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The bumper collection of 2nd hand books in English I brought back from Ermou in Athens, has been an eye opener in more ways than one. I have radically revised my opinion of one favourite writer Iris Murdoch (1918-1999), acknowledged new and impressive things about the perennially notorious Lawrence Durrell (1911-1990) read the invigorating and very funny US satirist Tom Wolfe (born 1931) for the first time, with the 1987 The Bonfire of The Vanities, and discovered that bad translations (e.g. US Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 stilted version of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann) didn’t all stop in the 19thcentury, but carried on boldly into the next. In passing I have also noted that the essays of Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) when set beside his short stories spanning 1924-1940 as in The Crack Up and Other Pieces and Stories (anthologised by Bodley Head in 1958) with their odd kind of bogus jauntiness, are not in the same league as his arguably flawless imaginative fiction (which latter, given his many years of Jazz Age dissipation, was quite some achievement).
I have read nearly all of Murdoch’s 26 novels, and up to now the only one I didn’t like was the strained and precious The Sea, The Sea which the 1978 Booker committee with typical astigmatism awarded its illustrious prize. In Athens last week I bought 4 second hand copies of her novels, including The Sandcastle (1957) and A Severed Head (1961) which I thought with several precise qualifications were both excellent. The late The Book and The Brotherhood (1987) with a weary roll call of saturnine Oxbridge guru dons, struck me as Iris whimsically treading water and I gave up after a couple of chapters. Weirdest of all was my reassessment of one of her best known early books, The Bell (1958). Not only was it televised in 1982 with Ian Holm starring, but I actually taught it as part of a university extension class in North Cumbria in 1988. If I taught it, I must have thought it a bloody good book 27 years ago, but rereading it in Kythnos I couldn’t think what the hell I ever saw in it.
The first few pages start brilliantly with a powerfully ironic account of a failed marriage between a harsh and withdrawn art historian called Paul, and his highly unlikely wife Dora, naive, scatty, much younger, and a former student. They decide to reconcile and meet up in a strange idealist Anglican community, Imber Court, stuck out in the sticks, and it is here the novel rapidly comes unstuck. Dora travels down there by train and overhears the conversation of a garrulous man James Tayper Pace with a young schoolboy Toby, both of whom by chance are going to this community, which also happens to be adjacent to a closed order of nuns. Pace’s clichéd moralising dialogue to the young boy is very bad (‘What an adventure for you young people, going up to Oxford! I bet you’re excited?’) and could have come out of either a downmarket and dated genre novel or the God help us radio soap opera The Archers, take your pick. Worse still Dora is taken on an extended tour of Imber Court by the housekeeper Mrs Mark, and again the latter’s fussy and characterless dialogue is wooden and contrived to a fault. As a novel device it must be there to emphasise the allusive geography of the vast mansion, and also to spell out various unlikely community rules relayed by Mrs Mark, one of which is that no one should talk about their worldly past, nor enquire about that of others. I didn’t believe either of these devices, and wondered how the same hugely gifted writer could put brilliant and dreadful dialogue inside the same book. As a rule writers are either good or bad at dialogue across the board, and they don’t alternate from page to page as if they are two authors rather than one
The Sandcastle has a middle-aged and palpably feeble schoolteacher Mor as main protagonist, and anyone but Murdoch would have made a royal mess of setting something so dramatic and loaded with heightened symbols, in the potentially very banal milieu of a stuffy 1940s boys’ school. His wife Nan regularly mocks Mor’s pathetic vacillations, and his kids don’t talk to him. The school is awaiting the arrival of a young woman artist Rain Carter, half French and a bohemian, who has been hired to paint a portrait of the former headmaster Demoyte. Very soon Mor becomes infatuated with Rain and not much later she reciprocates, with truly life changing and frightening implications. His alienated son Donald, a pupil in the same school, ultimately terrifies Mor by attempting to scale the school tower, and almost dies in the attempt. His daughter Felicity aged 14 and away at boarding school, is simultaneously practising ritualised magic on a Dorset beach in order to try and control the deeds of her unhappy parents. This is ludicrously unfeasible if you think of her age and the historical period, but because everything in the book is similarly highly charged (the incredibly acidic but likeable retired head Demoyte; a Christian mystic of an art teacher called Bledyard given to massive silences followed by very long vatic utterances)you go along with it and cannot put the book down.
The only real jib I have against the novel aside from Felicity and her Tarot cards, is that true to the period Mor cannot afford a car, and therefore gets about the sprawling school grounds and its annexes by bicycle. Several key scenes involve him chasing feverishly after the elusive Rain on his humble pushbike, and I kept getting images of farcical kids’ entertainer Mr Pastry, instead of an evocation of blinding cosmopolitan passion. Murdoch should simply have left out all stage direction references to transport, and we would have been none the wiser, and the comical anticlimax would have been avoided. The trouble with being a don at Oxford as Iris Murdoch was for almost 30 years, is you think the whole world goes round on bloody old bicycles, which of course they don’t.
A Severed Head, the book with the unpleasant title, likewise pits dithering human types against those who are charismatic but flawed. The middle-aged narrator Martin Lynch-Gibbon (apart from Dickens you can’t beat Murdoch for barmy not to say allegorical names)is an affluent London wine dealer happily married to Antonia, but who is having a clandestine relationship with a young bedsit dweller called Georgie. After Martin’s painful discovery that Antonia is having an affair herself, with their joint friend, a magnetic US psychotherapist called Palmer Anderson, they in turn find out about his adultery. Antonia soon leaves Martin for Palmer, and he rapidly falls to pieces, and throughout the novel the quantity of tranquillising booze that goes down his neck and nearly everybody else’s, is off the scale. Enter the enigmatic and ugly-beautiful Honor Klein, Cambridge don and sister of Palmer the guru shrink. She has a habit of uttering prophetic insights to those who don’t want to hear them, and telling everyone she meets that their partner is betraying them. At a kernel point, incensed by her bleak utterances, Martin falls upon her in a wine cellar and savagely beats her up. Afterwards, once she has fled, he realises that this was a sign of being deeply in love with her (yes, it was Neanderthal 1961 when Murdoch published it) and he sets off to seek her out, apologise, and declare his passion.
Instead, and it must have raised eyebrows 54 years ago, when he tracks Honor down in Cambridge he also finds her compromisingly in bed with brother Palmer. Incest to add to the heady brew, and we also get a failed suicide (Georgie’s) and a dizzy switchback of romantic alliances so that initially Georgie ends up with Martin’s smooth chancer of a brother, Alexander. Meanwhile Martin is gradually reconciled with Antonia, who complains that Palmer has suddenly turned strange and moody (she is left in the dark about the incest). But eventually in dizzying musical chairs fashion, she also falls for Georgie’s new beau, her brother-in-law Alex, and deserts her husband a second time. In the interim the incestuous siblings wisely plan to fly off to the States, but Honor gives Palmer the slip, and ends up back in the violent wine dealer’s house, declaring to Martin that she, much to her surprise, has fallen in love with him.
On the one hand you don’t believe a word of any of it, and the blurb on the back compares it to a Restoration comedy or a Jacobean tragedy. On the other hand every single character, like all those in The Sandcastle, are full of authentic passion, which is potently convincing within its own fictional terms, however eccentric or gothic it might seem – and this is where it parts company with the lifeless The Bell and The Book and the Brotherhood. Most impressive of all is the cloying and patronising dialogue of both Antonia and Palmer, when they are newly revealed as having an affair, and are intent on keeping adulterous and guilty Martin still in their controlling and manipulative sights. They are so obnoxious, you want to get inside the novel and give the pair of them both a bloody good kick up the arse, and that is always a sign of truly compelling fiction.