To Air Is Divine

Having come late to fiction -- she was past 60 when her first novel appeared -- Penelope Fitzgerald has made up for lost time. Three of her nine books were shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize, which she won in 1979 for Offshore. Her novel The Blue Flower, based on the life of the German poet Novalis, nabbed the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Awards are one thing; talent's another, and Fitzgerald has it in spades. Warm and wry, her writing is as economical as it is perfect. It's always a pleasure to see a new book under her name, even if, like Human Voices (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner, $12), that book was first published in Britain in 1980.

Taking its title from the last line of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" -- `til human voices wake us and we drown" -- the novel follows the eccentric crew of Broadcasting House, the BBC's London headquarters, a place where patriotic uplift meets unshakable purpose: "Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is, telling the truth. . . . An idea so unfamiliar was bound to upset many of the other authorities, but they had got used to it little by little, and the listeners had always expected it."

Fitzgerald worked for the BBC during World War II, which partly explains the lovely vividness of the characters: the young RPAs (Recorded Programming Assistants), mostly young women, charged with keeping track of the recordings wanted for each broadcast; their RPD (Recorded Programming Director), Sam, a genius at engineering but hopeless when it comes to everything else. The higher-ups don't approve of Sam's "Seraglio" of RPAs, as he tells his sardonic, unflappable friend, Jeff Haggard, the DPP (short for Director of Programme Planning -- this book is rich in acronymic absurdity): "Jeff, they want to surround me with old women. You know, there's a good deal of sagging on the late night shift, just when hopefulness is needed, and firmness, and roundness, and readiness to be pleased, and so on."

Once the Blitz begins and everybody starts bunking overnight at Broadcasting House, anything goes -- even an unlikely love affair between an RPA and a higher acronym -- as long as Sam's minions can find the right sound cues: "Vi was now looking for Churchill's Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide with the faint-hearted help of Lise. It was possible that Lise might turn out to be hopeless. They had given up For Transmission and were looking in what was admittedly the wrong place, among the Processed, whose labels . . . offered First Day of War: Air-Raid Siren, False Alarm: Cheerful Voices with Chink of Tea-Cups: Polish Refugees in Scotland, National Singing, No Translation. `You won't find anything in that lot,' said Della, brassily stalking through, `that's all Atmosphere.' "

Bleak House

In Human Voices, real bombs threaten the BBC and its personnel; the weapons used in Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (Norton, $12) are mostly verbal. First published in 1970, the novel keeps a tight focus on one weekend in the life of Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a pair of affluent, childless, 40ish New Yorkers who have ridden a wave of gentrification to Brooklyn. There, in a renovated brownstone, they surround themselves with the trappings of the good life, including "the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets."

As the novel opens, they're dining on risotto Milanese and (for an earthy touch) chicken livers. Sophie puts milk out for a stray cat; Otto chides her. She reaches down to stroke the animal, and the scene that follows perfectly condenses the tension that's about to crack open the Bentwoods' perfectly contained life: "The cat's back rose convulsively to press against her hand. She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto's presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat . . . as the sweat broke out on her forehead, as her flesh crawled and tightened, she said, `No, no, stop that!' to the cat, as though it had done no more than beg for food, and in the midst of her pain and dismay she was astonished to hear how cool her voice was."

The bite's not the only thing Sophie conceals from Otto. The unfolding marital crisis, passive-aggressive and largely subterranean, is echoed by Otto's rift with his law partner, Charlie, and by the neighborhood tensions between the gentry and those they are displacing. This deceptively slim novel has many fans, including David Foster Wallace, who called it a "landmark of postwar Realism," Andrea Barrett and Jonathan Franzen, who contributes an introduction.

White Lightning

Paula Fox sticks the sharp cold needle of realism into the tender flesh of human relations; in Black No More (Modern Library, $12.95), George S. Schuyler uses a broader instrument -- sci-fi-alloyed satire -- to get at what interests him. Take the novel's dedication: "to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family trees." Ouch.

Published in 1931 -- Schuyler was on the scene during the Harlem Renaissance and later made a name as a journalist -- Black No More kicks off on New Year's Eve 1933. Max Disher, "tall, dapper and smooth coffee-brown," stands outside the Honky Tonk Club. "He wore his hat rakishly and faultless evening clothes underneath his raccoon coat. He was young, he wasn't broke, but he was damnably blue" -- he's just broken up with his girlfriend, Minnie.

Inside, a strawberry-blonde honey catches his eye; he asks her to dance and she spurns him. The next morning's headlines promise to end all his race-based troubles: "NEGRO ANNOUNCES REMARKABLE DISCOVERY: Can Change Black to White in Three Days." Max jumps at it: "It looked as though science was to succeed where the Civil War had failed . . . Why not be the first Negro to try it out? Sure, it was taking a chance, but think of getting white in three days! No more jim crow. No more insults. As a white man he could go anywhere, be anything he wanted to be, do most anything he wanted to do, be a free man at last."

The process is painful but effective; Max emerges "clean-shaven, spry, blonde and jubilant" to face the world with "the open-sesame of a pork-colored skin!" Restyled as Matthew Fisher, he can now dance with, even marry the blonde, or run for president of a white supremacist group -- which he does. By the novel's end, the black-no-more process has spawned a new prejudice, this time against the lightest rather than the darkest. "It became the fashion for [the rich] to spend hours at the seashore basking naked in the sunshine and then to dash back, heavily bronzed, to their homes, and, preening themselves in their dusty skins, lord it over their paler, and thus less fortunate associates. Beauty shops began to sell face powders named Poudre Negre, Poudre le Egyptienne and L'Afrique."

Black No More takes a bite out of the black community too, caricaturing W.E.B. DuBois, Hugh Garvey and Booker T. Washington "as opportunists and philanderers with a proclivity toward yellow women," Ishmael Reed notes in his introduction. After a long period of neglect, Reed says, it's time to rediscover "what might be the most scathing fiction about race written by an American."

The Devil You Know

Two other authors are enjoying reissues this season: Ireland's John Banville and Britain's Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Banville's novels Mefisto (Godine, $13.95) and The Newton Letter (Godine, $10.95) have just been republished in nice editions: Mefisto restages the Faust legend in modern-day dress, while in The Newton Letter, a historian plumbing Isaac Newton's 1693 mental crisis finds he's drawn instead into the affairs of the family whose cottage he has rented.

Counterpoint has put out a good-looking set of Jhabvala's books, including Heat and Dust and In Search of Love and Beauty (both $14). The first, published in 1983 and already a classic, presents India through the eyes of two Englishwomen: Olivia, who in the 1920s leaves her husband for an Indian prince, and her granddaughter, drawn to India by Olivia's life there. The second takes up the story of three generations of New York women connected by family ties and a dubious Svengali named Leo. Everything old is new again.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.