Fog on the Thames: A review of “Offshore” by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The chief virtues of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 (and set in 1962 ) novel Offshore are that it is elegantly written, perceptive, and relatively short.

I am not being glib in adding the final point about the book’s length, because had it been any longer it would seriously have started to grate on the nerves. I say this not because the book is in danger of being capsized by its weaknesses, but because the kind of lives the characters live are not the kind of thing that should be examined for too long.

The book concerns a small community of neighbours who live on old Thames barges moored up in Chelsea. I am not sure if there are any houseboats moored on the Chelsea side of the River now. near where I live further upriver there are houseboats, but they are generally pretty desirable properties, and, London being London, at current 2014 prices your average houseboat within the M25 would be worth as much as, and frequently more than, your average house elsewhere in the UK.

However, back in 1960’s, to live on a houseboat was seen as a sign of being eccentric, poor, an arty type, being down on your uppers, up to no good, or a combination of all five. Predictably Fitzgerald gives us representative types from all categories. One character (male prostitute Maurice) gives us an idea on page 54 of who the main ones are:

It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear [addressing Nenna, a separated Canadian who lies with her two daughters on a barge] you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha [Nenna’s daughter] who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard [a neighbour] who can’t give up being half in the navy, Willis [another neighbour] who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead…”

Characters like Maurice are convenient in novels like this, which are loosely plotted, and full of the characters’ interior thoughts. They allow Fitzgerald to get to her main objective here, which I think is to explore the characters of these people who don’t conform to the norms of society at the time, but who are also in their way a breed apart. Take Nenna, one of the central characters. She’s married to her husband and thinks she’s in love with him. He went away to work in Panama for a while, then came back to the UK but did not settle with his family again. Nenna knows where he is, is desperate to see him, but it seems that it takes here many, many months to actually go and see him. When the final confrontation does occur it tens out that the man is an utter drip. In other words, a weak loser (and no, I’m not being hard on the bloke, because had their been say a psychological or psychiatric reason for his ineffectual nature then Fitzgerald would have said).

This book won Penelope Fitzgerlad the 1979 Booker Prize, a year when there were a number of ‘big-hitters’ on the list. Famously, the BBC interviewer Robert Robinson put it to Fitzgerald that “the wrong book won”, a cruel if honest refection of the sense of bathos many must have felt when the winner was announced. Make no mistake: this is the the kind of book that many people would read and instantly say “What was the point of that?”

What redeems this book is Fitzgerald’s mastery of that kind of third person narration which presents and occasionally comments upon the respective natures and personalities of her characters. It’s an idea of the novel which has been very popular in the UK for many years. One of the chief drawbacks is that it places fine writing and psychological insight above plot. This book isn’t really a ‘story’ in that sense: it’s more of a series of representative episodes in the lives of a fairly desultory bunch of people, and those people are themselves quite obviously dean as ‘types’. But as I said earlier, Fitzgerald is canny enough to take things are far as she can, which  is exactly enough space to say to us and to show us what she wants to.  From my point of view, it’s better to think of this book as more of a mood piece.

So in summary, this is a novel for people who like things to be well written and full of insight. In terms of plot and direction, however, the book is a good reflection of the main character’s lives, in that there’s not much of either.

Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall: Gibbon it ain’t but there’s plenty of monkeying around.

evelyn waugh

Bad hair day: It seems that Boris Johnson copped a lot more than just his political attitudes from the young Evelyn Waugh.

The title of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel echoes Gibbon, but there the similarity ends. Gibbon’s book was a long account of what happened to the Roman Empire after the death of Marcus Aurelius, right up until the fall of Constantinople. It put forth the whole story and attempted to draw attention to the significant patterns in the fabric of time.

Waugh’s book by contrast is the equivalent of a young fogey taking a look at the social fabric of his time (1920’s Britain) and scrawling “balls to all this” across it with a large permanent marker pen.   The novel is the ‘history’ of an unfortunate young mug at Oxford by the name of Paul Pennyfeather. One night he has the misfortune to encounter the Bollinger Club (the Bullingdon Club in other words) who true to form are on the piss and on the warpath. They debag Pennyfeather and chase him  around the Quad, resulting in his unfairly being sent down for lewd and immoral behaviour.

From here Pennyfeather’s life takes a variety of odd twists and turns. Yes there is a plot, but it’s fairly basic and more of an excuse to present a series of comic set-pieces. I could summarise it, but the book’s so short you could almost read it in less time than I could take to describe it.

I liked the book and I did laugh out loud in places. Ultimately it was an agreeable way of passing the time, but dare I say that’s about it for me. I recently watched an old BBC “Face to Face” interview with Waugh, and something he said about his books made me think most of Decline and Fall.

Interviewer: You say all that is good in the world comes from God; you don’t seem to find very much which is good in the modern world – you’ve seen it consistently as a decadent world, have you not?

Waugh:  But there’s good in a decadent world.

Interviewer: Yes, but your purpose in life is what? To castigate or to chronicle the decadent world? Do you see a purpose in your books – are you trying to scourge us into reform?

Waugh: Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, I’m just trying to write books.

Interviewer: Yes, but nonetheless no-one who is as intellectually coherent as you are can write books even just as finished polished objects without having a certain purpose in mind, I suspect.

Waugh: Quite unconscious. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit down and say ‘I will now write a book to reveal the horrors of the gangs in this district’ or something like that.

“I’m just trying to write books”. I tend to take that comment more or less at face value. I think that in Decline and Fall he set out his stall pretty well for the rest of his career, at least where his writing in a comic idiom is concerned. In other words he was just trying to make people laugh. No more, no less, and in Beckett’s phrase “make sense who may”.

Is there any other apparent motivation behind the book? I suspect his intent was broadly to satirise and to mock. Although it’s a very funny book, the humour is often described as black. I’d go further than that and say that it’s caustic to the point of being corrosive. Taking the mick out of almost everyone in the book, regardless of race, creed, colour or class, often makes for very funny writing. Ultimately it doesn’t really get you anywhere either. Hogarth would go down as a satirist with a moral purpose. Waugh by contrast has more in common with the Marx brothers. In other words, any one is fair game and damn the consequences.   Writers like Waugh in Decline and Fall mode, I suspect, don’t give a monkey’s about that, and just want to poke fun. Again something that stood out for me from “Face to Face”:

Interviewer: Looking at yourself, because I am sure you are a self-critical person, what do you feel is your worst fault?

Waugh: Irritability.

Interviewer: Are you a snob at all?

Waugh: I don’t think.

Interviewer: Irritability with your family, with strangers?

Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything.

In other words this was a man who appeared to get wound up and stressed by the slightest thing. Fortunately for him, and for some of us, he was able to take that negative energy and make it into caustically funny prose.
In conclusion it’s worth pointing out that contrary to his denial, I think he was a snob, and a dreadful one at that if Decline and Fall be considered Exhibit A. However, it is precisely this contempt for the lowly, the snooty, the inadequate, the banal and the silly that invests Decline and Fall with its manic and angry energy.