“The Philosopher’s Pupil” round-up and “The Good Apprentice” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I so enjoyed this one, staying in my Top 5 (thank goodness) but with me creeping past the main characters in age once again … Here’s my review with the usual comments and discussion. Jo has done her usual excellent review on Goodreads and I’m so enjoying watching her read them all for the first time while most of the rest of us are re-reading.

No cover image from Peter this month because weirdly, the US Viking first edition had exactly the same cover as the Chatto and Windus one here in the UK. We think the next one is different, though. If you have any juicy paperbacks, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. Did you notice that on the new Vintage cover, the stones all have the waves from “The Sea, The Sea” around their bases?

I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch!

A thought: I was considering collecting these 26 essays, plus an introduction and concluding thoughts, into a small book and making it available via Amazon, as I did with my research a few years ago. Should I, or keep it to this blog?

“The Good Apprentice”

I have always really enjoyed this one and its different locations of London and Norfolk. I have three copies still, however Vintage for some reason didn’t re-print it in one of their nice red-spined editions; I didn’t have a modern copy so bought their one from their last round instead.

The 1986 Penguin (so the first I would have bought when it came out, having discovered IM that year, although I didn’t write in it so don’t know exactly when I bought it) is SO 1980s, isn’t it! Not sure what era the rather alarming first edition is capturing. Rorschach butterfly to go with the face on the front, anyone?

And when I opened this copy from a book dealer, there were loads of random stamps inside!

Bruno would approve, right?

Anyway, the blurbs: a good, full one in the first

The Penguin paperback went for more of a reviews by other people approach:

… although with some echoes in the language in the main blurb. The Vintage goes for:

which kind of blends the two. Intrigued?

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

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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Philosopher’s Pupil” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


Well, this was the fifth time at least that I’ve read this book (I recall taking it on holiday to Greece and reading it in the reception area of a Turkish hammam on a day trip while my husband was being pummelled and terrified (he thankfully didn’t end up exploring any bubbling pipework below the baths!)). Yet again, I’ve aged past the characters’ ages. Yet again, things that I thought happened in the middle happened at the end and there wasn’t as much of some themes as I’d remembered. But my goodness, this one stays firmly in my Top Five.

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

Iris Murdoch – “The Philosopher’s Pupil”

(31 December 2018)

I absolutely loved re-reading this book. I think it’s her most “George Eliot-ish” novel, isn’t it – is that a sacrilege to say? The huge web of characters, the interconnected society, the whole world in one town, the omniscient narrator who occasionally addresses the reader directly …

It opens of course with that seminal scene of Bad George crashing his car into the canal, complete with wife Stella. Oddly, I always associate this scene with “An Accidental Man”, probably because of the car crash there, and also George is a bit of an unlucky man making his own bad luck, like Austin Gibson Grey, in my opinion. And the shadowy figure of the dodgy priest, Father Bernard is there, as he always seems to be  and is indeed at the end at the scene of George’s other big misdeed – a funny touch when you’re re-reading and know just how much he worms into people’s lives. And we very soon find that our narrator is N (with “the assistance of a certain lady” as he admits at the end, p. 558). What will happen to Stella now George has tried to kill her, if he has? Is his old university tutor coming back, and will he want to see him? Just who does Rozanov want to install in a quiet house and why? The community acts as a sort of chorus as events unfold, with a sub-plot of a restaging of a peculiar opera going on at the same time.

The big Murdochian themes are all there, with the novel starting with “malignant rain” and a car in a canal and punctuated by the baths and Lud’s Rill, the geyser in the grounds, worried over by the superbly sketched in director of the baths.  We have a lot of being outside, looking in, mainly to do with the Slipper House, which Tom does a dry run for his later peering early in the novel when it’s still empty, but with Pearl looking in to Belmont and Ruby staring at Maryville, the house by the sea. In case we’re missing someone climbing over a fence by having the back gate to Belmont’s garden open, Gabriel sees the mysterious naked man climbing over one. George follows Diane three times before he finds her properly (and she’s searched for in Paris, too). Big flabby faces with wet mouths are represented by Rozanov, slippery hair in plaits and buns by Hattie. Stones are found in Hattie’s soapstone seal, Gabriel’s malachite egg she buys for Adam and hides and the stone circle at which strange things are seen, Rozanov is upset to see have been cleaned, and where George has his ‘episode’. There’s also talk of rocks that the hot spring comes out of, although only the surface ones around Lud’s Rill are visible.

Animals are beautifully represented by the mysterious foxes and the lovely Zed, a full character in his own right with his own thoughts, emotions and reactions. Who doesn’t have their heart in their mouth when he goes into the sea, even knowing what will happen? What a fantastic character who makes the book in the same way the parrot does in “The Book and the Brotherhood”.

The little ‘feminist’ touches are back in this novel, something I’ve completely missed in every other reading of all of them but am increasingly noticing now (and although Alex is a bit haggard and yellowy, the descriptions of her ageing are not nearly as horrible as those in many others of the novels). Gabriel has a year in secretarial college but wants to go to a university, before she is “overtaken by marriage. Now who and what was she? Brian’s wife, Adam’s mother” (p. 60). This is on top of her other “chief grievance”: “Brian’s selfishness to which she quietly gave in, forgiving though not forgetting” (p. 60). The feminist sector of society, while gently mocked, are I think seen as a force of good, trying to help Diane and Stella.

Like with the ageing, IM seems to have relaxed a bit on her views on marriage in this novel: although the marriages of the two older McCaffrey brothers are not successful as such, there are not so many damning statements on the condition, and we have positive hopes of Tom’s. The only real statement is this rather lovely one:

It is a feature of marriages, including happy ones, that two people who live together may have quite false ideas of one another. This does not at all necessarily lead to disaster or even inconvenience. (p. 546)

There’s a lot of religion of course, including religion lost (Alex and Rozanov’s Methodism,Father Bernard’s Judaism and then high Anglicanism. But Adam is a pantheist and Alex makes little fetishes, while Father Bernard carries on practising after his faith is lost and ends up feeling he needs to explain NOT-religion to everyone in Greece. And the books – both George and Rozanov are writing books which are, of course, unfinished. The only completed book is the one N writes! In fact, Rozanov has lost all interest in books, including perhaps his own, made clear in a melancholy description of his state of mind: “Unless one is a genius, philosophy is a mug’s game” (p. 132)

The humour is back, having been a little missing at times in the last read. The descriptions of the townsfolk and their habits are droll:

It is even alleged that people make a habit of leaving their offices early at four-thirty, bathing and resting until six and then proceeding to the pub. I have met some of these offenders myself. (p. 32)

I also loved this description of Brian:

Of course compared with George he was ‘nice’, but he was not all that nice. (p. 43)

The descriptions of Emma’s startling counter-tenor voice are also most amusing, with windows opening in London and glasses ringing in Ennistone when he produces it, and who can not giggle at Father Bernard’s consternation at having “managed to chuckle in a suggestive way” (p. 239) when phoning Hattie and then his struggles when he has his academic session with her: “Father Bernard was excited too, but not by the grammatical quest” (p. 261). The set-piece where four people watch George going to re-enact his scene by the canal is also very funny.

And what IS Mrs Bradstreet’s terrible secret?

There’s duality all over the place – the Slipper House and the main house, the brothers (well, three brothers), George’s wife and mistress, Alan’s two wives (and Fiona has a brother who has also died), two servants (and three cousins), the town and the baths, the town and London, the UK and America, Lud’s Rill and the controlled bath house, the young people and the old guard. Nesta regards the babies in the baths and can’t help being enchanted; George wants to drown them and indeed thinks of that when completing his own ‘drowning’ of his tutor. Zed appears to be a bag on the lawn of Belmont and a plastic bag floating in the sea.  We have portents, as well – George sees the number 44 everywhere.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Well, John Robert Rozanov is the obvious enchanter – everyone he meets ends up doing things that they often really do not want to do in order to please him. He even enchants his own grand-daughter. However he is conscious of using his powers and so he’s not entirely classic enchanter material:

Father Bernard detested walking, but he was already himself captured and caged. (p. 162)

Being so concentrated on was beginning to give tom a panicky feeling of being trapped. He wanted to get up and lean on the mantelpiece, or open the door into the hall. But he could not move. he was fixed by John Robert’s glare and John Robert’s purpose. (p. 271)

William Eastcote is described as being a saint, repeatedly, and he’s the person people want to go and confess to and ask for help. He never gossips and this is because of his “virtuous austerity” (p. 414) although he’s all too painfully human, reminded of his mortality constantly. The McCaffreys think of him as “‘a place of healing'” (p. 473). He’s also the only Quaker to speak in a meeting that’s described. His speech there is a sort of ‘how to be good’ bringing in themes from all the other books. People should print it out and regard it daily. I might do so!

Let us then seek aid in pure things, turning our minds to good people, to our best work, to beautiful and noble art … Shun the cynicism which says the our world is so terrible that we may as well cease to care and cease to strive, the notion of a cosmic crisis where ordinary duties cease to be and moral fastidiousness is out of place. (p. 205)

I wonder if he, like Charles Arrowby’s father in “The Sea, The Sea” is a portrait of IM’s father (although I say I don’t like looking for that sort of stuff, he is reminiscent of his portrayal, I feel). The other saint is poor put-upon Gabriel, with an angel’s name, a ministering touch and unfortunate floppy hair. Critically, she is described as “the silliest wettest human-being I’ve ever met” (by Alex, p. 485), a bit like Anns Perronet and Cavidge, although, like them, she doesn’t live in a mess (maybe female saints don’t?) and is really good at mending things. Is there an argument for Stella with her lack of feminine wiles and inability to “conceal her strength” (p. 79)? She has netsuke, after all, and a father in Japan …

Attention is a theme although not pushed unsubtly. N is the only person who looks at Stella’s netsuke, and all George wants is to be paid attention to by Rozanov.

Looking at links to other books, poor old Alex, stranded in a relic of her past life reminds me of Henry’s mother in “Henry and Cato”. Like her, Aliex has had her faithful retainer since her teens. As I said, George reminds me of Austin, the “Accidental Man”, and of course even more than this we are given a tiny glimpse of Hugo Bellfounder, Jake’s confidant in “Under the Net”. On p. 82 we’re told “He kept up with William Eastcote and with an eccentric old watchmaker with whom he had philosophical conversations” and then later, we find he’s died: “‘What about all those valuable clocks?’ ‘He left them to that writer, I forget his name'” (p.99) (in the introduction, Malcolm Bradbury claims this is IM (p. xvi). But surely it’s Jake?). Again with “Under the Net” is it chance that Rozanov pursues quarries of lines of thought into nets (p. 135)?

The car going into the canal and the fine balance of the act reminds me of Rain’s Morgan going into the river in “The Sandcastle”. As my lovely commenters pointed out regarding “Nuns and Soldiers” we are at a time of change here – Ruby is restive, Rozanov is back, and there’s a periodic uprising to do with Lud’s Rill which makes everyone go a bit odd. Diane with her cluttered room and odd clothes is all the prostitute/mistresses in the oeuvre, her boyish hair and figure perhaps a clue to how some of the other genderfluid women might have ended up. Mistaking French is in there, this time actually not understanding at all (p. 145). Like in “Nuns and Soldiers”, Tom like Tim undergoes trial by water and emerges changed and grown. Like in “An Accidental Man” and “Nuns and Soldiers”, Tom and Rozanov pass each other in The Crescent but don’t notice each other.

Looking forward through the remaining works, the obsession with the old tutor prefigures “The Book and the Brotherhood” and I was excited to find George post-stones described as “weak and pale like a grub in an apple” (p. 547) as this prefigures Stuart Cuno in “The Good Apprentice” being described as a white grub (more than once?). She must have liked and retained the image.

On rereading this one in particular: so everyone’s in their early 40s apart from (maybe) N, and definitely Alex, William Eastcote (sob!) and John Robert Rozanov. So I’m older than them again. But this time I do still have kind thoughts towards the young crowd, where I went off them in other books. I remembered a lot of the set pieces and being somehow obscurely almost in love with N, but somehow thought that Tom’s adventure among the pipes was a lot further back in the book than it was (and also John Robert’s demise). I also thought there were lots more walks with philosophy for Rosanov and than there actually were. Odd, isn’t 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.

“Nuns and Soldiers” round-up and “The Philosopher’s Pupil” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I might have got my review of “Nuns and Soldiers” out a bit late but we’ve already had a good discussion on it – read my review to find out more! I appreciate this round-up is a day late and I’m sorry about that: I was in Cornwall for a party for the photo-a-day group I’m in and got back too late to write and post it. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading “Nuns and Soldiers” – I don’t feel it’s one of the big ones that get talked about but I get a lot out of it and it’s retained its place in my estimation.

We had, as I said, a good discussion so far, but I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time!

There’s another brilliant Goodreads review from Jo, sticking with the project and reading all the books for the first time! She has some great things to say about Daisy, among other people and themes. and she has some fascinating things to say, too.

Peter Rivenberg as usual has a first American edition and here it is – a funny old cover, really!

Peter Rivenberg’s first American edition

“The Philosopher’s Pupil”

And now we’re on to one of my very favourites. I bought my paperback on 30 December 1994, when I was 22 and had graduated from University and was working in a call centre. I must have read it before then, though, surely? I know I’ve read this outside the normal run of chronological reads, as I took it to Kos in the mid-00s and read chunks of it sitting in the reception of a Turkish Baths while my then-boyfriend (now husband) was being cleansed. Very appropriate, I thought. I love the theme of the returning philosopher and the pupil seeking redemption and the crowd of commentators and side characters, plus the enigmatic and loveable narrator, all set above the hisses and bubbles of a spa town.

There won’t be all of them where I have three copies now but we can still continue for the meantime. Here they are:

I put them in the wrong order but you can work this out, right?

… and here’s the back cover of the first edition, with lovely Zed:

Here’s the flap of the first edition:

Then my Penguin, produced in 1983:

The Spectator remains keen! And the Vintage:

… not much new under the sun there, eh?

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

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

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


It’s been an unexpected and rather disquieting fact that this time around re-reading all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in chronological order, in my mid-to-late-40s (last time I did it was in 2008-10) I’ve discovered that many of the characters who I previously considered as ‘adult’, certainly older than me, have been slipped past and are now younger than me. This was again the case here, with the central, adult figures, Gertrude and Guy, being in their early-to-mid-40s and most of the constellation of ‘cousins and aunts’ similar. I’ve noticed I’ve had slightly less tolerance for the caperings of the young, so I hope I don’t end up unable to respect anyone apart from Bruno or (insert other very elderly characters here). It’s not a problem as such, just interesting.

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

Iris Murdoch – “Nuns and Soldiers “

(31 December 2018)

I think this one gets left out a bit as the follow-up to “The Sea, The Sea”. Certainly, based on the Introduction to my edition, it wasn’t received that well by the critics. But I’m very fond of it; I love the scenes in the French house, and I’ve certainly not tired of Anne Cavidge (so much more successful than Ann Perronet).

We open with Guy dying and his wife Gertrude surrounded by friends and family. The chorus of relatives demands particular behaviour when a circle of suitors manifests itself. While she tries to escape – to the north, to France – unprepossessing Tim seems to claim her heart while the distant satellite, a Polish “count” holds still with his love hidden. Who will Gertrude choose, and will she stick with her choice? Over the course of a year we watch Gertrude being courted, other constellations moving around her, and time passing in a circle.

Who is the saint? Anne or the Count are really the candidates, aren’t they? The Count is doing penance for his father’s anti-Semitism by page 4 (“and for much else”) although it’s worth noting that he does pass on gossip where a true saint would absorb it. His life is “a conceptual muddle” which is always a good sign. He also notes that “It’s not for me to judge” about Tim (p. 323) while also confronting Tim about his morals and seemingly planting ideas of integrity and honour into his head (p. 380).  Anne is of course an ex-nun who has a vision of a somewhat Buddhist Jesus and she effaces her love for the good of others. Gertrude says of her, “She is not a Saint, she is not even an Abbess!” (p. 52). I do love the portrait of their long and complex friendship, by the way, a massively attractive feature of this book for me. Manfred and Mrs Mount consider then to be “a spineless pair” who should have ended up together (p. 497). Is our saint Daisy, who absorbs things then pops off to be an American feminist? Tim is described as taking everyone’s blame by the chorus, but that’s because he’s a scapegoat, not a saint.

Are there any enchanters? Gertrude seems to have an effect on people but only in a loving way. Are the chorus of aunts and cousins which turn out to be manipulating things rather a lot in the late scenes a sort of joint enchanter, making things happen as they wish?

Murdoch is much more positive about marriage than in “The Sea, The Sea”. Gertrude and Guy’s bond was so close “They had never seriously quarrelled, never been parted, never doubted each other’s complete honesty” – presumably why she’s so very upset when Tim shows up as a liar. I loved the description of both Tim and Gertrude feeling a little superior to each other but transforming that into protective tenderness. There’s probably a lot to be said about Gertrude’s inability to appreciate art and Tim’s various issues in the art galleries, but I’m not sure I’m equal to that!

In other more common themes, Guy was writing a book of course, which is never finished. Daisy is writing a novel which is more successful. Anne has a short fur of hair, while Gertrude has tangles of brown and Tim of red. Once more, older women are described disparagingly – Daisy has become “prematurely haggard”. Gertrude grows older in Tim’s eyes, greying and with eyes displaying signs of crying. The descriptions of the sea in the north and the rivers and pools and canal in France are beautiful. The rain and thunderstorms play a major role. Stones are a big feature, with the beach ones hampering Anne but Jesus giving her a special stone. Anne observes Tim in the garden in France and he looks through a window and sees what he should not see. There’s discussion of how to be good and Jesus Himself sums it up:

Do right, refrain from wrong. (p. 298)

In this context, I also loved Anne’s statement to the Count that it’s best not to take your own life in case you could have done some good for somebody in later life. She’s passing on a good message here. Cats and dogs feature with all Tim’s cat paintings and Tim and Daisy’s story being bookended by Barkiss the dog disappearing and appearing.

Doubling is everywhere – Gertrude has two husbands, Tim has two tests in the canal and Anne one in the sea. In France and London are opposing house, one constrained and one free (or is it?). There are two dogs in the canal – one dead, one alive, both turning to show a raised paw, and two fountains (the face and the moss fountain). As well as Tim’s ordeal, he and Gertrude count themselves as having had one when they separate. There are two big break-up scenes (Tim and Gertrude, Tim and Daisy). I loved the times that Tim and Anne almost run into each other, walking in London.

There’s not much actual humour in the book but great sayings such as “There is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (p. 37) and on Gertrude and Anne’s friendship: “She and Anne would always be riding together in that indestructible chariot. Only since it was so indestructible there was perhaps no need to let it run over her dreams” (p. 281). I also loved the assessment of Tim:

Like many instinctive uncalculating liars Tim was too lazy to think out his lies with care, and faced with exposure tended perhaps, as a token gesture to his conscience, to tell the literal truth. (p. 340).

Daisy’s feminism and swearing opposition to pretty well anything is both brave and amusing. Tim caught in the brambles is also pretty funny.

In relation to other books in particular, Gertrude and Tim breaking up at the end of one chapter and then being found in the process of getting married at the beginning of the next always reminds me of when Dora in “The Bell” is resolving not to give up her seat on the train then doing so. The discussion of the meaning of Guy’s dying phrases, including the one about “the upper side of the cube” turning out to be about hitting a tennis ball rather than some kind of deep philosophy recall Dorina in “An Accidental Man” suddenly recalling that “Pliez les genoux” was about skiing lessons rather than the imprecations of some holy man.

A good read, I think, with lots of drama and adventure and a lovely denouement when we suddenly look at everything through Manfred and Mrs Mount’s eyes.

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


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

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

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

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

“Nuns and Soldiers”

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

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

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

The first edition blurb is the most informative and useful:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Iris Murdoch – “The Sea, The Sea”

(31 December 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Sea, The Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Vintage one gives up a bit:

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

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

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

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