You might remember, if you have children, or are connected to them in any way, or even if you were one once, how it was sometimes apposite to try and catch whatever infectious disease was doing the rounds. The theory was that it was better to get it out of the way, and though I didn't subscribe to it I have to admit that when chickenpox struck our children, I was quite relieved that we could tick it off the list. The big surprise was that it was me who gave it to them and at the age of thirty-five and after all those years of nursing contact with it.
Anyway, immunity or not, I haven't had a rip-roaring book disease for ages and have been trying to catch Murdochitis for years and years, decades in fact. Iris that is, not Rupert. I have tried every which way to discover a route into her books, I mean twenty-six unread novels just waiting for me, yet no amount of contact did the trick. I would open and start The Bell...or read a bit of The Sea, The Sea and nothing but nothing would happen. No rash, no fever, no enforced quarantine with a great big pile of books and none of that sense of excitement. It had all been very disappointing and I had even stopped looking for the books in charity shops, may even have discarded a few that way in despair, who knows.
So, as I mentioned in my Christmas Reading post here there I was browsing that shelf of fifty or so unread books that I compiled a while back, and there was The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch. At 171 pages mercifully shorter than most and it was hardly going to kill me to try was it.
The date I caught Murdochitis was December 8th 2014 and think I might be in for the long haul, probably be contagious for months, so brace yourselves for Much More Murdoch on here.
The Paris Review Art of Fiction interview with Iris Murdoch back in 1990 has saved me a whole lot of further hand-wringing over this prolonged immunity (sounds better than failure doesn't it), and the scary drowning-in-philosophy issue, because the minute I read it everything slotted into place...
Your characters are not necessarily innocents. They’re able to commit violence and all sorts of misdeeds, and yet there exists this imperative within them toward the good. Does philosophy apply here?
I don’t think this connects with philosophy. The consideration of moral issues in the novels may be intensified by some philosophical considerations, but on the whole I think it’s dangerous writing a philosophical novel. I mean, this is not a thing writers can easily get away with. Take the case of Thomas Mann, whom I adore, for instance. When his characters start having very long philosophical conversations, one feels, Well, perhaps we could do without this. My novels are not “philosophical novels.”
Well, your characters also have long philosophical arguments.
Well, occasionally, but not very long.
So that's that cleared up then
I feel sure this bout of Murdochitis will have its moments, but who dares wins etc and I really felt as if I had won the jackpot as I turned the final page of The Italian Girl two days later, having been grabbed by the scruff of the neck with the title of the first chapter A Moonlight Engraving, and its opening paragraph...
'I pressed the door gently. It has always been left open at night in the old days. When I became quite certain that it was locked, I stepped back into the moonlight and looked up at the house. Although it was barely midnight, there was not a light showing. They were all abed asleep. I felt a resentment against them. I had expected a vigi, for her, and for me.'
Seven sentences that told me plenty but had me wanting to know much more, and this has been one of my very early Murdoch lessons...the first few pages paint the backwash on the canvas and I am quickly transfixed and waiting for the rest.
Following the death of widow Lydia Narraway her family gather for the funeral, though it soon becomes clear that really it is the reading of the will that matters most. Narrated by returning son Edmund, an engraver, it is also clear that under Lydia's roof resides a tangled web of relationships as resident son Otto (a stonemason), his wife Isabel and daughter Flora all seem strangely involved with Otto's emigre apprentice David Levkin and his sister Elsa.
And suddenly how easy I find it to slip into Iris Murdoch's fictional world, and after struggling for so long. It is stop-and-stare writing enveloping this reader at least very quickly into the action. Plenty of visual imagery, often Rousseau-esque in its ability to create an atmospheric sense of place, but also creating a sense of isolation for this family temporarily trapped in their jungle of emotions. There will be secrets to be revealed, plenty of lies to dupe the unwary and a shifting balance of power and control as the action plays out...and all in 171 pages.
Iris Murdoch emphasises elsewhere in her Paris Review interview that names are very important in her novels, they matter, whilst a title is always very carefully thought out and will indicate something deep in the theme of the book. This has to be a clue in The Italian Girl ...that seemingly insignificant Italian maid Maria Magistretti will find herself centre stage at some point in the novel. In the end it was if a hand in the back had gently shoved me into this book and said' Oh just get on with it for goodness sake,' and how surprised I was to find myself enjoying it so much and scanning my shelves for the next one.
If you too have struggled to catch Murdochitis maybe The Italian Girl could be the answer. It is short enough not to feel you have wasted valuable reading time hoping it might improve, and in any case I suspect you may well find yourself infected and quickly addicted too.
Can you believe I am now on my fifth book since The Italian Girl, so coming up next on here will be my thoughts on Under the Net.
'A readable novel is a gift to humanity...' said Iris Murdoch.
Yes indeed it is...is anyone out there sharing the Murdochitis...or maybe tempted to catch it...