I’ve had an interesting relationship with Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. Some time ago, Ramona sent me a copy and asked me to read it. She was reading it herself, on the recommendation of a friend, and having a hard time getting into it. “I feel like I must be missing something, the way everyone else raves about it. Read it and let me know what you think,” she said.
I didn’t like it very much at first, either; I didn’t like the protagonist, Claudia Hampton: brilliant and beautiful, but selfish and more than a little unkind. I had a hard time caring that she was nearing the end of her life in a London hospital, egotistically drafting a history of the world as illuminated through the prism of her own life. I kept at it, buoyed along by some sparkling passages and a narrative device that indicated the author didn’t intend us to take the old dragon too seriously: in many scenes, after Claudia has given her version of events, another narrator jumps in and gives us the perspective of one or more other characters, letting us know that Claudia is far more fallible than she would ever let on.
And Claudia, for all her faults, has some interesting notions about the power of language. This early passage was the point where I knew I would finish the thing, despite my objectionable hostess:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum of words inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes — our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version suface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.
Eventually I got swept up in the story–it got interesting for me about the same time it did for Claudia: when Tom Southern strolls into it. Their intense, cruelly brief affair in wartime Cairo transforms the book, and our picture of Claudia. She may have been born selfish and demanding, but it was the loss of Tom, and her child by him, that made her unloving and brittle. For the first time, we see the mean old Claudia we’ve met isn’t necessarily the person she was destined to be; had things gone differently, she might have settled into a warm and loving family life, and be facing a more contented death–one that wouldn’t have motivated her to write her self-serving history of the world.
Caught up in the story, I stopped critiquing it and rushed through to the end to render judgment: should Ramona finish it? Oh yes. Would she ever like Claudia? No, and I don’t think the reader is necessarily meant to. But you do come to understand her and feel sympathy for her. You might not like to invite her for tea, but you can empathize with her suffering–no mean feat on Lively’s part, you have to admit. The book is about war, I told her, the way it transforms whoever you were before into something else; the way it does this to everyone it touches. Whether you were kind or selfish, good or bad, happy, in love, or miserable, when war comes it leaves nothing unchanged.
Ramona asked me to write up a piece on Moon Tiger, and I let it languish too long and got distracted by other things. But it took root in the back of my mind; bits of the book would come back to me at odd times, and other works kept reminding me of it. I saw and read several things right in a row that had a theme of “We were happy, and then he went to war, and nothing was ever the same again”–My Boy Jack, Lost Girls, Foyle’s War, Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain, even some Miss Marple mysteries. The theme recurred so many times that I finally decided to settle in to work on a review of Moon Tiger, expounding on the Universality of War theme.
Funny thing, though, when I re-read the book to refresh my memory of it and pick out a few glittery passages to share, I found it wasn’t about war at all, but history and language as intertwined and warring forces.
And when you and I talk about history, we don’t mean what actualy happened, do we? The cosmic chaos of everywhere, all time? We mean the tidying up of this into books, the concentration of the benign historical eye upon years and places and persons. History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, perfer to remain ravelled.
I have put my faith in language — hence the panic when a simple word eludes me…I control the world so long as I can name it. Which is why children must chase language before they do anything else, tame the wilderness by describing it, challenge God by learning His hundred names.
History, personified in the book by both war and the desert, will inevitably destroy us all and erase any trace of our existence.
This thousand square miles of emptiness has been wrestled over for five days and nights; it has exacted the lives of several hundred men. And it is untouched, thinks Claudia. Already the sand is starting to digest the broken vehicles, the petrol cans, the tangles of wire; a few more storms and they will sink beneath it. In a few years’ time they will have vanished. She watches Tom Southern pore over his maps; these scribblings too are arbitrary — the sand has no boundaries, no frontiers, no perimeters.
History is the true antagonist in this book; war is only its most efficient handmaiden. When war took Claudia’s father away, her mother responded by retiring from history. “She had drawn south Dorset around her like a shawl and blocked out as many aspects of our times as she could. … History is of course crammed with people like Mother, who are just sitting it out.” In the same circumstance one World War later, Claudia refuses to quietly fade away; she will spend the rest of her life writing her story as largely as possible on history’s blank and terrible page. Until the very end, Claudia hurls herself at history, grasping for any hold; history is damn well not going to get away with treating Claudia Hampton this way!
Instinctively, Claudia has reached for the one weapon that will let her defeat history’s inexorable march toward obliteration: language. She puts her trust in the immortal power of stories, and late in life, she receives confirmation that she was right to do so. Forty years after his death, Tom speaks to her again out of the sands of time; a newspaper article on Claudia’s adventures as a war correspondent leads Tom’s sister to work out that she is the mysterious “C.” Tom wrote lovingly of in his diary, which she sends on to Claudia. It brings back to her all she felt when they were together, and gives her a picture of herself through his eyes. It makes her feel all she has lost out on, and in a small way, brings back to her the one person she loved openly, generously, unselfishly.
It’s the moment where I feel most kindly toward Claudia. It’s a priceless gift, an expression of love from one long dead, and yet, imagine the exquisite pain it must cause her to know for certain that there was a happier and more beautiful life for her, that she didn’t get to live.
We are no longer in the same story, and when I read what you wrote I think of all that you do not know. You are left behind, in another place and another time, and I am someone else…inhabiting a world you would not recognise. I am twice your age. You are young, I am old. You are in some ways unreachable, shut away beyond a glass screen of time; you know nothing of forty years of history and forty years of my life;…Death is total absence, you said. Yes and no. You are not absent so long as you are in my head. …I preserve you, as others will preserve me. For a while.
Read this book? Yes. And read it again, and again, and appreciate the loveliness of its message: though we must all die, we may live on, in the stories we leave in the minds and hearts of those who survive us.