Monday, March 16, 2009

Passing once more through The Gate of Angels

{Photo by rocketlass.}

William Hazlitt having convinced me to act on a recent desire to do some re-reading of favorite authors, late last week I pulled a half-dozen or so titles from my shelves from which to choose. I got no farther than the first page of the book on top of the stack, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels (1990), before my choice was made.

Here's the opening paragraph that won me over:
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery sweeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature always to be hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.
So much in that paragraph to consider! It opens with a note of surprise at a strikingly unexpected image, then its finely observed details--the silvery leaves, the decorated cows' horns, the "vast pale bellies"--cascade one upon another under the force of the rushing wind until the scene springs to life before us with all the strangeness with which it strikes the struggling cyclists who are out in it. Land is turned into sea, inanimate trees writhe like wounded animals, and cows are topsy-turvy. This may be nothing but the onset of an ordinary thunderstorm, yet Fitzgerald's careful description seems to suggest that something deeper is amiss.

"A scene of disorder" is right: this is Cambridge in 1912, that late Edwardian period when everything--religious belief, scientific knowledge, gender roles, class relations, and more--was being called into question. While the fact that the cows remain unperturbed by their topsy-turvy state suggests that perhaps nature may be more resilient and mutable than human doctrine, that would surely be at best cold comfort to those people who were trying to assemble a life in the midst of all that uncertainty.

In that intellectual and social ferment Fitzgerald sets the story of a junior fellow in physics at a mouldering Cambridge college who is hopelessly in love with a nameless woman he met through a bicycle accident; the woman herself, Daisy, a trainee nurse from the lower working class, is looking merely for the independence and security that are at that moment still almost entirely unavailable to an unattached young woman. As she tells the story of the pair's awkward, halting progress towards one another, Fitzgerald also paints a portrait of an era--and, for this book, more than any of her others, is a romance--of the way that love can transcend even the greatest uncertainties.

Fitzgerald's style, as in all her novels, is economic to the point of asperity, a concision that gives her every narrative pronouncement the force of an Olympian judgment. Here, for example, is how she introduces an explanation of Daisy's whereabouts:
In fact there was no mystery about Daisy's movements. Mystery is a luxury and would have been quite beyond her means.
That quiet precision--and the trust in Fitzgerald's eye that it engenders--makes the reader more attentive when she chooses to offers a mass of detail, as in this staggering account of the kitchenware that plagues a middle-class housewife:
She looked at the sink, loaded down with all that was necessary when a husband had his daily meals in the house. . . . [T]oast-racks, egg-cups, egg-cosies, hot water jugs, hot milk strainers, tea-strainers, coffee-strainers, bone egg-spoons, sugar-tongs, mustard-pots manufactured of blue glass inside, metal outside, silver fruit knives (as steel in contact with fruit-juice was known to be poisonous), napkins with differently coloured rings for each person at table, vegetable dishes with handles in the shape of artichokes, gravy boats, dishcovers, fish-forks with which it was difficult to eat fish (but fish-knives were only for vulgarians), muffin-dishes which had to be filled with boling water to keep the muffins at their correct temperature, soup-plates into which the soup was poured from an earthenware container with a lid, cut-glass blancmange dishes, knife-rests for knives, fork-rests for forks, cheese dishes with lids the shape of a piece of cheese, compotiers, ramekins, pipkins, cruets, pots. All of these were not too much (on a clean cloth, too, with the centre fold forming a straight line the whole length of the table) for Mr Wrayburn to expect--Mrs Wrayburn did not think it unreasonable, nor did Daisy--and most of them were in the sink at the moment, waiting, in mute reproach, to be washed and dried.
A single long paragraph, and the period's gender relations are set before us in all their absurdity.

As I noted above,The Gate of Angels is a decidedly light, even romantic novel. Despite the topsy-turvy opening, we rarely worry that all won't end well (though it's hard not to remember that the slaughter of World War I looms, sure to exact a brutal toll from the characters Fitzgerald depicts). At the same time, it offers the pleasures of humor, gentle irony ("Professor Flowerdew . . . had told him that he could not hold out any great hopes for the future of the material universe. On the other hand, he had spoken very highly of Fred."), and deeply perceptive empathy that are the hallmarks of all Fitzgerald's fiction--plus the unexpected bonus of a splendid interpolated ghost story in the style of M. R. James! Like all her novels, it rewards close attention, and re-reading: merely attending to what Fitzgerald leaves out, and what she gets across despite, is a lesson for any writer.

Fitzgerald herself offered a joke about her concision in a letter about the novel to her friend Harold Woelmer in 1990:
I'm already getting letters to say that there seems to be some mistake as it is so short and some pages must be missing out of their copy. It's Collins's fault for not putting The End, like we used to have at the movies in the dear old days.
More self-deprecatingly, in a later letter to her editor, she thanks him for the cover design of the paperback, noting that she'd received one letter from a reader assuring her that the cover was the best part of the book.

No matter the cover design, that reader is not to be trusted: Penelope Fitzgerald never published a word not worth your time.If you've not read her, you have a treat ahead.

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