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.

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch & Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

The last month has been quite busy and hectic. And while I have managed to read some wonderful books, I have not quite had the time to write about them. That is why in this particular post, I have chosen to review two books instead of one. I have greatly enjoyed both and they are strong contenders for my Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Blanch & Fuller

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch

Here’s what the NYRB Classics blurb says:

“My book is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category,” Lesley Blanch wrote about Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a book that remains as singularly adventurous and intoxicating now as when it first came out in 1968.

At a very young age, Lesley Blanch is dazzled by The Traveller and his stories of seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia. There is an aura of mystery around The Traveller and not much is revealed about him for much of the book other than that he is an older man, Russian with Asiatic features, and around the same age as Lesley’s parents. He periodically visits their home. But because of him, she develops a deep passion for Russia and Siberia, and has dreams of one day embarking on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway – a dream that comes to dominate her life.

In a way, the Traveller becomes an important man in her life. In her late teens, on a trip to Paris and later to Dijon, they consummate their relationship. Later, Blanch joins him, his aunt and his two sons on a family idyll to Corsica for two months. And then the Traveller disappears.

But in no way does that diminish Blanch’s passion for Russia and the Trans-Siberian railroad. Infact, she continues to visit the homes of Russian emigres in Paris to whet her desire for all things Russian and hold on to her vision of the Russia of yore.

Life goes on, and Blanch meets the French author Romain Gary. Enthralled by his Russian origins and deep voice, she marries him. Gary at the time is in the diplomatic service, and so they travel widely staying in places such as New York, Los Angeles, and Bulgaria to name a few. And while not her beloved Russia, these are postings that Blanch enjoys greatly, Bulgaria being the highlight during her time with Gary.

Gary then leaves her for the actress Jean Seberg. However, Blanch does not dwell on this too much. In a sentence, she only mentions matter of factly of their marriage ending in a divorce.

More importantly, now that she is on her own once again, it renews her vigour to finally visit Russia and embark on her much anticipated Trans-Siberian journey.

Here’s the Guardian:

Her avoidance of a conventional life in London led her on quixotic voyages geo-graphically and emotionally. In 1931 she became one of the rare tourists to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Dragged around monuments to Soviet progress, she perplexed her guides with questions about the homes of 19th-century writers, all the while glancing over her shoulder and around corners for that beloved Asiatic face.

Blanch’s dream of travelling on the Trans-Siberian railroad does come true, and this is not really a spoiler given what’s so rewarding about this book is the journey and not the end result. But after a very long hiatus, will she meet the man who shaped her life – the Traveller?

Journey into the Mind’s Eye is a wonderful book and Blanch’s passion for Russia and Siberia sparkles on every page. It is a hybrid work of memoir, travelogue, history, and  displays Blanch as startlingly ahead of her time. It certainly fuelled my appetite for travel to far flung places!

Journey into the Mind's Eye
NYRB Classics Edition

Bitter Orange –  Claire Fuller

When the book opens Frances Jellico has just arrived at the crumbling English mansion Lyntons. We are told that the mansion has been purchased by an American Mr Lieberman who has yet to visit the place. However, he wants an estimate of the treasures at the mansion. For a fee, Frances is appointed to study the architecture of the gardens and bridges and compile a report.

Frances at the time has just lost her mother and so this position could not have come at a more opportune time.

Once there, she comes across her neighbours – the hedonistic couple Peter and Cara. There’s more. Frances also discovers a peephole in the floorboard of her bathroom, which allows her to spy on both of them.

Meanwhile, Peter and Cara are enthusiastic to befriend Frances and she is thrilled. Frances is shown to be a plain, ordinary woman, overweight and not attractive in the conventional sense. Peter and Cara are quite the opposite: good-looking and glamorous.

Increasingly, they spend most of their days together – having lavish meals prepared by Cara, drinking wine after wine from bottles taken from the cellar downstairs, smoking cigarettes and languidly soaking up the summer sun.

And then the cracks start becoming visible – atleast Peter and Cara’s relationship is not as hunky dory as it originally appears. It all culminates in a tragedy that has a lasting impact on Frances’ life.

Claire Fuller has penned a dark and atmospheric tale with gothic overtones that is gripping and hard to put down. The summer is wonderfully evoked and the characters are also well drawn. At its heart, Bitter Orange is a tale about loneliness, obsession and wanting to belong.

That Frances wants to belong is quite obvious given her diffident personality and the fact that she is now alone and left to fend for herself. So much so that as the days carry on, she becomes obsessed with both of them taking a deep interest in their relationship, and what it means to her.

But in a sense, Peter and Cara are struggling to belong too, to find their bearings. Cara, particularly, is prone to bouts of anger and is quite clear that she does not want to go back to her home and a stifled existence in Ireland. She is yearning for a different life, with the firm belief that Italy will make her dreams come true. Peter is in some sense adrift too. He leaves his first wife for Cara, but is it is decision that will give him satisfaction?

Bitter Orange was thoroughly engrossing and I will be exploring more of Claire Fuller’s work.

Bitter Orange
Fig Tree Books Hardback Edition