The Sea, The Sea: Iris Murdoch and Me

I closed Iris’ Murdoch’s 1978 novel Booker-winning novel yesterday with frustration. Maybe I should have been an English major?

TheSeaTheSeaI didn’t read the introduction until after I’d read the last page–introductions being full of spoilers, in my experience. Turned out the story was based on the work of a Tibetan poet, Milarepa, whose name was used (not his person, but only his name) in the novel.

Reading more about Murdoch’s work, I discovered that the name of the book came not from the obvious–the location of the protagonist’s home or his obsession with swimming, but from the Greek writer Xenophon, by way of a French poem by Paul Valéry, which Murdoch mentioned in another book. Thus, a private play of ideas available to those who know the Greeks and Tibetan poets.

I’m frustrated because I enjoyed the book in many parts and sensed a scheme at work, but had no way identifying it. I felt as though the characters were bound to act in perplexing ways, but I didn’t know why. It’s over-the-top on the central character, Charles Arrowby, an aging actor-director who retires to a decaying house on the English coast to “learn how to be good,” while writing his memoirs. He promptly bores us with his self-absorbed arrogance. When his supporting cast of characters arrive, they enliven the scene but are unable to get between Arrowby and his single-minded obsessions.

I laughed, I was alternately sad and bored and embarrassed while always in search of the Booker jury’s reasoning. Did they know about the Tibetan poet and the Greeks?

Did Murdoch intend this story to be half-understood? Or did she write for those like herself who could puzzle out the strangeness of the plot through clues like the name of the book, and the name of the Tibetan poet?  I did get all the lovely bits about the theatre and Shakespeare. Got all the Shakespeare, all The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Yes, do read it for that. And Arrowby’s strange idea about being a foodie. There was much to enjoy–and much to wonder about.

A Little Life is a lot of book

Hanya Yanagihara’s superb novel is more than 700 pages–that’s 32 hours and 51 minutes on audiobook. I listened to it in the car and, unusual for me, put in earphones to continue out of it. Often I sat in the driveway and in parking lots, transfixed by the story, not wanting to break away.

A Little Life is the story of four college friends who end up in New York together, ambitious, talented and struggling young men. Their group revolves around the law student Jude, whose life before college is a mystery to the others and is gradually revealed to readers as one of appalling sexual abuse and torture by adults.

To say this novel is sad is understatement. Even the happy parts–and there are many–made me cry. Reviewers have called the book “unrelenting.” That’s accurate. Jude’s fundamental refusal to believe that he deserves to be happy, and then when he finds happiness, to believe that he can ever be happy again or even once deserved it, defeats all of the genuine love he encounters and generates.

There’s a nevertheless here: this is a fully imagined world worth visiting, with people you want to know, stories you want to hear, art you want to see, villains you want to kill with slow, painful, torture. You’ll find it a hard world to leave–and hard to leave Jude, J.B., Willem and Malcolm. Perhaps, like me, you’ll be tempted to Google J.B.’s paintings at MOMA to see ‘Willem Listening to Jude,’ or go on IMDB to see Willem’s profile, or look for photos of Malcolm’s buildings.

This is the kind of book readers long for: where the world is rich and enveloping, allowing our imaginations to engage fully. We can tell that Yanagihara wrote solidly day-in and day-out for months–her focus and intensity is on the page.

Far from the Madding Crowd: the battle for Thomas Hardy’s story 

Carey Mulligan

 I watched the latest Far From the Madding Crowd last night. It’s a reflection of how awful regular television is when my late-night story fix comes from watching a movie I didn’t want to see. Despite the appeal of the leading actress, this was a case of no-movie-could-do-justice-to-the-book. The first film sent me to the book in 1967, and that was that—even Carey Mulligan wasn’t going to mess with my memories.

Something about the trailer caught my eye, however, and after all, I’m a grown-up, capable of walking away if I don’t like what I see. So I watched with the eyes of writer now, no longer a teenager but a student of storytelling. And I studied.

julie chrisie

This Bathsheba Everdeen had never met her earlier, velvet-voiced incarnation. She was both more youthful and more independent, more adventurous and harder to take your eyes off. The selection of scenes, changing and addition of scenes to illustrate the story was also masterful for today’s audience. I asked myself a few times, “Did it really happen that way?” and finally said, “It could have. Perhaps it did. Shut up and enjoy it.”

You can see the places where the director tailored the script to reach a current audience: this version of the story is not what Hardy intended, but it is easy on the eyes. The themes of class, money, and sexual inequality are only lightly touched. It’s been rinsed of its meaning. The darkness of Bathsheba opening Fanny Robbin’s coffin; Troy’s sexual menace and Bathsheba’s determination to withstand it rather than admit error; and Boldwood’s madness all move quickly past without reflection. It’s as though someone in Hollywood said “Cut to the chase,” and it was on to the love story and a simple happy ending.

Still, an education in scriptwriting, and the acting is excellent. Better than TV!

Photo top: Alex Bailey. Carey Mulligan. Centre: Alex Bailey. Jessica Barden and Carey Mulligan.  Bottom: Julie Christie.


A story that struck a familiar chord

Nishanth Jois

Narrative’s Story of the Week is The Indianness, by Geeta Tewari. I don’t always read these stories–or read them right away. But I opened this morning’s as soon as I saw it. My first novel (recently rewritten and in need of beta readers) is about an arranged Indian marriage), so a story titled The Indianness had my attention.

As I read, I recognized the characters and their actions–Tewari gives us believable people doing things that could be expected–brazen, yet not surprising.

While I’ve never heard of family in the delivery room, I have seen family uncaring of the mother’s agitation and any concern for the child’s comfort or basic dignity take a newborn baby–unswaddled and screaming–and pass her from person to person across a crowded room. I remember biting my lip to refrain from snatching the infant, wrapping her and taking her to her cradle or her mother’s arms. Apparently the child was community property. (She’s grown up fine.)

When I brought my son home from the hospital, raging post-natal hormones made me think my darling mother-in-law was trading me a new microwave oven for my newborn. Family took him away from me when I entered the house, and later she held him as she presented me with the oven. I had hysterics.

Like Sheena in the story, all I wanted was to be left alone, but I was in a house full of people, telling me how to take care of my son.

The Indianness rang very true: I hope readers less familiar with “Indianness” enjoy it as much as I did. I’d love to know if you do.

A short story education: The Gotham Fiction Gallery

GothamEvery short story contest offers a pithy description of what constitutes a winning story. The complete story world, characters that intrigue, sensuous prose, original approach, and on and on. Hoorah. I’m in.

Yet so often I read work in the Paris Review, New Yorker, The Atlantic and various literaary quarterlies and think, I wouldn’t want to have written that. It didn’t connect with me. It didn’t seem to share anything. I feel that I’ve been left out of the joke. Like everyone else is high and I’m sober–the wet blanket, asking what’s so funny about the carpet?

As the antidote to this, because I hate to be left out, I’ve been studying up. Reading stories everywhere, surrounding myself with them, hoping that immersion will educate me.

I can say two things so far. There are still much-lauded stories that I don’t get, and others that are magic. I recommend the Gothic Fiction Gallery for a tour of memorable short stories, old and new, that will grab you, haunt, and teach.

Craft in a bottle: The Portable MFA in Creative Writing

MFAI came across the Gotham Writers Workshop website a couple of weeks ago and ordered some of their books. The two I’ve started on so far are worth getting excited about. Strange but true, The Portable MFA is both great bedtime reading and desktop handbook. It’s got me checking my work for structure, making lists of stories to read for reference, and it promises more as I go on. Highly recommended!


I have two books on the go right now, one on my night table–No god but God, by Reza Aslan, and The Plantagenets, The Kings Who Made England, by Dan Jones, downstairs by the fireplace. Of course they are very different, but they both involve the development of elites, warring for power and the quest for a method of government that balances the needs of the many with their need for leadership. Kings and caliphs, archbishops and ayatollahs….

Apart from enjoying the contrasts of the two, I truly recommend Aslan’s book as timely and important reading. It makes the history of Islam clear–or at least lays it out in a way that the uninitiated can follow and understand.


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Sticky pictures

For a few years now I’ve thought about writing a biography or historical fiction. I work on who I might research, who I might write about or develop a story about, and eventually set it aside. Next book, I think. But who?

The Blue FlowerI recently read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, a novel about the poet Novalis–or rather about the man who became the philosopher poet Novalis. It’s a wonderful piece of work, full of what I think of as sticky images: visuals that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s set in houses and locations that are fundamentally unhealthy; where tuberculosis is the wolf tracking the weakest members of each family, waiting to find ways to strike them down.

The story focuses on Fritz, the brilliant student in love with Sophie, a twelve-year-old girl, light and frothy as gossamer. In spite of her age and lack of all that might be valuable to him in a wife, Fritz drives towards an engagement. As Sophie displays signs of illness, he first denies it and later takes her for special treatments, until her sister suggests that he might spare her the painful effort of trying to seem better for him.

English PatientdownloadThis book feels to me like The English Patient–full of images such as the one of Almásy carrying Katherine wrapped in a parachute, with the white fabric billowing around them against the desert stone.

So these are my ideals–marvelous stories about real people, full of sticky images. But who will I write about?



The Queen with shock and awe

I recently finished Victoria, A Life, by A.N. Wilson. The first biography of Queen Victoria I’d read, I found it full of jaw-dropping surprises. She was not at all what I expected–only her taste in interior decoration fit the stereotype.

More than a long-serving monarch and the Widow of Windsor, she was a fascinating personality during times of enormous change. Wilson’s book allows the reader to follow the politics, the history and personalities from the Corn Laws to the shadows of World War I with clarity with Victoria at the centre of the vortex. Strongly recommended.

Full of surprises