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Author Topic: [109] The Bookshop--Penelope Fitzgerald  (Read 2884 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: November 28, 2010, 12:34:28 PM »

Build it and they will come
November 28, 2010

I used to dream of owning a bookstore in Houston.  Back when I worked in one (a Waldenbooks, to be precise), I fantasized about how I would run things if I could make all my own choices.  I would specialize in science fiction, great literature, and anarchism.  The front window would always contain a copy of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.  The back half of the store would contain used, rare, and out-of-print books.  I would sell books for ninety cents that I had bought for a dollar, and I would make up the difference in volume.

While reading Penelope Fitzgerald's 1978 novel, The Bookshop, I cringed at some of the bookstore memories that started crowding back.  Florence Green, a widow, also wants to own a bookstore, only her fantasy differs greatly from mine.  In the first place, she wants to open it in a small English town where very few people read.  "In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered ... the opening of a bookshop."  She wants to run it out of a damp old stone building that houses a poltergeist.  She has no idea what to sell, other than "books," since she doesn't read much herself and her main qualification for her new career consists in having once stocked and taken inventory in a department store.  Her effort, let's face it, must fail, whereas mine, (with a few minor accounting adjustments and a colossal amount of start-up capital), could easily have succeeded after a few years and a some lucky breaks.

The novel opens with Mrs. Green trying to get financing from the local banker in the town where she had resided for almost ten years.  With the loan, she plans to buy a building, fix it up, and stock up on books.  She soon finds herself invited to a party hosted by a rich and influential woman--a big fish by design in a small pond--whom, it turns out, has had her eye on that very building for a long time and plans on turning it into a cultural arts center.  Gradually, the store takes shape, and paying customers do somehow stumble into it.  One prolonged comic moment occurs when she decides, on the advice of a cosmopolitan acquaintance, to stock a "controversial" book--Lolita.  She neither understands nor cares about the reasons for the controversy.  She just orders hundreds of copies, each one of which quietly sells.  The firestorm I kept expecting to erupt never did, and the incident merely gave her a welcome boost in sales that she never could repeat and never fully appreciated.  Soon, she hires a young girl to help out, and eventually she hires the cosmopolitan acquaintance as a buyer.  But she bankrolls everything with the money left her by her husband, not with profits.  Gradually, the circumstances get around to conspiring against her, sometimes quite accidentally and sometimes brought to her by hostile neighbors.  The end, in fact, turns even darker than I might have predicted--one might have hoped for at least a silver lining.  So, while we might have been hoping all along that the novel would become an uplifting tale of naive hope and simple dreams surmounting drear circumstance, it instead plows through to the end as a story of the profound isolation of an outcast widow, hounded by gossip.

Fitzgerald's style truly amazes me.  She has such a finely observed grasp of physical detail, her descriptions convince me utterly.  She must have lived there, and seen those people, and inhabited those buildings.  How else could she speak with such clarity?  For instance, consider this detail from on the beach, "Human figures, singly and in pairs, were exercising their dogs.  She was surprised to find how many of them were known to her by now as occasional customers.  They waved from a distance and then, because the land was so flat and approach was slow, had to wave again as they drew nearer, reserving their smiles until the last moment." (p. 52) Or consider this interior scene, "This was the most companionable room in the Old House, whitewashed, with not much noise beyond the sighing of the old bricked-up well in the floor.  Previous residents had counted themselves lucky that they did not have to go outdoors to pump, luckier still when the great buff-glazed sink, deep as a sarcophagus, was installed. A brass tap, proudly flared, discharged ice-cold water from a great height." (p. 25)

Fitzgerald splendidly succeeds in embedding the reader in the world of her characters, but in an odd way that swings back and forth between the amusing and the appalling.  She manages somehow to convey the sense of distance that one can feel in the very midst of the familiar.  For although Florence Green had lived in the township of Hardborough for ten years, we feel that she doesn't know her neighbors.  They all remain unpredictable and unknown forces.  Despite the understated humor that peppers the story, one ultimately must confront the loneliness and alienation and coldness of the villagers of Hardborough and through them, that of "charming" small town folk everywhere.  This bit of foreshadowing on the first page, I think, distills The Bookshop to its essence: "[Florence] had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation."



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