Today I want to talk to you about an amazing writer who has been as important to me as any I can think of. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I’m going to be talking about her brand new book, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which she says “is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” Lively is now eighty years old, and judging from this not quite memoir, she is still going very strong indeed. Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, published in 1997, and she has written many other novels, collections of short stories, children’s books and scholarly essays. Her latest book, like all or almost all of her earlier work, is focused on memory and time.
Lively’s first intellectual interest was in archaeology, an interest she never lost. She read history at Oxford, married an academic, and has continued to read history, fiction, science, and pretty much whatever she could lay her hands on. She was born in Cairo in 1933 and remained there until she went to England on a troop ship in 1945. Perhaps because I, too, am at what Lively would call the portal of old age, I find her essays on aging and memory fascinating. A lot of the reading I have done lately by or about growing old has been quite depressing, focusing primarily on what is lost as we age. Lively is well aware of the diminishment that aging can (and inevitably will) bring, but she manages to focus on what is left rather than what is lost. She has certainly had her share of the infirmities that come with age.
[I] avoid, occasionally, I fear: that hazard light worn by the old—slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I am nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it. And report.
We are many today, in the Western world: the new demographic. I want to look at the implications of that, at the condition, at how it has been perceived. And then at the compelling matter of memory—the vapor trail without which we are undone.
Lively sees herself primarily as a reader. Although she realizes that not all readers are, or become, writers. For her, reading became writing. This almost memoir would be worth reading to a devoted reader simply for the long list of books she mentions while describing her own journey as a reader.
I decided long ago, near the beginning of my teaching career, that what I needed most (both for myself and for my students) was to read, and to do so in what Lively calls a “mostly undirected, unstructured reading.” Reading only philosophy and directing all my writing energy to writing esoteric journal articles seemed to me to short change both myself and my students.
[I]…must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, 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 in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind … The one entirely benign mind-altering drug … My point here is to do with the needs of old age; there is what you can’t do, there is what you no longer want to do, and there is what has become of central importance … I have reading.
In this little collection of essays on memory, gardening, writing, and history Lively takes her readers on a historical journey of the past eighty or so years: the Suez canal crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the new wave of feminism.
For me, interest in the past segued into an interest in the operation of memory, which turned into subject matter for fiction. I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people….
And she certainly does just this. From the aging scholar heroine, Claudia, living out her last days in a nursing home in Moon Tiger, to a landscape archaeologist and a gardener in The Photograph to the World War II veteran who becomes an architect in City of the Mind and her earlier memoir of her own childhood in Cairo Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, Lively pursues her interest in the operations of memory. Her own scholarly research into psychological tracts on memory shows up in so much of her writing. As she has her characters say again and again in her stories, “it’s all happening at once,” as past, present and projected future fuse into one for the lived life of each person.
Many years ago, Moon Tiger was the first of her novels that I picked up. A brother and a sister at the sea shore fighting over an ammonite that both claim to have discovered launched me into her world of ruminating about time and memory.
That is why history should be taught in school, to all children, as much of it as possible. If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.
It would be easy to write pages and pages simply of quotes from this remarkable little book. It is a testament to a reader’s life well lived. Hopefully, those who read it will be driven to read some of her novels, or simply to copy out the long list of books she mentions as part of her own vast reading past.
What we have read makes us what 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.
I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts…
My old-age fear is not being able to read—the worst deprivation. Or no longer having my books around me: the familiar, eclectic, explanatory assemblage that hitches me to the wide world, that has freed me from the prison of myself, that has helped me to think and to write.
Bravo and carry on.