Monday, September 20, 2004

Passing On by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about another book by Penelope Lively, this one entitled Passing On. My tendency when I discover a really good writer is to keep reading them, book after book, until I think I have gotten from them what I can. In Lively's case, I think I will simply read all that she has written, including even her fairly long list of children's stories and her non-fiction. Incidentally, one of those non-fiction books is titled The Presence of the Past, and certainly if there is a single theme that runs through all of her work, it is that of temporality—of how we carry the past with us, how our memories distort and refashion the past, and of how we live simultaneously in the past, the fleeting present, and anticipations of the future. Her understanding of lived time is, I think, unparalleled.

This novel, as the title suggests, is about a death and how that death affects the lives of the living. The lead character, Helen, is in her fifties and has lived almost her entire life at home with her mother, as has her younger brother Edward who is in his forties. I suppose one could say that the main theme of this novel is the influence that Dorothy, the mother, has had on these two now grown children and on how they cope with her death. One other child, Louise, more rebellious and more social than her older siblings, has escaped the home and small English village, but, of course, has not escaped either her genes or her upbringing.

Helen watches her mother being put into a hole in the ground, and then begins the long process of experiencing the hole, the vacuity in her life. All who have experienced the death of a really significant person know that the relationship between them, the conversation, does not end with death. It is Helen's relationship with her mother that the reader gets most fully and clearly, both in memories of the past and in the daily struggle after her mother's death.
During the ensuing days Helen felt as though her mother were continuously present in the house as a large black hole. There was a hole in Dorothy's bedroom, in the bed where she was not, on which, now, the blankets were neatly folded and the cover spread. There were various other holes, where she stood at the kitchen table preparing one of those unappetizing stews, or shouting instructions from the landing or inspecting a caller at the front door. There were perambulant holes in which she creaked down the stairs or came in through the front door. Almost, Helen stood aside to let her pass or maneuvered around her large black airy bulk as she occupied the scullery or the narrow passage by the back stairs. It was weeks before Helen could walk straight through her, or open her bedroom door without bracing herself for the confrontation.
Quite obviously, this was not a mother who was sweet and attentive and missed now because of her kindness. The question Lively poses for the reader is why this aging man and women have stayed with a mother whom they saw as oppressive and selfish and whose bleak presence in their lives continues even after her death. It is not a simple story, nor does the blame rest simply on the dominating mother. Both 'children' are, in complicated and interconnected ways, complicit in their imprisonment; both in some sense or other give Dorothy her power over them. Indeed, she seems (at least in the memories of her children) to have been quite indifferent about whether they stayed or left—as indifferent to them as to most of the world around her.
.... she had no interest whatsoever in people as such. She was expert and scholarly in disposing of extraneous material; there was the world which related to her, to which she had been or to whom she had spoken, and there was the rest, which was irrelevant. Needless to say, she could not see the point of history and ignored politics. As Helen, Edward and Louise grew up they had come to recognize their mother's outlook for what it was. They realized with discomfort that she was not so much egotistical as fettered-trapped within a perpetual adolescence. She moved for ever within a landscape whose only point of reference was herself.
As always with Lively, there are a number of important, overlaying themes in this novel with the main story-line in many ways simply a convenient hook for everything else she wants to address. There are questions of wealth, of the great divide between haves and have-nots, and the ways in which media culture keeps the desire for material possessions sharp and keen whether or not one has the money to buy them. Dorothy, as shallow and selfish as she is many ways, is simply not acquisitive, does not care much for what she does not have, and (in the eyes of the villagers) stubbornly and foolishly holds onto a piece of land that could be subdivided and sold for a small fortune, could render her one of those who is able to buy and buy, and thus become important, adored, respected. The oddly reclusive Edward lives much of his life in this small patch of 'wild' land (named, for reasons no one knows, The Britches), and he seems to care for nothing but the wild life that he encounters and cultivates there. Through Edward, Lively is able to raise a host of environmental questions without seeming to preach and quite within the development of his character.

Even as these two odd characters begin to struggle away from the influence of their now dead mother, she remains behind, scolding and berating. Helen, at fifty-two, begins to develop a relationship with a widowed attorney, and finds herself in constant conversation with Dorothy about her silliness, her gullibility, her plainness. Helen is stunned by the intensity of sexual feelings she has imagined to be long since dead and by what she sees as an adolescent obsession with questions of when he might call, what he thinks of her, when he might touch or caress her, and she imagines her mother's smug responses to her teenaged reactions.

And one other theme that Lively raises, flirts with, causes her reader to worry over is that of how the intense homophobia of the dominant culture shapes and constricts the lives of homosexuals. Students and friends of mine have sometimes expressed surprise, puzzlement, even shock over what they consider to be inappropriate and surprising choices gay people have made in acting on sexual impulses. Lively so skillfully and subtly points out in this novel that it is the dominant, heterosexual culture that determines the parameters of choice for homosexuals-shows us how homophobia creates guilt in young gay people, causes them to repress their quite natural inclinations, to struggle with themselves in ways that can lead to humiliation and disaster when the fiercely repressed urges manifest themselves at the wrong time or towards the wrong person. I don't want to give away much of the plot-line here, but I think Lively presents some of these issues in wonderfully lucid ways.

I have talked to you about a number of Lively's excellent novels, and although I intend to read all that I have not, I probably won't review her other works for you. Let me say once more that I think Lively is one of the finest writers I have ever read; I always seem to learn from her—about politics, archeology, biology, relationships, temporality. I think she is a brilliant person, and what luck for us that she is still living and still writing. You won't find much action in her novels, no sex or noisy adventure, but you will find a lot to think about and to worry over. I know that I have.

1 comment:

  1. An incredibly incisive review of a complicated and wonderful writer.