Saturday, April 5, 2014

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively

This image originally appeared in the NY
Times book review. Kudos to the artist -- it
couldn't be more apt.
This is the first of Penelope Lively's books that I've read. She's an author whose name has floated in my field of vision for years, and now I wish I'd gotten round to reading her sooner.  I adored How It All Began -- for me, it was a well-timed bit of escapist fiction, inviting me to lose myself in her characters to a degree that I rarely do. It was also an excellent continuation on the life vs. story discussion that Sam Shepard started with the Beckett epigraph at the start of his novel.

As the book opens, Charlotte lies dazed on the pavement after a thief snatched her handbag.  She can't get up, and a small crowd gathers round her. I love the clipped, terse inner monologue, so true to the circumstances. Oh, and the siren transcription, too, though it took me a moment to catch onto that.
Voices discuss. She is not much interested. Nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw. Here it is. Know for whom the bell tolls. Expert hands: lifting, bundling. In the ambulance, she is on her side, in some sort of rigid tube. She hurts. Where is hurt? Don't know. Anywhere. May as well try to sleep for a bit."Keep your eyes open, please. We'll be there in a few minutes." Trolley ride. On and on. Corridors. People passing. Right turn. Halt. More lifting. They take the tube away. She is on her back now. Nurse. Smiling but businesslike. Name? Address? Those she can do. No problem. Date of birth? That too. Not a good date of birth. Rather a long time ago. Next of kin? Rose is not going to like this. It's morning, isn't it? Rose will be with his lordship. Next of kin will be at work. Not bother her. Yet.
Rose is Charlotte's daughter, the next in line to feel the impact of the snatch thief's action. And there begins the thread that binds together eight people whose lives shift course as a result of Charlotte's mugging, though most of them are barely aware of the connection, if at all. When the call came from the hospital, Rose was indeed at work, tending to the needs and copious paperwork of Lord Henry Peters, a pompous, aged, self-absorbed historian of the 18th century. Actually, Henry's position in the academic world is slipping, but he is loath to acknowledge this as he toils away on his memoirs. It's a bit of a bother to Sir Henry that Rose must take a few days off to look after her mother, as his important work is likely to suffer in the absence of his assistant. Or so he believes.  One has a consistently high opinion of one's own worth, as he himself would be likely to put it.
Henry is in fact out of touch with the eighteenth century. He stopped thinking much about it a number of years ago; he has not kept up with new publications. The eighteenth century has moved on, leaving him behind. History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant, but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion. Henry is well aware of this, and aware that the eighteenth century has disappeared over the horizon so far as he is concerned, reconstructed, reinterpreted. No, better not stick his neck out. Could be cut up by some young turk. Not that one's own work does not remain the basis of Augustan studies, in the opinion of any reputable scholar. Most reputable scholars, anyway.
While Rose is absent, Henry calls upon his niece, Marion, a well-heeled interior designer, to accompany him to deliver a lecture in Manchester. It is a fiasco -- Marion neglects to bring the lecture notes, and Henry finds himself at the podium gesticulating madly about ... the Elder and ... the Younger, completely unable to call the name of Pitt to mind.  This mortifying event sends Henry off on a mad mission to make historical documentaries for TV. At the post-lecture luncheon, Marion sits next to a wealthy banker with investment properties in need of decoration, which at the time seems a heaven-sent coincidence.

Going to Manchester with Uncle Henry meant having to cancel a date with her married lover, so Marion sent him an SMS. Which Jeremy's wife spotted, occasioning yet another of her nervous breakdowns. Jeremy is a charming cad -- he continues to pursue Marion whilst simultaneously trying to win Stella back, filling his rubbish bin with menacing letters from her divorce solicitor. Jeremy wallows in shameless self-absorption and self-pity, unaware that he might be at least partially responsible for the mess he's in, yet not entirely clear on how others caused it, either.
Sometimes Jeremy cannot remember how the hell all this began. How and why did his life fall apart? Oh yes, the wretched text from Marion. What on earth was it about? Nothing much. She couldn't meet up, for some reason. Something to do with that uncle of hers. What the devil has her uncle got to do with Jeremy? Why should he be persecuted by a solicitor because of someone he doesn't even know? It is so wrong.
When Charlotte imagines that the thief might have been a starving artist who swiped her purse in order to buy opera tickets, Rose retorts that he or she probably just needed a drug fix. Either way, the thief stays resolutely out of the picture, unaware of the chain of reaction he's unleashed.

Meanwhile, trying desperately to achieve as much independence as possible and to impose as little as possible on Rose and Gerry, Charlotte -- a former English literature teacher -- agrees to tutor an eastern European immigrant "with forests in his eyes" at the apartment.  Anton can speak passably good English but has made no progress in learning to read the new language in the new script. He would like to find work in his field, accountancy, but his illiteracy keeps him working on a construction site. Charlotte is surprised to come home one afternoon to find her mother and Anton hunched over a copy of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Anton engrossed. (If anyone knows about keeping readers involved in stories, it's Penelope Lively.)
"Isn't this rather unorthodox, Mum?"
"Possibly. Anton isn't complaining."
"I am like child," said Anton cheerfully. "Child learn when he is interested. When he want to know what come next in the story. Nothing come next with 'I go to the shop' and 'This is our house'."
When she goes back to the clinic for a follow-up visit, Charlotte hastily grabs a paperback off Rose's bookshelf as she heads out to the waiting minicab. She expects the NHS to give her a good long time to read before she sees a doctor. Like most bookworms, Charlotte has a look around the waiting room to see what others are reading, and what she might deduce about them as a result.
One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy-pink raised lettering on the cover. An elderly man had a battered hardback library book. She wanted to know what it was, but could not see -- unforgivable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime. A few pages of The Da Vinci Code, and she knew that she could go no further with this. Moreover, she felt that her reading matter nailed her: the woman beside her had glanced at the book before Charlotte opened it, and given her a complicit smile and nod. I am seen as a Da Vinci Code person, thought Charlotte. Well, there would be a certain affectation in being someone who sat in a hospital waiting room reading Dostoevsky.
Ms. Lively gracefully ends the book without any pat conclusions (earlier in the book one of the characters had railed about the newly vogue idea of "closure" -- as if there were any such thing!). Instead, she puts down a variation on a phrase typical of English novels of earlier centuries, "We leave them here...", and, much as I revelled in each character's company, I was content to let them all go on their ways. They gave me a lot during the time we were together.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading her books for children that were donated by the World Bank to our little town library when I very young. Penelope Lively is a marvelous storyteller, indeed!


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