“The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening.” – Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.

I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.

The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.

Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”

Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.

Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.

Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?

We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.

Title:  Life in the Garden
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017)
ISBN: 978-0525558392

“I could live under a table reading Borges.” – Roberto Bolaño

The covers of the Pearls are minimalist & gorgeous. The orange color block is embossed, as is all the text. And, like every other New Directions book I’ve seen, it’s numbered. Imagine a complete set lined up on a bookshelf… stunning!

Everything and Nothing is a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ writings, released in a New Directions Pearl edition.  I’m a huge fan of the Pearls – they’re throwbacks to a time when paperbacks came in 4-1/2″ x 7″ format and fit handily inside your jacket pocket.  Ficciones holds a special place in my heart.  But this particular collection is beautiful, compact and contains some of the author’s best work.  If you already know & love Borges, it is the perfect vehicle to become reacquainted.  If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of reading Borges’ sublime (truly!) prose, Everything and Nothing is a powerful introduction to the best of the short stories, lectures and essays.

Borges is one of the few writers I’ll read over and over again.  His prose style is clean, succinct.  It nicely balances out against the complexity and cerebral quality of his subject matter.  The Lottery in Babylon is a story about a society ruled entirely by chance.  At first it seems ridiculous, – a city in which all decisions are made through lottery.  But as the story progresses, the plot inverts and life in Babylon becomes eerily familiar.  The Garden of Forking Paths is spy vs. spy, a labyrinthine espionage tale with a twist at the end you’ll never see coming.  Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is supposedly about the internet… but I, personally, don’t see it.  For me it’s a much more straightforward narrative on the manipulation of reality and history by a small group of individuals.  My absolute favorite of the collection, Blindness, is a lecture Borges gave in the 1970’s.  If I am ever stranded on a desert island I want it with me.

For me to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate.  To live without love I think is impossible, happily impossible for each one of us.  But the first part – “I want to live with myself, / I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven” – if we accept that in the good of heaven there can also be darkness, then who lives more with themselves?  Who can explore themselves more?  Who can know more of themselves?  According to the Socratic phrase, who can know himself more than the blind man?

A writer lives.  The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.  Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry.  I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him.  Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds – the strangest world of art – is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him.  For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune.  It may be an instrument.

Four separate translators worked on the stories and essays that make up Everything and Nothing.  Donald A. Yates, who also wrote the introduction; James E. Irby; John M. Fein and Eliot Weinberger.  This is worth mentioning because Borges voice remains consistent from piece to piece, regardless of who is translating.

I don’t speak or read Spanish.  But in the past I’ve read multiple works of a single author, each interpreted by a different translators.  The substitution of one translator for another can be glaringly obvious.  After reading a book translated by Lucia Graves  I went looking for more novels by its Spanish author.  The next book I picked up was (unfortunately) done by a different translator in whose hands the characters became flat and two-dimensional.  I never bothered with that author again.  To the point: With great power comes great responsibility.  The credit for the smooth flow of this collection is a testament to the skill of the translators.  And while I know it must be so, how could the original Spanish possibly be any better?

Please forgive the poor metaphor, but I find reading Borges’ soothing. Comparable to watching words float by on a stream.  Every so often you fish out an idea like so much flotsam.  Sometimes to keep, sometime to throw back.  You can spend hours doing this.  Days.  Possibly weeks.  And be perfectly content the entire time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me?  It’s time to crawl back under my table.

Publisher:  A New Directions Pearl, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1883 2