At the end of 1986, with my domestic arrangements having fallen to flinders, a friend whom circumstances had granted a ringside seat to the debacle pressed upon me her copy of A Severed Head. “Read it,” she urged, “and understand.” Well, truth to tell, the novel hadn’t much to say about the particulars of my situation, but there was an eerie resonance with the tangled skein of personal histories, relationships, delusions and estrangements characterizing that bleak period. Looking back I suppose that, not unlike Murdoch’s fifth novel, the situation was not without its comedic elements (which I think my friend must have detected), but few of its principals were in a position at the time to appreciate these. Still, A Severed Head impressed me sufficiently that, Berkeley in those days still being my cultural center of gravity, I betook myself over the next few months to the used bookstores on Telegraph Avenue to score five or six copies of the author’s other works—which I then left untouched for a third of a century until I was unaccountably moved late this past spring to take up Under the Net, her first novel. For most of the preceding year or so I had been reading mainly histories and biographies (including The Education of Henry Adams in a handsome edition received as a birthday gift forty-nine years ago, to which I found myself at last receptive after reaching its author’s approximate age at the time of its composition), and only began to edge back into fiction recently.
Under the Net (1954) was entertaining, picaresque and ultimately, I thought, pointless, although the inclusion of a movie mogul distantly based on Wittgenstein was an amusing touch, and had this been my sole exposure to the writer’s œuvre I doubt whether I should have been moved to pursue it further, but on the strength of what I recalled of A Severed Head, I prepared to submit my decision to a tiebreaker, and somewhat arbitrarily selected from the backlist on hand her nineteenth novel, The Sea, The Sea (1978), which scored its author the coveted Booker Prize.
Its opening chapters were…exasperating. I recognized that Charles Arrowby, the narrator, was intended to be off-putting, but half an hour in I felt far from certain that I could bear, at that point, another 450 pages (in my Penguin paperback edition) of his company. Screwing my patience to the sticking place, however, I plugged on, my interest gradually engaging, as Arrowby related the tale, discreditable to rational reader, of re-encountering after half a century his first love—in memory a sylph, a soulmate, his very anima; in 1978 a drab, faded housewife unaccountably unwilling to leave her husband to take up again with the boyfriend of her teens, whose importunities to this end become increasingly unhinged. My exasperation never abated, but my interest was engaged.
From here I was moved to take in The Sandcastle (1957), in which a forty-ish schoolmaster becomes infatuated with a young painter who returns his affection, the romance being thwarted by the educator’s dithering and the intelligent machinations of the wronged wife. Next up was the very interesting The Bell (1958), in a 1966 American paperback edition that hilariously misrepresented the tale as a bodice-ripper, and then a reprise of A Severed Head, which did not disappoint upon a second reading.
Thence: The Italian Girl (1964). A misfire. Murdoch published twenty-six novels in four decades, and even her most sympathetic critics do not assert that all of these were of first quality. This one I will not soon revisit. The Red and the Black (1965) was Murdoch’s only “historical” novel, set in Dublin on the eve of the 1916 Easter Rising, and to my mind engaging and quite readable, with the “obsessive lover” note, so prominent in most of the novels I’ve read thus far, not absent, but nothing like as front-and-center as seen elsewhere to date.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970) included a figure recurring frequently if not invariably in Murdoch’s novels: charismatic, enigmatic, demonic, occasionally destructive, as here, in which a visiting academic attempts unsuccessfully to engineer for his own amusement the estrangement of a homosexual couple (a relationship sympathetically, even compassionately portrayed by the author), an undertaking which, as an unintended consequence, results in the destruction of another character, an armchair philosopher, this collateral damage occasioning not a moment’s remorse on the part of the culprit.
I might mention that I took in most of these novels while laid low with The Thing That’s Going Around, which entered the household shortly after mid-June, probably with SWMBO after she attended an outdoor concert a few days earlier. We were flattened sequentially; she first and than, a few days later, your proprietor: it is difficult to maintain social distancing in 1700 square feet. But thank Log for the vaccines and boosters! I was still bedridden by the time I took in The Black Prince (1973), and maybe it was covid and maybe I’d lost patience with Murdoch’s obsessed narrators chasing after young girls or their phantoms, but the exasperation I felt in the opening passages of The Sea, The Sea had returned by the time I closed this one.
Murdoch’s books are not page-turners—sometimes, indeed, they’re a chore to get through—and her prose style, while unobjectionable, is generally unmemorable. In fairness, though, every now and again the lady lights it up and demonstrates what she’s capable of, and on these occasions she boosts her gifts to very high altitudes indeed. It is her intelligence, though, that kept me going through nine novels (and likely through more presently, although for some reason I am willing to acquire only “used” editions, and have scoured and plundered most of the vendors in reach), and her ability to finish strong.
Having completed The Black Prince I craved something at once comparable in points of style and respectability, and also more readily readable and less likely to provoke impatience. A few days later some household circumstances arose that thrust considerations of literary entertainment offstage for the moment. Since then I have found myself drawn in my idle moments (few of those as present conditions permit) to distractions, and to this end the “Aubrey-Maturin” cycle of novels by Patrick O’Brian have answered very well. These are page-turners indeed, not the least exasperating, and as prose impeccable: indeed, Iris Murdoch was among the series’ early champions. So there’s that.
Above: That’s the legendary “Marber grid,” which dominated Penguin cover designs for years.