Penelope Fitzgerald — The Beginning of Spring
The Beginning of Spring (1988 ) is a real oddity: every exquisitely-crafted chapter seems loaded with meaning, but what that meaning might be, if anything, remains a mystery. On the first page, Frank Reid, a second-generation British immigrant running a printing press in 1913 Moscow, discovers that his wife Nellie has disappeared, marooning him with their three young children: Dolly, Ben and Annushka.
While he seeks an explanation for this vanishing act, he faces further emergencies including, among other things, the printing of a book of poetry by his wacky “Tolstoyan” accountant, Selwyn; a break-in at the press by an angsty student, Volodya; the scheming of his merchant friend, Kuriatin, whose house is memorably trashed by a dancing bear; the unwanted attentions of a “dowdy” English woman, Miss Kinsmann; the visit of his brother-in-law, Charlie; and, most portentously, the arrival of a mysterious Mary Poppins-like governess, Lisa — a young blonde whose presence in the household scandalizes Moscow.
Fitzgerald provides a great service to the reader in cramming into 250 pages what almost any other author would smear over 500. Like Flash, Fitzgerald does the hard work so you don’t have to. This Booker-shortlisted novel is terrific fun: concise, eventful, historically fascinating and, best of all, humorous. Fitzgerald’s tone is wry, her characters clumsy and endearing. Here, Volodya confronts Frank:
“What I have written is not political.”
“What’s the subject?”
“The subject is universal pity.”
Volodya’s expression was strained, as though he had entered his remark for an important prize, and could hardly believe that he wouldn’t receive it.
The craftsmanship of this book, the effort, the patience, the care and the precision required to render some of these paragraphs, to not only go out and painstakingly research every bureaucratic detail of running a business in 1910s Russia (how the type was set, what was sold in the markets, how messengers were paid, what the accountants did, who had to bribe whom…) but to then incorporate that research in such a tidy, unshowy, laconic fashion… it’s astonishing. Take this little vignette:
He was heading toward the river, and the air was full of the vast reverberations of the bells from the five golden domes of the church of the Redeemer, not at anything like their full power, but like the first barrage of artillery before the main attack. The attack did not come — it was Lent, and they chimed only once, but they were answered from across the river by a hundred others, always with one chime only. He stood listening to the bells in the open starlight. From the cathedral square a ramp went down to the water. The river ran darkly, still choked with the winter’s majestic breaking ice and the debris carried along with it, and an inconceivable amount of rubbish — baskets, crates, way-posts, wash-tubs, wheels, cradles, the last traces of the traffic the ice had carried while, for four months, it was a high-road. Watching the breaking ice from the bridges was one of Moscow’s favourite occupations. The Gazeta-Kopeika said that a pair of dead lovers, clutched together, had floated by, frozen into the ice. The Gazeta repeated this story every spring.
Wish you were there? But this isn’t just literary tourism — this is excavation, exhuming a past that any right thinking person would assume had been buried forever by the 1917 revolution and the century that followed.
But is this staggeringly accomplished novel a case of storytelling for its own sake? Pure aesthetic pleasure? Or is there an overarching allegorical point to it all? Search me. It seems too real to be pure allegory, too strange to be no allegory at all. In particular, a climactic scene in which Lisa and Dolly wander through a forest seems to both demand and defy interpretation. Julian Barnes writes:
Among the birch stems Dolly begins to see “what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness”. In a clearing, men and women stand pressed each against the trunk of a tree. Lisa explains to the tree-people that, although she knows they have come there on her account, she can’t stay; she must go back with the child. “‘If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen’.” They go back along the path, and Dolly returns to bed; but the forest has invaded the dacha. “She could still smell the potent leaf-sap of the birch trees. It was as strong inside the house as out.” Does Dolly understand what she’s seen – and do we? Is the scene – for which we have only the child’s point of view – a dream, a hallucination, the memory of a sleep-walker? If not, what is its register? Are the woods coming to life, as they do in the pantheistic poetry of Selwyn Crane, the novel’s Tolstoyan dreamer? Does the scene symbolise female awakening or personal liberation, for Dolly, or for Lisa, or both? Perhaps Dolly has witnessed the preparations for some pagan rite of spring (only a few pages later, Stravinsky’s name is quietly mentioned). Or might the secret meeting in the forest be straightforwardly political, even revolutionary (Lisa, we later discover, is a politico)? Some, even all, of these interpretations are possible, and, mysteriously, not incompatible with one another.
Julian’s answer is a cop-out, but I’m afraid I fare no better. I cannot begin to fathom Fitzgerald’s grand plan in this strange and engrossing work, if there ever was one. Fitzgerald has crafted a novel as incomprehensible as Russia itself.