In The Italian Girl, it struck me, as it did last time I read Iris Murdoch’s fiction, that the writer she brings most to mind is Flaubert. Both deliberately adopt narrative techniques to slide between the voice of the narrator and lead character, but what brings them closer together is the sense we are watching the action from outside of the window.
Unlike her contemporary Brigid Brophy, who breathes life into her characters so effortlessly their traces ghost around one’s library for months, Murdoch never seems to climb inside, preferring to be the puppeteer, choreographing the protagonists to explore her theories of power. Perhaps better than Flaubert is a comparison with Edward Hopper, whose characters give us room to fill a space with sweet and grievous yearnings.
Whereas the basic material of The Italian Girl is little different from innumerable fictional family dramas—that complex relationship between an adult and his or her mother—Murdoch’s extravagant vortex of characters subverts a tired trope into something more grand. The distancing and near contempt for these characters is enhanced by Murdoch’s use of satirical chapter headings. The projected distance of looking at her characters through a window in this way intensifies their sense of loneliness and paralysis.
There is an intensity to The Italian Girl that compels me to dip deeper into Murdoch’s fiction. Perhaps next I’ll turn to the longer The Sea, The Sea.
I’ve not had a happy experience with Murdoch in the past but The Sea, the Sea won me over
Very interesting to hear what you say about Murdoch as a puppeteer – I’ve tried to read Under the Net twice and had to give up because I actually didn’t care about the characters at all, not even in a negative way. I’d like to try something else but I really don’t think I’ll attempt that one again.
Under the Net is the only other Murdoch novel I’ve read, and it felt very manipulative.
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I started an Iris Murdoch read a few years ago and started with her first – Under the Net, and then read four in quick succession: The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle and The Bell. It was really interesting to watch her style develop over those early novels. They are all very much novels of their time period and i loved seeing Murdoch “engage” so fully and imaginatively with her era.
You remind me that I should continue the project at a leisurely pace. I have six more paperbacks waiting for me quite patiently!
I can’t say that I’m a great enthusiast for Murdoch’s fiction but I am drawn to it and will read The Sea, The Sea if nothing else.
Maybe that’s why I am drawn to her literature so much…your comparison to Hopper paintings…and I’m deeply inspired by his work in my own photographic work… Yes…The Sea, The Sea…it shouldn’t disappoint you…
From my limited reading of Iris Murdoch, she rarely disappoints, if only because of her use of narrative techniques. I haven’t loved either of the books I’ve read but found both fascinating.