Wednesday, July 27, 2016
The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
'You say that,' returned Sir William, with another winning smile, 'and I say balls. The object of the Museum is to acquire power, not only at the expense of other museums, but absolutely. The art and treasures of the earth are gathered together so that the curators may crouch over them like the dynasts of old, showing now this, now that, as the fancy strikes them. Who knows what wealth exists in our own reserves, hidden far more securely than in the tombs of the Garamantes? There are acres of corridors in this Museum that no foot has ever trod, pigeons nesting in the cornices, wild cats, the descendants of the pets of Victorian curators, breeding unchecked in the basements, exhibits that are only looked at once a year, acquisitions of great value stacked away and forgotten. The wills of kings and merchant princes, who bequeathed their collections on condition they should always be on show to the public, are disregarded in death, and those sufferers trudging like peasants to the temporary canteen, to be filled with coconut cakes and lift plastic containers to their lips--they pay for all, queue for all, are the excuse for all; I say, poor creatures!'
This is a sad moment for me. I was blown away by Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower when I read it in 2012; it was one of those times when you say, "I know I'm going to read everything this person ever wrote." And now, four years later, I have. Nothing was ever quite as good as The Blue Flower, which is one of my favorite books ever, but I enjoyed them all immensely. At least two others, to my mind, are unquestionably great: Innocence and At Freddie's. I would go so far as to say that Fitzgerald is one of the most underappreciated writers of the 20th century.
The Golden Child is Fitzgerald's first novel. She was sixty years old (!!!!) when she wrote it. It bears the hallmarks of Muriel Spark more clearly, I think, than anything else Fitzgerald wrote. It's a book where Fitzgerald is still finding her voice, but at moments, the Fitzgerald of The Blue Flower shines through quite clearly.
The story is a murder-mystery inspired by the exhibition of King Tut in the 1970's. (Doesn't that sound awesome?) A museum, clearly modeled after the British Museum, is exhibiting a set of golden treasures from the made-up civilization of Garamantia. The heart of the exhibit is the tomb of the Golden Child, a Tut-like mummy in a golden casket who is said, like Tut, to carry a curse. Waring Smith, a junior-level officer at the museum, is alone in the museum one night when a phantom figure tries to strangle him with the Golden Twine, a relic meant to guide the Golden Child back to the land of the living--but also one that should have crumbled when touched because of its advanced age. Later, the archaeologist who discovered the treasures, Sir William, is discovered dead, caught between the sliding steel bookcases of the musem library.
The Golden Child fails to offer the kind of highly individuated, interesting characters that make Fitzgerald's other books standouts. The irreverent Sir William, who openly disdains the exhibition he made possible, comes close, but Waring is archetypically hapless and henpecked. He's the kind of guy that Martin Freeman would play in a movie, and not much more than that.
It stops short also of developing really interesting observations on the nature of a museum, whose internecine power squabbles mirror the historical clashes the museum seeks to document. (Sir William's monologue on power above is as close as the novel comes.) Nor does it really pause to consider the question of what it means to be real or authentic, which are questions of huge import to the exhibition. But it does capture a kind of lyrical sadness in the image of the British public, waiting in four-hour long queues for an exhibit for reasons that are obscure even to them. And the middle of the book, in which Waring is sent to Moscow to authenticate a piece of the treasure only to find out that the entire exhibit is a fake and the Russians have managed to gather the real thing, is funny and frenetic in a way that shows just what a gripping author Fitzgerald would become.