Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Book of the Month: Offshore (Penelope Fitzgerald)

Penelope Fitzgerald was sixty when her first novel, The Golden Child, was published. This late bloomer had pursued various careers including journalism, working for BBC and Ministry for food, and being a full time mother of three, before she found her niche as a novelist. Over the next two decades, Fitzgerald published eight more novels that established her reputations as one of the major figures writing in English.

Fizgerald won the 1979 Booker prize with her third novel, Offshore, piping to the post, in the process, Patrick White, the Nobel laureate, and V.S. Naipaul who had won the prestigious award previously and who went on to win the Nobel himself two decades later. However, according to Paul Theroux, the American novelist who was on the panel of judges that year, Offshore was a compromise choice.

In his scabrous (and therefore utterly engaging) memoirs, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Throux devotes a couple of paragraphs to the 1979 Booker prize and how Offshore came to win it. The Bookie’s favourite that year was apparently V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend In the River. Writes Theroux: ‘A Bend In the River was shortlisted for the Booker prize that year. I was one of the Booker judges. I reread the book . . . But when it came to the decision I voted against it. Mine was the deciding vote. I preferred Patrick Whites novel, The Twyborn Affair. “Patrick White? Over my dead body,” one of the panellists said. Another said to me, “I thought Naipaul was your friend." . . .In the end we compromised on Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, and most people jeered at our choice. They said Naipaul should have won . . . It was thought that because I was a judge, Vidia [V.S. Naipaul] should be a shoo-in. Not at all.’

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote novels that are known for their brevity. Offshore, at hardly more than 50,000 words, is no exception. It describes a houseboat community living on the river Thames near Battersea Reach. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place on the barges which, rise and fall as they may with the tide of the Thames, are, in fact, not going anywhere. The same can be said of the lives of the characters that inhabit this delectably quirky novel. Many of them are either ill at ease in the society out there ‘on the land’ or are plain misfits. The novel traces their longings, prejudices, secret crushes, aspirations, sense of camaraderie, and, in the process, almost imperceptibly, poses questions about dilemmas that have eternally faced the human existence. The ending is abrupt, which, I think, is apt in as far as it adds salience to the sense of surreality that pervades the novel. That said Offshore is probably not the book I would recommend to be acquainted with this remarkably gifted writer. Start with The Beginning of Spring; move, next, on to The Gate of Angels; let the writing style grow on you; then pick up Offshore. I guarantee you will enjoy it.

Penelope Fitzgerald is almost unsurpassable when it comes to vivid characterization with, I would risk calling, oxymoronically, maximum economy, and, in Offshore she achieves near perfection. She also manages to give a remarkable background visual feel to the narration with such ease that you almost don’t notice it. Fitzgerald—Beryl Bainbridge and Jane Gardam are some other names that immediately come to mind—had what I would describe as ‘minimum fuss’ style of writing. She seemed to abhor ostentation or adornment of any kind. If ten words would do, why waste fifty, which would add nothing to the descriptiveness, but will most definitely to the reader’s ennui?

It is a cliché, but length is not everything, and, makes no mistake, this novella is a gem. Did it deserve the Booker? Probably not; but that is only because I happen to think that Naipaul’s Bend In the River is one of the greatest books of the 20th century.