Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Bostridge_11_13Mark Bostridge at Literary Review:

Television coverage of the Booker Prize has rarely been distinguished or insightful. In fact, more often than not, it's been marked by embarrassing behaviour of some kind or other by a gauche, misinformed presenter or a tired and emotional agent or publisher. Nonetheless, the TV presentation of 1979's proceedings must rate as an all-time low. That year a heavyweight win for V S Naipaul'sA Bend in the River had been widely predicted, but in the event the prize was awarded to Penelope Fitzgerald for her third novel, Offshore.

The subsequent discussion on the Book Programme was, as Hermione Lee says in her life of Fitzgerald, 'breathtakingly condescending', as the interviewer, Robert Robinson, together with his assorted guests, competed to pour scorn on the winner as she sat in the studio alongside them, looking like she'd been hit hard over the head. Full of self-congratulatory candour, Susan Hill launched in at the start by admitting that although it was an appalling thing to say – and she stressed that she didn't want 'to discomfort' Fitzgerald – she wouldn't have chosen her book as the winner. Off air, as Fitzgerald later wrote to the novelist Francis King, Robinson was in a bad temper and complaining to his producer, 'who are these people, you promised me they were going to be the losers.'

By that time, in her early sixties, Penelope Fitzgerald was long accustomed to humiliation and, far worse, to catastrophe.

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