Posted tagged ‘Iris Murdoch’

what I’m reading now

February 29, 2016

Happy Leap Day to you and yours!

I know most of you have been anxious about whether or not I finished The Village. I did. It pulled itself together somewhat at the end, but I think I’ll scratch David Mamet off my list of novelists to read going forward. (There are so many books, and a fellow can’t read them all in a single lifetime.)

So, you’re asking, what is he reading now?

Well, I have an anthology of Victorian-era detective stories on my nightstand that I’ve been dipping into off and on for months. It’s called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (which, I should add is only one of many anthologies with that title, most of which I own and have read), and I’m nearly finished with it. So I decided that after I finished The Village, I would pick up Rivals and make my sprint to the finish arch.

Except I picked up a book on my to-be-read shelf to have just a quick look at the introduction. Pretty soon I had read the whole introduction and was started on the first chapter. And so the Rivals have a rival.

The book I am now reading is Roth Unbound: A writer and his books by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It is a literary biography of Philip Roth, which is to say it is about the influences, creation, and consequences of Roth’s writings more than it is about his life. I’m only just a short way into the book, but already it’s clear that much of his life has influenced his fiction, thus there is a good deal of biography included. That’s fine. Much of it I already knew, but every page offers some nugget of insight, which makes me appreciate his fiction more. (I suppose I’ve already told you that I’ve read his novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. Do you have one go-to book that never lets you down?)

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is thought through and exactly right. Let me hasten to add, though, that Iris Murdoch is my favorite novelist, if you appreciate the distinction.

So I expect to make quick work of Roth Unbound, and then I’ll be on to the next book. Maybe Rivals. Maybe the next Murdoch novel in the series I’m re-reading from start to finish. Maybe something else altogether.

have I read this book?

September 2, 2015

So I completed re-reading The Flight from the Enchanter the other night, and I enjoyed my second trip through it, confirming that Iris Murdoch is worth reading and re-reading. But I must confess that I only remembered one scene and only a few of the characters from my first reading. It was as though I had never read the novel once before.

Granted, I had read it originally many years ago — as much as a decade ago. (I could look it up because, like everyone else in the world, I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the date I completed them.) But can I say I’ve actually read a book, gave it a serious and thoughtful reading, if I can’t remember it years later?

Certainly there have been many books I’ve read that are not worth remembering, and there have been many that are intentionally light weight — “beach reading” is a common term for these — that are meant to be enjoyed at the time and then left behind. But what can I say about myself and my “serious” reading if I can’t remember a novel years after I’ve read it? Did I really read it with the seriousness it deserved? Did I pause and reflect on elegant passages, humorous scenes, unexpected insights? Did I give the novel the attention it deserved?

I suppose that parts of the novel have entered the matrix of thoughts that make up what passes for my consciousness in ways I don’t recognize. (In fact, generally when I have a sudden insight about something, I question whether the thought is one of my own or something I’ve recycled from another but don’t recognize.) I suppose the first reading left impressions I’m not aware of but use in the ceaseless conversation of ideas that goes on in my head. At least, I’m going to tell myself that.

I’ve read Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. I know that story well. I know the characters. The scenes. The humor. The pathos. And yet, each time I read it, I find something new in it, something I hadn’t seen in my other visits. I’ve often said that I don’t think you can begin to know a novel until you’ve read it a second time. It just bugs me with Enchanter that it is as though my second time is my first time.

Flight from the Enchanter

August 24, 2015

So as you know since you read this humble blog so avidly, I have embarked on re-reading the entire canon of Iris Murdoch fiction. (Her nonfiction, mostly discussing moral philosophy, is so deep that it is over my head, which is a mixed metaphor if ever there was one, right?) I’m now on her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, which was originally published in 1956 (and which makes it even older than I am).

In addition to re-reading the novels, I am hoping to rebuild my collection of them (don’t ask me why — I don’t know), having donated most of my first set to a small town library, which actually added them to their collection. Alas, it appears that hardback copies of Murdoch novels are being collected; they are hard to find, and when I do come across them in a store or online, they are expensive. So I settled for a broken-spined paperback edition of Enchanter when I came across it at Powell’s Books on my last visit to Portland. Tattered cover. Tiny print. Brown, brittle pages. Spine barely holding it all together.

And a surprise inside.

The edition I found was printed in 1973. When I reached page 50, still sorting out all of the characters and their relationships and trying to keep the pages from falling onto the floor, I came across a small cash register receipt from the original purchase, back in July of 1973. The receipt was from the Honolulu Book Store. What a find! Someone bought this paperback when it was newly issued, perhaps hoping for some light beach reading during a summer vacation to Hawai’i. And found out that Iris Murdoch ain’t light reading. Apparently the person got as far as page 50 and gave it up.

And had no one opened this particular copy of the novel since that time? Had the receipt lay in wait for my discovery forty years later? It’s tempting to think so; little surprises/mysteries like this hold a fascination for me. (See my guerilla marketing post for something like this.) More likely, this copy has passed through many hands over the decades, in some cases never having been begun and so traded away, or in others started and given up. Or, I like to think, treated as I have. The receipt found during a reading and lovingly preserved in situ for the next reader.

I suspect I will be the last reader of this copy. I intend to keep it on my shelf indefinitely. And should it ever be taken to a bookstore or donated to a small-town library, I think it will probably be rejected as too broken down. It may be that this particular copy never falls into another reader’s hands again, and so the little surprise inside won’t delight anyone else.

Life is full of these little mysteries, I think, and the trick is to be open and on the watch for them.


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  really 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.


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