Penelope Lively, Wednesday 10th October, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery
Words by Valerie O'Riordan. Photographs by Jon Atkin.
Penelope Lively has one of the largest oeuvres of any author I’ve seen at a live event – publishing since the 1970s, she’s written for children and adults, short and long fiction, historical and contemporary novels, and her works are known for their experimental narrative techniques (historiographical metafiction, for those in the know). She’s won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Costa and the Booker (as well as being Booker-shortlisted twice more) and she’s been presented with both an OBE and a CBE. She’s on record as saying that while the challenge of writing is in transcending and translating personal experience, one’s view of the world is essentially a personal one, conditioned by circumstance – and it’s this that she’s here to speak about tonight: her Life in Reading.
The crowd is reverential; Lively is articulate, humorous and almost intimidatingly erudite. She introduces her lecture as a speech about a ‘book-infested life’ for an audience of ‘book-obsessed’ literary festival attendees, and then begins at the beginning: her childhood in Cairo, and learning to read – that ‘Eureka moment that opens up a life’. Home-educated, mostly by reading, she made her way through the stock selection – Alice, Peter Pan, Arthur Ransome, Kenneth Grahame, as well as her mother’s Mary Webb collection. She read, she says, for escape – the novel appeal, for the child in Egypt, of the English countryside – and for identification – the audience laughs as she recounts her dissatisfaction with Homer’s Penelope. She says the inclination to read blossoms early, and she describes childhood reading as the ‘halcyon reading years’ and talks about the later impossibility of recreating that sense of ‘pristine discovery’.
The types of books she went on to write, she says, were conditioned by her university reading. Lively studied history at Oxford, and she says she read widely and at random; a serendipitous relationship with books that was the beginning ‘of a kind of intertextuality’. Later, in her early twenties and at home with her small children, and before she started writing, she read through her local branch library. She talks about WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape – landscape as memory, the past as present in the physical world and on our heads – and Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory and Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium as well as her continuing interest in archaeology (an alternative career that she once considered).
In fiction, she says, she rejected the style of the time – she namechecks the Sitwells – in favour of what she describes as concision, accuracy and an exemplary use of language, which she found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen. She recalls reading Tolkien while making her first goulash in an Oxford flat in 1956 – both a dish and a writer she doesn’t currently favour. The association of time and place with what one is reading is a powerful one – reading Little House on the Prairie to her children in a shabby French hotel, making her way through Updike’s Rabbit trilogy on a flight to an Australian literary festival, or discovering Willa Cathar one summer in the US. Your shelves tell you where you’ve been, and books, she says, become a facet of identity: ‘We are what we have read.’ Our libraries are cluttered and ‘personally idiosyncratic’.
She argues with conviction and assurance in favour of libraries. She says the important reading isn’t the reading you do as research, but the reading you do anyway, that you want to do; reading more books than you could possibly own – hence libraries. They are, she says, the ultimate expression of liberty. She deplores the homogenisation of books brought on by the chainstores’ 3-for-2 tables, and says she finds some of her favourite books, esoteric books, at literary festivals. Festivals are valuable because of the dialogue they set up between writers and readers, but also because of this serendipitous process of discovery, which is their contribution to reading awareness.
Not a poetry writer, but a poetry reader, Lively calls it ‘the ultimate refinement of language’. A particular fan of narrative poetry, she cites Armitage’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Heaney’s Beowulf and Walcott’s Omeros (a massive Omeros fan, I’m especially pleased with this). She tells us she can’t teach writing, and though she respects those who can, and do, she’s unsure about MA programmes, advising prospective writers simply to ‘read and read and read’. She talks about the influence of the internet and television, but says that to her mind, the most troublesome intrusion into the reading life of a young person is the intense exam pressure they suffer; there’s simply no time in which to read. As a consequence, she feels that the novel is ‘losing its moral authority’; while one used to find out through books what it was to live, today the emphasis is on the image and fractured communication. The book begins to seem a daunting commitment. But reading, she says, is a creative activity, and books beget other books. While writing requires application and perseverance, it also requires inspiration, which is owed to the life as lived and the life of the mind, and that, says Lively, is fuelled by books.
Finally, there’s a quick Q&A with the audience. We learn that while Lively doesn’t own a Kindle, she’d be happy to acquire one if she were to travel, which she doesn’t, any more; she thinks the internet is a useful resource, though she came to it late, but she doesn’t think that physical books will be supplanted by technology. She read, among others, Philippa Pearce and Alan Garner to her children, though she’s not sure what she thinks about Garner. She says she can’t write for children any more – ‘it left me’ – and she likens it to short story writing, in its immediacy and concision; bits she says, are extremely difficult. And three books to which she continually returns, which she thinks are instances of what the novel can do, that stretch the form itself, are Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, William Golding’s The Inheritors and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. Having already read these three, I leave the Whitworth feeling triumphant, but also inspired, more generally ill-read, and impatient to hit the library.
Valerie O'Riordan is a Manchester-based writer, and she blogs at Not Exactly True.
You can read more reviews from this event on The Manchester Review.