Monday, July 26, 2004

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about the latest book of an author who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living novelists, as well as one of the very best of the last hundred years. Her name is Penelope Lively, and the book is The Photograph, published in 2003. It seems incredible to me that I did not even discover Lively until a few years ago when I stumbled across her Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger (published in 1987), but since then I have read so many of her intricate novels. Martin Heidegger insists that we are beings in time, indeed that this is one of the universal and necessary conditions of what it is to be human. But while philosophers from Hegel onward have insisted on the paramount (and generally neglected) importance of temporality, it is novelists who have spelled out just what it means to live in time, to be that strange combination of animal who simultaneously lives in the past, hurls towards a future, and takes too little note of the always vanishing present. Lively understands not only how we are caught and suspended in time, but also has an astute sense of time on a non-human scale-of paleontology, geology, archaeology. I think of her as primarily a philosopher, an intellectual who is intent on doing a kind of phenomenology of time, especially lived time—her stories meant more as a way of telling us about the human condition than to catch her readers in merely clever plots.

In The Photograph she takes up (as she so often does) the whole idea of history. Is there such a thing as objective history? Is memory a reproductive faculty, like a camera, or is it, instead, more a creative faculty, fashioning out of the helter-skelter of sensory input a story that it tells and retells to itself until it finally seems more real than the hodge-podge of daily experience? The story begins innocently enough with a landscape archaeologist/anthropologist rummaging through his old files in search of a particular piece of data needed for some current project. That he is looking through this particular pile of the past is happenstance; he may well have lived out his life without ever sorting through this stuff again. And again, that out of some forgotten folder a packet should fall and catch his attention is pure chance. What catches his attention is the hurried scrawl on the outside of the packet written in his dead wife's handwriting, and even that would not have diverted his usually well focused scholar's attention had it not carried the inscription “Don't Open-Destroy!” That is simply too tempting. Not one to have listened very carefully to his wife's injunctions even when she was living, he quickly, if distractedly, opens the packet and discovers among a collection of personal detritus a single photograph, and in that moment's discovery alters not only his own life, but the lives of many others in his circle of family and friends.

Iris Murdoch and Penelope Lively love to display for their readers just how simply one's supposed past can, in an instant, be overturned, scrambled, destroyed. The photograph is innocent enough, simply a gathering of friends on a weekend outing, two of the gathering with their backs to the camera. Only a second and longer look shows that these two are holding hands behind their backs, and hence begins an earth-shattering, a past-shattering, a life-shattering tale. The woman is his wife, Kath, the man his brother-in-law, Nick. And now the reader is treated to the experience of how this bit of data disrupts the lives of the husband, Glyn, Kath's sister, Elaine, Elaine's husband, Nick, and a host of friends. I could open to dozens of passages in which Lively skillfully, mischievously displays for her readers the tricks of memory, the mysteries of time. I will consult just one in which the sister, Elaine, ruminates on the photograph.
Elaine looks back at the photograph. Something strange is happening-to her, to the figures that she sees. She sees people who are familiar, but now all of a sudden quite unfamiliar. It is as though both Kath and Nick have undergone some hideous metamorphosis. A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different. The reflections are quite other, everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery. What was, is now something else.
And hence begins an analysis of just what history is, what memory can and cannot do, and how lies and deceit can reach suddenly into the past to restructure, rearrange, destroy. The woman in the picture, Kath, is dead, but not in the hearts and minds of those with whom she lived. A kind of hero to her sister's daughter, Polly, a kind of frustrating enigma to her hardworking older sister, Elaine, and a thoroughly kind and benign presence to almost everyone else that she has lived around, all of whom have some sort of investment in keeping intact their private pictures of the past.

As usual, I intend to reveal nothing more of the story than this skeleton, which the reader would discover in reading just the first few pages of this short but wonderfully complex novel. Let me introduce just one other theme that Lively takes up and worries in this book (such an excellent one for the busy city-reader, easily read in a weekend or a few evenings of concentrated attention). How much difference does it make if a woman is really, really pretty, and are the consequences of such arresting good looks the same for a man as for a woman? In the passage I will read, it is the niece, Polly, who is worrying the question, but the reader discovers as the book unwinds that Lively has had this question in mind all along, and that she wants us to think hard about it. In this scene, Polly has just reported to a friend that Kath had always been told that with her good looks she just must go in for acting.
I mean, that's so stupid. The idea that what a person looks like decides what they ought to do. You might as well say that red-haired people should drive London buses. And it happens to women more than men. Above all it happens to ultradecorative women. A good-looking guy can ride it out. He can end up as prime minister, or governor of the Bank of England, or whatever you like. I'm not saying that they do, but you get the point. If a girl is very, very pretty, then that's going to put a particular spin on everything that happens to her. She's privileged, but there's a sense in which it's a curse as well. She's directed by her looks. In Kath's case the actress stint meant that there was no college, no learning how to do anything, just muddling along until that becomes a way of life.
And how much do her good looks have to do with her marrying the distinguished scholar, Glyn? How much to do with the photograph itself? How much to do with an entire life and all its existential questions?

Certainly, I'm not going to tell you, but Lively tells you lots and leaves lots for you to ponder and worry over. This is a treat of a book; the reader learns from it in spite of herself.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger

I want to depart a bit from my usual habit this morning in that I will briefly mention to you two excellent books, either or both of which I might review at a later time, and then talk to you about a third book that troubles me some. As I have said before, there are so many wonderful books out there that I would find it odd to discuss bad or even mediocre books. While it might give some reviewers pleasure to criticize and dissect books, especially popular ones that they find lacking, I prefer simply to recommend some of the many really good ones. Another more personal explanation for my departure from habit is my tendency at present to start too many books and then read them sequentially and sporadically in a kind of balancing act that I think does not really do justice to the books nor make for the best reading experience. The last that I picked up and have not quite finished is a recent book by Penelope Lively, who in my opinion is one of the very best living novelists, and one of a handful of greats from the last hundred years. The title of the book is The Photograph, and it is perfect for the busy city reader since it can be read in just a few sittings. Lively understands time in a scientific and philosophical sense as well as in terms of lived time. She plays with and wonders about time in all of her many, excellent novels, including her Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, published in 1987. The Photograph, published just last year, seems to me to crystallize all of her many insights about the oddities and trickeries of lived time. A single photograph, discovered quite by accident as a professional landscape archeologist searches through some of his old documents, throws his entire history into disarray, and as his past is suddenly deconstructed, leaving him to reconstruct it, he manages to shake up the lives of many with whom he has shared history. What Lively calls into question is the very idea of an objective history, and certainly of memory as a reproductive faculty. Instead, as the philosopher Kant insisted and as Lively vividly demonstrates, memory is a creative, synthetic faculty only partially informed by what we think of as 'real' events. In a moment, perhaps from a single photograph, what seems to be indelible becomes plastic, kaleidoscopic. But this is enough of a hint for now. For those of you who are already Lively fans, this is a must read, and for those of you who have yet to discover her, this is a delicious and rather mischievous place to start.

The second book I want to mention and then hold in reserve for a future time is entitled Mating, and the author is Norman Rush. Unlike the short and quick to read Lively novel, this one is a major undertaking. The language is rich and almost laughable erudite; read it with a dictionary close to hand. Another wrinkle is that the lead character and narrator is a woman although the author is a man. Several of my friends suggested this novel as an excellent example of a successful attempt by a man to write from a woman's perspective. That contention I will leave to you readers to decide, although I may have something to say about it when I give a more detailed account. However, what I can say now is that the political content of this novel is complex and first-rate. Like several other books I have reviewed in the last year, this one is set in Africa and deals with questions of economic imperialism and the dire economic straits of third world countries. How could countries, long dominated and exploited by foreign market economies, wrest control from those who suck their lifeblood, consume their natural resources, and yet remain somehow viable economic entities in a world controlled by market forces? And furthermore, how could such a process even begin without centralized control and loss of individual liberties? This book is the best I have read since Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger on these incredibly complex economic and social questions, and it is quite a good love story as well. While it is a long and rather difficult read, it is well worth the effort, and deserves to be read in a sustained way rather than in snippets over months.

Finally I come to the subject of this month's review, Nina: Adolescence, a first novel by Amy Hassinger. I often choose first novels because they tend to be the best or among the best of any author's work, and they tend even more than most novels to be autobiographical. As I have said many times, I like to read novels about us-here-now. However, I hope this novel is not autobiographical. While it is very well written and quickly captivating, the content is, at the very best, disturbing. Of course, important books about real life are often, even usually, disturbing. But if I am going to be disturbed, I want to be disturbed for a reason. I want to be enlightened or warned or, at least, presented with important moral questions and dilemmas. Perhaps this is the author's intent with this novel, but I can't be sure.

I won't give away too much of the plot here, although what is disturbing about the novel is intimately tied with complexities of the plot. Enough for now to tell you that Nina, the adolescent who is at the center of the novel, is the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old daughter of a woman painter. Because of a tragedy that has occurred, the mother, Marian, has retreated to her bedroom and given up painting. Slowly, painstakingly, Nina lures her mother out of her bedroom and back to the studio, and in that process becomes her model for a series of nude paintings. As Nina had hoped, the work brings her mother back to life, both as artist and as a person in the world, and when the series of paintings is exhibited in a show dedicated to her work, Marian's career is resurrected. As one might guess, the father, Henry, is less than pleased that his teenaged daughter is the nude center of attention in these paintings. Even if the paintings are fine art, they can become pornography in the hands and eyes of a pedophile. And, sure enough, one of her mother's ex-lovers, Leo, does make a move on Nina. Under the pretense of simply befriending her, and then of taking photographs of her, he first kisses and pets her, and eventually lures her to his apartment. Nina is in that crease between girlhood and womanhood, but decidedly on the side of girlhood. Inexperienced with boys her own age and with dating of any kind, she is both flattered and repelled by the attentions of this handsome man in his thirties, and to complicate matters even further, Leo is in a position to help along the career of Marian by publishing a piece on her as an artist.

Why is this man so fascinated by this obviously young and inexperienced girl? And given his past experiences with Marian, the mother, what sort of twist is added to the mix? And even further, why is this story of seduction and use an important one to tell? In some ways, that the story is told so well simply compounds the questions. Elizabeth McCracken, an excellent novelist and one who seems to understand exploitation and abuse, says that this novel is “elegant, sad, often funny.....excellent.” Certainly it is convincingly told, and elegant in its simplicity and sparse language, but I as a reader waited for the moral message. While I do not expect justice and think of myself as a reader who understands the cruelty of the real world, I expect writers who dare to take as subject matter the horrible fascination (at least in this culture) of grown men for little girls to make it clear just how awful this fascination is and how devastating it can be for the victims. Perhaps the message is really there, and just too subtle for me to have picked up. Perhaps this is really autobiographical, and the voice of Nina is the voice of the artist who is struggling with her own past in writing this account, needing finally to voice her anguish and to sound a warning. If you happen to read this book and discover that it is I as reader who has failed to understand, I hope you will let me know. Or maybe, just maybe, like a piece of fine erotic art, this book is just so superbly fashioned that the disturbing elements are mitigated, even exculpated by the art itself. I can imagine that some of the paintings described are truly beautiful, and perhaps the beauty of the book comes first, the clear and articulate voice of Nina. For me, I simply became more and more disturbed, feeling not quite right even when I found the book interesting and beautiful.