First of all, I’m sorry this is a little later than planned – I have had a funny old month and a poor reading month, with a great big biography and a reviewing commitment taking up a load of reading time and energy. I hope you haven’t all been waiting anxiously to post your reviews!

Oh – and do please share any cover images you’ve got of your copies of this one – inexplicably, I’ve only got ONE copy of this, and I’d love to see what’s on yours. Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

On to the review. I had some interesting thoughts on the different ways I’ve read this one and my different allegiances to characters as I’ve read and re-read it over the years …

Iris Murdoch – “The Flight from the Enchanter”

(14 October 2017)

What a dense, absorbing read this was. I found it more of a succession of scenes concentrating on one particular character or strand rather than the single coherent narrative that “Under the Net” provided, no doubt because we had an omniscient narrator rather than a character-as-narrator, so we were free to flit around London looking at what people were up to.

There are, of course, so many Murdochian themes – in this one, the sea, stones (Annette’s jewels and the pebbles on the beach), doublings (two suicide/attempts, two arms in water, brothers, two pairs of brothers and sisters, plus Peter Saward and his dead sister, two burnings, two heads of department, two main ex-suffragettes, two breast-barings, two scenes in Annette’s green dress), siblings (as before), in fact breast-barings (there’s one in “The Italian Girl” and surely some more), women’s hair, either long and falling out of its pins, horribly constricted into weird waves or short and gamine, girls looking like boys, terribly messy rooms (Peter Saward’s almost-sapient study), netsuke (for the first time? They will reappear again and again), artificial women (generally “bad” rather than “good” characters, right?), and even fast cars!

“Tworavensrose” has posted an amazing report which I hope she’ll copy here about all the links with “Under the Net” but I was particularly struck by Jan and Stefan’s story of the schoolteacher they pursued being just visible in her white dress in the dark, like the woman Jake followed in Paris. I feel there is a link in all the running around London but the book is maybe more traditional and is certainly less philosophical in that there aren’t treatises and bits from books included. Murdoch’s love of detail and describing complicated physical arrangements is here again with Annette swinging on her chandelier in the first scene.

Who is the enchanter? Superficially, it’s Mischa, but Jan and Stefan are reliant on Rosa and she worries about her power over them, and Peter Saward seems to have power over Mischa, chiefly by telling him his own story (like naming someone in myth, perhaps?). Annette seems to cast some kind of spell over people but eventually runs from herself and everyone else and indeed spends most of her time flying from people. Or is it Marcia, who always seems to swoop in and make everything better, but never looks her husband in the eye or lets him know what she’s thinking? Peter is definitely the Saint, in my opinion. I loved his self-knowledge that he was “lost” in his researches, but in his acceptance of the loss of his study of hieroglyphics he is accepting rather than passing on defeat or “failure” and thus showing himself to be passive and “good”. He’s given the final word, “One reads the signs as best one can, and one may be totally misled. But it’s never certain that the evidence will turn up that makes everything plain. It was worth trying” (p. 287). Of course, he can’t be the enchanter, because he never uses his powers to affect or influence others, but they come to him – he’s the only character who remains static, with everyone else running around him.

There’s so much humour in this novel again. I loved the description of Annette “trying to catch in the depths of her large restless eyes the flicker of a tragic discontent” (p. 59)in the mirror and indeed the description of her by her headmistress is hilarious “Your style of entertaining is distinctly Continental , and as I had occasion to remark the other day, you still go upstairs on all fours like a dog” (p. 12). Rainborough, “had never been able to distinguish typist. They all looked to him exactly alike. He could see their smile, but no other features,” (p. 83) in the way that some people can’t tell undergraduates apart. Indeed, the rise of these women through SELIB is very funny, and something I kind of missed last time, I think. I particularly like the way that Miss Casement starts a trend and it repeats, but dimming, through all the other women. Miss Wingfield is often hilarious in her directness and you have to smile along with her, redoubtable to the end. And of course the scenes at the Artemis AGM are very funny – “This young man is under the impression that women have been emancipated!” (p. 173). Rainborough is often the butt of Murdoch’s jokes, always being undermined by taxi drivers, etc.

There’s also so much lovely and precise writing: I’m thinking of the descriptions of the sea, but also when Annette is making a long-distance phone call: “… beside her ear a long corridor of sound was opening out telescopically, section after section, and the last piece was to contain the voice of Nicholas” (p. 243).

The introduction, by Patricia Duncker, makes much of how you can’t really judge what you’re meant to think about the book, and quotes the passage said by Peter Saward that I quoted above. Well, that’s fine by me, as I’m not looking to be told by the author what to think, given my espousal of Death of the Author and reception theory. It claims that no one is changed by the book and that we don’t care about Nina’s fate, something I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s also horribly relevant in the portrayal of the refugee’s tenuous experience.

How has my reading of this changed? I had a lot more sympathy with the more middle-aged characters – I was slightly horrified to find that the “elderly” Peter Saward is in fact, at 44, a good year younger than me! When I first read this as an early teen, I found Annette the central and fascinating character, but now I find her precocious, arch and self-obsessed, and I even had more sympathy with the weird, damaged, two halves of a whole Calvin and Mischa, and with Rainborough and Peter. Well, not so much Rainborough, because he’s a bit of a weirdo, always lunging at women, and although he makes pronouncements about accepting randomness and contingency, I’m not sure he follows that through, but certainly Peter Saward, the central “good” character to my mind. I’d remembered the plot well and loved the old feminists as much as ever.

OK, over to you! Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.