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Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.
The landing cupboard is stacked high with what Glyn calls low-use material: conference papers and student references and offprints, including he hopes an offprint that he needs right now for the article on which he is working. The strata in here go back to his postgraduate days, in no convenient sequential order but all jumbled up and juxtaposed. A crisp column of Past and Present is wedged against a heap of tattered files spewing forth their contents. Forgotten students drift to his feet as he rummages, and lie reproachful on the floor: 'Susan Cochrane's contributions to my seminar have been perfunctory …’ Labelled boxes of photographs - Aerial, Bishops Munby 1979, Leeds 1985 -are squeezed against a further row of files. To remove one will bring the lot crashing down, like an ill-judged move in that game involving a tower of balanced blocks. But he has glimpsed behind them a further cache which may well include offprints.
On the shelf above he spots the gold-lettered spine of his own doctoral thesis, its green cloth blotched brown with age; on top of it sits a 1980s run of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. Come to think of it, the contents of the landing cupboard are a nice reflection of his own trade - it is a landscape in which everything co-exists, requiring expert deconstruction. But he does not dwell on that, intent instead upon this, increasingly irritating, search.
He tugs at a file to improve his view of what lies beyond and, sure enough, there is a landslide. Exasperated, he gets down on hands and knees to shovel up this mess, and suddenly there is Kath.
A brown foolscap-size wallet file, with her loopy scrawl across the flap: Keep!
She smiles at him; he sees her skimpy dark fringe, her eyes, that smile.
What is she doing here, in the middle of all this stuff that has nothing to do with her? He picks up the file, stares. He cannot think how it got here. Everything of hers was cleared out. Back then. When she. When.
Hang on, though. Here underneath it are a couple of folders, also with her handwriting: Recipes. Since when did Kath go in for serious cooking, for heaven's sake? He opens the folder, flicks through the contents. Indeed, yes - cuttings from newspapers and magazines in the late 1980s, but petering out fairly rapidly, which signifies. He investigates the second folder, which contains receipted bills, many of them red-flagged second demands, which signifies also, and an incomplete series of bank statements, indicating a mounting overdraft.
It would seem that this assortment of her things got pushed in with his papers by mistake during the big clearing-out operation. The hurried, distracted clearing-out operation. Elaine had volunteered to sort out and dispose of Kath's possessions. She missed this lot. And here they have lain ever since, festering.
Well no, not exactly festering, but turning a little brown at the edges, doggedly degrading away as is everything else in here, doing what inanimate objects do as time passes, preparing to give pause for thought to those whose business is the interpretation of vanished landscapes.
The wallet file is brown anyway, so degradation is not much apparent. He dumps the folders on the floor and goes to sit on the top step of the stairs, holding the file.
He opens it.
Not much inside. Various documents, and a sealed brown envelope containing something stiff. Glyn sets this aside and goes through the rest.
A jeweller's valuation for a two-strand pearl necklace and a pair of drop pearl earrings. Originally her mother's, he seems to remember. Kath wore the earrings a lot.
Her medical card. And her birth certificate. Aha! So this is where that was, the absence of which caused considerable nuisance back then, necessitating a visit to Somerset House. No marriage certificate, one notes. That too had gone missing, making difficulties. And is still lost, it would seem. Not that that is, now, a problem.
Her 0-level certificate. Seven subjects. A grades in all but one. Glyn scans this with some surprise. Well, well. Who'd have thought it?
The injunction on the file's flap was presumably to herself. This was the repository for items she knew that she must hang on to, but - knowing herself - that she knew she was only too likely to lose. He experiences a stir of fondness, which disconcerts him. And he has been entirely diverted from the hunt for that offprint, which is a matter of some urgency. Fondness is overtaken by annoyance; Kath is getting in the way of his work, which was not allowed, as she well understood.
There is also a National Savings Certificate for £5, bearing a date in the mid 1950s. When she was about eight, for heaven's sake. And some chequebook stubs and a Post Office savings book showing a balance of £14.58, and a clutch of letters, at which he glances. The letters are from Kath's mother, the mother who died when she was sixteen. Glyn sees no reason to be interested in these and pushes them back into the file unread.
He is left with a semi-opaque folder, which turns out to hold a sequence of studio portraits of Kath. She is looking at him in glossy black and white, now made entirely manifest. Young Kath. A backlit Kath with bare shoulders, head turned this way or that, eyes to camera or demurely lowered, provocative smile, contemplative sideways gaze. These would date from the aspiring actress days, long before he knew her. Very young Kath.
Glyn studies these photos for quite a while.
He returns everything to the file. There is now just this brown envelope. He notices for the first time that something is written on it. In her hand. Lightly pencilled.
And for whom is this second instruction intended?
He opens the envelope. Within are a photograph and a folded sheet of paper. He looks first at the photograph. A group of five people; grass beneath their feet, a backdrop of trees. Two members of the group, a man and a woman, have their backs to the photographer. Of the other three, Elaine can be identified at once, visible between the two whose faces cannot be seen. Near to her stand another man and woman, whom Glyn does not recognize.
One of the back-turned pair is Kath - he would know that outline anywhere, that stance. The someone else, the man, is at first a bit of a teaser. Familiar, surely - the rather long dark hair, the height, a good head taller than Kath. A slightly hunched way of standing.
Glyn brings the photo closer to his face for more minute inspection. And then he sees. He sees the hands. He sees that Kath and this someone, this man, have their hands closely entwined, locked together, pushed behind them so that as they stand side by side in this moment of private intimacy, this interlocking of hands would be invisible to the rest of the group.
Except to the photographer, who may or may not have been aware of what had been immortalized - the freeze-frame revelation.
And now Glyn recognizes the someone, the man. It is Nick.
He turns to the folded piece of paper that accompanied the photograph. He feels as though gripped by the onset of some incapacitating disease, but this paper requires attention.
Handwriting. A brief message. ‘I can't resist sending you this. Negative destroyed, I'm told. Blessings, my love.'
No signature. None needed. Neither for Kath then, nor, now, for Glyn. Though confirmation is needed. Somewhere he will have an instance of Nick's handwriting. A signature. A letter from way back when he was a consultant, or some such nonsense, on that landscape history series Nick published and of which he endlessly and ignorantly enthused, as Nick always did.
The disease now has him by the throat. The throat, the gut, the balls. What he feels is ... well, what he experiences is the most appalling stomach-churning, head-spinning cauldron of emotion. Rage is the top-note - beneath that a seethe of jealousy and humiliation, the whole primed with some kind of furious drive and energy. Where? When? Who? Who took this photograph? Who presumably passed it on to Nick and destroyed the negative?
The telephone rings, down in his study. Such is Glyn's powered state, his consuming purpose, that he is at once on his feet and halfway down the stairs to pick it up and snap: 'I am not available. Sorry.'
I cannot be doing with you right now because I have just learned that the woman who was once my wife had an affair with her sister's husband apparently - at some time yet to be identified. I am evidently a dupe, a cuckold. My understanding of the past has been savagely undermined. You will appreciate that for the foreseeable future this requires all my attention.
The phone stops. Of course. The answerphone is on.
©1998-2003 Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Although reading groups may enjoy debating whether to call this precisely paced story a thriller or something else, they will find that Lively's brand of suspense is psychological and emotional. The author, working in a style reminiscent in part of Ian McEwan's Atonement, has packed her tale with subtle riches for book clubs to treasure. For example, Glyn is a "landscape historian" -- an academic who sees the layers of history that lie underneath modern houses, towns, farms, and cities. Elaine is a professional garden designer with a talent for reconstructing gardens of the past. Lively expertly weaves in such echoes of The Photograph's main theme, allowing groups plenty of room to share their discoveries.
As readers dig into the issues raised by The Photograph, they will find on the surface the idea familiar from so many mysteries -- the question of how much we really know about those closest to us. But like a negative being developed, The Photograph gradually reveals other, equally fascinating concerns. Reading groups will find that Lively's novel keeps returning to considerations of how husbands and wives communicate -- or don't -- and of the consequences of the implicit, silent understandings that are part of many relationships.
Finally, The Photograph is very much a novel about grief and mourning. As readers follow Glyn and Elaine through their unraveling of the thread of Kath's life, Lively brilliantly explicates how the dead remain so powerful in the minds and memories of those left behind. One of Kath's friends remarks, "She is still having an effect." Penelope Lively's novel is, indeed, a perfect invitation to discussions about how lost family and friends linger on with us, for better or for worse, and how we deal with that reality. Book clubs will find much to stimulate conversation here, even after the mystery of Kath's secrets has been explored. (Bill Tipper)
An Introduction from the Publisher
Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Lively has been praised for creating characters whom readers are reluctant to part with and for a Jamesian complexity that is at once intellectually compelling and emotionally riveting. In The Photograph, her thirteenth work of fiction, she takes her narrative mastery and psychological insight to new, and seldom achieved, heights.
The Photograph is an unflinching and unforgettable story of the many ways the past intrudes upon the present and the present alters the past. When Glyn, a landscape historian, stumbles upon a photograph of his deceased wife, Kath, holding hands with another man, his understanding of the past is "savagely undermined." Reading the past, uncovering and deciphering its strata, is his stock in trade, but now it is his own personal landscape, and the history of his marriage, that he must reinterpret. He veers from emotional vertigo to an obsessive need to know what kind of woman his wife really was. Why did she have an affair? Did she have other lovers? Was their whole life together a lie? His search takes him back into his life with Kath, and her absence becomes the most powerful presence in his life, rising up before him, speaking to him, leading him to discoveries that reveal much more-and much more disturbing truths-about himself than about his wife. Though dead, she is the novel's most eloquent character, the still center around which the lives of all the other characters begin to swirl. Who was she, this beautiful woman who seemed to draw and hold the gaze of everyone who saw her, who seemed carefree and clearly happy, a burst of color and uncontainable energy?
And why did she have to die so young?
A taut and suspenseful psychological narrative, written with Lively's unmistakable nuance and insight, The Photograph is above all a profoundly moving meditation on the mysteries of time, memory, and the instability of the past.
About Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively was born in 1933 in Cairo and spent her childhood there, moving to England in the last year of World War II. She has written many prizewinning novels and collections of short stories for both adults and children, including Pack of Cards, Heat Wave, A House Unlocked, Judgment Day, and Moon Tiger, which won England's prestigious Booker Prize in 1987. She lives in Oxfordshire and London.
A Conversation with Penelope Lively
Could you describe the genesis of The Photograph? How did the story and characters come to you?
I have had to empty two family homes during the last few years-first, the house that had been my grandmother's since 1923, and then my own country home, which we had lived in for over twenty years. Both were large houses, so that nobody felt constrained to throw things away. As a consequence there were cupboards and drawers and shelves piled high with papers. Going through these, I kept coming across some letter or document that surprised me or conjured up the past in some way. I can't say that I ever came across any revealing photograph, or indeed anything else of that order, but I kept thinking how betraying such detritus can be potential time bombs in a file or at the back of a drawer.
So that was the initial prompt for The Photograph. After that, it was a question of hunting for the narrative and the characters. I know that I wanted a central figure who was the key to the whole story, but who was not there anymore, and who would be seen entirely through the eyes of others. A woman, definitely someone compelling. I'm intrigued by the way in which physical appearance can often direct a person's life; things happen differently for a beautiful woman than for a plain one. So Kath arose an exceptionally attractive woman for whom perhaps her looks were a disabling factor.
Do the themes of time and memory, the changing relationship between past and present, have an especially deep hold on your imagination?
Yes, indeed. I've always been fascinated by the operation of memory -- the way in which it is not linear but fragmented, and its ambivalence. We cannot do without it, but it can also be a liability. In different ways, this has been the theme of several of my novels -- Moon Tiger, Treasures of Time, Passing On -- but I keep seeing new ways of exploring it. The Photograph is concerned with the power that the past has to interfere with the present: the time bomb in the cupboard.
When Glyn finds the envelope containing The Photograph of Kath and Nick, he wonders if Kath had planned this moment. Is it purely chance that he discovers the photo, or are we meant to feel that he was fated to do so?
It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency. We make choices but are constantly foiled by happenstance. It is indeed by chance that Glyn comes across The Photograph; he might not have done so then, and perhaps not at all. A fateful accident -- both that he found it, and that it survived for him to find.
A landscape historian seems the perfect profession for Glyn. Is this an area you've always been interested in, or did you research the subject specifically for the novel?
I think that Glyn is a character who has been waiting to happen to me. I have long been interested in landscape history, and when younger and more robust I used to do much tramping of the English landscape in search of ancient field systems, drove roads, indications of prehistoric settlement. Towns and cities, too, which always retain the ghost of their earlier incarnations beneath today's concrete and glass. So I do know a fair amount about landscape history, and therefore what Glyn's career pattern might have been and how he might see the world and think about it. I do like to embed a fictional character firmly in an occupation. After all, we are all of us driven by work -- it occupies our days and directs our lives. But if you are writing about a character's working life you must do so convincingly. Research. Background work. Libraries -- plus a great deal of asking around. I have written of historians more than once, an archaeologist, a paleontologist, an anthropologist -- as well as an editor, the proprietor of a plant nursery, a librarian, a schoolteacher, and various others -- all of which has involved fascinating and enlightening inquiry into how other people's lives are run. You learn a lot, writing fiction.
Why did you choose to write Polly's chapters in the form of dramatic monologues?
I wanted Polly to stand apart from everyone else -- a sharp, distinctive voice. She is younger -- another generation -- and her vision of events is significantly different. The natural thing therefore seemed to be to let her speak for herself, very directly. That kind of monologue is something of a challenge -- finding the right note, the right language, but also exhilarating. I enjoyed Polly.
How do you see The Photograph in relation to your other novels?
Every novel generates its own climate, when you get going. In The Photograph, I was trying to write a book that would be multifaceted, in a way that I have not really done before. Conventional forms of narrative allow for different points of view, but for this book I wanted a structure whereby each of the main characters contributed a distinctive version of the story. I have experimented before with contrasting evidence -- the sense in which different people experience or interpret an event in completely different ways (in Moon Tiger, for instance) -- but this method is a new take on that. The pleasure of writing fiction is that you are always spotting some new approach, an alternative way of telling a story and manipulating characters; the novel is such a wonderfully flexible form. When I was planning The Photograph -- always a lengthy process for me, with a year or two of making copious notes -- I knew that this book needed several voices, quite possibly contradicting one another, so that it would reflect the way in which there is never any single truth about any person, or about any sequence of events, but as many as there are observers or participants.
The Photograph says much about the shifting nature of past and present. Do you find it to be true that the present and the past are continually influencing and changing each other?
We all need a past -- that's where our sense of identity comes from. Even quite small children build up a picture of their origins. Getting to know someone else involves curiosity about where they have come from, who they are. Equally, we require a collective past -- hence the endless reinterpretations of history, frequently to suit the perceptions of the present. The present hardly exists, after all -- it becomes the past even as it happens. A tricky medium, time -- and central to the concerns of fiction.
What writers have been most important to your own work?
I'm tempted to say, everyone I have ever read, because it is only through reading that you discover your aversions and affinities. When I was young, the favored writers -- on my side of the Atlantic -- were those who never used one word when ten would do, practitioners of a florid, verbose, expansive style such as the Sitwells (all three), Norman Douglas, Christopher Fry. I read dutifully but uneasily. And then I discovered writers like Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and others, and realized that what I admired was accuracy -- the use of the perfect word, the exact phrase. Accuracy and economy.
Since then, I have just read and read -- but, that said, I suppose there is a raft of writers to whom I return again and again, not so much because I want to write like them, even if I were capable of it, but simply for a sort of stylistic shot in the arm. Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Patrick White, Alison Lurie, Carol Shields, Barry Unsworth, Evelyn Waugh, Anne Tyler, William Trevor . . . and others. Affinities and addictions change over time, too -- you can fall out with a particular writer, and fall in with a new discovery. All I know for certain is that reading is of the most intense importance to me; if I were not able to read, to revisit old favorites and experiment with names new to me, I would be starved -- probably too starved to go on writing myself.
1. When Glyn stumbles upon The Photograph of Kath holding hands with Nick, he feels "driven to extract from this vital piece of evidence all that it can tell about how things were back then, since it appears that they were not as they seemed to be at the time, nor as I have believed them to have been ever since" (p. 15). He expects to find further infidelities, but what harsher truths, about himself as well as Kath, does he uncover? In what ways does he need to learn these things? In what ways does his professional life suit him to his search?
2. Why does Lively tell the story from different points of view? In what ways are multiple perspectives appropriate to the nature of the story?
3. Oliver thinks that Kath "has become like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives. Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were. It seems to him unjust that in the midst of this to-do she is denied a voice" (p. 168). In what ways do the other characters in the novel use and distort the reality of who Kath was to "fit" their narratives? Does the narrative of the novel itself give Kath her own "voice"?
4. After Elaine's conversation with Mary Packard, when she learns that Kath had two devastating miscarriages, she thinks: "The nonbabies are now loud and clear, who did not exist a couple of hours ago. Kath's nonchildren. Because of them -- because of these beings who never were -- there is a new flavor to much that was said, much that was done. When Kath speaks now, Elaine hears a new note in her voice. Kath says the same things, but she says them in a new way" (p. 221). In what ways is the novel as a whole about not only how the past changes the present but how the present changes the past?
5. Kath is forever intruding into people's thoughts, rising up before them unbidden. Why does her absent presence have such power for the characters who survived her? In what ways did the absent presences of her own unborn children affect the course and outcome of her life?
6. In trying to reconstruct his life with Kath, Glyn recalls Kath's telling him something. "You're not listening, are you?" she asks. Glyn thinks, "Not listening, no. But now he is listening. He is listening hard" (p. 122). To what extent is Glyn, in his inability to listen and to know Kath, responsible for her death? What crucial things about Kath does he fail to understand? Why was he unable to listen fully to her when she was alive? Did he really love her?
7. Kath appears to others as a kind of embodiment of pure being, a beautiful, self-assured woman spontaneously following her whims wherever they might lead. Why do the other characters fail to see the deep insecurities that plague her? What is the "dark malaise" behind and beyond her looks? In what sense is her beauty both a privilege and a curse?
8. Why does Lively describe in such detail what Glyn, Elaine, Nick, and Polly were doing the day Kath took her life? What is the significance of Kath's unreturned phone calls to Glyn and Elaine? Would the outcome have been different had those calls been answered?
9. When Oliver visits Mark Packard, he has "an eerie feeling that this woman might know everything anyway, by some osmotic process, like the wise woman of folktales" (p. 223). Is this merely a fanciful projection on Oliver's part, or does Mary seem to have access to a kind of "knowing" the other characters can't attain? Or is it simply that she listened to Kath more fully, and with less self-interest, than they did?
10. How surprising is it to learn the reasons for Kath's suicide? Do these reasons seem in keeping with her character? Why were none of the people who knew her best able to see that she was in danger?
11. In its dramatization of the relationships between Glyn and Kath, Nick and Elaine, and Nick and Kath, and to a lesser extent between Oliver and Sandra, Glyn and Myra, and Polly and her boyfriends, what does the novel suggest about our ability to know each other? What does it suggest about the role listening plays in such relationships?
12. At the end of the novel, Glyn relives the moment of finding Kath after she has committed suicide. "He moves through the day again and again, and at the end he sees what he saw then. The sight is the same as ever it was, except that it is informed by new wisdoms, and he looks differently" (p. 231). What are those "new wisdoms"? How is Glyn's perception -- of himself and of Kath -- different now from what it was then?
Posted March 30, 2004
Penelope Lively does a wonderful job at making you 'think' and analytically absorb the story plot and characters that she has woven throughout novel. Her British style of writing is refreshing and you can close your eyes and be taken quickly to Great Britain and the countryside to join the characters on the pages. Enjoyed it tremendously and I will seek out other books written by Ms. Lively, as this is my 'first read' by the author.
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Posted June 30, 2004