Friday, 26 April 2013

Tigers Seven: 'a history of the world'

Claudia Hampton, historian, journalist and writer, reflects on her life as she lies dying from cancer in her seventies. Claudia's reflections are not linear, but take the form of 'strata', as she puts it, remembering an early interest in geology; circling around until they reach the 'core', which was her passionate love affair with soldier Tom in Egypt during the Second World War. She has outlived Tom by more than forty years, and when she discovers a diary he kept during the war near the end of the novel, she finds she no longer recognises the man who wrote those words nor the 'C' whom he frequently refers to; her memories have created a picture that has diverged and differed from Tom's own literary sketch of their relationship. In similar terms, she ponders the mystery of childhood, and the impossibility of entering the mind of a child - either one's own remembered childhood or the childhood of her daughter, Lisa. As the book shifts between first and third person, small asides allow the reader to assess the reliability of Claudia's perspective, and draw attention to the things that she misses and misunderstands, particularly in relation to conventional, demure Lisa and her despised sister-in-law, Sylvia. Claudia's self-mocking declaration that she will write 'a history of the world' also leads to reflections on historical motive and consequence; for example, when she replays the career of Hernan Cortes and his conquest of the Aztec empire and wonders how his audacity was 'possible'. There are the beginnings of an exploration of how we create our own destinies here, the influence we wield and what we deserve, but it seems to be a thread dropped by Lively in this rather too slight novel, raised and abandoned.

I could never summon great enthusiasm while reading this text - and yes, it did seem like a text, rather than something that was meant to entertain and engage. In reflection, I found it frustrating and more than a little dated. Lively's experiments with narrative now seem decidedly pedestrian, and the repetitions of particular scenes in both third and first person rather annoying, driving the dissonant views of the characters home too clearly. I was reminded insistently of The English Patient, which handles time, memory and identity, and war in the North African theatre, much more elegantly, and which is simply much better-written. Lively's reflections on childhood experience, for example, simply didn't ring true to me: '[Children] inhabit not our world but a world we have lost and can never recover. We do not remember childhood - we imagine it. We search for it, in vain, through layers of obscuring dust, and recover some bedraggled shreds of what we think it was. And all the while the inhabitants of this world are among us, like aborigines, like Minoans'. To me, this assessment obscures the much more nuanced ways in which we really remember our childhood, artificially bisecting childhood from the rest of human experience when our memories of our early twenties, for example, may be equally distorted in a different way. Claudia's musings told me nothing new about time, despite occasional lovely imagery - the Moon Tiger of the title, for example, a coil of mosquito repellant which slowly burnt down during her nights with Tom, providing a physical reminder that time was measured and short.

My distance from this text was also motivated by a personal dislike for Claudia, I have to admit. To an extent, this is not a criticism of Lively's writing, as it is difficult to dislike flat characters, and Claudia is clearly a figure who is meant to provoke controversy. However, in a novel as dominated by a single character as this one is, I felt smothered by her. In one sense, it was the familiarity of her characterisation again - I've read too many novels about original intelligent middle-class Englishwomen during the Second World War who exploit their privileged background to defy convention. Claudia's utter certainty about her intellectual superiority to those around her made her difficult to like, and although the third-person sections might have been intended to offset this presentation, showing that Claudia is not always right, I didn't think they really served this purpose. Sylvia's viewpoint sections, for example, made her seem as silly, idiotic and weak-willed as Claudia thinks her, yet despite all that I began to feel great sympathy for the character by the end of the novel. Sylvia is jealous of Claudia's close relationship with her husband, Gordon, Sylvia's brother, yet we soon find out that Sylvia's jealousy is well-grounded - Claudia and Gordon had a literally incestuous relationship as teenagers and continue to exclude others in their close intellectual conversations. Claudia's refusal to admit that Sylvia now has a significant place in Gordon's life too added extra bitterness to my dislike. Even her career as a popular historical writer made me wince, not because I have anything against popular history but because her statements on history were so wrong, driven by emotion and a fascination with spectacle, as Gordon rightly notes.

And, finally, what of Claudia's 'core', her relationship with Tom, the one real love of her life, apart from Gordon (her own assessment, and it seems tragic that her daughter Lisa is excluded from this list)? The sections in Egypt were too staccato and brief for me to get much sense of their connection, and I also felt that this part of the novel felt too much like retreading old ground - more English Patient flashbacks, although I realise that Moon Tiger predates it. Claudia's pain only felt real to me at one crucial moment, and even then, the structure of the novel worked against it, as this fact had been given away in the first pages, so I was expecting it to happen. After Claudia's amping up of this relationship and its importance in the preceding pages, I felt rather cheated that Lively seemed unable to convey its impact. By the end of the novel, indeed, it seemed that Claudia had made herself out to be far more important than she really was, more unusual, more significant. Perhaps this is the point of the book - which beautifully ends after Claudia's death with the voice on the radio continuing to read the six o'clock news. But if so, I don't feel it works, for similar reasons that I felt Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman fell flat. It's an enormously difficult thing to make commonplace events in commonplace lives feel important in fiction, and I don't believe either writer quite pulls it off. In the end, I felt Claudia's history of the world was as insufficient as her earlier histories; full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.

[For further Tigers reviews, there's now a link in the right sidebar.]

No comments:

Post a Comment