Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Book Review 2 Summer for me this year is a time for reading and reflection. As I am spending a good period of time in Italy this summer, and a lot of it in my own company, what better way is there than to lose oneself in several or more novels.

I have just completed reading a second novel called Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. As it happens Ms Lively won the Man Booker Prize with this novel. I mention this because the last novel I read and reviewed in these pages viz., The Gathering by Anne Enright also won the exact same prize. While the latter won in 2007, the former received her award in 1987, precisely 20 years before.

Both novels have a lot in common. They are written by fiercely intelligent and intense women. Both novels are told in the first person: we are invited into the mind of an all too frail narrator in the sense that both subscribe to the inevitability of fate and to the sheer chance that life is. Both have to learn to accept the hand of cards they are dealt in life and to play that hand as best they can. Also we are left in no doubt as to the intellectual ability of both, coupled with a wonderful wisdom only gained by reflecting on years of lived experience.

Lively is a brilliant writer, but not at all as lyrical as Enright. In reading Enright I was bowled over with the intensity of her language which I felt to be lyrical and poetic in intensity. Lively is more of a prose writer who commands a lot of knowledge from a lot of areas. Her character, Claudia H. is a writer of history books and a Fleet Street journalist and ex-WW II war correspondent. And so Lively describes what it was like to be brought up in Cairo, Egypt before the Second World War and her knowledge of history and desert warfare is deep and indeed convincing: she has done her research very well indeed.

In Enright’s book we meet the narrator around her fortieth year - 39 years old to be pedantically precise. On the other hand, we meet Claudia H. as she enters a hospital to die. We are brought into this old woman’s mind as she surveys all around her and as she seeks to come to terms with all the periods of her long life - pre-war in Egypt, her relationship with her parents and with her brother Gordon to whom she was always close, her life in Egypt during the Second World War and her period as a War correspondent, her husband from whom she had been separated or divorced, her daughter Lisa and grandchildren. We are left in no doubt that she had been somebody as the nurses who admitted her to the hospital mention casually to one another. They believe that she has written books and that she had been quite famous and revered as a good historian and a very good journalist.

Reading Enright reminded me of reading Friedrich Nietzsche because she possesses the same poetic intensity as well as the lack of belief or faith in anything. Then reading Lively reminded me of reading a book by Camus, say The Outsider, because it is far more clinical and scientifically observed and not as caught up in the passions and emotions of things.

I liked a lot Lively’s acknowledgement of the contribution made to the novel by her “alter ego, understanding little but seeing a great deal.” I like this because it is so Freudian insofar as it acknowledges that oftentimes we know more than we are aware of; that truly our unconscious mind has a huge role to play in our behaviours in life.

Initially the nurses think that this old bird who has come into the hospital to die is quite simply “off her rocker.” One of the first things she says to them is: “I’m writing a history of the world… I may as well - no more nit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez…The works this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute - from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine… eclecticism has always been my hallmark…” (Ibid., 1)

Claudia is an ambitious woman, years before her time, one of the first female war correspondents. She is also university educated with a fine mind. She is somewhat cocky and almost too sure of herself at times, but she wins us over by her honesty and sincerity. We intuitively pick up that she is no phoney at all: while she may be strong-willed she is also compassionate - as witness her treatment of her “newly adopted” son from Hungary called Laszlo.

Eclecticism is the hallmark of Claudia Hampton’s work, we are informed. (She is called Claudia H. afterwards in the novel.) As she lies in her deathbed in the hospital she muses on the meaning of history and tries to come up with her own philosophy thereof. Here she is musing on this philosophy:

“The question is shall it or shall it not be a linear history? I’ve always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards which I carry around is forever shuffled and reshuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.” (Ibid., 2)

No wonder the nurses think this complex old woman is silly or senile. However, she is far from it. She is merely, in the current bawdy terminology or new cliché, “getting her shit together” before as Shakespeare puts it she “shuffles off this mortal coil.” This old bird would have liked that quotation mixed in with her thoughts, I should imagine.

She muses on the Big bang Theory, the Theory of Evolution, Darwin, fossil hunting with her brother Gordon, the inevitability of wars, Chaos Theory, Illnesses, Cancer of the gut from which she’s dying, Greek mythology which she loves especially the Fates in whom she delights for the fact that they were all women.

Lively appeals to me because her Claudia H. believes that she has many selves. Shades of Freud and most certainly of Carl Gustave Jung here. These psychiatrists and analysts certainly believed in the theory of the many selves which go to make up our person or psyche - call it what you will. Sub-selves, I believe, Jung called them. Well done, Ms Lively, you are not alone widely read but very insightful into human nature and into the human predicament. This latter I think is also a hallmark of all great literature: it always has something meaningful to say about the human condition.

The plot of this novel is simple enough and this belies its great richness and complexity. On the surface it deals with how an old lady faces death; with how an accomplished writer faces death; with how she makes sense of the whole enterprise we humans call life; with her origins, her family, her husband and her daughter and her quasi-adopted son and then in the final lines we have her extinction or death all described in a clinical fashion. Lively is at heart a brilliant scientist and clinical observer of life. She writes a dispassionate prose. However, it is only with her wartime lover Tom that she becomes in anyway passionate in her writing. However, even this too is observed and observing. At the end we are allowed to read entries in her wartime lover Tom’s diary and this too is coolly observed with hints of passion here and there as Tom thinks about Claudia. We read this diary through the eyes of the narrator at the end of the novel.

All in all a brilliant achievement. There is much in this novel that makes one think from the various scientific theories of our origins to the meaning of life and the philosophy of history itself. This is a thinking man’s and a thinking woman’s book. It reminds me in parts of the Russians say the novels by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even the novels of Aldous Huxley. I enjoy such novels as they make the reader think, and that I believe is one of the more important tasks of all decent literature worth its name.

In short, this is a very clever book, provoking of thought at all times, evocative of times past and of other places unknown to the reader and told in hauntingly beautiful if clinical prose.

Above, a picture I took of the cover of the novel.

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