Penelope Fitzgerald

Earlier this week, I met up with a friend and we went to a Penelope Fitzgerald event at Columbia. Lots of old people in attendance, but some young ones and it was really lovely to hear Hermione Lee talk about her new biography which is getting rave reviews. I bought The Blue Flower but not the biography (I've purchased about 10 books this last week and need to draw the line...).

Still, a fascinating life and I'm sure very well told. 

At University, she was expected to be a huge success and was nicknamed "Penny from Heaven." During the war she fell in love with & married an Irish charmer, Desmond Fitzgerald. He was damaged by war & took to drink. They had four children. She lived on a barge and taught at a crammer's school for kids trying to get in to Oxbridge. One day, the barge sank and the children came home from school to find their toys floating on the Thames. Fitzgerald was unusually late and "scatty" in class that day, "Sorry I'm late. My house sank," she said.

Three novelists--Alexander Chee, Ellis Avery, and Margot Livesey--each read their favorite passage. That, too, was lovely & relaxing & nice. 

Ellis taught at Fordham briefly and when my colleague Mimi Lamb died, I inherited Mimi's copy of Ellis's first book, a mediation on 9/11. It was nice to tell her so at the event.

After the event, I said hello to Hermione Lee. I told her I was a Woolf scholar and that many years ago I'd given her a ride from a campus in rural New Hampshire to a tiny NH airport, in the fog, on winding roads--"Oh! That was AWFUL! And someone had just died in a small plane crash. And I never went to a Woolf Conference again. I was Woolf'ed out."

We laughed.

A Great List from Sylvia Townsend Warner

When I was a graduate student, twice I TA’d for John Hollander’s “Daily Themes” class, a creative course in rhetoric. Every Monday, he would lecture on a rhetorical technique, distribute a packet of great examples, and send the students off to try the technique themselves.

The week on lists was one of my favorites.

When I came upon this list, in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novella, The Salutation, my first impulse was to email Professor Hollander and share it with him for the packet. Alas, he died in August, so I share it with you.

The Salutation (1932) is a kind of sequel to Mr. Fortune (1927) (They're printed together in the NYRB edition). At the end of the first book, the missionary Timothy Fortune is leaving the island and his beloved behind. In The Salutation, the heartbroken failed missionary is walking across South America, walking through the pampas grass, walking himself to death. He collapses and is taken in by the Spanish widow of an Englishman. In their tumbledown estate, he finds a lot of stuff:

The remains of two races and two civilizations were mingled here, lying pell-mell. Lacquer fans, stirrup irons, baby-clothes, spice-boxes filled with scentless shreds and dusts, old books of devotion, advertisements from hardware manufacturers, swords, sewing machines, flintlocks, rosaries, dog-collars, quilted petticoats, charms, and a model steam-engine were packed away with spirit-lamps, mandolines, and mouldy furs. Stuffed into the crannies of the great chests and domed travelling-trunks were packets of old letters, deeds, invoices, crumpled fiddle-music, daguerrotypes, astronomical charts, pedigrees of horses and dogs. Into this humus Angustias would dive in unflustered search bringing to the surface whatever she felt whim to unearth. Her memory never failed her. She would pick up a nut and say from what machine it was lacking. The recognition sufficed her, she felt no need to rescue or restore. Everything was there and everything was in her memory; as she had said, she lost nothing, she put things away. ‘Look,’ she exclaimed, extricating a crumpled platter of green chiffon and rusty wires from a wicker bassinet filled with spurs and medicine bottles. ‘This is the hat I wore on my honeymoon. It looks old now, doesn’t it.’ And balancing it upon her damasked hair she looked at him serenely.