Literary detective story. Tracking down the truth `According to Mark'

According to Mark, by Penelope Lively. New York: Beaufort Books. 224 pp. $14.95. If I were to bore you with my memory of how I got stranded on the roof of Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, your reception of the story would be colored by the fact that here I am with my feet set solidly, oh so solidly, on the ground again. From the very beginning of my account, you would be conscious of the satisfactory ending.

The present would have affected your perception of the past.

Then, should you go to all the trouble of seeking out the thatcher who had invited me up to admire his handiwork in the first place, you might get an entirely different slant on the whole embarrassing episode. The builder who rescued me might well provide yet another. And who knows what my own relish for the dramatic might have unconsciously done to the facts. How can you be sure of the past?

This is the kind of question that plagues Penelope Lively's Mark, a biographer tracking down the truth about his latest subject, Gilbert Strong, novelist, travel writer, essayist, who flourished during the Bloomsbury era. The more people Mark interviews, places he visits, letters he reads, the thicker grow the clouds of conflicting testimony until his hunt for the real Gilbert Strong grows into an obsession and ``According to Mark'' becomes what its publishers claim it to be -- a ``literary detective story.''

The clouds begin to gather in earnest when Mark goes down to Dorset to Strong's old home, now a museum housing his mummified past, where even the air smells of the '30s. Absurdly, Strong's granddaughter, Carrie, has converted the grounds into a thriving garden center with ``aisle upon aisle of plants in boxes or pots or with their roots shrouded in black plastic, among which cruised a few people pushing supermarket carts.''

Mark, to his own amazement, falls in love with dungareed, gum booted, and distinctly unliterary Carrie. Very upsetting for a man of ordered habits blessed with a successful marriage. But if Mark is surprised, the reader, on reflection, is not. After all, absorbed in the care of her plants, determinedly insulated from people, Carrie must seem a refreshing change, one of the rare figures in his experience who isn't seeing her surroundings through layers of literary or historical allusions.

Her reaction to Mark's declaration of love is typical: ``Perhaps,'' she says, ``it will sort of go away.'' It doesn't. It outlasts a journey through France and a visit to her dreadful mother. But Carrie, set on self-preservation, proves as elusive as her grandfather, and Mark's pursuit of her becomes as tantalizing as his quest for her grandfather.

This is a story not burdened with much physical action. No violence, physical or emotional. Relationships change, ideas shift, and over all is a gentle humor. That's all. But I found it riveting. Miss Lively is able to conjure up characters -- individuals, not types -- so vividly that their lives reach beyond the pages of this book and their distinctive voices aren't silenced when it is closed.

Even her quick impression of a character is impressive: Here, for instance, is a glimpse of Mark's wife, Diana: who ``went through life in a state of furious alertness. . . . Everything clamoured equally for her attention: the clothing of people who sat opposite her in the tube [London's underground], the text of newspapers, every word spoken to her by everyone with whom she was in contact. It was not so much a question of being interested as being seized.''

And Stella Bruce, Strong's one-time mistress ``was in her eighties: as soft and pastel as a powder puff glittering with paste and pearls, relentlessly feminine but, you sensed, as tough as old boots.''

The characters are convincing, the ``detective story'' enthralling. But there's more to this book than that. Dig below the surface and you find Miss Lively's fascination with the way the present affects the past. And to a lesser extent how our experience governs our perception of the present.

When Mark, for example, drives across London, every street corner reminds him of history. But what about the West Indian bus conductor on the bus ahead, ``whose set of references must be assumed to be utterly different''?

When he sees a magnificent sunset, he sees in it the work of four different English painters. `` `Was it ever possible to look at anything after the age of about four, without what you know interfering with what you saw?' '' he wonders.

Now we know what this author was up to when, early on in her book, she got Gilbert Strong to pontificate in his diary: ``Perhaps novelists are the only people who tell the truth.''

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