Magazine article The Spectator

The Sweet Smell of Success

Magazine article The Spectator

The Sweet Smell of Success

Article excerpt

A little national pride has been restored, in the aftermath of the much-lamented failure of any Briton to win anything much at the Oscars, by the triumph of a short English novel in gaining the most prestigious of American literary prizes. Penelope Fitzgerald's ninth novel, The Blue Flower, beat the widely fancied chances of three enormous and ambitious American novels to walk off with the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Well, the captains and the kings depart; prizes are more quickly forgotten even than the members of the Critics' Circle; and what, in the end, will be left will be this great novel, a masterpiece.

Fitzgerald has been widely and justifiably praised for the excellence, discretion and solidity of her historical imagination, which brings unlikely periods of history to life with unarguable, strange rightness. We know exactly from The Beginning of Spring the wattage of lightbulbs permitted in Moscow in 1911 (25 watts); we learn from The Blue Flower that livestock were forbidden to cross the bridge at Weissenfels in the 1790s. Perhaps even more impressively, she has a marvellous sense of what was regarded in a particular time and place as commonplace, and what was held eccentric; Matryona Osipovna in The Beginning of Spring, recommending that young girls should have their eyes washed with their own urine, for instance, or, in The Gate of Angels, a 1912 Cambridge don's wife's food faddism:

`Now, as to main dishes, this is a tin which I bought at the new Eustace Miles Emporium in King's Parade. You can read about it on the label, it's all printed there and it's worth knowing for its own sake, particularly if well, as you can see, this tin contains Health Plasmon, which may be combined with a variety of substances to make nourishing dishes without the necessity of cooking them.'

`It looks like cornflower to me,' said Daisy.

But mere research would never have produced this degree of solidity. Fitzgerald is a writer rooted in the physical world, who, whether she is writing about a familiar or a strange world, always bases her abstract truths, her observations of character and morality on a concrete fact. At another moment in The Gate of Angels, Fred looked at his watch. It was a silver watch, belonging to his father, given to him when he took up his appointment, and yet not quite given to him either, since when he went back on vacations his father tended to borrow it back.

She is, of course, not quite talking about the watch here, but about Fred; her observations ground a single truth much more deeply than a simple statement about his character would have done.

And the novels are full of such strongly physical moments, making a large point through a small observed detail; Florence's embarrassing and regretted red party dress in The Bookshop, or the cheese straws which the lackadaisical Maurice, short of fuel, burns to keep warm on his decrepit barge in Offshore. She is a writer who wants to understand how things work, and wants to make the workings - particularly the financial workings - clear. Accountants play a crucial role in The Beginning of Spring, At Freddie's, and The Bookshop; we know an almost embarrassing amount about the finances of the Hardenberg household in The Blue Flower. Sylvia Townsend Warner said of her great mediaeval novel, The Corner that Held Them, that she wrote it `on the purest Marxian principles, because I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of the monastic life, you'd have to put in all their finances'. Fitzgerald has the same urge; her novels are constructed from the ground up.

Occasionally, in some of her moral observations, she may strike the casual reader as fulfilling the famous definition of a cynic. `It was not a fair blow, but justice is sometimes what you can afford.' (The Gate of Angels), '[Willis's] moral standards were much the same as Richard's, only he did not feel he was well enough off to apply them as often, and in such a wide range of conditions, as the Skipper. …

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