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The Novels of Penelope Fitzgerald


Everyone must think their favorite writers do not get the attention they deserve and that’s how I feel about Penelope Fitzgerald, the British writer who died on April 28, 2000. Fitzgerald did, in fact, enjoy considerable critical recognition during her lifetime: her novel Offshore won the Booker Prize in 1979 and other novels were shortlisted for the prize in later years. The Blue Flower, generally considered her masterpiece, won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award, beating out novels by authors Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. But she is little discussed in the popular marketplace, particularly here in the U.S.

Recently The Blue Flower tied as one of the third best British, Irish or Commonwealth novels of the last twenty-five years in a poll of writers organized by the Observer ( U.K.). Perhaps not as impressive, it was one of my two favorite novels of 1995. More remarkable, I have never read a word suggesting Fitzgerald is overrated or unworthy of the praise she received.

Prizes and acclaim are all well and good, but what makes Fitzgerald so great? Part of the reason I find her work so enchanting is that it is very difficult to answer that question.

The Blue

“The qualities which make her writing unique are present in all of it, and her style is unmistakable,” Harriet Harvey-Wood wrote in Fitzgerald’s obituary. “There is no sentence which could have been written by anyone else, just as no one has ever been able to repeat her peculiar blend of deadpan, slightly surreal, comedy, moral sensitivity and sober dubiety.” That’s exactly correct and I wish I would have thought of such an intelligent summation, but I can imagine the wary would-be reader not being sold on such generalities.

Likewise, I find reviews of her work generally perceptive and accurate, yet if I had not the read the books myself, the descriptions of the books would not exactly pull me in. Nevertheless, as a self-appointed apostle for Penelope Fitzgerald’s work, let me add a few more words to the campaign to draw more readers to her books.

The Blue Flower is probably the place to start. Its subject is Friedrich von Hardenberg (or “Fritz”), a university student who would later become Novalis, a great German Romantic poet and intellectual of the late eighteenth century. More precisely, the novel is about the infatuation this young genius develops for the entirely unremarkable 12-year-old Sophie, their de facto engagement, and her death two years later. See what I mean about the descriptions? Unless you have an interest in the German Romantics or the mores of the period, I cannot imagine that you have just decided to read this book. Having read it at least three times, I still marvel that I ever opened it in the first place.

But there is something tender and smart and engaging and funny on almost every page. For example, after he gives Sophie a ring, “Fritz asked her if he might read her the opening chapter of The Blue Flower. ‘It is the introduction,’ he told her, ‘to a story which I cannot write as yet. I do not know even what it will be. I have made a list of occupations and professions, and of psychological types. But perhaps after all it will not be a novel. There is more truth, perhaps, in folktales.’” This description is of course true of Fitzgerald’s book of the same title, a wink at the reader about the book within the book, and the shared themes of both. The payoff is the reply to this serious young man and his ambition. “‘Well, I like those,’ said Sophie, ‘but not if people are to be turned into toads, for that is not amusing.’” Her response would be amusing, even clever, if she were being ironical. What is hilarious is that she is in earnest.

In just a few lines and one simple exchange the reader gets a glimpse of Fitzgerald’s deep game and her light touch.

Another instance when Fitzgerald plays this note elsewhere in the novel: ”Fritz persevered. ‘I did not quite mean that. But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?’

”Sophie considered a little. ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.”’

I sometimes glide past these passages and it is a few sentences before it hits me that…wait, that was very funny, extremely deft writing.

The epigraph to Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower comes from Novalis himself – “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” – and this sensibility plays out in her other novels. The Beginning of Spring, a story of a middle-class English family in 1913 Russia, manages to be a comedy of manners in which there is nothing objectively funny about what is happening in the household or the country. But there is much dry wit in the telling of their plight. The Gate of Angels is set in 1912 Cambridge, specifically in that part of the campus where the physics research that foreshadows the nuclear age is taking place.

The Beginning
of Spring

Before she turned to these historical settings Fitzgerald wrote novels that had some basis in her own biography. The Bookshop recalls her years of living in a small community where she herself worked in a bookshop. Offshore was based on her family’s life on a rundown barge amid a community of houseboats on the Thames. The Fitzgeralds’ boat sank twice.

Even is in these more personal books there is that sense of real lives being lived while history happens around them. Future generations may read these novels as social commentary much in the way we read Tolstoy and Dickens today. In all the stories there is a powerful sense of the (unwinnable) human struggle. But Fitzgerald finds a backhanded or dry way to leaven the deeper themes: your heart goes out to these characters even as you realize there is something absurd and funny in the human condition.

Enough. If I have not already enticed you to try out a Fitzgerald novel I doubt any more of my words will convince you. I have mentioned my five favorite novels; there are four others. Visit some of the sources linked to in this essay for other voices. Better yet, buy or borrow a copy of one of these slender gems and give Penelope Fitzgerald a chance.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 1:42 PM | Permalink

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