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.