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.

International Women’s Day, 2013

Books by Women Writers

Today is International Women’s Day. A few of the books pictured above go back to high school days and were given me by my two older sisters (I grew up in a family of six girls). “The River,” by Rumer Godden, was required reading at SBHS; the copy in the stack has my sister Shirley’s name in the inside cover. Shirley passed away a few years ago.

Susan and I lived near the beach in some courtyard apartments across from the writer Sylvia Wilkinson. I was in my first two years of teaching, in Venice. I showed Sylvia something I had written, and she said to Susan, “Tell Joe not to quit his day job.” But I never gave up on the idea of the novel and reading and literature and the whole idea of being a writer, whatever that was to come to mean. I got a corporate job, cementing the idea of a day job, but I don’t think one’s occupation necessarily prevents one from writing. What is writing? In any case, 30 years later I finally did quit my day job and finished the novel, having reworked it several times in different formats over the years. Interested readers can find a link to excerpts in the sidebar.

Sylvia had given us a copy of her 1977 novel, “Shadow of the Mountain,” thanking Susan for proofreading and the title. If I were to suggest books by women for International Women’s Day, I might suggest any of Sylvia’s books (I think she may have thought “Cale” was her best), and also “The Solitary Self,” by Mary Midgley. Both Sylvia and Mary warrant wider reading.

Sylvia Wilkinson, Mary Midgley

Binders Full of Women and a Pocketful of Moloch

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said, which is to say, most guys – their binders are empty. Bukowski explains, over at Letters of Note: the drone ant has sacrificed his life for a 401Kafkaesque letter from his Man-auger: “Sorry mate, we’ve a cutback comin’ down the line.” Bukowski lights out for the territory, not ahead of all the rest, like Huck did, but behind, yet still grateful for the chance, as Thoreau put it, “…to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

But to live deliberately, or deliberately meanly, as Bukowski did, requires at least some dough, as Bukowski acknowledges in his letter of thanks to John Martin, his publisher and patron. How much dough? $100 a month, for life, as long as he kept writing, according to the documentary Born Into This (brief review here; not recommended for the squeamish). How much did Buk need to sustain his values? What would he have done differently with $1,000 per month, or $10,000? More dough, more beer? Thoreau also found no sense in saving for a doubtful future.

“The man who goes alone can start today,” said Thoreau. In any amount, against this going alone, we find E. O. Wilson continuing to surprise us: “‘Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue,’ he writes in one of the book’s bluntest passages. ‘Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature'” (Susanna Rustin, Guardian interview, 17 Aug 2012). Which angel carries cash? Thoreau thought he “was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly.”

Meanwhile, over at The Dish, Andrew Sullivan, who’d be the world’s richest blogger if posts were dollars, points us, in a post titled “What’s the Matter with Money?,” to an argument proposing to assuage any Thoreau induced guilt we might be feeling over our purchased stuff. “Buyology,” by Jerry DeNuccio, suggests money is good because when we buy stuff we sustain the consumer colony. The consumer is thus one of the “better angels of our nature.” But do we really want to be ants? And isn’t most of our money spent on things we don’t really want? I’m not sure what audience needs an argument in favor of money. It can’t be the poor, who know only too well the value of money and what it might buy (food and good teeth to eat it, clean clothing and a private place to dress, health care not to be confused with drugs, not to mention Ishmael’s bed and table), but Thoreau is clear about his audience: “Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students,” whose meagre earnings don’t necessarily go for cool stuff: “Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants.” Cynics are fond of finding Thoreau contradicting himself, and he’s often laureled a hero of hypocrisy. It’s become a sixth way added to Walter Harding’s “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” But in no place do we find Thoreau at odds with the value of furniture, a hearth, or companionship. He even kept three chairs for society. But Thoreau did not consider himself poor, as his conversation with John Field, who “was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain,” in the “Baker Farm” chapter of Walden, makes clear. Thoreau simply wanted to live on less stuff. For Thoreau, less is more to the max.

In any case, Thoreau did not ignore economy, his own or his society’s. The first chapter of Walden, “Economy,” is roughly a quarter of the book, and readers often find tedious pages in Thoreau’s accounting. This is part of our economy, too, according to Thoreau, ants building a railroad: “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it…He should have gone up garret at once. ‘What!’ exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, ‘is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.'”

No one doubts the importance of money and stuff, but money is a fifth column to Thoreau’s four necessaries of life (“Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel”). The question is, “How much is enough? and How do I know what I want?” as Bill McKibben puts it in his introduction to the Beacon Press Walden (1997). For Thoreau, “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.” More, the problem with money isn’t that it buys stuff; the problem with money is that its superfluity leads to a superfutility, as its surplus grows into a power that dictates what others should do with their money, or what they should do for their money, or what should become of them for a lack of money. And nowhere is this more evident than in the status of women, all around the world, and if “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” what’s a woman to do who must learn to live with one of these desperadoes?

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” Thoreau concluded.

“Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings, –
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows” (Thoreau’s poem in the “Economy” chapter of Walden).

How many appliances do we need? “…the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Related Posts:
The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty
Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline
The Glass Guitar Ceiling
Stuffed Post
Thoreau Posts

Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

A recent Catalyst project, discussed in the HBR Blog Network post “New Research Busts Myths About the Gender Gap,” calls for action within the MBA corporate community. No one doubts that women’s experience in the workplace has woefully lacked what men have been given; but one Catalyst report, “Pipeline’s Broken Promise,” dispels the generally accepted causes (pipeline, motherhood, choice, mentoring), explanations that have led to disinformation and stagnation. But what are the reasons for continued male-female career disparity, then? How can we change effects if we don’t know the causes? Maybe we don’t need to know the causes – the correlations are enough to warrant action to produce change. But the Catalyst assumption seems to argue that inattention, inaction, and naïve or disingenuous acceptance of the popular explanations all amount to an actionable cause, a controllable root cause, to use some MBO lingo. A major MBO assertion is that we can’t change what we can’t control – ergo the drive to get control. Another Catalyst report, “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?,” illustrates, simply put, the obvious, that women are different than men, and that women should not expect equal treatment and experience when exercising the same strategies as men use to get ahead.

But Catalyst is talking about a narrowly defined community – the study is of MBA’s, female and male, and of their various experiences and reflections on that experience. But is success a possession, and, if so, can the possession be enjoyed if it needs one’s 7×24 protection? But proximate causes can have long tails, and the problem of the gender success gap is systemic; the Equal Pay Act of 1963 is as old or older than the cohorts studied. But those outside the community of MBA’s might fairly ask what changes an increase to parity of women to men in the workplace might bring. Why should an outsider care if the CEO is a male or a female? Why should the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the Norma Raes of the world, believe that MBA-women, given the opportunity, will bring some improved economic balance to more than their own cohort?

Will female-male parity in the workplace find homes for homeless families? Will parity help eliminate torture? (Readers might ask how this is relevant, but we are talking about global corporations with the lobbying arms of blacksmiths.) But closer to home, will parity solve the health care crisis? A recent report by the US Census Bureau, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010,” highlights the current female-to-male earnings ratio, but posts even more alarming updates, including “approximately 31.6 percent of the population had at least one spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months during the 4-year period from 2004 to 2007,” and “in 2009, 26.1 percent of all people experienced at least 1 month without health insurance coverage.”

Catalyst’s “Pipeline’s Broken Promise” report concludes, explicitly, that power and responsibility in the corporate world belong to men, and there are few signs that current initiatives to achieve parity for women will be successful. Implicitly, this means that to men go the spoils and the accountability. The recent financial crisis shows what the men have done with the spoils and how they have shirked their accountability. The question remains: what will be done with the spoils and how might accountability improve financial results in the general civic community if women had parity with men in terms of income, job advancement, CEO and board positions – in short, career success and career satisfaction?

Yet another Catalyst report provides a persuasive answer to this question. In “Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility: It’s A Matter of Sustainability,” the authors show that corporations with greater female to male parity do serve both themselves and their communities more profitably than organizations with less or no parity. The report suggests serious implications for well-being measurements of both businesses and communities. The concept of corporate goodwill capital is not new, but given the current ills in society and the marketplace, firms would benefit from long-term proactive solutions that would bring parity to female-male workplace experience that would provide benefits to both the firm and the communities in which it operates.

Support for a positive answer to the question of what women will do with the spoils and accountability might also be found in another source, one outside of the business community. Are women different from men in substantive ways that would make a difference in financial corporate results? But the question must be further refined: are female MBA’s different from their male counterparts? The question is a difficult one for Catalyst to answer, for in an effort to dispel the disparity, the answer must be no; but if the answer is no, then what’s the response to the disenfranchised who would ask what difference achieving parity makes? In “Feminist Perspectives on Power” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Amy Allen argues that women understand and use power in substantively different ways than men understand and use power. The net effect of this different view and handling of power is that women use power to help others rather than to oppress or combat with others. Transferred to the corporate world, this would mean that women should not view business as a survival of the fittest battlefield but as a cooperative opportunity to empower themselves, their firm, and their communities. In Section 4 of her essay, sub-titled “Power as Empowerment,” Allen says, “Most of the feminists who embrace this transformative or empowerment-based conception of power explicitly define it as an ability or capacity and present it as an alternative to putatively masculine notions of power-over.” Allen references to persuasive effect French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, and concludes, “some feminists interpret Irigaray’s work on sexual difference as suggesting an alternative conception of power as transformative, a conception that is grounded in a specifically feminine economy.” What this means for the woman MBA who aspires toward control, spoils, and accountability, and given her current inability to satisfy her aspirations, is to turn away not only from the male strategies for achievement, but to vow that, once she achieves full parity, she will work toward changing the meaning and use of power in the corporate world, a change that would improve both top and bottom line results and change the corporate system, for otherwise, she will simply have become a man, succumbed to his power by marrying into it, a marriage that will still be unequal, for by becoming him, she will have denied herself, and in denying herself, she will have lost the chance to achieve parity with her community.

Allen, Amy, “Feminist Perspectives on Power”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/feminist-power/&gt;.

Update at HBR Blog: Why Boards Need More Women

Recommended On-line Reading: “Chick Blogs”

Chick Lit Books is more than a blog. It’s a site devoted to literature aimed at a market segment, an audience that can be socio-economic-demographically defined. Do we read to be so pigeonholed? The “Chick Flick” is a film men should not walk away from and even happily review – if they want another date. But now there’s something we might call Chick Blogs? Novelicious is a Chick Lit Blog, but the pure Chick Blog is something else. The mother of all Chick Blog’s is Susan’s favorite: The Pioneer Woman. Initially the diary of the dislocated urbanite Ree Drummond, who moves from the city to rural Oklahoma, the blog has grown into an industry. It’s been hot locally this summer, and readers of the blog can currently follow Ree’s tracking of a global warming cell that has settled uncomfortably over her entire state. But if that’s too hot for you, consider my latest find and recommended blog browsing, a new blog type, if not quite a new on-line genre, well represented by A Beach Cottage. Often, it seems, these blogs are started and maintained by women who, like Ree, have recently relocated and started something fresh in their lives. Sarah, the author of A Beach Cottage, moved from England to Australia, and lives with her family in a beach house, and industriously blogs about the house and beach environs, and her blog is a cool, restful place. Subtitled “life by the sea,” it’s one of my favorites, even if, as Sarah says, it’s “written with girls in mind.” Thus we might learn something about markets, for something written with a particular audience in mind might very well attract its opposite. From Sarah’s blog, on the beach in Australia, I recently travelled to My Sweet Savannah, where we are informed, “It’s OK to be a follower,” as its nearly 5,000 members attest. For who can resist “finding life’s inspirations” in a “flea market find”? After browsing around Savannah and considering a few arts and crafts projects I might try out with ZZ next week, I travelled to French Larkspur (also suggested over at A Beach Cottage), where I found a photo of what I think is a wooden butter dish; I picked one up at a garage sale a couple of years ago, thinking I might use it as a palette knife. I recommend these blogs for their clear and concise purpose, cleanly and upliftingly presented, with a structure and strategy that’s both enterprisingly winning and honestly conveyed.