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  • “Summoning Your Youth at Will”Memory, Time, and Aging in the Work of Penelope Lively, Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing
  • Susan Watkins (bio)

In a 2009 interview with Sarah Crown in the Guardian newspaper, the novelist Penelope Lively remarked that “in old age you can close your eyes and summon your youth at will. As a writer it puts one at a distinct advantage.” She added: “the idea that memory is linear … is nonsense.”1 Aging is clearly a topic of increasing interest for a number of contemporary women writers, and new critical approaches to aging and gender in this field are beginning to burgeon. The focus in the majority of critical work has often been on how literary texts address the theme or subject of aging; however, as Lively’s comments in the Guardian interview suggest, and as I will argue here, aging is capable of generating in fiction a new relationship among time, memory, family history, and form. Through a close study of Penelope Lively’s Family Album, which was published in 2009, and with briefer allusion to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) and Doris Lessing’s Love, Again (1996), this essay will argue that these writers’ engagement with aging and gender allows them to create their own kind of “late style,” to borrow from Edward Said. Lively in particular draws on fictional devices (such as the deliberate refusal of narrative tension or suspense) that make us consider how we rethink the pattern of a life as we age.

This essay begins with a brief survey of recent feminist writing about aging, arguing that this work tends to focus on how aging is represented, rather than how it might impact form. The critical work that does pay attention to the relationship between aging and form, or the idea of “late style,” will then be considered, particularly the work of Edward Said in his On Late Style. However, the majority of work on “late style” does not consider the issue of gender.

The novelists we are concerned with here have all made comments in interviews and essays, which will then be discussed, about the importance of the gendered aging process in allowing them to rethink structure and form in fiction. However, I want to make a distinction between The Blind Assassin and [End Page 222] Love, Again, which both focus on the protagonist reflecting on her past life in relation to the present, and Family Album, which uses the family home as the central shaping consciousness. Lessing’s and Atwood’s novels emphasize the limitations of individual perception by focusing on vision, blindness, and the photograph or portrait as a “witness” to the past. In contrast Lively’s text makes use of the idea of the collage or kaleidoscope as a metaphor for shifting perspectives, but also as a device to structure the novel itself. In doing so, it references both high and low art forms and acknowledges women’s domestic work as part of their art. Thus, for Lively, I argue, aging generates a focus on the work involved in maintaining a home and parenting a child; she sees these as inseparable from the work of writing.

The essay will then explore how the focus on domestic and emotional labor, and its relation to writing, is connected in Lively’s novel to the innovative formal device of refusal of suspense. The generation and final resolution of suspense around the secret of biological parentage is key to Blind Assassin and is intimately connected with the secret of authorship, but I argue that Family Album refuses that connection, perceiving it to be old and tired. This resistance to revelation can be instructively compared with what Said refers to as the unproductive productiveness of “late style” and its refusal of conventional narratives of maturation and development.

The centrality of suspense in popular fiction, especially in romance writing, suggests that all three novelists can be understood as self-consciously deploying the strategies of romantic fiction, even if this is often ironic. This ironic, self-conscious use of popular forms can also be seen as characteristic of middlebrow fiction: the final part of the essay will discuss how all three writers...


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pp. 222-244
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