Monday, February 20, 2006

Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived by Penelopy Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about two authors and two books. What they have in common is that they are both British, both brilliant, both writing about events during and slightly after World War II, and (perhaps the most relevant commonality) both having written books that I happened to read lately in close succession. The two authors are Penelope Lively and Ian McEwan. Lively’s book is a memoir entitled Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, and McEwan’s an early novel of his, The Innocent. I consider these two writers to be literary giants of the past fifty years; both write about lived time in ways that I find profound and extraordinary.

It may be that only those of you who already have a passion for Lively will really enjoy her autobiographical account of the first twelve years of her life growing up in Cairo. It is not what you would call a page-turner, no twists of plot nor adventure, simply an adult woman trying to put together a few crystalline images from her past. I am a reader who has a deep fascination for Lively’s writing, and I read this little book wanting to know just how she could have become such an incredible writer with such a deep understanding of how we humans live in the past, present, and future all at once.

Lively, like Immanuel Kant and many thinkers since, realizes that memory is a synthetic faculty rather than a strictly reproductive one. She understands that the mind is not so much a recorder and camera as it is a story-teller, a fabricator, and when telling stories about childhood, a story-teller that has to spin her tale from disparate shards of evidence. In her words:

I have tried to recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood—in so far as any of us can do such a thing—and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity.
Lively was born in 1933, and her narrative covers only her first twelve years growing up in Egypt plus a handful of memories from 1945 when she returns finally to England. For someone as ignorant of history and geography as I, Lively’s account of Cairo, Alexandria, and the multifarious life-forms of the Nile is both informative and mind-boggling. She recalls for us a land populated by a rich juxtaposition of Greeks, French, Italians, British, Maltese, Lebanese, Syrian, and Turks, and all seen through the eyes of a child, though informed by the acute mind of an adult looking back.

But while Lively does want to tell her readers something about how the war impacted Cairo and the desert surrounding it, as well as a good bit about the long history of conquest and occupation by so many different powers, her primary concern is to talk about how children perceive, and how the purity of childhood perception is lost to us as adults. Again in her words:

No thought at all here, just observation—the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation. It is also the Wordsworthian vision of the physical world: the splendor in the grass. And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s-eye-view. A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe—but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation.
Just as in her masterpiece, Moon Tiger, when Lively describes so wonderfully and tantalizingly the life of an old woman, near death in a care facility, her mind alive finally only to the past, the present irrelevant, in this kaleidoscopic memoir we experience life through the eyes of a child captured as it were under glass. Her ability to deal with lived time simply stuns me.

... continue to Ian McEwan's The Innocent ...

The Innocent by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan [like Penelope Lively in Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived] also takes us to the past, but in this intricate little novel we see the divided Berlin of the 50’s as seen through the eyes of a young British man caught up in a joint project of England and America to spy on their Russian counterparts. McEwan uses a historical fact for the kernel of his storyline—an audacious and brazen attempt to tunnel under Berlin into the Russian controlled Eastern sector for the purposes of tapping Russian phone lines. And while the spy-story and its convoluted subplots occupy a good bit of the novel, I see it much more as a love story between the innocent Brit and a slightly older and much less innocent German woman. There is no doubt that the novel is at least partly about the arrogance of the American forces in Berlin and the duplicity of their dealings even with their supposed British allies, but it is also the story of a young man coming of age rather late in life and trying to learn how to love and trust.

McEwan is quite obviously interested in the very concept of innocence and its close neighbor, ignorance. His hero, Leonard Marnham, is an innocent in so many ways. An employee of the Post Office, he suddenly finds himself in Berlin, using his knowledge of tape recorders and telephones to help Americans spy on Russians. And he is a virgin not only to spying, but also to sex. Not so surprising, perhaps, for a twenty-five year old man in 1955, but he is profoundly na├»ve as well as being a virgin. The German woman whom he meets and falls in love with is only slightly older at thirty, but she has already been married and has already learned a lot about the brutality of many men. And although Leonard is instantly alarmed and ashamed when he inadvertently admits his ‘condition’ to Marie, she is heartened by it. Here is a man who can be taught—who will not assume that he already knows all there is to know about women and sex, and who might turn out to be gentle as well as worthy of trust.

And so for quite sometime, this book appears simply to be a sweet and rather lovely love story with the reader pulling for this couple to maintain and nurture their love. Of course, McEwan never lets the reader off easily. There are twists and turns to this plot that I would never give away even if I had the time to do so. Instead, I will simply remind readers unused to McEwan that he can and does often write about events that are alarming, even gruesome. Let me say simply that this is not a Hollywood love story, so readers should beware.

What continues to intrigue me about McEwan is his incredible ability to describe in great detail a moment or a day in a life, and to catch the reader up in the detail. One always knows when reading him that he has done his homework and that his meticulous descriptions are lucid and informed.

I recommend both of these books to you, and more importantly, both of these authors. They create feasts for their readers, and I am so happy to be sitting at their tables. I have been talking about Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacranda: A Childhood Perceived and Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.