Mostly, though, I was reading and rereading Iris Murdoch ahead of a panel discussion with Alex Clark and Catherine Taylor at the Cambridge Literary Festival this weekend. It was a lively and stimulating hour’s talk, and only solidified my sense that she was, above all, a hugely accomplished novelist.
After a somewhat shaky start, my recent run of Murdoch novels has been one of unalloyed reading joy. Here, then, are some comments worked up from notes I made ahead of the talk:
Crazy plotting – and lack of interest in M’s biography
I’ve not read any of John Bayley’s books about Murdoch and, while I’ve read (some of) Peter J. Conradi’s biography, I didn’t find it particularly illuminating, and didn’t finish it. (I prefer his critical book, The Saint and the Artist.) I certainly didn’t find much to treasure in the recently published book of letters, Living on Paper, very well edited though it was. (My review here.) Basically, I’ve never really found anything in Murdoch’s biography that deepened my understanding or increased my enjoyment of the novels. The novels are enough.
Perhaps the novels’ crazy, precipitate, highly compressed plotting – usually taking place over a matter of days or weeks – is an attempt to make sense of the much bigger chaos of her life.
That’s all that art is, after all: an attempt to impose order on – or draw order out of – chaos.
An exchange from Stoppard’s Arcadia, that could be taken as explicatory:
HANNAH. The weather is fairly predictable in the Sahara.
VALENTINE. The scale is different but the graph goes up and down the same way. Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester, I bet you.
The plotting in Murdoch is overtly theatrical: Shakespearean, or Restoration Comedic. She gathers a small-ish cast in a contained setting, or series of settings, and sends them bouncing around like molecules in an ever-tighter compression chamber.
How often in our lives do we have had someone knock on our door, unannounced, to deliver good or bad news, let alone tell us that they love us? It happens a lot in Murdoch’s novels. But, as I say, this shouldn’t be taken as a realistic reflection of everyday life, but as the compression of a life’s worth of living into a short, ecstatic and exemplary period.
Morality in a post-religious, post-Freudian age
Morality has many arenas in which it can play out, yet in Murdoch it plays out most usually in the arena of sexual relationships – through the questions of right love, adultery and faithfulness.
You can’t be true to God any more, since He doesn’t exist, but you can (or can not) be true to your wife, husband or lover. God is no longer the authority you must answer to, but Freud.
“The disappearance of God does not simply leave a void into which human reason can move. The death of God has set the angels free. And they are terrible.”
“There are principalities and powers. Angels are the thoughts of God. Now he had been dissolved into his thoughts which are beyond our conception in their nature and their multiplicity and the power. God was at least the name of something which we thought was good. Now even the name has gone and spiritual world has scattered. There is nothing any more to prevent the magnetism of many spirits.”
From The Time of the Angels, which I recently read for the first time. It is a stunning example of Murdoch’s process. It is also the darkest of her novels that I’ve read. No surprise that it was followed by The Nice and the Good, which is one of the lightest and most joyous, out-leavened only by The Sandcastle.
Sympathy for all her characters
We are all each other’s antagonists.
Even Carel, surely the blackest of all her characters, is presented sympathetically.
The novels (the best of them) are so expertly constructed, deploying their elements and then entangling them and setting these in conflict with each other, that they at times seem like exercises in counterpoint. John Gardner talks about the novel as symphony. These are not that, but they at times seem like a miraculous two- or three-part invention. Chamber music, played at double speed – like something from Switched-on Bach.
Compulsively rather than carefully written
Someone (Conradi?) talks about Murdoch’s refusal to slow down her novel writing, even if that might have improved her work. (She wrote 26 novels over a period of 41 years – a novel every 18 months!)
No. She wanted to work through a particular problem. When she had done this, it no longer interested her. On to the next one.
Might it have been an aspect of her success, considering the times in which she lived and published, that she seemed happy to explore ‘universal’ human concerns through male protagonists?
Many of her protagonists are middle-aged men, or older, who seem to have no problem in having much younger women fall in love with them. Male writers get hauled over the coals for this. Murdoch, not so much.
(Obviously, she treated male homosexual characters seriously, when it was not usual to do so.)
Beautifully clear prose
The descriptions of buildings and houses, of woodland and landscape, of rivers and lakes and the sea. The descriptions of fog.
The insistence, too, on describing complex physical actions: the car slowly falling into the river in The Sandcastle; the rescue by putting a ladder out of a window, also in The Sandcastle; the lifting of the bell in The Bell; the adventure in the cave in The Nice and the Good.
The idea that these might be intended as analogues for the concrete descriptions of abstract mental states.
Tell don’t show
The lack of interest in the free indirect style/close third person.
If the contemporary literary novel is often interested above all in the nature of consciousness, and invested in the ability of prose to blur the lines between character and the perceptual world (a phenomenological aesthetics), then Murdoch has no interest in either of these things. She sees the world clearly. She sees the insides of her characters’ minds equally clearly. She keeps both separate.
At the end of the session, Alex asked us all to name our favourite Murdoch. I was expecting Catherine to say The Black Prince, about which she had written a marvellous essay in the Brixton Review of Books. But she said The Flight from the Enchanter (which didn’t bowl me over; I need to revisit it). So I said The Black Prince, only for Alex to say that that was what she had been going to choose. So I chose A Severed Head instead, though kind of wishing that I could also have had The Nice and the Good.
Basically, of the Murdochs I’ve read, here are the ones that I feel are definite successes, perhaps in a kind of order:
- The Sea, The Sea
- The Black Prince
- A Severed Head
- The Nice and the Good
- The Bell
- The Time of the Angels
- The Sandcastle
And these are the ones I’ve not been so impressed with:
- Nuns and Soldiers
- The Italian Girl
- Under the Net
- The Flight from the Enchanter
- An Unofficial Rose
(By the way, I popped into Kirkdale Books this afternoon, and asked Roland – who read all of Murdoch, in order, a year or two ago – how far through you could get before the novels starting getting, well, not very good. He said that, of the late books, The Good Apprentice and The Book and the Brotherhood were certainly not to be dismissed. The three that came after – The Message to the Planet, The Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma – were all essentially flawed.)
Murdoch and me
So, many thanks for Alex and the Cambridge Literary Festival for inviting me. Oh, and why did they do so? Well, because of my recently published novel, The Large Door, which features epigrams from Murdoch and her friend, lover and sparring partner, Brigid Brophy, and a sort of joint dedication. Which epigrams did I choose? Well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out.
My second novel, The Large Door, is published by Boiler House Press in April 2019. You can read more about it and sign up for updates here.
I remember exactly where I was when I had the idea for this book – or rather where the two ideas collided that made it possible. I was walking down the Mile End Road in Norwich after sitting in the library researching a conference paper on Brigid Brophy, a C20th British writer I had become a little obsessed by.
In the three years from 1962 to 1964 Brophy published three utterly brilliant short novels that I thought had rather slipped off the literary map: Flesh, The Finishing Touch and The Snow Ball. It was The Snow Ball that I was particularly enamoured of – a dark, sparkling and death-obsessed sex comedy set between midnight and dawn at a masked New Year’s Ball as close in spirit to C18th Vienna as Swinging London. It is unashamedly intelligent, psychologically acute and serious as hell about love and sex, all while whipping along the line of its narrative like a dancer in a drunken gavotte. Why didn’t anyone write books like that anymore, I thought, which naturally slipped far too quickly into the dangerous thought: hell, I will write a book like that!
And then, walking through the Norwich night, I realised I had the material to do it: a short story set over 24 hours at an academic conference, with an arch and unbiddable female protagonist very much in the vein of The Snow Ball‘s Anna. ‘Festschrift’ had been published by Susan Tomeselli in her excellent journal Gorse, and then picked by Nick Royle for one of his Salt Best British Short Stories anthologies, but expanding that 8,000-odd-word story to the length of a short novel shouldn’t be too much trouble, should it? The title, that had been lying around for about 20 years, and I also remember the moment when the decision to use it became absolutely fixed, when a particular sentence set itself down on the page.
During the time I’ve worked on the text, ripping it apart and building it back up, I’ve also been trying to read as much as possible of – and, in a way, to triangulate – three British writers who to my mind bestride the second half of the last century: Brophy, and the far better-known Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. I’ve read most of Brophy, and about half of Spark’s novels, and a third of Murdoch, and I find that, together, they map a set of approaches to writing fiction that I find irresistible. How to dive headfirst into your characters’ moral quandaries, like Murdoch, and wallow in them? Or how to hold them at arm’s length, like the divinely ambivalent Spark. In a sense, Brophy splits their difference: as involved in her characters as Murdoch, but able to dismiss them with a Sparkish turn of the wrist when need be.
The Large Door, in a sense, is the result of that reading, and thinking. Of course there are plenty of other concerns in the book, thoughts that occurred to me on the journey and got Hoovered up: how to make use of text message communication in prose fiction; how to make the mechanics of an academic conference (keynote speech, panel, workshop) remotely interesting; the desire to find a way to punch through the page of the novel – break the fourth wall, in theatrical terms – without resorting to the usual tired postmodern gestures.
But in essence the book is a serious attempt to do what Brophy did, time and time again, and Murdoch and Spark, in their different ways: put serious characters at the heart of a comedy. They all three of them write tragic-comedies, I suppose – comedies in their structure, in the artifice of their narrative devices, but tragedies in their temperament, in the way that you feel an abyss would open up under the characters if only they once looked down. I fell in love with Brophy’s Anna, as much as I’ve ever fallen for a fictional character, and that’s the challenge I set myself: to write a character that, for all their foibles and – say it! – unlikeableness, other people might fall in love with in turn.
I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.
I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.
Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion.
Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.
It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.
The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.
Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.
(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)
The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading
There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.
Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.
I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.
Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.
Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.
Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.
Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.
Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.
Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.
Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away. Continue reading
I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”
I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.
What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.
The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful. Continue reading
Open The Magic Mountain, then, and you’ll find Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro.
Inside Kokoro, bizarrely, Tao Lin’s Taipei.
Inside Taipei, JA Baker’s The Peregrine, the first 100 pages of A Naked Singularity, all of Train Dreams.
Then Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out.
Inside Eat My Heart Out, Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net.
Eat My Heart Out, then back to Taipei, and back to Kokoro. Then on to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, read straight through. No one would plan their reading month like this.
Putting down The Magic Mountain was easy. Thomas Mann has convinced me that this book can sit me out, will not go off like cheap wine, should be taken in long draughts, when the brain and liver is ready for it. (Pace Max Cairnduff on Proust: don’t read unless you can guarantee at least a 50pp stint, ideally a hundred.)
At the time, I wanted something simple, something like the modern classic Japanese romanticism of Natsume Sōseki. I’ve read and loved Kusamakura, his elegy for the past Meiji world, a world that I, for one, never missed, and miss all the more for it. Continue reading
Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape: you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing. I could feel the wind blowing from the first pages of Nous Les Vainqueurs and it blew strongly and tasted fresh. “So far,” I said to myself, “so good.”
– From Under The Net, by Iris Murdoch
Last month the estimable Hesperus Press ran a competition to find an undiscovered classic, asking entrants to write a short introduction to a book unwarrantedly out-of-print. The winner was Michael Wynne, who suggested The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Congratulations to him, and to her. My entry was a pitch for Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, first published by Secker & Warburg, 1962, and since seen in editions from Corgi, 1965, and Cardinal, 1990. I wrote about my initial discovery of Brophy’s books in a previous post here, but here, for posterity, is my pitch for Flesh. I heartily recommend it to all, especially publishers of neglected classics, who are more than welcome to approach me for use of the following…
Both my editions of Brigid Brophy’s short novel Flesh have a woman on their cover, both naked, seemingly, but sultry and melancholy, undeniably. On 1990’s Cardinal edition – its last published appearance – she is Bill Brandt’s 1955 photograph Nude, which has also graced the covers of novels by Alexander Theroux and Don DeLillo. (The other woman, on the 1965 Corgi paperback, popped up again, bizarrely enough, on Creation Records’ seminal 1988 sampler LP Doing it for the Kids.)
Both images do the book a disservice. The flesh of the title, after all, isn’t simply a euphemism for sex, though sex features strongly in it; it is also a reference to that other appetite that religion treats as a sin, though Brophy doesn’t: gluttony. By the end of the book’s narrative, gauche, nervy Marcus has become, in the words of his wife Nancy, and thanks (to her surprise as much as his) to her excellent cooking, “disgustingly fat,” to which he chucklingly, approvingly replies, referring back to their art gallery visits, “I’ve become a Reubens woman.”
Flesh was first published in 1962, which makes it an early and definitive refutation of Larkin’s claim that sexual intercourse began the following year. Continue reading