Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (1979) Mariner Books (1998) 141 pp
I was wary of Penelope Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s something about an author publishing her first four novels in four years. But to offset that, this outburst of fiction (The Golden Child, 1977; The Bookshop, 1978; Offshore, 1979; and Human Voices, 1980) began when she was sixty years old — and those were some exceedingly cultivated sixty years. These books were well received, and she has the good opinion of many discriminating critics. So what if she published her first four novels in four years? There is something miraculous in her literary career: in eighteen years toward the end of her life, she published nine books of fiction. If this was a true artistic explosion and not just someone who tacked together a working formula, it couldn’t be missed. I decided to start by reading Offshore.
I love how the book begins, such a sly attention grabber:
‘Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?’ Richard asked.
Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.
It turns out that Dreadnought is one of several houseboats in Battersea Reach on the Thames. Its owner is Willis, a sixty-five-year-old painter, and he has plans to sell his boat and move to land where he can live with his widowed sister. However, the boat is old and not worth much — but, perhaps it could be worth a bit more . . .
Richard, captain of the boat Lord Jim, is the de facto leader of the small community set in Battersea Reach. It probably goes without saying that Fitzgerald’s characters are people living on the fringe of society. Living neither on the land nor on the sea, these are characters who don’t fit well in society. Besides Dreadnought and Lord Jim (and others), this community also includes Maurice and Grace. Maurice lives on Maurice (the boat used to be named Dondeschipolschuygen IV, but Maurice renamed it when he found out everyone referred to each other by their boat’s name). Maurice’s male clients are there most of the night, but it’s the man who stores his merchandise on the boat that causes the most fear. Nenna lives on Grace with her two young daughters, Tilda and Martha. When Nenna’s husband, Edward, returned from South America a failure, his wife’s situation on the boat was still below him.
Offshore revolves around these strange, basically lonely characters. They frequently encounter each other, they are friendly, they do form part of a community, but the loneliness, the separateness remains. And that is all due to Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose. The following quote, for example, says so much about Nenna and her two daughters. On the surface, it sounds somewhat hopeful, as they like to see their situation. But there’s a desperation beyond the obvious. There’s an intimation into what could happen when Martha and Tilda grow up a bit more.
Martha and Tilda were in the position of having no spending money, but this was less important when they were not attending school and were spared the pains of comparison, and they felt no bitterness against their mother, because she hadn’t any either. Nenna believed, however, that she would have some in the spring, when three things would happen, each, like some melting ice-floes, slowly moving the next one on. Edward would come and live on Grace, which would save the rent he was paying on his rooms at present; the girls, once they were not being prayed for at the grotto, would agree to go back to the nuns; and with Tilda at school she could go out herself and look for a job.
Nenna is, in many ways, the central character. The other characters have their unique stories, but more time is spent on Nenna, which is proper. Not only is Nenna’s story intriguing but Fitzgerald has given her a fabulous interior dialogue:
. . . Nenna’s thoughts, whenever she was alone, took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrate’s hearing, in which her own version of her marriage was shown as ridiculously simple and demonstrably right, and then, almost exactly at the same time, as incontrovertibly wrong. Her conscience, too, held, quite uninvited, a separate watching brief, and intervened in the proceedings to read statements of an unwelcome nature.
For glorious pages Nenna is interrogated by this judge as her husband, the plaintiff, sits in the background. Though this goes on for pages, Fitzgerald doesn’t overdo it. This technique doesn’t take over Nenna’s personality, and it still allows Nenna’s sad story to be told.
Though short, this book actually took me quite a bit of time to read. The story and the characters are complex. Though Fitzgerald’s sentences hold this complexity well, they are intricate and complex in and of themselves and take some time to digest. The book demanded time. But it was time so well spent. I loved this book.