Monday, October 29, 2007

Making it Up by Penelope Lively

So much in our lives seems to be chancy and contingent; call it choice, or if that word seems too fraught, call it possibility, but such important matters in our lives seem to hinge on chance. The blind-date that ended in marriage, the canceled vacation that may well have led to a new and exciting relationship, the decision to go to this college or that, take this job or that, getting sick at just the right or wrong time. Penelope Lively, who I believe thinks about time and chance and contingency more deeply than any other writer alive, has written a book about directions her life might have taken but did not, realizing that she is more a leaf in the wind than captain of a ship.

In her words:
Somehow, choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climactic moments when things might have gone differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome.
Not surprising that this author, so interested in history, in archeology and paleontology, should write a book at the end of her long career that looks back on the lives she might have lived. She has already announced that she has written her last novel, and this 2005 book that she calls anti-memoir may be one of her last books of any kind. She calls it, appropriately, Making It Up. In my view, Lively is one of the very best writers of the last half century, and one of my favorites of all time. When Lilly Tomlin’s little-girl-in-the-rocker character, Edith Ann, is accused of making things up, she replies in a huff that she doesn’t make things up, because making things up is lying, and she doesn’t lie. But, she adds with a mischievous glint, you can make up the truth if you know how. Lively, like all of the great writers of fiction, knows how to make up the truth, and she knows also that one’s own lived life provides much of substance for that made up truth.

This book has some striking similarities to the memoir of her first dozen years growing up in Egypt, which she titled Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived. But she is quick to deny that it is memoir.
This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the rocks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a form of confabulation. That word has a precise meaning in psychiatric terminology, it refers to the creation of imaginary remembered experiences which replace the gaps left by disorders of the memory. My memory is not yet disordered; this exercise in confabulation is a piece of fictional license.
The pieces in this book take the form of short stories, the first is about a love-affair that might have been but was not. It is called “Mozambique Channel,” and has as its starting point a time when Lively, her mother, and her nanny were forced to flee Egypt just before the Battle of Alamein. In the space of fifty pages, Lively is able to tell us a lot about the class system that existed not only between rich Europeans and the people native to the lands they exploited economically, but between these Europeans and the servants they brought along with them. But all of this occurs in the background as she tells us a touching love story, one so unlike the over-sexed and overdone fictions of Hollywood.

Next, in a story titled “Albert Hall,” she describes a child that might have been hers, would have been hers had circumstances been ever so slightly altered. This story is set in the early fifties, “In those pre-pill days, girls diced with death. The back street abortionists were busy, along with others trading behind a respectable Harley Street nameplate. The single mother was not a recognized social category then, accepted and inviting sympathy.” The social commentary Lively provides in the stories, and in the longish prefaces and postscripts to the stories gives the reader a very clear sense of where she stands as social and political critic.

Of course, I don’t intend to list and describe each story in this fascinating collection. But I will tell you that one story has to do with a plane-wreck, a plane that Lively, herself, might well have been on but was not. In another she talks not simply about how contingency operates in an individual life, but how it seems to have operated on an evolutionary level. She reminds us of all the species that once existed but now do not, and of how unlikely (in so many ways) it was that homo sapiens should come to occupy the place on the planet that they now do. It seems, looking back, that the fact she is not an archeologist or historian but a writer is, itself, a consequence of so many ‘chance’ occurrences. So many lives that might have been lived but were not. “A faithful exercise in confabulation would proliferate like an evolutionary tree. I should write not one book but hundreds; I should pursue each idiosyncratic path.”

The depth of her intellect as well as her mastery of words (and her lack of embarrassment at using the language maximally) endear her to me. I also think that she has a great insights into the connections between reading and writing, and that all aspiring writers would do well to read her. I often tell my students that their real educations will begin after university, when they have been freed from the cycle of courses and exams and required writing. College may prepare them for that education, but is no substitute for it. Lively’s experiences and advice seem akin to mine.
You write out of experience, and a large part of that experience is the life of the spirit; reading is the liberation into the minds of others. When I was a child, reading released me from my own prosaic world into fabulous antiquity, by way of Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece; when I was a housebound young mother, I began to read history all over again, but differently, freed from the constraints of a degree course, and I discovered also Henry James, and Ivy Comton-Burnett, and Evelyn Waugh, and Henry Green, and William Golding, and so many others—and became fascinated by the possibilities of fiction. It seems to me that writing is an extension of reading—a step that not every obsessive reader is impelled to take, but, for those who do so, one that springs from serendipitous reading. Books beget books.
One of Lively’s stories is about a bookseller who spends his life in and surrounded by books; she remarks, “… a life in books seems an attractive proposition.” Yes, indeed, and if it is chance that led Lively to be the reader-writer that she is, we are the beneficiaries of that accident. Let me close with a final quote from the story about the bookseller.
A house that contains books has concealed power. Many homes are bookless, or virtually so, as any house-hunter discovers. And then suddenly there is a place that is loaded—shelf upon shelf of the things—and the mysterious charge is felt. This house has ballast; never mind the content, it is the weight that counts—all that solid, silent reference to other matters, to wider concerns, to a world beyond these walls. There is a presence here—confident, impregnable.

Monday, October 01, 2007

As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me by Nancy Kincaid

A good reader friend of mine remarked to me once that I must read a lot of books, given that I review one or two a month, and supposing that I probably select from many. I was vague in my reply, but the truth is that though I start many books, maybe even dozens a month, I finish only a few of them. I almost never bother to stick with books anymore unless they hit me in the first hundred pages or so; there are just too many good books out there to use up my reading time on questionable ones. The book I am going to talk to you about today is one of the exceptions. Its title is As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me, and although it starts rather charmingly, it seemed almost too cute to me, too much like a young adults’ novel, and the fact that some reviewers compared it to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird only increased my doubts. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird when it came out in the early sixties, but it is not a book that would warrant a sequel. However an author whom I much admire, Lee Smith, called the book compulsively readable, so after initially putting it aside, I decided to give it the few dozen more pages I usually would not. I’m glad I did.

The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, and one who seems naïve even for her age, but the further one gets into the novel, the more surprising the events and the more adult the themes. The story is set in rural Florida, and though we are never really told, it would seem to be about the fifties or early sixties. Kincaid is exceptionally good at staying in voice, and even when the insights seem a bit too precocious for such a young girl, they are delivered in a way that allows the reader to believe that the girl, herself, is unaware of the depth of the messages she is conveying. There is also a pleasing mixture of suspense and intrigue that keeps the book moving along, and events that I find quite surprising for such a small town.

The young girl’s name is Berry, and it is really her story. The descriptions of the other children, of their games, their interpretations of events, gives the book its shape, its content. The only adult character who is well developed is that of Berry’s mother, and that, too, is primarily through Berry’s eyes. Berry’s father, the stalwart and admired principal of the local school, remains a kind of shadow figure throughout, the suggestion being that the reader knows him about as well as Berry herself knows him, about as well as adult men let themselves be known.

This is not the sort of book where I can find particular quotes that sum up the story or the message it is meant to convey. There are no profound asides about the economics of small towns, no carefully constructed critiques about the smothering effects of religion in such places. But that is not to say that one does not sense a message in the book deeper than the surface events described. I find myself wanting to read other books by this author: I believe that she understands children and the culture of childhood in ways that I don’t and never will. I sense that she is gently trying to teach me.

Let me read one quote from the book that I hope will give you a flavor for the charm of the lead character, and also for the deceptively simple style of the writing.

Boys had all their lives to get used to penises. But girls—we had to spend years waiting for breasts, dreading them or longing for them. They were more interesting to me than any other body part. I didn’t know if they were beautiful or hideous. I didn’t know if I would be comforted by having them—or ashamed. I had never seen any breasts except Mother’s once, when she was getting into her bathing suit at Cherry Lake. She mostly ignored them. But in her bathing suit there they were, small, pointed and sharp, pressed into her suit like a couple of innocent prisoners under false arrest waiting to make their escape. I thought of them like things that wanted to be set free—like they had their own little brains or something, like they dreamed dreams.
Berry watches her mother very closely, and she watches the mothers of her friends as well. She watches what happens to, what is said about the older girls who are considered beautiful, as well as to the allegedly humorous asides about those not so pretty. She understands that all of this has a lot to tell her about her own future, and she is a quick study.

During the course of the novel there is a huge storm that changes the lives of the people in drastic ways, flattening the school, damaging houses and churches, and sometime during that storm, Berry’s glasses are dislodged, stepped on, and crushed. But she finds her not being able to see clearly as much a blessing as a curse. Not only does she look better without her glasses, but the world looks better too. Not so sharp, not so distinct, not so ugly. Perhaps she is a girl who sees too much, but we as readers are lucky to be able to see along with her.

This is not a great book, but it is a good one, and very pleasing to read. I think once you get really into it, you will be unable to put it down, and glad you didn’t.