A sense of inner bonds

PENELOPE FITZGERALD began to write fiction when she was over 60 years old. My publisher in England sent me three copies of her work, after I told him that my eldest daughter Meera had got The Bookshop at a sale. I had been startled by the smallness of that work, and its lucidity, while handling questions of pain and professional failure. The bookseller is an elderly woman trying to run a bookshop in a small town and is faced with the usual suburban difficulties of living in a small hamlet and the encroaching interests of urban constructors. Underlying the brilliant and subtle handling of a tragedy is the sociological ability of understanding the importance of lesser characters, and the part they play in the destiny of individuals. In this case they are the child, who helps in the bookshop, and the attractive gentleman from the BBC. Both strike an odd chord of intimacy with the old bookseller, only to betray her later. There is a startling level of understanding which floats between these three people and so their vulnerability to one another is heightened. That is what Penelope is best at — subtle wisdom marked by a sense of humour which is so shocking that it leaves you breathless hoping for more. Her description of what happens when Nabakov's Lolita appears in the hamlet for sale is a valuable piece of literary history besides being just very funny.

But Fitzgerald has moved on now to other worlds, having called it a day at the age of 83 in April 2000. In those 20 years, when she wrote so actively, she produced nine novels and some biographies. One of these is a family history called the Knox brothers, and draws on the family bonds interlacing four brothers, one of whom was her father who worked for many years as the editor of Punch. She brings to this book a tremendous vitality that draws from a childhood where family bonds entrenched its members in laughter and guile and friendship, and a deep-rooted understanding of one another's spaces. The novels perhaps are reflections of just that sense of the inner bonds that unite people, that the novelist successfully guesses at and makes a living by revealing them to the general reader. Fitzgerald draws her reader into that world she once knew so well.

Her short stories, also published as a collection posthumously by Flamingo, looks at times and ways of the world now long gone. They have bizarre beginnings, and uncanny endings. In one, the young girl in the vicarage falls in love with a felon, and hides him. He appears suddenly and frighteningly and she suddenly understands the power of lust which beckons to both of them. But then the serving woman in the house distracts him and it is that couple who leave for Australia. It is so 19th Century, so mad, so funny that the words swill out making one feel that the past and the present are coterminous. Anyone teaching culture studies would find these books enormously useful, because that sense of the intermingling of cultures is specific to Penelope's concern. She was enormously happy in her marriage and at work, and did not write till that time when her husband died, and then she suddenly found an abyss that she could cross only through writing. I think biographies of writers and artists are immensely useful to understand the ways in which work and women accost one another. Gauri Pant, the painter and poet took care of house and husband and children for decades, and it was only when she found herself marooned after the tragic death of her husband in the mid 1970s that she went back to painting.

Similarly anyone working on the "Colonial Connection" in Britain, would find materials here which nuance the understanding of missionary lives. The Knox brothers had deep family roots in Christian missionary work, and as an archive of materials which have passed on through family stories, this is an interesting source.

Of the three books I received from Philip Gwyn-Jones, in late July, Innocence is the finest, most compelling space of narrative for me. It is about the marriage of Salvatore who is a doctor, a neurologist working in the 1950s' in Florence. He is bad tempered, arrogant and depressingly vulnerable. The woman he marries is born of such a long line of aristocrats that they are of tourist interest. That Fitzgerald is able to get into the heart of Florentian society in the `50s is amazing — it tells us how important summer holidays and travel are to the novelist. Again, what she handles so lightly, so amusingly are ideas —

Salvatore's childhood in a peasant family, his father who is a mechanic but a friend of Gramsci's — the compelling description of sickness and death when father and son visit Gramsci. History and emotion, places and the past — Fitzgerald is one of the immortals even if few get to read her, for whatever reason.

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