Katherine Bailey on Books  
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Non Fiction Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

An unconventional memoir.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is an unconventional memoir written by the 80-year-old celebrated British novelist, Penelope Lively. Despite its awkward and misleading title – it devotes only a few pages to the fish shard and fossil sample – the book is worth its weight in gold for its insights on life and reflections on aging. In addition, Lively illuminates the value of memory in coping with the inexorable passage of time.

Lively’s opinions have, of course, been honed by success – as a Booker-Prize-winning author, a prominent member of London’s intellectual community, and beloved wife, mother and grandmother. Delightfully realistic about her advanced years, she writes that for her “the party’s nearly over” and that she’s firmly ensconced “in the departure lounge.”

She notes that old age is a new demographic with a significant presence in society, one that “gobbles up” funds and causes grief for government agencies. And she quotes a disconcertingly frank definition of aging: “Aging is a progressive, generalized impairment of function resulting in an increasing probability of death.”

The diminishment of old age makes one less adventurous, more risk-averse, and selfish with one’s time. Some aspects of aging appeal to Lively. “I find,” she remarks, “that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity. We are not exactly invisible, but we are not noticed. Age may sideline but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.” That does not mean, she continues, that the elderly wish to be arbitrarily retired nor to have assumptions made about their capacities and tastes.

Verbalizing a mindset common to most people, she writes: “The thing that most vexes me about the prospect of my end is that I shan’t know what comes after, not just…in the grand scale of things but on my own immediate horizon. How will life unroll for my grandchildren?”

With her predictable clarity and charm of expression Lively says a great deal about fiction. For example, she writes that the discordant aspects of any life – the ambiguities and contradictions – are the stuff of fiction. Concerning character in fiction she says: “The challenge of any novel is to find a balance for the relationships within the cast list, to make these interesting, intriguing, to have them shift and perhaps unravel over the course of the narrative.”

Though she reads history and archaeology, it is fiction, Lively says, that “frees me from the closet of my own mind.” She explains that there is the form of existence she experiences but that there are also other ways to exist – other people’s versions of life. When I read fiction, “I see through the prism of another person’s understanding…I am traveling in the one way I still can: new sights, new experiences.”

Lively’s reverence for history is palpable. “If you have no sense of the past,” she informs us, “no access to the historical narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time and respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.” Describing history as a blend of what happened, what is thought to have happened, and what some claim to have happened, she emphasizes that nonetheless the past is real and that “it is the great ballast of human existence.”

For her an interest in the past segued naturally into an interest in memory. It is Lively’s command of the subject of memory that is the outstanding feature of her book. “Memories tell me who I am,” she asserts, “and what has happened to me…leaving much in the mysterious dark cavern of what has been forgotten.” She explains that the memory each of us lives with is a “moth-eaten” version of the past that we depend on. It is our ID, how we know who we are and where we have been. As “an involuntary procession of images, ranging from yesterday to long ago,” memory tethers us in time. Along with anticipation it competes with the momentum of the present.

In one of the book’s six sections she presents highlights from her past. Glimpses from her childhood are all she can manage, noting that her childhood as a whole has been drowned out by adult knowledge. She remembers traveling to England in 1945 in a troopship with other expatriate women and children. She had been born in Egypt where her father served as a British diplomat. Eventually, against a backdrop of the Suez Crisis she read History at Oxford where she met an academic named Jack Lively, the man she would marry. (At the time of her creation of Dancing Fish and Ammonites, Jack had been dead for 12 years.) Her account of her 1984 participation in a British writers’ association that sent her to Moscow for a time is particularly compelling.

It is not until the final section of her book that Lively examines her possessions – her six most treasured belongings, objects that “articulate who she is.” Some 20 years ago a friend gave her a smooth potsherd on which is carved two leaping fish. Its provenance is Twelfth Century, and it is precious to her because it means that a thousand years ago a potter had been fascinated by jumping fish. The ammonite, or fossil, she picked up long ago on a beach in Dorset. It features a side-view of two ram’s horns about one inch in diameter. This treasure conjures up a time in such a distant past that it prompts in her the realization that she is “a mere flicker of life in the scheme of things.”

Those over age 65 who plan “to grow old gracefully” need to read Dancing Fish and Ammonites.