On Penelope Lively's timeless novel and what it tells us about the stories we tell about who we are
When it comes to quoting Oscar Wilde, there might only be one way now to compensate for our collective overdoing it and to reinvigorate the practice with the “shock of the new” – to quote him only when ironically making a comment on quoting him. This was my justification as I thought about this essay and the subject of fluid identities and decided to open with this Wildean quote:
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
The best parts of me, I often find, turn out to have come from someone else. But this was what Ezra Pound meant by his “make it new” dictum; he wanted artists to take what was and do it differently, to show us the mundane in extraordinary ways. We are all artists of the self, sculpting identities to feel like a continuous person with weight and importance. We borrow and reshuffle and imitate and con (ourselves as much as others) and in doing so tell the world, “This is me.” What we rarely add and yet is always true is: “Provisionally.” I am not who I was or who I will be, I am only who I am right now. As the poet Stephen Spender wrote, “Since we are what we are, what shall we be / But what we are?”
The question at the heart of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, however, is not in the present tense; instead its central character asks herself, “Who was I?” and spends the novel exploring the many answers to this question.
“There is no chronology inside my head ... The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”
~ Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
History is a form of biography; it is the story of humans and the record of change. So when Claudia Hampton tells us, on the opening page of Moon Tiger, that she is planning to write “a history of the world ... And in the process, my own,” she is reversing the norm to use a specific biography (hers) to tell the story of the world. But this is not the only modification she will make to the usual methods of historical study; she will also reject chronology, offering instead the “interesting heresy” of a “kaleidoscopic view”. And a kaleidoscope is what Moon Tiger gives us, a shifting, revolving and undulating, fragmenting and patchworking collection of selves that make up the character of Claudia.
We begin her story with a single Claudia, one not quite as simple as how the patronising nurses and doctors view her, but one that is a necessary reduction of her complexity. Claudia is an elderly historian living out her final days in the banal land of the hospital room, spending her time with the only company witty and sharp enough to keep up with her – which is to say, she has retreated into her own mind. She rewinds the tape of her consciousness to re-examine scenes from her past, from her incestuous relationship with Gordon, her brother, through experiences in Cairo during the Second World War, to a satisfying if failed marriage to Jasper, whom she loved as well as she could.
None of this is presented to us in plain order, but rather in the shape of the incense that gives the book its title (“Moon Tiger is a green coil that slowly burns all night ... dropping away into lengths of grey ash ...”). Her memories circle around the core of her self: her one great love, a soldier named Tom whom she meets and loses in wartime Egypt. These are all versions of herself, some secret, some long gone, some in doubt as to whether they really existed.
The structure and style of the novel itself reflects this theme of fragmented and variegated identity: It swings from one tense to another, from future to past to present, hopping from the Palaeolithic to a dream in the now, portraying events first from this perspective then from that one, from various angles and prejudices, in and out of first- and third-person narration, as if unable to commit to any one version of a book.
The character of Claudia is not entirely fictional, as Lively gives her parts of her own real-life history; in her Acknowledgements page, Lively writes, “I was born in Cairo [where much of the novel is set] and spent my childhood there during the war [when much of the novel is set]. I have also to acknowledge the contribution of that alter ego...” The novel is the skin in which many Claudias live, Schrödinger’s cat style, in simultaneous states of isolation and coalescence.
“Autobiographers are entitled to editorial comment.”
~ Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
Claudia wakes one day in her hospital room to find that she has forgotten the word for the material hung over the window: curtain. “For an instant, I stared into a void.” Without the word, the object loses meaning and that part of the world is lost to her. So Claudia makes an inventory of the room, labelling table, chair, picture, etc. Like Adam naming his companions in the garden, Claudia connects herself to the world by naming it. Claudia’s daughter also reflects on names and being, saying to herself, “Claudia is really Mummy, but she does not like being Mummy, so you have to say Claudia.” It is as if Claudia fears becoming this other person if she is called Mummy. Perhaps she will. (I examined the notion of labels determining identity in an essay called “The Sound of a Strange Heart Beating”.)
We see this in Don Quixote, when Cervantes’ hero decides he is a knight-errant and dubs himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, christens his horse Rocinante (because “it was not right that a horse belonging to a knight so famous ... should be without some distinctive name”), and renames a hapless maiden with a title fitting of “his” mistress. The names we choose give life to identities that depend on the selection of particular qualities. When our mad hero names himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, he is portraying himself as the great figure he believes himself to be; when Sancho Panza laughingly names him “The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure”, he is identifying him as someone very different.
During one of Tom’s returns from fighting in the desert, he and Claudia talk about themselves, an act of autobiography in which they write their own story, creating a “self” for their relationship. Tom, for instance, notes that although all couples believe themselves unique, he feels they actually are, given the unlikelihood of two foreigners drawn by war to the same strange land at the same peculiar time. When he half-sardonically remarks, “I have Hitler to thank for you,” Claudia rejects this conception of their coupling, preferring to “give it a more respectable name. Fate. Life. That sort of stuff”. Tom is not wrong that without the Second World War they would not be where they are, but Claudia – in selecting a different name – is choosing to tell a different story.
“I had a literature rather than a personality, a set of fictions about myself.”
~ Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was The Rage
Macbeth was not quite right when he lamented that life is simply “a tale told by an idiot ... signifying nothing”. We are all idiots telling tales of our lives, but it does not mean nothing – life, as Claudia finds while setting her stage and thinking of her history in dramatic terms of plot and characters, is the attempt to signify something. Whether this is achieved is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is the effort to defy chronology, to downplay this memory and augment that through-line, to portray the characters that populate the plot of one’s existence and in doing so reveal the main character of the self. In short, life is the telling of the tale, more than it is the tale told.
There comes a point in the story when Claudia asserts that “mythology is much better stuff than history”. Stories, she claims, are more compelling than mere facts. Claudia recalls believing as a child that she was a myth: A family friend picked her up and said, “And here she is! The little myth! A real delicious red-haired green-eyed little myth!” The fact that young Claudia misheard or did not understand that this woman had a lisp is beside the point. When she looks in the mirror and repeats, “I am a myth,” she is correct, and this tale is one scene in her mythology.
The beauty of myth over history is in its adaptability, that in its effort to represent rather than report, in its valuing of the metaphor over literalism, the details are important only in as far as they serve a deeper truth. In myths, people turn into birds because they have become free or transform into rocks because injustice has robbed them of life, and people mutate the world around them from one form into another. A story that cannot make room for the various versions of its characters that will appear and vanish as the tale progresses is not worth much. In fact, we read stories to learn how its characters change, grow, become heroes, lose everything, love and then hate, hurt and then heal. A story in which its protagonist is the same at the end as in the beginning will disappoint.
“I am what I make of myself.”
~ Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
Glancing again at Don Quixote, his troubles can be read as having come from living an inauthentic life; he tries to be a self taken from his books rather than to be a self emerging from within. The telling of a coherent story-of-the-self relies on raw materials from biology and circumstance. When fashioned solely out of borrowed material, the edifice of the identity is unstable. This is the difference between aspiration and emulation: the former hopes to become, the latter pretends it already is.
Claudia had no say in inheriting the brain she has, but gifted with fierce intelligence, she sculpted herself from it. When we do not “cultivate our garden” in this way, we become the playdough of life for other people to shape. We choose for ourselves or we are chosen. Gordon’s passive wife is human wallpaper to the focal points of Gordon and Claudia, and this is why she is not her own person but always someone else’s, “someone’s sister (naturally – just as she is now someone’s wife)”.
Claudia’s mother has withdrawn from the world and contents herself with reading Country Life and worrying only over the “mild consternation” of poor weather. On her dressing table is a clue to the reason for this: a photograph of Claudia’s father, a soldier who died horribly on the Somme. But in this photograph, unlike the truth of his final moments, there is “no red hole in his stomach, no shit no screams no white singing pain”. Claudia’s mother has selected a version of her dead husband from the many identities he had in the past. And because she has “retired from history” and ceased to claim a public identity for herself, Claudia is able to select and impose one on her – “the historian’s privilege”.
Asked by a nurse, “Was [Claudia] someone?” a doctor consults the notes about her life, glancing at her career, achievements, details worth noting and (as in the case of her miscarriage) details left out. He answers that “the records do suggest she was someone, probably”. Those things that the doctor deemed noteworthy are in the past tense and so she “was” someone, not “is” someone. We so often do this to ourselves in reverse – think of the bore who never got over some youthful success and so they “are” the person who played in that band or for that team or broke that record. Some would rather be who they were than who they are.
There are many readings I could have taken from Moon Tiger, including the most common reading on the nature of memory, or I might have selected passages that examine gender, or I could have commented on depictions of war, but I opted to analyse this book in terms of the self. In doing so, I imposed an identity on the novel. What is important and most interesting about the creation of identities is that it demonstrates how malleable we are. It raises the question: Must we choose a single self?
“I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.”
~ Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
On the first page of Moon Tiger, we read of the variety of forms that life encompasses, and the variety of forms those forms can take. Even the history of the world itself is both “triumphant” and “murderous” in the same breath, containing everything “from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine”. Eclecticism like this, Claudia reflects, is her strength, and even this has no fixed form: Her enemies describe it as “imprudent”, her friends as a “bold conceptual sweep”.
On learning that Tom is missing in action – a state of being that itself is not clearly singular, as he might be dead or might be dying or might be wandering the desert and will be found eventually – Claudia is forced by circumstance to adapt her identity and construct a self on-the-fly, one that can accommodate the faith she disparages. The threat to her lover’s life prompts her to go to church and pray, because “someone has got to do something” for her. The avowed atheist who can only ironically concede there might be a god because “who else could bugger things up so effectively?” alters herself to be capable of prayer. This is the paradox at the heart of Moon Tiger: that identity is as subject to self-revision as it is determined by external factors. This is why, when her daughter says, “Well, you were who you were,” Claudia responds with, “We’re all that ... It’s something one has to overcome.”
Many people are uncomfortable with the shifting nature of identity and disconcerted by those who flagrantly embrace it. The concept of career is one method by which they impose stability and structure on an unpredictable world. They see a straight line as a virtue, a clear path as the greatest good, and those who move from job to job, interest to interest, and identity to identity are regarded as suspect. Having the strength to cope with variation, to thrive in uncertainty, is reframed as a weakness by those too weak to adapt. This is why a jealous Gordon, attempting to score a point against Jasper, chides him by saying, “I understand you’ve had quite a varied career hitherto,” by which he means to impugn his credibility.
It is what Jasper responds with, however, that speaks to the freedom that comes with shaking off the shackles of conforming to a simple, singular identity. He says, “I believe in being flexible, don’t you? The world’s much too interesting a place to let oneself get stuck with one aspect of it.” If there was any doubting this assertion, that is dispelled by reading Moon Tiger. Lively’s novel reveals just some of the wide range of the world, of life, of all the fragmented selves we contain, a book whose lead character has no fixed identity. Of course, there are other ways to read it.
• Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (1987)
• Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1897)
• Stephen Spender, “Spiritual Explorations” in Poems of Dedication (1947)
• Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha (1605)
• Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was The Rage (1993)
• William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606)