Saturday, April 28, 2012

Penelope Knox Fitzgerald, RIP (April 28, 2000)

Penelope Fitzgerald was a late bloomer as a published author. Just after she died in 2000, a biography of her father and her uncles was reissued: The Knox Brothers. Richard Eder reviewed the book in The New York Times several months after her death. He situated his review in the context of her development as a writer:

Fitzgerald died last spring at 83, leaving a group of short stories that will come out in the fall. Meanwhile a new edition of the family biography, ''The Knox Brothers,'' has been published by Counterpoint, partly revised by the author in collaboration with her longtime American editor, Christopher Carduff. The original version appeared in the United States a quarter-century ago, well before the novels that would gradually win attention. It sold only a few thousand copies and received little notice.
          It is well worth notice; both for itself and for the light it casts on an author's evolution -- particularly such a late evolution -- into what she would become. In its own right ''The Knox Brothers'' is a lively account of two generations of a remarkable English family straddling the divide between late Victorian and Edwardian. Edmund Knox, Fitzgerald's grandfather, was a staunch Church of England clergyman, a Low Church doctrinal conservative with a social conscience that led him to resign the rural parish where his children blissfully grew up for a gritty slum outside Birmingham. His energy and devotion led to eventual elevation as Bishop of Manchester. Fitzgerald portrays a man whose stern rectitude was joined to the conviction that fun was essential and that children should be very happy (the late in late Victorian: think Lewis Carroll). By and large his were.
         Happiness, at least, was their inheritance; so was intellectual ardor, combativeness and a moral energy that propelled them onto the world at eccentric, sometimes painful angles. Edmund Knox (nicknamed Evoe), Fitzgerald's father, was a journalist who rose to be the editor of Punch, a post well paid and refulgent. Its incumbent was known, part seriously, as King of Fleet Street.

         Dillwyn, known as Dilly, was a Cambridge Greek scholar co-opted from his lifelong passion into an almost lifelong post as cryptographer for the intelligence services, at first in the famously cryptic Room 40 and in World War II at Bletchley Park. There he played an important role (Fitzgerald tries but fails quite to explain it) in cracking the Nazi's Enigma codes. The two brothers were unbelievers, mild and truculent respectively, thus putting them at odds with the bishop. And also with their younger brothers, Wilfred and Ronald, Anglican clergymen both, until Ronald converted and became a celebrated Roman Catholic priest, apologist and translator of a Catholic Bible. That put them at odds with one another as well; and in the case of Ronald, with their father, who cut him out of his will.

The Guardian reviewed her oeuvre in her obituary:

The novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald, who has died aged 83, was one of the most distinctive and elegant voices in contemporary British fiction. Her novels, spare, immaculate masterpieces (few of them exceed 200 pages), divide into two sections; an earlier group loosely based on her own experiences, and a later group, in which she moves to other countries and periods. In 1979, she won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.
"Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel," observed Sebastian Faulks, "is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality - the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window." . . .
What is striking is the accuracy of her observation, the aesthetically satisfying precision with which, stylistically, the arrow goes straight into the centre of the gold. The economy with which she achieved her effects - "I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much," she said - and her ability to combine a microscopic with a panoramic perspective, made most other contemporary novels appear flatulent and over-written. Fitzgerald has been compared in her qualities of social comedy and irony to Jane Austen. The comparison is just in many ways, but ultimately unsatisfactory, for she had a metaphysical quality which is less apparent in Jane Austen - and Jane Austen was not the only novelist of that period by whom she was influenced. She spoke with enthusiasm of the way in which Sir Walter Scott mixed up fictional and real characters, and this is reflected in the appearance of the dying Gramsci, in Innocence, and of Fichte, Goethe and Schlegel in The Blue Flower.

She was named one of the Fifty Greatest British Writers since 1945 by The London Times in 2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment