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.

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