“People, Diana had long ago realised, are what you are up against in life, especially those nearest and dearest to you.”
Biographer Mark Lamming has taken the high road with his career. At Cambridge he considered an academic career, but he wanted to write. He knew he was not a novelist but that he wanted “to live by writing.” So pushing aside the thoughts of a secure career and a pension, and aided by a “small income” from inherited money, he launched into a writing career as a biographer, essayist, and critic. When Penelope Lively’s novel According to Mark opens Mark, now facing middle age, has established a modest, but respectable career, picking up work here and there. His collection of Somerset Maugham letters and his biography of Wilkie Collins have firmly established his career and now he’s beginning a biography of Gilbert Strong, a mostly forgotten writer who produced “awful” novels, essays and biographies.
Working through the trustees of the Strong estate, Mark travels from London to Strong’s home: Dean Close which now operates as a garden centre and is managed by Strong’s literary executor, granddaughter, Carrie. Due to a somewhat chaotic childhood, Carrie finds solace in gardening, and she doesn’t function well socially or with relationships—the exception to this being her relaxed relationship with her business partner, Bill.
Carrie is not a reader, and she has little interest in the Strong biography. She has only sketchy memories of her grandfather, and when Mark first meets Carrie, he finds her disconcerting; “there was a provoking passivity about her.” Mark has spent the last 18 months studying every nook and cranny of Strong’s life, and he expects Carrie to show at least some interest.
A clock loudly ticked. Mark picked up his mug and put it down again; the coffee was fairly undrinkable. An occupational hazard; one of Strong’s former mistresses had given him food poisoning with take-away kebabs. He gazed at Carrie’s odd, rather childish face, and looked away. Green eyes, with little brown flecks. “It must have been different here then, with this place in full swing. All those weekend parties. Cary and people. I dare say you sat on his knee.”
“No,” said Carrie.
“You could have done,” said Mark, with faint irritation. “It’s chronologically quite possible, and he was a friend of your grandfather’s.”
“Well, I didn’t I’m afraid. Would you like some more coffee?”
“No,” said Mark hastily.
“They had servants and all that then,” Carried offered. “Him and Susan. Susan was the person her married after grandmother died.”
Mark sighed. “Yes. Quite.”
Carrie mentions two trunks of letters that are in the attic. Mark was unaware of this extra material and it means that his project will take much longer to complete. So he begins visiting Dean Close ostensibly to catalogue and read the letters but he finds himself drawn to Carrie. Mark’s loyal wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, sniffs there’s something afoot. …
I enjoyed the book–especially the sections about Mark’s life as a biographer and his quest to find the ‘truth.’ He doesn’t realise that he’s going through a crisis of sorts. He’s spending his life writing about the lives of others–sacrificing to produce these books, and here he is devoting years to a writer who is forgotten–as he himself will be forgotten. Mark’s relationship with his wife, Diana is interesting. They’ve made sacrifices to lead this life they’ve chosen together, and they complement each other. For this reader, the character of Carrie was slightly problematic and unrealistic. So not my favourite Lively but good.