"Human Voices"

A superb English novelist re-creates life during wartime at the BBC.

Published May 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Recently, the BBC -- known in Britain as "Auntie" because of its reputation as an upright, and uptight, authority figure -- came under criticism by the Blair government for its reporting on Kosovo, which was thought to be over-critical of NATO. Auntie's new recalcitrance marked an interesting distance from its famous heroism during the Second World War, when its radio news broadcasts were a crucial morale-boosting fixture.

Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderfully subtle comic novel "Human Voices" (just out in the States but originally published in the U.K. in 1988) records life behind the scenes at the wartime BBC. With an acuity that comes from her own work there, Fitzgerald describes the corporation as "a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from." In the busy corridors of Broadcasting House, where "the air seemed alive with urgency and worry," the perfectionism of obsessive sound engineers comes up against the improvisations that war-depleted resources necessitate, producing humorous tensions, occasional tantrums and a quietly noble, distinctively British solidarity.

The novel opens with Lise Bernard, one of the young Recorded Program Assistants, whose job is in large part to tend the temperamental director. Both Lise and her friend Vi are often thinking of their soldier boyfriends when not bantering with their co-workers, girl-mad Teddy and idealistic Willie. Lise, who can't get on with the director, is eventually replaced by the late-appearing Annie, a stalwart 17-year-old who finds her employer rather more engaging -- so much so that she falls for him.

As always, Fitzgerald is a master of the detail. She delights in reproducing the complex code world of initialed departments; the two main bosses, who have an intricate interdependency, are generally referred to as RPD (the Recorded Program Director) and DPP (the Director of Program Planning). Fitzgerald has a keen memory of the sense of deprivation -- of street light on a London night walk, of the sweet taste of unobtainable oranges. (An American broadcaster brings some to the RPAs as a gift.) She vividly describes the ways buildings were transformed to accommodate new situations: A concert hall is converted to a coed dormitory for those working late shifts, a place where "newcomers clambered and felt about in search of an empty corner, swarming across the others like late returns to a graveyard before cockcrow."

Fitzgerald is one of the finest living English writers, and readers acquainted only with her prize-winning historical novel of Germany, "The Blue Flower," will relish encountering her on her home territory. Her beautifully economic fictions are always alive with meticulous, surprising phrases, whether she's conveying the expectant dread in England in 1940, when invasion seemed imminent, or writing about something more pragmatic, such as workers carrying on "with the exalted remorselessness characteristic of anyone who starts moving furniture." She includes comic episodes that reveal the occasional tensions that arose between the dutiful BBC and the wartime government. But the aim of this artful novel is above all to record the noble work and restless play of those whose admirable goal was "scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe."

By Sylvia Brownrigg

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of a novel, "The Metaphysical Touch," and of a short-story collection, "Ten Women Who Shook the World," that will be published later this year.She is a frequent contributor to Salon Books.

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