Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

When Frank had been a small boy and they had lived on the site, the first sign of spring that couldn't be mistaken had been a protesting voice, the voice of the water, when the ice melted under the covered wooden footpath between the house and the factory.  The ice there wasn't affected by the stoves in the house or the assembly-shop furnace, the water freed itself by its own effort, and once it had begun to run in a chattering stream, the whole balance of the year tilted over.

Frank is an English printer living in Moscow with his wife and children--until his wife leaves, giving no reason, and unceremoniously depositing their three kids at a distant railway station.  Frank is baffled by his wife's decision, which no one can account for, but he is too successful and pragmatic to let it keep him from going on with the daily necessities of life.  He brings in a simple and taciturn young nanny, Lisa Ivanovna, and--wouldn't you guess it--quickly falls in love with her.  (For reasons, I might add, as inscrutable as his wife's sudden departure.)

All of this takes place against the background of the late winter thaw in Moscow, and the coming of Spring.  But what's the symbolic value of that?  Does it emphasize the great change that comes upon Frank's life when his wife abandons him, and suggest a greater happiness lies with Lisa Ivanovna?  Or, does it suggest the coming revolution--signified also by the student agitator, caught with a gun late one night in Frank's printing shop?  Frank's assistant, Selwyn, is an English devotee of Tolstoy who has just composed a book of poems called Birch Tree Thoughts, which seem to suggest that the earth has something to say to us, if we can only listen.  Later, in an eerie scene uncharacteristic of Fitzgerald's work, we see a cultish bunch of Tolstoyites emerge from a dark forest, where they have been literally hugging trees.

The Beginning of Spring has all the hallmarks that make Fitzgerald's books so terrific: the wit and humor, the finely drawn and clearly individuated characters, like Frank's no-nonsense daughter Dolly, the spacey Selwyn, and Kuriatin, the brash Russian merchant.  And though I'm no expert, Fitzgerald seems as impossibly at home in turn-of-the-century Russia as she did in the Romantic Germany of The Blue Flower.  And though it didn't have the compelling human-ness of that novel, or Innocence or At Freddie's, it does contain this awesome piece of dialogue, which I will leave here, without comment:

"Why is that bear on fire?"

There's only one Fitzgerald book left for me to read: The Golden Child, which seems to be regarded as sort of a trial run before Fitzgerald found her voice in The BookshopThat will be a sad moment for me.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

The Blue Flower >
At Freddie's >
Innocence >
The Bookshop >
Offshore >
The Beginning of Spring >
Human Voices >
The Gate of Angels