Friday, January 14, 2011

Penelope Fitzgerald

Winter themes again: There’s something wonderful about sitting by the fire in the dead of night with a glass of port (or something) by your side and a book in your lap. I was making my way through The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree (a title I saw on the New York Times Notable Books list and ordered on impulse from Amazon) but having reached page 49 I decided to give it a rest and turned to a slim volume of short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald called The Means of Escape.

Perfect choice. The stories are spare and strange; they’re set in places such as Brittany, Tasmania, and Turkey as well as in England proper. Though the descriptions are terse, they’re also vivid and the contours of any given plot depart from the norm almost immediately.

The arcane elements that often play a part in these stories reminded me of the work of the Austrian novelist Leo Perutz (By Night Under a Stone Bridge, Leonardo’s Judas) with their rich patina of history and their breezy pace, though Fitzgerald has no interest in probing the supernatural/metaphysical zone that Perutz finds so fascinating.

An escaped convict confronts a young woman practicing the organ in a church. A group of “plein-air” painters circa 1880 spend the summer in a poor seaside village, where models are hard to find. A program director for the BBC decides to save money on programming by hiring on a once-famous conductor who’s spent the last twenty years on a remote island off the Scottish coast. Such are a few of the premises from which Fitzgerald spins her tales, the full import of which almost invariably remains hidden until the last sentence—if it ever becomes clear at all.

In a recent New York Times review, Joyce Carol Oates divided short story writers into two groups: meticulous old-school masters (from Henry James to Alice Munro) and young practitioners of “first-person narration, or monologue: more akin to nonliterary sources like stand-up comedy, performance art, movies and rap music and blogs.” It seems to me these stories fall into neither category. Fitzgerald’s voice vanishes amid the details, perhaps because she never lingers in the midst of them. A fast reader could probably finish the eight stories in a hour or two.

No comments: