Dancing Fish And Ammonites

A Memoir

by Penelope Lively

Dancing Fish and Ammonites

Hardcover, 234 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase


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Book Summary

The award-winning author of Moon Tiger reflects on the influences that have shaped her literary life, from her early childhood in Cairo and boarding-school education in England to her love for archaeology and the sweeping changes in 20th-century Great Britain.

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Excerpt: Dancing Fish And Ammonites

This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is 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. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance — the identifying freight of a lifetime.

A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free, it is tethered — to certain decades, to places, to people. It has a context; each departure leaves a person-shaped void — the absence within a family, the presence lost within a house, in a community, in society itself. We go, but hang in for a while in other people's heads — something we said, something we did; we leave a ghostly imprint on our backdrop. A very few people go one further and are distilled into a blue plaque on a building.

I began on a spring morning in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek, which was a residential suburb on Gezira, the island in Cairo's Nile; 17 March 1933. Elsewhere, things were going on that would lead to turmoil in North Africa in a few years' time; my par-ents' lives would be affected, and mine, but they were comfortably oblivious that morning, and I was tucked up in a crib, the feet of which stood in tin trays of water, because there had been instances of ants get- ting at newborn babies.

Toward the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast — I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

These, then, are the prompts for this book: 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.

There can be a certain detachment about it; the solipsism of writing about oneself tempered by the more compelling interest of general concerns — what it means to be old, what the long view does to us, or for us, how we mutate with our times. But a report from the front line has to be just that; this is my old age, so I have to get personal, as well as consider the wider implications of where I am now. Which is something I have not done before; like, I think, most people, I have not paid too much attention to old age. To individuals, yes — family, friends. But the status has not been on my radar. Give up my seat on the bus — of course; feign polite attention to some rambling anecdote; raise my voice, repeat myself with patience. 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.

And my own context — the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered — the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in attitudes of the late twentieth century — and see how they are judged today, with the wisdoms of historical hindsight.

And, finally, some pure solipsism: one person's life as reflected by possessions. Books; and a selection of things. Mine. But a story that anyone could tell; most of us end up with an identifying cargo — that painting, this vase, those titles on the shelf. I can give eloquence to mine — I know what they are saying. Not so much detachment here; more, a flicker of memoir proper — a voyage around the eighty years by way of two ammonites, a pair of American ducks, leaping fish ... And a raft of books.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA), from Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively. Copyright 2014 by Penelope Lively.

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