Open the door, here comes trouble. It’s an old Russian saying.
For Frank Reid in Moscow, born of English parents in Russia, his trouble begins on the first page of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel, The Beginning of Spring. This owner of a Moscow printing company returns home after work one late afternoon in March 1913 and finds a letter. His wife, Nellie, has left him; and she has taken Dolly (10), Ben (9), and Annushka (2) with her. The next day, however, Frank learns that Nellie has abandoned the children at a Russian train station and gone on alone to England.
I write these words and hear a chorus from book clubs, popular with the corporate NYC publishing companies. "Why would we want to read about a woman who abandons her children? Does she throw herself under a train like Anna? Swim into the sea like Kate Chopin's Emma, or slay her children like Medea?" No, Fitzgerald tells the story with "comic brio", meaning vivacity and liveliness. I read the first page and read right to the last (246). Ah, the delight of reading a novel this way.
During the hours I read and enjoyed Fitzgerald's seventh novel, I kept asking myself: How does Penelope do this? Which is to make a reader hardly notice what she's doing, make it all seem easy, natural, and real, as biographer Hermione Lee notes. The Beginning of Spring is "curiously perfect," the recently acclaimed writer, Teju Cole, says of the novel.
Simple on the surface, the story is told through indirection, flashbacks, and skillfully rendered scenes, which happen during an especially uneasy time in Russian politics. It is late winter, when "the ice is about to crack and release the long-awaited torrents of spring." In chapter fifteen of Lee's biography, she details the research Fitzgerald did for this novel. Not only had she taken Russian language classes, visited Russia, been to Tolstoy's house, stayed at a dacha within woods of birch trees, she had read and admired the great Russian novels. This means, in Penelope's view, that "Russian writers above all, acknowledge the tragicomedy of chance and at the same time, the moment when a human being touches another life with a naked heart."
One thematic strand of many in the novel is the noble absurdity of carrying on in unlikely and puzzling circumstances. Frank, the main character, "doesn't oppose his will to the powerful slow-moving muddle around him." He is one of Fitzgerald's bewildered, likable men, always trying to do the right thing. As in other Fitzgerald novels, her children are remarkable characters. This writer whose fame came late in her life, greatly valued her grandchildren; and the admiration she has for children is felt in Frank's two older ones, Dolly and Ben.
As I write these words, I am listening to Mozart's rondo in A minor, k 511. Would I listen to it once and say, "Okay, I've heard that?" Although I lack a language to describe music, what I hear in this twelve-minute rondo is not unlike what I find in Fitzgerald's fiction: something profound, purposeful, intimately structured, dramatic, episodic, with a continual, restated theme(s). I mention this music analogy because Fitzgerald's editor at Collins, Philip Profit, wrote the following to her after he first read, The Beginning of Spring. "The effect it had on me was that of music…I felt physically better after reading it." I feel that way after listening to Mozart; and I felt that way at the end of Fitzgerald's novel. I will read it again, of course. Hermione Lee says of this writer: "She is so unostentatious… that she needs to be read several times."
Next week: PF's Eighth Novel: The Gate of Angels