A Tether In Time: Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites


Memory and anticipation. What has happened, and what might happen. The mind needs its tether in time, it must know where it is — in the perpetual slide of the present, with the ballast of what has been and the hazard of what is to come.

I mostly enjoyed Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites — which is not, strictly speaking, a memoir but, as she says in the Preface, “the view from old age.” But I also thought, as I read it, that she had been given a free pass somewhere along the editorial line. Perhaps the thought was that having published so much finely-wrought prose already, she had earned the right to ramble on a bit, to opine and speculate and meander at will.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites is not a boring book, though by and large it covers familiar territory. Lively herself often remarks in passing that she’s talked about the biographical details elsewhere (in Oleander, Jacaranda, for instance), and the central themes are ones she acknowledges have been central to her fiction: memory; fact and fiction; history, both personal and public; the meaningful tangibility and endurance of objects (“I am an archaeologist manquée,” she says in one of the book’s least likely but most engaging chapters, “Six Things”). A newer preoccupation, or at least one with more urgency here, is aging. “Old age is in the eye of the beholder,” she says in her chapter on that topic; “I am eighty, so I am old, no question.” So her reflections on her continuing themes are colored — shaded, often — by her awareness that her time to think (and write) about them is probably running out, and a desire to understand and remember the life she has had, especially as marked out by the books and objects that surround her now. “These, then, are the prompts for this book,” she says:

age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to — how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.

And that’s what she goes on to talk about. There’s a chapter — unflinching, but also strangely bracing — on old age: “I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.” There’s a chapter on “Life and Times” — for me, the least successful of the book, but an interesting concept, to highlight the major historical events of her lifetime and “fish out what it felt like to be around at that point,” a personal counterpoint to “the long view, the story now told.” There’s a chapter on memory that moves between specific memories of her own and reflections on what we now know about the varieties and functions of memory — it raised questions for me about what makes someone else’s memories interesting, as the ones she offers from her own life are almost defiantly ordinary (“I am staying with my aunt Diana and her family in Kent. Winter 1947, and bitterly — famously — cold. I remember going to bed with all my clothes on”) and yet in the mundane details, “the trawl from the mass of lurking material,” there is something captivating. Maybe her trick is tacitly implying that our memories, too, no more extraodinary than hers, are also worth lingering over.

The most inviting chapter for me was “Reading and Writing.” “I can measure out my life in books,” she says;

They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.

She doesn’t talk in detail about any of them, but she writes well about what it’s like to be a reader. I particularly liked her tribute to libraries:

Early reading is serendipitous, and rightly so. Gloriously so. Libraries favor serendipity, invite it; the roaming along a shelf, eyeing an unfamiliar name, taking this down, then that — oh, who’s this? Never heard of her — give her a go? That is where, and how, you learn affinity and rejection. You find out what you like by exploring what you do not.

And I was struck by what she says about reading as a writer. “Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen,” she says, “taught me that writing can be expansive and complex but still be accurate and exciting;”

I had no thoughts then of writing myself — I was reading purely as a gourmet reader, refining taste, exploring the possibilities. Now I think that a writer’s reading experience does not so much determine how they will write as what they feel about writing; you do not want to write like the person you admire, even if you were capable of it — you want to do justice to the very activity, you want to give it your own best, whatever that may be. A standard has been set.

That rings true to me, or at any rate it sounds right to me, like what a writer should feel about writing.

In the final chapter, called “Six Things,” she picks out six objects from her home and offers a kind of “thick description” of them: what they are and look like and feel like, where they came from, how they fit into the stories and themes of her life. This chapter felt particularly random, and yet at the same time that is its point, its structure, so that seems an unfair criticism. I like poking around people’s homes and seeing what they have: people’s things can be so revealing (“tell me what you like,” Ruskin said, “and I’ll tell you what you are”) and that’s the underlying justification here, a last attempt by Lively to explain (archaeologically, as it were) who she is, by excavating her life and interpreting a sample of its remnants — “the detritus of the past.”

“Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent” Lively writes in her chapter on memory, “but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.” Dancing Fish and Ammonites isn’t a revelatory book, but it adds to the other writing Lively has done to personalize her little segment. I liked spending this further time with her.

One thought on “A Tether In Time: Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites

  1. Theresa July 27, 2015 / 11:40 am

    I found this book a little disappointing. “A free pass somewhere along the editorial line” is about right! I’m glad to have read it though — she is a wonderful stylist and a thoughtful memoirist. I much preferred A House Unlocked where she turns her eye and heart (as well as that gorgeous pen) to a sustained meditation on history — family, objects, botany..


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