Dancing Fish And Ammonites: A Memoir

By Penelope Lively


234 pages, $26.95

By Karen Brady


Penelope Lively considers far more than herself in her rich and revealing new memoir, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites.” And she does so in atypical fashion.

“This is not quite a memoir,” as she puts it herself. “Rather, it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself …”

It is also a meditation, a rumination, a love poem to a life with books, both the reading and the writing of them – but, above all, the reading! It is, as well, a discourse on memory, on time, and a compilation of Lively’s days, fraught with change:

“Change,” she observes at one point, “not just in what people may do now, but in how others view them, which seems to me the most remarkable aspect – the overturning of an entire history of prejudice and denial. An upheaval neatly slotted into my lifetime, so that I grew up to the backdrop of one set of assumptions and sign off in a very different society.”

On this score, Lively addresses several specifics – but emphasizes, in her words, “two areas of change that seem to me in one case indisputable and in the other seismic: the expectations of women, and attitudes toward homosexuality.”

Lively, who turns 81 this month, is the award-winning, London-based author of multiple works of fiction and two earlier memoirs. “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” however, has the distinction of coming from what Lively calls “old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem … One of the advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.”

In this sense, Lively’s new memoir is chiefly for the 70-and-up crowd, in particular its brilliant early section, “Old Age.” Here we have a marvelous monograph, delivered with surprise (and no small amount of levity) on both a personal and cultural level.

“We are not exactly invisible,” Lively notes of her ilk, “but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveler, on the edge of things, bearing witness to the customs of another age.”

Lively also likes the privileges old age brings (she no longer goes “to anything about which I am unenthusiastic”) and observes, about warding off dementia, “I am not a crossword addict and Sudoku defeats me entirely; I must put my trust in writing novels …”

There are statistics here as well, some from the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, prompting Lively to note that “Old age is the new demographic, and you can’t ignore the problems created by a group that has been getting steadily larger … The poor have always been with us, and now the old are too.”

Old age is a condition, not a disease, Lively stresses – and acceptance is its default mode: “Acceptance has set in,” she describes the process, “somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative – perpetual rage and resentment – would not help matters.”

Arthritis has set in as well, limiting Lively’s ability to garden and lessening her interest in travel. “My point here,” she says, “is to do with the needs of old age; there is what you can’t do, there is what you no longer want to do, and there is what has become of central importance. Others may have a game of bowls, or baking cakes, or carpentry, or macramé, or watercolors. I have reading.”

Lively confesses that she “would still like to write a good book. But I don’t have that ferocity for achievement that I can remember from earlier writing days.”

Other writers are her pleasure now, including “newer, younger” writers: “I suppose that this is the reader in me taking command,” she muses. “But it is also, I think, a writerly satisfaction in seeing it done by others as I would wish it done – in seeing the show kept on the road.”

In the section titled “Life and Times,” Lively uses autobiography sparingly, preferring to speed through her past eight decades with an eye on (what is now) history, some stemming from her native Egypt, much coming from her longtime home, England – at times giving us too much in terms of politics (the Suez Crisis, the Cold War) and too little of Lively. But she makes up for this in other ways – for example, calling London a “shape-changing city,” then adding, succinctly, “This is what I most like about London – its eloquence, long story, the sense in which it is of the moment, this year, these mores, but is also a permanence, a solidarity.”

So, too, with Lively whose eye, no matter how old and steady, always seems fresh. She speaks, in the “Memory” section here, mainly to scholars, or at least to those with a shared interest in the vagaries of memory – recollection memory, procedural, episodic, autobiographical. In the “Reading and Writing” section, too, she can seem precious, chronicling in an academic manner the books and reading circumstances that prompted certain of her novels – golden material for a doctoral thesis, but tough sledding for mere mortals.

In this way, though, ”Dancing Fish and Ammonites” has everything and becomes a book akin to a fine CD collection, from which we may choose what we like. Plus, how gratifying it is to find such tidbits as the arrangement of Lively’s personal library – “fiction in the kitchen, poetry in the television room, some history upstairs, other history down.”

Lively was married for four decades to Jack Lively, a political theorist who died in 1998, and he is a tender presence here, the father of Lively’s two children, grandfather of her six grandchildren – and the man who introduced her to great nonfiction. If he were here today, he would be looking over her shoulder, the widow in Lively tells us.

But it is books, not people, that “lit the fuse” in Lively – and keeps it burning bright today.

“When I look around my cluttered house,” she notes, “I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.”

“Six Things,” then, comprise the last section of this memoir – among those six objects an ancient Egyptian shard depicting dancing fishes, and two ammonites Lively gathered from an English beach many years ago.

We look at Lively’s treasures and realize we all have our own “six things” that take us back, that speak to us – in memory and time – and that one day, perhaps, will pique the interest of a descendant or two. It will be a day when, as the incomparable Lively puts it, we, but not the human imagination, will have been “written out of the story.”

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.