Monthly Archives: November 2019

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first experience of Iris Murdoch’s fiction but hopefully not my last. Under the Net – Murdoch’s debut novel, first published in 1954 – is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, all set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s.

The novel is narrated by Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. As the story opens, Jake arrives back in London following a trip to France only to discover that he is being thrown out of the flat where he has been living virtually rent-free for the past couple of years. The flat in question is owned by Jake’s friend, Magdalen, who is worried that her new fiancé – a wealthy bookmaker and businessman known as Sacred Sammy – might not like the idea of Jake being back on the scene.

As a consequence, Jake – accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – must find a new place to live, a quest that sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape his outlook on life in subtly different ways.

There are some wonderful characters in this novel from the talented Anna Quentin, a folk singer with a stake in an experimental theatre, to her sister, Sadie, a glamorous actress whose motives may not be quite as innocent as they initially seem. Perhaps the most notable of all is the kindly Mrs Tinckham, a rather eccentric lady who runs a newsagent’s shop near Charlotte Street – a dusty, higgledy-piggledy kind of place that is always full of cats.

In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats. (p. 12)

This novel is witty, engaging and fast-paced, much more so than I expected – the humour in particular comes as a complete surprise. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. (There is some glorious writing about London here, really atmospheric and evocative.) On one level it’s all tremendous fun.

Nevertheless, there is room for some debate and self-reflection too. Central to the novel is the exploration of one of Wittgenstein’s theories, the idea that our deepest emotions remain trapped ‘under the net’ of language, inaccessible to others in spite of our best efforts to express them through dialogue or the written word. Jake’s philosopher friend, Hugo, acts as a conduit for Murdoch’s exploration of philosophical themes – discussions that Jake has knowingly appropriated to write a book of his own, The Silencer, a past transgression which he now regrets.

The novel is also an exploration of the fickle nature of love – the kind of story where A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, and D loves A. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person; if only Anna could feel differently about Jake, perhaps everything would be okay.

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of coexistence; and this too is one of the guises of love. (p.277)

As the novel draws to a close, we find Jake in a better place, more at ease with himself than at the outset. In short, he is optimistic, eager to find regular work and open to the experiences of life, complete with its various ups and downs.

All in all, this feels like an excellent, lively introduction to Iris Murdoch’s work. I haven’t even had time to mention the Marvellous Mister Mars, a performing Alsatian who manages to get Jake out of the trickiest of situations in the nick of time…he’s almost certainly worth the entry price alone.

Under the Net is published by Vintage Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and her small-town community. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)