Penelope Lively on Memories, Old Age, and How We’ve Lost Animistic Communion


“This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is a view from old age.”

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And what a view it is. Replete with archaeology, paleontology, finding herself in Communist Russia, losing herself in libraries and, of course, the Dancing Fish and Ammonites of the title. As well as a penetrating meditation on memory that suggests this is an artist writing about that thing she was born to explore.

Penelope Lively, a British novelist and children’s book author, born 83 years ago (1933), has been reading almost as long and writing from a young age. She grew up in Cairo and first came to England when she was twelve to attend boarding school. Her writing began as books for children (often using ‘adult’ words, which she defends by calling her editor’s attention to the most adult of all children’s authors, Beatrix Potter) and then later for adults—her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, was published in 1977.

This memoir, however, it not about her life and certainly not about her writing life. It’s about her memories of life. Disjointed, cobbled together, and wildly creative—organized by theme rather than time or place. Lively admits that many physical aspects of being old indeed form what Gore Vidal called “the hospital years,” but she mostly relishes in her improved abilities as an observer of life.

“The point here is that 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.”

Memory is a keen topic for Lively, presented in the majority of her fiction and finally given its own chapter in Dancing Fish.

“The memory that we live with—the form of memory that most interests me—is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on.”

Memory forms a ballast of who we are, even more so as we age, and most so as we are old (though she debates what that term means). Lively is quite sure that who she is is equivalent to what she’s lived (and shows us how by tracing back the times and years from her childhood in Cairo to accompanying her husband in Oxford to an adult life of family, London, friends, and trips to the US). And as these memories become more and more distant, perhaps she exists more and more in those memories, like so many loved ones of mine and, I’m sure, yours.

As Lively notes,

“Life as lived is disordered, undirected and at the mercy of contingent events.”

And in events such as these, Lively finds much humor; including her list of “Things I never Want to See Again” after a trip to Russia, which includes: a Russian bath towel, the lift at Yalta, and the grey carcasses of cooked chickens offered for breakfast in the hotel canteen.

On religious matters, Lively admits, though agnostic, she is drawn to religions that revere animals, and that Christianity and Islam seem to be the only two religions that have abandoned animal worship. “We use animals—eat them, farm them, labor them—but we have lost touch with that elemental instinct to accord them status.” Her point made me think of the New York Times report on how our continued departure from animals has contributed to our overwhelming allergies (as compared with communities, such as the Amish, who haven’t.) Although, there are those among us who find room in life to revere animals in perhaps an animistic way.

The truest bits of Dancing Fish, for me, are how she frequently and mournfully discusses childhood memories, a form of amnesia she can’t quite accept. “That child self is an alien; I still have some glimmer of what she saw, but her mind is unreachable.” Such loss I feel deeply and yearn for terribly, often unsatisfied.

It is not mandatory to have read Lively’s fiction in order to become absorbed in this her later-in-life memoir. However, reading Lively’s Carnegie Medal– and Man Booker Prize–winning fiction is it’s own reward. I’m particularly fond of her short stories. Get your hands on “Corruption,” about a judge, his wife, and a suitcase of pornographic magazines that haunt the couple throughout an otherwise enjoyable weekend.

My favorite line is when the couple retires to bed, only to be interrupted, again, by the suitcase full of porn:

“Back at the hotel, they climbed into bed in a state of enjoyable repletion. The judge put on his spectacles and reached out for the suitcase. ‘You’re not going to start going through all that stuff now…,’ said Marjorie. ‘At least have one whole day off work.’”

One can only laugh and wonder what memory ballast these sort of experiences will form.


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Find Yours Truly in Victoria Hislop’s excellent collection Life: Great Short Stories by Women.  To read more about memory and power contained in objects, I recommend my post The Artist as a Collector



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