Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sinking, she finally swam

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000)
Novelist, essayist, biographer, short story writer

“She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation,” Penelope Fitzgerald wrote of the doomed owner of her novel, The Bookshop.

Few so well-born seemed to fritter away their opportunities as completely as young Penelope Fitzgerald. Granddaughter of the Anglican bishop of Lincoln, her father was editor of Punch; her mother, one of the first women admitted to Oxford University. Her uncles included the religious celebrities Ronald and Wilfred Knox.

Like a series of granite cliffs, the Knoxes were at home:

Members of the family were clever, playful, competitive, morally rigorous, honest—even if “honesty can scarcely…be counted a virtue in them; it was simply that they never felt the need for anything else.” But they were also prone to terrible rages, insufferable superiority, paralyzing silences of disapproval and inhibition. These silences, inscrutable evasions, recur throughout Hermione Lee’s absorbingly interesting biography of Penelope.

Some are typical of their time and occasion: when Penelope’s brother Rawle returned to England after three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp, he told their father that if he asked him he would talk of his experiences, but “no one in the family ever asked him anything.”

Others seem more pathological. When Penelope’s mother died, her father never spoke of her again, and thus offered no support to the grieving daughter. For Christians (and faith remained central to Penelope’s life) they were oddly hopeless at consolation. When her own daughter lost a ten-month-old child, Penelope “was unable to give Tina any comfort,” though she felt the loss keenly. Penelope herself recalled how when she had had a miscarriage, her stepmother’s father E.H. Shepard (illustrator of The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh) had turned up with a bunch of flowers, but had been unable to say a word.

These were class inhibitions too, no doubt. But Knox esprit de corps could be brutal. When Dillwyn’s son failed to get the top scholarship at Eton, Bishop Knox said he was “appalled.” Rawle too “knew he was a disappointment to his father; he missed his [unspoken-of] mother deeply; his stammer and his reticence had settled in.” It’s saddening to read that in due course Penelope’s son Valpy, a successful economist, became prone in his forties to panic attacks, whose source was found to be “a fear of being seen as a failure in his mother’s eyes.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, writing of Dillwyn Knox, described “the long Knox silences, during which one strained to hear what conceivably might be another remark”.

Though she- and her extended family- left little to illuminate how they felt when they weren’t being hyper-intellectual, Fitzgerald’s novels nevertheless draw from her well of experience. James Wood, who reviewed the 2014 biography of Fitzgerald for The New Yorker, wondered if part of the reasons she waited to write her first book until her father died was that she didn’t want to have to listen to him carp:

“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination,” a character says in “Offshore.” “When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can. If there’s even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you should never make it. They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.”

Wood wondered if Fitzgerald, like her wartime code-breaking uncle, and her celibate, monkish priest uncle, reached a point after which even they couldn’t sort out who they were as individuals: they just lived as they had turned out:

Perhaps because I grew up in an austere evangelical household, full of secrets and omissions, I find the silences, even the stoicism, less appealing than Lee does. Shouldn’t stoicism be less admirable when it isn’t stoically necessary? Wasn’t some of Fitzgerald’s behavior a transferred form of evangelical puritanism, the kind of wanton self-harm—itself a parody of Christian mortification—that the atheist Knut Hamsun writes up comically in his novel “Hunger”? And though there was nothing easy about Fitzgerald’s form of mortification, her snobbery about money and material possession was in part premised on that most English of possessions: the invisible superiority of her class. Like shabby Dillwyn and Wilfred before her, she seemed down-at-heel until she opened her mouth.

She was an exceptional scholar at Somerville College, Oxford, yet wore her erudition lightly. Appraising her career, the writer Alan Hollinghurst recalled that self-deprecatory manner:

Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong. She’d come to Oxford expecting poets and orgies, and had seen few of the one and none of the other. She said she’d taken part in “the first Spelling Bee against America,” in which Oxford had lost by four points to a team from Radcliffe and Harvard, and that she had spoken in the Union “with the result that there were only two votes for my side of the motion.”

Knox worked for the BBC during the war, then met and married an Oxford contemporary, an Irishman who came back from North Africa with a chestful of medals and an unquenchable need to drown his memories in alcohol. During the 1950s, when his addiction was still manageable, the Fitzgeralds published a critically praised little magazine, World Review. It snagged stories by the like of Salinger, Mailer, and Malamud. Her husband passed the bar and the family lived a comfortable life until his thirst outstripped his budget. Caught passing forged client checks in pubs, he was disbarred in the mid-1960s.

The family was plunged into Dickensian poverty- public housing, a four-month patch in a homeless shelter, and, finally, residence on a derelict canal barge, which had to be bailed by the kids daily to stay afloat.

Penelope supported the family teaching at a grammar school, then as an exam cramming school instructor. Her pupils included the future Duchess of Cornwall, Anna Wintour, Helena Bonham-Carter, and the novelist Edward St Aubyn. Once, students recalled, Fitzgerald arrived late for class and more disheveled than usual (her biographer found a description of Fitzgerald that described “her clothes “curiously constructed I think out of curtains,” dying her hair with tea bags, and eating blackboard chalk to make up a calcium deficiency”), apologizing with, “My home sank.”
Eleven long, grinding years Fitzgerald spent scratching up a living, and in stolen moments, she began to write her way out. Her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, was published when she was 58. Her next, a comic mystery romp playing of the worldwide rage for Egyptology set off by the giant King Tut road show, she wrote to divert her husband in his last illness.

Then, in 1976, he died, and Penelope Fitzgerald was alone, at sixty. The Tut book- The Golden Child- was her first novel. From 1978 to 1983 she wrote five more. The second, The Bookshop, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The third, Offshore, won it. Hollinghurst writes,

[S]he made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody...Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood. And as a widow, she had at last a room of her own...after Desmond’s death she lodged with the family of one or other of her daughters, Tina and Maria, and for a period of seven years in the attic of a friend in Maida Vale, in the unprecedented liberty, and occasional loneliness, of the writer’s life.

Her oddities, from a childhood among intellectually aggressive eccentrics and an adulthood of endlessly morphing catastrophe, left Fitzgerald in a sort of permanent defensive crouch. She let her characters explain themselves; when they didn’t feel obliging, the reader had to sort it out. Just as her critics pigeonholed her as a little old lady who wrote for other little old ladies, she embarked, in her seventies, on a series of one-off historical novels. Each was completely different from the others. Her last, The Blue Flower, came out when Fitzgerald was eighty. It won her a new following in America, and ranking as one of Britain’s most important twentieth-century novelists.

James Wood summed up her work as culminating in that last book:

What frustrates the biographer delights and fortifies the reader. The work that Fitzgerald produced between 1977 and 1995 is full of indirection, enigma, sidelong mystery, omissions of all kinds. “The Blue Flower” is one of the strangest and freest books ever written; Fitzgerald seems to be almost making up the form’s rules as she proceeds. The novel is historical, set in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century, and narrates the short life of the Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis (whose real name was Friedrich von Hardenberg, and who is known as Fritz). It rests, like most of Fitzgerald’s work, on a great deal of research. But the large amount of historical fact is subtly muffled, and the novel floats away from its factual underpinnings; it is as mystical as it is meticulous. (Fitzgerald both mocks and admires Fritz’s youthful Romanticism.) The intelligent, high-spirited Hardenberg family—Teutonic Knoxes, really—are brought alive in astonishingly brief, elusive vignettes, fleeting chapters closer to the eloquent insufficiency of poems than to the reflexive garrulousness of fictional prose. Narrative threads seem to be snipped off at obscure junctions; nothing is baldly stated. Yet the form contradictorily holds—dreamy, precise, magical, but always “very definite.”

All that out of three biographies, one short story collection, one collection of essays, and nine novels in the last quarter century of Penelope Fitzgerald’s life:

Her books were short, usually around 200 pages, and comprised of brief, pointed scenes. For her early books, she drew on her own life. There was her experience working in a bookshop and living in an abandoned warehouse in Suffolk, recounted in ''The Bookshop'' in 1978. That novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Then came her story of trying to survive as a young mother on a houseboat on the Thames in ''Offshore.'' In ''Human Voices'' (1980) she used material from her job at the BBC during World War II. ''At Freddie's,'' 1982, was based on her job teaching child actors.

Ms. Fitzgerald's characters were people fallen into difficult circumstances, struggling to cope. She once called them ''exterminatees,'' which she defined as ''likely to be stamped out with other things unlikely to succeed.'' Yet there was a deep sympathy, an underlying moral vision in her work. She did not write religious books, but she once described herself as religious.

Her editor compared Fitzgerald's work to Beethoven’s “late period”, ''where everything is getting pared down but the content is more concentrated.'' She was working on a last set of short stories when she died, at 83, in 2000.

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