The Sea The Sea – Iris Murdoch (1978)

Does anyone still read Iris Murdoch these days?  She seems to have gone out of fashion.  I haven’t read her since 1997 when “The Green Knight” (1993), one of her later novels, really did nothing for me but back in the early-mid 80’s I read quite a few and one of my favourites was this 1978 Booker Prize winning title. I couldn’t actually remember any details of what it was about but I have over the years experienced occasional echoes of what I recalled as a very atmospheric piece which has the sea central to the characters and plot.

Actually, on re-read the sea wasn’t quite as omnipresent as I thought I remembered.  This is the tale of Charles Arrowby, a notable aging thespian, who retires to a simple life in a pretty ropey house close to the sea in order to escape London life.  The novel starts off as his memoir, a record of the women in his life, until the people he is writing about appear back in his isolated existence.  At first it seems almost as if he is hallucinating, early on he spots what he believes to be a sea monster in the waves and with people from his past re-appearing the reader suspects he is losing his grip on his mental faculties.  But, however implausible their reasons for being back in his life they are there and this coming and going at one point resembles a theatrical farce.  When he re- encounters the person he saw as the love of his life the novel shifts into a record of obsession.

Mid-way through I was finding it quite magnificent with the always fairly obnoxious Charles out of control, misjudging situations and behaving inappropriately.  It feels like it has come to a conclusion in a couple of places but Murdoch continues the tale using her love of analysis and philosophy which is both characteristic of her as a writer and occasionally a little wearying which might explain why she is not read as much as she used to be. She is not an easy read, her references make the text quite dense and there is much navel-gazing from her characters.  I remembered why I liked her so much and why I also found her frustrating but I was left with the general impression that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did the first time round decades ago. The world she creates seems more alien now, it is not always easy to get what is motivating the characters and particularly here why Charles Arrowby is considered an attractive proposition when he is so hard to like. I did very much like the magnetic pull of the sea which she describes brilliantly throughout.

I’m not sure whether the Iris Murdoch revival is imminent but I was glad to revisit as she is one of those people whose demise has overshadowed her work.  The accounts of her heart-breaking dementia in her final years have been famously portrayed by her husband in writing and film adaptation and the image I have had stuck in my mind is this fervently intellectual mind ending up devouring episodes of “Teletubbies”.  Reading a work from when she was in her prime has rebalanced this for me.

The Sea The Sea was first published in 1978.  I read a Vintage Classics paperback edition.

Real Life – Brandon Taylor (2020) – A Booker Shortlist Novel

Arguably the most significant sentence in this American author’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut is:

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty.”

This does seem to be the driving force behind this novel.  Wallace is a black gay student who has achieved against the odds stacked against him and is in the fourth year of a biochemistry degree at a Midwestern University.  He has only one friend within the lab where he works all day with microscopic worms, the rest either question his place on the course or set out to sabotage him.

I’m not really sure what work is going on in the lab or why.  Taylor is unafraid of technical detail and the scientific writing is actually very involving but the main focus of the novel is set over a weekend where Wallace questions his own future and has some leisure time to spend with a set of friends who mostly study on similar courses.

Wallace’s father had died some weeks before, a fact which he has neglected to tell anyone and over the course of this weekend his revelation leads him to grow intimate with a straight white boy in a relationship which seems toxic from the off.  Although this is most definitely a highly detailed contemporary novel this attention to detail and constant internalising gives the characters a closer feel to a Victorian novel- say the works of Henry James or Jane Austen even though it is a modern campus work.  It is superbly written and I was involved throughout but the knife edge these individuals live on where spite and aggression is never too far away occasionally felt tiresome and it was this which stopped me giving the book 5 stars.  I know the author was probably intending to show how these kinds of micro-aggressions can build up and overwhelm but I think a little more lightness and humour would have been appreciated and made this impressive debut superb.  If the college days are the best of their lives I would be fascinated to see how the characters were coping fifteen years on.  The other two Booker longlisted novels I have read this year (also debuts) “Who They Was” and “How Much Of These Hills Is Gold” have not made it onto the shortlist so the author is to be congratulated on achieving this in a very unpredictable awards year.

Real Life was published in 2020 in the UK by Daunt Books.

Who They Was- Gabriel Krauze (Harper Collins 2020)

krauze

Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel has attracted considerable attention since it was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.  Most of us would probably have not heard of it before the list was announced and even though I have only so far read one other book which has made it onto the list ( C Pam Zhang’s “How Much Of These Fields Is Gold”) I would say this is certainly short-list worthy.

It’s definitely not a comfort read.  It’s being marketed as an autobiographical novel from an author now in his thirties who lived a life of crime from his teenage years, here in this novel, even whilst studying English Lit at University.  Centred around the estates in South Kilburn this is a tale of casual violence, drugs, theft and where wearing an expensive watch is asking for trouble as they get stolen from their original owner and seemingly again and again from the thieves.

To begin with Gabriel, known as Snoopz, fits perfectly into this life and works with those keen to escalate the takings (and the violence).  Following a scholarship at a private school his Polish Dad and especially his mother, with naturally high hopes for her offspring, are dumbfounded but supportive.  Relationships are casual and with men bonded over drug taking and crime plotting and with women just disturbing as any attachment other than physical only seems to occur when they are apart.  University life is important to him but there’s a self-destructive attitude struggling to find prominence over a keen brain.

It’s written in street slang which slows the reader down but gives a vibrant energy to events.  I’ve never read anything quite like this from a British perspective.  The closest I can think of outside of this is Marlon James’s “A Brief History Of Seven Killings” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 although I think that book was more multi-layered than this more straightforward narrative.

I’m not going to get round to many more in the Booker list but I would place it above C Pam Zhang’s novel as I feel this is a more striking, relevant work.  I’m not sure what this author would do next but I’m fascinated to find out.

four-star

Who They Was was published as an e-book on 3rd August and will be published on 3rd September 2020 in hardback by Harper Collins.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.