Pack of Cards by Penelope Lively (Grove Press: $18.95; 323 pages)
Connected by nothing more than the writer's extraordinary versatility, this lavish collection of short stories provides 34 separate occasions for delight. A one-woman anthology, Penelope Lively is able to change voice, age, nationality, gender and class so convincingly that it's a distinct surprise to see a solitary figure pictured on the back jacket.
You half expect a group photo, showing the pale terrified face of the small boy visiting a new prep school fidgeting on the back seat of the family car while "the leather sucked at the bare skin under his knees, stinging." You look for James Winton, in his faded drill trousers and flowered shirt, walking slowly back to his house from the beach, an effete exile stoically living out his days on a remote island that is neither Spanish, Greek, Italian or French; merely warm and non-English. Even without the frayed straw hat, you'd recognize him at once from the strained look around the eyes; the look of a man keeping up appearances at all costs.
By the end of "A World of Her Own," you could pick Lisa out of any crowd. She'd be "the artistic one," past 40 now and somewhat the worse for wear. As her sister says in accents a bit above working class but a long way from posh, Lisa now has "a curious creased look about her, like a dress put away in a drawer and not properly hung out. . . . It doesn't seem right; she's a person that things have always been in front of, somehow, not behind." Met and revealed in the space of half a dozen pages, Lively's characters have remarkable staying power.
'A Dear Old Thing'
In "The Darkness Out There," a couple of exceedingly ordinary English teen-agers belong to a Good Neighbors Club, doing odd jobs for the old and infirm like Mrs. Rutter. She's "a dear old thing with a wonky leg after her op," but also anything but a Good Samaritan herself.
One of the funniest stories, "A Long Night at Abu Simbel," has a wildly assorted group of English tourists stranded at a desolate Egyptian airstrip. After a few weeks of dealing with their tummy troubles, lost luggage, personality conflicts and other rigors of Third World travel, their guide simply abandons the lot of them to their fate and catches the next plane home. Though you can't possibly admire her, you don't exactly blame her either.
"The Crimean Hotel" is a more poignant travel story in which a lonely English widow meets a burly Russian during a visit to a Black Sea resort. He talks to her in halting English; she responds with a reserve that effectively conceals her true feelings. Any further relationship between this middle-aged English gentlewoman and a coarse Russian seaman is both impossible and unthinkable, but that fact doesn't prevent them from responding to each other in the most fragile and affecting of brief encounters.
In "Interpreting the Past," Lively is a 19-year-old girl recovering from a shattered romance by joining an archeological dig for the summer. At first miserable and completely self-absorbed, she matures in spite of herself, the process accelerated by her connection with the woman in charge of the project. When her faithless lover writes to say his infatuation with another girl is over and he'll drive down to collect her, she couldn't care less.
Each of these stories is an adventure in itself, instantly involving, deeply penetrating and satisfyingly conclusive. Without missing a beat, Lively captures the precise inflections of the upwardly mobile, the pretensions of the solidly entrenched and the modesty of the genuinely noble--the precise idiom of every stratum of English life. She's adept at the mundane and equally at home in realms of fantasy.
While Lively's male protagonists tend to be scholarly types, they're supremely masculine in outlook and motive. The junior editor in "Pack of Cards" is bewitched despite his better judgment by a giddy post-deb whose voice "considered dispassionately" sets his teeth on edge. A short but crucial visit to her thoroughly bourgeois family cures him of his passion.
The 50ish philanderer in "A Dream of Fair Women" is a more difficult case; the young poet in "At the Pitt-Rovers" completely captivating.
There's not much in the human condition left unexamined in these elegant tales, any of which deserves that ultimate accolade--"just a minute, I have to finish this story."