Penelope Lively Essay - Critical Essays


Penelope Lively is one of a number of British novelists who emerged in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to reaffirm the English novel’s capacity to express postmodernist themes without sacrificing its roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth century realist tradition. Her fictional worlds are predicated on theconventions of realist fiction, but these conventions are transformed both by perceptual shifts in the consciousness of her characters—a technique strongly reminiscent of modernists such as Virginia Woolf—and by her self-conscious examination of the nature of language.

In a manner characteristic of postmodernist British fiction, Lively’s choice of characters demonstrates her fascination not only with the past but also with the ways in which it is reconstituted in and refracted by the present. Her novels feature archaeologists, paleontologists, architects, biographers, historians, and teachers of history—all of whom work in occupations that have in common a concern for the meaning and the weight of the past. Lively is less experimental in terms of technique than some of her fellow writers in Britain and elsewhere. However, her theoretical interest in the workings of history and memory, and the intersections between the two, aligns her with such notable contemporaries as Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, and Salman Rushdie. Collectively, then, her novels stress the palimpsest quality of anarrative present ineluctably underwritten by the presence of the past.

The Road to Lichfield

The Road to Lichfield marked Lively’s shift from children’s stories to adult fiction. The novel records the experiences of a middle-aged history teacher, Anne Linton, whose dying father, she learns, has been having an affair for many years. On train trips to visit her father, Anne meets schoolteacher David Fielding, and they begin an affair of their own. Her father’s clandestine past, and her own clandestine activities in the present, force her to recognize the subjective quality of memory and perception. Marked by Lively’s characteristically polished style, The Road to Lichfield employs a shifting third-person perspective to portray events from a number of different points of view. This technique recurs consistently in Lively’s subsequent novels.

According to Mark

Lively’s sixth novel earned her a second appearance on the Booker Prize short list. According to Mark, like much of Lively’s subsequent work, is concerned with whether the attempt to re-create the past is closer to the order of fiction than to that of objective truth. The novel tells the story of a literary biographer embarked on a project to write the life of a 1920’s man of letters. The title alludes to one of four biblical versions of the Gospel, and herprotagonist shares with Lively herself a concern for the nature and validity of historical evidence in re-creating the past. During the course of his research, the protagonist determines that uncovering the truth is impossible. The novel itself, however, qualifies this rather nihilistic conclusion in the sense that what the protagonist fails to re-create in the dead subject of his biographical research—“life”—he discovers for himself through his growing love for his subject’s daughter.

Moon Tiger

“I am writing a history of the world,” the elderly Claudia Hampton announces on her deathbed at the beginning of Lively’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “and in the process my own.” With these words, Lively’s narrator, a former war correspondent and popular historian, establishes Moon Tiger’s preeminent concern: What is the relationship between world history and the span of an individual’s life? As Claudia looks back on her past, she is periodically interrupted by the narrative present, in the form of the overheard voices of medical staff discussing her case. The rich and full life she fleshes out during the course of the novel, however, stands in sharp contrast to their dismissive clinical remarks.

In typically postmodernist fashion, history is inescapable in this novel, but it takes on many diverse forms. Claudia’s childhood interest in fossils and rock formations, for example, draws the reader’s attention to the scale of geological time, and in witnessing some of the crucial moments of World War II, Claudia points to the historical significance of global events and to those persons, such as German general field marshal Erwin Rommel, who apparently are history’s central players. However, as the novel’s opening lines suggest, these conventional conceptions of what constitutes history are overshadowed by the story of Claudia’s own life. Combining personal recollections with ruminations on the nature and purpose of history, Claudia’s story stresses the significance of imagination and memory over hard historical evidence. This is typified by Claudia’s strategy of imagining “real” events from the different points of view of those involved; in such cases, the details remain broadly the same, but their meanings and contexts differ markedly according to the perspectives from which they are perceived. Through such techniques, Claudia’s narration implicitly criticizes the conventional historian’s faith in empirical evidence, objectivity, and linear cause-and-effect patterns.

The structure of Moon Tiger is, like memory itself, fragmentary and achronological, but the kaleidoscopic representation of Claudia’s life is brought into focus when she recalls her brief affair in Egypt during World War II with Tom, a doomed British tank commander. This pivotal moment in the novel at once underscores and explains Claudia’s perception of history: Tom’s untimely death in a German air attack is in one respect utterly peripheral, hardly a footnote in the record of the twentieth century’s central historical event, and yet Tom has, in effect, played the central role in Claudia’s autobiography. In this way, the novel affirms the significance of the individual life in relation to history’s larger forces. Such a conclusion is characteristic of Lively’s work as a whole, but in Moon Tiger it receives perhaps its fullest and most evocative expression. Moon Tiger remains, for many readers, Lively’s best...

(The entire section is 2584 words.)