Human Voices

by Penelope Fitzgerald

Paperback, 1999




Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.


-- Human Voices �Made me laugh out loud as I have hardly done since -- New Criterion.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nocto
I was actually looking for Offshore, Fitzgerald's Booker Prize winning book, but came across this one in the second hand bookshop instead. I'm glad I did, I'll definitely be looking out for more of her books.
This story is based at BBC Broadcasting House in the Second World War (a situation I think
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the author had first hand knowledge of). It's quite odd in some ways, full of acronyms that aren't always explained, and populated with characters who may or may not stay for the course of the book. I found it totally charming to read though. And very funny in places to boot.
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LibraryThing member TurboBookSnob
Human Voices is yet another exceptional component in Penelope Fitzgerald's body of work. She writes novels that are perfect gems, clear, bright, and sparkling with inner truth and beauty. For this novel, she draws on her experiences working for the BBC during World War II. In it, she focuses on a
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strange group of BBC broadcasters and their struggles to make sense of it all while trying to eke out a bit of personal happiness behind the scenes. She is the master at telling these small, humourous, and expertly well-crafted vignettes.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Set amidst the arcane workings of the BBC at its Broadcasting House headquarters in central London during the darkest days of WWII, Human Voices follows the passions and whimsy of senior staff and junior staff as they struggle to make themselves heard in a world turned on its edge. Fitzgerald’s
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BBC emerges from her direct experience at the time, but even thirty or sixty years after the events depicted, much of the aura of the BBC remains. The Corporation, as it is sometimes called, is like a hulking vessel being manoeuvred by minuscule human tugboats. Yet somehow, as Fitzgerald makes clear, it really is individuals, real live human beings who make this beloved institution function. And perhaps that is why so many of us are committed to it despite its faults.

At times the writing is brilliantly funny. At times it is incredibly atmospheric, almost as chaotic as the myriad of storylines and interests racing through the city at that time. But it is the characters, or rather the characters with Character that make this story come to life. Fitzgerald abjures caricature. The characters, however peculiar they might appear, are entirely recognisable British figures. That she can make us care for them is a remarkable testament to her skill. And while the madcap nature of some of the events links this novel back to her first hilarious effort with The Golden Child, the studied intelligence of the presentation of an entire complex, even byzantine, structure points towards Fitzgerald’s late great novels.

Pleasantly recommended.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I loved the ingredients of this story - Penelope Fitzgerald's style and wit, the glimpse into the past of both London during the Second World War and the BBC, the character vignettes - but unfortunately the novel as a whole failed to come together for me. Two ridiculous men, whose job titles are a
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jumble of letters, and the underlings who serve them at Broadcasting House (beautifully described as looking like an ocean liner with the wrong kind of windows) navigate a range of national and personal obstacles ('We're only really at home in the middle of total disaster'). Other than that, I'm not sure there is a plot, and the final twist in the tale is just pointlessly cruel. However, I will not be put off reading more of Penelope Fitzgerald's stories because of this non-starter.
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Human voices is apparently based on the author's own war-time experiences working at Broadcasting House for the BBC Radio. Unfortunately, the novella is largely, merely descriptive, describing a rather boring set of people who are mostly not very interesting. A very tisesome and boring read.
LibraryThing member hansel714
Human Voices tells a story of the going-ons in BBC during World War II. The war is tragic, yes, but Fitzgerald takes on a comic narration. What else is there left when we can only laugh at our pain? There are many beautiful lines in this book like "Annie fell in love with RPD absolutely and hers
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must have been the last generation to fall in love without hope in such an unproductive way" (96) and "The BBC is doing gits bit. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The opposite could also be true! We are told that German pilots have been brought down in Croydon and turned out to know the way to the post-office, that Hitler has declared that he only needs three fine days to defeat Great Britain, and that there is an excellent blackberry crop and therefore it is our patriotic duty to make jam. But all this need not have been true, Annie! If the summer had not been fine, there might have been no blackberries" (102). Despite the beautiful prose like poetry, most people dislike the book because they don't get her but even if you do, I have to admit Fitzgerald's brilliance shines through but not always.
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LibraryThing member benjaminjudge
The word Fitzgerald can be used to split the reading public. There are those who think F. Scott was the best Fitzgerald and those who know Penelope was. It's all just opinion I suppose; but I will say if you don't prefer Penelope you are clearly in the wrong.

It is almost pointless to review Human
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Voices. The prose is as close to perfect as is possible. It is in parts genuinely, that most over-used of cliches, 'laugh out loud funny'. What really makes it special is that it is not just what is said that is funny but how it is said. The conversation about filing cabinets being a case in point.

I don't need to review it...
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LibraryThing member tandah
This is a really unusual little book. Takes a chapter or two to get into the groove of the gentle and clever humour. Whilst its wildly different in themes to another of her books (Blue Flower); there is a similar approach to the treatment of characters ... you don't really get to know them, beyond
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their contribution at specific events.
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LibraryThing member eglinton
Fitzgerald’s trademark well-written prose: measured, concise, lucid, and a little arch. The BBC, in its hulking Portland Place bulwark, takes on the challenges of War. Not yet 2 decades old, in 1940, it is already permeated with institutional habits and precepts, venerating its “Old
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Servants”, tolerating their inefficiencies and egos, quirks and fetishes, promoting them out of harm’s way. Admirably and surprisingly, for the author, it develops and maintains an unshakable self-belief in the ethos of chronicling and disseminating the world as it truly is. Young and callow folk, perhaps like Fitzgerald herself who worked at the BBC during the war years, interact with the Old Servants and the Blitz, the military and defence services: the ordeal of war is also opportunity, a coming of age in their work and personal lives.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
During the 1980s, Penelope Fitzgerald became a (or should that be ‘an’?) habituée of the Booker Prize shortlist, after having won with her third novel, Offshore, in 1979. She was, however, rather a late starter when it came to novels, waiting until nearly the age of sixty before publishing her
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first book. She had, however, had a long literary career, editing the magazine World Review along with her husband during the 1950s, and through it being responsible for the initial publication of several significant works, including J D Salinger’s collection For Esme, With Love and Squalor. Prior to that, she had worked for the BBC during the Second World War.

This novel draws upon her wartime experiences at Broadcasting House, which she portrays in a loving, though far from hagiographical, way. In this novel, set in 1940, just after Churchill’s accession to Downing Street, truth was paramount, and the Beeb strove to render as impartial an account as possible of the progress of the war. Of course, for the overwhelming majority of the country, the BBC meant radio in those days, television being very much a minority interest.

While its campaign to retain independence from governmental influence was being maintained, it was also riven by internal strife, between the Department for Recorded Programmes and the Directorate of Programme Planning, responsible for live broadcasts. Sam Brooks, the head of the former, is a dreamer, forever seeking to capture the essence of Englishness through recordings of everyday activity (perhaps not too dissimilar from the segments of ‘Slow Radio’ that have become so integral to Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sunday mornings), while his live broadcast counterpart, Jeffery Haggard, is eager to have every news bulletin, and any political speeches, delivered live across the air.

Fitzgerald indulges in some gentle and entertaining satire, such as when the ageing French General Pinard, having freshly escaped from the German Occupation back home, is invited to address the country. His speech goes off at a wholly unexpected tangent before he succumbs, almost fortuitously, to what proves to be a fatal coughing fit.

It is, however, principally a novel about individuals, and their relationships, and Fitzgerald deftly captures the friendships, interdependencies and petty jealousies of people from different backgrounds forced to work together in often uncomfortable proximity. Reflecting its time, all of the women fulfil sadly subservient roles within the BBC, although they emerge as by far the stronger characters. How different might the story have been if there had been a Carrie Gracie on hand to galvanise their spirits.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
"Human Voices" isn't a long book, and it's not a particularly difficult read. Still, I read it twice before writing this review. It is, much like its setting -- the BBC's Broadcast House during the Second World War -- an oddly self-contained and emotionally restrained novel. It's also a good one,
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and I'm a little surprised that less than five hundred readers have it in their libraries. Its concerns range from the BBC's arcane bureaucratic structure during this period -- which seems to have been dictated as much by tradition as much as by organizational charts -- to the nature of love and friendship. Fitzgerald uses her characters here to ask what it means to love somebody whose particulars you despise. And it's beautifully written. As is startling common in Fitzgerald's novels, there are sections that last just a few pages but describe her characters so perfectly you might as well have read an entire novel about their experiences. Her writing is, as usual, rich, dense, and marvelously accurate. More specifically, her description of how one of her characters, a certain Annie, grew up with her father, a piano tuner, and made her way to the BBC is particularly good, the sort of thing you could use as an example of what really good writing is.

But mostly, "Human Voices" is about the importance of telling the truth, which, according to the author, who worked at the BBC during this period, the Beeb committed it to doing, as much as it could. And it's also about getting the job done: this book makes you understand how aware Britons were during the Second World War of how precarious their survival was, and how doing any job took an enormous amount of mental fortitude. It's a good description of what George Orwell called "writing inside the whale," working under conditions so dangerous as to be unimaginable, yet still managing, somehow, carry on. There are some lighthearted bits in "Human Voices," but most of it is, understandably, suffused with dread. Weeks seem to last months, and months years. Characters float in and out of the story, die suddenly, and undergo huge life changes in just a few paragraphs. "Human Voices" characters know that they are living in momentous times, and, by and large, act accordingly. Many of them have flaws, but, by the time I finished this one for the second time, I had found a lot to admire about just about all of them. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member sarahlh
My first read by Penelope Fitzgerald. I found her story of wartime BBC behind the scenes surprisingly poignant and very well-written. Annie's character was utterly fascinating in an understated way that intrigued me with every scene she was in. The ending just about broke my heart. I'm looking
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forward to reading more of Fitzgerald's works now.
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