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The Shock of the Old 

Penelope Fitzgerald and the Art of Surprise

Wednesday, Aug 26 1998
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A father, disconcerted by his wife's sudden departure, must make after-school arrangements for his son and daughter. He sends them to the house of a business acquaintance whose wife seems unfazed by large numbers of children and a certain amount of domestic disarray. It's an ordinary situation, but one colored by its time and place: Moscow in the spring of 1913. The children's arrival coincides with that of a bear cub, sent as a gift to the acquaintance's 13-year-old son, who is determined to teach the cub to dance. Egged on by the disapproval emanating from the visiting children, who are English by nationality although they have grown up abroad, the boy first tries brutality, then vodka. The latter is only too successful. The bear escapes to the dining room and clambers onto the table, which is laid for a formal banquet with a bottle of vodka at every place. A horrified servant attempts to stop the destruction by throwing a shovelful of hot coals onto the cub. The two fathers arrive at the house just as the drunken bear and the liquor-soaked tablecloth go up together in a sheet of flame. "But where was your wife?" the father of the visiting children wonders the next day, his English-bred civility unimpacted by a lifetime in Moscow. "She was lying down, as all women do," his Russian acquaintance replies. "She's terrified of animals, can't stand them in the house."

At once shocking and horrifyingly amusing, this scene from Penelope Fitzgerald's 1988 The Beginning of Spring is typical of the British author, four of whose novels, written between 1978 and 1995, have recently been reissued by Mariner Books. (The Beginning of Spring and Innocence will be published this September.) "Shocking" is not an adjective usually applied to elderly female novelists, especially one whose protagonists include a small-town widow, a Cambridge junior physics fellow and the inheritor of a family printing business - unless, of course, the novels fall within the detective or thriller category and the word appears alone in quotes on the jacket.

Penelope Fitzgerald is not a genre writer. She is closer in intention to Barbara Pym than to Ruth Rendell (though far from either in subject and style), and her fiction is stubbornly resistant to one- or two-word descriptions. "Engaging," pulled from an Anita Brookner review, is safe enough, but what about Fitzgerald's propensity for juggling with shards of glass? "Very funny" (according to the London Observer) is also true, though it utterly fails to account for the sadness, even anguish, one of her novels can provoke. The plot of The Bookshop is as unassuming as its title and at the same time mysteriously chilling, delving into the way the things that we don't know can, if not kill us, severely interfere with our happiness. Similarly, Offshore, a seemingly cozy comedy about a ragtag community of London houseboat dwellers at the dawn of the swinging '60s, turns instead into a rushing ebb of lives caught up in currents and ships passing, literally and figuratively, unseen in the night.

What shocks in Fitzgerald's novels may be a sequence of events, moving - calmly, inevitably - from the mundane to the extraordinary. Like the fire that engulfs the Rus-sian bear, the violence of that scene erupts faster and is more widespread than we anticipate, though the causes are there, laid out by the author with meticulous inexorability. The shock may also come from a single line, arcing out of the blue. In The Gate of Angels, during a benign though brisk description of nurses' training in Edwardian London, a probationer fumbles with a chore, and the novel's female protagonist steps in to help her. "And Daisy rapidly put them right," the sentence begins, in the same tone that has previously cited the rule that probationers must not run in the corridors and noted the practice of tightly braiding the hair of female pre-op patients. But suddenly, partway into the sentence, the reader is transported, as if by wires or a power surge, to a vastly more omniscient - and mordant - point of view: "for the first of many times, not knowing how dangerous generosity is to the giver."

Jolting people out of their assumptions - both narrative and otherwise - is something of a habit with Fitzgerald. She began her literary career at an age when many writers are beginning to wrap theirs up. Her first novel, The Golden Child, was published when she was 60; her second, The Bookshop, was short-listed for England's prestigious Booker prize; her third, Offshore, won the prize in 1979. (She has since been short-listed twice more, for The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels.) If nothing else, this late blooming may have given Fitzgerald time to appreciate the experience of being underestimated. Certainly, her books are filled with women whose worth is at odds with society's evaluation. Florence, the mousy widow in The Bookshop, manages, for a while at least, to move loan officers, poltergeists and even a reclusive country squire in order to bring some semblance of literary life to her phlegmatic village. In The Blue Flower, set in 18th-century Germany and based on the life of the romantic poet Novalis, Sophie, the vacuous teen inexplicably beloved by the brilliant Felix, displays a kind of gallantry (unlike a later century's Lolita) despite - or perhaps because of - her total lack of imagination.

Still, it's much too narrow a view of Fitzgerald's books to see them only through the transformations she affords to underappreciated females. Her true topic is the unknown itself: the hidden depths of character that events reveal, the overlooked features of a situation that change one's entire reading of it, the concealed motives, hundred-year storms, lurking diseases and hurtling atoms that all have a bearing on a storyteller's prime preoccupation: what happens next. Along with those explicable if not always discoverable forces, she also considers grace, God and ghosts. "We think we know the laws that govern our existence," writes Fritz the poet in The Blue Flower. "We get glimpses, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, of a totally different system at work behind them."

Fitzgerald's consciousness of these universal variables gives her novels their peculiar rhythm. They begin at a point not altogether promising - at a community meeting of boat owners, say, or on a bicycle in the rain. Their stories unfold not so much in a linear fashion but outward, with the seamless intricacy of origami, to include present and past, ancillary characters, events further afield, and then, at a point not altogether conclusive, they stop with an abruptness worthy of Fate cutting the skein of life with an arbitrary snip of her fine-honed scissors.

That awareness of uncertainty also accounts for Fitzgerald's scrupulous specificity of time and place. (Her background in journalism may contribute.) The passion is most obvious in those novels set in a frankly distant past, but the particular events of The Bookshop utterly depend on the year being 1959 and the place a sea-stranded Sussex village. When so much that needs knowing remains unaccountable, the small concrete details of how publishers' returns are handled or where the water runs in winter become almost lustrous in their determinacy.

It is, perhaps, a view that comes with age: an increased respect for the unknown and its power to transfigure, along with an enhanced appreciation of the things that stay still long enough to savor. The past, for instance, and small physical realities: a silk embroidered bookmark, the sound of a barge lifted on the tide - even the terrible ones, like flames. But perspective alone cannot account for Fitzgerald's dexterity in finding common ground between past and present or between serenity and terror. Rather, hers is the juggler's greatest art. She convinces us, again and again, that the world's one true moment of perfect balance comes only when everything's up in the air.

Ariel Swartley writes from Los Angeles about literary and popular culture.

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