Sunday 1 November 2015

'Slight'. Slight? SLIGHT?

'I have never, ever understood why it did not win every prize extant, but prize-judging is a law unto itself, as it were. I have been on the panels of many, and never once have things gone as might have been predicted. I was a judge for a major prize the year The Blue Flower was entered and I have never tried so hard to convince others of anything as I did that this was a rare, a great, novel whose like we might none of us see again. It was not that my fellow judges were wilfully determined not to agree, or had anything whatsoever against Penelope Fitzgerald - for who could? They simply could not see it. They saw something pleasing, short. Slight. That was the word I heard again and again. 'Slight'. I think I sweated blood, but to no purpose.
 'Slight'. Slight? SLIGHT?
 The Blue Flower is a masterpiece. It is the most extraordinary book, and half of it is in invisible writing, so much is there that is not there, so much lies below the surface, so much is left unsaid and yet is redolent and rich with meaning. Fitzgerald manages that quite remarkable feat - she simply walks into another world, one of several hundred years ago in another country, and takes up the story, moving among the characters as if she had known them all her life, and so the reader does so, too...'

Exactly. This is Susan Hill raving, rightly, over Penelope Fitzgerald's last, greatest and most moving novel, in a volume called Howards End Is on the Landing, which I picked up in a local charity shop, thinking it would make good bedtime reading. And so it does, though it has a tendency to veer into a kind of cosy English bellettrism, the sort of thing tweedy Edwardian bookmen used to write. It is, in Hill's own phrase, 'a journey through my own library' - a library so extensive and miscellaneous that it had virtually taken over her home (I should say her then home, the cottage she lived in with the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells; she has since moved out to live with the TV writer Barbara Machin).
 Searching one day for a particular title, Susan kept coming across books she had never read, books she had forgotten she even owned, and others that were awaiting a second or later reading. So she decided to devote a year to exploring her own library, reading only from it, following chains of assocation and trains of thought, finally, as she puts it, 'repossessing' her books. And, of course, making another book about the whole process, with short sketches of favourite books and authors and bits of literary autobiography.
 The result is very readable, with obvious appeal to the curious book-lover, and its easy style and short chapters make it a good bedside book. It could be more tightly and carefully written, it could be more incisive, but there is good stuff in it, and I have so far noted down two of Hill's recommended titles that I'm definitely going to get round to reading soon (Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris and F.M. Major's The Rector's Daughter). There will probably be more.
 Meanwhile, I wonder if it's time to 'repossess' my own library (smaller than Susan Hill's though it surely is)... Not yet, I think - not while I keep coming across books new to me that I simply have to snap up and read. Some keen reader could certainly make a blog out of such a project - but it won't be me.

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