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Florence in Words

Blog: 1963 Iris Murdoch essay on The Unicorn, continued, part three

Note to Iris Murdoch readers: This is the end of the essay I wrote nearly 50 years ago. I will be working on Doris Lessing for the next two months, but I will be glad to interrupt that work to respond to comments about this essay. Read More 
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1963 Murdoch essay on The Unicorn, continued, part two

[Note: When I wrote this in 1963, it was common to refer to a woman writer as “Miss, and to use the generic “man.” Sorry, but this is a “relic,” and for the moment at least, I’ve decided not to modernize it.]

Man’s freedom is never so simply and so hilariously accomplished. In The Bell, Miss Murdoch’s fourth novel, Dora instinctively protects and then frees a red butterfly at the expense of losing her luggage, her husband’s best Spanish hat, and his scholar’s note-book. The reader finds the scene immediately amusing, but with ironic overtones, for Dora is unaware of her relationship to the red butterfly.  Read More 
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From Murdoch to Lessing

Those of you who have been looking for more on Murdoch may be disappointed that, though I’ve read two more novels (Henry and Cato; Nuns and Soldiers), and have only one more to go (The Word Child); and though I’ve found the essay I wrote in 1963 on The Unicorn (and really on the first six novels that preceded it), I’m moving to Doris Lessing in order to contribute to a Canadian book being put together to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of The Golden Notebook. So I am rereading relevant Lessing in October and will write the essay in November.

For those of you who would like to see the 1963 essay on The Unicorn, I’ll begin typing it here right now, and if it’s appealing, let me know, and I’ll go on with it. Read More 
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Iris Murdoch’s The Message to the Planet

The 23rd novel read; only Bruno’s Dream and Nuns and Soldiers remain. And I still have no purpose in mind; only the pleasure of each novel, especially in Iris’ ability to surprise even when the reader may know the pattern. While there are patterns—I knew, for example, that the large figure at the center of this novel, has to die before its pages close—they are not easily predictable, if at all.  Read More 
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More Iris Murdoch: Jackson’s Dilemma and The Red and the Green

Last week, for the first time, I was in the middle of three Iris Murdoch novels at once: The Red and the Green (1965), The Good Apprentice (1975) and Jackson’s Dilemma (1985). I didn’t plan the dates—all was “accidental” (the quotation marks in honor of Iris). Because I was to make two separate train trips to Washington, D.C. within two weeks, I selected two paperbacks I could carry—the ones twenty years apart. And once again I seem to need a useless paragraph to get to the heart of what I want to say about Iris. Read More 
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Iris Murdoch Again: The Philosopher’s Pupil

Yes, I’m still stuck on her, still continuing to read novel after novel. I actually bought five used hard covers in the Strand Bookstore (in person), and then decided that I needed them in paperback so that I could take at least four with me to Turkey in June, and so I found those at Powell’s (online). Now I am missing only a few. Read More 
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Reading: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea

I have been reading Iris Murdoch’s fiction since last summer, perhaps before then. I took three novels with me to Vietnam on November 1, and bought another there (which I gave away, for I had a copy at home). I began to read in order, thinking I would stop at novel seven, The Unicorn, when I would read the review I had written in the mid-sixties for the New Yorker, which William Shawn paid for but never printed. But I couldn’t find my old Iris file and simply went on reading those novels I had on my bookshelf.

Why was I reading her at all? For years since my mother’s Alzheimer’s and death, and since Bill Hedges’ similar illness and death, I had avoided all films, books, even television programs focused on Alzheimer’s. I never saw the film about Iris, and though someone gave me Iris, a biography, I never read it. And though I owned a full 13 of her 26 novels, I had not read more than the first seven.

If you have read my memoir you know how I got to Iris Murdoch in the first place. In an effort to please William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, I had agreed to write a book review for the magazine and had chosen The Unicorn. The only thing I remember about that review is that I knew I had to read the first six novels she had written in order to evaluate and analyze the seventh. I then wrote a review in the manner of a graduate student, taught not to retell plot, but to analyze. My review was nine-tenths analysis and one-tenth content, exactly the reverse of what the New Yorker would want to print.

Recently, I found five of Iris’ novels in the Strand bookstore, all of them cloth-bound first editions, each of them less than the price of a new paperback. And yesterday I finished The Sea, The Sea which won the Booker Prize in 1978. It’s a novel in the guise of an autobiography by a London-based actor/producer/director who has retired to a small house on the Northwest English coast to live alone and write a book about one particular relationship with an older woman who was an actress and his first lover. Fairly early on I grew to dislike the main character, and a bit later wrote on a page at the back of the book, “Iris is able to make me believe that this dreadful little man is writing this dreadful little book. The illusion is magnetic and keeps me reading.” I could have added, “very slowly, far more slowly than any volume of hers thus far.” But then I decided to take the day off and read straight through to the end.

I stopped once again at one of those magical/ludicrous/comical moments in an Iris Murdoch novel that only the existence of her prior 324 pages prevent one’s desire to toss the book out the window. Here is the famous retired actor/director/producer in his small house by the sea, having “freed” his long lost love by locking her in his bedroom, even though she wants to go back to her tyrannical husband. He also has to manage four other guests, some of whom arrived for an arranged weekend which he had forgotten about. The local hotel is full and he has but one real bedroom:

That night we slept as follows: I slept in my bedroom,
Hartley [the woman] slept in the middle room, Gilbert [cook]
slept on his sofa. Peregrine slept on the cushions in the bookroom,
James [cousin] slept on a couple of chairs in the little red room, and
Titus [son] slept out on the lawn.

There are wild and crazy happenings in all of Iris’s novels. Perhaps she specializes in them. And wonderful dogs as well. I am expecting a dog to turn up here and somehow reorganize the novel, especially since the absent male—the husband of Hartley and the father of Titus has just gone off to acquire a large, full-grown collie. Well, yes, there is at least one scene with the dog, a scene I read with an insight that escapes the autobiographer, who continues to believe that the “old” woman (probably in her sixties) still loves him (and not her brutal husband). As he writes, “…love seeks its own ends and discerns, even invents, its own charms.”

Should you run right out and buy this novel? Possibly, since it won the Booker, and since one might find it a cautionary tale for those who may wonder whether they have sufficient self-knowledge with which to write an autobiography. At the end, Charles confesses that he “cannot now remember the exact sequence of events in those prehistoric years.” He continues, “…that our memory, which is our self, is tiny, limited and fallible, is also one of those important things about us, like our inwardness and our reason. Indeed it is the very essence of both.” Charles, alone at the end, is somewhat wiser, somewhat kinder. He’s given up the dangers of the sea and the small house to return to life in London.

If you’ve read this novel, I’d enjoy hearing from you.
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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. Read More 
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