“A Medley of Allusions”: Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda

oleanderPenelope 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.”

oleander2That 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.

moontigerIt 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.

8 thoughts on ““A Medley of Allusions”: Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda

    • Rohan April 4, 2015 / 3:29 pm

      How had I not heard of that? What an interestingly perverse idea.


  1. lawless April 2, 2015 / 6:47 am

    I don’t know how to put this delicately, but as I read this review, I thought to myself, “I wonder what the reaction of someone native to Egypt who lived in it at the time would be to this book? Would it be that once again, non-Europeans and their cultures are being used as interesting and exotic background for a book that foregrounds the experience of a privileged person of white/European descent?”

    No disrespect to Lively’s writing, but I suspect this book could be held up as an example of why books aren’t more diverse; books by white authors with Eurocentric outlooks suck up all the oxygen. No matter how beautiful the prose, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to read this because of whose narrative is being privileged here.


    • Rohan April 2, 2015 / 2:38 pm

      I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization of this memoir. For one thing, Lively herself is very self-conscious (in retrospect, as she took it for granted as a child) about her position as part of a colonial class. It is her own memoir, and her family did live in Egypt throughout her childhood: it doesn’t seem quite fair to say that she’s “privileging” her own narrative, unless the logic is that she’s simply not entitled to write about her experiences. If she wrote arrogantly about it, from a position of flaunted and unexamined Eurocentrism, the book would certainly be objectionable! But it’s not like that, and in terms of “exotic background,” for her at least, it’s England that is most unfamiliar and strange when she eventually moves back there.

      As it happens, I read this book right after Brooklyn Heights, which is a book by an Egyptian novelist (with strong autobiographical elements) that crosses back and forth between a past in Egypt and a present in Brooklyn. I thought the two books played against each other in interesting but not at all antagonistic ways, exploring memory and cultural differences and the often confusing ways identities form among what is familiar and what isn’t.


      • lawless April 3, 2015 / 8:31 am

        I really hesitated before posting this. It’s not entirely fair in the sense that it is, in fact, her story. My problem is that her story — her type of memoir — is privileged above others. So this is more a criticism of publishing and the book-buying public, as I know (because I see them on my Twitter feed and know the publishing stats) many, many talented authors of color (in the US primarily; I’m not referring to ones who are, say, Egyptian and living in Egypt like Mahmouz) are discouraged by the insistence on white, Eurocentric experiences being the default and its impact on their work, popularity, and chance of publication outside of self-publishing.

        I thought of them and how they would react to this book, and I can say quite honestly they would not react well no matter how well-written it is. For one thing, the point about memory and childhood has likely been made before, although not in the exact same way. They would say Lively got to write her book because she’s a well-known author. How did she come to be a well-known author? Because she writes fiction that is considered literary and has been praised for it. (They, pretty much to a woman, write genre.) And on and on. I think their critique –as to whose voices are heard and the preferences of the people who act as literary gatekeepers — has merit.


        • Rohan April 3, 2015 / 10:37 am

          Their critique would certainly have merit at a systemic level, though it seems to me it would be unfortunate to “react to” or calculate the merits of any individual book considering only broad contexts in that way, and not the particulars of the writing and thinking in the book itself. Lively’s work is often, also, written self-consciously against a tradition that privileges male experiences and narratives — another dimension of privilege and and literary gate-keeping, that isn’t trivial, even if it also is in some respects partial. How to balance the different things we care about in reacting to any particular work of literature is a complex and ongoing negotiation, isn’t it?


          • lawless April 3, 2015 / 3:50 pm

            Their response would be “intersectonality.” I would agree with them.

            Here’s what it most resembles: Magazine decides to write an article on, say diverse/interracial or LGBTQ romance. Instead of interviewing and quoting authors of color, or authors who identify as queer, the magazine interviews and quotes well-known authors with privilege — white and non -queer — who are allies and write the genre at issue. And the well-known authors don’t know enough to refuse to toot their own horns and happily provide quotes and take the accolades rather than refusing to do so and referring them to authors writing their lived experience. In many instances, said well-known author herself perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes.


  2. Rohan April 4, 2015 / 3:12 pm

    “Intersectionality”: yes, that’s why I said “partial.”

    To work out what I think about applying your more detailed analogy to Lively’s memoir (or my reading of Lively’s memoir) I’d need to be more certain what the referent is for your “it” in “Here’s what it most resembles.” Is it Lively herself (tooting her own horn?), or the publishing industry (publishing her life story instead of someone else’s), or readers (taking an interest in her life, instead of someone else’s)? Or all three, in some sense colluding to — what, crowd out other voices? (Is that happening, in this case?) Or something else?

    The first step of the analogy certainly trips me up a bit, since the topic in this case (what the ‘article’ is on) is Lively’s own life, not some other topic on which she is not actually the best qualified to speak. It’s not a book “about” Egypt, for instance, and she doesn’t purport to speak for Egyptians about their “lived experience.” Is the basic point that we should not care what her experience of growing up in Egypt was because in some sense it is not authentic? I’m not trying to be combative: I’m just genuinely mulling over who or what is being estopped here and on what grounds.

    I find myself wondering what the “they” whose responses you are hypothesizing would say in this context about Ahdaf Soueif’s work (something I’ve written about quite a bit here and elsewhere). The Anglo-Egyptian connection is a long-lived one, with a lot of cultural implications that Soueif (like Lively) explores in interesting ways. She and Lively both grew up in Egypt, traveled to England, and wrote about their experiences.


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