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The Means of Escape

by Penelope Fitzgerald, (Houghton Mifflin, 117 pp., $18)

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The late English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald is Iris Murdoch without the imposing gravitas. She's A.S. Byatt with a human face. She's Muriel Spark without the bite. Her spark is definitely much worse than her bite.

She began to write at the age of 60. She wrote 10 novels, three books of nonfiction, and the eight stories collected here, in what will likely, and sadly, be her one posthumous volume. These eight stories occupy 117 pages. You do the math. They are marvels of compression. Each one is a dense little novel in miniature, in which happiness and sadness perform the same quick little pas de deux they so often do in life, whirling like madly dignified dervishes, until you can no longer tell them apart.

Fitzgerald loves unexpected collisions and displaced effects. She is less fond of the causes of those effects because, her work tells us, once you assume causes are supposed to have direct effects, then you're trapped. In The Gate of Angels, perhaps her greatest novel, an Oxford don on his bike runs down a townie. They're not meant for each other; they fall in love. It's not expected, but remarkably tentative, and so convincingly beautiful.

Fitzgerald's techniques, in truth, are really closer to the art of the short story than to that of the novel: coincidence, economy, impacted but tender whimsy, quickness of climax, deferral of meaning. Her typical unmooring of cause from effect works even better in these stories, technically, than in her novels. In the title story, a convict takes refuge in a church and happens to meet the pious but earthy organist. It is an unpromising meeting, and like that of the don and the townie, a perfect one. In "Desideratus," a poor boy meets a rich man and a sick son. The effects have causes we had not foreseen even though, being causes, they ostensibly came first. The novels of Fitzgerald are better than these stories, if at all, only because they're longer, and take up more of what every sentence of this wise, funny, sad, and now sadly posthumous writer shows she cherished: time.

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