Hello! New to Murdoch

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Hello! New to Murdoch

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nov 27, 2015, 3:48 pm

I didn't find a "newbie" thread, I hope this one's not redundant.

A few days ago I read my first Iris Murdoch novel, her second, The flight from the enchanter, and it made me interested in reading more of her stuff. I must admit I had vaguely expected not to like her (based on what very, very little I picked up about her from a biography of Elias Canetti) and, given how prolific and apparently "varied" she was, I suppose it is still possible that we won't agree overall, but so far I'm interested.

I'm curious to hear about how others came to her. Was it chance? Somebody's recommendation, on what grounds? Connected to some specific topic or interest?

Finally, I know nothing about Murdoch as a person. Generally speaking I am not eager to delve into writers' personal lives (there have been several big exceptions, but only for a few writers whose total work I totally loved--plus one or two whose lives WERE the best part of their work) but I wonder whether Murdoch's work isn't greatly autobiographical and therefore illuminated by knowing more about her personally?

nov 28, 2015, 8:44 am

No problem. I'm copying this over here from another thread where I just posted it. Entirely inadequate, believe me:

What I'm trying to recall is why I started reading Murdoch -- I think it was triggered by something I read, somewhere, about her that gave me the strong notion that she is a writer who deserves to be very seriously regarded. I started, as many do, with The Sea, the Sea which alternately had me spellbound, in agonies of shame over the behaviour of the protagonist, laughing, aghast, sad and then quite moved and convinced that, with effort, a person can, if not change, then become fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses and behave a lot better. I sort of hated that book, but I was also hooked and I see now, after reading so many more, that she had full control over my responses the entire time and that it is a masterpiece. Murdoch books have certain elements in them, large and small, that, I am guessing, you either come to treasure or loathe. Me, I treasure. Amazing houses, meticulous descriptions of clothing, a love of water and swimming--profoundly significant in every way to her work--startling and convincing children, dogs, cats (whose presences usually signify that it is a more comic novel). Her concern is ever about what is the nature of good, of evil, how humans try and fail to live up to their ideas and ideas, the beauty, allure, and danger of innocence--the necessity of wisdom - these were things she thought about deeply and I'm writing about shallowly. Characters say and do startling things that, frankly, aren't always all that realistic, but . . she presses them into situations where it is necessary to make difficult choices, and that part feels very real indeed.

I have a big biography but I haven't read it. I did read her husband's memoir -- it is short and somehow or other turned up in my house and was glad I did. I expect towards the end of this reading project I might read the bio too, but my sense is that I know enough about IM to read her work.

Anyway, the best browsing here would be the "musings" and "Favorites" threads.

nov 29, 2015, 1:48 pm

Thanks! I'm aware of Bayley's memoir (it was received very warmly, IIRC) but thought it would likely be long on sentiment and short on information--looks as if it could be a place to start.

But I think I'll read a few more novels first. Have started The Sandcastle--feels a bit claustrophobic after the large cast and bird's-eye view of Flight from the enchanter, but still interested.

Redigeret: nov 29, 2015, 8:20 pm

I loved The Sandcastle - one of the "comic" novels, with some great children in it. That might be the one that some person came by its thread and fulminated about, as in The. Stupidest. Book. Ever. Written. Which seemed a little over the top to me.

Flight is one I haven't read yet. Nope. Just checked and I don't even have it yet.

Redigeret: dec 4, 2015, 1:22 pm

Interesting that you find "The sandcastle" comic, I though it was devastatingly sad in conclusion. I'm not fond of tales of married domesticity so it didn't engage me as much as the previous book, but I still find Murdoch interesting and have started on Under the net, which I'm so far liking better than "The sandcastle", and which is, imo, the best written of the three.

Do you remember why the person thought "The sandcastle" was "stupid"? Really an odd remark.

Redigeret: dec 4, 2015, 8:15 pm

Comic in relation to other Iris Murdochs, I should say. It is sad and not sad, . . . people end up wiser. I'm having trouble articulating this (several tries!) but I have the idea that one of Murdoch's ideas is that a certain kind of thoughtlessness permits or invites what we call "evil". The title reflects that, I think? Maybe?

The person wrote: "I just want state categorically: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch is THE most boring, tedious, pointless pile of trivial drivel it has ever been my misfortune to come across. It is such an awful read I could not even recommend it to my worst enemy! Ms Murdoch is justly legendary for some inspirational, intriguing tomes, but how this Sandcastle ever got to print I shall never understand: If ever there were a genuine 'much vocabulary' about nothing at all then this book is it. The characters are so weak, so utterly without 'cause' to be alive as persons on a page I do wonder if it was Murdoch's intent to have them all bore to the extent they're not even hateful, they just leave no trace at all: Did she want to see if she might get away with it to the point of causing the reader intense pain between the eyes that lasted long after the book had been binned!?"

I haven't read Under the Net. Yet.

dec 5, 2015, 12:58 pm

Hm, well that criticism seems to say singularly little for the amount of words employed... Funny what makes some people see red.

I didn't think much of Mor or Rain as characters but I wouldn't call their relationship pointless or the book as a whole "tedious" by any means. It's a bit early for me to build a synthetic vision of Murdoch's style, but what I saw in all three books so far is a tendency to mix the serious with the comic--always dangerous for the final effect. And Murdoch seems to like to startle, to shift registers in sudden breaks. For example, Nan's distress when she finds Mor and Rain together is followed by the comical, clumsy tangling with long-suffering Tim--a scene that could have been "serious", say an intro to a serious examination of Nan's and Tim's unspoken connection, but is instead funny and pathetic. We are on the cusp of feeling for Nan but then again see her and her hapless beau as ridiculous.

The sadness, for me, lies in Mor's decision to go on in his marriage. Not because the romantic love for Rain is worth more, but because it strikes me as unspeakably terrible to live with someone you don't love and who doesn't love you. It was bad enough before Rain appeared (what sort of relationship is it when one keeps asking or is asked "why do we go on?"), but then to continue AFTER... I don't know how or why one would manage.

Redigeret: dec 5, 2015, 8:24 pm

Immense subject indeed! I'm not home or I would be running to find the book to reread that last bit, to see what clues, if any, Iris drops as to her own view on this matter. I just can't remember, but I have a tickling thought that (perhaps to console myself?) they might not stay together forever, move slowly towards separating, and that he, at least was no longer kidding himself at all. He loves his life at the school, I guess, enough to stay put for the time being. I agree with you and it is sad. But it is, of course, a choice that goes on being made out of fear of change and unanticipated losses even now. One thing with IM's books is that you can easily discuss each and every one for hours and hours. There is an IM conference (which LyzzyBee- the founder and admin of this group goes to.)

dec 6, 2015, 12:21 pm

Heh, not sure I'll get to the conference-going levels of admiration, but I'm certainly interested in getting a grasp on her worldview. I just got Existentialists and mystics hoping it might give me a comprehensive overview of her ideas without being too theoretical (it's a collection of various writings and interviews).

I think I missed quite a bit in The flight from the enchanter by ignoring the mythological motifs she seems to have incorporated (realised this through reading some reviews) and which may have played a role in her thinking, consistently. The figure of the Enchanter, for example, seems to be one that recurs in her writing, maybe in other guises too--the teacher, the guru, the guide...

The idea that her whole work coheres and reflects some deeper structure is very attractive to me. That it's not just "random" entertainment, the way people toss off a detective novel to relax or break the routine or something.

dec 6, 2015, 12:26 pm

test post

is it me or is it you, el-tee


dec 6, 2015, 2:23 pm

Lovely discussion here, sorry I haven't been around. I love the way that IM constantly inserts elements of near-farce or actual farce in amongst the most serious scenes. I also love The Sandcastle for its use of her common themes - marriage, love, art, water, Morgan cars, weird siblings ...

dec 6, 2015, 3:07 pm


Yes, what is it with her and "weird siblings"? They're everywhere! :)

In The flight from the enchanter there are two brother-sister relationships (Annette Cockayne and her brother Nicholas, not physically present during the plot, but a very strong formative factor in Annette's life; and Rosa and Hunter Keepe) and also two Polish brothers, so close that they share girlfriends.

dec 7, 2015, 6:41 am

Murdoch is one of those writers where people tend to love her complete works (or almost all of them!) rather than just A book by her. One of the joys is the repeating themes: there are so many of them. When I did a chronological read of the novels with a group of friends, we kept a list and it was such fun spotting the elements in the books!

Redigeret: dec 7, 2015, 9:23 pm

What a great idea!

Speaking of farce, in the (perhaps lesser) IM I just finished, The Italian Girl she has Otto constantly trying to tell people his dreams in the midst of all the other confusion, and it was . . . just the comic balance the book needed . . . hard to explain.

LB - I'm so glad we've enticed you back here!

dec 7, 2015, 9:33 pm

>13 LyzzyBee:, >14 sibylline:

If there are some motifs either of you think are particularly significant or interesting in some way, perhaps we could have threads dedicated to separate kinds to see what, if anything, they share from book to book?

For instance, if sibling relationships have some special significance in Murdoch--twinning? double personality? mirroring? who knows?

dec 8, 2015, 6:48 am

Yes, strange siblings, twins and mirroring are massively important. I suppose we could do that, yes. Others include ...

Intricate details (as in the climbing of the tower in Sandcastle, the pipes under the spa in Philosopher's Pupil)
Artificial women
Mysterious figures
Actors and the stage
Cluttered rooms

dec 8, 2015, 8:15 am

Let's take one to start with: water?

dec 8, 2015, 12:52 pm

Water--sounds good as anything! Do you want to start a thread, sibyx?

dec 8, 2015, 12:53 pm

Artificial women--very intriguing! I'd love to hear more on that.

Redigeret: dec 9, 2015, 9:25 pm

Yes, I was wondering about that one, the artificial women. By artificial do you mean women who are forever putting on an act (until they hardly knew who are what they are, and certainly we, as readers don't know much more than they do)? There's that friend of the protag. in The Sea, The Sea. Maybe Elsa in the one I just finished. The mother in The Good Apprentice? Do you think there is one in every book. Oh - yes - the daughter in Message to the Planet - that one I'm certain of!

Happy to start the water thread, but maybe tomorrow as it has gotten late (for me)! (As you can see from above, can't think!)

dec 10, 2015, 1:08 am

The artificial women we identified are overly made-up with dyed hair, they are usually a negative type of character, whereas the plainer, unadorned ones are usually more of a positive one. They're quite a minor theme, but there are a good few of them. I'll dig out my notes later.

dec 10, 2015, 1:04 pm

Oh, yes--one can tell from Murdoch's photos she probably didn't care for make-up and frilly femininity.

dec 10, 2015, 9:02 pm

Except she really cared quite a lot about clothing - as revealing a great deal about a person's state? She always so carefully describes exactly what people are wearing. Especially dresses.

Sorry I have once again not made a Water thread. I will do that now although I doubt I will write much of anything in it until I get back home which will be Sunday, so sometime next week. Possibly my own Murdoch reviews here will help me think (that is what they are for, so they had better!).

dec 11, 2015, 7:15 am

Hair is another one. Count the hyacinthine curls and huge heavy knots on the backs of heads, also round straight hair on men and fur-like cropped hair. And haircuts.

dec 29, 2015, 1:09 pm

Finished Under the net! Either it or I lost some steam half-way, but it was still entertaining, even wildly funny in places. Possibly the most accomplished book of the three so far.

I started reading John Bayley's memoir and will probably race through it today--I find it compulsive reading!

I should have kept notes but I'm reading too fast for that... quick reminders: Murdoch adored swimming and she and Bayley could never come across a body of water and leave it alone--ponds, streams, rivers, sea--in they went. (Touchingly, their first "significant" date involved such an impromptu dip in a river.)

Her rather "slovenly" appearance--was of a kind then generally held as a symbol of intellectuality, common among female dons. "Serious" women didn't bother about their hair or clothes too much. (It strikes me I haven't come across any such character in her books so far.)

She used incidents from life in her novels, and I think there's evidence, from what Bayley says about how she treated her admirers, that at least once she "put" herself in a character--specifically into Anna Quentin from Under the net.

More to come.

Redigeret: dec 29, 2015, 1:17 pm

Somewhere I've read that for a time she did care more about her appearance and even dressed quite well for a time. She certainly was very very observant of clothing on both women and men. I can totally understand it. Living the life I do in Vermont wearing nice clothing would be absurd most of the time, but I appreciate very much people who dress with some flair.

Also I can't quite put away the idea that Iris is up to something when describing women in frocks -- that she knows it is getting to be anachronistic or will soon be -- can't quite put it into words properly this sense of nostalgia for a thing that was passing. Not clinging to it, mind you, just appreciative.

dec 29, 2015, 1:21 pm

>26 sibylline:

Well, he writes of the shock he received when he asked her out to dance and she dressed up (what did he expect, silly man? :)), but on that same occasion she tripped on the hem of her dress at the entrance and slid in down the stairs on her behind! :)

Bayley very candidly describes his initial impressions, and how he secretly was glad she was "homely" and "plain", assuming that would make her less interesting to others--he was not a little surprised to find out how many people apparently found her extremely attractive (as, at least, in having a strong attraction if not great beauty).

jan 10, 2016, 3:38 pm

I finished Bayley's memoir and I must admit that while the bits about the past remained extremely interesting to me to the end, reading about the Alzheimer's became progressively more difficult, so much so I let myself skim in the latter part. I don't even know whether I'd agree now that Bayley was right to write about her decline at such length and in such detail--what was the point of that?

A riveting book about an unusual person told by another unusual person, but with an odd hardness to it. It made me wonder about "what is love", really.

My next Murdoch will be A fairly honourable defeat unless I succeed in the next few days to unearth the books I have that were chronologically earlier but are currently lost in the awful mess I call my library.

jan 14, 2016, 6:24 pm

I might have that one somewhere . . . might be time for me to trot down to the good used bookstore Middlebury way where I can usually find a few more Murdochs to add to my collection. Soon it is time for another Murdoch.