Monday 15 May 2017

Modes of Life

Literary fiction has a main concern with character. Literary characters are made up of sets of features that enable us to make mental models of them, to understand them in ways that—if we knew them in daily life—would enable us to interact with them. Character, in fiction, has aspects of the psychological traits of personality, but enhanced by influences of specific events. A less-noticed aspect might be called "modes of life." People with particular traits adapt to, or are unable to adapt to, different modes, such as being married or divorced, being a parent, being employed as a civil servant or a shop assistant, being unemployed, living here or living there. A writer who is particularly good on such modes is Penelope Lively, whose most famous book is Moon Tiger. Born in Cairo in 1933, she continues to write and, on 4 May this year, a thoughtful and engaging profile of her was published in the New York Times, Sunday Book Review Section, by Charles McGrath.

One of Lively's interests is in how events that may seem small at the time can have large effects, and—as it were—jolt people from one mode into another. In her most recent novel, How it all began, she pushes this idea towards a certain edge. A random event occurs when one of the novel's characters, Charlotte, is mugged on a London street. We don't know about the mugger, but the event prompts changes in several other lives. Charlotte is taken to hospital and a phone-call is made to her daughter, Rose. She works for an academic, Henry, who likes being famous, and likes to mix with famous people. She deals with his correspondence and accompanies him to important events. The mugging means that Rose has to look after her mother, Charlotte, and therefore cannot accompany Henry, next day, to Manchester, to give a distinguished lecture. Another person has to be called in to accompany him: his niece, Marion. Without the presence of Rose, Henry messes up his lecture, makes an utter fool of himself. He has an idea of how to reinstate himself, but following the debacle, his life starts to unravel. Rose accepts her mother coming to stay in her house, and move about on crutches. This has a substantial effect on Rose and her husband. As to Henry's niece, Marion: because she has to escort Henry to Manchester, she isn't able to meet her lover, Jeremy. Thinking Jeremy to be in his flat, she leaves a message to tell him she can't see him. But he's not in the flat. He is at home where he lives with his wife Stella. Without thinking, he leaves his mobile phone in the pocket of a jacket he has hung on a door, while he nips out on an errand. Stella finds the phone and the message. She realizes her husband is having an affair. She throws a wobbly, and starts proceedings for a divorce.

In an earlier novel, Consequences, Lively traces the influence of events, and the ways in which they precipitate people into different modes of life, over three generations of women. Lorna is born in privilege. As she sits on a bench in St James's Park, she sees Matt an artist, who is making drawings of ducks on the pond there. The two start going out, then get married, and go with almost no money to Somerset, to live in a tiny cottage. On the walls of its upstairs room, Matt paints murals: love scenes of Lorna and him. Matt is killed in Crete, in World War II. When she is grown up, their daughter, Molly, comes across a discarded newspaper, and happens to see an advertisement for a job, for which she applies, and is accepted: the job changes her life. Molly's daughter, Ruth, who considers her own birth to have been an accident, finds out about some of these events. She retraces the footsteps of Matt to Crete, and of him and Lorna to the Somerset cottage, where she sees the murals. This last part of the book, I found, was very moving.

We each enter into a different mode with each kind of person with whom we interact: parent, child, employer, someone we are fond of, someone we don't like. As Erving Goffman (1961) says, with each person it's as if we pass through an invisible membrane that separates one role from another. These roles can expand into modes. An engaging aspect of Lively's work is that she concentrates on these modes in ways that enable us to reflect upon them in our own lives.

Goffman, E. (1961). “Fun in games” in Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction (pp. 15-81). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Lively, P. (1987). Moon tiger. London: Deutsch.

Lively, P. (2007). Consequences. Toronto: Key Porter.

Lively, P. (2011). How it all began. New York: Viking.

McGrath, C. (2017, 4 May 2017). "A writer writes:" Penelope Lively's fiction defies the test of time, New York Times Book Review Section.

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