A Series of Little Deaths
Metamorphosis: Selected Stories, Penelope Lively, Penguin, 2021, 336pp.
In 1967, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes considered the ultimate role of the author: to shed their ego as if it were skin, and slip into a ghostly, fleshless existence as a shaman or ‘relator’ whose ‘performance – the mastery of narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his “genius”.’
Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
So, if the author’s role is to die, what of the reader? On this, Barthes proposed yet another death, a smaller one, but a certain kind of expiration, nonetheless. The ultimate act, or goal of reading, he posited, is to reach la petite morte – an experience akin to losing consciousness momentarily, to reach the precipice of death, only to return to the world of the living somewhat altered. ‘The pleasure of the text is like that untenable, impossible, purely novelistic instant so relished by Sade’s libertine when he manages to be hanged and then to cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss…’ In Barthes’ theoretical doctrine, as readers, we are able to live out multiple realities, with endless stamina for both living and dying. Moreover, we should want to offer ourselves for sacrifice, for the sake of pleasure, if nothing else. It’s not an easy task, of course; one can only reach this level of unconscious delight with the very best of literature.
Penelope Lively’s celebrated writing career has, principally, been based around death and all it encompasses – literally, textually, and figuratively. As an author, she has sought to consume her readers in cycles of mortality and memory, addressing the relentless passing of time as it settles in folds of skin and wipes away the intricacies of social record. Though she has, in a rather anti-Barthes-like fashion, ruminated around many semi-, if not fully, auto-biographical landscapes – roving in the white British upper classes of Oxfordshire, London and Cairo with painters, poets, reporters and documentarians who slide seamlessly between the institutions of RADA, Camberwell and the National Portrait Gallery – Lively has, more importantly, been drawn to the tides of human existence, dismantling the structures that move us from points A to B: existence to non-existence.
In a prolific portfolio spanning more than fifty fiction and non- fiction titles, from the Carnegie Medal-winning The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) – a children’s novel about the apparition of a seventeeth century sorcerer in present-day Oxfordshire – to the misgivings of biographer Mark Lamming hunting down the memories of long-dead essayist Gilbert Strong in According to Mark (1984), and her most recent memoir on ageing and memory, Ammonites and Leaping Fish (2013), Lively has consistently examined personal and public histories: the narratives by which we are defined, as well as the certainties with which we are bound. Just as texts must begin and end, Lively’s protagonists have, over the years, been pushed, somewhat apathetically, into existence, and pulled from the world just as impassively, but not before setting down some kind of narrative, either consciously, or somewhat ethereally, in the minds of others.
In the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (1987), readers were introduced to the seventy-six-year-old vilified historian Claudia Hampton, who, lying terminally ill in a hospital bed, begins to write down the events of her life as a so-called ‘history of the world’, filled with fragmented memories complete with returning characters that contribute to the ‘strata’ of her existence. In the process of this grand, if not obnoxious, re-telling, Lively’s protagonist recognises her inability to be anyone but Claudia (‘I cannot shed my skin and put on yours’) but also her ability (and burning need) to shape the story once and for all: ‘The voice of history, of course, is composite, and when you and I talk about history we don’t mean what actually happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of this, all time. We mean the tidying up of this into books.’
Lively is, arguably, less interested in the final expiration of her characters – the moment they draw their last ‘irregular rasp’, from the bed whilst ‘drifting in and out of some pounding sea’, but in the manifold ways they pass away throughout their lives, waving goodbye to various personas like creatures falling into extinction, ‘dead [as] ammonites and belemnites’. In the process of remembering ‘Claudia’, or ‘Claudias’ plural, Moon Tiger’s narrator shifts from the first person to the third, introducing us to a character incarnate; Claudia the child with a scraped knee; Claudia the incestuous adolescent; Claudia the sunburnt lover and provocative war reporter; Claudia the ineffectual wife and mother; Claudia the disassociated matriarch.
Throughout Lively’s many literary universes, all humans die, relentlessly, as they shed versions of themselves in order to create something new. In the latest, and last, collection of short stories, we return to familiar territory, exploring death one last time: not as an end, but as an act of transfiguration. In these collated worlds, book-ended by two new stories written last year, death is, at times, an act of wonder and transformation – a slipping away from consciousness like Barthes’ la petite morte. Elsewhere, death is an act of mutation, corruption and defilement. In the opening piece, ‘Metamorphosis, or the Elephant’s Foot’ (2021), it is both. Here, we follow the evolution of Harriet Mayfield from youth to old age. As a child, the ‘shape-shifting process [is] so gradual, that she hardly notices that she has left child Harriet behind and emerged as a fully fledged adult of eighteen’. In the months of pregnancy, she ‘[reels] from the realisation that she is no longer one person, but two’, growing yet another body who will embark on their own existential odyssey of little deaths and altered states.
Harriet’s life is, simultaneously, haunted by a range of deathly ephemera images that re-enforce the relationship between past and present, and our lack of control over any form of ‘Metamorphosis, or the Elephant’s Foot’ is peppered with harbingers – animals destined to spend their afterlife as something altogether twisted and alien. The story begins with Harriet noticing an elephant’s foot in the doorway of her grandmother’s house: ‘The long dead elephant had its foot – all four feet in the nineteenth-century and in the heart of It is – was – a long way away in every sense, but also relentlessly here, in early-twentieth- century London, doing duty as a receptable for umbrellas.’ As a soon-to- be mother, Harriet knits clothes for her baby, selecting a pearl button, ‘ripped from its home by a fisherman and flung into the hold of a boat, at the start of a long metamorphosis from living creature to small objects of utility’. The button is dropped and forgotten, resting for years under the floorboards of the family home.
Later in life, Harriet’s writing career is launched through an acclaimed survey of whales – a major research project spanning their origins and biology, as well as their literary and metaphorical significance. The work is inspired by the whale bone in her mother’s parasol, the very same placed in the elephant’s foot at the beginning:
The ribs of the parasol were baleen and were once part of a humpback whale’s mouth, the wall of thin strips that act as a filter for the whale, straining from the water the krill on which it feeds. An element of Connie’s parasol once cruised the dark waters of the Arctic.
Harriet was intrigued. She was intrigued by this piece of information, and also because of this image she has of her mother carrying the parasol when she was a child – opening it, putting it into an umbrella stand – has made her sharply conscious of the chasm between that time and this. Nearly forty years, that’s all, but another age, it was. How she was, and how I am, at around the same age.
Finally, as an old woman, staring down the end of the narrative, Harriet considers her reflection in a tortoiseshell mirror:
It has never had anything to do with a tortoise; it was once part of a hawksbill sea turtle, and roamed some tropical coral reef, perhaps in the Caribbean, or maybe the Philippines, or the Red Sea, or the Malay Archipelago we can’t now know where, suffice it that, wherever, it was a long way from Harriet’s London bedroom. Once upon a time, there were plenty of hawksbill sea turtles. Now, there are not. They are critically endangered, because too many people were keen to make them into mirrors, or combs, or spectacle frames, or furniture inlays.
As a whole, this new publication both surveys and cements Lively’s core ideas, with stories from the 1970s up to the present-day that return to time, decease and loss as gravity wells. Change is often a form of extinction, as moments crystallise and pave the way for another world yet to come. In ‘A Clean Death’ (re-published from Pack of Cards, 1978-1986), a young boy is forced to snap a rabbit’s neck after leaving it fatally wounded from a badly targeted gunshot. He leaves a part of himself behind with the animal’s dead body, his innocence broken along with the neck. ‘[H]e carried the gun all anyhow, not with pride, cradled over his arm; it looked, now, disproportionately large, as though it had grown and he had shrunk.’ In ‘A World of Her Own’, (also from Pack of Cards) the narrator’s sister, Lisa, lives an ‘unsettled’ life as an aspiring artist, unable to commit to a home, or a medium of expression, moving from paint to collage to clay and so on. Along the way, she constantly reinvents herself, killing off her youth and inspiration simultaneously, until middle-age transforms the once-radiant painter into an unrecognisable, unfulfilled woman with a ‘curious creased look’. Later, ‘In Olden Times’ (Beyond the Blue Mountains, 1997) the nurse Marion can ‘date flesh at a glance’. She lives, somewhat obsessively, by the clock, apportioning her days by the hour, ensuring ‘time for love-making; time for ironing, for cooking, for taking a bath’. One day, as she works through her chores, the hours are painfully extinguished as the washing machine breaks, then a fuse, then a sewing pin. Broken appliances act as sweeping metaphors for the versions of Marion that have been sacrificed whilst fixing or caring for other people: ‘a crisis meant time borrowed from one sector and forever owed.’
In ‘Songs of Praise’, the last in the Metamorphosis collection (and Lively’s last ever piece, she tells us), a father and his adult children gather to celebrate the life of their recently deceased mother and wife, Martha Relford. Rose-tinted anecdotes are shared with the congregation, while memories of the ‘real’ Martha resurface in the minds of her daughters and son. The spirit of a cold, flawed and tenacious woman enters the room, much unlike the character that’s being described in the service, and the story ends somewhere between fact and fiction. As Lively demonstrates, all that can be left after death is the perception of a life, not an omniscient truth: ‘[t]he ritual is complete, the tributes paid, the ceremony done. The room is full of Martha. She is not here. She is very much here. She has gone where the dead go – into other people’s heads. She is fragmented. There are many versions of Martha, many truths, perhaps many untruths.’ The story is, somewhat, the perfect end to Lively’s career, and the perfect encapsulation of Barthes’ aspirational rhetoric. Much like Claudia in Moon Tiger, setting down her last piece as a historian and fearing the ‘secular form of hell – to be preserved in forms that we do not like in the recollection of others’, this last piece of fiction considers what is sacrificed in the authorial process – that the ‘death’ of the writer, or a character, is only final in so far as it is a last relinquishing of control. Metamorphosis is proof of Lively’s enduring skill, and a manifesto for literature that succumbs to the reader, welcoming the transformational gravity of the last sentence.
For more information on Metamorphosis by Penelope Lively, visit Penguin.
Kate Simpson is an editor, author, poet and critic. She is Associate Editor for Aesthetica Magazine and Editor at Large for Valley Press. Her most recent publication, an ecopoetry anthology, titled Out of Time: Poetry from the Climate Emergency, was published in July 2021 and has been selected as the 2021 Poetry Book Society Autumn Special Commendation.
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