Penelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived turned out to be an apt book to be reading on my birthday, which is a day that inevitably recalls memories of its earlier childhood iterations. Lively’s book is a memoir, but it’s a markedly impressionist one, composed of anecdotes and recollections held together with a light stitching of context and retrospection. She doesn’t try to create a coherent narrative out of her materials or even to situate them definitively: instead, she’s interested in recapturing the intense but incomplete, even confused, quality of childhood when much is “perceived” (as per her title) but much less is understood, or at least not as adults understand it. Pictures come to her mind, moments complete in themselves yet unmoored from certainty: did that happen? can he have said that? why were we there? Places and relationships are recalled as they were once taken for granted, with the child’s acceptance that this way, and no other way, is how they are ordered — but now also seen with the eyes of greater experience as symptomatic of complex and contingent patterns, of class, of race, of national identity, of history.
What fascinates Lively most is “the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment”:
to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation. . . . A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe — but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation.
She doesn’t really idealize this “child’s eye view” or lament the inevitable adult blurring of that clarity. She acknowledges, and her book amply illustrates, how limiting and solipsistic it is. Living in Egypt during World War II, for instance, she has only the vaguest sense of the world-historical event unfolding around her, her own preoccupations entirely (and entirely naturally) wholly personal:
The bombing of Alexandria was concentrated on the harbour region, some distance from the residential area in which my mother would rent a villa for the summer. Indeed, for me the air raids simply added to the festive atmosphere of the place and gave it a further esoteric dimension. The sky was suffused with fireworks. If the raid was bad you were got out of bed and tucked up in a rug under the dining-room table, and there was always the possibility of picking up shrapnel in the garden next morning.
Later, when she is living with her grandmothers in England and struggling to adjust to “this stupefying environment” (“the inconceivable cold, the perpetually leaking sky, that grass”), “the war ended — and I hardly noticed, immersed in becoming someone else.”
That same self-absorption, however, is also what enables the peculiar clarity and vividness of her childhood observations: not already knowing what anything is or means, children have to puzzle it out on their own terms, and much of Oleander, Jacaranda simply describes the Egypt of Lively’s childhood as she saw it:
We are in the desert, somewhere outside Cairo. My mother has driven us to see what some archaeologists are doing, who are working out here in the middle of nowhere. The archaeologist to whom my mother talks is French. He is offering explanations, to which I do not listen. I see, simply.
I see a shallow scrape in the sand, a bowl in which lies in delicate relief a crouched skeletal outline. It is so faint that it seems to melt into the sand, or to be a pattern blown by the wind. There is the curve of the skull, the fan of ribs, the folded limbs. The trace of a hand. Perhaps I do listen to the explanation, with half an ear, because it comes to me as I stare that this is a person. Long, long ago, this was a person. It too saw, and felt, and thought. I stand there enthralled, glimpsing time, and death. I do not know what it is that I have seen, but I understand that it is of significance.
Now, looking back, she thinks she must have been looking at a “pre-Dynastic burial,” as the details she recalls with such distinctness match what she has learned about these remains. But she can’t be sure where she was when she saw them, or when:
My reactions do not seem to have been those of a very young child, but it would seem odd for archaeological activity of this kind to have been going on in the desert once the war had got going — I feel it cannot have been much later than 1940. So I was six or seven, and able to grasp the idea of immensities of time.
The haziness of her commentary, the fog of uncertainty in which even the most precise details of her memories are bathed, might easily have doomed Oleander, Jacaranda. As a memoir, in fact, I might even say that it is not particularly successful. But Lively is not aiming at a conventional memoir: the book is more about the process of memory, and about the differences between childhood and adult perceptions. By the end of the book she realizes that she is moving from one to the other. While being shown around “the bomb-flattened area around St. Paul’s” by a family friend, “someone who had developed an intense interest in the topographical history of the area and had discovered the way in which the bombs had stripped away the layers of time.” As he points out what the bombs have revealed — bits of the medieval boundary wall, fragments of a Roman bastion — Penelope “caught a glimpse of what it is like to have adult concerns,” what it is like to know the stories that connect things and surround them with meaning beyond the immediate and personal:
Romans were to do with me because I had heard of them, but they were also to do with the significant and hitherto impenetrable mystique of grown-up preoccupations. It was as though the exposure of that chunk of wall had also shown up concealed possibilities. I sniffed the liberations of maturity, and grew up a little more, there amid the wreckage of London and the seething spires of willowherb.
Oleander, Jacaranda doesn’t give us an orderly account of Lively’s young life, but it gives a remarkably vivid sense of what it’s like to remember a life, as we all do, in chaotic and imperfect snatches.
It also shows, though it only occasionally tells, a lot about the direction of that life: Lively became a novelist, of course, and it’s hard not to see in the kinds of memories she has the observant, inquiring mind it takes to write the kind of fiction she does. The language of Oleander, Jacaranda, too, has the sure touch of someone who lives through words:
The Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s survives now only in my mind, and in the minds of others. Most of whom knew it a great deal better than I did. For I did not know it at all, I realize, any more than I knew Cairo in any real sense. Much of it I never even saw — the densely populate slum quarters to the west of the city, the labyrinthine streets of downtown Alexandria, tucked behind the boulevards and shops. It was not one city but half a dozen, in which people moved on different planes, segregated by class and culture. And for me there was the further segregation of childhood. My Alexandria was a sybaritic dream. Peanuts in a paper cone, eaten on the Corniche. The suck and whoosh of the sea at the Spouting Rock. The milky-green curve of a surfing wave. The cool grip of a chameleon. Pistachio ice-cream. Macaroons. A medley of allusions, which add up now to a place which no longer exists in any sense at all.
Lively has long been one of my favorite novelists. I especially admire Moon Tiger, which I have assigned once or twice in seminars on historiography because, like Oleander, Jacaranda, it is preoccupied with the interplay of personal and historical, of memory and fact and imagination, in constructing stories about the past. Oleander, Jacaranda is more meandering than Moon Tiger, and possibly less artful, but it’s still another fascinating excursion into the places of Lively’s mind.