Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks

This week has found me happily reading Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, after the UK edition inexplicably mouldered on my shelves for almost a year. Maybe it's because, at more than four hundred pages, it at first seemed excessive, for the wholly silly reason that surely Fitzgerald, that master of leaving out, ought to have a slim life?

Halfway through, I'm so, so glad for the length--and for Twitter, which has allowed me to share line after line that Lee has dredged up from Fitzgerald's many working notebooks and diaries. In her novels and nonfiction, Fitzgerald was such a good writer of sentences, marrying elegance, concision, and meaning, and her presumably far less polished notebooks turn out to have their share. A quick selection:
The whole art of happiness consists in staying in one place.

Borges likes to keep complications, but reduce them to their most economical form.

I've come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret that I haven't spent my life on it.

One is only middle-aged once.

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.

To live in the country with dog cat an apple tree books a listener--not only good but the only good.

Even evil spirits keep in touch with themselves.
I could go on and on. The impression Lee gives is that Fitzgerald didn't maintain a single, long-term notebook, like Anthony Powell, or a system, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rather, she seems to have kept a working notebook for each book, and other notebooks throughout the years for other reasons. When teaching, for example, she had notebooks in which she worked and planned. (That's where the Borges quote comes from.) One of Lee's great achievements in the biography is to make clear how much groundwork Fitzgerald was laying in those notebooks for here eventual, late, arrival as a fiction writer. It ends up being tremendously exciting, watching Fitzgerald making notes for teaching that are at the same time notes for herself on how novels work, or sketching a character in her notebook and clearly beginning to develop some of the precision and judgment that would mark her fiction.

The reason this blog exists is that rocketlass suggested I start one so I would stop reading aloud at parties. (Which she was right to do. Good god.) But the true initial spur to whatever writing about books I've done in the past decade was Fitzgerald's posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Afterlife. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked it up: I knew her name, but I'd read nary a word of her novels. Yet I bought the book and was instantly won over by her perceptiveness and sensibility. Within weeks I had read all her novels and written my first book review, which, submitted cold to the Bloomsbury Review, would also be my first published review. I wrote then,
What comes across most clearly is her appreciation of hard work, craft, and dedication.
Yesterday, ten years later, in an interview about my collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction, I talked about Westlake's dedication to craft, and boiled down the lessons I learned from close engagement with his writing to these:
Be clear. Be concise. Be concrete. And the work will not do itself.
Thus are laid out the continuities between these two favorite writers, the points of connection between two wildly disparate worlds and aesthetics. Taste is no respecter of genre; attentive reading discovers links between separate spheres.

And now to hope for an edition of Fitzgerald's notebooks--a book I would turn to again and again over the years. A boy can dream, right?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:55 PM

    I notice that the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin has the Fitzgerald archive. 57 notebooks, 3.5 boxes. I see an editing field-trip in your future.