There is no chronology inside my head

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Synopses are dangerous things. Any synopsis of Moon Tiger would make it sound like an utterly conventional piece of middlebrow fiction. An elderly woman looks back upon her life and remembers the men she loved and the tragedies and triumphs of her life.

That’s accurate as far as it goes. It’s also utterly misleading. Moon Tiger is a novel of fractured narratives, perspectives and tenses. It’s an unsparing look at memory, the construction of narrative, and death. It’s bloody good.

It also won the 1987 Booker Prize. Apparently it was a controversial winner and was derided by critics as “the housewife’s choice” and as “suitable for the Harrods and Hatchard’s market” (the condescension in both those quotes is staggering). My only remark on that is that clearly the housewives of 1987 were a discerning lot. A shame the critics weren’t so perspicacious.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

The old woman in question is Claudia. She has cancer and she is dying. She knows this. Her history of the world is a personal one and will not be written down. It will not follow chronology. As she later reflects: “Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.” The nurses find her odd, but ultimately just another body to be cared for:

‘Was she someone?’ enquires the nurse. Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor’s shoes crunch. ‘I mean, the things she comes out with…’ And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and… um… been in the Middle East at one time… typhoid, malaria… unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)… yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.

Claudia was someone. She was a war correspondent and a published popular historian. She was beautiful and opinionated and argumentative. She was too close to her brother and not close enough to her daughter. She was glamorous and impossible and arguably not actually a terribly pleasant person.

The narrative moves to her childhood and a memory of competing with her brother to find fossils. It goes forward to her marriage to an urbane half-Russian named Jasper and then back again to her years in Egypt during the second world war. Her history is a kaleidoscope of impressions. Her mind follows connections but not neatly.

All that sounds confusing. It isn’t because it’s well written and because it feels true. True for me anyway. I have no real timeline in my head; just a collage of scenes from my life many of which may not even be accurate. Claudia is not an unreliable narrator, but her memories too may not be wholly accurate.

Claudia knows this and early on vows to show all perspectives. Hers will not be just a history told in her voice, others’ will also be heard. What this means quickly becomes apparent as she remembers that childhood search for fossils I mentioned. The scene is recounted as she recalls it, but then shifts into her brother’s slightly different perception of the same incident:

She must pass Gordon to reach that alluring upper shelf. ‘Mind…’ she says. Move your leg…’
‘Don’t shove,’ he grumbles. ‘Anyway you can’t come here. I said this is my bit, you find your own.’
‘Don’t shove yourself. I don’t want your stupid bit…’
His leg is in her way – it thrashes, she thrusts, and a piece of cliff, of the solid world which evidently is not so solid after all, shifts under her clutching hands… crumbles… and she is falling thwack backwards on her shoulders, her head, her outflung arm, she is skidding rolling thumping downwards. And comes to rest gasping in a thorn bush, hammered by pain, too affronted even to yell.

He can feel her getting closer, encroaching, she is coming here on to his bit, she will take all the best fossils. He protests. He sticks out a foot to impede. Her hot infuriating limbs are mixed up with his.
‘You’re pushing me,’ she shrieks.
‘I’m not,’ he snarls. ‘It’s you that’s shoving. Anyway this is my place so go somewhere else.’
‘It’s not your stupid place,’ she says. ‘It’s anyone’s place. Anyway I don’t…’
And suddenly there are awful tearing noises and thumps and she is gone, sliding and hurtling down, and in horror and satisfaction he stares.

At the time this fracturing of perspective first arose I took that as Claudia’s recollection and her imagining of how her brother might recollect the same incident. Later though this becomes less certain and it appears that Lively may simply be showing how different people remember (or experience) the same event. Memory and history are both untrustworthy. Time and again key moments are shattered in this way. Lively shows two, sometimes three, accounts of the same conversation but each slightly different. The essence is the same, but precisely what was said isn’t.

What makes all this more than a dry exercise in style is partly Claudia herself who is never less than entertaining to be with and partly the scope of the book. Claudia is brilliant and is quite well aware of the fact. She knows that she fascinates and she has nothing but disdain for those who are less glittering. She looks down on her brother’s conventional wife and equally on her own conventional daughter, Lisa. She is easy to picture; sweeping into a room and commanding the attention of all present, but dismissing those she considers uninteresting.

What I could offer Lisa was not the conventional haven of maternal love and concern but my mind and my energy. If she had not acquired these genetically then I was quite prepared to show her how to think and act. I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories – any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant.
She was a disappointment to me. And I, presumably, to her. I looked for my own alter ego, the querying rebellious maverick child I had been myself; Lisa looked for a reassuring clothes-shopping sherry-drinking figure like the mothers of her school friends. As she grew older I felt more and more her silent stare, each time I visited her at Sotleigh, took her over to Beaminster to stay with my mother, or had her in the flat in London for a couple of days. There, she would wander around, a skimpy pallid little figure standing in doorways or perching on a sofa. I bought her books. I took her to museums and art galleries; I tried to encourage opinion and curiosity. Lisa, growing longer of limb and less flexible of mind, became ordinary. She began to bore me. And I sensed her disapproval.

Lively shows the pre-war years in which Claudia grows up and the post-war world in which people jockey for position and prominence. There’s a nice sequence where Claudia’s husband goes to a post-war country house in which various members of the great and good are gathered – a sort of micro Davos. He hopes for a job with Nato or perhaps on television. For those who are the right sort the possibilities are endless.

Where the book truly shines though is in its depiction of the war years in Egypt. It is there that Claudia meets the love of her life; a love that her family and later husband know nothing of. Cairo is filled with parties and amusements. Officers on leave live hard while they can. The few women are in constant demand. The locals are barely involved. It is not their war and the British do not hold them in high regard. Meanwhile in the desert it is chaos and burnt-out shells of tanks. The British are winning, but not without cost.

In places this is a difficult book to read. Egypt is so vivid because that’s where Claudia fell truly in love, but it is no spoiler to reveal that the love did not outlast the war (the opening of the book makes this perfectly clear since we know she marries Jasper whom she only meets later). Claudia is reconstructing what most mattered to her. She is taking fragments of her life and holding them up for examination. Her gaze is unsparing and because of that even though the precise conversations held may be unclear the emotional importance of them is not.

Claudia is like a Pharaonic queen. Her memories are her pyramid; her way of preserving the life of the people she has outlived and of making sense of her own. It has to be a history because her life cannot be understood otherwise. Without the war she would not have been a correspondent. She would not have met the man she loved. Everything is connected and so a history of Claudia must be a history of the universe and of everyone. Nothing else is possible.

This is a book about memory and death. It is not comforting. Noone here speaks of any belief in any afterlife. Claudia’s only expectation as her periods of lucidity grow less frequent is that she will live on briefly in the memories of others, but if the book has shown anything it is that memories are partial and only ever one side of a story too complex to be told. All we ever know is aspects of each other, and even those we love may hold secrets we couldn’t guess at. In the end we all die alone.

Moon Tiger (it’s also available on Kindle, which is how I read it). I discovered Moon Tiger through Sam Jordison’s Guardian Booker Blog. His excellent Moon Tiger review is here. Sam’s Booker blog is generally well worth following so if you do follow that link I’d suggest having a dig around to see the others he’s written up. While writing this I also found that the Guardian Book Club had covered this novel. Here‘s a link to the first of four articles and the other three are linked to from a sidebar to that piece.

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23 Comments

Filed under Booker, English Literature, Lively, Penelope

23 responses to “There is no chronology inside my head

  1. Max: I have read most of Lively’s novels and they are consistently excellent. For some reason (and I don’t understand), she’s never seems to get the credit she deserves. This review makes me want to go and reread one. I didn’t know about the nasty remarks, but yes she does seem to be relegated to a much lighter category than her books warrant.

  2. It’s remarkable isn’t it? I think the synopsis issue may be part of it. There’s a dismissive category of “women’s fiction” which some books are put into and it’s assumed by many critics that they have no merit. A pure description of plot makes this sound like that sort of book. The trouble is though that literary fiction isn’t about plot. If that’s all you look at you miss a great deal, and here I think many commentators back in the ’80s did.

  3. leroyhunter

    I’m the opposite of Guy: I’ve never read any of her stuff. Sounds very interesting.

    Sad to think of all that energy, wilfullness etc ending up being fussed around by a disinterested nurse. As you say, not a comforting thought.

    I wonder why Lively has ended up being categorised as you describe, when another Penelope (Fitzgerald) hasn’t?

  4. I’m anxious to get to Penelope Lively when I get through reading Penelope Fitzgerald. Your review convinces me I need to do that soon!

  5. Leroy, there’s an Elvis Costello song called Veronica which is like that. If you don’t listen to it closely it’s a jaunty pop song. If you do it’s about an old woman with dementia being patronised in a care home. This reminded me of that in some respects.

    No idea why Lively hasn’t had her due. One of the interesting things with Sam’s blog though is how many past Booker winners are forgotten or neglected and how sometimes it’s the best who’re least well known. Literary fame is fickle.

    Trevor, you’ve reminded me to go back and reread your Fitzgerald reviews. Are you planning to work through her whole output then?

  6. Interesting. I had Penelope Lively tagged as a writer of children’s fiction, although I would struggle to say which I have read. I am in a similar position with Rumer Godden and Noel Streatfeild, having read their work for children but not for adults. So that’s three worth following up.

    There is a school of thought that writers can write (well) either for children or adults, not both. I think I disagree.

  7. Thanks Max – I’m so pleased you agree! Great review too. It’s really a fantastic book. One of a handful (the others are Jim Dodge’s Fup and A Dance To The Music Of Time, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories and Wodehouse) that I am forever pressing on friends and family. Lively should be a national treasure. It seems wrong that she doesn’t have a higher profile.

  8. What you wrote about memory reminded me of Proust, of course.
    Here is what he says:

    What we actually recall of our conduct remains unknown to our nearest neighbour; what we have forgotten that we ever said, or indeed what we never did say, flies to provoke hilarity even in another planet, and the image that other people form of our actions and behaviour is no more like that which we form of them ourselves, than is like an original drawing a spoiled copy in which, at one point, for a black line, we find an empty gap, and for a blank space an unaccountable contour. It may be, all the same, that what has not been transcribed is some non-existent feature which we behold merely in our purblind self-esteem, and that what seems to us added is indeed a part of ourselves, but so essential a part as to have escaped our notice. So that this strange print which seems to us to have so little resemblance to ourselves bears sometimes the same stamp of truth, scarcely flattering, indeed, but profound and useful, as a photograph taken by X-rays. Not that that is any reason why we should recognise ourselves in it. A man who is in the habit of smiling in the glass at his handsome face and stalwart figure, if you shew him their radiograph, will have, face to face with that rosary of bones, labelled as being the image of himself, the same suspicion of error as the visitor to an art gallery who, on coming to the portrait of a girl, reads in his catalogue: “Dromedary resting.” Later on, this discrepancy between our portraits, according as it was our own hand that drew them or another, I was to register in the case of others than myself, living placidly in the midst of a collection of photographs which they themselves had taken while round about them grinned frightful faces, invisible to them as a rule, but plunging them in stupor if an accident were to reveal them with the warning: “This is you.”

  9. Thanks for this review, Max. I read Moon Tiger years ago (probably when it won the Booker LOL) and it confirmed my belief that Penelope Lively is a very fine writer indeed.
    Sarah, another author who writes for adults as well as children is Nina Bawden. Try Tortoise by Candelight or Anna Apparent.

  10. I’m glad you chose to review Moon Tiger for the reasons you mentioned. She never got enough credit but this is the case for so many great female writers. That is why I think what Persephone books does is particularly admirable. People who make the effort to read their titles are generally in for a wonderful surprise. mayn of the Virago authors fall under that same category. I have seen book blogs dedicted solely to these two editors and they are well worth browsing through.
    I have bought Moon Tiger a while back and I am really in the mood to read it. Could there be a resemblance with Susan Minot’s Evening? It is another book that I would like to read soon.

  11. A very thorough and informative review as always. I have not read the book but have been aware of it for a long time. I like the exploration of the idea of an elderly patient with a past, unknown to her carers – a fate which perhaps awaits us all. A link next to the Guardian article showed a rather interesting video about a film being made about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn – well worth viewing http://bit.ly/eCBtIE at least for the rather surreal views of the English coast in winter.

  12. I don’t know Fup Sam, and I’ve not read Nero Wolfe. That good eh?

    Bookaround, Proust is as apposite as ever.

    Lisa, have you read any others? Caroline, I’ve not read Evening (or indeed heard of it). I take it I should check it out?

    Nice point about Perspephone. I’ll drop by their website later on.

    Tom, I’m about to watch that video. There’s one there about Night and the City too which I’m reading right now. Nice.

  13. Having watched that I find myself suddenly more interested in the Sebald.

  14. I haven’t read any of Lively’s novels, but it’s a pity that critics would dismiss an author in such a pretentious, base way. Based on the lovely quotes included in the review and the opinions mentioned in comments, it seems like Moon Tiger is certainly a book with merit – and one that perhaps deserves more attention. I’ll make a point to get around to it sometime soon.

  15. “Rosary of bones”!

  16. The interesting thing from Sam’s blog Biblibio is that much of the criticism appears (so often true) from people who hadn’t read it. Those who had gave it fairly good reviews. Those who hadn’t sniffed at it.

    Shelley, Proust!

  17. Susan Minots Evening has been on my radar since I bought Moon Tiger but I didn’t read it yet either. Just reading the descriptions makes it sound realted. I thought you might know it. I think it is worth checking. I absolutely want to read it.

  18. leroyhunter

    *struggles to resist urge to hijack thread and proselytize on behalf of Sebald*

  19. Proselytise away. I know very little about him.

  20. Wonderful review. I have read three of Lively’s work and Moon Tiger remains my favorite. My book group just choose to read it and it will be interesting to hear their reaction. They tend to like chronological plots and reliable narrators so I am not expecting rave reviews – although they could surprise me.

  21. Max, I have just started reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco, which is centred on an amnesiac, and therefore much concerned with memory. It makes an interesting contrast to your observations on Moon Tiger, as the protagonist in Flame is concerned chiefly with the necessity of chronology. Proust is heavily referenced in Eco’s work, which should come as no surprise.

    Lisa, thank you for Nina Bawden. I had no idea she had written for adults too.

  22. Max: Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for recommending La Scorta. Just finished it and enjoyed it very much indeed

  23. Pburt, that in a nutshell is why I’ve never joined a book group. Everyone I know who’s in one spends their time pitching books the group reject as not having sympathetic characters (or some similar objection) and then reading books that just aren’t that interesting but which the group love.

    I’m sure that’s not the general experience or nobody would be in one, but they do seem to tend towards conservatism. Perhaps it’s a committee effect?

    Sarah, I was scarred by Baudolino. I’ll wait for your review before taking a view on that one.

    Guy, glad you liked it. It is very good.

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