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Florence in Words

Reading: Serendipity Stirs the Imagination

For many months I have been reading Iris Murdoch “from the beginning,” which has been my habit since retirement. I settle on an author, and read in order the whole ouvre, or, in her case, the body of fiction. During the past several years I read through Jane Austin, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Doris Lessing, Marilyn French, Naguib Mahfouz, J.M. Coetsea, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster. But I avoided Iris Murdoch, not to mention Virginia Woolf, though I won’t explain my reasons here, but in a later blog. What I want to write about here is serendipity: an accident that may happen in a bookstore (as long as we have bookstores) one especially endearing, mind-teasing, and yes, so full of pleasure, if you are a reader like me.

So I was in Barnes & Noble, looking for more Iris, and of course there were none I did not already own. Perhaps I should explain my reading habits. I like to read in my own book because I like to write notes in the back of the book and sometimes on the pages. That day I gave it up and went to the travel section, thinking of my summer plans for Turkey and Taiwan. Then, on my way to coffee, I spotted Franny and Zooey on a table, in a small paperback edition that looked like something I could fit into my smallest purse. And for whatever reason that made me think of Doris Lessing and so I went to see whether there was anything I had missed, and there was The Cleft, also in a small paperback.

So for the past week I have been reading three books at the same time, The Sea, The Sea, which is the Iris book of the moment, and which I am reading only at night, before sleep. In this novel, a retired actor, director, and producer of plays for the London theatre, has bought an odd and isolated house on a rocky coast, not terribly far from London. He presents himself as wanting to write his life story especially as a former lover of many women, only one of whom he has really loved. He does not diminish his iconoclasm; he is not someone who makes friends easily, especially with people not of his class. Perhaps he has been loving and leaving women all his life as compensation for the one woman who left him, his first, and he still claims, his only love. As novels would have it, she and her husband live in the same town, even along the same stretch of coast that our hero has moved to. So the novel, I can see already, will rely on plot, including surprises, and perhaps even one of Iris’s wonderful dog characters who steal the book.

Nothing could be more different from Iris’ novel than Franny and Zooey. These people, inventions of the reclusive J.D. Salinger, are themselves reclusive, as well as obsessive in behavior and thought, taxing to a reader unless she is already alert to the fact that absolutely nothing will happen. If she, like me, enjoys Bessie, the mother of these two and of five others, some of whom are dead, she will long for her to return to the page. But here she must resign herself to stasis. It’s as though the end of the world has come to the Glass family. Perhaps they are really in a museum and we are looking at them through glass. One may smile from time to time, but in a wider sense, nothing is really funny. This is a young American author declaring indirectly in the mid-1950s that in an affluent U.S.A., the world has come to an end, or at the very least, will be coming to its end, at least for him.

Which is why reading The Cleft at first in tandem with Franny and Zooey was so startling. For here the 90-something Doris Lessing’s subject is the beginning of the universe, and change, not stasis is at its center, as well as movement and the discovery especially of difference, but also of caring, pleasure, and its opposites, nastiness and hatred. Her narrator is a Roman senator interested in early history and in the first half of the book we see little of him. His focus is on two early groups of people, seemingly at first unconnected: the “clefts,” women who live on the rocky shore and who bear babies, almost all of whom are also “clefts”; and the “monsters” who have male organs and live some distance away over a mountain in a valley. At some point, a cleft bears a baby with male organs and abandons him on a rock, whereupon huge eagles carry the baby to the valley where the “monsters” live, and where a lactating doe feeds it.

I will leave you with these snapshots: Franny wrapped in a blanket along with the family cat on the living room couch talking on the phone with Zooey in a bathtub talking with his mother Bessie; the naked “Clefts” (ancient forms of women) climbing a mountain so that they might see the valley on the other side and discover the naked “monsters” who look like them except for their external organs and lack of breasts. And Iris’s hero leaving his sparsely furnished sea cottage for a weekend in a cluttered London apartment. More next time.
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