“History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger


“When the times are out of joint it is brought uncomfortably home to you that history is true and that unfortunately you are a part of it. One has this tendency to think oneself immune.”

I have often mentioned Moon Tiger as one of my favorite novels, but I haven’t read it through for at least 10 years, maybe more. The last time I’m sure I read it is when I assigned it in a seminar on “Women and Historical Writing,” in one of my first years teaching at Dalhousie. I was fresh from my dissertation research on gender, genre, and historiography, and Moon Tiger, which is preoccupied with who writes history and how, and with what authority, played right into my hands. Its protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a historian, but a popular one, not a professional one: her career has been defined by a kind of belligerent celebration of her outsider status as she is dismissed by academic historians who see her as unserious. Yet she herself derides her lover, Jasper, for the historical epics he produces for television, which Claudia thinks “diminished the past, turned history into entertainment”: “I held forth about the difference between history as reasoned analysis and history as spectacle.”

Moon Tiger itself experiments with different approaches to history. In particular, it prods us to consider the insoluble problem that history is at once personal and general, that the particular which matters so much, so intensely, to each of us in the moment is always part of something much larger in which it can easily be lost. How can history, as a narrative, accommodate both these levels of attention? The novel’s vacillation between first-person and third-person narration is a formal gesture towards the desired balance. But even the third-person narration focuses mostly on Claudia, whose personality dominates the novel just as she has always commanded every room she enters: “always,” thinks her sort-of adopted son Laszlo, “Claudia has seemed brighter cleverer more entertaining than other people, . . . always when you leave Claudia you go flat a little.” It’s through Claudia that we are directed out into the world of impersonal history: we are shown its events through her eyes and through her ideas about it, as if to remind us that objectivity is always already compromised, that nothing means anything until it is seen, considered, narrated — all of which requires a point of view, a story.

moontigerSo Moon Tiger is Claudia’s story, but it is also a historical story. In particular, it is the story of her years as a correspondent in Egypt during the Second World War, when she had the experiences which still, at the end of her life, are “its core, its centre.” The section about the war in the desert, and the heartfelt love story of Claudia — the usually impervious, arrogant, brilliant Claudia — and Tom Southern (“oh God, thinks Claudia, may it have a happy ending”), comprise the novel’s stunning centerpiece, but embedded as it is in Claudia’s wide-ranging reflections on history and mortality, and in her memories of her family, it doesn’t define Moon Tiger as either a war novel or a romance. Instead, it provides the most fully realized example in the novel of the ways we are all, as Tom says to her, part of history, not exempt from it. We can’t always tell what that truth means: it’s cataclysms like war that break open our illusion of immunity, revealing that most of us are not writing history but living it — that we are not really the authors of our own lives.

As she lies in her hospital bed waiting for death, Claudia dreams of writing another book, this time “a history of the world.” It’s an absurd project, of course: no book could be so comprehensive. But as she reflects, there’s a way in which she herself already embodies just such a history:

My body . . . remembers Java Man and Australopithicus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I share but cannot apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee; there, but for the grace of God, went I. Being the raging agnostic that I am, of course, I consider that God had nothing to do with it.

Claudia is fascinated by fossils, those physical traces of the past in the present, reminders of the enormous changes but also continuities of the earth. On her deathbed, she feels at once the totality and the singularity of it all, the simultaneity of the big stories (“Rommel was pushed out of Africa … we won the war”) and the personal experiences. Against the overarching narrative of the war she has Tom’s diaries, “louder now than the narrative I know”:

This dispassionate sequence explains — or purports to explain — why the war happened and how it evolved and what its effects have been. Your experience — raw and untreated — does not seem to contribute to any of that. It is on a different plane. I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. . . . All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appalls and uplifts me. I need it. . . . And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

1987 Penelope Lively Moon TigerEverything, nothing; a history of the world, a history of one woman — there’s something vertiginous in the novel’s movements between these extremes, but holding the ideas and the experiences together is always Claudia, because that, after all, is our own way of being in the world and in history:

In the beginning there was myself; my own body set the frontiers, physical and emotional, there was simply me and not-me; the egotism of infancy has grandeur. And when I became a child there was Claudia, who was the centre of all things, and there was what pertained to Claudia, out at which I looked, the world of others, observed by not apprehended, a Berkeleyan landscape which existed only at my whim — when it ceased to interest me it no longer existed. And eventually, or so I am claiming, I grew up and saw myself in the awful context of time and place: everything and nothing.

Like Oleander, JacarandaMoon Tiger is wonderfully evocative about setting — especially about Egypt, where Lively grew up. They also share an interest in the difference between seeing and apprehending, in the uncertainty but also the inescapability of memory, and in the fragmentation of our identities, particularly as we age:

if I am to be cast as the matriarch, she thinks, I may as well do the thing properly. And somewhere beyond or within, another Claudia looks on with amusement. And regret. And disbelief. Is this true? This strident bossy old woman; these blotched veined hands opening a napkin; and these companions — who are they?

These are strains I have noticed in her other novels, too, especially Cleopatra’s SisterWhere Moon Tiger differs, or perhaps just excels, is in the poignancy which bathes the whole. If that makes the novel sound saccharine, it shouldn’t: “poignant,” after all, means not just sad but sharp, piercing, painful. Above all Moon Tiger is about loss, which is always the end of every story. How can so much presence leave the present and become the past? “How can a man be sitting in a tank with you one day,” asks Tom, “and nowhere at all the next? How?” It’s not war, or not only war, that presses that unanswerable question on us all, but death is not the end of history: “The world moves on. And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.”

3 thoughts on ““History is True”: Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

  1. Dorian April 12, 2015 / 10:20 pm

    Ach, something else to read now!

    How does it compare to The Levant Trilogy?


    • Rohan Maitzen April 13, 2015 / 8:17 am

      I thought about Manning quite a bit this time (I hadn’t read The Fortunes of War the last time I read Moon Tiger). There are obvious connections through the war material, and occasionally, as a result, Moon Tiger is quite reminiscent of Manning’s work. But the books are overall very different in tone and style. Moon Tiger is shorter, less literal, more suggestive and meditative. I know Lively had read Manning because in Oleander, Jacaranda she objects to the scene with the dead boy that I quote from here, saying that as it was based on a true incident she felt it was insensitive to turn it into fiction.


  2. Dorian April 14, 2015 / 10:51 pm

    What? That’s the best scene!


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