Posts Tagged ‘Penelope Lively’

The Luminaries

November 18, 2013

The LuminariesThe Friday before last, I had my thirtieth birthday party; last Friday I finished The Luminaries. I’m not sure which Friday was more triumphant. While the first was a glorious yellow celebration of friendship and happiness and fun, the second saw the end of a colossal book which has taken up a whole month of my reading life.

It was a very enjoyable month. Well, at least the first fortnight was, then, as you might have gathered from my last post, the pleasure was tinged with impatience. And I read quickly – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read The Luminaries at a more sedate pace … just think, you’d still be reading it well into next year!

In case you have been on a different planet (see what I’m doing there, with the astrological pun), The Luminaries is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s second novel. She is only twenty-eight. It won the Booker Prize. It is over 800 pages. All facts awe-inspiring enough to pique a curious reader’s interest.

The novel opens with two of the oldest clichés: a combination of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘A man walks into a bar’. Walter Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, on 27 January, 1866, which happens to be a dark and stormy night. He soon senses that something fishy is going on. It transpires that the twelve men gathered there have come together to discuss the strange happenings of the last fortnight: a recluse has been murdered, a whore has attempted suicide, a young man has gone missing, and a fortune of gold has been found in the murdered man’s house.

It is an exciting beginning, and the pages whizz past as Catton takes us from one protagonist to another, telling us the story from all sides, letting us – alongside Walter Moody – gradually piece together what exactly has happened. At one point, Moody is asked, what it means for him ‘to know something’ and he replies:

I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.

We do indeed see this story from all sides, and never do we feel that Catton has lost control of the many sides of her narrative. In a way, it is an extension of Virginia Woolf’s seven-sided carnation in The Waves, or Penelope Lively’s disconcertingly wonderful jolts in perspective in Moon Tiger (see this post for more on this). Here the thing is initially twelve-sided, but expands, as more and more characters come into play.

I enjoyed getting to know Hokitika in 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, of which, until The Luminaries, I’d never heard. Here are men and women on the make, seeking their fortunes, making their futures and, more often than not, running away from their past. These are first class ingredients for a piece of high Victorian drama, and that is what we get, complete with the slightly kitsch chapter-opening epigrams, such as:

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomforted; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Everyone has his secrets and motives, and the web of intrigue is complex and entangling. It reminded me a little of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Except, of course, we’re in the twenty-first century and Catton is too clever to spin us just a shaggy dog story. We know she must have employed that double-cliché beginning as a kind of bluff. There are indeed many moments where our attention is drawn to the many layers of storytelling, such as:

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.

All the while, the reader is made aware of the astrological patterning, with chapter titles like ‘Venus in Aquarius’, or ‘Mercury Sets’, and charts drawn out at the beginning of each of the novle’s twelve parts. I have to confess that the astrological side of things flew right over my head (appropriately enough), although I did like this moment when Moody first looked at the Southern Hemisphere sky:

The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed … He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook … It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.

The world is upside-down, life here is of a new order. Now we’re further back than the Victorians and are with John Donne and Shakespeare and their ‘brave new world’ and ‘new-foundland’, except that New Zealand is even farther away than America, the old order even more inverted. It is refreshing and fascinating to read about a different frontier people.

So far so good, albeit so long… then, as the weight of the book shifts from the right hand to the left, the narrative takes a different turn. The mysteries are unravelled and understood, and a love story is revealed between a man and a woman (I won’t reveal their identities) who are spiritual twins. It is a strange sort of love story that feels peculiarly unsatisfactory, just as the resolution of the novel’s mysteries don’t leave one particularly fulfilled. The novel becomes increasingly post-modern as the end draws near; the chapter epigrams start to contain more narrative than the rapidly shrinking chapters, which become snippets of conversation, glimpses, moments. They are reminiscent of the cover design – the moon revealing just part of a face as it waxes and wanes, while the whole is hidden by all the white space of the night sky.

The Luminaries begins as tight as a coil, sprung with tension – you could cut the atmosphere in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel with a knife. As the narrative plays out, the coil slackens and everything spaces out. It is entropic. Soon we are left with more gaps than writing.

GravityThis may be a ridiculous comparison, but indulge me please, given the appropriate astrological context. The Luminaries is not dissimilar to George Clooney in Gravity. It begins doing one thing – fixing a space station or solving a mystery – then segues into an almost-but-not-quite love story, and then drifts out, ever outwards, into the vast nothingness of space.

The Luminaries is a genre-defying novel that makes its reader question what a novel is. What do we desire from a novel, and what can we demand from it? What is a mystery all about? What is a love story all about? It’s a shape-shifting book. You think you’re reading one thing and then find you’re reading something else. It happens on the small-scale as you are passed between the different protagonists, getting to know things ‘from all sides’, and then in a brilliant post-modern stroke, Catton makes us question not just the fictional events but the very nature of fiction itself.

Eleanor Catton is very clever to have got us all puzzling over these big questions, while situating her puzzle in such an engrossing world. The Luminaries is a great book that works on many levels, and I can completely see why it won the Booker Prize. But for all the beautiful language and the narrative dexterity and the big post-modern questions, it left me feeling unsatisfied. By the end I no longer cared much about the murder, the gold, the whore or the love story. Perhaps that’s the point, but I found it a somewhat frustrating point to make. And if that is the point, then couldn’t she have made it rather more quickly?

As I said, The Luminaries took up a month of my reading life. I can’t remember when I last spent such a long time reading the same book. I would have read five or six normal-sized novels in that time. You might quip that bringing time into it is pointless but, put it this way, in the time it took me to read and puzzle over The Luminaries, I could have read all of E.M. Forster’s novels, or two-thirds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s. I expect I could have read a third of all Shakespeare’s plays. As was brutally pointed out to me a few months ago – we can only read so many books before we die. Our reading lives are limited more than we might care to think. For a novel to be six times as long as another novel, hence take up six times as much of one’s time, then surely it must be six times as good? While The Luminaries was a thoroughly enjoyable book, clever in so many ways, imaginative, transporting, brilliant yes … I’m afraid I just don’t think it was better than all of Forster’s novels put together.

Perhaps I would feel less vexed about all the time that it demands of its reader if I’d read it on holiday, when one suddenly gets a glut of unexpected reading time. I would heartily recommend it for a flight to New Zealand, for instance. Or, perhaps if I’d had an unlucky patch of reading and had read a few short not-particularly-good novels, then I would have rejoiced at finding such a big brilliant novel that comes pretty close to  fulfilling the reader’s desire of never wanting it to end. I read The Luminaries during my everyday reading life, however, and, although I enjoyed the trip, I slightly wish I could get a fortnight of that time back.

These things pray on one’s mind as one begins a new decade.

Perhaps you have read The Luminaries and think differently of it? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish

October 14, 2013

I’ve had rather a heavenly couple of weeks in the company of two elegant, elderly women of letters.

I wrote about Emma Smith last week – a glut of reading her brilliant memoirs, followed by a delightful tea in her Putney cottage. Michaelmas daisies bloom in the front garden and, inside, the walls are covered with photographs of loved ones, shelves lined with interesting paperbacks. I drank hot tea, ate orange and almond cake while really feasting on our conversation – Emma Smith has a wonderful ability to turn life into a compelling story.

Ammonites and Leaping FishEmma Smith is ninety, astonishingly. Penelope Lively is eighty – I suppose a spring chicken by comparison. She launched and talked about her new book Ammonites and Leaping Fish last week, which I’ve been reading ever since.

You may have gathered how much I loved Moon Tiger from my post here a few weeks ago… you can perhaps imagine my excitement about meeting its author. She was every bit as inspiring and impressive as I’d hoped; what I wasn’t prepared for was how very funny she was! She regaled us with this episode from her book:

A couple of years ago, Izzy yearned for an old-fashioned manual typewriter: ‘Vintage!’ A Smith Corona was found off eBay, and she rejoiced in it until a new ribbon became necessary, and then no one could work out how to change the ribbon. I was summoned: ‘I can’t believe we’re going to Granny for technical support.’

She delivered this anecdote with perfect comic timing. We were all chortling over ‘Vintage’, and then falling about at the thought of her being the source of technical support. Behind this sharp wit, which glistens throughout the book, lie thoughtful forays into time, memory, life, books, things and more. Penelope Lively found, to her surprise, that although her mind didn’t remember how to change the ribbon, her fingers did. It inspires a reflection on:

procedural memory, that aspect of memory whereby we remember how to do something. How to ride a bicycle is the example frequently cited, but I prefer my typewriter experience…

And then we are off with Nabokov’s thoughts about his wrists containing ‘echoes of the pram-pusher’s knack’, before moving on to ‘semantic memory’. Complex ideas, but explained in a lively (ha ha) and anecdotal manner that makes them engaging, understandable, and of course has you rifling through your own memory for your experiences.

My favourite instance of procedural memory was its utter failure when I was twelve years old. My father and I were staying with some friends of his in America. We were supposed to be going on some kind of bike marathon, which involved wearing a special t-shirt and cycling in the heat all day. As a lazy, sulky and fashion-conscious pre-teenager, I thought it was the worst thing in the world and complained bitterly, but to no avail.  The fateful morning arrived and we gathered in our ghastly t-shirts and prepared to cycle off. My father – who has always said he cycled all round Oxford as an undergrad and religiously uses his (stationary) exercise bike – got on his bike … and went nowhere. He had completely lost the knack of it, and after a good half hour’s perseverance was forced to admit defeat. Of course if he didn’t have to go, there was no way I was going to be made to do it. Procedural memory, or lack thereof, had saved me!

I digress. Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a string of pearls. Every few pages there’s one that strikes you as particularly thought-provoking, just right, gleaming and special, making you want to remember it, jot it down, or fold the page. Here are a few of my favourites:

On the joy of old age:

Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold … The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.

On the randomness of memory:

None of this is sought, hunted down – it just pops up, arbitrary, part of the stockpile. And each memory brings some tangential thought, or at least until that is clipped short by the ongoing morning and its demands. The whole network lurks, all the tirme, waiting for a thread to be picked up, followed, allowed to vibrate. My story; your story.

Except that it is an entirely unsatisfactory story. The novelist in me – the reader, too – wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights. Instead of which there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.

On the wonderful commonality of books:

Cultural community is shared reading, the references and images that you and I both know. Books are the mind’s ballast, for so many of us – the cargo that makes us what we are, a freight that is ephemeral and indelible, half-forgotten but leaving an imprint.

I could go on and on. There are such gems, and yet they are wonderfully scattered behind the everyday. Reading it feels rather like a conversation. It’s not off-puttingly difficult or dense, but easy peasy, a breeze to turn the pages, and then you’re caught off guard by the brilliance of a piercing observation.

There are also some very lucid accounts of history. The Suez Crisis is one of those things that’s so often referenced and of which I feel I vaguely know (big argument about controlling the canal in Egypt), but here Lively explains it all so clearly. I have always struggled with reading history. I find it is too often very like reading synopses – all these facts and things happening and crammed together so that the story feels fit to burst. Penelope Lively does it perfectly. The facts are there, but so are the interesting asides, like this:

Eden resigned in January 1957 (though he lived for another twenty years). The truth was that he had been ill throughout the crisis, following a gall-bladder operation some while earlier, and was heavily dependent on medication. It does seem that his condition may have had some effect on his state of mind, and his actions, during the crucial months of 1956. Certainly a number of associates were surprised by his responses, their bewilderment expressed in their language at the time: ‘gone bananas’, ‘bonkers’. His reputation never recovered – a tragedy for a man who had been a politician of integrity and a distinguished Foreign Secretary.

I’d never have known that so much of it boiled down to Eden’s gall bladder! And she tells us this with a novelist’s eye for character – and language. Please Penelope Lively, write us a whole history book!

Best of all – and the reason why Daphne is so fond of this book – is that Penelope Lively evidently loves tortoises. They come up in passing again and again:

When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hillside, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).

Oh tell us that story, please!

Later:

My mother had not been invited to Government House, and was staying more modestly at the American Colony Hotel, which I remember as having a lovely courtyard with orange trees, resident tortoises and amazing ice cream … The American Colony Hotel is five star now … I can have a standard double room tomorrow night for £175, or – if I want to push out the boat – the Deluxe Pasha King Room for £345. Are there still tortoises, I wonder?

Well there is still a tortoise at EmilyBooks, and Daphne’s library is all the richer for this rather idiosyncratic, intelligent collection of musings.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish ... and tortoises and rosemary

Moon Tiger

September 18, 2013

Why is it that so many novels about falling in love have a whiff of silliness about them? They tend to have a swirly script on the cover, as well as something pink and possibly sparkly too. You describe a book as ‘a love story’ and everyone will instantly think it’s chick lit. I doubt it would occur to anyone that you might be talking about a great classic like Anna Karenina.

Moon Tiger by Penelope LivelyMoon Tiger is a love story, of sorts. Claudia Hampton is lying in a hospital bed, old and dying, and decides she will write ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Through a series of flashbacks we learn about her life and her loves. What is instantly clear is that there is nothing pink and sparkly about Claudia – she is so intelligent and beautiful that most people find her quite terrifying. Her history of the world is about her life, and it is as much about her loves. As for the word love, she reflects:

That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things – love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness.

We learn not only of Claudia’s love for Tom Southern, a solider in Egypt during the Second World War, but also of her other loves. There is her love for her brother, Gordon, with whom she has such a profound closeness that his wife finds it unnerving; her love for her conventional, insipid daughter Lisa; for Jasper, her dashing, successful lover, and Laszlo, a stray Hungarian who she takes in.

Moreover – unexpectedly, brilliantly and quite addictively – Penelope Lively shows us not only how Claudia feels towards these characters, but also how they respond to Claudia. Claudia’s reflections are peppered with breaks in the narrative, after which time is rewound a few moments, and then the same episode is briefly retold from a different character’s perspective.

It is hard to explain this remarkably original style of writing, so I hope you’ll forgive my quoting at length. The following takes place in a bar in 1946. Claudia has introduced Jasper to her brother Gordon and his girlfriend Sylvia and she recalls the conversation:

‘You always did have dubious taste in men,’ Gordon continues.

‘Really?’ says Claudia. ‘Now that’s an interesting remark.’

They stare at one another.

‘Oh, stop it, you two,’ says Sylvia. ‘This is supposed to be a celebration.’

‘So it is,’ says Gordon. ‘So it is. Come on, Claudia, celebrate.’ He upends the bottle into her glass.

‘It really is terrific, ‘says Sylvia. ‘An Oxford fellowship! I still can’t quite believe it.’ Her eyes never leave Gordon, who does not look at her. She twitches a thread from the sleeve of his jacket, touches his hand, gets out a packet of cigarettes, drops them, retrieves them from the floor.

Claudia continues to observe Gordon. Out of the corner of an eye, from time to time, she takes stock of Jasper. Others also note Jasper; he is a person people see. She raises her glass: ‘Congrats! Again. Remind me to come and dine at your High Table.’

‘You can’t,’ says Gordon. ‘No ladies.’

‘Oh, what a shame,’ says Claudia.

‘Where did you find him?’

‘Find who?’

‘You know damn well who I mean.’

‘Oh – Jasper. Um, now … where was it? I went to interview him for a book.’

‘Ah,’ says Sylvia brightly. ‘How’s the book going?’

They ignore her. And Jasper returns to the table. He sits down, puts his hand on Claudia’s. ‘I’ve told them to bring a bottle of champers. So drink up.’

Immediately after this, we get the following:

Sylvia tries to get out a cigarette, drops the packet, grovels for it on the floor and feels her expensive hairdo falling to pieces. And the dress is not a success, too pink and pretty and girlish. Claudia is in black, very low-cut, with a turquoise belt.

‘How is the book going?’ she asks. And Claudia does not answer, so Sylvia must fill the gap lighting her cigarette, puffing, looking round the room as though she hadn’t expected a reply anyway…

Each time Lively uses this remarkable technique, you get a feeling for how personal memory is, how each event has as many reflections as there are observers.

The WavesIt reminds me of The Waves by Virginia Woolf, which is also told from multiple perspectives, but in a more pronouncedly Modern way. This passage from the heart of The Waves, when all seven characters are meeting in a restaurant strikes me as an apt description of Moon Tiger’s sentiment:

We have come together … to make one thing, not enduring – for what endures? – but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves – a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.

A single red carnation becomes a multicoloured many-petalled thing, transformed by so many perspectives, made ‘whole’ only when ‘every eye brings its own contribution’. Woolf, like Lively, points to the variety and incompleteness of individual viewpoint, demonstrating how each fleeting moment is created by every eye that sees it.

Claudia is a historian and the book is, as she says at the beginning, ‘a history of the world’. Throughout the novel, we get reflections on history, on the contrast between history as it is lived and as it is written about:

History is disorder, I wanted to scream at them – death and muddle and waste. And here you sit cashing in on it and making patterns in the sand.

Any story has to make some kind of ‘pattern in the sand’, but Lively manages to trace a pattern while pointing out its inherent subjectivity, gesturing all the time towards the many other narratives that exist simultaneously, and at their collective mess.

But here I am, 1000 words in, and I’ve barely mentioned the heartbreaking heart of the novel – Claudia’s beautiful, painfully brief love affair in Egypt during the Second World War. These pages are completely entrancing, in part for the way in which Cairo is captured on the page so well you can practically smell the eucalyptus and have to stop yourself from brushing sand off the pages, and in part for the way that Lively captures so perfectly the intensity of sudden, piercing, all-encompassing love.

Brilliantly, this love story isn’t fully uncovered until the novel is well underway, so we know by then that Claudia is a formidable, intelligent woman. Unlike her ‘frothy … silk-clad scented’ Cairo flatmate – ‘having the time of her life, doing a bit of typing in the mornings for someone Daddy was a school with and taking her pick of the officers of the 9th Hussars in the evening’ – Claudia is in Egypt as an ambitious war reporter. It is far more affecting to see someone so self-sufficient fall in love:

An hour ago he kneeled above her. And, misinterpreting what he must have seen as panic in her eyes, said ‘You’re not … Claudia, I’m not the first?’ She could not speak – only hold out her arms. She could not say: ‘It’s not you I’m afraid of, it’s how I feel.’

We have just seen Claudia travel through a sandstorm in the desert, the only woman to have wangled her way close to the front; Claudia, who has just seen a man dying, with a red hole in his thigh ‘into which you could put your fist. From it there crawls a line of ants.’ And yet, brave Claudia is afraid of this overwhelming feeling. How powerful to see someone so capable made so vulnerable by love.

Woolf asks in The Waves, ‘What endures?’ Lively’s answer in Moon Tiger is memories, impressions, words – with all the awareness that these are one-sided, fallible, incomplete renderings of the past. Claudia reflects:

I shall survive – appallingly misrepresented – in Lisa’s head and in Sylvia’s and in Jasper’s and in the heads of my grandsons (if there is room alongside football players and pop stars) and the heads of mine enemies. As a historian, I know only too well that there is nothing I can do about the depth and extent of the misrepresentation, so I don’t care. Perhaps, for those who do, who struggle against it, this is the secular form of hell – to be preserved in forms that we do not like in the recollection of others.

Lively highlights the ‘appallingly misrepresented’ nature of memory with the narrative structure of her book, and yet she also shows the positive side to this. She shows how piercingly affective a memory can be, and how its very subjectivity is what gives it power. She states, ‘inside the head, everything happens at once’. These memories are indeed misrepresentations, but they are more powerful than time – able to transport you back over many years in an instant.

This idea of the power of misrepresentation, made me think of the various ways that people read a book – everyone taking away something different, each person finding something in it that speaks to him alone, each creating her own misrepresentation of the author’s original work. You have just read some of my own misrepresentation of Moon Tiger. All that I would add is that it really is SUCH an extraordinary and affecting novel that now all I want to do is sit down and read it again, and try to make everyone I know read it too. Do read it, and then you could come along to Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday 29th September when we can discuss its brilliance at length.

Walking book club 10