The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Houghton Mifflin, $18.
You can expect the unexpected in Penelope Fitzgerald's fiction, and the posthumously published story collection The Means of Escape is no exception. Fitzgerald, self-proclaimed lover of research, takes readers through time and space with her own devilish sense of humor and wonderfully circular logic, again proving she didn't win all those big literary prizes for nothing.
The title story and longest in the collection addresses the unpredictable nature of love. Based on a letter (which may or may not be real) found in the National Library of Tasmania in Hobart, the story takes place there in 1852. Miss Alice finds an escaped convict in St. George's Church. Fitzgerald offers the perfect, grizzly description. "A rancid stench -- came towards her up the aisle. The shape, too, seemed wrong. But that -- was because the head was hidden in some kind of sack like a butchered animal, or since it had eye holes, more like a man about to be hanged."
Mr. Savage, a name he'd assumed, "had thought at first to cut her throat, but had seen almost at once that the young lady was not on the cross." And although "it had been her intention to walk straight out of the church -- since she believed that with a man of bad character, as with a horse, the best thing was to show no emotion whatever," Miss Alice quickly changes her mind. She agrees to help him, tells him to call her Miss Alice, and surreptitiously makes off with his lice-infested hood.
One of Fitzgerald's many evidences of genius is displayed in her economic use of language. The first dialogue between Mr. Savage and Miss Alice slyly introduces the complexity of their relationship.
He said, "You can be of assistance to me -- I am an educated man. You may try me out if you like, in Latin, and some Greek -- I was a poisoner."
"I should not have thought you were old enough to be married."
"I never said I poisoned my wife!" he cried.
"Were you innocent then?"
The diverse nature of Fitzgerald's fiction is unrelenting. Her characters evolve through multiple passages, but it is ultimately up to the reader to make judgements.
The story "Beehernz" revolves around an aging conductor, self exiled to a remote island of Scotland. Although most participants of the Midland Music Festival planning committee "had thought he was dead," committee chairman Hopkins thinks he can engage Beehernz, the retired Mahler specialist, to perform at a good price. Beehernz agrees, even though at his last concert, he refused to play Mahler's Eighth Symphony because, as he explained, "It is too noisy."
Beehernz lives "on an island off an island," Reilig, which "means 'graveyard' in Gaelic." A necessary trip to this island brings Hopkins face to face with a man that is either not of sound mind or canny enough to best the ordinarily shrewd Hopkins at his own game. At any rate, Beehernz proves to be a memorable lover of music who showcases his own precise speech.
Other stories range from a tale of three artists in Brittany, none of whom gain the slightest understanding of their subjects, to the Turkish border where a renowned doctor intentionally poisons his apprentice. Two, "The Axe" and "Desideratus," are horror stories. These stories deal with lower classes and exotic surroundings, and shine with Fitzgerald's sharp irony and wit.
There is no writer like Penelope Fitzgerald, and the world is poorer for her recent death. Although she didn't publish her first work until the age of 60, she wrote until the last two weeks of her life, leaving a fine legacy of 10 books of fiction and three of non-fiction. These are books to devour with study, a veritable feast for her ever-expanding readership to enjoy. Fellow Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt sums it up succinctly when she says of Fitzgerald, "She is, isn't she, the best?"