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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Dear A… I know each Monday you read my blog, so this is my answer to your recent letter.

If you have read past the early chapters of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, you'll meet Mr. Brundish, the resident 'aristocrat' in Hardborough, circa 1959. You will read a note he sends to Florence Green, who opens a bookshop in this rural English village. She has asked Mr. Brundish his opinion of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. He writes in his note that, "understanding makes the mind lazy." He calls Lolita a good novel and says it ought to be available in the bookshop, even though the villagers won't understand it!

In Lolita, a somewhat related line appears: "Lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud."

I mention this because you wrote in your letter that you bailed out early in the Booker prize-winning novel, Offshore. You read some of the first chapter and decided the book was not for you. But you wrote that you have begun reading The Bookshop.

A student in class last Thursday told me that when she read this Fitzgerald novel months ago, she did not think much of it. Then after Hermione Lee's biography and another read of The Bookshop, she saw the novel as worthy of a slow, word by word, careful read. I would say the same for Offshore and the six Fitzgerald novels that follow it. All are short literary works and should be read several times, so the reader does not have the experience and miss the meaning! All I can say in response to your unwillingness to read Offshore is:

Penelope Fitzgerald is not a fraudulent writer.

For many years you took my RILL courses and steadfastly remained a 'happy ender'. You seek literature that offers comfort and makes you feel better. I have not and will not… teach courses on writers who offer false representations of life. "Lazy minds unaware of the fraud" describes the reader who believes that Stalin would not have killed the 'gentleman in Moscow' or sent him to the gulag.

I will go so far as to use 'fraud', the way Milton (think Paradise Lost) used it, as a word for a state of delusion. "So gliter'd the dire Snake, and into fraud led Eve." (Substitute L for E and think of the Russian Nabokov).


Not all can discern the fraud beneath the specious lure of most popular fiction.

In the current 'happy ender' (HE) genre, the heroine cannot be Florence because she is defeated and loses her bookshop. And what about Fitzgerald's indecisive Nenna, who lives on Grace, a beaten, old barge on the Thames, with her two young daughters? Not the heroine that the New York corporate book world wants today for their readership: women in book clubs and the multitudes of solitary HE's across the USA.

Ominous, isn't it? That lazy minds are no longer serene but violently unaware of the fraudulent.

I need to read Offshore for the third time and experience once again the river Thames, "as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents." -😊


Next week: Penelope's genius with children in her fiction


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