In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her - that is Dolly, Ben and Annushka. Annushka (or Annie) was two and three-quarters and likely to be an even greater nuisance than the others. However Dunyasha, the nurse who looked after the children at 22 Lipka Street, did not go with them.
This is the perfect opening of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, written with her usual talent for sparse, meticulous prose. Hers are slim volumes that, by their very perfection, put wordier efforts to shame.
In March 1913, Frank Reid's wife abruptly leaves him and Moscow for her native England. The children, wonderfully self reliant and precocious, only make it a couple of rain stops before being delivered back into the hands of the Moscow station master and from there to their bemused father.
Both The Beginning of Spring (shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize) and Ha Jin’s Waiting (winner of the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction) explore the nature of long term relationships, the bizarreness of how one ends up in them and the sheer bafflement of men when called upon to understand the female species.
Ha Jin’s Waiting begins: Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. Together they had appeared at the courthouse in Wujia Town many times, but she had always changed her mind at the last moment when the judge asked if she would accept a divorce. Year after year they went to Wujia Town and came back with the same marriage license issued to them by the county’s registry office twenty years before.
Both books, written in precise, unpretentious prose, have a gentle comic element as well as a hint of sadness at what is left unsaid between the sexes.
But where they are both supremely powerful is in their historical setting. Neither Fitzgerald nor Lin make a single political speech or even direct reference to the tumultuous world which is the backdrop to their stories. And yet, politics ooze through the domestic settings and with the merest sleight of pen, we are absorbed into pre- revolutionary Russia and post-Mao China.
In The Beginning of Spring, Englishman Frank Reid is running a print -works in thriving, cosmopolitan, early twentieth century Moscow. Fitzgerald’s meticulous research into the tiniest details of daily life in the Russian capital in 1913 is extraordinary and whispers of the upheaval and instability which are brewing echo through the story of the Reids’ family life.
Lin Kong and his girlfriend Manna play out their romance at the tail end of the worst atrocities of Mao’s cultural revolution. The author, Ha Jin, spent six years in the People’s Liberation Army before leaving China for the United States in 1985. In his story, Kong is an army doctor and Manna a nurse. Back in his home village waits the wife that Kong’s family chose for him and who, to his eternal shame, has bound feet. Manna waits for Kong to divorce her. Politics intrude only in as much as they are relevant to our ordinary, not hugely political, protagonists’ lives and yet we are always aware of the arid communist puritanism which governs their eternal courtship.
Minor characters - Kong's wife, brother in law and the gossiping hospital nurses are deftly drawn and in Fitzgerald’s novel, the Reids’ accountant Selwyn Crane, Tolstoy devotee, self published poet and irrepressible do-gooder is simply a masterpiece.
These two tragi-comic tales dig deep into the human heart and explore what it is we want from love and, especially, marriage?