Looking back at life from a distance

At the heart of Penelope Lively’s discursive, unsentimental, often wry exploration of “the view from old age” is what she refers to as “Memory — the vapor trail without which we are undone.” Lively’s memory and prodigious intellect are apparently as sharp as ever. As in her two previous memoirs — Oleander, Jacaranda and A House Unlocked — her approach to autobiography is more archaeological than chronological, more historical than personal and more analytic than emotional. Perhaps most surprising for a novelist, she largely eschews narrative, and her circumspect autobiographical writings offer largely cerebral pleasures.

“I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us,” she explains with typical crispness in Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which is “a tribute to the way in which we are each of us the accretion of all that we have been.”

A self-proclaimed “archaeologist manquee,” Lively digs through layers of the “ballast” of her past — not just memories but “this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to” — searching for deeper significance. The evidence she unearths in this memoir includes two beloved relics: fossilized ammonites that she picked up on a Dorset beach long ago and a shard of 12th century pottery featuring two leaping fish given to her by a friend.

Personal details and an oblique portrait emerge of the writer: Her husband of 41 years, political theorist Jack Lively, died in 1998 at age 68. She has also survived breast cancer and various physical diminutions of old age. At 80, she is “done with adventure” and “no longer acquisitive,” yet still cherishes her library and many prized objects, including a sampler needlepointed by her maternal grandmother. To her dismay, she comes “from a horribly long-lived family,” though her father had Alzheimer’s disease, whose “shadow lies over all of my age group.”

Old age offers “a new and disturbing relationship with time,” Lively writes. “It is as though you advanced along a plank hanging over a canyon: once, there was a long reassuring stretch of plank ahead; now there is plank behind, plenty of it, but only a few plank paces ahead.” But despite all this, she declares herself “as alive to the world as I have ever been.”

Lively reconsiders some of the material covered in her earlier memoirs, including her unusual, solitary childhood in Egypt, where she was born in 1933 to English parents and home-schooled by her stalwart English nanny. Without self-pity, she reminds us that her childhood ended abruptly in 1945, when her parents divorced and her mother, about whom she remains tight-lipped, declined to seek custody. Twelve-year-old Penelope was sent to a miserable boarding school in cold, damp postwar England, and she split her holidays between her town and country grandmothers.

Lively warms noticeably when considering the constant reading that has sustained her and fed her prodigious literary output. Now that travel and intensive gardening are over for her, reading remains “the essential palliative, the daily fix. … The one entirely benign mind-altering drug.” Whether discussing her early exposure to the beautiful cadences of the King James Bible during her years in Egypt or her chance discovery of Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge during her unhappy adolescence in bleak postwar England, Lively shows that her bibliographic history is her history. She explains: “I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts.” She bestowed a similar passion for reading, that unrivaled “gateway to a different place,” on the heroine of her most recent novel, How It All Began.

Lively breezily pulls up salient memories from each of her eight decades, including marriage and childbirth in her 20s, “sudden botanical fervor” in her 40s and her burgeoning literary career in her 50s. This quick summary underscores that while Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and Six Things each rate a chapter, the important people in her life — her late husband, two children, six grandchildren and a best friend — figure only peripherally. Their exclusion is a void at the heart of this fascinating, clear-eyed but chilly meditation on the elements that add up to a life.

Heller McAlpin reviewed this book for The Washington Post.