Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
Penelope Lively knows a few things about a few things: history, being a writer and, well, being herself. She’s almost 80 now and speaks with crystal-clear veracity about how the world looks from where she is, standing atop a lifetime of experience and imagination, a world of her own making. And yet, in her latest book, the “memoir” DANCING FISH AND AMMONITES, Lively reminds us that, although we are all treading water in different places, the water is pretty much the same for everyone.
Growing up in Cairo, she was whisked off to an English boarding school, and that dichotomy --- the two different cultures and worlds --- marked her particular life journey in a very curious way. Even as she was caught up in the new directions of politics in 20th-century UK, she nursed a lifelong dedication to the study of archaeology. In fact, on a Dorset beach, she once discovered an Egyptian ceramic shard that depicted dancing fish and ammonites. Thus, the title of the book mirrors the juxtaposition of cultures and the special lookout point on life that this has afforded her.
Lively writes about growing up in World War II Cairo, and the ways in which English-language authors affected her for life as she made her way out of war-torn Egypt to jolly old England. She writes about Palestine, the Blitz, Syria, and how the experience of childhood manages to circumvent some of the generalities of what these times meant to so many millions of people throughout the world. Her stories about Egypt before and after the war are filled with historical facts, so many that it reads like a primer of day-by-day wartime movement. The romantic dreams of soldiers on patios, enjoying drinks before the escalation of the war killed so many of them, make an appearance as well, as Lively makes good use of intersecting the savage and the sentimental elements during this wartime journey.
"It is delightful to get history lessons from someone who lived through important historical periods and can put them into the kind of individual, personalized perspective that beats any plain history book. This is living history, and Lively is our very lively tour guide."
Finally, Lively moves to London, where she has lived for years. She considers herself a Londoner, she claims, and spends a good deal of time waxing poetic about Victorians and their beautiful architecture, their literature, and the way that their history informed the love she has for the ages-old city. There are visits to the Soviet Union for a summer school through Oxford at which her husband is teaching that test the measure of her young marriage while expanding her understanding of the unnerving ways in which the world could invade her life of the mind and bring unforeseen discomforts into her life. Lively is nothing if not a gentlewoman, someone for whom manners and morals are important in equal measure. And her early travels certainly did nothing to support her youthful beliefs that such things mattered to all people.
But learning new, sometimes frightening things and then adapting to those lessons is something Lively considers throughout the book. As she claims, “If you have no sense of the past, no access to the historical narrative, you are afloat, untethered; you cannot see yourself as a part of the narrative, you cannot place yourself within a context. You will not have an understanding of time, and a respect for memory and its subtle victory over the remorselessness of time.” It is delightful to get history lessons from someone who lived through important historical periods and can put them into the kind of individual, personalized perspective that beats any plain history book. This is living history, and Lively is our very lively tour guide.
I especially enjoyed the way in which Lively was able to draw on the libraries of books that she has read in her lifetime and have given her so much joy over her many years. Her love of these tomes and her thoughts on the future of the written word are erudite and thought-provoking, to say the least. But DANCING FISH AND AMMONITES is a memoir that allows us a very special peek into the cranial firings of a delightful and accomplished writer to whom the world is a constantly evolving marvel. After this long cold winter, her warm words and apparent love of humankind, along with its trials and tribulations --- as well as its great achievements and progressive thinking --- give us all a reason to celebrate.
Thanks to Penelope Lively for sharing her gathered experience for all of us to enjoy. I hope she will write another tome like this after her next 20 years of life on this bright blue marble.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 28, 2014