Friday, November 20, 2009

Indirect lighting

The time has come to commend the novels of Penelope
Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower is one of the most exquisite
short novels I know, and The Beginning of Spring, which
I’ve just finished, is almost in the same class. Fitzgerald and
Shirley Hazzard stand apart from other late-20th-century
novelists, in my view, in their supreme ability to withhold
and under-explain, rather than gush and overwrite. They
let motives be revealed gradually or indirectly through the
actions of the characters, so their narratives are lit
obliquely—from the side, as it were, rather than from
overhead. Even major plot developments aren’t signalled
by flashing signs; the reader comes across them almost by
accident. The true forebear of Fitzgerald and Hazzard is E M
Forster, who once said ‘Only what is seen sideways sinks
deep.’ It is true; only in very rare moments, perhaps two or
three times in a lifetime, do we grasp a great truth by
looking straight at it. Life is casual, rather than causal, more
happens by hazard than we care to acknowledge, and while
novelists by definition impose some kind of predetermined
story on their situations and characters, only the very best
of them successfully refrain from getting in front of the
story and blocking the picture, like some kid at a cricket
ground jumping up and down in front of the television
camera as it pans the crowd.

The other great virtue of this kind of fiction-writing is that
it flatters the reader’s intelligence, which works for me
anyway. Again, I commend the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald.

1 comment:

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you for this, Denis. I have The Blue Flower on my bookshelf of books to read [one day] but have not yet done so. I will make sure I read it over Xmas.