Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl

hopper.penn-coal-townIn 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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball

When William James describes consciousness as something that “does not appear to itself chopped up in bits” and uses the metaphor “stream of thought” I assume he refers to multiple parts joined together. Each part is aroused by a situation or event. A simple event arouses a simple feeling. A more complicated event, an 18th century masked ball for instance, arouses abundant feelings. Moments considered in an earlier time can evoke feelings and thoughts in the present.

As we age and move closer to death, events that were stimulating and exciting in youth, grow wearisome. We invest less emotion into them. This is the mood of Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. Deeply influenced by psychology, Brophy’s novel deals with psychological time, which is subjective and measured not only by the emotional intensity of an event or moment, but also by our half-buried associations and interpretations. The multiple parts come together in ways that sometimes surprise us in their emotional response.

Each of Brophy’s novels that I’ve read so far have tiny temporal frames, yet invest all the life of their characters into the duration of that frame. It is no more possible to imagine the lives of Brophy’s characters beyond the frames of her stories than to imagine Vermeer’s figures stepping out of his paintings.  Each character can exist only within themselves and to the other characters and time frame and setting of the story, recalling Kenneth Clark on Vermeer’s “flawless sense of the interval”.

Events in The Snow Ball are mediated partly through dialogue, and Brophy’s dialogue is especially crackling, an intricate role-playing game with perfect balance between what is said openly and what must be implied or hinted. But events are also mediated through the character’s thoughts and feelings, which expand and snowball (!) growing more intense as they roll upon themselves.

Without discounting Brigid Brophy’s originality and brilliance, she would be a very different writer without the influence of Freud and Mozart, both strongly present in The Snow Ball and to a lesser or greater extent the other of her novels that I’ve read. Brophy’s originality is to respond in fiction to the influence of both imaginations and make something uniquely her own.

Anna’s Fantastic Face

The following extended passage is from Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. I doubt that I’ve read a better description of a face anywhere; it improves on Jane Austin with just a smidgen of Oscar Wilde. If I never read another word of Brophy’s work, this passage would afford me sufficient proof of her immense artistry.

Her face did not preclude her from being an attractive woman, any more than theirs precluded decorative putti from being decorative. But it was, or it provoked, a question of taste, a question of style. Anyone who contemplated forming an intimate relation to this face must ask himself whether he possessed such a taste and, possessing it, was prepared to develop it. That would demand that he immerse his senses in it, undergoing a larger and larger dose of exposure to it, until he became in a way calloused. The face would yield sensuous pleasure: but the sensualist must undertake an ascetic self-discipline first. He must harden himself to tolerate a tragic face whose tragedy was couched in half-formed baby features which, individually smudged and then squeezed up close together, had finally slipped or been twisted sideways in relation to the face, making it the face of an immortal baroque baby pettishly carrying into middle age the impress of being newly, and distortingly born.

Anna, whose own answer had long been Yes, she could tolerate it, cherished her face without pity or special pleading. She knew that to the eye of love its spoiled prettiness presented hints, minimal but recurrent, of the erotic, like the idea of an unfrocked nun. In the eye of self-love, the mirror, she had found its infinite rococo complexity infinitely interesting. A beautiful face might lead the mind that contemplated it into a daydream so unimpeded as to verge on sleep. Anna’s face, like one of those lizards called monsters, would have startled you awake if you had been asleep to begin with, so grossly did it contradict every dream satisfaction: and yet it was to the imagination that it was addressed: it was as much a flight of fancy as a swag of putti supporting a cloud; the word it recurrently brought to mind was fantastic.