#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.

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels

Shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, including with this novel from 1990, The Gate of Angels, Fitzgerald did win the Prize in 1979 with Offshore (unlike Beryl Bainbridge). I can’t help feeling, however, that she was robbed of it in 1995, when she wasn’t even shortlisted for The Blue Flower, which many consider to be her masterpiece.

Fizgerald was remarkably prolific for someone who started publishing novels quite late in life. Her work can be divided into two distinct periods: the earlier novels are based on her real-life experiences (she had a rather sad life, which prevented her from writing earlier), while the later ones are historical fiction. The Gate of Angels is set in 1912, so it falls in the latter category.

At first I barely noticed the 1912 timeline, because there is a timeless quality to the story – the age-old tension between town and gown, between the ivory tower and real life, between heart and mind, between youthful ideals and middle-aged ‘settling’. But then the period references start creeping in: the Suffragette movement, the revolution in physics about to kick off (and being violently opposed still in many quarters), the Cambridge colleges which are still not open to married fellows or to women. Plus, there is added poignancy to this love story when you realise that very soon all the young men will head off to war.

Yet, despite its serious subtext and accurate historical references, this book wears its research and knowledge very lightly. I spent most of the time chuckling my way through it. It is a novel of ideas, but it also utterly joyous and deeply humorous. We first see things through the eyes of Fred Fairly, a physicist and junior fellow at the all-male, rather stuffy (fictional) St Angelicus College in Cambridge. He is a naive, inexperienced young man, from a comfortable but not over-privileged background as a vicar’s son. Fitzgerald delights in joking about the discomfort of draughty vicarages throughout the book: here are just two separate instances:

The college had bever been thoroughly heated or dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory… saw no reason to complain.

The Rectory had been built with a solid dignity which, for the last twenty years or so, had been letting in the water everywhere.

By way of contrast, we then see life through the eyes of Daisy Saunders, who grew up in real poverty in south London, ‘where Stockwell turns into Brixton’. She is kind-hearted and resourceful, fearless and unsentimental, and is training as a probationer nurse at Blackfriars Hospital. However, her desire to help others gets her into trouble, she is kicked out of the hospital and makes her way to Cambridge to try and find a position in the hospital there.

Fred and Daisy’s lives collide – literally – in a road accident. They lose consciousness and come round in a farcical manner, in the same bed, wearing very little, in the house of the Wrayburn family. Mr Wrayburn is ‘the true voice of scholarly Cambridge’ and his reaction when he finds these two unknown people in his house results in one of the funniest paragraphs I’ve read in a long time:

‘Venetia, there are two total strangers in the nursery. One is a man, who has lost his clothes. The other is a woman, who, I think, has also lost her clothes… This is my house, as it happens. You mustn’t think me unwelcoming. My name is Wrayburn.’

It was clear that he had never been allowed to worry. That was not his work, worrying was done for him.

The person who does the worrying is quite possibly my favourite character in the book, the ‘exuberant charitable Mrs Wrayburn’, who studied for four years at Newnham, was the organising secretary of the debating society, and the Treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union, but of course could not get a degree at the time and made the fatal mistake of marrying a university lecturer without a fellowship – which means luncheon at home for her husband every day of the week. That tragi-comic paragraph listing all of the household items which need to be washed and dried, and how Mrs Wrayburn cannot find any maid to help her, because they live a little too far outside Cambridge is a real tour de force.

There are Dickensian traits to several of the other secondary characters too – so sharply and wittily observed, that they seem almost like caricatures. Holcombe is an acquaintance that Fred doesn’t particularly like but whom he just can’t shake off, who gives his unsolicited opinion pretty much all the time either in person or via letter. He has no qualms gatecrashing the Disobligers’ Society meeting (although he has only paid a term’s subscription, several years ago) merely to continue what he was saying to Fred in a note.

Dr Matthews, the Provost of St James, is looked down upon by other scholars for writing ghost stories in his spare time (I later found out that Fitzgerald based him upon M.R. James). When he reads one of his stories to the Junior Dean at his college, the latter believes there is a hint of sex in it.

‘I hope there is nothing of the kind… Sex is tiresome enough in novels. In a ghost story, I should have no patience with it.’

‘Surely if one doesn’t find sex tiresome in life, it won’t be tiresome in fiction.’

‘I do find it tiresome in life. Or rather, I find other people’s concern with it tiresome. One is told about it and told and told.’

I am particularly fond of Professor Flowerdew, who seems to get all the best lines. He is Fred’s mentor and decidedly against all the new-fangled particle physics, after all ‘an atom is not a reality, it is just a provisional idea’. He then goes on to give a pretty accurate description of the way research in physics will progress throughout much of the 20th century (‘elementary particles which are too strange to have anything but curious names, and anti-matter which ought to be there, but isn’t’, even chaos theory). Although Fred was initially excited by the perspective of working with Rutherford in this new revolutionary side of physics, he finds the perspective of gaining an elusive Junior Fellowship too enticing, so he follows common-sense rather than his heart. But when he meets Daisy, he finally allows his heart to take over.

So where are the ‘angels’ of the title? Well, it’s not just a reference to the name of the college. There are two instances where the supernatural seems to intervene: a ghost story which seems to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the book (a fanciful imagining by Dr Matthews which has real-life consequences) and the ending, when a gate mysteriously opens at just the right time. This may feel out of place in a novel that has been satirical and realistic in equal measure, with a wonderful eye for detail. I wasn’t entirely sure about this aspect, but I am guessing the author’s intention was to turn the story into a parable.

I read this together with a group of Twitter friends, and we enjoyed sharing quotes and references over the past week. I would really like to read more Fitzgerald this month and have borrowed another of her historical novels from the library, The Beginning of Spring.

Living in the Pleasure of Anticipation: Reading Plans for Autumn/Winter

One of my favourite bookish Twitter people Alok Ranjan said: ‘Sometimes just the anticipation of books to come is even more pleasing than the actual reading of them’. And in times of uncertainty, with no doubt a tough autumn and winter ahead, you take your small pleasures where you can. So I’ve been spending a few joyful hours luxuriating in planning my reading and joining in with some like-minded online friends.

October

There are two reading challenges in October that I cannot resist. First, Paper Pills is planning a group read of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels starting on the 1st of October, which got me looking through my shelves for other Fitzgerald books, so I’ll also be attempting her short story collection The Means of Escape and rereading The Bookshop and The Blue Flower.

Secondly, the week of 5-11 October is also the #1956Club organised by Simon Thomas and Karen aka Kaggsy. I have bought books in anticipation of that year and will be reading: Romain Gary’s Les racines du ciel, plus two books I remember fondly from my childhood Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Pryosen and The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. If I have time after all of the above, I may also attempt Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, but might not make it in time for the 1956 week, lucky if I squeeze it in before the end of October.

November

It’s been quite a few years now that November has been equivalent with German Literature Month for me, so this year will be no different. I’m in the mood for rereading Kafka’s Das Schloss (especially since my son recently read The Trial and I didn’t have my German language edition to read it in parallel with him). I was so enamoured of Marlen Haushofer that I will read another of her novels, a very short one this time Die Tapetentür (which I’ve seen translated as The Jib Door, an English expression I am unfamiliar with). I can’t stay away from Berlin, so I’ll be reading Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier takes Berlin). I’m also planning to read a book of essays about Vienna and its very dualistic nature: Joachim Riedl’s Das Geniale. Das Gemeine (Genius and Filth/Rottenness) and another non-fiction book, a sort of memoir of studying in England by Nele Pollatscheck entitled Dear Oxbridge (it’s in German, despite the title).

Since taking the picture above, I’ve also decided to reread the book I borrowed from my university library just before lockdown in March, namely Remarque’s Nothing New on the Western Front.

December

Alok is once again to blame for his persuasive skills, as he’s managed to convince a group of us, including Chekhov obsessive Yelena Furman to read Sakhalin Island in December. Of course, winter seems to lend itself to lengthy Russians, so I’ll also be attempting The Brothers Karamazov (my fifth attempt, despite the fact that I am a huge Dostoevsky fan, so fingers crossed!). If I have any brain or time left over at all after these two massive adventures, I’d also like to read the memoir of living with Dostoevsky written by his wife and the memoir about Marina Tsvetaeva written by her daughter.

I also have a rather nice bilingual edition of Eugene Onegin by Pushkin from Alma Press, so I might put that into the mix as well, let’s see how it goes.

January

Meredith, another Twitter friend, has been organising January in Japan reading events for years now, and I always try to get at least 1-2 books in. This coming January I might focus exclusively on Japanese authors or books about Japan, as I have a lot of newly bought ones that are crying out loud for a read.I have a new translation of Dazai Osamu’s Ningen Shikkaku (A Shameful Life instead of No Longer Human) by Mark Gibeau, I’d also like to read more by Tsushima Yuko (who, coincidentally was Dazai Osamu’s daughter), the short story collection The Shooting Gallery. Inspired by Kawakami Mieko (who mentioned her name as one of the writers who most influenced her), I will be reading In the Shade of the Spring Leaves, a biography of Highuchi Ichiyo which also contains nine of her best short stories. Last but not least, I’m planning to read about Yosano Akiko (one of my favourite Japanese poets) and her lifelong obsession with The Tale of Genji, an academic study written by G. G. Rowley and published by the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. (Once upon a time, I dreamt of studying there for my Ph.D.)

Saving the best for last, I have a beautiful volume of The Passenger: Japan edition, which is something like a hybrid between a magazine and a book, focusing on writing and photography from a different country with each issue. While I’d have liked more essays by Japanese writers themselves (there are only 3 Japanese writers among the 11 long-form pieces represented  here), there is nevertheless much to admire here.

Ambitious plans for the next few months, but they feel right after a month or so of aimless meandering in my reading. Let’s just hope the weather, i.e. news, outside isn’t too frightful!

International Women’s Day: More Personal Heroines

Last year I mentioned some of my personal heroines, some fictional, some very real, who inspire me every day, not just once a year on the 8th of March.

Here are some more in the same vein, that are worth exploring further. Women I want to emulate in terms of courage, determination, talent, single-minded focus, resilience… but not fate (in most cases).

Women in a man’s world:

AmyJohnson
From Wikipedia.

Amy Johnson: British ‘aviatrix’ (in the language of the time)

Many have heard of Amelia Earhart, but she was just one of a group of pioneering women pilots active in the 1920s and 30s. Amy Johnson was the first woman pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. She set numerous other long-distance and speed records, including beating her new husband’s record flight from London to Cape Town (he was also a pilot). Unafraid of a bit of rivalry, then! (Or was he? 6 years later, they divorced.) She was part of the Air Transport Auxiliary during WW2 and died in 1941 on a mission. Some suspect it was a ‘friendly fire’ incident.

From the National Air and Space Museum.
From the National Air and Space Museum.

Bessie Coleman: First black pilot to hold an international licence, she was the tenth of 13 children born in a sharecropper family in the American South and had to study aviation in France, since no one would train her (as a woman and a black) in the US. She became a big airshow sensation in the 1920s, was known as Queen Bess and even appeared in a film. Sadly, she died far too soon, at the age of 34, in a flight accident while preparing for a show.

 

From wired.com
From wired.com

Lise Meitner

Austrian physicist of Jewish origin, who did not share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded in 1944 to Otto Hahn for nuclear fission, although she was a long-time collaborator on this project. She was born in Vienna in 1878.  Although women were not allowed to attend university at the time, she was encouraged and supported by her parents to complete a private education and a doctorate in physics. She then moved to Berlin to study with Max Planck and soon became his assistant, then the first woman to become head of the physics department at the university of Berlin. Sadly, with the rise to power of Hitler, she had to flee abroad and eventually settled in Sweden, but died in the UK.

Women in ‘traditional’ women’s roles

Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from 50shadesofblack.com
Josephine with some of her rainbow tribe, from 50shadesofblack.com

Josephine Baker

The Bronze Venus was born in very humble circumstances in Missouri and had to work to support herself from a very early age. Cleaning houses, babysitting, dancing on street corners – she was like an early Piaf, and was discovered for a vaudeville show at the age of 15. It was in France, however, that she became a sensation in the 1920s-30s. During the war, she was recruited by the French intelligence services and the Resistance. After the war, she was involved in the American Civil Rights movement and adopted twelve children of different origins, which she called her ‘Rainbow Tribe’, to prove that all religions and races can live together harmoniously. She raised her children in her chateau in Dordogne until 1965, when financial troubles forced her to sell.

From Barnes and Noble website.
From Barnes and Noble website.

Penelope Fitzgerald

No surprise just why I admire Fitzgerald so much – not only was she an outstanding, subtle, erudite writer, but she also embarked upon her literary career rather late (at age 58). So there is still hope for all of us who are a bit slow in getting started… In her case, there were some sad reasons behind this: her husband was an alcoholic and a bit of a con man, which led to him being unable to work.  This meant they were reduced to a life of poverty and temporary accommodation, while she worked hard to support the family through teaching, running a bookshop and writing for magazines. She remained a supportive wife, but it was after her husband’s death that she truly blossomed and published most of her books.

Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.
Portrait by Marie Eléonore Godefroid.

Madame de Staël

Born into a Swiss banking family, raised in France, married to the Swedish ambassador at the court of Louis XVI by the name of Staël-Holstein, she became famous not for her beauty but for her wit, talent and political intrigue. She survived the Revolution but had to spend quite a bit of time in exile for her outspoken opinions and created a literary salon in her Swiss chateau in Coppet, as well as in Paris. She was a vocal opponent of Napoleon’s, but is best known for her several novels and critical works which marked the transition to the Age of Romanticism. She travelled extensively and led a remarkably free love life, although she is quoted as saying: ‘Love is the whole history of a woman’s life, but an episode in a man’s life.’ But she also said: ‘One must choose in life between boredom and suffering.’