A Delicate Form of Genius - Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald writes discreet, brief, perfect tales. Her first novel was published in 1977, when she was already over sixty. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, a comedy with an edge about a family barely surviving on a houseboat on the Thames. Her early novels are English-kindly studies of the endless absurdity of human behavior, seen simultaneously with an unwavering moral gaze. She is interested in traditional forms-the plotted detective story, the supernatural tale. In 1986, with Innocence, she began to write about other countries—Italy, Russia, Germany—and other centuries. This looking outwards from English manners was in the air at the time, and there has been a flowering of historically and geographically various fiction in Britain. But Fitzgerald's later novels are quite extraordinarily good. They made me at least re-read the earlier ones with closer attention, consider the delicious sentences, come to the conclusion that Fitzgerald was Jane Austen's nearest heir, for precision and invention. But she has other qualities, qualities I think of as European and metaphysical. She has what Henry James called "the imagination of disaster." She can make a reader helpless with inordinate private laughter. (I will give examples.) She is also one of those writers whose sentences, however brief, are recognizable as hers and no one else's, although they are classically elegant and unfussy.

Consider the description of the BBC in the Second World War, in Human Voices (1980). "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth." It goes on: "Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and in the long run would be more effective." The novel is a wonderful combination of deadpan English comedy and surreal farce, from the death in the studio of a French general whose post-Dunkirk message turns out to be a passionate plea to the English to surrender to Hitler immediately, to the recording, for a program called "Lest We Forget Our Englishry," of "six hundred bands of creaking. To be accurate some are a mixture of squeaking and creaking."
"They're all from the parish church of Hither Lickington," Sam explained eagerly. "It was recommended to us by Religious Broadcasting. What you're hearing is the hinges of the door and the door itself opening and shutting as the old women come in one by one with the stuff for the Harvest Festival. The quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so."
Sam is Director of Recorded Programmes, one of Fitzgerald's fatally dangerous narrow-minded innocents, a technical perfectionist who flirts plaintively and indifferently with a "seraglio" of assistants. His obsession is part of what makes up the awkwardly powerful survival of the BBC. He is loved by an assistant (with perfect pitch) from Birmingham, called Annie Asra. Fitzgerald named this person, also singleminded, for a poem, "Der Asra," by Heine. The Asra are a tribe of slaves "welche sterben, wenn sie lieben" (who die when they love.) German Romantic orientalism is an odd component of so very English a novel, and Fitzgerald's surprise that no one noticed the reference was perhaps innocently unrealistic. But it is also a pointer to un-English preoccupations.

Innocence (1986) opens with a delicious and chilling account of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family, the Ridolfis, who were midgets. The cosseted and innocent midget daughter has a dwarf companion who suddenly grows to a normal height. To the midget mistress this is a monstrous misfortune. After much kind reflection, she decides it would be best to put out the other girl's eyes and cut off her legs at the knees, so that she would "never know the increasing difference between her and the rest of the world."

This tale resonates through the novel about the fortunes of a modern Ridolfi (of normal height), Chiara, in the 1950s, who falls in love at first sight, at a concert, with a handsome doctor of Southern socialist stock, with whom she has nothing in common except love and a singlemindedness reminiscent of Annie Asra in wartime London. Both Chiara and her Salvatore are dangerous to themselves and others in their innocence; both are also hopeful and lovable. What is remarkable about this tale (told in only 222 paperback pages) is the completeness of its Italianness, political, religious, moral, and physical. There is a monsignor, an old socialist comrade, a dying lady who founded a charity, a farming cousin who finds words unnecessary; there are political and family intrigues, and a curious and purely Italian mixture of passion and heartlessness. There is an exemplary and moving scene with an ancient haute-couture designer; there is a suddenly appalling brief scene where the child Salvatore is taken to see the dying Gramsci in hospital, and finds, not socialist inspiration, but a medical vocation in the horror of his decay. There is a huge, ungainly English aristocratic friend of the delicate Chiara who lumbers emotionally and forcefully through the story. It is an exquisite mosaic, where every tiny piece is part of an intrigue and a world, olives and lemons, clothes and manners. Horrible tragedy is possible, and farce is omnipresent, both belied by the light, decorous storytelling. Every time I re-read it, I find another unobtrusive flicker of connection beween the sixteenth-century tale and the modern one. My moment of inordinate private laughter was over the table in the ultra-modern Villa Hodgkiss, a truly Italian over-designed misfit:
In the centre was placed, in fact fixed, a round table of pale green marble, with the shapes of twelve plates, twelve knives, twelve forks, let into the surface in darker green mosaic. On an evening such as this when only eight guests were dining, none of the real plates, knives or forks quite covered their green stone images. The Institute, presumably, had not liked to argue on this point with their architect, who had reserved the right to design all the furniture, much of it immovable. And there was no place at all indicated for the spoons, which looked like intruders.
This is shrewd cultural observation. It is also a quiet, harmless example of an unyieldingness like that of the midget Ridolfi in 1568.

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