Leaping Fish: A life in time
Fig Tree £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code
NOW aged 80, Penelope Lively
is the prolific and esteemed author of novels, non-fiction,
children's books, and memoirs, but I have to admit that the only
Lively book I know is her Booker Prize-winner Moon Tiger
(1987). So I come fresh to her "life in time" - not quite a memoir,
she says: "rather, it is the view from old age." It helps to be
quite old to read it, and recognise the symptoms.
It is a chatty, wry insight
into a woman who has been there, and written and read much, and is
now content. (She says, "Can't garden. Don't want to travel. But
can read, must read.") Her voice is immediate, almost post-modern,
present. How to retain one's marbles? Sudoku, crosswords? "I must
put my trust in writing novels, and, maybe, this."
The book is divided into
sections: Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and
Six Things (of which the ammonite is one, a reminder of herself as
"archaeologist manquée" and "the path I might have taken,
had life run differently").
She recounts her childhood
in Egypt as sole offspring of distant, divorcing parents; her
evacuation to Palestine when war broke out; and then England and
boarding school in 1945. At Oxford University "it was hazardous to
be a woman" (for fear of pregnancy), but there she met her husband,
Jack, and woke up to politics and the Suez crisis.
She writes revealingly on
memory, amnesia, and dementia. "My brain hadn't remembered but my
fingers had," she recalled when changing a typewriter ribbon. But
memory as "the moth-eaten version of our own past"? I hope not. As
a novelist, she uses and recycles her own memories, and is
nourished by her reading; in the writing process, books beget
books: thus her passionate support of libraries, public and
Above all is her preoccupation with time. "In dementia, life
takes place in a segment of time without past or future. . . . I am
more afraid of Time than of death." But we do have "this one
majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time -
Memory". I must now read more of her.