Reading Note:
Character and Contingency
14 April 2015

About ten minutes ago, I finished reading Penelope Lively’s first novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977). I had to put it down last night because I’d grown overtired, and forgotten to take my pill until rather late. I was too sleepy, and at the same time too anxious about the difficulty of falling asleep, to attend to the fine points of Lively’s wrap-up; knowing that, if I pushed through and read to the end, I should only have to re-read it today, I turned out the light — and was soon asleep.

The Road to Lichfield struck me as the perfect first book, not just because it’s very good and surprisingly assured, but because it serves as a sort of norm, a set point. It is rich in material that later novels will develop in different ways or, in fewer cases, not take up at all. Then there is the author’s entwining beliefs that the lives of affluent, professional middle-aged people are too stable to be easily capsized, and that those same people are even more susceptible to the shocks of passion than they were when younger. Life is therefore safe but terrifying — an interesting conundrum to be sure. Youth is wasted on the young, not least because the young can cut and run without consequence.

To me, the novels are fantastically varied, but I’m not sure that everyone else would feel the same. To some ears, the repeated theme, no matter how cunningly varied, becomes tiresome. I rather find that the variations are interesting because they’re grounded in the theme. I thought of this often while reading Cleopatra’s Sister. Lucy, an ambitious journalist who finds most men wanting, prefigures Gina, ditto, in Family Album. But Lucy also prefigures Chloe, in “The Albert Hall,” one of the contrafactuals in Making It Up; both women have flaky, unrealistic mothers (who nonetheless land quite nicely in the end). It would be a mistake to think of Lively’s themes as archetypes. They’re professions and relationships rather. There are many ways to be an ambitious journalist, many ways to hit upon the right man after years of bad dates. Lively has a repertoire of favored professions and difficult relationships, but she creates new individuals to fill those roles, in book after book.

I hope that my Lively jag doesn’t look like an obsession. It’s just that Lively is the right novelist for me to be reading now, when I’m busy reorienting so many of the pieces in my own mind. Life offers each of us a limited number of entry points; by the time we reach adulthood, our options have narrowed almost to the vanishing point. And yet we bring to these options, or at any rate to the option that we elect (or fall into, as the case may be) a dizzying range of idiosyncrasies, just as do the people alongside whom we work and whom we meet at parties and fall in love with. They pop up in our children, who, as teenagers, fight so desperately to remain opaque to us. To perceive these idiosyncrasies, we have to see through the conventions — but that’s what conventions are for, providing an appearance of regularity through which we need look more closely only when it suits us.

Here it is important to remember that most of Lively’s heroines have had university educations, Oxbridge as a rule, and therefore stand out from the ranks of bland conformist women, not much on view in Lively’s fiction but deadly whenever encountered precisely because they have stamped out their idiosyncrasies (Joan Thwaites in The Road to Lichfield, Margaret Baseley in “Transatlantic” (also in Making It Up). Lively appears to believe that we have seen all that we need to see of such people, and she is not the writer to draw excitement from taking pot  shots at them. That’s an important example for me.

Finally (for today, anyway), Lively has a wonderful way of conveying that people can be attractive — very attractive — without being terribly admirable, and that their failure to be admirable is not really a failure at all. Admirability is a distracton, a superfluity; everyday life has little use for it. It is never admirable to be unfaithful to one’ spouse, but it is often understandable, and, in Lively’s fictions, always responsive to a deep, if sudden, need. (In The Road to Lichfield, Anne’s infidelity is all but occasioned by the twin discoveries of her father’s dementia and of his long-term mistress.) When the cuckholded spouses find out about the fling and forgive it, as they usually (always?) do, even this is not admirable. It is simply the right and human thing to do. (It ought probably to be pointed out that Lively’s flings are, where women are concerned, usually one-offs.)

I’m aware of reading these novels for the first time, and missing a great deal of the complexity that underpins them. I am trying to resist making too much of a likeness to Jane Austen. I may already have mentioned that, just as Austen derived a great deal of her rhetorical (and comedic) power from a thorough grounding in the prose of the Augustan masters, particularly Dr Johnson; similarly, Lively appropriates the narrative style of an earlier generation of university-based historians who wrote for the broad reading public; more than just a style, it was a creed for reconciling character with contingency. Like nature/nurture, character and contingency are convenient poles along which to range our discoveries about human behavior; as pertaining to humans, their either/or tussle can never be resolved.


I don’t know how long I spent out on balcony yesterday. To see the street life better, now that it was so much closer, I knelt on the settee with its back to the railing, and rested my cheek on a fist. Every now and then, there would pass along the sidewalk on the other side of 87th Street a distended cluster of commuters, drifting east from the subway station at Lexington Avenue before fanning out along First Avenue and its side streets. I had the impression — this is the sort of just-so thing with which imaginative observers can plug any lack of evidence — that the people I was watching had all made more or less conscious decisions not to head home along much busier 86th Street. (It was also “clear” that they chose the north side of the street because our side is still covered with scaffolding related to the balcony-railing project. I’m told that the scaffolding is going to come down “in four weeks.” Bravo!)

I have already discerned two types of mobile users. Members of the first group cannot be heard at all over the distance to my balcony. The second type bellows, public-speaking style. Every now and then, there will be a guy who is speaking loudly to a pack of other guys, but, for the most part, if I can make out the words that I’m hearing, the speaker is quite alone, and barking into his phone. I can rarely make out what women are saying, but they laugh in groups. It is endlessly the same, and endlessly different.