I know very little about Iris Murdoch. I'd never read any of her books, and friend of mine once wrote a paper about her that I did read but have since forgotten. Also, I think I saw a movie about her many years ago, which I have, likewise, forgotten. So, seeing a copy of The Italian Girl in the free box at my local used book store (several months ago), I picked it up and have finally gotten around to reading it.
The basic plot involves a middle-aged man (Edmund) returning home for his mother's funeral, only to become entangled in the lives and secrets of his brother's family, who lived with the [apparently rather overbearing and nasty] mother after Edmund left home. His brother is a drunk, his sister-in-law seems starved for affection, his niece is in trouble, and in the background hovers "the Italian girl," Maggie, last in a long line of nannies/maids.
I suppose you could describe the novel as a “family drama” or “psychological drama”; the distinction becomes murky as the story is narrated by Edmund, who will be great fun for readers with an interest in psychoanalysis. He is arrogant, misogynistic, and judgmental by turns, which makes him occasionally insufferable and clouds our view of the other characters. He doesn't try very hard to understand them, so their behavior is occasionally a bit surprising or unexplainable to us as readers because Edmund doesn't help us out very much. But. Edmund is not flat. He's actually kind of fascinating and complexly drawn and even, occasionally, sympathetic. Which is nice. I actually think I like the book better this way than I would have through an omniscient, anonymous narrator. I care more because I have a better sense of who he is.
Sympathy is tricky, especially with characters who aren't always especially likable. In the lit class I TAed, I noticed that even the most insightful students resisted sympathizing with characters who annoyed them. This was especially true with characters (such as a young woman with an eating disorder) who were, for whatever reason, unable to see and implement the solutions that students thought would solve their problems. "Why doesn't she stop whining and do X?" they ask. "He really brought this on himself." "She chose this life." etc. Does anyone else notice this with students, or in hir own reading? I can't think of an example at the moment, but I think I tend to do it with highly privileged characters, the kind who make me think, "seriously? Are you just *looking* for something to complain about?" I strongly suspect, with no real empirical evidence, that this is the way I would react to many chick lit protagonists.
Anyway, The Italian Girl is not a very long book; you could probably read it in a leisurely afternoon. The style, though, is intricate, and the descriptions are absolutely gorgeous. For instance, from the first page, when Edmund has arrived home at midnight only to find the house locked:
I moved through a soft tide of groundsel and small thistles to try the two front casements, but they were both firm and a greater blackness breathed at me from within. Calling out or throwing stones at windows in such a silence, these were abhorrent things. Yet to wait quietly in the light of the moon, a solitary excluded man, an intruder, this was abhorrent too. I walked a little, with dewy steps, and my shadow, thin and darkest blue, detached itself from the bulk of the house and stealthily followed. At the side it was all dark too and protected by such a dense jungle of ash saplings and young elder trees that it would have been impossible to reach a window, even had there been one unlatched. I measured, by the growth of these rank neglected plants, how long it was since I had last been in the north: it must be all of six years.
She's got style, that's for sure. The details are precise and important, and we get as much about Edmund's inner life as we do about the house in this paragraph. For a Victorianist like me, this is Great Stuff.
In fact, part of why I like this book so much has to do with how much it reminds me of Thomas Hardy. If Hardy had written short, post-Freudian novels, he could have written this. It's dark and lovely and kind of tragic, but in some ways it's also more complex than something like Hardy's Tess (one of my favorite tragic novels). I say more complex because, whereas Hardy was clearly writing an “individual trapped by social mores” kind of tale, Murdoch resists fixing blame on anyone/anything in particular.** That's not to say that the characters don't place blame--you definitely get the sense that life would be much less difficult for Edmund, for instance, if he would go see someone to talk out his mother issues. Most of the events of the novel appear, to him, to be some sort of spiritual inheritance from that terrible-horrible-no-good woman. But everyone, at some point, seems to be responsible for their own or others' unhappiness, and the complexity of their relationships makes for a really interesting read.
So, not a light-beach-reading kind of book but beautifully written and complicated. Also, despite sad, dark, and tragic moments, it's largely about the revelation of secrets and people's ability to extricate themselves from the momentum of the past and (maybe) do something better (or at least different) in the future. Definitely worth picking up if you're in the mood for that sort of thing and have a free afternoon.
**Not to knock Hardy; he was brilliant and rebellious and wonderful. He was just writing under entirely different conditions and to somewhat different ends.
Also! (Because I may be incapable of reading only one book at a time): Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme. This is the first time I've read Moorcock, and all I really knew about him was that he's a sci-fi/fantasy author and that Neil Gaiman read a lot of his work as a young man. The copy of The Final Programme I got from the library (which I picked because I was looking for something the right length for a bus trip I took this weekend) also has an introduction, and this turned out to be a very helpful thing because it helped me figure out what I had just read in a way I couldn't have figured out on my own.
So, the story (without too many spoilers) goes something like this: a fellow called Jerry Cornelius helps an odd groups of conspirators (led by a Miss Brunner) to break into his family estate to steal some microfilm. The importance of that microfilm is, for most of the novel, unspecified. That group's motivations are, for the most part, unspecified, as are Jerry's. Things kind of go right and kind of not with the strange heist. The story then shifts to chronicle Jerry's episodic and odd adventures in London until he runs into Miss Brunner again and has another strange adventure involving leftover Nazi bunkers. We shift again to Jerry in London, including a several-months-long house party, until Miss B shows up again to take him back to the bunkers for the inception of the titular "Final Programme". Notice a pattern? Throw in some ambiguous incest, vampire-like powers, the social and financial collapse of Europe, and a few corpses and hallucinogens, and you've got The Final Programme.
Yeah, I know.
But weird doesn't bother me. What I kind of thought wasn't working as I read was not the spectacular collage of genres and bizarre images but the way in which this story was being told; it felt kind of like reading a play, where so much of the character and meaning comes from the performance rather than the being explicit in the text. I really, really wanted to know more about Jerry Cornelius and Miss Brunner, but I got very little from them or the narrator (who is very hands-off and seems to know very little hirself). The characters certainly * do * a lot, but motivations and details are kinda fuzzy until the very end.
The end itself, which is a rather compelling set of scenes and images, didn't seem to follow naturally from the rest of the story, either. You know how, in novels with some sort of mystery to them, at some point the little bits of information you've picked up along the way begin to appear connected, then the connections reveal some larger meaning behind it all? That doesn't really happen here. I mean, the final scenes didn't conflict with anything I'd already read, but it felt like so much information was left out early on that the ending wasn't inevitable (which is not the same thing as predictable). It was just one of a number of conceivable endings, any of which might have been arrived at by the vague trajectory of the plot. So, while I didn't * dislike * the book, I was perplexed by its methods.
Then I read Norman Spinrad's introduction. The intro tells me that this is one of four novels, and that Moorcock's plan was “to write the Jerry Cornelius legend four times in four novels using a different style and form each time....In The Final Programme, the opening movement, the themes are completely stated linearly in their simplest forms. The three subsequent novels are all different variations on the first movement.” Which means that my reaction is the result of reading only ¼ of the story, which is, actually, what it felt like to read The Final Programme. And I think, based on this one, that I really do want to give this a fair shot and read the other three novels.
This is, I guess, a hazard of my general approach to summer reading, which involves picking up a book and reading it without doing much in the way of background research (beyond, occasionally, a peek at the publication date). Basically, it's an extension of my policy to never, ever, ever read an introduction to a novel before I actually read the novel**, combined with a dearth of general background knowledge about novels published outside of the time/place I spend most of my life studying.
Next time, though, things will be a little different, because my next summer reading post will be all about Louisa May Alcott, preconceptions, and how important (or not) it is to know what the author knew...
**Partly because I hate knowing what will happen and partly because when a critic suggests that a book may mean a particular thing, it can be kind of difficult to see it through other lenses. You can only read a book for the first time once.