A Tether In Time: Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites


Memory and anticipation. What has happened, and what might happen. The mind needs its tether in time, it must know where it is — in the perpetual slide of the present, with the ballast of what has been and the hazard of what is to come.

I mostly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites — which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir but, as she says in the Preface, “the view from old age.” But I also thought, as I read it, that she had been given a free pass somewhere along the editorial line. Perhaps the thought was that having published so much finely-wrought prose already, she had earned the right to ramble on a bit, to opine and speculate and meander at will.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is not a boring book, though by and large it covers familiar territory. Lively herself often remarks in passing that she’s talked about the biographical details elsewhere (in Oleander, Jacaranda, for instance), and the central themes are ones she acknowledges have been central to her fiction: memory; fact and fiction; history, both personal and public; the meaningful tangibility and endurance of objects (“I am an archaeologist manquée,” she says in one of the book’s least likely but most engaging chapters, “Six Things”). A newer preoccupation, or at least one with more urgency here, is aging. “Old age is in the eye of the beholder,” she says in her chapter on that topic; “I am eighty, so I am old, no question.” So her reflections on her continuing themes are colored — shaded, often — by her awareness that her time to think (and write) about them is probably running out, and a desire to understand and remember the life she has had, especially as marked out by the books and objects that surround her now. “These, then, are the prompts for this book,” she says:

age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to — how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.

And that’s what she goes on to talk about. There’s a chapter — unflinching, but also strangely bracing — on old age: “I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.” There’s a chapter on “Life and Times” — for me, the least successful of the book, but an interesting concept, to highlight the major historical events of her lifetime and “fish out what it felt like to be around at that point,” a personal counterpoint to “the long view, the story now told.” There’s a chapter on memory that moves between specific memories of her own and reflections on what we now know about the varieties and functions of memory — it raised questions for me about what makes someone else’s memories interesting, as the ones she offers from her own life are almost defiantly ordinary (“I am staying with my aunt Diana and her family in Kent. Winter 1947, and bitterly — famously — cold. I remember going to bed with all my clothes on”) and yet in the mundane details, “the trawl from the mass of lurking material,” there is something captivating. Maybe her trick is tacitly implying that our memories, too, no more extraodinary than hers, are also worth lingering over.

The most inviting chapter for me was “Reading and Writing.” “I can measure out my life in books,” she says;

They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.

She doesn’t talk in detail about any of them, but she writes well about what it’s like to be a reader. I particularly liked her tribute to libraries:

Early reading is serendipitous, and rightly so. Gloriously so. Libraries favor serendipity, invite it; the roaming along a shelf, eyeing an unfamiliar name, taking this down, then that — oh, who’s this? Never heard of her — give her a go? That is where, and how, you learn affinity and rejection. You find out what you like by exploring what you do not.

And I was struck by what she says about reading as a writer. “Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen,” she says, “taught me that writing can be expansive and complex but still be accurate and exciting;”

I had no thoughts then of writing myself — I was reading purely as a gourmet reader, refining taste, exploring the possibilities. Now I think that a writer’s reading experience does not so much determine how they will write as what they feel about writing; you do not want to write like the person you admire, even if you were capable of it — you want to do justice to the very activity, you want to give it your own best, whatever that may be. A standard has been set.

That rings true to me, or at any rate it sounds right to me, like what a writer should feel about writing.

In the final chapter, called “Six Things,” she picks out six objects from her home and offers a kind of “thick description” of them: what they are and look like and feel like, where they came from, how they fit into the stories and themes of her life. This chapter felt particularly random, and yet at the same time that is its point, its structure, so that seems an unfair criticism. I like poking around people’s homes and seeing what they have: people’s things can be so revealing (“tell me what you like,” Ruskin said, “and I’ll tell you what you are”) and that’s the underlying justification here, a last attempt by Lively to explain (archaeologically, as it were) who she is, by excavating her life and interpreting a sample of its remnants — “the detritus of the past.”

“Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent” Lively writes in her chapter on memory, “but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.” Dancing Fish and Ammonites isn’t a revelatory book, but it adds to the other writing Lively has done to personalize her little segment. I liked spending this further time with her.

“History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger


“When the times are out of joint it is brought uncomfortably home to you that history is true and that unfortunately you are a part of it. One has this tendency to think oneself immune.”

I have often mentioned Moon Tiger as one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read it through for at least 10 years, maybe more. The last time I’m sure I read it is when I assigned it in a seminar on “Women and Historical Writing,” in one of my first years teaching at Dalhousie. I was fresh from my dissertation research on gender, genre, and historiography, and Moon Tiger, which is preoccupied with who writes history and how, and with what authority, played right into my hands. Its protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a historian, but a popular one, not a professional one: her career has been defined by a kind of belligerent celebration of her outsider status as she is dismissed by academic historians who see her as unserious. Yet she herself derides her lover, Jasper, for the historical epics he produces for television, which Claudia thinks “diminished the past, turned history into entertainment”: “I held forth about the difference between history as reasoned analysis and history as spectacle.”

Moon Tiger itself experiments with different approaches to history. In particular, it prods us to consider the insoluble problem that history is at once personal and general, that the particular which matters so much, so intensely, to each of us in the moment is always part of something much larger in which it can easily be lost. How can history, as a narrative, accommodate both these levels of attention? The novel’s vacillation between first-person and third-person narration is a formal gesture towards the desired balance. But even the third-person narration focuses mostly on Claudia, whose personality dominates the novel just as she has always commanded every room she enters: “always,” thinks her sort-of adopted son Laszlo, “Claudia has seemed brighter cleverer more entertaining than other people, . . . always when you leave Claudia you go flat a little.” It’s through Claudia that we are directed out into the world of impersonal history: we are shown its events through her eyes and through her ideas about it, as if to remind us that objectivity is always already compromised, that nothing means anything until it is seen, considered, narrated — all of which requires a point of view, a story.

moontigerSo Moon Tiger is Claudia’s story, but it is also a historical story. In particular, it is the story of her years as a correspondent in Egypt during the Second World War, when she had the experiences which still, at the end of her life, are “its core, its centre.” The section about the war in the desert, and the heartfelt love story of Claudia — the usually impervious, arrogant, brilliant Claudia — and Tom Southern (“oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending”), comprise the novel’s stunning centerpiece, but embedded as it is in Claudia’s wide-ranging reflections on history and mortality, and in her memories of her family, it doesn’t define Moon Tiger as either a war novel or a romance. Instead, it provides the most fully realized example in the novel of the ways we are all, as Tom says to her, part of history, not exempt from it. We can’t always tell what that truth means: it’s cataclysms like war that break open our illusion of immunity, revealing that most of us are not writing history but living it — that we are not really the authors of our own lives.

As she lies in her hospital bed waiting for death, Claudia dreams of writing another book, this time “a history of the world.” It’s an absurd project, of course: no book could be so comprehensive. But as she reflects, there’s a way in which she herself already embodies just such a history:

My body . . . remembers Java Man and Australopithicus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I share but cannot apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee; there, but for the grace of God, went I. Being the raging agnostic that I am, of course, I consider that God had nothing to do with it.

Claudia is fascinated by fossils, those physical traces of the past in the present, reminders of the enormous changes but also continuities of the earth. On her deathbed, she feels at once the totality and the singularity of it all, the simultaneity of the big stories (“Rommel was pushed out of Africa … we won the war”) and the personal experiences. Against the overarching narrative of the war she has Tom’s diaries, “louder now than the narrative I know”:

This dispassionate sequence explains — or purports to explain — why the war happened and how it evolved and what its effects have been. Your experience — raw and untreated — does not seem to contribute to any of that. It is on a different plane. I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. . . . All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appalls and uplifts me. I need it. . . . And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

1987 Penelope Lively Moon TigerEverything, nothing; a history of the world, a history of one woman — there’s something vertiginous in the novel’s movements between these extremes, but holding the ideas and the experiences together is always Claudia, because that, after all, is our own way of being in the world and in history:

In the beginning there was myself; my own body set the frontiers, physical and emotional, there was simply me and not-me; the egotism of infancy has grandeur. And when I became a child there was Claudia, who was the centre of all things, and there was what pertained to Claudia, out at which I looked, the world of others, observed by not apprehended, a Berkeleyan landscape which existed only at my whim — when it ceased to interest me it no longer existed. And eventually, or so I am claiming, I grew up and saw myself in the awful context of time and place: everything and nothing.

Like Oleander, JacarandaMoon Tiger is wonderfully evocative about setting — especially about Egypt, where Lively grew up. They also share an interest in the difference between seeing and apprehending, in the uncertainty but also the inescapability of memory, and in the fragmentation of our identities, particularly as we age:

if I am to be cast as the matriarch, she thinks, I may as well do the thing properly. And somewhere beyond or within, another Claudia looks on with amusement. And regret. And disbelief. Is this true? This strident bossy old woman; these blotched veined hands opening a napkin; and these companions — who are they?

These are strains I have noticed in her other novels, too, especially Cleopatra’s SisterWhere Moon Tiger differs, or perhaps just excels, is in the poignancy which bathes the whole. If that makes the novel sound saccharine, it shouldn’t: “poignant,” after all, means not just sad but sharp, piercing, painful. Above all Moon Tiger is about loss, which is always the end of every story. How can so much presence leave the present and become the past? “How can a man be sitting in a tank with you one day,” asks Tom, “and nowhere at all the next? How?” It’s not war, or not only war, that presses that unanswerable question on us all, but death is not the end of history: “The world moves on. And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.”

“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.

The Butterfly Effect: Penelope Lively, How It All Began

I’m a long-time fan of Penelope Lively’s Booker-winning 1987 novel Moon Tiger.  In my first year teaching at Dalhousie, it was one of the novels I assigned in a seminar on women and historical writing (IIRC, I also assigned Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic — these details date me as much as the seminar!). I’ve read a number of Lively’s novels since then (including Cleopatra’s Sister) but none has made the kind of impression on me that Moon Tiger did. I wonder if that’s at least partly because she seems to return frequently to similar themes. In my post on Cleopatra’s Sister, for instance, I note that like Moon Tiger, it explores the ways “moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another” — as well as in “the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history.”

livelyI could say very much the same things about How It All Began, which begins with a random event — here, the street mugging of retired English teacher Charlotte Rainsford — and then traces out the effects of this one moment in the lives of an array of interconnected characters. There’s a logic, or at least an intelligibility, to the way things unfold, but that is not the same as their being destined or fated, though at times the characters are tempted to interpret their experiences this way. Lively sets up the novel with a quotation about the “Butterfly Effect” from James Gleick’s Chaos, so we know that she is deliberately playing with the possibilities of this idea. The mugger (an unsavory butterfly!) couldn’t possibly have foreseen the personal and professional consequences of his own thoughtless action: “beyond him, unknown and of no interest, he had left Charlotte on her crutches, the embattled Daltons, Henry in his humiliation, Marion, Rose, Anton . . . ”

It’s Lively’s gift, though, to make each of these people of genuine interest to us. There are no cataclysms, no dramatic show-downs, no epiphanies in How It All Began, but by the end of the novel very little is quite the same in anyone’s life, all because of the sequence of disruptions begun with the mugging. Charlotte’s injury causes Rose to stay away from work for a while, so her employer, historian Sir Henry Peters, calls on his daughter Marion, thus precipitating a last-minute text message to Marion’s married lover Jeremy, which is intercepted by Jeremy’s wife Stella — and thus “the Daltons’ marriage broke up because Charlotte Rainsford was mugged.” Marion, unaccustomed to tending to Sir Henry’s business, forgets his notes when they head to an event at the University of Manchester; as a result, his speech is a disaster, which leads Henry into various machinations designed to revivify his moribund career and recover some wished-for celebrity. In Manchester, Marion meets a man she hopes will help turn around her struggling interior design business; though her involvement with him doesn’t lead to financial prosperity (little does, in this age of recession and belt-tightening), it turns out nonetheless to be a fortuitous encounter.

Charlotte, in the meantime, who has moved into Rose’s home for her convalescence, misses having a purposeful way to pass the time. So she arranges to tutor one of the students from her adult literacy class, Anton, “a soft-spoken man, central European of some kind.” Rose, married to the underwhelming Gerry, offers to take Anton shopping for clothes for his mother back home. Rose and Anton begin meeting regularly to walk and talk, and their friendship and, eventually, their deeper feelings bring them to a difficult decision:

You live twenty years in a London suburb. Husband, children, house, cat — go to the supermarket. Then — something happens. A person happens, that’s all. Him.

You do not mess up everything that has been important to you for most of your life because you are in love with an Eastern European immigrant you have known for ten weeks. You do not do that to Gerry. To Lucy and James [their children].

Do you?

During their reading lessons, Charlotte has an idea: for the dreary literacy primers, she substitutes children’s books so that Anton will be drawn on by story. It works: he learns faster because, as he realizes, “I must know what will happen.” “Powerful things, stories,” says Charlotte. How It All Began is about that power as much as it is about chaos theory: Charlotte reflects often on her own reading, and Lively too is self-conscious (perhaps a little too self-conscious, too overt) about the appeal of what she’s doing for us. “So that was the story,” she sums it up near the end:

These have been the stories: of Charlotte, of Rose and Gerry, of Anton, of Jeremy and Stella, of Marion, of Henry, Mark, all of them. The stories so capriciously triggered because something happened to Charlotte in the street one day. But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device . . . but time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.

Still, she is no more able to omit at least a sketch of all their endings than Eliot is with her panoply of characters in the Finale to Middlemarch. For all its interest in chaos theory, it’s not a formally experimental novel, just an artful, intelligent, sometimes quietly touching look at pretty ordinary people. Lively is particularly sharp (here as, again, in Moon Tiger) about aging. “Old age is not for wimps,” thinks Charlotte;

Ah, old age. The twilight years — that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot — roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn’t know about. We all avert our eyes, and then — wham! you’re in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.

Sir Henry’s pomposity and preening egotism make his lapses of memory more comical, but he too earns a certain pathos as he declines from self-important bluster to “reading and rereading in a desultory way, and eventually ceased to do even that.”

Though there’s nothing strikingly memorable or original about How It All Began, what it does, it does very nicely: it seems true, both to its characters and to what we know or feel about the tragicomedy and uncertainty of our lives.

Recent Reading: Lodge and Lively

I enjoyed both David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence and Penelope Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister. Both take what turns out to be a deceptively light tone to explore ideas that are actually quite serious and interesting.

Deaf Sentence lures us in with the funny side of deafness, particularly the misunderstandings, frustrations, and mishaps that arise from Desmond Bates’s attempts to carry on as if he can hear what someone says. Drawing on his own experience, Lodge is very specific about the technical options available to those struggling with hearing loss, including about their inconveniences and shortcomings. But as he remarks early on, deafness is not, really, very funny, and even as he points to the greater pathos conventionally attached to blindness, he frequently invokes the suffering of famous “deafies” including Philip Larkin and, of course, Beethoven, to illustrate the deprivation and isolation that follows from losing one’s connection with the sounds of the world. There are a lot of pretty lame puns (of the “deaf in Venice” variety), but the wry chuckles they invite also prove a kind of trickery, as the most common slippage is between “deaf” and “death,” and that relationship turns out to be the central one in the novel: death is, after all, our ultimate “sentence,” the ultimate end to conversation and relationships. Everything comic in it thus becomes infused with tragic potential: as we age, the novel incessantly reminds us, we lose things–our hearing, our coordination, our minds, control over our bodies, our friends and families, ourselves. There’s nothing really very funny about any of that. As Desmond concludes, “‘Deafness is comic, blindness is tragic,’ I wrote earlier in this journal, and I have played variations on the phonetic near-equivalence of ‘deaf’ and ‘death,’ but now it seems more meaningful to say that deafness is comic and death is tragic, because final, inevitable, and inscrutable.” The novel, then, explores the uneasy borderland between the comic and the tragic, or perhaps the uncomfortable proximity between the two (the most slapstick comedy depends on the wince of pain, after all). Deafness functions as a comic device, but also as a metaphor for our inevitable isolation from other people, which culminates in death:

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Philip Larkin [ Desmond reflects], the bard of timor mortis.

Deaf Sentence is not, I think, an altogether successful novel. Its various parts did not feel well integrated. The apparent main line of the plot, for instance, about the wacky graduate student with her morbid project on linguistic analysis of suicide notes, leads to some funny scenarios. But as the rest of the novel, especially the decline of Desmond’s father, took on substance, I had trouble understanding what she really contributed. Like many of Desmond’s little set pieces about contemporary life, technology, and politics, the trip to Auschwitz seemed more like something Lodge himself wanted to say than something that had to be in the novel. Of course, the Auschwitz excursion is relevant to the theme (if that’s the right word) of death, but its gravitas seemed excessive for the rest of the book, though I thought Lodge’s writing during that section was among the best in the novel–strong, spare, and evocative, whereas much of the rest of the novel is a bit too prosy and self-indulgently academic (the academic narrator / protagonist can take the blame, of course, as all this is in character, but still…).

Overall, though, I appreciate that this novel is about something. I’ve been thinking lately (for another project) about David Masson’s line that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists” (and, as a contrast, Henry James’s objection that in George Eliot’s fiction “the philosophical door is always open” and letting in a cooling draft). Events strung together do not make a great novel, though they may make a briefly entertaining one (take note, writers 0f popular historical fiction). It is much more rewarding, as a reader, to feel engaged with a view of the world and how we live in it, whether the emphasis is primarily ethical, aesthetic, political, or something else. Kazuo Ishiguro made a comment in an interview that I like a lot, about fiction being “an appeal for companionship in experiencing life,” with the author implicitly saying, “it’s like this, isn’t it? do you see it this way too?” You can agree or disagree, but either way, you’re in a good conversation. Lodge is not playing with any particularly obscure or profound ideas, I don’t think, but he’s trying to see and say something about where we stand in relation to other people, and what the inevitable end of our life means, or might mean, or should mean, for how we think about ourselves and how we act. In doing so through a (more or less) comic novel, perhaps he’s also suggesting we not take these problems too seriously, not so seriously, anyway, that they prevent us from enjoying life’s absurdities.

Cleopatra’s Sister is another novel thinking about things. In this case, Lively is preoccupied with the issue of contingency: why one thing and not another? She plays out variations on this theme elegantly across the different aspects of the novel, from the big evolutionary questions confronted by her paleontologist protagonist Howard Beamish, to the day-to-day incidents of chance that drive lives forward–Howard’s discovery of his first fossil, for instance, which turns out to initiate a life-long interest and thus his career. How far are we responsible for our own lives? is probably the novel’s central interest. Co-protagonist Lucy Faulkner, for instance, works hard to develop her credentials as a journalist, but many of her professional advances result from her being in the right place at the right time. If she seizes the moment, is it luck, or can she take credit for her success? What about all the “what ifs”? So many other things might have happened, if things had been just a little different, if somebody had made a different choice, even a minor one. The novel explores the randomness of life: every event is explicable, looking backwards (in this, Lively’s outlook resembles George Eliot’s version of determinism). But it is not predictable, looking the other way, a fact of which Howard and Lucy are repeatedly reminded, sometimes jarringly. The central episode of the plot, in which Howard and Lucy are among a group of British tourists taken hostage in the fictional country of Callimbia, is the ultimate example of the way events are formed by contingencies: the plane happens to have mechanical problems which happen to become urgent as they are closest to Callimbia, where, as it happens, there has just been a political coup (which, as we know from the interspersed chapters recounting the history of the imagined nation, is itself the outcome of a series of unlikely events). That both Howard and Lucy are on this particular plane is coincidental, or, more accurately, meaningless until later events give their meeting the aura of fate–or would, in a different novel. There is an inevitability about each step, and yet at every moment, it might have been otherwise.

Here, as in Moon Tiger, Lively is particularly interested in the way these moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another. The juxtaposition of the Callimbia ‘history’ highlights this process (with due reference to the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history), and also allows for some play on another theme familiar from Moon Tiger, which is the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history. Lucy realizes at one point that all the ‘little’ people are the real stuff of which politics is made; this is true too of history, and yet most people live historical lives without knowing it. Thus Lucy and Howard’s chance experience of the political chaos and violence of Callimbia is also a reminder to them that they do not live outside of history: that their own lives can, for instance, become part of something Lucy might write a feature article about, or end without leaving descendents, like the fossil specimens Howard collects. I won’t spoil the ending–the second half of the novel becomes quite suspenseful, and as in Deaf Sentence, the comic potential of the set-up and the light handling of the prose leads us unwarily into much darker territory.

Next up: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I think. [Update: What actually happened is that I picked up my copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost to take a look and became totally engrossed; I actually stayed up much later than I should have last night because I couldn’t stop reading it, which is something I haven’t felt strongly for a while. It’s a remarkable book.]