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Capturing the atmosphere of pre-war Russia

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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!

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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.

Margery Sharp Day – plus other bookish ramblings!

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margery-sharp-day

Today is the 110th birthday of author Margery Sharp, and Jane at Fleur in her World has declared it “Margery Sharp Day” in celebration. Sharp is an author much-beloved in blogging circles, particularly those of us who congregate around the LibraryThing Virago group – and in fact the imprint has brought her book “The Eye of Love” back into the public eye, though sadly most of her adult work seems to be out of print.

A number of bloggers are featuring her work today, including Jane herself, as well as HeavenAli and Kirsty at the Literary Sisters. I’m sure there are going to be many, many more posts today, so keep an eye on Fleur in Her World to see what’s happening. Hopefully the following that Sharp has might interest a publisher enough to make them consider some reprints – we can but hope!

As for me, I own two Margery Sharp titles and here they are:

sharp

I had a minor crisis recently when I couldn’t find “The Nutmeg Tree” (not an uncommon occurrence, with the piles of books lying about the house) but it did turn up – a lovely old paperback I picked up from Claude Cox Books a while back. Alas, I am currently submerged in review books so I haven’t been able to read either of these titles – but I’m sure I will get to them eventually! In the meantime, happy birthday Margery!

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Meanwhile, I almost felt like declaring yesterday Rebecca West day, thanks to some new arrivals!  A lovely LibraryThinger from Canada, Cathy, had sent me a copy of West’s “The Thinking Reed” some time ago; it’s one of her titles I’ve been keen to read and Cathy had a spare. It popped through the door yesterday and I’m very excited – and the cover, as with most original green Viragoes, is just lovely. The West theme continued when I discovered a pristine copy of “Cousin Rosamund” for £1 in the Sue Ryder Charity Shop. I already have quite a good version but was happy to upgrade!

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Other new arrivals shown in the stack of books came from the Oxfam:

parade madrid

“Parade’s End” was there two weeks ago when I was last in, and I was strong and didn’t buy it, and then instantly regretted it. Fortunately, it was still there yesterday…. And the Mendoza title is from MacLehose/Quercus and so picking it up was a no-brainer.

The final books in the pile are from the library:

library

Both the Fitzgerald and the Modiano are books I want to read – but whether I shall get round to them is another matter! 🙂

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And last, but not least (as they say) – today is also the birthday of the wonderful Virginia Woolf, one of my favourite writers ever. Nobody uses words like Woolf.

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.
Happy birthday Virginia!

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