Monday, November 24, 2014

`A Crafty So-and-So'

I like hearing that the reading of a book has changed someone’s life. The change need not be as momentous as moral reform or religious conversion, and may be as foolish and mundane as resolving to give writing a try. Levi Stahl surprised me with this: 

“But the true initial spur to whatever writing about books I've done in the past decade was [Penelope] Fitzgerald's posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Afterlife. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked it up: I knew her name, but I'd read nary a word of her novels. Yet I bought the book and was instantly won over by her perceptiveness and sensibility. Within weeks I had read all her novels and written my first book review…” 

Levi generously shares a pivotal moment. Not all of us have such ready access to our motives, prods and turning points. I can’t remember not wanting to write, and the rest is a hopeless muddle of memories and blanks. Levi offers inadvertent encouragement to us late-bloomers, slow-learners and second-chancers. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), like Laurence Sterne (who was born on this date, Nov. 24, in 1713), started late. She published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones, in 1975 at the age of fifty-eight, and her first novel, The Golden Child, in 1977 (the same year she published a splendid group-biography of her father and his brothers, The Knox Brothers). In her “golden years,” when some contemplate endless golf in Florida, she turned herself into the finest writer of her generation. 

I’m pleased Levi was smitten by The Afterlife (2003), though it’s an eccentric way to first encounter Fitzgerald (mine was comparably odd: The Knox Brothers). As a reviewer and literary essayist, Fitzgerald is at once formal and friendly, serious and drily comic, and always utterly non- and even anti-academic. What follows is a brief sampler from her collected nonfiction, with an emphasis on her gift for aphoristically characterizing writers and their work. 

On Stevie Smith: “She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige.” 

On Philip Larkin: “He valued jazz, cricket, drink, women (some women), books (some books), poetry, and friendship.” 

On Barbara Pym: “But toward her characters she shows a creator’s charity. She understands them so well that the least she can do is to forgive them.” 

On John McGahern: “McGahern is a realist who counts every clean shirt and every pint of Guinness but who writes at times, without hesitation, as a poet.” 

And from a brief 1989 essay, “Why I Write”: “In the eyes of the public [the writer] must be either a magician or a fraud. But this unfounded reputation does not upset the writer unduly. In a world full of dangers it is comforting to be considered, even wrongly, a crafty so-and-so.”

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