HERE’S HOW it happens in my imagination. The new year has just turned, issuing its stark reminder. It’s a cold January afternoon when two elderly ladies find themselves approaching each other on an almost deserted London street. Too late for either of them to suddenly turn in order to avoid the moment of contact. Each has been seen. Each needs just a minute to prepare the face she wants to present.
In the sudden rain of sunshine, Penelope has decided to take that “brisk walk” that everyone recommends. She’s put on a practical beige wool coat, and she’s wearing sturdy shoes. A scarf wound around her neck to ward off the wind. Her cane, just in case. First she took a bus — she hates the tube — and now she picks her way cautiously around patches of ice on the sidewalk, but her eyes are a bit dreamy. She’s amazed at herself because her new memoir has just come out in America with the title Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir. How did she let that happen? Was it that her publishers did not think Americans would know what ammonites were? Well, so what? The answer would come if they had the patience to read. And why did they insist on that word, “dancing”? It’s not her kind of word, especially not for her two black fish leaping into the future as though reaching for her. In her mind, they leap; they fly; they bridge the gaps in time. They do not dance, which is all corporeal. And why change her lovely phrase “a life in time” to “memoir”? Such a silly word, really. Surely they could see she was trying to show how one lives in, and through, time. How its passage gives texture to the life. So that is what she is thinking when, suddenly, she looks up and sees Edna.
Edna has been cooped up in her apartment, and when the sun suddenly makes an appearance, she decides to take in an afternoon matinee of Werner’s new film. She’ll walk. It will do her good. She’s quite forgotten how cold a London wind can be. Her coat is just a bit too flimsy, so in addition she’s tossed a paisley shawl around her shoulders. She’s wearing boots with a hint of a heel, and the ice is causing her to be a tiny bit skittish. Almost flirtatious. She is wondering if maybe she looks, even now, reminiscent of that young woman who spent that hard winter in the ’60s — the one when Sylvia Plath died — walking the streets in her own lonely brand of exile, epitome of the bad girl she had half-perfected. She is hoping she doesn’t look too old — she never uses the word “old” — it’s part of her willed denial. She is gearing up for the cool interior of the theater, the solitary seat where she will enter someone else’s cave. She is savoring her anticipation. And that, of course, is when she notices Penelope steadily moving in her direction.
It’s 2014 — 50 years after the British Invasion — and the ’60s are being rehashed. The Beatles and the Stones walk down the steps of the aircraft and into our lives all over again. As if on cue, Petula Clark has released an album with a new version of “Downtown” (a song I dismissed in 1964 and might be inclined to dismiss now). But the 81-year-old singer’s voice is still clear as ever, and the song wears its age well by revealing a wistfulness — and a wisdom — in this new interpretation. Even as the nation looks back to the good old days, Clark has found a subdued way to alter her 30-year-old rendition. When columnist Bob Greene, writing for The Wall Street Journal, asked her to name her favorite song, she replied: “It’s the new one. Whatever the new one may be. A new song feels like a love affair — because it’s fresh to you, you’re still finding things out about it.”
Isn’t that also true for writers, especially writers of memoir? Don’t we set ourselves the task of “finding things out” about ourselves? And don’t readers expect to hear the “new song” that feels like a love affair? Right now, I’m thinking about a new British Invasion — two books, each written by a woman who was also thirty in the ’60s, each now with a long, distinguished career.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, we say, but if that’s the case, why not bind all books in plain brown wrappers? The books in front of me both display the words “A Memoir” as a prominent part of their titles:
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir, by Penelope Lively, Viking, 2013. This book was printed in England under the title Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. Lively spent her childhood in Egypt, her adult life in Wales and Oxford, and has now retired to London. She is the author of 20 works of fiction, three of nonfiction, and — how did she do it? — 29 children’s books. Her awards include a Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for children’s books. She was appointed Dame Penelope Lively in 2012.
Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien, Little, Brown and Company, 2012. O’Brien, born in County Clare, Ireland, is considered the “doyenne” of Irish literature, but has lived in London for the past 50 years. She is the author of 21 works of fiction, three of nonfiction, and five plays. Her many awards include the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Kingsley Amis Award, the Irish PEN Award.
I come to these books with vastly different expectations. I’ve read and loved every word written by O’Brien, and I am not very familiar with Lively’s even longer list. With one, I am looking for confirmation and continuity; with the other, I am hoping for introduction — a life told well enough to entice me into the books it produced. With one, I want the new song; with the other, I want to hear the echoes of the old. So now I waver between my desire to get to know at all and my desire to get to know better.
Which would you pick up — the book with a warm parchment-colored wrap, all text, except for two small black fish and a jagged line running the vertical length (simulated fold or tear?), or the one with the black-and-white photo of a pensive young woman, flagrantly smoking a cigarette, staring out from the 1960s and daring the world to disapprove? Two books whose authors are now in their 80s; they might have hummed along to “Downtown” as they took their morning break, hearing in that young singer’s voice an echo of their longings, then gone back to the desk with renewed resolve. Two books ... It’s a hard choice, but I opt for the unknown.
From its first page, Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites announces, “This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age." I’m glad she tells me what to expect, because she seems determined to thwart my initial expectations. It turns out that you can’t even unearth all that much in the way of memoir by reading between the lines. After a while you don’t care. You care about that view (what Lively calls a “context”) — her perspective on living — and isn’t that what memoir should be able to give?
Lively divides her book into five sections: Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, Six Things. Bent as she is on taking the long view, assessing, synthesizing, even philosophizing, each section functions more like an extended essay than memoir. Viewing herself as an amalgam of her “earlier selves,” she contemplates and chronicles the social changes she has seen. It is as though she is panning history for nuggets of gold. By beginning her memoir with old age, Lively looks back through the scrim of aches and pains and loss of balance, canes and eyeglasses and hearing aids, to frame the diminished horizons of the view from 80. “So this is old age, and I am probably shedding readers by the drove at this point," she says, and maybe she is, but she doesn’t shed me. I follow her lucent, elegant arguments and see ample proof that she is still very much “alive to the world.”
So, in Lively’s “random search through eight decades,” we overhear her adjusting, gaining perspective. For example, in “Life and Times,” history is brought to bear on subsequent events. Her disrupted childhood in Cairo is resurrected in her response to the Suez Crisis of her early adulthood, and we experience the strobe effect of one person’s individual mix of experience and speculation. Throughout, Lively’s mode is reflection. The past is rarefied: “What I am trying to say is that I have observed rather than experienced.” Maybe so, but Lively has paid close attention to how society was changing around her. And she quibbles with herself: “However, to observe is to experience, in one sense." Then she is off again, moving like quicksilver into politics, her grandchildren, her own grandmother, the feminist movement, the pill, homosexuality, everything that leads to what she calls a “social snapshot” of the present. Along the way, she makes it clear that her stories and novels were framed by, and rose from, her other interests: history, science, archaeology.
Cut to Country Girl. The first half, beginning with the perfunctory account (with photographs) of O’Brien’s parents, a gloss of her childhood, details of her disastrous early marriage, her early publishing successes, the banning of her books in Ireland, working with Hollywood, teaching in New York, functions like conventional autobiography. O’Brien fills the scenes with sensory detail. But she seems more interested in description, and in telling what was said and done, than in taking stock of what the saying or the doing has added up to. In its offhand chronology, the book resists “memoir” as surely as Lively’s pronounced refusal. From the first page, we are treated to anecdote: a National Health clinic nurse with a pronounced accent tells O’Brien, “You are quite well, but with regard to your hearing, you are broken piano." This is charming, but most moments stay on that plane, and O’Brien slips them back into a brown envelope, alongside her unused hearing aids.
The true subject of O’Brien’s scrutiny is the extravagance of her emotions. “Coming out into daylight, I felt crushed, believing that life was a gray road, an unending literary limbo, where I would never reach the Parnassian heights that, in daftness, I had aspired to." Cast mostly in past tense, the thrust of the book is backward. By its second half, the very structure begins to break down. Time refuses to stay on its steady, reliable track. It seems to expand and contract. Years can be treated as months; an hour can take on the detail of years. Tense, too, is flexible to the point of frustration. Paragraphs begin in the present and end in the past, or vice versa, and the reader senses that O’Brien can dip into a perpetual flow of sensory detail, available at whim, subject to reenactment but not to reflection. It is fascinating to see events and characters from her stories and novels crop up as reality in this account of her life. In her fiction, the people strut and fret their hour and come alive to us. Yet, here, they are often reduced to ancillary players.
Memoir usually takes us into the interior, and O’Brien — known for the interiority of her characters — somehow avoids going deeply into herself. The actual life is being laid bare and, at the same time, completely obscured as the writer slips behind her way with words. Yes, O’Brien seems to have lived the very life that would surprise the Irish country girl she used to be, and yes, you might share her sense of wonder at it, but Country Girl starts to take on the feel of an elaborate gossip column. O’Brien flits from page to page dropping names like confetti. Jackie Onassis sends her roses; Hillary Clinton writers her letters; she attends parties with the Rolling Stones and Princess Margaret; Robert Mitchum waltzes her off into the evening; Marlon Brando (“his intelligence so quick and lethal”) takes her home and spends the evening drinking milk. Gore Vidal invites her to his villa. She takes LSD with R. D. Laing (who later bills her for the experience) and Samuel Beckett visits her sickbed when she’s had food poisoning. The list seems endless: Peckinpah, Plath, Pacino, Pinter. Ditto for place names: Melbourne, Singapore, Paris, Vienna, Belfast. Yet the writing brushes off the reader with a let-me-tell-you-everything-while-I-tell-you-nothing attitude. The scenes seem flat, almost canned: “New York was always enlivening, it was as if the air itself had some strange elixir."
The changing mores — the political and sexual tumult — of the ’60s overtook these women just as they were beginning their writing careers. For Lively, the decade serves as backdrop while she sorts through the ways her more conventional world was in upheaval. For O’Brien, a world turned upside down with freedom and temptation tended to signal both public and private escape, especially for an intelligent woman from Ireland.
Their styles are polar opposites as well. Lively gives us elegant, measured sentences, allows us to follow her somewhat informal logic to its sometimes meandering conclusion. Her present tense is ruminative; the past is fodder for speculation, and thus it serves as an entry to the future:
Memory and anticipation. What has happened, and what might happen. The mind needs its tether in time, it must know where it is — in the perpetual slide of the present, with the ballast of what has been and the hazard of what is to come.
The memory that we live with — the form of memory that most interests me — is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on. It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.
O’Brien’s approach is scattershot — sometimes a brief reminiscence, sometimes restoration. Her observations, for all their detail, remain fleeting. In and out. In the plethora of impression, there is little room for contemplation:
An astrologer had me in her clutches, and before each session her elderly mother relieved me of 200 dollars, the twenty obligatory red roses, and a piece of jewelry. It was there, too, one Sunday, at one of those apartments, that I was invited to meet the beautiful Japanese artist Kazuko. She was famous for her crystals, which were like so many thousand flowers — fobs, pendants, rings, and necklaces, little worlds that brimmed with light, the light of sunsets, the light of yellow muscatel, the light of pink roses and lapis and sapphire and rubies shimmering away on strips of white cloth. Later she moved toFifty-seventh Street, to an apartment that looked out on the mists and sunrises and sunsets of Central Park. Whereas formerly she had worn black, she was now wearing white, as in bridal array for a groom.
They didn’t ask me to put them here, walking down the street on a January day, or placed side by side on the page of a review. So is my tale of two women merely a study in contrast: intellect versus action, responsibility versus recklessness, convention versus nonconformity? To reduce either of these books to a one-sided example would be to ignore the basic complexities a reader of memoir must confront. Where does the word “nonconformity” apply — to the content, or the structure? There are specific contexts in which the word might apply to each of these extremely dissimilar books.
Memoirs can be as different and varied as novels. Just what do readers expect? Aside from wanting to know that the “facts” are an approximation of a lived reality, I suspect we want candor. Given the nature of the implicit contract between reader and writer, at the very least we hope that we will encounter someone on the page who comes close to conveying the genuine opinions and ideas and responses of the person who lived the life. More, we want someone to invite us into the interior. To confide. Comment. Confess. O’Brien promises such candor but does not quite deliver, while Lively promises nothing and then delivers her shaped argument, almost sculpture. But neither process is memoir, quite.
Penelope Lively calls herself an “archaeologist manquée.” In the section called “Reading and Writing,” she digs up a litany of conventional British writers that formed the basis of her education. “I can measure out my life in books.” I have no doubt that reading the works listed in that section, peppered as it is with Huxley and Durrell, Hemingway and Joyce, F. R. Leavis and Barry Lopez, Woolf and Jane Bowles (whose work she does “not care for”), would give a sense of what makes her tick. But it is the section on “Memory” that holds the most fascination. Lively does not place her memories on the mantle like artifacts; instead she subjects them to scrutiny. She marshals her memories in service of inference and analysis. We learn what engages her mind in the here and now. She addresses the very nature of time as she picks and chooses her way among her own relics:
We are robust about time, 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. . . . I am more afraid of time than of death — its inexorability, its infinitude. . . . And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.
Ah, but aren’t we all, in some way, exactly what we used to be? Isn’t that why memoir holds such power in the imagination? That we can be, again, at least briefly, a self we recognize.
In “Six Things,” the final section, we learn what the author has collected — an ancient Egyptian sherd with two leaping fish, fossils of ammonites, a cross-stitch sampler, a small Jerusalem Bible, a replica of an Egyptian carving of a cat, two American Folk Art kettle holders — and how those objects relate to her various spheres of interest. This is perhaps the least engaging section, but it does lead her to her overarching metaphor: “This was not archaeology, of course. It was fortuitous discovery."
Fortuitous discovery should be the aim of memoir, and the flavor of one person’s particular discovery is what the reader most wants. Lively flavors hers with the long view:
There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.
“I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me." Even when O’Brien’s “chapters” become shorter and more focused, in her fluidity she often loses sight of their significance. “The North,” for example, promises an exploration of her vicarious entry into the mindset of the IRA in order to write her acclaimed novel The House of Splendid Isolation, but it stops short before there is any assessment. “The Blank Page” suggests a foray into writer’s block, but ends with a litany of spas and retreats that ended up defeating the writing they were supposed to encourage. The penultimate paragraph (one that might provoke genuine exploration had it appeared earlier in the piece) comes closer to revelation, but it’s too little, too late:
I knew, as I know each time, that the entire journey — [...] the notebooks with the references to the poison flowers of the Borgias, black Pluto’s black door, the pensión, and the aggravation of the ringing bells — had all been for one reason only, to postpone the terror of starting the book that I both did and did not want to write.
My point, exactly.
For all that, Country Girl is filled with vivid descriptions of Irish hedges, country gardens, what it’s like to try to learn to swim as an adult, the intricate details of a green silk georgette, or how horses lift “their high haughty heads in curiosity.” The details, however, often mask what is not being said: “A thin fog filled the gulleys at the side of the common and drove itself onto the road in random shadowy pockets as I stopped on the bridge to think." This sentence comes after the author has been accused of abandoning her children, yet she never reveals her actual thoughts — only that fog. There is one love affair still so private she will not name her lover, and as she talks about the break-up, the voice of the piece almost seems to drop to a whisper. Because of her very secrecy, this part of her life feels more authentic. For once, then, something.
Near the end of the book, O’Brien stumbles upon what might be a perfect metaphor. Emerging from a theater where she has just seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, she is haunted by the image of two footprints that probably had occurred a thousand years apart. Her relationships were like that: overlapping lives thwarted by time and space.
Not only are memoirs as different as their writers, but the ways they fail to meet a reader’s expectations cannot help but differ as well. A writer may choose to go against the grain, but in the end, the reader needs to be won over, convinced somehow that this alternative provides more genuine insight. Edna O’Brien promises but does not quite satisfy; I am never fully wooed away from my initial longings. I follow her through her tumultuous life — the very stuff of delicious memoir — and am left feeling as though I have just eaten a meal that was far too costly for the tiny portions on the plate. I’ve been invited to see, but not to experience.
Penelope Lively greets her reader with the huge barrier of her refusal to play the game at all. But after giving us time to adjust, Lively demonstrates that she is, in fact, willing to offer us something substantial — her mind at work on the page. I am therefore less tempted to judge or psychoanalyze as she invites, no, forces me to think alongside her. To say, instead of see.
The British literary world is too large and London is too small for these two women not to know each other. They share a generation; their paths must have crossed again and again. Yet, at least in their “memoirs,” there is no common ground save that of James Joyce. Of the myriad writers and books they mention between them, only a nearly blind, somewhat arrogant Irish exile finds them on the same page. And yet here they are in my mind, skirting the Common, the distance between them shrinking as they watch the wind snag the other’s frenzied scarf.
Time stops. This is the here and now in the form of two women, each walking inexorably toward her twin. This is self-confrontation, forced, and final. This is memoir at its most terrifying. “Penelope! How wonderful to see you. Oh, I wish I had known I would see you today. We could have planned tea. In that wonderful little place around the corner. But, oh, my dear, I’m committed — absolutely committed — to this film of Werner’s. I simply must see it. I’m late, I’m afraid. But we must, yes must, get together. Soon.”
“Edna! How fortuitous. I’ve only just recently finished reading your memoir. You called up those chaotic days so fervently. In the end, I decided to take the other tack — give them reserve — because, well ... because. I actually skipped the ’60s altogether. Or almost. You look lovely. But you always look lovely. One would never guess your age!”
They speak simultaneously. Neither can hear all that well, so each gets only the gist of what the other is saying. The tone. The timbre of sensibility. Each smiles, then waves; ah, it’s over. They have passed the point of intersection. Each is left with her self again, which is, after all, the best company. Yet, oddly, each is humming a little tune under her breath: “... alone ... making you lonely,” breathes Edna; “... dancing ... before the night is over,” mouths Penelope. “You can always go downtown,” they sing in unison, though the distance between them has lengthened now and neither one is listening for the other.