In her final book of fiction--published, alas, posthumously--Penelope Fitzgerald allows us a present of several very strange pasts, her narratives ranging from the 17th century to the late 20th. The title tale, set in New Zealand in 1852, seems to resemble a cautionary fable about a spinster and an escaped con. But in Fitzgerald's hands, it is infinitely more. When the prisoner ambushes the rector's daughter, disputation and attraction soon surmount fear, and yet with each bit of information he reveals, Alice Godley is on shakier ground. "I'm not innocent," he asserts, "but I was wrongly incriminated." He admits that he had meant to frighten her, "but that is no longer my aim at the moment." And, as a gesture of good faith, "He told her that the name he went by, which was not his given name, was Savage." Over the course of just 18 pages (which make it the longest in the book), Fitzgerald plucks comedy from terror, sadness from hilarity, and the surreal from the seemingly concrete. Here, as elsewhere, she gently but decisively upends her characters, and readers. And Savage is only the first of many uninvited or inopportune guests in The Means of Escape. |
None of the eight stories collected here leads to a decisive or luminous moment. In fact, resolution is not the object of these slant, rule-breaking pieces. Fitzgerald wrote "The Axe," her first published work of fiction, for a ghost-story contest (judged by the unlikely trio of Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith, and horror actor Christopher Lee), and it was printed in the London Times and then in The Times Book of Ghost Stories (1977). Taking the form of a letter from someone charged with a recent round of dismissals, "The Axe" concerns the layoffs' effects on one ancient clerk:
The actual notification to the redundant staff passed off rather better, in a way, than I had anticipated. By that time everyone in the office seemed inexplicably conversant with the details, and several of them in fact had gone far beyond their terms of reference--young Patel, for instance, who openly admits that he will be leaving us as soon as he can get a better job, taking me aside and telling me that to such a man as Singlebury dismissal would be like death. Dismissal is not the right world, I said. But death is, Patel replied.
In "Beehernz," the title character is still alive, though even fans of his conducting may have assumed otherwise, owing to his disappearance from the English musical scene long ago. Fitzgerald composed this lighter but no less twisting 1997 comedy of aspirations at the invitation of the BBC, for a series of stories on musical themes, and read it aloud on Radio 3 that year. In her nocturne, a deputy musical director decides to coax the reclusive Beehernz out of Scottish isolation by giving him the chance to conduct Mahler once more, despite the fact that he had fled London some 40 years earlier after hearing that he was to conduct Mahler's Eighth. His objection? "It is too noisy." (The author previously had her comedic way with the BBC in Human Voices, and here, too, she seems to be tweaking it over the mammoth 1959 staging of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," which it mounted to wipe out an unwanted budget surplus.)
"The Red-Haired Girl" (published in the Times Literary Supplement for September 11, 1998) also explores what happens to the uninvited, as five British landscape students make a pilgrimage to Brittany. But Palourde (lacking as it does good food, good weather, and any notion of the picturesque) is not a painter's Platonic ideal, as its inhabitants well know. Only one artiste, Hackett, even manages to find a model, and she confounds him utterly before she disappears. The multilayered closing piece, "At Hiruharama," matches this story and "The Means of Escape" in violent economy and depth and contains yet another person who appears out of the narrative blue. First published in 1992, this roundabout New Zealand family history offers ever more proof of Fitzgerald's late, great flowering.