Tag Archives: penelope fitzgerald

Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.

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Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.

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It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).

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But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.

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I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.

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Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.

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It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).

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Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.

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Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.

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The Means of Escape

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It is never a good idea to open with a declaration of love. Never. But, wow, Penelope Fitzgerald. She so good… I go goo-goo eyes reading her.

I first heard of her in a Julian Barnes collection of essays about writers called Through the Window. She sounded very cool.

She didn’t start writing till she was 63 (very appealing to someone starting writing later in life), and seemed quite the eccentric character given his anecdote about being on a writers’ panel and riding the Tube with her.

And she wasn’t short of ideas or limited in scope. All the novels he talked about were interesting and diverse, ranging across the world and time. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore, and The Blue Flower, set in 18th century Prussia, was ‘the most-loved novel of 1995’. I so wanted to read it.

But, somehow, she was absent from my local library. How could this be? She seemed great. Indeed, The Times had her in the top 50 British novelists since 1945 and The Observer placed The Blue Flower in the top 10 historical novels of all time.

There was, however, her posthumous collection of short stories The Means of Escape available. I hadn’t read a collection of short stories in quite a number of years (a bit shameful, but I’m clearly not alone given the poor sales of collections).

But I wanted a taste.

And, wow.

It’s such a lovely, slim object crafted with care (the books and the stories). Like her novels, they take place all over the world (including New Zealand!) and go back as far as the 1600s.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

The start of the story set in ye olde New Zealand.

I must say that I finished most of the stories going ‘what happened just then?’ but it wasn’t due to obscurity…she’s just so good she lulls you into a complacency where the real story can slip by. I read several stories more than once.

I want this book. I want to hold it and look at it, to re-engage and delve deeper into her world. I want to read these stories again and again.

To underscore how smitten I am, I read a couple of Julian Barnes short stories after I finished Fitzgerald’s collection and boy were they unsatisfying, which is significant because I’m a HUGE fan of his novels and essays.

So…what to do? TradeMe has the books new (but The Means of Escape ships from Oz). Amazon has them much cheaper, but it seems nuts getting them from across the Pacific.

Sigh.

It’s hard to be patient when you’re in love. But a hasty heart is always disappointed.

If I get through the day without buying these two books I’ll be surprised.

This love will not wait.