I’ve written before about the great Penelope Fitzgerald, an author who I think gets woefully overlooked these days. Which is too bad: I love her beautiful, understated style, her deadpan sense of humor, and sneaky-great themes. You should give her books a try if you haven’t already.
But really, why do I like her so much? There are a lot of books I like, and a lot of authors I admire, but something about Fitzgerald resonates deeply with me. I think there are three reasons:
- She was a late bloomer
- She wrote short books
- She was a great aficionado of failure
Those certainly hit close to home!
Yesterday I ran across a great article in the New York Review of Books about Fitzgerald, including this wonderful opening:
Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong.
Ah, Penelope. How can you not love such a person? I’ve been laughing all day, just thinking about it.
Here’s my own passage on failure (from The Race):
“Who’s he?” Tina said to the Governor in the foyer.
I explained that it was actually an autobiography – I was just helping him do some organization.
“Don’t sell yourself short!” the Governor said, gripping my shoulder.
I had not intended this comment to be self-deprecating – in fact it was something of the opposite. I wanted her to know that he had been writing his memoirs, that he was paying me – not that I was so drawn to his story that I, on my own initiative… I was not a vulture looking to feast on their marital carcass… but at that moment one of his boys crossed through the room we were standing in and disappeared into the hallway and the Governor chased after him to see how he was doing.
I stayed with Tina in the foyer. She clearly didn’t know what to do with me. I had no options but to stand there. Finally she invited me into the living room where we did not sit down but ventured into small talk.
It surprised me that she recognized my last name.
“Are you Mandy’s brother?”
“She’s a second cousin,” I said.
“And you live in D.C. now? What do you do there?”
I saw a flicker of approval, or at least curiosity. I was one of the ones who had left. Yet I was not such a success that she’d heard of me. I told her I was basically a lawyer.
“Basically?” She smiled faintly. I got the sense that she liked people. She hated her husband, but he was not in the room at the moment.
“I guess I am one,” I said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d be.”
“A long story?”
She looked down the hallway. Now I saw her full smile; it dazzled me. “We’ve got time,” she said with a shrug.
“It’s strange,” I began, “to feel, every minute of every day, that you’re only pretending to be something that you’re not. I went to law school, I’m a member of the bar, I get paid to do the tasks that lawyers do. I meet with clients, go to court, conference with judges – and yet I never feel like it’s me doing these things. It’s not what I feel like I really am.”
She smiled warmly. “And what do you feel like you really are?”
“A failure,” I said.