When I was reading Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger recently, I enjoyed the delightfully bitchy voice of the narrator, beautiful-but-dying, famous writer, Claudia Hampton and noted her passing reference to ‘ammonites and leaping fish’. Then, reading about real author Penelope Lively; not nearly as bitchy but equally witty and thought-provoking; I discovered she had recently written this memoir which she calls Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. I simply had to read it and I was not disappointed.
A lively mind in a less lively body, Dame Penelope writes now about old age from the perspective of a resident of that part of town; something she had to imagine in the earlier novel. The evidence suggests she got it fairly right. Her first long essay on old age is part literary memoir, recalling books on related topics and other authors views, and part a very literate account of what it is like to have arrived there.
“One of the few advantages of writing fiction in old age is that you have been there, done it all, experienced every decade. I can remember worrying when I was writing at forty, at fifty, that I didn’t know what it was like to be seventy, eighty, if I wanted to include an older character. [It] is certainly a help to have acquired that long backward view; not only do you know (even if it is getting a bit hazy) what it felt like to be in your twenties, or thirties, but you remember also the relative unconcern about what was to come.”
After her essay on ‘Old Age’ she writes about her ‘Life and Times’ and this may be the nearest we shall get to an autobiography. The childhood in Egypt, with a brief visit to her grandmother in Somerset which was dramatically interrupted by the outbreak of war; the culture shock of England in the final month of the war, with V2 rockets still falling, compared and contrasted with her Egyptian experiences; for example Chilprufe vests, liberty bodices and navy blue knickers for the first time in her life; are grist for the mill that serves up her earliest recollections. However, writing with the hindsight of old age, she can also describe:
“Wartime Cairo [which] steamed with poets. Bernard Spencer, Robin Fedden, Terence Tiller, John Gawsworth, John Cromer, Gwyn Williams, Robert Liddell – none of these names would be familiar today to anyone outside the arcane world of mid-twentieth-century poetry studies. […] Lawrence Durrell is known now as a novelist, for the Alexandria Quartet, but was working mainly as a poet in the early 1940s, and was one of the Alexandria gang of poets …”
The hidden treasure of these reminiscences is that they can trigger off one’s own memories and remind one of literary places it might be pleasant to visit or revisit and explore in greater depth. Already, I have moved Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet into my bedside pile. Lively discusses ‘Memory’; what it is to have it, not to have it and what a resource it is to writers. She goes on to consider ‘Reading and Writing’ before opening a window on her personal archive of objects with as much, if not more, potency as Proust’s madeleines.
All in all, a satisfying and stimulating read that whets one’s appetite for more of Lady Lively’s work.