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

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I was already looking forward to this one (unlike last month’s read) and it didn’t disappoint. I must have read it early on in my Murdoch discoveries and love the Gothic qualities of the novel. Back in 2008, I did such a small review it’s not worth sharing, but wrote loads of notes to share in my discussion group – we all liked this one. As usual, there were some differences from my memories of other readings of the book, but it in no way disappointed, so another good month.

I’ve had the same cover image sent to me by Peter Rivenberg and David Mahon, the disturbing 1960s paperback with a face looking into a mirror – does anyone have any others?

Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn”

(27 February 2018)

Oh, the opening to this book is the most gothic thing ever, isn’t it – the journey to a mysterious place to be a governess of all things, the mysterious pick-up at the station and odd characters to travel with, the wild castle and appalling scenery (just like “The Bell” and “rebarbative”, this book is definitely brought to us by the word “appalling/appalled”). By the way, I can’t understand why I didn’t realise before it was set in Ireland – lots of things point to that but I’d managed to ignore them before. Just shows what a re-re-reading can do. There’s plenty of doom and gloom and even slightly “Cold Comfort Farm”-y warnings – “No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people” (p. 12). The mentions of seven years being up are frequent and everything does seem fairy-tale and overly patterned, and indeed Gerald mentions “the pattern that is what has authority here” (p. 151)

Once Marian is installed, she tries to work everything and everyone out, as we do, and I felt like this passage was almost a commentary on how we find reading Murdoch’s works ourselves (I didn’t draw out a family tree for this one but started last time quite soon after this!):

There were many matters for puzzlement in the big self-absorbed house and she found herself still, sometimes disconcertingly, unable to ‘work out’ the relations of the individuals to each other. (p. 30)

Marian’s journey from thinking “This is mad” (p. 64) falling under Gerald’s spell as much as if he’d beaten her is fascinating and a portrait of what can happen when you get isolated from real, sensible living conditions and people. It’s a kind of mass hysteria which is fascinating but unsettling to read about. In a way, the small and tight community with its slightly sinister woman overseer reminds me of “The Bell”, but without that book’s honest and useful sense of purpose.

Who is the enchanter? Is it Peter, holding the strings from so far away, Gerald, manipulating and controlling everyone, or Hannah? Max seems to be Effie’s enchanter figure, along with Hannah perhaps, although Effie has come away from the blind adoration he had for Max as a younger man. Hannah is described near (although not at) the end of the action as having “so beautifully sent them all away in their different directions” (p. 208) – although she’s something of a blank at the centre of the novel, used for characters to project their feelings onto, some of them do create her as an enchanter for themselves, Marian and Effie chief among them, and maybe also Max, who is inexorably drawn to Gaze.

One really important feature here is perhaps the first real mention of “Ate” (p. 98-99) and the idea, so central I think to Murdoch’s novels that-

Good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on.

Also important to Murdoch’s themes is Effie’s vision, which unfortunately fades,

Love holds the world together, and if we could forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of. (p. 173)

However, this does get a bit lost and there is no love left at the end, is there, with everyone dispersed, whereas there’s an important hint that Denis is the saint of the novel:

And with Denis’s words she had an eerie sense of it all beginning again, the whole tangled business: the violence, the prison house, the guilt. It all still existed. Yet Denis was taking it away with him. He had wound it all inside himself and was taking it away. Perhaps he was bringing it, for her, for the others, to an end. (p. 262-3)

There is humour still, although maybe not so much as previously (savage irony seems to rule the roost in this one, especially in the plot denouements near the end). I did like it when Effie meets Pip, Denis, Marian and Alice, Jamesie and Gerald and “bristled with dislikes” (p. 85). There’s also a rather amusing scene when Effie, quite unnecessarily, attempts to let Marian down gently.

Looking at our themes, of course water in the form of rivers and particularly the sea is very strong here, and the descriptions of the sea, starting at the beginning, are just magical and amazing. Does anyone write the sea like Iris Murdoch does? I loved the encounter with the seal, too. Marian has the red curly mess of hair and Jamesie the boy’s curls, although I think Pip’s baldness/wisps are unique. We have the common duality of the two houses, Riders and Gaze (one suggesting movement and activity, one stillness and passivity) and the contrast of town and country in Effie’s horror at being lost in the countryside (his scene in the bog, though, lasted a shorter time and came earlier in the narrative than I’d remembered).  The bog scene is doubled by Marian’s loss of her shoe in the bog early in the novel, and she finds the glutinous pools similar to those Alice and Effie encounter near the end of the novel.

Max is an academic and Effie was and is now in the civil service, with a frighteningly efficient female underling, two very common Murdochian careers, reminding us of “The Flight from the Enchanter”. Stones are represented by Alice’s shell woman on her bed, and there’s a doubling when Alice resembles this herself later on’ the shells in that scene are described as glittering like jewels, echoing back to Hannah’s scattered jewels, left out on the table on the terrace. There’s another echo of the trinity of women encountered after Effie’s bog experience which I can’t really mention without a huge spoiler: don’t read the Introduction in the Vintage edition if you haven’t read the book before!

In links to other books, we don’t follow any women in pale dresses through the gloaming, although we see Hannah flitting away through the gardens. Marian and Effie’s big plan echoes Dora and Toby’s in “The Bell”. Max Lejour is perhaps a precursor of the tutor whose name I can’t recall in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or John Robert Rosanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” or even Bruno in his  yellowing age. Hannah’s psychological entrapment is perhaps hinted back to in “The Message to the Planet” when Patrick Fenman has a mystery illness attributed to another character.

Effie’s Humber getting stuck in the mud at the gates of Gaze recalls very strongly Rain’s Morgan getting into the river in “The Sandcastle” and I do love Murdoch’s slight obsession with cars. More subtly, doesn’t the “mahogany erection containing a mirror surmounted the fireplace and reached almost to the dim ceiling in a converging series of shelves and brackets upon which small complicated brass objects were clustered” remind us of James Arrowby’s similar arrangement in his flat in “The Sea, The Sea”? And there’s a very small mention of a mask, when Effie is too scared to look at a figure in case he sees on the face, “laid thereupon, like a hideous mask, the likeness of his own features” (p. 256). He’s also sent away with a Japanese print – does this mean he’s gained some sort of enlightenment, or is it just a decorative feature for him?

So, a powerful and mature work, frightening, engaging and very readable. A fairy-tale where things seem to drive to an inevitable conclusion which is Shakespearean or Jacobean in general in its savage irony of the events that fly in front of us one after the other. The Introduction to my copy agrees with me on the significance of the house names but sees practical “dear” Alice as the saint and as Denis having to go off to redeem himself; there’s more to it than that and I would like to re-read A.S. Byatt’s thoughts, but that’s for another time.


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.

“An Unofficial Rose” round-up and “The Unicorn” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Hello and welcome to another #IMReadalong update, with a round-up of responses to “An Unofficial Rose” (and some great additional covers) and a preview of “The Unicorn”

“An Unofficial Rose”

I managed to get this one read and reviewed really early in the month and you can read my review and all the lovely comments here. There are just a few, but some lovely long thoughts on it. Only a few reviews sent to me from other people’s blogs or Goodreads, though, so far, which is a shame – are people lagging or giving up (lagging is fine, well, giving up is, too, of course, but I would love to take people right through them all!) or did I put you off with my lacklustre feelings about the book?

Jo has put another excellent review on Goodreads, I love the way she compares the book to the others we’ve read so far. Liz has also reviewed the book on Goodreads and makes an interesting point about how all of the characters imagine they know what’s going on, but …

I had three copies and Peter Rivenburg and Maria Peacock sent me even more editions – how fun!

This is the American Vintage first edition, which I think is nicer than the UK one and reminds me of The Bell:

and then the 1973 Warner paperback, which is something of a spoiler, I think. I do like a lurid and unsuitable Murdoch cover, though!

Maria has the Triad Granada, an edition in which I have about half of my IM paperbacks, but who is it supposed to be depicting? I can’t work it out and it looks more like an Anita Brookner to me!

 

 

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 Unicorn”

Moving along, it’s time for us to get all gothic and move over to a castle on a rocky shore for “The Unicorn”. I have very fond memories of this one from all the times I’ve read it (the first time in my teens), especially dear old Effingham and his revelation in … well, I won’t spoil it.

Now I’ve been busily collecting first editions as I’ve been going along, I have three copies of this one. From left to right, my Chatto and Windus first edition (love the cover image), my original Triad Granada paperback, reprinted in 1984 and acquired in around 1986, and the lovely cover of the Vintage edition, bought to read this time around:

Let’s see if those blurbs entice you. From the first edition …

 

I like this one, as it gets across the feel of the book and the lovely dual-house theme that we’ve just had in “An Unofficial Rose” and will return again and again. And it is a bit frightening.

It’s interesting that the 1980s version plays more heavily on feminine archetypes – wife, abandoned wife, with a husband and an admirer, and she might be a witch, eh?

Finally, we get quite minimalist with the Vintage copy:

As we’ve seen before, the blurb writer has gone for a mix of the two older copies but there’s no so much to go on there, is there.

 

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Unicorn” along with me? Are you playing catch-up with the others (which is ABSOLUTELY FINE)? What’s your favourite so far?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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This read was a bit of a revelation for me. I’ve always said I feel a bit “meh” about this, that it was a typical Murdoch novel with red hair, weird love quadrangles and the like but a bit forgettable. Well, I must have forgotten about it to an extent, as it was an excellent read!

As mentioned in my introductory post, my copy of it is dated January 1995 inside the front cover so I’m not sure if I’d read it before my early 20s, when I bought this copy. I read my neighbour Mary’s copies of the early books so I might have. I certain read it during my first, incomplete, chronological read-through and my second one in my 30s (I wrote an entirely unsatisfactory review of it in 2008!). Anyway, it IS a classic Murdoch, though with no stones and disappointingly only a fleeting reference to pursuing somebody through a night-time wood/garden.

I’ve had one rather odd cover from the Triad series sent to me but do share with me if you have any more (the first edition cover isn’t great, is it!). Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form. And of course do pop a link to your own review or just a full review in a comment below – I know I’m quite early this month but don’t worry, you officially have until the end of the month and really until whenever to read and review this one!

Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose”

(28 February 2018)

What a complicated and engaging novel this is. Do we really LIKE any of the characters? Does it matter?

This would probably be the first of IM’s novels where it would be handy to draw out a diagram of who loves whom and who’s related to whom – I did this when doing my last readalong, but not for this one. We’re thrust into a world of two houses, one muddled, one pristine, and movements between the two, and am I right in saying this is the only novel set in my own home county of Kent? It’s nice and redolent of the marshes and Dungeness and fairly obviously somewhere Murdoch had actually seen. Of course London has to feature, all those extra flats that everyone seems to have, and the London weather and rain pressing in on the windows.

The opening of the book is very forceful and memorable, based around the words of the funeral service, and we start off in the mind of Hugh Perronet, one of many heads we will live inside during the novel. It feels like we have more experiences of more consciousnesses in this one than we have before, although that’s coming from “A Severed Head”, narrated by one character.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Both women, I think. Randall thinks he’s the centre of things but is constantly outwitted and realises who’s the boss. But Emma Sands feels she controls everything, holding all the strings from her nest in her messy flat, constantly restocking it to tempt her companions. Unlike other enchanters, though, she seems more overt and proactive, drawing people into her web and controlling them rather than being created by them as their overlord. Is this a feature of female as opposed to male enchanters? (or can we compare her to Julius in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, another manipulator? Naughty conniving Mildred also acts as a lesser manipulator, operating mainly from Kent). Randall does create Emma and Lindsay as his captors, “He idolized the serene quality of their egoism” (p. 59) and he’s also “instantly enslaved” but Lindsay, but I think it’s clear that’s just a standard attraction. Emma’s almost inert, too, she doesn’t join in flattering Lindsay or teasing Randall but just sits there. Hugh is also described as having been Emma’s slave, and this comes flooding back as soon as he considers her again.

Ann is described a lot as being quite “nothingy”. She doesn’t attribute blame and thus blame rushes into the vacuum that is her. She’s “worthy and deserving” but “there was no compulsion of warmth”, thinks Hugh, early on (p. 14).  She has also never had a conception of doing what she wanted (p. 240) and is unpractical and never grasps for anything. Both Felix and Randall see her as quite a negative force. Does this make her a saint? She ends up with nothing except a load of broken mess and a damp cat … But at the end, she will endure and carry on:

She did not know herself. It was not possible, it was not necessary, it was perhaps not even proper. Real compassion is agnosticism; and we must be compassionate to ourselves too. Tasks lay ahead, one after one after one, and the gradual return to an old simplicity. She would never know, and that would be her way of surviving. (p. 280)

Or is it Felix, who only wants to help, tries his best (though trying and striving isn’t usually a Murdoch saint attribute) and quietly removes himself, blaming being “an officer and a gentleman”? He also says that we have a duty to keep on living, as if we’ve been assigned life as a military operation, but maybe as a foil for what I’ve just said about Ann.

There is of course a lot of hair, with Lindsay having the usual coils and also flat metallic hair and Miranda holding up the redhead baton (Ann has faded, of course). No stones, but there is a pond to represent water, odd children and siblings (Miranda and Steve, Mildred and Felix; Penn of course has many siblings but is removed from them). There’s lots of doubling, both overt and subtle: the two houses, the two turret bedrooms at Greyhallock, but also Lindsay with her chin pointing at the ceiling both when being grabbed by Randall and sleeping in Venice.

The descriptions of marriage, which I might be more aware of now, having become married since the last time I read through all of these. This one was pretty damning, on Humphrey and Mildred’s (rather fake) union:

He and his wife understood each other very well. Their relation was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently. (p. 66)

and of course Humphrey is another in the group of career civil servants / soldiers who have sullied their own reputations with a scandal.

There’s plenty of humour – particularly when Mildred visits Hugh to press her suit on him – as soon as she’s in his flat, she’s getting rid of vases in her mind, reorganising things and, while talking to Hugh –

At the same time she observed the shabby state of the loose covers, decided that all the chairs needed re-covering, decided where this should be done and approximately how much it ought to cost. (p. 83)

(one can only assume Murdoch got this from somewhere else, as she doesn’t seem to have had such concerns herself). Of course, this is part of a savagely funny/ironic scene where Mildred totally misreads Hugh’s intentions, which has an element of farce. Murdoch also pricks the bubble of Penn’s love:

While Penn glided after her in tune with the music of the spheres, Miranda was more concerned about the hedgehogs. (p. 206)

We also end up having both sides of a phone conversation but in two halves, something I hadn’t noticed before and which is most amusing. I also liked the touch at the beginning of Part Five where Murdoch points out,

There are few persons, even among those most apparently straitlaced, who are not pleased by the flouting of a convention, and glad deep inside themselves to think that their society contains deplorable elements. (p. 186)

Links with other books are lesser but still nice. Ann is described as needing to keep Randall in her “net” and there’s a fleeting reference to pursuing someone through a dark wood in Randall’s dream in Venice. Although no one really stares in the windows, Hugh spends time out on the lawn when Emma visits Greyhallock. Most noticeable is the point at which Mildred and Felix drink a bottle of Lynch-Gibbon Nuits de Young 1955 (Lynch-Gibbon being the wine merchants in “A Severed Head”. Like in “A Severed Head”, the characters are described as being “like personages in a play” (p. 128), and there is also a business that has been built up but is then pretty well abandoned by a major protagonist. When Ann is struggling with having two loves that seem complementary and both necessary, you’re reminded of Martin and his complementary mistress and wife in “A Severed Head” – these two books do seem quite linked.

So, a better read than I’d remembered. I’d forgotten Steve and a lot of the humour, and thought there was more of the painting and the roses. What did you think? Was this a re-read or a first read?


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 Severed Head” round-up and “An Unofficial Rose” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s #IMReadalong update time – today I’m going to be sharing the reviews of “A Severed Head” that have come in so far (and will add more as they appear) and then have a chat about April’s read, “An Unofficial Rose”

“A Severed Head”

Excitement started building on this one as early as my introductory post at the end of February, so I knew a few people would be taking part.

I managed to get it reviewed earlier in the month than the last couple, and had some great comments on my review.

The cover images have been coming in again, with Peter Rivenberg submitting this really lovely image of the American Viking hardback:

Alice Libbey Griffith sent me this Penguin cover, which again I really like (I have some paperbacks in this edition, but not this one):

And both Peter and blogger Bookish Beck (more on her review in a moment) sent me cover images of this AWFUL film tie-in cover …

Isn’t it just HORRIBLE! Peter let me know some more details – I haven’t seen the film:

[This] is from a 1974 version with an image from the film based on the novel and play. It shows … Martin and Antonia (Ian Holm and Lee Remick) in the foreground with Palmer (Richard Attenborough) in the background. Not my idea of Palmer at all. And I’ve read that Murdoch was not happy with the film.I went back and reviewed scenes from my DVD of A Severed Head (I bought it from Turner Classic Movies out of curiosity about a year ago) and realized the book cover is not exactly a dream sequence but more an image that comes to Martin as he is contemplating his situation. The film is likely to be a disappointment to anyone who has read and loved the book. At times the characters speak lines from the book and at other times new lines have been invented that fall flat to my ear. Georgie, bizarrely, works at some kind of loom, perhaps an allusion to the Lady of Shalott. Necessarily the film needs to do away with a lot of the book’s complexity but the sequence of events is more or less intact.

Moving swiftly on to the reviews, there have been some great comments on my own review here. Bridget from A New Look Through Old Eyes (with whom I’m planning a sort of project on paper book / audio book reads) has posted this excellent review of her experience with the audio book (with the absolute perfect narrator). Bookish Beck has posted a great and funny review here. Liz talks on Goodreads about how the themes and the way they’re portrayed contrast, and Jo has a good meaty Goodreads review  which does contain mild spoilers but goes into a lovely lot of detail.

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

“An Unofficial Rose”

Moving on to our April read, I have three copies of “An Unofficial Rose”. I thought I first read it when I discovered Murdoch and read my way through everything she’d written until then (this was in around 1986, so I would have had access to the paperbacks up to about “The Philosopher’s Pupil” but the note inside the front cover of my Penguin copy says I bought it on my 23rd birthday in 1995. I really don’t recall whether I’d already read it; I know I snapped up Murdochs with Christmas and birthday book tokens as I went. I know I read it when I went through them all in my 20s and again in the 2000s; I also know that I have never considered it a favourite, but I can’t explain why.

Here are my three copies: a Chatto & Windus first edition (not a first printing as it has a note that it’s a Book Society Choice), a Penguin edition bought in 1995 and very faded, and my new Vintage copy:

Here are the blurbs to entice you, from the earliest, talking about one of those Murdochian webs of love:

and do we have a potential Saint already in Ann, absorbing everyone’s strains and pains? Shorter and to the point with the Penguin:

and interestingly concentrating a lot more on Hugh and Emma. And the most recent one:

Well, here they’ve gone back to that first blurb in a lot of ways, haven’t they?

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “An Unofficial Rose” along with me? What’s your favourite so far?


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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Severed Head” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well, we’re on to the first Iris Murdoch novel I ever read. Aged 14, I borrowed it from my neighbour, Mary, supplier of much of my teenage reading material and many of my long-lasting favourites. Appropriately for International Women’s Day, Mary was a huge heroine of mine who encouraged me to think and explore the world, and as well as Murdoch, she introduced me to Virago Books, Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Barbaras Pym and Comyns and Anita Brookner (whose books I think my Triad Granada “Severed Head” resembles.

I’m really not sure what I would have made of – or understood of – this novel back then. I do recall feeling that it – and therefore I, in reading it – was terribly sophisticated, reading this rather rude book with terrible, posh goings-on in it. Of course I’ve refined my reaction over the many times I’ve read it.

I’ve got four copies of this one – but do please share with me any alternative cover images you’ve got of your copies of this. 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 – “A Severed Head”

(14 October 2017)

The introduction to my Vintage copy, by Miranda Seymour, refers this book back to the first novel, “Under the Net” and it does have something of its European nature, small cast and obsession with rattling around London, also the humour. It feels lighter than the other books – I’m not sure there are any big lectures or sermons or discussions, just a load of people trying to justify and explain how they feel and in the main hide their true feelings. One major thing I noticed this time was just how like a play it is – all dialogue and farcical diving through French windows, and talk of acting and plays and scenes. I think this is because we listened to a dramatisation of it on the radio a few years ago, and  of course it was adapted into a play by Murdoch and J.B. Priestley.

It’s funny – of course it’s funny. Honor making her first entrance accompanied by more than a whiff of sulphur, Martin lynching the gibbon by trying to be the most rational human being in the world and repressing his animal side, only to have it all burst out of him. And of course there’s the deep black humour of the layers upon layers of adultery in the Lynch-Gibbons’ oh-so-civilised marriage.  He even describes himself as being “really magnificent” at one point (p. 162).  There’s lots of doomy prefiguring, for example when Martin has dreams offering him “certain horrors, glimpses of a punishment which would perhaps yet find its hour” (p. 10) and him being “stripped, sahved, and prepared as a destined victim; and I awaited Honor as one awaits, without hope, the searing presence of a god” (p. 166), but these seem to me quite funny and almost a bit “Cold Comfort Farm”-y. I loved the two women in the Lynch-Gibbon wines office, perhaps heirs to the efficiencies brought in to Rainborough’s office in “The Flight from the Enchanter”. They are funny as well as being a matter-of-fact introduction of a lesbian couple, perfectly normally, although flirted with by the hapless Mytten. This office part was an aspect I’d forgotten. In a couple of sentences reminiscent of “The Bell” when Dora resolves not to give up here seat on the train, we read:

‘Well, I’m not going to introduce you to Antonia, and that’s that.’

‘Antonia, this is Georgie Hands. Georgie, my wife.’ I found these incredible words passing my lips. I was able to speak without stammering or choking. No one fainted. (p. 85)

And the funniest line in the book perhaps shows IM’s own attitude to psychoanalysis: “I led Georgie out, leaving Palmer to use whatever were now the most up-to-date psychological methods for dealing with hysterical women” (p. 89) (Honor also talks about “a good analysis” in a way that makes Martin think of “a good thrashing” (p. 110).

There’s serious stuff about marriage, of course, with the statement about there being a selfish and an unselfish partner in every marriage (p. 11) and later the description of the reassurance of the taken-for-granted:

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship; and after all, in spite of all that had happened, Antonia and no one else was my wife.(p. 188)

Murdoch is once again cruel to a carefully created and self-curated woman, Antonia, “her face taking on that look which is sometimes described as ‘ravaged'” (p. 14), although Martin is at pains to explain this makes her more attractive rather than less. She also makes Antonia and Rosemary feed off scandal and pain, which makes them quite unattractive and negative (Georgie’s fate perks Antonia up so much that she buys three hats!).

We have the Murdochian themes – although there are maybe no stones and there’s not much water. Georgie’s hair is of course reddish and of course gets chopped off along the way (severed hair as opposed to a severed head). Georgie also has the only room-cave, with its dimly descried treasures, and she has Chinese incense holders which chime with the Japanese possessions of Palmer. Usually Eastern bits and bobs belong to saints, though, and that doesn’t really apply here; although Georgie is perhaps messy enough, she definitely passes on pain rather than absorbing it. She does have “remarkable detachment and lack of worldly pretention” (p. 5), so maybe she’s a saint who just gets pushed over the edge. Palmer has animal fur for hair, not uncommon in Murdoch, and I’m sure there’s another rangy American (perhaps someone in a baggy monster coming later). London is a character, as is the fog (which we will meet again in “The Time of the Angels”, and I loved the detail of the dolphin lamp-posts on the Embankment, still there today. There are complicated arrangements for breaking into a house, when Martin goes to Cambridge and here we find the common theme of a figure standing in the garden, looking in, which we find so often.

Siblings abound, of course, the triumvirate of Martin, Alexander and Rosemary, Honor and Palmer. And there are many contrasts and pairs, from three sets of Christmas decorations to Georgie and Antonia being one perfect woman if you somehow glue them together. Palmer also has two colds – is the first one, when Martin goes to collect Honor, a fake, as he doesn’t seem ill in between then is shown in a bit of a state when Martin visits him on Antonia’s behalf later on. Pictures move around, the Audubon bird prints back and forth between the Lynch-Gibbon properties and Palmer’s Japanese pictures around his house.

There aren’t so many echoes of the other books, however I was pleased to note that Martin does run out and hear receding footsteps as Honor runs out in to the dark night at one point, after their encounter in the cellar. Antonia wants to keep Martin in her “loving net” even after running off (p. 193).

Talking of saints and enchanters, Palmer does seem to be an enchanter, with his ability to bend everyone and everything to his will and his ability to “set people free” (is Mischa Fox said to have this talent, too?). Georgie, the voice of reason until she’s pushed too far, points out that Martin is “always looking for a master” (p. 3) and he finds one in Palmer and then Honor. Palmer is described as a magician by Martin – Alexander, who wins everything in the end, has interestingly never liked him. Honor is the severed head, a god and a fearsome avenging deity with a sword, but very much seems to claim this role for herself rather than having it placed upon her. Is Martin an enchanter to Georgie? Certainly, “Georgie’s stoicism had helped to make me a brute,” (p. 175) but does that make him an enchanter? She seems to need a man to hang off, so maybe she goes around creating her own mini-enchanters.

The feeling of a play comes at the end, with Martin’s last letter to Georgie, with the almost Shakespearian:

I feel as if we had been actors in a play, and there must be some exchange between us for the drama to be complete. (p. 197)

What did I get out of this on this re-read? It is a farce, isn’t it, and, as the introduction states, a book to be enjoyed only with the intellect. Although this seems a bit cruel when Georgie, at least, is a real, warm and hurt human being. I did enjoy it immensely and I see I’ve written quite a lot about it for such a little book!

P.S. I was going to list this book in my Reading Ireland challenge, but that seems a bit wrong when the only mention of the place is when Martin “retain[s] a sentimental sense of connexion with that poor bitch of a country” (p. 12). Maybe not, then!


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 Bell” round-up and “A Severed Head” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Welcome to this month’s #IMReadalong update, where I’m going to start collecting people’s views on “The Bell” (time has told that a good few reviews come in after the end of the month, for reading or reviewing scheduling reasons, and that’s of course FINE) and then share images of my four copies of “A Severed Head” and their blurbs.

“The Bell”

Various people got to discussing “The Bell” as early as my introductory post last month, especially because I was a bit late with my review (I’m starting “A Severed Head” tomorrow to avoid having this issue again). Do have a look at the comments, especially Maria Peacock’s long note.

I had some lovely cover images from Peter Rivenberg which I shared on my review post, and there has been a bit of discussion there. Jo has put up another excellent review on Goodreads and I particularly liked her contrast of Dora and Toby.  Liz also reviewed it on Goodreads and wasn’t so keen – which is fine, of course, and I’m sharing here to reassure anyone else who had trouble with it. Juliana from The Blank Garden has added an amazing discussion on whether IM is a philosophical novelist, centring on this book, here. Any more reviews or links to reviews on people’s blogs and Goodreads accounts will be shared them here when they come in.

So if you have comments to make or links to blog posts to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review. Oh, and do pop over to my “Flight from the Enchanter” round-up where I’ve just had to add a picture of the very sweet Penguin I acquired the other week.

“A Severed Head”

Moving on to our March read, this is, almost inexplicably, the first Iris Murdoch novel I read, at the age of 14 (an only child who went to an all girls’ school and led a pretty sheltered life), and which got me hooked on IM. What on earth did I make of it? It was loaned to me by my lovely neighbour, Mary, who was a bastion of left-wing, wine-making, vegtable-growing, borrow-any-book-on-my-shelfness who introduced me to so many of my still-favourite authors.

I have four copies: the hardback first edition, a 1964 Penguin whose cover I LOVE, a 1984 Triad Granada which I bought in about 1986, and the new Vintage edition.

I loved reading the blurbs, as they all seem to riff off each other. Here’s the first edition first:

It’s great that it’s so enthusiastic, but the references to Treasure Island and Adolphe I find a little odd.  Moving on to the orange Penguin:

I love the comparison to Jacobean tragedy and Restoration comedy on that one. The Triad Granada was a bit more restrained, but still full of the Daily Mail:

… and the Vintage has a puff from Elizabeth Jane Howard of all people, and a mixture of all the previous blurbs.

So, are you going to be reading or re-reading “A Severed Head” along with me? Which was your first Iris Murdoch novel and which was the one that got you hooked?


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

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

26 Comments

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.

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