Penelope Fitzgerald writes discreet, brief, perfect tales. Her first novel was published in 1977, when she was already over sixty. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, a comedy with an edge about a family barely surviving on a houseboat on the Thames. Her early novels are English-kindly studies of the endless absurdity of human behavior, seen simultaneously with an unwavering moral gaze. She is interested in traditional forms-the plotted detective story, the supernatural tale. In 1986, with Innocence, she began to write about other countries—Italy, Russia, Germany—and other centuries. This looking outwards from English manners was in the air at the time, and there has been a flowering of historically and geographically various fiction in Britain. But Fitzgerald's later novels are quite extraordinarily good. They made me at least re-read the earlier ones with closer attention, consider the delicious sentences, come to the conclusion that Fitzgerald was Jane Austen's nearest heir, for precision and invention. But she has other qualities, qualities I think of as European and metaphysical. She has what Henry James called "the imagination of disaster." She can make a reader helpless with inordinate private laughter. (I will give examples.) She is also one of those writers whose sentences, however brief, are recognizable as hers and no one else's, although they are classically elegant and unfussy.
Consider the description of the BBC in the Second World War, in Human Voices (1980). "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth." It goes on: "Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and in the long run would be more effective." The novel is a wonderful combination of deadpan English comedy and surreal farce, from the death in the studio of a French general whose post-Dunkirk message turns out to be a passionate plea to the English to surrender to Hitler immediately, to the recording, for a program called "Lest We Forget Our Englishry," of "six hundred bands of creaking. To be accurate some are a mixture of squeaking and creaking."
"They're all from the parish church of Hither Lickington," Sam explained eagerly. "It was recommended to us by Religious Broadcasting. What you're hearing is the hinges of the door and the door itself opening and shutting as the old women come in one by one with the stuff for the Harvest Festival. The quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so."
Sam is Director of Recorded Programmes, one of Fitzgerald's fatally dangerous narrow-minded innocents, a technical perfectionist who flirts plaintively and indifferently with a "seraglio" of assistants. His obsession is part of what makes up the awkwardly powerful survival of the BBC. He is loved by an assistant (with perfect pitch) from Birmingham, called Annie Asra. Fitzgerald named this person, also singleminded, for a poem, "Der Asra," by Heine. The Asra are a tribe of slaves "welche sterben, wenn sie lieben" (who die when they love.) German Romantic orientalism is an odd component of so very English a novel, and Fitzgerald's surprise that no one noticed the reference was perhaps innocently unrealistic. But it is also a pointer to un-English preoccupations.
Innocence (1986) opens with a delicious and chilling account of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family, the Ridolfis, who were midgets. The cosseted and innocent midget daughter has a dwarf companion who suddenly grows to a normal height. To the midget mistress this is a monstrous misfortune. After much kind reflection, she decides it would be best to put out the other girl's eyes and cut off her legs at the knees, so that she would "never know the increasing difference between her and the rest of the world."
This tale resonates through the novel about the fortunes of a modern Ridolfi (of normal height), Chiara, in the 1950s, who falls in love at first sight, at a concert, with a handsome doctor of Southern socialist stock, with whom she has nothing in common except love and a singlemindedness reminiscent of Annie Asra in wartime London. Both Chiara and her Salvatore are dangerous to themselves and others in their innocence; both are also hopeful and lovable. What is remarkable about this tale (told in only 222 paperback pages) is the completeness of its Italianness, political, religious, moral, and physical. There is a monsignor, an old socialist comrade, a dying lady who founded a charity, a farming cousin who finds words unnecessary; there are political and family intrigues, and a curious and purely Italian mixture of passion and heartlessness. There is an exemplary and moving scene with an ancient haute-couture designer; there is a suddenly appalling brief scene where the child Salvatore is taken to see the dying Gramsci in hospital, and finds, not socialist inspiration, but a medical vocation in the horror of his decay. There is a huge, ungainly English aristocratic friend of the delicate Chiara who lumbers emotionally and forcefully through the story. It is an exquisite mosaic, where every tiny piece is part of an intrigue and a world, olives and lemons, clothes and manners. Horrible tragedy is possible, and farce is omnipresent, both belied by the light, decorous storytelling. Every time I re-read it, I find another unobtrusive flicker of connection beween the sixteenth-century tale and the modern one. My moment of inordinate private laughter was over the table in the ultra-modern Villa Hodgkiss, a truly Italian over-designed misfit:
In the centre was placed, in fact fixed, a round table of pale green marble, with the shapes of twelve plates, twelve knives, twelve forks, let into the surface in darker green mosaic. On an evening such as this when only eight guests were dining, none of the real plates, knives or forks quite covered their green stone images. The Institute, presumably, had not liked to argue on this point with their architect, who had reserved the right to design all the furniture, much of it immovable. And there was no place at all indicated for the spoons, which looked like intruders.
This is shrewd cultural observation. It is also a quiet, harmless example of an unyieldingness like that of the midget Ridolfi in 1568.
Human Voices (with its echo of Prufrock) and Innocence are perfect titles for their books. So is The Beginning of Spring (1988), which is set in Moscow in 1913, before both the Russian Revolution and the First World War. Its hero is Frank Reid, owner and manager of Reids, a British printing firm set up in the 1870s. At the beginning of the novel Frank's wife, Nellie, has suddenly left with his three children, subsequently abandoning them at a railway station. They are, like all Fitzgerald's child characters, intelligent and resourceful, aware of the deficiencies of their elders. Frank is also resourceful, and the novel is an account of his attempts to construct a life, engage a young woman to look after the children, and avoid the kindnesses of both the expatriate community and his emotional Russian acquaintances and business connections. The novel is as Russian as Innocence is Italian; the muddles are Russian muddles, the suspicions and warmth and vaguenesses are Russian. The weather, winter and spring, the river and its ice floes, the dacha and the birch forest, are Russian. As with Innocence, what look like comic set-pieces of misunderstanding turn out to be integral parts of the mystery and the plot. For a writer who selects every phrase as carefully and with as clear an ear as a poet, Fitzgerald has a remarkably intricate and satisfying way with plot and narrative too. There are beginnings, middles, and ends, and they are not disappointing; indeed, they are both shocking and satisfactory. There are wonderful scenes in a tea house with a traveling samovar, in a Dostoevskyan nursery with a bewildered new pet bearcub. The English are suspicious, narrow, provincial, and substantial. Again there is a dangerous innocent, Selwyn Crane, an English devotee of Tolstoy's asceticism, an absurd vegetarian, author of the poems Birch Tree Thoughts, which provide both an unexpected part of the intrigue and a moment of pure laughter. Only a writer with a very good ear could have produced the exemplary dotty lameness of
"Dost feel the cold, Sister Birch?"
"No, Brother Snow,
I feel it not." "What? not?" "No, not!"
In The Beginning of Spring, the private story and the private world are at the center; we know that Fitzgerald, by whatever mysterious means, knows abundantly more about the world her people move in than she tells us, although it is a lost and distant one. She has done so much reading, so much research, that she can select the telling detail, the exemplary smell, sound, or object, as she could from the world she lives in daily. It is under-researched novels that smell of the lamp, and in the end don't ring true. And for that reason, Fitzgerald's grasp on the larger world is assured too. The revolution is coming, with the spring, in this book. But the people are plunged in the purposeful private and commercial muddle of their single, not exemplary, lives.
The Gate of Angels (1990) is also set in that unknowing time (1912, precisely) just before the First World War. It concerns the life of Fred Fairly, a Cambridge physicist, son of a country vicar, who has lost his religious faith. He means to work with his hero, Rutherford, on atomic research, but ends up working with a Professor Flowerdew, who is skeptical about working with "unobservables," saying that this will lead to randomness, laws acting in "a profoundly disorderly way," wild ideas such as "anti-matter which is supposed to be there but isn't," and ultimately "chaos." Fred is a member of a College with no students, into which no woman may ever penetrate, not even as a servant, and he is made by a friend to speak at a club called "The Disobligers" in favor of the existence of the soul, in which he does not believe. He makes out a good case, in a wild way, for the separate existence of mind. Someone remarks that "Fairly perhaps sees a bird flying over the fens, and he looks attentively at a young woman, and he combines the two of them, and imagines an angel. That is how the imagination works. However, no two people see the external world in exactly the same way. To every separate person a thing is what he thinks it is-in other words, not a thing, but a think."
This is, among other things, a statement of a Romantic philosophical position-the mind creates and constructs the world it lives in. Both angels and atomic particles are "unobservables" which need minds in order to come out of chaos. As we know, physicists now think observing minds affect the behavior of particles. Fitzgerald's next novel, The Blue Flower, concerns German Romanticism. Her novel about science in the Cambridge of 1912 is a religious novel about the life and well-being of the individual soul in a world of material probabilities. The great nineteenth-century novels were excited by positive science, by the representative life, the detail that showed the shape of historic and material circumstances. I have said that Fitzgerald's earlier novels possessed a surreal quality to their comedy. Like the surrealists, Fitzgerald asserts the reality of the individual, the improbable, the singleton. Her invisible world is peopled by both angels, poltergeists (see The Bookshop) and random particles. Fred falls in love with Daisy, an angel in the common metaphoric sense, as she is a nurse (and a good one). He meets her by a most improbable coincidence, or material collision, when they are both, quite separately, struck by an out-of-control farm-cart whilst riding bicycles across the fen. They wake to find themselves naked, side by side, in the attic of a strange Cambridge couple. Daisy, although unmarried, is wearing a wedding ring (for reasons circuitously revealed), so they are thought to be husband and wife. The Cambridge of fusty bachelors, principled eccentrics, early suffragists, and ghost stories à la M. R. James is as meticulously put together, piece by glittering piece, as Florence or Moscow. The ghost story is itself a materialist form which asserts the existence of spirit where it shouldn't be, or isn't expected to be. Outrageous coincidence and improbability are used as formal devices to suggest that the world of the typical and the probable may not be all. The finale is brilliant: a woman (Daisy) walks through the never-opened Gate of Angels in the College, saves the life of a man who cannot see her (the blind Master of the College), and is thereby delayed sufficiently to collide again with the rejected Frank and convert a miserable series of misunderstandings to a happy ending. It is a Hardyesque coincidence, used knowingly to empower fiction and the imagination.
The Blue Flower (1995) is an improbable masterpiece. The title comes from a fairy-tale in Heinrich Von Ofterdingen (or Afterdingen), where a man is obsessed with the desire to find a mysterious blue flower. The tale is by Fritz, or Friedrich, von Hardenberg, known as Novalis, a pupil of Fichte who died at the age of 28. He became a Romantic myth, and had complicated and interesting ideas about the nature of language (and philosophy and mathematics) as a system of signs, and about the relations of body and spirit. His father found him employment as a Salt Inspector, and he thought about the life and language of minerals. Fitzgerald's novel recreates, in brief, fleeting, evocatively real scenes, the life of two or three interconnecting families in eighteenth-century Germany, Jena, and rural Saxony. The Hardenbergs were a large, idiosyncratic family, in straitened circumstances. Fitzgerald has created the touch, smell, cold, damp, slowness, and tension of a household, its meals, its habits of communication, its laundry, its disputes and intense affections, often in one or two sentences.
The story of Hardenberg's life is simple and startling. He fell in love, at first sight, with a twelve-year-old girl, Sophie von Kuhn, to whom he became engaged. She died of tuberculosis at the age of fifteen. Hardenberg created a Romantic myth round her memory, turning her into a figure of Wisdom, a Sancta Sophia. He, and his brothers and sisters, all died in their twenties of pulmonary tuberculosis.
The world of The Blue Flower is created out of the solid, detailed life of the letters and diaries of his family (and Sophie), and is shot through with the vision and intelligence of Hardenberg's work. Early in the novel, Fitzgerald quotes a letter from Friedrich Schlegel in which he describes "a young man, from whom everything may be expected, and he explained himself to me at once with fire-with indescribably much fire. On the first evening he told me that the golden age would return, and that there was nothing evil in the world. I don't know if he is still of the same opinion." (It is like Fitzgerald to end her quotation quietly on that dubious note.) As a boy Fritz was expelled from the Moravian school because he would not answer correctly in the children's catechism. "A child of not quite ten years old, he insists that the body is not flesh, but the same stuff as the soul." He goes to live with the stolid Just family whilst working in the salt mines, and is rebuked on his arrival for telling their niece, Karoline, that she is beautiful. Frau Just says,
"You ought not to speak to Karoline quite like that. You did not mean it, and she is not used to it."
"But I did mean it," said Fritz. "When I came into your house everything, the wine-decanter, the tea, the sugar, the chairs, the dark green tablecloth with its abundant fringe, everything was illuminated."
He brings this genuine illumination into people's lives, especially Karoline's, but he is another of Fitzgerald's innocents, and scatters hurt with his failure to notice feelings or problems. There are bitter and beautiful scenes when he tells Karoline he has fallen in love with Sophie after a quarter of an hour (and that Karoline knows nothing about desire), or when he refuses brusquely the one gift his mother is able to offer him. Karoline sees Sophie clearly, an ordinary, pre-adolescent, hearty girl who laughs too loudly and too much. She herself, like all the women in the novel, is caught in a material world not transfigured by romantic light. She listens to Fritz's poems fresh from "the work of the forewinter-sausage-making, beating flax for the winter, spinning, killing the geese (who had already been plucked alive twice) for their third and last crop of down. After this it was necessary to eat baked goose for a week." There is a gulf between the geese and Fritz's transfigured tablecloth, but it is a gulf which is bridged by Fitzgerald's own art, making the geese in their turn unforgettable. The reader, caught up in Karoline's never-described emotions, is ready to dislike Sophie for her brashness, nullity, and mindless laughter. But she becomes in turn the object of Fitzgerald's intelligent and unwavering imagination of disaster. There is a terrible moment when, already very ill, she visits the Hardenbergs for her engagement party wearing a white cap. Fritz's brother asks her for a lock of her hair. "Sophie laughed. She had been laughing, it was true, most of the evening, but not with such enjoyment as she did now."
It is her cousin, Frau Mandelsloh, another of Fitzgerald's practical women, who tells him that Sophie has lost all her hair, as the illness progressed, and is quite bald. Fitzgerald also describes the terrible and pointless surgical operations (without anesthetic) that Sophie undergoes. The net effect of this is to make the very ordinary Sophie the tragic center of the novel. (Hardenberg kept away from her deathbed.) It might be possible to say that Fitzgerald invests the mundane Sophie, with her laugh and her interest in smoked eel and cabbage, with the light which is absent from Hardenberg's idealized "Philosophy." But that, too, is to simplify. Towards the very end of this short novel (most of its chapters are a bare two or three pages), Fitzgerald quotes Novalis's "Algebra, like laudanum, deadens pain," in a meditation where he writes of his experiences of the certainty of immortality, of the radiance of the Justs' house, of his sense that
we are the enemies of the world and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this is animate but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, this is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, this is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, so that one cannot be measured without the other.
Fitzgerald sees Hardenberg's moral shortcomings clearly, but she also sees his vision. And he too is young, unique, and shortly to die. Part of the extraordinary composed and moving effect of this novel is its sense of the finite, the finished nature of these long-dead people we see living and feeling and hoping. At the very beginning, Fritz rescues his youngest brother, Bernhard, from drowning; at the end Fitzgerald tells us Bernhard was drowned in the Saale on the 28th of November, 1800.
Hardenberg's musings on the nature of rock salt, time, and space take us back to Fred Fairly, the physicist, brooding on the nature of random particles. In Ian Hacking's brilliant account of the development of our ideas of statistical probability and chance, The Taming of Chance, he writes of Prussian collecting of mining statistics in what Goethe called "our statistically minded times." Statistics and the idea of probability led to the great nineteenth-century novels, such as Zola's, where human beings lived out exemplary fates, moved by social forces. In a later chapter, Hacking writes of the Romantic desire to recreate the idea of pure chance, about which he quotes Nietzsche's Zarathustra, blessing "the heaven accident, the heaven innocence, the heaven chance, the heaven prankishness."
Hacking introduces Nietzsche's homage to randomness (which is a form of necessity) by quoting Novalis, who, he said, had written in 1797 that chance manifests the miraculous. The individual "is individualised by one single chance event alone, that is, his birth." It is this understanding, what might be called a religious understanding of the individual, which gives shape to Penelope Fitzgerald's novels. Chance makes farce and chance makes disaster; in between these, we construct our own identities as best we may. The Hardenbergs, and Sophie, are statistics of the devastating power of tuberculosis. Fitzgerald's art insists that they are also all individuals, body and soul.
A.S. Byatt, who lives in England, is the author of The Matisse Stories, Angels & Insects, and many other works of fiction and criticism. She won the Booker Award for her novel Possession.