The LA Times called her “The finest British writer alive.” Julian Barnes called her “the best English novelist of her time.” Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began publishing at the age of fifty-eight and produced nine novels, three biographies, and a book of short stories by the time she died at eighty-three. Her third novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize in 1979, while her final novel,The Blue Flower, was named Book of the Year by nineteen British newspapers in 1995 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s images enter the reader’s mind with crystalline precision, yet simultaneously, they make you want to re-read what you just read to make sure that what you think happened really happened. Her slim historical novels are the result, one realizes after the fact, of hundreds of hours of research, yet how does she manage to wear her learning so lightly? I first encountered Fitzgerald eleven years ago, thanks to Joan Acocella’s brilliant roundup of her work in The New Yorker. Each novel I read made me want to send the author a fan letter, but I held back, because I felt like I ought to read all of her books before I bothered her. As it happened, she died halfway through my reading jag, and I still regret having been so punctilious.
In the spring of this past year, I curated an eight-author memorial tribute to Penelope Fitzgerald at Manhattan’s KGB Bar. To prepare for the event, I re-read seven of Fitzgerald’s slyly devastating novels. If pressed to name a favorite before re-reading them, I would have said my top three were At Freddie’s, set in an acting school in London in the 1960s, The Beginning of Spring, set in Russia just before the Revolution, and Human Voices, set in the offices of the BBC during World War Two.
This spring, however, I found myself especially drawn to Fitzgerald’s eighth novel, The Gate of Angels, first published in 1990.
The Gate of Angels is a novel that pits science against religion with the lightest of touches, simply by reminding the reader that there are forces, desire among them, larger than our rational selves, which have the power to overturn all our best-laid plans. In this novel, set in Cambridge, 1912, Fred Fairly, the son of a poor country rector, lives in genteel poverty thanks to a Junior Fellowship at Cambridge, where he resides in the tiny College of Angels. To keep his fellowship, not only does Fred have to lecture in physics, not only does he have to serve as steward, treasurer, librarian, and organist for the College of Angels, he also has to abide by the College’s rules, the most exacting of which requires that he never marry. Of course Fred falls madly in love, and worse, with a girl not of the so-called “marriageable classes.” Daisy Saunders is a working-class girl on the edge of destitution, with whom Fred has little in common except, as we discover, his generosity of spirit, which with typical modesty, Fitzgerald characterizes as an inability on both Fred and Daisy’s part, when asked for help, to say no.
Fred’s troubles are twofold. On the one hand, it’s never clear whether he even has a chance with Daisy at all, until you reread and realize that Daisy can’t love a man until she feels sorry for him. On the other hand, Fitzgerald makes Fred choose between his fellowship at Angels and the girl without whom, in his words, he cannot live. If he marries Daisy, he’ll lose his job and his home. However, as Fitzgerald says, “if Daisy wouldn’t have him, he didn’t see that he would be able to go on at all.” Fred is basically ruining his life by pursuing Daisy, but Fitzgerald crafts a plot in which the reader cannot help but cheer him on.
In an interview with Kerry Fried, Fitzgerald referred to The Gate of Angels as the only novel of hers in which she pulled off a happy ending. Just at the moment when you can let yourself dare to hope that things might work out for Fred and Daisy, Fitzgerald stops, leaving you as breathless as the would-be lovers themselves. Beautiful.
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Say “historical fiction,” and your listener’s eyes may glaze over, as you fight to re-seize attention. Younger readers or those with edgier tastes, especially, may associate authors of historical fiction with dotty academic types in tweed, or their narratives with conventional period dramas, the cinematic equivalent of which might be a Merchant Ivory production. So let me just say, with as much un-dotty enthusiasm as I can muster, that I am, like, way super excited about the histo-fi seminar I’m teaching this fall, “(Re)Imagining True Lives.”
More specifically, the reading list focuses on works of fiction that feature, either prominently or peripherally, real historical figures as characters:
American Woman by Susan Choi
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Stories from You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Stories by Roberto Bolaño, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Colm Tóibín
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Written Lives by Javier Marías
Libra by Don Delillo
The Master by Colm Tóibín
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck
(Now, if this list doesn’t get your reading chops watering, then sure, maybe historical fiction just isn’t for you.)
What fascinates me as both reader and writer (and also as teacher and lifelong writing student) is the always dynamic tri-level experience of delving into these works and their like; one is always simultaneously aware of 1) the author’s particular knowledge of and relationship (intellectual, political, emotional) to the real-life material; 2) one’s own particular knowledge of and relationship to (or lack thereof) the material; and 3) one’s engagement/response to 1).
Where has the author stayed close to “facts,” and where has she taken liberties of imagination, supposition, projection? Does my experience of the novel grow more, or less, deep and interesting as I identify the fact-fiction seams? Personally, I would say more – which is to say that, as we see the way in which researched and imagined history braid together, the author himself ultimately becomes a compelling character in his own right. As the author decides what to imagine/suppose/project (and of course how), he reveals, inevitably, his own concerns, ideas, obsessions.
What is it about the German romantic poet Novalis’s rather banal, albeit eccentric, middle-class family and upbringing, and his courtship of the dull-witted 13 year-old Sophie von Kühn – years before he came into his full powers as poet and philosopher – that captivated Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary imagination? By what instinct or logic did both Susan Choi and Somerset Maugham take liberties in renaming their characters and revising their stories, while also rendering them clearly recognizable to the reader (as Paul Gauguin, and Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, respectively)? What do Bolaño and Le Guin mean by backgrounding primary figures like Borges and Cortazar, and the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, while foregrounding peripheral, fictional protagonists (the novelist Sensini in the story of the same name, and the all-female exploration team in “Sur”) in their stories of literary greatness and extreme adventure? Similarly, how important in the scope of history are figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Freud – in Doctorow’s literary vision – relative to a minor ragtime musician (the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), the Vaudeville escape artist Harry Houdini, and an immigrant street artist (also fictional), given Morgan’s and Ford’s relatively peripheral (at the same time utterly fascinating) scenes in Ragtime? What do Walbert’s imagined depictions of suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s female descendants tell us about her “what if” thought process (i.e., what if your mother, grandmother, great grandmother starved herself to death for a cause?) and conceptions of emotional inheritance? In other words, in their particular, idiosyncratic manipulations of history and imagination, and through our careful study of the results, these authors show us glimpses of not only their characters’ but also their own inner moral landscapes.
How we read these works also reveals to us something about our own relationship to fact and fiction. To what degree am I aware of divergences from strict facts as I am reading? Do I give myself over to the whole of the created world and characters, or do I pause to ask myself, “Did this really happen?” and then click over to Google to fact-check? Or do I engage in this research afterwards? Or not at all? Why, or why not?
We read a memoir, a la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and take it for true, only to learn that key elements have been fabricated, embellished. We are offended, insulted, maybe impressed, maybe not so surprised. But what of the converse? You are reading an absurd or incredible scene in a novel (the episode in Ragtime where J.P. Morgan sleeps solitary in the crypt of an Egyptian pyramid comes to mind), and then come to find it really happened. What is the effect, then? The other day I was walking in the park and saw, in a pond, a bronze sculpture of a turtle, nose in the air, perched on a rock. How quaint, I thought. Then, movement in the water: an actual turtle swimming, nosing up to the sculpture, trying to get its attention. Silly, dumb thing, I thought. Then, the sculpture’s eyes – black on white with blood-red outlines – suddenly flickered; the turtle stretched its neck even longer up toward the sun, then twisted to acknowledge its suitor-compadre. I stood there a few moments, smiling stupidly.
What was the nature of my delight? The translucent hologram of truth and falsity, real and fake, shifting and melding, captivates. In the hands of a skillful and mindful artist, the effect is unsettling and exciting: we start out on a smooth, hard path, but then find our feet sinking into warm sand, or slipping on ice, at times finding again stone-solid footing, only to slip or sink again. Where are we? Whose reality is this? History, the author’s inventiveness and fixations, our own projections and obsessions call out to us all at once. In historical fiction, studied closely, perhaps more so than with other sub-genres, this motional holographic magic comes into stark relief – not unlike the red flickering eyes of a turtle or, one hopes, the un-dotty aha moments of a seminar-class discussion. For good measure, maybe I’ll show up on the first day wearing gold lamé and skinny jeans.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun and controversy generated by the New York Times list of the top books of the last 25 years, the Guardian has rounded up 150 celebrity judges of its own (120 agreed to particpate), like Monica Ali, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Safran Foer, to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005. “How they defined ‘best’ was up to them” is the caveat the Guardian gives us.After the votes were tallied, they bestowed the honor on Booker winner Disgrace by Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee. Money by Martin Amis was runner up, while Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie all shared third place. Will this list generate as much fevered dicussion as the Times list? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.