Penelope Fitzgerald and “Minor Literature”

Recently I wrote a little bit about the pleasures and perils of historical fiction, in which I ended the post with a promise to write a bit about Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. I’d originally intended to write primarily about the ways in which Fitzgerald goes about writing “historical fiction” – I put the term in quotes primarily because Fitzgerald’s take barely resembles most examples of the genre – but since my last writing we’ve seen a veritable feast of Fitzgerald-related writings, both in the NYRB and in the NYer, both of which provide much greater detail on her use of the “historical” than I could hope to cram into a post.

Instead I’d like to talk a little about why Fitzgerald – who was, I think, a true genius – remains under appreciated and under read. (Hopefully the sudden media blitz will do something to shift this.) This fact that has to do with the particular form of difficulty contained in her work, as well as the sexism of the literary establishment, which tends to privilege different kinds of (read: male) difficulty. Fitzgerald’s work is always tightly composed, even compressed; people can pass over her without even realizing how brilliant she is.

To start, let me share with you a quote from Jenny Turner’s fantastic piece in the LRB about Penelope Fitzgerald (and the recent biography by Hermione Lee), about the scene that surrounded Fitzgerald’s surprise win at the Booker Prize in 1979:

Nobody expected Penelope Fitzgerald to win the Booker Prize in 1979 for her novel Offshore. Keneally was also on the shortlist, with Naipaul’s A Bend in the River the clear frontrunner… Unlike the others on the shortlist, Offshore was, in the words of Asa Briggs, who chaired the judges, a roman pur: short, deep, highly crafted, about a colony of misfits in London in the early 1960s, living on boats with the ‘certain failure’ that kept causing them to ‘sink back … into the mud moorings of the great tideway’ … Did that give licence to the next day’s BBC Book Programme, opened by Robert Robinson on the proposition that ‘the judges made the wrong choice’? A ‘favourite aunt’, ‘a jam-making grandmother’, ‘Pooterish’, ‘distrait’: this is the sort of thing people wrote about the figure Fitzgerald presented, finding a dissonance between the performance and the craft and brains of the books. It’s tricky enough, dealing with these women writers, but one who’s old as well, and didn’t start publishing until she was nearly sixty: it’s difficult to compute.

I bring this episode up, not only as an example of male boobery (although it functions quite well in this regard, too), but because it highlights the blinkered nature of most aesthetic judgment in literary circles. It is an open secret that literary prizes are generally awarded to books that we think ought to win literary prizes, and what we think ought to win is generally a constellation of our own half-buried prejudices, both aesthetic and otherwise. Reviewers privilege length, wideness of scope, self-consciously ponderous language that engages with what one might call “important” themes, if one weren’t convinced – as most reasonable people ought to be – that a theme is really only a matter of focus, and that a wide-angle theme often renders nothing more than an impressive landscape, in which indefinite figures blunder willy-nilly, searching for some purpose.

(I do not think it is a coincidence that aggressively difficult, archly intelligent, somewhat show-offish works are generally written by men, and that men also make up the vast majority of the reviewers for literary fiction, as well as the majority of prize juries.)

Fitzgerald attacks major themes, but she approaches them in miniature. In her work, everything is close-up, to the point of defamiliarization. Details emerge, sharp and strange. In Offshore, the world of the Thames barges is rendered in sometimes terrifying detail: two girls trek across the  mud, tracing the signal flags of the passing ships, while low tide empties their houseboat of a slimy film of river water. I love Asa Briggs’ term for Fitzgerald’s work: roman pur: “pure novel.” Her sentences are short, her time frames compressed, her language precise, and yet by presenting only the purest, most distilled form of fiction she gives back to us the strangeness in what might seem like a familiar style.

Turner confronts the question of Fitzgerald’s particular art head-on in her essay. She writes:

Fitzgerald’s novels, Byatt concludes, are best approached as ‘very English versions of European metaphysical fables’ – English, maybe, in the sense that Muriel Spark was Scottish and Isak Dinesen Danish, and that Marguerite Duras was French. Byatt does not make this point, but it’s worth noticing, surely, that this minor modern tradition often attracts women writers, maybe because its minority and smallness work well with limited resources, or because its irony makes sense to writers in secret protest over the limitations within which they work. As a conventional literary career, Fitzgerald’s life’s work was, as one reviewer put it, ‘an awful hash’. But really and truly, in what universe does the phrase ‘literary career’ make the slightest sense? Not on a leaky houseboat, when life is a daily struggle to look after all the people you have to look after. Nor, presumably, in the realms of ethical life and spirituality.

Turner’s point about the “minor modern tradition” is an interesting one. I agree with her, although I dislike the name. What makes Fitzgerald any more “minor” than Naipul, a figure that seems less and less relevant with each passing year? The problem with the prevailing literary tradition is that it produces novels which resemble each other, and end up feeling interchangeable; a “literary career” often consists of producing work which is recognizable as literature but which will be indistinguishable from its contemporaries in twenty years, if not ten, leaving us looking to the “minor” tradition for examples of independent engagement with what Turner calls “ethical life.” We ought to get a jump on the situation, and start adjusting our labels now.

Not that critics haven’t praised Fitzgerald, in particular for her final delightful and unclassifiable novel The Blue Flower. In the NYer, James Wood says it is “one of the strangest and freest books ever written… brought alive in astonishingly brief, elusive vignettes, fleeting chapters closer to the eloquent insufficiency of poems than to the reflexive garrulousness of fictional prose.” In it, Fitzgerald manages to present the world of Romantic poet Novalis with intense, sometimes uncomfortable intimacy: a shifting perspective that seems alien and yet also eerily intimate, like a brief communion with ghosts. She achieves this view with considerable economy; the book is roughly one hundred and fifty-pages.

Consider the following passage, which occurs early in the novel, and concerns the early education of Fritz, who will later become the Novalis known to scholars:

“Fritz had been born a dreamy, seemingly backward little boy. After a serious illness when he was nine years old, he became intelligent and in the same year was despatched to Neudietendorf. ‘But in what has he fallen short?’ demanded the Freiherr, when only a few months later he was requested by the Prediger, on behalf of the Elders, to take his son away. The Prediger, who was very unwilling to condemn any child absolutely, explained that Fritz perpetually asked questions, but was unwilling to receive answers. Let us take – said the Predinger – the ‘children’s catechism’. In the course of this the instructor asks, ‘What are you?’
A: I am a human being.
Q: Do you feel it when I take hold of you?
A: I feel it well.
Q: What is this, if not flesh?
A: Yes, that is flesh.
Q: All this flesh which you have is called the body. What is it called?
A: The body.
Q: How do you know when people have died?
A: They cannot speak, they cannot move anymore.
Q: Do you know why not?
A: I do not know why not.

‘Could he not answer these questions?’ cried the Freiherr.
‘It may be that he could, but the answers he gave in fact were not correct. A child of not quite ten years old, he claims that the body is not flesh, but the same stuff as the soul.’
‘But this is only one instance – ‘
‘I could give many others.”
‘He has not yet learned – ‘
‘He is dreaming away his opportunities. He will never become an acceptable member of Neudietendorf.’
The Frieherr asked whether not even one sign of moral grace had been detected in his son. The Predinger avoided a reply.”

There is difficulty, here, but it does not make itself known at the level of the sentences themselves, but in the way Fitzgerald moves from wide-scale historical description to conversational intimacy, the blank-faced statements that reveal strange gaps on close examination, like the phrase “after a serious illness when he was nine years old, he became intelligent.” Certainly the extravagant strangeness of the question and answer presented within the passage is “risky,” at odds with the prevailing narrative format – and yet the language is perfectly understandable, as well as perfectly appropriate to the themes at hand, an explication of the way students were taught in the religious schools of Germany in the late 18th century. Fitzgerald has a way of erasing tidy but ultimately meaningless labels. She is not really a “realist,” nor is she an “experimentalist.” You cannot provide a label for an author who creates that rarest form, a unique work of art.

I’m currently halfway through Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald. It’s clear, already, that she was a brilliant woman who prized learning and literature above all things but disliked the need of others to constantly demonstrate their intelligence. What an excellent trait for a novelist, who is required to know their subjects in glorious detail, while also giving their readers room to understand these subjects, without the author’s aggressive intrusions! And if it’s this same hesitation to present her own considerable intelligence as a self-conscious piece of verbal weaponry that allows shallow critics to pass over her in silence, consigning Fitzgerald to the camp of the “minor,” well – that’s all right. It’s been nearly twenty years since The Blue Flower was published; perhaps this new wave of critical attention is a sign that minor is finally becoming major.

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