#Fitzgerald2020: Not just angels and their gates…

After reading The Gate of Angels, I developed an appetite for more Fitzgerald, so I conitnued with another historical novel The Beginning of Spring (set in Moscow in 1913) and her collection of short stories The Means of Escape, many of which are set in exotic locations and in the 19th century.

The Beginning of Spring sees Russia on the verge of war and revolution, but of course no one knows that yet. Moreover, this is all seen through the eyes of the expat community. Frank Reid might have been born and bred in Russia, and inherited his father’s business in Moscow (of which only the printing side of things is still viable), but he is still regarded as an Englishman.

He had a reputation for doing what he could… but all of them, at one point or another, reminded him that he was a foreigner wghim even if things didn’t go right, had nothing to lose.

He met his future wife Nellie when he went to England to study and work for a few years, and then spent three years in Germany, where their two eldest children were born. So they are a real expat family, their children equally comfortable conversing in Russian and in English.

I could really relate to Frank’s love for his adopted country, that tension of belonging and yet remaining an outsider. But above all, I loved Fitzgerald’s ability to encompass a whole place and time with just one sentence.

Frank’s affection for Moscow came over him at odd and inappropriate times and in undistinguished places. Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers and seminarists straying on to the tramlines, centred on its holy citadel but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers’ dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage-patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village.

When the book opens, Frank’s wife has just left him and their three children without a warning or a satisfactory explanation. Mild-mannered and indecisive Frank sort of expects her to come back, but is finally convinced that he needs to find a childcare solution and hires a young salesgirl Lisa. The children soon grow very fond of her, and Frank finds himself attracted by her quiet, mysterious ways. Soon, everyone he knows is winking and nudging and hinting quite broadly that there is a relationship between Frank and the nanny. Frank spends most of the book trying to dispel that idea, although he would like nothing more than to have a relationship with her. Mrs Graham, the chaplain’s wife, makes no bones about it and her exchange with the hapless Frank is a masterpiece of understated comic timing:

‘Of course he thinks quite highly of her!…Show me a single man who wouldn’t! Quiet, blonde, slow-witted, nubile, docile, doesn’t speak English, hardly speaks at all in fact, sloping shoulders, half-shut eyes, hasn’t broadened out yet though I daresay she will, proper humility, reasonable manners, learned I suppose behind the counter at Muirka’s.’

‘I don’t think her eyes are usually half-shut,’ said Frank.

‘You’re all of you serf-owners at heart! Yes, this brother-in-law too! Fifty years after Emancipation, and you’re still chasing them into the straw-stacks!’

‘Don’t let yourself be carried away, Mrs Graham,’ said Frank. ‘They’ve never had serfs in Norbury.’

Frank is an occasionally infuriatingly passive creation but extremely relatable: ‘lukewarm, but not quite cold, unbelieving, but not quite disbelieving, he had fallen into the habit of not asking himself what he thought.’ The books is essentially about the next few months of his life, with some dramas and much bewilderment. His brother-in-law pays him a visit, the children go to their countryside dacha, he muddles around with his accountant who is a poet and a Tolstoy acolyte but not very good with figures. The ending is, just like in The Gate of Angels, a bit of a bombshell, far too abrupt and leaving matters wide open.

Yet in The Means of Escape, Fitzgerald shows she can craft as conclusive and satisfying an ending as anyone. Not all of the stories have it – some seem to peter out and you wonder if you’ve missed something. And even in the ones with a satisfying ending, there always remains a little flourish of surprise, something that makes us want to smile or frown and rush to read the story once again. Her sense of setting, of course, remains impeccable: a stifling rectory in Hobart, Tasmania; a manor house judged of insufficient interest to be taken up by the National Trust and shunned by visitors; painters decamping to Brittany, determined to paint outdoors, only to be defeated by the constant rain; a remote farmstead in New Zealand; the Greek district of Phanar/Fener in Istanbul. She tackles the expat community once more: this time Americans in Mexico in ‘Our Lives Are Only Lent to Us’, who fail to truly understand the concerns of their servants and their families even after decades of living there.

My personal favourite (as a former HR professional) is perhaps ‘The Axe’, one of her first published stories, where a managing director of a small firm writes a report to the CEO of the parent organisation, after having been asked to make redundancies. His particular concern is his clerical assistant Singlebury, who had been an exemplary worker for many years, but was now growing old. ‘Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day.’ Work seems to be his whole life, dismissal would be worse than death to him, as one of the other employees observes. I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account of this quite short story, but let’s just say that not a single word is wasted and one masterpiece of a sentence follows another. Quite brilliant, and also quite chilling, with shades of Edgar Allan Poe.

The book was published shortly after her death and gathered stories written throughout her career, so there is quite a variety stylistically and thematically. What I did find consistent was her ability to create ‘quiet explosions’ in her characters’ lives, and to observe the lives of the small, marginalised, vulnerable and typically unheard people. Some of the stories verge on the Gothic and have disquieting little twists, but then, there is always a fascination with the supernatural in most of Fitzgerald’s work (remember the ghost story in The Gate of Angels?). Others offer a direct insight into the very depths of someone’s soul, something they are hiding even from themselves.

Penelope Fitzgerald, to me, is the quintessentially English writer that meant so much to me in those dark days of trying to sneak into the forbidden British Council library. Mature, witty, able to be both detached and empathetic, she mines that rich vein that Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and so many other fantastic English writers made their own, representing all the calm and reassurance of a centuries-old literary tradition and a settled democracy to which I secretly aspired. It was these polished, perfect sentences and elliptical approach to serious themes (rather than Downton Abbey gossip or Merchant/Ivory film costumes) that I expected to find when I moved to the UK. Of course it was reductionist, and I have found both much more (but also, somehow, less). Nevertheless, it is delightful to reconnect with what drew me to this country in the first place.

The Tortoise and the Hare

A quick break from Brazilians in August. Several of my bookish friends had recommended the delightful Backlisted Podcast episode on The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, with special guest Carmen Callil of Virago fame. I listened, was instantly smitten and spent some time searching for the book online, although I had no intention of reading it soon. The subject matter, I thought, might be a bit too painful.

However, when I saw it arrive in the post, I told myself that I had recently read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, after all, which tells a very similar story. So I plunged in and just couldn’t stop reading.

Elizabeth Jenkins has that wonderful and all too rare quality of being able to write the perfect sentence or turn of phrase. That economical yet very densely packed style, that you need to read several times in order to fully appreciate. Her wry observational skills remind me of Jane Austen: this is what Jane Austen might have been writing if she had lived in the 1950s. (It’s not surprising to find out that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote a biography of Austen.)

It is an all too familiar story of the unravelling of a seemingly content marriage as the husband is attracted to someone else. For most of the book we might think of the conventionally pretty, extremely feminine people-pleaser Imogen as the hare, while the older, eccentric-looking, badly dressed and rather masculine Blanche is the tortoise who wins the race (i.e. the man) in the end. However, given that the man is the appallingly self-centred, self-satisfied and endlessly self-justificatory Evelyn Gresham, you may decide that Imogen is well rid of him and that Blanche is no winner after all.

Evelyn is that class of Englishman that you can still encounter at Oxbridge, active in politics or law or medicine, convinced that they are always right and that the world should be their oyster. Imogen at first glance may appear annoying in her passivity. I thought I would not get along with her at all, she is so very different to me: brought up to rely on her looks and social skills, no preoccupations other than being a wife and mother, so very keen to be of service to others, a bit dreamy, a bit too romantic. Yet somehow, the author manages to make you care desperately about her, although avoiding melodrama. Imogen has quite good psychological insights into other people, can sense when they are hurting or indifferent, but seems blind to the dangers in her own marriage. I could relate though to her avoidance of conflict, of being thought a nag, in her relationship with both her husband and her son.

The inevitable descent into divorce is so gradual and so unflinchingly described, it makes for some very painful reading. But what really broke me was Imogen’s realisation that her son Gavin is a mini-version of his father and that she has completely lost him a long while ago. Yet even there, the author gives us a hint that Gavin will not remain unmarked by his parents’ marriage breakdown.

Such a subtle, emotionally wrenching novel! It has given me an appetite to read more of the English classics of the 1930s-1950s. I might do a month of that when I do my geographical tours. After all, ‘the past is a different country’, isn’t it?

Literary Festival on Lake Geneva

Le Livre sur les quais is a relatively unknown literary festival taking place on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the small Swiss town of Morges (near Lausanne). It started in 2010 with just 180 mainly Swiss local writers (a friend of mine who lives in Morges referred to that first year somewhat unkindly as ‘all cook books, tourist guides and crafts manuals’). However, in its 5th year, it has expanded to 362 authors, including many international authors (particularly English-speaking, to satisfy the large expat community in the area). Each year there is an honorary president –  a well-known French-speaking author (last year it was Tatiana de Rosnay, this year it was Daniel Pennac – and a different geographical region is invited to be the ‘guest of honour’. In 2011 it was Quebec, Belgian Walloon region in 2012, last year it was Rhone-Alpes and this year it was Tessin – the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.


This is a book festival for both fiction and non-fiction fans, for all genres, for all ages, and for quite a few languages. There is a huge book tent on the lakeside, where you can buy your books (at exorbitant Swiss ‘exchange rates, where 15 euros becomes 31.50 francs) and get them signed by the authors when they are not at a conference. There are said conferences, either individual or panel discussions, workshops, films, wine and food tasting, art exhibitions, concerts and, above all, the boat trips with readings. What better way to spend a sunny September weekend than cruising on Lake Geneva listening to Daniel Pennac read from his many novels, Luc Ferry ponder philosophical and ethical issues and Philipp Meyer debating the New Great American Novel with Donald Ray Pollock? Oh, and did I say that all of the events (except for the cruises) are free and that most of them don’t even require pre-registration?


Swiss and French-speaking authors are of course predominant, but there were many authors that were interesting to me as an English speaker. These authors would have been mobbed at a literary festival in the UK – Nathan Filer, Naomi Wood, Louise Doughty, Douglas Kennedy, Andy McNab, Val McDermid, Jo Baker, Caroline Lawrence and Peter Robinson – but here they were mostly subjected to relentless button-holing by us expats, who kept telling them how much we’d enjoyed their books.

It is also a great opportunity to become acquainted with the up-and-coming authors, or those writing in other languages who have not been translated yet into English. This was a common complaint: many authors told me they had been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian etc. etc., but not into English. This made me wonder just how ‘big’ or ‘wealthy’ the publishing business is in those small countries and languages, that they can ‘afford’ to translate so much. And not just from well-known American or English authors.


While French readers were queuing for autographs in front of Katherine Pancol,  an author who writes what I would describe ‘soap opera with designer gear’ (I could not finish her book), I got to meet and have proper conversations with far more quirky and interesting authors whose books I bought (as I mentioned yesterday) or Pedro Lenz, who writes in Swiss German dialect, and Matthias Zschokke, born and raised in Switzerland but now living in Berlin, or the very candid and delightful debut novelist Lottie Moggach, whose book on online identity sounds both chilling and fascinating. (And yes, she was asked about the benefits but also the disadvantages of having a famous writer as a mother.)


Beautiful weather (to make up for the miserable summer we’ve been having in this area) and good coffee and cakes contributed to this perfect day, as well as bumping into many friends and fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group. In fact, many of them were running their own workshops on characterization, life writing, translations. I think it’s a given that I’ll be attending next year too!

Finally, here are a few choice quotes from the sessions I attended:

I don’t think you make a conscious choice of writing a ‘classic’ or writing a book that sells. Those authors who have written classics were not aware that they were writing classics at the time. After all, if you only sell five copies, no matter how good your book is, does it have a chance to become a classic? (Louise Doughty)

It was torture writing my book, but nice to have it written. (Nathan Filer)

I stuck to a proportion of about 90% fact and 10% fiction in my depiction of Hemingway’s life and loves, and I was afraid I would be scourged by Hemingway experts, but in the end if you are writing fiction, you need to give yourself the licence to get away from the facts. (Naomi Wood)

I don’t find it easy to write, nor do I feel a compulsion to write every day, so for a long time I thought that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. (Lottie Moggach)

I originally wrote this book in English and contacted a publisher in the US. They were initially very enthusiastic, until they discovered my age. All of my previous novels counted for nothing. They all want young and healthy writers, who can reliably produce a book a year for a long stint. (Mary Anna Barbey)