One can’t read them all, alas. The number of good books is almost infinite and one’s own time is not. I cannot be like Mallarmé and say La chair est triste, hélas ! et j’ai lu tous les livres. This is why I am always grateful when I trip over a book I might not otherwise have read. I’m talking about Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively which won the Booker Prize in 1987. Moon Tiger has a provocative opening.
‘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.’
But then the narration changes from the third person to the first as we go straight into the still internally lucid mind of Claudia Hampton who has become a writer of popular histories, widely read if not academically approved, after a wartime career as a journalist in the Middle East. And from that interesting (one tries hard not to say ‘lively’ but it would be a good word) opening, the author takes the reader into the different minds and points of view of several of the main characters in Claudia’s own life story; sometimes the same incident seen from more than one perspective and more than one voice. Claudia describes herself and her writing:
My beginnings; the universal beginning. From the mud to the stars, I said. So . . . the primordial soup. Now since I have never been a conventional historian, never the expected archetypal chronicler, never like that dried-up bone of a woman who taught me about the Papacy at Oxford time out of mind ago, since I’m known for my maverick line, since I’ve infuriated more colleagues than you’ve had hot dinners, we’ll set out to shock. Tell it from the point of view of the soup, maybe? […] Or an ammonite? Yes, an ammonite, I think. An ammonite with a sense of destiny.
Which is an interesting line to find in her 1987 novel since, twenty-five years on, her very recently published memoir has the title Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time of which the blurb says This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed or so it can seem. One of the advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now and know what goes on here.
Moon Tiger takes its title from the coil of mosquito repellent that burns itself to ash outside the net that covers the bed in which Claudia conduct the most significant of her several affairs; this one with army Captain Tom Southern in Egypt, where he is a tank commander and she one of the rare women war correspondents. The significance of the title, I feel, is that she, Claudia, has almost burned out now and is recalling and reviewing her life as it draws closer to being ashes.
There is a long but well-selected list of supporting characters to Claudia’s story. First, her brother, Gordon, to whom she was very close even though they always seemed to quarrel. He has gone on to be an economics professor, much in demand internationally, but has acquired Sylvia, a less than brilliant wife who is often the butt of the siblings’ behaviour. Claudia’s early lover, the FO diplomat Jasper, is the father of her daughter Lisa. Jasper and Lisa have views about Claudia which the narrative explores surprisingly and provocatively. One of the immediate pleasures of the book is this swift juxtaposition of the same event described by its different participants. One of the lasting pleasures is the delightfully bitchy tone of Claudia’s recollections and descriptions.
The mainspring of the book is her wonderful wartime affair with Tom. He helps her to get closer to the front than many women correspondents had before. Then, sadly but rather inevitably, Tom and his tank sustain a direct hit, and thus, in consequence, does Claudia. She recuperates through her ‘on/off/on/in abeyance’ affair with Jasper. She becomes a well-paid roving correspondent for a political weekly; the sort that is subsidised for reasons unclear by someone with wealth. She writes her very personal histories, one of which about the Aztecs is actually filmed, but in Spain, not Mexico. She lunches with the leading man who urges his chauffeur to speed up as they have lingered over the lunch and he is due on set. This leads to a tragic accident but one which renews and strengthens the bond between Claudia and Gordon.
Her survival reinvogirates her appetite for life and she makes one of her periodic efforts to be more of a mother to her eight-year old daughter and to involve Jasper.
Claudia, Jasper and Lisa walk along one of the wide avenues of London Zoo. It is Lisa’s eight birthday. The Zoo is Lisa’s choice; she has been offered the whole of the city – the Tower, Madame Tussaud’s, Battersea Fun Fair, a boat trip to Greenwich – and has opted for the Zoo, partly because she observed Jasper flinch at the suggestion. Power does not often come Lisa’s way. So here they are; one family amid many. And who would know? Thinks Claudia. Other superficial conformities of man, woman and child; she wonders what other histories are concealed beneath appearance.
But that year of Lisa’s eighth birthday was 1956; also the year of Suez and Hungary. Claudia’s phone rings and on a crackly line from Budapest a complete stranger begs her to persuade his son, studying in Wimbledon, not, under any circumstances, to return to Hungary but to make his future in the free West.
Thus came Laszlo, washed into my life by the Kremlin. I remember feeling a curious satisfaction, as though one had been enabled to frustrate Fate. Hubris, of course; I too was Laszlo’s fate. And what did I – forty-six-year-old busy committed Claudia – want with a disturbed artistically inclined adolescent boy speaking fractured English?
For the next ten years Laszo drifts in and out of her life and her spare room; sometimes away for weeks on end without calling and by the time he becomes thirty he is an unsuccessful artist living in Camden Town with an older man – an up-market antique dealer. Which is how Laszlo comes to be visiting the near-unto-death Claudia. The various characters orbit round her hospital bed in reality and in her recollections.
We all act as hinges – fortuitous links between other people. I link Sylvia to Laszlo, Lisa to Laszlo; Gordon links me to Sylvia. Sylvia always retreated from Laszlo by saying he was rather a difficult boy and Claudia was awfully good with him. Laszlo, in his frenetic twenties, used to imitate Sylvia, cruelly and accurately. Gordon found him interesting but exasperating; Laszlo has always allowed his soul to hang out like his shirt-tails and Gordon found this uncongenial. He did not object to people having souls but preferred them tucked away out of sight where they ought to be. But he took Laszlo on, in his way. He left Laszlo a small legacy.
With the skill of a master craftswoman, Penelope Lively creates a group of very different characters, not inherently compatible with each other, and rubs them together to let us watch the sparks fly. And that is what makes the novel even more exciting. Perhaps it changes focus and tone slightly at the moment, towards the end, when Tom Southern’s sister discovers her late brother’s wartime diary and, correctly identifying the ‘C’ he refers to, sends it to Claudia in hospital and we read a long extract. As Claudia afterwards reminisces about Tom, about her life and several loves, about fate in general and particular, the book draws to a satisfying close.
But this is not the end. I am going out to buy Ammonites & Leaping Fish!