Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald

'If you choose to go on the stage,' he said, still pondering, 'you pass your life in a series of impersonations, some of them quite unsuccessful.'

'Of course they're bound to fail sometimes.'

'They earn their money that way, and in fact they want to earn it that way.  Do you know Hannah that causes me some astonishment.  It seems to me a sufficient achievement to be an individual at all, what you might call a real person.'

Man, I love Penelope Fitzgerald.  She draws characters so minutely but so perfectly.  At Freddie's barely cracks 150 pages but in that space it manages to pack in five or six really memorable, quite human characters and the complex relationships between them.  Ford Madox Ford called it "getting a character in," and I can think of few writers who do it better.  There's Freddie, the proprietor of the Temple School that provides the theaters of London with a steady supply of child actors.  A charismatic older woman, she's one of those people who somehow always get what they want:

Certainly she could create her own warmth, a glow like the very first effects of alcohol.  As to what she wanted, no mystery was made.  She wanted to get the advantage, but on the other hand human beings interested her so much that it must always be an advantage to meet another one.  When she smiled there was a certain lopsidedness, the shade of a deformity, or, it could be, the aftermath of a slight stroke.  Freddie never tried to conceal this -- Take a good look -- she advised her pupils -- I'm not nearly so amusing as you're going to be when you imitate me. -- But the smile itself was priceless in its benevolence, and in its amusement that benevolence could still exist.  One had to smile with her, perhaps regretting it later.

There are the child actors themselves, especially Mattie and Jonathan, who Freddie points out as the difference between talent and genius.  Mattie is highly successful, snagging several high profile roles, but is fascinated by and obsessed with Jonathan's mercurial genius.  Their relationship is defined by Mattie's mix of love and resentment, and Jonathan's indifference:

He could not be satisfied until Jonathan had got into some sort of trouble.  Then would be the moment to rush luxuriously to his assistance.  But there were so few opportunities, one must be continually on the watch.  Prompting, for instance, was never needed.  If Jonathan didn't know his lines (and he was not a quick study) he smiled, and read them from the book.  If he had no dinner money, the girls gave him Fruity Snack.s  Once or twice, however, he complained of a stomach ache, although in a detached way, as though the pain was the responsibility of someone else.  Then Mattie was in his glory.  Lay him down near the radiator, Miss, and keep him warm.  I know just what he has to have, I'll go down to Miss Belwett for the Bisodol, you want to be careful, he might get a lot worse quite suddenly, we had to get a stomach pump to one of the cast on Saturday. -- He was thanked, of course, but never enough.  He could not master the half-sleepy mysterious gum-chewing little rat of a Jonathan, or exact the word of approval he wanted.  Later he rolled him over on the washroom floor and banged his round head on the concrete as though cracking a nut.  'Has that cured your bellyache?' -- Jonathan considered, and said he would tell him later.  Mattie was outraged.  And yet his dissatisfaction showed that he was not quite lost.  It was the tribute of a human being to the changeling, or talent to genius.

I especially liked reading about these two, and the other child actors, because I have a lot of students who fancy themselves actors, and though mine are much older than Mattie and Jonathan, I recognized a lot of them here: their habit of breaking into impressions, or song, and the frequent theatrical air that suggests they are not being quite sincere.

Then there are the teachers: Hannah, who is attracted to the glamor of the theater world, and Pierce, who is utterly aware of his lack of talent, sociability, or sheer competence, but who approaches his own shortcomings with stolid resignation.  He is a bad teacher, cannot understand or relate to the children, though Jonathan takes a liking to him.  He is, of course, in love with Hannah.  That's him at the top of the review, struggling to make sense of those who can act like any number of people when he is so profoundly bad at being himself.

These characters are so interesting and vibrant that it feels as if, rather than devising a plot, Fitzgerald merely put them together so she might record what happens.  And indeed, there's not much of a plot--Hannah falls for a roguish actor, breaking Pierce's heart; Mattie tortures Jonathan; Freddie charms her way through the financial insolubility of the school.  And yet At Freddie's is always surprising, because people are surprising.  The novel resolves in a way that feels deeply sad, though in such a low-key way that it's hard to pinpoint where the sadness comes from, wringing more pathos out of the everyday than even the final paragraph of The Bookshop, when Florence Green boards a bus carrying the burden of her shop's failure.

The central idea of At Freddie's is a well-worn one: our selves are theatrical performances of a kind, and to be an actor is to master the self in a way.  Pierce doesn't understand it, but is naturally himself in a way that other characters in the book cannot be; perhaps that's why he appeals to the enigmatic Jonathan, whose acting genius is tied up with his aloofness and detachment.  Freddie's charm is a kind of bravura performance, a more comprehensive and assured one than any of her students can conjure.  In the end, she makes a surprising move--deciding to dedicate the school to training students to act in commercials--that seems out of character, but suggests that like any performance, it can be stopped, or changed, if the performer knows what he or she is doing.

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