The Beginning of Spring

The other day I got chatting to a young lady who used to work as a journalist for a national newspaper. She revealed that online journalism is full of tricks, such as trying to get the words ‘google’, ‘sex’ and ‘tits’ into each story, which apparently makes the article easier to find with a search engine. She also said that they were told not to write anything too long, encouraged to use bullet points and the more pictures the better.

I came away feeling that EmilyBooks is doomed to failure. I don’t think that I’ve ever used ‘google’, ‘sex’ or ‘tits’ in any of my posts. Until now that is. But, in my defence, people looking for any of those three things are unlikely to find what they’re looking for here. Perhaps I’m just writing the wrong kind of blog. Perhaps this should be a blog about googling for sex and tits.

Leaving aside the issue of the three magic words, I’m sure I don’t use enough bullet points or pictures, or write short enough articles. (I mean I’ve not yet said anything really, and I’m already 200 words in.)

Help!

After a couple of days fretting about this, I have resolved not to worry. But I am going to try to use more pictures. I suspect these will mostly be taken (badly) with my mobile phone, whose camera I have only used once before when excitedly taking a photo of the new Routemaster.

Ta da!

Do feel free to tell me if you think these new pictures add anything to EmilyBooks or if I should ignore all this rubbish and go back to my happy luddite ways.

Back to books anyway. I recently wrote a piece for the Spectator about books in spring. It was a bit of an eccentric piece, essentially written to point out that there are three very good books with the word ‘hare’ in the title, which is too brilliantly Marchlike to miss. Well I finished the article having decided to read something spring-y. Which is how I ended up with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.

What a wonderful book! I really do think the lady is a genius. I read Offshore a couple of years ago and have been longing to read something else by her ever since. What she does with great dexterity in both books is create a slightly odd situation, peopled with terribly eccentric but completely believable characters. Each book trundles along slightly quirkily until shortly before the end when something REALLY weird happens.

The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913. I enviously noted how well Fitzgerald has done her research, dropping in casual references to things like samovar sizes or routes taken by taxi sledges. It’s not brazenly in-your-face like historical research can be (such as in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White), rather it is quietly assured, the odd detail filled in perfectly, while the rest is left sketchy enough for the reader’s imagination to have some freedom.

I say that I noted it enviously because I’m currently writing a chapter in my own novel about Picasso, Braque and Kahnweiler in Paris in 1908 and it’s horribly difficult to get right. A couple of months ago I knew very little about Picasso or Braque, had never even heard of Kahnweiler, and didn’t know much about Paris or 1908 either. I’ve been spending many an hour in the British Library trying to learn useful things. The problem is it’s a chicken and egg situation. You need to know something in order to start writing, but as soon as you start writing you realise you don’t know the right thing and so have to go back and research something else. The image that most comes to mind is that of shambling through a three-legged race, the writing and research leaning on each other and helping each other along, but not at all smoothly, often, in fact, tripping each other up.

So well done Penelope. You have succeeded perfectly where many lesser beings fail.

One historical and geographical detail that I particularly loved is the opening of the windows. All through the winter, the windows in Moscow were sealed closed and opening them signifies the beginning of spring:

All morning the yardman had been removing the putty from the inner glass, piece by piece, flake by flake. Blashl [the dog], frantic at his long disappearance, howled at intervals, but the yardman worked slowly. When all the putty was off, without a scratch from the chisel, he called, lord of the moment, for the scrapings to be brushed away. The space between the outer and inner windows was black with dead flies. They, too, must be removed, and the sills washed down with soft soap. Then with a shout from the triumphant shoecleaning boy at the top of the house to Ben, still in the hall, the outer windows, some terribly stuck, were shaken and rattled till they opened wide. Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

Have I just been with an architect for too long, or is this really fascinating? As far as I can understand from this (it’s no point googling ‘opening windows Moscow’ as you just get things about computer programs or articles with obvious metaphorical titles (by the way, do you see what trick I did there??!!)), in Moscow, an extra layer of glass was put in each window for the winter months, which was properly sealed with putty to make very effective double glazing. But see how Fitgerald describes it so minutely, with such thought going into how one would open a window after months of it being sealed. It is a painstaking process. Someone else is called to brush away the scrapings. Dead flies have got in there. The outer windows have become stiff and stuck. And then, finally, she gives us the beautiful climax of the sounds of Moscow blown in on the fresh spring wind. She’s a genius.

I wish we had the same window-opening ritual today in London. How amazing to have been sealed up and cocooned all winter, and then, quite suddenly, to feel connected to the outside. (Incidentally, this all fits in rather nicely with what I was saying about windows in my last post about Ravilious.)

But we have other signs of spring. Like this beautiful tree covered in blossom, which I saw in Hyde Park this weekend!

The funny thing is, when I saw it, I instantly thought of the cover of The Beginning of Spring, with its snow-covered trees. Snow and blossom can give such similar impressions, it is as though the tree shakes off the snow and instantly replaces it with the blossom. Either way, it is covered in white and looks incredibly pretty. Be it in Moscow or in London, I do love the beginning of spring.

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6 Responses to “The Beginning of Spring”

  1. yellowdarklyarchive Says:

    Good morning Emily. A while back I came across your blog while researching Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I too, loved ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’. Her characters are so familiar: odd, good-intentioned souls who can only find the effort of being proper for so long. I discovered her last year with ‘Angel’ and have continued to slowly read her novels as I feel their pull.

    Don’t fret. Your blog is thoughtful, enjoyable and intelligent. You will have a wider readership. Even without writing the holy trinity of google words….

    After reading your excellent write-up I’m promoting ‘The Beginning of Spring’ on my list. Now, if I could just find it in my apartment….

    • emilybooks Says:

      Hello – thanks for your words, which are ever so much kinder than the horrid trinity of google words! I’m very pleased to have found another Elizabeth Taylor fan. I wonder if Elizabeth ever met Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve a feeling they would have got on well.

  2. yellowdarklyarchive Says:

    I don’t think they ever did cross paths, but once A.S. Byatt was in our shop and she said that Penelope Fitzgerald was like the White Queen in the days that she knew her. Byatt said she was shocked such careful meditative novels could have come from someone so puzzling, haphazard, and strange. I believe she meant this in a good way.

    I think Elizabeth Taylor would have liked her very much. I think she had a fondness for odd characters. Hence her friendship with the very eccentric Ivy Compton-Burnett (which I read about in Robert LIddell’s ‘Elizabeth and Ivy’). I think you might like it if you are interested in her. Its very charming.

    Anyway! Wonderful blog. As always, I am looking forward to your next post.

  3. Katie K Says:

    What a lovely post for spring Ems! I read The Beginning of Spring a while back and scene about the windows has always stuck in my mind. Love Penelope F. You should check out The Bookshop (also by her) – tit sex-tremely good – Google it! I just finished ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima and there’s lots of trees-with-blossom and tree-with-snow imagery…So the last bit of your post has actually spooked me a bit.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Katie. I have been eyeing up that Mishima book too – would love to hear your thoughts, perhaps on our walk… Yes, isn’t Penelope Fitzgerald wonderful! I feel I could happily read her books forever and not get bored, but then I must resist such urges… but I shall definitely store up The Bookshop for a treat time. Perhaps Christmas or some such.

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