Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jack is back! That, and the exhortation that it is my duty to recommend books to my friends, and a day off, all combine to put me in front of the computer determined to write something.

I've been reading Elizabeth George's mysteries as if there were an infinite supply; after getting off work yesterday, I read two. No, I didn't do anything else. It was nice, but I think I might be ready for a break, which is good because I think I've reread them all within the past few weeks. Besides this potato chip fare, I've been reading more Iris Murdoch, who I like quite well. I'm not sure why she isn't a more well-known writer, because her style is unusual and seems to have affected literature in general. It may be, however, because she wrote so many novels without producing any that particularly stand out from the rest; it'd be difficult to choose one for a high school English class or a 100 best novels list, for example. Indeed, of the five or six that I've read, it's hard to choose a "favorite" or even one that I'd say was specifically well-done. For the first time I'm having the experience of liking the author more than her books, or maybe outside of her books.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be one I read a few weeks ago--An Unofficial Rose. I might never have picked this one up, since our library branch doesn't have it, were it not for a book of essays I found at Powell's last year. I believe I mentioned it at the time, since I'm always pleased to find anything by A.S. Byatt. This book, Imagining Characters, is a collection of discussions Byatt had with a friend, a psychologist named Ignes Sodre, and has proved quite fascinating and insightful on Mansfield Park, Villette, and The Professor's House thus far. Because the two women discuss the books so deeply, I wanted to read each book before reading its companion discussion, so that's why I sought out An Unofficial Rose.

One might make the claim that Murdoch's books aren't really about anything--there's not much of a plot to summarize or a conclusion to analyze. But before you turn away with a yawn of disinterest, let me say that in my opinion, they're about something crucially important and largely misunderstood. In The Magus, John Fowles says that "Men see objects and women see the relationship between objects"; well, Iris Murdoch had astonishingly clear vision. In all her novels she explores the strangenesses of relationships and the way people interact with each other, to an almost excruciating degree. To her there is nothing more absorbing than the ways people live their lives, and I'm inclined to agree.

If I were to attempt a summary of this novel, it would read something like a soap opera episode (the blurb on the back of my library copy was appalling): When Hugh's wife dies, he decides to go back to his mistress Emma. Emma's companion, Lindsey, is having an affair with Randall, Hugh's son. Randall has a fight with his wife Ann and leaves the house. His daughter Miranda flirts with her cousin Penn who is visiting from Australia. Mildred, a family friend, has designs on Hugh because her husband Humphrey is gay. Humphrey takes Penn to London. Felix, Mildred and Humphrey's son, has adored Ann for years, but so has the vicar. Randall convinces Hugh to sell his beloved painting so that he can use the money to marry Lindsey. Hugh finds out that Emma is dying.

Are you reeling yet? The novel actually wasn't that hard to follow, partly because the relationships are so clearly delineated that they define the characters. Here's a slightly more lucid review; and do look for the book by A.S. Byatt as well, especially if you've read or plan to read any of the other novels she discusses.


Voracious Reader said...

Kate, I know this is not the most appropriate of places to ask for this, but would you please email me your number again. It's important that I give you a call soon. Wedding stuff.

Anna said...

My review for anything: "A delightful coming-of-age story!"
Works every time. :)