Book Review: Dancing Fish and Ammonites
By Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively points out, in her beguilingly intimate new book (a memoir, after a career spent mostly in fiction) that she has become a member of a steadily growing new societal group: the healthy old. She is eighty – the occasion of this new volume – but, as she wryly points out, she’s not in a hunter-gatherer society, nor are the young of her species sizing her up for stray nutrients. Modern medicine has allowed her and many of her friends to enter what she refers to as an unexpected dimension, with its strangely discordant realities:
I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch that. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.
But even so, she chirpily asserts, eighty is not sixty – it’s well and truly old. And she reflects that her own life is tethered to the things that have filled it; the most charming aspect of Dancing Fish and Ammonites is the sense of a smart and garrulous and, she’ll pardon the term, even wise person sitting at her writing desk and letting her eyes wander around the familiar objects all around her.
Some of the things in that room are objects accumulated over a lifetime: a cat statue, pottery sherds adorned with dancing fish, fossilized ammonites with their beautiful symmetries (“Paleontology is awe-inspiring, sobering,” she writes. “Deep time. It puts you in your place – a mere flicker of life in the scheme of things”), but – as we might well have expected – one particular type of object takes pride of place:
My house is full of books. I suppose that I have read all of them, bar reference books and poetry collections in which I have not read every poem. I have forgotten many, indeed most. At some point, I have emptied each of these into that insatiable vessel, the mind, and they are now lost somewhere within. If I reopen a book, there is recognition – oh yes, I’ve been here – but to have the contents again, familiar, new-minted, I would have to read right through. What happens to all this information, this inferno of language? Where does it go? Much, apparently, becomes irretrievable sediment; a fair amount, the significant amount, becomes that essential part of us – what we know and understand and think about above and beyond our own immediate concerns. It has become the life of the mind. 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,” she tells us, in a sentiment that will be familiar to all lifelong readers. “They stand along the way like signposts; the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.”
That sheer pleasure has deep roots, and there are some funny stories about her childhood years, including the “dire” boarding schools she attended, where at one point her copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse was confiscated with the priceless line, “You are here to be taught that sort of thing, Penelope. And your lacrosse performance is abysmal.”
But although there’s consistent attempt at balance here, this is first and most of all a glowingly passionate reader’s autobiography. It’s saturated with reading and books and the memory of a life lived entirely with books, with all the puckish, idiosyncratic observations every reader develops:
I don’t have enough old Penguins. The Pelicans have survived, but the rest have mostly disappeared – read until in bits, perhaps, or left on beaches or in trains or loaned and not returned. And long gone are the days when a paperback meant a Penguin, pure and simple, let alone when a paperback publisher could confidently market a product with no image at all on the cover – just the title and the author’s name, emphatically lettered. Beautiful.
“The day belongs to the young, the younger,” she reflects. “I feel overtaken, and that is fine. I don’t like finding myself usually the oldest person in the room, and I am afraid of being boring.” Little danger of that here.