Monday, October 25, 2021

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

A few days ago, my knowledgeable friend John Williams tweeted that, 

"Penelope Fitzgerald was treated abominably by parts of the literary establishment for daring to win the Booker Prize for Offshore in 1979 ... she was on The Book Programme afterwards where that dreadful arsehole (and host) Robert Robinson introduced the show by saying that 'the wrong book had won' and encouraged the other guests to tell Fitzgerald what they thought about her winning incorrectly."

Appalled by this, I sought out a copy of Offshore (and also The Gate of Angels, which the Dr recommended). It's a brilliant, short novel about bohemian misfits living on houseboats in Battersea circa 1961 - Alan Hollinghurst says in his introduction that clues in the text to the exact date are a little contradictory. These are liminal people living liminal lives:

"You know very well that we're two of the same kind, Nenna. It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who's half alive and half dead..." (p. 54)

One objection to it winning serious literary prizes may be that it's often funny. An early example has single mother Nenna visit the married couple on the next boat:

"Laura sat down rather heavily.

'How does it feel like to live without your husband?' she asked, handing Nenna a large glass of gin. 'I've often wondered.'

'Perhaps you'd like to fetch some more ice,' [her husband] Richard said. There was plenty.

'He hasn't left me, you know. We just don't happen to be together at the moment.'

'That's for you to say, but what I want to know is, how do you get on without him? Cold nights, of course, don't mind Richard, it's a compliment to him if you think about it.'"(p. 12)

It's the sort of thing, I thought, you might get in Reggie Perrin. Like that, the comedy here masks a lot of melancholic stuff. There are those who can't abide a life on the river, and those who adore such existence but for whom it cannot last. From the local teachers and priest, to the peculiar school friend of Nenna's estranged husband, there is constant pressure to conform with "normal" life on land and be as miserable as everyone else. Then there are the dangers of this kind of life: the threat of falling in to the water, or a boat succumbing to leaks, even the risk of violence...

It's all very neatly observed, the author basing it on her own experience (as she did with many of her novels), but changing things to give one particular real person a less tragic fictional end. Perhaps Offshore was dismissed because of this lightness of touch, but it's also a very smart book, threaded with knowledge and insight. There is lots on the practicalities of such an existence, of the shifting tides, the feel of the water. Nenna's daughters shrewdly spot tiles made by William de Morgan while out mudlarking, and know his life and work enough to correctly judge their value; they strike a hard bargain with the owner of an antique shop who makes the mistake of assuming their ignorance. (We then see the true value of the tiles: the girls earn enough money to splash out on records by Cliff Richard.)

On another occasion, one of the girls tours the Tate, remarking on what Whistler and his contemporaries did and didn't get right in their portraits of the Thames - the behaviour of the water, the behaviour of gulls.

"The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back." (p. 59)

It's another example of the knowledge, the skill, of these women being overlooked. But also there's something like Whistler in this novel as a whole: a portrait of the people on the river, a particular, brief moment, the apparent simplicity full of beauty and sadness and truth.

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