Novella a Day in May #15

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald (1978) 123 pages

The Bookshop was Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel (I reviewed her first here) and her first to be nominated for the Booker, which she later won with Offshore. It’s set in 1959 in the small Suffolk coastal town of Hardborough. This is not a picturesque seaside resort but a damp, isolated place:

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt the cold.”

Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in Hardborough and buys The Old House, a 500 year old derelict property:

“The Old House was not haunted in a touching manner. It was infested with a poltergeist which, together with the damp and an unsolved question about the drains, partly accounted for the difficulty in selling the property. The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though perhaps he alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”

Florence is a lonely widow, but she is not a pushover. As the forces of the town (mainly Mrs Gamart who wants The Old House for an arts centre for no other reason it seems than she is bored and used to getting what she wants) conspire against her, she doesn’t give up. Astutely, she acquires several copies of a book she has never read by an author she has never heard of, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and it causes quite the stir, raising much-needed profits for the shop.

She also has her allies. The reclusive Mr Brundish, proudly from an old Suffolk family, is on her side. Christine Gipping, an eleven year old with 2 broken front teeth, proves a tenacious keeper of Florence’s lending library and not easily put off by supernatural elements:

“Florence did not expect her assistant to return; but she came back the next afternoon, with the suggestion that if they had any more trouble they could both of them kneel down and say the Lord’s prayer. Her mother had advised that it would be a waste of time consulting the Vicar.”

The Bookshop is an absolute gem. The portraits of the inhabitants of Hardborough fully realised and idiosyncratic yet believable. The plot is simple but taut, the writing witty. Fitzgerald achieves a perfect balance of compassion without sentimentality.

“She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to matters of self-preservation.”

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

“There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” (P.G. Wodehouse)

Usually I try and pick books that explore a similar theme in different ways, but this week the choices aren’t linked thematically in any way except how they came into my life.  Both were given to me as gifts recently and I enjoyed them both, but couldn’t think what else to pair them with for a post.  Then I realised that for me they were sort of tied together, and this was a good enough (flimsy, lazy, what you will) reason for them to occupy the same post.  It’s unusual for friends to by me books – I think one sight of my overflowing bookshelves sends them scurrying to the nearest smellies store for presents, in the mistaken belief that any book they buy me I will have already read/somehow owned for years even if it’s just released/view with barely disguised contempt.  I’ve recently put the kibosh on toiletries by developing mad allergies, cause unknown, that make me look like Father Bigley (as my ever-sympathetic brother pointed out, for all you Father Ted fans out there) so this may explain the sudden enthusiasm for printed matter amongst my cohorts.  Either that, or I’ve finally taken control of my body odour, negating the need for bags of stuff from L’Occitane. Whatever the reason, two of my friends did sterling work with these recent offerings.

Firstly, At Freddies by Penelope Fitzgerald(1982, my copy 2003, Flamingo), given to me by my lovely friend C, who is an academic mega-brain, filled with boundless enthusiasm for literature, and despite these gifts and being quite beautiful as well, carries it all with such an unassuming genuine pleasantness as to make her completely likeable.  She can now add gift-giving to her long list of talents.  C chose this for me because firstly, she’d read and enjoyed it, and secondly because it concerns the theatre, which is one of my great loves.  But although it does have a dry, knowing humour about the theatre, At Freddies is much more about being a child in an adults world, about school and those teachers whose main qualification is their force of personality, and about trying to find your place in the world, which is after all, a stage (at least according to one highly regarded writer).  Freddie runs a dilapidated stage school for children in 1960s Covent Garden.  There is no money but somehow she keeps it all hanging together by being someone who everyone knows, and who no-one can refuse.

“Insane directors, perverted columnists cold as a fish, bankrupt promoters, players incapable from drink, have all forgiven each other and been forgiven, and will be, until the last theatre goes dark, because they loved  the profession.  And of Freddie – making a large assumption – they said: her heart is in it.”

There is a lot of humour in this book, the precocious kids who are manipulative and knowing, but still just children, are hilarious.

“You saved me Miss Wentworth…I’d be out of work, I’d never get work again, if you hadn’t spoken to Mr Lightfoot…I owe everything to you…”

Freddie paid no attention whatsoever.

….Mattie, with an expression of deep malignance, departed.

“He’s acting,” said Miss Blewett.

“Worse than that,” said Freddie.  “He’s acting being a child actor.”

Apparently Penelope Fitzgerald did teach at a theatrical school for a time, and some of her portrayals of theatrical professionals are drily presented, such as the director who wants to “underline Shakespeare’s concepts in the way he’d do it himself if he were here” – apparently this means having young boys played by very old men, and everyone on stage except the person going mad acting a breakdown while the character experiencing it remains stock still.  Not sure that’s quite what Shakespeare had in mind…  All this mayhem revolves around Freddie who remains resolute but ultimately enigmatic.  No-one quite knows her background, motivation or purpose, except to keep going.  When one of the teachers finds her collapsed, he reflects “No, she won’t die…She won’t change her habits so easily.” At Freddie’s is a short novel (230 pages my edition), highly readable and very enjoyable, but also unnerving and thought-provoking, as much about what isn’t said as what is.  I highly recommend it.

Secondly, The London Train by Tessa Hadley (2011, Vintage) given to me by my also very lovely friend K, who is as creative as she is kind as she is gorgeous.  I’ve got to stop hanging round with such thoroughly brilliant women, it only highlights my own shortcomings (except when it comes to choosing friends, which I am inordinately talented at). K chose this for me because again, she’d read and enjoyed it, and secondly, because it was set partly in London, another of my great loves.  See what thoughtful friends I have? The London Train is a book of two halves.  In the first half, Paul is looking for his missing daughter, Pia, who he finds living in north London with her slightly controlling boyfriend and his sister.  In the second half, Cora is travelling in the opposite direction, back to Wales, to escape a failing marriage.  I enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s first novel, Accidents in the Home, a great deal but I hadn’t kept up with her writing since, and The London Train made me regret this, as she writes with such sparse beauty:

“He wished he could remember better those passages in The Aeneid where Anchises in the Underworld explains to his son how the dead are gradually cleansed in the afterlife of all the thick filth and encrusting shadows that have accumulated through their mortal involvement, their living; when after aeons they are restored to pure spirit, they long, they eagerly aspire, to return to life and the world and begin again.  Paul thought that there was no contemporary language adequate to describe the blow of his mother’s vanishing. A past in which a language of such dignity as Virgil’s was possible seemed to him itself sometimes only a dream.”

Hadley is also brilliant at capturing small moments, both between people and within individuals:

“Her speech wasn’t slurred, but aggressive, some layer of concealment had been stripped from between them. Where their feet bruised it, the grass sent up its yearning green smell, tugging at his emotions.”

“In the library Cora sometimes felt as if she had fallen to the bottom of a deep well.  It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling.  She hadn’t known there could be a job like this, pressing so weightlessly on the inner self, allowing so much space for daydreaming.”

This great skill, at pinpointing the significance of moments that are barely tangible, make Hadley’s writing both incisive and sympathetic.  The London Train is about the journeys we take both physically and psychologically, and how we construct notions of home, sometimes in the entirely wrong places.  I’ll be seeking out the novels by Hadley that I haven’t read as a matter of urgency.

Here are the books alongside the cards which accompanied them – thanks again, C&K!

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