“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.
So 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”...
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