Monday, March 31, 2014

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

Today I want to talk to you about an amazing writer who has been as important to me as any I can think of. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I’m going to be talking about her brand new book, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which she says “is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” Lively is now eighty years old, and judging from this not quite memoir, she is still going very strong indeed. Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, published in 1997, and she has written many other novels, collections of short stories, children’s books and scholarly essays. Her latest book, like all or almost all of her earlier work, is focused on memory and time.

Lively’s first intellectual interest was in archaeology, an interest she never lost. She read history at Oxford, married an academic, and has continued to read history, fiction, science, and pretty much whatever she could lay her hands on. She was born in Cairo in 1933 and remained there until she went to England on a troop ship in 1945. Perhaps because I, too, am at what Lively would call the portal of old age, I find her essays on aging and memory fascinating. A lot of the reading I have done lately by or about growing old has been quite depressing, focusing primarily on what is lost as we age. Lively is well aware of the diminishment that aging can (and inevitably will) bring, but she manages to focus on what is left rather than what is lost. She has certainly had her share of the infirmities that come with age.
[I] avoid, occasionally, I fear: that hazard light worn by the old—slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I am nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it. And report. 
We are many today, in the Western world: the new demographic. I want to look at the implications of that, at the condition, at how it has been perceived. And then at the compelling matter of memory—the vapor trail without which we are undone.
Lively sees herself primarily as a reader. Although she realizes that not all readers are, or become, writers. For her, reading became writing. This almost memoir would be worth reading to a devoted reader simply for the long list of books she mentions while describing her own journey as a reader. 

I decided long ago, near the beginning of my teaching career, that what I needed most (both for myself and for my students) was to read, and to do so in what Lively calls a “mostly undirected, unstructured reading.” Reading only philosophy and directing all my writing energy to writing esoteric journal articles seemed to me to short change both myself and my students. 
[I]…must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history, and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too—try her, try him, try that. 
Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind … The one entirely benign mind-altering drug … My point here is to do with the needs of old age; there is what you can’t do, there is what you no longer want to do, and there is what has become of central importance … I have reading.
In this little collection of essays on memory, gardening, writing, and history Lively takes her readers on a historical journey of the past eighty or so years: the Suez canal crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new wave of feminism.
For me, interest in the past segued into an interest in the operation of memory, which turned into subject matter for fiction. I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people….
And she certainly does just this. From the aging scholar heroine, Claudia, living out her last days in a nursing home in Moon Tiger, to a landscape archaeologist and a gardener in The Photograph to the World War II veteran who becomes an architect in City of the Mind and her earlier memoir of her own childhood in Cairo Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, Lively pursues her interest in the operations of memory. Her own scholarly research into psychological tracts on memory shows up in so much of her writing. As she has her characters say again and again in her stories, “it’s all happening at once,” as past, present and projected future fuse into one for the lived life of each person.

Many years ago, Moon Tiger was the first of her novels that I picked up. A brother and a sister at the sea shore fighting over an ammonite that both claim to have discovered launched me into her world of ruminating about time and memory. 
That is why history should be taught in school, to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time. 
It would be easy to write pages and pages simply of quotes from this remarkable little book. It is a testament to a reader’s life well lived. Hopefully, those who read it will be driven to read some of her novels, or simply to copy out the long list of books she mentions as part of her own vast reading past.
What we have read makes us what we are—quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience. 
I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts… 
My old-age fear is not being able to read—the worst deprivation. Or no longer having my books around me: the familiar, eclectic, explanatory assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think and to write.
Bravo and carry on.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Tribute to Anita Brookner

Instead of my usual practice of reviewing a particular book, this morning I want to talk about and pay tribute to an incredible and prolific author, Anita Brookner. I will mention a number of her novels, and will end by focusing briefly on her twenty-second book, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003. 

One of the first things that drew me to Brookner’s writing is her total command of the language; she is not embarrassed by her huge vocabulary. And though a meticulous user of the language, her prose is liquid and flowing. Quite by accident, the first novel I read of hers was Hotel du Lac, for which she won the Booker prize in 1984. The lead character in that book is ironically named Edith Hope. Brookner says that we are deceived by literature (and especially Victorian novels) into the belief that virtue is rewarded. In fact, she decides, good fortune is a gift from the gods, and the favor of the gods is granted not to the good but to the bold. In fact, very sympathetic to the French existentialists, she cannot bring herself to believe in any god, although in one of her very rare interviews, she said she wishes she could. Or, more accurately, she would like to believe in hope. Like William James, for whom god is really simply a name for the belief that the future can be better than the past, it is hope of deliverance from loneliness and death that she would like to believe in.

Like Edith Hope in Hotel du Lac, almost all of Brookner’s characters are intellectual middle class women who are (or become) isolated due to disappointments in love. But while her characters long for mates, for men who will take care of them, they relate mostly to other women and are dismissive of men who, other than providing respectability, are seen as immature, requiring constant physical as well as emotional care, and who are ultimately more-or-less in the way. Unmarried and childless herself, Brookner has said that she had no desire to be taken over by a man, and yet many of her heroines appear to be looking precisely for that. Edith, in Hotel du Lac, actually has two proposals of marriage, one from a good but hopelessly dull man, and the other from a selfish adventurer whom she just manages to turn away from at the end of the book. 

I find Brookner to be exceptional in her descriptions of the inner life. One commentator lauds her as a “brilliant forensic examiner of the inner life” an apt description of her powers of observation. Although she says of herself that she is not a feminist, and insists that she prefers the company of men, she seems to me to be a feminist in the deepest sense of the word. Her characters are usually career women, bright and independent even when they see themselves as seeking “normalcy”—a lasting marriage and children. Long before becoming a novelist, in 1967 Brookner became the first woman to hold the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge, a position she held until her retirement in 1988. She insists that teaching and scholarship were the really important activities in her life, and that writing novels was a simply a kind of dabbling, a “displacement activity.” In one of her last novels, Strangers, published in 2009, the protagonist is a seventy-three year old man who has unhappily retired from his banking job and is isolated and lonely, left finally to seek comfort from strangers. Brookner, herself, was eighty-one when she wrote Strangers, and says that like her protagonist she feared loneliness and, eventually, death among strangers. 

Not surprisingly, two of the authors Brookner most admires are Edith Wharton and Henry James, both masters at describing the interior life of the mind. Her female characters remind me of the strong but doomed characters in Wharton’s novels, women who at least think they want love, want a man, but who find themselves unable to shape themselves, truncate themselves, in the ways that seem necessary. But while Wharton’s characters seem heroic in their rejection of societal pressures, Brookner’s seem simply unhappy. 

Brookner was the only child of Polish Jews who emigrated to England. She says that she was brought up to take care of her parents who were transplanted and fragile people, unhappy and in need of protection. In an article in Paris Review, the interviewer, Susha Guppy, notes that all of Brookner’s heroines have a “displaced person” quality, and she asks if Brookner, herself, feels like that. Brookner answers that people see her as serious and depressed, and admits that she has never felt completely at home in England. Indeed, after quite rapidly reading up a half dozen of her novels, intoxicated by her insights and her superb writing, I began to notice how uniformly unhappy most of her characters are. Since I have noted Brookner’s allegiance to existentialism, I'd like to point out that I see existentialism as a cautiously optimistic philosophy, stressing rebellion and change, but I admit that some of the early works tend towards a kind of nihilism, and Brookner seems more influenced by that darker, pessimistic side than by the stress on human freedom and extreme voluntarism of Jean Paul Sartre.  In her novel Brief Lives, she paints a picture of human lives as indeed short and unhappy, and quite obviously situated towards death. She is not a happy read, and yet her insights about relationships more than make up for the bleakness of her stories. 

I’m not surprised that one of Brookner’s best writer friends is Julian Barnes. Both are what I have called ‘quiet’ writers. There is not much dramatic action in their novels, no famous people or sensational sex as in many pop novels. I am reminded also of other quiet writers like Alice Munro and Alice McDermott who show just how interesting and illuminating the inner lives of so-called ordinary people are. 

Let me turn briefly to one of Brookner’s latest novels, The Rules of Engagement, published in 2003. Although she rarely mentions historical dates in her novels, in this novel she tells us immediately that her lead character, Elizabeth, was born in 1948, “well behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest.”  Born to unhappy parents, Elizabeth nevertheless conforms herself to the expectations of her mother. “She envisaged a life for me exactly like her own, marriage to a professional man, a comfortable establishment, licensed idleness, licensed amusements.” The other major figure in the novel, also an Elizabeth, but choosing early to rechristen herself Betsy, has neither parents nor background to insure such a safe future, and embarks on a much more adventurous life—one where career and real loves will be the goals. Married in her twenties to a much older man, Elizabeth both worries about her cousin Betsy and admires her for her freedom and courage. 
Reading the papers I could not help but be aware of the enormous strides women were making; they were vocal and radical in a way I knew I could never be, but there was a discontent, even among the most liberated, that I felt summoned to share. I was still young, young enough to wish for something fiercer than the life for which I had settled, or to which I had succumbed.
And so both Elizabeth and Betsy situate themselves in this new world, and more than in any of Brookner’s novels that I have read, the call to liberation is heard even by these relatively conventional girls. 
We had both been born too soon for the freedoms currently claimed by women; we had assumed, perhaps wrongly, that safety lay in stability, that love and desire could have only one true end: marriage, and no doubt children. That this certainty was being attacked from all sides had not yet taken us over, changing us from what we had been and were still destined to be. We were innocent, like girls at school, waiting patiently for fulfillment, which would come to us in the guise of another person, and not a series of more or less random persons  who might or might not have our well-being at heart.
Elizabeth, unlike most of Brookner’s female characters, does decide to have a lover, to escape the tedium of her married life; she also throws over her mother’s belief that “a woman’s principal need was to be looked after by a man.” 

Brookner is accused by critics of writing the same novel over and over with the same cast of colorless, unhappy people. She responds that of course she is writing the same novel, trying finally to get it right. Her writing is an attempt to be lucid, to get behind the facades of everyday life. I believe she succeeds and that her lucidity is far more important than writing happy books. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Divergent by Veroinca Roth

In this age of electronic games and devices, I’m always glad to see or hear that young people are reading. I have a niece, Kate, who, like I, is an avid reader. Knowing that I love books, she gave me for Christmas a favorite book of hers, and I read it in a couple of days over the holidays. Since I have almost never reviewed what might be called teen fiction, I decided to talk about this book today. I am so proud of her as a studious reader, and expect her to be a good member of the world she finds herself in. 

The book is titled Divergent and was a first novel for Veronica Roth. From what I hear, it will soon be made into a movie, and is the first of a trilogy that will have a very large following among young people. Besides being quite an interesting adventure/mystery, I think the moral questions and dilemmas presented in the book make it much more important than simply an interesting page-turner.

The plot is a fairly complicated one, and there are many surprises in the end, none of which I have any intention of divulging, but I will lay out the general theme of the book and say why I think it is a good read for serious-minded young people (and quite entertaining for us older folk as well).

The novel is a futuristic (dystopian) description of a rigorously stratified society divided into five factions: Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless. Reminiscent of  Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, at the age of sixteen all children go through a choosing ceremony, at which time they may either remain in the group they have been raised in, or leave their families and choose a new group.  In Pierce’s overtly political and feminist novel, adolescents choose a new name for themselves and leave their families in a kind of coming-of-age ceremony. After that time, they may choose to continue to relate with their families, but no longer as parents or sons and daughters, but simply as equal members of society.

The sixteen year olds in Divergent take an aptitude test shortly before the choosing ceremony, and are told then which group  they have an aptitude for. However, they are not bound by the results of the aptitude test, and may freely choose a group other than the one they have been born to or the one the aptitude test suggests. The names of the groups describe roughly their roles. The lead character, Beatrice (who changes her name to Trice) comes from an Abnegation family. Abnegation folks are selfless and do service work for the community. They wear gray clothing, do not call attention to themselves in either dress or action. Candor are straight-forward and apt to say whatever is on their minds, quite willing to debate with any who hold opposing views, and quite willing to give critical appraisals. "Their faction values honesty and sees the truth as black and white, so that is what they wear." The Erudite class are the intellectuals who study hard and are supposed to serve the community in planning decisions. The Dauntless are the warriors who protect the fences that border the cities and are known for their bravery. They are tattooed and have body piercings; they jump onto and off of moving trains and perform other acts of rather reckless bravery. The Amity are less clearly defined, but are often described as laughing and singing and wearing colorful clothes (red and yellows). There are also some who are factionless, either because they have been kicked out of their chosen faction or have failed to choose. The factionless are left to fend for themselves, and it is clearly dangerous and daunting to be without a faction.

As Beatrice tells us early in the book, the Choosing Ceremony is an important and sometimes frightful time for the young. "I will decide on a faction: I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them." Although it is possible to have a bit of time with family on Visitor’s Day even if one chooses a different faction, there is tremendous pressure to treat faction over family, and the chances for any meaningful connections with family if one chooses a different faction are minimal.

Much to the surprise of their Abnegation parents, Both Beatrice and her brother Caleb choose to leave their family and faction. Trice chooses the Dauntless faction, and Caleb the Erudite. Although Caleb re-enters the action late in the book, it is Trice’s initiation into the Dauntless faction and the daily life that it involves that is described. The reader also realizes early in the book that Trice's aptitude test has indicated quite divergent results, although a kind tester saves her from actually being labeled Divergent, since Divergents are seen as threats to the existing order, and if discovered, punished by becoming factionless.

What I find uplifting about the book are the moral dilemmas Trice is faced with because of her divergent aptitudes and her love for her family. Eventually, she comes to believe that "Selflessness and bravery aren’t that different," and instead of shunning her divergent tendencies, she embraces them. Along with a brave boyfriend (who is a trainer for the Dauntless initiates, and also shows divergent aptitudes), they uncover a sinister plot hatched by a power-hungry Erudite who has found a way to electronically brainwash the Dauntless and use their fearlessness to her own ends. 

I also found the portrayal of the relationship between Tobias and Trice to be a good and wholesome one. While there are mild sexual overtones to the book, rather than appealing to a teenage audience by sensationalizing the sexual element, Roth accentuates fidelity and genuine caring for the other rather than focusing on sex. 

I was often reminded of Plato’s distinction between genuine courage and foolhardiness as I read this book. There is a plea for tolerance to be found in its pages, and a clear warning against allowing peer pressure to get in the way of morality and truth. All and all, were I a parent of a teenager, I would recommend this book to them, as I recommend it you. Indeed, I have to admit I will probably see the movie when it comes out, although I rather doubt I will read the other books in the promised trilogy.