all the novelists in English of the last quarter century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness.
Still high praise, but not quite what the cover quote suggests. The ‘quarter’ must have accidentally fallen off when they were setting it. Ah well!