The Means of Escape Hardcover – Oct 19 2000
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In her final book of fiction--published, alas, posthumously--Penelope Fitzgerald allows us a present of several very strange pasts, her narratives ranging from the 17th century to the late 20th. The title tale, set in New Zealand in 1852, seems to resemble a cautionary fable about a spinster and an escaped con. But in Fitzgerald's hands, it is infinitely more. When the prisoner ambushes the rector's daughter, disputation and attraction soon surmount fear, and yet with each bit of information he reveals, Alice Godley is on shakier ground. "I'm not innocent," he asserts, "but I was wrongly incriminated." He admits that he had meant to frighten her, "but that is no longer my aim at the moment." And, as a gesture of good faith, "He told her that the name he went by, which was not his given name, was Savage." Over the course of just 18 pages (which make it the longest in the book), Fitzgerald plucks comedy from terror, sadness from hilarity, and the surreal from the seemingly concrete. Here, as elsewhere, she gently but decisively upends her characters, and readers. And Savage is only the first of many uninvited or inopportune guests in The Means of Escape.
None of the eight stories collected here leads to a decisive or luminous moment. In fact, resolution is not the object of these slant, rule-breaking pieces. Fitzgerald wrote "The Axe," her first published work of fiction, for a ghost-story contest (judged by the unlikely trio of Kingsley Amis, Patricia Highsmith, and horror actor Christopher Lee), and it was printed in the London Times and then in The Times Book of Ghost Stories (1977). Taking the form of a letter from someone charged with a recent round of dismissals, "The Axe" concerns the layoffs' effects on one ancient clerk:
The actual notification to the redundant staff passed off rather better, in a way, than I had anticipated. By that time everyone in the office seemed inexplicably conversant with the details, and several of them in fact had gone far beyond their terms of reference--young Patel, for instance, who openly admits that he will be leaving us as soon as he can get a better job, taking me aside and telling me that to such a man as Singlebury dismissal would be like death. Dismissal is not the right world, I said. But death is, Patel replied.In "Beehernz," the title character is still alive, though even fans of his conducting may have assumed otherwise, owing to his disappearance from the English musical scene long ago. Fitzgerald composed this lighter but no less twisting 1997 comedy of aspirations at the invitation of the BBC, for a series of stories on musical themes, and read it aloud on Radio 3 that year. In her nocturne, a deputy musical director decides to coax the reclusive Beehernz out of Scottish isolation by giving him the chance to conduct Mahler once more, despite the fact that he had fled London some 40 years earlier after hearing that he was to conduct Mahler's Eighth. His objection? "It is too noisy." (The author previously had her comedic way with the BBC in Human Voices, and here, too, she seems to be tweaking it over the mammoth 1959 staging of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand," which it mounted to wipe out an unwanted budget surplus.)
"The Red-Haired Girl" (published in the Times Literary Supplement for September 11, 1998) also explores what happens to the uninvited, as five British landscape students make a pilgrimage to Brittany. But Palourde (lacking as it does good food, good weather, and any notion of the picturesque) is not a painter's Platonic ideal, as its inhabitants well know. Only one artiste, Hackett, even manages to find a model, and she confounds him utterly before she disappears. The multilayered closing piece, "At Hiruharama," matches this story and "The Means of Escape" in violent economy and depth and contains yet another person who appears out of the narrative blue. First published in 1992, this roundabout New Zealand family history offers ever more proof of Fitzgerald's late, great flowering. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
When a brilliant writer like Fitzgerald births her first work at age 60, her death at age 83 earlier this year seems sadly premature. This posthumous volume of eight short stories, none of them previously published here, is thus a signal event. Strange, whimsical, sometimes gothic or bizarre, these tales demonstrate Fitzgerald's cool and civilized wit and the merciless eye she casts on worldly pretensions. Many of the protagonists are eccentric, and in every story, something is askew: an individual is at odds with the everyday world. With settings ranging from England, Scotland and France to New Zealand and old Istanbul, and in historical period from the mid-19th century to the present day, each ends with a surprising twist. A story about the perseverance of rigid class values, "The Prescription," is a cautionary tale about a man of entrenched tradition who despises the outstanding individual achievement of someone of a "lower order." In several other tales, however, a self-satisfied character is undone by someone who appears powerless but manages to triumph. The title story, in which Fitzgerald's spare description blossoms in the mind's eye to create vivid scenes capturing the social milieu of 1852 Hobart, Tasmania, deals with a minister's virgin daughter, an escaped convict and an inscrutable servant who turns the tables. In most stories, the respectable social classesDupper and middleDare cold, "just" and supercilious. The poor are clever, resourceful and doomed to suffer. Crisp, with the economical suggestiveness of poetry, these stories will be treasured by Fitzgerald's readersDwho will, however, mourn the lack of information about their chronology. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
Her novels all had several common denominators, their quality, the scope contained in the length she used, and their length, or more accurately their lack of length. So when I encountered this book that offered 8 stories over a diminutive 117 pages, even as great an admirer as I was incredulous.
The 8 stories are not equal, some are extremely clever, and one or two seemed more like thoughts that were abruptly cut off. Some of her novels ended with the finality of a guillotine blade crashing down, however this was after a good bit of reading had been done. When the stories average out at 14 small pages each, the word abrupt is too tame. Two stories in particular stood out, "Desderatus" and "The Axe". Of these two one showed a side of this woman's writing I never expected. Stephen King easily could have placed "The Axe", in a collection of his short stories, and it would have fit beautifully. Had this woman made the decision she may have been a writer that brought us classics in the Genre of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula". Lights definitely go on and stay for, "The Axe".
This is not a five star work by this wonderful Author. However I rate it as such for all the great writing she shared in her all too brief career. Taken as a whole this is probably a 3.5 to 4 star work. I miss the lady's exercising of her craft too much not to give the work 5 stars. Think of it as a thank you for all she gave readers.
This posthumous book is her only collection of stories. They are like her novels in being about odd and intriguing people in odd and intriguing places. The writing is as ever with Fitzgerald elegant and clear and beautiful. The focus is just slightly off-center. The stories are very short, and I miss the space she had even in her rather short novels for looking at her characters from all sides. But these stories are still rewarding and worth reading.
The title story is about a young woman in mid-19th Century Tasmania, the organist at her church, who encounters an escaped prisoner. The resolution is quite unexpected, and wholly true. "Beehernz" tells of an eccentric old conductor living in near squalor on an isolated Scottish island, and an attempt to lure him back for one more performance. Again, the view is off-center, intriguingly so. "At Hiruhamara" is set in 18th Century New Zealand, as two young people sent out from England start to make a place for themselves. The story is neatly told from the point of view of a descendant of the two, and as such a theme about pioneers comes through.
The other stories are similarly neat. Recommended.