Monday, December 5, 2011

A Panoply of Penelopes

What's in a name? Plenty, apparently, if it happens to be Penelope.

It may seem silly to judge a person by her first name, but if the appellation is Penelope one has good reason to pay attention. Especially if she's written a book. Be sure to crack it open and start reading with passion and pleasure. I've rarely encountered a Penelope who was not adept with a pen. Although, surprisingly, they are few and far between.

When I ran my bookstore, Brooks Books, a few years back in Tivoli, NY, I had a special section designed specifically for authors named Penelope. It was not necessarily one of the more popular spots. Few people even knew it existed. Most customers came in asking for certain authors by their last names. "You got any King?" I would hear ad nauseum. As if the only purpose of a bookstore was to provide readers with yet another outlet for another novel by that prolific prince of darkness. I could always tell those customers were only stopping in to get out of the rain or to find a place to park their kids for a few minutes while they went to the ATM, or bought a beer at the deli. They never purchased any books. And not because I didn't have any Stephen King. I had loads of Stephen King. But I didn't have a first edition of Carrie which is all these type of people long for. It's the white trash equivalent of finding a copy of Tamerlane by Edgar Allan Poe at a yard sale.

Then there were the clients who asked for the latest tome by David Sedaris. I have to admit I'd never heard of David Sedaris when I opened my shop. But after just a week, I knew every book the man had ever written. I had to explain to these prospective buyers that I ran an antiquarian bookshop and people did not part with their David Sedarises, no matter how much they were worth. They were simply too invaluable. Try the Beinecke Library at Yale, I'd say. I'm sure they have the collected works of David Sedaris, all signed, in "mint" condition, unread.

Same with Joyce Carol Oates. I can't tell you how many times people would lumber in and demand a copy of her latest output. I can't tell you because in the five years I actually ran a shop, not one person ever asked for a book by Joyce Carol Oates. And she wrote so many of them that one would have to open a separate wing just to house them all. And one would have to be open 24/7 to keep up with the publishing schedule.

Then there were the Sybille Bedford types. "Got anything other than Jigsaw?" they'd ask, with a puzzled expression, stepping gingerly out of the rain (it rained a lot even back then). "No," I'd say. "Not yet. I had A Compass Error last week, but it seems to be misplaced. Someone must have pilfered it." They'd wander over to the garden section and peruse an old Gertrude Jekyll book. I could always tell if they were serious connoisseurs of landscape literature if they pronounced her last name right. It rhymes with "fecal".

Occasionally someone would come in and mumble under his breath, as if entering an adult emporium, "Got any Updike?" I'd then show him to an entire wall of books that no one had even thumbed through. He'd shake his head, mutter to himself, look right and left, then say that he'd tried to read The Centaur, but just couldn't get into it. He'd usually leave with a copy of the local Chronogram, which was left in a pile for free by the door. Every now and then, I'd sell Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, but only if it still had a dust jacket and wasn't soiled.

On rare occasions, a customer would sail in -- usually a female pushing a baby carriage (very often without a baby in it) -- and inquire: "Do you have....the latest...Prose?" I knew who they meant -- Francine Prose, of course. She taught at Bard nearby and had quite a following. I kept her in a special section marked "Prose and Kahns" -- The latter being works by Alfred Kahn. But inevitably these Prosians would already have the book I had in stock and would curse loudly as they jammed the stroller in the French doors on their way out.

The one book I was guaranteed to sell every week was The Da Vinci Code. People would snarl and say they had heard it was crap, but they'd buy it anyway. Just so they had something in their hands to prove to their spouses or housemates that they hadn't wasted the entire day browsing through junk shops and used book stores.

I guess I took a kind of perverse pleasure in contriving a corner in my shop devoted to my favorite authors named Penelope. I have to admit, the idea didn't start off as being quite so specific. The notion grew out of one book in particular: The Bookshop. I don't know how I first came to read this little magnum opus. I think I was riffling through an old copy of the New York Times Magazine, or was it the Book Review? I stumbled across an article by Mira Stout on a fascinating British lady named Penelope Fitzgerald. I used to know Mira at Vanity Fair in the mid-80s, back when Tina Brown edited it and it still lay some claim to having snob appeal. Mira and I were fellow Contributing Reporters, although I think she got paid more. I read the piece primarily to find out more about what Mira was up to. We both got let go around the same time. She, I learned, was in London leading what appeared to be a teddibly civilized existence among the British cognoscenti. I was jealous. But all those feelings soon vanished as I read her wonderful essay. This Penelope Fitzgerald sounded like a writer I could sink my teeth into.

So the next time I found myself in a used bookstore (I frequented them all back then, when there were actually hundreds to choose from), I asked the owner if he had a copy of The Bookshop. He looked at me as if I'd asked him for the key to the bathroom. Bookstore owners hate giving out those keys. And now I know why. The first time I did it at my own store, when a customer came in and begged me to let him use the toilet, I had to open all the windows even though it was the dead of winter. There was frost on my Thackeray. But I guess I was lucky this time because the fellow did indeed have a copy of The Bookshop. It was only $40, he said. A First Edition. And it wasn't even signed! So I went home and ordered a paperback from Amazon.

What can I say about this extraordinary book other than it changed my life? First of all, Penelope Fitzgerald didn't write it until she was over 60. She'd hardly even been a writer up until then. Her first book in 1975 was a biography of Edward Burne-Jones. Then she penned a mystery in 1977, The Golden Child. It was a moderate success. The Bookshop came out a year later, and garnered raves. It's a wickedly funny -- some might say droll, but they'd be wrong -- account of her adventures opening a bookstore in Suffolk, in the countryside of England. Based on her own experience, the novel unfolds in a sure, steady stream of precise, subtle, penetrating prose. The tiny thumbnail sketches of local residents are as good as any caricature by Cruikshank or Hogarth. The plot twists and turns in unexpected ways, making the word unpredictable seem cliched. There's even a ghost to give it some color, although it hardly needs any more of that. I have rarely read a book that I found so immediately pleasurable. It's also a brilliant warning against anyone who has ever fantasized about opening his or her own bookshop. But it's a disguised warning. One is so enchanted by the concept that one overlooks the cautionary tale at its core.

The immediate effect is to inspire one to go out and do that very thing as soon as possible. Which I ended up doing. And wouldn't you know it? My experience owning a bookshop was almost identical to hers. The resistance from locals. The gossip swirling. The logistical nightmares and disasters (have you ever tried to get the smell of skunk out of a leather bound volume?) The lack of sales. The ingrates. She hit the nail right on the head. If only I'd taken her admonition seriously -- or never read the book at all -- I'd be a rich man today.

I've given The Bookshop as a gift to countless friends. And I sold so many copies at the store that I was constantly scouring eBay for cheap copies to line my shelves. I'm not sure others shared my enthusiasm. Penelope Fitzgerald is something of an acquired taste. But not long after Mira Stout's comely ode appeared, another article about Penelope popped up. This time in The New Yorker, or was it New York? Arthur Lubow wrote it. Another friend of mine, Arthur did a better job of telling the basic facts of this curious author's life. But some of the bloom had come off the rose, for me, that is, because by then she was established as a major writer. The darling of the literati. Everyone knew about her and some of the fun of being in the know evaporated.

That didn't stop me from reading her other books, No Means of Escape, Human Voices, The Gates of Angels, At Freddie's, and even The Knox Brothers, her toothy exegesis on her religiously-inclined forebears, a pride of literary lions. Each subsequent book of hers was unique. No two alike. To read The Blue Flower, about the German poet Novalis and his passion for a 12-year-old girl (and which won the National Book Critic's Award), right on the heels of The Bookshop is to wonder if Penelope Fitzgerald really existed at all or was she like Penelope Ashe (authoress of Naked Came the Stranger) a mishmash, a composite of writers, a scribe by committee?

How could one person write two so disarmingly different works of art? But there's no mistaking the mark of genius. Fitzgerald's use of language is completely her own no matter what the subject being surveyed. I particularly enjoyed Offshore, an autobiographical novel about a group of misfits living on house boats on the Thames. It's gripping without any trussed-up suspense, poignant without wry manipulation, haunting without any real horror. It's simply true-to-life.

Thus was born my Penelope obsession and shrine. I started off with as many of Fitzgerald's books as I could find. Then somehow -- perhaps by subconscious design -- I placed a copy of The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer, above, on the same shelf. I have to confess I hadn't read it. I'd seen the movie with Anne Bancroft that was based on it. I knew Mortimer's work from other films as well. Who can ever forget Bunny Lake Is Missing, which she wrote with her husband, John Mortimer, best known for his Rumpole of the Bailey series?

Penelope Mortimer is actually a very interesting figure. Born Penelope Fletcher, in 1919, she had a somewhat difficult childhood, attending seven schools in seven years. She married the Reuters journalist Charles Dimont when she was 19. Her first novel was published in 1947. Two years later she married a young barrister, aka John Mortimer. The Mortimers soon became the hub of the swinging London set. The Pumpkin Eater came out in 1962 and put her on the map. As Penelope Mortimer evolved, she moved more into film criticism and wrote screenplays, memoirs and a biography of the Queen Mother. She died in 1999.

It wasn't long before someone who worked in films commented on my growing Penelope shelf. She knew everyone in the business. We joked about other Penelopes. One named Cruz whom I learned was an actress. Another named Tree, a stunning model whom I recalled with relish from the 60s. This friend, who was an agent, had some good stories about her. And then there was Lady Penelope of Wangford, a stylish fashion plate, below, whose picture I found on the internet. We both agreed she was the quintessence of chic.

We wondered why there were so few famous Penelopes. It's not a common name. But it should be, considering the source, the premier Penelope, the one who started it all. The faithful wife of Odysseus. Patience personified. The lonely weaver who loomed so large in literature. Come to think of it, Margaret Atwood wrote an homage to her: The Penelopiad. And let's not forget the Natalie Wood film, Penelope, which is a cult classic, as are all movies with Natalie Wood in them. You can't help but be charmed by someone as cute as that particular Penelope.

As my interest grew, I found some striking similarities within my Penelopesian war chest. First off, one has to be a British subject to hold any sway as a noted Penelope. Why this is true is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is part of the indomitable Anglo soul; that stiff upper lip thing. Penelopes by their very nature are patient, strong, unbending. One doesn't think of them as sexpots, simply because of the quaint, almost melodic, resonance of their name. But invariably they have an innate feline appeal. Some like Penelope Neri write fashionably erotic historical romances such as Cherish the Night. Someone named Penelope Tremayne wrote Below The Tide, "the true story of a remarkably courageous woman." Penelope Sassoon wrote Penelope in Moscow, which sounds like a pleasant romp. Penelope Dyan penned mysteries, including Caution Tape. Others like the very beautiful Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward are secret agents. Although Lady Penelope only exists in the realm of the imagination. She won't be born until 2039.

It is almost de rigueur among Penelopes to be preternaturally versatile. Take for example Penelope Lively. I hadn't read much of her work, but she was much in demand. So I dug around and came up with a handful of her books. Not so much to my taste, but very popular with my customers. And for a bookstore owner, any author who moves off the shelves, is a favorite author.

She was born in Cairo in 1933, as Penelope Low. She read history at Oxford, then married Jack Lively in 1957. Her first book, in 1970, was Astercote, a work for children. Her other books in that genre include The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, and A Stitch in Time. Her best known work might be Moon Tiger for which she won the Booker Prize in 1987. And Consequences. Or The Photograph.

I'm more inclined to pick up her non-fiction efforts, including A House Unlocked and Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived about her upbringing in Egypt.

Quite similar in many regards is Penelope Gilliatt, left, who wrote the brilliant 1971 screenplay for Sunday Bloody Sunday. Born in England, she attended Bennington College in the States and became the film critic of The New Yorker. I had copies of her novels, A State of Change and One By One, plus her screenplay at home (with groovy pix from the flick). It had always been one of my favorite films, back when you couldn't open a book, magazine or turn on the TV without seeing Glenda Jackson. I brought all of Gilliatt's books in and added them to my growing, and soon to be groaning, Penelope shelf.

In time, people began to notice the section. Someone quipped that it was a "panoply of Penelopes." Emboldened, I sought out more. But other than Penelope Hobhouse, who is the queen of expensive gardening books, my cup ran dry. Aside from some lesser known, newish, authors: Penelope Holt and Farmer, there aren't too many Penelopes out there penning away. An exception is Penelope Rowlands, who has just written a chic biography of the great fashion editor, Carmel Snow -- A Dash of Daring. That's one I need to add to my list.

A quick glance at IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, has led to a mysterious Penelope G. Knapp, originally from Rochester, then Chicago, who wrote a novel which became the 1919 film, The Broken Butterfly, starring Pauline Starke. It looks like a real tear-jerker.

Alas, not a single copy exists on the web. I wonder if it's any good. I'd like to add it to my collection of books containing the word "Butterfly" in their titles. But that's another post.