Writing, reading, and the life of the spirit
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
"I did not go to any school until I was twelve years old," writes English novelist Penelope Lively; "until then, my home-based education centered entirely upon reading -- pretty much anything that came to hand, prose, poetry, good, bad, indifferent, any page was better than no page. At a barbaric boarding school, where the authorities saw a taste for unfettered reading as a sign of latent perversity, I went underground and read furtively, hiding books like other girls hid Mars bars or toffees.
"At university, there was a great swathe of reading, which was fine, but I liked to read off-piste, shooting into English literature, which was not supposed to be my subject, and into areas of history ignored by the syllabus. Grown-up life -- syllabus-free, exam-free -- came as relief; now, there was a day job, but also the opportunity for unbridled reading. I became a public library addict, dropping in several times a week for my fix, and this continued into married life and motherhood, when I read my way through the small branch library of our Swansea suburb, pushing the pram there with a baby in one end and the books in the other.
Lively, of course, went on to become a prolific and celebrated author, winning of the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger and the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature for The Ghost of Thomas Kemp. She was appointed a Dame of the British Empire for services to literature in 2012. Reflecting on her long career, she notes:
"You write out of experience, and a large part of that experience is the life of the spirit; reading is the liberation into the minds of others. When I was a child, reading released me from my own prosaic world into fabulous antiquity, by way of Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece; when I was a housebound young mother, I began to read history all over again, but differently, freed from the constraints of a degree course, and I discovered also Henry James, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Evelyn Waugh, and Henry Green, and William Golding, and so many others -- and became fascinated by the possibilities of fiction. It seems to me that writing is an extension of reading -- a step that not every obsessive reader is compelled to take, but, for those who do, one that springs from serendipitous reading. Books beget books.
"Would I have become a writer had I been denied books? Plenty of people have done so. Would I have gone on writing in the face of a blizzard of rejection letters? Others have. Unanswerable questions but they prompt speculation. Looking back at that difficult beginning, bashing out a story on typewriter whose keys kept getting stuck together, the endeavor seems precarious indeed."
Everything is fiction, says Irish writer Keith Ridway (in a fine essay for The New Yorker):
"When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones -- they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor -- please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience -- with our senses and our nerves -- is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.
"So I love hearing from people who have no time for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the triviality of fiction, the triviality of making things up. As if that wasn’t what all of us do, all day long, all life long."
Words: The passage by Penelope Lively is from Making It Up (Viking, 2005). The passage by Keith Ridgway is from "Everything is Fiction" (The New Yorker, August 2, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Late summer in the studio's hillside garden, with flowers, frog pond, a bench under the plum tree, and ripening plums.