How did she do it?
She was an accident-prone grandmother, who fitted writing into the gaps in family life, and her first publisher dismissed her as 'an amateur writer'. But she became the best English novelist of her time. Julian Barnes pays tribute to Penelope Fitzgerald
Shy and rather distrait ... Penelope Fitzgerald. Photograph: Jane Bown
Saturday 26 July 2008 00.01 BSTLast modified on Saturday 26 July 200800.06 BST
About 10 years ago I appeared on a panel at York University with Penelope Fitzgerald. I knew her slightly, and admired her greatly. Her manner was shy and rather distrait, as if the last thing she wanted was to be taken for what she then was: the best living English novelist. So she comported herself as if she were a jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world. This wasn't too difficult, given that she was indeed a grandmother, and also - one of the minor revelations in her forthcoming Letters - a jam (and chutney) maker. But the disguise wasn't convincing, since every so often, as if despite herself, her rare intelligence and instinctive wit would break through. Over coffee I produced, fan-like, copies of my two favourite novels of hers: The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower. She hunted around for a long while in the heavy plastic carrier-bag - purple, with a floral design, I remember - that contained her day's requirements. A fountain pen was eventually discovered, and after considerable pausing and reflection, she wrote - as it seemed, as I hoped - a private, encouraging message to a younger novelist on each title-page. I put the books away without looking at the inscriptions.
The event proceeded. Afterwards, we were driven to York station to travel back to London together. When invited, I had been given the option of a modest fee and standard-class travel, or no fee and a first-class ticket. I had chosen the latter. The train drew in. I assumed that the university could not possibly have given an octogenarian of such literary distinction anything other than a first-class ticket. But when I set off towards what I assumed to be our carriage, I saw that she was heading in a more modest direction. Naturally, I joined her. I can't remember what we talked about on the journey down; perhaps I mentioned the odd coincidence that we had both made our first hardcover fictional appearance in the same book (The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, 1975); probably I asked the usual daft questions about what she was working on and when the next novel would appear (I later learned that she frequently lied to interviewers). At King's Cross I suggested that we share a cab, since we both lived in the same part of north London. Oh no, she replied, she would take the Underground - after all, she had been given this splendid free pass by Ken Livingstone. Assuming it must feel an even longer day to her than to me, I pressed for the taxi option, but she was quietly obstinate, and came up with a clinching argument: she had to pick up a pint of milk on the way from the Underground station, and if she went home by cab it would mean having to go out again later. I ploddingly speculated that we could very easily stop the taxi outside the shop and have it wait while she bought her milk. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. But no, I still hadn't convinced her: she had decided to take the Underground, and that was that. So I waited beside her on the concourse while she looked for her free pass in the tumult of her carrier bag. It must be there, surely, but no, after much dredging, it didn't seem to be findable. I was by this point feeling - and perhaps exhibiting - a certain impatience, so I marched us to the ticket machine, bought our tickets, and squired her down the escalator to the Northern Line. As we waited for the train, she turned to me with an expression of gentle concern. "Oh dear," she said, "I do seem to have involved you in some low forms of transport." I was still laughing by the time I got home and opened her books to read those long-pondered inscriptions. In The Beginning of Spring she had written "best wishes - Penelope Fitzgerald"; while in The Blue Flower - a dedication that had taken considerably more thought - she had put "best wishes - Penelope".
Like her personal manner, her life and literary career seemed designed to wrong-foot, to turn attention away from the fact that she was, or would turn into, a great novelist. True, she came from a cultured background, having one father and three uncles among the multi-talented Knox brothers, whose communal biography she later wrote. Her father was editor of Punch; her mother, one of the first students at Somerville College, Oxford, also wrote. Penelope was in turn a brilliant student at Somerville: one of her finals examiners was so astounded by her papers that he asked his fellow dons if he could keep them, and later, apparently, had them bound in vellum. But after this public proof of distinction, throughout what might for anyone else have been the best writing years of her life, she became a wife and working mother (at Punch, the BBC, the Ministry of Food, then in journalism and teaching). She was 58 by the time she published her first book, a biography of Burne-Jones. She then wrote a comic thriller, The Golden Child, to amuse her dying husband. In the period 1975-84 she published two more biographies and four more novels. Those four novels are all short, and written close to her own experiences: of running a bookshop, living on a houseboat, working for the BBC in wartime, teaching at a stage school. They are adroit, odd, highly pleasurable, but modest in ambition. And with almost any other writer you might think that, having used up her own life, she would - being now in her late 60s - have called it a day. On the contrary: over the next decade, from 1986 to 1995, she published the four novels - Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower - by which she will be remembered. They are written far from her obvious life, being set, respectively, in 1950s Florence, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912, and late 18th-century Prussia. Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.
Even so, when public recognition came, it followed no obvious trajectory, and was attended by a certain level of male diminishment. In 1977 her non-fiction publisher, Richard Garnett, informed her dunderheadedly that she was "only an amateur writer", to which she responded mildly, "I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?" The following year, after having been shortlisted for the Booker prize with The Bookshop, she asked her fiction publisher, Colin Haycraft, if it would be a good idea to write another novel. He jocundly replied that if she went on writing fiction he didn't want it blamed on him, and in any case he already had too many short novels with sad endings on his hands. (Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald took herself off to another publisher, and Haycraft claimed he had been misunderstood.) I remember Paul Theroux telling me how, as a Booker judge in 1979, he had been doing his preliminary reading while travelling through Patagonia by train, and would skim out into the pampas books he considered not even worth discussing. Some months later he found himself with a polite smile on his face as the prize was awarded to Offshore. The BBC's resident bookheads also treated her condescendingly: radio's Frank Delaney told her she "deserved to win because my book was free of objectionable matter and suitable for family reading"; while television's Robert Robinson gave her patronisingly little airtime on The Book Programme and scarcely concealed his view that she shouldn't have won. And after she died, even her memorial meeting was disfigured by the turkey-cocking of a young male novelist.
Fitzgerald commented on Robinson's behaviour in a letter to Francis King about the Booker evening. She had arrived at the studio "soaking wet because I'd had to be photographed on a bale of rope on the Embankment". Robinson "was in a very bad mood and complained to his programme executive, 'Who are these people - you promised me they were going to be the losers'." You could perhaps argue that she won the Booker with the "wrong" novel - which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize - though the real dishonour was that she failed to win it again for any of her last four novels. The Blue Flower, chosen more times than any other as Book of the Year in 1995, was not even shortlisted. However, she did have a few happy memories of her Booker victory night: "The best was when the editor of the Financial Times, who was on my table, looked at the cheque and said to the Booker McC chairman, 'Hmph, I see you've changed your chief cashier.' Both their faces were alight with interest."
There are many such moments in the Letters - moments when the professional observer of human beings finds sustenance and reward where others might find boredom or rudeness. Her life, on this evidence, was largely domestic, frequently peripatetic, and attended by regular economic crises. The magazine she edited, World Review, collapsed; her husband Desmond had trouble with drink; the houseboat they lived on sank not once but twice, carrying with it such archives as she possessed (including all her wartime letters to her husband, who is not represented here by a single item). Penelope and Desmond were, in the words of their son-in-law Terence Dooley, "two kind, intelligent and funny people who simply couldn't manage the world". Rescue at one point came in the shape of a council flat in Clapham, where the novelist collected Green Shield stamps and used teabags to dye her hair. Her writing had to be fitted into the occasional breathing spaces left by her family life; and she made little money until the late success of The Blue Flower in America (where it won a US National Book Critics Circle Award in the first year the prize was opened to non-nationals). It was a matter of rueful pride to her - and should serve as a warning to aspirant novelists - that she didn't pass into the higher tax bracket until she was 80. She was also accident-prone, given to falling off ladders and out of windows, getting herself locked in the bathroom and suffering other obscurer incidents ("I was knocked down by a bus queue and have a round bruise on my arm, just like the mark of Cain"). She tended to take the blame for things that were not her fault, even feeling guilty towards her publishers when her books didn't sell. She didn't like to offend: on one occasion, she went to vote, and as she left the polling station, "to my disgust the Conservative lady outside snatched away my card, saying - I'm only taking ours, dear - I didn't like to say I was Liberal for fear of hurting her feelings - she had put a nice green hat on and everything - I often see her in church."
That "nice green hat" is a pure writer's touch; and her spirit of fantasy is often waiting to transform observed reality. This is from one of her earliest, wartime letters:
I have had my brother on a week's leave. He slept in the passage, and the Danish cook evidently regarded him as a soldier billeted on us and ran the carpet-sweeper over him remorselessly.
The logical implication being that this would have been quite normal (if Danish) behaviour had her brother indeed been such a billetee. There is, at times, something more than a little Pooterish about the life she describes. Thus: "I have been mending my sandals with plastic wood (unfortunately Woolie's only had 'antique walnut') and rather good new plastic soles, also from Woolie's." Or this:
The Annual General meeting of the Clapham Antiquarians passed off quite well except when I went down to the Church hall kitchen to help Mrs Smith (the treasurer's wife, in a green hat and cardigan) get the tea (for 47 famished members) she was having a crise de nerfs, she told me she'd been worrying the whole of the week about the tea for the meeting, and, do what I could, I couldn't get her to put on more than one kettle, so the tea had to be made in small relays and the Antiquarians, who'd already sat down and eaten all the cakes, were getting quite riotous. I brought some sausage rolls but as soon as Daddy started handing them round they disappeared, everyone said they fancied something savoury. Unfortunately I dropped off to sleep during the talk with lantern slides, so missed many interesting facts about Clapham . . .
True, this is Pooterishness with a difference: first, it is self-aware; and second, there is a high-boho dash to it. She knew what she was doing, and writing. At the same time, this was her life.
Alongside the mildness and the blame-taking, however, there lay a clear moral sense and a sharp dismissal of those she found wanting. Robert Skidelsky is "this absurdly irritating man", Lord David Cecil's lecture on Rossetti was "abysmal", Rushdie's latest novel is "a load of codswallop". Then there is "the dread Malcolm Bradbury", who "seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands", and who patronises her work ("I felt like throwing the pale green mayonnaise over him"); and Douglas Hurd, Booker chairman, with his pitiful notion of what a novel should be. Those who failed to meet her standards of competence would be more readily identifiable if the letters were less lightly annotated. It seems strange to explain the line "Thankyou so much for your lovely letters and the p.c.*" with the footnote "*Postcard", and yet to leave unelucidated such sentences as "A dreadful drawing of me in the New York Review of Books" (clearly by David Levine) or "I don't see how a life of Dickens written by someone who has no sense of humour whatever can be a success" (the reference being to Peter Ackroyd).
"On the whole," she wrote to her American editor at Houghton Mifflin, Chris Carduff, in 1987, "I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken." Fitzgerald is tender towards her characters and their worlds, unpredictably funny, and at times surprisingly aphoristic; though it is characteristic of her that such moments of wisdom appear not author-generated, but arise in the text organically, like moss or coral. Her fictional personnel are rarely vicious or deliberately evil; when things go wrong for them, or when they inflict harm on others, it is usually out of misplaced understanding, a lack less of sympathy than of imagination. The main problem is that they cannot see the terms and conditions which come attached to life: moral grace and social incompetence are often in close proximity. As Salvatore, the neurologist in her "Italian" novel Innocence, puts it, "There are dilettantes in human relationships just as there are, let's say, in politics." The aristocratic family into which he is to marry, the Ridolfis, have "a tendency to rash decisions, perhaps always intended to ensure other people's happiness". Such people tend to think that love in itself is sufficient, and that happiness might be its merited consequence. They speak their minds at the wrong time and in the wrong way; they deal in a kind of robustly harmful innocence. It is a quality shared equally between the sexes, but not mutually recognised. Thus Salvatore - unaware of his own, more intellectual forms of naivety - is driven to exasperation by the strength and sheer carelessness of the innocence displayed by the two women in his life:
He struggled to keep his temper. It struck him that both Marta and Chiara took advantage of him by attacking him with their ignorance, or call it innocence. A serious thinking adult had no defence against innocence because he was obliged to respect it, whereas the innocent scarcely knows what respect is, or seriousness either.
Fitzgerald's deep understanding of the complexities and ramifications of innocence makes the children in her fiction not just convincing simulacra, but active motors in the plot. In 1996 an old friend, Hugh Lee, made the bizarre complaint that he found her fictional children "precious". Denying this, she replied that: "They're exactly like my own children, who always noticed everything." And having noticed, voiced innocence's damaging truths. In 1968 the novelist reported a conversation with - or rather, denunciation by - her younger daughter:
Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seems to be crumbling into dust.
It is at such moments that writers have a small advantage over non-writers: the painful moment can at least be stored for later use. Twenty years later, here is Dolly, the plain-speaking young daughter of Frank Reid, owner of a printing works in pre-revolutionary Moscow. When Frank's wife Nellie inexplicably abandons the family and returns to London, Frank asks Dolly if she wants to write to her mother. Dolly replies, "I don't think I ought to write." Frank, whose innocence means that he is devoid of self-righteousness, asks "Why not, Dolly? Surely you don't think she did the wrong thing?" Dolly gives him a reply neither he nor we expect: "I don't know whether she did or not. The mistake she probably made was getting married in the first place."
Many readers' initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel - especially one of the last four - is, "But how does she know that?" How does she know (The Beginning of Spring) about methods of bribing the police in pre-revolutionary Moscow, and about techniques of printing, and that all packs of playing cards were confiscated at the Russian border? How does she know (Innocence) about neurology and dressmaking and dwarfism and Gramsci? How does she know (The Gate of Angels) about atomic physics and probationary nursing and the opening of Selfridges? How does she know (The Blue Flower) about 18th-century Thuringian laundry habits and the Brownian system and Schlegel's philosophy and salt mining? The initial, dully obvious answer is: she found out. AS Byatt once asked her the last of these questions, and received the answer that Fitzgerald "had read the records of the salt mines from cover to cover in German to understand how her hero was employed".
But when we are asking "How did she know?", we are really also asking "But how does she do that?" - how does she convey what she knows in such a compact, exact, dynamic and resonant way? She had a novelist's (and a shy person's) fear of being boringly informative: "I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much," she said. But it is more than just a taste for economy. It is the art of using fact and detail so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The Blue Flower opens with a famous scene of washday in a large house, with all the dirty bed-linen and shirts and undergarments being thrown down from the windows into the courtyard. When remembering this scene and its density of effect, I always think it must last a whole chapter - even though, in a Fitzgerald novel, that need mean no more than seven or eight pages. But whenever I check, I find that, in fact, it lasts less than two pages - pages which, alongside this domestic scene-setting, also manage to announce key themes of German Romantic philosophy and inconvenient love. I have reread this scene many times, always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.
Mastery of sources and a taste for concision might lead you to expect that the narrative line of Fitzgerald's novels would be pre-eminently lucid. Far from it: there is a kind of benign wrong-footingness at work, often from the first line. Here is the start of 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.
This sounds almost journalistically clear, and is, until you reflect that almost any other novelist would have started a Russian novel featuring mainly English personnel by having a character travel - and thereby take the reader with him or her - from London to Moscow. Fitzgerald does the opposite: she opens with a character leaving the very city where all the action is going to take place. But the sentence seems so straightforward that you hardly notice what is being done to you. And here is the first sentence of The Blue Flower
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend's home on the washday.
Again, another novelist would have been content to write "Jacob Dietmahler could see that they had arrived . . ." - altogether more banal. A double negative in the first sentence trips our expectation of uncomplicated entry into a novel; further, it sets up the narrative question, "So in that case, just what degree of a fool was Jacob Dietmahler?" Also, Fitzgerald writes "on the washday", where others would be content with the normal English "on washday". The definite article hints quietly at the German behind it - am Waschtag - and lets us feel, at a nearly subtextual level, that we are in a different time, a different place. It eases our fictional way. For that is one initially puzzling aspect of these last four novels: they do not feel anything like "historical novels", if historical novels are books in which we as modern readers are transported back in time thanks to a writer instructing us in the necessary background and foreground. Rather, they feel like novels which just happen to be set in history, and which we enter on equal terms with the characters we find within them: it is as if we are reading them in the time they are set, rather than now - and yet we remain in our own period.
Fitzgerald's benign wrong-footingness culminates in scenes where the whole world, as physically experienced and relied upon, is given a sudden tilt. At the start of The Gate of Angels, a violent rainstorm turns Cambridge upside down - "tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason"; while at that novel's end, the titular gate miraculously opens in what might be a quasi-religious moment, or an outrageous plot device lifted from ghost stories - or, perhaps, both. Then there is that epiphanic scene near the end of The Beginning of Spring. Dolly wakes in the middle of the night at the family dacha to find Lisa, temporary (Russian) governess to the Reid children, dressed to go out; reluctantly, she takes Dolly with her. They walk down a path away from the light in the dacha's front window until a moment when, "although the path seemed to run quite straight, the light disappeared". The forest closes in on them. Among the birch stems Dolly begins to see "what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness". In a clearing, men and women stand pressed each against the trunk of a tree. Lisa explains to the tree-people that, although she knows they have come there on her account, she can't stay; she must go back with the child. "'If she speaks about this, she won't be believed. If she remembers it, she'll understand in time what she's seen'." They go back along the path, and Dolly returns to bed; but the forest has invaded the dacha. "She could still smell the potent leaf-sap of the birch trees. It was as strong inside the house as out." Does Dolly understand what she's seen - and do we? Is the scene - for which we have only the child's point of view - a dream, a hallucination, the memory of a sleep-walker? If not, what is its register? Are the woods coming to life, as they do in the pantheistic poetry of Selwyn Crane, the novel's Tolstoyan dreamer? Does the scene symbolise female awakening or personal liberation, for Dolly, or for Lisa, or both? Perhaps Dolly has witnessed the preparations for some pagan rite of spring (only a few pages later, Stravinsky's name is quietly mentioned). Or might the secret meeting in the forest be straightforwardly political, even revolutionary (Lisa, we later discover, is a politico)? Some, even all, of these interpretations are possible, and, mysteriously, not incompatible with one another. This short passage occupies a mere three pages of text, but as with the laundry scene in The Blue Flower, it expands into something much larger in the memory. And again we ask ourselves: how does she do that?
Those looking for specific answers in her Letters will be disappointed. They are divided into two sections, "Family & Friends" and "Writing" - the jam-making grandmother and the distinguished novelist. But while we may discover much about the mainspring and composition of her non-fiction - about Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and the Knoxes, also about never-completed works on the Poetry Bookshop and LP Hartley (she spent three years on what would have been a startling biography) - there is comparatively little about her novels. There are acknowledgments for cheques received and opinions about cover designs; she articulates her discouragement in the face of criticism and her pleasure at success.
There are unambiguous references to "easily depressed authors", moments when she seems to invite that publisher's charge of amateurishness ("Thankyou for ringing about Human Voices. I've found various small bits on the backs of envelopes that should have gone in, but perhaps it's too late to do this, I hope not though"), and wry reactions to how she is viewed ("I'm said to be of the school of Beryl Bainbridge which is a good corrective to vanity, I expect"). We learn a little about her research: for The Beginning of Spring she used the Times newspaper's Russian supplements from the period; while The Blue Flower "started from DH Lawrence's 'fatal flower of happiness' at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue". But there is very little about theme, character, technique, style. Perhaps no one asked her; more likely, she thought such matters best kept to herself. If this is at first superficially disappointing, it is in the longer run satisfying: let her keep the secrets of how she did it, even if, especially if, she did not quite know herself.
One of our better-known novelists once described the experience of reading a Fitzgerald novel as riding along in a top-quality car, only to find that after a mile or so, "someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window"; another, while praising The Beginning of Spring, called it "scatty". These judgments seem to me profoundly misconceived. In The Beginning of Spring, there is a scene in which Frank Reid reflects briefly on the Russian system of bribery. There has been a break-in at his press; the malefactor fires a revolver at Reid, who apprehends him, but decides not to report the matter to the police. However, he fails to offer the street's nightwatchman, who must have been aware of the incident, a hundred roubles, "somewhere between tea-money and a bribe", for his silence. As a result, the watchman goes to the police:
From them he would have got considerably less, but very likely he needed the money immediately. Probably he was caught in the tight network of small loans, debts, repayments and foreclosures which linked the city, quarter by quarter, in its grip, as securely as the tram-lines themselves.
Novels are like cities: some are organised and laid out with the colour-coded clarity of public transport maps, with each chapter marking a progress from one station to the next, until all the characters have been successfully carried to their thematic terminus. Others, the subtler, wiser ones, offer no such immediately readable route-maps. Instead of a journey through the city, they throw you into the city itself, and life itself: you are expected to find your own way. And their structure and purpose may not be immediately apparent, being based on the tacit network of "loans, debts, repayments and foreclosures" that makes up human relationships. Nor do such novels move mechanically; they stray, they pause, they lollop, as life does; except with a greater purpose and hidden structure. A priest in The Beginning of Spring, seeking to assert the legibility of God's purpose in the world, says "There are no accidental meetings". The same is true of the best fiction. Such novels are not difficult to read, since they are so filled with detail and incident and the movement of life, but they are sometimes difficult to work out. This is because the absentee author has the confidence to presume that the reader might be as subtle and intelligent as she is. Penelope Fitzgerald's novels are pre-eminent examples of this kind.
此作者有意思：多才多藝，生卒年代與H. A. Simon同；生日與胡適之先生同；台灣的陳蒼多譯過她的兩本小說；
憂傷藍花 / 蓓納蘿.費兹吉羅(Penelope Fitzgerald)著 ; 陳蒼多譯
臺北縣三重市 : 新雨, 2002[民91]
Penelope Fitzgerald (17 December 1916 – 28 April 2000) was a Booker Prize–winning English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower, as one of "the ten best historical novels".
|書店 / 蓓納蘿. 費滋吉羅(Penelope Fitzgerald)著 ; 陳蒼多譯|
|臺北縣三重市 : 新雨, 2001[民90]|
|憂傷藍花 / 蓓納蘿.費兹吉羅(Penelope Fitzgerald)著 ; 陳蒼多譯|
|臺北縣三重市 : 新雨, 2002[民91]|
ntu圖書館還書借書：圖書館的編目很怪異，Penelope Fitzgerald的Everyman's Library小說一處