Tag Archives: Moscow

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald falls periodically into the category of neglected female writer. The publisher of her first novel refused to consider any more from her arguing that she was ‘only an amateur writer’. Penelope Fitzgerald responded to his sexism-ageism with insight and wit. 

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?

Two years later in 1979 she published Offshore which won the Booker Prize. Three other novels written by her were included in Booker Prize shortlists, including The Beginning of Spring. She doesn’t sound like an amateur to me.

The focus of her novels is very varied: historical, European, a bookshop in Suffolk, a houseboat on the Thames. And with each novel she probes deeply, exploring her themes with wit and meticulous research or knowledge. The Beginning of Spring is a novel to recommend highly, which presents as being about a mystery, but widens the idea to explore the mystery of people’s reactions to the changes in their lives.

The Beginning of Spring

The setting of this novel is curious. We are in Moscow, in the period between the first stirrings of revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of the First World War which brought on the fall of the Romanovs, and the Bolshevik Revolution. 

Her main character is also a curious choice: Frank Reid owns a printshop in Moscow, inherited from his father. He lives with his wife Nellie and their three children, supported by another Englishman, Selwyn Crane, a follower of Tolstoy. He is the printworks manager and a poet. 

The events of the story take place over a few weeks, that period when Moscow begins to emerge from the lockdown of winter. Everything in this novel is about change: the weather, the marriage of Frank and Nellie, the children who are growing up, the politics of Tsarist Russia, even new technology in the print business.

It is Frank we follow in this story of change, whose wife leaves him at the beginning of the novel. As he comes to terms with her disappearance, he must decide what to do about the care of the children, rather alarmingly sent back from a railway station having begun the journey with Nellie, and treated like so much unwanted baggage. He must also keep the print works going at a time of industrial unrest and subjection to the many imperial regulations applied to foreign businesses. 

He employs a young woman whom Selwyn has found, and she becomes a kind of governess for the children. Frank falls for her. But it seems that her life is not without complications, for a student breaks into the print works one night seemingly connected to her in some way.

Frank appears to be a rational man, but he is as caught up in the mysteries and changes brought by life as any of the characters are. Selwyn is much concerned about the print run of his poems Birch Tree Thoughts. He is known as a man who tries to do good for everyone, but a more selfish side is revealed towards the end of the novel. 

While change is the dominant theme and reflected in the title, another theme of the novel is strangeness, foreignness. The small English community in Moscow is depicted as very small-minded and full of gossip. Tolstoy’s philosophies do not sit well with British conservatism nor with the radical politics of the student revolutionaries in Tsarist Russia. Selwyn Crane’s poems have to be set in English in Roman type, whereas the printworks uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The children are able to negotiate the boundaries between Russia and their English family, even if they do not understand what they see, such as the gathering in the birch trees near the dacha. The adults are all in search of some utopian life. 

There are some splendid depictions of smaller characters; Kuriatin is a neighbour, nouveau riche and keen to show off his westernised purchases. The chief craftsman at the printshop Tvyordov; Charlie, Frank’s brother who visits during Nellie’s absence. Each of these characters are individuals, with complicated lives and to a greater or lesser degree, with very little knowledge of the world outside their own concerns.

Nothing is clear, but the season turns into spring and we learn about Nellie’s departure and her plans, and as the novel ends Nellie returns. 

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000)

She published her first novel when she was 61. She had been active in the London literary world having worked as an editor and a biographer before embarking on her own fiction. She led a difficult life, not least because her husband was debarred, having passed dodgy cheques, forcing the family to live in near poverty, including for a while on a houseboat on the Thames which sank. She used her experiences in some of her novels, the houseboat being the setting of Offshore.

The Beginning of Spring was set in Moscow, a place that she had only visited once. Despite this the novel is full of details of the city. She also included information about the printing trade, and details of Russian life that indicate her depth of research. The research is not produced clunkily, to impress the reader, rather it is used to enhance her themes of change and foreignness. 

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in1988 by Collins. I used the edition by Flamingo from 2003. 246pp

Related post

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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To Moscow with Books

What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.

  1. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

99 G Park coverThis is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.

The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.

Moscow University with ponds

Moscow University with ponds

Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.

Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp

  1. Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)

199 Sdrops coverSnowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.

Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.

The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

199 M & M coverFor a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.

This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.

The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp

And has it changed?

There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.

Related posts:

You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)

 

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books