Authors: Penelope Lively
Tags: #Fiction, #General
grew up in Egypt but settled in England after the war and took a degree in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, and lives in London. Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short-story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel,
The Road to Lichfield
, and again in 1994 for
According to Mark
. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel
. Her other books include
Cleopatra’s Sister, Beyond the Blue Mountains
, a collection of short stories;
, a memoir of her childhood days in Egypt;
A House Unlocked
, a second autobiographical work; and
. Penelope Lively has also written radio and television scripts and has acted as presenter for a BBC Radio 4 programme on children’s literature. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award. She was appointed CBE in the 2001 New Year’s Honours list.
has published fourteen books of poems, including a selection in the first series of
Penguin Modern Poets
(1970) and, most recently,
A Move in the Weather
(2003, reprinted 2004). He has taught in universities in Japan, Libya, England and the United States, worked as a BBC radio producer and in publishing, was the literary editor of
, and co-editor of
. He is married to the biographer Ann Thwaite, and lives in Norfolk. In 1990 he received an OBE for services to poetry.
with an introduction by
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by André Deutsch Ltd 1987
Published in Penguin Books 1988
Published in Penguin Classics 2006
Copyright © Penelope Lively, 1987
Introduction copyright © Anthony Thwaite, 2006
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
‘I’m writing a history of the world… And in the process, my own’. The very first page of
contains these peremptory, stark, even one might say arrogant words. They are spoken by Claudia Hampton, who reveals herself, and is revealed, as clever, outspoken, uncomfortable.
As the book begins, this central character is seen as old, ill, lying in hospital, gently condescended to by the nurse at her bedside. Quickly Claudia takes on a voice, indeed becomes the book’s chief character. But as she reviews her life as a paradigm of human history, she does so in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern of ‘voices’ – voices from her own past and present, who are allowed (through Penelope Lively’s extraordinarily original but never pressingly ‘experimental’ range of techniques) to make their own presences felt, their own separate points of view clear.
There is her gentle mother, ‘retired from history’; her father, killed on the Somme, unknown to her; her brother Gordon, to whom she has sometimes been frighteningly close; Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa… As the presences accumulate, they sometimes tease Claudia, in her ill exhaustion, by becoming blurred on the edge of her mind, just as language can abandon her. She forgets the word ‘curtain’, and then:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes. Our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive. (pp. 41–42)
Lively makes Claudia of an earlier generation than her own (born 1910, not 1933): ‘I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of wars. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself’. Claudia’s memory re-creates wartime North Africa in which she was a war correspondent in Egypt during the Rommel campaign of 1942. This central part of the novel’s story is an impressive blend of evocative memory and highly intelligent research. Lively uses her own childhood memories of Egypt and weaves them into the mass of material (letters, journals, film, official records) on which she worked at the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere.
The love story of Claudia and Tom Southern, a young tank commander in the Western Desert, is at the heart of the novel, as is the image conjured up by the title:
, the brand-name of the coil of mosquito repellent, burning on the bedside table by Claudia and Tom during their passionate nights together, then leaving a cylinder of ash – ‘memory and desire’, as T. S. Eliot put it. But Claudia’s later relationships are important too: Jasper the charming F.O. diplomat, their conventional child Lisa with whom she finds distressingly little in common, Laszlo the Hungarian student who is bidden to find in Claudia’s bureau drawer the packet that contains Tom Southern’s final diary… All these, and others, are cunningly set into the complex of mosaic of Claudia’s (or Lively’s) design. Flashbacks and contrasting points of view are used as brilliant – and seldom bewildering – tactics. Along with these
go the varied and individual voices of Lively’s characters.
was Penelope Lively’s seventh novel for adults. (She had already established a high reputation as a writer for children.) Its early reviews in 1987 were warm and appreciative; but it was an unforeseen triumph when it won the Booker Prize that year, competing with a strong short list – novels by Chinua Achebe, Peter Ackroyd, Nina Bawden, Brian Moore and Iris Murdoch. (Totally excluded that year were books by William Boyd, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan and V. S. Naipaul.) The Booker marked the recognition in both critical and large-scale public terms of a notable talent that had been building up a devoted readership for the fifteen or so years leading up to it.
There has, perhaps, been a conventional view of Lively’s fiction, held by some people who have read it carelessly, or not at all, that it is indeed ‘conventional’: middlebrow, undemanding, even cosy, and primarily intended for women. This is a travesty of the truth; and of all her many adult novels (including seven published since
), it is
that most radically and most successfully exemplifies her astringent and powerful flavour.
I am grateful to Tim Tindall and to Andrew Wilson for correcting me on military matters.
For material on the desert war I acknowledge the help of Alan Moorehead,
; Barrie Pitt,
The Crucible of War
; Correlli Barnett,
The Desert Generals
; Keith Douglas,
Alamein to Zem Zem
; Cyril Joly,
Take These Men
; and the photographic, film and art archives of the Imperial War Museum.
I was born in Cairo and spent my childhood there during the war. I have also to acknowledge the contribution of that
, understanding little but seeing a great deal.
‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’
A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well – no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez… The works, this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine. I’m equipped, I consider; eclecticism has always been my hallmark. That’s what they’ve said, though it has been given other names. Claudia Hampton’s range is ambitious, some might say imprudent: my enemies. Miss Hampton’s bold conceptual sweep: my friends.