I’ve read 17 novels by Iris Murdoch, but about 14 of those I read more than a decade ago and in some cases almost 20 years ago. Most recently I re-read The Italian Girl in 2016 and it made me think that maybe Murdoch and I were no longer compatible. It was with some fear then that I picked up the somewhat largish novel The Philosopher’s Pupil. Thankfully my reassessment of The Italian Girl is not an indicator of how I feel about Murdoch in general. In fact, Murdoch–at least in this novel–is too good for me to risk using my own prose to critique hers, so it’s time for a bullet point review. (“Huzzah” shouted the crowd.)
I loved this book. There were more than a few moments when I rolled my eyes to the point where, if this had been a lesser novel, I would have thrown it across the room. Yet my overall interest and delight in reading it was too great to let a little thing like exasperation ruin the experience.
The novel is typical of Murdoch’s tendency towards big casts of characters all up in each other’s business, hopelessly and helplessly entwined and falling in love and hate left and right. Soap operas for Oxford dons or others of their ilk.
If Philip Roth or some other august man of letters had written some of these male characters I would flame them for their chauvinism and outright creepiness. The central luminary in the book, John Robert Rosonov, is not only an asshole (yes, an asshole, an appellation none other than Nancy Pearl “liked” on Twitter), but his big secret is beyond creepy. Flesh crawling grossness. And most of the characters act like it’s a mere foible.
If Philip Roth or some other august man of letters had written some of these female characters I would have screamed at the book in rage. With little exception, the women in The Philosopher’s Pupil fall in love with the most dreadful men and they rarely have any qualms with that. They know the men are dreadful, sometimes violently so, but their love for them is so total and deep they can’t imagine being without the insufferable oafs. (Or would that be oaves? lol) What in the world was Murdoch trying to convey? Her women are not dingbats by any means, but still, I didn’t get the feeling that she was judging the men at all. Their bad behavior was just depicted as part of the landscape. Just the way it was. But goodness, this isn’t ancient history, it was published in 1983.
I have torched novels for lesser failings than this one has, so why do I love it? Because despite some characters and situations that make one think “oh brother”, the world Murdoch depicts is fascinating, her prose is a delight, and it’s so full of big ideas. In fact, one could also have a problem with the lengthy passages on philosophy, but if you are in the mood for that kind of thing, it is just the kind of thing you will like.
The Philosopher’s Pupil has reignited my love for Murdoch. So happy there are more to read and re-read. Alas, I should mention that I supposedly read this book in 2005, but at no point while reading it recently did I for one minute think I might have read it. I don’t know how I could blank so entirely on this book. I guess I’m glad I did because I wouldn’t have re-read it so soon otherwise.
Before leaving our country inn in Realmonte, we managed some relaxing pool time (and they serve cake for breakfast!) and the hour and a half drive to Palermo was absolutely gorgeous. We were on a freeway most of the way and I wasn’t expecting it to be beautiful, but it was. Mountainous and hilly and fieldy and at times oceany. If the Vicar of Dibley had a Sicilian cousin, the aerial views of at the opening of her show would have been filmed there. Unfortunately we were driving fast and didn’t take time to stop for photos. But it was stunning.
Because I can be a very smart traveler (at least about some things) we dropped the car off at the airport in Palermo rather than at an in-town location. I don’t need the stress of driving in a southern Italian city where they traffic signs and markings are more suggestion than requirement. Plus, even in an American city there is something very freeing about getting rid of a rental car. So a taxi into to town and then one afternoon of seeing the sights and an evening of opera before heading home via Munich the next morning.
The cathedral is such a confection of Byzantine influence. It was fascinating to study.
And then it was time for some food. Italian food. After all the fancy food we had on the previous day, all I wanted was a giant plate of pasta. Our hotel directed us to a particular street for good, simple food. There were several al fresco opportunities there, but the one we chose had the most shade and the most empty tables. All the other spots trendy/cute/stylish and were hopping with people. It turned out to be the right decision.
That night we went to the opera. The Teatro Massimo is one of the great opera houses of Italy. Unfortunately, audiences in Southern Italy are, well, awful. Conversation behind me. A 12-year old who couldn’t keep still next to me. An old lady not only holding up her phone and taking a video, but she did it with her flash on. A man behind me humming a tune every so often (and it wasn’t necessarily the same tune as the one on stage. A woman behind me who felt the need to kick my seat every five minutes. I could go on and on, because the noise went on and on. It’s really too bad because the singing was fantastic. And to top it all off, the seats on the main floor are not raked very much if at all. Despite me being 6’2″ the head on the man in front of me blocked about 80% of what was happening on stage. It was all a bit too much for me and we left at intermission. And lest you think the noisy crowd was an anomaly, a very similar thing happened to me at Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 2000. The crowd up north at La Fenice in Venice was perfectly quiet. So there. Scientific proof.
After our enormous lunch in Ragusa, we had to drive about two and half hours to get to Agrigento. Some of what we drove through was extremely picturesque. Think hills covered with lovely meadows. But the Sicilians have a trash problem. We aren’t talking about the occasional bit of litter, we’re talking “Honey, can you take the trash out?…Thanks babe, and while your at it, drive it out to a lovely country road, throw it out the window, hide the car and wait and see what humans or animals eventually come along, rip the bag open and randomly distribute the contents along side of the road. What’s that? Well I love you more.”
We were going to just go straight to our country inn (with pool!) to cool down and relax after a long day. The whole point in coming to the area was to see the Greek temples at Agrigento, but we thought we could see them the next morning before heading to Palermo. But as we drove to the hotel, we literally came across the Valley of the Temples site and it seemed silly to go past it only to have to back track the next day to see it. Plus it turns out that visiting in the early evening is a great time to see it, not just because of the nice light and cool breezes, but because there were hardly any people there.
[Somehow I forgot to publish this post about Siracusa which was our first stop in Sicily. This happened the day before that amazing lunch we had in Ragusa.]
Siracusa is a bustling, charming city on the southeastern coast of Sicily. I failed to take any pictures of its relationship to the ocean, but trust me it’s there. The ship stayed in port for three days, but we left it after one night and headed inland to see some Greek temples and then the day after that made our way to Palermo.
After one night on the ship in Siracusa we disembarked and barked our way to Europcar where we picked up our Alfa Romeo Giula. Our goal for the day was to make it to Agrigento about three and half hours by the scenic route. But before we went there we had lunch reservations at Ristorante Duomo. It was a place John had come across online before we left the U.S. It was too close to Siracusa to make it our stop for the night so we had to make it lunch. A tad bit tired of fancy food by this point in the trip, I gladly would have cancelled the reservation in favor of something much more rustic. Thank God we didn’t. I would have missed one of the best meals of my life. The drive to Ragusa was uneventful and finding parking there in a brand new municipal garage was pretty easy as well. But then again the garage was not exactly next to the restaurant. We had about 30 minutes to walk on, yes, another hot day. The walk to the Ibla part of Ragusa was scenic and happily we found an outdoor table at a cafe with a lovely strong breeze to cool us down before making our way to the restaurant.
I didn’t know that the restaurant was a 2-star Michelin establishment until I went to the bathroom about halfway through our extensive meal. Although we were tidy, we had on shorts and sneakers and I would have been a little self conscious about that. However, despite the formal appearance of the staff and the elegance of the dining room, we were made to feel right at home. They even brought a little stool on which I could place my messenger bag. The interior was sophisticated and chic and we decided on the tasting menu. I think they told us it would be seven to nine courses, but we literally lost track and left the place feeling stuffed and very happy.
Old town Dubrovnik was such a visually stunning town. Easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. And it got even nicer as evening fell and the tour buses began to leave. (I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones in my life but the hordes of tourists in Dubrovnik certainly have and every tour guide we overheard seemed to be talking about it.)
While we were there we picked up our picnic that we had arranged ahead of time with Alexandra at Piknik Dubrovnik. It was full of delicious, carefully packed, local food and wine that provided the perfect repast when we took the ferry out to the island of Lokrum.
And more pictures of the old town. Couldn’t get enough of it.
It’s quite a surprise to wake up in the morning to find that someone has placed mountains outside your window. Makarska is a lovely little town with a spectacular setting but it wasn’t as interesting as Hvar. And like other stops on our trip, it was hot. Granted, there were amazing breezes that were refreshing if one was sitting in the shade, but overall it did put limitations on our interest in exploring. We did take one very pleasant walk through the park just opposite the harbor on a hook of land that fronts the ocean. However, after a day of sweaty sightseeing, one bad meal, and being in town as Croatia was gearing up to win their World Cup match against Nigeria, we decided to spend our second day in Makarska on the ship reading, puzzling, pooling, eating, and watching the scenery change as the anchored ship drifted into different positions throughout the day.