Ages ago I piled up a set of books to read on a week-off from studying, and (predictably enough) failed to finish all six. In fact, I've only recently finished the fourth of them, so let's call it an ongoing project...
That book is The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, published in 1957 and Murdoch's third novel. I've been meaning to read some Murdoch ever since I saw the phenomenal film Iris back in 2001 or 2002, and have accumulated a few different novels on my shelves - this one coming from the brilliant Amnesty bookshop in Bristol, always worth a trip. Why this one came off the shelf, I'm not quite sure, although my dear friend Lorna has it as one of her favourites on Facebook so perhaps that had stayed in my memory somehow.
For years I used to confuse Iris Murdoch and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Before I'd read either of them, that is - somehow, in my mind, they were similar authors. It was only later, after having read and adored ICB, that I realised the general view was that ICB was difficult to enjoy, and Iris Murdoch was very good but much more accessible. Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I wish to disagree. This reader found Iris Murdoch much less accessible than ICB, and - although I could see that The Sandcastle was a good novel, and found certain sections gripping and brilliantly observed, overall I must confess it was... a bit of a slog.
Before I go any further, I must concede practicalities - the font in my copy was tiny, and I did get a headache when reading the novel. Such things ought not fetter learned critics, naturally, but... I am not a learned critic, and I was fettered. Recently I read Images in a Mirror by Sigrid Undset (which I'll hopefully write about at some point) which had such a large font that I found myself reading the novel far too quickly and not taking in the details - prosaic issues such as font can really affect a reading experience, don't you think? Is that just me?
But back to the novel in question. The Sandcastle takes place in a boarding school. Mor has taught there for years, and lives on site with his wife Nan and their two children. Murdoch is masterful at the brief incidents or asides which sum up a relationship. Everything you need to know about Mor and Nan's marriage is presented here:
Liffy had been their dog, a golden retriever, who was killed two years ago on the main road. This animal had formed the bond between Mor and Nan which their children had been unable to form. Half unconsciously, whenever Mor wanted to placate his wife he said something about Liffey.To make matters worse, along comes a painter called Rain. Her task is to paint the retiring headmaster Demoyte - 'As for morality, and such things, Demoyte took the view that if a boy could look after his Latin prose his character would look after itself.' That sort of man. I love it when authors write about artists - so often they use this to explore the idea of artistic creation... and I find talented painters, especially portraitists, fascinating.
"When you go," said Demoyte, "you will leave behind a picture of me, whereas what I shall be wanting is a picture of you."But Rain's role is not just as resident painter. As the cracks in Mor and Nan's marriage become more evident, Mor falls in love with Rain...
"Every portrait is a self-portrait," said Rain. "In portraying you I portray myself."
"Spiritual nonsense," said Demoyte. "I want to see your flesh, not your soul."
And so The Sandcastle unfolds, with this evolving love affair and the various reactions to it. In fact, the novel's not as sensational as that sounds - a lot of pages meander through emotions and everyday events, rather than drop-a-vase-on-the-floor shocks and surprises.
Something Murdoch does very well, on the strength of this novel anyway, is the big set pieces. The scenes which really stay in the memory. I can think of quite a few sections which are excellently structured, with appropriate climaxes and nuances; pathos and bathos, so on and so forth. A car is edging towards a river and falls in; a boy must be rescued from the tower; Nan finds out about her husband's affair and can't stop hiccoughing. These are all brilliant scenes, incredibly well written not simply sentence by sentence, but on a wider, structural level. But - oh yes, but - between the big set pieces, this novel rambles interminably. Perhaps, as I said above, it's simply the fault of the font... but I found so much of The Sandcastle difficult to wade through. Not that it was badly written as such, indeed she writes conversations about love well (and that is difficult, judging by some books I've read) but there are so many pages which felt like a chore. Not much happening, on the level of plot or character. I don't mind plotless sections - I welcome it - but only if there is something to captivate my attention.
I don't know about you, but my opinions when reading (and consequently my reviews) are probably more generous to authors of whom I've heard nothing. So you might see quite enthusiastic reviews for writers I know won't enter any sort of canon - doesn't stop them being good reads, of course, but I lay no claim to them having lasting notoriety. Whereas with Iris Murdoch... I know before picking up the book that she has a great reputation, so I'm expecting more. If she was a complete unknown, I daresay I'd be bowled over by her prose at times, and definitely enthusiastic about those occasional scenes of brilliance. But, without doing down these attributes, I must confess I'd hoped for much more. I'd hoped I'd love Murdoch and rush out to read more - as it is, I'm not sure when I'll return to Iris.
Do her later novels fulfil the promise which is undoubtedly here? Or does Murdoch always have great scenes with a lot of filler? Fulfil or full of filler - that's what I need to know before I venture further...
Books to get Stuck into:
The Honours Board - Pamela Hansford Johnson : I haven't blogged about this novel, but it's good. Also set in a school, there is a cleverly drawn cast of teachers, assistants, and pupils in a boarding school keen to gain prestige.
Pastors and Masters - Ivy Compton-Burnett : another school setting, and ICB-lite, this novella is a great litmus test to see whether or not you'll get on with Dame Ivy - as well as an adroit depiction of schoolmaster rivalries.
(P.S. Apologies for the big gap in the middle of this - are any other Blogger users having trouble with puttings pictures in the bottom half of posts?)