1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 45

Moscow before the revolution

Anita Brookner

THE BEGINNING OF SPRING by Penelope Fitzgerald Collins, £10.95, pp.187 Penelope Fitzgerald has produced a real Russian comedy, at once crafty and scatty. This is all the more remarkable since she is one of the mildest and most English of writers. Mild, yes, but there is authority behind those neat, discursive and unre- solved stories of hers, of which the most typical is her last novel, Innocence. She seems innocent herself but she knows exactly what she is doing, and if the novels appear to ramble or to end inconsequen- tially we may take this as proof of her good faith, for only in fiction is the neat tight ending available: life itself refuses to con- form. She has introduced a one-line con- clusion to the present novel, but this does not contradict the farcical aspect of what has gone before, as Frank Reid puzzles over the disappearance of his wife, Nellie, discovers that she had a lover, falls in love himself, and is thwarted but perhaps also relieved when Nellie returns.

But the novel is only superficially about Frank and Nellie, about Lisa, the myste- rious governess and her unexplained tryst at midnight in the forest (this struck me as taking inconsequence a little too far), and about Selwyn, cost accountant, follower of Tolstoy, lover and friend. The novel is about Moscow, and not only about Mos- cow, but about Moscow in 1913. With astonishing virtuosity Mrs Fitzgerald has mastered a city, a landscape, and a vanished time, as she sets up her story of Frank Reid's printing works. Reid's is one of those establishments that flourished when English merchants and entre- preneurs, established in Russia for two or perhaps three generations, were allowed to run private concerns, when English gov- ernesses were still employed by the upper bourgeoisie, and when an English depart- ment store, Muir and Merrilees, existed to serve English and Russian patrons alike.

This is all the more of a triumph in that the novel refuses to make too much capital out of this reconstitution. Penelope Fitz- gerald is clearly in love with Russia, but she can hardly have known it in 1913, when ramshackle structures still impeded the sidewalks and students were automatically suspect and servants abounded. Yet her Moscow is probably essentially unchanged since early days, for she is not interested in politics but in customs. Indeed, in spite of the need for both internal and external passports and the threat of expulsion for foreigners if they become awkward, this is a peaceful, 'maternal' city, traditional, kindly, shabby and affectionate. Thus all that is familiar in our haziest notions of a literary Russia — from Chekhov, even from Turgenev — is brought before us in defiance of the more recent vogue for novels of dissidence, with their emphasis on state corruption. And yet Penelope Fitzgerald's Russia seems authentic.

Hers is a Moscow in which certain ceremonies — the break-up of the ice, the unsealing of the windows — herald the beginning of spring. There is a whole section on the composition of a birch forest which in other hands would be a flagrant digression. But the author makes no con- cessions to our expectations of what a novel should be about or how it should proceed: she is simply recreating a time and a place and she does this with complete success. She also appears to know a great deal about printing; she is equally success- ful at describing the activity inside Frank Reid's works. There are acknowledge- ments to Harvey Pitcher's book, The Smiths of Moscow, yet it is impossible to distinguish the borrowings from the inven- tion. There is no evidence of homework.

In 1913 Moscow was almost as familiar as, and only more remote than, Berlin: small wonder that Nellie from Norbury should think so little of forsaking her home for 22 Lipka Street. She is very much a merchant's wife, sharp, active, entirely unimaginative. Character is not stressed but suggested: Mrs Graham at the English Chaplaincy, smoking her roll-ups of rough shag, Miss Kinsman, the deranged gover- ness, Kuriatin, the double-crossing associ- ate fall into place quite naturally. Only Lisa Ivanovna, brought in to look after the children, fails as a character, largely be- cause her activities are unexplained. What exactly was she doing in the forest at midnight? Has a note of mysticism crept in, or is this some strange political ritual? An association between Lisa and a student is posited but left vague. In fact everything is vague but confident, elusive, unclear, and almost absent in comparison with the fabric of the city and its inhabitants. And it is a city utterly lacking in logic yet simple in character. Although deals are struck and bribes taken, the image of the city as 'maternal' (the word is repeated) is very strong.

I am suggesting that Mrs Fitzgerald has written something remarkable, part novel, part evocation, and that she has done so in prose that never puts a foot wrong. She is so unostentatious a writer that she needs to be read several times. What is impressive is the calm confidence behind the apparent simplicity of utterance. The Beginning of Spring is her best novel to date.