On the embarrassment of being late to the party

Discovering a new writer or artist, or at least someone new to you, can be a wonderful experience. This is particularly enjoyable when they are starting out on their career. For me this happened with the music of John Adams. This led to a period of discovery, travelling whenever I could to wherever a piece of his was being played. What made it more special still was that at that time John Adams was known to only a few of us; a secret pleasure shared only by a few initiates.

The other side of the coin is when you “discover” someone who is already famous. Recently I’ve been asking myself: How on earth have I never before read anything by Penelope Lively? Even then my discovery came by accident, I intended to read something by Penelope Fitzgerald. Instead, getting my Penelopes confused, I took out from the library Penelope Lively’s How it All Began. But what joy did I find. What wonderful, unforced eloquence. What deep sympathy, empathy with her characters; even for those who on the face it don’t deserve it. How can a hand on a knee be imbued with such an emotional charge? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know whose hand and whose knee I mean. If you haven’t read it, then go and get a copy.

I really am embarrassed. I consider myself reasonably well-read, and yet here is someone who was scarcely a name to me before, writing with such humanity. The only consolation I have is that instead of having to wait two years for another book to come out, I can straight away start to read all her earlier work.

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