Monday, April 28, 2014

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

British Railways delivered the copies of Lolita from Flintmarket station, twenty-five miles away.  When the carrier van arrived it drew, as usual, a ragged cheer from the bystanders.  Something new was coming to Hardborough.  Outside every public house there were parcels waiting to go out, and Raven, to save petrol, wanted a lift to the upper marshes.

Christine was aghast at the large numbers ordered.  They hadn't sold so many of one thing, not even Build Your Own Racing Dinghy.

Brent's recent post shamed me enough to get started on my own backlog of books to review.  Part of this shame is that I've been failing you, the blog-reading public--but mostly it's a shame for failing a great book like The Bookshop, which really deserves better than my warmed-over comments six weeks after I've finished.

The Bookshop is the book that gained Fitzgerald her first measure of public acclaim.  The trademarks of her later novels are here: the focus on a somewhat hermetic or fringe community, like the houseboaters of Offshore or the war-torn BBC of Human Voices; the proud and idiosyncratic hero/ine; a cast of quickly but deftly sketched characters.  The heroine here is Florence Green, who decides to open up a bookshop in Hardborough, an isolated island community.  Florence's ambitions are troubled by the seaside damp, and a poltergeist, but mostly by Hardborough's drably menacing social queen, Violet Gamart, who wants the property Florence buys for a local Arts Center.  The novel is one of modest ambitions beset by petty challenges, but Florence's steadfastness garners our admiration. 

My favorite of the minor characters population Hardborough is Christine, the ten-year old girl who Florence employs in the shop, and who approaches her job with blue-collar stolidity and a jealous possessiveness:

Christine liked to do the locking up.  At the age of ten and a half she knew, for perhaps the last time in her life, exactly how everything should be done.

The novel dwells on a long episode in which Florence mulls whether to order copies of the recently published Lolita; when she eventually does, it becomes a huge sensation in town.  I was particularly fond of this inlaid set of letters between Florence and her solicitor, responding to Violet Gamart's charges that the street activity around the Lolita display has become a public nuisance:

December 8 1959

Dear Mrs Green,
In reply to your letter of 6 December, I think we ought to abate the obstruction, by which I mean stopping the general public from assembling in the narrowest part of the High Street, before any question of an indictment arises, and I also think we should cease to offer for sale the complained-of and unduly sensational novel by Nabokov.  We cannot cite Herring v. Metropolitan Board of Works 1863 in this instance as the crowd has not assembled as the result of famine or of a shortage of necessary commodities.

Yours faithfully,
Thomas Thornton
Solicitor and Commissioner for Oaths.

December 9 1959

Dear Mr Thornton,
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

Yours sincerely,
Florence Green.

December 10 1959

To: Mrs Florence Green

Dear Madam,
I can only repeat my former advice, and I may add that in my opinion, though this is a personal matter and therefore outside my terms of reference, you would do well to make a formal apology to Mrs Gamart.

Yours faithfully,

Thomas Thornton,
Solicitor and Commissioner for Oaths.

December 11 1959

Dear Mr Thornton,

Yours sincerely,

Florence Green.

Besides being pretty funny, Fitzgerald does such a good job here of capturing these characters' voices with economy: the pedantic cowardice of the lawyer, the defiant pride of the shopowner.

To its credit, The Bookshop stops short of being inspiring; despite their enthusiasm for Lolita, the denizens of Hardborough never really rally in support of the bookshop against Violet Gamart's selfish domineering,  They patronize the shop when they want something from it, and ignore it when they don't, as they do with Florence herself.  These are people with lives of their own, with needs and ambitions equal to Florence's, and there is a bittersweet truth to the recognition that no one cares, or could ever care, about the bookshop as much as she does.  Her cold warn with Violet Gamart is, in the end, waged for relatively minor stakes.  But Fitzgerald suggests that steadfastness in your own ambitions, as private as they may be, is no small valor.