Monday, March 19, 2012

How It All Began by Penelpe Lively

What is it like for a being to live in time and to be consciously, even obsessively, aware of living in time? This question has captured the attention of so many philosophers in the past hundred years or so, but it is novelists who actually describe the threefold process of living simultaneously in the past, constantly anticipating a future, and so in the grip of memory and anticipation that the present is barely noticed as it tumbles into the past. Penelope Lively, in all of her works, takes on this description of lived time and the tricks and vagaries of memory. In her latest novel, How It All Began, she focuses in on how one seemingly insignificant event triggers huge changes in the lives of so many. A retired high school English teacher, Charlotte, is knocked down and mugged on a London street, sending her to hospital, one consequence of which is that her daughter, Rose, is unable to accompany her employer, Henry, to an academic convention. This in turn leads to a summons to Henry’s niece, Marion, to stand in for Rose, which in turns leads to Marion’s sending a last minute text to her lover, Jeremy, canceling an assignation. “I can’t make it on Friday. Have to escort Uncle Henry to Manchester—his PA out of action. Bother, bother. I’m so sorry. Love you.” Her lover, Jeremy, who is usually so assiduous about deleting text messages, has this time left his mobile phone at home, which again due to circumstance, leads to his wife, Stella discovering the text-message and she almost at once instigates divorce proceedings, immediately impacting the lives of their two teenage daughters. And these are only a few of the people affected in large and small ways by the impulsive, chance actions of the young mugger. Rose’s husband, Gerry, is affected because his mother-in-law Charlotte, whose hip is broken in the process of being knocked to the ground by the mugger, comes to live with them while convalescing. While staying with her daughter, Charlotte, who has been a superb teacher most of her life, and even in retirement has taken on the task of volunteer teacher of English as a second language for older immigrants, finds the idleness of convalescence almost unbearable. This leads to her taking on one of these immigrants in a one-on-one teaching task, which brings Anton, the eastern European immigrant, into contact with her daughter Rose, who to her amazement, mixed with both delight and chagrin, finds herself falling in love with Anton. And let’s not forget Marion, the niece called into the service of her aging academic uncle due to the actions of the mugger; she is an interior designer who by happenstance meets a shady investment broker at the academic convention she attends as PA to her uncle, and the broker engages Marion to restore and decorate an upper end London flat, which in turn, affects the lives of the Polish men whom she hires for the restoration. All these consequences spinning off of this chance mugging.

You may think I have given away too much of the story already in laying out the butterfly-effect above, but in truth, the reader comes to know all of this in the first few pages of the novel. The brilliance of Lively as an author is in her uncanny ability to speak in monologues for each of her many characters and to give the reader glimpses of their inner lives and their particular forms of being-in-time. Again like so many of the philosophers and writers of the past century, Lively does not believe in an external telos somehow guiding human endeavors. There is no such thing as fate or destiny. Instead, there is this incredibly complex network of causation directed by nothing and no one, but hurtling us all towards a chancy and unknown future. We may feel secure in our beliefs about a cozy and fixed future, but it is an illusion that can be exploded as myth in a second by what can only be described as a chance event.

I have been in the thrall of Penelope Lively since I picked up a collection of her short stories many years ago, and each time I read a new novel, I am struck again by her talent as a writer and by her grasp of the existential condition. She is now in her late seventies, but I can detect no erosion of her immense powers of observation, nor in her ability to describe in detail the inner lives of her characters. For me, reading her is like picking up a conversation with an old friend, and she, too, seems to have just such relationships with so many other authors I love: Henry James, Iris Murdoch, Carol Shields, Dostoevsky, and many more whom she mentions in the course of this novel. Perhaps she speaks even more particularly to me now as she talks of the process of aging and the speeding up of lived-time as one grows old.
You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not—life has been lived but it is still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse.
I have concentrated on Lively’s treatment of lived-time and on her conviction that there is no human-independent purpose for existence, no external telos, only an unfathomable web of causation and chance. But I could as well have focused in on her views about literature, reading and teaching—all of which get a lot of attention in this novel. She realizes that teachers are, at best, conduits or catalysts; rather than filling empty vessels (one particularly noxious view of education), good teachers simply provide opportunities, suggest books, provide sparks that ignite the inquiring mind.

Let me sum up this wonderful novel using Lively’s own words:
So that was the story. These have been the stories: of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, of all of them. The stories so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device; we like endings, they are satisfying, convenient, and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one anther, each on its own course.
I have been talking about an incredible author, Penelope Lively, and of her newest book, How It All Began. I hope you will allow Lively to enter into the stream of your lived life, transform and metamorphize it.

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