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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir, by Penelope Lively.

December 8, 2015

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir, by Penelope Lively. Penguin Books (2013),  240 pages.

5 stars FAVORITE

A highly respected, eighty-year-old English author writes eloquently about old age, memory, reading and writing, as well as about her own personal life.

Dame Penelope Margaret Lively is an English author of numerous books for adults and children.   She has been honored for her writing by membership in Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and the Royal Society of Literature. Various books of hers have won awards. Like her memoir, The Moon Tiger (see my review) which won Booker Prize, Dancing Fish and Ammonites features an aging woman remembering events of her youth.

Lively begins her new book with a statement:

This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise—ambushed, or so it can seem.

This is not a conventional, chronological account of her life, but a set of essays about topics that continue to interest Lively. But she says little directly about what it means to age. She states that she is “more or less par for the course for an eighty-year-old,” and that there is no alternative to getting used to “diminishment, to a body stalled.” She is never self-pitying and, in fact, we are told little about her health. Certainly her mind still functions brilliantly. She appears to care most about memories and the past, and her love of reading. The result is a surprisingly positive book, one that left me hopeful about my coming years.

As she has aged Lively can no longer garden and has lost her earlier desire for travel. But she finds compensations.

With those old consuming vigors now muted, something else comes into its own—an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. … it is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity to the childhood experience when the world was new.

While Lively finds that aging is a new “incarnation,” she understands that the layers of our former selves are still present in us. We are ”the accretion of all that we have been…Nothing new here, no fresh perception, but something you appreciate to the full in old age.” These layers of life, however, like life itself, are often appear random and disordered. Because we all need narratives, Lively encourages us to “trace the narrative thread” of our past, as she does in this book. And most of all for Lively, we can read, moving beyond the “closet” of where we are now and to imagine life as lived by those outside our immediate circle.

For Lively, “A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free, it is tethered—to certain decades, to places, to people.” Writing briefly and chronologically about her “Life and Times,” she provides context for her own experiences by addressing what was happening in the larger world in the different phases of her life. She was born in Cairo in 1933, the daughter of a very British couple. Her early life was disrupted by the African campaigns of World War II. She returned to England as the war ended where she was “ a traumatized teenager uprooted from what had seemed a homeland, whose parents had just divorced, and who had now ended up in an alien society where social codes were mysterious and the climate defied belief.”

A student at Oxford in 1956 when Egyptian tried to nationalize the Suez Canal, Lively became politicalized.  She realized that “My own country [was] dropping bombs on the country I thought of as a kind of home,” and realized that governments must sometimes be challenged for their actions. She met her husband, a political scientist, at Oxford and together they shared an interest in global events which she retains. “I can’t do without the world…I want to know—must know—what the world is up to for as long as I am a part of it.” Her life as a young wife and mother was shadowed by the Cold War and sense that all you loved could instantly be destroyed.

Lively views autobiographical memory as random, nonsequential, capricious, and without it we are undone.” We must face that memory contains a “great dark cavern” of what is lost. It gives us only a “moth eaten version of our own past.” Yet it is “our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.” The novelist “wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insight. Instead of which there is an assortment of slides, some of them welcome, some not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.” For example she still holds on to childhood memories “in the form of finite glimpses of that time, not sequential but co-existing, each of them succinct, clear, usually wordless, and conjuring up still frozen moments of a time and place.

Individual memories exist alongside collective memories, Lively explains. “There is our own cupboard and the open shelf available to all. What only I know and what is known—or can be known by all.” Without the collective memories, we cannot see ourselves as “part of a narrative.” Yet public, collective memory cannot be trusted either: “Our shared history is nothing more than shared evidence of what has happened. ”The collective past is fact and fabrication—much like our private pasts. There is no received truth, just a tentative thread of events amid a swirl of dispute and conflicting evidence. But…the past is real”

Reading is and has long been a critical part of Lively’s life, and it continues to be as she ages. Although much of what we have read is forgotten, “the essential part of us” remains to define us.

What we have read makes us who we are—quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.

She regards the books that have shaped her as “signposts” to “the moments of absorption and sympathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.” As she ages wants her books around her, “the familiar, eclectic assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think and write.” She needs fiction to help her “discover how it might be for others, to see other people’s lives distilled through an author’s imagination.”   Books can “light a fuse” and “tap into some roaming tendency of the mind.” As she ages her strongest fear is “not being able to read.” For now, reading is essential for her.

Reading in old age is doing for me what if has always done—it frees me from the closet of my mind. Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person’s understanding, reading everything else, I am traveling—I am traveling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences.

In the closing section of her memoir, Lively describes a cluster of objects that, like her books, continue to define who she has been and still is. They include the Dancing Fish and Ammonite which are the title of her book. Another important object is a prayer book, a reminder that she is an agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity.

I loved this book, in part I realize, because I share Lively’s concerns. She clearly articulates my own vague thoughts about what it means to age, how we deal with the past, public and private, and what we can gain from reading. Like Lively, I believe, “It is not enough for me now to live in the here and now.  Not enough for me anyway. I need those imaginative leaps out of my own time frame and into different places—places where things are done differently”.

This is a book that should be required reading for aging readers who still can get excited about relevant and well-expressed ideas.  And for all who want to escape the confines of our daily lives by reading books.

I borrowed this book from the library of the Pleasant Hill Community Church. I am grateful for finding it there.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2015 4:17 pm

    “As she ages her strongest fear is “not being able to read.” ” Oh me too, life would not be worth living if I could no longer read, (and no, audio books are not a substitute).
    I think this might well be a book that younger people should read too.

    • December 10, 2015 10:59 am

      Yes. I totally agree. Her descriptions of what it means to read are good for any age.


  1. WOMEN AND AGING | Me, you, and books

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