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The Book and the Brotherhood – Andy rounds out a year of Iris Murdoch … two months late

February 24, 2015

It’s just as well Netty and I have decided to scale the Reading Challenge back a bit for 2015 (more of that in a week or two), otherwise you’d be reading about the last of this year’s books sometime in 2024. We derailed a little towards the end of last year, and it’s kind of embarrassing that we’re finally getting around to wrapping up 2014 in the last week of February. Actually, the first week of March, more like, once we’re done.

bookbrotherhoodI finished The Book and the Brotherhood in December, so will only be able to give my thoughts in fairly broad brushstrokes. Set roughly in the early ’80s it revolves around a group of middle-aged friends who met at university three or so decades earlier, as rabid, radical leftists – the “brotherhood” of the title. At some point in their youth they decide one of their number, Crimond, is such a remarkable mind that he must be paid to write a book about the future of the Left and society in general. So they form a committee, agree to donate a certain amount of money per year to support Crimond in the writing of the book so he doesn’t need to worry too much about looking after himself. Crimond then stuffs all this up by temporarily seducing the wife of one of the “brotherhood”, and then stuffs it up even more by remaining a rabid, radical leftist while his colleagues move towards, er, perhaps not quite Malcolm Turnbull’s “sensible centre”, but you get the drift. Curiously, despite the growing differences between them, they continue to support Crimond financially – even when, as the novel opens on them all in middle age (yes, that was all back story), he seduces the same woman, who is still married to the same man.

The philosophical underpinnings of The Book and the Brotherhood are, I think, similar to most of the other Murdoch books I’ve read over the past 12 months – the importance of striving to be a good, or ethical, person in a secular world, and the conundrum of figuring out exactly how the fuck it should be done. Interestingly Murdoch does not automatically associate “goodness” with the political left – this isn’t a political novel, it’s a novel in which politics plays a role and they’re not the same thing. Crimond is a “bad” person, and his radicalism feeds that “badness” – if the “badness” isn’t feeding the radicalism. He tries to set up a quite disturbing mutual suicide scenario, which fails, and then, while playing an absurd little machismo game, accidentally manages to kill someone else anyway. Iris Murdoch was very obviously no Tory, but she apparently wasn’t too fond of the far Left, either. Although as I said, this novel is not a political one, and arguably Murdoch has used communism, or Marxism, or socialism, or whatever, in the same way she’s used Christianity and Buddhism in other novels to explore her central concerns.

If there is a “good” character in The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s Jenkin, an academic (like most of the characters here) who to some extent lives on the edges of the story’s action – although not as peripherally as some of Murdoch’s other “goodies”. Jenkin lives a slightly odd, vaguely asexual, rather ascetic life, although he has his pleasures. He doesn’t see himself as good, necessarily, but to the reader there is a clarity to him that many others in the novel lack. In fact many of the other characters are far more interested in getting through life, never mind high falutin’ philosophical considerations, and there’s nothing wrong with that – although Gerard, arguably the novel’s main protagonist, is sometimes cavalier with the lives of others, exploiting them in hopes of bringing about what he thinks might be the greater good. In that he may have something inadvertently in common with Crimond’s politics – politics that Gerard consciously rejects.

I enjoyed The Book and the Brotherhood a lot, in some ways more than some of the other books by Murdoch I’ve read. But ultimately I think it’s probably the weakest (of the books I’ve read, not Murdoch generally, since I haven’t read her exhaustively). It was apparently one of her favourites, and perhaps as she was pulling it together she allowed her affection for the material to cloud her better judgment. Perhaps also, by the mid-’80s, she was such a successful writer that no editor dared stand up to her (there are some elements, though fewer, of this in The Sea, The Sea, too). The Book and the Brotherhood is flabby. It needs a good edit. There are probably a couple of sub-plots the novel could do without and there are certainly at least two characters who should have been jettisoned – whatever they have to say or do that is essential could easily have been divvied up among the many, many other characters here.

Still, the frenetic Dickensian narrative drive is immensely involving, and what with dead gay lovers and unrequited passion and family skeletons and suburban squalor and sibling rivalries and anorexia nervosa and parrots and ice-skating and dancing and guns and cars and Guy Fawkes Nights and – yes, I’m pretty sure there is a kitchen sink in there somewhere, too. The Book and the Brotherhood is not great, in the way other novels by Iris Murdoch are. But it is fun and mostly gripping and rather thought provoking, and you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Oh! And there’s a whole chunk of it set in Ireland! You’d love it, Netty.

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Story of the Eye – Andy was never that fond of eggs anyway

February 3, 2015

If I have to eat them, scrambled would be my preference. Thankfully Bataille never goes there.

story-of-the-eyeAs Netty says, this was my suggestion, and as she also suggests, no, in hindsight, I have no idea why. It’s supposed to be an erotic classic. It’s not. And despite its extreme sexual nature, I’m not sure it even deserves to be classed as erotica. When it was originally published, as far as I can tell, it was considered surrealist, not erotic, and I think that’s a better way to think of it – a work of literary surrealism, strongly influenced (as many early 20th-century surrealists were) by Freud’s exploration and attempted explanations of human sexuality. Eggs, eyes, testicles – they’re kind of all the same shape, aren’t they, so let’s throw them into a story. With wee. Lots of wee. And some teenage sado-masochism, sort of, And a bit more wee. And a cardboard-cutout upper-class Englishman who’s actually a bit of a repressed pervert. Wait, was there a tautology there?

And a wardrobe. Let’s have a wardrobe. And more wee.

I agree with Netty on many things about this book, but I disagree with her on a few as well. Bataille is not as good a writer as Anais Nin. He’s not even as good a writer as Henry Miller, when Miller’s at his best. Bataille is a pretty terrible writer, hamstrung in the 1920s by his obsessions with surrealism and Freudian psychology, looking back on a few things he remembers from when he was a kid and then reinterpreting them through a pretty seriously fucked-up kaleidoscope.

Bataille, obviously, quite liked being wizzed on by women. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Bully for him. Maybe he quite liked eggs, as well. I don’t know. It’s just a pity that his talents didn’t allow him the opportunity to combine his sexual and surrealist and psychological obsessions in a coherent, compulsive narrative. Story of the Eye is kind of terrible. Except, ironically, once it gets to Spain – those chapters that Netty hated I loved. Raped, slaughtered, disfigured Catholic priest? Awesome stuff.

Although OK, I did kinda feel for the bullfighter.

I have no idea what else to say about this book, resulting in one of my shortest posts ever.

NB: Our thoughts on Anais Nin were initially published on another website, a website that went out of business about 18 months into the Reading Challenge. We managed to get the first 12 months of the Challenge up, and had the first six months of 2009 saved to our hard drives at some point or other; sadly, however, I suspect that our thoughts on Nin (and Paul Auster, and at least four others) are lost for ever. Bollocks.

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In which Netty reads some ridiculously perverted French filth and as a result develops an intense aversion to boiled eggs …

January 30, 2015

WARNING: This blog entry contains explicit content. And no, that’s not just a ploy to get you to read it!

sote-coverUnable to find a copy of Georges Bataille’s The Story Of The Eye at my local bookstore, I approached the information counter. The eyes of the nerdy-looking, bespectacled twentysomething lit up like a Christmas tree when I told him what I wanted. “Oh yes, we’ve definitely got that in stock,” he gushed, “I’ll show you.” And indeed he did – turns out I’d misspelled Bataille’s name and was looking in the wrong place. “All his titles are back in print,” nerdy boy continued, a little breathlessly, “I can order in anything you want.”

At the time I thought the gleam in his eye (no pun intended) was ever so slightly … odd. Now, having read Bataille’s novella – a mere slip of a thing at 67 pages, not counting an accompanying chapter that entails the author’s raison d’etre for writing it, its original preface and outline for a sequel, not to mention essays by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, respectively – I get it. Oh, I get it all right. And possibly I will be avoiding said bookstore – and said nerdy boy – for a while …

Story Of The Eye was Andy’s selection – why, I have no idea. Possibly he has no idea either. I’d never heard of either Bataille or his book/s. If you’re similarly uninitiated, here’s the lowdown. He was an early 20th-century French author and essayist who gained a great deal of notoriety for this, um, erotic classic; his first novel, published in 1928 under the pseudonym Lord Auch.

We’ve read very little erotica in the history of ANRC – perhaps just Anais Nin’s Delta Of Venus and Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer. I was dismissive of the former – mere, meandering diaries that somewhere found their way into print (sorry, I can’t find the original link) – and downright scathing of the latter – a misogynist heap of shit that is probably the worst thing I’ve ever read. I reckon Bataille is a better writer than Nin and a much, much better one than her former lover Miller – but this does not mean I’ll be reading any more of his work. Sorry, nerdy boy.

I’m usually quite careful regarding spoilers – unlike my far more cavalier fellow ANRC-er – but I’m throwing all caution to the wind here. Hell, it’s only a few dozen pages – and it’ll take you maybe an hour and a half to digest. Possibly you might want to eat a bit before you dip in because you probably won’t want for quite some time afterwards – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Story Of The Eye traces the relationship between its unnamed (French) narrator, a 15-year-old boy, and Simone, who’s the same age, and a distant relative. They meet one summer in a beach town, and the horny little buggers are at it before the first page is done and dusted. The novella is basically a summation of their extraordinarily perverted fuckfest, which, by the fourth page, has extended into a ménage a trois with their friend, the slightly gullible, slightly disturbed Marcelle.

It all blows up very quickly, thanks mainly to a party that turns into a full-blown, champagne-fuelled, depraved teen orgy, which is busted up by the kids’ parents and then the local constabulary. The ensuing scandal sees the narrator move in with Simone and her hapless mother, while Marcelle’s parents have their helpless daughter admitted to a sanatorium.

The narrator and Simone eventually break Marcelle out of the asylum, only for the mentally fragile girl to hang herself. At which point the pair, with the help of wealthy Englishman Sir Edmund – who has an unhealthy interest in Simone – decamp to Spain to escape the ensuing police investigation. There, they have a lot of sex, attend a bullfight and then, at the climax (no pun intended) of the book, wind up in a Seville church where all hell breaks loose (pun definitely intended).

Now, I’m no prude, but what starts out as a mildly titillating tale rapidly descends into a no-holds-barred account of depraved sex with an extremely heavy fixation with bodily fluids. The Spanish chapters are extremely difficult to read, particularly if you’re a bit on the squeamish side when it comes to golden showers, involuntary vomiting, bloodletting, and using body parts of dead animals and people as masturbatory devices.

The book’s title comes from Simone’s sexual obsession with eggs and eyes – which she sees as one and the same. She cracks raw eggs in her arse, places them in the toilet bowl so she can pee on them (and then make the narrator fish them out of said bowl to eat); freewheelingly inserts them into her vagina at any given opportunity. During the bullfight, she orders a dead bull’s balls, peeled, presented to her on a plate – which she then uses to publicly self-pleasure as a matador is gored to death before the crowd. Later, at the church, she rapes a priest, chokes him to death, then orders Sir Edmund to gouge out his eye before – yep, you guessed it.

I mean, geez.

Looking for positives, there are three things I can say in the novella’s favour. Firstly, it is undeniably well-written. Secondly, I suppose kudos of some kind has to be given to Bataille for making the main female character of his book the driving force behind its many and varied perversities. In comparison, the narrator – and Marcelle, and Sir Edmund – come across as unwitting, yet willing, accomplices in Simone’s psychologically complex game, her utterly depraved sexual peccadillos and atrocities. Thirdly, it’s short. Mercifully so. If there’d been more chapters after the church scene, I seriously doubt I would have been reading ‘em.

They say one man’s meat is another man’s poisson – and as for me, well, I’m a vegetarian. Who may never be able to eat eggs again. Thanks for that, Bataille. Yeah, thanks a lot. And a word of advice to nerdy boy – you’ll do a lot better with the ladies if you stop recommending Bataille to them. You’re welcome.

Geez …

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In which Netty’s resolve to never set foot in Ireland is further cemented by the god-awful Country Girls …

December 31, 2014

countrygirls-imageQuestion: What’s worse than yer regular bog-standard chick lit?

Answer: Misery-gut-laden, woe-is-fucking-me Irish chick lit.

Andy and I have been doing this blog for eight years now. It’s called a Reading Challenge for a reason – we read big, weighty, difficult literary tomes. And we make no apologies for it. Joyce (more on him later), Proust, Cervantes (note: we haven’t actually read any of these for various reasons, but you get the picture. These are the kind of authors to which we aspire).

Enter Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy, which gets a tick in one of these categories, at any rate (in case you’re wondering which one, let me enlighten you: it’s big. All 532 pages of its very small type). So, yeah, something seems to have gone wrong somewhere in our current programming schedule, but we promise to resume normal transmission as soon as possible. Ahem.

“Irish chick lit” is the phrase I used to sum up Country Girls when Andy and I convened for lunch and a drink (me) or six (Andy) a couple of weeks ago. I thought I was being kind. As sometimes happens, Andy has a completely different take on this trilogy, and if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read his blog entry. However, you may well come away thinking we read two very different books.

I actually had a bit of trouble tracking down this trilogy locally. As Andy noted, O’Brien – who’s now in her mid-eighties – also published a memoir entitled Country Girl a couple of years ago. My bookstore, for some reason, could only find the first volume of the novel version. But Andy was so insistent we read all three that we ended up ordering it from one of those online thingedy places. More’s the shame – I could have easily called it quits after the first volume. But no. This is not really surprising – Andy has a bit of the sadist lurking in him sometimes …

I should note that O’Brien is very well regarded in literary circles, and particularly so for this work. She is a much-lauded and awarded author of a couple of dozen novels and short story collections, a couple of poetry collections, and a handful of non-fiction works and plays. Well, yeah – but so is Stephen King, and I won’t be rushing out to read any of his stuff any time soon either.

Andy is among her admirers, and possibly his interest was further piqued by the fact he once lived in Ireland and knows it well. I, on the other hand, have never been there and have no interest in doing so – look, I come from Tasmania, so I’m more than familiar with cold, damp places with lots of potatoes and not many people.

Country Girls was considered somewhat scandalous on its publication in 1960 (its sequels The Lonely Girl – also known as The Girl With Green Eyes – and Girls In Their Married Bliss followed in 1962 and 1964, respectively; the trilogy was published in 1987 with a 21-page epilogue bringing the now-grown-up girls’ futures up to date). It was banned – and burned – in O’Brien’s native Ireland for its depictions of young girls rejecting religious doctrines and exploring their burgeoning sexuality. These days, that’s all a bit ho-hum, dime-a-dozen in the annals of bookdom, but I appreciate how outrageous it must have seemed to mid-20th century rural Ireland. So, you know, credit where credit’s due.

Righto, back to the plot. You’ve got two teenage girls – Caithleen, or Cait, or Kate, or whatever the hell she calls herself, and Baba (a diminutive of Bridget, actually), who live in a poor Irish hamlet (Baba’s family are reasonably well off in comparative terms) until they are shipped off to convent. Poor old Caithleen/Cait/Kate lives in fear of her alcoholic father – a relationship she is doomed to repeat for the rest of her life in wildly inappropriate relationships with older, unavailable men – and loses her mother early doors in a tragic boating accident. So, yeah, Caithleen/Cait/Kate has got a bit to be miserable about, but geez, it’s milked to the nth degree. The girls seize upon the first chance they get to escape to the bright lights, big city of Dublin. And that’s basically book one, which is narrated by our pained – and frigging painful – heroine.

It doesn’t get much better in book two, which is basically the story of Caithleen/Cait/Kate’s long-winded, basically dysfunctional relationship with married cad Eugene Gaillard. Spare me. Things take a turn for the (only slightly, mind you) in the more-of-the-same-but-more interesting book three – largely, I suspect, because Baba takes over narration duties for large swathes of it. The story takes on a welcome new perspective told through Baba’s eyes and in her voice, further cementing just what a whiny, crushing bore is Caithleen/Cait/Kate. Ironically, I found that the slog through the trilogy – and by crikey it was a slog, hence why you’re reading this blog a month after I should have written it – was redeemed in the epilogue, also narrated by Baba. But that’s still only a small consolation for wading through the dross of the preceding 508 pages.

O’Brien’s fans – which include Andy – are full of praise for her writing style. It’s OK, but I found the long passages of description tedious beyond belief – and, frankly, largely unnecessary. Seriously, book one could have been reduced to a novella if you’d drastically pared back the realms of descriptions about the houses, the hamlet, the bloody sodding peat bogs. Peeps compare O’Brien to James Joyce – and she’s obviously a big fan, because she penned a 1999 biography on the renowned Irish man of letters. If that’s the case, I’m in a world of trouble as I prepare – finally – to take on Ulysses in the next month.

If you like chick lit, or, you know, rural Ireland in the 1950s, then yeah, knock yourself out. But for me, there’s not enough time to read all the books I actually want to read. So, if you’re still interested – or you’re a bit of a masochist – go check out your local charity bin. That’s where my copy of Country Girls is heading, stat.

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The Country Girls Trilogy – Andy has a grand old time with Edna, to be sure, to be …

December 21, 2014

Although, to be honest, I’m not sure. Not sure why, anyway. Why I had such a grand old time with Edna.

I remember there being a Penguin edition of The Country Girls on display in the library at Maffra High School in the ’80s. So that’s how long Edna O’Brien has been on my radar. I didn’t read it, obviously, cos I was a boy and it was written by a chick and it had the word “girls” in the title. But for whatever reason I remember it.

ednaO’Brien published The Country Girls in 1960. The Lonely Girl was published in 1962 and Girls in their Married Bliss (yes, it’s ironic – actually no, it’s sarcastic) was published in 1964. The book’s Epilogue was published in 1986, presumably because O’Brien’s publishers decided to publish all three together and she wanted to wrap things up. Which she does, to devastating effect.

Oops. NOT A SPOILER.

O’Brien’s “heroines” – and they are only heroines in that technical sense in which “hero” or “heroine” has for some time come to denote “main character” – are Caithleen (or Kate) and Baba (which is presumably short for something, although I don’t think we ever find out, but apparently it’s not Barbara) are teens in rural County Clare, in the west of Ireland, in what I suspect is the mid- to late ’50s. I seem to remember suggestions in the third novel, set in London, that the girls – women, now, in their mid 20s – are living through the early years of the ’60s, which suggests that they are younger than their creator, who was born in 1932. Still, there’s plenty about these books that suggests they are autobiographical – including the fact that O’Brien published a memoir a couple of years ago (which obviously I haven’t read) called Country Girl.

Netty described this book as “Irish chick lit”, and she wasn’t being polite. And I have to admit, as I was reading it, the words “chick lit” did occur to me. But they occurred to me in an odd way, because I was reading it -voraciously – and thoroughly enjoying it, and at the same time asking myself what it was that I was enjoying. Because was it not, after all, chick lit?

Maybe, maybe not. Is Mansfield Park (the only Jane Austen I’ve read) chick lit? Is Wuthering Heights (the only Bronte novel I’ve read) chick lit? Is The Robber Bride (one of many, many Margaret Atwood novels I’ve read) chick lit?

O’Brien is a beautiful writer. She writes beautifully about the experience of women in a particular time, immediately preceding and amid a transformation that, tragically, would not achieve what was hoped. Some of this you read into the text, necessarily, because it was written literally then and O’Brien obviously could not have known where “women’s lib” was heading. Nevertheless, that element is present, and perhaps O’Brien imbued her characters’ experiences with touches of what was happening around her as she wrote. There is also a certain emotional distance – despite the fact that every word of this collection is written in the first person – that allows for a certain contempt, for withering wit, for commentary on her characters’ personalities and the choices they make.

It’s also beautiful in its depiction of country Ireland, and later Dublin, and later still London in the late ’50s/early ’60s. I lived in London twenty years ago, and twenty years before that I lived in Ireland – although the north, not the republic. While I lived in London as an adult I spent a couple of weeks travelling around the republic. This involved a few days in Dublin, which I liked but didn’t fall in love with, a few days on the Dingle Peninsula, which was awesome, quite a few days in Galway, which involved a few days on the Aran islands and also a visit to WB Yeats’s ruined Coole estate; and also a few days at the Cliffs of Moher, which are in County Clare. OK, so basically I’ve just realised this entire paragraph is me bragging about stuff I barely remember – although I do have the photos. County Clare in the ’50s is not somewhere I’d have wanted to live, but I loved reading about it.

Not everybody will  enjoy The Country Girls – Netty can attest to that. But I did, and that’s not just because I recommended it. It’s wonderful, and heartbreaking, and funny, and moving, and thought-provoking. I have downloaded Edna O’Brien’s collected stories, and hopefully I’ll get to some of them over my three-week break.

Yes. I have a three-week break. Read it and weep, bitches.

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In which Netty takes a gander around the grassy knoll, but is none the wiser about the whole JFK thing …

December 6, 2014

Of course one of America’s best writers was eventually going to tackle America’s most famous, most notorious, most far-reaching moment of the 20th century. Of course he was.

cover-libraDon DeLillo’s 10th novel Libra, published in 1988, is a hybrid factual/fictionalised reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1963 death of then US President John F. Kennedy. It concentrates on the back stories of the main participants, most notably the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo has said he spent three years writing and researching the novel, extensively drawing on the official, government-sanctioned Warren Commission Report (which he  described as “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination, and also the Joycean novel”).

Everyone knows the basic story: that JFK was fatally shot while travelling in a motorcade down the streets of Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The gunman, Oswald, was captured later that day, but was himself shot and killed two days later – before he could go to trial – by local nightclub owner, and Kennedy fan, Jack Ruby.

There are three threads to DeLillo’s novel that are gradually, skilfully woven into its cohesive whole. The first traces the life and times of Oswald, a loner, misfit and outsider from the get-go; a classmate considers him “a misplaced martyr (who would) let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn’t”. He grew up under a stifling existence with his single mother, who shifted her son from his native New Orleans to Dallas to New York City and back again.

In 1956, aged 17, Oswald joined the Marine Corps, which took him to Japan; a fervent interest in communism led to an attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959. There, he married and fathered a child before returning to the States in 1961, bouncing between Louisiana and Texas before settling on the latter. Early in 1963 Oswald made a failed assassination attempt on Edwin Walker, a retired Major General and noted anti-communist, which did not come to light until after his JFK arrest. An attempt to get to Cuba via Mexico, as a precursor to returning to the Soviet Union, also fell by the wayside; he returned to Dallas in October, in time for the birth of his second daughter, and took up a job at the Texas School Book Depository – from where, on the sixth floor, he would fire off the three shots that would end Kennedy’s life.

The second thread, which is spliced into the retelling of Oswald’s life, starts in April 1963 and involves an array of characters – some real, some not; some involved with the FBI, the CIA, the military forces; some anti-Kennedy, some pro-Fidel Castro – who hatch an elaborate plan to make an attempt on the life of President Kennedy that will, initially, deliberately fail. The plan is set against the backdrop of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a growing disillusionment with, and suspicions about, Kennedy’s presidency and the true nature of his relationship with the Cuban president. Somewhere along the line it’s decided the impact will be bigger if the miss becomes a hit.

This motley bunch needs a patsy, and Oswald – known to some of them through chance and geography – is it; a puppet on a string who thinks he is in charge of his own destiny, until he realises, too late, that he is just a pawn in a much bigger game. The novel’s title comes from Oswald’s astrological sign, Libra, which is represented by a set of scales; indeed, one character describes Oswald as “a man who harbours contradictions … this boy sitting on the scales, ready to be tilted either way”. Later, in the days preceding the assassination, as the same character is putting the finishing touches on the project, he tells Oswald: “There’s no such thing as coincidence … it happens because you make it happen”.

This theme continues as Jack Ruby’s tragi-comic story – which offers plenty of opportunity for DeLillo to exercise his dry, sly wit – unfolds. It’s one of the highlights in a book chockers with them.

The third thread – the novel’s smallest, but perhaps most pertinent – is set some time in the future and involves a (fictional) retired CIA analyst, Nicholas Branch, who has spent 15 years of his life compiling material for a secret history of the JFK assassination that only will ever be seen by Agency eyes. It is a thankless job and seemingly without end; Branch concludes – even as the documents continue to flood in – that “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term mainly due to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like”.

In a 1988 New York Times interview, DeLillo told fellow writer Anne Tyler: “The novel, working within history, is also outside it, correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms … I don’t know any more than you do what happened in Dealey Plaza that day … Will we ever know the truth? I don’t know.”

I admit I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of the Kennedy assassination, and next to none of Oswald, Ruby, et al. I saw the Oliver Stone’s celluloid conspiracy theory JFK when it came out, but remember very little about it. I probably know more about the Kennedys themselves, the myth of Camelot, the latter generations – a lot of which comes about by osmosis, living in celebrity-obsessed times.

So while Libra certainly does not make me want to run out and devour the Warren Report, it sheds welcome light on the cast of characters surrounding this momentous historical event that, although partly fictionalised, is nonetheless thoroughly, meticulously researched – even while openly wearing its CIA conspiracy theories on its sleeve.

If the Kennedy assassination had never occurred, it could well be a plot in a DeLillo novel regardless. And you should read Libra, whether or not you are interested in the events it portrays. Because, at the end of the day, it’s one cracking helluva good read. That it’s based on actual events is the icing on the very delicious cake.

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The Sea, The Sea – Andy feels he’s entitled to an opinion, at least…

December 1, 2014

In the ANRC inaugural year, Netty and I, at my suggestion, read Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. In hindsight the only reason I suggested it, rather than her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, The Sea, must have been that The Black Prince was (marginally) shorter. And again, in hindsight, this might have been a stupid idea. I suspect Netty and I both would have appreciated this one quite a bit more. They are similar, in a lot of ways, but I think Murdoch had perhaps refined some of the ideas she was trying to explore by the time she got to The Sea, The Sea.

One of those ideas, I think, was what is today known as “male entitlement”. This way of understanding sexism and misogyny has probably been around for decades but I’ve only really become aware of it in the past few years. Germaine Greer explains misogyny by saying that every man hates every woman; Naomi Woolf explains misogyny as a function of capitalism. The idea that men simply believe women have particular roles to play in their lives, and that they are entitled, as men, to have those women play those roles, is something that in itself requires an explanation. But as a starting point, it makes more sense than hatred and capitalism.

And as a portrait of male entitlement. I doubt you’ll find anything more eyeboggling than The Sea, The Sea.

theseatheseaFor great swaths of the novel, perhaps its vast majority, its narrator, Charles Arrowby, is delusional. Delusional might be polite. Stark raving bonkers might be more accurate. Much of this delusion has its foundation in his sense of entitlement – mostly towards one particular woman, although his entitlement is not restricted to that one woman. It extends, pretty much, to every woman he’s ever known. But, for the purposes of this blog, one woman in particular: his first (and according to him, his only) love, who, as the novel opens, he hasn’t seen for close to fifty years.

Arrowby is a retired actor/playwright/director; most of his professional life has been spent in the last role. He thinks of himself as famous, and while he is certainly well known he is probably not nearly as big a name as he thinks he is. In retirement, in the mid- to late seventies (the novel was published in 1978) Arrowby buys a dilapidated home on an isolated patch of English coast, expecting to write … something, undisturbed by the past. The past, obviously, has other ideas, and he is disturbed on a number of occasions by former theatrical acquaintances – and ultimately by the reappearance of that first, long-lost love.

Initially I was going to pepper this blog with spoilers, but perhaps I’ll try to avoid them. Suffice to say that Arrowby’s attitude towards Hartley – or Mary Fitch, as she’s known when he finds her again, both of them nosediving towards old age – betrays a breathtaking level of both entitlement and delusion. There was one point, mid-novel, during which he (spoilerish) holds Hartley against her will for a few days, where I had to put the book aside fairly regularly. This is the point at which his lunacy is at its height. His inability to understand how ridiculous his actions are, and the pain he is causing not just Hartley but others, is kind of scary.

There are other elements to the novel, obviously, and as I predicted in my previous post about Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good, “the sea” plays an important role, although I strongly suspect that, like most of her novels, rereading more closely would reveal further depths. For now, though: very early on Charles sees a sea monster rise from the waves as he relaxes on the coastal rocks that surround his home; this sighting distresses him deeply, and makes him wonder if he’s having an LSD flashback. The sea monster reminded me of the UFO the twins see in The Nice and the Good, but in this case I suspect it’s an indicator of Charles’s mental instability (it probably has a deeper philosophical significance, but this was beyond me on one reading). The sea plays another, perhaps darker role, although it’s related – the water is dangerous, and unpredictable, and sometimes lethal. I guess “the sea” as a symbol of the depths of Charles’s delusion is pretty much on the money.

Buddhism is once again referenced here, although I think those who (and they exist) believe this novel is Murdoch giving Buddhism the nod are as wrong as those who read The Bell and think she’s there giving Christianity the nod. She’s not, in either case. She is using different religious beliefs as a way to explore philosophical ideas. There is a character in The Sea, The Sea, Charles’s cousin James, who is very similar to Uncle Theo is The Nice and the Good – both are or have been Buddhist, to one extent other. (Curiously I don’t remember there being anything remotely “Buddhist” about The Black Prince, which Murdoch wrote in between). What I think Murdoch takes from Buddhism is the idea that the pursuit of perfection is pointless. Buddhism takes that further: pursuit of perfection, or indeed any sort of satisfaction, in this life is pointless, and once we have grasped that we reach Nirvana – the perfection of oblivion. I don’t think Murdoch is terribly interested in the spiritual side of these musings.

Hartley – Mary Fitch – is married. Apparently the marriage is unhappy, although given our delusionally unreliable narrator exactly how unhappy is hard to guess. But even taking Charles into account, it doesn’t seem to be the best of worlds. And yet: Hartley, Mary, is inclined to believe that the not-best she has is preferable to the fantasies of Charles’ (and her) adolescence. Charles is convinced perfection is achievable; Hartley knows better.

The novel closes with Charles, rather less mad than for most of what’s come before, striving towards some sort of self-awareness. But he is probably the least successful of all Murdoch’s protagonists in getting to that point, and this is probably her greatest achievement: 500 plus pages of male delusion, and entitlement, almost completely convincing, that, at its end, is still not really resolved.

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