Penelope Fitzgerald

Susan, post El Porto
Susan, post El Porto

Hermione Lee’s recent Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life occasioned a number of reviews in the usual places. Most touched on the questions of how did Penelope do it (the uncanny way she cleans up the mess by throwing out the novelistic clutter extraneous to her enriched needs, leaving almost every sentient sentence embering in its own mystery), and when did Penelope do it (she did not write and publish her first novel until around age 60). Writing and publishing a novel are two different activities. Writing one at any age seems unremarkable; publishing one, at any age, may be. Readers often gawk and might wonder if Penelope was a so-called “late bloomer.” But the flower seduced into blooming too early may come to regret a late frost. In any case, there is little evidence that Penelope was a late bloomer. Her writing seems set in her past. The novels are reflections, reconsiderations of experience, of a life rooted in the mutation and gestation of failure. Failure, like slapstick, can be funny in a way success can never be, but only a writer bloomed wise (rather than, say, embittered) from omission will get this. Slapstick, too, is found where the waves of success (swells that break in a timely manner) dissipate on the strand of a listless audience.

The narrator of a Penelope novel, always in third person, tells only what she wants to when she’s good and ready, often slipping very close to first person in what James Wood calls “free indirect style,” but might pull back and mention a year, not all that useful a piece of information, actually, considering 1960 aboard a barge on the Thames hardly suggests an environment the same as 1960 up from the Strand at El Porto, except that later it might help explain a question of whether or not television was invented yet or were the characters too poor or too bohemian to own one, and one begins to see the ship of one’s own home going down in a domestic storm just as easily on 44th in El Porto as on the Thames in London. Domestic themes are at once both universal and local; what matters is both what is said and how it is said. One doesn’t navigate one’s way through domestic turmoil following some staid rubric or outline; one lives through the hullabaloo and just maybe survives alone to tell the tale. And you must tell it as it happened, full of confusion and doubt about what might come next, wind always full in the sails, or might have happened, if someone, anyone, had their hand, even once in a while, on the tiller.

Of the reviews of Lee’s Life I reviewed, I’ll only mention a few: Caleb Crain in Harpers, “Her Struggle: The reticence of Penelope Fitzgerald” (which I saw note of on his blog but had to renew my lapsed subscription to Harpers to see, only to be thwarted by a six week delay before my first issue arrived, which by then was the next month’s; no matter, by then, impatient, I was able to read Caleb’s review on-line, having gained re-admittance via subscription to go behind the Harper’s pay wall – you need a hand stamp); James Wood in The New Yorker, “Late Bloom”; Alexander Chee in Slate, “The Lady Vanished”; and Levi Stahl, on I’ve Been Reading Lately, “Penelope Fitzgerald’s notebooks.” I mention Caleb’s review because he waited until 46 to write and publish his first novel (following a novella published in n+1 and a number of non-fiction works, including articles, book, and blog); is Caleb a late bloomer? Of course not, but it’s interesting that the setting of Caleb’s Necessary Errors, like most of Penelope’s, occurs decades ahead of its writing and publication. Doesn’t wine aged twenty years taste different from the day it was bottled? Some writers are everblooming. Alexander Chee mentions not just the idea of the late bloomer but recounts the actual critical reaction to Penelope’s success that at the time combined skepticism with derision, as if to have arrived late and wearing a housedress provided adequate support for the claim unprolific oldster can’t write or she would have by now. And Levi Stahl’s review is interesting because it references an earlier review he wrote of Penelope’s The Afterlife, a collection of her non-fiction articles, and on the strength of his review, I picked up a copy and quickly saw that this whole late blooming explanation of anything is a dodge. The clue to understanding Penelope might have something to do with knowledge of patience, as this comment, from Bridget Read’s Paris Review “How She Knows,” explains:

“It is vital to emphasize that Fitzgerald’s novels were not achieved in spite of her domestic life; they were borne directly out of it. Her work is radical in that it suggests that, in fact, a feminine experience, a liminal experience, might be better equipped than a male one to address the contradictions of human existence taken up by the greatest literature.”

Levi Stahl’s review was of Penelope’s notebooks, and he quotes Penelope saying:

“I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.”

It’s possible that Penelope’s testimony, expressed in her novels, belies even her most perceptive reviewers: did she not feel herself, during all those years of veritable single motherhood and low rung jobs thanks in large part to the miscreant missing husband – did she never feel neither beat nor no direction home?

I am reminded here of Daisy from Penelope’s The Gate of Angels. Maybe Daisy wasn’t born defeated, but loss came nevertheless, which perhaps makes things even worse, for if one is not born defeated, one may not have the skills necessary for sane survival (wit and sense of humor, irony, empathy, honesty, ability to pack quickly and travel light) yet Daisy, in so many ways, never seems either defeated or lost. Even when she is actually lost, as in without a map, she manages to find a way out of that lostness. And of course the lone woman going astray into the for-males-only cloistered arena of Fred’s college is hilarious with irony. Daisy, for her obvious suffering, is existentially happy, the most telling characteristic of her personality, upon her like a birthmark, that she finds it easier to give than to take, to provide for than to ask from.

This sense of being born lost, though, surely is gender neutral, but to find oneself lost with children in tow is a condition most often reserved for women. Reading Penelope, I am reminded of both Stevie Smith and Clarice Lispector, Stevie for humor, Clarice for a style of omission, and both for a hold on the occult. While I was reading The Bookshop, which employs a poltergeist, coincidentally Susan informed me a squirrel had taken up residence in an eve recently slightly opened by ice damage to a fascia board of our old house. I argued, since we had not actually seen the squirrel, that it could be a poltergeist. But Susan said, no, because the squirrel only made noise in the early morning, just before dawn, whereas a poltergeist prefers the hour just after you’ve fallen asleep.

What else characterizes the style of Penelope’s short novels? The narrator often comments on the behavior of characters as if there are three parties at play at once: the character, the narrator, and the author. While to some readers, this may seem like a loose grip on point of view, it’s actually a way of condensing and rotating observation, like with a kaleidoscope. The action is close in, the distant details of world news obviously irrelevant. The focus is on detail – if things seem vague, it’s not for lack of detail, description, or dialog that reveals character. Character as Chaplinesque cog, subject to naturalistic randomness. Free indirect style, with the narrator making evaluative, reflective, and analytical comments, as if claims made may indeed be challenged, though of course there will be no reply. Still, almost everything continually on the go, or on the move, coming, as it were, as surprise. But isn’t that the nature of the domestic, which cannot be domesticated?

So, I’ve read so far, of Penelope novels, in this order, as they came up in library queue: Offshore, my favorite I suppose for its setting of water and boats and mix of characters major and minor as well as the unexpected turns; At Freddie’s, again, a mix of young and old characters, age sometimes having little to do with maturity, and Freddie’s is how all schools should work; The Bookshop, atmosphere so strong you can smell the water and the books and hear the poltergeist and the cash machine; The Golden Child, bit of a mystery this one, though they all contain something of that genre; The Gate of Angels, again, while the plot is dated in a specific time zone, it hardly seems relevant in the sense the characters and their predicaments could be playing out even as we read. And I’m opened now to Human Voices. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I started Innocence, but did not finish it. I had read about a third of it when I nonetheless had to admit that I couldn’t get my ear around it. I think something of the “historical novel” angle and too much of the fairy tale got in my way. Maybe I’ll go back to it some day. It’s often I pick up an old favorite book and wonder, how did I ever find this enjoyable? Likewise, I might pick up a book I long ago was unable to get into, and wonder, how could I not have appreciated this? Maybe I’ll have to wait until I turn 60, a late blooming reader. Meantime, I’ve also put Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald in the queue.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Worth exploring. Easy to identify with Penelope, though, in my case, not with the legendary faithfulness of her namesake. Times changed.

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  2. Joe Linker says:

    I love the way these short novels are written. Each one opens with clarity and conciseness yet I had to reread as I went. I felt like I had entered a theatre a few minutes after the film had already started, but no, you’ve been here all along, you just were not paying attention, no, you were not paying the right kind of attention. Go back out and come in again. Reading Penelope is a lesson in reading, really. She forces the reader to be complicit in the making of the novel. But this all sounds so pseudo serious. She’s also great fun, like Stevie Smith, sarcastic and satirical. She’s taken whatever bitter lemon is left and squeezed it into a wine cooler.

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