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THE MEANS OF ESCAPE
by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald's posthumously published collection of stories, The Means of Escape; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, are a singular experience to read. Ms Fitzgerald was eighty-two when she died last April, and she had only begun her writing career in her sixties. Before that, her time was taken up with raising her family in the straits of poverty and uncertainty. She had made what is called in 19th century novels a bad marriage. Coming from a background of, if not huge advantage, certainly culture and letters and an expectation of more from life than became her lot, she must have found within herself a special source of strength to have survived a husband who took to drink, moving from job to job and oftentimes no job at all.

At one point the family moved to a rickety houseboat moored somewhere along the Thames outside London. One day the houseboat caught fire and the family just made it out with their lives. When her ne're-do-well husband became fatally ill with a cancer, his wife entertained him bedside with made up stories. It is tempting to think the stories collected here are the very ones she invented by the sick bed. Perhaps that is where her career really did begin. In 1979 Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her third novel, OFFSHORE. She also wrote non-fiction, the life of Edward Burne-Jones being among her historical pieces.

There is a fairy tale quality to the collection, the way a fairy tale unceremoniously thrusts the reader, or hearer, into a very different place and time. The way the tone of a fairy tale is always at risk of falling apart, not because of the element of make believe so much as the way a fairy tale is loosely woven. Like a soap bubble capturing all the surrounding colors in a rainbow effect, very real for a moment, fascinating, but always ready to float off, or pop, or disintegrate; if you refuse to suspend disbelief, a fairy tale, like a bubble, will not satisfy.

The voice in this collection is almost childlike. A precocious child watching from behind a tapestry curtain, setting the reader up and winking all the while. Not a word out of place, and not a jot of explanation beyond the fragment needed to tell the reader where he or she is. Ms Fitzgerald brings forth a new level of sparseness to writing. While the meat of her stories is lean, it is all choice and the bones are of superior density. These are vignettes of human behavior. My fear, as I began reading, was that the tales would come apart, but that soon shifted to a sense, as I read, of a hand gently tinkling on a piano, softly, softly until one long deep chord is heard, then soft again.

In the title story, Alice, the rector's daughter, is found in the church practicing the seraphine, a pre-organ pipe instrument that worked like a bellows, with the performer having to pump continually as she plays. She is alone and becomes aware of a presence: "Outside (at the time I'm speaking of) it was bright afternoon, but inside St. George's there was that mixture of light and inky darkness which suggests that from the darkness something may be about to move. It was difficult, for instance, to distinguish whether among the black-painted pews, at some distance away, there was or wasn't some person or object rising above the level of the seats. Alice liked to read mysteries, when she could get hold of them, and the thought struck her now: The form of a man is advancing from the shadows."

There is indeed a man advancing and he has a rancid smell to him and his head is covered in a sack, "...like a butchered animal, or, since it had eye holes, more like a man about to be hanged."

Alice's father's rectory is located on a Devil's Island, on Tasmania, in Hobart, a place felons were shipped to out of England in order to rot in prison. Only, this turns out to be a love story, or is in so far as the escapee who approaches Alice in the church that afternoon captures her imagination. The twist at the end, only the slightest of twists, a quick wrench to the heart, nevertheless says plenty about human responses.

In Desideratus, Jack Digby is a boy so poor his mother has never given him anything; there were nine children to feed and clothe and not much left by way of gifts to divide among them. But Jack's godmother, Mrs. Piercy, for his twelfth birthday gives Jack a keepsake, a gilt medallion with a figure of an angel and the motto Desideratus [long wished-for] inscribed on it. Jack takes special care until one day, unbeknownst to him, the medallion slips from his pocket on his way to run an errand along the unpaved highway into town. Late that winter he sees the medallion frozen inside a deep puddle along the same road, but he has nothing with him to break the ice. But spring was on the way and he waits a day or two until the weather warms, and he returns to the spot. This time the puddle has thawed, but there was no medallion.

Noticing a drain pipe at he side of the hill, Jack follows its course thinking his medallion may have washed down it. He approaches the forbidding estate of Watching where the pipe ends near the stables. No medallion anywhere nor are any persons to be found around the stables either, so it is with utmost reluctance that Jack knocks on the kitchen door to inquire within. He is met by the stern, eccentric schoolmaster. Especially eccentric in that there are no children at Watching to teach. No heirs to the wealthy owner. Soon the servants gather round Jack and finally the master himself who admits to knowing the whereabouts of the medallion, but offers Jack money instead. Jack insists on his medallion. He is taken to a boy lying in a bed in a dim room at some far end of the great house. The boy clutches the medallion in his hand, and Jack is instructed to take it. But is the boy alive?

Only later, much later, does Jack wonder how much the master of Watching might have given him for the medallion.

There is the story of a crotchety old music conductor retired to an island off Scotland where he is the sole resident living without electricity, running water or any other amenity. The conductor, Beehernz, had not worked since 1960 when the BBC was to celebrate the birth of Mahler and Beehernz suddenly refused to conduct: "It was only at a very late stage that Beehernz, booked for the occasion, had said in his quiet way--that was how it had been described to Hopkins, 'in his quiet way'--that he would prefer a substitute to be found for him since he had only just learned that he was expected to conduct the Eighth Symphony."
Asked, "What is your objection to the Eighth Symphony?" Beehernz replied, "It's too noisy."

Here is a conductor who turns away from music because of noise. There is a dry wit at work in these stories. Small-sized mirrors reflecting the absurdity of life. Minutia of misunderstanding, assumptions and miscalculations of the heart. Like a fairy tale, each story is faintly disturbing, but also deliciously amusing. Unlike fairy tales, Penelope Fitzgerald leaves you to figure the meaning of each piece for yourself. It's worth the while to try.

©November 2000 J.Stefan-Cole

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