The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Originally published in England by Collins, 1988; republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, a Mariner Books paperback edition, 2015, 246 pp.

Set in Russia in 1913, this is an astounding book. Seldom does a novel so astound me. My first question is “How did Penelope Fitzgerald do it?” In an article on the writer Julian Barnes mentions that everyone asked this same question about her last four novels, all set in foreign locales. Andrew Miller asks it again in his introduction to the paperback edition: “how on earth can someone living in England in the second half of the twentieth century know so much about the minutiae of day to day life in Moscow in 1913?”

In answer to the question we have only a few hints. In the front matter of the book the writer thanks Harvey Pitcher for allowing her to use details from his book, The Smiths of Moscow (Swallow House, 1984). From published material about her life we also learn that Penelope Fitzgerald had an intense interest in Russian literature, that starting in the 1960s she took Russian language courses. That in 1975 she and her daughter Maria went on a two-week package tour to Moscow, which included a visit to the Tolstoy Museum—the author’s house in the Khamovniki District—and a dacha in a birch forest. In the early 1970s she became friends with a Swiss art curator who had been brought up in pre-revolutionary Russia; and whose family had had a greenhouse business in Moscow since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Even all this seems far too little to explain how Fitzgerald went imaginatively into the Russia of 1913 and described it with such authenticity—unlike so many other writers who have tried pulling this off. I have recently discussed the issue in a note about foreign writers who have made countless little missteps in the fictional Russia they chose to depict—see the posting on Dactyl Review, “When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia.”

The main protagonist of the book, Frank Reid, is an Englishman born in Russia. His parents owned several businesses there and, at the time the novel is set, in March, 1913, Frank continues to run a small printing shop. Another matter of amazement is how much Fitzgerald seems to know about the printing business in 1913, but that is not my expertise, so I’ll have nothing to say about it here.

All crammed into only one month, the action begins when Frank’s wife Nellie suddenly leaves him. She disappears on page one, returning by train to England, and only reappears on the very last page, so we never see much of her, though her absence throws a pall over the rest of the characters—including the couple’s three children, Dolly/Darya (ten years old), Ben (8), and Annie or Annushka (2). The names Fitzgerald selects for the female children appear to be a nod to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina, which features three characters with the name Anna (the lead character, her maid, and her daughter by Vronsky), and one character named Darya/Dolly (Anna’s sister-in-law, Stiva’s wife).

Tolstoy, in fact, who died in 1910, only three years before the action of the book, is a behind-the-scenes presence throughout the novel. Not only is he the inspiration for the pacifism and simple life chosen by one of the main characters, Selwyn Crane. He also sticks his head into several scenes, attending a concert—during which Selwyn sings at the lunatic asylum beside Tolstoy’s Moscow house—and dressing as a performing bear for a New Year’s celebration. His third big novel, Resurrection, is mentioned near the end of the book. Frank Reid’s house is in the Khamovniki District, very close to the Tolstoy house, now a museum.

Upon leaving, Nellie has taken the children with her, but then, only a few railway stops from Moscow, she—fortunately for us, the readers—abandons them, and they return to their father. Why fortunately? Because Penelope Fitzgerald is a master psychologist in many ways, but she has a special aptitude for portraying a certain bright and independent-minded child.

As for Nellie and Frank, both of them are rather ordinary, pragmatic people. Nellie appears only in a few scenes describing how she and Frank met in her provincial home of Norbury. Most of what we learn of her is not very positive, and she gives the impression of a rather dull person. Her brilliant, intellectually curious children seem not all that bothered by her departure. Apparently she did not have much rapport with her children.

Frank Reid is presented as an efficient, honorable man, who is rather unimaginative; he is also often a straight man for the author’s wry, understated British humor. Everyone in Moscow, it appears, learns immediately that his wife has left him, and no one—neither Russian characters, nor British ones—can resist constantly reminding him of his misfortune and giving him unsolicited advice.

Of course, when Frank hires a beautiful young woman, Lisa Ivanovna [first name and patronymic; no surname ever given] to live in his house caring for his children, the whole of Moscow also immediately learns of this, and the gossip mill runs nonstop. Everything in this novel happens fast. With Lisa a resident in his household less than a month, and with his wife Nellie only recently departed, Frank discovers that he is in love with Lisa.

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This is a very funny book. A lot of comedy is generated by the male characters: Frank the straight man, Selwyn Crane the meddler and recommender, and Uncle Charlie the bungler from abroad. Charlie is Nellie’s brother, who comes to visit Frank, apparently hoping to console him for his loss, but ends up simply getting in his way. While Charlie and Frank are visiting with the Anglican chaplain’s wife, acerbic Mrs. Graham, she tosses out one of her usual catty remarks in Frank’s direction, and the very next paragraph reads as follows: “Mrs. Graham struck Charlie as a gracious, friendly woman, who seemed to have a kind word for everyone.”

A central character in the novel, Selwyn Crane, 52, who works as accountant at Frank’s printing company, is a pacifist do-gooder vegetarian, follower of the teachings of Tolstoy. He also writes poetry about birch trees and snow, and a good deal of fun is milked from the publication of his first book of poems, Birch Tree Thoughts. Here is the only sample quoted from that chapbook:

‘Dost feel the cold, sister birch?’/‘No, Brother Snow./I feel it not.’/ ‘What? Not?’/ ‘No, not!’

Described early on as “not quite sane looking,” Selwyn is a man who brings a smile to people’s faces whenever his name is mentioned. The Russians all love him for his impractical ways, seeing him as a cloud in trousers and “a man of God.” The sharp-tongued and cynical Mrs. Graham calls Selwyn “the great recommender,” since he is always trying to help people by recommending them to others for employment.

Selwyn would seem an unlikely candidate for a prime mover of the novel’s action, but he is precisely that; in fact, it is he who makes almost everything happen. Ironically, most of his impulses are aimed at doing good, but his altruism ends up creating tremendous problems. We find out only near the end of the book, when he confesses to Frank, that he had been gently nudging Nellie past her down-to-earth pragmatism, hoping that she, like him, would learn to commune with Mother Nature and Holy Impractical Russia. He didn’t count on her falling in love with him.

As he explains to Frank, “Nellie was turning towards the spiritual. Unfortunately, she couldn’t, as yet, distinguish it from the romantic, which casts a false glow over everything it touches.” In a word, Nellie decides to run off with Selwyn, who gets cold feet at the last minute. As he tells Frank, “I failed the tryst.” When he does not rendezvous with her at the railway station agreed upon, Nellie abandons her children, sending them back to Moscow, while she herself travels on to England.

Selwyn is also responsible for Frank’s bringing of Lisa Ivanovna into his household as governess, leading to the many complications near the end of the book. As usual, Selwyn appears to believe that he is only helping an unfortunate, a young woman of peasant background who works at the department store Muir and Merrilees. But Lisa, with her quiet and gentle ways, is too attractive and too much of a temptation for Frank. If that were not bad enough, Lisa apparently has nebulous connections with student revolutionaries. Near the end of the book Frank receives a letter from the Ministry of Defense, suggesting rather strongly that he might wish to sell his business and leave Russia at his earliest convenience. This is the logical end result of Selwyn’s well-meaning maneuverings and meddling.

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Now a bit about the details that so authenticate the action of the book, making us feel as if we really were in the Russia of 1913. Frank Reid was born in Russia, speaks perfect Russian, as do his children, and all of them are perfectly attuned to the way things work. There are countless examples of this. On his way to the train station in the morning to pick up his abandoned children, Frank reasons that he must find a horse-drawn cab with a cabman who is starting work in the morning, not one who is ending his shift of night work. Why? Because the driver getting off will always be drunk. After he finds a cab the driver immediately begins taking him the long way around, so as to increase the fare, and Frank calmly tells him where to turn, so as to drive directly to the station.

Frank keeps vodka in his office at the printing company, expressly for the visits of the police. Among the many things you needed to know if you wanted to do business in Russia, “you had to have a good digestion, a good head for drink, particularly spirits, a good circulation and an instinct for how much in the way of bribes would be appropriate for the uniformed and for the political police, the clerks from the Ministry of Direct Import, Commerce and Industry, and the technical and sanitary inspectors.”

Frank’s bright-eyed children are more like Russian children than English. Dolly takes her bungling Uncle Charlie to the outdoor market to buy souvenirs. Not Russian speaking and totally out of his element, Charlie is lost at the market, but Dolly knows all its ins and outs: “Taking pity on him, she turned left at the crossing point of the next glass corridors, and they bought a number of small birchwood objects and a cigar-case. She counted his change and recovered, without argument, another thirty kopeks” (my emphasis).

There it is, one of the many little details that you would not expect an English writer to know, but she slips it into the sentence so matter of factly. Back then, and still today, in a Russian outdoor market you must expect to be short-changed; you will always be short-changed. You should not be offended by this; it is simply the way things are done. You must always count your change, confront the short-changer with his/her mistake, but not in anger, simply as a matter of course. The short-changer, in turn, will not usually defend her/his self, but will, equally without rancor, return the change to you. That’s the way it is done, but how did Penelope Fitzgerald know that? And this is just one of scads of authentic details that sprinkle the pages of the book.

Perhaps most amazing of all is how the merchant Arkady Kuriatin is portrayed. Frank knows exactly all the divagations of Kuriatin’s mind, and, consequently, Fitzgerald must know as well. Everything about Kuriatin rings true: his swagger, his drunken bravado, his way of openly lying in business dealings, while aware that his fellow businessman knows that he is lying. Best of all is the way that Kuriatin is often under the sway of contradictory impulses, which inhabit his devious brain simultaneously.

Now that his wife is gone Frank wonders who will care for the children when they are not at school. He assumes that he can leave them temporarily under the care of the Kuriatin household. But he soon sees the error of his ways when the Kuriatin children run wild, show off in front of the English children by tormenting a pet bear cub and feeding it vodka. The bear runs wild, smashing things up in the dining room, and Frank later goes by to apologize to Kuriatin, whose reaction is to be magnanimous—poo-pooing the whole incident and playing up his wealth.

“An unfortunate incident? The children left to themselves? Damage? Broken china, pissed carpet, fire, destruction, twenty-three and a half bottles of the best vodka? Did Frank think his credit wasn’t good enough to bear a little loss, a little trifle? Did he think there was some shortage of tablecloths?”

This is a kind of potlatch behavior: see how rich and carefree I am? Give me more precious material objects—I’ll throw them into the fire to prove how little they mean to me, how far above the mere material I am. This is also very typically Russian behavior. Shortly after this response to Frank’s apology Kuriatin invites him to stay for an evening meal. Frank knows that the invitation is not made to be accepted; it is more empty bravura. If he decided to stay all sorts of preparations would have to be made for the foreign guest, and he would cause as much trouble as the bear had.

Kuriatin escorts Frank to the door, and Frank asks him why he doesn’t do something about the weak spots in the stairway, and why he doesn’t let his clerks have a telephone. Whereupon Kuriatin, resenting the implied criticism, throws an insult after him: “’Why don’t you get your wife to come back to you?’ shouted Kuriatin, exploding with laughter, as the doorman came out of his cupboard-like room and ushered them, deeply bowing, into the street. For Kuriatin life, like business, was a game, but not a gambling game. On the contrary, it was one in which he had arranged to win, although the rules were peculiar to himself. Knowing that the children had been put at risk in his half-savage household, he had felt Frank’s visit as a reproach. But by insulting Frank—of whom he was genuinely fond—he had restored himself to a superior position. It almost compensated him for the loss of his tablecloth, glass and china, to which he had been insanely attached.” Exactly.

These games of pecking order, who is superior, who is inferior, are perpetually revolving in the Russian psyche. Later, in the presence of naïve Uncle Charlie, Kuriatin offers to adopt the Reid children, and Charlie calls him “the soul of hospitality.” Frank knows otherwise. “He doesn’t really want to adopt my children. It’s just a general expression of good-will, or more likely, the opposite” (my emphasis). Once again we get the Russian propensity for holding two contradictory impulses in the psyche at the same time. In the generosity of his heart—and Kuriatin half believes it to be real generosity—he makes the offer to adopt the children, while aware somewhere else in his psyche that he is faking magnanimity only in an effort to make himself look good, and make Frank look bad. As if to say, “Look at this sorry spectacle; a man who can’t even take care of his own children!”

One more thing about Kuriatin. He was resident in the Russia before the Soviet Era, but Kuriatins by the scores still walked the streets of the U.S.S.R., behaving exactly as this Kuriatin does. And now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coming of the New Russia in the new millennium, are the Kuriatins all gone? By no means. As long as there is a Russia there will be Kuriatins.

More details. The mention of a Russian lullaby, featuring sleep, who walks along the benches, saying, “I’m sleepy,” accompanied by drowsiness, who says “I’m drowsy.” Here’s how it looks in Russian:

Сон ходит по лавке,/Дремота по избе,/Сон-то говорит:/–Я спать хочу!/Дремота говорит:/–Я дремати хочу!

(“Snooze is walking along the bench,/Drowse along the hut,/Snooze says:/I’m sleepy!/Drowse says:/I’m drowsy.”)

Here’s a similar one: Ходит сон по лавке,/А дремота по избе,/Ищет-поищет деточку мою,/Где найдет, тут и спать укладет.

(“Snooze is walking along the bench,/And Drowse along the hut,/Looking for, searching for my little kiddikins,/Wherever may they find him/her, there they put her/him straight to bed.”)

Don’t know where Penelope Fitzgerald came up with that bit of Russian folklore. I found it in the “Lullabies” section of Мудрость народная: жизнь человека в русском фольклоре (Folk Wisdom: the Life of Man in Russian Folklore, Book One, Infancy and Childhood, Moscow, 1991, p. 41).

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A big issue for a reader of The Beginning of Spring is that reader’s foreknowledge, and what might be termed reading beyond the bounds of the book. The novel was first published in 1988, and the Western reader of that time would probably have been caught up in “Gorbymania”—perestroika and glasnost’—expecting big changes out of the Soviet Union. A close reading of the book in those heady times would suggest, however, that Mother Russia—who had nearly weathered the storm of seventy years of Communism—was not one to become suddenly a twin of the Western democracies.

The book is set in 1913, and the reader of 1988 is aware of many things soon to come—things that the characters cannot know. The Great War is to begin in only a year, 1914, and its horrors will set the stage for the Russian revolutions of 1917. The second of those revolutions being that of Lenin, who is biding his time in Germany. With the connivance of the Germans—who want to make mischief in Russia, so that Russia will withdraw from the war—he will be sent in a sealed train back to Petrograd. Departing Zurich in April of 1917, Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries will ride that German-sponsored train through Berlin, then on through Sweden and Finland and home. It is no accident that Fitzgerald selects Berlin as the original destination of her two traveling female characters: Nellie, and then Lisa Ivanovna.

Unlike the characters in 1913, the reader of 1988 will know about the upheavals of the early twentieth century: two revolutions in Russia, followed by a Civil War, which led to Lenin’s triumph and the establishment of a “peasants’ and workers’” U.S.S.R., a utopian attempt to transfigure Mother Russia—making the country into an atheist nation-state and obliterating all the accouterments of Orthodox Christianity, which are so predominantly displayed in The Beginning of Spring. The reader of 1918 also knows about the terrible depredations of WWII in Russia and the many victims of Stalinist terror.

At one point Selwyn mentions the holiday for the name day of the Tsarina, adding “poor woman, poor woman.” He alludes here presumably to the Tsarina’s problems with Rasputin (also mentioned once) and the affliction of her only son (hemophilia). Poor woman indeed. The reader of 1988 will be aware that Tsar Nicholas II and his wife—in a mere five years, July, 1918—are to be murdered, with all of the children as well, by the Bolsheviks in a gruesome act of butchery.

But the reader of 2018 knows even more. He/she knows about the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of that Utopian Project that resulted in the murder of millions of innocent people. Only eighteen years into the future of 1913, the monumental Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (mentioned on p. 89)—constructed from 1839 to 1883—will be razed, destroyed by Stalin in a deliberate act of blasphemy and desecration (in 1931). On its site an outdoor swimming pool will be built. The reader of 1988 knows that, but the reader of 2018 also knows that after the fall of the U.S.S.R. the Russians will build that structure back from scratch. That today it stands once more in all its glory, and Vladimir Putin goes there to worship on Easter and Christmas.

Same goes for the revered Chapel of the Iverskaia (Iveron) Mother of God, located at the entrance to Red Square and mentioned by Fitzgerald on p. 212 (misspelled here twice—a superfluous letter n is inserted). Here Fyodor Dostoevsky (age 16) and his brother Mikhail came to pray in May, 1837, asking for guidance and succor from the Virgin, before setting out on their journey to Petersburg, where they would be enrolled in the Academy for Military Engineers. This chapel too was destroyed by evil Joe Stalin, but, once again, Holy Russia turned the tables on him. The Iverskaia has also been rebuilt from scratch, and in 1996 a copy of the wonderworking Iverskaia Icon of the Mother of God was brought from Mount Athos and installed in the chapel. By a strange quirk of fate, the reader of 1988 can only imagine what the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the Iverskaia Chapel looked like. The reader of 2018 can go to Moscow and see them.

What the reader of 2018 knows best, compared to the reader of 1988, is that the Communist Era was just a blip in time, compared to the thousand-year history of Mother Russia, and that Mother Russia—having sloughed off Communism and spit in disgust—would build back her holy structures and go right back to being what She was before: with all the positives and negatives of Orthodox Christianity, the same God-haunted place with the same slow pace, the same corruption, bribery, the same blend of gross cruelty and magnanimous kindness: “the whole unwieldly administration of All the Russias, which kept working if only just” (146). Yes, by some miracle Fitzgerald has captured this spirit.

So much for Gorbymania and the deluded hopes of naïve Americans, that the Russia of the New Millennium would be just a carbon copy of the U.S.A. If you want to know what the Russia of the New Millennium most resembles, read Fitzgerald’s novel about the Russia of 1913. Sure, Moscow looks different now, it’s a modern Western city, and its denizens have adapted to Western ways. But deep down, in Moscow and all over the country, Russians are still going about their lives being Russians.

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Penelope Fitzgerald likes to keep some of her characters in the shadows. In fact, we never learn much about the two main female characters, Nellie and Lisa Ivanovna. Nellie is absent for the whole book, so mostly what we get about her is a kind of hearsay. Only about twenty years old, Lisa at her first appearance is described as having “the pale, broad, patient, dreaming Russian face.” Later she is consistently described as being somehow in her thoughts not entirely present, part of her somewhere off in the clouds. Always calm and self-assured, “She had the gift of quiet.” This personality seems to captivate males by the boatload.

Much is left to the reader to intuit about Lisa, but this leaving of much to the reader seems to be Fitzgerald’s preference. Why did Selwyn once find Lisa reduced to tears behind the counter at Muir and Merrilees? We don’t know. What does Lisa think about her employer Frank, who is in love with her? We don’t know. On page 219 there is a blank space left in the text for the only sex scene in the novel, when Frank goes to Lisa’s room. I have no objection to a writer’s leaving out explicit descriptions of sex, but the reader is left here wishing for more—for at least a lengthy dialogue between two of the book’s main characters. The next morning, with nary a fare thee well, Lisa leaves with the children for the dacha. Frank’s last words to her—probably the last words he will ever speak to her—are these: “For God’s sake, stay with me Lisa.” No reply. “There was no way of telling whether she had heard him.”

The birch tree is the national tree of Russia, the most beloved tree of all in a country of tree lovers. Throughout pagan Russia the birch played a role in rituals welcoming back spring, and a residue of such goings on still hangs over modern Russia. Fitzgerald runs the birch leitmotif through the whole novel, and near the end she spends three pages (224-226) in a lengthy, fascinating description of the smells, the, look, the feel, the very voices of the birch trees as they progress through the seasons. This wonderful passage, which any Russian would read with utter delight, is too long to quote, but here is a short sample.

“When the heavy autumn rains began the trees gave out a new juicy scent of stewed tea, like the scent of the bundles of birch twigs in the steam-room of a public bath house [those thrashers are called веники, URB], which the customers used to beat themselves, leaving stray damp leaves on the tingling skin.”

Then comes the ghostly scene at the dacha in the middle of the night, something that could have been taken from a Fellini film. Accompanied by Dolly, who wakes up when she hears a door open, Lisa goes out into the birch grove. The scene is written from Dolly’s point of view.

“The leaf scent pressed in on her. There was nothing else to breathe. They had turned to the left, and walked perhaps almost as far as they had come along the first path from the dacha. Then Dolly began to see on each side of her among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.

‘Lisa,’ she called out, ‘I can see hands.’

Lisa stood still again. They were in a clearing into which the moon shone. Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree . . . . . .

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’”

So speaks mysterious Lisa the final words she will speak in the novel. After which, she turns, and, “in her usual serene and collected manner,” she walks with Dolly through the trees and back to the dacha. So what is this scene all about? We, the readers, are left to decide. It could be the playing out of some pagan spring ritual, a “rite of spring” complete with tree huggers and birches, as is suggested by the mention of Igor Stravinsky only a few pages later. But, more likely, it is a gathering of student revolutionaries, with whom Lisa is allied.

Earlier on, wishing apparently to ingratiate himself with Lisa Ivanovna, Frank has given her back her internal passport, which by law he is required to keep while she is employed by him. Without this passport a Russian was not allowed to travel more than fifteen miles from his place of birth. Without it you certainly could not leave the country. But having her passport in hand enables Lisa to flee abroad, to Berlin, abandoning the children—their second abandonment of the book. What awaits her in Berlin? We don’t know, but given the Russian authorities’ sudden change in attitude toward Frank—the letter from the Ministry of Defense, in which it is strongly suggested that he leave Russia—we can only assume that Lisa is involved with Russian revolutionaries abroad, and that she leaves the country to join them.

Nellie’s return on the final page of the novel is, as Andrew Miller writes, “a sort of faux-resolution, a moment that seems to offer the possibility of a return to good order, but which in fact promises the exact opposite.” Spring and hope are in the air, and we have the lovely scene of an annual ritual—opening the sealed windows of the house, to let Spring in. But there is a mixed message here. Traditionally in Russian households, when there was a death in the house all the windows were thrown wide open, to let the spirit of the deceased escape. There is no physical death in the novel, but Frank’s new spring love turns out to be short-lived—is in fact stillborn. And even such an unflappable person as Dolly has lost her self-confidence, shaken by the second abandonment.

Given everything that has happened in this one short month of their separation, Frank and Nellie are hardly likely to reconcile quickly, if at all. The children (at least Dolly) are thoroughly discombobulated by the events of March, 1913, and given that they seem to have related better to Lisa Ivanovna than to their own mother, Nellie’s return will probably not bring them much cheer.

Soon to come are tumultuous political upheavals, which the Reid family may not be in Russia to see. But then, a return to England is not a happy prospect for them either. After all, Frank was born in Russia and has lived there most of his life. The children know nothing of the world beyond Russia, are in effect Russian children who love the country. In England they will be something like political émigrés, having lost their native land.

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“Life makes its own corrections,” says the Russian cabman to Frank early on, and the characters of the novel are alive at the end, waiting for the next set of corrections. As for the writer, Penelope Fitzgerald,  corrections of her few mistakes would have improved the novel, but apparently there was no Russian fact checker at the time the book was published. A few examples.

For the most part she is good on the name/patronymic thing, which can present excruciating problems for foreign readers and writers. She bungles this only once, with the appearance of the student in love with Lisa (and probably a potential revolutionary) Vladimir Semyonich Grigoriev. This is his real name, but he lies to Frank upon their first encounter, calling himself “Volodya Vasilych.” Not possible. You cannot use a nickname (Volodya, a nickname for Vladimir) with a patronymic. What he should have said: Vladimir Vasilych.

On p. 141 “the almond trees would be in flower” in Moscow. Hmm. If so, that’s the first I’ve heard of almond trees growing in Moscow, or anywhere else in the northern part of Russia. Here is how the making of the sign of the cross is described (153): “As they faced the icon they crossed themselves, striking the forehead, each shoulder in turn, then the breast.” Nope. As any believer in Eastern Orthodoxy worldwide can tell you—in Greece, in Syria, in Russia—your pursed fingers touch the forehead first, then the breast or abdomen, then the right shoulder, and finally the left.

Kuriatin takes Uncle Charlie on a jaunt outside Moscow, to visit “the Merchants’ Church, between Kursk and Ryazan, about twelve miles out of Moscow” (p. 180). Huh? Don’t know what happened here. Kursk is a provincial city some 500 km. south of Moscow; Ryazan is another, some 200 km. south of Moscow.

On the eve of Palm Sunday the servants in the Reid household go around the house, and then to the neighbors, asking forgiveness for any sins they may have committed, knowingly or unknowingly, over the past year—sins of commission and omission (203). Actually, that is done not on the eve of Palm Sunday, but on Forgiveness Sunday, the last day before Lent.

Then there is the problem of the Russian Orthodox saints. St. Modestus, we are told, is the patron saint of printers. His saint’s day in Russia is commemorated on March 27 (Old Style, old Julian calendar). We are even shown a very convincing scene, in which the priest comes to Frank’s establishment to commemorate the holiday, bless the icons and honor the saint. But I can’t find any such St. Modestus anywhere in the Orthodox calendar, and I have checked all the saints’ days in the months of March and April, even in Cyrillic (Russian) script. There is a Modestus of Jerusalem, whose saint’s day is May 17 (New Style; modern Gregorian calendar); he is the patron of domestic animals.

Although much is made of the celebration of Modestus the Printer’s day, nothing is said in the book about a much, much bigger holiday in March, Благовещение (Annunciation Day), which falls on March 25 Old Style (now celebrated in Russia on April 7). Mention is also made of the Feast of St. Benjamin, commemorated on March 18 (p.160), but alas, I cannot find Ben either in the church calendars. There is a martyr Benjamin the Deacon, whose day is October 13 (NS). In the Catholic Church he is commemorated on March 31, so maybe Fitzgerald is conflating Roman Catholic saints with Eastern Orthodox saints. I don’t know. It will take somebody with much more insight into Orthodoxy than me to figure out what is going on with the saints in The Beginning of Spring.

In correcting, or trying to correct the mistakes of the author, am I finding fault with her? By no means. I still remain astounded by the brilliance of her book. It’s worth the price of the book just to read her description of how people in Russia stand on bridges in springtime, watching the amazing spectacle of the ice breaking up in the water below. If you’ve never done this, I would highly recommend it. Get on a bridge over a river in Russia at the end of March or early April. Pick a sunny day. Watch. Free of charge too.

U.R. Bowie, author of Gogol’s Head: The Misadventures of a Purloined Skull 

2 thoughts on “The Beginning of Spring, by Penelope Fitzgerald

  1. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #37 – Book Jotter

  2. Please, enough of the obsession with Russia. This critique is largely the critic’s fascination with the fact that the author knows almost as much as him about Russia. I’m still left wondering what made this book “astounding” as the critic asserts.

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