The roads not taken

The Independent 29 July 2005

After a life full of achievement, Penelope Lively has imagined what might have been.  Clare Colvin talks to her about fiction, family and the lure of alternative lives

What might have been . . . it’s a thought that echoes in the mind in later life.  The road not taken, the opportunity lost, are reflected on with nostalgia or regret. Penelope Lively in her new fictional “memoir”, Making It Up, takes alternative lives as the theme, re-making her past life as it might have been, but for chance.

The re-making seems the result of curiosity rather than regret, for she is a successful novelist, a former Booker Prize winner.  She had a long and happy marriage until the death of her husband Professor Jack Lively in 1998, and she has two children who have been, she says, “the light of her life.” She lives in a pleasant four-storied house overlooking a garden square in Islington.   There should be nothing to regret, but story-telling is an ingrained habit, and just as her earliest fictions, as an isolated and frequently bored child growing up in Egypt in the early 1940s, were fables about herself drawn from Greek mythology, so at the other end of life, the mythology that intrigues her is of imagined alternatives.

“When you’re making climactic decisions, they do all cluster in younger life. Most of my crucial decisions seem to have been taken before the age of 25.   I have always been fascinated by the business of choice and contingency, the way in which we think we make choices but we’re directed by contingent events, from the little things like the car that won’t start, to the large directives of history.  Choice and contingency land you where you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome.

“For a fiction writer this gets very interesting because in fiction you’re making choices all the time – nothing is left to contingency, or shouldn’t be.  Every sentence is a question of choice. The writer is able to impose a pattern.  Real life is quite out of control, and the paths not taken look like an evolutionary tree that spreads off in all directions.  What I tried to do was look at one possible alternative at different stages of my life and turn it into a fictional road not taken.”

Curiously enough, another Booker Prize winning novelist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had a similar idea for her semi-memoir My Nine Lives published a year ago.   Lively had just sent her manuscript to the publisher when the Jhabvala book came out.  Her first thought was that there “must be something in the air”, but then she realized as Jhabvala was of a similar age, she too may have been thinking in the same way – why am I who I am rather than somebody completely different?

A difference between the two books is that the Jhabvala alternative selves are at the centre of each narrative, whereas the Lively alter ego is usually at the edge of her stories.   Thus, in the first, The Mozambique Channel, a British family are fleeing Egypt in 1941 as the Germans advance towards Cairo.  In the “bookends” at the beginning and end of each story, Lively begins with an introduction to the real circumstances, and ends with an afterword as to the real outcome.   In real life, her mother, nanny and herself were evacuated to Palestine.   The fictional family – the child re-named Jean and younger than Penelope was at that time – take a boat to South Africa via the Mozambique Channel.  As happened with a number of boats, it is torpedoed by a German submarine and the child is among those who die. The story is told from the viewpoint of the nanny, Shirley, whose character is based on her own nanny, Lucy.

The foreword to the second story, The Albert Hall, describes the young Penelope at the Chelsea Arts Ball in 1951, wearing calf-length blue jeans, a checked shirt with its tails knotted so that her midriff is bare and vast hooped gold earrings.  She was in love with the older man who had brought her there and in the small hours they left for his flat.  For her, the night of the Arts Ball was just a heady rite of passage – but suppose, in those pre-pill days, she had become pregnant, and faced social disgrace as a single mother, or death through a back street abortion?  Here again, the fictional story is told from the viewpoint of the illegitimate daughter, Chloe, ashamed of her freewheeling mother and determined to lead an orderly life, to have a job, a mortgage, a pension scheme and a husband.  Naturally, Chloe’s own children rebel.

There were two reasons for Lively’s decision to shunt herself aside as a character in her own fiction.  “I was thinking about the artificiality of the perception of one’s own life as being the central figure. No one else sees it like this.  For others, you are peripheral, a bit player.  You may be someone in their lives who has loomed largely as a parent or as a wife, or you may have been just a passing ship.    Then again, it’s more interesting for me as a novelist to be dealing with different characters rather than trying to think of an alternative me for each section and then working out a destiny.  The bookends of each section are what really happened – it’s a kind of alternative memoir.”

The characters often share Lively’s preoccupations of the era. In The Temple of Mithras, Alice, a student on an archeological dig in 1973, does not expect to live very long as she is waiting for the H-bomb to drop.  Lively remembers her similar fears.  “I was a young mother and I seriously didn’t think I would see my children grow up.  Today is frightening in a completely different way.  We used to hope, with the bomb, that reason would prevail, but the trouble this time around is that reason can’t prevail because you’re not up against forces that are reasonable.”

So with all these fictional alternative lives, there’s the question that must occur to every writer – what alternative life would she have found if no one had wanted to publish her?  “I can’t help but wonder that,” she says.  “I could have been snuffed out quite easily.   I was lucky and got published quickly, but many wonderful writers don’t and I admire people who crusade on through several books.  I don’t think I could have done that. I would have packed it in.

“Only gradually did writing come to seem inevitable, and what I would always do.  I was ignorant about publishing, had never heard of literary agents, and when someone told me about them I picked one with a pin. He was Murray Pollinger and we had a long and happy relationship for the rest of his working life.  There now seems to be a career structure of M.A.s in creative writing. Young writers are much more clued up about publishing as a consequence.   I have heard the word “marketing” on the lips of aspiring writers, and I hate that.”

Towards the end of Making It Up, she detects some directing factor in her childhood that has been constant in her life – that she was programmed to become addicted to reading and writing, to prefer thoughtful, argumentative men and to want to have children, unlike her mother who was happy to let her father have custody of 12 year old Penelope on their divorce.  As a result, she was determined when she became a mother very young that no one else would look after her children but herself.  They seemed to have been unharmed by her lack of experience – Adam is now a documentary film maker and Josephine, an oboist, a professor at Trinity College of Music.

“You’re very much formed by circumstances.  In my case by not going to school and having no one to play with, books became my imaginative life.  I also married somebody who was widely read and who led me to reading the books that were always the right thing to read at that moment.  He was a man totally interested in ideas and he was hugely supportive of my writing.   It has felt very different, writing since he died, because he was the first person to read anything I wrote. He was always constructive, though he would say if he didn’t like something.  I do find myself wondering if I write differently now that he’s not there.”

And as she grows older?  She says she’s certainly much slower. She suffers from spinal arthritis, which means she can’t use a computer, though she is able to write at an electronic typewriter.  She used to write short stories at the same time as writing a novel, but they left her about five years ago, and a lot of the writing energy that went into short stories is now concentrated on novels.   The short stories sprang much more from life as lived than the novel did, the ideas coming from something seen and heard or a snippet of personal experience that became digested, and “over time you could see a way you could bleach it of the personal aspect and turn it into a story that would have some sort of universal relevance.

“I would say to Jack, ‘I’ve just recognized a short story today,’ and we would both laugh about it, particularly as it was something he might have seen or heard as well.  It just does not happen now, the same way as children’s books left me.  The novel seems so far not to have done so.  I seriously thought that Making It Up might be the last but to my astonishment I got a new idea literally the week I finished it.  It suddenly dropped into my head one morning.  It was extremely satisfactory because I had wondered what on earth I was going to do with myself.”