From the Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Offshore’, ‘The Blue Flower’ and ‘Innocence’, this is a funny, touching, authentic story of life at Broadcasting House during the Blitz.
The human voices of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel are those of the BBC in the first years of the World War II, the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes, the whole building became a target for enemy bombers, and in the BBC – as elsewhere – some had to fail and some had to die.
It does not pretend to be an accurate history of Broadcasting House in those years, but ‘one is left with the sensation’, as William Boyd said, reviewing it in the ‘London Magazine’, ‘that this is what it was really like.’
Praise for Penelope Fitzgerald and ‘Human Voices’:
‘Of all the novelists of the last quarter-century, she has the most unarguable claim on greatness. [It has been] a career we, as readers, can only count ourselves lucky to have lived through.’ Philip Hensher, Spectator
‘One of the pleasures of reading Penelope Fitzgerald is the unpredictability of her intelligence, which never loses its quality, but springs constant surprises, and if you make the mistake of reading her fast because she is so readable, you will miss some of the best jokes. This is a very funny novel.’ The Times
‘Comic, and sometimes extraordinarily sad.’ A.S. Byatt, TLS
About the author
Penelope Fitzgerald was the author of nine novels, three of which – The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels – were shortlisted for the Booker. She won the prize in 1979 for Offshore. A superb biographer and critic, she was also the author of lives of the artist Burne-Jones, the poet Charlotte Mew and The Knox Brothers, a study of her remarkable family.
She died in 2000.
Now that Fitzgerald has widened her audience here--Blue Flower was published to rave reviews and the 1997 NBCC fiction award--Houghton Mifflin is releasing her early novels in paperback. This gracefully controlled and neatly inlaid chronicle of Britain during WWII, published in England in 1980, reflects the author's wartime experiences with the BBC. The beleaguered broadcasters she portrays have chosen truth over consolation; nevertheless they must try to keep their listeners and themselves from despair as the threat of a German invasion mounts and parachute bombs pit the streets. Yet Sam Brooks, RPD (Recorded Programmes Director), lives in a fantasy world of wax discs and nubile women. When he is not trying desperately to capture the sounds of England (spending hundreds of hours and pounds recording the creak of a country church door), Brooks is crying on the shoulder of one or another of his RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants), whose "firmness, and roundness, and readiness to be pleased" give him strength. His seraglio comprises Vi Simmons, cheery, practical, with a man at sea who means to marry her; part-French, pregnant, Lise Bernard, abandoned by her beau; Della, tarty, velvet-voiced, bound for defection to the drama department; and the latecomer, Annie Asra, whose uncompromising candor and fragile susceptibility to emotion reverberates as the real voice of Fitzgerald's book. Annie's fate is to fall in love with Brooks, whom she sees clearly as "a middle-aged man who said the same thing to all the girls" and who is, above all, self-centered, obsessed with his work and oblivious to what goes on around him. Fitzgerald conveys the peculiar intimacy and secrecy of wartime: people disappear from this strange little world very easily and almost without comment, yet, besieged as they are by the fear that England will soon go the way of occupied France, they cling to each other fiercely. Hopelessness is in the air, but, as the BBC employees stay up all night on the late shift, so are strains of Debussy, blunt confessions, murmured condolences and the wails of a baby born in the makeshift bunk room. Fitzgerald's clipped, unsentimental and yet sympathetic irony perfectly describes the moment when the British stiff upper lip begins to tremble in the face of overwhelming historical and emotional events.