Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald
I’ve long had a vague desire to live on a boat. As a child I went on canal boat holidays with my father’s side of the family. I remember chugging gently down English waterways, visiting tiny villages, sunshine and calm water. I don’t know if that’s what it was actually like of course. Memories of childhood holidays aren’t particularly reliable, mine are hazy snapshots at best. That’s what it was like now though, whether it’s what it was like that then or not.
There’s something profoundly romantic about the idea of living on a boat, either that or something desperate. It’s a choice of those two because you either want to do it because despite the inconvenience and impracticality the idea just plain appeals, or you have to do it because you can’t afford an alternative.
Fitzgerald did live on a boat for a while. She writes from knowledge, and it shows. This is a short novel, around 180 pages, and not a lot happens. It’s a portrait in miniature of people living not quite ashore, people who’ve drifted out of the mainstream, fragile people.
The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.
It’s 1961, the sixties before they became the sixties. Nenna lives on a houseboat off Chelsea with her two young children, barely getting by. Her marriage has broken down, though perhaps not irretrievably, but for now at least she’s isolated and vulnerable, torn with self-recriminations and an internal narrative that mercilessly interrogates her own failings.
That sounds bleak, but it isn’t because for all she’s on the margins she’s not alone. Her neighbours on the river include Richard, retired ex-Navy and leader of their little community who lives with his exasperated traditionally middle class wife who just wants a nice house in the country; Maurice, a rent boy who’s also Nenna’s closest friend; Willis, an artist in his 60s specialising in maritime portraits that have gone distinctly out of fashion; there are others. The exact members of the community ebb and flow, but what they have in common is that none of them quite fit the larger and brasher world onshore. As Maurice says to Nenna:
You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’ He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.
There’s barely a plot. Willis wants to sell his boat, but it’s in terrible condition and if he’s to succeed he’ll need some help from the others covering up how bad it is, which is a fairly big ask. Nenna wants to get her husband back, to bring him to live on the boat with her, but he’s a deeply conventional man who blames her for the failure of their marriage (as does she in her low moments). Maurice is being forced by a local gangster to store stolen goods on his boat, putting him at risk of arrest if he complies and violence if he doesn’t. Any of those situations could be spun out into a rich and rewarding story if an author wanted to, but that’s not what Fitzgerald’s about here. Instead her interest is in the people themselves, their situations are products of their characters.
In his brilliant foreword Alan Hollinghurst describes Offshore as “tragi-farce”, and I can’t better that. It’s a sad novel in many ways, with gentle people being bruised by a world that isn’t really made with them in mind, but it’s written with a warmth and humour that makes it often very funny. It opens with a meeting of the various boatowners, each addressed by the name of their boat (Richard, or Lord Jim I should say since that’s his boat, is a stickler for doing things the right way). There’s the Dreadnought, the Rochester, the Grace, and there’s the Maurice which used to be called the Dondeschipolschuygen IV until Maurice, realising that’s what everyone would have to call him, promptly changed its name.
It’s funny too because it’s so well observed, and because by and large people are funny, life is funny, despite (perhaps because) it’s often so terribly serious. Here Willis, the artist, takes Nenna’s children on a trip to the Tate:
Once at the Tate, they usually had time only to look at the sea and river pieces, the Turners and the Whistlers. Willis praised these with the mingled pride and humility of an inheritor, however distant. To Tilda, however, the fine pictures were only extensions of her life on board. It struck her as odd, for example, that Turner, if he spent so much time on Chelsea Reach, shouldn’t have known that a seagull always alights on the highest point. Well aware that she was in a public place, she tried to modify her voice; only then Willis didn’t always hear, and she had to try again a good deal louder. ‘Did Whistler do that one?’ The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back.
The children are perhaps the least realistic part of the novel (though in fairness I don’t think the novel is aiming for strict realism, it knows it’s fiction). Martha is eleven, “small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings”. She’s all too aware that her own maturity has already eclipsed her parents, and unlike her mother she sees “no need for fictions”. Tilda is six, a child of the river who sits far up on her mother’s boat’s mast daydreaming. “Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.”
Neither Martha nor Tilda attend school. It doesn’t seem to matter, both are spectacularly precocious, the only real adults in the book. In Martha’s case you could make a fair argument that children of parents who’re struggling to cope often are forced to mature ahead of time, but that’s I think missing the point. The children are a contrast to the adults, Martha engaging with the world and Tilda creating her own. They’re coping, succeeding even, which is more than anyone else is managing to do. It’s when they grow up that all that might change.
What shone for me here is Fitzgerald’s empathy and quiet precision. She can capture a character in a sentence, like when Nenna’s husband accuses her of having lost his squash rackets:
‘You mislaid them deliberately?’
‘I don’t do anything deliberately.’
Or when Richard is described as “the kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning.” She doesn’t judge her characters, doesn’t turn them into playthings for our amusement as say Nabokov does. This is a book filled with compassion, with characters who care for each other where almost nobody else cares for them, and written by an author who at times seems almost as if she’d like to reach into her own book to help them. Take this example, where Nenna finally meets up with her husband but they fall back into a terrible row:
And now the quarrel was under its own impetus, and once again a trial seemed to be in progress, with both of them as accusers, but both figuring also as investigators of the lowest description, wretched hirelings, turning over the stones to find where the filth lay buried. The squash racquets, the Pope’s pronouncements, whose fault it had been their first night together, an afternoon really, but not much good in either case, the squash racquets again, the money spent on Grace. And the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known, indeed bore almost no resemblance to it, and there was no-one to tell them this.
Offshore is a quiet book, unshowy. Its charms are small ones, delicate moments of observation or humour. It was published in 1979, long after the period it describes, so the characters live not just in a physical hinterland but a temporal one too, offshore in time as well as space. It’s a time when Britain is starting to change, when austerity is making way for a new prosperity. The certainties that men like Richard lived by are on their way out, but by 1979 it must have been plain that the world that came next was no kinder to those who didn’t quite fit.
I’ve already bought another Fitzgerald, her The Bookshop. I’m looking forward to it. Offshore isn’t the kind of novel I typically like, it’s a bit polite, arguably a bit Hampstead, but it’s well written and as ever in the end that’s what counts. It reminds me a bit of Anita Brookner, another novelist who could be described as perhaps too polite, too Hampstead, but again an author who could definitely write.
Given it won the Booker it’s not surprising that Offshore has been fairly widely reviewed. Here‘s themookseandthegripes on it, with a good discussion in the comments (I note Guy Savage didn’t take to it so much); here‘s Kimbofo on it, good as ever; and here‘s a typically good piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian on his Booker blog which I highly recommend reading for some background on the novel’s apparently rather conroversial Booker win. Finally, here‘s an excerpt of Alan Hollinghurst’s blisteringly good foreword as published in The Telegraph.