At 85, the prolific writer is still writing ‘in small bursts’. She tells 'The National' about how her journey from Cairo childhood to the ‘fetid jungle’ of an English boarding school informs her work
Penelope Lively's memories: ‘The past never goes away’
Penelope Lively read history at Oxford, but after leaving university she embarked upon a career in literature, first as an author of fiction for children and later for adults. “It always surprises me how important those three years at university have been,” she says on a return visit to Oxford for this year’s literary festival. “They didn’t make me into a novelist but they determined the kinds of novels that I’ve written.”
Those novels, for young readers and old, are preoccupied with the past: looking back, delving deep, revisiting and re-evaluating. In Lively’s debut novel for adults, The Road to Lichfield, a woman who discovers that her father had a mistress sees the past in a new light. In According to Mark, a biographer meditates on the nature of the past while researching his subject and falling in love. Secrets are unearthed in the archaeologically themed Treasures of Time, while in The Photograph the past is reassembled and reassessed after a husband stumbles upon an incriminating snapshot of his wife.
History and its influence play a role in Lively’s children’s books, too. In her best-known and arguably best-loved, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, the past haunts the present when the spirit of a 17th-century apothecary returns and causes mischief for a young boy.
I put it to Lively that this interest in – or even obsession with – the past in her fiction started out as a way of continuing to engage with history after deciding it wasn’t a career option. Did she set out to use history in another way?
“I don’t think it was so much me using history as history using me,” she says. “It had made me realise the power of the past, the presence of the past – that the past never goes away. It’s all around you.”
This is not to say Lively is a one-trick pony who has trotted out the same routine over the past five decades. Each of her novels grapples with history, memory and identity in inventive ways. For her latest book we witness more digging – only this time not in the past but in the garden.
With Life in the Garden she has written a delightful, and original, appreciation of the two central activities – apart from writing – in her life: reading and gardening. Like her other late-career forays into nonfiction, the project was a “pure release”. It is a book about the actual garden and the written garden; a memoir of the author’s time spent in gardens and a study of gardens in literature.
The latter incorporates fascinating discussions of John Milton’s Eden in Paradise Lost, Virginia Woolf’s quintessential English gardens, Willa Cather’s prairie gardens (“little islands of order amid the endless reach of the untouched landscape”) and children’s books such as The Secret Garden and Tom’s Midnight Garden. For Lively, gardens are “never just themselves: they are allusive, evocative, and that is why they can be such fertile material for a writer.”
As ever, Lively makes reference to time in the book – although not to prioritise history. With gardening, she writes, “you escape the tether of time, you experience that elision of past, present and future”.
I ask for clarification and she is quick to give it. “You’re not constantly living in the here-and-now if you’re a gardener. You look back on what you did last year and you compare it with what you’re doing this year, and you’re always anticipating – for example what the seeds you’re planting now are going to turn into. Gardening has this wonderful way of defying time.”
So, too, does Lively. Now 85 and no longer physically robust because of spinal arthritis, she is nevertheless mentally agile, dexterously skipping from one topic to the next and intelligently and entertainingly recounting at length.
“With gardening, we are also trying to control a space,” she says. “It’s a little like a painter in a way – you’re painting a garden with flowers, you’re designing it. You’re trying to impose order where nature defies order. You’re controlling nature as it were.”
In her fiction, Lively controls time, or at least refuses to follow its flow. Her narratives both rewind and fast forward; her characters break off and hark back. Does she feel straitjacketed by a linear, chronological approach?
“Absolutely,” she says. “And also because memory doesn’t work in a linear sense. What we have in our heads is a series of random, assorted slides that pop up, often uninvited. So I’ve never thought that you can really think about a life in a chronological sense.”
I tell her that the other trope at work in her fiction is that of multiple perspectives. On several occasions throughout her finest novel, the 1987 Booker Prize-winner Moon Tiger, she performs the neat trick of replaying scenes but from different characters’ viewpoints.
“I’m interested that you brought this point up – evidence,” she says. “In Moon Tiger I was looking at the way in which there is conflicting evidence about any singular event. That is paralleled very much by historical evidence. There is no single absolute truth about any historical event.”
In 1994, after years of writing about people re-examining their pasts, Lively shone a light on her own past with the memoir Oleander, Jacaranda. The book is an enchanting account of her childhood in Egypt in the 1930s and early 1940s: there are picnics in the desert, donkey rides by the Pyramids, visits to the Beit el Kritiliya, and many adventures in, and impressions of, “the maelstrom of Cairo”.
Lively didn’t attend school in Egypt: instead she received home tuition with her nanny and enjoyed hours of reading in a sunny garden. “Although I didn’t have anything like the range of reading matter most children have today. There was no public library to go to. I can remember the Arthur Ransome books coming out over those years and being thrilled to go to an English language bookshop in Cairo to get them.”
When Lively returned to the country in the 1980s it was an odd experience. “I remember having this extraordinary feeling of seeing Egypt with two sets of eyes. There was a sense in which things were familiar. When I first arrived and was walking the streets of Cairo it smelled familiar. It was more pungent in my day because Cairo is full of traffic now and there were very few cars in the 1940s, but it’s a smell of kerosene and dust and dung.
“Plants were familiar, like oleander and jacaranda. I recognised the things that were growing. And also the sound of spoken Arabic was immediately like coming home. There was this conflicting sense of a feeling of coming home but another feeling of being in an utterly different country.”
Much of Lively’s Cairo had been swept away. She had to hunt for the place in which she grew up, just outside the city, and discovered it was now part of its sprawling urban extension. But on that return trip she noticed some significant improvements.
“During my time there the expectation of life was about 40. There was obvious poverty and tremendous infant mortality. A huge incidence of blindness, trachoma, caused by a sort of snail which lives in the Nile. One of the things I noticed going back was that you didn’t see a number of blind children or children with eye infections.”
In 1945, when Lively was 12, her parents divorced and she was sent to England. So considerable was her culture shock that she felt like a displaced person. “Cairo was absolutely cosmopolitan and polyglot,” she says. “There was a huge non-Egyptian community. It was strange to come to a country which I hardly knew at all and where everyone spoke the same language.”
She endured the “fetid jungle” of an English girls’ boarding school, a place of strict rules and cold rooms. “Every morning we used to break the little skin of ice on the water jugs,” she says with a laugh. “Nowadays you’d have the social services in!”
Lively may be winding down in her garden but I’m happy to hear she is still at her desk as a writer. “I’m working on something, but in slow bursts,” she says. “It’ll be a question of whether it finishes first or I finish first.” A note of defiance creeps into her voice. “Philip Roth has said he has written his last book, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’d retire.”