This is a very small book, I think Murdoch’s shortest? but my goodness, it packs a lot of Murdochian stuff in, almost like a distilled Greatest Hits (a bit reminiscent of “Under the Net” which I likened to an overture back in November). My copy is now festooned with post-it tabs so I hope I can make sense of my thoughts on this one. What I will say is that I kept thinking as I read it, “This is either a masterful portrayal of the complexities of family life and addiction or it’s a load of rows over sex and infidelity with a dodgy uncle thrown into the mix”. Maybe in someone else’s hands, it would be the latter, but we’re safe with Iris, aren’t we?

Iris Murdoch – “The Italian Girl”

(27 February 2018)

Well, if we’re looking for people chasing other people in white dresses through damp and dark woods, we’ve got them in bundles here, haven’t we (does this make up for the one book that missed one of these chases?) It’s even on the front of the Vintage reprint! Of course, we open with a classic return scene, almost another fairy tale, like “The Unicorn”, and indeed Edmund is requested by Isabel to be the healer in the household, surrounded by overgrown vegetation like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, reminding us of the talk of seven years that have passed in that previous book.

A note on the re-reading aspect: how had I forgotten that this is one of the male first-person narrator novels? I’m not sure IM loves Edmund as much as the narrators of “Under The Net”, “The Black Prince” and “The Sea, The Sea” (and, of course, “The Philosopher’s Pupil” – how I long to reach that one again) but he’s certainly a dry and seemingly self-aware but foolish chap, maybe reminding us of Martin Lynch-Gibbon from “A Severed Head”.

Those chases: Edmund starts out following his own dewy footsteps on the lawn. Then he follows Flora to the pool, observing the different colours in her pale skirt as they go. This pale dress appears and disappears among the trees in a very familiar way. Only a few pages later and he’s chasing Elsa through the rather revoltingly wormy lawn: “I seemed to see the fleeing figure somewhere in front of me”. He finally follows Flora on her final flight (in the rain, by the pools), and then Maggie back again, although he catches up with and carries her – this is obviously important.

Like in “The Unicorn” and indeed “A Severed Head” we are given a load of portents and warnings early on, in Isabel’s cluttered room that is different from the rest of the house particularly, which is full of images of overpowering fire. In fact, the large garden is there because there was previously a large house which had been destroyed by fire, and Lydia is described as having been obsessed with the fear of a fire, which is why Isabel has her big open fireplace in the first place.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Dead Lydia is said several times to be the only person who can control somebody (Flora, Otto …) and has a peculiar hold over Edmund and Otto even after she’s passed. Was Edmund’s father, the artist, a saint as well? He’s described thus: “Your father is not a good man, he is merely a timid man with unworldly tastes” (p. 17) and held in contempt, which usually indicates a saint. Isabel says of Edmund, “You lead a simple good life. You help people. Oh, I know about it. I wonder if you think it’s easy to be like that” although Edmund immediately counters that he’s selfish, so maybe he’s just filling a space in her pageant of types. Again, in this conversation he mentions that his father was a much “finer” man than he, so maybe in this novel both the enchanter and the saint are dead? Maggie also says Edmunds’s good, though, again countered by him saying that she is (and she’s quiet as a mouse, often a sign of someone good yet existing almost as a non-presence. Edmund talks about having been captured by magicians and being enchanted in the summer house when he misses his breakfast with Flora, but this sounds like an excuse to me, although then Otto talks about the siblings as being fairies or demons when he claims to have cast them out.

Attention comes up again, when Otto and David tiptoe around each other in the hospital, treating each other with “a gentleness, a tenderness almost, which in the midst of such grief on both sides seemed a miracle of attention” (p. 147) and we have Isabel’s moment of clarity in the hotel room where she sees the tabby cat in the garden when normally she wouldn’t have seen it. She has grown and changed and has new life to begin, unlike many of IM’s previous characters who just seem to travel the path they have been given; although she does describe life in the house as a “merry-go-round” with the implication that you can’t get off it. Mind you, Edmund also feels trapped “Some pattern too strong for me was taking me away, curving away back to the old lonely places” (p. 166) and then with a huge effort frees himself.

There’s humour again, just touches but they do raise a smile: I loved this description of the house from near the beginning, which recalls the furniture plans in “An Unofficial Rose”:

The dim electric light revealed the big landing, the oak chest and the big fern which never grew but never died either, the fine but entirely threadbare Shiraz rug, the picture which might have been by Constable but wasn’t which my father had got at a sale at a price for which my mother never forgave him … (p. 15)

There are Otto’s ridiculous dreams, with telephone dials turning into all manner of things, too, and Otto is described in a savagely funny way as like a gorilla, and needing to ingest similar amounts of foliage.

As to our other themes, Flora has the red hair this time; Maggie has a long bun, which seems odd, but unravelling buns are a theme and of course she gets it chopped off, another common occurrence. Isabel’s hair seems odd and complicated and adds to her strange charms, seeming to grow and acquire extra bits out of nowhere. Elsa also had flat metallic hanks of hair which someone else had in another novel – anyone remember? And she is the classic artificial woman who IM often seems to dislike, in her case revoltingly grubby and greasy. Otto has the big face and cherub-gone-bad features but might be the most revolting specimen we encounter in the oeuvre, and David Levkin is another prancing, merry Jamesie but with a darker side, perhaps.

Doublings are found in the two sets of siblings, in Edmund’s two mothers (Lydia and the stream of Italian girls). In a memorable description, we find that Otto is a wet-lipped man and Edmund a dry-lipped man. Otto and then Flora cry in front of Edmund and so indeed does Isabel. Edmund bangs on the summer house door and then Flora’s door. Edmund is expected to heal the household but only heals the cracked blocks of wood – and then I think leaves them there. He encounters Isabel and then David stripped to the waist in another uncomfortable couple of scenes. Water is there early on in the diverted stream in the garden and then of course the pool and waterfall that Flora climbs to escape. Again, some of the most beautiful descriptions are of this water. IM’s dislike of psychoanalysts slips through in a statement of Edmund’s:

My relations with women always followed a certain disastrous and finally familiar pattern. I did not need a psychoanalyst to tell me why: nor did it occur to me to seek the aid of one of those modern necromancers. I preferred to suffer the thing that I was. (p. 24)

There are some ivory water buffalo in Isabel’s room which seem the only nod to Chinese or Japanese art, although they’re usually linked to wise people, which I’m not sure she is.

In other nods to the other novels, Maggie loses (or “loses”) her shoes in the mud, recalling Marian’s adventure in the bog in “The Unicorn”. The chases under the trees, of course, echo most of the books and Edmund’s fawning over Flora remind us uncomfortably of Randall and Miranda in “An Unofficial Rose”. He is creepy, isn’t he, or are we just reading this with a modern mind: “All that came into my mind was the image of Flora. How exceedingly pretty she had become. I wondered how old she was” (p. 27). Isabel’s display of herself to Edmund reminds us of Annette’s dress getting ripped open in “The Flight From the Enchanter”.

I’ve just realised there’s no special introduction in this book (which basically means I’ve bought a fancy cover wrapped around the text of the 1980s copy I already had). I wonder why this is!

What would I say in conclusion? Yes, it’s an odd novel and a lot of it a bit distasteful, with gross images of sweaty grubbiness. But there is a way forward and a resolution, and a musing on attention. Is this one even read much any more? I’m not sure. But I did enjoy it.

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.