Published as Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir in the U.S., Penelope Lively’s new book carries the alternative subtitle “A Life in Time” in its British incarnation. This seemed more apt to me, for this is less a memoir in the conventional sense and more a collection of thoughts, a scattering of advice and a reading list to treasure.
In describing her writing life, Lively has been quoted as saying that her fiction is inspired by a desire to “impose order upon chaos, to give structure and meaning to what is apparently random.”In this new book, as she explores time and the nature of memory and recalls carefully chosen scenes from her long, eventful life, she achieves just that.
There are indeed key elements of autobiography here. Lively was born in Egypt and lived there until she was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 12. She tells of afternoons with her nanny, making paper dolls, of an education at home — the Cairo garden her classroom. She writes of the alienation she felt arriving — towards the end of the second world war — in a country whose climate and culture where so different from the warmth and bustle of North Africa. There are stories of negotiating an awkward adolescence, of life as one of few women in her university class and then of marriage and motherhood before establishing herself first as an author of children’s books and then as an award-winning literary novelist. In a writing career spanning 44 years, she has garnered awards including the Carnegie, the Whitbread and the Booker. Lively is a writer beloved by readers and fellow writers alike, a master of the postmodern novel and a Dame of the British Empire. These are her life and times, ruefully referred to as her 80-year “stint” on this earth.
Fascinating though this stint has been, Lively the memoirist resists the linear narrative in much the same way as Lively the novelist has in her various works. She is less interested in giving a purely autobiographical account than in providing context, an understanding of “the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us.”
Dancing Fish and Ammonites is divided into sections that read as an essential checklist. If you want to know about me — who I am now and how I got here, she seems to be saying, here it is: Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, Six Things (this final section being devoted to six objects that form “the accretions of a lifetime”; amongst them the dancing fish and ammonite fossils of the title). The result is a work that was, for me, the gift of an afternoon spent with a witty, gentle-humored, sharp and sometimes cynical elder. Just the kind of favored older relation the bookish girl she describes herself as having been would have found companionable.
I have no doubt that each reader will have her favorite chapter in this book. A few days after first reading, I found myself coming back for another look at Reading and Writing in which Lively describes reenacting, as a child, the Iliad and the Odyssey — with the story “improved,” that is, with the tedious Helen sidelined for the author’s namesake Penelope and the action updated to the allow Achilles an infantry tank and machine gun. What follows is an annotated list of favorite writers, of places where they have been read as well as ruminations on the acquisition and keeping of books, the Dewey Decimal system and the pleasurable habits of old age reading. “I can measure out my life in books,” she confides. “They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and enlightenment and sheer pleasure …”
Throughout Lively is a keen observer and an engaging narrator. There is a wry humor in her acknowledgement of the impeding stopping of the clock, of the aches and pains that accompany old age, those things one no longer wishes to do and those that one cannot. All this inflected with an intensely practical tone, tempered by the beauty and elegance of a prose style that is at once economical and evocative. She says of the human compulsion to seek out stories: “We have this need for narrative, it seems.A life is indeed a ‘tick-tock’: birth and death with nothing but time in between. We go to fiction because we like a story, and we want our lives to have the largesse of story, the capacity, the onward thrust — we not only want, but need, which is why memory is so crucial, and without it we are lost, adrift in a hideous eternal present.”
That is the allure of fiction and an indication of what has inspired her creations. And it is perhaps only in the hands of such an experienced novelist that subjects which may, at first glance, seem random and somewhat scattershot take on the elegant coherence of a deeply satisfying conversation. An encounter with an Afghan cab driver leads to a contemplation of immigration; her granddaughter’s school coursework sparks musing on the Suez Crisis of 1956 and historical revisionism; a television program ushers in several pages on feminism and Feminist aspiration; the purchase of a vintage typewriter draws her into a definition of various types of memory … and there is so much more. With every shift in topic I found myself determined to keep up, to understand the connections she made, to engage. “How can you not be involved?” Lively admonishes. “These are your times, your world, even if those events are on the other side of it. And as for the narrative — you are a part of that, for better or for worse … “