Saturday, September 8, 2007

Comedy and compassion, eloquence and economy (Books: The Beginning of Spring - Penelope Fitzgerald)

I've finished Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring - recommended by David Leavitt in one of his guests posts at The Elegant Variation. I even found it at the library. I don't know what I expected, but as I started reading this book set in Russian in 1913, I was disappointed. It was probably coming off of Children of the Arbat, another Russian novel, but set in the 1930s and a sprawling adventure tail. This is a compact work, with a single domestic setting - the home of Frank Reid. Reid is English by birth, but raised in Russia and the heir to a modest printing business from his late father. His home is shared by his wife, Nellie, three young children, and a host of servants until the start of this novel when Nellie abruptly leaves, with no announcement, returning to England and leaving no forwarding address but leaving Frank with the children. However, I did not remain disappointed - this little novel does its work quietly. Moscow 1913, the chaotic home of Arkady Kuriatin - a second merchant and a client of Frank's, Nellie's brother Charlie who visits Frank and the children after his sister's disappearance, Volodya - a revolutionary student who creates a great deal of trouble for Frank, the woods behind the family's summer dacha - each object Fitzgerald turns her writer's eye on is calmly and exquisitely wrought in ink so that we know it intimately and precisely.

Tvyordov the compositor:
After his tea, at ten o'clock, Tvyordov took his lunch, and at eleven he lifted his type again, his head and body sympathetic to the ticking watch. At twelve he went home for his dinne,r and in the afternoons was less silent, but only marginally. There was something indescribably soothing in the proceedings of Tvyordov. There was nothing mechanical about them. There were many minute variations, for instance in the way he washed the type free of dirt and, while it was still just moist enough to stick together, lifted a small amount on to his brass slip, resting it against the broad middle finger of his left hand. No one could tell why these variations occurred. Perhaps Tvyordov was amusing himself. What would he consider amusing? On Saturday nights, when Agafya was seeing to the oil-lamp in front of the composing-room's ikon, Tvyordov wound up the office clock. On his way home, on Saturday's only, he stopped for five minutes exactly at Markel's Bar for a measure of vodka. On Monday mornings he arrived thirty second earlier than usual, to clean the clock glass for the week. No one else was trusted to do that.

There was no mystery about Tvyordov's attitude to the machine-room. Linotype, he felt, was not worthy of a serious man's carefully measured time. It was only fit for slipshod work at great speed. To make corrections you had to reset the whole line, therefore you had orders not to do it. The metal used was a wretchedly soft alloy. Monotype, after some consideration, he tolerated. The machine was small and ingenious, and the letters danced out as they were cast from the hot metal, separate and alive. They weren't as hard as real founder's type, still they would take a good many impressions, and they could be used for corrections in the compositors' room. When, or even whether, Tvyordov had been asked for his views was not known, but Reidka's did monotype, and no linotype.

Selwyn is Frank's friend, accountant, and a rabid Tolstoyan lunatic. He rescues a beautiful young shopgirl - Lisa Ivanova - from a job in a handkerchief department, in which she is unhappy. He convinces Frank to bring her into his home to care for his children - and that is when the action, if this book can be said to have action, begins. Selwyn takes pity on Lisa, Uncle Charlie develops a soft spot for Lisa, the children test and come to love Lisa, and Frank is not sure how he feels about her (he doesn't know if Nellie will ever return) - but not one of them knows very much about her.

The book is full of delightful comic portraits - I found Uncle Charlie and Selwyn particularly ridiculous and wonderfully drawn. It's also full of marvelous scenes filled with conflict - sometimes internal and sometimes external - often both. Moscow's streets, its pre-revolutionary politics, the printing business, the disorganized thoughts of the young student revolutionary, the publishing of Selwyn's poetry the Thoughts of Birch Trees - all of this adds up to a novel in which I really cared what happened and was very surprised at the end, but I can't say any more than that without giving away the experience of reading it because the way it observes what happens - is its pleasure. Suffice it to say, its eye is comic, but its vision compassionate, its voice is economical and it is well worth the read.

I've read The Blue Flower and The Bookshop already so I'll be trying Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels next.

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