Now in her early seventies, Penelope Lively is one of the most accomplished writers of fiction of our day, and one who has thought about her art with particular acuity and originality. Few people have written so perceptively as she about the connections and disconnections between fiction and fact, between artist and art. Now, in this splendid new "anti-memoir," she has this to say:
"To write fiction is to make a succession of choices, to send the narrative and the characters in one direction rather than another. Story is navigation; successful story is the triumphant process down exactly the right paths, avoiding the dead ends, the unsatisfactory turns. Life, of course, is not at all like that. There is no shrewd navigator, just a person's own haphazard lurching from one decision to another. Which is why life so often seems to lack the authenticity of fiction. And when a writer contemplates her own life, there is an irresistible compulsion to tinker with it, to try out a crucial adjustment here or there."
This is precisely what Lively has done in Making It Up: She has re-imagined her own life. The book is fiction, "the alternative stories" that might have taken place had her life gone in different directions. In eight chapters -- eight short stories -- she has undertaken "a form of confabulation." She says: "That word has a precise meaning: in psychiatric terminology, it refers to the creation of imaginary remembered experiences which replace the gaps left by disorders of the memory. My memory is not yet disordered; this exercise in confabulation is a piece of fictional license."
In no respect do these re-inventions have anything to do with the self-infatuation that characterizes so much contemporary fiction and memoirs. Lively is not ego-tripping; she is exploring life's other possibilities and is simply using her own past (and, in one of the stories, her late husband's) to speculate about what might have happened had different decisions been made by or imposed upon her. "Is there some directing factor, from day one?" she asks. "Some cast of mind that will always prevail, that will insist that we go in one direction rather than another?" Is it mere "happenstance," or is there "some mysterious innate steering system which twitches the wheel at crucial moments"?
Thus when Lively was a child of 8 or 9, living in Cairo with her parents -- her family was British; her father worked for the National Bank of Egypt -- she and her mother were evacuated to Palestine as the prospect of a German attack on Cairo grew ever more grim. They rode out the war there before returning to England. But what if she and her mother and her nanny had taken a troop ship to Cape Town or another point to the south, as many other British families decided to do? What might have happened then? Might Shirley, the nanny, have fallen in love with a medical orderly? Might Jean, the little girl, have come to a terrible end aboard ship? As told in "The Mozambique Channel," the powerful opening story, all that and more might have happened had a different decision been made.
In "The Albert Hall," Lively postulates that an amatory experience she had at the age of 18 ("There is only one way in which this night can end") might have led to pregnancy instead of just "a heady rite of passage." In "The Temple of Mithras," she, in the person of a college student named Alice, spends a summer on an archaeological dig on which Lively herself had been unable to obtain a place. The connections between past and present, always of deep interest to Lively, move to the center here. "The archaeologist is interested in the dynamics of past society," but, Alice thinks, "the dynamic is what is going on now, here, today," and though "none of this will feature in the account of the dig that will eventually be published . . . it is this brew of human relations that is the narrative, the dynamic." People fight, make love, do the unexpected:
"People have rubbed up against other people; they have squabbled, like Mike Chambers and Professor Sampson, or they have started a love affair, like Luke and Laura, or they have made some decision and disappeared, like Penny Sampson, who apparently is not coming back and must be somewhere quite else now, getting on with things that we know nothing about. The thing that has happened, really, is that a whole lot of lives have briefly touched and will then spin off in different directions. Probably I'll never set eyes on any of these people again, but they'll always be in my head."
Lively plays it for laughs as well as serious themes in this story, and does the same in "Transatlantic." When she was 22, working as a "research assistant to the then professor of race relations at Oxford," she gave a tour of the campus to a visiting American scholar. Obviously he liked her, for he suggested that she do postgraduate study at his university: "I didn't. That road not taken vanishes into mist. Not long after, I met the man I would marry." But what if she'd gone to America, married and divorced, then remarried and visited England with her new husband after her mother's death? What if they had visited her aunt and uncle and been subjected to withering, patronizing (and very funny) scrutiny?
What, by the same token, if at about the same age she returned to Egypt and then had taken a flight from Cairo to London instead? What if the flight had crashed, killing all aboard? What if, many years later, her mutilated handbag had been delivered to the half-sister she had never met? What if that half-sister, Sarah, had met a man named Barry Sanders, had talked to him about repairing the dead woman's locket and found him to be a kindred spirit? It happens all the time:
"People identify themselves, in some subliminal way. You know very soon into which category they fall. You know that you would like to see them again; or you definitely would not, or you don't much care either way. Sexual attraction doesn't much come into it; that's another matter with its own agenda. The basic thing is simply this question of empathy, as though the other person wore some coded emblem that you recognize. It can happen with someone who serves you in a shop, or a person you talk to at a party, or a neighbor or a colleague or the man who comes to read the meter."
To which Lively appends this afterthought: "I have no half sister. My parents were divorced when I was twelve, and by a subsequent marriage my father had two sons, when I was in my twenties. As a solitary child, my fantasies featured a mythical sister, along with the cast of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Maybe Sarah is the last gasp of this unfulfilled need, in which case it is only natural that I should wish to give her a happy ending." Certainly it is a happier ending than the one granted to Jean in "The Mozambique Channel," or to the unnamed British soldier in "The Battle of the Imjin River" who, unlike Jack Lively, is sent to Korea -- Jack had expected to be sent there but got a fateful reprieve -- and thrown into an awful battle. If Jack had gone to Korea: "I might never have known him. We might never have met. There might never have been our children, and theirs, and the forty-one years of love and life and shared experiences, and those long hard months at the end."
As that suggests, if one theme coursing through all these stories is the connection of past and present, the other is love. Nobody writes more astutely or affectingly about that great subject than Penelope Lively, and rarely has she written about it so well as she does here. Making It Up is indeed a confabulation, but it is rooted in real human experience and real human emotion. What happens here is not what really happened, but it feels as real as reality itself. *
Jonathan Yardley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is email@example.com.