Sunday, August 31, 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald: Why I Write

This week's TLS reviews letters of Penelope Fitzgerald by Ruth Scurr (Penelope Fitzgerald
So I Have Thought of You: The letters of Penelope Fitzgerald 532pp. Fourth Estate. £25. ISBN:978 0 00 71366640 7)

In 1989, Fitzgerald gave a short interview to Libération, entitled: “Why I Write”. Her first reason was that “Unlike history, fiction can proceed with confidence”. Her third was “to make money”. Her second reason was enigmatic:

"I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost. They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts. They are not envious, simply compassless. When I write it is to give these people a voice."

Scurr comments:

I have never been certain what this really means, resonant though it is with the kind of characters one meets in Fitzgerald’s novels. One of the most important letters in this collection is a help in understanding it. In 1979, writing for the first time to Frank Kermode (“the only critic, and indeed the only Professor of Eng. Lit, whose opinion I value since Lionel Trilling died”), Fitzgerald begins:

"I hope you won’t mind my writing to you, partly because I’ve relied so long and so much on The Sense of an Ending in trying to teach university candidates something about fiction . . . but also to thank you for what you wrote about me in The London Review of Books. Could I make one comment – you said in passing that the “apocalyptic flood” at the end of Offshore wasn’t a success and I expect it isn’t, but it isn’t really meant as apocalyptic either – I only wanted the Thames to drift out a little way with the characters whom in the end nobody particularly wants or lays claim to. It seems to me that not being wanted is a positive condition and I hoped to find some way of indicating that. – I realise too that the danger of writing novels, even very short ones, is that you get to take yourself too seriously."

As I am writing furiously to meet a deadline this reflection is much more engaging.

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