Penelope Lively

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

“I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. ”

“Nighttime walk on a clear night,” notes writer Jan Morris in her diary, “Is one of the largest experiences one can have.” Morris wrote well into her 90s and walked around thoughts of age, memory and being on each page. Morris’s self-discovery through memory and pace reminds me so much of Dame Penelope Lively (b. 17 March 1933).

Dame Lively, British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner, has written much fiction in her nine decades taking breath. However, I consistently find her nonfiction like these memoirsDancing Fish and Ammonites the most engaging.

A view of 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.

To Lively, memory functions as a ballast keeping us anchored in meaning; “the mind needs a tether,” but it also releases us from the “hideous, eternal present.” Memory pulls us into and through time. As it does, we form ourselves. It will always represent something we have but cannot have.

This ballast takes physical space when it fills our lives. Like neurologist Oliver Sacks, who manoeuvred us around his collected elements, Lively lines up her collected thoughts next to collected things (like the great ammonites of the title, Dancing Fish and Ammonites).

I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in this way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does to 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 concerned illuminated by a range of objects.

Ammonites, about 6 million years old. I purchased them at an antique fair after reading Lively’s book. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The view of objects, giving them meaning and memory and preciousness, reminds me of how Joan Didion scraped through her deceased daughter’s things as a way to cope with loss and retain memory.

I’ve written much about memory, how it haunts us, how it holds us captive with false promises and a pink wash of reality. But mostly, memory keeps us company. At times, it’s the closest ally we have.

"Introspection II" by Isobel Egan featured in "The Space and Shape of Memory."
“Introspection” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
In Dancing Fish and Ammonites, Lively distinguishes between types of memory; like the things we casually recall as needed and the “moth-eaten type” we carry around all the time, which forms our self-image. Maybe that is what German critic Walter Benjamin meant when he said memory is consciousness. When we consider who we are, or what we are, we can only look into memory. The present flits away, and the future is impossible.

We are all of us palimpsests; we carry the past around, it comes surging up whether or not we want it, it is an albatross, and a crutch.

Ammonite fossil. Featured in David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet" in the Examined Life Library.
Ammonites were sea animals that lived between 65 an 250 million years ago, their chambers were vacated as they grew and are therefore a measure of age. “Why were there so many different types of ammonites?” queried David Attenborough in his memoirs. Photograph by Ellen Vrana at London’s Natural History Museum.

Novelist Graham Greene wrote “Memory is like a long broken night. As I write, it is as though I am.” British essayist Laurie Lee prefers to enter memory directly rather than view it from afar. In his writing, he throws memory’s cozy comfort around him and seems to exist again as he did once before.

I was going to write: I am no longer aspirational. But that is not quite true. I do aspire in terms of wanting to do what I do as well as possible. I would still like to write a good book. But I don’t have that ferocity for achievement that I can remember form early writing days: write a good book or bust. I have never been particularly competitive – and writers can be competitive, a trait fostered by the spectator sport of literary prizes; nowadays I find that it is other writers who are providing me with my greatest pleasures.

Of old age, Lively has this to say: “Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been—alive to everything I see and hear and feel.”

Lively turned 88 this year. Glorious woman.

Penelope Lively © The Examined Life