By Andy Mitchell
I’m often asked who my favorite writers are. Hemming and hawing, invariably I feel as though I’ve failed to think of obvious ones, blurting out the first few names that come to mind in the moment. I might happen to mention Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I guess it comes down to associations. And, while each of these is in fact a bona fide favorite of mine, they only touch the surface. But for now I’ll elaborate on them.
The first Penelope is the only one among them still living. At 82, Lively recently published Dancing Fish and Ammonites, a memoir of aging. She started out writing for children. A Stitch in Time is a classic of children’s literature, as is the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger a classic for adults. But from her vast oeuvre City of the Mind is my desert island pick. Her subtle, penetrating insights are a perfect match for her artful prose. While the city in question is also my favorite, London, the mind, as in all of her work, is Lively’s true terrain, her richest setting.
My other Penelope didn’t begin her writing career until later in life. Like Lively, Fitzgerald was British. Having grown-up in a literary milieu, her own star shone after years of all-too-real-life experience made for the perfect brew. The Book Shop and Offshore, two of her most well-known novels, are each fictional flowerings seeded in fact, watered by a fertile imagination. She worked in a bookstore; she lived on a houseboat. And she lived to tell the tale, albeit slant. As another favorite of mine, Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.”
As for that other Fitzgerald, he needs no introduction. While you may not be familiar with my beloved English Penelopes, if you haven’t heard of good old F. Scott or, at the very least, his great American novel, The Great Gatsby, well then, come out from under that rock of yours and head straight for Our Town Books. Let yourself get swept away by the sublime narrative of Nick Carraway. Pull up a chair next to our hearth and you’ll be transported to Nick’s porch, where you’ll hear the siren songs of the Jazz Age calling you from the epic parties next door at the Gatsby estate out on Long Island, where the self-made king of his castle hides away in a remote turret, pining for his own siren (Daisy Buchanan) over the water, ever out of reach, the only one his money can’t seem to buy. A beautiful song to an empty pot at the end of one American Dream, Gatsby is a must read. And a favorite of mine.
Still, I’d be remiss to leave out Mr. Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. If Gatsby is a song of misspent tossing and turning, Tender is the Night is a tragic hymn to expat wealth. But being remiss is what this game of naming favorites is all about. There are simply too many to name in one conversation, or in this case, one newspaper article. Fortunately I have more articles to write, more conversations to have with you. Thanks for letting me bend your ear for a while. Until next time…”we beat on, boats against the current…”