Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively
Notes & Observations
The alternative title is "A Childhood Perceived" and this gives us a clue as to the nature of the work. It is autobiographical, but also something of an evocation of a particular time and place.
The preface offers us something of an explanation of Livelys intentions. She talks of discussing the nature of childhood and of giving us a view of Egypt in the 30s and 40s. She explores the "anarchic view of childhood" and attempts (perhaps not always successfully) to reflect on the ways in which children "perceive". Her assertion is that the experiences of any persons childhood are "irretrievable" that all we ever have is a "headful of brilliant frozen moments". Her book attempts to recall her own particular moments of recollection and to reproduce them as accurately as possible for the reader and also for herself. In addition, she offers us a vision of the country in which she grew up at a time of great historical importance. The North African campaign of the Second World War and also the turmoil in Palestine are vividly described.
Her recounting of a vivid dream she had as she was preparing to write this book is interesting. The discovery of a "dead child" which turns out to be a doll in a pushchair in a heap of rubbish in a shed, is a "parody of the form" of this book. Lively calls it "raw stuff" and a "surreal vision" which compares to the "vision of childhood". Her narrative is an excavation of sorts a sifting out of artefacts from the rubbish heap of memory. It is fragmentary and incomplete, written as a patchwork of recollection and with no real linear narrative. The book is very self absorbed (but this is probably inevitable, given that it is autobiographical) and often loses its rhythm, becoming bogged down in rather ponderous philosophical or psychological reflection, but it is also lyrical and moving. She is able to recreate places, people and sensations with a sure and vivid command of language. The imagery is vivid and convincing and her command of language is exceptional. She is able to see with clarity both from the point of view of herself as a child and as an adult, so the narrative switches back and forth with ease.
The book begins with an illustrative anecdote, which mirrors the books title, as PL travels in a car and notices the oleander and jacaranda trees, which line the road from her home to Heliopolis. There is a strong sense of place and very vivid sensual imagery and we are also plunged straight into her preoccupation with the "chasm between past and future" and the "irretrievable child" (herself) whose memories are being recounted.
The idea of "displacement" is examined and PL calls herself a "ghost child", or the "alien within". She is preoccupied with the idea of how memory reveals itself and of how recollections of ones past are burdened with what she calls "the destructive freight of wisdom". To PL it is wonderful that something tangible from the past can still be recalled with exact precision, even down to the physical sensations of sticky legs on a leather car seat. The whole book is driven by this need for her as author to frame those memories in words to recreate something of the immediacy of the historic past from the present adult perspective.
She also gives a vivid description of her home in Bulaq el Dakhrur, cleverly linking the past and present by recounting her trip to Egypt forty years on from her childhood, to find her former house. When she finds it, she calls it an "Ur" house (like a ghost image) and herself the "ghost child". This device of superimposing the past and present is a constant motif in the book. The idea of the PALIMPSEST (a document where the original scripts can faintly be seen behind a more recent script) is fundamental throughout the work. It is as though she is writing both texts the past childhood constantly superimposed or underlying the present adult narrative, like looking at two negative photographs laid one on top of the other.
Note also the way in which she writes descriptions of places and people. The mimosa trees on p9 have yellow powdery balls, which have a scent, that the child "guzzles". Much of her description is sensual (taste, touch, sight, sound, smell) try to find examples of these as you go through the text.
It is important to PL to preserve what she calls "Shining morsels of experience", because she states that the mind deliberately keeps them "untarnished".
In this chapter she also examines the nature of her upbringing and her class (p 17). To be English in the early part of the century was a particular type of "conditioning", to be among the "chosen" and the "saved". PL recounts this peculiar idea with no attempt at sociological or political judgement, merely observing with some sharp humour how idiosyncratic those ideas were and how much "unlearning" there has had to be since she was a child.
She also gives a short and quite succinct account of Egypts political structure and some of the prominent figures of government. The point of this is to show the contrast of the world of her childhood, which was on the perimeters of her vision as a child, again looking from the perspective of her adult position.
King Farouk, for example was only a fat man to the childhood Penelope.
The chapter ends with the introduction of Lucy, her nanny. PL was not unique in having been brought up apart from her parents. Her class and her position would have made this quite natural at the time. She describes Lucy as "my entire emotional world" and we get a strong impression that her parents were shadowy figures who lived a completely separate existence. Her father involved in business and her mother "exhaustively seeing people", but neither having a direct influence on their childs upbringing. PL calls her parents "satellite figures" and Lucy is "vivid".
There is a sharp feeling of poignancy in the last part of the chapter, when PL talks about Lucy and the relationship with her mother and father.
This chapter starts with three sharp recollections no thought as PL says, merely observations, creating once more the childs point of view. PL then goes onto describe the house and the garden, straight narrative with sharp sensual imagery (her mothers bedroom and dressing table, etc). Characters are introduced too Nunn the caretaker and the Arab gardeners, Hassan, Abdul, Mansour and the garden boy, Ahmed. She sketches in observations about the relationship she had with these people as a child "and a girl at that". For her, it was a relationship of ambiguity. She remains unsure as to whether they were servants or not and reflects on the "codes of an adult world" and how confusing they are to children.
Her friendship with the next door neighbours son, Stephen is also recounted. There is a clever description of the photograph of the two of them sitting outside a packing case house in the garden and she tells us of the feelings she remembers from that time, of being "rudely" interrupted from their "mature preoccupation" as they played. She goes on to tell us how they met again as adults in 1975 and became friends again "half a lifetime on".
Note the strong narrative in this chapter and the way it flows quite freely as a narrative, especially the account of the snake hunt (p42)
The chapter closes with an account of the way PL felt about her guinea pigs and the tree in the garden. She talks about "animistic" belief and gives an interesting digression on the way that she communed with the tree when she was a child and how natural it was to her then, because she was an "extremely solitary child".
Again we see how she is building up the patchwork of her memories and recollections, with sharp observation and a very clear awareness of who she was and how she felt.
Opens with an amusing look at the peculiarity of the adult body as seen by a child. Lucys bust line is a "large black hole" and her father has a "distinctly odd arrangement around the base of his torso". Again she cleverly shows us how a child sees and interprets the unknown in a surreal way without preconceptions.
In this chapter PL says that she is trying to take the "shards" within her head and try to place them in the correct strata (note the archaeological reference again). She talks about the War in Egypt, in 1942, but through the people she recalls who visited the house at the time. Her parents entertained many young officers who were involved in the Desert Campaign and PL remembers them as "very young boys". As an adult she fills in the details of what must have been going on historically and sketches in an account of the activities of the Eighth Army. There is also a digression on the class differences between the soldiers and the officers and some speculation as to what the Egyptians thought of the intrusion of armies into their country. PL' recollections are of course very childish -she remembers people and events which to her, at the time, were quite trivial. She does however say that there seemed to be no atmosphere of panic or general unease, but acknowledges that this may be because she was too young to realise what was actually happening. It is, though, probable that she has recalled accurately the peculiar "insouciance" of the British at that time refusing to panic and stoically going about their business as usual. Part of the arrogance, perhaps, of the latter days of the British Empire.
PLs account of the outbreak of war in 1939, when she was in England, and her sketchy account of the journey back out to Egypt give us a sense of the complacency of the British at the time. For PL as a child, there was little sense of anything other than a strange feeling of unease and what she calls "irrelevant background clamour".
In Egypt, during the frantic days of the campaign in North Africa, PL remembers that the desert was inseparable from the war. She remembers how the desert became different for her when she discovered what a map meant. The chapter ends with a very eerie recollection of kit bags left in a cellar at the house. Their owners are "those the desert swallowed but did not disgorge".
Continuing the theme of archaeology and desert digs, PL tells of a memory of seeing a skeleton (Egyptian) dug out by an archaeologist when she was six or seven years old. She goes on to talk about the nature of Egypt as a country and how she related to its immense antiquity. For her, the pyramids were relatively unimportant "A Pyramid is a Pyramid". As an adult she saw them differently and had a different sensation, but as a child, she remembers the donkey rides, not the monuments.
Cairo was sensations and smells to PL as a child. Cakes at the Mena House hotel, the smell of bird droppings from the egrets by the river and the names of places she visited as a child are strongly evoked in this chapter. Sharply contrasted with her childhood memories are those of her adult self, filling in the gaps from her later visits to the city. She recounts various sensations as a child fear of the lions in the zoo the elephants and hippos and the "rich continuous clamour" of Cairo. Interspersed are sharp little "moments" when she remembers how terrified she was when Lucy threatened her and her fear of abandonment if Lucy decided to leave and go home to England. As an adult she can see differently, but recalls the sharp fear of the time. There are many rather sinister "moments" in this chapter, which underpin the sense of fear, which PL experienced as a child.
It is Cairo itself, though, which PL concentrates on here the city which enchanted her as a child and which still retains an aura of romance and mystery seen as an adult. She introduces the image of the palimpsest on page 87 when she describes Cairo as a mixture or superimposition of many cultures, but the image also serves well to illustrate the way in which she structures her personal narrative.
The chapter ends with the story of her visit to the Tutankhamun treasures on the afternoon of her parents divorce hearing and again the fear and anxiety of the child who was, comes flooding back as she tells it.
PLs bizarre education, by correspondence course, is the main subject of this chapter. It is very light hearted and amusing and it is obvious by the tone of the narrative that PL remembers it and Lucys struggles, with great affection. As education went, it was very sketchy and the reader can see quite clearly how PL became a writer. Almost all her formal education was literature-based and learning was done by reading and repetition. There is something very charming in the way PL writes this chapter, making gentle fun of herself and Lucy as they struggle to cope with the maths and science, preferring to fall back on yards of reading and Natural History. There is an interesting comment on page 104,when PL recalls feeling "crippled" because she could not draw as well as the illustrations in a botany text.
The chapter has pace and a real sense of immediacy, too, as PL adopts a very straightforward linear style of writing. Note particularly the account on pp106-7, about the Arthur Ransome books and the way PL saved up to buy them all, because they were so different to her own experiences in Egypt. (Swallows & Amazons was a series of childrens books set in the Lake District)
Greek Mythology, too, is the means of awakening the first stirrings of eroticism in the child. All told, reading was obviously a seminal influence on PLs later career.
The interesting idea here seems to be the way in which a child can "become" while reading a book. (PL seems to think this is not possible as an adult, but you should make your own mind up about that. I think it is, but thats a personal opinion.)
She also reflects on the nature of the way that children write (p110) and how language and imagination can be corrupted by exposure to other styles of writing.
The chapter ends with an account of the way in which her education both liberated and constricted her development as a teenager. There is a poignant account of her days at boarding school in England, where reading for an hour in the library was a punishment and her copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse was considered seditious.
The chapter as a whole is very amusing and has pace and humour. It is a perceptive and accurate account of a solitary intelligent childs learning process and the philosophical digressions are relevant and, on the whole very accurate.
PL describes Alexandria, the coastal resort where expatriates spent the summer months from May to September. As is evident in other parts of the book, sometimes the writing is in the style of a travelogue and this section is very much like that. What distinguishes it is once again her sense of place and the way in which she is able to weave in her personal story and memories of the people who surrounded her as a child.
There is a liberating sense of freedom in this chapter, as the child remembers the sensations of swimming and diving, often quite dangerously and surfing on a child-sized board. (P121)
The snobbish distinctions, which were part of the social life of her parents generation, are also examined here. Renting a cabin on No 2 beach at Sidi Bishr was the ambition of her mother every season. The fact that they were seldom able to achieve this distinction meant little to PL but a great deal to her class-conscious mother. No 3 beach was even more exclusive reserved for the very best families and never attainable by PLs family. When they had a picnic it was "Marmite sandwiches and a banana".
One vivid anecdote concerns the time that PL was mistaken for a little boy, because of her short hair and glasses. There is a poignant memory of the last summer spent at the beach in 1944 as PL felt that she was on "the edge of things" before her parents divorce.
At the end of the chapter the adult memories take over as PL recounts her return to Egypt and the disappointment she felt as she revisited the beaches of her childhood. She calls Alexandria a city "fated to be seen as a concept rather than a reality." And her view of it as an adult is very different.
During the "flap" in 1942as the Germans and Allied forces clashed more violently near to Cairo, many of the expatriate British civilian families were advised to move out of Egypt and into Palestine, (before the establishment of what later became Israel.) This chapter covers that time of PLs childhood and deals with her time in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. There is a fair amount of historical background here as well as some shameless name dropping as she recalls seeing General de Gaulle in Government House in Jerusalem while she was staying there with her mother and Lucy. There is a curiously scattered feeling to the narrative here and PL herself describes her recollections as a "sequence of slides". She has vivid memories of places and of smuggled tortoises (p139) but the sense of being constantly on the move comes over very strongly in the fragmented narrative, a series of names and hazy images of places, sensations and people in a very hostile and rather forbidding landscape.
She found the Holy Land anything but holy and quite unlike her childish images, gleaned from the enforced reading of the Bible which formed such a large part of her education with Lucy. She calls it "vaguely unsatisfactory " (p140-141) and her account of Bethlehem is confined to a sensation of being forced to stay in the High Commissioners car because the terrorist threat means she cannot go to the toilet.
Jerusalem also is for PL reduced to a smell of incense and she feels alienated inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To confuse matters even more the people who own the pension in which they stay are German and PL is very conscious of her mixed feelings about the "enemy" who are in fact "beaming people". Again the sense here is of the way in which the perceptions of the child are so different from those of the recollecting adult, who can make so much more sense of the idea of Jewish refugees living in Palestine than a confused child could possibly have done.
Once more, PL finds solace at this time in the pleasures of the natural world, collecting shells and seaweed and watching glow-worms.
As she says at the end of the chapter, she had no idea as a child of the importance of the world events at the time. As the Middle East "roared around her" she was more interested in collecting cowrie shells.
The chapter begins with some interesting reflections on the nature of time and travel as a child and as an adult. . The child saw travel as a long and "serious" matter; the adult is irritated that it takes 24 hours to get to Australia.
In 1943 PLs father is transferred down to Khartoum and PL goes to visit him by boat down (up?) the Nile. The account of the journey is very interesting; especially her recollection of the strict hierarchy, which still prevailed for travellers of a certain class. PL travelled first class and on the upper deck, while the "pullulating free-for-all of the lower deck was obviously much more interesting.
Once more we see how perceptions change with time. The journey then was irritating and slow and the beauty of the landscape was lost on the child (and her companions) but later, travelling the same route as an n adult, she gives a vivid account of the beauty of the Nile landscape the palimpsest once more. In truth, she does make the pint that the first journey was probably not so impressive because the landscape was at the time so familiar to her.
When she reached Khartoum, though, she was impressed by the exotic nature of "real" Africa, especially the "warm black velvet air". She calls Khartoum a "sensuous place" and the people are described with a very obvious sense of affection.
Less affectionate is her memory of the social divisions, which prevailed among the white population. Her "unsuitable" friend from Brownies is described and also a later incident in England when she made friends with a boy who was "short on social sensibility".
She reflects quite sharply here on the ways in which children have to learn a set of rules, which are set by their parents and elders.
Lucy and PL return to England in 1945, near the end of the war. Her parents are divorced and her mother stays in Egypt, while her father will return home at a later date.
Her account of the arrival in what to her was an alien land is sharply poignant and at times very graphic. She describes her first sight of an "immense hairy foot" as she sees a Clydesdale horse out of the porthole at Glasgow docks. The English landscape "grass from end to end" bewilders her and embarrasses her. She describes her sensations and feelings with a mixture of panic and dismay, which creates a sharp sense of compassion in the reader. (P165)
Her grandmothers take charge of her; an "anguished adolescent" aged twelve, who is totally alienated in a country, which is hers by birth but not in any way by affection.
There is a vivid description of each of the grandmothers who "represented a classic English polarisation the town and country cultural divide"
The two women are complete opposites and the descriptions, which are given, reflect PLs sharply observant eye for people. There is an underlying sense of the horror and panic which she must have felt as a child, but also a scrupulous fairness as she outlines the efforts of each of the grandmothers to make her welcome in her birth country. In addition PL is able to give us a very convincing and accurate pen portrait of the times and manners of England in the 1940s. She is also able to show the very sharp contrast between the middle classes in the town and the country.
There is still, though, and very poignantly described, the sense of being an "alien" again. PL felt that she would wake up and find herself back in Egypt and the writing here is very strongly personal.
Lucy "went away" and PL goes to boarding school, which she describes as a "slow Calvary" (crucifixion). On p172 she tells us about the letters which she wrote to Lucy and that description is among the sharpest and most poignant of the whole book.
Note also the way in which she explodes the perception she had as a child in Egypt of England and the way in which the reality of the country was so shocking (p173)
Trapped in a world that she does not understand and which is hostile and strange, PL feels like a refugee, a "displaced person". The subtle codes, which define life for people of her class, are alien to her and she feels even more isolated and insecure as a result. London is described (p177) and contrasted with the city it is today and as the book draws to a close there is an episode which rounds off the archaeological theme neatly.
Taken on a tour of the City by a family friend she is intrigued to find that some ruins, which have been exposed by a bomb blast, are Roman. She recognises "Roman" and at last the link is made and the perceptions come full circle. She "sniffed the liberations of maturity" and "grew up a little more".
It is difficult really to categorise the book as a straightforward autobiography, because there is so much more than autobiographical detail in it. Indeed, the details of PLs life and especially that of her parents are very sketchy indeed. She also includes a great deal of psychological and philosophical speculation about the nature of time and perception, which sometimes slows the narrative down and makes the tone rather ponderous and academic.
Historically, also, the book does not go into great detail about the war or about the events in the Middle East in the 1940s. What history there is, is incidental to PLs very self-centred memories of childhood. This is, of course, what one would expect from a work of this kind. She does say that her memories of incidents, times and places will be vague.
Various reviews have praised PLs use of language and the way in which she brings her past very sharply to life. I think that this is the strength of the book. She has a deft touch when she recalls places and people. The sensuality of her language is vivid and the way in which she chooses to weave random anecdotes into the more straightforward narrative sections makes for a very interesting form.
The intention, I feel, is to try to create the literary equivalent of the palimpsest document, superimposing the adults mature view onto the childs memories. In this, I feel she is successful. The "frozen moments" are scattered throughout the narrative and often stand alone as very vivid and sharp cameos of places, people or sensations. We are, though, always aware that they are the creation of the mature adult writer. It could, though, also be said that this somehow makes the writing artificial and contrived.
A number of candidates last year were hostile about the book, because they felt it to be too self-indulgent and artificial - precious, even. You may feel the same way, but remember that if you decide to criticise, you must be objective. A response which is vitriolic and centred on the fact that you just didn't like it or her, is not likely to win many marks.
Because there is so little sentiment in the narrative, it affects the reader very sharply when emotion is recounted. The last chapters of the book, dealing with her return to England, are especially moving, because so much is left unsaid. Occasionally she allows us to glimpse how bewildered and unhappy she must have been (the letters she wrote to Lucy) but there is never any sense that the book is intended to play on our sympathies. Paradoxically, that should have the effect of making us more sympathetic and I think that is the case.
Again, this was one of the criticisms levelled by readers who sometimes felt cheated because there was no emotional 'hook', or rather no consistent emotional content. 'She switches the emotion on and off too much' was one of the kinder comments. Others were not so generous. 'It's a cynical money making excuse to get something into print' was one of the more scathing responses.
The style throughout the book is economical. Although the imagery is often very intense, there is an economy of words and we never feel that the text is over written. The narrative often seems fragmented and I think this is quite a deliberate decision on the authors part. Often the effect of the narrative is made more intense for the reader because of the things left unsaid and the hints given about the background events such as her parents divorce. On the other hand, this can also be quite unsatisfactory if one reads the book expecting a full autobiographical style.
There is sharp humour in the text, especially the account of the education process and the anecdotes about the condom and the anatomies of Lucy and PLs father. Again, though, it is subtly achieved and it may be fair to say that sometimes PL has quite a sardonic tone when she talks about herself and the pretensions of the other British families. Perhaps she is observing a degree of political correctness for Millennium audiences.
The digressions into philosophy and child psychology occasionally slow the narrative down because they are sometimes ponderous and rather contrived. The academic tone at these times is at odds with the confidence and lightness of touch which PL shows when she deals with memories or anecdotes. Even the rather dry historical and geographical facts have a certain appeal, because they re enlivened by personal reflections or colourful characters. At all times, though, the language and style are sure and have a very intense texture.
It is obvious that PL had a particular need to try to set down this part of her childhood. The dedication suggests that it is a document intended as part of her own family history, to be passed on to her children and theirs. Her childhood memories are not always pleasant. It is obvious that she was a lonely and perhaps sometimes an unhappy child, whose childhood was in some respects idyllic, but in others very traumatic. I do think that what she chooses to tell her audience is selective and that at some stage in the writing process she has made a deliberate decision not to indulge her emotions. In keeping with her preface, I think she is more interested in the task of trying to evoke a feeling or a place, rather than to tell a story. If we look again at the archaeological imagery, we can see that what she has created is a kind of "dig" into the past. The fragments she unearths for us are not always sensible and do not fit into a clear pattern. We do not get the full story, but then neither does the scientist as he unearths shards of pottery from the earth.
A child would not make sense of the world of 1942, and PL has obviously decided that her narrative should reflect that fact too. She therefore writes both as adult and child the anecdotes and "frozen moments" are clear because they are untainted by her adult perceptions. The accompanying comments and the gaps, which she chooses to fill in for us, are done quite precisely. The adult PL will not embroider or add to what the child recalls. If this makes for uncomfortable reading, then I think that is our own affair. Perception is always something that is intensely personal and PL is well aware of that. Her perceived childhood in this book is exactly that how she perceived when she was little and how she now perceives that childhood as an adult.
We, too, will bring out own perceptions to the text and take from it a very different set of responses and reactions.
Perhaps PL intended this text to be something of an experiment. Not a full autobiography, because I feel that she would not regard herself as sufficiently famous or important to warrant that. Instead I think she has written a literary scrap book, or photograph album, as a legacy for her children. What it achieves is to flesh out the two dimensional snapshots of herself and her family which she has included in the text. As a writer, her photographs are also able to become documents. She takes the reader into the picture, into the child and into another time and place. This is sometimes a painful process, as we can see from what she tells us of the kind of life she led and the family difficulties that she experienced, but it is also a delightful and perceptive account of a world which is lost, but never forgotten.