The miraculous novels and life of Penelope Fitzgerald

Here is the gleam of gem-like details: Fitzgerald’s compulsive cheating at games, even with her little grandchildren; the lunchtime sausage roll warming on the radiator in one of the schools where she taught, filling the classroom with its smell; cutting

Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life
Hermione Lee
Chatto & Windus, 528pp, £25

The word that immediately occurs to one when thinking of Penelope Fitzgerald’s last four novels – Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower (1995) – is “miraculous”. There is nothing quite like them in English literature: in fact, they are not really English novels at all, except in language. They are inexhaustible in their meanings; mysterious and oblique, even baffling, in craft, beauty and effect; and every reader who has come to them has asked, at one time or other, a variant of the question, “How is it done?”

In this first ever biography of Fitzgerald, which comes 13 years after her death, Hermione Lee, pointedly using the (madeup) words of Novalis in The Blue Flower as her epigraph (“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching”), has set out to attempt some answers to that question. The result is a luminous masterpiece of life-writing.

Penelope Knox was born in 1916 into a family of renowned high-achievers, on both her paternal side (Knox) and maternal (Hicks). It is unsurprising that her first book, published when she was 60, was a group biography of her father, Edmund “Evoe” Knox, and his brothers, Dillwyn, Wilfred and Ronald. Penelope inherited not only the Knoxes’ extraordinary intelligence but also other typical family traits: obstinacy, a distrust of wealth and pomposity, an inability to share or express emotions, a certain stripe of neurosis and reserve. After Somerville College, Oxford, she worked for the BBC for most of the 1940s, an experience that was to go, 30 years later, into her fourth novel, Human Voices.

She married Desmond Fitzgerald in 1942 and the couple ran the internationalist highliterary magazine World Review from 1950 to 1953, when it folded. It is from this time that one can date the beginning of the Fitzgeralds’ years of adversity. The family – by then, they had three children: Valpy, Tina and Maria – moved from Hampstead to Southwold, Suffolk in 1957. Desmond began to drink heavily and his career in the law petered out. They had no money and they moved back to London in 1960 to live in a houseboat, Grace, moored in Chelsea. She began working as an English tutor in crammers; this was to be her main source of income for many years.

Things got much worse – Desmond was discovered stealing from his chambers and was disbarred; Penelope never spoke to anyone about this chapter in her life. Six months after this, the boat sank, taking with it most of their possessions. For the next 18 months they lived in a series of squalid homeless centres and temporary housing until the end of 1964, when they moved into council housing in Clapham, which was their home for 11 years. The pages on Fitzgerald’s poverty are unsentimental, clear-eyed and heartbreaking.

After Desmond’s death in 1976, Fitzgerald lived, variously, with her daughters’ families and in a rented attic room in St John’s Wood. Then the books started coming, one after another: two biographies; five novels, written from the material of her life stored up for so long; then those four late novels from the mid-1980s. From 1988 until her death, she lived in the coach house adjoining the house of Maria and her husband in Highgate.

It may appear at first glance that the biographer’s ordinary cradle-to-grave chronology provides the spine of this Life but look closely and you’ll see that the armature is a preternaturally finely tuned literary criticism. I read the “finding” in the epigraph as Fitzgerald’s books; the “searching” as uncovering what it was in her life that gave rise to them. It’s a book of great and harmonious intellectual unity, its artful investigation into how Fitzgerald’s inner life up to the 1980s can account for and be predictive of the late work gives the book its internal coherence.

It is easy to find parallels between her life and the first five novels – Lee does this with rigour yet extraordinary sympathy – but the later fiction calls for a different kind of illumination. Accordingly, Lee traces Fitzgerald’s reading, her intellectual and emotional affinities, producing a cogent account of Fitzgerald’s research, so compressed and buried within the work that the worlds the books bring forth feel entire and lived and utterly truthful. And the sustained pursuit of Fitzgerald’s central interest in failure and losers – “exterminatees”, as she called them – gives the biography its empathetic resonance.

The two-and-a-half-page preface alone is a wealth of such condensed thoughts that several could be pulled out into monographs. She writes that Fitzgerald’s life is “partly a story about lateness – patience and waiting, a late start and late style”. Those last two words proudly insert both Lee’s biography and her subject’s work into the Adorno-Beethoven- Mann-Said conversation. There’s no getting away from it – Fitzgerald was a genius.

Then there’s the gleam of those gem-like details: Fitzgerald’s compulsive cheating at games, even with her little grandchildren; the lunchtime sausage roll warming on the radiator in one of the schools where she taught, filling the classroom with its smell; cutting down her clothes to make Valpy’s dungarees; dyeing her hair with tea bags . . . Here is the heart of the meaning of life-writing: to bring the dead back to life.

“Magisterial” can be a forbidding word; it can imply distance, loftiness, even a touch of arrogance. But Lee’s magisterial work is inseparable from warmth, intimacy, humaneness, and love for the subject of her biography – and the sui generis work that Fitzgerald left behind.

Neel Mukherjee is the author of “A Life Apart” (Corsair, £7.99)

Late great: Penelope Fitzgerald at home in 2000. Image: Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times