On June 14, 1940, four days after the fall of Paris to Hitler, the British public learned of the successful escape to London of General Georges Pinard, writes Penelope Fitzgerald in Human Voices, a novel about her job as an assistant at the wartime BBC. Pinard, "a romantic, a Dreyfusard, and a devotee of the airplane," was famous as the commander of the last counterattack against the German advance. When he offered to give a radio address, the BBC quickly accepted. Once behind the microphone, however, Pinard urged the British to surrender, thundering, "ne vous fâites pas aucune illusion, you have lost your war." But even as the show's producer frantically rang the Prime Minister for advice, he learned that the station was not broadcasting. Acting on a hunch, the Director of Programme Planning had quietly censored the speech before it even began.

Such close scrapes (Pinard is a fictitious character, but the anecdote is based on a real event) were routine in those turbulent years at the BBC, an employer Fitzgerald describes 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." First published in Britain in 1980, Human Voices is being released in the United States for the first time this month by Mariner Books. Curiously, the 82-year-old novelist, who resides in London, is not optimistic about its reception. "I was surprised they brought that one out," she says. "It must be strange for American readers."

Delightful is more like it. The publication of the novel finally makes available stateside the fourth volume of Fitzgerald's unofficial quartet of memoirs, whose other installments are Offshore and The Bookshop, both recently reissued by Mariner, and At Freddie's, forthcoming in September. While the other three novels chronicle episodes from Fitzgerald's middle age, Human Voices offers American readers a glimpse of what the writer may have been like as a very young woman, new to work and love, enamored of one of her BBC superiors even as the London blitzkrieg raged outside.

In person, that young woman lingers mainly in Fitzgerald's mischievous half-smile. Otherwise, the two-time recipient of the Booker Prize (most recently for 1995's The Blue Flower, which received the NBCC fiction prize when it was published in the U.S. in 1997) looks very much the grandmother of nine that she is. With wavy gray hair and ruddy cheeks, wearing a crimson skirt and loose wool sweater patterned in rows of marching pheasants, Fitzgerald serenely fields questions from a red sofa midway between her writing desk and neatly made-up bed. The bags of pink knitting yarn tucked under the coffee table at her feet, and the fact that her two-room apartment is annexed to the Victorian home of her younger daughter, neurobiology professor Maria Lake, enhance the matronly air. Only her watchful, slightly guarded eyes hint that she possesses the strong-minded critical sensibility so evident in her writing.

In Fitzgerald's three biographies, one mystery and eight novels, she marries satiric wit with trenchant prose in a style reminiscent of George Eliot -- and, indeed, Fitzgerald's current writing project is an introduction to a forthcoming edition of Middlemarch. Unlike Eliot, however, her deepest allegiance is not to any elevating moral philosophy but to the quixotic and the quirkily human. Her characters are always the most strongly drawn element of her books, tending to be individual to the point of eccentricity and as vulnerable as they are independent-minded.

With the same perversity that allows her to blithely predict failure for a new publication, she claims that the hero of Human Voices is one Dr. Vogel, a peripheral figure, also based on a real person, who plays no role in the plot. A BBC acoustical expert and German refugee, Dr. Vogel is obsessed with capturing the perfect recording. "He's so devoted, he d sn't even notice the war," explains Fitzgerald of Vogel. "He d sn't notice anything that is at an advantage to himself-he is only devoted to sound itself."

Given to Understatement

Fitzgerald's intellectually accomplished and highly individual family background explains much of her idiosyncratic outlook. Both of her grandfathers were Anglican bishops. Her father, E. V. Knox, a journalist who became the editor of Punch, was the eldest, member of a quartet of remarkable brothers. There was Dillwyn, a cryptographer and Oxford classics professor who helped crack German code in both world wars; Wilfred, an Anglican priest and writer; and Ronald, a Roman Catholic apologist. "It was a very brilliant family, and they were given to understatement, which is where I got it from," says Fitzgerald by way of explaining her elliptical prose. "They felt that people ought to understand them without them saying anything. They did write a lot, though."

Fitzgerald was born in 1916, in Lincoln, though the family moved to London when her father took the helm of Punch. Her only sibling was her older brother, Rawle, who later became a distinguished war correspondent. Fitzgerald is nonchalant about her earliest forays into literature: "I think all children write, up to a certain age -- I certainly did. And perhaps we wrote more because there was less media." At one point, she collaborated with Rawle on a magazine, noting that "you weren't really entertained so much as children, just put in the playroom and asked to get on with it."

Fitzgerald won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied literature with J.R.R. Tolkien. She graduated with honors in 1938, but her ambitions for a graduate degree were postponed in view of the country's wartime needs. Instead, she moved to London, where she worked at the Ministry of Food, "a kind of hastily got-together administration to administer rationing." In 1939 she took a job at Broadcasting House, the London quarters of wartime BBC, as a recorded program assistant.

At 25 she was married, to an Irish soldier she had met at a party ("Wartime's a great time for parties"). In the late 1950s, with three young children, the couple lived in a converted oyster warehouse in Southwold, on the east coast of England, where Fitzgerald took a job in a bookshop. Later, in the 1960s, the family moved to London, where the only lodgings they could afford were a barge anchored on the Thames that twice sank under them. There, Fitzgerald worked full-time as a teacher: "We were only allowed to use the lavatory on a falling tide. It was terribly difficult to get respectable enough to go into work." After two years on the houseboat, the family rented a flat. "It seemed rather odd to come back to dry land," she recalls. In the early 1970s, her husband, who worked in the travel business, died of cancer.

Fitzgerald is notoriously reticent about her married life, noting only that "while we had our difficulties, we never actually separated." Nonetheless, it was her husband who inspired her first attempt at fiction, 1977's The Golden Child, a mystery novel that was written to entertain her husband during his final illness. "My impression is that men -- husbands -- only read mysteries, and nonfiction, biographies. They don't read novels, not really -- and it did amuse him," she says.

Her search for a publisher followed an equally unorthodox route: "I looked through the Writer's Yearbook and I found somebody who didn't take crime [Duckworth publisher Colin Haycraft] -- and sent it to him, because I thought he wouldn't have seen very much of it. I had heard horror stories of people going to publishing houses where there were tables groaning with manuscripts. But I was lucky, and he took it." Perhaps tongue in cheek, Fitzgerald blames her penchant for brevity (most of her books are less than 200 pages long) on an early Duckworth editor, who truncated her manuscripts to fit within the company's page specifications.

Fitzgerald's first foray into the mystery genre proved to be her last. "The publisher told me I'd have to write six, with the same detective -- so they could make a row on the bookshelf -- and I was appalled," she remembers. "I had found it rather hard to make it all come together with all the clues. So I wrote about my own experience -- I think that's what most people do." The result was The Bookshop, her 1978 novel about a small bookshop on England's east coast that is forced to close after arousing the antagonism of the local arts patron.

Fitzgerald won her first Booker Prize for 1979's Offshore, a love story set amidst the motley but warm-hearted community of a group of barge-dwellers on the Thames. (Regarding the strongly autobiographical setting, Fitzgerald notes dryly, "I didn't say as much as I really could have said about the rats.")

For Offshore, Fitzgerald had switched to Collins as her publisher, "because I had a friend [Richard Ollard] who was an editor there." With Ollard she published Human Voices and 1982's At Freddie's, an account of teaching at a theatrical school. Stuart Proffitt, whom Fitzgerald praises as "wonderfully energetic," succeeded Ollard, and edited her through The Blue Flower, her Booker Prize-winning account of the love affair between the 18th-century German Romantic p t Novalis and a 12-year-old burgher's daughter.

In the United States, Fitzgerald has been published previously by Scribner, Holt and David Godine to what she describes as little fanfare. She notes that the Mariner reissues, edited by Chris Carduff and Janet Silver, have been received "as if they had come out for the first time," and pronounces herself "thrilled" at the NBCC prize. Mariner will reprint Offshore, The Bookshop and The Blue Flower as a boxed set in September. Fitzgerald has never been represented by an agent, saying that "They're obviously very good to have, but I feel they just make an added complication." While she has yet to embark on a promotional tour in the States, she says that letters from American readers help her feel connected to her audience here.

London Calling

American fans drawn to Human Voices for its autobiographical element will also find it compelling as a historical document. While the story sketches out the complex dynamic between its female protagonist and her two superiors, the novel is really a valentine to the wartime BBC, the only source of information to England -- and most of free Europe -- for almost six years.

Fitzgerald is profoundly respectful of the radio station's accomplishments during the war. Even as bombs were blitzing London nightly, the station continued its 24-hour broadcasts. She would later find out that her brother, a POW captured in Singapore, listened to the BBC throughout the war on a homemade radio. When street conditions got too perilous, the staff bivouacked in an auditorium. "The BBC rightly felt that they had to keep people's spirits up, and tell the truth as far as they could, and it was a lot to do -- and meanwhile you have these very human, fallible people actually doing it," she says.

The fragility of the BBC that Fitzgerald describes is suggestive of the fragility of the creative endeavor generally, perhaps particularly for women of a certain generation. Fitzgerald reports having no regular work "routine" to speak of. "I don't think women ever do -- they call us kitchen-table writers," she says. "Women always have to let the cat in, or something."

Not that she's complaining: "I hate writing, actually -- I think a lot of people do. You just welcome any interruption that comes." Despite the tartness of her statement, her eyes are twinkling, and she has a half-serious, half-amused air. As usual with Fitzgerald, she is finding the comic in the difficult -- and inviting her audience to share in the laugh.

Charters is a frequent contribut to PW.