Sunday, September 09, 2012

Three by Murdoch

The Black Prince
The Black Prince 

"I shall in telling it adopt the modern technique of narration, allowing the narrating consciousness to pass like a light along its series of present moments, aware of the past, unaware of what is to come." - Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince

"The ambiguously romantic Black Prince of the title, Bradley Pearson, is an aged bachelor, whose range of somewhat histrionic emotions involves the serene Rachel Baffin, her confused daughter Julian, Rachel's novelist husband Arnold, Bradley's rival in so many ways, Bradley's dysfunctional sister Priscilla, and Bradley's prying ex-wife Christian..."
Bradley Pearson, British writer, is suffering from a writer's block. He has waited all his life to write his masterpiece. Finally, he feels, the time has come when he can leave his small time job as a revenue officer, and go away from the city din to write. However, his fellow writer friend, Arnold Baffin, Arnold's wife Rachel, daughter Julian, Pearson's ex-wife Christian, ex-brother-in-law Francis and sister Priscilla all tug at his attentions in various ways to make Pearson's escape impossible. Each character has his own version of the series of incidents in the novel. Murdoch ingeniously builds the complications of these incidents or accidents into a delightfully painful and humorous story of erotic abandon. The mind remarkably colors the incidents of the novel to project a story that fits each character best. Julian comfortably forgets the intricate details of an embarrassing romance, Rachel feels that Bradley is madly in love with her while Arnold believes that Bradley is jealous of his success.
This is one of her very best, about mad love, and it justly won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. 


A Word Child
A Word Child 

“Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.”  ― Iris Murdoch

My favorite by by Ms. Murdoch, a great place to start, very darkly funny, also about mad love. The ‘word child’ of the title is Hilary Burde, our narrator. The book has an interesting structure, with each chapter headed by a day of the week. This sounds so simple, but the commentary and wordplay by Hilary is beguiling and rapidly becomes addictive. He has tried to establish order and routine in his life by having certain things that he always does on certain days of the week and the novel follows him as this routine is gradually upended.
Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world. Any appearance of philosophical ideas in her own novels was an inconsequential reflection of what she happened to know. “If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships,” she said. “And in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.” 


The Sea, the Sea
The Sea, the Sea 

“Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.”  ― Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea

"The novel concerns a retired theater director who moves to the seashore in order to contemplate his life. He recalls how an adolescent love which he greatly idealized prohibited him from committing himself completely to any of the important women in his life. Coincidentally, he meets the woman again and tries to resume his love affair but she won't have him..." Some evocative prose from Iris Murdoch. As she explores the potent mixture of power, illusion, and self-delusion in retired actor, playwright, and theater director Charles Arrowby (based in part on Elias Canetti) , Murdoch narrates a series of startling events. Old love affairs revive and die again, friendships sour into attempted murder, hallucinations (or are they?) portend ominous happenings, and the drowning embrace of the sea waits restlessly in the background. An intricate portrait is drawn of a man bewitched and bewildered by his own powers of self-promotion and manipulation. Intermixed are fascinating characters including Mary Hartley Smith Fitch , Lizzie Scherer , Rosina Vamburgh , and Gilbert Opian. Murdoch is at her best with these characters and the cottage by the sea.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press.
A Word Child by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. Penguin Books.

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