Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Photograph


"A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different."

What's the point of digging up the past? Occasionally on this blog, I'll unearth some artifact from my youth. These are usually photographs of Memphis or some odd paperwork or letter that's resurfaced from the abyss of my cluttered closet. I occupy an indefinable space with these things and I let them haunt me. From lost time, they begin to elicit questions and it is the impossible task of answering these questions that I write about here. If I've learned anything, it's that the past is a viper pit, an endless path of unanswerable questions down which one can become utterly lost. This is what lost time is all about - descending into that which has been vanquished but wanting it all to suddenly make sense.

So does it do any good to dig up the past? In Penelope Lively's The Photograph, the answer is decidedly 'no'. Glyn is a widower, an professor of archeology, who happens upon a photograph of his late wife in an embrace with her sister's husband. It is clear to Glyn for the first time that his wife, Kath, had been unfaithful.

But what does Glyn do? Does he discard the photograph and relieve himself, his sister and brother-in-law of this emotional quandary? Well, being an archaeologist, an academic sort who lives in a world of piecing, somewhat unemotionally, the past - he begins to dissect this mystery. Ultimately his process inflicts more harm into the lives of all involved that it was probably worth.
As I am often my own worst archaeologist, I felt an unease as I read on and on in this book. Each character has his or her own unravelling as a result of this photograph's unearthing. This is almost half mystery, half character study and an amazing, unforgettable book.

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