Monday, 9 March 2015

The Philosopher's Pupil

I love Iris Murdoch's novels so much that I'm not sure there are words to express it, but I'll give it a feeble attempt: it's an addiction, I think, an addiction to writing so precise, so clever, and to plots and characters so sublime, that I almost start hyperventilating at the thought of it. Every so often, I will sit bolt upright and declare that I must read another Murdoch right now and that no other author will do.

I do not allow myself to gorge on Murdoch. I am pacing myself, leaving time between each book I read so that I can fully digest it; to read them one after another might taint them, I might attach a character to the wrong book, they might bleed into each other... No, better to separate and to always know there are more to come.

The Philosopher's Pupil is set in a spa town, enabling Murdoch to indulge her preoccupation with water and drowning metaphors. Inhabitants congregate around the Roman baths and hot mineral springs, and their desires, prejudices, doubts and fears hang over them like the steam over the outdoor pool.  Wading through both this figurative and actual fug are various members of the McCaffrey family, an extended mob whose myriad inadequacies are held up by Murdoch to intense moral scrutiny. One of the McCaffreys, George, is obsessed with his old philosophy teacher, a walrus of a man who has returned to his hometown for a short period. It is around this relationship that Murdoch is able to present the philosophical arguments and ponderances for which she is so famous.

This particular book is up there with the best of the Murdochs I have read so far.  I absolutely loved it. I'm not sure that it has supplanted The Sea, The Sea as my favourite, but is probably running joint second with The Black Prince.

It has everything a Murdoch connoisseur could want: a middle aged male lead whose over compensation for self-doubt leads him down murderous paths; older men obsessing over younger women and lost passions; pathetic middle aged women who lack the strength to break free of their overbearing husbands; failed academics; hints of the supernatural; and humour, plenty of humour. 

It has flaws - does the mysterious narrator, 'N', really add anything to the book? His cryptic ending seems suspended somehow, balanced precariously over the novel rather than being part of it. I also question whether I'm convinced by Tom and Hattie's relationship - but Murdoch's younger characters are rarely as rounded as her older ones. And honestly, despite these minor quibbles, The Philosopher's Pupil is a tour de force, a page turner extraordinaire, a thought-provoking insight into the lives of a disparate group. Does our pleasure as readers come from the fact that we recognise elements of ourselves in these people, or does it come from our delight at realising we are not so damaged as they are?

If you are already a Murdoch fan, The Philosopher's Pupil will enchant you as all her best books do. And if you are new to her oeuvre, this is as good a place to start as any.

Now I must ween myself off her for a while, and give some other poor hapless author a chance to impress. But I might just pop into Waterstones and start thinking about which Murdoch I will read next...just so I'm ready when the time is right, you understand. I can stop any time I like...

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Someone at a Distance

Although a long time Persephone addict, I have never yet read their self-professed favourite author, Dorothy Whipple.  Maybe it's her name, but I just haven't been able to get the image of a blue rinse out of my head, and have therefore pressed Ms Whipple snobbishly into the background.  That, I suppose, is exactly what publishers have done with her for the past several decades, hence Persephone's championing of her, and so it is with some delayed guilt that I finally picked up Someone at a Distance.

It must first be said that, while there is a thread that runs through the majority of Persephone's output, by no means are all their books the same.  Some of my personal favourites are those that tread a fraught path - William, An Englishman and Little Boy Lost, for example - though I have also loved some of the frothier numbers such as Patience. Whipple walks a line somewhere between the two, I think.

Someone at a Distance is a harrowing tale, the story of a perfectly ordinary middle class housewife whose husband is lured away from her by a dispicable French hussy. And when I say dispicable, I mean it: Louise Lanier has nothing to endear one to her, nothing.  She is vain, self-centred, rude, lazy, classist, awful human being. That isn't to say she is two dimensional, however. She is frighteningly - worryingly, perhaps - real.  It is in this complexity that she becomes more than just a warning, which she might otherwise have been, and instead engages us fully and generates enormous (enjoyable) ire. How dare this horrendous being ruin Ellen's delightful life? Ellen, who keeps a lovely home and whose sole harmless interest is gardening. Ellen, who is devoted to her husband and children, and who delights rather overly in her simple social life, which comprises of little more than a morning chat with the postman, the grocer, the fishmonger. Ellen, who...quite frankly, is rather dull, certainly not as exciting as Louise. Are we then, to find ourselves sympathising with pathetic husband Avery? Are we, like him, excited by what we know is bad, unable to see the beauty in the norm?

I don't think it was Whipple's intention that we should find the sections of the book that focus on Louise - particularly those when she is back in France - the more interesting, but I really did look forward to them. Of course, I had no sympathy at all for either her or Avery, whose weakness and cowardice in breaking up his family comes absolutely down to the fact that he doesn't have the guts to face his daughter after she finds him in a rather compromising position with Louise.  He drives away from the house immediately, and literally never sees his daughter, or speaks to her, again.  One feels extraordinarily for Ellen after this, as she struggles not only to support her children emotionally and financially, while holding herself together, but tries to, I suppose, muster enough personality to move on with her life. At forty odd, unqualified, unskilled, inexperienced, she is incapable of finding a career, and yet somehow, as her own kindness is repaid by those she has been good to in the past, she manages to find independence of a sort.

Whipple's style is simple, engaging, real.  She is, like most Persephone authors, easy to read.  There is humour in here, though it is somewhat rueful in nature. Above all, for me, the interest in this book comes from the reminder that women's position in society, even two generations ago, was so far from our own today. Books written by women at a time when women were still, not repressed as such, but sidelined, hold enormous interest for me, and this is just one of the many reasons I think Persephone is such an important publisher.

Someone at a Distance is not my favourite Persephone, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and will certainly head for another Whipple soon. It has more bite, and is much less blue-rinsey, than I had expected...

Cutting for Stone

This is an outrageously good book, purchased on a whim while passing through Waterstones to get from one street to another. Maybe I was particularly susceptible to the colour yellow that day, as there is little else about the cover to distinguish it, and I can't fathom any other reason it might have caught my eye. However, catch my eye it did, and I am so glad of that.

Abraham Verghese sets his tale in Ethiopia, and the story begins in the 1950s, when a young nurse dies giving birth to twin boys. (Let me just say, though, that this brief synopsis is a real over-simplification of even that small aspect of the story, but this is not the place to reveal too much.  For that, you must read the book, and I do urge you to do so). The story is then the tale of these twins, their childhood and teenage years growing up in a turbulent, dangerous country, and of the people, their extended family, with whom they share this time.  Later, the tale moves to America, but it is the time in Ethiopa that has stayed with me, that has educated me, and that I loved most of all.  Verghese weaves actual events - a political coup, for example - with his fictional world so that a picture of Ethiopia during the middle decades of the twentieth century is brought to sometimes terrifying life before you. There is real skill here, and it is one that has taught me so much.

The characters - Ghosh and Hema in particular - are so real, so beautifully constructed, that I find it almost impossible to believe that they are fictional. I do not want to believe that they are 'merely' invented. Adis Ababa is brought into startling relief to the extent that I almost feel I could find my way round the city having no guide but my memory of this book. This is a story you will invest in, one that you will care so deeply about that finishing the book is like losing a limb (or at least, a digit).

There is a lot of medical detail in here - it is set largely in a Mission Hospital, after all - and though I am by nature a squeamish individual, I found this more interesting than nauseating: I was genuinely fascinated by the gynaecological work that Shiva undertakes.

Cutting For Stone is a wonderful piece of literary fiction. You feel good for having read it, and the experience of reading is enriching.  It is an intelligent, divinely written epic that will drag you halfway round the world with its characters, and that will sit in your heart for a long, long time after you have put it down.