All hail Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

I was a latecomer to Penelope Lively’s fiction for adults. Previously I only knew her name from her children’s books: The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, to name one, or The House in Norham Gardens (since living in Oxford, I’ve had fun walking around the actual street named Norham Gardens, musing over whether Lively had any particular house in mind.)

Consequences, read on a long, cramped train journey on a dark February night, was my first forary into Lively’s adult novels. Since then I’ve been voraciously working my way through her entire back catalogue. It’s great when an author’s writing inspires that kind of thirst, where one book makes you want to read everything else they’ve ever written. I’ve had it with Ian McEwan and Salley Vickers too, but I’ll praise them elsewhere; this is Lively’s party.

She deserves a party: she is undervalued. Why is the publication of a new Lively book (and she is a prolific writer) not trumpeted in the way that books by other major British novelists are? Mustn’t whine (Penelope would hate that) but there seems to be an impression, identified by Anthony Thwaite in his introduction to her Booker prize-winning Moon Tiger, that Lively’s books are essentially cosily middle-class, unchallenging reads. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not Lively.

The first edition of Moon Tiger

The first edition of Moon Tiger

It’s true that her novels are peopled with middle-class characters pursuing white-collar or arty, imaginative careers. Academics (often historians or archaeologists), garden designers, architects, interior designers, writers, solicitors, journalists and art dealers all feature. But Lively likes skewering these types, too: Gina in Family Album is aware that her aunt Corinna ignores her mother Alison, a housewife, and is impressed only ‘by achievements in her own rarefied sphere. I don’t write studies of 19th Century poetry, so I am beyond her remit.’ Kath in The Photograph remains an enigma, a kind of aporetic void at the heart of the text, but this is because we only ever view her through the eyes of others who are constantly trying to grasp what she ‘does’ with her life. They don’t understand what she does for a job, if she does anything at all. Therefore they don’t understand (or try to understand) her.

What I really enjoy in Lively’s novels is the idea that we are, somehow, composites of selves, that ‘if a place is haunted, it is perhaps with the ghost of ourselves, both past and future.’ Her ‘anti-memoir’, Making It Up, explores this brilliantly: the splintering chains of consequences that make up a life and how different the ‘story’ could have been. It reads like a series of short stories in which Lively riffs on aspects of her own life and imagines how things could have turned out differently.

Pile of Lively's books

My pretty Penguin editions of Lively’s books

Then there’s the way she writes. Lively can tell, tell, tell and not show, for pages on end, with little dialogue. It’s how she tells, what she notices, the precise details she chooses to home in on – and always with her trademark taut style. She takes an almost phenomenological view of cities and landscapes – never more so than in City of the Mind, which was proving almost too densely psychological and disorientating for me at first, but which turned out to be a satisfyingly slow burn.

Top recommendations? Heat Wave – pathetic fallacy par excellence, where Lively ratchets up the tension between a mother, daughter and the daughter’s husband during a long, hot summer (remember those? Oh wait, we just had one!). How It All Began for some of her best writing on age, being young, identity, reading, the importance of stories, love, marriage and human interaction. Making It Up – for narrative innovation. And Consequences – an immensely moving, but never saccharine, saga spanning three generations of women from the eve of World War Two to the present day.

She’s got a new book out at the moment, Ammonites and Leaping Fish – read more here:

And here’s her recent poignant, meditative piece for The Guardian:

Do read thee some Lively – you won’t regret it.


Forgetting about the classics

Calling all ex-English students! Does anyone else have to make a conscious effort to remember to read ‘the classics’ since they finished their degree? I left university craving modern fiction and that’s mostly what I’ve been reading ever since.

Until this year, I could count on one hand the ‘classics’ I’d read since leaving uni. Here they are: The Count of Monte Cristo (en français – long, but loved it) and Wuthering Heights, which I somehow never read as part of my Victorian Lit module but thought was fabulous (and what a wonderfully weird anomaly it is, when you look at everything else being written at the time). And…I can’t think of many others. Certainly few of the weighty nineteenth-century French tomes I bought from the bouquinistes and charming second-hand French bookshops.

Bouquinistes by the Seine

Parisian bouquinistes. Who sold me books I still haven’t read.

But the shame eventually got to me. One too many cries of ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read [insert name of time-honoured classic]…and you studied English…??’ and I had a major case of reading guilt. I’m not the only one – the fab Savidge Reads recently embarked on Classically Challenged, a programme of reading that would let him get around to exploring some of those big, canonical authors that are meant to be, you know, the greatest writers of all time. His posts on this epic literary diet make for good reading, and are encouraging for anyone who’s a bit nervous about going back to the classics. (Tip: you don’t have to think they’re all marvellous! I learnt this from The Last of the Mohicans. OH GOD I REALLY HATED THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.)

So I’ve been trying to get my backside into gear and read some of those fat old books that were earnestly bought before university but have languished on my shelves ever since. Of course, they’re not all fat and chunky – but somehow the doorstops are the ones that have called out to me most, challenging me to conquer them.

Anna Karenina was one of the best investments I made. ‘Investment’ is the word. To tackle these kind of books again I found I almost had to go on a training regime: to adjust my palate, build up my stamina, train myself to read for longer. To be a more patient, deliberate sort of reader; to force myself to keep going and nibble away. I realised, with dismay, that taking a jolting bus journey to work every day had surreptitiously altered my reading habits: I wanted sharp, clean writing and short, snappy books I could devour in a couple of journeys. Either that, or something so wonderfully escapist and gripping that I positively welcomed the chance to read it by the light of my iphone on those dark winter evenings when the bus had, yet again, failed to turn up. I’m thinking: Game of Thrones, any Carlos Ruiz Zafòn (I urge you to read The Shadow of the Wind trilogy) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, only just got round to reading that too)…

Me reading Anna Karenina

Here I am reading Anna Karenina in the Caribbean. I know – dedicated, right? It beat reading it on the bus.

Mind you, I think we give ourselves a guilt complex too readily. We forget that many massive, Victorian-era novels were serial publications, published in installments (I’m thinking of Dickens, who I haven’t touched for years).

But Anna was worth the slog. Even the agricultural reform bits with Levin weren’t too bad. I’d heard about how achingly slow and difficult these parts of the book were, so was perhaps prepared for a real endurance test – but it was OK! (It helps that Levin is awesome.)

What next? I feel it should be a French doorstop, but I may need some sort of carrot, like another bookish trip to look forward to. Mmm. Which massive nineteenth-century French novel has the most exotic setting??

‘Like Dickens, but more political’ – reading Les Mis (or not)

I still haven’t finished Hugo’s Les Misérables – and I started it when I was about 13, in the original French (which was, come to think of it, a bit too ambitious for my pre-GSCE lexicon). I do intend to finish it, really I do – and I should, being such a fan of the musical (and now Tom Hooper’s film). You can read my thoughts on both in this piece I wrote for York-based zine One&Other:

My copy of Les Mis

My neat, unthumbed copy of Les Mis