KLASSEN ON BOOKS - May 2016 - By John Klassen (Reviews)

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Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2008) was an English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer.   In the 1950s, she worked, with her husband, as co-editor of a magazine called World Review to which she contributed articles on literature, music and sculpture. She and her husband lived in public housing in the 1960s after her husband was disbarred for forging cheques. She then worked as a teacher in a drama school.  Fitzgerald launched her literary career at the age of 58, in 1975. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore (1979). The Times included her in a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Observer named her novel, The Blue Flower, as one of the ten best historical novels. 

The Bookshop (1978)

Fitzgerald's novels have been described as "short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique, subtle". This admirably describes The Bookshop.

On the surface, the novel, crafted in limpid prose, is a simple recounting of the trials of Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, who opens a bookshop in the seaside town of Hardborough in 1959. People, not the least the overbearing, patronising banker, question her business acumen, but Florence has identified a need and to the surprise of herself as much as others, she begins to make a success of the venture. She has, however, incurred the displeasure of Mrs. Gamart who prides herself in being one of the leading society figures in the area and the local arts doyenne, and who had other plans for the Old House that Florence purchased as her home and bookstore.

Florence is a kind person, but strong-willed, able and ready to push back against pretension and cant. Florence gives as good as she gets, as seen in the humorous exchange with 'her' lawyer who also acts for Mrs. Gamart in bringing a complaint about book buyers blocking the sidewalk with the crush of people coming to buy the new, scandalous book: Lolita. The lawyer opines that, "we ought to abate the obstruction" and "cease to offer for sale the complained-of and unduly sensational novel by V.Nabokov."  Florence replies that, "A good book is the precious life-blood or a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity." 

Florence has a fatal flaw in her makeup; she believes in the inherent goodness of people. She tolerates and understands eccentricities and even selfishness. She wants to help young people to get ahead in life. She is conscious of the obligation to spend public money wisely. But despite living in town for ten years, she is no match for how nasty people can be to others in a small community, especially when everyone knows everyone else's business, how people will act to ingratiate themselves with those who can influence their circumstances, nor can she even conceive of the oblique, subtle tactics employed by Mrs. Gamart to finally get her way and, in the process, destroy any material security in Florence's life.  

The last lines of the book encapsulate a poignant sadness: "As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop."

The Blue Flower (1995)

George Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), who took the name Novalis, was a poet and philosopher. He was a key figure in the early stages of German Romanticism, and greatly influenced later Romantic thought. A blue flower was a central part of his visions about culture, religion, society and intellectual endeavours, and became a symbol of the Romantic movement. 

Romanticism was a European cultural revolt against authority, tradition, and Classical order (the Enlightenment); the movement permeated western society over a period that approximately dated from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. In general, Romanticism is that attitude or state of mind that focuses on the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the creative, and the emotional. These characteristics most often took form in subject matters such as history, national endeavor, and the sublime beauties of nature. According to historians, the mind-set of the Romantics was completely contradictory to the straightforwardness, impartiality, and serenity of 18th century Classicism. 

In keeping, perhaps, with a sense of revolt against authority and tradition, Fritz (as he is called in the novel), at the age of 22, in 1794, fell in love with Sophie von Kuhn who was then 12 years old. They were formally betrothed the next year, but never married because Sophie died of tuberculosis two days after her 15th birthday. The novel ends just days before her death.

Fitzgerald has taken the life of Fritz from about his mid-teens through university, to his training to be an auditor and inspector of salt mines, as was his father. This is the framework within which Fitzgerald quite wonderfully imagines the growth of Novalis as a poet and philosopher within the political, social, economic contexts of the time. She is never didactic, but she thoroughly and subtly creates a late 18th century German world by bringing alive this large family, beset by an authoritarian father, the pressures of generational conflict, the prospects for life and making a living, all playing out on a larger palette of societal change in art and literature, religion, governance, family, and even revolution, in France, that threatens to upend all social order. Fitzgerald makes everything real and present. She reminds us that no society is immune to pressures of change, and of the immutable nature of human ambitions and desires and relationships.

I read The Bookshop just before The Blue Flower, and they put me in mind of two excellent novels by an equally talented writer: Stoner and Augustus, by John Williams. Stoner and The Bookshop limn the lives of ordinary people struggling through the vagaries of life, both undone in important respects by the vindictiveness and jealousy of others. Augustus and The Blue Flower are historical novels and both occur on a larger stage, but both are fundamentally, again, about people and relationships. 

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