Reading as a writer: ‘Offshore’

Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer, Creative Writing

As creative writing academics, we constantly remind students about the importance of ‘reading as a writer’, and in my own reading I sometimes wonder to what extent this should be a conscious process, and to what extent something that I try to sublimate, reading as a reader, enjoying the book in a naïve way on first reading at least. In an ideal world, I would read everything twice, but as we know, this world is not ideal. Therefore, the way I consume books is a compromise, shifting between immersive engagement with the narrative and awareness of the techniques the author is using. As with the business of writing, novel reading is protracted, sometimes disrupted, sometimes seeming like a professional duty.

So looking back on my reading in 2018, what stands out? The novel which made the greatest impression on me was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which won the Man Booker prize in 1979. The narrative focuses on a group of misfit Londoners, on the posh side of classless, who live in a row of semi-derelict boats on the Thames during the 1960s. None of them quite know what they are doing, or are entirely honest with themselves, and their compromises and misdemeanours drift with the ebb and flow of the river.

It’s hard to identify a protagonist, or a clear narrative through-line. But chaotic Nenna James comes closest to being its heroine, and her haphazard, wilfully disordered life presumably reflects that of Penelope Fitzgerald herself, who lived on a houseboat with her children after her first marriage collapsed. The point of view shifts among numerous characters including Maurice, a romantic and part-time rent boy, elderly marine painter Willis and Richard, an ex-naval man now working in insurance. All live half-way lives, at the edge of both land and water.

Nenna is incapable of doing anything practical, even a trip to Stoke Newington on public transport seems to faze her. Her visit ends in near disaster, shoeless in a rainstorm, pursued by a lecherous stranger. Yet at the same time, she is resilient and stoical, her expectations of life heroically low. In contrast, her young daughters Martha and Tilda are bizarrely precocious and competent, managing their bohemian lives with pragmatic ingenuity.

What I love about the book is its wry, strange humour, and Fitzgerald’s evocation of a lost London, not the place that we would associate with the Swinging Sixties, but more like the city that Dickens would have recognised. This metropolis is a post-war ruin not yet obliterated by developers, the river still a thoroughfare as it has been since Roman times. Fitzgerald evokes the inner lives of all these drifting, dreaming characters with intense precision as their stories unfold on the leaking vessels that the river will soon reclaim.

So what did I take from this book that will inform my writing? Initially, I was resistant to the way in which the point of view shifts are handled, with the narrative spinning around so much that I felt disorientated. But the effect builds over time, so that some scenes are focused intensely in the point of view of one character, and others achieve a choral effect. I also realised, by the time I finished the novel, that this kaleidoscopic perspective is consistent with the subject matter. The characters’ moods, desires and allegiances are in constant flux, just as the Thames is never still. Any piece of writing must similarly find its own shape, and the narrative mode should emerge organically from the material. And yet there is always the temptation to force a work of fiction into an already familiar format, to make it recognisable.

In addition, this book informs my knowledge of writing as an occupation, as this was a notoriously controversial Booker winner. The judges (Asa Briggs, Benny Green, Michael Ratcliffe, Hilary Spurling and Paul Theroux) failed to make a unanimous decision, unable to agree on whether William Golding should win with Darkness Visible or V.S Naipaul with A Bend in the River and so they gave the prize to Offshore which was ‘everyone’s second choice’, according to Spurling in a Guardian review of Fitzgerald’s collected letters. Spurling writes: ‘The presenter of the BBC’s book programme told her angrily that he’d been promised she would lose. Drunken reporters upbraided her for making them rewrite copy citing the favourite… according to her editor, the misery of this episode and its repercussions haunted her ever afterwards.’

What interests me here is the arbitrary nature of literary awards, and the way that they have increasingly become a measure of esteem and status. There is no reason to suppose that Offshore was inferior to the two books that caused the dispute between the judges, but Fitzgerald was made to feel that winning the Booker was a compromised achievement, that not being ‘the favourite’ meant that she was a writer of lesser quality.

Reading her novel today, it flashes with brilliance and strange insights. I’m inspired by her quiet eccentricity and her determination to pare her work down, creating something elliptical and magical in the midst of the chatter and turmoil of the book industry. The noise seems even louder now, so quiet eccentricity is even more important.

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9 Responses to Reading as a writer: ‘Offshore’

  1. Dennis Walder says:

    I very much enjoyed your account of this novel, the more so because Penelope Fitzgerald’s quirky, apparently mundane style is so easily undervalued and her achievement overlooked. As you point out, she has had to suffer humiliation at the hands of the usual suspects. The best book I have come across on your topic here is Francine Prose’s aptly-named Reading Like A Writer, which is full of insights and close analyses of passages from some of her favourite authors.

    • Many thanks for this Dennis! I am in fact planning to review the Francine Prose book in a future post, as this is such an important and interesting subject. I’m hoping to post my review in the next month or so.

  2. A beautifully written article, a fine analysis of what makes Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing so interesting and such a worthwhile read and an extraordinarily helpful reminder that our writing, however we do it, must be our own way of doing it to achieve its potential. Thank you Sally.

  3. Robert Fraser says:

    I agreed with much of this lively post, especially when it addressed the fraught question of literary prizes. In honesty, though, one should point out one or two slips. You write about Fitzgerald living on a houseboat “after her first marriage collapsed.” But Fitzgerald was married just once, and her long and faithful union to Desmond Fitzgerald lasted for thirty-five years. It was only brought to an end in 1976 by his death, long after the sinking of their boat. She remained loyal to him in spite of his professional disgrace and his exclusion from the legal profession for the misdemeanor of passing dud cheques, and the subsequent years of dire poverty during which he eked out a meagre living working for a travel agency, and they lived for much of the time in a spartan council flat. Penelope held the family together; not for nothing was she a bishop’s granddaughter, and the niece of two eminent priests

    The problem here arose, I suspect from the habitual literary biographer’s folly of reading the life through the work. Though their superficial circumstances seem similar, Penelope’s personality was nothing like Nenna’s; chaotic she was not. All of this is evident from Hermione Lee’s 2013 biography of Fitzgerald which nowhere muddies life and work. Neither do Fitzgerald’s own biographical studies of Edward Burne-Jones, the Knox brothers (her four uncles), and Charlotte Mew and her circle.

    But you are right in your admiration of “Offshore”. It was a brave decision by that perspicacious jury to allot it the Booker Prize, though it’s not her best book. That honour must surely go “Human Voices” of 1980 (which draws on Fitzgerald’s wartime experience working for the BBC, but again steers well clear of personal identification with any of its impressionable women characters), or to her later novels, where she looks further afield. Of these my favourites are “Innocence” of 1986, set in 1950s Florence, or – even more more impressively – “The Beginning of Spring” of 1988, set in Russia on the eve of the First World War. Her gift for comedy is also abundantly evident in “Gate of Angels” of 1990, set in an hilariously caricatured Cambridge. Her own favourite was her last,”The Blue Flower”, about the life of Novalis. But everything she wrote possessed this integrity and grace. What a woman, and what a writer.

  4. Many thanks Robert! Yes, I agree that my comment about her first marriage collapsing was inaccurate, as you say, there was only one marriage and they didn’t separate. But the Fitzgeralds’ marriage had reached a terminal condition when they lived on the houseboat, as James Wood’s ‘New Yorker’ review of Hermione Lee’s biography points out: ‘The Fitzgeralds returned to London but could afford to do so, it appears, only by renting that Thames houseboat…Penelope slept in the living room, on a daybed. (She and Desmond never slept together again.)’
    And as well as the obvious factual basis for ‘Offshore’ – that Fitzgerald lived on a houseboat on the Thames which sank, and all the boats in the novel are in a parlous state – I think she did see herself in Nenna (or vice versa) to some degree. Hilary Spurling certainly seems to be suggesting this in the review of her collected letters I quote in the post, commenting: ‘Her ability to snatch humiliation from success was second nature (‘My whole life is spent apologising to someone or other, I’m afraid’), a form of propitiation going back perhaps to childhood… Fitzgerald liked projecting herself as scorned by all, including the cat. ‘While I’m fiddling about trying to find my keys he stands on his hind legs and puts his paw on the keyhole in case I don’t know where that is.’” Spurling points out that this is itself a construct, given that Fitzgerald was clearly formidably intelligent. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald portrays herself as sharing something of Nenna’s ineptitude.
    I was stunned by ‘The Blue Flower’ and it completely redefined historical fiction for me when I read it. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, particularly in the light of your recommendations.

  5. Robert Fraser says:

    Thanks, Sally. And, actually, I made a slip of my own in describing “The Knox Brothers” as being about her four uncles, when what I meant was her father and three uncles. But this all interests me because I have just been asked by the Knox family to write a full biography of one of those uncles: Dillwyn or “Dilly” Knox (1884-1943), classical scholar, papyrologist and cryptographer. Bit of a challenge, actually. Perhaps I’ll come and talk to you all about it some time.

    Incidentally, if any of you would like to hear me in conversation with Emma Darwin, who used to be one of our ALs, we are both on at Goldsmith’s Writers’ Centre, London on March 6th, chaired by Blake Morrison. Emma is talking about her new book “This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin” and I’ll be discussing my recent memoir “Pascal’s Tears, Or How Not To Murder One’s Wife.” More details forthcoming if you like, or else access the Goldsmith’s website at See you soon.

  6. Jane Yeh says:

    Re the Booker controversy, which I knew nothing about before this (so thank you Sally!), it seems typical that the 2 top choices were by men considered ‘great novelists’ — imo the fact that Fitzgerald isn’t generally considered a major British novelist and doesn’t have a huge international reputation in the Anglophone world has much to do with sexism and the type of novels (almost always written by men) and subject matter that gets deemed ‘serious’ and ‘important’.

    On a side note, *Human Voices* is my favourite Fitzgerald novel as well.

  7. Shafquat Towheed says:

    Thanks for this, Sally – a very informative and interesting read. I don’t know ‘Offshore’ and so shall it add it to my list of books to read. I’ve just finished ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns, as it happens – a very different kind of Booker winner!

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