The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
Back to Russians, I’m afraid; though not actually a Russian author, but instead a novel set in 1913 Moscow by the acclaimed novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve heard nothing but good about her books, and was very keen to read this one – so it was a bonus when it finally turned up in the Samaritans Book Cave a couple of weeks ago!
Fitzgerald didn’t start writing until her late fifties and went on to win the Booker Prize and write a series of acclaimed novels. “The Beginning of Spring” was published in 1988 and centres around the family of Frank Reid, a businessman of British descent but who was born in Moscow, returned there when an adult to run the family printing firm and who seems to understand the Russians quite well. The book opens with Frank’s wife Nellie leaving him without warning, taking their three children and throwing his life into confusion.
The children are sent back by train in a basket(!) and Frank, struggling to understand why Nellie has left him, looks back on his life and how they met and married. Meanwhile, the life of the print works continues; Selwyn Crane, Frank’s sidekick and a Tolstoyan, publishes his poetry book; Frank tries to sell a giant white elephant of a printing press and tussles with a rival; and Selwyn finds a young peasant women, Lisa Ivanovna, to look after the children. The whole community, English and Russian, seem to know that Frank’s wife has left and rally around in their different ways. Then there is a break-in at the print works; a young student takes a pot shot at Frank and destroys the print equipment of the head typesetter who is mortified; Frank’s brother-in-law Charlie visits; and Frank becomes entranced by Lisa.
There is resolution of a kind; but in the back of the reader’s mind is the fact that Frank and the works are ready to pack up at a moment’s notice to leave Russia if the unrest in the country develops any further. And we know what happened after 1913…
There was much to love about “The Beginning of Spring”: Fitzgerald’s writing is lovely, very evocative, and her descriptions of old Moscow and the surrounding countryside bring the world to life convincingly. And her portrayal of the Russian way of life, the procrastination and the bribes and the complexities of dealing with another culture is masterly. But…. I’m afraid there is a but. I loved this book a lot less than I had hoped for a number of reasons, one of the strongest of which was the characterisation. Mostly, it just didn’t convince – I found that very few of main protagonists took on a 3-D existence; there was a kind of vagueness or lack of definition about them so that I didn’t really get to know them and the consequence that what should have been surprising revelations didn’t really affect me. And this filtered through to the plot, that in actual fact became quite inconsequential and subsidiary to the effect of the description and atmosphere. It felt thin, in the end – with not really enough made clear or developed. And there was much potential – Selwyn was one of the characters I liked most and he could have flourished into a really strong protagonist, much more memorably than he actually ended up being. Frank’s eldest child Dolly was also one of the better characters, but in many ways wasted.The events could have been more dramatic and more impressive had they been given that chance to grow.
One thing I did take from the book was that Frank Reid, the main character, was certainly mistaken in thinking that he knew and understood the Russian people (and indeed his own kind) because he certainly didn’t; he moves through most of the book having no real idea of what is happening and why people are behaving as they do. Maybe Fitzgerald was trying to make the point that we can never really understand other cultures or other people’s motives – I’m not sure, if I’m honest.
If this sounds unduly negative, that’s a shame; I did enjoy reading the book, mainly for Fitzgerald’s prose; but in the end I felt it never really went anywhere and that it had potential which wasn’t fulfilled. However, I will try more of Fitzgerald’s work in the future as I’d like to see how she handles other subjects.