Penelope Gilliatt Essay - Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 2)

Penelope Ann Douglass Conner

Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 2)

Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–

English novelist, playwright, short story writer, and film and drama critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Penelope Gilliatt's characters dwell in the kind of soul-destroying English insularity that refers to the Virgin Mary as the B.V.M. In these nine stories … the oppressive plainness of middle-aged women in heavy shoes and cardigans, the dumpy agonies of uncommunicative men, and the terrible diffidence produced by boarding-school education vie with mad, mod England—and mostly lose….

These people live in the mind. If there is a sameness about their situations, there are rich variations and a wealth of cogent comment we have not seen since Jean Stafford's first stories came out.

Marian Engel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, p. 33.

Penelope Gilliatt is becoming something of a literary treasure. Her movie criticism for The New Yorker is consistently intelligent and stylish, her screenplay for Sunday, Bloody Sunday has been acclaimed as one of the best in years. Now she's published a new collection of short stories (there has been one other, as well as two novels), and they are as fine, literate, and fresh as any being written today….

Miss Gilliatt is a transatlantic writer: Her time is literally divided between London and New York, and her fiction pretty much shares this division. Her characters, by virtue of their intelligence and sophistication, seem equally at home anywhere—the modern urban world has melted into a sameness they take with them wherever they go…. [They] are involved in neither failure nor fashionable rage, and they are alienated only insofar as their intelligence makes them alert to absurdity and disappointment. They are concerned, above all, with coping and, as a result, virtually adopt irony as a lifestyle. Even when they take postures, they are self-conscious about them. In Miss Gilliatt's hands this irony is fine-edged, rich, and funny—a species of literary humor rare in contemporary writing. And though her style is often intentionally oblique, it is not superficial. The writing seems to float above its subject, then focus on a situation like a high-intensity beam. She is a master of the revealing detail, the overheard snatch of restaurant conversation. Of course, all this runs the risk of mere cleverness, but there is much more—an intuitive feel for the density of relationships, the almost impossible confusion and variety of life. "I'll leap into my life," one character thinks, "if it splits my face into bits." Miss Gilliatt takes up such bits and makes them all a little clearer.

This is the kind of fine collection whose last page is turned with the hope that there will be more.

Joseph Kanon, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 9, 1972; used with permission), September 9, 1972, p. 73.

Penelope Gilliatt has been for some time very well known on both sides of the Atlantic as a film critic, and this year earned universal fame as the author of the script of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"—a script which was voted best of the year by the New York Film Critics's Circle. She has written two novels—[One by One and A State of Change]—which seem to me to be of great originality and whose peculiar flavor is recalled, like a rarely consumed but classic dish, in this [Nobody's Business], her second volume of stories.

She is intelligent, economical, poignant, highly contemporary. She is also innovative. One of the remarkable features of [A State of Change] was to shunt plot-elements to a perfunctory margin and allow the characters to play word-games. In other words, no subordination of the surface of daily life to the engines of "significance." No manipulation. Not even, or so it would seem, any cunning. But in fact the concentration is astonishing.

Anthony Burgess, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972, pp. 4, 36.

Gilliatt's second collection of stories [Nobody's Business] (all published previously in the New Yorker, for which she is a film reviewer) is full of good ideas and characterization. All her characters have something to say and say it very well. In particular the women come off as real contenders—but for all that, victims of the stresses and absurdities of modern times. The dialogue is lively and pointed and oddly rhetorical. While her people seem to need each other, they have the strangest air of preoccupation; distinctly dotty and self-absorbed, they seem to share in some kind of mutually affectionate inattention. And since no one is really getting through to anyone else (except in the most haphazard way), everyone is really dangerously alone and, very often, breaking down (the small non-violent breakdown being a commonplace of everyday life).

Gilliatt's contempt for the ultimate "straight man" seems to know no limit. Life is absurd, after all, and one ought to laugh as much as one can. Analysis, clinical or otherwise, offends her—in the sense, I think, that it seems to trivialize man's emotional ingenuity and astonishing durability.

All in all, Miss Gilliatt's collection is intelligent, original, funny and quite touching. Her intentions are modest and her talent considerable.

Julia Whedon, "Fictions, Afflictions," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 1, 1972, p. 6.

In terms of sheer output, Penelope Gilliatt, New Yorker Magazine film critic and authoress of the award-winning screenplay for the movie "Sunday, Bloody Sunday,"… has determined a creative pace for herself which might put many another writer under the table. Her most recent release, Nobody's Business, a collection of eight short stories and one play, composed in a period of 18 months between 1969 and 1971, reasserts, to whomever may have forgotten, that its author is an accomplished fiction writer comfortable in three distinct genres of writing.

Miss Gilliatt writes a great deal about persons, particularly older ones between the ages of 40 and 50, who "very much have a past"—whose previous actions and feelings were hearty and which still resound in their lives. Her writing, like herself, is tart, economical, and intelligent. Just as the dramatic tension in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" arises from each character's prior personal history, so are the characters' affairs in Nobody's Business activated by their inheritances. As readers, however, we are not permitted a progressive account of the evolution of those ongoing subterranean pasts. Instead, we are spectators to involvements formed in invisible pasts, to conversations already three-quarters finished, situations interrupted, of endings not yet complete, and are expected with confidence to comprehend the ellipses….

Miss Gilliatt's auditory sense is highly developed and disciplinary. She dreams in dialogue, and finds herself speaking her stories as she writes to make certain the dialogue settles well in speech. Her concentration not on plot apparatus but on the language with which people reveal and express themselves, especially to their intimates, produces a kind of fiction interchangeable with film for its audience. Emergent in Miss Gilliatt's fiction is her delight in acting….

Nobody's Business is a fine antidote for the uncomfortable experience of feeling cowed by a writer whose unrelenting prejudices force both his characters and his readers to heel under his command. With sympathy and without judgements, Miss Gilliatt precisely displays contemporary wits adapting to life's pulsations within a particularly modern setting. In her confined imaginative context, with her consciously limited gear, Miss Gilliatt can be howlingly funny. In a prose style that is both nervy and deft, she articulates and makes humorous such grave contemporary liabilities as the casualness of disloyalty, the troubling sense of loss, the frequent invasion of privacy, and the lack of control over events…. One longs, occasionally, while reading this collection, for further dimensions, less limited circumstance, and lusher opportunities. And so one flees to works more broad in scope than Nobody's Business.

Gwen Kinkead, in Harvard Advocate, Winter, 1973, pp. 83-4.