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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Experiences aren't given to us to be "Got Over." Otherwise, they would hardly be Experiences.

This is sage advice from the late Penelope Fitzgerald whose novels are alive and brilliant, especially her last four works of fiction. In the face of confusing experiences, literary or otherwise, it is easy to 'shut down' mentally and emotionally. And Fitzgerald's novel, Innocence, at 340 pages, moves a reader to fifty locations, though several are revisited. Still and all, that's a lot of movement; and the novel has a large cast of characters, too.


It took me a third read of Innocence to "see" that I was experiencing a cinematic novel, that PF (as I will refer to the author) dropped the name Fellini on page 87 for good reason, along with mention of his famous Cinecittà in Rome. The novel is Felliniesque. (Yes, Microsoft Word, You Autocratic eejit, there is this word.) Fellini, the brilliant Italian film-director, died in 1993. I can think of no other movie director who could have made Innocence into a film. But I am grateful that no other director has tried. A movie version of the novel might require a "voice over" to capture the genius of Fitzgerald's narrator, whose voice is that of a tour guide: all knowing, insightful, and wildly humorous.


If you were to visit a foreign country such as Laos or Mongolia, you might decide a tour with a guide is a good idea. Fitzgerald gives us a tour of Italy, North and South, in earlier times, and definitely "foreign" to a modern-day reader like me. The tour's first stop is the famous Ridolfi villa near Florence, La Ricordanza, circa 1568, where we 'hear' a tale of the midgets who lived there. Then it's 'jump cut' time, and we are in 1955 and meet a modern-day Ridolfi, a Count named Giancarlo, born in 1890. He lives on Via Limbo in Florence. Of course, it's Via Limbo where he resides, the first circle of Dante's Hell, where virtuous pagans are placed.


What is life without mysterious conjunctions? And for me, what luck that last night in this week's WSJ Review, what should I find? "A Journey Through Death for the Living," by Patrick J. Walsh, discussing Dante Alighieri's, The Divine Comedy. Walsh writes, "Dante's technique possesses a modern cinematic quality, flickering from darkness to light. We see through Dante's camera-like eye." And yes, the reader of Innocence sees through Penelope's eye of genius, too. Let's not forget that she had a First from Oxford and would have studied The Divine Comedy in depth like a scholar. Her creation, Innocence, is a tragicomic novel. This literary term refers to fictional action which has elements of gravity and humor, threatens disaster, but eventuates in a happy reversal. Yet Innocence is more Felliniesque than Dantesque. (Dear Word, check the OED to see that you are wrong again!)


PF's novel is a "concatenation of circumstances," as writer-critic Julian Barnes calls it in his introduction to the British 2013 re-issue of Innocence. Barnes, by the way, is an ardent admirer of Fitzgerald. (Concatenation is your word for the day and means "a union by linking together.") Yes, Innocence is spliced together like a film; and with cinematic flair Fitzgerald moves us through time. Flashbacks as backstory, cuts without explanation (fade in, fade outs, jump cuts), simultaneous time frames (characters in concurrent locations), and a veritable montage of unforgettable scenes that linger in memory. Yes, I will read the novel again for pure pleasure and marvel at what is Fitzgerald's most complex novel. I give the last word to Julian Barnes. "Penelope Fitzgerald's Innocence will last as long as mature and careful novel readers continue to exist." That is you, I trust, dear reader!


Next week: PF's brilliant Beginnings of Spring, set in Moscow before the Russian Revolution.

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