Monday, February 26, 2001

Penelope Lively

I would like to talk to you this morning about an author I have mentioned once before, Penelope Lively. Last year, when I first discovered this wonderful author, I reviewed her 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. Today I want to recommend to you three more of her novels, and indeed, to recommend to you everything she has written. Lively is definitely writing about the world we find ourselves in today, and she is doing so with a sense of history and an intellectual acuity that we readers are likely to find very infrequently.

Moon Tiger was published in 1987, but Lively had been writing excellent novels long before that. Judgment Day was written in 1981, and any observant reader should see that the philosophy of history that she lays out in Moon Tiger is already very much there in this earlier novel. Like another important British novelist writing at the same time, Iris Murdoch, Lively insists on not just telling, but showing her readers that while there are patterns in history that can be understood, there is no teleology, i.e., that there is no human independent purpose functioning in the universe. And again like Murdoch, Lively does not think this is something that needs to be argued for; rather, any halfway careful perusal of history should convince us that, as Nietzsche puts it, being aims and nothing and achieves nothing. It is human beings that have purposes and goals and intentions. However, to say that history is not teleological is not to say that we cannot learn by studying it. Indeed, if we have any chance to predict what the future will bring us, any chance to avert global disaster, that chance lies in understanding how the present is a function of the past, and the future a function of the present. Judgment day will not occur at the hands of an angry father god, but through the future that we bring on ourselves, the chains that we forge with our of own activities.

In my view, most great novelists reveal features of the world to us that are far more important than the stories they tell us, more important than the characters they describe to us. And it also true that great novelists tend to tell us the same ‘big’ story over and over in their works. In the case of Murdoch, it is the laying out of an ethical theory and an attempt to point to the good via her allegorical stories. Lively, who is a much better and more acute historian and social critic than Murdoch, wants to show us how failing to learn from history condemns us to ever more disastrous consequences.

Her 1991 novel, City of the Mind, takes us into the world of giant corporations; corporations that raze huge tracts of land (with important histories of their own) to build cites of glass. Lively, the historian and archeologist is there to remind us, over and over, about what such tracts of land looked like in another time—during the second world war, or at a much earlier time when there was only land and crops, and then again changing her time-scale suddenly, drastically, reminding us of what the land was like long before human locusts swarmed over it. It is not only her readers who are taken on these sweeps through time; she likes to show us how each of us lives always in a rather confused welter of past, present, and future. We travel along in this story with an architect who drives from London to its outskirts to oversee the building of one giant glass structure, but as he drives, he remains in the present only because he must guide his car along a river of cars, a modern freeway, while his mind never rests, taking him back to the ‘great war’, to the nightly air-raids that brought down buildings and people, and further back to his own childhood, and then sweeping him along, adding to what he has experienced what he has read, what he has come to know through his interest in science, in paleontology. Expanding and contracting his universe, his city of the mind. This novel, more than any of her others, shows us the ruthlessness of market economies, the lack of concern for people in the rush to destroy countryside and to construct ever bigger and in so many ways, ever more fragile and technology-dependent structures.

The title of her 1993 novel, Cleopatra’s Sister, tells us immediately that this is, at least in some sense, a historical novel. Her readers learn more about Cleopatra and her less famous (and perhaps more ruthless) sister than they could have known, though always learning by looking back through the eyes of a living person, always a history constructed through a discrete, particular historical person. And so, Lively reminds us, is all history constructed. Lively is like Mark Twain, wanting to remind us that what gets called history is simply lies that are agreed to. All views are perspectival, and the human-eye view is, itself, perspectival, revealing only so much, and leaving much more concealed than it reveals.

And finally, let me mention a very recent novel of hers, again a superb piece of writing bound to make any thoughtful reader wonder and worry about the world we live in. Its title is Spider Web, and as the title suggests, the reader is shown again how complex and interrelated is the web of history, the web of our own lives. The lead character in this novel, Stella Brentwood, is a semi-retired anthropologist who decides to settle in a village in the west of England that was once remote and almost inaccessible. Today, with the shrinking of space and the rapidity of travel, it is close to the center of things, to Birmingham and Liverpool and Manchester and London. A lifetime of observing people leaves her unable not to observe and record and speculate about family trees, about ancestry and happenstance. But even as she loses herself in research and speculation about the local people, she is swept at once into a much broader world of human relations. During her life as an intellectual, she has traveled all over the world, never having a place she could or would call home. All her life she has tried to understand family structures, and certainly she is unable not to do so now in what she has decided will be her home, her resting place. And if her body is at rest here, certainly her mind is not. Social anthropologists, she suggests, meddle with people’s lives, meddle by the very fact of their presence; thus, their task it to meddle constructively. And that is what Lively wants to do in our lives, to meddle constructively, to remind us again and again that we must study history, must learn from history. Since we are bound to shape what will come, just as what has passed has shaped what is now, we must all learn to meddle constructively.

While Lively is a realist, not at all interested in trying to calm us about the future, about the world we have created, neither is she cynical nor unduly pessimistic. Her lead characters always describe themselves as agnostic, meaning that they have no real belief in any form of teleology. They do believe in the reality of chance, not meaning contra-causality, but in events that are not planned, are not on purpose. She wants to remind us that any day, any moment, we may be thrown back into the real world--the world that cannot be fit into our neat sense of teleology. Most of us are not starving, are not dying of a dread disease, are not hopeless third world victims of global greed, but a slip on the ice, the loss of a job, the wreck of a car—anything could rent the fabric of our articially spun security, our secure teleology, and cast us into the real world. Then we would be unable to ignore, as we are so often now, the vicissitudes of that real world. Perhaps, she suggests, we would all be better of, and the world we live in a better place, if we would suspend our cozy teleologies.

Let me leave you with one of the ruminations of the retired anthropologist, Stella:
She recognizes that she has landed at one of those alarming junctions in life, where decision is treacherous, where alternatives existences stream into an unimaginable future.
I have no doubt that Lively believes we are all of us, always, at just such a crossroads. The trick is to convince us of this, to convince us to seize the moment, to transform history. I think Lively does her best to help us along.

No comments:

Post a Comment