The human voices of Penelope Fitzgerald's novel are those of the BBC in the first years of the Second World War, the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes and the whole building became a target for the enemy bombers.
Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize in England for her 1978 novel "Offshore," but her reputation was slower to develop in this country. Over the past dozen years, her elegant, understated novels have won enthusiastic reviews and a small but appreciative audience, which has sufficed to keep them tenaciously in print. When "The Blue Flower" won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year, however, Fitzgerald suddenly became a popular success. Heartened by this, Houghton Mifflin has been reissuing several of her earlier novels (in paperback only, unfortunately), and "Human Voices," originally published in 1980, now appears in this country for the first time.
Set in the summer of 1940, when England was undergoing daily bombardment and German invasion seemed imminent, the novel focuses on the BBC's Broadcasting House, which produced the Home News six times a day even as bombs fell over London. While civilians cope with adversity through self-denial and recycling ("The nation defended itself by counting large numbers of small things into separate containers"), the workers at BH deal with anxiety, depression, and worry over loved ones as they fulfill their schedule of news and features.
This sounds like a recipe for a conventional novel about British determination and pluck, but Fitzgerald is in fact doing something more interesting. She notes that Broadcasting House followed a policy of offering truth rather than propaganda -- "Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective" -- but then adds: "Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness." The major theme of Fitzgerald's fiction, the inadvisability of trying to avoid hurtful truths, can be glimpsed in these two sentences.
This sounds pretty earnest, but "Human Voices" is in fact a deft and very funny novel, astute and sharply observed -- even rather consoling. The beleaguered BBC, operating like "a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from," converts its concert-hall into a dormitory for the day when London is invaded and employees seal themselves into the building. As things turn out, the most action the space sees happens the evening when a young assistant crawls into a dark cubicle and goes into labor.
The cast revolves around two middle-aged and unhappy men: Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. (As though to convey the institution's sometimes irritating fussiness, the author usually refers to them simply as RPD and DPP.) With the assistance of a staff of surprisingly understanding teenaged assistants (one of them, finding a letter from her boyfriend largely blacked-out by the censor, thinks: "What a job having to go through other people's personal letters . . . they must feel uncomfortable, you had to pity them"), they stoically confront the various crises that beset the Corporation, such as a French general who has just escaped his collapsing country, and whose request to broadcast an urgent message for the British people the BBC unwisely grants.
Although much of the novel deals with the technical problems involved in recording "human voices," the title is an obvious allusion to Eliot's Prufrock, whom both RPD and DPP resemble. One of them is finally wakened by Eliot's "human voices," but does not (like Prufrock) drown; the other's case is more equivocal.
At times Fitzgerald shows a slightly unsure hand, and readers of her later novels (especially "The Gate of Angels," which shares some features with her present novel) will see where she has elsewhere handled matters a bit more adroitly. This is the only real criticism one can make of the novel, and it is hard to fault a writer for having improved with time. Compact and concise, "Human Voices" is a small gem, and should please new readers almost as much those already familiar with her work.