I’m now revisiting 1990, a momentous year: Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mrs Thatcher resigned, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Germany was reunified. For my family and me big things happened too: at the end of the year I left Radio Times after 19 years and Clever Wife got a job in the US, which she started in September of that year – I wasn’t to join her there until the following January. Meanwhile Clever Daughter no. 1 started at Manchester University (Clever Son no. 1 was already at Leeds), and I was a temporary single father for nearly four months. All the same, that year (according to my records) I managed to get through 22 books.
Probably the best book I read that year was Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, but for re-reading I’ve chosen another top-class female author: Penelope Fitzgerald, whose The Beginning of Spring I remember reading and not-quite-enjoying in the autumn of 1990. (Curiously, it’s one of two novels I read that autumn that featured husbands temporarily deserted by their wives: the other was John Updike’s Rabbit Redux.) I think the reason I borrowed it from my local library, though, was that it had been on the Booker Prize shortlist two years previously, in 1988 – the year when Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (which I read in 1989) won. I’d already got through another of 1988’s shortlist, David Lodge’s Nice Work, but I’ve still not yet read another of that year’s shortlistees, The Satanic Verses. Did I use the Booker Prize as a guide to my reading those days more than I do now? The last BP winner I’ve actually read is, I find, Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007).
But I digress. What did I remember about The Beginning of Spring? First of all I was puzzled about the subject. Why choose as your central character – whose point of view we rarely stray from – an Englishman running a printing works in Moscow in 1913? Penelope Fitzgerald’s Wikipedia entry is some help: she had learned Russian in the 1960s, visited Moscow in a 1975 trip that also included a visit to Tolstoy’s house, and was friends with an art curator who had been brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia. So it wasn’t a setting plucked out of the air, as it were. I also remember feeling encouraged by the fact that PF was famously a late starter: she wrote her first novel at the age of 60 (although she had been active in literary circles from much earlier), and was 71 when TBOS came out.
As a novel TBOS is “gloriously peculiar”, to borrow a phrase from Jan Morris’s review at the time of publication. Frank Reid, our “hero”, is head of a printing business he has inherited from his father, and the novel is mostly confined to the few weeks between March and April 1913, when Moscow thaws and spring arrives (hence the title). There is a chapter set in 1911and there are backwards glances to Frank’s apprenticeship in England, his meeting and marriage to Nellie, and the process by which he took over the printing works from his father; but mostly we are in 1913 Moscow. There seems to be a lot of geographical detail about the city (would an accompanying map have been any use?) and we meet a variety of its inhabitants, from printers and student revolutionaries to an Anglican chaplain and an English governess. Perhaps most memorable is the unlikely figure of Selwyn Crane, the print works’ accountant who is “not quite sane-looking [and] seemed to have let himself waste away, from other-worldliness, almost to transparency” (he is a follower of Tolstoy). For some reason – we are never sure why – Selwyn arranges for the mysterious Lisa Ivanovna to look after Frank’s children in their mother’s absence. That’s one of the appealingly odd things about TBOS: things often seem to happen for no explicit reason.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic style, which got the 1988 reviewers reaching for phrases such as “deceptively simple”, “superb eye for detail” and “pellucid”, certainly carries the story along. After a while I started noticing her frequent use of “as though” and “as if” constructions. For instance:
“I’m twenty-six,” she said, as though it might as well be said now as later (p29 in my library edition)
Selwyn took back the notebook, as though he did not like to see it in less expert hands (p98)
Voldya’s expression was strained, as though he had entered his remark for an important prize (p135)
… he made a wide gesture with both arms, as if he was scattering food for hens (p136)
… the room filled with that peculiar silence, as though it was stretching itself, which follows when a great number of people have left (p157)
The reviewers also praised TBOS’s “authenticity” and its author’s detailed knowledge of such things as printing techniques, Russian feast-day observances and what happened at Moscow’s Merchants’ Club. Sometimes this is all too much, as when she goes in for lists (Frank’s printing works produced “parcel labels, auctioneers’ catalogues, handbills of rewards leading to the arrest of thieves and murderers, tradesmen’s cards, club cards, bill heads, bottle wrappers …” Oh stop!). Yet I spotted at least one mistake: Frank’s younger daughter Annushka is born “towards autumn” of 1911 (chapter 6); but in March 1913 (chapter 1) she is “two and three quarters” – and elsewhere talks more like a three- or four-year-old. Do such errors undermine one’s trust in an author?
Also read this month: Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (an early novel, not one of his best); Trollope’s Doctor Wortle’s School; and I’m abut half-way through Leif Wenar’s masterly Blood Oil, an interesting combination of reportage, political philosophy and indignation.