Penelope Lively is one of my favourite writers. The first audio book I ever listened to was her According to Mark, read beautifully by Michael Williams. According to Mark has remained my favourite of her books as it combines her twin preoccupations of time & memory. Mark is a literary biographer working on the life of an early twentieth century writer. This was the era of the great biographies – Holroyd’s lives of Lytton Strachey & G B Shaw, Ellmann’s life of Oscar Wilde – & Mark’s subject, Gilbert Strong, is one of those grand old men of Edwardian letters. It’s the story of his research & the surprises he discovers. It’s also the story of Mark himself, of his marriage & of his attraction to Strong’s granddaughter, Carrie. It’s a wonderful novel, funny but full of interesting things to say about the nature of biography & reputation.
This new book, Ammonites and Leaping Fish, is not fiction but a memoir about old age & memory. Lively looks back on her life from old age. She remembers her wartime childhood in Egypt (written about in more detail in Oleander, Jacaranda), the disorientation of returning to England after the war, her years at university, meeting her husband, Jack, her writing & the traveling that she once relished (including a farcical visit to the Soviet Union in the 1980s). She misses gardening now that arthritis prevents her from doing much more than tend a few pots & she observes that conversations with friends of a similar age (Lively is now 80) now consist of stories about visits to the doctor & heartfelt inquiries about each other’s health or lack of it.
However, my favourite parts of the book are the chapters on reading & books & the final chapter about six objects that bring back memories of different periods of her life.
I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and sheer pleasure. Back in the mists of very early reading there is Beatrix Potter, who does not just tell an enthralling story but challenges the ear. Her cadences, her linguistic flights that i repeated to myself over and over. ‘the dignity and repose of the tea party’, ‘too much lettuce is soporific’, ‘roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce’, ‘The dinner was of eight courses, not much of anything, but truly elegant.’
Many of the books mentioned inspired her love of history & archaeology, major themes of the novels & stories.
For me, interest in the past segued into an interest in the operation of memory, which turned into subject matter for fiction. I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do for people, to see if it is the crutch on which we lean or the albatross around the neck. It is both, of course, depending on the person concerned.
In the final chapter of the book, Lively talks about six items that recall her life. The kind of objects that mean very little to anyone except their owner. A pair of kettle-holders from Maine with ducks on them; a Bible given to Lively by her nanny when they were evacuated to Palestine during the war; a sherd of 12th century pottery with two leaping fish on it; a fossil with two tiny ammonites in it, millions of years old; a copy of a statue of an Egyptian cat, the original of which is in the British Museum; and a sampler stitched by Elizabeth Barker in 1788. All these objects lead to memories of bird watching, her childhood, visits to America, digging in her own gardens & finding sherds of pottery from previous households. the beauty of the King James Bible over any other version & her never-ending interest in time.
I wish the whole book had consisted of memories like these. In an earlier memoir, A House Unlocked, about her Somerset grandmother’s house, Lively used a similar technique, taking objects & telling the history of the house & of her family. I found this final chapter & the chapter on reading much more engaging that the view from old age, I’m afraid. Still, Lively is always an interesting writer & I would recommend Ammonites and Leaping Fish to anyone who has enjoyed her fiction. It’s sent me back to dip into her novels & maybe I’ll read According to Mark again & enjoy Lively’s meditations on time & the past once more.