No-one in Weissenfels looked forward very much to the Hardenbergs’ invitations, but they were so rare – this was not thought of as meanness, everyone knew of their piety and charity – and so formally expressed, that they seemed less of a celebration than a register of slowly passing time, like mortality itself.
– Chapter 43, “The Engagement Party”
Sophie reappeared, without pen, paper, or ink. It seemed that she had been playing with some new kittens in the housemaids’ pantry. ‘So that is where they are,’ said the Mandelsloh. She was reminded now that she had brought the bucket of water to drown these kittens. The servants were faint-hearted about their duty in this respect.
– Chapter 26, “The Mandelsloh”
Among other revelations, 2015 was the year I finally discovered Penelope Fitzgerald. My brother-in-law and his family visited from out of town on my birthday, and they babysat while A. and I went out for dinner and met my sister for a drink. In between, we had time to stop at our local bookstore, where I bought Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and, from the bargain bin, a three-in-one Everyman edition of Offshore, Human Voices, and The Beginning of Spring for a mere $6.99. Cheap at twice the price, as my dad would say.
I devoured all three in quick succession while we were house-sitting an empty bungalow during our renovations in April. Living without an internet connection is massively inconvenient to modern life, but the opposite of detrimental when it comes to reading. I especially loved The Beginning of Spring, which is the most perfect English Russian novel (Russian English novel?) imaginable; having come to it after the first two books, I began to see that Fitzgerald is probably the only writer capable of both conceiving of and pulling off such an audacious mongrel of a book.
In the fall I picked up her short story collection, The Means of Escape, and though the cadence of her short fiction is different, it was no less delightful. Why not set a brief, muscular love story in a Tasmanian penal-colony town? What’s stopping anyone from attempting such a feat, except a bit of research and a lively imagination? Perhaps most importantly, Fitzgerald reminds me that serious fiction is no less serious for making us laugh. I don’t think I read anyone funnier last year.
Why, then, have I been stuck in the middle of The Blue Flower for a month? Partly it’s because I’ve been unfaithful. A. has finally waded into AS Byatt’s Frederica Potter quartet, and I stole Babel Tower right out from under him in the long week after Christmas when the kids had a stomach bug. (It is so nice to have someone to talk with about one’s feelings of intellectual inferiority after reading Byatt. “I mean, have you read Mallarmé?” A. demanded. I haven’t.) I also finally read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which has been on my to-read list since I came across this piece in The Toast. I think it has something to do with the structure of the novel. At just over 200 pages, there are 55 chapters that are just disconnected enough from each other that it’s necessary to re-orient oneself constantly – now I’m reading a letter; now I’m reading a diary; how much time has just elapsed? It’s as if I’m reading a novel comprised of many very short stories, only each story contains about as much as a thirty-pager by anybody else, and demands an equal amount of attention. I’m lucky to manage two chapters per day.
There’s also something about the trajectory of this kind of historical project that affects the book’s momentum. The pacing is off, somehow, bent slightly to accommodate prescribed events. I remember feeling this way about Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness,” her novella about Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevsky. These are ambitious projects, and I’ve enjoyed them, but compared to their other works, it feels as if they’ve been executed with one hand tied behind the writers’ backs. It’s another reason to read them, though – what Fitzgerald can do single-handed is more than what most writers can do with two, plus toes.