The Beginning of the Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
I’ve read Fitzgerald before – I own The Knox Brothers (the story about her famous father and uncles – famous for their roles in early 20th Century Britain and for their intellectual, political, or clerical power), The Book Shop (a novel about a small town bookstore and the vagaries of village conflict), and The Gate of Angels (which I didn’t realize I had and don’t think I’ve read, add it to the list!). And our local library has a nice array of her work – I may have read one or two more from there.
She tends to write slim novels (like Barbara Pym) that show a slice of British mid-20th Century life. So it was particularly interesting to read The Beginning of Spring because none of it takes place in England – it is set entirely in Moscow in the spring of 1913.
Frank, British by parentage, but born in Moscow, emigrated to Britain for a time, then returned to Moscow to take over his father’s publishing business. He brought his wife Nellie from England and the two had three children. At the time of the spring of 1913, Annushka is a toddler, Dollie is older (maybe ten?), and so is Ben (perhaps 12 or so? – I’m not sure she ever says exactly). Nellie has just left Frank, taking the children back to England, when Frank is called to get the children from the train station. Nellie has abandoned them, sending them back to Moscow alone.
Frank recovers the children and quickly realizes that he is going to need help. So, upon the reference of a friend and employee, he hires Lisa, a young Russian woman. The book weaves together the culture of pre-Soviet Russia with the business of publishing and the challenge of the background noise of a society approaching revolution. In the course of the book, we meet many characters who seem to me quintessentially Russian: the not-so-wealthy businessman who puts on huge parties and returns home to a chaotic hovel (there is a horrible scene with a burning bear cub); the Tolstoyite employee; and the eccentric typesetter, not to mention Lisa.
I had a hard time getting into the book in the first third or so, perhaps I should have sat down and read it all in one go, but there didn’t seem to be a clear plot, more like a swirl of humanity. Throughout I enjoyed a peek into Moscow in this era. I think Fitzgerald did real research to write the book and it contains lot of places, events, and details that seem authentic. It reminded me that one of the places that peaks my curiosity is Russia and that I would like to know more. And then it picked up, I got interested in Frank’s relationship with Lisa (will they or won’t they?) and his friends and workers, a mysterious student who “breaks into” (more like walks into) the press.
I am left with a sense that this was a more experimental book for Fitzgerald. I don’t remember her other work being anything but traditional, linear narrative. In the end, I did enjoy the book and its characterization of Moscow in that era. But I’m a little puzzled and unsure about where she was going with the book overall.
Have you had that experience with a book? Which? Did you finish it and were you ultimately happy that you did or didn’t?
Happy Reading, Ruby