Penelope Fitzgerald is "so unostentacious a writer that she needs to be read several times."
Anita Brookner, a British writer and contemporary of Fitzgerald, made this telling comment about Penelope. This is something that students in my recent class on Fitzgerald came to believe.
The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow in 1913, is a novel I opened one afternoon and did not stop reading until I reached the end, page 245. The following day I opened the novel to its first page and began again, reading slowly, a chapter at a time, over the next few days. Before my Fitzgerald class began in April, I read "Beginning" again, even more carefully. Am I a slow learner or something? 😊 ( No, though admittedly an aging one.) A fourth reading of the novel provided yet more pleasure from the "quiet genius" of Penelope, whose last four novels are extraordinary. (Which is not to discount her earlier four.)
The question asked before Fitzgerald's death in 2000 is still being asked? "How does she do it?"
On the back of my Mariner edition of "Beginning" is a quote from a current USA literary star, Teju Cole, who admitted he was "abuzz for days the first time he read The Beginning of Spring & The Blue Flower. She (Fitzgerald) was curiously perfect," he noted. A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote of Fitzgerald's Russian novel: "…writing so precise and lilting it can make you shiver."
Yes, the novel is a marvel and "bristles with comedy" because Fitzgerald writes tragicomedy. And she is the only novelist I can think of who matches the genius of J.D. Salinger's portrayal of children, those "wise kids." Fitzgerald's character, Dolly, in "Beginning" is unforgettable and possibly a prototype for the spirited adult Daisy in Gate of Angels, a novel I will write about next week.
Fitzgerald's last four novels offer detailed and researched material existences layered with underlying spiritual realities. As I said before, a Penelope Fitzgerald literary experience is not meant to be "got over." Her novels are written in ways that continue to work on a reader's mind and heart. In The Beginning of Spring, a reader will experience pre-revolutionary Russia, thus live in another age, and be made aware of a magical and mystical realm there.
I can only say, given Putin's Russia today, you might consider reading, The Beginning of Spring. Protagonist Frank Reid's affection for Moscow comes "over him at odd and inappropriate times in undistinguished places. Dear, slovenly, mother Moscow, bemused with the bells of its four times forty churches, indifferently sheltering factories, whore-houses and golden domes, impeded by Greeks and Persians and bewildered villagers…but reaching outwards with a frowsty leap across the boulevards to the circle of workers' dormitories and railheads, where the monasteries still prayed, and at last to a circle of pig-sties, cabbage patches, earth roads, earth closets, where Moscow sank back, seemingly with relief, into a village." (A hundred and nine years ago!)
Next week: The same period of time… but the setting for Gate of Angels is the revolutionary era in physics at Cambridge University in England.