Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald - 1978 shortlist

Christmas Time is a lovely time to muse about which books you'd like to read next year and to ...well...read!  

Most of the time, I have a great stack of books beside the bed, half of which I can't remember how they got there or why I ordered them.  This time I am determined to record how I got to this book.  I was idly reading The Guardian Weekly Vol. 190 No 2 &3 and its Books of the Year article. The enclosed recommendations had a devastating effect on my PayPal account and library card.  Several authors (John Lanchester, Penelope Lively and Hilary Mantel) all recommended Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. In his column,   John Lanchester describes her novels as "funny/sharp".  Thanks John.  I think you have put me on to a very good thing.

Like John, I thought I'd better read some of Fitzgerald's work before I read her biography. I'm deeply ashamed to say that I had never heard of her and was only slightly consoled that my other half hadn't heard of her either. Whilst the library service where I work had several of her novels, I was impatient for a good read and so opted for an e-version of The Bookshop through my other city council libraryservice.  

There are pluses and minuses about e-versions.  Negatives are that they don't come with yummy covers - well not on my Kobo touch anyway.  I am a firm believer in judging a book as much by its cover as anything else.  Positives are that you can get a book (usually) when you are in a hurry.  Whilst you can make notes, I still find a tree book better when it comes to reflecting on a book and its merits.  Maybe it comes down to the user - I try to make notes or highlight text that appealed to me but I don't seem to do it very well.  I find flicking through a real book much easier.  

Anyway, enough about me and my incompetence.  Let's talk about the book.  

It's only 107 pages long (e-version; the tree version is about 175 pages).  Can you believe it?  Of late most prize-winning books seem to have to be absolute door-stoppers.  This tends to make me a bit cross and feel defeated before I've even begun.  My first Fitzgerald was looking even better than I'd hoped.  

At first when I was reading The Bookshop I tended to compare its author with Barbara Pym - and not as favourably.  I found the writing a bit jumpy and disjointed.  I wondered if I was missing some knowledge of dialect or whether there were some typos or glitches with the e-version.  I longed to compare the e-version with a ridgy-didge tree book. Has anyone else noticed this?  Here's an example of what I am referring to in some dialogue:

"Why should you mind about that, my dear?"

"They say she can't hold on to it, do they'll have her up.  That'll mean County Court."

I've highlighted the bit I don't understand.  Maybe it's Suffolk idiom.  If you know, please edu-macate or enlighten me.  

Then I started to smile a bit and think "Hmm...this is a damn queer book.  Is it a ghost story?"  

Source Flickr

Well no it's not.  Well there is a ghost - but it isn't the main focus of the book.  The "rapper" as they call it, is quite entertaining for a colonial like me living in a land where there don't seem so many ghosts on hand. It was from about the poltergeist scene onward that I relaxed and settled into the Fitzgerald groove.  As Edmund Gordon says:

"Fitzgerald's greatness doesn't announce itself within a few sentences, but creeps up on you slowly, over the course of a novel." 

Anyway I don't really want to tell you much more about The Bookshop, other than I really really liked it.  

Trevor's review tells you what it's about.  I just want to second his review and say that the writing made me laugh out loud, gasp and say "Oh no!" on several occasions.  

There is some exquisite writing.  I find it hard to articulate why it is so great.  Fitzgerald writes as much about what's not there as well as what is there.  I liked this passage the best (when aged Mr Brundish takes the unprecedented step of emerging from his abode to come to the heroine Florence Green's defence).

"Without attempting to disguise his weakness, without pretending to stop for a few minutes to admire the proportions of the hall, he clung to the banisters, struggling for breath.  His stick fell with a clatter to the shining floor."

I wanted to say in conclusion that I liked how many of Fitzgerald's characters didn't mince words but just said it like it was.  Maybe that can be said of Fitzgerald too.  It is perhaps the economy or thrift of words that I loved most about her writing.  Thrift is an attribute for which I am not famous, but which I deeply admire in others.  In support of this self-assessment, I am now off to purchase my own tree version.  Whilst I would like, in deference to thrift and booksellers to purchase locally, I confess to being rather taken with the Everyman omnibus which features a rather lovely cover portrait of the author.  It would, after all, be a tribute to Florence Green's fondness for Everyman editions.....

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