Fitzgerald Penelope

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Beginning of Spring

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.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop

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

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!