Monday, August 13, 2007

Penelope Lively

It's time to catch up with a few books from the summer, all by the wonderful Penelope Lively, the English writer of novels for both children and adults and of memoir. Lively grew up in Cairo and then in England, and her adult novels have recurring themes and motifs which spring from her life. Her most famous novel is Moon Tiger, a Booker Prize winner. In it we experience the present and remembered life of Claudia Hampton, a historian and war correspondent, as she lies dying in a nursing home. As members of her family visit her, finding her sometimes alert and sometimes not, we enter into the mind of this passionate and brilliant woman as she recalls her life, and we also are given revealing glimpses of the thoughts of her misunderstood daughter and others near to her. As Claudia recalls her experiences in war-time North Africa, her brief and intense love affair with a soldier who died, and her subsequent life as wife, mother, and writer, we experience her life vividly and vicariously. Lively's prose is brilliant in its quiet way: sentences flow in artless variety, words are exactly right for their purpose. While not as elliptical as Michael Ondaatje's writing, Lively's novels are kin to his in their intelligence, excellent writing, and themes, especially the relationship of the individual to history and politics.
From Moon Tiger: She lies awake in the small hours. On the bedside table is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing,simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of the Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer.
Tom stirs. Claudia murmurs, 'Are you awake?' (1987)
I'd previously read Moon Tiger and this summer enjoyed an excellent recorded version, which carried me easily down a few hundred miles of interstate highway.
Lively's 1977 novel, The Road to Litchfield, shows that even three decades ago she was a writer with perfect pitch for language, both dialogue and narrative. Themes of the role of history in our present day life and of marriage are operative in this early work. In addition, the thoughts and voice of the protagonist's father, dying in a nursing home, foreshadows the character of Claudia Hampton: in both we experience the frustration of a person who is incapacitated and sometimes speechless but whose intelligence is as sharp and fervent as ever.
It's also a very funny novel. Here is Anne, who's been teaching history to adolescents, taking with the headmaster of the comprehensive school:
'Do sit,' he said. Look, I'd better come straight to the point, I think. As you've heard, we're making quite a few changes in the school. To be frank, I've had to take a new broom to the curriculum. It just didn't stand up to inspection in this day and age. Far too much dead wood.'
He sat on the edge of the desk, looking past her and out of the window..... 'The fact is,' he said, ' that History's one of the things I've had to rethink.... [there's] a most interesting piece of research which proves fairly conclusively that children under fifteen just aren't ready for a chronological approach to history. And yet here we are teaching them history as narrative, one thing after another.'
'That's what it is. One thing does happen after another.'
'Yes, but that's a very sophisticated concept, Anne. They simply aren't ready for it at the O-level stage.'
Anne said, 'I entirely disagree.'

Cleopatra's Sister, a recent Lively novel, also plays on the theme of the entanglement of the personal and the historico-political in its story of two independent people, both unmarried, who meet and fall in love when their plane is forced to land in "Calimbia," an imaginary but very convincing country on the north shore of Africa, and the travellers are held hostage by a mad dictator who wants Britain to release some political prisoners. It's a tense thriller, a cautionary tale for the western world, and a terrific love story to boot.

Lively's 1994 memoir Oleander, Jacaranda tells of her childhood in Cairo and provides background for many of the themes and motifs in her fiction, including her fiction for children (see especially The House in Norham Gardens). She writes as well of the difference between the child's perception of the world and the adult reality:
[the child Penelope is observing a preying mantis] No thought at all here, just observation -- the young child's ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation, It is also the Wordsworthian vision of the physical world: the splendour in the grass. And, especially, Virginia Woolf's creation of the child's-eye view. A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe -- but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation. (Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, HarperCollins, 1994)
A last note: My copy of Oleander... is the one with the dark cover, above. But the other cover, with the child jumping into the water, is so amazingly like that of this summer's other wonderful read: Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys. Curious and curiouser....

1 comment:

tango from the margin said...

dear Reading Life

i am a fan of Ms Lively myself, and partly for scholarly interest, partly for pleasure, i have read all her books so far. i was interested in somebody( yours for example) opinion on her latest novel Consequences. Any thoughts on that ?