Monday, May 15, 2000

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

I want to talk to you this morning about a truly extraordinary intellectual and writer. Her name is Penelope Lively, and I want to talk especially about her 1987 novel, Moon Tiger, for which she won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize.

I think there is a fear in most (if not all) readers that they may someday simply run out of new authors and great books. Given the incredible outpouring of novels from all over the world, and the relatively recent phenomenon of books by authors from third world countries being not only written but published, the fear is probably an idle one. Still, I can’t tell you how thrilling it was for me to discover Penelope Lively. Somehow, in spite of winning the Booker, I simply had not heard of her. And then one day, having made the mistake of going for a doctor’s appointment without a book, I was scrounging through a box of rejects in my trunk and discovered a collection of short stories by Lively entitled Deck of Cards. The incredible thing is that two or three pages into the first short story, I knew that I wanted to read everything this author had written. I quickly scanned the frontispiece page to discover that she had, indeed, written many books.

Great novelists do lots more than tell us intriguing stories. Lively is a first rate historian who obviously is also deeply interested in archeology and paleontology. But to say simply that she is a historian is not enough. Like Tolstoy and a handful of other great writers, Lively has a distinct and intricate philosophy of history; she is an historiographer. As you probably know, philosophers are addicted to what are called ontological questions—questions like, ‘What is it to be human?’ or ‘What is it to be true?’. Usually, such questions are expressed in a slightly simpler fashion, ‘What is the meaning of truth?’, ‘What is the meaning of knowledge?’, ‘What is the meaning of good?’, or ‘What is history? What is the meaning of history?’ This is the question that Lively returns to in everything she writes. Again, like Tolstoy, Lively reminds her readers that history is not the history of great persons, nor the history of wars, nor the history of empires. Indeed, the history lessons that we get in history books are not, she would insist, the essence of history. But then, what is history?

Lively is not naive enough to suppose that there is a simple answer to this question, but her novels and stories are constantly shifting and complex attempts to give some sort of answer to this perhaps hopelessly complicated question. Like Marx, Lively is convinced that those of us who don’t learn from history are bound to perish from it, to relive mistakes, to continually reforge the chains that bind us. And, of course, there is no finally objective view of history. After all, it is subjects who ask the question; it is (in Heidegger’s language) we who question the being of history, and our comportment will inevitably affect the answers we give.

Many nineteenth and twentieth century historians and philosophers were deeply struck by the fact that we are beings in time; we are historical beings who cannot (no matter how hard we try) escape our histories, our temporal nature. And yet, Nietzsche and Marx and Heidegger and many others were convinced that most intellectuals have simply ignored our temporal, historical condition. They have treated intellectual issues and phenomena as if they transcended history, as if they were timeless. But, in fact, we are beings who live simultaneously in a past we cannot transcend, and who hurl ourselves towards a future that is uncertain and has not yet happened, while also slip-sliding in a present that is gone almost before we can experience and comprehend it. This tripartite way in which we are literally caught by history, past, present and future, is a constantly recurring theme in Lively’s books. Here I am now, caught in a traffic jam in a buzzing, racing, noisy city while a piece of seventeenth century music plays serenely on my CD player; I look out the window and what I see takes me back to my childhood or to times long before I was born, perhaps (depending on who I am and how much I know) to times before any being of our sort roamed the earth. And before I can finish my thought or react to the car honking behind me, I am transported again to a possible future, a meeting I am late for, a child who is in hospital, a spouse from whom I am estranged.

Lively captures the ways in which we belong to time as well or better than any author I have ever read. She was born in Cairo in 1933, and belongs as much to Cairo as to London, to the desert as much as to the city, to the past as much as to the present or future. Moon Tiger is, in many ways, a book about the second world war, and specifically about the war fought in and for stretches of barren desert. And yet the book begins in a hospital room in London, an old woman, writer and intellectual, dying rather slowly as, in her head, she writes a history of the world. Her past is much clearer to her, much more important to her, than is the present. She is less convinced by the odd and wrinkled visage that occasionally looks back at her from a mirror than by the much more vivid mind-pictures of a much younger and more vibrant woman, a war correspondent who later becomes what one might call an historical novelist. And in these last few days of breathing, questions about who she is, about the meaning of her own history as well as of the times in which she lives swirl around her. Past, present, and future merge, as they always do—all constantly there in the moment, all happening at once, together. Magnified, no doubt, by the drugs she is taking, by the slow slip into death, still her condition is the condition she has lived always, and that she must remind us that we all live.

Had Lively written only this one book, I think she would (or should) be remembered as a great writer, and profound thinker. But she has, of course, continued to live and think and write. In a more recent book, City of the Mind, she demonstrates clearly her understanding of how greed and overproduction are quickly changing the face of the world, how growth economies are spiraling us towards global disaster, how the hunger for power and money burn and kill and mutilate and are considered, if at all, only as necessary side consequences of growth and progress.

And while she does all of this clearly, convincingly, never does it seem that we, the readers, are being preached to. While she cannot help, given what she knows and how well she writes, being didactic, it seems as if she is simply telling us a story, and a fascinating story at that. A couple who has separated, a child who is caught between, a city of glass that is being constantly torn down and reconstructed, built with blood.

Penelope Lively is a great writer. While her novels are dense and complex (and certainly not happy little stories), they are relatively short—usually about two hundred pages and readable in a day or two. Though I dare you to try reading one that quickly. Personally, I am so captivated by the questions she poses, the conundrums of history she describes, that I cannot read for many minutes without going off on my own—thinking of my own past, my own history, my own relationships—thinking of how I might help in the struggle to change how things are, to bring about a less brutal and fairer future. She makes me want to write, makes me want to make amends for past lapses, makes me want to become a better person and struggle for a better world. What more can a writer do?

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