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Cutting it Fine

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Early twentieth-century Moscow is the setting for The Beginning of Spring, indeed its central presence. To Frank Reid, émigré printer’s son, its weird bureaucracy, endemic espionage and corruption, its ramshackle back streets and raucous tearooms, its frozen river clotted with debris, are both familiar and profoundly foreign. But even while absorbing the surroundings we’re plunged into the drama of events, for in paragraph one Frank’s wife Nellie has already left him, taking their children with her.

The astonishing speed and economy in creating a world in microcosm are characteristic. None of Penelope Fitzgerald’s nine novels is longer than 300 pages, some far short of that; but there is no impression of slightness, so fine is the narrative texture. How does she do it? Rereading this seductive, atmospheric novel, I find her pre-Revolutionary Moscow is built tangentially, not by descriptive passages but by accumulated details embedded in the narrative . Nellie’s leaving note delivered by a red-capped guild messenger, for instance, or the way everybody knows about Frank’s business before he does.

Frank has no idea why Nellie has left or how to cope with their three precocious children, shockingly abandoned at the Alexander station. The chaotic household of his friend Kuriatin, ‘merchant of the second grade’, is welcoming, but after a hideous episode with a bear cub – an incident which epitomizes the meaning of ‘barbaric’ without ever using the word – Frank cannot leave them there.

Events and their consequences are equally unpredictable, and minor embarrassments induce unforgivable behaviour. Still anxious for the children, Frank visits the English Chaplaincy, but Mi s s Kinsman’s unexpected presence (‘Not only does she look like a dismissed governess, but it’s clear that she was born looking like one,’ comments the Chaplain’s acerbic wife) silences him. To avoid being saddled with her Frank makes hi

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Early twentieth-century Moscow is the setting for The Beginning of Spring, indeed its central presence. To Frank Reid, émigré printer’s son, its weird bureaucracy, endemic espionage and corruption, its ramshackle back streets and raucous tearooms, its frozen river clotted with debris, are both familiar and profoundly foreign. But even while absorbing the surroundings we’re plunged into the drama of events, for in paragraph one Frank’s wife Nellie has already left him, taking their children with her.

The astonishing speed and economy in creating a world in microcosm are characteristic. None of Penelope Fitzgerald’s nine novels is longer than 300 pages, some far short of that; but there is no impression of slightness, so fine is the narrative texture. How does she do it? Rereading this seductive, atmospheric novel, I find her pre-Revolutionary Moscow is built tangentially, not by descriptive passages but by accumulated details embedded in the narrative . Nellie’s leaving note delivered by a red-capped guild messenger, for instance, or the way everybody knows about Frank’s business before he does. Frank has no idea why Nellie has left or how to cope with their three precocious children, shockingly abandoned at the Alexander station. The chaotic household of his friend Kuriatin, ‘merchant of the second grade’, is welcoming, but after a hideous episode with a bear cub – an incident which epitomizes the meaning of ‘barbaric’ without ever using the word – Frank cannot leave them there. Events and their consequences are equally unpredictable, and minor embarrassments induce unforgivable behaviour. Still anxious for the children, Frank visits the English Chaplaincy, but Mi s s Kinsman’s unexpected presence (‘Not only does she look like a dismissed governess, but it’s clear that she was born looking like one,’ comments the Chaplain’s acerbic wife) silences him. To avoid being saddled with her Frank makes his excuses and leaves but is tailed and finally trapped by Miss Kinsman at the river. Having heard of Frank’s plight but not knowing who he is, she asks for Frank Reid’s address; Frank doesn’t let on, and is guilt-stricken by his deception. In her regard for human fallibility the author is especially intrigued by the damage wreaked by a certain kind of innocence – as in her novel of that name. Here the plague-bearer is Selwyn Crane, an Irish disciple of Tolstoy who works in the print shop, writes poems about birch trees, roams the highways in hand-woven birch-bark shoes in summer, and is always looking for unfortunates to help. He introduces Lisa, indigent, young and desperately desirable, to Frank’s household as a nanny and from then on all Frank’s problems, apparently unrelated, escalate. One critic commented that reading Fitzgerald’s fiction is like being driven away in a superb limousine, to find that the steering wheel has been thrown out of the window. Impeccable craft is used to show lives blown apart by the randomness of existence. What seems incidental is never extraneous – as when Frank discovers an intruder in the print shop, a student whose wild gunshot doesn’t injure Frank but damages equipment belonging to the chief compositor Tvyordov, a man of clocklike regularity, setting off a quite separate chain of events. Characters are summed up with luminous clarity: Tvyordov ‘had a broad, placid face, and the back of his head, covered with short greying stubble, gave the same reassuring impression as the front’. But his reaction to the desecration of his workplace can’t be predicted. Then Nellie’s brother arrives, serenely suburban and impervious to Russia’s savage irrationality – as Frank’s son Ben remarks, ‘He seems to like everything so much, we’re not used to that.’ Through the jumble of events played out across this subtle, original cityscape we glimpse huge changes ahead. If there is symbolism it is never stated. The penultimate paragraph describes the opening of the windows, sealed for months against the cold:
Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing up uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.
For Frank, resolution of a kind must wait until the final paragraph, the last sentence, the very last phrase. Cutting it fine is another Fitzgerald speciality. The Beginning of Spring was, I think, Penelope Fitzgerald’s seventh novel and is a rich example of her virtues as a writer. The elusive quality of wisdom may be a by-product of her late start in fiction when she was 62, in 1977. The Blue Flower, the last novel, won the American National Book Critics fiction prize. In between she won the Booker Prize for Offshore, the one about houseboats on the Thames. In my experience her novels are among the select few that are often borrowed, rarely returned and actually improve with rereading. My thoroughly foxed copy of The Beginning of Spring was borrowed from a friend who had stapled together the pages of the terrible bear cub incident, to avoid it on future readings – but she kept the book, nonetheless.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Anne Boston 2004


About the contributor

Anne Boston is the editor of Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War and is now preparing a biography of the writer and traveller Lesley Blanch.

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