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Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’

Human Voices is a short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, set during the blitz at BBC headquarters. Fitzgerald worked there herself at that time, when she was in her 20s.  She writes about one department where Sam Brooks is “RPD” (Recorded Programme Director) and he has a young staff of assistants who manage much of the work while he signs endless piles of letters prepared by the motherly Mrs. Milne and designs field equipment for the time in the not too distant future when he expects BBC teams will be sent into Europe to cover the war on the ground. His longtime friend Jeff Haggard is “DPP” (Director of Programme Planning), higher ranking and often in a position to defend the somewhat eccentric and self-absorbed RPD.

Against this backdrop of the men in charge, Fitzgerald also weaves in the stories of the young programme assistants who work for the RPD of the younger people, like Willie, who is constantly planning for a future ideal society; Vi, who comes from a large family and is waiting for her boyfriend in the merchant marines to come home; Lise, a half-French girl who only works a short time in the RPD’s office and has one of the most dramatic scenes in the book; and Annie, still a teen and recently orphaned, who stands up to the RPD in ways none of the others has.

The DPP has another good friend, the American broadcaster Mac McVitie, who breezes in and out of London with gifts. There’s a scene where he’s given out oranges and the assistants in the Recorded Programme office are dividing them among themselves that makes clear how unusual McVitie’s presents are for the Londoners. When he’s there, he records at the BBC and goes out looking for a drink or a chance to meet ordinary people on the street with the DPP.

What’s most striking is that quirky as they are — one team sent into the countryside to preserve quintessential English sounds come back with hours of recordings of a church hall door opening, creaking louder when it’s opened wider — Fitzgerald portrays the entire enterprise as devoted to truthful broadcasting. And despite the tone, which is mainly breezy and focused on the younger people’s cares, which are much like young people’s cares anywhere, anytime, Fitzgerald shows very skillfully how the tension of the time creeps into every aspect of life. Relationships, work, leisure — everything is impacted by the struggle to overcome the daily strain of working in a war zone.

I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and this was just as enjoyable. I happened across it on Hoopla, when I was going through a list of books I’d hoped to find at the library at some point. Entertaining, but with enough humanity and pathos to keep me thinking about it long after I got to the end.

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Penelope Fitzgerald‘s The Bookshop is one of the books I bought at the Five Colleges Book Sale, and I read it yesterday afternoon while waiting to hear what you all suggest I read next (so far the consensus is The Scapegoat, as soon as it arrives). In keeping with how she appears to have been treated in her lifetime, as this appreciation by Julian Barnes suggests, I purchased two of Fitzgerald’s books accidentally, because I was thinking of Penelope Lively. As I told the Computer Scientist, it all worked out, because somehow, I’ve never read Fitzgerald and she’s marvelous.

The Bookshop is a brief but brilliant tribute to the difficulty of being “not from around here.” The heroine, Florence Green, decides to open a bookshop in a very small town on the coast of England in 1959. She’s a widow, and as the book opens “she had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” Having worked in a large book store in London, she decides that she’ll buy the derelict and aptly named Old House, damp and reportedly haunted by a “rapper” — a loud sort of poltergeist — and transform it into a bookshop.

In the course of 123 pages, Florence struggles to do so, encountering helpful Boy Scouts, a capable ten year old whose large family sends her to be a shop assistant, unhelpful and patronizing bankers and lawyers, and an assortment of customers. She also manages to meet and annoy the formidable Mrs. Gamart, who fancies herself a patron of the arts and has designs on the Old House, and Mr. Brundish, an elderly “descendent of one of the most ancient Suffolk families,” who becomes a friend of sorts, if an eccentric one in failing health. A young BBC employee, Milo, also seems to befriend Florence and the shop, although Florence can’t seem to get a read on him. All these characters and many minor ones march off the pages of this book, fully dimensional.

Florence fumbles her way, taking a big gamble on a new book, Lolita, and trying not to embarrass herself when her accountant comes around. Will she overcome her struggles and make a go of it? How will the town ultimately treat their outsider bookseller? What will become of her various friends, young and old? If you have a spare evening, you’ll soon learn. Fitzgerald writes in a way that portrays each scene vividly but with minimal words. For example, when General Gamart visits the bookshop to buy a war memoir, “He glanced about him as if on parole, and retreated with his parcel.” Fitzgerald succinctly shows us his discomfort. And to be clear, I shared that discomfort, by the end of this story, as Fitzgerald captures the pettiness of small towns everywhere. Still, I felt a ray of hope.

The other Fitzgerald I bought is apparently one of Barnes’ favorites, The Blue Flower. I look forward to it, and to deliberately hunting down more of her books at the next sale I attend.

 

 

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