Getting rid of her annoyance: Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’

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(Detail from a wall-painting in the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, late 18th Dynasty, around 1350 BC: British Museum)

‘I’ll send you a copy of my poor British Museum mystery when it comes out in paperback’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her friend Mary Lago (E. M. Forster scholar and also author of books on Rabindranath Tagore, William Rothenstein, Max Beerbohm and others), ‘although it’s scarcely worth reading’.[1]

The Golden Child was Fitzgerald’s third published book and her first novel. It appeared in 1977, a year after the death of her husband: the book had been written, Fitzgerald said, ‘to entertain him’.[2] She gave other versions of what had prompted its writing: ‘I did write this mystery story, largely to get rid of my annoyance: 1. about the Tutankhamen Exhib: as I’m certain everything in it was a forgery, and : 2. about someone who struck me as particularly unpleasant when I was obliged to go to a lot of museums & c. to find out about Burne-Jones’.[3]

tutankhamun

Set in the British Museum (not explicitly so), it creates, as Frank Kermode remarked, ‘the impression that the author was at least as familiar with the workings of that institution as its Director could possibly be.’[4] Nevertheless, it’s often viewed as standing apart from Fitzgerald’s other fiction, partly because of its generic character, seeming to fall into the category of ‘detective fiction’, and partly because, not least due to Fitzgerald’s own dismissive or self-deprecating comments, it’s seen as somehow unachieved, a trial run, a dead end quickly perceived and thereafter avoided. One other factor is the extensive cuts made to the novel, earlier called ‘The Golden Opinion’, by its publisher. Duckworth: some original materials, in Fitzgerald’s notebooks, are included in the archive of her work now held by the British Library:
https://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2019/07/penelope-fitzgeralds-archive-a-human-connection.html

A common response in such circumstances is to stress that the interest in the book under discussion is that it connects with so much else in the life and work of its author. And there are certainly connections that can be and have been traced: Fitzgerald’s enduring interest in closed institutions, with their peculiarities of structure and habit (the British Museum, the BBC, a drama school); cryptography, language games, mysteries; suspicion of authority and distrust of hierarchies; an affection for outsiders, those conventionally perceived as ‘failures’ or simply ‘ordinary’.

Golden-Child

(Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child)

As Hermione Lee in particular has shown, there are a great many links between the novel and the research into her own family that Fitzgerald was conducting at the time she was writing it: ‘Her head was full of the characters of the four brothers, now all dead, whom she had known as odd, unworldly, formidably clever older men, with the enigmas of their lives cocooned in layers inside them. Unravelling their secrets was like following a thread from the present back into the underworld.’[5]

Her uncle Dillwyn’s involvement in cryptography in both World Wars and his work on ancient Greek texts, particularly the mimes of Herondas, are pertinent here, while the inability of Waring Smith to tell a lie, even to avoid distressing his wife,[6] recalls another Knox uncle, Wilfred, who ‘never told a lie in his entire life – he never saw the necessity’.[7]

Wilfred-Knox-via-Wikipedia

(Wilfred Knox via Wikipedia)

Then, although this was her first published novel, there were earlier fictional efforts, one of them, ‘A Letter from Tisshara’, dating back to 1951, when she was editing the World Review with her husband. This is probably the clearest forerunner of much of The Golden Child.[8]

The Golden Child uses the occasion of an extraordinary exhibition at a major museum to set in motion an exploration of the uses and misuses of power and the ways in which human types come together or damage those around them. When the possibility of fakery arises, the Director will not consult Sir William—the obvious candidate to settle the question of authenticity—in case of disclosure. ‘The Director’s voice trembled with the pride and bitter jealousy which is the poetry of museum-keeping’ (85). Of the novel’s ‘three musketeers’,[9] the significantly-named Professor Untermensch is an Austrian or German Jew, who hasn’t seen his wife since 1935 and whose skill in clearing up the floor of the Exhibition Hall at the end of the novel is traced back to 1937 when Nazis forced him to ‘do the street-sweeping in Vienna’ (256). Len Coker is self-educated, actively devoted to left-wing causes, a craftsman. Waring Smith is a junior exhibition officer, ‘not an exceptional young man’ (29). Their collective strength and the combination of their separate talents and qualities will suffice to solve the mystery and force the confession of the murderer. Its ‘villains’ are those with their own agendas and priorities: the Museum, though ‘nominally a place of dignity and order’, is experienced by those who work there as ‘a free-for-all struggle of the crudest kind’, marked by ‘the ferocious efforts of the highly cultured staff trying to ascend the narrow ladder of promotion’ (13). The class division is strongly marked.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

In retrospect, noting the elements of the book that dated it—Russian villains, French structuralists—Fitzgerald added: ‘But I think of The Golden Child as a historical novel. All novels, in fact, are historical.’[10] That point had been made by Ford Madox Ford’s prefatory letter (addressed to the publisher William Bird) in No More Parades, the second volume of his Parade’s End tetralogy. Ford wrote there, ‘All novels are historical, but all novels do not deal with such events as get on to the pages of history.’[11] It has been made by others since. Marguerite Yourcenar wrote, ‘Those who put the historical novel in a category apart are forgetting that what every novelist does is only to interpret, by means of the techniques which his period affords, a certain number of past events; his memories, whether consciously or unconsciously recalled, whether personal or impersonal, are all woven of the same stuff as History itself. The work of Proust is a reconstruction of a lost past quite as much as is War and Peace.’[12]

Marguerite_Yourcenar-Bailleul-1982

(Bernhard De Grendel, Marguerite Yourcenar, 1982)

One noticeable feature of The Golden Child is the obvious extent to which the author is enjoying herself, not only in the more farcical elements of the plot, nor even the satirical sharpness with which art historians and cultural aristocrats are drawn but also on a smaller scale, in the whimsical humour of the Garamantian pictographs (188, 192-194) or sly literary jokes such as Sir William Simpkin’s enquiry as to the whereabouts of Waring Smith, elegantly sidestepping Browning’s poem to ask ‘What’s become of Smith?’ (28).[13] The investigating police officer is an Inspector Mace—the Egyptologist Arthur Cruttenden Mace was a member of Howard Carter’s excavation team, and died from arsenic poisoning six years after the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb—and Fitzgerald also enjoys puns, Mace’s assistant, Sergeant Riddell and the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company among them. Telling the story of Waring Smith’s marriage to Haggie, she comments, ‘They went out once a week to see films by leading French and Italian directors about the difficulties of making a film’ (29), while the restaurant close to the Museum, to which Waring takes Dousha at Sir William’s request, ‘having been formerly called the Bloomsbury Group, Lytton Strachey Slept Here, the Cook Inn, Munchers, and Bistro Solzhenitsyn, now bore the name of the Crisis’ (63).

Carter-1925-via-Guardian

(Howard Carter with the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen, c. 1925, via The Guardian)

One of Fitzgerald’s critics writes of The Golden Child leaving us ‘with the sense that this first novel raises questions of a “supernatural” order that would also characterize Fitzgerald’s later fiction, to the degree that it might be said that all of her fiction can be viewed as a form of detective fiction, if by this we understand that there is a mystery – spiritual in nature – that challenges us and does not readily admit of solution.’[14]

Yes. As Le Mesurier says to Voss in Patrick White’s novel: ‘“The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.”’[15]

 

 

Notes

[1] Letter of 9 July [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 319.

[2] Several instances of this statement noted by Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 458 n.44.

[3] To Richard Garnett, 16 September 1977, So I Have Thought of You, 240. Her biography of Edward Burne-Jones was published in 1975.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Introduction’ to the Everyman’s Library edition of three Fitzgerald novels: The Bookshop; The Gate of Angels; The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), ix.

[5] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 239; The Knox Brothers, Fitzgerald’s study of her father and his three brothers, also appeared in 1977.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child (1977; London: Harper Collins, 2004), 199: page numbers of this edition given hereafter.

[7] See Penelope Fitzgerald, A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 470.

[8] See Dean Flower and Linda Henchey
, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Unknown Fiction’
, The Hudson Review, 61, 1 (Spring, 2008), 53-55.

[9] Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, 243.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, Independent Books (24 September 1994).

[11] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 3.

[12] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; London: Penguin Books, 2000), 275-276.

[13] Robert Browning’s ‘Waring’ begins: ‘What’s become of Waring/ Since he gave us all the slip’. Fitzgerald’s 1995 review of Peter Levi’s Edward Lear: A Life, ends by asking, in response to his highlighting of Tennyson and Hardy, ‘What’s become of Browning?’ See A House of Air, 90.

[14] Christopher J. Knight, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginnings: The Golden Child and Fitzgerald’s Anxious Relation to Detective Fiction’, Cambridge Quarterly, 41, 3 (September 2012), 364.

[15] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 289.

 

‘A house is a ship turned upside down’: some notes on Guy Davenport’s ‘Tatlin!’

GD_JW_via_Jacket

(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams via Jacket)

Due partly to my prolonged (and continuing) immersion in the Davenport-Kenner letters, partly to the frequent references—and some generously supplied scans of Davenport essays and reviews—in emails exchanged with the writer Greg Gerke, I’ve just begun rereading Guy Davenport’s stories. While I’m forever peering into various volumes of his essays and art criticism, my reading of most of his fiction dates back between fifteen and thirty years. I’d like to think that I know a bit more now than I did then—not just about Davenport or modern literature but things more generally. I certainly know enough to tread warily, one assemblage at a time. So, a few notes suggested by that reading and a strong awareness of the recurring question prompted by all Davenport’s writings: how does he know that? Perhaps two questions, the other being: how does he do that?

‘Tatlin!’—Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian painter, architect and designer—is the title story of Davenport’s first collection (dedicated to the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard) and its opening story, though actually the last of the six in order of composition, which was ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’, ‘Robot’, ‘The Dawn in Erewhon’, ‘1830’, ‘Herakleitos’, ‘Tatlin!’.[1]

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In the summer of 1969, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘I’m at work on a piece of prose not like anything I’ve done before, or anybody else to my knowledge—a breakthrough, I think (I hope), and an invention. It’s the kind of thing I’ve wanted to do for the longest, but have never been able to organize my imagination enough to get ahead with it. It is essentially the biography of Tatlin’.[2]

‘You would seem to have invented a new genre’, Kenner wrote to him in March 1970, ‘the assemblage, as by a postulated consciousness, of the clues to some unnoticed event’, adding, to distinguish Davenport’s perspective from a work by Hilaire Belloc to which he referred, ‘you don’t use the point-of-view of an imaginary spectator, but a “consciousness” as in the Cantos.’[3]

GD-JL-Letters

To James Laughlin, more than twenty years later, Davenport traced the emergence of his fictional strategy: ‘The breakthrough came when I realized that I mustn’t write about anything from my own experience, or anybody I’ve known, but to work with pure imagination, and to work with that hiatus between the mind and the world in which the pragmatic always fails and the imagination has to take over.’[4]

‘Tatlin!’, like a number of other Davenport fictions, includes the author’s drawings, designed as integral parts of the text—‘Tatlin! began as a painting’.[5] Peter Quartermain comments that ‘all his stories are written as though they were drawn and hence call attention to themselves as made works’[6] and Davenport remarked to Laughlin: ‘My fiction is a kind of drawing.’[7] These drawings are beautifully achieved, elegant, detailed, with exquisite cross-hatching: one of Vladimir Tatlin in snazzy striped trousers, holding a straw hat in his right hand (and looking, to my eye, not unlike the young Pablo Picasso), two of Lenin and then a third following five representations of Tatlin’s artworks, some of those reproduced in Camilla Gray’s book on Russian art which Davenport acknowledged on Tatlin!’s title page.[8] But the final three drawings are all of Joseph Stalin and the modernist artists, poets and painters, scientists and Constructivists who had seemed for a while to be in tune with the revolution are by this time dead, dishonoured or in exile.

letatlin-1932.jpg!Large

‘Tatlin!’ begins with a section entitled ‘Moscow 1932’, the artist’s Constructivist works and his flying machine—a glider ‘for everyday use’—hung from the ceiling, like ‘the fossil skeleton of a pterodactyl.’ ‘Tatlin’ is the first and fourth word of the story; by the eight line, Lenin has been mentioned three times. Then we read: ‘This is no place to continue talking about M. N. Ryutin’s remarks concerning Comrade Stalin, mimeographed and running to many pages, said by people who knew to foreshadow a change.’[9] Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin had consolidated his position as supreme leader before the end of that decade. Ryutin’s writings argued against some central Communist policies and for the removal of Stalin. It didn’t end well—though Ryutin wasn’t executed until 1937, as part of the ‘Great Purge’.

The story moves through St. Petersburg’s Bloody Sunday in 1905, when the march led by Father Gapon resulted in at least 200 deaths; Tatlin as busker, as sailor, in Paris meeting Picasso, Chagall and others; Tsiolkovsky, Russian space science pioneer; Tatlin in the classroom; and the dissipation, perversion and betrayal of the revolution.

The second page of text introduces a good many more names and several themes which bulk large in Davenport’s work: not only flight but the crucial link between modernism and the archaic—‘What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic’ (Geography of the Imagination, 21)—the reaching back over great stretches of time common to Pound, Joyce, Gaudier-Brzeska, Picasso, Modigliani, Khlebnikov and others. ‘Tatlin had gone back to Daedalos’ (Tatlin! 3). This will be another recurring theme or motif in Davenport’s essays and stories: the labyrinth, the marriage of art and science and, of course, flight again, while—‘At Teraspol there were cobwebs in the barley, wasps at the panes, and cats in the knitting baskets’ (Tatlin! 10)—wasps, cats and barley will also crop up many times in the Davenport oeuvre. And Tatlin in the classroom? ‘Every force evolves a form, he taught’ (Tatlin! 16)—the title of a volume of Davenport essays and a dictum he took from Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers.

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Among names here which will also recur are those of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ruskin, Rousseau, Osip Mandelstam, Fourier, Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Nijinsky. A list like that might in turn prompt a reader to wonder just how many names the story actually includes, either as character or reference. In fact, in a story of fifty pages of good-sized type and generous margins, twelve of which are given over to the drawings already mentioned, there are close on one hundred and forty named painters, sculptors, poets, pianists, engineers, political and historical figures, architects, film-makers, chemists, explorers, aeronauts, dancers, composers and journalists. Some are unfamiliar – but can, of course, be looked up, far more easily than when Davenport first published these stories. A few details I paused over: Marya Ivanovna, apparently a Pravda journalist. Was this also an historical character? Then I realised that it was a patronymic form and there’s really no obvious way of finding out—though somewhere, inevitably, there will be a scholar of 1930s Russian media who will know the answer—in fact, it crops up in a number of literary texts: there are characters so named in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter, Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth and Resurrection, Grossman’s Life and Fate and Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent. Ivan Alekseyevich threw me for a moment but is, I think, the writer known as Ivan Bunin.

I hesitated too over a reference to the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II in 1881 – did Davenport make mistakes? Answer: very rarely, certainly as far as I’m aware. And was it a mistake – or a private joke or a cunning postmodern playfulness wholly unfamiliar to me? A mistake, apparently – it was, in any case, emended: when I looked at a later printing, the last of the Romanov rulers had indeed become Csar Aleksandr II.[10]

One phrase that came to mind, given Davenport’s lifelong study of Ezra Pound, was ‘Life and Contacts’, the subtitle attached to Pound’s long poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, first published in 1919 – thought, when it appeared, with Homage to Sextus Propertius, in Diptych Rome-London (1958), in a limited edition of 200 copies, the terms were reversed (‘Contacts and Life’). Pound wrote to his publisher: ‘Note inversion in subtitle of Mauberley, NOT Life and Contacts but the actual order of the subject matter.’[11] ‘Tatlin!’ moves freely back and forth in time but it is the ‘contacts’ that inform the intellectual and artistic development and these in turn sketch the outline of the life. And the dozens of names, many but not all of them ones that a reader would recognise, so skilfully and confidently deployed, generate and populate and substantiate that life and the world that contained it.

Davenport was an extremely private man and this extended to his fiction. He wrote to James Laughlin in 1992, ‘I don’t think I have an ego. That is, I have nothing to say for myself, or as from myself. It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[12] So friends and relations might be used in his stories but would be moved through vast distances in time and space. ‘Members of my family wearing long Russian beards, walk around in “Tatlin!” and moments of my childhood figure there on Russian porches and against a background of sunflowers and the Black Sea.’[13]

ML-VT

(Mikhail Larionov, portrait of Vladimir Tatlin)

That refers to the time spent by Tatlin with the young Mikhail Larionov in Teraspol. ‘Vladimir and Mikhail edged through the thicket of sunflowers on rainy days to find things, old bits, bottomless wooden pails, snakes, baling wire lizards’ (Tatlin! 10).

It’s a forerunner of what will be fully fleshed out in the short novel which ends this book, The Dawn in Erewhon and in many of Davenport’s fictions thereafter: the utopian vision, drawing on Charles Fourier, of a paradisal world in which people, especially children, explore and learn the physical world’s sensuous beauty and sensual pleasures, focusing not least upon their own—and others’—bodies.

This persistent theme in Davenport’s fictions has provoked hostility, suspicion, even dismissal, some commentators becoming fixated upon it to the virtual exclusion of everything else, responses tending to confirm Davenport’s diagnosis of continuing Comstockery and Puritan frigidity. Erik Reese, though, writes that Davenport ‘believed that attraction is fundamentally amoral. We love what, and who, we love. Period.’ And he points to the review by Wyatt Mason, which suggested that Davenport’s fictions are really asking ‘one persistent question: “What if we were free?”’[14]

The story ends with Tatlin and Viktor Shklovsky talking together, Tatlin explaining that all politicians are mad. ‘A genius has no interest in controlling people with anything so crude as power. The artist has true power. The intellectual may hunger for power as his ideas prove to be weak, but he is for the most part content to live in his mind’ (Tatlin! 48). Stalin is dead – but Tatlin will outlive him by less than three months. ‘They sat in a kind of grief, a kind of joy, stunned.’ Tatlin asks: ‘Will they publish your books, build my tower, open the jails?’ Shklovsky replies: ‘It is only Stalin who is dead.’ To which Tatlin responds: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Viktor leaves. Tatlin sits among his hens and his books, of which he reads the same pages over and over. He and the others are ghosts of themselves, living in their minds, in memory and imagination. The story ends, as it began, with the flying machine. ‘He could ponder the glider strut by strut, and with a soft chirr and dance of hands, imagine it agile as a bat over rivers, lakes, fields’ (Tatlin! 51).

 

 

References

[1] Guy Davenport to Nicholas Kilmer, letter of 3 April 1979: ‘Fragments from a Correspondence’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, 13, 3 (Winter, 2006), 89-130 (97).

[2] Davenport to Kenner [10 June 1969], in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1228.

[3] Questioning Minds II, 1298; see also Guy Davenport, ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 380.

[4] Letter of 24 October 1992, in W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 92.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Postscript’ to Twelve Stories (Washington D. C.: Counterpoint, 1997), 235.

[6] Peter Quartermain, ‘Writing as Assemblage: Guy Davenport’, in Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis to Zukofsky to Susan Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 176.

[7] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 138.

[8] Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922 (1962) was revised and enlarged after Gray’s early death by Marian Burleigh-Motley. See her The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), 203, for Board No. 1: Old Bosmannaya (1916-1917) and Relief (1917).

[9] Guy Davenport, Tatlin! Six Stories (New York: Scribner’s, 1974), 1.

[10] Davenport, Twelve Stories, 13. Is a ‘mistake’ possible in fiction? Davport addresses the question himself in ‘Ernst Machs, Max Ernst’: The Geography of the Imagination, 376.

[11] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 1308 n.549.2.

[12] Bamberger, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, 97.

[13] See Guy Davenport, ‘From Indifference to Attention’, New York Times Book Review (4 April, 1982), 30.

[14] ‘Afterword: Remembering Guy Davenport’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 414, 415. See Wyatt Mason, ‘There Must I Begin to Be: Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions’, Harper’s Magazine (April 2004): ‘If the language of fiction is to be of any lasting use, as Davenport cajoles us again and again to see, it must struggle to define–and, in so doing, attain–moments of liberty. In his own fiction, Davenport has succeeded in that regard, finding new ways to dramatize one, suggestive question: What if we were free?’