On the spectrum of elderly female novelists, Brit division — with twinkly old dears at one end, as Lively has suggested, and formidable cranks and grandes dames at the other — she is somewhere in the middle, friendly and polite with just a hint of steeliness. She is unusually tall, which gives her a kind of instant authority, and dresses in matronly camouflage: scarves and twin sets. Her friend and neighbor Jane Seaton, a professor at the University of Westminster, says she’s “beady,” someone who sees everything but doesn’t give away a whole lot. Another friend, the poet Lawrence Sail, said recently: “She’s shrewd and wise, which is so rare in the age of clever, and she’s keenly observant. It’s telling, for example, the way her books keep up with all the latest language.”
A lot of writers peak early, and not many are still flourishing in their 80s. Lively’s productivity has been so steady and reliable that she is sometimes taken a little for granted. In this country she is not nearly as well-known as she ought to be, and even in her own — although she has won both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, the equivalent of our Newbery award — she is not as big a name as, say, her contemporaries Margaret Drabble or A. S. Byatt. She has a fervent following and regularly sells out at literary festivals, but has remained just on the edge of the radar.
Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow. The novel that put her on the map, the 1987 Booker-winning “Moon Tiger,” formally quite daring, was even criticized for being a “housewife’s” book. Lively writes mainly about the English middle class, and for a while, anyway — when much of the energy in British fiction was coming from writers born outside of England like Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and Kazuo Ishiguro — this made her seem stodgy and old-fashioned to some. She has also overlapped with a younger generation of male writers — Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — who grabbed so much attention it was sometimes hard for a female novelist to get a word in edgewise, especially one whose personal life, like hers, was sedate and headline-resistant: no scandals, no feuds, just one marriage. Her only vice, aside from a glass or two of wine in the evening, is that peculiarly English addiction, gardening. A little terrace at the back of the house is crammed with rosebushes, pots and pots of tulips, and an abundance of plants and bushes whose names most people have never heard of.
By now, though, her body of work proves that certain themes never go out of fashion: One of her great subjects turns out to be the way the English middle class, always insecure, is always reinventing itself. Lively, reinventing a life of her own, didn’t begin writing until she was in her late 30s. She was married — to Jack Lively, a political theorist she met at Oxford — and had two children, and was casting about for something to do. “I’m one of those people for whom reading became writing,” she said. “Because of my odd childhood, I’ve always been an obsessive, avid reader, and that went on and on and on. Not every obsessive reader feels the need to turn into a writer, but a few do, and I’ve never met any writer worth his salt who wasn’t an obsessive reader.” Her early reading was mostly indiscriminate, she added, but by the time she was in her 20s she began paying attention to writers like Henry Green, Elizabeth Bowen and William Golding, who displayed a particular precision and elegance of language.
She started writing children’s books — her first, “Astercote,” was published in 1970. The best of them, the Carnegie-winning “The Ghost of Thomas Kempe” (1973), is in some ways a grown-up book in disguise: The ghost is really a metaphor for the persistence of the past, the way some things never vanish, or else the way the past shapes the future, which has become Lively’s signature theme.
“Some of that must have come from growing up in Egypt,” she said, “which is the most extraordinary place, where visible times are all juxtaposed — Pharaonic, Roman, Mamluke. It’s all a jumble of time, and it’s all visible. We went to the pyramids every Wednesday, and I just thought a pyramid was a normal thing and most places had them.”
She had a similar awareness of time being jumbled when she returned to London just before the end of the war, in 1945. “A friend of my father took me out for the day once and showed me where the city was in ruins, just these cavernous places where buildings had been,” she said. “I remember him pointing out how the bombing had revealed part of the old Roman wall and being absolutely baffled. Romans?”
The novel that most dramatically illustrates Lively’s theory of time and memory is also the one that many critics consider her best: “Moon Tiger,” the 1987 Booker winner. The book is a series of deathbed reflections by a woman named Claudia Hampton, who tells a nurse, “I’m writing a history of the world,” and then adds, to herself: “The works, this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute, from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine.” She looks back on her life — childhood, love affairs (including an incestuous one), motherhood, her years as a war correspondent — in scenes that seem arranged in almost random order. Sometimes they’re even repeated, first from one character’s slant, then from another’s. Just as the narrator intends, the book works like a kaleidoscope: “Shake the tube and see what comes out.”
Lively says that she seldom goes back to the book, and on the rare occasions when she does, she can never find the place she wants. “That’s part of the complexity of how it’s written,” she explained, and then laughed and recalled a reader who once complained in a letter, “Do you realize that several of the scenes happen several times — do you know that?”
None of her subsequent books have been as experimental; if anything, they just get crisper and more tightly controlled. “Radio 3 just asked me for a talk about late style,” she said, “and I think there is such a thing, but I actually think that for me the late style kicked in early on. I looked at my first novel and the last, and I could see a difference. The early style was more discursive, the dialogue was less refined, there was more physical background. There was a general need to tighten up, and this came in after a few more novels, though it’s certainly not a process you’re aware of at the time. I don’t remember saying to myself, ‘Must smarten up dialogue.’ You learn on the hoof.”
Lively’s new book contains at least one story, “A Biography,” that could easily have been a novel on its own. It compresses the entire life of a prominent academic into a series of interviews and recollections, and its real subject is unknowability, the impossibility of ever understanding someone completely — a theme that Lively says has more resonance with her as she gets older. There are also a couple of ghost stories (the past again, refusing to go away); one, the title piece, told from the point of view of a bird present at the destruction of Pompeii; and, in what may be a sly comment on Lively’s own vocation, a story about an elderly woman, still sharper than people suspect, who used to be a spy.
“I thought the short story form had left me,” she said. “My goodness, I hadn’t written a story in 25 years. The whole thing about stories is the idea — once you’ve got that, you’re three-quarters of the way there. But the thing about ideas is you can’t just go out and get one. Stories arise much more from life as lived than the novels do — something overheard, something you’ve seen, which you then sort of mull over and see a way it could become a story, which may actually have nothing to do with you.” In this case, she added, her publisher asked if she wanted to contribute a story to an online project. “I wrote one and then found I had an idea for another, and more kept coming.” She laughed. “I think it’s gone now.”
In some ways, Lively’s house is a very tidy museum to the past. On a kitchen wall are a couple of folk-art kettle holders decorated with needlepoint ducks — souvenirs of the many summers she used to spend in Maine. On a mantel is a little Egyptian potsherd from the 12th century, showing a pair of leaping fish. Hanging everywhere are paintings and woodcuts done by her beloved aunt Rachel Reckitt, a fascinating figure who, on the one hand, was an avant-garde artist and, on the other, raised horses and rode to hounds. And there are books, on shelves and stacked on tables. Lively can’t bear to part with any of them, even though in some cases the print is too small for her to read.
“Your books tell you where you’ve been — they’re the story of your own mind,” she said. “Getting rid of them would be like getting rid of that.” In old age, she added, memory seems more and more unbidden. “It’s in no way linear, more like assorted slides that come up unprompted. This house is full of Post-it slips reminding me of this, that and the other. But my long-term memory is very good. I remember my childhood vividly. I just had a birthday, and old-age birthdays become more like childhood birthdays, when there’s a huge difference, say, between being 8 and being 10. Well, there’s quite a lot of difference between being 84 and 85. You notice your contemporaries and you think, ‘My goodness, she’s 86!’”
She might have to install a stair lift, she went on, but she had no intention of leaving this house, if she could help it, or for that matter, of retiring from writing, the way Philip Roth and Alice Munro have done. She was already thinking of a new novel — one that might have an unreliable narrator, like the one in Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” and have as its subject the oddness of memory itself. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t writing,” she said. “I’d feel very restless. I know if I start something new I may never finish it, but it’s what you do. A writer writes.”