Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices

I fear that Penelope Fitzgerald and I are not meant for one another. Human Voices was highly recommended by friends whose opinions I trust and whose tastes I often share. It's set in WWII London, where I've chosen to spend a good deal of my reading time lately. And it's about the BBC, an institution for which I have a great fondness. It ought to have been perfect for me, but, alas, it was not.

There was something about the style that Fitzgerald employed in the novel that scattered my attention. I didn't dislike reading it, but nothing made a sufficient impression to stick with me after I closed the book—not the characters or the setting or the various incidents that studded the narrative. If I made the mistake of putting it down without marking my place, I was lost as, even minutes later, I couldn't remember which bit I'd already read and which I hadn't.

My inability to distinguish between the characters was a particular problem. The senior staffers were generally referred to not by their names but by acronyms of their job titles: the RPD and the DPP, and I kept forgetting what jobs the acronyms denoted and which man held which job. (I've just gone back and looked them up—the RPD is the Director of the Department of Recorded Programmes, and the DPP is the Director of Programme Planning.) The junior staffers (RPAs—assistants to the RPD), were more often referred to by their names (Lise, Vi, Teddy, Willie, and so on) but, even so, I had trouble telling some of them apart. I'm sure that this was quite deliberate—the senior men being so completely identified with their jobs that they scarcely needed names, and the junior staffers being viewed as largely interchangeable by the senior men. In the abstract, this seems to me very clever, but the ultimate effect was that the novel slid past me without leaving much of an impression, either positive or negative.

As I noted above though, other readers have responded very differently, and I can't help but think that this is a case not of a flawed book or of a flawed reader but of a mismatch between reader and book. So those of you who loved Human Voices, please offer up a counterpoint to my view with a comment below or, if you've written about the book elsewhere, with a link to your post/review. And I'd be grateful too if fans of Fitzgerald's work more broadly could tell me if you see this book as representative of her style as a whole, or if there are others of her books that you would recommend I try despite not having been much taken with this one.


litlove said...

Well, I do love her and I did enjoy this one. But I'm perfectly okay with the fact that we all appreciate different things, and it would be a dull world if we didn't! If you wanted to try her again, I'd suggest something from her later period, where she left pure realism behind and did slightly more eccentric things. The Blue Flower, or The Gate of Angels, perhaps.

Belle said...

I haven't read Penelope Fitzgerald's works - Human Voices does sound like it would be interesting, but I don't usually like books where nothing about the book really sticks with me, and the characters are not particularly distinguishable. There's a certain magic that happens when a reader matches a book, but I think mismatches are probably a pretty regular thing.

Kailana said...

I have tried to read her before and it didn't really work, either. Her books sound really good, too, but I haven't felt compelled to try again!

tea said...

Kate, you have won a Humane Award. Please come to my blog to pick it up. It's bright lime green, very pretty.