Saturday 11 December 2010

Penelope Fitzgerald: 'The courage of those who are born to be defeated...'

Well, the NigeCorp workstorm raged all week (and is not blown out yet), engulfing my life and draining me of mental as much as physical energy. But I managed to carry on reading, having decided to resume my backward journey, from last to first, through the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald with The Bookshop, a pleasingly slim volume. Slim but by no means slight - any impression that this might be a gentle provincial comedy about a woman opening a bookshop in a small town is instantly dispelled in the first paragraph, when Florence Green, the would-be bookshop owner, recalls something she had once seen: 'a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.' And Florence, clearly, has taken on too much in planning to open the only bookshop in the aptly named East Anglian estuary town of Hardborough. We sense from the start that her project is doomed - the question is not whether it will fail, but how (and the answer, when it finally comes, makes the outcome shocking, even brutal, for all its inevitability).
Hardborough and its inhabitants are portrayed with Fitzgerald's usual sharp eye and ear, the setting beautifully drawn, the characters springing into all too vivid life. She misses nothing, and everything, however small, she leaves in her meticulously pared-down narrative is significant, even if its significance is not apparent at the time. There is ample material for tragedy here, but what she has made of it is undoubtedly a comedy, a quietly devastating - yet often very funny - comedy. The Bookshop perfectly embodies what Fitzgerald once said about her novels in general:
"I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weakness 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?"
How indeed?


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