Sunday, March 28, 2010
Next to Nature, Art: according to Penelope Lively
Next to Nature, Art / Penelope Lively
London: Penguin, 1984, c1982.
This latest Lively read was -- as usual with my Lively picks so far -- enjoyable, so much so that I read it in one sitting. It is sharper than some of her others, but perhaps that is because the subject matter lends itself to easy skewering.
It takes place in a large but crumbling English country house, Framleigh Hall, that has been made over into an artists retreat as a way to keep it going. The year is 1974, a time when week long retreats to discover your artistic merit in pottery or watercolor were de rigeur. Eleven students have paid their money and are on their way to an artistic experience they hope will enliven their lives. Toby owns the house and loves to play lord of the manor. He is in a relationship with Paula, the woman who helps him run the place, and they have a young son together, one whom Toby barely acknowledges. But Toby is also in a relationship with Nick, a young male art student who works at the retreat, and he quite enjoys the resultant power he has over the young man. Add in a few other instructors with their own quirks, a kitchen staff who disappears halfway through the week, and the motley gathering of very different students all in close quarters, and you have the ingredients for a story of human nature exposed.
The peccadilloes of artists who are cynical about both amateurism and the taint of 'selling out' by actually making money make perfect subject matter for Lively's sharp, discerning eye. The self-image of both artists and students seems to be one of self-deception more than truth; each person's longing to be more important than they are comes clear in the compulsions and behaviour which begins to identify each one as the group starts to settle. There are various types, but even so, each is still an individual with a back story that somehow seems to just be there, without needless exposition. Lively is very good at sketching a character in a few precise phrases.
Sexual desire, self-importance, betrayal and schadenfreude all appear, as most of the cohort revert to what feels like school-yard behaviour. There are a couple of characters that actually have talent, and these level headed beings stand separate from the desperation and jostling for position among the others.
Things come to a head when, as a special event, a local author shows up to read from his work late in the week. By this time the retreat has rather gone off the rails, with the students taking on the kitchen rota after the flight of the unpaid kitchen staff. Resentments abound, and incompetence is in full flight: the lights go out on the poor aged author and his wife, and sarcastic chaos abounds. The petty insults and misery are dreadful, yet dreadfully funny as well. Lively never descends into tragedy or portentous writing, she always has a light and ironic eye which makes an observer of the reader and allows us to see such scenes in a way which (after time) we might regard them if they'd happened to us; so terrible that you just have to laugh.
In any case, this is a more direct, plot filled story than some of her others, but so entertaining. The horrible characters are dealt with, the story moves on, and the pretensions of this self-enclosed artistic world are pricked. The only true note of sympathy is sounded for the neglected six year old who knows only this world, and only the lack of supervision he senses in not the norm for all his school friends. Sharp observation and cool writing make this another winner in my read-all-of-Lively project.