“The Sea, The Sea” round-up and “Nuns and Soldiers” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I thoroughly enjoyed my re-reading of “The Sea, The Sea” and caught a tiny new “Easter Egg” in the mention of someone who surely MUST be related to a character in a previous novel – read my review to find out more! I have been a little bit lax in replying to all the comments on the post but we’ve had a good discussion as ever, so far (with a few regulars missing thus far, but we know, don’t we, that I’m only worried about seeing discussion and what everyone else thought of it, and am not much bothered about when people post).

There’s another Goodreads review from stalwart first-timer Jo and she has some fascinating things to say, too. Brona has shared her review from far away. I’ve also been keeping this review by the very lovely Stuck-in-a-Book since TWO THOUSAND AND THIRTEEN for when I went through them all again. For the sake of balance, and a reminder that not everyone shares our obsession, and you can kind of see his point were we not a bunch of rabid IM fans! Do pop your comments on the review post even if you’re coming to this a bit late – I’d love this project to live on and be something people decide to undertake in the future!

Peter Rivenberg has done his usual sterling work sending me his covers of this month’s read. I love this first US paperback edition, beautifully battered as it’s lived with him since it came out, and a quote from Anne Tyler of all people!

He also added his standard 1980s Penguin – I have about a third of my original set in this edition (see below) and yes, that is a good sea monster:

“Nuns and Soldiers”

So moving on, we have another really good one that features a Polish exile, an ex-nun, Jesus Himself, some rackety artists in pubs and a terrifying sluice. What more could you ask for?

I have the usual three copies, noting that the first edition has a £6.50 price tag and cost me £10.00 39 years later (but it was a darn sight more expensive in between).

The cover of the first ed is a bit dull, isn’t it, although does indicate something of the topic. I also have the 1981 Penguin (I bought it on 30 December 1994, when I was 21, presumably with a Christmas book token) and the modern Vintage. The painting on the Penguin is “The Small Fish” by Max Beckmann although it looks more like a mussel to me.

The first edition blurb is the most informative and useful:

… and the other two are very similar, even going for the same Martin Amis quote!

I do love how Daisy goes from mistress to eccentric mistress to punk!

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Nuns and Soldiers” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Sea, The Sea” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Gosh, it becomes hard sometimes to review these books, so well-known, even Booker Prize winners in this case. The writer of the introduction doesn’t help in this case, having drawn out the thread of the poet Milarepa, mentioned by James Arrowby in his ‘confession’. I am trying to just write about my reactions, the themes, the connections to other books and my feelings as I re-read – quite complicated and different feelings again in this book’s case. I’m so honoured that so many folk are still along for the ride with me and look forward to your comments and links as ever.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Sea, The Sea”

(31 December 2018)

I think this book has the best CLOSING paragraph in Murdoch, doesn’t it?

My God, that bloody casket has fallen on the floor! Some people were hammering in the next flat and it fell of its bracket. The lid has come off and whatever was inside it has certainly got out. Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder? (p. 538)

And really, even though the last section seems disjointed and jerky, messy and contingent, the whole book does seem to have been leading up to this point. Will Charles have learned any truths as he approaches whatever comes next?

My main and abiding thought about this book this time round (well, there are two: the other will come later) is that, as we read the ‘diaries’ and ‘notes’ of a retired theatre director who has come to the sea for peace and quiet, away from the theatre and its people, comes across his first love, tries and fails to rescue her and almost slips into oblivion, rescued by his cousin and his Tibetan ‘tricks’, it’s an amazing tour de force of getting inside one person’s head and detailing in fine and precise lines the exact way in which he fools himself, slips away from reality and bends everything he senses round to the theories he holds in his mind. Time and again, he will see something perfectly obvious and think and think over it until he’s bent it out of all recognition and convinced himself that his interpretation is correct, from the lack of post over a couple of days to the matter of who pushed him into the sea.

The other impression I have is of how horrible marriage is constantly, wearingly, described as being. No marriage is happy (even the ‘perfect’ one collapses) and the only way to be happy appears to be to shack up with someone you can never have more than a friendship relationship with, due to different orientations. This hadn’t struck me quite so forcefully before (but it’s there in a lot of the novels, isn’t it?) and this is presumably part of my long-running and rather frustrating problem with reading about marriage breakups and unhappinesses since I myself got married (which is five years ago now: come on, brain!). The worst thing that happens, though, is when Charles listens to Hartley and Ben arguing and then tells Hartley. Who of us who are paired would want someone to base their whole opinion of our marriage on some private bickering?! I really feel her pain when she finds out.

Anyway, there is also a lot more in this book. You want water themes, you’ve got water themes, with the ever-changing sea, its attendant monsters and cauldrons, its monsters and forgiving seals (what do you think the monster is? Expanded worm or acid flash-back, or just his psyche come to haunt him?). I know I don’t like to relate the author to the work too much but IM’s love of wild swimming does inform the descriptions. There’s not only the sea of course but all sorts of mists and rains going on, adding to the atmosphere in that special Murdochian way.

Stones are another theme throughout. Charles is collecting them from the start and gives important ones to Hartley (who abandons hers) and James (who keeps his, having asked for it). Charles puts them round the edge of the lawn, James creates a complex mandala which gets trampled (life getting in the way of a higher consciousness?). Hair is suitably fuzzy, frizzy and hyacinthine.  Rosina has a hairdo that comes out as “a rounded segmented composition which looked both complex and casual” (p. 335-6) which is so Murdochian you’d recognise it as such anywhere, wouldn’t you?

Talking of appearances, I note again that IM is very cruel to the ageing woman, or is so through her narrator, with everyone coming in for it, from Lizzie (“She is still quite good-looking, though she has allowed herself to become untidy and out of condition” (p. 45) through Clement’s death mask and Rosina’s ageing to Hartley, the “bearded lady” with her messy lipstick, and a face that’s “haggard and curiously soft and dry” (p. 122).

Of course we have to have someone in a garden, peering through the curtains, and Charles gives us that scene, even adding the farce of sitting on a rose bush. He also spies on his own house and James is found outside in his garden. We don’t have many siblings, but we do have the dual couples of Charles and James and their respective parents as a centrepiece, and there is doubling and echoing around them, even to the fact that both cause deaths specifically out of vanity.

Portents come throughout the book – the chimneypiece at Shruff End is full of demons and can’t be dusted, and the sea is pretty well always dangerous, so we know it’s going to get somebody (the locals act as a mournful chorus in that respect). When he’s got Hartley in the house (later in the book than I remembered), “I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be” (p. 334). Buddhism is a big theme for James and his jade animals make it through to the end, always a sign of someone of interest.

But there’s humour too, in Charles’ dealings with the locals (“‘Dog kennel?’ I said to the Post Office lady” (p. 43), his meals, as mentioned, and the good-humoured fun poked at those who like to sing. There are asides, too: “as I could hwardly suppose that Rosina had arranged for me to be haunted by a sea monster I decided not to mention it” (p. 112). “Si biscuitus disintegrat … that’s the way the cookie crumbles” (p. 365) is small enough to forget then be cheered by every read. There’s also the shock of the phone ringing, and of the phone engineer arriving, and the laundry man.

The food is a special theme of this book, although unpleasant meals have been had before – they add a good note of humour to the book and there is in fact a cook book based on them. I love how the shop woman chases Charles down the street with news of fresh apricots late in the narrative.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Charles, director and serial marriage wrecker appears to be the enchanter of the piece, and is described as a demon. Gilbert even says, “You’ve always been a magnet to me” (p. 259). There are two contenders for saint in his father and James. His father has the advantage in saints of being less fortunate than his brother, and maybe James has sought to counteract that as he seems to have worked on his own enlightenment and makes more of an effort in his goodness than his uncle Adam. He’s learned Tibetan ‘tricks’ and makes an effort to tell the truth at all times, whereas Adam has retreated from the world and been mild, although he is described as having “… a positive moral quality of gentleness” (p. 30) and being “something quite else, something special” (p. 64). I actually found James a more attractive character this time round, perhaps because of his failings, especially in his friendship with Lizzie, and with his loss of his servant. Of course Charles in his desperate jealousy thinks of James as an enchanter: “James, who seemed to be a centre of magnetic attraction to the other three” (p. 353). I think they’re drawn to him in a different way, however (although he does exert fascination over people AND has a very tidy house …). But he does get in a “muddle” over Lizzie, which disappoints Charles greatly: “… this sort of squalid muddle. It’s a kind of ordinary sly human stupidity which I was foolish enough to imagine you didn’t suffer from” (p. 440). But James prevails with his slightly drunken sermon:

Goodness is giving up power and acting upon the world negatively. The good are unimaginable. (p. 478)

In addition to this stuff of demons and saints, there’s a strong theme around passing on or absorbing pain, the idea of ‘Ate’ which comes through in so much of IM’s work. Charles is the only person Hartley can inflict her ruined life on (therefore making her not the saint, just someone who is treated extraordinarily horribly). James talks persuasively about “Letting the poor ghost go” and not inflicting himself on Hartley any more (p. 379). Charles clearly states that while he believed it was Ben who attacked him, “Ben had carried my guilt” over Titus (p. 431). But then Titus carries away Hartley’s guilt: “Titus was the redeemer, he had vanished, taking her guilt with him” (p. 461). One important point here is made by Ben, and seems to pop the balloon of the entire book: “‘It’s no use talking,’ said Ben. ‘Like in the war, Something happens, you go on. You got to, eh?'” (p. 452)

As well as the saints and demons there is a strong thread about happiness running through the book:

One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats. (p. 9)

I love the small nods to other books found in this one. Will and Adelaide Boase from “Bruno’s Dream” are mentioned early on and then near the end, too. Rosina is said to have never been able to play Honor Klein, a nod to the play of “A Severed Head”. And then, one point I hadn’t noticed before, there’s an actor called Erasmus Blick. Could he be Calvin’s son? Given the names, it seems plausible. As my husband said, she does like to leave “Easter Eggs” for the discerning and careful reader! Peregrine’s step-daughter Angela is a near-copy of Julian from “The Black Prince” and makes a big effort to become Charles’ version of Julian – to his credit he does resist this. James has left the army under a cloud, which is a little theme which does crop up a good few times, if not in every book, harking back to other slightly ambiguous figures. The telephone engineer may have been reassigned from London, where he bothered Hilary Burde! When James is fussing over returning to London and doesn’t get round to phoning James or the taxi man and considers getting the later train, we’re back with Bradley Pearson, stuck in his flat out of indecision in “The Black Prince”.

I think a big point of why this narrator, unreliable and horrible as he is, comes out better than Bradley from “The Black Prince” might be this fact that he tries to resist the temptation of Angela and has actually learned and changed by the end of the book, hasn’t he? In History Chapter 4 he even addresses the fact that we might see him as an unreliable narrator, not something I recall Bradley doing: “(though, as James would say, what indeed are facts?)” (p. 257).  Looking back at my re-reading of this book, it’s more horrible than I remembered, but James is a more satisfying character, so I think it balances out, and it’s certainly a worthy and understandable Booker-winner.


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.

“Henry and Cato” round-up and “The Sea, The Sea” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I was pleased to have read and reviewed “Henry and Cato” on time again, mid-month, and we’ve had a nice lively discussion with some dissent as to whether we liked it more, less or just the same than other readings of this book and other books in the oeuvre. I love all the different aspects that people pick out.

Jo has done her usual careful and thoughtful Goodreads review – I think she’s the only person reading all the books through but for the first time, and it’s fascinating to read her progress. Do pop your comments on the review post even if you’re coming to this a bit late – I’d love this project to live on and be something people decide to undertake in the future!

Peter Rivenberg has a hardback Viking American first edition with a mysterious mythological scene, presumably of Persephone going into the underworld (is that Colette’s fate?):

The Sea, The Sea

On to “The Sea, The Sea” and a real treat: I suspect I have read this one more than three times already and, as the Booker winner, it’s one I recommend to IM newbies. My husband read and really enjoyed it.

I have the requisite three copies (not long and I will only have two of some of them!), a Chatto and Windus first edition, a Triad Granada paperback reprinted in 1987 (making me 15, about when I did read it first) and the new Vintage classic:

I do love the first edition cover and look at the back cover!

On to the blurbs, and the first edition gets it right:

then the Triad Granada reworks this, including removing some commas …

(I love the quotes from the Spectator, the New Statesman and … Vogue!)

and the Vintage one gives up a bit:

By the way, in my opinion this book has one of the best final paragraphs in literature.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Sea, The Sea” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Henry and Cato” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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“Henry and Cato” is the later book I remember least, even though I have to have read it at least four times now. I always remember there’s the dodgy character of Beautiful Joe and a rather sulky inheritor, but the details had once again escaped me. Once I’d re-read it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. Is it actually a thriller? Does it work as a thriller? Does it work better than “The Nice and the Good” which is the other one with thriller elements? I’ll try to unpick my thoughts and many, many post-it notes, and look forward to hearing everyone else’s reactions.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “Henry and Cato”

(08 January 2018)

We open so memorably (OK, I will admit to always recalling this scene when crossing Hungerford Bridge myself, but never quite remembering which book it’s out of) with someone called Cato dropping a gun into the Thames, in a bit of a state. And of course in a lovely echo and doubling, he’s popping back over the bridge with something else bulky in his coat in the closing moments of the book. In between he goes through an ordeal which he survives but doesn’t feel he acquitted himself well in – his father certainly doesn’t think so, but did he?

We are then introduced to Henry, a bit spoilt, a rubbish academic, coming back to the UK to claim his inheritance after his loathed brother has died. He considers his mother, then we cut to her and faithful retainer Lucius, and Cato’s father John, disappointed in his unacademic daughter, all concurrently – which I think is a masterful stroke that shows IM’s confidence and technical ability as a novelist (something I’m not entirely certain the book shows off all the way through). IM gets into her element describing Laxlinden Hall – has she had a lovely big house to dwell on quite so happily since “The Bell”? Henry will decide what to do and bend everyone to his will before curiously giving up. Cato will stick to his principles until he suddenly doesn’t. Everything will be changed but still somehow the same, and two people will die, only one violently. Oh, and there’s a faithless priest in an abandoned house in an East London wasteland, which we’ve definitely had before, haven’t we.

We have the usual Murdochian themes and echoes of other books. Themes-wise, we find out very early on that Henry is writing a book on an artist, John Forbes intends to write one on Quakerism, and Lucius is also writing a book, which is getting shorter and more personal as he approaches the end of his life. The theme of ageing women comes in again, with Gerda coming in for a hard time, Lucius wondering if she dyes her hair, and noticing, “Of course she was faded and her features were less fine” (p. 10) (that “of course” is harsh, isn’t it?). Women’s lots are discussed – John Forbes has always “fought for women’s liberation” but sees women as having an “invincible stupidity” which somewhat undermines that (p. 20). Stephanie is described right from the start in fairly disgusting/disgusted terms, with her moustache and her greasy nose, her fat and her unflattering clothes, and her ageing is pinned down cruelly, too:

How strangely and mysteriously evident was the ageing of the body. A weariness in the breasts, in the buttocks, a certain coarsening and staleness of the flesh, proclaim the years as much as lines and wrinkles can. (p. 166)

Siblings abound, of course, and they either complement or are wildly contrasted – “really Sandy was just a big calm relaxed man, unlike dark manic Henry” (p. 16). We climb over a wall with Henry, notably at the start of the book but then also over the gate between Laxlinden and the Forbes estate. And of course we also find ourselves looking at people standing outside windows (Henry, seen by Gerda), looking through windows (on Henry’s first arrival, peering at his mother), trailing across gardens (Henry seems to be forever running off down the terraces) and indeed following people, with Henry following Colette through the bamboo (as one does; and she comes back, which is unusual: does this signify that she’s more his equal?). Colette is the one with the hair, apart from Henry’s dark curls and Joe’s weird blond bob: she even has straight and flat bits of hair that frame her face, although they’re not metallic like some people’s. She looks like her hair has been cut when Henry visits her after her injury (although it hasn’t been: she has remained whole (see below)). Gerda also stands with her “pale, broad face thrust forward” (p. 109) which is a common Murdochian way to arrange oneself.

There are flashes of humour in this odd book with its large themes. When Henry thinks of his brother being dead, he is said to have “flexed his toes with joy” (p. 3) The descriptions of Lucius’ creeping age, “a kind of itching ache was crawling about his body, making it impossible for him to find comfort in any position” (p. 10) shouldn’t be funny but is in light of his fussiness, and he’s a creature of arrogance who we laugh at – and also produces that dreadful poetry that so upsets Gerda in a very funny scene where she’s found it in his room: “Clump, clump. The old girl” (p. 201). The sentence, “He had lived on talk and curiosity and drink and the misfortunes of his friends” seems perfect. There’s also the lovely detail of the different kinds of holy men, with Cato finding Father Thomas dull and Father Thomas thinking he’s a “frivolous amateur”:

Of course, Cato and Father Thomas, being decent sincere men of God, recognized their prejudices as prejudices. But this did not stop them from quietly feuding. (p. 34)

I really giggled at the description of Henry, having met Stephanie for the first time: “As he began to calm down he bought himself four very expensive shirts” (p. 104) and he also has a very odd scene playing with hats.

We have one of our mysterious figures who moves the plot along in certain ways (near the end in her case) in Rhoda, whose speech is unintelligible to everyone except for Gerda (was she given to her like Biscuit was to Lady Kitty). She doesn’t run her errands for her, but a mystery hinges on her. What an odd character. Along with the mystery, fate leans and breathes heavily over the action as often seems to happen (c.f. all the portents in “Sacred and Profane”: “[Henry] felt panic, terror, a kind of nebulous horror as if he were a man destined by dark forces to commit a murder for which he had no will and of which he had no understanding” (p. 59) – although of course he doesn’t, and this is probably something about accepting contingency which I’m trying to grasp to understand myself.

Seeing and attention, which IM is obviously famous for talking about and which slip into the novels more and more as time passes, are prominent here. Beautiful Joe says early on, “You’re the only one who can really see me at all” (p. 38). Gerda mentions that Henry cannot see his future wife (Stephanie) when she’s met her and observed them. Gerda herself is described as having “attended carefully to Stephanie” (p. 315) and reaches an understanding with her (in the literal and figurative senses, it turns out).

There’s a very odd quirk in the language – did anyone else notice this? We have “adjective Henry” all over the place, as well as bird-headed Rhoda and philistine Sandy: changeling Henry, much-travelled Henry, etc., etc.

The portrait of Gerda’s grief is very moving, as she tries to hold herself together and not make a fuss. I didn’t much notice her as a character originally but I feel she’s very brave, actually. An almost feminist point gets made about a certain kind of woman at a certain point in time and society:

I suppose that women … learn pretty early on that they’ve got to be alone and bear things alone, even when they’re in the bosom of their family. (p. 196)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Henry seems to enchant Stephanie but then she’s looking for an owner to create (“You needed me and you invented me” (p. 264)) and he wants to keep her submissive rather than being created as an enchanter figure. They enchant each other, “So it turned out that in an upside-down way, he was her captive, not she his” (p. 165) but then Henry also admits that, having been bullied, maybe he was looking for someone to bully (certainly thus not doing the absorbing of pain that IM espouses).

Cato tries to be a hero and maybe even though he commits a crime in truth, it’s more like when Tallis drives the assailant away in the Chinese restaurant in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, as he’s doing it to protect someone weaker. He also has a revelation when imprisoned, but his this the kind that is had in “The Unicorn” or a lasting one? He also finds he has to “hold onto myself” – is this the opposite of unselfing? Father Brendan has too fancy and well-arranged an apartment to be a saint (Cato lives in a smelly state). Or is it Colette, who restores order and knows her own mind, but is fearless in protecting her brother? She has her own trial and comes through wounded but stronger, and gets what she always wanted. Is that the reward of a saint, though or something else? She certainly doesn’t pass pain on, as she knows about the lack of accomplices but doesn’t tell Cato. She tries to even love her enemies, saying of Joe, “you must try to love people even when it’s hard or awfully odd” (p. 286)She’s also used by Henry to give himself courage, “the thought of her wholeness and her courage entered into him like a spear, like a hard line of pure non-Henry in the midst of the humiliating jelly of his personal terror” (p. 260). And I’m glad that her father sees her as “the heroic one” in the end, although he’s too hard on Cato, perhaps. Could Gerda be seen to be a saint, absorbing her own suffering (although she does impose it on Lucius, doesn’t she?). She does have some netsuke, always a good indication of Good, although she happily parts with them (in a Buddhist way?).  In the end, maybe it’s Colette and Cato’s dead mother who was the saint, described as such by her children:

She was the sort of saint that no one notices or sees, she was almost invisible. (p. 335)

In a nod to “A Severed Head”, Henry, Bella and Russ have discussed Henry’s affair with Bella with their analyst. John Forbes buying Oak Meadow echoes Monty wanting to buy his end of the garden in “Sacred and Profane”. The mention of John’s engagement with Quakerism reminds me of N and his community in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. Surely it’s a hat-tip to “The Black Prince” when Henry randomly sends Russ a postcard of the Post Office Tower? Cato mentions the underground warrens underneath government offices that play such a part in “The Nice and the Good”.

I’ve not even mentioned the religious aspects: I found them interesting and the network of religious sponsors and mentors fascinating. I loved how Father Brendan described priesthood as being like a marriage, long-term and needing to be worked on after the first excitement of love. But I’ve written a lot and if you’ve got this far, I salute 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.

“A Word Child” round-up and “Henry and Cato” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

11 Comments

It’s the end of the month so time to round up where our general thoughts went on “A Word Child” and look forward to April’s read, “Henry and Cato”.

We had a good discussion about “A Word Child” on my review, with some of us, including me, shocked that I’d found Hilary a positive character: not this time! Jo did another great review on Goodreads and as usual I will add any other blog reviews you tell me about to this page. Do pop your comments on the review post even if you’re coming to this a bit late – I’d love this project to live on and be something people decide to undertake in the future!

I have some cover images to share and also a lovely in situ reading pic which I thought might inspire a few more, after I shared images of myself reading the book on a lava field (see my review for that). First I should share, as promised, my circular diagram of the relationships in the book I did last time I read it: I was quite proud of this (it does have some spoilers, though!)

Here are Peter Rivenberg’s US first edition, which I quite like, although I prefer my Tube-inspired UK one (sorry)

and the Penguin which has a slightly odd front cover …

and a back that tells the whole plot!

Also, Thomasina zany??

Finally, here’s Peter’s dog Lexie helping him read it: how lovely!

Henry and Cato

So, on to Henry and Cato. I have three copies, the 1st edition, a Triad Granada published in 1977, my reprint being the 1986 one (so bought and read when I was 14 or a bit older) and then the older-style Vintage one because this is another that doesn’t have the red cover. I have to say I do dislike the Triad cover!

The first edition I bought in Oxfam (they hadn’t realised it was a first, I got it for £2.49 and I went back and gave them an extra donation when I’d checked it). It also has a mysterious sticker on the title page: a diplomatic gift, I think.

No notion of who “Britain” presented it to, however.

Blurb time, here’s the first, with quite a lot of detail:

The Triad Granada with a great quote from the Telegraph which does sum IM up I think,

And the Vintage, recycling the first one:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Henry and Cato” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? (and why has no one answered that question yet?). Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

25 Comments

Well it was going to happen, wasn’t it … I’ve found so much more to like in some of my less-favoured Murdoch novels and then, having been looking forward to this one, I was a bit, not disappointed as sucb, but surprised that I remembered such a horrible central character so fondly!

I’ve been away on my hols, hence the rather odd selection of reading matter in the last two reviews, so here you have an image of what I’d call “Extreme Iris Murdoch reading” – sat in the middle of a lava field in Fuerteventura (that’s my husband heading off to look for some birds).

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me Or some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child”

(31 December 2018)

So I remembered Hilary Burde as a gente, slightly shambliing, slight figure, for no discernible reason at all, rather than a big bruiser who keeps bashing women and frightening them. Why, I’m really not sure, as all the information is given to us in the book. We gradually come to realise Hilary is a man who keeps to a strict routine and regime in order to stave off madness, caused partly by his accidental – or not – killing of his friend Gunnar’s wife, with whom he was having an affair. So he has different days for different friends, keeps everything compartmentalised, hates his office-mates, worships his sister, tolerates her suitor Arthur, and puts up with his fey lodger, Christopher. Then a mysterious woman called Biscuit starts following him around and he finds out through office gossip that Gunnar is back … with a new wife.

It is a savagely funny book in that the repetitions and echoings and patterns come with a sort of black irony. The office scenes are brilliant and just right and of course I love Hilary’s circlings of the Circle Line (what a true tragedy it is that the platform bars have long gone and you can’t even go right round on the Circle Line any more!). The theme is set on page 4: “There was nothing here to love” – Hilary has no love in his life and rebuffs any that tries to form. This circles back at the end: “I had almost systematically destroyed his respect and affection and finally driven him away” (p. 387)

Is there an enchanter? Is it Hilary himself, with whom Gunnar and Lady Kitty are obsessed, who he admits three women want him to arrange for them to have children, two with him, and who inspires love? Only Christopher seems to escape him. And surely Christopher is our saint, accepting violence with meekness and being kind (although Jimbo is also an agent of positivity and attention with his taxis and presents. Are we saying the young are going to save the world?). He’s described as being Christ-like at one point. Mr Osmund also gives Hilary his full attention so is perhaps a Saint figure, as is patient and unworldly Arthur Fisch, who absorbs Hilary’s terrible story (although Hilary tries not to pass on his second love to Crystal, she’s still bothered by an atmosphere between them, so it clearly hasn’t worked). Arthur’s is also a “muddler” with a lot of lame ducks, reminding us of Tallis and just as humble: “I think we should just be kind to each other” (p. 87) and, later, “I think one should try to stick to simplicity and truth” (p. 290). Hilary describes him as the perfect IM saint:

Arthur was a little untalented unambitious man, destined to spend his life in a cupboard, but there was in a quite important sense no harm in him. He was kind, guileless, harmless and he had had the wit to love Crystal, to see Crystal, to see her value. (p. 287)

Tommy owns the crowded room full of knick-knacks that has to exist in every book. Clifford has a more refined version with Indian miniatures and tiny bookcases. Hilary gives Biscuit a black pebble which she later flings back at him. For water, we have the endless rain and dripping umbrellas, and of course the Thames as well as the Serpentine and Boating Lake. There’s no pursuit in the dark or standing in gardens looking through into houses, but Hilary does chase Biscuit down the Bayswater Road. In terms of siblings, we have Hilary and Crystal, but Clifford also had a sister, who died. Hair isn’t such a big theme but Laura has an unsuitably flowing grey mane, Biscuit a long black plait Kitty sophisticated brown layers and Crystal a frizzy fuzz last seen in “Sacred and Profane”.

A new theme coming through seems to be the quest, which Hilary talks of on p. 200: “I now had a task. I was like a Knight with a quest. I needed my chastity now; I needed my aloneness”.  The feeling of feuds and owing, when Hilary says, “I owe Gunnar a child” reminds me of “The Green Knight” and brings the patterning into sharp relief. There’s one of IM’s horrible prefigurings when Hilary is talking to Kitty on the jetty – “I felt now as if I were plunging around in the mud” (p. 243) and one that could be from “A Severed Head”: “Powers which I had offended were gathering to destroy me” (p. 323).

The humour is there, but savage as I said: “Not to have been born is undoubtedly best, but sound sleep is second best” (p. 16) feels like a good example. IM is funny about Christopher’s happenings and has Hilary be hilariously vile about Tommy’s knitting, which she does because he once said he liked it, but makes him want to vomit.

In echoes with other books, there’s yet another set of telephone entrails (“The Black Prince” and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” have them and I’m sure there are more in “The Book and the Brotherhood”). The parks of London of course echo several other books, as does the leap into the Thames at the end. Hilary’s three women demanding babies, echo Edgar’s three women planning to visit at he end of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”.

What will become of Hilary at the end? Without a set of fake epilogues to contain him, this latest first-person narrator seems to drift away from us in this stranger than I remember book.

Is it shocking that Hilary is only 41? Yes, a bit: this is the first time I’ve been older than quite a few of the characters I’ve always known as being older than me, and maybe this has reduced my tolerance. The sense of place, though, is as I remembered, and eminently traceable. I’ve been noticing bits of running in the books and here we have Hilary in the parks, “I ran, and was cleansed of myself. I was a heart pumping, a body moving. I had cleaned a piece of the world of the filth of my consciousness” (p. 26).


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.

reading ireland 2019PS I should have added this – this was also read for Reading Ireland Month as IM identified as being of Irish descent and Cathy always lets me include her (read about it at 746 Books here).

“The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” round-up and “A Word Child” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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So it’s time to round up our reading of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” and look forward to what has always been a personal favourite of mine, “A Word Child”. My review of “Sacred and Profane” is here and we’ve had a good discussion in the comments, particularly on the roles of wives and mistresses. Do pop your thoughts in the comments there if you have any to add – and don’t worry if it’s not February 2019 when you do so – I always want to talk about Murdoch!

Away from my review and comments, Bookish Beck has been reading along with us with all the IM books she had, and has now finished (I thought she had “The Book and the Brotherhood” but I must be thinking of someone else, and did a great review of this one, with which I tend to agree. Jo’s Goodreads review is excellent as ever and I love the quotes she pulls out as well as those memories of trendy 1970s living rooms!

Maria Peacock has sent me these cover images of the 1976 Penguin paperback (a few people have this as it’s the copy Bookish Beck read, too):

Maria Peacock’s Penguin ed of “Sacred and Profane Love Machine”

Maria Peacock’s Penguin ed of “Sacred and Profane Love Machine” – blurb

and added this information:

“The detail in the 1976 copy is of a painting by Titian and shows the wrist and hand of the ‘sacred’ bridal woman. According to the Wikipedia entry one interpretation is that the  two women represent the goddess Ceres ( the naked one) who brought her daughter Prosperina ( the one in the frock) back from the Underworld. Emily in the novel refers to this myth when she says Blaise has killed her and sent to hell and he must come and find her to make her live again.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_and_Profane_Love

Peter Rivenberg contributed the more recent Penguin than mine:

Peter Rivenberg’s newer ed Penguin

“A Word Child”

I cannot WAIT to read this one. Set partly on the London Underground with the most delicious doubling and repetition and patterns, groovy coats and drug references and some pop music, I seem to remember. I’ve always really liked this one, maybe because I understood it a bit better, seemingly buying and reading it first on my 23rd birthday!

Here are my three copies. I love the First Ed but it’s a bit fragile to release entirely from its protective cover, so sorry it’s a bit reflective. Guesses on who all the heads represent (Oh, I THINK I’ve done a diagram of the relationships in this one that goes in a circle, something to dig out for the review!).

So Penguin had got into their new edition when I bought my copy in 1995 and there’s a great picture of the Hungerford Footbridge on it – I always thing of this book when I’m in London and trot across the bridge. I’m not quite sure what the IKEA chair on the new Vintage represents but there we go.

The blurb in the First ed (sorry this didn’t photograph well):

That’s a great blurb, isn’t it! We’re a bit more terse in 1995:

and the Vintage copy seems strangely derivative …

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “A Word Child” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? (and why has no one answered that question yet?)


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

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