Word on Writing: Penelope Fitzgerald

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Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald

I have tried, in describing these books of mine, to say something about my life. In my last two novels I have taken a journey outside of myself. Innocence takes place in Italy in the late 1950s. The Beginning of Spring in Moscow in 1913. Most writers, including the greatest, feel the need to do something like this sooner or later. The temptation comes to take what seems almost like a vacation in another country and above all in another time. V. S. Prichett, however, has pointed out that “a professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and become almost nothing.” This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions—I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it? –British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, 1916-2000, who published her first novel at age 60. From her book of essays, The Afterlife.

I got Innocence out of the Cambridge Public Library, after liking, but not being terribly engrossed, by another of hers, The Bookshop. One moment in Innocence caught me, as novels sometimes do: all at once I’d made a connection to the book and its characters as vividly as if this story were part of my lived experience and concerned people I had always known. On my list of books I’ll never forget.

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