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A Plunge Into 1913 Moscow: It’s All In The Details

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 6, 2012

Eva Stachniak is the author of The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great.

I was struggling to write a historical novel when a friend introduced me to Penelope Fitzgerald. Months of researching had left me overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what I had uncovered. I wanted to use every new fact I learned.

“In just a few words,” my friend said, giving me The Beginning of Spring, “Fitzgerald somehow manages to grasp the vanished time.”

It was true. Even the first sentence of her book surprised me — not with the number of details, but with their selection, perfectly suited to the novel’s time and place: “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.”

The exact duration of the journey and the price of the tickets are marks of the Fitzgerald touch, her signature. Where I lost my way in the richness of my sources, she went for the mundane and specific, knowing that this was the road to her reader’s trust.

The novel centers on Frank Reid, a print-shop owner who arrives home one day to learn that his wife has just left him, taking their three children with her. For reasons that go unexplained for most of the book, the children return a day later and have to be fetched from the station.

Born in Russia, Frank is a child of British parents and thus will always remain a foreigner. I recognized his predicament perfectly. I was 29 when I moved to Canada from Poland, a latecomer trying to make up for lost time. Although I spoke the language, I too was an outsider, capable of noticing what seemed invisible to others, and at the same time missing what seemed obvious to them.

Frank conducts business and negotiates the everyday transactions of life. It is not hard to see that although he has learned to navigate through the mysteries of his land, what others believe to be the spirit of Russia eludes him.

Penelope Fitzgerald allows her characters very short scenes, forcing her precise details to carry the novel’s deeper meaning. With each perfectly crafted moment, she immerses the reader deeper into life in Moscow in the spring of 1913: Frank’s colleague is putting money aside for bribes, with “something allowed for Grisha, Grigory Rasputin.” A young man, possibly a political agitator, breaks into the print shop. Frank is visited by the police and encouraged to leave Russia. A mysterious young woman assumes the care of the Reid children.

Fitzgerald creates a collage which, like a series of surprising and revealing photographs, captures Russia on the cusp of the October Revolution. This is Russia, earthly and spiritual, troubled and flawed, despairing and seething with bottled hurt. This will not be an ordinary spring.

As soon as I finished The Beginning of Spring I knew that Fitzgerald’s mastery was something to study and to cherish. She reminded me that in a novel, like in a poem, each sentence must carry its share of the larger meaning — not through generalizations, but through the ultimate art of choosing the right detail.

This is what attracted me to Fitzgerald’s world: her urgency, and her keen and observant eye. As an immigrant writer trying to lose myself in history, these became my most precious and trusted tools.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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