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.

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