Imagine Moscow in 1913: The Russian society is in transition; traditional political structures are being challenged by popular movements; industrial technological advances are leading to workers' unrests; an atmosphere of foreboding is palpable in every strata of society including among the English expatriates in Moscow. Frank Reid, an English business man, born and raised in Moscow, is highly conscious of the changing political landscape. After years of training in Western Europe he has returned to Moscow with his young family to take over his father's large printing press operations. Following an apparently harmonious and organized period during which the family had settled, Frank's wife Nellie suddenly departs without warning, leaving Frank to balance challenges at work with new responsibilities at home with his three children.
Penelope Fitzgerald's novel weaves a delicate and gracefully imagined portrayal of the man at the centre, his attempts at normalcy despite inner doubts and conflicts. In fact, all her characters are exquisitely drawn and remain memorable beyond the reading of the novel. Selwyn Crane, the poetry-writing accountant who is also a follower of the Tolstoyan movement, is one such character, who is endearing despite his rather bumbling personality. Amongst other, possibly questionable, advice he recommends to Frank to hire the young Russian peasant girl, Lisa Ivanovna, as a governess for the children. She remains a mysterious, yet attractive, character and may not be as innocent and placid as she appears.
Frank's consistent efforts to stay out of the political turmoil of the moment, by refusing to use his presses for political pamphlets and other such material, are in some way mirrored by the author's concentration on the private lives of her protagonists. However, the complex realities of the day are always present, bubbling under the surface, subtly evoked and touched on by Fitzgerald, almost as an aside, through brief vignettes of specific incidents or, and especially, as part of the different lively conversations. Reading the exchanges between Frank and his various very engaged counterparts - whether other expatriates or Russian business partners - is a constant delight.
While the novel is not really plot driven at all, it is full of off-beat scenarios that underscore Fitzgerald's much appreciated sense of humour and irony. Finally, Moscow in March cannot be imagined realistically without the weather. Fitzgerald succeeds superbly as she weaves her suggestive descriptions of the unpleasantness of the wet, grey, icy, foggy atmosphere of the late winter into the story and the moods of the character. One scene stands for many: Frank takes a different, rather unpleasant route home through slush and ice along the river to escape an encounter with an older English woman who the minister's wife may want to suggest as a governess for Frank's children.
Fitzgerald's writing is a delight for her lively depicted characters, her often understated yet affecting portrayal of social conditions and human relationships, set in a specific period of time. Having previously read Blue Flower
with great interest and enjoyment, I was highly motivated to read this novel. Her novel adds a lovely intricate portrait of a group of Muscovites that included English expatriates to the rich Russian literature dealing with that period in time. Finally, I have to admit to a personal bias as regards the theme and time characterized in this novel. Having inherited a distant family connection with Moscow, I have visited Moscow several time and studied Russian language and culture. Despite the time lag to 1913, some aspects of Fitzgerald's novel still ring very authentic to me. [Friederike Knabe]