Tuesday, May 25, 2010

penelope fitzgerald: human voices

#53 Human Voices, Penelope Fitzgerald [re-read]

I returned to this slim novella early in April after I had run through some tiresome reading, and I did so because if you held a gun to my head and asked me to identify my favourite novelist Fitzgerald might possibly be her. Sorry Jane Austen, Helen de Witt, even - gulp - George Eliot. I have read all these novelists far more often and extensively than Fitzgerald, even thought more about them, and for what it's worth, know more about them [I love your blog, Helen]. But I love Fitzgerald with a love that is actually painful: I almost can't bring myself to open a book by her because I know just how delightful it will be. There are other novelists whose mastery over their work is complete. They can bowl you over with their braininess and learning. They can provoke you to thoughtful and sustaining laughter. They can even, admittedly, tell you stuff about life that's quite close to the real thing. But somehow, Fitzgerald manages to harness all these literary qualities to the narrative in a way that they nourish the story from beneath the surface, inviting you to dig in deep without offering map, neon sign or even, really, a tourists' guide that warns you of the pleasures ahead. Fitzgerald's novels offer the closest approximation of a sensation that poetry openly provokes and short stories are perhaps best structured to give: delight. Although I don't suppose she ever achieves it in a way that rises above the limitations of the form, Fitzgerald does come close to offering a novel that does not mean, but is.

That she does it in the hidebound and quite unfashionable mid-twentieth century staple of the tragicomic love story, in the registers and structures generally favoured by the English girl-novelist, is even more moving. I don't think anyone who reads Fitzgerald will come away with the idea that they are reading anyone but a highly intelligent and even deeply scholarly person, but her pleasures are never the pleasures of, say, Iris Murdoch. Her sympathy for vulnerability is immense. But when you read Virginia Woolf you enter into the torture of the vulnerable soul and emerge wracked and enlightened; when you read Fitzgerald you are aware that it is not at all separate from the life, not only of your body, but of the world around you. It's not about enlightenment. It's about illumination.

The amazing thing is that all of this is true even of a minor, slim and relatively less accomplished novella like Human Voices, a story about the BBC during World War II. Men and women of all shapes and sizes are trying to keep it together. That's really about it. The novel is only about war in the sense that the truly mundane things in life persist in spite of it. Somehow things come to their expected conclusion more often than not: if someone has to inconveniently give birth, they will, and if someone hs to fall inconveniently in love, and then even more inconveniently have it reciprocated, they will. Fitzgerald never contrives to make this seem extraordinary or dramatic. Through a delicately hilarious exposition, through the matter of fact authorial voice [one that in this novel veers identifiably, if never uncomfortably close to the stiff upper lip] Fitzgerald allows these things to take their own course. Of course, she seems to say, it's not extraordinary. It's not dramatic. But it's not sordid either - and it isn't purely comic simply because it happens to purely ordinary people. One of Murdoch's famous dictums, that art is tragic but life can only ever be comic, seems always to find an indirect contradiction in Fitzgerald's writing. She values the comic so highly that arguments about whether tragedy > comedy et cetera become irrelevant. But tragedy itself is never allowed to wither on the vine. When it does occur, it is heartbreaking - and it provokes not the aching individualist self-awareness of canonised tragedy, but the humility, solidarity - and maybe even the wisdom - of human grief.

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