Wednesday 6 May 2009

Penelope Fitzgerald's Birch Forest

Continuing my backward reading of the later novels of Penelope Fitzgerald - I shall meet my younger self coming the other way, somewhere around Offshore - I've just finished The Beginning Of Spring, and, as with The Blue Flower and The Gate Of Angels, I closed the book with a gasp of admiration and astonishment. How does she pull off these mimetic miracles of total immersion, in a time, a place, a small group of people? No doubt a lot of it must be down to deep, detailed research - but anyone can do research, only Fitzegerald can digest and integrate it so completely that it feels like the everyday detail of a living world. And all is done so deftly, with such a sure lightness of touch, never a word wasted, all put to a use which only reveals itself at the very end.
The Beginning Of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913, where Frank Reid, a Russian-bred Englishman is running the printing works he inherited from his father. As the novel begins - as we enter Frank's world - his wife has just left him, taking the children, but then changing her mind and dumping them at a railway station. The children, as always with Fitzgerald, are vivid characters, brilliantly drawn - as are all those around Frank, especially his Tolstoyan assistant Selwyn Crane (author of Birch Tree Thoughts). Things happen, not in a novelistic way, but in the perplexing, unplaceable way they happen in real lived life. The most important, it turns out, is Frank's taking in - on Selwyn's recommendation - the mysterious Lisa to look after the children... When she takes them out to the dacha, events begin to move, at accelerating speed, towards the climax. But immediately before they do, Fitzgerald - so economical with words - stops to devote nearly two pages to a description of the birch forest. At the time it seems an almost jarring change of pace - but it is of course, like everything in this novel, serving a purpose. And it is as wonderful a piece of closely observed, sharp, accurate 'nature writing' as I've ever read. As it is - I think - the point of this post, it's worth quoting in its entirety:

'The birches were the true forest. They had created for themselves a deep ground of fallen leaves and seeds, dropped twigs and rotting bark, decomposing into one of the earth's richest coverings.
As the young birches grew taller, the skin at the base of the trunks fragmented and shivered into dark and light patches. The branches showed white against black, black against white. The young twigs were fine and whip-like, dark brown with a purple gloss. As soon as the shining leaf-buds split open the young leaves breathed out an aromatic scent, not so thick as the poplar but wilder and more memorable, the true scent of wild and lonely places. The male catkins appeared in pairs, the pale female catkins followed. The leaves, turning from bright olive to a darker green, were agitated and astir even when the wind dropped.They were never strong enough to block out the light completely. The birch forest, unlike the pine forest, always gives a chance of life to whatever grows beneath it.
The spring rain, however welcome, made a complication. The drops ran down the branches as far as the heaviest twig, then hung there perilously, brilliant silver above, dark below. They were tenacious, apparently intending to stay on at all costs. If small birds landed on the branch at the same time, sometimes with the intention of getting at the drops of water, the whole system seemed in jeopardy. Twigs and bough bent beneath the invasion, sighing, swaying back and forth with a circular motion, crossing and recrossing to settle back into their myriad delicate patterns. And yet quite large birds, starlings and even jackdaws and wood-pigeons, risked the higher branches in the early morning.
In July the fine seed-bracts, pale as meal, were set free from the twigs. The air was full of floating mealy seed. It was useless to try to keep it out of the dacha, all that could be done was to sweep it into weightless mounds in the corner of every room and on the veranda. By autumn, when their aromatic sharpness seemed to have vanished, or rather to have been assimilated into the burial scents of the decaying earth, the birches were hung with yellow leaves, but now the branches seemed too delicate to bear the twigs, the twigs too fragile for the stalks. The long thin fronds seemed to be stretching towards the ground, threatened with exhaustion. In each tree, even in the middle of the forest, there were five or six different movements, from the airy commotion at the top to the stirring of the older branches, often not much thicker than the younger ones, but secure at the dark base. When the heavy autumn rains began the trees gave out a new juicy scent of stewed tea, like the scent of the bundles of birch twigs in the steam-room of a public bath house which the customers used to beat themselves, leaving stray damp leaves on the tingling skin. By early winter the whole forest seemed worn out with the struggle. The clearings were crossed with fallen trunks, here and there, to be stepped over. By the time spring came again they would have sunk into a sepulchre of earth and moss, and beetles innumerable.'

1 comment:

  1. "By autumn, when their aromatic sharpness seemed to have vanished, or rather to have been assimilated into the burial scents of the decaying earth ..." Beautiful, and rather Hardyesque, no? Certainly sounds like one for my ever-expanding "to read" list.

    The Blue Flower is truly extraordinary -- the only novel that I've ever finished and then turned straight back to page one and read right through again. Partly for sheer pleasure, but also to see if a second reading would provide any more clues as to how she did it . Which it didn't, of course.