Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

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I like to read biographies of authors. When the biography is as good as this one, I like to stop and read the author’s books just before they are discussed. Yes, the works stand alone; you don’t need to know details of the author’s life to appreciate them. But as a writer, I am curious about how her experiences shaped the author’s perspective and choices.

I’ve been particularly curious about Penelope Fitzgerald for two reasons: I’ve loved her novels, and she was 60 years old when her first novel was published. She did publish two nonfiction books, one when she was 58 and the other the same year as her first novel. I wondered how her life story meshed with the stories described so vividly in Tillie Olsen’s Silences.

Indeed, it does. While working at the BBC during WWII, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whom she’d met at Oxford. Within six months, he’d been sent to North Africa with the Irish Guards. Like so many soldiers, he returned damaged in ways less visible than a missing leg. His misadventures meant that the family lived in poverty, even being homeless for a while before gratefully moving into a council flat. Working to support the family and raise her children left Fitzgerald little time for writing, but she was storing up ideas and experiences that enabled her to produce nine novels and three biographies in just 20 years.

In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. Lee incorporates excerpts from Fitzgerald’s speeches and writings: letters, reviews, essays. Without being didactive, she suggests places in the novels where Fitzgerald made use of her experiences. Fitzgerald’s first five novels draw on her own past, but even the later novels reveal traces of past preoccupations and concerns.

Lee gives us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer. For example, knowing that her beloved father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, wrote for Punch, adds a new perspective to her brisk, humorous prose. Her father and his siblings provided a rich, if unusual, environment for the young writer.

In talking about the novels, Lee traces some common threads, such as, “Bourne-Jones attracted her, too, because she felt a strong imaginative pull towards characters at odds with their world: the depressives, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.”

Her own experiences enabled her to sympathise with such characters. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke of “the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”

In her later works, she experimented with an impressionistic style, putting together fragments that push the reader to actively engage with the story. This style is most effectively used in The Blue Flower, her story based on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. It is especially effective because it mirrors his own style. In an early notebook, Fitzgerald wrote, “Novalis wrote: One can imagine stories which have no coherence, but only association of events, like dreams, or poems which at most have single verses which can be understood, like fragments of the most various objects.”

Lee pins down another aspect of this novel, saying, “she has been thinking all her writing life about the relation between biography, history and fiction. Now she merges the genres to create a new kind of book.”

What most impressed me in this account of Fitzgerald’s life and work was the incredible amount of research she did for each book, not just for the biographies, but for each novel as well. For Beginning of Spring, for example, Lee says, “there is a great deal of homework in her notebooks on printing works, alongside notes on merchants, railway stations, ministries, churches, birch trees, dachas and mushrooms.” Some extensive reading may only be come a detail, such as the sandstone towers of a market in Moscow.

For me, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.

What biography have you read recently that gave you new insight?

The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth

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I’ve recently taken a little detour into the Middle Ages, starting with Helen Hollick’s The Kingmaking, a well-researched novel about Arthur Pendragon’s rise to power in 5th century Britain. Then I jumped ahead to the 12th-15th centuries, viewing a four-part series hosted by historian Dan Jones called Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets.

I also read Judith Merkle Riley’s witty novel, The Master of All Desires, about a young woman who finds herself at the center of Queen Catherine de Medici’s intrigues at the French Court and looks to the Queen’s Astrologer, Nostradamus, for advice. The story is set in the 16th century, thus putting it over the historians’ line and into the Renaissance, although the reliance on seers and spells seems more apt for the Middle Ages.

Finally I tackled this book on the Normans, set in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is relatively short at a little over 200 pages and immensely readable. Maps, family trees, descriptive lists of people and places, and endnotes explaining possibly unfamiliar terms, make this history accessible for a reader with little or no foreknowledge while not boring one who knows quite a bit about the Normans already.

I knew that the Normans who invaded Britain came from—surprise!—Normandy and were descended from Viking raiders who’d settled there in the 9th and 10th centuries. I knew about the Battle of Hastings and have my list of English monarchs well situated in memory.

What I didn’t know was that the Normans played a huge role in the rest of Europe, creating kingdoms as far south as North Africa, going on crusades, and taking on the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire (aka the German Empire) and the Byzantine Empire. And that much of that was accomplished by members of a single family, the de Hautevilles.

The question Brownworth sets out to answer is: “How did Western Europe, which was militarily, technologically, and socially far behind its immediate neighbors in the Middle East, manage not only to catch up with them, but to rise to global dominance?”

He finds much of the answer in the Normans. Without downplaying their ruthless suppression of local languages and customs, he does explain how they eventually assimilated with their conquered peoples. While some of the Normans he describes were warriors first and last, others actually found creative ways to govern, becoming respected and even beloved.

Still, the net result for me of all this reading and viewing was a sickening sense of the brevity of life in the Middle Ages, not only for the conquered peasantry and the waves of warriors thrown at various foes, but for the rulers themselves. Intrigue is too mild a word for the fostering of revolts in a brother’s country, the poisonings and outright murders. And then there were the frail, inbred children placed on thrones, controlled or fought over by power-hungry nobles.

None of this was new to me, but the span of this little detour of mine showed how prevalent it was. Yet another person murdering all of his brothers to gain a throne, in turn murdered by another claimant. Over and over.

In this season of the U.S. presidential election, a time I loathe, one that has me avoiding the saturated media, I actually found the slaughter of the Middle Ages comforting. Yes, the airwaves are dominated by amoral pretenders, each trying to stir up more hatred than the next, making the U.S. a laughingstock in the international arena where people cannot believe such clowns could even be considered for office. But at least they are not killing each other. At least they are not cooking up charges to have each other’s entrails dragged out or having their opponents beheaded or poisoned or burned at the stake. And this season, at least, there are a few who are refraining from even verbal attacks in favor of—shocking as it may be—a discussion of the issues.

I will take comfort where I can find it.

What do you know of the Normans’ involvement in the Crusades?

Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam

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After weeks of Penelope Fitzgerald’s brisk prose, starting Aslam’s novel, with its rich, luxuriant writing, felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. His personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations.

Here is the first paragraph:

Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself. With their deliberate, almost-impaired pace, they fall like feathers sinking in water. The snowstorm has rinsed the air of the incense that drifts into the houses from the nearby lake with the xylophone jetty, but it is there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance.

The couple who have disappeared are Shamas’s brother Jugnu and Jugnu’s girlfriend Chanda, who have been living together in the face of the angry opposition of their families and community of Pakistani immigrants. The immigrants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka who populate this English town have renamed the town and the streets in it with names more familiar to them.

It is this clash of the traditions the immigrants have brought with the Western culture of their new homes which powers the novel. Coexisting with lush descriptions of spices and silks and forests are brutal actions dictated by Islamic holy men and almost, but not quite, equally brutal attacks by furious xenophobic white people.

Shamas is our guide through these conflicting events. Educated and worldly, he is the Director of the Community Relations Council and the person everyone turns to when they need help navigating the world outside the community. With a foot in both worlds, Shamas tries to help his people while despairing at the cruel punishments they inflict on each other for some perceived sin, such as parents asking a holy man to exorcise their daughter—obviously possessed with djinns because she has fallen in love with a Hindu boy—listening as the man tortures and beats their daughter to death.

The clash of cultures afflicts Shamas’s own family, where his devout wife’s adherence to Muslim practices goes so far as to refuse to breastfeed a newborn during Ramadan’s daylight hours. She has driven away their three now-grown children, each choosing to integrate themselves into the wider world.

Yet Aslam presents these characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.

What novel have you read that opened your eyes to another culture?

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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I have to admit that I struggled with this book. I loved the beginning, a retelling of a 16th century legend explaining the origin of the stone statues of midgets that stand atop a section of wall surrounding the Ridolfi villa. It is pure Fitzgerald: funny and heart-breaking and bizarre. Plus it introduces a characteristic of the Ridolfis that drives the rest of the story: “a tendency towards rash decisions . . . intended to ensure other people’s happiness”.

Then we move to 1955 when the current count, Giancarlo Ridolfi finds himself torn between his determination to not mind about anything much anymore and his fierce love for his daughter Chiara. At 65, Giancarlo has survived two world wars and now lives in a portion of his decrepit palazzo in Florence with his eccentric sister, leaving the villa in the hands of a caretaker couple. Fresh out of a convent school in England, Chiara falls in love with the unsuitable Salvatore Rossi, a doctor from a village in Italy’s economically depressed south, and he with her, although they excel in misunderstandings, confusion, and awkward meetings.

There are many vivid characters. Giancarlo’s nephew Cesare runs the family farm and can hardly bring himself to speak at all. Chiara’s schoolfriend Barney is a rosy giantess who falls in love over and over but is always certain that she knows what is best for everyone. There is even a scene where a young Salvatore is taken by his father to meet Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini, close to death and severely crippled.

There are also many funny scenes that gently mock Vatican politicians, on-the-make art historians, English transplants, and others. It is a story about innocence, how so many of us act with good intent but poor understanding. It is also a story about happiness, how rare it is, how fleeting, and unequally distributed. And also, how our efforts to bestow happiness on another tend to backfire.

With this novel, Fitzgerald’s writing becomes more impressionistic, giving the reader more responsibility for connecting the pieces. I didn’t have a problem with the shifts in time, or parts of the story being told backwards. After all, Ridolfi does refer to the word for memory, and our memory is anything but linear.

But I did struggle, especially after the legend at the beginning, with what seemed like excessive backstory combined with a lack of necessary information. For example, we are told that Giancarlo’s brother inherited the farm and that he has a wife and son. Some pages later we are introduced to Cesare whose father was killed in the war. It is only several pages later that it becomes clear that Cesare is that nephew. The long digressions, the confusion and misunderstandings certainly do mirror the story, but they risk alienating the reader.

I’m glad I didn’t give up. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this view of some segments of Italian society in the mid 1950s, but I recognise much of what I found during my own travels there some decades later. The 1950s are an interesting period in Italy’s history, with World War II only recently ended, the remnants of Italy’s empire lost, and an economy still some years away from the “Economic Miracle”. These characters, with their varying approaches for facing an uncertain future, will stay with me for some time.

Have you been to Florence? What is your most vivid memory of that visit?