Posted tagged ‘Iris Murdoch’

head down, hard at work

August 27, 2012

Once again, kind of silent around this humble blog lately. I just don’t have any great developments to report or flaming opinions to inflict on you. (You already know my attitude toward grammar and NaNoWriMo.) I’ve just kept at the stories.

I mentioned a week or so ago that I had started on a sort of vignette piece without a traditional narrative to it. I’m calling it “Men at Work and Play,” and that’s pretty much all that it involves. No great epiphanies. No earth-changing revelations or character developments. It’s more like a snapshot of a day with my three main characters. Because of this, I was flailing around a bit trying to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. I have a long skinny dipping scene that I’m probably going to take out or at least condense considerably. A cigar-smoking scene that I’ll probably just incorporate by reference. A work scene that I can fit in through flashback. I guess the story is mostly culmination rather than development. I don’t suppose that makes much sense out of context, but as I said, I’ve been flailing. I did manage to re-order some of the things I have written for it, and that seems to have made a difference. The same has been the case with a couple of other stories in this cycle. I wrote scenes for them but wasn’t sure how to stitch them together. Then, once I juggled things a bit, the right sequence presented itself. Perhaps that will happen here.

I haven’t received any rejections lately, but I did manage to whip up enough initiative to send my story “Travel Light” to another likely publication. Why not, right?

I was also racing to “finish” one of the Fathers and Sons stories for a submission deadline. It’s called “Comfortable in his skin,” and it’s about the memories of a childhood visit to the family cabin. The magazine had a call out for stories about childhood, and the deadline is fast approaching. I’m not sure if the story is altogether finished, but I’ve given it a lot of attention in these last few days. Each visit seems to result in a change, I hope a change for the better. Anyway, the story went off yesterday. There is no information about response time, but the issue in question will come out in February. I’ll just gnaw on my fingernails until then.

And I’ve actually had an idea for a story completely outside of the Fathers and Sons universe. This seems significant because although I am happy to continue to develop those stories, it is a bit unnerving to thing that nothing else will ever come to me. Now I see that this won’t be the case. This new story, which I don’t have a title for and not much of a plot for, deals with the theme of unselfing. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I’m a great Iris Murdoch reader. Unselfing is a key concept in her novels. Of course many religious doctrines have their own definition of unselfing, but for Murdoch it comes down to “overcoming of the self-centeredness that prevents us from loving others as separate existences.” It is ┬áreally hard work, according to Murdoch, to fully recognize that other people have existences outside of our perception of them, that we are merely footnotes in the books of their lives. So I’m thinking of grappling with that weighty concept in a short story. We’ll see if I’m up to the task.

Finally, yes, I’m still running around like a fool. I like the solitude. And my knee seems to be holding up despite earlier indications to the contrary.

Spell it backward: dog in search of dog

August 30, 2011

I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s novel The Green Knight (the second to last of her 26+ novels and so the second to last in my quest to read them all in sequence). In it a dog named Anax desperately wants to get back to his former master. He’s been living with four nice women who care for him, but they cannot replace the love he felt for his original owner (who rescued him from the pound). The poor, forlorn dog bides its time and makes an escape when a door is left open too long. Anax then goes on a journey through London that is, I’m sure, supposed to mirror a human’s search for the divine (not necessarily the western “God” everyone thinks of but, in Murdoch’s cosmology, more of a greater goodness), which is pretty much a theme in all of her works.

We get some insight into the dog’s nature, and they we join him on his flight:

“He did not believe that his master rejected him or found him unworthy, indeed he could not imagine this. Nor did he imagine his master might be dead . . . Only lately had he realised that there would be no return and that it was for him, Anax, to seek his Lord, who might be somewhere in need, perhaps captive too, waiting, deprived and unconsoled. Nor did Anax doubt the authentic authority of the magnetism which would, when the time came, draw him back to his master . . . If he could only run towards the beloved he would be with him, nothing more was needed than that of flinging himself into the great void of that dreadful absence . . . Once he had started Anax found that he knew his way perfectly well, he was guided . . . Suddenly the spirit that directed him had seemed to fail . . . Perhaps his loss of certainty was simply due to exhaustion . . . He ran on quickly, then walked, hoping still to regain the magnetic message, along a road which prompted no recognition, where railings enclosed the front gardens of big houses . . . Anax was now completely lost. He hurried on, then wandered randomly on, trying to recognise some landmark or be guided in some direction, but now he had given up hope, he had lost all sense of orientation. The magnetic beam was quenched, the purposeful certainty, the energy, which had made him able to run so far and so fast, had vanished from him. He felt tired, hungry, and now frightened.”

And so it goes. He must fight for a crust of bread. He meets kind people and unkind ones. He is naked for he wasn’t wearing his collar. He faces evil in the form of a fearless cat that attacks him. He experiences hunger, fear, doubt, despair. All in his quest to regain his master. Much like the dark night of the soul so many mystics experience when they lose touch with their divine, which is, of course, what Murdoch is trying to depict in this passage.

Not coincidentally, Anax’s former master had given him away so that he might complete a spiritual quest of his own; he intends to join a monastery.

Shall I tell you how it ends? Anax is found by someone who was not even looking for him. The man — the actual Green Knight of this story — recognizes him and returns him to the four women, for which Anax is grateful. Will he ever be reunited with his former master? I must read on to learn that.

Literary tour groups in London actually retrace Anax’s journey, based on the many clues and cues that Murdoch includes in the passage. No reports on whether they find their divine however.

It’s about stuff

December 20, 2010

“Novels need stuff in them — fabrics, dry goods — if they are to maintain a proper distance from tracts, treatises and moral essays. Let there be tweed, cashmere and corduroy, the narrative voice urges, lest we lose ourselves in an immaterial play of essences.”

Malcolm Bowie
from the Introduction to
The Book and the Brotherhood
by Iris Murdoch

~

I’ve often lamented here the gratuitous inclusion of physical descriptions in fiction, especially descriptions of clothing, that serve no purpose (aside from the writer’s apparent compulsion to follow the “rule” of writing that says readers must have information like this in order to envision the scene). Balderdash, I say. Readers will furnish a room or clothe a character or envision the weather however they imagine, often in spite of what the writer may say, and the intrusion of such pretty much useless detail has been disparagingly described as “Nancy Drew Moments” by some.

Still, I can appreciate the need to give the reader tangible information lest the story be one exclusively of ideas (and Iris Murdoch is certainly a writer of ideas). As I’m reading this novel, I noted that she uses the inclusion of such detail for more than merely its tangible service. Generally she goes on to add some psychological insight about the character. One may be described as nicely dressed to show that she is an orderly thinker or that he invites the ridicule of other characters. The point is that while Murdoch does sometimes give us details about the clothes of her characters, she puts it to more use than merely to give the reader something tangible to envision.

(But someone enlighten me about this: the book was published in 1987, and nothing in it suggests that it is set any significant time earlier than that. So why are women still wearing “petticoats”? Is that some British term that is still in use that doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean a hundred years ago here in the States? I fear that I’m missing some important allusion to her repeated reference to this type of clothing.)

I chatter on about this subject — clearly one important to me as a writer and reader — in this old post too.

 

 

Larger gets larger

June 29, 2010

I’ve had a productive time with Larger than Life since I last made a progress report. I’ve gotten about a third of chapter four down in first draft. (I consider that if I can get a 3,000-to-5,000 word chapter in first draft written in about two weeks, I’m making excellent progress.)

I’m not planning to number the chapters (as I had with The Sleep of Reason). Rather, I’m going to give them thematic names, each using the word “light” in some way. So I have “Travel Light” and “Making Light” written, and I’m working on “Light Headed.” (Next up, “Seeing the Light.”) Even though they won’t be numbered, they will need to be read sequentially for the story to make sense. It’s that first chapter, the oddball one that is going to be so different from the rest of the novel, that requires me to be rigid about the order. (That one will probably be titled “Lighter than Air.”) Plus, my protagonist makes progress through the tale, so it’s important to maintain a sequence.

I know many modern (and not-so-modern) novels barely show chapter breaks, much less use numbers or even titles. I’ll confess that when I read most Iris Murdoch novels, I can never tell why a break might be a mere two lines, half a page, or a whole page. Does she have some thematic reason for this that I don’t get? One novel I read in graduate school, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, had instructions for how to “hopscotch” through the many chapters seemingly randomly, including the last ninety-nine, which are said to be “expendable.”) So maybe I’m being old fashioned using conventional chapters.

Anyway, I’m satisfied with my progress, and I’m delighted that several times every day I get little insights about this or that in the plot or about the characters that make it better. I just had a big revelation about the theme that has helped me refine the plot and delineate the growth of the character better. So Larger is getting larger.

Distilled for perfection

April 19, 2010

There are many times when I despair of ever having a worthy thought, much less of expressing it well. Often when reading someone else’s writing I come across a paragraph or even a sentence that so well distills an idea that I doubt any more ever needs to be said about it by anyone. I copy these passages into my journal and lament the knowledge that though I can appreciate what was said, I will never rise to the level that I can say them, or even think like that, myself.

Here is the most recent passage I copied into my journal. It is from Iris Murdoch’s novel The Good Apprentice. (I think I’ve mentioned here that I’m working my way through her novels in the order they were published. Only a few more left, and then I can start all over at the beginning.)

This is a reflection by the behind-the-scenes puller-of-strings character, a character type that appears in much of her fiction and, in this novel, is a force for good. He is a psychiatrist.

“Where the individual mind is concerned the light of science could reveal so little; and the mismash of scientific ideas and mythology and literature and isolated facts and sympathy and love and appetite for power which was known as psychoanalysis, and which of course did sometimes ‘help people’, could make the most extraordinary mistakes when it left the paths of the obvious. Wild guesses, propelled by the secret wishes of the guesser, could initiate long journeys down wrong tracks.”

And then the most interesting part of the reflection:

“The person he found most puzzling was himself.”

Narrator of The Philosopher’s Pupil

August 13, 2009

I’ve been writing a bit about narrative voice lately on this humble blog, and in a recent post (about all narration actually being in first person) I brought up the unique narrator of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil. I’ve finished the book (finally), and the last paragraph really gives a delightful payoff in terms of narrative voice.

I noted in that other post that the narrator of the Murdoch novel makes occasional appearances as an interactive character in the story while still having omniscience regarding everyone’s thoughts and motivations, including even those of a dog. The narrator is from an old family in the village and goes by the name of N (for narrator?).

At one point N is referred to as “an impotent voyeur” by one of the characters. But N is from an established family in the town, so at another point a character states that people tend to do what N wants them to do. I love this kind of sly, self conscious reference to the role of a narrator in the story. In many ways, a narrator is both a powerless reporter and a weaver of characters’ lives.

Granted, the author is allowed to give her narrator whatever powers she wishes, but it was hard to avoid noticing that what seemed to be a mortal narrator could have such broad knowledge inside others’ heads. Was Murdoch up to something supernatural with this character perhaps? I didn’t think so since the supernatural doesn’t enter her books very often. (Secretive, controlling characters who manipulate the lives of other characters are common in her books, but they generally don’t have supernatural powers.)

The last paragraph, in a bit of meta fiction, addresses this point with a bit of playfulness. This is the narrator speaking:

“The end of any tale is arbitrarily determined. As I now end this one, somebody may say: but how on earth do you know all these things about all these people? Well, where does one person end and another person begin? It is my role in life to listen to stories. I also had the assistance of a certain lady.”

All narration is in first person

August 9, 2009

When you think about it (and you really ought to think about such things), all narration is in first person.

If you treat your narrator as an unseen character (which I think you must if you are serious about this business of writing fiction), he or she is really telling the story in first person, even if the word “I” is never used. (I’ve discussed this here and here.)

And if you don’t treat your narrator as an unseen character (or you don’t care to add this layer to your story telling), it is you who is telling the tale, so it is again in the first person, you just don’t happen to bring in your presence overtly.

The mysterious narrator of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil is a curious example. This is a true first-person narrated story, but a hundred pages can pass with a third-person omniscient voice (even relating to us the thoughts of a dog in the story), and then the narrator will become an active character, joining in action and conversation with the other characters.

The point of this observation is merely to emphasize how important it is to maintain voice in the story telling. Who exactly is relating your story to your reader? You must have this thought through and fixed in your mind even if you are the only one sharing drinks with your narrator, listening (and scribbling down) as he or she tells you the story of your protagonist.

My new narrator — I haven’t met him yet

July 27, 2009

I’ve mentioned here a few times that I will rewrite my current work in progress, The Sleep of Reason, with a third-person narrator. It will make for a much better story, but I don’t know who that narrator is going to be yet.

I’ve also mentioned here a few times (most notably here) that a careful writer must treat the narrator as another character of the story. A narrator should have as much existence (to the writer at least) as any other character in the story. This is the person who tells the tale; it must be a person. Even if this character makes no overt appearance in the story, having a specific person in mind to tell the tale means that the voice of the story will remain consistent, which is the kind of thing a careful writer must think about.

But beyond that, the narrator can do extra work. In many of Saramago’s novels, the narrator provides commentary and judgment on the characters and events. In Iris Murdoch novels, the narrator is often the voice of god. A third-person narrator might contribute to maintaining the tone of the novel. A narrator might provide humor. Or dread. Or sorrow. Or joy.

I’m struggling with just what role my new narrator will have and how that can contribute to the tale. I’ve considered making him (and I assume it’s a him right now) one of the members of the story, though relating the tale long after the fact. He might even be the antagonist character as I now conceive the story. Or he might merely be a wise gentleman sharing a story with friends at their club. Will he relate the facts with a foreknowledge of the end, tossing in hints of this along the way? That would help with the tone I want to maintain. Or will he withhold this kind of information so that the reader must earn it? I’ve thought about having him make cutting observations about what a fool the protagonist is, as a way to create sympathy for the protagonist, but I fear I could overdo that or that I shouldn’t give that much away. Will my narrator have sympathy or contempt for the protagonist? Will he see the protagonist as a victim or a fool?

In any case, my narrator will have to be omniscient, at least to the point of knowing and relating the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. This is, of course, commonplace in fiction, but if I also make him a member of the story, it will require something like a supernatural quality, which while not a part of the plot, certainly is in keeping with the theme.

I need to give this a lot more thought before I embark on the rewrite, and anyway, there are still two more chapters to write, including one scene that finally explains the title I’ve given the novel.

Interstices of my reading

July 21, 2009

There was a time when I always had to be reading a novel. I had to have at least one novel I was currently reading, and often, as soon as I finished one, I would literally take up another and start it. At the very least, I would have a shelf of novels ready for reading as soon as an opportunity opened. This even involved some “emergency” trips to the library to be sure to have a book ready. There were also times when I had three and four novels underway at once.

I’ve mellowed a bit since those heady days. I do think a day without some fiction reading is a bit of a disappointment, and I do generally always have some novel I’m reading close by, but if I finish one and find that I don’t have a new one ready to begin, I don’t panic. Several whole days may pass before I begin reading a new novel. I allow some interstices between my novels.

This little observation occurred to me because of the novel I am currently reading: The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch. I’ve been reading Murdoch for years. At some point I decided I needed to read her novels in sequence from the first to the last. I’m now among the final third of her fiction output, but I tend to let six months or so pass between her novels lest I be overwhelmed.

This is a big novel — nearly 600 pages — and each page has some treasure of observation, wordplay, or wit that I like to savor. This novel will be my companion for a long time (if the local library allows it). Early on Murdoch is describing the interior of the house of one of the characters and how this character had to use up all of the free space in the house, including putting things in the “interstices” between the furniture. That’s not an everyday word for me, but I knew its meaning from having seen it before (and probably from its context).

I like reading novels that use words like interstices. English is such a rich and vast language that we can never hope to taste all of it, but the effort of trying to will make it worthwhile and enrich us. It’s hard to imagine any editor of commercial or genre fiction (much less any agent) who would allow a word like “interstices” to remain in a novel submitted today. (The Philosopher’s Pupil was published in the 1980s — not so long ago.) We seem to live in an age where most fiction is dumbed down by things like The Elements of Style and every popular writer’s list of rules for writing.

I suppose there is far more sanctuary for good writing than I imagine, and I suppose that plenty of it is still being produced. And I’m grateful for it.

It’s not showing off if you’re good

July 18, 2009

I remember reading long ago that those who read exclusively for plot are something like those who can only enjoy very spicy foods. Hot plots and spices can certainly deliver, but there are all sorts of satisfying subtleties that can be missed as a result.

I’ve been seeing some discussion in some blogs lately by writers who disdain “Literature,” saying that writers of this type of fiction are just “showing off,” that such writing is too difficult to understand, and, sadly, that literature often lacks plot. These dismissals seem to be unfair generalizations (just as my observation of them may be), but I’ve seen each of these stated recently by people who profess to the craft of writing.

I’m not sure of the reasons for such complaints. Are these disdainful writers secretly jealous that another writer is getting accolades for writing “Literature”? Do these writers really not see that there is more substance or a different level of work in a piece of “Literature” than in much genre or commercial writing? Do these writers chafe at the implied challenge (“You too can strive to work your craft this way!”) that Literature makes?

In any case, we wouldn’t generally make such disdainful judgments about high achievement in other endeavors. You may be able to play the piano perfectly well for your own pleasure and for sing-alongs with friends, but this doesn’t mean you would say that a concert pianist is merely “showing off” or that the Rach 3 is simply too difficult. The same is the case in sports. You may enjoy a pick-up game of basketball with friends, but you’re not going to disdain someone like Michael Jordan who has the good fortune (and the drive) to play the game at another level.

Harold Bloom talks about Literature being one of the “difficult pleasures” we strive to enjoy. Sometimes it takes work, but the payoff can be immense. Such writing is not inaccessible, but it will demand more effort than the easier pleasure of easier fiction will require. There has been much debate about this high reading standard that Bloom sets, but few dismiss it altogether. Big-L Literature does have its value.

And if such literary writing really is showing off, then what of it? I’d much rather wander through a world of books knowing there is the flash of Tom Wolfe or the immensity of Thomas Wolfe or the depth of Herman Melville or the philosphy of Iris Murdoch or the deadly serious┬áplayfulness of Philip Roth than to think only spicy reading will be served. We really don’t need to be taking pot shots at each other. All writing is good in some way or another.


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