The Beginning of Spring with Penelope Fitzgerald & Karl Ove Knausgaard

(From To Star the Dark by Doireann Ní Ghríofa)

Reading with the seasons is one way I mark time. This is the first of two, or maybe three, batches of spring reading for me this year. The daffodils have already gone over; bluebells and peonies are coming out; and all the trees, including the two wee apple trees we’ve planted at our new house, are sprouting hopeful buds.


The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)

My fourth from Fitzgerald. One of her later novels, this was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Its pre-war Moscow setting seemed to take on extra significance as I read it during the early weeks of the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Its title is both literal, referring to the March days in 1913 when “there was the smell of green grass and leaves, inconceivable for the last five months” and the expatriate Reid family can go to their dacha once again, and metaphorical. For what seems to printer Frank Reid – whose wife Nellie has taken a train back to England and left him to raise their three children alone – like an ending may actually presage new possibilities when his accountant, Selwyn, hires a new nanny for the children.

I have previously found Fitzgerald’s work slight, subtle to the point of sailing over my consciousness without leaving a ripple. While her characters and scenes still underwhelm – I always want to go deeper – I liked this better than the others I’ve read (The Bookshop, Offshore, and The Blue Flower), perhaps simply because it’s not a novella so is that little bit more expansive. And though she’s not an author you’d turn to for plot, more does actually happen here, including a gunshot. Frank is a genial Everyman, fond of Russia yet exasperated with its bureaucracy and corruption – this “magnificent and ramshackle country.” He knows how things work and isn’t above giving a bribe when it’s expedient for his business:

He took an envelope out of his drawer, and, conscious of taking only a mild risk, since the whole unwieldy administration of All the Russias, which kept working, even if only just, depended on the passing of countless numbers of such envelopes, he slid it across the top of the desk. The inspector opened it without embarrassment, counted out the three hundred roubles it contained and transferred them to a leather container, half way between a wallet and a purse, which he kept for ‘innocent income’.

I particularly liked Uncle Charlie’s visit, the glimpses of Orthodox Easter rituals, and a strangely mystical moment of communion with some birch trees. A part of me did wonder if the setting was neither here nor there, if a few plastered-on descriptions of Moscow were truly enough to constitute convincing historical fiction. That’s a question for those more familiar with Russia and its literature to answer, but I enjoyed the seasonal awakening. (Secondhand, charity shop in Bath)


Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; 2018)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey; illustrated by Anna Bjerger]

Knausgaard is a repeat presence in my seasonal posts: I’ve also reviewed Autumn, Winter and Summer. I read his quartet out of order, finishing with the one that was published third. The project was conceived as a way to welcome his fourth child, Anna, into the world. Whereas the other books prioritize didactic essays on seasonal experiences, this is closer in format to Knausgaard’s granular autofiction: the throughline is a journey through an average day with his baby girl, from when she wakes him before 6 a.m. to a Walpurgis night celebration (“the evening when spring is welcomed in with song in Sweden”). They see the other kids off to school, then make a disastrous visit to a mental hospital – he forgets his bank card and ID, the baby’s bottle, everything, and has to beg cash from his bank to buy petrol to get home.

Looming over the circadian narrative is his wife’s mental health crisis the summer before (his ex-wife Linda Boström Knausgård, a writer in her own right, has bipolar disorder), while she was pregnant with Anna, and the repercussions it has had for their family. Other elements echo those of the previous books: the formation of memories, to what extent his personality is fixed, whether he’s fated to turn into his father, minor health concerns, and so on. Although this volume is less aphoristic than the previous books, there are still moments when he muses on life and gives general advice:

Self-deception is perhaps the most human thing of all. … And perhaps the following is nothing but self-deception: the easy life is nothing to aspire to, the easy choice is never the worthiest solution, only the difficult life is a life worth living. I don’t know. But I think that’s how it is. What would seem to contradict this, is that I wish you and your siblings simple, easy, long and happy lives. … The advantage of having siblings is that it is a lifelong attachment, and that nothing can break it.

All in all, this was the highlight of the series for me. Each of the four is illustrated by a different contemporary artist. Bjerger is less abstract than some of the others, which I count as a plus. (New bargain/remainder copy, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)

This daffodil bookmark was embroidered by local textile artist Christine Highnett. My mother bought it for me from Sandham Memorial Chapel’s gift shop last summer.

A favourite random moment: A creeper coming through the tile roof of his office pushes a book off the shelf. It’s American Psycho. “I still found it incredible. And a little frightening, the blind force of growth”.

Speaking of meaningful, or perhaps ironic, timing: He records a conversation with his neighbour, who was mansplaining about Russian aggression and the place of Ukraine: “Kiev was the first great city in what became the Russian empire. … The Ukraine and Russia are like twins. … They belong together. At least the Russians see it that way. … The very idea of Russia is imperialistic.”


Any spring reads on your plate?


12 responses

  1. I know Fitzgerald is supposed to be a great stylist, but I have also found her slight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s one of those ‘writers’ writers,’ but I’ve mostly found her books wispy and forgettable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the sound of Spring. Other people’s average days fascinate me. Even more so if children are involved. I didn’t know his ex-wife has polar disorder. That must have been rough with four children!
    Our crocuses are up! That’s our first sign of spring! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read one of the My Struggle books, but there he goes into probably too much detail about ordinary life!

      Sounds like spring is much further along here: crocuses have come and gone, as have most daffodils.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a lovely bookmark you have there! I don’t think I have any spring reading on the go but I’m not very good at fixing things to times. I have read that The Heeding book which I suppose starts in spring then goes round the year. I think I feel about it what you felt about it and would be tempted just to reblog your post about it except I’d feel bad about the lovely PR who sent it to me in error, so I’ll try to find a different way of saying the same!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, The Heeding was nice enough but not particularly successful as poetry. Alison/E&T does have a habit of sending unsolicited stuff, which is kind of them but sometimes creates an obligation I resent.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In this case, I replied to her offer email with a no thanks but good luck and she accidentally added me to the send-out list – I’ve managed to avoid unsolicited stuff normally. And she said there was no obligation but it was a v quick read. I agree, it was more reportage and could have been in any format, but had a value as a record. Haven’t written the review yet!


  4. I like that Knausgaard quote! No flowers here yet but most of the snow is melted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you read Knausgaard? I feel like you’d like him. We didn’t get any snow on the ground this year 😦


      1. No I haven’t, and this is the first time I’m considering it!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I tend to mix up Penelope Fitzgerald and Penelope Lively. I’ve read and really enjoyed Lively but haven’t tried Fitzgerald.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, it’s funny you should say that! I think of Fitzgerald as being of a piece with various other women writers of her time: Beryl Bainbridge, Anita Brookner and Penelope Lively. Of those four, Lively is much my favorite.

      Liked by 1 person

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