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Man Booker Prize Finalist: This “marvelous novel” about an abandoned husband, set in Moscow a century ago, is “bristling with wry comedy” (Newsday).
March 1913. Moscow is stirring herself to meet the beginning of spring. English painter Frank Reid returns from work one night to find that his wife has gone away; no one knows where or why, or whether she’ll ever come back. All Frank knows for sure is that he is now alone and must find someone to care for his three young children.
Into Frank’s life comes Lisa Ivanovna, a quiet, calming beauty from the country, untroubled to the point of seeming simple. But is she? And why has Frank’s bookkeeper, Selwyn Crane, gone to such lengths to bring these two together?
From a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, this novel, with a new introduction by Andrew Miller, author of Pure, is filled with “writing so precise and lilting it can make you shiver” (Los Angeles Times).
“Fitzgerald was the author of several slim, perfect novels. The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring both had me abuzz for days the first time I read them. She was curiously perfect.” —Teju Cole, author of Open City
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||630 KB|
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 17, 1916
Date of Death:May 3, 2000
Place of Birth:Lincoln, England
Place of Death:London, England
Education:Somerville College, Oxford University, 1939
Read an Excerpt
In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid's wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her — that is Dolly, Ben and Annushka. Annushka (or Annie) was two and three-quarters and likely to be an even greater nuisance than the others. However Dunyasha, the nurse who looked after the children at 22 Lipka Street, did not go with them.
Dunyasha must have been in the know, but Frank Reid was not. The first he heard about it, when he came back from the Press to his house, was from a letter. This letter, he was told by the servant Toma, had been brought by a messenger.
'Where is he now?' asked Frank, taking the letter in his hand. It was in Nellie's writing.
'He's gone about his business. He belongs to the Guild of Messengers, he's not allowed to take a rest anywhere.' Frank walked straight through to the back right hand quarter of the house and into the kitchen, where he found the messenger with his red cap on the table in front of him, drinking tea with the cook and her assistant. 'Where did you get this letter?'
'I was called to this house,' said the messenger, getting to his feet, 'and given the letter.'
'Who gave it to you?'
'Your wife, Elena Karlovna Reid.'
'This is my house and I live here. Why did she need a messenger?'
The shoe-cleaning boy, known as the Little Cossack, the washerwoman, who was on her regular weekly call, the maid, and Toma had, by now, all come into the kitchen. 'He was told to deliver it to your office,' Toma said, 'but you have come home earlier than usual and anticipated him.' Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage. He sat down by the window, although at four o'clock it was already dark, and opened the letter in front of them all. In all his married life he couldn't remember having had more than two or three letters from Nellie. It hadn't been necessary — they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.
He read as slowly as he could, but there were a few lines only, to tell him that she was off. Coming back to Moscow was not mentioned, and he concluded that she hadn't wanted to tell him what was really wrong, particularly as she had written at the bottom of the page that she wasn't saying this in any way bitterly, and she wanted him to take it in the same spirit. There was also something about keeping well.
They all stood watching him in silence. Not wishing to disappoint them, Frank folded up the page carefully and put it back in the envelope. He looked out into the shadowy courtyard, where the winter's stack of firewood was down by now, to its last quarter. The neighbours' oil lamps shone out here and there beyond the back fence. By arrangement with the Moscow Electrical company, Frank had installed his own twenty-five watt lighting.
'Elena Karlovna has gone away,' he said, 'and she has taken the three children with her, how long for I don't know. She hasn't told me when she will come back.'
The women began to cry. They must have helped Nellie to pack, and been the recipients of the winter clothes which wouldn't go into the trunks, but these were real tears, true grief.
The messenger was still standing with his red cap in his hand. 'Have you been paid?' Frank asked him. The man said he had not. The guild were paid on a fixed scale, from twenty to forty kopeks, but the question was whether he had earned anything at all. The yardman now came into the kitchen, bringing with him a gust of oil and sawdust and the unmistakable smell of cold. Everything had to be explained to him all over again, although it must have been his business earlier on to help with Nellie's luggage.
'Bring some tea to the living room,' said Frank. He gave the messenger thirty kopeks. 'I'll have dinner at six, as usual.' The thought that the children weren't there, that Dolly and Ben would not return from school and that there was no Annushka in the house, suffocated him. This morning he had had three children, now he had none. How much he would miss Nellie, and how much he did miss her, he couldn't tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later. They had been considering a visit to England, and with that in mind Frank had cleared the family's external passports with the local police station and the central police department. Possibly when Nellie signed her passport it had put ideas in her head. But when had Nellie ever allowed ideas to be put into her head?
Reids, when Frank's father had set up the firm in Moscow in the 1870s, had imported and assembled printing machinery. As a sideline he had acquired a smallish printing business. That business was pretty well all Frank had left. You couldn't do anything with the assembly plant now, the German and direct import competition was too strong. But Reid's Press did well enough and he had a reasonably satisfactory sort of man to do the management accounting. Perhaps, though, 'reasonable' wasn't, in connection with Selwyn, quite the right word. He had no wife and appeared to have no grievances, was a follower of Tolstoy, still more so since Tolstoy died, and he wrote poetry in Russian. Frank expected Russian poetry to be about birch trees and snow, and in fact in the last verses Selwyn had read to him birch trees and snow were both mentioned pretty frequently.
Frank went now to the telephone, wound the handle twice and asked for the Reid's Press number, repeating it several times. Meanwhile Toma appeared with a samovar, the small one, presumably suitable for the master of the house now that he was left on his own. It was just coming to the boil and gave out a faint chatter of expectation.
'What are we to do with the children's rooms, sir?' Toma asked in a low tone.
'Shut the doors of their rooms and keep them as they are. Where's Dunyasha?'
Frank knew she must be about the house somewhere but was lying low, like a partridge in a furrow, to avoid blame.
'Dunyasha wants to speak to you. Now that the children are gone, what is to be her employment?'
'Tell her to set her mind at rest.' Frank felt he sounded like a capricious owner of serfs. Surely he'd never given them much reason to worry about their jobs?
The call came through, and Selwyn's light-toned, musing voice answered in Russian: 'I hear you.'
'Look, I didn't mean to interrupt you this afternoon, but something's happened which I didn't quite expect.'
'You don't sound altogether yourself, Frank. Tell me, which has come to you, joy or sorrow?'
'I should call it a bit of a shock. Sorrow, if it's got to be one of them.'
Toma came out into the hall for a moment, saying something about changes to be made, and then retired to the kitchen. Frank went on: 'Selwyn, it's about Nellie. She's gone back to England, I suppose, and taken the children with her.'
'But mayn't it be she wants to see ...' Selwyn hesitated, as though it was hard for him to find words for ordinary human relationships, '... might one not want to see one's mother?'
'She didn't say so much as a word. In any case her mother died before I met her.'
'She's only got her brother left. He lives where he's always lived, in Norbury.'
'In Norbury, Frank and an orphan!'
'Well, I'm an orphan, for that matter, and so are you.'
'Ah, but I'm fifty-two.'
Selwyn had a reserve of good sense, which appeared when he was at work, and unexpectedly at other times when it might almost have been despaired of. He said, 'I shan't take much longer. I'm checking the wage-bill against what the pay clerks are actually handing out. You said you wanted that done more often.'
'I do want it done more often.'
'When we've finished, why don't you dine with me, Frank? I don't like to think of you sitting and staring, it may be, at an empty chair. At my place, and very simply, not in the heartless surroundings of a restaurant.'
'Thank you, but I won't do that. I'll be in tomorrow, though, at the usual time, about eight.'
He put the mouthpiece back on its solid brass hook and began to patrol the house, silent except for the distant rising and falling of voices from the kitchen which, in spite of what sounded like a burst of sobs, had the familiar sound of a successful party. Ramshackle, by Frank's standards, and roomy, the house consisted of a stone storey and on top of that a wooden one. The vast stove, glazed with white tiles from the Presnya, kept the whole ground floor warm. Outside, towards the bend in the Moscow river, a curious streak of bright lemon-yellow ran across the slate-coloured sky. Someone was at the front door, and Toma brought in Selwyn Crane. Although Frank saw him almost every day at the Press, he often forgot, until he saw him in a different setting, how unusual, for an English business man, he looked. He was tall and thin — so, for that matter, was Frank, but Selwyn, ascetic, kindly smiling, earnestly questing, not quite sane-looking, seemed to have let himself waste away, from other-worldliness, almost to transparency. With a kind of black frock-coat he wore a pair of English tweed trousers, made up by a Moscow tailor who had cut them rather too short, and a high-necked Russian peasant's blouse, a tribute to the memory of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. In the warm room, with no ladies present, he threw off the frock-coat and let the coarse material of the blouse sink down in folds around his lean ribs.
'My dear fellow, here I am. After such news, I couldn't leave you by yourself.'
'That's what I would have preferred, though,' said Frank. 'You won't mind if I speak out. I'd rather have been by myself.'
'I came on the twenty-four tram,' said Selwyn. 'I was fortunate enough to catch one almost at once. Rest assured that I shan't stay long. I was at my desk when a thought came to me which I knew immediately might be of comfort. I got up immediately and went out to the tram stop. The telephone, Frank, isn't the right way to convey such things.'
Frank, sitting opposite, put his head in his hands. He felt he could bear anything rather than determined unselfishness. Selwyn, however, seemed to be encouraged.
'That's the attitude of a penitent, Frank. No need for that. We are all of us sinners. The thought that came to me didn't concern guilt, but loss, supposing we think of loss as a form of poverty. Now poverty, or what the world calls poverty, isn't a matter for regret, but for rejoicing.'
'No, Selwyn, it's not,' said Frank.
'Lev Nikolaevich tried to give away all his possessions.'
'That was to make the peasants richer, not to make himself poorer.' Tolstoy's Moscow estate was only a mile or so away from Lipka Street. In his will it had been bequeathed to the peasants, who, ever since, had been cutting down the trees to make ready money. They worked even at night, felling the trees by the light of paraffin flares.
Selwyn leant forward, his large hazel eyes intensely focused, alight with tender curiosity and goodwill.
'Frank, when summer comes, let us go on the tramp together. I know you well, but in the clear air, in the plains and forests, I should surely come to know you better. You have courage, Frank, but I think you have no imagination.'
'Selwyn, I don't want my soul read this evening. To be honest, I don't feel up to it.' In the hall Toma appeared again to help Selwyn into his sleeveless overcoat of rank sheepskin. Frank repeated that he'd be at the Press at his usual time. As soon as the outer door was shut Toma began to lament that Selwyn Osipych hadn't taken any tea, or even a glass of seltzer water.
'He only called in for a moment.'
'He's a good man, sir, always on his way from one place to another, searching out want and despair.'
'Well he didn't find either of them here,' said Frank.
'Perhaps he brought you some news, sir, of your wife.'
'He might have done if he worked at the railway station, but he doesn't. She took the Berlin train and that's all there is to it.'
'God is not without mercy,' said Toma vaguely.
'Toma, when you first came here three years ago, the year Annushka was born, you told me you were an unbeliever.'
Toma's face relaxed into the creases of leathery goodwill which were a preparation for hours of aimless discussion.
'Not an unbeliever, sir, a free-thinker. Perhaps you've never thought about the difference. As a free-thinker I can believe what I like, when I like. I can commit you, in your sad situation, to the protection of God this evening, even though tomorrow morning I shan't believe he exists. As an unbeliever I should be obliged not to believe, and that's an unwarrantable restriction on my thoughts.'
Presently it was discovered that Selwyn's brief case, really a music case, crammed with papers, and stiffened by the rain of many seasons at many tram-stops, had been left behind on the bench below the coat rack, where the felt boots stood in rows. This had happened a number of times before, and the familiarity of it was a kind of consolation.
'I'll take it in with me tomorrow morning,' said Frank. 'Don't let me forget.'
Up till a few years ago the first sound in the morning in Moscow had been the cows coming out of the side-streets, where they were kept in stalls and backyards, and making their own way among the horse-trams to their meeting-point at the edge of the Khamovniki, where they were taken by the municipal cowman to their pasture, or, in winter, through the darkness, to the suburban stores of hay. Since the tram-lines were electrified, the cows had disappeared. The trams themselves, from five o'clock in the morning onwards, were the first sound, except for the church bells. In February, both were inaudible behind the inner and outer windows, tightly sealed since last October, rendering the house warm and deaf.
Frank got up ready to do what he might have done the evening before, but still hoped wouldn't be necessary, to send off telegrams. Then, at some point, he had better go to the English chaplaincy, where he could see Cecil Graham, the chaplain, and count on his saying, out of embarrassment, very little. But it would also mean an explanation to Mrs Graham, who in fact, did both the seeing and the saying. Perhaps he might wait a day or so before going to the chaplaincy.
At a quarter to seven the telephone rang, jangling the two copper bells fixed above a small writing desk. It was the stationmaster from the Alexandervokzal. Frank knew him pretty well.
'Frank Albertovich, there has been an error. You must come to collect at once, or send a responsible and reliable person.'
The stationmaster explained that the three children were deposited at his station, having come back from Mozhaisk, where they had joined the midnight train from Berlin.
'They have a clothes-basket with them.'
'But are they alone?'
'Yes, they're alone. My wife, however, is looking after them in the refreshment room.'
Frank had his coat on already. He walked some way down Lipka Street to find a sledge with a driver who was starting work, and not returning from the night's work drunk, half-drunk, stale drunk, or podvipevchye — with just a dear little touch of drunkenness. He also wanted a patient-looking horse. On the corner he stopped a driver with a small piece of resigned, mottled face showing in the lamplight above his turned-up collar.
'The Alexander station.' 'The Brest station,' said the driver, who evidently refused to give up the old name. On the whole, this was reassuring.
'When we're there, you'll have to wait, but I'm not sure for how long.'
'Will there be luggage?' 'Three children and a clothes-basket. I don't know how much more.'
The horse moved gently through the snow and grit up the Novinskaya and then turned without any guidance down the Presnya. It was accustomed to this route because the hill was steep and so a higher fare could be charged both down and up, but it was not the quickest way to the station.
Excerpted from "Beginning of Spring"
Copyright © 1988 Penelope Fitzgerald.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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