by Penelope Fitzgerald

Every now and then, I am arrested, in the course of reading, by a sharp sliver of poetry. My mind refuses to go on until every shred of meaning and delight has been tasted. This recently happened in a re-reading of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, a novel that compares, in its blend of smiles and foolishness, only with Fitzgerald’s earlier novel (about the BBC in wartime), Human Voices. A young woman — this is in Florence in 1956 — is confronted with the problem of an absent lover. He is in fact finishing some family business before marrying her. This has taken him to a remote village in the South, where there is only one telephone. She can’t bear hanging around waiting for him to call, so she makes a quick trip to London, where she has a good friend, having been educated at a convent school (the girl is a countess), and where she is quite out of her fiancé’s reach.

The telephone, with its power of idiot silence, had become her enemy. (p 189)

The sentence includes a beautiful instance of strong poetic diction slipped gracefully into prose. “[I]ts power of idiot silence” has a Miltonian grandeur that, while at odds with the everyday nature of the problem, captures quite beautifully the misery of being subject to that power. It is the horrible power to just sit there, doing nothing, and it is more horrible because it must be made to take the brunt of the victim’s dissatisfaction, which could be easily relieved by a thoughtful call from the the right person, with whom, however, our young lady cannot really be angry, because she is very much in love with him. Much better to denounce the telephone as an idiot. A measure of this idiocy is the chance that the phone might actually ring, but with a call from someone else, worse than silence because it will block the lover’s call should he make one. And she cannot, of course, carry the phone around with her — not in 1955, when, for that matter, nothing like “call waiting” was envisioned except by visionaries. Now, of course, there are new horrors, and idiotic ones, but the power of idiot silence remains. Fitzgerald’s phrase captures the way lovers helplessly make mountains out of molehills, so that the failure to receive a banal phone call — hi, it’s hot here, we didn’t get much done, what did you do? — assumes a tragic intensity that is also comic because it is so out of proportion to our normal feelings about phone calls. It is love, of course, that invests the telephone with the power of idiot silence.

The young woman, Chiara Ridolfi, meets Dr Salvatore Rossi at the interval of a May concert that begins with a violin sonata by Brahms. When Chiara responds to Salvatore’s question about the sonata — did she enjoy it? No — Salvatore is gobsmacked, because no one ever agrees with him. Ergo, he must be in love, and this he finds irritating. He finds it irritating throughout the entire novel, right up to the last page, but irritation does nothing to mute his ardor. One might argue, with only a token perversity, that Salvatore’s irritation not only attracts but magnetizes Chiara.

Whatever it is that draws her to him, other than love at first sight, her privacy is guarded by Fitzgerald. The novel begins with her father setting out to arrange for the nuptials to take place at a family farm in the country. There is also a nearly ruined villa, La Ricordanza, but Chiara, feeling that Salvatore might be uncomfortable in its faded grandiosity. The meeting at the concert is presented several chapters later, but at no point do we witness their private betrothal. Fitzgerald writes as though the lovers had no choice in the matter.

This almost operatic fatalism suits their mismatch. She, the Florentine aristocrat with a distant American mother; he the son of the South, his father not a peasant but a worker who idolized and even met, with his young son in tow, the hospitalized Gramsci. It is unclear that Salvatore shares his father’s politics, but Gramsci gleams as a saint in the doctor’s mental firmament. He does not inspire the doctor in any noticeable way, although perhaps Salvatore’s irritation is a local expression of Gramsci’s global impatience. What I mean to say here is that there is nothing in Salvatore’s past that he can bring to the present in Florence. As for Chiara, she is not quite eighteen years old (Salvatore is thirty), and correspondingly certain that her love for Salvatore is the only matter of any importance. “Chiara Ridolfi was a beauty,” Fitzgerald writes by way of introduction, “but not thought beautiful in Florence.” No. it is the neurologist from Mazzata who is struck. But of course. There does not appear to be a town or even a village in Italy called “Mazzata,” but the word connotes a heavy, possibly lethal, blow.

In fact, Innocence might be characterized by its sense of offstage violence. Sometimes, as in classical drama, we’re told all about what happened. More often, we’re not; we have to form our suppositions from the slight evidence given, all the time aware that it is not very important to know anything very precisely. I am strongly reminded of the exhilarating scene in the now-famous screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, in which the heroine tries to conduct a respectable conversation with her new boyfriend and his mother while her ex-husband and her music teacher are loudly engaged in fisticuffs in the next room. The novel itself ends with the same reckless elan that concludes that escapade. Cary Grant rushing past temporarily dumbfounded spectators gives way in my mind to Salvatore, barely moments before relieved of a shotgun, buzzing off on his Vespa.