Books, 2013 (1)

1. Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin. 1/1. The story of two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase, written by Iris in her mid-80s (during the 1990s). They are the daughters of a prosperous manufacturing family in Ontario. The Blind Assassin is Eros (Iris reminds us that Justice is also a blind god) and is also the title of a novel written by Iris but published under Laura's name, which becomes a cult best-seller over time. The novel interweaves Iris's account of her and her sister's history with the text of The Blind Assassin.

Iris and Laura grow up rather isolated in a decaying mansion. Their mother dies when both are children, and their father abandons them to the care of his housekeeper and to the haphazard instruction of a series of inept tutors. Both develop into quirky individuals. During the Depression, a 'mysterious stranger', Alex Thomas, visits their town. He is a union organizer. When events turn ugly and Thomas is accused of murder, the sisters shelter him. Because of a downturn in the family's situation, Iris is sold off in marriage to a prosperous Toronto businessman. The sisters' father dies shortly after the marriage, and Laura becomes a ward of Iris's husband. The Blind Assassin  is a fictionalised account of a woman's encounter and liaison with a man much like Thomas.

Iris has a child, and Laura has what Iris's husband and sister say is a mental breakdown. She is put in an asylum. Laura claims to be pregnant. Laura escapes from the asylum and disappears. WWII begins, and Thomas enlists as a soldier. Iris learns that he is killed. Laura does not. A few days after the war ends, Laura contacts Iris and reveals that she is waiting for Thomas to return. When Iris tells her of his death, Laura commits suicide. Iris then discovers that Laura was really pregnant (by Iris's husband) and that the husband forced Laura to have an abortion. A few years later, Iris arranges the publication of The Blind Assassin, which she claims to have found in Laura's effects. Iris eventually reveals that Thomas was the father of her child and that she wrote The Blind Assassin.

Both Iris's autobiography and The Blind Assassin have many layers and subtales. Iris's autobiography is in passing a gothic novel by a very self-aware elderly woman, whose reminiscences include many descriptions of the various milieux in which she has lived. The Blind Assassin is a love story interwoven with a fantasy with mythic qualities. Each time the woman in The Blind Assassin visits the man, he tells her an episode in a fantasy about a corrupt city. The man is also a writer of pulp fiction, and he uses the fantasy he tells as the woman as the basis for a science fiction novel, which is also described. So even within the novel within a novel, there are further stories. Atwood deploys the many stories contrapuntally so that each contributes to the others, in the process enriching all of them.

2. Reginald Hill, The Stranger House. 1/6. Hill abandons Pascoe and Dalziel for an historical mystery that's more gothic romance than police procedural. In a secluded Yorkshire valley, ancient and modern mysteries find a solution as several old families approach the ends of their lines. A Spanish religious historian and a young Australian mathematician searching for answers about their ancestors stir the pot and roil long-dead crimes. Add in the supernatural, ancient Norse gods, a dangerous landscape, some childhood brutality, colourful characters, the stock denizens of the English countryside, and a few romances, plus Hill's writing skills, and you end up with an unconvincing pastiche.

3. Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird. 1/11. In 1939 a Polish couple, fearing arrest by the Germans, sends their six-old-son to live in the countryside. There the child has to fend for himself, as the villagers regard him as a gypsy or a Jew. He lives in several brutal environments and learns to fend for himself. He doesn't understand what has happened. A priest teaches him about religion and he takes to prayer to save himself. Then he is adopted by a Red Army group that teaches him about communism and Stalin. Eventually he is reunited with his parents after the end of the war. Because of his experiences, he develops a code of individualism in which one defends oneself.

An uncomfortable book to read. At times the violence and brutality are overwhelming. There is little that is hopeful or encouraging. The boy's choice is understandable and realistic, given his experiences, but it is far from the usual happy ending.

4. Iris Murdoch, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. 1/15. Murdoch's sixteenth novel, and the third and final one that I did not have in my collection. I had not read this before. Like many of immediate predecessors, it deals with a group of middle-class English in muddles over love and sex. Blaise Gavender, a psychologist, is married to Harriet. They live in the outer suburbs of London with their son, David. Harriet lives for her husband and her son. She is the good wife, good mother, who has so much love to spare that she keeps a pack of dogs rescued from animal shelters to sop up the excess. Unknown to Harriet, Blaise has a mistress, Emily McHugh, of several years' standing. The two of them have a young son, Luca. The Gavenders live next door to a successful crime novelist named Montague Small, who is obsessively mourning the recent loss of his wife to cancer. Small has two alter egos--the hero of his crime series, a dashing James Bond-type; and a troubled man, supposedly a patient of Blaise's, that he invented to help Blaise have an excuse to absent himself at night to meet Emily.

Blaise is persuaded to reveal all to Harriet. She responds at first by being noble and insisting that she will help Blaise and Emily. This doesn't work, and the situation deteriorates. Blaise moves in with Emily, Harriet and David move in with Small. Luca attaches himself to Harriet. Harriet flees to Germany, where she is killed in an airport terrorist attack, which allows Blaise and Emily to marry.

There are various minor characters who fall in and out of love with the principals. The various principals also imagine themselves to be in love on occasion with one another.

David is a golden youth, somewhat though not fatally disgruntled with his parents and disgusted with life, and awakening to his sexuality. He represents for several of the characters, both male and female, that attractive unspoiled stage of youth and innocence. He contrasts with his father, who is egoistical and fails to understand that both Harriet and Emily might not want the shared arrangement he finds so convenient.

Luca refuses to speak to either of his parents. He represents the problem at the heart of their relationship. They are not unhappy when he goes to live with Harriet, since he is no longer an immediate problem for them. Harriet and Luca share an affinity. Both are problems for Blaise and Emily. When Harriet decides to break finally with Blaise, she takes Luca with her to Germany. She dies shielding Luca from the terrorists. Luca is traumatised by this, and his parents, now married, put him away in an asylum for disturbed children and then forget about him. Their problems have been solved.

Small had, or says he had, a tempestuous relationship with his late wife, who may or may not have had several lovers. In the course of the book, he abandons both of his alter egos and gets over his grief with the help of several of the minor characters. Unlike Harriet, he successfully escapes from his situation.

The dogs, who become as attached to Luca as they are to Harriet, attack Blaise (at about the same time as she is dying in Germany). They injure him and leave him with a damaged foot. After the attack and Harriet's death, the dogs are returned to the animal shelter. Like Luca, they are disposed of. Blaise and Emily in the end are not very inconvenienced by the products of their lives prior to their marriage.

What is impressive about this is how Murdoch wrote a novel that is psychologically true to the situation yet filled with naturalistic symbols and everyday events that work to further the fiction at multiple levels. Blaise and Emily are destructive people who in the end are incommoded rather than affected by the damage they wreak.

5. David Mitchell, Ghostwritten. 1/18. Mitchell's first published novel. A series of ten short stories, all told in the first person, except for the tenth one. The stories are linked--a minor character in one becomes the narrator of another; events in one story have distant effects in another. The first story is about a cult member hiding in Okinawa after releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway; he is awaiting for a summons from the cult leader. He runs out of money and telephones a number he has been given to arrange for money to be sent him. The second story is about a recent high school graduate in Tokyo who is half-Filipino. He manages a decrepit store that sells old jazz records; he is a saxophone player. One day the phone rings and the cult member speaks the secret phrase that he has been given. The succeeding stories take place in Hong Kong, Leshan in Sichuan, Mongolia, Petersburg, London, Clear Island in Ireland, New York, and then back to Tokyo where the protagonist of the first story has just primed the gas bomb on the subway train.

The narrator of the Mongolian segment is a disembodied spirit who wanders from body to body trying to find the source of a story. It is in the same position as the reader of this novel--wondering from consciousness to consciousness, trying to discover the glue that unites the stories. The narrator of the London segment is a musician in a band called the Music of Chance; he is also a ghostwriter of 'autobiographies' and a young man adrift. He speculates on chance and the seemingly random occurrences that bring people together. When he complains to his publisher that the person whose life he is currently writing up is fabulating, the publisher explains that all life stories are fictions. This segment ends when the young man gambles and wins. He decides to give up his current life and settle down with a woman and her daughter. The narrator of the next section is a quantum physicist; she is seeking refuge on Cape Clear, where she was born. She provides the science for the music of chance; what we imagine we experience is really a story that we accept as true. We create the 'laws' of nature.

This is really a well-written book. Each narrator speaks in a distinct voice and has distinct concerns. Their interactions apparently result from chance, but each sees her/himself as an agent. To act morally, each has to take responsibility for her or his actions.

6. John Banville, Ancient Light. 1/20. Alexander Cleave, a elderly actor, thinks back on his life. For five months when he was fifteen and growing up in a Irish town with his widowed mother, he had sex (it was hardly a love affair) with Mrs Grey, the thirty-five-year-old mother of his best friend. He is tormented by insecurity and jealousy and riven with anxiety about the relationship and his feelings. For him, Mrs Grey is an object to be used and possessed but not to be understood. He remains, in fact, curiously incurious about Mrs Grey and her motives about carrying on the affair. He reports a few of her remarks about growing old and her habit of relating in detail the plots of movies she has seen, but without much interest. For him the remarks about growing old merely stress the age difference and the descriptions of movies are her tactic for delaying the onset of sex, which is what interests him.

Fifty years later, Cleave lives with his wife, Lydia. Both continue to mourn the suicide of their daughter, Cass, in a small Italian town ten years earlier. Cleave, who retired from the stage after forgetting his lines while acting the role of Amphitryon in Kleist's play of the same name, is cast in a movie. It is a bio-pic based on the life of Axel Vander, a Belgian deconstructionist whose life history is not unlike that of Paul De Man. During WWII, Vander cooperates with the Nazis, a fact that is resurrected later as a means of attacking him. But that Vander seems to have disappeared after WWII. The man named Vander who had a career as an American academic and then retired to Italy may have been an imposter. The movie explores this and Vander's relationship with a young woman, a role played in the movie by the beautiful star Dawn Devonport. During the course of the filming, Devonport attempts suicide. Cleave, who has grown fond of her, spirits her off to Italy, where they end up in a hotel near the site of his daughter's suicide. Eventually they return to Britain, where for a time Devonport stays with the Cleaves, almost as if she were their daughter.

Their are suggestions throughout that Cleave's memory of his relationship with Mrs Grey is faulty. He often laments the seeming contradictions as well as the holes in his memories of the event. There are many contradictions in his narrative. He remembers, for example, a drought during the summer of the affair, yet it is often raining during his reconstructions of scenes of individual events. In his memory the affair ended when it was discovered by Mrs Grey's daughter. When this led to a public scandal, Mrs Grey fled the town, and her family put their house up for sale and her husband closed his business, leaving Cleave distraught and bereft but with a lifetime of memories. Cleave meets the daughter many years later. She tells him that she never told anyone except her brother about the affair, and both of them kept the secret. There was no scandal. Mrs Grey had cancer. She left town for medical reasons, and her distraught husband sold up and moved away because he wanted to escape the memories. Rather than ending abruptly with Mrs Grey's flight, the affair came to an end because Cleave ceased to see Mrs Grey after the daughter saw them together. Mrs. Grey was, according to the daughter, disappointed by Cleave's sudden withdrawal of attentions, which added to her distress.

Cleave speculates that the name Axel Vander looks like an anagram. It is not quite that, but it does derive from Alexander Cleave--Alex/Axel, ander/Vander. The character of Cleave is cleaved/cloven. An aged actor who forgot his lines in a play about the ambiguities of identity is brought back to play a man who may be an imposter. Cleave also cleaves in the sense of adhering, in this case to his old loves, Mrs. Grey and his daughter. Cleave's daughter was pregnant when she died. In writings found after her death, she refers to the man who got her pregnant as Svidrigailov, the amoral egoist in Crime and Punishment who intended to flee to America (where Vander lived for a time and where Cleave is headed at the end of the novel). Cleave suspects that Svidrigailov was in fact Axel Vander, but this is denied by JB, the author of the biography of Vander on which the movie is based.  (After reading the biography, Cleave decries JB's writing style in terms sometimes used to criticise Banville's prose.)

Cleave is throughout an egoist. This is a first-person narrative, and as such it focuses intensely on Cleave and his dissection of his past. He admits that even after decades of marriage he doesn't know much about his wife. Just as the teenage Cleave lacked curiosity about Mrs Grey's motives, Cleave the father lacks curiosity about the reasons behind his daughter's suicide. He is devoted, rather, to trying to unpack his reaction to that event. When someone asks him why Devonport attempted suicide, he remarks that he didn't discuss that with her. For him, her suicide brings back memories of his daughter. It's typical of his concentration on himself.

But the point isn't so much that Cleave's memories and reconstructions and suppositions are false as that we do build our lives and our sense of ourselves out of falsehood and poor memory. Cleave may be as much an imposter as the deconstructionist Axel Vander and his autobiography that he offers to readers may be only loosely connected to what actually happened, but the interesting questions are why this version of his life, why are so many of his memories false, and why does he derive such meaning from those falsehoods. Cleave doesn't ponder these questions; rather, they emerge in Banville's relentless exposure.

Banville is a careful writer. I suspect there is no insignificant detail in this and that it would take a very attentive reading to ferret out all the connections. For example, Cleave was a stage actor and the movie about Vander is the first one is involved in. During the filming, he comes to realise how fragmented and repetitious the process of movie-making is and how difficult this can make the playing of a role. This is as much a comment on the concerns of the book as it is a comment on filming a movie. Cleave is an aging man, and his memory is not accurate. At one point, he mentions Gary Fonda's acting in The Grapes of Noon. It' not only a witty comment but a comment that in a concise way documents Cleave's failing memory.

Light and light coming through windows are elements in this novel. 'Ancient light' is a legal term with a precise definition, one that is appropriate to this narrative. The term crops up in a late-night discussion that Cleave has with an Argentinian guest at the hotel he and Devonport stay at in Italy. The Argentinian mentions that the starlight we see originated millions of years ago, and then he undertakes a brief discussion of quantum theory and its notion of alternative time lines and universes. There is a universe, for example, in which Svidrigailov makes it to the United States. All events are possible, and all versions of the past are true somewhere.

As always, Banville is a precise writer and alive to the possibilities of English prose (if sometimes overly fond of the obscure word).

7.  David Wallace, Infinite Jest. 1/30. This must be close to 750,000 words in length. It is prolix and sprawling, but Wallace remains in control throughout. It is also compulsively readable. I came to after a long immersion in it to realise that I had just read what must be 40,000 words on one character's rambling thoughts during an AA meeting. It is as addictive as many of the substances that figure in it.

A summary of the plot would develop into another novel. At the end, many of the plot strands are left dangling, which emphasizes their relative lack of importance. Many of the characters are living on the edge of crashing. Often their plights are presented in a comic light, but it is the sort of comedy that must not be examined too closely lest it become tragedy.


The book is about the pursuit of happiness and of success in the United States and conundrum that the both the individual's and the country's pursuit of happiness and success often impinge upon other individual's and other society's pursuit of the same. As goals, they raise moral issues that must be ignored if the goals are to be achieved.  Another theme is about audience, how we have become viewers of others' problems and tragedies, how these have become entertainment. The book takes place in the near future (it was written in the early 1990s); although many of the details have been made obsolete by technological changes, the overall sweep of the society pictured in the novel towards increased consumerism and addiction have not.

8. Joanne M. Ferraro, Venice: History of the Floating City. 1/31. In 215 pages this covers over a millennium of history through essays on various aspects of the city's history. Ferraro is an academic historian, and this was published by Cambridge UP. It is heavily illustrated. Each of the eight main chapters is 25 pages long, plus or minus one. It looks like the sort of book put out for serious tourists. There are a lot of facts, shovelled whosesale at readers and sometimes poorly integrated. The strongest parts deal with the lives of women in Venice, which is the subject of Ferraro's more academic works.

It's a solid survey, but the book was badly served by Cambridge. Many of the illustrations are black-and-white reproductions of large originals reduced to the size of a third of a page, rendering them unreadable. Maps of large areas are spread across two pages, with the center of the map (which is usually Venice) disappearing in the inner margins of the page. The book appears to have been neither edited nor proofread. Ferraro frequently misuses words, and a good editor would have been a help both to her and to her readers. Just as frequently extraneous words are added to sentences and necessary words omitted. The life dates for one woman author are given as 1580-1625. A few sentences later, she is said to have published her first book in 1575 and a second book in 1580. The poor infant was also accused of witchcraft and arrested by the Inquisition in 1580.  A busy year for her--birth, publication and arrest. A subheading gives the life dates of another author as 1542-1641; the first sentence following the subheads gives the birth year as 1592. Of course, Ferraro knows the correct dates. These are the sorts of typos everyone makes, and the reason why books need to be edited and proofread carefully.

9. Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary. 1/31. A novella--perhaps 30,000 words. Mary, now an old woman living on Ephesus, remembers the events of her life and of Christ's ministry and crucifixion. 
She is cared for by John and another would-be evangelist. They grill her on the events of Jesus's life and on his crucifixion and resurrection. They want the Gospel 'truth' and miracles; she gives them her misgivings and her memories of a misguided youth who died horribly and whom she abandoned as he was dying because she feared for her own life and fled. At the end the two evangelists explain to her that Christ died so that the world would have eternal life. She replies that it wasn't worth it. If she could have a miracle, it would be the Joseph were still alive and Jesus were a young boy and the three of them together could celebrate the Sabbath. This Mary sees Jesus as a human being and refuses to acknowledge his divinity or to be impressed by his miracles. She would have preferred a quiet life instead of the glories his followers assure her are hers. 

10. Paul Cleave, The Cleaner. 2/1. Cleave is from New Zealand, and the novel is set in Christchurch. This is a serial killer thriller told mostly as a first-person narrative. There are occasional chapters told from the point-of-view of another character. The work has several interesting twists. After his first murder, the killer confesses to the police, but his confession is so rambling and incoherent that the police take him for a simpleton. As he continues in his chosen career, he realises that he can get a job as a handicapped person at the police station and becomes a day porter, successfully concealing his intelligence. This allows him to keep track of the progress of the investigation. 

He takes matters into his own hands when a murder he did not commit is attributed to him. He decides to find the other killer and frame that person for all the murders. He soon discovers that the other murdered has to be a member of the police team searching for him. At the police station, he attracts the attention of another civilian worker, Sally, a woman who had a mentally handicapped brother who died and sees the murdered as someone like her brother and in need of her help. She provides the point of view for those chapters told in the third person.

The killer visits a singles bar in his normal persona. He is recognised as a worker at the police station by a police groupie, Melissa. While talking with him, this woman figures out that he is the serial killer. She first attacks and then attempts to blackmail the killer. He manoeuvres Melissa into killing the other murderer and blackmails her, while successfully incriminating the cop for all the murders. Meanwhile Sally has been snooping into the killer's life and realises that he is the true serial killer. The man is arrested, but Melissa escapes and appears to have embarked on her own career as a serial killer by the end of the work.

This is a well-written thriller, although the shift from first- to third-person narrative can be a bit jarring. It's as if the author couldn't figure out how to give the information presented in the third-person narrative from the killer's point of view and had to resort to this device to make the plot twists clear.

11. Michael Connelly, Void Moon. 2/2. Another well-written Connelly thriller. This time without his usual Detective Bosch or the lawyer. 

12. George Santayana, The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. 2/5. I ran across a reference to this and was curious to see what sort of novel a promoter of philosophising would write. In a preface and again in an epilogue, Santayana speaks directly of his motives and intents. Part of the novel takes place at Harvard, and Santayana appears as an offstage professor. Other than that, the 'memoir' part of the title is apparent more as the intellectual journey of the protagonist than as a thinly disguised autobiography. This is not a roman a clef, although evidently some of the Harvard personalities are based on real people.

Oliver Alden, the protagonist, agonises over philosophical issues, particularly the conflict between what he has been brought up to think of as his 'duties' and 'what he really is'. Oliver is said, early in the novel, to be someone who cannot pursue any activity until he has convinced himself that the activity is moral. He engages in many activities simply because he perceives them to be his duty. In the end, he recognises his duties as a construct but this realisation does not make him relinquish the duties. There is little correspondence between his inner and his outer lives, mainly because, even though he is convinced that he has an inner life, his inner life exist more as a goal than as a reality. His tragedy is that he has only an outer life. His outer life is his fallback position and, in the end, seemingly his only position.

Oliver is the scion of two old New England families. His father, Peter, is a rich Bostonian (the Aldens are descended from the John Alden of 'speak for thyself, John' fame). He was raised in an atmosphere of puritanical rectitude, but, when he began exhibiting wayward tendencies, was subjected to the zealous application of discipline and punishment 'for his own good'. In response, he fled and became absorbed in a life of aimless, desultory hedonism. Oliver's mother is the descendent of middle-class puritans--doctors, lawyers, professors. In her, puritanism survives as the snobbish assumption of superiority to others, self-centredness, and dictatorial assertions of duty and morality.

Both parents have little interest in raising Oliver. Peter is absent most of the time, sailing about on his yacht. The mother offloads Oliver onto first a nurse and then a young German woman, Irma, hired to be Oliver's teacher. She intrudes in Oliver's life only to lecture him on his duties, particularly his duties towards her. Irma is a German romantic, in love with Nature and Goethe. Between the two of them, Peter becomes a lonely child, much addicted to his own company and a prig.

As a teenager, Oliver accompanies his father on a yachting trip. There he meets Jim Darnley, the young captain of his father's yacht. 'Lord Jim', as he is known, immediately becomes Oliver's hero, and Oliver begins copying him, even though he realises eventually that Jim is not the best example. Darnley is immoral and uses the Aldens. Through his father, Oliver also meets a young cousin, Mario van der Weyer, who represents a more moral sort of hedonist and become Oliver's best friend. 

This is typical of the characters--they end up being stand-ins for philosophical and moral choices. There are also two young women, who Oliver proposes to. Both reject his offer of marriage--for good reason. Oliver realises in the end that he has idealised all these people and isn't seeing them as they really are.

I notice in looking at this that I keep using the words 'eventually' and 'realise'--those two words sum up much of the plot--Oliver eventually realises a lot about himself. 

This isn't a bad book--parts of it make for good reading--but it tends to be a bit creaky. The professor of philosophy keeps popping up and delivering lectures. This was Santayana's only novel, and there is nothing in it that makes me regret that he didn't write more.

13. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot. 2/6. The 'marriage plot' is the subject of the senior thesis of Madeleine Hanna, an English major at Brown University. It refers to a frequent theme of nineteenth-century British novels--the quest to find a suitable marriage partner. Madeleine falls for and subsequently moves in with Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant biology major who is also a manic-depressive. She falls in love with him during one of his manic phases but ends up living with him during a depressive phase. She earlier had hopes for Michael Grammaticus, a religious studies major, but Michael to his regret failed to act decisively enough to retain her affections. Michael still loves her, however.

Leonard and Madeleine break up shortly before finals during their senior year. This sends Leonard into a deep depression, which is eventually controlled with large doses of lithium and other mood enhancers. Madeleine fails to get into graduate school. She reunites with Leonard and the two of them go to a Woods Hole-like biology station on Cape Cod, where Leonard has a fellowship. Michael, meanwhile, sets out on a Wanderjahr, which eventually leads him to Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta. There he discovers that he has less of a vocation for religious good works than he had imagined while at Brown. On Cape Cod, Leonard discovers that the lithium and other drugs keep him from being brilliant and make him fat and impotent. He reduces the dosage and regains his former high spirits. While in this mood he and Madeleine get married and go off to France for their honeymoon. Leonard has a bad relapse and he and Madeleine return to the States to live with M's parents. Madeleine is accepted at Columbia. Leonard's problems worsen. Madeleine and he travel to NYC to look at an apartment. They attend a party. Michael has just returned from his travels and happens to be living temporarily with the host of the party. Madeleine and Leonard's relationship collapses, and Leonard runs off. Michael accompanies Madeleine back to her parents' house and lives there while the search for Leonard goes on, all the time hoping that Madeleine will discard Leonard and take up with him. Michael eventually realises that he and Madeleine are not a good match either. At the end, all three main characters are alone.

This is an updated version of the marriage plot, this time with heavy doses of feminism and post-modern theory. The three participants are bereft of the traditional guideposts, but the new theories don't help them much either. Nor do sex, parents, family, religion, divorce, prenups, and all the other accidents attached to relationships in the modern age. 

14. Iris Murdoch, The Word Child. 2/10. Murdoch's seventeenth novel. This is a first-person narrative told by Hilary Burde, the illegitimate son of a prostitute who, inspired by a teacher, becomes interested in languages, especially their grammar and words, which he finds a haven for the miseries of his life. Because of his skills, he goes to Oxford and gains an illustrious First. He is made a fellow of a college and embarks on a career as a scholar. His best friends at this point are Gunnar and Anne Jopling. Burde falls in love with Anne, and they begin an affair, which ends disastrously with Burde killing her in a motor accident. Gunnar, who has discovered the affair by this point, blames Burde. Burde himself is so burdened with guilt and remorse that he resigns his post and returns to his home in the north to be cared for by his half-sister, Chrystal, whom he involves in his misery. Years later, at the beginning of the novel proper, Burde is a low-level clerk in a government department in Whitehall. He lives a highly self-controlled life, with as many rules as the grammars that once fascinated him. He eats dinner, for example, with the same person every Monday night. His routine never varies, and his job consists in applying rules about pensions to individual cases.

Gunnar meanwhile has had a successful public career and is appointed head of the same department that Burde works in. Burde receives a letter from Gunnar's second wife, asking for a meeting. There she implores him to talk with Gunnar and try to help him overcome the anguish and desire for revenge that he still feels. Burde does so, but the meeting goes badly. More consultations with the second wife, more meetings with Gunnar. Eventually the two men achieve a reconciliation of sorts, but Burde has also fallen in love with the second wife. This leads to her death, more at Gunnar's hands than Burde. Shortly after she dies, Burde learns of the suicides of his former teacher and of a good friend.

Burde understands the Christian idea of redemption through suffering and expiation, but he rejects the idea as false. He comes to understand how egoistic he has been, how many lives he has ruined because of his relentless focus on his misery, and finally takes steps to move beyond this. There are many references to Peter Pan in the book, and Burde is much like that eternal child. He is stuck at a stage of development and can't move beyond it. He exemplifies how solipsistic guilt and misery can be.  In the end, he doesn't so much comes to terms with his guilt as simply discard it. All this takes place in Murdoch's usual circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom are truly awful people. 

15. Peter Cleave, Collecting Cooper. 2/10. Several serial murderers on the loose in Christchurch. A better-than-average thriller.

16. Iris Murdoch, Henry and Cato. 2/15. Murdoch's eighteenth novel. Another tale of the harm done by love and desire. Henry Marshalson is the second and disinherited, much neglected son of a very rich family and a professor of art history at a small college in Illinois. His elder brother dies, and Henry inherits the property and returns home to England to confront his relationships with his mother and brother.  Cato Forbes, a childhood friend of Henry's, has had a religious experience that led him to become a priest. He is assigned to a failing mission in a poor area of London. There he meets Beautiful Joe, a young man who, at least rhetorically, is a bad 'un. Also on the scene are Gerda, Henry's mother, who lives in the Marshalson's country house; Lucius, an author who had some poetry published when he was young but has been writing a book for forty-some odd years at the time of the novel--he lives with Gerta and sponges on her; John Forbes, Cato's father, who lives next door to Gerda and is much devoted to 'Truth', no matter how unpleasant the necessities of that devotion may be for others around him; Colette, Cato's younger sister, who quits university when Henry returns to England so that she can pursue him--she has long loved Henry; and Stephanie, whom Henry discovers inhabiting his brother's London flat. There are also various servants and servitors; Henry's friends back in Illinois, Bella and Russell, who appear only in Henry's reminiscences and through the letters they write Henry; and a couple of wise old priests who counsel Cato.

Henry had a fractious relationship with his family. Upon his return to England, he resolves to liquidate all of the family's properties, settle his mother in a small cottage, get rid of Lucius, and give all his money away and then return to Illinois. In going through his brother's papers, he uncovers the existence of a flat in London that his brother owns. He visits the flat and discovers Stephanie. Stephanie explains that she was the brother's mistress and tells a tale of woe. Henry develops a complex set of feelings towards her--part revenge on his brother by taking over one of the brother's possessions, part attraction towards Stephanie for her own sake; partly a means of taking revenge on his mother by taking up someone she will disapprove. He bullies Stephanie into agreeing to marry him. She uses his money to buy a new wardrobe. He takes her to meet his mother, who has decided to derail all of Henry's plans by getting Henry to marry Colette. The mother bears no love for Henry; she loved the brother unconditionally, even though he had little time for her. Eventually Stephanie confesses that she was the brother's char and appropriated his flat after he died. She makes up the story of being his mistress to explain her presence in the flat and her tale of woe to make Henry sympathetic.

Meanwhile, Cato goes through a crisis of faith. He abandons his belief in god as quickly as he assumed it before. This upsets Beautiful Joe, who has clung to Cato as the one good person in his life. When Henry visits Cato and proposes to give him a large sum of money for his mission. Joe overhears them talking and decides that he might as well be a recipient of Henry's largesse. Joe also meets Colette and comes to desire her. Joe kidnaps Cato, who is in love with him, and extorts money from Henry. He also lures Colette with the promise to release Cato and then kidnaps her. When she resists him, he tries to rape her. Cato, who has just escaped from the locked room in which he was being kept, happens upon them at the critical moment and kills Joe, the chimera of the Beautiful that is impossible to possess and that turns on one and destroys.

In the aftermath of this, Stephanie flees Henry, Henry and Colette marry, Henry retains the family mansion and abandons most of his plans to divest himself of the family fortune, Gerda remains the mistress of the family mansion, Cato has a long discussion about god and belief with a wise old priest, and Lucius dies. Before Lucius succumbs, he writes one final poem, which contains a reference to life as the Great Teacher, a facet of life that the novel amply illustrates.

This picks up on many themes present in the preceding this--the muddles that sexual desire and love (and hate) create and how little we understand desire and love; the smugness of the upper middle class and the educated; redemption through suffering; the impact of the idea of god on us; the role of art and fiction. 'Death is what instructs us most of all . . . . Those who can live with death can live in the truth, only this is almost unendurable. It is not the drama of death that teaches--when you are there facing it there is no drama. That's why it's so hard to write tragedy. Death is the great destroyer of all images and all stories, and human beings will do anything rather than envisage it. Their last resource is to rely on suffering, to try to cheat death by suffering instead. And suffering we know breeds images, it breeds the most beautiful images of all.'


17. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. 2/16. Billy Pilgrim has come unmoored in time and space and rachets about the universe. As much about the inanities of life as about those of war. Meaningless pursuits undignified by purpose or intent.

18. David Foster Wallace,  The Pale King. 2/21. Wallace was working on this when he died. His editor pieced together fifty fragments to make this work. The published edition also has an appendix that transcribes Wallace's notes about possible directions for some of the sections included in this version. The work concerns an IRS regional office in Peoria, Illinois, that is devoted to examining tax returns for possible audits. It is set in the early 1980s, as computers were beginning to have a greater impact on life. Most of the published fragments concern the people who work at the office, with background on what led them to become employees of the IRS. Some of these are quite extensive, especially one devoted to the life a fictional 'David Wallace,' which overlaps to some extent with the life of the author David Wallace, but not completely. The focus in these fragments is on the junctions and disjunctions between our private and work lives. The work is portrayed as a stultifying routine, and the employees resort to various stratagems to get through it. There is also the 'plot'--a conflict between those in management who view the IRS as a means of encouraging taxpayers to do their civic duty and pay what they owe by selective prosecution of offenders and those who seeks to maximise receipts. The latter group is in favour of utilising the increased surveillance made possible by computerising all financial information. The biographies are much better developed than the 'plot'--perhaps Wallace wrote the biographies first in order to have the people straight in his mind before he tackled the plot. As it is, it is not a completely satisfying work. Wallace's writing is amazing--he can make the most tedious subjects interesting--and he is quite good on office work and its demands and what they do to people. He also understands people. But much of this is very much a rough draft--there are inconsistencies, an overabundance of detail (in a note on one section, he advised himself to cut it by 30 percent), loose ends. 


19.  Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence. 2/23. A young blond-hair traveller arrives at the court of Akbar the Great claiming to be the son of one of Akbar's great-aunts. He tells a story of how this aunt came to be the consort of a Florentine mercenary who rose to high position at the Ottoman court and eventually returned to Florence with the woman, who quickly enchanted the city with her beauty and witchcraft. Akbar and his capital city quickly become as enchanted by the tale of this woman as the storyteller claims Florence to have been.

The novel is about storytelling and its ability to enchant ('Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough')  not only readers and listeners but the storyteller. As Akbar responds to a counsellor who urges caution about the stranger:

'We find that we enjoy him and do not care, for the present, to unravel his mysteries. Maybe he has been a criminal, maybe even a murderer, we cannot say. What we know is that he has crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another, that the story he has brought us is his only baggage, and that his deepest desire is . . . to step into the tale he is telling and begin a new life inside it.'


When the storyteller's enemies kill him, the lake that has supplied water to Akbar's capital dries up almost overnight, forcing the court and all the inhabitants of the city to leave. The storyteller is carefully associated with the lake throughout. It is the first thing he encounters upon nearing Akbar's capital, and his first act upon arrival is to drink its water. He bankrolls a successful brothel located on the banks of the lake. When Akbar sends him away from the court, he moves into the brothel and begins managing it. As mentioned in the novel, even powerful emperors cannot survive without water. Without the storyteller to sustain the fantasy of the capital, it cannot survive. The power of princes is nurtured by the stories told about them, just as water nurtures life. (Similarly, when the enchantress flees Florence, the Arno dries up and remains dried up for a year and a day.)

The enchantress of the tale has a servant whom she refers to as her mirror. The servant is almost her duplicate in appearance and her equal in beauty, with one significant difference. The enchantress is barren; the servant is not. The enchantress dies. The servant has a child, a daughter who resembles the dead enchantress as closely as her mother does. It is this daughter who gives birth to the stranger, who is raised in the belief that his mother is actually the enchantress, who has been able to stop time and remain young. The father is the cousin of Amerigo Verspucci, whose name was used on a world map (itself a mirror of the world) to designate the new world. So the storyteller is the offspring of someone who is the daughter of someone who resembles the subject the subject of his story and a relative of the man credited with discovering the new world on an image of the world. The story does not begin directly from reality. It starts several steps away from the reality, and it remains young even as its characters grow old and die.

The feminine qualities of the storyteller are sometimes mentioned, particularly in relation to his ability to entertain and seduce the emperor. The storyteller is as much an enchanter from Florence as the subject of his tale.

There is a lot in the novel about the position of women in male-dominated societies and how they attain power, as well as the ambitions of rulers and how their power is obtained and maintained. It's a picaresque novel in form, but it continually flirts with being an allegory. It illustrates the enchantments of fiction by being an enchanting fiction.

20. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea. 2/25. Murdoch's nineteenth novel and perhaps the best-known one. A few days after Murdoch died, I was a guest at a function at Lewis's college. Among those present was a professor from Taiwan, who was a specialist in modern Chinese fiction. When he heard several of us discussing Murdoch, he asked for the titles of some Murdoch novels he might read. I recommended The Sea, the Sea, among others. As soon as I mentioned it, three of the women present smiled joyfully and concurred enthusiastically. I was struck by their reaction if only because novels seldom elicit such strong and spontaneous expressions of delight. The range of the women also surprised me. One was the elderly Dutch wife of a professor of mathematics, another was the Japanese wife of an historian, and the third was a young lecturer. I surmised that there could only be in this novel something that appealed especially to women.

This is a first-person narrative, part diary relating current events, part history and reminiscence. Charles Appleby, by his own admission a middling sort of actor, a successful but not particularly talented playwright, and a good director, especially of Shakespeare. He is recently retired and has bought a house along a deserted stretch of the English coastline. His reminiscences early on in the book describe his childhood (lower middle class family with not much money; an uncle and his rich American wife and their son, James, who has advantages, both financial and educational, not available to Charles) and his first love, Hartley. He and Hartley have promised to marry as soon as they are old enough. Charles goes off to theatre school but soon Hartley tells him that she cannot marry him and disappears. Despite many efforts, Charles cannot locate her. 

As an adult, he takes up with several women in succession, all of them actresses. None of the relationships lasts for long or is much of a success, a fact that Charles attributes to his undying love for Hartley. The women involved in the relationships cling to Charles, however, a fact that delights him. Charles has infrequent contact with his cousin James, but he is happy to note that his successes are greater than James, who enters the military in WWII and over several decades becomes an expert on Tibet and eastern religions and rises to the rank of general.

Now in his late sixties, Charles has abandoned the theatre and hopes for a quiet life. His new house has no neighbours, there is little traffic along the road, the only nearby settlement is a small village. Charles likes to swim, although the sea near his house is difficult of access because of cliffs. He spends his first weeks cheerfully settling in. He writes Lizzie, one of his previous lovers, an ambiguous letter in which he almost invites her to resume their relationship. She responds in the negative. Rosina, the lover who proceeded Lizzie, somehow hears of this overture and descends on Charles in a fit of jealous rage. When Rosina drives off, her headlamps illuminate an old woman walking along the road, and Charles realises that it is Hartley. He contacts her. She is married and has a son, Titus, who has become estranged from Hartley and her husband. Titus is adopted and, it turns out, the source of much friction between Hartley and husband because the husband suspects that Titus is Charles's son (he isn't).

Charles becomes insane and insists to Hartley that she has to leave her husband and live with him. His monomania on the subject is clearly his and his alone. Hartley isn't interested. At this point various other characters, past associates of Charles's, show up, including Lizzie (now ready to resume the relationship), Peregrine, Rosina's husband at the time of Charles's affair with her, and Gilbert, a gay man who is living with Hartley and is an admirer of Charles. Charles also discovers a young man on his property, who turns out to be Titus. He uses Titus to lure Hartley to his house and then imprisons her. More people show up, including James. These people persuade Charles to return Hartley to her home. Titus dies in a swimming accident. This frees Hartley and her husband by destroying the source of discord between them. They leave for Australia. All the living ex-girlfriends abandon Charles. James pays a visit, before dying himself and leaving all his property to Charles.

Charles abandons his new home and returns to London, where gradually he resumes his former life.

Charles is a thorough-going egoist, so blind to others that he cannot see or understand that Hartley does not love him and does not view him as the love of her life in the way that he sees her. This is a book about love and jealousy and anger (as in the oft-quoted French proverb, 'Jealousy begins with love but it does not always end with it') and possessiveness. Soon after he moves to the seacoast, Charles sees a sea monster, a creature that comes to be the novel's symbol for jealousy. Charles is the monster created by jealousy and its irrational desire to possess another.

The novel is also about our mind's ability to create a reality. There is much reference to the ontological proof and its illustration of how we create gods as necessary beings. Charles also recounts a visit to James's flat where he sees an Asian man in another room as he is leaving. When he asks James about this, his cousin replies that the man is his tulpa, a word that Charles understands as being the name of the man's tribe. In Buddhism, however, a tulpa is a thought, often of a person, that takes on material form. Charles's memories and vision of Hartley have also taken on a material form, but one that is visible only to Charles. The theatre is, of course, another example of thought given material form. 

James fulfills a function occupied by many characters in Murdoch novels--he is the philosophical interpreter of events:

'The worshipper endows the worshipped object with power, real power not imaginary power, that is the sense of the ontological proof, one of the most ambiguous ideas clever men ever thought of. But this power is dreadful stuff. Our lusts and enchantments compose our god. And when one attachment is cast off another arrives by way of consolation. We never give up a pleasure absolutely, we only barter it for another. All spirituality tends to degenerate into magic, and the use of magic has an automatic nemesis even when the mind has been purified of grosser habits. White magic is black magic. And a less than perfect meddling in the spiritual world can sometimes breed monsters for other people. Demons used for good can hang around and make mischief afterwards. The last achievement is the absolute surrender of magic itself, the end of what you call superstition. Yet how does it happen? Goodness is giving up power and acting upon the world negatively. The good are unimaginable.'

At the end Charles has come to understand that his vision of Hartley was not founded on reality, but he sees Hartley as failing to live up to his vision. His vision might have become reality if she had been adequate to the task. He's about to start all over again with someone else.

The sea is, I think, a metaphor for life. Charles likes to dive into the sea. He discovers a similar trait in Titus, which helps him to think of Titus as his 'son' and a younger version of himself. The sea is changeable--it can be placid or rough; it is in continual motion; sometimes it is hidden in fogs; sometimes it is so dazzling that it can't be seen; sometimes it's hard to tell where sky ends and sea begins. It is filled with other creatures, some benign, some not. It's warm, it's cold. It nourishes, it destroys. It has to be taken as found.

As in many Murdochs, there are a painting, in this case Hals's Laughing Cavalier, and many references to Shakespeare. Charles's most successful role in the theatre was Prospero (Lizzie's was Ariel). Like Prospero, Charles has given up the magic of theatre and lost those powers. As James points out in the passage quoted above, however, he has abandoned white magic for black and substituted one consolation for another.

21. Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers. 3/2. Murdoch's twentieth novel. Guy, who is dying, remarks to Anne that our vices are general, and our virtues singular and small. We tend to specialise in one or two virtues. Gertrude, Guy's widow, specialises in being loving, and after some torment and suffering and grief, manages to find another husband and inspire a platonic love in another man. Anne, who was until shortly before her conversation with Guy, a cloistered nun, specialises in being self-abnegating. Love in various forms takes centre stage again in this novel, as usual muddled and dramatic.

There are odd moments of clumsiness. It's almost as if Murdoch realised, once well into a particular plot line, that she needed to account for something and dredged up an explanation. It's also revealed well towards the end of the book that two minor characters, hitherto present only as filler, have been stage managing much of the action. 

22. E. M. Forster, A Room with a View. 3/3. The classic tale of social convention vs. passion. This was published in 1908. Society has changed so much that it's difficult to enter into this now, at least at the surface level of the plot and character--the characters seem so unlikely. It's easier to treat this as an historical document about a certain time, rather than to find more universal themes in it. It isn't that social convention and passion are no longer opposed so much as that the same theme would have to be treated differently if it were to be assayed now.

23. Paul Theroux, The Elephanta Suite. 3/3. Three stories about collisions between Westerners and modern India. The stories are linked by cross-references or the reappearances of minor characters. Lots of local colour as the Westerners get seduced by various aspects of India, sometimes literally. The two main characters in the first story, a wealthy couple from the United States staying in an expensive spa-resort, are killed during a communal riot;  in the second story a lawyer from Boston is outmaneouvred by an Indian colleague and ends up becoming a religious mendicant; the young woman doing a gap year at an ashram following graduation from Brown is raped by an employee of a call centre where she has been teaching American-style English and exerts a gruesome revenge through an elephant she has befriended. Well-written and readable, but not much to this book.

24. Solman Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life. 3/5. Young Luka's father, the Shah of Blah, a storyteller of note, is dying. One morning, Luka steps outside and into a parallel universe, where he meets his father's psychopomp, who is waiting for the father to die. The psychopomp reveals that only a bit of the Fire of Life can save the father. Luka embarks on a quest to the World of Magic to steal the necessary bit. He is accompanied by his two pets: Dog, a dancing bear; and Bear, a singing dog, as well as the psychopomp. In the World of Magic, they pick up other companions: a beautiful princess with a magic carpet she inherited from King Solomon; two Elephant Ducks, who are blessed with total recall; and a quartet of shape-shifting dragons. They are opposed by a host of discarded gods, who survive on in the World of Magic. After overcoming various obstacles and finding the gift of persuasion within himself, Luca triumphs and returns to save his father.

This is a quest story, and, like all such stories, the hero and his companions survive a series of dangers. The happy ending isn't in doubt--in fact, the obstacles are overcome with laughable ease. As dangers they are tame. The form is updated to incorporate many conventions from video games. It's also a work about storytelling and its roles in our lives. Sometimes it's too clever and cute--viz., the dog named Bear and the bear named Dog. Rushdie has to remind readers of the switch every time they appear.
 
25. Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys. 3/8. The Mulvaneys are a happy family. The father is a successful businessman, active in the community; the mother, a hard-working, loving, cheerful, energetic dynamo. The oldest son is 19 and a former high school athlete now working for his father. The next son, a senior, is the brainy one. The daughter is a junior in high school, a cheerleader, a class officer, and a good student. The youngest child is just 13 and the narrator of the story. They live on a small farm, where mom has an antique business, that is home to a large assortment of cats, dogs, horses, cows, goats, and fowl.

All this comes to an end when the daughter is raped. The community blames her. The father attacks the rapist, a classmate of the second son, and he is ostracised by his friends and business clients. The oldest son joins the Marines; the second son heads off to college; the daughter is sent to live with a distant cousin of the mother. The father goes bankrupt and the parents sell the farm and move to another community. The father takes to drink and goes down hill rapidly, eventually leaving the mother and becoming a derelict. The second son takes revenge on the rapist and then drops out and wanders off. The daughter loses all self-esteem and drops out of college and wanders off. The family falls apart quickly and fatally. The father dies, at the end becoming reconciled with the daughter. The daughter eventually recovers and marries, and has two kids. The family is brought together again at the end. 

The close-knit happy family is a charade. As the youngest son remarks, the family members were so busy being noisy that they didn't realise how little they knew of one another. A few years after the father's death, the family reassembles about as easily as it fell apart. And that's pretty much it. A nicely told tale, but nothing more. Some of the sections are the first-person narratives of the youngest son. Others are told by some other narrator. It's a bit confusing.


26. Val McDermid, The Vanishing Point. 3/10. The story of an unlikely friendship between Scarlett, a Katy Price-like character, a seemingly ignorant girl from a dysfunctional family in Leeds but in reality a very shrewd operator, and Stephanie, her ghost writer, who is entrapped in a relationship with an abusive, possessive man. Scarlett dies and entrusts the guardianship of her son to Stephanie. On a trip to the United States, the son is kidnapped. Suspicion falls on the ex-boyfriend, but he is found to be innocent. With the help of her new boyfriend, Nick, a police officer, Stephanie finds the boy.


This is carefully constructed and plotted, with a surprise twist at the end. The kidnapping and the attempts to solve it disappear from the novel and are replaced by long stretches of biography of the two principals. In the end, the crime itself and its solution seem tacked on to the real story of Scarlett and Stephanie. It's almost as if that were the story McDermid wanted to write, but her reputation as a crime and mystery novelist meant that she had to frame the stories of the two women within a conventional thriller. Not her best.

27. Iris Murdoch, The Philosopher's Pupil. 3/13. Murdoch's twenty-first novel. The philosopher is John Robert Rozanov, at the time of the story an elderly man and a retired professor, who after many years in the United States, has returned to his natal town of Ennistone; the pupil is George McCaffrey, a former student of Rozanov and now a married man, unemployed, and a resident of Ennistone. Rozanov long ago rejected McCaffrey, who persists in trying to get back in Rozanov's graces and dates his many failures in life to his rejection. The town is a former spa town with an active hot spring and a social life centred around bathing in the hot pools fed by the spring.  The town is as much a characters as the people in the story. The residents are generally well-off with plenty of leisure; there is a strong dissenting tradition of Methodists and Quakers; there is an encampment of Gypsies on the edge of the commons.

There is a complicated and large cast of characters, many of the them related, all of them fond of gossip. The philosopher has lost faith and given up on philosophy. Nevertheless, he attracts many others besides George. The local Anglican priest has similarly lost faith in his religion, but continues to serve. The young people in the town are putting on a play entitled The Triumph of Aphrodite. In the end, Aphrodite takes the spoils. Here Murdoch continues to ponder the question of what remains of good and evil when both philosophy and God are dead.

Unusually for Murdoch, she tells the story through a narrator, N, who also makes occasional appearances in the story. At the end, he poses the question of how he knew so much about the interior life of the characters and answers it by saying that he had the help of a lady friend.

N is speaking: 'Every human being is different, more absolutely different and peculiar than we can goad ourselves into conceiving; and out persistent desire to depict human lives as dramas leads us to see "in the same light" events which may have multiple interpretations and causes. . . . We are in fact far more randomly made, more full of rough contingent rubble, than art or vulgar psycho-analysis leads us to imagine. The language of sin may be more appropriate than that of science and as likely to "cure". '

In the priest's final communication, he writes: 'Metaphysics and the human sciences are made impossible by the penetration of morality into the moment to moment conduct of ordinary life: the understanding of this fact is religion. This is what Rozanov distantly glimpsed when was picking away at questions of good and evil, and he knew that it made nonsense of all his sophisms.'

27.  Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man's Grave. 3/14. Inspector Rebus is back, this time as a retired policeman/civilian working in a cold crimes unit. He uncovers a serial murdered and identifies the guilty party, all the while managing to piss off his superiors and the internal affairs department.  He applying to be brought out of retirement and reinstated to the police; so there may be more Rebuses to come.

28. Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice. 3/18. Murdoch's twenty-second novel. Edward Beltram secretly gives a dose of LSD to his friend Mark. Edward temporarily leaves Mark to have a tryst with a woman, and while he is away, Mark dies. The resulting guilt and remorse paralyse Edward. He has all the relentless egoism of the guilty and the despairing. The question Murdoch pursues is how, in the absence of religious belief, one deals with guilt and remorse and redemption and the need to be forgiven and absolved. In brief, her answer is that one invents the props that religion offers, one wants the magic, but in the end one just has to learn to live with the guilt.

Edward is the son of two fathers. His biological father is Jesse Beltram, an artist and an eccentric who lives in an isolated area in a house called Seegard. Edward's mother, Chloe, was one of Jesse's models. While pregnant with Edward, she married Harry Cuno. She was Cuno's second wife. His first wife had died; she and Harry had one child, Stuart. Stuart is the 'good apprentice' of the title; he has left university to pursue a life of goodness, even if he doesn't have much idea of what that might entail. Chloe's sister, Midge, is married to Thomas McCaskerville, a psychologist; she is also Harry's lover. Thomas counsels both Edward and Stuart. They have a son, Meredith, one of Murdoch' precocious teenagers. Jesse's wife, 'Mother' May, invites Edward to Seegard, and he lives there for several months with her and her two daughters, Bettina and Ilonia. Jesse is said to be absent, but it turns out that he is senile and kept locked away. Edward eventually meets him. There are other characters, the most important of whom is Brownie, Mark's sister. A complicated plot leads to Midge's abandonment of Harry and return to Thomas and Edward's eventual movement towards some sort of acceptance of what he has done and reintegration into life.

Stuart's quest to be good provokes the other characters. He is accused, not without cause, of being on a power trip and of being self-indulgent. He simultaneously attracts and repels people. Although he is formally the good apprentice, he doesn't learn much or get very far in his quest. Rather, the two sinners, Midge and Edward, are, despite a lack of overt intention to be good, the characters who make progress towards being good. 

There is a lot of religious symbolism here. Edward's two fathers are also the heavenly and earthly fathers. The women at Seegard treat Jesse as a numinous entity who pervades the house and surrounding area. After he dies (it is suggested that he has drowned himself), Bettina suggests to Edward that he is merely sleeping in his grave and will resurrect himself. Jesse is not unlike Jesus in spelling, and Jesus belonged to the House of Jesse. Edward's visit to Seegard is prompted by the hope that Jesse will redeem him. At the end, thanks to Mother May's memoirs, Jesse's reputation as an artist and a cocksman grows posthumously, and Harry and Stuart report seeing the graffiti 'Jesse lives' and 'Jesse Beltram is king'.  'Seegard' is also 'sea guard'; the house is located near the sea in an isolated area and does stand guard over the sea, which is cast as a vibrant source of joy. The name could also be read as 'guard of see[ing]', a function it fulfills for Edward as it shapes his perception of his guilt. There are other symbols.


Harry to Stuart about his decision to abandon his education and devote himself to the good: 'It's the lie in the soul that counts. . . You've chosen the higher hedonism, you'll be the false good man.'


Edward reviewing his troubles and his attempt to overcome the towards the end of the novel: 'And I am dead too. Except of course that I'm not and am alive and suffering. I am in love with two dead people [Mark and Jesse] and one lost one [Mark's sister]. I shall never be happy again because everything in the world will remind me of Mark, and I shall always be wishing that I could undo the past, when so little needs doing to it in order to give me a happy life. Stuart said let the fire burn. It has burned and burned and me with it, burning alive and screaming. Chin up, put it behind you, there's nothing deep, God isn't watching you, personal responsibility is a fiction, you're simply ill, it's an illness, you will recover, think of it as a spiritual journey, your image of yourself is broken, there is life after death, you will thrive on disasters, suffer, don't evade anything, live in pain, reach out and touch something good, remorse must kill the self not teach it new lies, hope only for the truth, the soul must die to live. All right, all right, all right. But the awful fact was that he had not moved an inch, all movement, all journeying, had been an illusion, he was back at the beginning, back with Mark, back in hell. . . . I'm back where I started. It was all magic, all those ideas people had, all the words they said, everything I hoped for, the spiritual journeys, the redeeming ordeals, the healing draughts, reconciliation, salvation, new life. It was all hallucination, everything that seemed good and ordinary and real. That wasn't for me. The light which I saw wasn't the sun. It was just a reflection of the fires of hell.'

Edward contemplating his future: '. . . and I'll write a novel. I'll write all about what has happened to me, or rather not about it, but about something terrible that I'll invent. I'm so full of terrible things, enough for a lifetime of writing! [Did Murdoch base this on her own experiences?] And so, as Thomas said, I'll thrive on disasters. Am I wiser now, or just more hardened? A picture of ordinary happiness came to him suddenly as a blue sea and a jostle of boats with huge coloured stripy sails [he saw something similar from the window in Jesse's room while looking at the sea]. He thought, it's not like what Thomas said about new being and so on, it's more like what he said about the natural ego growing again. . . . Maybe I've just got so tired of it all I'm letting go and nature is curing me! Anyway I'll try to do some good in the world, if it's not too difficult, nothing stops me from doing that. . . . Of course, I'm thinking about it in two quite different ways, thought Edward. In a way it's all a muddle starting off with an accident: my breakdown, drugs, telepathy, my father's illness, cloistered neurotic women, people arriving unexpectedly, all sorts of things which happened by pure chance. At so many point anything being otherwise could have made everything be otherwise. In another way, it's a whole complex things, internally connected, like a dark globe, a dark world, as if we were all parts of a single drama, living inside a work of art. Perhaps important things in life are always like that, so that you can think of them both ways. Of course one works at things in one's mind, one doesn't want to think that what happens "does nothing" or "doesn't matter", as if it was wasted, it's much more comforting if it's part of one's fate or one's deep being somehow. Perhaps that working is a kind of magic, like what made Stuart run away [from Seegard]. It's dangerous, but I don't see how we could get on without it.'

Harry talking with Stuart and Edward: 'No one can avoid muddle,' said Harry, 'no one can avoid corruption, the pure dedicated life is an illusion, the mere idea of it is a damaging lie, look at all the wickedness priests cause, they're as messy as we are only there's a conspiracy to keep it dark. The idea of goodness is romantic opium, it's a killer in the end.'

Edward appraising Stuart: 'Stuart had grown older. How had he managed to do so, experiencing nothing?' and on Proust: 'What a lot of pain there was all the way through. So how was it that the whole thing could vibrate with such a pure joy? That was something which Edward was determined to find out.'

If I were given to underlining passages in books, this novel would be heavily underscored. Of all the Murdoch novels I have read in this quest, this is the first one that I shall re-read.

29. Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood. 3/23. Murdoch's twenty-third novel. The 'book' is a work of Marxist political philosophy being written by David Crimond, Forty years earlier, as a student at Oxford, he impressed a group of fellow students as the most brilliant among them. He was poor; they had money; so they decide to underwrite his book by giving him an annual stipend. These are the 'brotherhood' of the title, although two of them are women. Crimond is first seen dancing at his Oxford college's midsummer ball. He impresses the onlooker as Shiva, who dances both to create and to destroy.

What he immediately destroys is the marriage of Duncan and Jean, two of the brotherhood. Years earlier, he had had a long affair with Jean and almost broke up their marriage. Jean returned to Duncan, however, and all appears to be well, until Jean and Crimond meet again at the college ball. Jean deserts Duncan again and joins Crimond, as he finishes his book. Crimond is not a good person. He not only destroys Duncan and Jean's marriage but also sets up the scene in which Jenkin Riderhood, another member of the brotherhood and the only good person in the book, is killed. Eventually Crimond finishes the book, and the one character who reads it in proof declares it brilliant. There are lots of other love affairs and would-be love affairs. In addition to the brotherhood, there is a large cast of peripheral characters, representing various philosophical or religious positions or non-positions. 

There are several discussions of political philosophy--a first in Murdoch's novels, I think. Crimond does not have a rosy view of the future. His Marxism is criticised as romantic utopianism. Another character's Platonism is seen as giving him an idealist view that leads to a dismissal of reality. The much-vaunted Oxbridge undergraduate groups of lifelong friends are examined here. Curiously all the characters are hiding something from their lovers or friends and from themselves. There is a lot of deception and self-deception in the book. A rather pessimistic work overall. 

30. Salman Rushdie, Fury. 3/24. I started reading this about two weeks ago and just could not get enthusiastic enough about this to finish it. A man finds himself standing with a knife in his hand over the beds of his son and his wife, thinking about killing them. Instead he flees to New York City, where he finds much to infuriate him. The man has grown wealthy from a doll he created for a television series in which the doll interviews famous historical people. In New York, he creates another series of dolls with an elaborate story line, which is distributed worldwide through a website. The rebels on a small island in the Pacific borrow the characters to stage a rebellion, thus confounding real life with fiction--the point being that we do this all the time. There's more, but it would require more effort than it's worth to explain.

31. Michael Connelly, The Black Box. 5/26. Another Hieronymus Bosch story. Bosch is now under contract as a detective in the Cold Cases Unit. During the 1992 LA riots, he investigated the murder of a Danish freelance journalist (a woman), apparently a victim of the rioting. He re-opens the case and discovers the murderers through his usual dogged and not quite legit methods. Along the way he gets in trouble with his superiors and tries to negotiate the difficult task of fathering an independent-minded teenage girl.

Why do so many intrepid detectives have trouble with their superiors? Is it a means of allowing them to be rather independent and to deserve sole credit for their eventual solving of the crime? If they were more a part of a team, would they cease to be the brilliant loner? Ensemble police work is common on TV now, but it doesn't seem to have penetrated written fiction yet.

One reason Bosch is so appealing to me is that he isn't perfect. He isn't superman. He has (realistic) flaws, He has a life outside police work which is important to him. His life isn't smooth; nor is it an untrammelled misery. Like most of us, he exists in a muddle, but he's basically a good man. 

32. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, Invisible Murder. 3/28. Translated from Danish. A police procedural/thriller. Well written and with a nice twist at the end. In contrast to the previous work, the main policeman in this is a supervisor with doubts about the usefulness of his subordinates.

33. Inger Ash Wolfe, The Taken. 3/29. Mysterious doings in rural Ontario, investigated by an undated Miss Marple. Hazel Micallef is acting chief of dectectives in Port Dundas. She is 62 and divorced, but living in the basement of the house of her ex-husband and his new wife while she recovers from back surgery; she has an obstreperous daughter; her second in command is gay, but grieving over the loss of his partner. Like the Connelly work, she is beset by her superiors. The crime involves computers and the internet. She solves the crime, largely on the strength of her understanding of people and her unpacking of the clues the criminals are deliberately strewing in her path--the technical aspects of police work are underplayed. Nicely written and plotted. Curiously, the author blurb on the book says only that Wolfe lives in Canada. Later: googled the name; turns out this is Michael Redhill writing under a pseudonym.


34. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. 3/30. A series of nested stories, a development of the technique Mitchell used in Ghostwritten. The name of the book appears as a musical composition, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, by one of the characters in which each of six solo parts plays for a time, only to break off midstream when it is interrupted by another solo part. The sixth solo part is in the middle and is the only one completed; then the fifth solo resumes where it was interrupted and continues to its end; this is followed by the completion of the fourth solo part; etc. The book mirrors this structure.

The first solo here is The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Ewing is an American lawyer who is returning to San Francisco from a business trip to Australia, sometime during the early 1850s. He keeps a travel journal, which is later published by his son. His trip is interrupted by stays on the Chatham Islands off New Zealand and an unnamed island near Bora Bora. On both islands the natives are being exploited by others, Maori in the case of the Chatham Islands, and English missionaries on the second. The ship on which Ewing is traveling is also a nightmare of exploitation. Ewing is also slowly being poisoned by an English doctor, who is after the valuables he thinks Ewing is carrying (largely nonexistent). In the end, the ship gets to Hawaii, the doctor decamps with Ewing's meagre store of cash, and the nearly dead Ewing is rescued by a native he rescued and nursed back to health.

The second solo is Letters from Zedelghem. The letters are written by young Robert Frobisher, the composer of Cloud Atlas Sextet, to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith, back in England. The impoverished and disinherited Frobisher journeys to Zedelghem in Belgium, where he convinces the elderly and nearly blind composer Vyvyan Ayrs to employ him as a scribe so that Ayrs can complete several pieces that have been languishing because of his debilities. Frobisher is rather of a scamp. In addition to helping Ayrs, he also helps himself to Ayrs' wife and to various valuable books in Ayrs' library, which he sells. One of the books he discovers in Arys' library is the first half of Ewing's journals. Ayrs in turn plagiarises Frobisher's work. Frobisher also falls in love with Ayrs' daughter and mistakenly thinks she is in love with him. Frobisher and Ayrs have a falling out, and Frobisher discovers that the daughter is love with someone else. As he is leaving Ayrs' house, Frobisher discovers the second half of Ewing's journal. Frobisher finishes the sextet, realises that he will never again write anything half as good, and commits suicide.

The third solo is Half-lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Rey is a journalist who stumbles across an attempt by an atomic energy firm to suppress a report by Rufus Sixsmith, a British physicist, that reveals flaws in the company's new atomic reactor that will cause it to explode. Sixsmith is murdered, Rey discovers half of Frobisher's letters in his hotel room, and she orders a copy of the Cloud Atlas Sextet from a dealer in used and hard to find records. 

This summary could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the fourth solo concerns the travails of an English publisher to whom the manuscript of Half-lives is submitted. He eventually writes a best-seller based on his enforced stay in a care home for seniors. The fifth solo takes place in the future, after atomic mishaps have made most of the planet uninhabitable. The protagonist is a young woman 'fabricant', a genetically engineered and artificially cultivated servitor in a McDonalds-type restaurant. She achieves full sentience and is sentenced to death for this. Her solo is her story told to an archivist. She watches a movie based on the English publisher's book. The sixth story takes place even further into the future. The narrator is an old man in Hawaii, which has degenerated into a tribal society following the collapse of civilisation. He recounts a visit by a woman from a more civilised society who has a recording of the fabricant's tale. 

So fictional stories within fictional stories, each of which purports to be true. All the stories concern explotation and greed. They also question the nature of our sense of reality and the stories we tell to make sense of them. All except the Luisa Rey segment are first-person narratives, and Mitchell adopts a different voice and a different writing style for each narrator. He even invents a language for the Hawaii segment. Very skillfully written.

34. Inger Ash Wolfe (Michael Redhill), The Calling. 3/31. The first Hazel Micallef story. A man is assisting terminally ill people to die, as he traverses Canada from west to east. He mutilates the bodies after they have died to mislead the police. Hazel is not fooled. She foils his scheme and he takes revenge by kidnapping Hazel's mother and then forcing Hazel to exchange her life for her mother's. But in the end Hazel deftly forces the killer to confront his own lies and so he takes his own life instead. Good plotting and writing.

35. Iris Murdoch, The Message to the Planet. 4/6. Murdoch's twenty-fourth novel. In many ways, this is a continuation of The Book and the Brotherhood. Like Crimond in that novel, Marcus Vallar here is revered as a thinker. In his youth, he was a stellar mathematician; he later turned to painting, where he was successful, as a means of studying consciousness. Then he abandoned painting for philosophy and an attempt to understand consciousness. In his own words, his quest is 'about what human consciousness is, which is to say what, and how, the world is, how anything is. . . . How language makes the world, how thought makes being.' He disappears soon after announcing this.

He studied painting under Jack Sheerwater and through him came to the attention of Jack's friends: his wife Franca, an Irish poet Patrick Fenman, the historian Albert Ludens, and choir director Gildas. Patrick becomes convinced that Marcus cursed him and several years after Vallar's disappearance, he becomes ill. Gildas and Ludens track Marcus down in the countryside and Ludens convinces Marcus to return and try to cure Patrick, which Marcus does in an apparent miracle.

Marcus has a daughter Irina, who is sick of caring for her father. She arranges to put him into a residential home for the wealthy insane. Ludens is convinced that Marcus has the answers that have puzzled philosophers for centuries and he takes up residence in an inn in the nearby village and meets daily with Marcus. Ludens wants Marcus to write a book and rejects Marcus's explanation that he has no answers and doubts that there can be any, as well as Irina's conviction that her father is truly insane. Marcus wants Ludens to marry Irina and Ludens does fall in love with her.

Marcus attracts the attention of a group of what we would now call New Agers and a cult forms around him, which he encourages at first but then rejects. In the end Marcus dies of natural causes while preparing to commit suicide. Irina runs off and disappears. Ludens is bereft and has to return to London. Eventually he realises that he has duped himself into believing in Marcus and into being in love with Irina. Like Marcus, he abandons philosophy.

Whereas Crimond was a political philosopher, Marcus is a metaphysician and a mystic. Again Murdoch uses the ontological proof to argue that we create gods and the numinous through belief. Marcus is also like Crimond an unexplored character. Murdoch, who often devoted thousands of words to exploring the inner lives of her main characters, presents both of them not so much as people with inner lives but as brute forces in the lives of the other characters. What interests her is not their psychologies but their impacts on others. 

The relationship between Marcus and Ludens is also a familiar one in Murdoch's novels. Ludens is the searcher after truth who latches onto another person and tries to find answers to his (I think all these characters are males) questions from that person. Ludens (and the Latin meaning of the word is noted) wants Marcus to divulge the message to the planet. Ludens represents the long-standing human quest for answers about the world and its nature. It is only when Ludens abandons this quest after Marcus's death and burns all of Marcus's writings that he is liberated and able to move on.

The other major story line is the relationship between Franca and Jack. Jack is a serial philanderer, a fact he has not hid from his wife. However, his latest relationship is different. He falls in love with Allison and proposes that the three of them live together. Outwardly Franca concurs. Inwardly she seethes with anger and jealousy; yet she still loves Jack and she likes Allison. She also ends up living in the village near Marcus, and she and Ludens see each other frequently. Franca's generosity and her apparently cheerful acceptance of Jack's plans begins to work on Allison, who eventually insists that Jack divorce Franca and end their menage. Franca concurs, even though she hates the idea. This further irritates Allison, who deserts Jack and goes to Ireland with Patrick. Franca, herself on the verge of leaving Jack, returns to him and re-establishes a firm marriage. What's interesting here is the portrayal of how Franca's apparent goodness irritates Allison and Jack. They know that they should aspire to her 'goodness' but they hate it. They want rages and storms, and she sends them peace and goodwill. It turns out to be the most effective way to end Allison and Jack's relationship. 

Years before, Marcus had hired Jack to teach him the techniques of painting. Marcus soon establishes his own style. When he abandons painting, Jack takes up his style and for several years produces Marcus-like paintings, with success. Once Marcus returns, however, Jack encounters the painter's equivalent of writer's block. It isn't until Allison deserts him and he returns to Franca that he is, like Ludens, able to move beyond Marcus and develop his own style.

Irina is a reluctant nurse to her father. She feels imprisoned in her duties towards him and wants to escape. When he dies, she re-establishes a relationship with a young man. Marcus had disapproved of the young man because he wasn't Jewish (both Ludens and Marcus are non-observant Jews); the young man's father had disapproved of Irina because she was Jewish. Both fathers conveniently die, and the young couple resume their path towards marriage. The young man is also a physicist at Cambridge with a growing reputation. Like Ludens and Jack, Irina deserts what the philosophy and mysticism Marcus represented in favor of the natural sciences--rather like what has happened over the course of the past two centuries.

Much is made of Marcus's Jewishness and his identification with the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. In the end what seems to remain of his philosophising is his acceptance of suffering and the possibility of redemption (whatever that might mean) through suffering. He tells an anecdote about a prisoner in the camps who asks a guard Warum? The guard replies, 'Hier ist kein Warum.'

Ludens is working on a book on Leonardo. He explains to Irina that Leonardo conceived the bicycle. One night he dreams of Leonardo. 'Leonardo approached him with long strides holding out a paper in his left hand. He said to Ludens in a peremptory tone, "You must go on your bicycle and take this message to Milan." He handed the piece of paper to Ludens. Ludens said, "B-b-but, sir, I haven't got a b-b-b-bicycle." [Ludens stutters when he feels pressured.] Leonardo, pointing to the paper, said, "There's you bicycle!" Ludens looked down and saw the drawing of a bicycle which he had shown to Irina. He cried, "But, sir, this is not a bicycle, this is a drawing of a bicycle." Leonardo said, "You can ride it if you try hard enough." As he turned to go Ludens called after him, "What about the message?" The reply was, "That is the message." '

After Marcus's death, Ludens suggest to the psychiatrist who runs the home that perhaps Marcus had discovered 'the formula, the message to the planet, the universal understanding. At one time he was searching for some original language which lay at the root of all languages, east and west, and I suppose if anyone mastered that no one would understand him! But later he started talking about suffering as if that were some sort of universal language. It's certainly a universal condition, so perhaps it's a sort of language, I mean, we all experience it but we don't understand it, the meaning of it lies beyond us, something like what you called the murmur of contingency.'

Another lovely book from Murdoch. It was her last extensive one (560 pages, perhaps 300,000 words). The last two are much shorter.


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