Do you think of your life as a narrative? Casting your mind back do you hit upon “landmark” moments that set you on a course to becoming the person you are now? Last year I started spending more time with an acquaintance who I’d casually known for years. Increasingly we discussed books and went to events together although we didn’t really know all that much about each other. So one evening while we were having dinner he suddenly looked up at me and asked “Who are you?” I had to mentally scramble around quite quickly picking up and arranging all those introductory phrases and things you say at social gatherings to present a coherent answer to this. We’re accustomed to constructing narratives, forever tweaking and refining them, to make sense of our lives. It’s not that we necessarily try to fictionalize elements of the past, but that we attempt to make our lives into a complete comprehensible story rather than a series of slapdash experiences dependent upon chance and sporadic bursts of willpower which is the existence of most people. As Lively writes, “Most of us settle for the disconcerting muddle of what we intended and what came along, and try to see it as some kind of whole.” The trouble is that giving an approximate linear shape to our lives doesn’t really convey the experience as it was lived or how that experience has been translated into the memories inside our heads. Penelope Lively is very aware of this problem. Our lives don’t play through like a grand fictional narrative on a movie screen starting at birth and ending in death. Life exists in the sensory moment and in the scattered fragments of memory flitting through our minds throughout every day. 

Lively has previously given us her fictional representation of this in her lauded novel ‘Moon Tiger’. Here a life is presented in an impressionistic way. The story doesn’t move from start to finish but leaps around settling here and there upon episodes through a variety of narrative points of view. ‘Ammonites and Flying Fish’ which Lively admits is not a traditional memoir uses a similar tactic when trying to present a picture of her own life now that she’s over eighty years old. She muses upon what old age means now and how it’s transformed her personality: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.” In many ways Lively feels like the same person she was when she was younger, but now she has a lot of memories to mull through. “We are the same, but different, and equipped now with a comet trail of completed time, the memory trail.” She finds old age has its challenges and also its freedoms and pleasures. There are physical problems, but she’s liberated by the fact that she doesn’t feel obligated to do anything that she doesn’t want to do. Lively muses upon the social impact of people living longer and how society reacts and is transformed by this new aging portion of the population.

Memory is a troublesome issue for Lively – both the process and the way memories are used to give coherence to our lives. Throughout the book she refers back to the strange phenomenon of memory loss when it comes to names. It’s a common problem and one that is often cited by writers and psychologists, but nobody can ever answer why it is that being unable to recall the name of someone you met last week would be more difficult than remembering the capital of Indonesia. It annoys her that no one has an answer and the problem annoys me too as it’s a difficulty I’m prone to though I’m less than half Lively’s age. In addition to losing the ability to recall names as easily, Lively finds herself unable to look forward to the future so much as continuously circling back through thoughts of the past. “What is at issue, it seems to me, is a new and disturbing relationship with time.” And so she casts her mind back and tries to construct a portrait of her life.


Hilariously, Lively remarks that “we old talk too much about the past.” In the chapter which immediately proceeds this that is exactly what she does: goes on for a hundred or so pages talking about the past in an engaging way. Personally I love hearing interesting older people talk about the past and Lively is an incredibly fascinating individual. When she describes the beginning of her life she juxtaposes her personal memories of growing up in Egypt with general historical knowledge of social and political upheaval of the time whether that be the Suez Crisis or the nuclear attack threat of the Cold War. She also supplements this knowledge with documents including her personal writing or articles and books from the time. This connection to history is very important to her. “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.”

Lively has a preoccupation with time and a desire to define the meaning of time which eerily reflects Ali Smith in her book ‘Artful’ which I read recently. Lively remarks that “linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it. Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.” Smith also notes this flexibility and ponders our relationship with it: “Time means. Time will tell. It’s consequence, suspense, morality, mortality. Boxers fight in bouts between bells ringing time. Prisoners do time. Time’s just ‘one damn thing after another,’ Margaret Atwood says. That sounds like conventional narrative plot. And at the end of our allotted time, we’ll end up in one of those, a conventional plot I mean, unless we stipulate otherwise in our wills.” Time is the map we use to locate ourselves within whether that be recalling when we first kissed someone, arriving at work or planning to retire. We exist in time and we wouldn’t have any conception of our place in the world without it.

Lively notes some grand changes in society since the time she was young remarking specifically upon the advancement of equality for women and acceptance of homosexuality. Then she changes tact, giving an impression of her life by recounting a series of seemingly random memories and sensations. Next she presents a group of objects in her house and the personal significance of each item. Objects for her are all artefacts of the past, in some ways more reliable for recounting history than anyone’s subjective account. “It is objects, things like these scraps of pottery, that have most keenly conjured up all those elsewheres – inaccessible but eerily available to the imagination.” Finally, she ends discussing the meaning books and writing have had upon her life.

Penelope Lively discusses reading, history, fiction and nonfiction at Yale University in 2009.

Lively is someone who is passionate about literature. For her, “books are not acquisitions, they are necessities.” She feels her life is not just informed from what she has read, but literally is a part of her past and who she is: “What we have read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.” The books we read allow us to experience lives we can never lead bound as we are in our own particular circumstances of our own particular time period. She has found this in both fiction and non-fiction. Her dedication to literature and illuminating thoughts on what books mean to us struck an emotional chord with me. Lively is someone dedicated to not just telling stories, but constantly pushing the boundaries of narrative itself and finding new radiant ways of writing. She has a wonderful quip which is a play upon a famous TS Eliot line: “I can measure out my life in books.” This book shows a new way of measuring one individual’s life. One that is honest, artful and enlightening.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPenelope Lively