Features / In Their Own Words

IN HER OWN WORDS: Penelope Fitzgerald

In Monday’s feature, Evelyn Somers describes the straits in which Penelope Fitzgerald lived for much of her life. Those difficult circumstances led Fitzgerald to produce moving prose, often with a healthy dose of dry wit.


“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.” —The Blue Flower(1997)

“‘Surely you have to succeed, if you give everything you have.’
‘I don’t see why. Everyone has to give everything they have eventually. They have to die. Dying can’t be called a success.’ ” —The Bookshop (1978)

“As things are, we are the enemies of this world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this is animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, and the one cannot be measured without the other…” —The Blue Flower

“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can. If there’s even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you must never make it. They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.” —Offshore (1979)

“She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.” —The Bookshop

“But rest assured, it is not her understanding that we love in a young girl. We love her beauty, her innocence, her trust in us, her airs and graces, her God knows what—but we don’t love her for her understanding—nor, I am sure, does Hardenberg. He will be happy, at least for a certain number of years, with what she can offer him, and then he may have the incomparable blessing of children, while his poetry—’
Erasmus desperately caught the arm of the great man in mid-speech, spinning him round like flotsam in the tide. ‘But that is not what I wanted to ask you!’
Goethe stopped and looked down at him…
‘I was mistaken, then. You are not concerned about your brother’s happiness?’
‘Not about his!’ cried Erasmus. ‘About hers, about Sophie’s, about hers!’” —The Blue Flower

“Everything that you learn is useful. Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come useful at some point in your life?” —Offshore

“…on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.” —from a 1988 letter to editor Christopher Carduff

“I was just wondering a bit whether there were any advance copies, as I have had mysterious messages from the reviewers and I’m not sure where they got their copies from, all a failure as usual…the Spectator [reviewer], in spite of, or possibly because of, being plied with drink by Oliver [Breakwell], says the whole book was quite beyond him. . .

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?” —from a 1977 letter to Richard Garnett

“[W]hen evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master— her son, in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.” —Offshore

“I hope you won’t mind my writing to you… to thank you for what you wrote about me in The London Review of Books. Could I make one comment—you said in passing that the ‘apocalyptic flood’ at the end of Offshore wasn’t a success and I expect it isn’t, but it isn’t really meant as apocalyptic either—I only wanted the Thames to drift out a little way with the characters whom in the end nobody particularly wants or lays claim to. It seems to me that not being wanted is a positive condition and I hoped to find some way of indicating that.” —from a 1979 letter to critic Frank Kermode

“…I have remained true to my deepest convictions. I mean 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 comedy—for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?” —“Curriculum Vitae,” from The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism(2003)

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Evelyn Somers’s feature piece on Penelope Fitzgerald.

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