Penelope Lively says it herself in the first line of her most recent book, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites”: “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” Indeed, this is only a memoir in the loosest of terms; it is more like a small collection of well-written, if meandering, essays that draw on Lively’s past as she reflects on the present.
Lively, the author of two other memoirs and a multitude of novels (including the Man Booker prize winner “Moon Tiger”), praises the act of “life writing” in order to “trace the narrative thread.” In the first section, titled “Old Age,” she raises the point that while writing fiction is about beginnings and endings, the “requisite ending” of any conventional memoir is impossible to write, and as an 80-year-old woman she chooses to examine the “winter” of her life instead.
Lively notes the physical challenges of aging as well as the pleasures she’s given up; some with relief, others with regret. She also reveals a sly sense of humor when she writes, “So this is old age, and I am probably shedding readers by the drove at this point.” She has complaints, as many do, but also finds a certain beauty in getting older and writes that she is “as alive to the world as I have ever been — alive to everything I see and hear and feel.”
“Life and Times” is a commentary on social and historical events with a matter-of-fact tone, skipping from when she arrived in England from Cairo in 1945 to the Suez Canal crisis, then on to her anxiety during the Cold War and her experience as a woman as part of the “pre-feminist generation.”
In “Memory,” she explores the concept of memory in its various guises from the perspective of a novelist as well as a reader, and writes that “the collective past is fact and fabrication” but that it creates “the great ballast of human existence” that helps form our own personal history.
Her lifelong love affair with books is the topic of “Reading and Writing,” where she mines the quirks of her own personal reading habits and library (her fiction is kept in the kitchen) and the glorious news for readers that “The stimulus of old-age reading is the realization that taste and response do not atrophy: you are always finding yourself enthusiastic about something you had not expected to like.”
And with a nod to the memoir’s title, “Six Things” details six of her possessions that articulate who she is, including bits of the past that represent “what has been, what is gone but survives.”
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.