Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Bell” #IMReadalong

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This is such a funny one for me to review. Because I studied it for half of my research project (find out more here), I know more about what other people think of this book than certainly any other Murdoch, and probably any other book in the world. The thing that surprised me most about the outcomes of getting 25 book groups to read the book is that so many of them saw it through the lens of modern-day events and preoccupations, some describing Michael as a predatory paedophile, with many fewer taking exception to the much more clearly evidenced instance of drunk driving. While there has been writing about Michael (notably by Pamela Osborn) I still push back against his actively predatory nature.

Reader Peter Rivenberg has sent me some fabulous cover images from his copies, including our first French one! The first one has an image from the BBC production, which I’ve never seen. Is that supposed to be Dora and Paul?

Do please share any other cover images you’ve got of your copies of this one – although surely there can’t be any MORE editions? Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Iris Murdoch – “The Bell”

(14 October 2017)

Another delight to read (fortunately – I think I’ve settled in to realising I’m not going to come to the conclusion I’ve stopped loving IM’s novels now). And once again, my allegiances have shifted. I used to think Dora was the heroine, and she is allowed to grow and change and develop into service and perhaps deeper thought and less frivolousness. I’d completely forgotten that she actually had an affair with Noel, and IM is pretty horrible to her, with lots of asides of things like of course she hadn’t bothered to look up the railway timetable. I used to have more time for Michael, but I became annoyed with the way he falls into issues and scenes because of not thinking things through or considering the consequences, surely an example of IM’s keenness on ‘attention’. We see his thought processes over Nick and Toby, changing his mind and bringing himself round to be in the right. But I can’t see him as predatory or an actual paedophile as such, as Nick is 15 (yes, I know, but we’re not talking children) and Toby 18. He is also described as “having no time for philosophical speculation” (p. 118) just as he starts examining what it is to be good. I used to find Mrs Mark amusing, but she’s AWFUL, isn’t she. Coy and passive-aggressive and just dreadful.

Of course I still love the nuns, aquatic and otherwise, with their no-nonsense good humour and firm but simple faith. They pay attention to what’s necessary and step in only when needed.

The Murdoch themes are all there, curly hair, cut hair, twins / siblings, stones, water, complicated arrangements, the contrast of London and the country. There are lots of echoes, from the three sermons (James’, Michael’s and Nick’s twisted one) and Dora loses her shoes twice, there are two bells, and Imber and the Abbey, of course.

There’s humour again, of course, as there always is (isn’t there?). For example, Dora on the train:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady, ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’ (p. 11)

I find Dora’s reaction to her first sight of the nuns really funny, too:

… she now made out with an unpleasant shock a shapeless pile of squatting black cloth that must be a nun. (p. 28)

The use of the word “rebarbative” was noted by my group of friends who did the last chronological read, and by my study participants. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s only ever Toby who is associated with this word, which serves to remind us when we’re seeing things through his eyes. This reminded me that certain scenes are also only seen through the eyes of a perhaps more unreliable narrator, Michael. So even though there’s supposed to be an omniscient narrator here, we are constantly in the characters’ heads, meaning that truth shifts and can be doubted.

There are some lovely little nods to other novels. Hugo Bellfounder cast the original bell (cf. “Under the Net”). When Dora leaves Catherine in the garden, picking apricots, she refers to her as “the figure under the net” (p. 70). And we have yet another chase of a women in pale garments in the darkness of a forest, when Dora pursues Catherine.

Who is the enchanter in this novel? Well, the Bell itself certainly enchants Dora,

She had communed with it now for too long and was under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will. (p. 277)

and Michael seems to attract devotion, but only perhaps from those who are unstable in one way or another (Catherine, about to break down, and Toby, still sorting out his own personality; I don’t think Dora counts as she loves him at the end of the book in a different and perhaps purer way).

The saints are not easy to find, either. Perhaps Patchway is our saint – when we first meet him, he’s described as

A dirty looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging. (p. 33)

He is described later has having the ability to stand by and say nothing, “and yet existing, large, present, and at ease” (p. 152) and at the climax of the procession scene, stands deliberately in a place where he can’t see.

Perhaps Tallis is shadowing my readings, but dirt and indifference to tend to make a saint. James feels like an early foreshadowing of James Arrowby and other soldiers, but he’s very rigid in his beliefs as well as being humble. Peter Topglass communes with animals and seems to have a magic touch with birds, and also exhibits

… detachment, his absorption in his beloved studies, his absence of competitive vanity … he was a person who, like Chaucer’s gentle knight, was remarkable for harming no one. (p. 124)

Neither Patchway or Topglass do anything but absorb events then pass on through their own lives, not passing on any pain, a sure sign of a Murdochian saint. James has to go back to his vigorous Doing Good in the East End (does he run into Henry or Carel, I wonder?).

AS Byatt’s introduction to this novel in my edition is so long, scholarly and full of references that it would take an essay to write about it itself, so I’m going to leave it here. What a rich, satisfying and memorable read this was.  I’m glad it was the one I introduced my book groups to.


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

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

“The Sandcastle” round-up and “The Bell” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome to the new #IMReadalong update, where we’ll have a quick update on “The Sandcastle” and then move on to “The Bell”, which is probably my most-read Murdoch (which is yours? I’d love to know!).

“The Sandcastle”

I’ve had some good and interesting comments on my own review of this one (read it and the comments here). I know at least one person who is reading along plans to post a review soon, and as I’ve said, it’s absolutely fine to post reviews and comments after the month in question; it’s helpful if you can let me know about your own blog posts and Goodreads etc. reviews, either by posting a link in the comments on my review here or by linking to my review in yours.

Jo has posted an excellent long review on Goodreads (with any spoilers cleverly hidden) and Liz has also posted a review on Goodreads with interesting thoughts on the point of view. Buried in Print reviewed it along with “Under the Net” (read it here), with some great covers.

I’ll add more links if any come in in the meantime. If you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. As well as my lovely first edition with this adorable back cover, I have three paperback copies of “The Sandcastle”, seen below. If you have any covers to share of these or any others of the novels, do pop them over via Twitter, Facebook or email (find contact details for email on the Contact Me page).

“The Bell”

The reason “The Bell” is my most-read Murdoch is because I did my research on Iris Murdoch and Book Groups on it. You can read about that project and see a copy of the book I wrote here.

I have three copies of this one: a sweet first edition, a 1980s Penguin from my first flush of Iris Murdoch reading and buying, and the pretty new Vintage paperback:

Here’s the spine of the hardback, featuring a rather excellent nun:

Fancy reading this one but not sure? Here’s the blurb from the first edition:

The blurb from my Penguin edition makes it sound weird, as if they’re in a set of tents instead of a perfectly normal building:

and the blurb from the new edition recycles that somewhat:

Is it actually thrilling? Hm, not sure. But it’s a good read and I hope a few of you are ready to carry on through the oeuvre with me. Are you up for it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along. Who’s starting “The Sandcastle” soon? Have you read it before?

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Sandcastle” #IMReadalong

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We’re on to Book Three in the Great Iris Murdoch Readalong and it’s time for “The Sandcastle”. I had these three copies to begin with and added a lovely hardback to the collection, but if you have yet a different cover, I’d love to see it. Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Again I’ve found a real change in my attitudes to the characters in these ones – although it turns out my earlier reviews are less than deep and instructive, and even my notes in my old Yahoo Group from my last readalong are not that helpful! Lucky I can remember how I’ve felt about all of the novels over the years!

Iris Murdoch – “The Sandcastle”

(14 October 2017)

On this multiple re-read, I felt like this was more like a traditional novel than the first two, with a traditional setting, although schools and other institutions have come up. But I have changed my opinions on many of the characters.

I had a weird change in my reading preferences when I got married (long-term readers of this blog will have heard this before). Even though I’d been with my husband for years (over a decade) before we got married, even though we have never had this issue in our relationship, suddenly, upon having that ring on my finger, I was unable to bear to read about marriages being threatened by affairs. I did manage to cope with this theme in this book (we’ve been married almost 4 years now so the upset of reading of such things has worn off a bit!), however it seemed clearer to me this time how much the book is a portrait of the tiny relationship shifts, power battles and feelings that any long marriage or relationship is made up of: consider this, once Nan feels she has to confront Bill, “In ordinary life all her talk with Bill was planed down into simple familiar regularly recurring units. Any conversation which she might have with him was of so familiar a type that they might have talked it in their sleep” (p. 199). Murdoch skewers Nan and Bill’s marriage, highlighting every tiny fault line. I’d actually forgotten how much of Nan’s point of view we got, and how much of her vulnerability, and I found myself much more on her side this time.

Rain I recall originally finding very cool and attractive. I’d forgotten how defenceless she does seem at times, and how insecure. I do wonder how people will read her and Mor’s relationship through the lens of current discussions of abuses of power etc – if you have read this book more than once, did you find your attitude changing with the times? I could see how people’s could, without necessarily seeing Mor as predatory – they seem to encounter and fall for each other – or use each other – equally, to me. Mor is pretty pathetic, though, now, to me: !he talked and talked … He was able to explain how and why it was that he no longer loved his wife” (p. 207).

The good old themes are here – weird siblings and our first magic, maybe? Dogs, of course, with the lost / ghost Liffey, and we can note that Rain is shorn of her plaits between a painting at the exhibition and now. The sea comes in, and that powerful image of magic and the sea down in Dorset. Men with large heads and old men, and of course art. The theme of chasing a woman through the night came up again with Mor and Rain’s rose-picking exploits near the start of the novel. We have detailed descriptions of complicated arrangements, whether that’s the access to the school grounds, Felicity’s spell or the climb and rescue near the end (reminiscent of “The Nice and the Good, maybe?). I thought Bledyard had more sermons and speeches than he ended up having, which is interesting. And I ended up much fonder of him this time.

It’s funny, again, of course, from Mor leaving his bicycle “in a place where bicycles were forbidden ever to be” (p. 154), Everard becoming more chubby and conciliatory as Demoyte becomes grimmer and more sarcastic (p. 169), or Felicity being very good at interpreting Tarot cards to her wishes.

I’m not sure there’s an enchanter here, unless it’s Rain or even her father. But surely, and I don’t recall thinking this before, Revvy Evvy is actually a Murdochian saint. He’s benign and always in a muddle – a classic thing that reminded me of Tallis in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. He’s described as “so gentle and unselfish” but Mor can “hardly summon up any affection at all for poor Evvy” (shades of Tallis, again).  He doesn’t care for matters of precedence and gets everyone in a muddle even when moving from room to room at the banquet. Is he thus a saint? Notions of good and freedom do come up, with Mor struggling to define freedom, not wanting it to be the absence of external restraint but more self-discipline to dominate our selfish desires, settling for it meaning absence of tyranny, trying to make it all political. When Bledyard talks about freedom, however, he says “Real freedom is an absence of concern about yourself” (p. 217). Is he being the saint here, or is he merely describing sainthood? He certainly stands in judgement and tries to interfere with matters, as does Demoyte, and unlike Everard. But he does “[accept] the storms that so often broke over him without surprise but also without interest” (p. 252) during his lectures.

There are some beautiful descriptions of the human condition. I particularly liked “The real pain after all was not that the world had fallen into little pieces. That was a relief from pain. It was rather that the world remained, whole, ordinary and relentlessly to be lived in” (p. 194-195)

I feel like this book gets a little forgotten in the oeuvre, but it’s a complex and minute study, the first of Murdoch’s novels to be very tied to one place, with only a few forays out, maybe. I very much enjoyed my re-read.


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

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

“The Flight From the Enchanter” round-up and “The Sandcastle” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome to the new #IMReadalong update, where we’ll put “The Flight From the Enchanter” to bed and move on to look at “The Sandcastle”. Left is a photo of the lovely hardback first edition I ordered for myself after enjoying a tax rebate. Hooray!

I might have reviewed “The Flight from the Enchanter” a bit late in the month, but we’ve had some lovely discussion and comments on it, with lots of detailed reactions and info on how people’s reading of the book has changed, especially in light of recent events with workplace harassment, etc. Do pop over and have a read of the review and comments here.

As well as the comments on the post itself, Jo put this review up on Goodreads. Brona’s Books talks about what people learn in the novel (not much) and who is the real power behind the throne (read the review here).

I’ll add more links if any come in in the meantime. If you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“The Sandcastle”

“The Sandcastle”, our January read, is a treat of a book, with a great discussion of art and one of Murdoch’s really good complicated arrangements involving physical feats (as in the hospital escape and chandelier-swinging we’ve seen so far). I have three copies of this book, with one on the way.

Sorry for the wonky blurb but this 1960 Penguin edition (bought at Arcadia Books in Oxford; I am trying NOT to collect all of there, there is a limit) but it’s a tiny bit fragile. This is the closest to the original publication date I’ve got (at the moment!) and has great quotes from Raymond Mortimer and a puff from the Catholic Herald!

This is my dear old original paperback, a Triad Granada published in 1985 and I assume bought a little after that, as I read my first Murdoch in around 1986. Raymond Mortimer is still being quoted, plus the New Statesman. The woman on the front is “Miss Lynn” by Claude Rogers.

And here’s my Vintage edition with an introduction by Philippa Gregory – a shorter blurb, as seems common with these.

If you have any covers to share of these or any others of the novels, do pop them over via Twitter, Facebook or email (find contact details for email on the Contact Me page).


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along. Who’s starting “The Sandcastle” soon? Have you read it before?

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Flight from the Enchanter” #IMReadalong

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

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

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

Iris Murdoch – “The Flight from the Enchanter”

(14 October 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Under the Net” round-up and “The Flight From the Enchanter” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well, it’s the end of the first month and I feel like we’ve had a good discussion on “Under the Net”. How did you get on? If you’ve blogged about it, please pop a link in the comments here, and you might want to contribute to the discussion under my review, or post thoughts here, it’s up to you. I will add any links to blog posts here as they still come in.

Bookish Beck has reviewed the book on her blog. She’s read four other Murdochs and placed it squarely in the middle in terms of favourites, which is fair enough! She also shared her sadly rebound library copy – but although I have four copies of my own of this one, I love seeing all the different ones you all have, so keep sending me images (you can do that via Twitter or email, see my contact form for the email address). Jo also added a great review on Goodreads and Brona over in Australia reviewed it on her blog, too! Buried in Print has done a joint review of this and “The Sandcastle” with great book cover images – read it here.

I had a couple of submissions of other copies people have – thank you! Thomas from Hogglestock sent me the photo of the lovely American first edition (what a glorious cover!) above, and Maria Peacock sent me a picture of her fabulous paperback – I love this! Does the picture really make a comedy man with a hat as well as the image of Jake and the stuff from the theatre, or have I made that up? I have a couple of paperbacks of early books to share later on in the series, but this is a cracker.

So, if you’ve read “Under the Net” and have yet to join in the discussion, please comment here or on my review and share your URL if you’ve reviewed it on your blog.

The Flight from the Enchanter

Moving on to December’s read, it’s time for “The Flight from the Enchanter”. This was another early one I read, and I’ve loved it ever since. Slightly shockingly, I only have ONE copy of this one. I have no idea where my original (to me) paperback has got to – I know I had it last time I read it in 2008, but where it’s gone is a mystery. I can’t afford any of the first editions on the market at the moment – this had a small print run and is I think the rarest one. But never mind, I treated myself to the Vintage reprint and what a lovely cover this is!

Here’s the blurb from the back – hope you can all read it …

… and here’s my terribly illuminating review from the last time I re-read it, in February 2008:

Second novel by IM and second in our Iris Murdoch a Month project! I enjoyed doing a closer re-reading of this intriguing novel. IM novels are not like anyone else’s – this is not a love story, not a satire, who knows what it really is, or the nature of the enchanter.

I’d forgotten one whole, very pivotal scene in the book – another reason these are all due for a re-read!

I wonder what that scene is …

So, are you joining me for this one? Have you read it before or is this your first time? I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks of it!

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net” #IMReadalong

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I noticed I was a little nervous about posting this first review, under the bright gaze of all the people who are joining me in this readalong. So I think it would probably be useful to state here and now that I’m very much not setting myself up as some kind of expert: Murdoch is my favourite author and I get a lot out of reading her, but I am a fan more than I’m a scholar. And these threads and this project welcomes everyone’s opinion: the expert professors and researchers who have read everything multiple times and spent an academic lifetime studying literature in general, Murdoch in particular, the fans like me, the first-time reader and the person who doesn’t get what the fuss is about. While I’d rather keep things positive than inspire a well-spring of anti-Murdoch ranting, I am very clear (and should be, given my own research on the value of the “common reader”) that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. I hope we all approach this project in a spirit of sharing and that dissent, where it arises, is respectful.

By the way, thank you to the people who have kindly shared their book cover images with me. I will use these in my round-up post at the end of the month.

OK, on to the review.

Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net”

(14 October 2017)

It’s always a good sign when you’re rereading a book for the umpteenth time and you STILL can’t put it down, isn’t it (I recall my husband asking me why I was gasping at a point in “Jane Eyre” when I’d clearly read it a million times before). I read this alongside said husband, so tried to keep to an even pace, but really, I could have sat and read and read and READ.

In essence, the thing that really struck me this time (and I think this is my fourth time of reading – once in my teens, once in my 20s, in around 2008 when doing my last readalong and now, and having, I suppose, read all of her other books more recently than I had at each other reading of this one) was that it felt so very much like an overture, a distillation of all her themes. Of course I know that she did not go back in time and write this one last, as composers do with overtures, weaving in her themes, but it felt weirdly like that.

The themes I spotted in this book, recognised with glee, included: London, London vs. Paris, animals, siblings, pairings, opposites, pubs, river/wild swimming, artificial women, coils of hair, hairstyle changes, farce, complicated plans and procedures (the entry into the hospital in particular), stones (OK, one monolith), humans needing to live by “clear practical means”, Jewish people and Irish people, men with massive head, philosophers, “good” people absorbing pain and information (I’m thinking Mrs Tinckham here), Eastern objects and Buddhas, the virtue of detachment, pondering life in front of art works, Hamlet, weird sidekicks (Finn), institutions (the cold cure clinic, the theatre, the hospital), depictions of working life, chaotic rooms. I always felt that Murdoch’s oeuvre revisited many themes over and over: there are few here that are missing (incest, the sea, (although water obviously still figures), country vs city) but it’s really striking how many of them are already here.

Jake reminded me of Charles Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea”, in his pronouncements, maybe more than Bradley in “The Black Prince”. And his description of Anna very much reminded me of descriptions of Hartley: “She was plumper and had no defended herself against time. There was about her a sort of wrecked look which was infinitely touching. Her face, which I remembered as round and smooth as an apricot, was become just a little tense and drawn, and her neck now revealed her age” (p. 41).

It is also a funny read – with Jake and Hugo arranging “to have the cold alternately” in the cold cure clinic (p. 71), Jake asking himself whether he belongs to the social class that steals tins of foie gras (he does), and having a morbid fear of losing his trousers. I had remembered this but had forgotten some of the concentration on romance, chasing a woman he thinks is Anna through Paris, and falling on Sadie with a whoop (not that romantic, as such), having considered it to be more about male friendship, philosophy and London adventures. Is there another character like Mrs Tinckham in the whole of Iris Murdoch’s novels?

I felt that Jake had accepted the contingent at the end, not knowing the answer and being happy – even amused – not to know. I don’t think I’d have thought that before, as that follows me having done more reading and conference-attending. So it’s very nice to feel that my engagement with the secondary literature and the IM Society have informed my reading. The author of the Introduction to this book (I bought these new copies in part for their introductions) considers this to be her best novel: I’m not sure I agree with that, but I did very much enjoy it, and I can’t wait to read on.

Matthew’s views

My husband is not going to read all of the novels alongside me: he has already read and loved “The Sea, The Sea” and “A Good Apprentice” and not loved “The Book and the Brotherhood”. He read this on audio book (read by Samuel West, as noted by a commenter on my first post – thank you – and had some comments to make, which I summarise below. He’s very much not an Iris Murdoch reader and although he’s read Russian classics prefers sci fi and modern novels to mid-century stuff, to give some background. He states he would not have come across IM, much less read her, without my influence.

Was Finn real? That was a great question I’ve never considered before! And who was the person Jake was considering going to live with at the end? Do they (like Hugo Bellfounder) pop up in another novel? He also thought Jake seemed like Charles Arrowby at the start, but became less self-centred. The book didn’t seem like it was written by a woman (when pressed, he said he didn’t feel the empathy he’d expect from a female writer). They are definitely books that need analysing and you can understand why people want to read them more than once. They don’t give up their secrets or intentions easily. The philosophy and politics went over his head, but then he’s not particularly interested in those for the sake of it.


OK, over to you! Please feel free to 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 will gather these together in a round-up post at the end of the month. If you have a cover image to share, please post it on your blog or email it to me using the email address on the contact form. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this one and what you think of it, 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.

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