Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence is set in Florence, the principal characters are Italian, and I kept asking myself: how is it done? She knows quite a lot about Italian society: but more important, she has somehow got inside her Italian characters, so that when a young Englishwoman appears on the scene she really seems a foreigner and not, as one might expect, the focus of the novel’s consciousness. Imagination is part of the mystery; the other part is pace. This novel seems to impose its own slow pace on the reader. Probably that means one has a sense that nothing we are told is insignificant. It has, not opacity, but density. It is a book that never seems to settle back, as so much currently admired fiction does, into a conventional exercise, fiction as a pastiche of itself.
The time is 1955. Centre-stage are a young doctor, Salvatore Rossi, and a young woman just out of school, Chiara Ridolfi. They fall quite violently in love, and marry. There is some deft movement back and forward in time, giving us their respective backgrounds. Chiara is heir to a house of faded nobility. Salvatore is the son of a village Communist. He has resolved when young to have nothing to do with politics. Nevertheless he is enraged to find himself helplessly in love with the Ridolfi scion – and Fitzgerald clearly enjoys doing characters whose impatience borders on passion and whose passion compels anti-social behaviour. Chiara’s English schoolfriend, a young woman known as Barney, is another character in that mould. Compulsive and overbearing, she falls in love with Chiara’s taciturn cousin, Cesare, who runs the family winery – and tells him so, offering to marry him. It looks as if the novel is heading for a parallel pairing: but disconcertingly Cesare doesn’t respond, except to indicate that he knows Barney loves him. By one hint only (and Fitzgerald requires us to read attentively) it is signalled that Cesare, though sympathetic to Barney, is in love with Chiara. This in turn explains his otherwise inexplicable behaviour at the dramatic climax.
But there is an older story than the one we are being told. In the late 16th century the Count Ridolfi was a midget. He married a midget and they produced a midget daughter. To save the child from a sense of inadequacy they employed only midgets. She was to be protected from the world of full-sized people. They acquired for her a midget companion, whom she loved – but then at some point in childhood the companion put on what is called these days a ‘growth spurt’. What should be done about it? The midget daughter, believing her companion’s size to be a misfortune, suggested she should be blinded so she would not see what ‘ordinary’ people looked like, and cut off at the knees so that her deformity would not be excessive.
We are told this in the opening pages. But what happened? It is not until late in the novel that one of the Ridolfi houses is more or less requisitioned by the Italian Tourist Board. For a tourist brochure a version of the 16th-century story more palatable than the real one is invented, telling how the companion child escaped over the wall. Thanks to that, and the fact that a Communist novelist wants to make a film about how a ‘child of the people’ was mutilated by corrupt aristocrats, we acquire – obliquely – an answer to the question which those opening pages has left us with.
Are the Ridolfi in fact cruel mutilators of the people? They are represented as vague, well-intentioned and inconsequential. Chiara’s Aunt Mad runs an asylum for homeless old women and orphaned babies, her idea being that the old women will enjoy looking after the babies. They do, but won’t later give them up, hiding them in cupboards and washing baskets. Even those ancient dwarf Ridolfis were absent-mindedly thinking of their daughter’s happiness, and she of her companion’s ‘misfortune’, when they agreed to the removal of her eyes and lower legs. The ‘innocence’ of the title belongs as much to the Ridolfi as to ‘the people’. In both it is a quality to be feared. Fitzgerald’s view of the world is witty and arcane. But do the two parts of the story – the 16th century and 20th – join? The link is made with the subtlest of strokes.
What is it that especially fascinates Fitzgerald in her two central characters? It is partly just their human uniqueness: but there is an ‘idea’ there as well, and I think it is that these Italians are not free (are less free, even, than Britons) of their past. Though Salvatore has in effect renounced the family politics he is still ‘a child of the people’. And though Chiara’s family is in hopeless decline, she cannot help being a Ridolfi. They fall in love as individuals: but they bring with them into marriage their respective histories. In a state of paranoia as the climax of the story approaches, Salvatore is thinking about Chiara: ‘But he would hardly have thought it possible that at nineteen – even though she loved him, which of course gave her an unfair advantage – she would have known how to cut down a grown man.’ Cut down. The phrase occurs so casually it would be easy not to notice it: but it is surely not there by accident – and it makes the link between the old story and the modern one. Is the explosive Salvatore another victim of the Ridolfi ‘innocence’? Or of his own? Or need there be no victim at all? The novel ends one way, but goes so close to ending another; it seems to offer two opposite answers to its own implied questions. It is a work of strange, muted power and intelligence.
Michael Schmidt doesn’t make entry to The Dresden Gate easy. For quite some time I was totally confused about how the various characters related one to another. And I never understood why these people with Spanish names in an unspecified South or Central American country looked to Paris as their city of origin. Nor was I absolutely sure about when it was all supposed to be happening. The jacket reveals that it is set in Mexico in the early 20th century at the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. I was glad of that information, but I think I should have had it from the novel. I recognise the problem. Explanatory writing can stop a novel in its tracks. It can destroy an atmosphere. Still, I think a little professional cunning would have found a way around it. The novel soon establishes its own reality however, something clearly based on a history and a geography, but holding itself apart from them as well. Perhaps that, too, is a problem. How far are the events to be seen simply as representation, and how far are they meant to be symbolic, or allegorical – to speak politically but at large? This is a question which even the end of the novel did not answer for me.
One other complaint. It is not first-person narrative, but the central consciousness is that of a boy. He begins as an infant and is about 17 when the novel ends – but he never acquires a name. Throughout, he is ‘he’ or ‘the boy’. This is a conscious strategem, and again it seems to push the novel beyond realism towards allegory. But I found it awkward and obtrusive, especially since everyone else in the novel has a name. The boy is the son of Don Raoul and Paula. Paula is an heiress, and though her family have disowned her because of her marriage, they have provided the money with which Don Raoul has bought a huge and derelict sugar estate, El Encantada. Paula has followed her husband from Europe out of the estate, bringing with her his intellectual brother Alex, and a cousin, Thérèse. Alex is in love with Paula, and Thérèse with Alex. Two years after the boy is born Paula escapes back to Europe, and the boy is looked after by Thérèse and a peasant girl. As he grows older Alex becomes his tutor, while Thérèse withdraws into solitariness and silence. A companion is found for the boy among the children or the peons who work on the estate: but when companionship turns into friendship they are cruelly separated.
As the novel goes on, the estate declines, Don Raoul grows more than ever aloof from his son, and the boy’s mentor Alex succumbs gradually to tuberculosis. The boy’s obsession is with his mother who deserted him and whom he is said to resemble: but no one will talk to him about her. In his middle teens he is sent on a religious retreat, and his manner suggests to the brothers who run the monastery that he might have a vocation. After weeks of careful consideration he goes to confession, as required, and declares that he has nothing to confess. He tries to explain that to invent sins for the confessional would be sinful, but he is sent home in disgrace.
Alex dies, followed at once by Thérèse. The father is now prepared for the son he has ignored to become co-patron of the estate, but the boy, seeming to belong to no one, neither to his parents, nor to his country, nor to Europe, nor to God, sinks into a depression that brings him near to death. When he begins to recover he goes out night after night and learns the topography of the cane fields in darkness, wishing that he could belong to the land, like a peon:
He prayed that his blood might run thicker and his skin turn dark ... Was he not born here? Was he not abandoned? He was an orphan and the land should claim him ... How could he become wholly of the land? Kneeling there in his black hat and coat, he felt as pain the blondness of his hair, the blueness of his eyes.
He decides to kill his father and make the estate serve those who work on it. But before he can carry out this plan revolution sweeps across the land. Don Raoul is shot, and in the last scene the boy is in an upstairs room of the hacienda with the crowd waiting below. Is he to go down shouting ‘Long live the Revolution’?
He would descend with them into the burning courtyard of his house and offer them his hand. They would surely welcome him among them.
Or he would sit quite still at the window, staring north to El Abanico and the mine whose circling walls still looked to him like a castle, suspended above the rustling cane, and turning up his eyes take in that blue, that cooling distance.
He had a choice: he could go down, he could sit still.
This ending characterises for me an ambiguity in the novel. If I understand it (and I’m not absolutely sure I do), the point is that the boy can be of the new land, but only if he renounces Europe (the mine walls in the second alternative still look ‘like a castle’) and becomes one with the people. In this the boy has become a symbol of the post-colonial consciousness – something with which I ought to be able to identify. But I am bothered by a feeling that the real situation does not in fact support the general point it is supposed to make. In real terms the statement ‘He had a choice’ is untrue; or if true, of no consequence. Whatever the boy does, the peons who have just killed his father will kill him. It is possible the novelist intends us to understand that. The colonist’s dream of becoming ‘one with the land’ is a piece of false romanticism. The point is lost for lack of clarity.
My problem throughout was that I enjoyed the novel at a realistic level, where it is rich in detail and strong in the impressions it leaves, and was correspondingly irritated when I felt the real was being marshalled and trimmed to make an abstract point. I found, for example, the solitariness and silences of the characters, which served the novel at a symbolic level, too extreme and prolonged to be believed. Symbolism, if that was what it was, undermined the fictional world on which it depended. The novel is put together in spare, evocative, brooding sentences, sombre, but sombrely lyrical. I admired the prose as I enjoyed the story. But even there something felt wrong. The writing is repetitious. Its cadences, beautiful in their way, are endlessly the same. It needed some relief, some variation of tone, an occasional lift, even a laugh, if only for contrast. But it remains true that The Dresden Gate is more interesting than most novels one reads – the work of a real writer, a poet, who draws on unusual knowledge.
The latest in Faber’s Introduction series, presenting work by writers who have not yet published a book, offers fiction by five women and one man. Two are British, one Canadian, one Belgian, one Irish and one American; and they range in age from 26 to 54. Apart from the Belgian, Kristien Hemmerechts, whose characters seem to exist only to serve an idea, I found them all rewarding. The Introduction series must go back a long way: Ted Hughes appeared in the first, and Francis Hope and Tom Stoppard in the second. On the other hand, of the 47 writers who have now appeared, only a very few have become names one recognises. Clearly persistence and luck need to go along with talent.
A name which appeared first in Introduction 6 is that of Jim Crace. Heinemann have now published his first novel, Continent, which comes with some impressive credentials. Its author has had Arts Council grants; sections of Continent have appeared in the New Review, the London Magazine, Quarto and Encounter as well as the LRB. So it is as likely my fault as Crace’s (or maybe a case of reviewer’s cramp) that my attention would not focus on this fiction (or ‘myth for our times’, as the jacket has it) of ‘a seventh continent where past and present are discontinuous’. Continent reads to me like a latter-day Erewhon, but less pointed – and I don’t much enjoy Erewhon either, once the author has crossed the Southern Alps into his invented world. Invention is not the same as imagination; and probably neither is as useful to the novelist as a simple talent for noticing and remembering.
That brings me back to the question of realism. In Introduction 9 I especially admired Douglas Glover’s prize-winning story ‘Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon’. Against a background of fact – a landscape, a harsh climate, a strange accident – the story plays over the various and contradictory interpretations the narrator puts upon his wife’s behaviour and upon his own. The moral, or behavioural, landscape and climate are as real and convincing as the geographical ones, but shifting, and much more difficult to describe.
Deirdre Madden’s 90-page story, ‘Hidden Symptoms’, which concludes Introduction 9, is a simpler and more direct transcription from life. She is a good deal younger than Glover – the youngest contributor – and sometimes her prose, in language and in construction, runs close to cliché. Occasionally it seems portentous. And there are a few technical matters (point of view in particular) she needs to be more conscious of. But she is a talented writer. There is a fresh, eager, intelligent immediacy in her story; and she has the gift of the curse of Ireland for a subject. I felt when I had finished ‘Hidden Symptoms’ that I knew more about Belfast – about the feel of the place – than I had ever known before.