Am I over Iris Murdoch?

by Jane Bown, bromide print on card mount, 1978
by Jane Bown, bromide print on card mount, 1978

I have read 16 novels by Iris Murdoch. I used to count her as one of my favorite authors, but after re-reading The Italian Girl last week, I’m not so sure I like her much anymore. I’ve always felt like her novels were a bit soap opera-esque. Lots of educated, upper class folks hopping around from bed to bed in somewhat unsavory or unlikely combinations. They always seemed like intellectual bodice rippers.

Prior to re-reading it, I didn’t remember much of anything about The Italian Girl. The result this time was that I found it somewhat tedious and the characters insufferable–but not in an interesting way. Have my tastes changed that much? When I first read it in 2003 I gave it an 8 out of 10. I think now I would give it a 4. On my 10-point scale that would take it from “almost loved” to “almost disliked”. Have I been wrong about all of my other Murdoch experiences? The first one I read was Under the Net in 1999 and I gave it a 10 which translates to “all time favorite”. What would I think of that one I wonder?

In addition to the 16 I have already read, I have quite a few more on my shelf that I haven’t gotten to yet. I have a tendency to burn bridges, clean house, etc. and in this case I am looking at all the real estate Murdoch takes up on my shelves and am feeling the urge to do something radical. I would probably end up living to regret that. I think I probably need to re-read Under the Net to see if I can rekindle my interest. I know I also really kind of liked The Sea, The Sea, and The Bell, and I also remember meeting two wonderful women at the Barbara Pym conference in 2013 who are best book pals because of their shared love of A Severed Head, which I haven’t read. I guess I must resist the urge to clear my Murdoch shelf. On the other hand, I should probably also resist buying any more of her work until I can figure out how I really feel.

16 thoughts on “Am I over Iris Murdoch?

  1. Izzy May 23, 2016 / 4:54 pm

    I understand your feelings about IM only too well. Though I quite enjoyed The Bell ( despite the rather heavy symbolism ) and The Sea, the Sea, I could not even finish A Fairly Honourable Defeat which, in my opinion, was utterly ridiculous : the dialogues, the scheme designed by that Jewish character whose name I forget, to wreck ” his friends'” lives, even the recipe for the cassoulet ( I like my food, you know ) I thought everything in that book was laughable. I might give her a last chance with The Severed Head orThe Philosopher’s Pupil to see what happens but…

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    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:41 pm

      Yes, I think you hit on something here. Fidelity, friendships, wrecking people’s lives. It’s often depicted as a sort of parlor game in her novels. As if there aren’t real consequences, or everything is sort of a “so what?” kind of thing.

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  2. Lyn May 23, 2016 / 6:01 pm

    I’ve read a few Murdochs & have a few more on the tbr shelves but haven’t read any for a while. Maybe you could try an audiobook? I remember loving Samuel West reading Under the Net & Miriam Margolyes reading The Bell. Love the photo of IM in your Twitter feed.

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    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:42 pm

      Actually, I did read/listen to The Italian Girl this time around and part of me wonders if the audio was part of the problem. I loved Under the Net and I love Samuel West so I will have to look into that.

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  3. Annabel (gaskella) May 24, 2016 / 2:55 am

    I haven’t read a Murdoch for a couple of decades, despite having inherited half a dozen from my Mum, been putting it off.

    Maybe you should host a Murdoch reading week to help you decide whether to keep or cull???

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    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:43 pm

      That is in idea. But rather than an “I’m a big fan” reading week, it can be a “Do you like Iris Murdoch” kind of reading week. I know a lot of readers who say they want to, but haven’t yet tried her.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Liz Dexter May 24, 2016 / 4:07 am

    Ooh if you did a Murdoch reading week I would just try to have some weird marathon and read them ALL IN ONE GO. I have changed a little bit on what I think are my favourites, and I still don’t love a couple of them, but I’ll never fall out of love with her.

    BTW which Barbara Pym conference was that? The one in Preston?

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    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:45 pm

      Liz, I would love to know which ones you don’t like. Are they from all over her chronology or from one period? And that would be one weird marathon indeed, you would have a lot to read.

      It was the annual meeting of the North American BP Society in Boston in March of 2013.

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      • Liz Dexter May 31, 2016 / 6:58 am

        They’re from all periods. My least favourites are An Unofficial Rose (no idea why, it is like an uber Murdoch with all her themes crammed in), Bruno’s Dream (scared me when I was younger, like it better each time I read it) and The Message to the Planet (I just don’t like the weird culty stuff and it’s very uneven). Jackson’s Dilemma upsets me, but there’s a lot to like in it.

        And that’s OK then, I went to the one in 2013 in the UK and thought I’d missed a chance meeting!

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  5. RareBird May 24, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    Funny I should read this post just now. I read gobs of Murdoch in my twenties and considered her one of my favorite writers. But I didn’t read her again until recently (about three decades later–odd, I know for a favorite writer) when I found a copy of the Black Prince at a used sale. While vaguely amusing, I am put off by how shallow her female characters are and what a boor the narrator is. I, too, am going to try another before I send her to the “been there done that” pile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:46 pm

      I often feel like Murdoch takes the man’s part in her novels. Does she have a truly strong female in any of them?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. biggardenblog May 25, 2016 / 4:24 pm

    [J] I have Under the Net, A Severed Head, The Bell. Never had a desire for more, because I somehow my sense was that these were from her days of true originality and vitality, and from on then, with her reputation established and married to another famous writer, there was only one thing to do …keep writing to maintain the status of ‘famous literary person’. So, Thomas, perhaps it’s time to distill our the best and discard the rest!

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    • Thomas May 26, 2016 / 1:48 pm

      You may have a point. I think I will have to read or re-read much more of her to make a final determination. And by that time enough time may have gone by that I fall back in love with her.

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  7. ravingreader May 26, 2016 / 5:15 pm

    Sometimes books don’t age well… And, as the saying goes, “You never step into the same stream twice” meaning, perhaps, that you’ve changed as well so the person who is reading it this time around is not the same person as you were 10 years previously (or whenever you read that book). I tried to reread something that I had adored a decade ago and now the very same book was very “meh” in my opinion. Times moves on and you’re probably not the same person – new experiences, more life under your belt etc.. Just an idea.

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    • Thomas June 3, 2016 / 12:42 pm

      I agree. I also have the habit of throwing myself into an author based on one good experience even though the rest may not stack up.

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