I love the remarkably succinct and compassionate novels of Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000). I think that my favorite is Offshore, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1979. It is set among those living on barges in the canals of London (Battersea Reach) A.D. 1961. The setting is in its own way as unusual as the British business in Moscow A.D. 1913 in The Beginning of Spring, and one with which Fitzgerald had direct, personal experience.
Not that I know if any of the characters in the novel had real-life models. Maurice, a male prostitute, allows without a murmur of protest his barge to be used as a storage place for stolen goods. Perhaps a penchant for courting danger is a stereotype of homosexuals, but Fitzgerald makes all her characters human, all too human, and therefore deserving of compassion. She is quite unlike some other English converts to Catholicism. such as Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark. who impaled characters like insects on displays (generally still squirming).
Fitzgerald was very, very good at convincingly drawing preadolescent girls of startling maturity, or at least considerable insight, and the daughters of Nenna (Tilda aged 6 and Martha aged 11) in Offshore are prime examples. Nenna, who is Maurice’s confidante, is rehashing how she came to be abandoned by her husband Edward (who wants to remain on terra firma) with two young girls. And there is the matter of the missing squash rackets. (You’ll have to read it to see why these matter!)
There’s also an old cat, Stripey, who chases young rats, but is chased by mature ones and Willis, a painter, who is trying to seel his boat before it sinks, showing it only at low tide when the leaks aren’t be noticed.
There is a lot of irony, beautifully rendered juxtapositions, multiple epiphanies and more characters than I have mentioned – all in 130 pages of crystalline prose. There’s an exotic (to most of us anyway) setting, amusing dialogue and other observations, and even plots.
One of the characters remarks “I never do anything deliberately.” In cutting jewels of novels Fitzgerald must have done a great deal of careful work in bringing the faltering community of eccentrics on barges to life on the page. What incisive, delightful novels Penelope Fitzgerald started writing after she turned 60!! And what a knack she had for characterization and for sketching odd settings.
Though some don’t like the ending (which is very similar to another movie mainly set on a houseboat on a canal in another capital, Shohei Imamura’s “The Pornographers” [“Jinruigaku nyumon ]), I think they are wrong!