In the introduction to his book of essays on literary fiction, Through the Window, Julian Barnes sums up the value of the novel:
Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.
The subject of his first essay, the English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in the year 2000 at the age of 83, was one of the novel’s greatest practitioners. I had only vaguely heard of Penelope Fitzgerald as the 1979 Booker Prize winner for Offshore, one of a series of novels she wrote when she was in her 60s about events in her own life, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading her. It wasn’t until I read Barnes’ essay on her work that I started to read her later books and was astonished by her brilliance.
Fitzgerald started writing novels in her 60s, but it was the four historical novels published in her 70s, culminating in her final novel The Blue Flower, published when she was 80, which established her standing as among the greatest of English novelists. There are heaps of online reviews you can look up, but I can tell you The Blue Flower is a slight book that’s as intellectually challenging and daring as any I’ve read.
If you haven’t yet discovered her work, Julian Barnes’ essay stands out as the best reason to seek it out. As well as evoking the books, Barnes offers a warm and compassionate reading of the author herself, an understanding that beneath the slight scattiness and ordinariness of her person, Penelope Fitzgerald was a truly great writer:
Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life she liberated herself into greatness.