Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

According to Mark — Penelope Lively — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 5, 2008

You can do the same with a biography. The trawling net fills, then the biographer hauls it in,sorts, throws back, stores, fillets and sells. Yet consider what he doesn’t catch: there is always far more of that. The biography stands, fat and worthy-burgherish on the shelf, boastful and sedate: a shilling life will give you all the facts, a ten pound one all the hypotheses as well. But think of everything that got away, that fled with the last deathbed exhalation of the biographee. What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself ?           — Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot

There is a persistent curiosity and consideration to explore either partially or fully the remaining oeuvre of a liked writer. In a way that eventually will end up limiting the breadth of our reading. It is the inevitable price that one pays for having a set of  favourite writers. The favourable impressions that I carry of Penelope Lively‘s “Moon Tiger“, led me to her other book “According to Mark“. And here again I was pleasantly surprised with the maturity, subject, command and ease with which Ms.Lively writes

According to Mark” is a slice of life of Mark – a successful biographer by profession. Mark’s current endeavour is to write the biography of the once famous but now forgotten literary figure Gilbert Strong. Strong is an enigmatic figure from the past. He himself is a biographer, travel writer, novelist and essayist. His past is littered with multiple affairs, marriages, professional jealousies and even insinuations of buying out a ghost writer. The need for research leads Mark to Dean Close in Dorset – a sprawling estate once owned by Strong which is currently managed by his grand daughter Carrie. Carrie runs a large and successful plant nursery in a part of Dean Close along with her friend Bill. She is the daughter of Hermione — the reckless, extravagant and pleasure seeking daughter of Strong. Carrie leads Mark to a large mass of critical correspondence that acts as a cornerstone of Mark’s research. Unwittingly Mark gets emotionally and physically involved with Carrie despite his impressions of her being ill read and unsophisticated. Mark starts on a program in collaboration with BBC, to hear and record authentic voices of people who have known and intimately involved with Strong. As he progresses on this venture, Mark meets Major Hammond who also has known Strong as a boy. Hammond’s aunt Irene has had a deep affair with Strong and Hammond hands over a large amount of Strong and Irene’s correspondence to Mark. This reveals a different aspect of Strong’s personality and gradually Mark’s outlook to Strong undergoes a change and starts taking a sympathetic tone tinged with an understanding that irrespective of the quality of research and effort of a biographer..a lot is left outside the bounds of what one can capture… Carrie’s own involvement with Mark and her travels to France along with him open up a new and positive outlook towards the hither to reclusive life she has been leading…. That in sum is the plot of Ms.Lively’sAccording to Mark“. The storyline per se is ordinary, yet I found this book a charming  and an absorbing read and there are reasons for that

Ms.Lively through the book brings a great sensitivity and understanding to the differences in nature, approach, function, and challenges involved in writing novels and biographies. Some of these observations are outstandingly original and deeply insightful. While reading the book I felt that unless one is deeply involved with books and literature these kind of insights are hard to articulate. Consider the following:

‘The novelist has an infinity of choices,’ Mark read.’ He chooses what is to happen, to whom it happens, and in what way he relate what happens. The picture he constructs is complete in its own terms. When he says “This is the story and the whole story’ we must accept it. Perhaps novelists are the only people who tell the truth’……..’The novelist,’ (he read) recounts of as much of what happened as is appropriate or pertinent. He leaves out what is either unnecessary (to the plot and the theme) or what would distract. In other words,the silences of novel are not lies but rejection of the extraneous matter. Only those conversations are reported which are relevant; only those actions that have some bearing on what is going on. The characters presumably, have a whole other life as well, off the pages of the book; they eat and sleep and talk to people who never feature’…………….

‘The biographer does something entirely different. He is aware of the existence of a “true account” of what happened to his subject; everything conspires to conceal this from him. His job is to pursue this so called “truth” — which is itself unattainable. His lies and silences are therefore his areas of failure, the points at which he is obliged to speculate or simply omit. All he can produce is an account which is dependent upon the energy with which he has pursued his researches and the matter in which he has chosen to interpret what he has learned. He is, of course, in his fashion, a historian, and we all no that history can give no final truth”…………..       A problem for the biographer, is this omniscience. We know the narrative sequence. We record our subject’s childhoods and youth with wisdoms of what is to come — we have this god-like advantage that we have over the person of whom we write. The bearded sage who is Strong in the 1950’s lies, for me, across the pinafored child two world wars away. And, in a curious way, this both distances, one from the subject and invites more personal” feelings’

I liked both the story telling and the characters that Ms. Lively has created. Even very peripheral characters like Bill, Diane – Mark’s wife, Susanne the owner of the gallery where Diane works are full of flesh, blood and identity of their own

What I was not convinced in the book are a couple of things. First and foremost is the unrealistic behaviour of these real characters especially that of Diane. Even after she comes to know the affair between Mark and Carrie, she resolves this tresspassing as if it were a one off incident and carries on with her life as if nothing happened — this was a bit hard to believe.

Secondly Mark seem to stumble onto reserach material especially correspondence of Strong quite easily and fortuitously. Existence of that correspondence is believable but availability I am not sure  

Lastly and the most puzzling aspect of the book for me is its title. Going by it one would have expected Mark to be doing the talking. That definitely is not the case… It is Ms.Lively and all her characters who are doing the talking and Mark although sharply delineated is yet another character… so why was it called “According to Mark?“. Given the quality of writing, subject and story telling this is a trivial aspect…          Well, even moon has its marks….

Moon Tiger” and “According to Mark” convince me that Penelope Lively is a writer of outstanding capabilities and that any effort in pursuing her remaining oeuvre will be a rewarding experience


There was one statement in the book I particulalry liked:

He was thinking of a passage in one of Strong’s essays in which he called books one of the greatest divisive forces in society. Something about being distanced from one’s neighbour as much by what you have both read or not as by circumstances of birth or economic status —A pregnant thought

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