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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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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