I began writing this review of Tigers Eye the other night, after re-reading it for my bookgroup. I was working on it last night, and I wondered how Inga Clendinnen was faring, knowing that she had been in poor health (but still mentally feisty) for some time. Little did I know then that she had died that very day. Inga Clendinnen is the historian who influenced me more than any other. I have read much of her work, all before I started writing this blog (Ambivalent Conquests; Aztecs: an Interpretation; Reading the Holocaust; True Stories (Boyer lectures); The History Question; Agamemnon’s Kiss and Dancing with Strangers.) But her presence is here in my blog, in the only book of hers that I have reviewed since (In Search of the ‘Actual Man Underneath‘) and, more importantly, as the lodestar that has guided my perception of other histories written by other historians. I met her only once in recent years (and was so overcome that I was barely coherent!) but my respect for her is unbounded and my debt to her incalculable. Vale, Inga Clendinnen.
2001, 289 p.
So this is what I have been doing all this time- by courtesy of a physiological malfunction, taking a journey out, beyond and around myself, and into interior territories previously closed to me. At the end of it, battered, possibly wiser, certainly wearier and, oddly, happier, I have returned to where I began: to history, with a deepened sense of what peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper, puzzling over the past and the present doings of our species, pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers. (p. 289)
I first read Inga Clendinnen’s book Tiger’s Eye in 2003 and it changed my life. I had been ill for about three years, able to only work part time, and after reading this beautifully written reflection on illness, memory and writing, I decided that I wanted to return to uni and my first academic love- history. I think that I could confidently say that you wouldn’t be reading this review on this blog if I had not read this book (oh dear, it all sounds a bit too Pauline Hansonish.) Before re-reading it for my bookgroup this month, I would have said that Tiger’s Eye was ‘about’ Clendinnen’s response to her illness. Returning to it, I find it a much different book to that which I remembered, combining experiments in fiction, memoir and an exploration of the nature of memory.
So who is Inga Clendinnen? After commencing her academic career at the University of Melbourne, Inga Clendinnen was a history lecturer at ‘my’ university, La Trobe, between 1969 and 1989. I had forgotten completely, until reminded by a friend, that she was the lecturer on the Mexican Revolution in Revolutions IA, the first history subject I did as an undergraduate in 1974. Along with Greg Dening, Donna Merwick and Rhys Isaac she became known as part of a group of historians dubbed the ‘Melbourne school’ by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Common to this group of historians is the practice of thick description, reflexivity, a deep reading of events and individuals’ responses, and a celebration of the act of writing. It is the type of history I admire and enjoy most. Clendinnen’s specialization was Mesoamerican studies, most particularly Aztec culture, but she is probably best known in Australia for her works Reading the Holocaust and most recently Dancing with Strangers.
“Illness made me a writer” she says at the end of this book (p. 288). I think that she’s underselling her own earlier writing, but certainly Tiger’s Eye is an exploration of writing outside the history genre, while still drawing on the historian’s skills. Ill in hospital, feeling trapped, helpless and under surveillance, she remembered a childhood story about a wizard who looked through the eyes of various animals- wolves, jaguars, ants- to see the world from their perspective. On hearing the rumble of a tiger from the nearby Melbourne Zoo, she adopted the tiger’s eye as her motif:
… I too was in a cage, with feeding times and washing times and bars at the sides of my cot, and people coming to stare and prod, but the kaleidoscope of the horror of helplessness ceased to turn because I withdrew my consent from it. Thereafter, whenever I felt the threat of the violation of self, I would invoke the vision of the tiger and the freedom that vision gave me, to be at once the superb gaze, and the object of the gaze: an incident in a tiger landscape. (p. 21)
She directs her gaze towards herself as patient, telling the story of the progression of her illness, observing her fellow patients and recounting the steps towards the liver transplant that halted her decline. She spends a considerable time ( perhaps a little too much time?) recounting the hallucinations that electrified her befuddled post-surgical consciousness. Once their vividness had abated, she realized that the hallucinations wove together memory and sensation from her own childhood and experience. Much of the book is devoted to unpicking these experiences, testing the robustness of memory as a factual as distinct from emotional construct, and knitting her experiences up again into fictional experiments.
More of the book than I remembered is turned over to exploring – or as she puts it- ‘reading’ her parents. Here I find myself conflicted. I’ve commented on several occasions recently in this blog about my discomfort with children ploughing their parents’ lives, wanting to uncover the ‘real’ man or woman inhabiting the carapace of the parent figure. Clendinnen certainly does this, particularly with her mother, and her judgment is harsh. She directly links her curiosity over her mother, in particular, with her later career as historian:
… I can see that my pursuit of her has been a lifetime activity; that my early fascination with her impenetrability, and my pleasure in that impenetrability, has a great deal to do with my long happy life as a historian spent in pursuit of other more distant,less impervious impenetrabilities. … Now, when I am not many years younger than she was when she died, I am still sifting my handfuls of sand, still trying to make them stand and hold a shape I could call ‘my mother’. And still, for all my gatherings and pattings, she continues to fall apart like a sand lady. If she is on the beach at all she is a mirage, an eye-baffling dazzle fleeing before me, receding faster than I can run. (p. 237, 238)
I was also surprised to find, on re-reading this book, how seriously she grappled with the issue of fiction-writing versus history writing. This was, of course, the juxtaposition that roared into life in her argument with Kate Grenville over the writing of The Secret River, and which Clendinnen explored in more detail in her Quarterly Essay The History Question. But it’s here in this book too, five years earlier, as Clendinnen experiments with the two genres, finally admitting an element of defeat:
After years of doing it I think I am beginning to understand the work of writing history- the how of it, the why of it- but I still don’t understand the work of writing fiction. There is a Spanish saying of which I am unreasonably fond: ‘No hay reglas,.’ ‘There are no rules here.’ That is the way fiction seems to me. If there are rules, I don’t know them.
Engagement with professional history imposes rules. One of those rules is that we must represent our chosen people as justly and completely as we are able. We must try to understand them, and for that we need a supple imagination, but that is imagination’s only role. With history I am bound like Gulliver by a thousand gossamers: epistemologically to the deceitful, accidental record, morally to the dead men and women I have chosen to re-present, and to the living men and women I want to read my words and to trust them. (p.244)
Finally, in re-reading Tiger’s Eye I was stopped again and again by the sheer beauty and power of her writing. Here’s her description of visiting her aunt’s outhouse at night:
I liked the outhouse best on moonlit nights, because then the moonlight would come slicing through the slim black gumleaves like hard silver rain. (p.59)
Here, in one of her fictional pieces, is a mother putting on lipstick to visit her sister:
…she would draw her stumpy lipstick straight across her stretched lips and rub them hard together, so that when they showed again they were red with little spikes of deeper red running out along the wrinkles…(p96)
And in the same story, an unnerving description of an aunt’s ‘little game’ that mixes sensuality, intimacy and transgression. The mother and her daughter visited Aunt Lall, who was bed-bound:
…sooner or later my mother would say she would die without a cup of tea and she would whisk out…and while she was out of the room Auntie Lall and I would do our secret thing. She’d give me a little nod and a wink, and I’d climb up onto the bed, carefully, so I wouldn’t joggle her legs, and she’d take my hands into her warm soft ones and lace her fingers tightly with mine so our palms pressed together and I’d feel the hard bands of her rings…Then she’d slide the rings off, the ones that could still come off, and spin them on my fingers, and give the tip of each of my fingers a little kiss. They were marvellous rings, heavy ones, old, all of them gold, with rubies and diamonds studded all round them. She’d stack them on my thumbs, raise her pencilled eyebrows and laugh silently, and I’d trace the pencilled line along the line of bone to the puckered skin and the harsh orange-red hair at her temple, and she would lift my limp hair away from my forehead as if it were precious. As if it were beautiful.
We would do all these things silently, listening to my mother banging about in the kitchen. Then the kettle would scream and the boiling water would crash into the teapot and I’d slide back into my chair just as my mother came in and banged down the tray so that the milk flew out of the jug and the teaspoons trembled… Carnal knowledge. Whenever I come across that phrase now I think of Auntie Lall, because carnal knowledge was what she taught me: that there is a special love which sleeps in the flesh, and that special fingertips can waken it. (p. 104)
And so, on re-reading Tiger’s Eye, I find it a different book to what I remembered. I’m perhaps more critical of the ‘Reading Mr Robinson’ section which takes up a large part of the book, now that I, too, have read Mr Robinson. I can see the emergent shape of the Kate Grenville dispute, and I am surprised that so much of this book is fictional writing. But most of all, I celebrate Clendinnen’s artistry as a writer, thinker and historian: one of the best ones I know.
I have included this book towards my tally on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016