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the beginning of spring

5 november 2019

The Beginning of Spring has got to be one of the oddest concepts ever to result in an English novel. You can imagine Penelope Fitzgerald trying to pitch it to an editor. "It's the story of an English manufacturer in Moscow, before the First World War, whose wife leaves him, and his encounters with another Englishman who's a radical Tolstoyan poet, a Russian nanny from a rural background that he falls in love with, and various other Russian and English eccentrics, with special attention to the business of hand-typesetting, the clearance of forests, sleigh travel in Russian winters, and the corruption of the Tsarist police."

I read The Beginning of Spring once before, about ten years after it was published, thus 20 years ago at this point. It had been my favorite of Fitzgerald's novels when I was reading them straight through at an intense pace. I am not sure if I still think it a great novel, but it is unique, has a compelling plot, and is a great treat in terms of style and detail.

Frank Reid is the protagonist, the Englishman whose wife wanders off. He and his three children (whom the wife leaves behind) are verbally precocious; Frank in particular has a way of cutting exasperatedly through the social niceties to deliver trenchant observations and retorts. Frank's sidekick is Selwyn, the poet, a friend of the late Count Tolstoy who has become more pacifist and self-abnegating than the master himself.

It's in other words a Russian novel, though of course The Beginning of Spring belongs to the smaller genre of imitation Russian novels. In fact I re-read it after reading Amor Towles' delightful Gentleman in Moscow, a recent American novel that takes the same tack of imagining a long-past era in the Russian capital in all its finely-detailed Russianness. One wonders, constantly, how Fitzgerald could piece together such a completely vanished world. She cites a writer named Harvey Pitcher, whose book The Smiths of Moscow apparently provided much of the background for her novel. Fitzgerald, with the audacity of literary invention, took Pitcher's world and elaborated a compelling story in the setting he provided.

Like Fitzgerald's other fiction, The Beginning of Spring is energetically and unevenly paced. Things happen with great suddenness after chapters of not much at all; the novel does not represent the inevitability of drama, but rather the contingency of real life. For all its meticulous local color, The Beginning of Spring is a novel Hemingway might have appreciated for its iceberg qualities. Much of the story and backstory are left to our imaginations, and the whole episode in the life of the Reids is set against what the reader knows will be the dissolution of Tsarist society and its enclaves of international business.

Surrounding everything is the title movement of the seasons. Fitzgerald catches perfectly the transition (also sudden) of a cityscape from intense frost to delirious thaw. It's a metaphor for various events in its characters lives, I suppose, but not always in predictable ways. I will read this book a third time if too many others don't interpose their demands …

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Beginning of Spring. 1988. Boston: Houghton, 1998.