Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Bruno’s Dream” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

7 Comments

I will admit to finishing reading this book a good few days ago, but I need a chunk of time to write these reviews that I really didn’t get in the week back after our holiday in Cornwall. I was slightly worried about reading this one as it’s traditionally been one of my least favourite, however I recall liking it a lot more last time, and I found even less to feel weird about this time. Maybe it’s a book that gets better with increasing maturity (or age!). Discuss! Let’s NOT discuss any further how Vintage didn’t do a “red spine” edition of this one. It’s fine. Honestly.

EDITED TO ADD: After some comments and some thinking about this on my own part, I’ve realised that I’m using these ‘reviews’ of IM’s books as sort of notes for discussion rather than traditional or formal reviews, using a kind of shorthand regarding themes etc. I’ve realised this might be a bit offputting to the casual or new visitor, or the person visiting IM for the first time, even, so I’ve added this comment here and tweaked the piece slightly to hopefully make it a bit more approachable. I’ve made additions in italics on 23 October in the early morning, so the first two comments on the post were made before that.

Iris Murdoch – “Bruno’s Dream”

(August 2018)

Bruno, very elderly and frail, is dying slowly in his son-in-law Danby’s house. Across London, his estranged son, Miles, lives with his second wife and her sister in some sort of domestic harmony. Meanwhile Danby dallies with the maid, Adelaide, who is mixed up with a pair of twins, weird actor Will and Nigel, Bruno’s nurse. As the Thames threatens to flood, Bruno mulls over his indiscretions, his obsession with spiders, his stamp collection and the metaphor of his dressing gown as he sinks and the waters rise.

When I first read this book, in my mid-teens, it really did feel like it was all about Bruno’s slow death, and I found it morbid and alarming and really wasn’t keen. But there’s so much more to it than that, including a range of interesting other characters and their tangled relationships. What I hadn’t realised, though, or remembered, was just how much Adelaide (like Patty?) is abused and mistreated.

We’re straight into Bruno’s consciousness at the start of the novel, and it’s amazing how she “gets” his life and his slow decline. With the description much later, “He felt as if the centre of his mind was occupied by a huge black box which took up nearly all the space and round which he had to edge his way. Names not only of people but of things eluded him, hovering near him …” (p. 278), it’s almost impossible not to think of IM’s own Alzheimer’s, isn’t it (or is that just me, ignoring my Reception Theory / Death of the Author underpinning?).  But it’s not all about him and soon we meet Danby, and a great pithy summary of his character:

Danby was the sort of man who, if civilisation were visibly collapsing in front of him, would cheer up if someone offered him a gin and French. (p. 11)

There’s not so much farce and humour in this book as there is in some of the others, even if there’s some drawing-room stuff and some partner swapping going on. It’s more irony: Bruno saving the stamp collection for a rainy day has pathos and humour when he considers what he could have done with the money, and then savage irony when it’s an actual rainy day that takes it away. There is the farce of everyone thinking Danby has crept into Miles and Diana’s garden to see them which reminds us of other misunderstandings in other novels. The duel, again, could be farcical but is odd and disturbing and leads Nigel to make a strange claim about who he loves. IM does seem to like amusing when she’s describing a house: she’s done that before and she does it again in Auntie’s house: “Not everything which ought to be against a wall had a wall to be against” (p. 45)

I think something which might be unique in this book is the flash forward to Adelaide and her marriage and children: does this happen in any other of the novels? Also quite unusual is the brief flash of feminism on p. 220:

‘My name is Nigel. I’m the nurse. Nigel the Nurse. I suppose I should say the male nurse, the way people say women writers, though I don’t see why they should, do you, as more women are writers than men are nurses. Wouldn’t you agree?’

Another weird thing I found: Nigel refers to Adelaide as taking the stamp “for Will Boase” – however Will is his twin and Danby knows this (doesn’t he?) so why would he refer to him as Will Boase and not just Will?

With our main themes that we find in most of her novels, and which make IM’s entire oeuvre something many people read over and over again, rather than having a particular favourite, in the descriptions of women, Diana “tucked her hair well back behind her ears and thrust her pale smooth large-eyed face boldly forward at the world” and I think if we came upon that in isolation we’d know it was IM, wouldn’t we? Adelaide fulfils an important theme by having her hair cut off and then carrying the cut-off bit around with her. With siblings, we have Diana and Lisa and their swap in importance and power; Lisa also becomes a sort of child in Diana and Miles’ marriage. Miles and Danby are brothers-in-law and of course we have nasty Will and creepy Nigel, weird twins grown up but torturing each other rather than conspiring. Why was it Bruno and not them I found horrifying on my original reading of the book?

In further doubling, Lisa resembles the dead Gwen, Miles’s first wife, and Nigel goes to do the job Lisa originally signed up for in Calcutta. Bruno has written his Great Book but it wasn’t a huge tome after all and we get a wryly amusing passage about its decline from a planned great work to a couple of articles. Nigel spends quite a lot of time looking through windows from damp gardens, and then Danby has his foolish climb into Miles and Diana’s back garden to look through their window, causing the horrible almost-farce in the garden. Water is of course a main theme, with the threat of the Thames flooding and the flood scene, plus Danby’s escape from the duel by swimming the Thames. Adelaide’s tears make more water appear. And who can forget London and its fogs, redolent of “The Time of the Angels” or “A Severed Head” as almost another character.

IM is often talked about as having a central enchanter and a saint figure in her novels. Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Poor old Adelaide feels herself not to be like other people, lives in clutter and “did not feel herself in any way attached” which is quite a classic indicator of Murdochian sainthood. She’s in the power of Danby and Will but is maybe enchanted rather than saintly? Lisa is spoken of as having a vocation and she is a “bird with a broken wing” but also very strong: she works in an “atmosphere of dirt and poverty and muddle” and “lived in a real world” (p. 148), and of course she cares for Bruno without revulsion and tries to go and do charity work but finds her role is back healing the folk around her. She is also described has having “superb negativity” (p. 254) and being detached.

I’m not sure there IS an enchanter. Nigel claims he’s God but I think he’s just a creepy hippy – and certainly no enchanter claims to be one and usually becomes on by his subjects making him one. Or maybe he’s a saint: he gives Diana advice to “Let them trample over you in their own way” (p. 223), although he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice. But again, he talks in his letter to Danby of being a saint, and the way to be one is not to strive to be one, isn’t it. Diana learns to let people do as they will and to look after Bruno without recoiling, so is maybe moving towards goodness. As Bruno fades, she realises, “She tried to think about herself but there was nothing there” (p. 289) so in helping Bruno she’s subsumed her own person – and become saintly?

Echoes of other books: First of all, the pursuit of a woman is back, when Bruno chases Janie through the department store early on. Miles also sees a woman in a pale dress walking across the paving stones in the dark and doesn’t know whether it’s his wife or sister-in-law.  Gwen and Danby meet on the Circle Line Tube, a line which will of course assume prominence in “A Word Child” (taking a forward echo on for once). The fog and London echo “A Severed Head” and “The Time of the Angels”, and of course Will Boase and/or his sons are mentioned in “The Sea, The Sea” (which I love).

I’ve really been feeling my way as I’ve written my review here rather than formulating thoughts on the book in advance and putting forward full hypotheses. I certainly reacted viscerally to some of the scenes and like it a good deal more than when I first read it, 30-odd years ago. I hope this piece isn’t too muddled and is clearer now!


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.

“The Nice and the Good” roundup and “Bruno’s Dream” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

12 Comments

It’s time (in fact it’s over time, as I’m a day late, again) to catch up on what went on with our reading of “The Nice and the Good” and to look forward to “Bruno’s Dream”.

I reviewed the book here and we’ve had a good discussion already, even though I posted quite late in the month (I struggled with putting together my review somehow). You can also read Jo’s Goodreads review here and I will add more as I’m sent them.

I had lots of contributions of alternative covers for “The Nice and the Good”. Lucky I’m not collecting them myself, right?

The first American edition from Viking (submitted by Elaine Brix and David Mahon) has a lovely author photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The blurb

and David added this excellent character list from his copy:

(interesting point: Fivey is named as “Ewan” in Judy’s letter in the UK version. Is he Gavin in the US one?)

Bookish Beck has another of the very odd 70s Penguin covers. Who is this even supposed to be?

and Peter Rivenberg contributed his later Penguin, of which he comments, “Rather conventional and artistic. But as an added bonus, this second-hand book came with a used parking disc from the Cork City Council as a bookmark.”

Bruno’s Dream

Moving on to Bruno’s Dream, I have three copies: my first edition, my Triad Granada 1980 reprint, bought in the mid-80s, and the Vintage Classic. Don’t get me started on why they left this one out of the new red spined editions. But they did. At least it still has an introduction.

Here are the blurbs from the original …

which seems to sum it all up very well (I’ve completely forgotten Lisa, however: will I remember her as I re-read this for the third or fourth time?). Triad Granada went for:

and Vintage are more brief:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “Bruno’s Dream” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Nice and the Good” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

20 Comments

This review is late, and I’m sorry. I actually finished the book a good few days ago, at the weekend (still a bit late) and then I’ve been shillyshallying over writing up my review. I feel a bit intimidated because this feels to me like the first time Murdoch spreads her wings and fills a book with a million details and thoughts and feels and I have SO MANY post-its stuck in the book and I’m going to have missed all the stuff. And yes, I’m writing informally because I’ve reverted to my basic flippancy when under stress. At least I didn’t get THAT out of a blooming IM novel (see below).

So I hope my lovely Read-Along-ers come into play with some insightful comments and readings. Please. Right, here goes …

Iris Murdoch – “The Nice and the Good”

(August 2018)

As I mention above, this felt to me this time (and I’m not sure it’s happened in other chronological re-reads) that this is a point where IM really expands to fill the space allowed. Maybe it’s because it’s expanded into multiple locations, so many characters and scenes with more than two people in it (thank you to Peter Rivenberg for pointing out that doesn’t happen often in “The Time of the Angels“) so feels a long way from the claustrophobia of “The Time of the Angels”.

First off, so sorry to announce this, but we don’t (as far as I recall and now I’m fretting) have a woman in a white dress being pursued through the dusk. However, we do follow McGrath and the shine of his shirt through the under-office tunnels, so all is not lost. Incidentally, whenever I get to these tunnels, I can’t help thinking about the sub-sub-basement at the library I used to work at. I’m sure there were tunnels there.

With our usual themes, stones and shells must be mentioned first. Poor old Pierce gets his first of many setbacks when Barbara sweeps his shell-woman off her dressing table. Then of course he gets his sour “revenge” with the ammonite fossil. The uncanny twins are obsessed with stones and fossils: they’re uncanny in a good way of course (of course?). Hair is everywhere, from Willy’s white wisps to Kate’s pre-Raphaelite fuzz. Barbara has an “elaborate filigree head-piece” for hair, which is along the lines of previous Murdochian hair. Weird siblings we have of course, and a good pair who have special games with special rules and ask the most marvellous questions.

The sea and water are of course a major theme in the Dorset portions of the book. So many beautiful descriptions that are simply heart-stopping. Contrasts are there in the two main locations, office and outdoors, London and Dorset, town and country (the Grays have homes in both and most people move between the two), and we also have an explicit contrast in the discussion of the “chequer-board” of contrasting atmospheres in weekday and weekend/holiday Dorset. Dry, cool Paula is set against muddled Mary. Two women let themselves into houses (Biranne’s then Ducane’s) in front of horrified observers and both Mary and Paula take trips to London to revisit old haunts.

I found the description of Ducane’s thoughts when walking to see Willy with Kate very interesting:

Thus he walked on with Kate at his side, conveying along with him his jumbled cloud of thoughts whose self-protective and self-adjusting chemistry is known as mental health. (p. 46)

It feels like this is a contrast with all the talking and machinating that goes on in the book and also all the thinking and machinating provided by psychoanalysts in others of her books.

The animals in this are superb: Montrose with his “bird look” and silly old Mingo, both providing plot points in their own way, and then signifying the resolution of the midsummer of madness when they finally curl up in the basket together. I’d forgotten that Montrose appears on the breakwater and on the beach, wandering further than the house and garden, and liked this touch very much: he’s an observer, contrasted with Mingo’s eager participation.

The humour is back, muted but definitely there, from Pierce and his strokable nose which as “already troubled, in half-conscious form, a number of people, including some of his masters at school” (p. 22). Barbara is gently laughed at with her new pretensions and pony-madness. Ducane and Kate have conversations where each misinterprets the other, and he says how lovely it is to be so “rational” while really being nothing of the sort (p. 49). McGrath’s unpleasant colouring, or rather Ducane’s attitude to it, is jarring in a funny way: “McGrath was in very bad taste” (p. 64). Uncle Theo wanting to end up placing a pebble on each of Pierce’s buttocks makes me giggle every time I read it – but is is meant to be read like that or am I just being silly? Of course the cat and dog bring humour: when Montrose is defending his basket, “He lounged with the immobility of careless power” (p. 102) and of course the twins’ questions (and the questions the adults dare not ask them) are hilarious at times.

Do we have a saint and an enchanter? It’s not so clear-cut as it sometimes is (though will be again in later books, I think). Lots of people have saintly attributes: Kate “herself undefined, was a definer of others” (p. 18) and has a stammer and she and Octavian have “an indubitable virtue of generosity” (p. 19), but she’s not so self-effacing as to almost disappear. Jessica’s messy and makes weird art that she destroys; she is eventually free but doesn’t seem to actually help anyone. Is she an echo of Dora from “The Bell”?  Ducane wants to be cool and collected and help people and not get messy, and he’s also told repeatedly that he’s come to save people or help them; he is changed by the end of the novel, more messy and contingent, but I don’t think he’s the saint. He has a passage on p. 75 where he is shown as having “quite explicitly set before himself the aim of becoming a good man” and of course one of the rules for being good is not trying. On the other hand, Kate thinks that being good is “just a matter of temperament in the end” (p. 122) and something to do with being a happy, breast-fed baby.

I feel Mary or Willy might be our saint. Neither passes on their pain, including Willy never discussing his life in a concentration camp except to Theo, who sort of absorbs and doesn’t listen. Or maybe Theo’s the saint. He’s described as being invisible (which might be a curse, according to Mary) and

Theo also had a considerable gift for being physically relaxed. He seemed a totally non-electric, non-magnetic person. Perhaps it was this air of blank bovine ease which made his neighbours rightly so incurious. There was nothing to know. (p. 87)

He even has eyes whose colour you can’t describe. Mary is described thus: “… the mediocrity and muddle within Mary felt to be her own natural medium” (p. 20) and she has a self-effacing need to prove her place in the world by serving:

Mary depended, more than she might have been willing to admit, on a conception of her existence as justified by her talent for serving people. (p. 88)

(I had a jolt reading this, read first when I was around 14 and something I have built myself around, too: did that come from here?). Willy is “affectionate, detached, passive, absolutely passive” (p. 107) and although Mary has been subservient to him, that’s described as being entirely her doing (however, it’s worth noting that almost everyone seems obsessed with trooping to his cottage; so is he a quiet and ‘good’ enchanter after all?). Theo describes Willy’s book as “It’s not great, it’s not even necessary. It’s mediocre, it’s a time-filler” (p. 124) but is that a comment on Willy or Theo? Theo also tells Pierce to “Keep the blackness inside yourself then … Don’t pass it on” (p. 155) and that’s only after being pretty well asked for advice by Pierce. But he has had a difficulty involving a young boy who drowned, his master is now dead and he is “sunk in the wreck of myself” (p. 347) and knows what he must do but “cannot bear” to.

However, Willy, our other candidate, has this to say to Ducane:

Happiness … is a matter of one’s most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one’s ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonising preoccupation with self. (p. 179)

However, just after this Ducane comes to the conclusion that he can’t stick with his view of himSELF as a strong helper, but is “enervated by all this mess and guilt” – so if he’s not become the good man or saint that he hoped to be since childhood, maybe he’s on the way to being good now he’s accepted and been subsumed by mess and contingency. He moves further forward in the sea cave, having an Effingham-like revelation

To love and to reconcile and to forgive, only this matters. All power is sin and all law is frailty. Love is the only justice. Forgiveness, reconciliation, not law. (p. 305)

and he takes this forward in his successful dealings with Biranne.

IM has an interesting explicit description of goodness, in that a saint might “possibly … be known by the utter absence of such gaseous tentacles” (p. 144) meaning their mysterious agencies which cause pain and mutilation to others without them even knowing, and the ability to insert themselves into people’s dreams. There’s a whole study of who appears in whose dreams there, isn’t there.

Is Kate the enchanter? She’s the centre of the Dorset group and says, “You are all my dear – children”, described by Ducane as “Slaves” (p. 258)

Echoes with other books: when Carel said in “The Time of the Angels” that maybe life boiled down to some dusty feathers in a cupboard, I thought of Radeechy’s poor old pigeons and there they are. Also like in “The Time of the Angels” and I’m trying to think what other novel (I think one yet to come), Jessica, as a Young Person, is shown as ignorant of religion and only part of a cult of the young. Fivey is a mix of Eugene from “The Time of the Angels” with his brown moustaches and Jake’s Finn in “Under the Net”. Kate and Octavian’s brisk and open discussions about Kate’s fancies remind me of all the self-justification and attempts to be objective in “A Severed Head”; however, here, they do seem to be genuine and not to be skating over the surface of some awful chasm. How has this changed? Octavian certainly “reclaims” Kate while on holiday and is triumphant, so maybe that’s it. I find them more and more peculiar as I get older (this is the first time I’ve read them while married myself, which I think makes a difference). The spaceship at the end echoes another spaceship at the end of another book which is such an important plot point that I hesitate to name the book here for fear of planting spoilers, as well as the more well-discussed sea serpent in “The Sea, The Sea”. The trial by sea in the cave reminded me of the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers” (weirdly, that scene comes way later in the book than I’d remembered). The word “rebarbative(ly)” appears for the first time since its sight over-use in “The Bell”, I think (p. 57)

So, have I really said what I need to say about this book? I don’t know. Who is the saint, who the enchanter? I don’t know. Theo and, more, Ducane, certainly grow towards goodness. Montrose, Mingo, Mary, Willy, Casey even are essentially “good”, aren’t they? The blurb on one of my copies says no one in the book is good, but I don’t agree.

Oh, and it’s a really good read with an exciting sub-plot and surprising and exciting events. Did I miss that aspect in my review?


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.

“The Time of the Angels” roundup and “The Nice and the Good” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

13 Comments

I’m so sorry this is a day late – I was basically working or doing yoga or getting laundry on the line all day yesterday and there was no time to put this together. I hope I’m forgiven. At least I got outside, unlike good old Carel …

So today we round up discussions on “The Time of the Angels” so far and then look ahead to “The Nice and the Good”. I’m really excited about this month’s read – this is what I consider a ‘classic’ Murdoch with its group of disparate characters all clustered around one couple and all linked through loves and relationships old and new. We might even need to draw a diagram!

“The Time of the Angels”

We had a really good discussion over on the review for this novel, looking at the writer of the introduction’s assertion that it would have been different if Carel had got out more and examining how frightening it is. I have to say I’m not quite as alarmed by it as when I first read it as a mid-teen, but it’s still very unsettling.

Jo has submitted an excellent, full review on Goodreads and the discussion on my review also gave her some food for thought. Buried in Print has shared a review here. I will share links to any more Goodreads and other blog post reviews here in time.

In cover-sharing, David Mahon contributed this US first edition from Viking Press (1966) which came with a library card in it.

Peter Rivenberg’s 1975 Penguin cover is as disturbing as it should be

Buried in Print contributed a very subdued Penguin version

and Maria Peacock has the Vintage Classic before mine, complete with angel (the detail on the front is from Annunciatory Angel by Fra Angelico) and Maria mentioned that IM might have something to say about the hair!

This has the same blurb as my red-spined one.

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“The Nice and the Good”

And now we move on to an early favourite of mine (sorry about the terrible photograph, but my first edition is covered in a thin plastic that will not stop picking up lights). Again, I felt terribly sophisticated reading it in my mid-teens: it’s got a thriller aspect, a group of intellectuals and misfits in a sort of commune, a cat and a dog, an exciting scene of peril …

Here’s the blurb from my first edition:

I really like the reference to Midsummer Night’s Dream and mention of the duality of locations and think this sums the book up very well.

My Penguin is the 1986 edition, bought presumably in my first flush of IM discovery, and has this to say:

“No one in the book is good” – hm. One to discuss later. It IS a feast, however – well done, The Guardian.

And my Vintage Classic, well, I don’t think it has much to say about the book, actually, although it does spell out Octavian and John’s relationship.

But a quote from John Betjeman – that was a surprise.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Nice and the Good” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Time of the Angels” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

30 Comments

Well I can cheerfully admit that this book scared me silly when I first read it – aged about 15, I’d imagine. What DID I make of it then? The death of God and the rise of the avenging angels, all that quivering violence, all those secrets, all that fog pressing around the house … It’s still an unnerving experience, but I’ve read it at least three times before this time, and could remember most of the story and – more importantly – the atmosphere. I don’t think I changed my opinion on any of the characters for this one, though. Maybe they’re set out to be more black and white (literally, I suppose) with less room for ambivalence.

Iris Murdoch – “The Time of the Angels”

(27 February 2018)

It’s a short book but it’s festooned with post-it tags, so I hope I’m able to get my thoughts into some sort of order.

First of all, I’m disappointed to say that I don’t THINK we have any women in white dresses running off into the night, do we, although Muriel flees at one point but is not pursued. That’s the first time for a long time and I hope that theme comes back, because I have been enjoying spotting it.

The book is full of horrible foreshadowings which you will probably only notice on a re-reading: most notably on p.2 where Marcus brushes against Pattie, touching her neck and sweeping her with his cassock. The fog has a good go at being its own character, and there’s quite a lot of what I remember as being the Pathetic Fallacy (OK, I’ll admit it, I had to look that up, but I remembered there was such a thing, at least), where the weather reflects the happenings and emotions in the book. It also gives us some sublimely beautiful scenes, most notably when Eugene takes Pattie to the river in the snow.

The massive theme of this book is of course the loss of religion in society and the vacuum into which nothing has actually come rushing in. Norah talks about this and the “modern young” where “it’s as if her sheer energy has taken her straight over the edge of morality” (p. 13) and Muriel and Leo talk about going beyond morality; this then gives weight to Carel’s ravings about the death of God and the time of the angels: are they really ravings if everyone’s talking about this in their own way? Poor old Norah is rather satirised, her “brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical” (p. 14).

So many echoes in this one. In my head, I’d built up the bits of The Book to come all the way through it, but actually we only have one chunk of Marcus’ writing and one of Carel’s. Of course someone writing a book is a constant theme that we’ve had in many of the novels. But going back to echoes, I was interested to see Norah and Anthea as almost the same character, doubled (in fact, I have a feeling I thought they WERE the same person in my memory of this book), both trying to do good. Both of them are remarkably unchanged and cheerful by the end, which might be saying something against Marcus and Carel’s hatred of do-gooders. Pattie has lost a younger brother, like Carel and Marcus have, and Eugene his sister. Marcus falls through two doors holding chrysanthemums.

As well as the doublings and echoes, we have the usual hair – Elizabeth’s flat metallic strands, Muriel’s boyish crop and Leo’s animal fur. Leo has some Japanese prints but I don’t think they imply that he’s a saint or an enchanter or have any significance. Maybe the fact that they’re only stuck onto the wall takes their power away. He associates looking at girls through screens with Japan, so maybe using the country for nefarious reasons takes that away, too.

Who is the enchanter in the book? Fairly obviously Carel, with Leo trying to do a mini-enchanter act but actually just being one of those annoying prancing boys who are another stock character. Elizabeth is a “magical child” who certainly engenders obsession in her father and her uncle, but is too passive to be an enchanter, and is more enchanted. We see him in relation to Pattie: “Carel was her whole destiny” (p. 152) and in fact we see both enchanter and saint defined by poor Pattie. They are “the white figure against the dark one” (p. 177).

Who’s the saint? I’m saying Eugene. Although Pattie is passive, she’s in thrall to Carel and doesn’t really do any good for anyone, actively or passively. She lies “inert like a chrysalis” (p. 28) but can’t find a “normal” way out of her situation, only fleeing violently for another continent when her hand is forced. And she WANTS to be a saint, which surely must be the way not to go about being one. Eugene is a classic saint, isn’t he?

Eugene did not suffer much from anxiety. He had spent too long sitting at the bottom of the world and hoping for nothing to suffer from any precarious play of tempting aspirations and glimpses. No object lay just beyond his grasp since he had long ago ceased grasping. (p. 42)

and when Pattie thinks of him “Some plainness about him, some absolute simplicity attracted her” (p. 96) and later, “He was a man without shadows … and offered her a life of innocence” (p. 152).

Talking of this simplicity, Carel does define goodness in the book, stating that it’s impossible and unimaginable. But Norah and Marcus don’t think it is, and elsewhere Murdoch shows us goodness, I think, here and elsewhere. Carel’s imagining that it can’t exist is perhaps his downfall. As Norah says, “Ordinary morality goes on and always will go on whatever the philosophers and theologians have to say” (p. 193). In fact, the Afterword by Richard Holloway sort of echoes this:

We have to remember that it was written by a philosopher and philosophers tend to think too much – it’s what they are paid for, after all. Most people negotiate the intricacies of conduct without too much agonizing about how to treat their neighbours, even if they think God is dead.” (p. 242)

There’s not much humour in this one, I have to say, although Marcus’ and Norah’s tea parties manage to get in some satire of the bishop and comments about the price of jam vs chutney. There’s a lot of perceptive stuff about women’s characters, whether that’s Pattie lacking someone to lick her into shape or Norah needing somewhere to direct her energy: although they’re not hugely positive characters, they are rounded. Marcus’ pomposity about his book is nicely pricked: “Let his critics assign him to a tradition and a school. He would speak simply, with the sole authority of his own voice” (p. 67) (I’m uncomfortably reminded of my own adherence to Reception Theory here!). There’s also a moment of farce for Marcus, too, when he falls in the coal hole, although the scene is quickly jerked into almost horror.

In echoes of other books, I was curiously reminded when Muriel is regarding the last moments of Carel of the scene in The Philosopher’s Pupil where Rozanov lies dead/not dead in the thermal baths. Eugene with his rusty moustaches reminds me a bit of Finn in “Under the Net” and also prefigures Fivey in “The Nice and the Good” perhaps (and Carel’s comment about life being some dusty feathers in a cupboard reminds me of a scene in that novel, too). Elizabeth and her court are reminiscent of the willing captive in “The Unicorn” – who is keeping whom in the house? Norah’s lost Fabian ideals remind us of “The Book and the Brotherhood” characters trying to find their old ways in a new world. Pattie’s childhood might remind us of Hilary’s abandoned life in “A Word Child”. Our Russian emigres remind us of those in “The Italian Girl”, even with their lies about their origin story. Marcus’ thought about Carel being mad comes at him “obscure and disturbing as a large unpleasant looking object rising through deep water” (p. 87) – did that remind anyone else of the monster in “The Sea, The Sea”? Marcus seems to have a weakness for boys, although not so explicit, like Michael in “The Bell” – has Leo actually got some scandal over him or does he just exploit his emotions? Marcus has a cold at one point, and annoys Norah by sneezing – shades of Palmer in “A Severed Head”, or have I gone too far? Another too-far one is probably Eugene’s handcart taking his precious pot plant to their next home: was IM thinking of that when she gave Tallis his handcart in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”?

So, a complex book and a lot of intertextuality with IM’s other novels, perhaps. I agree with Richard Holloway’s practical assessment at the end of his Afterword:

Carel Fisher might have reached less dramatic conclusions about life if he hadn’t lived mainly inside his own head. He should have got out more. But then, if he had, we wouldn’t have had this strange novel to trouble our sleep. (p. 242)

and I hope I’ve done this book justice, even though I never found a good order in which to put my thoughts on 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.

“The Red and the Green” round-up and “The Time of the Angels” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

8 Comments

Welcome back to the great Iris Murdoch readalong and today we’re reviewing “The Red and the Green” and looking forward to “The Time of the Angels”. I’ve got a lovely cover to share of “The Red and the Green” in the same series as we saw for “The Italian Girl”. Some of these paperbacks are very weird, aren’t they! In other news, I’ve ordered my next five Vintage Classics, as I am enjoying reading the introductions and updating my collection, and I’ve managed to fill in the last gap in my collection of first editions (just so I can take images for you, my readers, of course!) which happened to be the next three after we’ve done creepy, foggy London (not to mention creepy, foggy Carel). But first a round-up.

“The Red and the Green”

For the book which is possibly the least popular, not to mention with IM herself, apparently, we did get a good discussion going on this one over on my review earlier in the month. People surprised themselves, I think, by getting more out of it than they expected. I’d certainly forgotten that epilogue and was worrying about what was going to happen to everyone as I read through it.

Apart from the discussion, Jo has contributed a great review on Goodreads.

Maria Peacock and Peter Rivenberg, who have turned into real stalwarts of the readalong, submitted their weird edition’s front covers, with Maria offering the blurb, too. The cover is clearly in the same edition we saw last month with “The Italian Girl” and Peter wondered who the figure is (and why are they hiding in the bushes?). Is it a man or a woman (have a look at those fingernails) and why are they dressed like someone from the 60s for a book set in 1916 (oh, wait: it was published in 1968)?

Here’s the blurb:

Book blogger BuriedInPrint came across this and “The Time of the Angels” in a charity shop: this Penguin 1960s cover is clearly from the same edition as the lurid “Italian Girl” one I featured last month:

9 Buried in Print The Red and the Green Penguin

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. And if you chose NOT to read this one, I’d love to know why …

“The Time of the Angels”

Now we’re going seriously odd on the covers I have for this novel. I can kind of understand the peculiar figures on the first, but not sure who the woman on my 1983 Triad Granada is (I don’t have a note of when I bought this, which means it was really early on: what on EARTH did I make of it in my mid-teens?). I actually think the Vintage edition’s cover sums it up best for me.

Here’s the blurb from the first edition:

We’ll see that IM is cast as an enchantress or spell-caster in these blurbs, which I love.

Here’s the Triad Granada:

Not so many names here or indeed characters, but obviously inspired by the first one. I do like the Times’ assessment of the book, too!

And my Vintage classic:

So, again, a sort of greatest hits!

I’m looking forward to diving into the dank, murky depths of this one again. There are certainly some memorable scenes, and we’re back with London as a central character, too.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Time of the Angels” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

15 Comments

Carrying on with the #IMReadalong, we’ve had two of the “minor” novels in a row here, with “The Red and the Green” being I feel one of the less-read novels. It’s Murdoch’s only specifically historical novel, treating the events of Ireland’s Easter Rising and taking a close look at Anglo-Irish and Irish identity. I’m not sure myself that it entirely works as either a historical novel or a novel, but there are of course lots of Murdochian themes and complicated relationships to enjoy, and a less successful Murdoch novel is still a good novel in my eyes.

Iris Murdoch – “The Red and the Green”

(27 February 2018)

I’d forgotten that the sea plays such an important scene-setting role in this book, with beautiful descriptions as usual for IM. Almost immediately we’re looking across Dublin Bay with Andrew Chase-White, in a view that’s “intensely familiar and yet disturbingly alien” (p. 10) – a description it seems of how the Anglo-Irish characters feel when in Ireland (and perhaps in England, too). And we soon meet his cousin, Pat Dumay, the very reason he’s joined a cavalry regiment and grown a moustache. It does feel a bit creaky to have a plot that sets cousin against cousin in the struggle for Home Rule, but then again these things do happen and it enables IM to make some useful points: does the personal outrule the political / military in people’s hearts (yes). While there are plenty of confusing siblings, with pairs marrying each other and a few outliers, Andrew is without siblings and longs for that relationship.

With these confusing siblings, Murdoch actually once again describes the confusion of reading her books:

‘We Anglo-Irish families are so complex,’ Hilda used often to exclaim with a kind of pride, as if complexity in families were a rare privilege. (p. 18)

Checking that quotation, I noted Millie’s assertion that “we’re practically incestuous,” used to greater effect right at the end of the book, of course.

We have plenty of civil servants in the book and also plenty of doubling. Both Barnabas and Christopher have given up civil service jobs to write books. Christopher’s an interesting character, seeming to be quiet and sere and all pulled together but then effectively destroying himself through sudden impulsive actions. Is this the contingent winning over the pattern? Pat and Andrew both fear sex and loathe women, with Andrew being very naive about their motivations. Of course they then, and Christopher, are after the same woman. Andrew and Barney are both virgins and it’s clear they both fail in this respect (I think it’s clear with Andrew).

Pleasingly, we find both people staring into houses through windows – Frances and later Frances and Christopher, and we even find Frances flitting across the lawn in her “whitish” dressing-gown, carrying on the tradition of pale-clad women fleeing through the dew.

It’s quite clear to me that we have two enchanters in Millie and Pat Dumay, and one saint in Kathleen. Kathleen is actually described as the good woman to Millie’s bad woman at one point (p. 108). Kathleen is indifferent to her surroundings and lives in mess and chaos, wearing shabby clothes (in contrast to Millie’s showy dressing-up). It’s explained that her lack of attention to the house is down to her being too busy helping people in distress. Christopher describes her as an independent character and no slave, and respects her for this. Barney goes further, describing her (like Ann in “An Unofficial Rose”) as having “a negative quality in her, an un-life, in the presence of which ordinary healthy persons, such as myself and my step-sons, quite perceptibly shuddered” (p. 213). It’s good to see that she and Frances prevail uninjured to the end of the epilogue, Kathleen still taking in waifs and strays.

As for Millie, Christopher is unable to prevent himself falling in love with her and has been “helpless”. Barney, similarly, “A few kind words, a touch, from Millie re-established and confirmed his servitude” (p. 110). She collects admirers and is “simply incapable of refusing a devotion however absurd” (p. 84), thus being another enchanter whose role is created by their subjects. However, she does also go out of her way to lure Barney when he’s training for the priesthood – “She simply wanted this black-robed priestling as her slave, a pet to fondle and caress” (p. 105). I’m not sure Pat manipulates people in the same way: everyone appears to be in love with him, but he doesn’t do anything to encourage that. Cathal complains of being “enslaved” (p. 125) but continues their bathing ritual past when he could have stopped, and Andrews’ idolising of him means that “the spring of power was broken inside him” (p. 308). So maybe he’s the true enchanter.

As well as goodness we are introduced to ideas of freedom – in Pat’s case “a real loss of tissue in the Self” but associated with pain and masochism and mixed up with his idea of his role as Ireland’s liberator.

Back to that water, we have the sea (notably, Barney visits it with Frances and fails to give his rifle up to it), and also the incessant rain – Millie is practically constantly slightly damp around the skirts (and dampens Pat’s trousers with her “tears or kisses” (p. 180). Water even falls through the conservatory roof onto the tablecloths and there’s always something dripping. When Millie drops her earring inside Andrew’s shirt, it immediately begins to pour with rain. She and Frances also have complex buns, as characters have to have in IM, although I’m not sure anyone’s hair is cut (Millie’s comes down at a pivotal moment). Kathleen and Barney and also Millie have chaotic and busy rooms and there are two mentions of masks (Pat when observed by Cathal). There are complicated arrangements for war but a very Murdochian sudden slew of detail on exactly how to gag someone effectively but safely.

There are discussions of women’s issues which I don’t recall being to the forefront in the other novels (though we do have the efficient secretaries who take things over in “The Flight from the Enchanter”). Millie demonstrates a masculinity which makes her an attractive boy to some characters, but it’s Frances who pushes against the boundaries and raises questions (and who escapes the clutches of Ireland).

Although it’s very much a novel of deep ironies (most strongly the fact that however much one wants to act in a certain way, one’s deep human relationships will always prevail – see Pat and Cathal; Andrew and Pat), there’s not a huge lot of humour. I did like a point about Millie which almost (and I know I don’t usually espouse linking books to their authors’ private lives) seemed to echo Murdoch’s:

A popular woman who enjoys her admirers and is also kind-hearted will naturally want to keep her friendships strictly sealed off from each other. (p. 78)

The inability to do just this gives her the funniest line in the novel, much later:

Well, a woman caught in my situation has got to adopt some tone, and it’s not easy to combine devastating frankness with calm dignity. What tone do you suggest? (p. 251)

The Epilogue is necessary, I think, and of course gives some more doubling and patterning with the coming of the Second World War and Frances’ worry about her son’s friend going to the Spanish Civil War. There’s some slightly heavy-handed discussion of what history will remember, the historical novel side of things intruding once more.

The introduction in my copy mainly covers the psychological aspects of the novel, apparently informed by its 1960s time of writing, which influenced some other works about the Easter Rising. So the historical aspect is prime there, whereas I tend to see the novel as an IM novel with history inserted into it. Not a bad read by any means, not a work of historical document, and I’m glad we move back to the dank mists of religious England for the next work.


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.

Older Entries