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Lived and Lost and Never Lived at All : MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively (Grove Press: $15.95; 208 pp.)

May 08, 1988|RICHARD EDER

A lizard on a rock is an image of watchful stillness in a world that moves. The protagonist of "Moon Tiger" is a lizard of sorts--a dry, brilliant, self-willed old woman--but the image is incomplete.

Penelope Lively's novel, told entirely through the old woman's dying memories, filters out the moving world. It is a lizard's story recounted by the lizard; it digests us and brings us down to its own immobility and low blood temperature.

The dying woman is Claudia Hampton, an English journalist and the author of a number of vivid, unorthodox and highly popular histories. In her imperiousness, her talent, her active and unconventional love life, and her passion to formulate the meaning of the modern world for her time, she suggests a variation upon the late Rebecca West.

All her life, love affairs apart, she has put all of her emotion into tackling society's and history's great issues. Now, in her hospital bed, she proposes one final history of the world. And the history of this world she has burnt herself out upon turns out to be a long-postponed search for herself.

She does not write it, of course. She ruminates it; sometimes as a first-person recollection; sometimes in the third person, as if she were trying to give us formal shape. Occasionally, a passage will be repeated, almost unchanged except for the change of person.

"Moon Tiger," in effect, turns out to be not so much an account of Claudia's life as of her telling it. The life has its surprises, vicissitudes and passions, but the real passion and conflict is that between a narrator's conflicting impulses to understand and to control. Most of the time, it is the controller, the motionless lizard, that prevails.

Claudia was a rebellious, questioning child, sufficiently praised and successful to develop a high opinion of her own mind; and a low opinion of practically everyone else's. Gordon, her brother, she considers her only real peer. He is a brilliant economist, dividing his time between Oxford, Harvard and assorted Third World countries that require his advice.

During World War II, she becomes a war correspondent, covering the desert fighting against Rommel. Afterwards, she continues her career as a journalist of the higher sort, writes a celebrated biography of Tito, and another about Cortez. She has a long-term affair with Jasper, a sophisticated and vastly successful producer of television films; the result is Liza, whom she brings up with whatever warmth she can spare from her other passions.

Her hospital recollections are a series of vignettes that add up to a brittle and chilly portrait. She recalls Liza as an aloof child; the recollection is counterpointed by the bedside visits of the adult Liza who has become a suburban matron and of whom Claudia disapproves for her lack of intellect.

And we learn that Liza's "normality" is a lifetime revenge upon her distant mother and that, besides, she has a lover. Liza keeps this lover a secret from Claudia "not because you would disapprove but because you would not." Dissembling allows her to survive Claudia's lifelong ascendancy.

We get glimpses of Claudia's civilized and post-passionate sparring with Jasper, of the intellectual electricity in her periodic argumentative encounters with Gordon, of her contempt for Gordon's tremulous wife, of her life as a wartime journalist in Cairo and her grim trips to the front.

It is a highly controlled form of narration; it skips back and forth. "Most lives have their core, their kernel," she tells us. "I will get to mine when I'm ready. At the moment, I'm dealing with strata." Call me when you're ready, the reader may wish to murmur.

The core seems to be reached when Claudia tells of her affair with Tom, a tank commander whom she meets at the front. They see each other on his brief three-day leaves, they make love and visit the Pyramids. After the war, he wants to marry her, buy a farm and have a child.

It touches her in a way nothing else has. Tom tells her she makes him happy, and she reflects: "I have never made anyone happy before. I have made people angry, restless, jealous, lecherous. . . . Never I think, happy." Tom is killed, and her image for their love is the moon tiger--a spiral coil of punk that burns slowly through the night beside their bed to keep away mosquitos and that leaves only an ash in the morning.

Even this, perhaps, is not the core. Claudia reveals her adolescent incest with her brother. Incest, she muses, is narcissism at its extreme. Claudia knows herself, but self-knowledge, by itself, does not furnish a novel.

Claudia, struggling to find meaning in a life that has been hemmed in by pride and a will to power, is aware of her own barren voice. But she has only this barren voice to tell it with.

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