The Means of Escape--Penelope Fitzgerald

This book of short stories is introduced by A.S. Byatt who is replete with fulsome praise of Penelope Fitzgerald.  My only other encounter with Ms. Fitzgerald's work was The Blue Flower, a novel about Novalis, which won the National Book Award.  I do not recall being impressed with it, and in fact recall struggling through it.

So too with this book of short stories.  I would often finish a story and wonder, "What the heck was that all about?"  Stories just seemed to stop without resolution.  And if there had been some deep and compelling beauty in the language, some deft touch, some startling revelation, some insight granted me through reading them, then I would be all right with a certain amount of confusion--after all, I can't claim to have a complete understanding of Ulysses, and yet I love the book.

I read in Ms. Byatt's introduction about the moral astuteness and adeptness of the stories, and I was led to wonder, yet once again, what exactly does moral astuteness mean in a work of fiction.  I have concluded that it likely means that the reviewer agrees with either the reasoning or the conclusion of the story.  I find this kind of commentary extremely disorienting with regard to a work of fiction--but then, that is my problem, isn't it?

Back to Ms. Fitzgerald--nothing in the book stood out to me. Two stories, "Desideratus" and "The Axe" had elements suggestive of some of the more atmospheric (and less successful) of the stories of M.R. James--but these two were probably for me the strongest in the collection.  The other stories, except for "The Means of Escape," which is vaguely reminiscent of the beginning of Great Expectations, left no mark.  I cannot recall even the titles of them, much less the story lines.  Perhaps that says more about me as a reader than it does about the author.  But I'm willing to share blame here--had I been given any element to hang onto--language, character, plot, anything, I might have been able to better encompass what the author was about.

I won't rate Ms. Fitzgerald's book, mostly because I have such grave doubts about my own critical acumen; however, at this point I can't recommend The Means of Escape.  I found no magic in the language or in the events of the story that would suggest that everyone should take a look.  When the extent of your positive feelings about a book is, "Well, it's a quick read,"  you have no basis for recommendation. However, those of you who have enjoyed her longer fictional work might also enjoy these shorter examples.  And perhaps after reading those longer works, I can return to these with a better understanding and a better ability to appreciate.


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