Jonathan Coe

  • Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively
    Viking, 282 pp, £14.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 670 84830 1

Samuel Beckett was one of the first to realise that in a predominantly agnostic and sceptical age, nothing could be more irrelevant than the novel whose plot continued to imitate the workings of a benign deity: the writer’s new task, on the contrary, consisted in finding ‘a form that accommodates the mess’. Half a century has gone by since then, and still, both in and out of the mainstream, novelists are struggling to adapt their narrative strategies to the demands of a reality which, as any glance at the newspapers will remind us, grows daily more grotesque and unmanageable. In particular the threat of terrorism begins to look forever closer and more insistent when passed through the media’s magnifying lens, and any writer seeking to address this subject must face up to the possibility that tidy endings are not to be relied upon: that our lives (our narratives, in other words) run the perpetual risk of truncation by sudden, unexpected acts of violence which are dauntingly inexplicable in terms of cause and effect. In the words of Howard Beamish, one of the central characters in Penelope Lively’s new novel, reality ‘has never been quite so devastatingly random’.

This is the problem Lively addresses in Cleopatra’s Sister. To her credit, she has never fought shy of ideas, and in some respects is one of the brainiest of contemporary British novelists. City of the Mind was distinguished by its vision of London not simply as a chaotic assemblage of buildings, but as a lifesize portrait of the disparate consciousnesses which had raised and inhabited them. In Moon Tiger she chewed eloquently over the nature of history before arriving at the routine conclusion (similarly trumpeted forth by Barnes’s History of the World and Graham Swift’s Waterland, among others) that there is no such thing as absolute truth and ‘the whole point’ is ‘disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that’. In her latest novel, which is about a bunch of helpless travellers being kept hostage in a politically unstable Middle Eastern country – although this doesn’t become clear until about halfway through – she helps us to realise that one of the most frightening implications of the terrorist threat is the nonsense it can make of any attempt to control one’s own destiny. What it effects, viewed from this rather abstract perspective, is a massive tipping of the scales in the already uneasy balance between choice and contingency.

The issue is raised bluntly enough in the novel’s opening sentence: ‘Howard Beamish became a palaeontologist because of a rise in the interest rate when he was six years old.’ What this means, as it turns out, is that Howard’s family were forced that year to cancel their expensive trip to Spain and to take a holiday in Somerset, where he discovered a fossil on a beach. Hence individual choice is exposed as a sham and supposedly life-changing decisions are shown to be taken in a context where distant, arbitrary, uncontrollable factors hold ultimate sway. Lively repeats the stratagem at the beginning of other sections: ‘Lucy Faulkner was born in Luton because her father met a man in a pub who had a good wheeze going with cheap leather jackets from Spain’; ‘Howard met Vivien because he fell from a borrowed stepladder and broke his kneecap’; ‘Lucy got a new job because one day she leapt too precipitately off a bus’; and so on. The sleight of hand involved here consists in forcing two seemingly unrelated statements into a pseudo-causal juxtaposition by excising the elaborate chain of reasoning which in fact connects them. A novel proceeding entirely on the basis of this disingenuous tactic might be bracingly unconventional and disorientating, but Penelope Lively is fundamentally too honest and too literal a writer to allow herself (or us) this treat. Indeed, after less than two pages, she is already covering herself with disclaimers: all right, she concedes, ‘Howard became a palaeontologist because he was endowed with a particular intellect and a particular direction of interest. Nevertheless, the economic climate of the time and the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer must be given their due.’

Here, then, we have both the strength and the weakness of her approach. The thesis of the novel has been made clear (‘Choice and contingency form a delicate partnership’), but made clear because it has been spelled out – and almost before the book has even started. And now that the subject has been raised, Lively cannot leave it alone. Every few pages, similar observations will crop up, each time with the same slightly pleased cadence and inflection, as if some new and startling discovery has been made: ‘The course of an individual life has to be seen as a dizzying maze through which wanders this thread of actuality’; ‘The continuity of personality is a remarkable business’; ‘A narrative is a sequence of present moments, but the present does not exist, or exists only as a ripple that runs right through the story’; ‘There is no end to it, this perilous concatenation of circumstance and precarious intent.’ The trouble is that these sentiments have been diligently woven into a narrative which then starts to seem like an all too obvious and straightforward illustration of them. Whereas in a novel like Kundera’s Immortality, for instance, narrative and analysis coexist in a relationship of tantalising obscurity, the light they are meant to cast on one another only beginning to dawn as the book itself draws to a close, Lively’s compulsive philosophising serves no purpose except to make needlessly explicit the ideas which are already fully embodied in the parallel, slowly unfolding life stories of her two main characters.

These life stories occupy Part One of the book, along with several fragments from ‘A Brief History Of Callimbia’ (this being the name of her invented Middle Eastern country) which reiterate points about the arbitrary and subjective nature of history familiar from Lively’s earlier work. Part One takes up about two-fifths of the novel and is not a lot of fun to read. Things perk up considerably, however, when the aeroplane carrying Howard Beamish and Lucy Faulkner towards Nairobi is forced to make an emergency landing in Callimbia and the British passengers find themselves being used as pawns in a diplomatic game, held hostage by the newly-established military dictatorship until the British Government agrees to repatriate some Callimbian dissidents who have taken refuge in the United Kingdom. Suddenly, and very much to the reader’s surprise, the novel has transformed itself into a page-turner. Events start to accelerate and the details are chillingly believable: the shunting from one dismal place of imprisonment to another, the official stonewalling, the creeping onset of disease and demoralisation, the random brutality of the guards. Lively shows an admirable refusal to shy away from the nastiest aspects of their predicament (one man is punished by having to lick his own vomit from the floor of a prison camp) and towards the novel’s climax, when Howard is separated from his fellow prisoners and transported to what he assumes will be a place of torture or execution, his transition from wild anger through despair to ‘a kind of anaesthesia’ is uncompromisingly conveyed.

The cool authority with which Lively guides us through these episodes makes us realise how forced and uncomfortable were her machinations in the first part of the book: there can be few novelists whose inclinations are geared so patently towards the traditional, linear narrative, achieved with the minimum fuss and authorial disruption. And yet even here her need to expound, her nervousness of the message simply not getting through, can stand in the way of the storytelling impulse. If there’s no room for a self-conscious narrator any more, there’s always the self-consciousness of the characters to fall back on: and Lively’s characters, here as in her other novels, are nothing if not self-conscious. Historians, highbrow journalists, clever young academics with a sure grip on some arcane discipline, they will almost invariably be sophisticated and well-informed interpreters of the world through which they move. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that to concentrate so determinedly on such people is to ignore the state of cheerful befuddlement in which most of us pass through our lives. One gets the sense that Lively doesn’t appreciate how peculiar her characters must sometimes appear to the majority of her readers. Clearly it’s useful for her purposes that we are in the company of people who, transported through a strange city at night, in a coach with blacked-out windows and under the supervision of gun-toting guards, will embark on a lengthy discussion about the existence of God or exchange nervous pleasantries about how ‘early palaeontologists had to see evolution as a progression to higher and higher forms of life until it achieves Homo sapiens.’ Not surprisingly, Howard and Lucy are able between them to give the choice/contingency debate a very decent airing during some of the quieter intervals of their ordeal. But if their blossoming love affair never quite manages to build up any momentum – thereby denying the book the emotional dimension which might have brought its ideas to life – this is because they seem cripplingly unable to shake off their self-consciousness. Every twinge of romantic passion sets off a guilty mental alarm or a qualifying self-reproach: ‘This is absurd, she told herself. You only met this man a couple of hours ago.’ ‘I am in a place I never wanted to come to, Lucy thought, apparently imprisoned and thoroughly uncomfortable, and yet I feel ... happy.’ ‘Back in the room she looked at once for Howard. And felt again that surge of pleasure. This is absurd, she thought. Everything is absurd.’

What the reader ends up wishing is that Lively had allotted less of the burden of exposition to this duo of super-articulates and attempted instead to portray the ‘delicate partnership’ between choice and contingency more strictly in terms of action and narrative development. One of the novel’s more frustrating evasions is its refusal to engage with the political situation which lies behind the hostages’ plight. The new President of Callimbia, Omar Latif, is presented as a barmy dictator with a penchant for militaristic board games (‘He’s mad. That’s all we can tell you’), but there’s no analysis of the diplomatic decisions or processes which have put Britain in the position where they have to negotiate with him. Lively half-apologises for this at the end of the book, protesting that Howard ‘preferred to leave it as it was: irrational and inexplicable ... explanations and revelations had nothing to do with what had happened and could not be undone, with the whole contingent sequence.’ But to say that ‘explanations ... had nothing to do with what had happened’ seems extraordinarily shifty: what Lively really means is that it is far easier, for the purposes of her argument, to make out that Lucy’s and Howard’s lives have been disrupted by the whims of a madman rather than a chain of political events too complex and tangled to be dealt with in a novel of this scope and formal orthodoxy. ‘The mess’, in short, has been identified and even gestured towards. But we are still no nearer to accommodating it.