Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

As an institution that could not tell a lie, they were unique in the contrivances of gods and men since the Oracle of Delphi.  As office managers, they were no more than adequate, but now, as autumn approached, with the exiles crowded awkwardly into their new sections, they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark.  And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen's one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.

Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices tells the story of  "Broadcasting House," the BBC's Radio arm, during World War II.  Fitzgerald's BBC is a collection of wearied administrators and young, anxious assistants, for the most part committed and noble but deeply flawed.  And yet she also depicts it as an institution, as much as any military or political one, crucial for the preservation of national spirit and resolve in the face of the German blitz.  She focuses on two veterans, Sam Brooks, Director of Recorded Programmes and Jeff Haggard, Director of Programme Planning--usually referred to, with bureaucratic blandness, as "RPD" and "DPP"--the former a needy romantic devoted to his small cadre of female assistants, and the latter a jaded but capable administrator.  Together, they are devoted to preserving the "human voices" of the U.K., a title which, if it's an intentional reference to T. S. Eliot ("til human voices wake us, and we drown") is actually quite foreboding.

Human Voices has very little in the way of plot--like The Blue Flower and Offshore, it seems more like a series of finely-wrought setpieces--but, like those books, many of these are really spectacular.  In one, DPP deftly anticipates that a fleeing French general who has requested airtime from the BBC is about to deliver a speech advocating surrender, drops him mid-speech for dead air.  I also enjoyed the subplots about the lives of the assistants, most of which faithfully record the way that intra-office politics and tawdry love affairs refuse to be interrupted, even by war.  At its best, Fitzgerald's writing has a wonderful, crystalline quality that perfectly captures the intricate detail of small moments.  This is one of my favorite paragraphs:

Mac was reading the Evening Standard by the light of a small fire on the pavement caused by an incendiary bomb.  He wore a tin hat and his blue formal suit with a Press arm-band, and had drunk a certain amount of bourbon.
In the end, the lack of a central character dampened my enjoyment of the book, which didn't succeed for me on the same level as the other Fitzgerald novels I've read.  And perhaps I would have really loved it if the blitz were part of my own national heritage.  As it is, I thought Human Voices was merely very good, and the extent to which I wanted more from it is indicative of how great Fitzgerald's writing is.

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