- - Friday, February 21, 2014

DANCING FISH AND AMMONITES
By Penelope Lively
Viking, $26.95, 235 pages

Dame Penelope Lively revisited her life and examined her ideas of memory and old age when recently reaching the age of 80. The result is “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” a delightful, wise memoir of the past and the present, and the prospect of the future: “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.”

“Dancing Fish” is her “random search through eight decades.”

Mrs. Lively writes with eloquence and elegance. She neither preaches nor bores, but ruminates, sometimes with tenderness, sometimes with wry asides and sharp comments, but always in a lively manner (pun intended).

She quotes from the writers who have influenced her work. Her style is simple, straightforward and incisive. She is modest about herself and her work; she makes her readers feel they are part of an intimate conversation.

Penelope Low was born in 1933 in Egypt and spent happy childhood years in Cairo, and briefly in Palestine when the German army approached too closely to the city during World War II.

At the end of the war, her parents separated, and she went to England with her father. “It was a transition from the Middle Eastern world of warmth and color to the chill gray of England,” where she was sent to boarding school. “For one who had grown up amid the cosmopolitan exuberance of Cairo the class-ridden society of the midcentury” was baffling.

In 1956, while working as a research assistant at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, she met Jack Lively, an “academic political theorist,” and her soon-to-be husband. The couple had two children. Mrs. Lively began writing once the children were in school, first children’s books and then adult novels. She won the Booker Prize for “Moon Tiger” in 1987.

Throughout her life, Mrs. Lively has been interested in archaeology, history and the social and political events of her time, beginning with the Suez crisis in 1956.

The importance of memory is the leitmotif in her novels and nonfiction. In “Dancing Fish” she focuses on both factual and emotional memory, as well as on the importance of reading in her work and daily life. “There is one thing missing, of course, from personal life writing: that requisite ending. Tick without the tock.”

Mrs. Lively is intrigued by the selective nature of memory, but the form of memory that most interests her “is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on. It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.”

She quotes Joseph Brodsky who “thought memory ‘a substitute for the tail that we lost for good in the happy process of evolution. It directs our movements, including migration. What memory has in common with art is the knack for selection, the taste for detail . Memory contains precisely details, not the whole picture; highlights, if you will, not the entire show.’”

Reading remains a constant in her life, for “to read is to experience,” and it is as important as experience itself in making us what we are. She calls it the “essential palliative, the daily fix.”

At 80, she no longer has the urge to travel, but is happy to remember her past journeys. She is content to read new works and reread old, familiar ones, “reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history, and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too — try her, try him, try that .” Reading and memory germinate the ideas for her fiction.

Her three desert island books, “the ones that have most elegantly demonstrated what the novel can do,” are Henry James’ “What Maisie Knew,” “a brilliant exercise in narrative technique, in which an entire tale of adult betrayal and duplicity is seen through the uncomprehending eyes of a child, a fictional discussion of evil and innocence”; William Golding’s “The Inheritors,” “a novel of ideas in which the ideas and the discussion of human nature are so effectively subsumed within the story that each new reading of it points up another layer, or shifts the emphasis”; and Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier,” “another marvelous narrative tour de force in which the truth behind a pattern of relationships is revealed with such subtlety and guile that while the reader is never deliberately deceived, each new release of information changes the view of what has happened.”

Story Continues →