The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

Until now, I had read two Penelope Fitzgerald novels – The Bookshop and The Blue Flower – both of which I had thoroughly enjoyed. I must admit, though, that having read them many years back, I have only a hazy recollection of the two and maybe a re-read somewhere in the future is in order.

I remember both being very different. The Bookshop was more traditional, while The Blue Flower felt more elusive with much to read between the lines. In terms of style, The Beginning of Spring felt closer to the latter book.

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s – before the start of the World War I and the Russian Revolution – and is centred around an English family settled there.

When the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie and their three children – Dolly, Ben and Annushka – have left him.

The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. However, almost immediately, Frank gets a call from the stationmaster to pick up his three children, Nellie has apparently decided that she can’t manage the children after all.

This presents Frank with the urgent matter of finding someone to look after the children while he manages his printing business.

Frank Reid is thoroughly English but is born and brought up in Moscow. The printing business belonged to his father and passed on to Frank after the former’s death.

Gradually, a bit of Frank’s past is revealed to us, particularly his meeting and marrying Nellie. Nellie is from a small town called Norbury in England and Frank meets her while he is on training there. In many ways, Nellie finds Norbury very narrow minded and stifling and is determined not to let its residents “get the better of her.”

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions. Nellie is hardly there in the novel, except in flashbacks, but her absence is as vivid as the presence of the other characters. Maybe something about their circumstances compelled her to flee…it is possible that she could not adapt to the strangeness of Moscow although we are told that she felt much more at home in the city than in Germany where the Reids were stationed for a while immediately after their marriage. It could be that Nellie expected much more from Frank atleast as far as communication in their relationship went, a point which could possibly be construed from the opening pages…

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage. He sat down by the window, although at four o’clock it was already dark, and opened the letter in front of them all. In all his married life he couldn’t remember having had more than two or three letters from Nellie. It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the book is peopled with interesting characters. There’s Selwyn Crane, the accountant at Reidka’s (the Reid printing firm), who is a big fan of Tolstoy and believes in occupying the moral high ground. Selwyn has a way of making everyone feel guilty or so Frank believes. And when Nellie leaves Frank, Selwyn chooses to console him in an odd way by introducing him to the young, unfortunate girl Lisa, as a suitable candidate to take care of his children.

Now that he (Selwyn) saw everything was going well, his mind was turning to his next charitable enterprise. With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting around for a new misfortune.

With Frank finding himself attracted to Lisa, can one assume that Selwyn’s move was deliberate?

The children are quite memorable too. The conversations between Frank, Dolly and Ben show the two kids to be quite ahead of their age. Although when Lisa is introduced to the household, they immediately get along well with her, which points out to the flimsiness of their affections.

Frank’s printing business, Reidka, serves as a vehicle for the reader to get a glimpse of how business was done in Russia at the time – the bribes to be given to get things done, and the increasing uncertainty and fickle nature of various laws. So much so that even Frank is not sure of his position in the city although he has resided there all his life.

First they’d wanted him to stop, now they wanted him to go. Inspite of himself frank felt a deep pang at his first rejection from the magnificent and ramshackle country whose history, since he was born, had been his history, and whose future he could scarcely guess at. The Security, of course, might well change their minds again. In a country where nature represented not freedom, but law, where the harbours freed themselves from ice one after another, in majestic sequence, and the earth’s harvest failed unfailingly once in every three years, the human authorities proceeded by fits and starts and inexplicable welcomes and withdrawals. To try and work out why they had one opinion of him last week, and another this, would be a squandering of time.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Russia is beautifully evoked – its vibrant tearooms, the ice breaking on the river when it begins thawing and the coming prospect of spring when all the double windows in Moscow houses are taken out, in readiness for the few short months of summer. Here’s how a fashionable tearoom in called Rusalochka is described…

Since it was supposed to be devoted to tea-drinking, the walls were frescoed from smoky ceiling to floor in red-gold and silver-gold and painted with dancing, embracing and tea-swilling figures overlapping with horses, horse-collars with golden bells, warriors, huts prancing along on chickens’ legs, simpering children, crowned frogs, dying swans, exultant storks and naked women laughing in apparent satisfaction and veiled, to a slight extent, by the clouds of a glowing sunset. Service at Rusalochka’s was in principle a simple matter, since nothing was served but tea, cakes, vodka and listofka, slievanka, vieshnyovka and beryozovitsa, the liqueurs of the currant-leaf, plum, cherry and birch-sap.

In a nutshell, The Beginning of Spring is a treat of a novel – elusive, layered with a lot packed in, made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Passing – Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good.

Irene has a well-set life. Married to a qualified black doctor with whom she has two sons, Irene is part of an upper class black social circle, heavily involved in organizing charity events. She identifies herself as black and is satisfied and content with the way things are at home barring one fear – her husband’s longing to relocate to South America so that he can work with the poor there.

When the book opens, Irene has received a letter from Clare who expresses a desire to meet. The letter unsettles Irene who is reluctant to resume ties with Clare who she thinks is used to having her way. Clare’s letter sends Irene back to the past to Chicago, as she reflects on certain events that took place then.

Exhausted by the blistering heat, Irene seeks refuge in an upscale rooftop café where for the sake of convenience, she chooses to pass over as white (since blacks are not permitted). There she bumps into Clare Kendry and is struck by her beauty, unable to recognize her at first. When they get talking, Irene learns of Clare’s marriage to a white man, John Bellew, and her subsequent severing of ties with the black community so that she can capitalize on the opportunities otherwise denied to the blacks. In fact, Clare “wondered why more coloured girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”

Clare’s husband has no idea that she is white and Irene is keenly aware of how dangerous a game Clare is playing, there is a sense that she is living on the edge.

“What about background? Family, I mean. Surely you can’t just drop down on people from nowhere and expect them to receive you with open arms, can you?”

“Almost,” Clare asserted. “You’d be surprised, Irene, how much easier that is with white people than with us. Maybe because there are so many more of them, or maybe because they are secure and so don’t have to bother. I’ve never quite decided.”

Irene perceives Clare’s re-entry into her life as a threat and is reluctant to have anything more to do with her. But Clare somehow finds a way to insinuate herself into Irene’s well-organised life and this ultimately has consequences.

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.

Interestingly, Irene belongs to the upper class black community and in terms of lifestyle there is nothing much to differentiate hers from that of well-to-do whites. Other than colour that is. It is this racial fluidity that is one of the core themes of the novel further highlighting the absurdity of race and colour distinctions.

But this is also very much a novel that focuses on the inner drama of the two women. Clare is stunningly beautiful and is attuned to getting what she wants. And yet, she finds herself unable to really belong to either side. She feels out of place with the whites, and her decision to identify with them puts her at odds with her black people. Clare’s subsequent wish to reconnect with her community can possibly be construed as a form of a defiance against her husband’s rampant racism – a decision which has all the makings of playing with fire.

Irene has her own set of insecurities as well. She has worked hard to set up her home and lead a good life. Major changes and disruptions are not something she has an appetite for. And yet, her husband’s increased longing to move to Brazil is a constant source of anxiety and alarm.

Yet all the while, in spite of her searchings and feeling of frustration, she was aware that, to her, security was the most important and desired thing in life. Not for any of the others, or for all of them, would she exchange it. She wanted only to be tranquil. Only, unmolested, to be allowed to direct for their own best good the lives of her sons and her husband.

The friendship between Irene and Clare is an uneasy one – atleast on Irene’s side. The fact that they belong to the same race often deters Irene from criticizing Clare’s actions vocally, even if she is sorely tempted to do so.

That instinctive loyalty to a race. Why couldn’t she get free of it? Why should it include Clare? Clare, who’d shown little enough consideration for her…What she felt was not so much resentment as dull despair because she could not change herself in this respect, could not separate individuals from the race, herself from Clare Kendry.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

A Month of Reading – August 2020

Since August was WITMonth, my original plan was to focus only on WIT books and to read as many as possible. That didn’t quite work out. I did read 4 WIT novels from Poland, Denmark China and Germany, which I ultimately felt was not too bad. And I also threw in a Ross Macdonald and the latest novel from Daisy Johnson.  

So here’s a brief summary of all that I read in August 2020…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a fascinating book, a heady cocktail of ingredients – offbeat murder mystery, subtle humour, and philosophical musings with an ethical bent at its core.

Set in a Polish village in deep midwinter, the novel begins with the discovery of a man’s body in his home in the dead of the night. Called Big Foot because of his enormous feet, the circumstances of this man’s death are quite mysterious. It is Janina, the novel’s central character as well as the narrator, who chances upon his corpse along with her neighbour Oddball. The local police are summoned but they cannot for the life of them figure out who killed the man and the motive behind it.

As the novel progresses, few other prominent men of the village are also found dead at regular intervals under similarly strange circumstances. These murders completely baffle law enforcement and increasingly spook the villagers.

Our narrator, Janina, finds herself to be the first person at these crime scenes a couple of times, and she has her own theory on these murders, which she persistently presents to the police but to no avail. It is perhaps significant that at most of these crime scenes she and her friend spot a set of footprints that belong to animals, specifically deer.

Janina is viewed as a cantankerous old woman in the village, not to be taken seriously. An engineer turned school teacher, she is also the caretaker of some holiday properties of owners who come to stay in the village during summer months. Janina clearly loves animals (possibly more than humans) and has strong opinions on hunting, animal brutality and non-vegetarianism. She also is a deep believer in astrology looking for answers in stars and cosmic planets to make sense of the chaos around her. And in her free time, she keeps herself busy translating poems of William Blake.

For most of the time, Janina is a recluse – “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”. She is nonconformist and is not afraid of expressing her opinions even if most of the time she is derided. Appalled by the extent of hypocrisy exhibited by the men in her village, Janina is like a lone crusader fighting for the rights of animals, and finds the popularity of hunting sport deeply disturbing.

Is it possible, then, that the men who were murdered finally got their comeuppance? Were these men killed by animals who spotted an opportunity at revenge? Janina increasingly begins to think so but is also aware of the futility of stating her suspicions out loud. After all, won’t people think that her views are the incoherent ramblings of a mad woman?

The most dominant theme of the novel, then, is man’s lack of compassion towards animals, labeling them as inferior beings. The other theme explored is the treatment meted out to elderly women – the blatant lack of respect shown for their views and how younger people (men mostly) fail to take them seriously while also adopting a condescending attitude when interacting with them. This is very apparent in the way Janina is treated. Her various letters and entreaties to authorities to stop the inhumane killing of animals simply fall on deaf ears.

“But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.”

The novel is pretty atmospheric given its setting in a remote village during a harsh Polish winter, and death permeates everywhere as the bodies of both humans and animals pile up.

Drive Your Plow is no ordinary ‘whodunnit’, but that’s really not the point of the book. Peppered with doses of black comedy as well as melancholia, this book has existential overtones as it poses questions on our place in the universe, and challenges notions that humans are superior to animals. Strange and unique, with fascinatingly named characters (Oddball, Big Foot, Dizzy, Good News), and a fierce, eccentric personality in Janina, Drive Your Plow is a brilliant read leaving the reader with much to think about.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. from Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. from German by Kathie von Ankum)

The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.

After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin.

While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company.

In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.

Wild Swims – Dorthe Nors (tr. from Danish by Misha Hoekstra)

I had been meaning to read Dorthe Nors for quite a while now, ever since her first collection of stories Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was released a few years ago (a book I had purchased then but is now languishing somewhere on the shelves).

I delved right into her latest collection Wild Swims instead. The themes of loneliness and human connection are central to these stories, but they are also brief character sketches encapsulated in certain moments with an element of darkness running through them.  

In ‘In a Deer Stand’, man in his late forties, finds himself miles away from home on a deserted dirt track, wet and frozen. Hampered by an injured ankle, he thinks desolately of his wife and the toxic nature of their marriage.

In ‘By Sydvest Station’, two girls who are going around houses collecting charity from people for a cause, encounter an old woman living in considerable poverty and distress. While one of the girls is quite disturbed by the incident, it barely ruffles the other who is more preoccupied with a relationship gone sour.

In ‘Our Narrow Paved Paths’, Alice is super busy taking care of a friend – Einar – who is suffering from cancer and expected to die anytime, although by the end you get a feeling that its Alice who possibly needs support as she is wracked by a feeling of emptiness.

In a disturbing story called ‘Honeysuckle’, a medical student studying at the NYU meets a blind Hasidic woman with whom he frequently has sex. It is during these moments that her face truly comes alive when at other times she is described as ‘a pale blotch in the midsummer night’.

All in all, there are fourteen stories in this collection and despite their brevity, it’s the sharpness in them that makes quite an impression.

Sisters – Daisy Johnson

Sisters is the second novel I have read this year where the relationship between two sisters is the focal point (the first was the marvelous We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).

September and July are born ten months apart but are almost inseparable. When the book opens, the girls (in their late teens) have just moved to Settle House in the remote Yorkshire moors with their mother. A certain ‘incident’ at school is alluded to – the primary reason for the house move – though not revealed to us (that will come later on).

As sisters, September and July could not have been more different. September is the dominant personality, she is assertive, willful, fiercely protective of July but also prone to bouts of cruelty. July, on the other hand, is always in September’s shadow, doing what her elder sister tells her to do, although there are moments where she yearns to have an independent identity.

Their mother, Sheela, is an author of children’s books but prone to bouts of depression after a failed marriage, her ex-husband having died since then. She loves her daughters but is also unsettled by their closeness. The sisters are in some sense self-sufficient in their own private world, a world from which Sheela is excluded. This greatly disturbs her, although she feels powerless to do anything about it.

The relationship between September and July is complex suffused with love but also extreme possessiveness and manipulation. So entwined are the two sisters, it almost feels like there is a merging of identities into one (September insists that rather than have separate birthdays, the sisters celebrate it on a single day). However, for a considerable part of the novel, particularly after the ‘incident’, July becomes increasingly unsure of their bond, and where they stand in relation to the other. She is loyal for the most part but also wants to break away from September.

All these elements pretty much set the tone of the novel right from the start – there’s a creeping sense of dread that pervades it. Daisy Johnson is great at creating atmosphere, there’s a gothic fairytale feel to the story, where the house is as much as a character in its own right as the mother and her two daughters. Throughout the book the narrative voice shifts from July’s first person to a third person from Sheela’s point of view offering us a glimpse into their shifting mental states.

Ultimately, Sisters is a very-well written novel, which besides the overarching theme of the unconventional rapport between two sisters also takes a look the intricacy and delicate balance of the mother-daughter bond.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald

I always turn to Ross Macdonald when I am going through a bit of a reading slump and he never disappoints. I am gradually making my way through his Lew Archer novels in the order of publication and The Zebra-Striped Hearse is the tenth in the series.

The novel begins when Archer is paid a visit by a client – Colonel Blackwell – who wants Archer to find dirt on a certain Burke Damis who is set to marry Blackwell’s daughter Harriet. Blackwell is a man prone to quick flashes of temper and his attempts to dissuade Harriet from marrying Davis are in vain. Archer for his part realizes that although Harriet is besotted by Davis, he is anything but.

A deeper examination into Damis’ background leads to a trail of murders which takes Archer to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Guadalajara in Mexico as he tries to get a sense of Damis’ personality.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse is another excellent addition to the Lew Archer oeuvre with a solid plot, a keen insight into the nature of family and how the past always comes back to haunt the present.  

So, that’s it for August. It was a solid month of reading with not a single dud among them. My favourites, though, were the Chang, Keun and Johnson.