Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

With a bit of driving to do, I downloaded the audio version of The Bookshop read by Eve Karpf. It is, as Backlisted led me to expect, a quietly devastating novel about Florence Green's efforts to run a bookshop in a small town. There's the same eye for telling detail as in the two previous Fitzgerald novels I've read (Offshore and The Gate of Angels), the same mix of comic and melancholy. It's a book full or wry irony, too, such as old, kind Mr Brundish's view on whether the locals will cope with reading Lolita:
"They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy." (p. 101)
What makes The Bookshop different from the other Fitzgerald novels I've read is its implacable villain, Mrs Violet Gamart, who - all for the very best reasons, she tells herself - sets out to destroy Florence and her dream. She's an extraordinary character: initially a figure of fun, then ever more monstrous. It's a while since a fictional character made me angry.

Gamart apparently owes something to Sophie Gamard in Balzac's in Le CurĂ© de Tours (1832), and she exemplifies a cynical line in The Bookshop about life being made up of "exterminators" and "exterminatees". While the bookshop is assailed by the elements (damp, seasonal flooding, subsidence), Florence is harassed by purposeful action.Gamart has a powerful network of accomplices - a cowardly lawyer, a  nephew who is an MP, a feckless chap from the BBC - to make a number of spurious legal claims against Florence, even changing the law to force through her own way.

This particularly struck a chord because, by chance, I'm also reading The Secret Barrister.
"Geoffrey Robertson QC offered a withering description of magistrates in his evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in 1995, painting them as:
Ladies and gentlemen bountiful, politically imbalanced, unrepresentative of ethnic minority groups and women, who slow down the system and cost a fortune.
In fairness, we have seen slight improvements since 1995, a time when JPs were recruited sans interview by a tap on the shoulder from an old chum. But the unsurprising legacy of an institution which, until 1906, jealously restricted membership to the landed gentry, and until the 1990s was still dominated by freemasons, is that today with your average bench, you're not entrusting your liberty to the collective wisdom of twelve everymen; the butcher, baker, candle-stick emporium televangelist etc. You're often pitching to the admissions board of a 1980s country club." (The Secret Barrister, p. 58)

PS: In case it's of interest, last year I wrote a Doctor Who story set in The Bookshop at the End of the World.

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