Thursday, June 19, 2008

Human Voices

The British writer Penelope Fitzgerald is an underrated master.  Everybody should read her work.  I would recommend especially: The Blue Flower, Offshore, Innocence, and Human Voices.  If it's not enough that her novels are wise, funny, and rife with fantastically well-turned phrases, everything she wrote is under 200 pages.   Most of it's under 150.  So it's not a huge commitment.

Her books don't have to be long because they are so dense with observation and insight.  I think the following passage, from Human Voices, should make that clear.  The book is set in England during World War II, at the BBC.  "Sam" is a senior excecutive, in charge of recording technologies.  The "Controllers" are the heads of the BBC.  "Wolseleys" are cars.

At the time of the Munich Agreement a memo had been sent round calling, as a matter of urgency, for the recording of the country's heritage.

It was headed Lest we forget our Englishery.  Sam had disappeared for over two weeks in one of the Wolseleys, pretty infirm even at that time, with an engineer and an elderly German refugee, Dr Vogel--Dr Vogel, cruelly bent, deaf in one ear, but known to be the greatest expert in Europe on recorded atmosphere.

There was not much hope of commonsense prevailing.  Dr Vogel, in spite of his politeness and gentle ganz meinherheits, was an obsessive, who had been seen to take the arms of passers-by in his bony grip and beg to record their breathing, for he wished to record England's wheezing before the autumn fogs began.  'Have the goodness, sir, to cough a little into my apparatus.'  Sam thought the idea excellent.

The expedition to the English countryside arrived back with a very large number of discs.  The engineer who had gone with them said nothing.  He went straight away to have a drink.  It was probably a misfortune that the Controllers were so interested in the project that they demanded a playback straight away.  Usually there was a judicious interval before they expressed any opinion, but not this time.

'What we have been listening to--patiently, always in the hope of something else coming up--amounts to more than six hundred bands of creaking.  To be accurate, some are a mixture of squeaking and creaking.'

'They're all from the parish church of Hither Lickington,' Sam explained eagerly.  'It was recommended to us by Religious Broadcasting as the top place in the Home Counties.  What you're hearing is the hinges of the door and the door itself opening and shutting as the old women come in one by one with the stuff for the Harvest Festival.  The quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so.  Some of them have got more to carry, so the door has to open wider.  That's when you get the squeak.'

'Hark, the vegetable marrow comes!' cried Dr Vogel, his head on one side, well contented.
There's so much in here that I love, but I would especially note: "patiently, always in the hope of something else coming up"; "the quality's superb, particularly on the last fifty-three bands or so"; and the final line--"Hark, the vegetable marrow comes!'"  It's funny and it's kind, and, yes, British eccentricity is hardly the newest subject in the world, but Fitzgerald does it better than just about anyone, at least anyone who wrote in the last hundred years.


JMW said...

I read The Gate of Angels and some or all of The Bookshop (I forget), and was underwhelmed. I feel that I've failed Fitzgerald, failed myself, and most importantly, failed ANCIANT. I'm sure I'll give her another try at some point in the future. It wasn't that I didn't see strengths. I did. There's gentle humor, and an economy and facility that I admire. But I found it, in total, a bit boring. This is how I failed.

ANCIANT said...

Well, even though it won the Booker Prize, "The Bookshop" is actually one of her worst novels (I think). The Gate of Angles I would rank somewhere in the middle. If you feel like giving her another try, I would point you to "Human Voices" or "The Blue Flower."

JMW, you forgot who else you failed. You failed God, John. You failed God.