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Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

First published in 1980, Human Voices was Penelope Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, a story set largely within the confines of the BBC during the London Blitz. Like both its predecessors (The Bookshop and Offshore), Human Voices was inspired by experiences from Fitzgerald’s own life as she worked for the Corporation while WWII was underway.

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Over the course of this novel, Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of life at the BBC, complete with all its foibles and idiosyncrasies. She is particularly adept at capturing the atmosphere within the walls of Broadcasting House, highlighting the dynamics between various employees and departments along the way. In its infinite wisdom, The BBC has decided that ‘truth is more important than consolation’, especially in the long run; and so its role, as far as possible, must be to inform the nation about important developments in the world, irrespective of the views of other authorities. By the spring of 1940, the organisation is beginning to feel the effects of the war, the mood turning to one of urgency and mild anxiety. There is a fair amount of making do and getting on with the job as best one can.

Since March the lifts below the third floor had been halted as an economy measure, so that the first three staircases became yet another meeting place. Few nowadays were ever to be found in their offices. An instinct, or perhaps a rapidly acquired characteristic, told the employees how to find each other. On the other hand, in this constant circulation much was lost. The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by a clerical error contained the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry. (pp. 6-7)

Human Voices contains very little in the way of conventional plot. Instead, Fitzgerald focuses on her characters, capturing their hopes and anxieties as they go about their day-to-day activities in the production of radio programmes for the BBC. The two central characters are Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. Both are referred to by their job title initials, RPD and DPP respectively.

RPD (Sam) is a rather needy, self-indulgent chap, keen to surround himself with attentive young girls as far as humanly possible – a trait that has given rise to an alternative name for his department as ‘the Seraglio’. In spite of his vast technical knowledge of sound recordings and apparent competence in his role, RPD frequently feels the need to confide his personal troubles in one of the female RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants) from his division – someone like Vi (the most experienced of the group) or the new girl, Lise. RPD’s wife has effectively left him, possibly because he never seems to spend much time at home, hence his requirement for a little moral support at work. By contrast, PPD (Jeff) is more level-headed and relatively self-sufficient in his role, so much so that he is often called on to help RPD whenever some minor crisis comes to light. Here’s a brief extract from a telephone conversation between the two Directors.

RPD was put through.

‘Jeff, I want you to hear my case.’

DPP had been hearing it for more than ten years. But, to do his friend justice, it was never the same twice running. The world seemed new created every day for Sam Brooks, who felt no resentment and, indeed, very little recollection of what he had suffered the day before.

‘Jeff, Establishment have hinted that I’m putting in for too many girls.’

‘How can that be?’

‘They know I like to have them around, they know I need that. I’ve drafted a reply, saying nothing, mind you, about the five thousand discs a week, or the fact that we provide a service to every other department of the Corporation. See what you think of the way I’ve put it – (p. 15)

What follows is an extended dialogue which highlights the internal politics at play within the organisation as RPD is frequently sidelined or excluded from discussions concerning his own department due to his tendency to take things too personally.

Much of the novel’s action (if one can call it that) revolves around the activities involved in producing the radio programmes: recording sounds, finding and sequencing recordings, managing the schedules, and overseeing the broadcasts themselves – sometimes pulling the plug if things get too hairy.

There is much dry humour running through this book, with some choice exchanges between employees at different levels within the organisation. RPD’s first meeting with the new girl, Lise, gives rise to a very humorous conversation between the Director and the staff canteen about the nature of the cheese in their sandwiches. There are also some priceless scenes involving Dr Vogel, a rather eccentric expert who seems hell bent on capturing the most obscure sounds through field recordings – several hours’ worth of material featuring church doors squeaking and creaking are presented as just one example of his work. Conversations between RPD’s secretary, Mrs Milne, and her chief crony, a fellow secretary from Establishment, also result in some wonderfully comic moments, especially when the former decides on a new strategy for finding a replacement RPA for Lise when the girl leaves rather suddenly. The plan is to focus on sensible middle-aged women as they are ‘less prone to tears and hysteria’ than their younger counterparts. (Mrs Milne and her colleague are both ‘Old Servants’, long-standing members of the Corporation – part of the BBC old school, so to speak.)

Alongside the dry humour, there are melancholy moments too. I love this passage about one of the male RPAs, Teddy, at the end of a conversation he has been having with fellow RPA, Vi – she is expecting her fella to arrive home on leave fairly soon.

‘I hope he keeps strong for you,’ said Teddy gloomily, a spectator of experience, always on the wrong side of the windowpane. Sometimes he went down to the BH typing pool to see if any of the girls would like to come out, say to the pictures, or for a cup of tea at Lyons. Their heads, dark and fair, rose expectantly as he came in, then, although he was quite nice-looking, sank down again over their work. Nor was Teddy very popular with the Old Servant who supervised the pool. (p. 81)

The novel also touches on the personal lives of several of the main characters: RPD and his myriad of troubles; Lise and her search for boyfriend Frédé, a soldier in the French army; Vi and her efforts to support Lise in various ways; and, perhaps most notably of all, Annie (the second new girl) and her developing feelings for RPD. We even gain an insight into DPP’s inner life. There is a sense that some of these people – certainly RPD, Vi, Annie and Teddy – find a form of solace in their activities at the BBC as a means of distraction from the various stresses and strains of war. Fitzgerald is particularly good at capturing the mood in London during the Blitz: people seeking shelter in the underground at night; snapshots of streets following the bombing raids. It’s all here.

After the first week in September London became every morning a somewhat stranger place. The early morning sound was always of glass being scraped off the pavement. The brush hissed and scraped, the glass chattered, tinkled, and fell. Lyons handed out cold baked potatoes through one hole in their windows and took in the money through another. (p. 143)

Human Voices is another excellent novel from Penelope Fitzgerald, strong on characterisation, attention to detail and the conveyance of mood. It is perhaps closer in style to Offshore than to The Bookshop, but there are some similarities with both. By focusing on the personal experiences and feelings of her characters, Fitzgerald finds a means of putting the broader developments of the war into a more human context. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gets to the heart of the matter at the BBC.

The subject of the meeting was the familiar one of how to carry on. Engineering had skilfully ensured that the BBC, switching from one transmitter to another, need never go off the air. Maintenance was probably at work already on the broken pipes. Catering brewed away remorselessly in the basement, but the problem remained: what should the voices say? (p. 188)

Human Voices is published by Flamingo/HarperCollins; personal copy.

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I can’t quite recall how I first heard of American writer Paula Fox, possibly via a conversation on Twitter or through the blogosphere, but either way she sounded interesting. First published in 1970, Desperate Characters was her second novel. After being out of print for several years, it was reissued in 1999 and is now regarded by some as a potential classic of 20th-century American literature.

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Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. The Bentwoods are privileged; they have plenty of money, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and a second home on Long Island. In many ways, they exist in a world cocooned from poverty, social deprivation and disorder.

One Friday evening, as the Bentwoods are dining at home, a familiar stray cat reappears at their back door. Sophie takes pity on the cat, gives it a saucer of milk and strokes its back, an action that prompts the creature to bite her. Here’s how it happens:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. (pg. 6)

That’s a great passage. It contains so many different elements: the hints about Sophie’s character; the danger lurking close to home; the sense of violation.

At first, Sophie does little to attend to the bite. She is reluctant to seek medical treatment, passing the incident off as ‘nothing’, even though deep inside she feels vitally wounded in some way. Having fed the cat on at least one previous occasion, she feels bemused and somewhat betrayed by its attack. As time passes fear begins to set in: her hand swells up; signs of infection start to appear; someone mentions the possibility of rabies. All this only serves to unnerve Sophie; even everyday objects start to appear somewhat unsettling.

The living room looked smudged, flat, Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. […] Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretence that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event – her own doing – this undignified confrontation with mortality. (pg. 47)

One of the most striking things about this novel is the way in which Fox uses the cat bite as a catalyst, a starting point for further exploration. In effect, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence over the course of the weekend. For instance, Sophie answers the telephone to a heavy breather; a stone is thrown through the window of a friend’s house; their holiday home is vandalised. One by one the episodes pile up. In one memorable scene, a visibly distressed black man knocks at the Bentwoods’ door, pleads to use their phone and ends up borrowing money from them. In many respects, it feels like an invasion of their bourgeois world.

Desperate Characters is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. In some ways it reminded me a little of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the WeddingI didn’t love it quite as much as Cassandra, but that said, Baker’s novel sets a very high bar. In the end, I was left wondering what it is that Sophie fears the most. She clearly dreads the prospect of injections, but is she more unsettled by the threat of rabies or by the reality of her life with Otto? As we follow Sophie over the course of the weekend, we learn of her previous affair with a publisher named Francis, a relationship that obviously meant a great deal to her. When the affair ended, and Francis returned to his wife, Sophie was left feeling as though she had suffered ‘an irreversible loss’. In this scene, she reflects on her marriage to Otto, a man in the midst of his own troubles:

If all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that or worse – once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. (pg. 62)

Fox uses contrasts to good effect throughout the story. There is a striking difference between the order of the Bentwoods’ house and the chaos Otto and Sophie encounter when they call upon Mr Haynes, the somewhat unreliable caretaker of their Long Island retreat. Here’s a brief excerpt from the description of the Haynes’ house, a property that looks as if it has been ‘assembled by a centrifuge’.

Rubber tires leaned against every surface. Cans, tools, pails, lengths of hose, rusted grills, and summer furniture were spread out in front of the house, presenting a scene of monkeylike distraction – as though each object had been snatched up and then dropped, a second’s forgetfulness erasing all memory of original intention. A clothesline was strung across the porch and from it hung a few limp rags. A bicycle with twisted handlebars lay against the steps. And from a small chimney black smoke poured as if, inside the house, the inhabitants were hurriedly burning up still more repellent trash before it drowned them. (pg 131-132)

There is a broader significance to the story, too. It seems to signal a crisis in a certain type of American life, an unravelling of the American Dream in a changing world. I’ll finish with a final quote from Charlie, Otto’s former business partner and fellow lawyer (the dissolution of their partnership adds another element of tension to the narrative). Even though he is alone with Sophie, Charles’ comments refer to both her and her husband:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even. (pg. 39)

For the interested, here’s a link a profile of Paula Fox published in The Guardian.

Desperate Characters is published by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20, #TBR20 round 2.