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What is a novel you loved, which did not disappoint when you saw it as a movie?

The one that comes to my mind is To Kill a Mockingbird.

This black and white film had "real" southern children as actors, perfect casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus, an authentic setting, accuracy in scene after scene directly from the novel, and Scout's voice narrating from a future time frame, as it does in the novel.


I mention film adaptations of novels because last night my husband and I watched The Bookshop based on Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel. Mike had not read it. Nor has he read Lolita and Fahrenheit 451, two novels purposely used in The Bookshop. This morning I asked Mike for his thoughts on the movie. Had he liked it? He had. Did he find Florence Green sympathetic as a character? He did, remarking on her kindness. "She was only angry once…at the General."


He thought the plot was a game of chess, with Grand Dame Mrs. Gamart as the Queen, moving her pawns around the board, making everyone in the village do what she wanted, in order to defeat Florence Green and her bookshop. "She plowed over everyone," Mike said. At the end Florence sails away from Hardborough and sees on the dock, her former assistant, Christine. This cheeky young girl has set fire to the old house that was Florence's bookstore. "She did it for justice," Mike said, and he liked the ending.

It is not how the novel ends, I had to tell him! Yet the movie's final scene has a resonance with both Fahrenheit 451 (in which firemen burn books) and Lolita, which until Nabokov removed it, had a fire at the end. No doubt The Bookshop had to end with an action for movie goers. In the novel, Florence's car has been repossessed, along with her books, and she leaves the village by bus, then takes a train onward. No specific destination is given except Liverpool Street.

In my copy of The Bookshop is an introduction by David Nicholls, written before the film was made. He stated the novel could make a fine film, but "would have to take on board the author's refusal to provide easy and comforting answers." He goes on to say, " the final sentence is one of the saddest I've ever read. Quietly devastating, like the novel itself." Yet the movie goer gets a moment to cheer Christine's action, improbable as it seems in a seaside village in 1960 where the Queen still reigns.

Next week: As promised last week… At Freddie's, Fitzgerald's fifth novel.


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The place was Oxford University, when writer James stood before an audience of students during a three-week course at Merton College the summer of 2002. I mention this in relation to Penelope Fitzgerald. Both these writers had complicated lives, damaged husbands, and various occupations before they began writing later in life. Another similarity between these two authors was their dedicated research.

















I was 59 when I heard P.D. James speak. At the time she was 82, and an inspiration to me. She fielded questions and gave swift and brilliant replies. I knew of her as a writer, though I'm not inclined to read mysteries. Back then I had not heard of Penelope Fitzgerald or her U.S. award-winning novel, The Blue Flower, or of anything else she'd written.


When I sat down to write this week's 'post', P.D. James came to mind from something a friend said to me. She is enrolled in the upcoming October class on Fitzgerald and commented on how much research Penelope did for her novels. Careful research is especially true for Fitzgerald's later novels like The Beginnings of Spring. This novel and The Gate of Angels have the same time frame, 1912 & 13. Fitzgerald researched all details, then "freely invented on the back of factual certainties." Biographer Hermione Lee further states: In the Gate of Angels, "Fitzgerald gives a convincing and informed account of the scientific arguments of the day," and that period's mind & body controversy.


I find it remarkable how Penelope Fitzgerald's researched invention makes even the strangest and most unexpected actions believable within the plot. For example, the main characters, Daisy and Fred, awaken in bed and are naked, even though they've not met before, except when their bicycles collide. And this in 1912 in a Cambridge professor's house! ('don' as they say at Cambridge and Oxford). In this novel, Fitzgerald brings to life " a world where thought and body, the solid and the unseen, the highest intellect and the basest behaviors and feelings unite in ways never envisaged before."


To anyone reading Fitzgerald, I would say this: Pay attention to her lists, as they serve this writer's need not to explain things. In the following one, we learn about Daisy's background. She grew up in London, with "smells of vinegar, gin, coal smoke, paraffin, sulphur, horse-dung from backstreet factories, and baking bread every morning." Ah, yes, give us this day our daily bread! This idea resonates in the novel, as do those topsy-turvy cows on the novel's first page. This captivating novel is a metaphysical love story about the visible in a world of the invisible: of atoms, ghosts, and spirits.


I imagine that P.D. James admired The Gate of Angels. Perhaps she asked the question, which other fine writers have asked: "How does Penelope Fitzgerald do it?"


Next week: A romp At Freddie's with child actors, misplaced teachers, improbable lovers, and a larger-than-life character, Freddie.


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A saucy journalist named John Walsh wrote these words, referring to the annual Booker prize. Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker for Offshore; and three others of her novels were shortlisted: The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels.

I think to appreciate Fitzgerald's novels, it must be accepted that this writer will not work out "things" for the reader. She distrusts over-explanation, avoids it, and apparently had paid attention to D.H. Lawrence's advice. He, unlike academics (this said with my bias) wrote about literature with comic brio! D.H. warned that to nail down anything in a novel would kill it, "or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail."


To begin writing a novel, Fitzgerald claimed she required a 'trinity': the title, the last line, and the first paragraph. Her titles weren't always accepted, which is true for The Gate of Angels. This novel begins with something Fitzgerald remembered from a visit to Cambridge on a day of fierce winds. From the window of a bus, she had seen cows moving wildly beneath willow trees. In a notebook she wrote: "It struck me that in the orderly University city, the headquarters of rational and scientific thinking, things had suddenly turned upside down, reason had given way to imagination."

Here is Gate's opening, which has meaning for a reader after the novel is read (then read again). The time frame is 1912, that explosive period in Physics!


"How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university devoted to logic and reason."


Fairly was making the best pace he could. (He's one of the cyclists on a bicycle.)


This sentence in the novel's second paragraph introduces Fred, a lecturer in Physics at St. Angelicus College, where no female has set foot for centuries, and on whose gate is written: "I have not changed my mind." Who comes into Fred's orderly life to untidy it? Fitzgerald's captivating female character, Daisy. Ah, a love story from Penelope Fitzgerald! Yes, and a ghost story, too. But The Gate of Angels is also a philosophical inquiry from a brilliant woman whose "first" was from Oxford University, not Cambridge!


Next week: To be continued…







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