Struggling to get Onshore

After my first reading (thirty-five years after publication) of Penelope Fitzgerald’s much lauded 1979 Booker Prize novel, Offshore, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. The work received wide acclaim, albeit from reviewers, but little academic interest.

It has at its core the relationships between five barge owners, and the families of some of them, moored at Battersea Reach on the Thames. The author would be expected to develop such relationships into an interesting tapestry of personal feeling shaped by events, revealing the characters to their fullest extent and thereby giving the reader an insight into their innermost psychologies. Fitzgerald, however, creates a snapshot, as it were, rather than a complete revelation, thus leaving one feeling the work to be inadequate, wanting and unsatisfying. It could be argued that in a novel barely two hundred pages long, little opportunity is provided for such development and, on first consideration, there may seem to be a point except for the fact that Henry James managed it masterfully. And I use James as a comparison only because several reviewers likened Fitzgerald to Jane Austen – an accolade misplaced and undeserved in the extreme. AS Byatt suggested she was Austen’s ‘nearest heir’ and I am decidedly perplexed (possibly even dumbfounded) why George Eliot might not have been considered suitable for the part. I can only reason there seems to be a desperate proclivity by some reviewers to find in a contemporary writer the genius of some of the great 19th century novelists.

Fitzgerald’s lack of comprehensive characterization weakens the novel immensely and the first half of the book drifts aimlessly to the point of being boringly insubstantial. The characters are presented superficially, and the reader never gets to know them intimately as a result of the author’s inability to allow a full range of reflection or emotion on their part. Consequently the novel cannot develop into a meaningful work and relies on a series of character snapshots to hold it together.

The term ‘snapshot’ is, perhaps, not insignificant as it suggests a style and method not unlike that of cinematography and raises the interesting observation that Fitzgerald’s Offshore is better suited to being developed as a screen play rather than a novel. The sudden and unexpected changes of scene resemble the motion picture, which, it must be said, has never reproduced faithfully, and with telling force, any major literary work because of its reliance on visual perception. Whether or not Fitzgerald was overly influenced by film, I do not know, but the presence of its style and method in Offshore makes it an interesting question.

One cannot escape the fact there is a dull superficiality about the book. The character snapshots (or movie clips if you prefer the idea of motion) presented by Fitzgerald are of mundane, trivial incidents in the lives portrayed – which is not to suggest that a degree of pain and suffering is not present in the representative contextual sampling. But the writer doesn’t explore, in a profound way and not even in one or two characters, the range of content in the individual psyches that could reveal personal tragedy. If she had dealt with her subject matter accordingly, Fitzgerald may have evoked a close and percipient response in the reader and provided substance in an otherwise thin narrative. Yet it is almost as if she wants her audience to assume the tragic consequences of her characters’ lives and simply provides a canvas for the reader’s imagination to play on. This is not subtle suggestion, as some of those who rhapsodize about this book may claim, but an inadequacy unable to meticulously examine and reveal the infinitely delicate processes of human thought and emotion. It is, sadly, and one may venture to say it, an easy way out.

That said I do not believe Fitzgerald sets out to deceive. She has, rather, simply written a defective novel in an unconvincing style, a style unsuited to the task of aspiring to achieving a major (or even a good) work of fiction. Regrettably, many critics (who should know better) mislead the reading public in describing the work, with extravagant claims, as ‘tight’, ‘compressed’ and ‘…unerring in economic force’. What exactly such specious terms are intended to mean or evoke one only can guess. But it is probable, and I suggest likely, that these critics do not themselves know and use such terms to impress and cloak unfortunate critical inadequacies – inadequacies that will attempt to promote something as a work of genius which, in fact, is second-rate.

I could be proved wrong but I’ve not seen the work proposed or selected for serious study and surmise that a competent, critical ethos has had the last word on the subject and put the matter to rest.

Bruce Cooper

Too Close to Home to be Good

Author of Deaf Sentence, David Lodge, admits in the book’s preamble that 60-something protagonist Desmond Bates is loosely based on himself. To what extent we shall never know although both are retired academics and both suffer from progressive hearing loss. The latter disability is central to the narrative and shapes most, if not all, of the hero’s movements throughout the tale.

Lodge manages with literary dexterity to bring out the humour of the hearing misfortune by involving Bates in a comedy of antics with and without his electronic hearing aid. Had Bates been any less placid or even-tempered than he is, the humour would be absent and we’d likely be watching a curmudgeon grappling with his infirmity. Consequently what makes the tale appealing, and reinforces it to some extent, is Bates’s nobility in the circumstances in which he finds himself. And one can only surmise (with a good deal of accuracy I suspect) that Lodge is no less a chap.

The humour is well-executed, and when it becomes a little darker perhaps even better. But the difficulty of comedy, in any art form, is being able to sustain it and Lodge doesn’t manage that altogether successfully.

Bates’s 89-year old father in the book (also loosely based on Lodge’s father) still lives in his own home but is in obvious decline, although far from decrepit. Lodge draws a humorous relationship between the two by bringing out the idiosyncrasies and quirkiness of the old man viewed alongside the solicitude of the son and partial deafness of both.

‘How was the journey?’ he said, as I took off my overcoat and hung it on the                        coat rack by the door.

‘All right. The train was on time for once,’ I said.

‘What?’ This word occurs very frequently in our dialogues.

‘The train was on time,’ I shouted.

‘There’s no need to shout,’ he said . . .

Meetings between the two occur frequently in the book culminating in the old man’s funeral at the end. Although some of the humour and poignancy in their relationship is retained throughout, the narrative tends to become a little tedious and the book would have benefited with less of the father/son episodes. But Lodge, even if he agreed, would clearly have had a problem with this given the story is to some extent autobiographical.

The book may also have suffered in another area from its autobiographical adumbration.

One of the characters, Alex Loom, is an alluring American postgraduate from Bates’s former university. She inveigles a reluctant Bates into helping her as a quasi-supervisor for a doctoral thesis, without his wife’s knowledge. At various times she subtly suggests sex but he never acquiesces, although he does indulge in a fantasy, which she suggests, about spanking her naked bottom.

At the outset, the reader is given the impression of an appealing character (she possesses all the extrovert qualities of the typical American girl) and waits in patient anticipation to see how she will play a leading character role (which the author seems to have intended) in the story’s tapestry. The impression given is that an intellectually interesting, and most likely sexual, relationship is set to develop between Desmond Bates and Alex Loom. The fact that it doesn’t materialise is in some ways a travesty and the book suffers greatly as a result.

Lodge develops Loom into a sexually dysfunctional girl, who lost her father at age 13 to suicide and who consequently has a compulsive sexual attraction for older men. She seduces Bates’s colleague (still employed) at the university and Bates becomes her next compulsive target sometime after the first liaison ended. Bates declines her overtures and she eventually goes back to America.

Had Lodge expanded on the relationship between Bates and Loom in all its facets, and rewritten her character, it would have provided immense possibilities for character development and a more interesting and appealing tale. One could say he lost a trick here, but I suspect the reason to have been the limitations imposed by a quasi-autobiography. It is unlikely that Lodge would have entered into such an affair. Bates, though, does indicate towards the end of the book that, had he been less timid, he might have allowed it. At any event, fictionalising yourself will be constraining at the best of times and may be too close to home to draw a vivid and appealing tale.

Bruce Cooper