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Pickle Me This

June 26, 2007

Making It Up

Time has been running away from me lately– a symptom of June. I am now reading Lionel Shriver’s Double Fault and loving it. It’s my take-out book (paperback) whilst I’m reading A Memoir of Friendship, which is too big to carry around with me and really I’d just like to stay home until I finished it.

And last week I had the great pleasure of reading Penelope Lively’s Making It Up. I’ve never read anything else like it, nor was I originally compelled by the premise, but I had to read it anyway because, after all, Penelope Lively is one of my favourites. And fail me she didn’t– she never has.

Billed as “an anti-memoir” in our very age of memoirs, and I loved that idea. Lively takes pivotal points in her life and contemplates could-have-beens. What if her family had escaped Egypt via another route, and gone down in a boat sunk by the Germans? What if she’d gotten pregnant at eighteen? What if she had emigrated to America? But I was concerned as to how this would function in practice; how could this stand up as a book beyond the novelty of it all? And really I just wanted to read a Penelope Lively novel. Why couldn’t she just have written one?

But as I’ve already said, Penelope Lively is not in the business of disappointing. What the anti-memoir tag fails to convey is how truly “anti” these memoirs are; Lively herself is peripheral in most stories, absent from others, long dead in one. In fact this is more a collection of short stories, each with differerent characters, no continuity, and Lively herself as a character doesn’t ever appear. She understands that different versions of herself along other roads would have been someone else altogether. And so she has invented these people, as well as the people surrounding them.

These fictions are build upon the very opposite of fact, and are therefore the ultimate feat of imagination. Conjuring notions of story, of fate, what we are constructed from and where we go, as well as being a solid collection of stories in their own right. And I loved them for that, and for everything. For their authenticity, and for Penelope Lively’s nerve– to tell stories– which are more honest that any truth I’ve ever been told.

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