Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

Image of Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
Release Date: 
February 6, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“. . . these five long-form essays are truly excellent.”

While it is sometimes said that only the examined life is worth living, the double reflex obverse converse contrapositive (I’m fairly certain that’s what it’s called) might also work, that only such a lived life is worth reexamining. Penelope Lively's is one of these.

Before the release of the book under review, a memoir, she had already examined her life at marvelous length and in fine detail in Oleander, Jacaranda. Much has happened since, not least at least 20 years bravely dealing with challenges like spinal arthritis, myopic macular degeneration, and breast cancer (treated with success).

In the five free-spirited personal essays of Dancing Fish and Ammonites she is never anything but immensely appealing. Although their titles promise some overlap (“Old Age,” “Life and Times,” “Memory,” “Reading and Writing,” “Six Things”), the pieces range as widely as she has done in her life, and that's pretty widely, from the Egypt of her youth to the Soviet Union of her middle age, the Iron Curtain briefly and narrowly held open by a few colorfully rendered art-o-crats from the Writers' Union.

Having spent some time in Siberia during this same pre-glasnost time, I can confirm Lively’s accuracy: how thoroughly soaked these educational/creative exchanges were in a kind of desperate small-change, garage-sale mercantilism, how heroically persistent the damaged and doomed western sympathizers, how entertaining the cynically half-hearted subterfuges (or how poignant the urgent and drastic ones). 

A writers' writer with a superb ear, Ms. Lively has gained a loyal worldwide readership for her irresistibly lean novels, like Consequences and How It All Began. Her words now have the hard-won ring of authority, such that when you hear something like "the apposition of reason and imagination" you don't take it as a mistake but give it a try; same goes for her calling a superannuated publisher a "relict" instead of a relic. 

A relict herself, she is anything but a relic, even though you'll find some charming Downton Abbatial usages in her writing. (When's the last time you heard a swimsuit called a swimming costume? or "fossicking" for "rummaging"? or "snip" for "bargain"? What is a donkey doing when it is “titupping”?)

Lively aficionados will be especially pleased to gain access to the novelist’s ideas about her own works. “In Moon Tiger, Claudia’s version of her past is questioned by the conflicting evidence of others.” Equally, who she thinks is good and who not so good: “Jane Bowles, whose work I do not care for. . . .”  “At one time I could no longer read Lawrence Durrell; now suddenly, he is again alluring. I can’t abide Barbara Pym—enjoyed her once. Anthony Powell is irritating today, yet in the past I have reveled in Widmerpool and company. And there is the handful with whom each rereading is a new discovery. William Golding, who offers something you hadn’t noticed before each time you go back, in every single book of his. Updike, Henry James, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton. . . .” 

It’s not all about the past for her. "I can't do without the world," she says. "Wake up to the Today programme, on-off attention to that for an hour or so, read the paper, check in at one o’clock for the news, again at six, probably, and of course the television on at ten, before bed.” What a great thing it is for someone with so much of a past to hunger so for actuality!

Lively worries sometimes that she’s boring us with her recollections. “We old talk too much about the past; this should take place only between consenting contemporaries. Boredom hovers, for others—unless by special request for purposes of information or instruction. We must beware that glassy smile of polite attention: They are searching for an exit strategy.”

Mine is simply to say that these five long-form essays are truly excellent. And as the Wife of Bathe says, “Welcome be the sixthe, in goddes name!”