Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Making It Up - Penelope Lively

This is the first Penelope Lively I've read, she's a sort of familiar name but I've come to realise I've got her all mixed up with Penelope's Mortimer and Fitzgerald too, a confusion that I suspect reading her has only added to. This book came to me by way of a reading group so I have a better idea of how it strikes other people than I might have, which is definitely something I like, especially when I'm slightly ambivalent about a book.

Basically 'Making It Up' didn't turn out at all like the book I expected from the blurb, which for me was a shame because I quite wanted to read the book I thought I was going to get. There is a quote from the preface on the back of the edition I read which says "This book is fiction. If anything, it is an anti-memoir. My own life serves as the prompt; I have homed in upon the ricks, the rapids, the whirlpools, and written the alternative stories. It is a confabulation." The blurb goes on, "Making It Up is Penelope Lively's answer to the oft-asked question, 'How much if what you write comes from your own life?' What if Lively hadn't escaped from Egypt, her birthplace, at the outbreak of World War II? What would her life have been like if she'd married someone else? From a hillside in Italy to an archeological dig, the author explores the stories that could have been hers..."

I guess the answer is that not much of what Lively writes comes from her own life. I guess as well that everybody plays the what if game and try's to imagine what life would have been like if certain actions had had different consequences or other choices had been made. Most of us put ourselves at the centre of whatever scenario that conjures - which is only natural, so I expected Lively to do the same. She doesn't which is unsettling, what she does do is explain before and after each chapter how that might have been a path taken which all things considered is frustrating; it could all have been done in the preface. It's chapter three where it becomes a bit of an issue - the young Penelope applied to be a student volunteer on an archeological dig in the early 50's, she didn't get a place but imagines that if she had... The tale takes up 20 years later on another dig with a motley collection of students and professionals thrown together for 6 weeks. The central character is a student called Alice, taken up with a fear of the bomb and a philosophical consideration of the objects they find. The woman Lively imagines she might have been is the wife of the senior academic who suddenly ups and leaves to join a women's group but she's scarcely mentioned which wouldn't matter if it didn't sound more interesting than the story I actually found myself reading.

Otherwise in 2 of the 6 chapters which are confabulations of her own life she kills herself off in short order, in another she dispatches her husband before they meet, it's also the weakest in the collection as a story - it's set in the Korean War and never, for me at least, came alive. By any measure I can give the best of the lot is about an old woman in a house full of books but otherwise I think this one is for Lively fans rather than beginners.


  1. I had to do the "which Penelope is that?" thing, but eventually produced the memory of having read Cleopatra's Sister many years ago (vague recollection of liking but not loving which is no help whatsoever). I'm going to have to reclassify the Ps - this one can be Penelope-who-likes-palaeontology.

  2. I too have a Lively/Mortimer distinction problem, but Margaret Drabble often strays in as well.

    I have a Penelope's actual memoir, Oleander Jacaranda, as yet unread, ahem. Maybe Making it Up is much more fun if you've already read that one. I do like the idea behind Making it Up, so I'll keep an eye open for it.

    1. I've never read Drabble either, I keep meaning to partly because I love Byatt so am curious to see how they compare, especially given the apparent animosity between them, but so far I've not found a Drabble that appeals enough to make me actually do it. How's that for sheer laziness.

  3. You are right, this is definitely one for the fans. Even though I count myself as a keen follower of Penelope Lively, this was my least favourite. Her recent memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish, is excellent but it is her fiction I love. I thoroughly recommend her early novels, particularly According to Mark, and I especially enjoyed How it all began. So don't let this book put you off!

  4. Thanks for that Deborah, I will try her again and maybe in the process appreciate this book more.

  5. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a big fan of Penelope Lively's books but haven't read this one yet. It is odd that this book would make you feel like she doesn't draw much from her own life, I think in some of her books she has quite a bit. Her memoir/autobio Oleander, Jacaranda has more than a few links to her Booker winner Moon Tiger. And many of her books deal with how history, personal and otherwise, is remembered/perceived/presented which this book seems also to be exploring. Try Consequences (my fave) or According to Mark, or Heat Wave. I actually like her the best of the Penelope's. I find her more readable than Fitzgerald (although I like Fitzgerald a lot).

  6. I might have Oleander, Jacaranda - will need to check. It was one of those times when a book just isn't what you expect it to be. Given that I hadn't read her before so my only impression was from the back blurb I don't know why I had such a distinct idea of the book it might be. I'm not going to give up on her partly because I also feel this wasn't a great place to start. Very like coming into a conversation half way through and never really grasping what it was about for me. I could see why others are so enthusiastic about her though.