The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald


I came to this book by way of a tweet someone posted asking for poetic, beautiful slim novels. Those lists are a treat and I plan to go back to this one for more suggestions.

I confess I am certain I failed to catch the nuances of what the author wanted to tell us about these characters. Nevertheless, it was a lovely and fun trip. The book opens with the news that Nellie left Frank, taking their three children from their home in Moscow in 1913. Frank had grown up in Russia and was now running his father’s printing press. The next day Frank learns that Nellie couldn’t manage to travel with the children, so she arranged for a station master to care for them until Frank could pick them up. There is a large household that cares for the family and they were happy to have the children returned to home. Though Frank is mystified and unhappy about Nellie leaving, the tone is light.

Selwyn Crane, the company bookkeeper, a follower of Tolstoy’s Christian/anarchist/socially progressive thought and a poet himself, found a lovely young woman to join the household to care for the children. She becomes the object of Frank’s affection as well.

When Nellie’s brother Charlie comes from England, Frank is unhappy to learn he has no news of Nellie, and was there as a tourist. I loved this little exchange:

‘I should be careful of the vodka if I were you, Uncle Charlie,’ said Ben [the 9-year-old son] anxiously. ‘It doesn’t taste of anything but it’s quite strong.’
‘Uncle Charlie needs something quite strong,’ said Dolly [the 10-year-old daughter].
‘Well, I’ll take a little,’ Charlie said amiably, ‘if your father thinks it’s good for me.’
‘It’s not at all good for you,’ said Frank. But the vodka, pliant, subtle, and fiery, eased the moment, as it had done for so many millions of others.

Life is full of uncertainties for Frank; the coming Revolution will be no surprise and Frank knows that his business is tenuous. Over the course of the story he receives a letter from the authorities saying he will not be able to leave, then later, another letter indicating he will be required to leave.

One of the great joys of this book is the subtle hints of the slowly coming change of season. Then suddenly it’s time for the rituals of preparation for warm weather. Putty is removed from inner windows so they can be removed, then when the flies are removed from the space between the windows and cleaning is completed, the outer windows are opened.

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

There was so much to love in this book, so many little fun exchanges.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1988, 246 pages. Available in the public library.

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