Reading Note:
The Photograph
22 June 2018

Penelope Lively’s The Photograph was a widely-read book, as I recall. I held this against it, at the time. I read it only much later, after my taste matured and I no longer read scorn into dry English prose. Now I’ve just read the novel a second time. 

It was like driving along a country road for the second time. Things that I had completely forgotten when I began would come to mind only a few pages before they appeared. There’s going to be a bit about a painter, and then a rich man who owns one of the artist’s works. I was never quite sure of these developments, but then the road would twist and there they were. I knew that the woman at the center of the story, already dead at the beginning, would be shown to have taken her own life, but I didn’t recall how, only that it was in bed. Somewhere in the middle, I remembered that the potter knew everything. 

Kath, the suicide, was a beautiful woman, and that is her doom. Nobody loved her, because nobody thought of her as a human being. The one man who knew that she was human never gave loving her more than a passing thought: he was not in her class. The men who surrounded her regarded her as a divine trophy. She finally married one of them because she thought he loved her, but she discovered that, having captured her, he stopped paying serious attention and went back to work, as a member of that special English class, the telegenic academic.)

Kath was partly to blame, perhaps chiefly to blame. She fell back on her loveliness instead of learning a trade. But she was thwarted by her beautiful body of the one thing that might have saved her. Nobody guessed what it was, so she had to tell her closest friend, the potter. The eponymous photograph, which comes to light after her death, propels her survivors to give her life the consideration that they denied it when she was breathing. As they do so, the goddess becomes a mortal. Lively builds to the metamorphosis with a complete but subtle mastery of suspense. Recollections of Kath looking ethereal imperceptibly yield to recollections of Kath looking lost. Long before the revelatory chapter, we know that Kath is, or rather was, not to be envied. 

There’s no mystery about the novel’s popularity.

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