Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Iris Murdoch “is becoming harder to understand, now that the process of sanctification is under way”: Peter Conrad

Iris Murdoch

Reviewing Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J. Conradi, Peter Conrad writes:

Conradi traces the protean facility of her metamorphoses back to Canetti’s theory of Verwandlungen, which celebrated the individual’s fission into a quarrelsome company of personae. At first, this seemed like a deviously magical power: Canetti, as Conradi demonstrates, is the prototype for the devilish enchanters in her novels. Yet it also entailed a Shakespearean self-negation which made it a sacred grace rather than a devious profane talent. Canetti, Iris said, had enough selves to stock a ‘Hindu pantheon’ (and, like those randy polymorphous gods, a goodly supply of willing houris).

Covering the transition between sex and spirit, she called Canetti an ‘angel-demon’. All of Iris herself is in that shaky, splicing hyphen. She is becoming harder to understand, now that the process of sanctification is under way: in a forthcoming film, she is impersonated by Judi Dench, the English epitome of sweet, fubsy domestic cosiness. All her life, people deified her. At Oxford, Denis Healey called the communistic Iris a ‘latter-day Joan of Arc’. But, as she told her lover Frank Thompson when reporting that she had lost her virginity while he was away at the war (in which he was killed), ‘I’m not a Blessed Damozel you know.’

No, indeed: in the reminiscences of others, she often resembles Lilith, Lucifera, Salome and their fatal mythic sisters. Olivier Todd, who knew her at Cambridge after the war, could not decide whether her aura was redolent of roses or sulphur. She cast her Oxford tutor Donald Mackinnon – a famously disincarnated brain, on whom Tom Stoppard partly modelled the philosopher in Jumpers – as Christ, and called herself the penitent harlot Mary Magdalene. Mackinnon, whose marriage frayed as a result of their intense but cerebral liaison, denounced her in 1992, declaring ‘there was real evil there’.

About Iris Murdoch

About Peter J. Conradi

About Peter Conrad


“…during a visit to Argentina, the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, opined that every Argentine harboured ‘a fascist dwarf’ within”: Peter Robertson

Oriana Fallaci y Leopoldo Galtieri

Writing in Spike Magazine, in “Lawrence Thornton-Imaging Argentina”, Peter Robertson states:

The novel also turns historicity upside down when it implies that the “de facto” government was brought down by a groundswell of popular resistance – it was, in fact, the Falklands debacle that proved the “coup de grace” for General Galtieri. At the end of the novel, once democracy has been restored, the narrator waxes lyrical, “I would not have been surprised to see a white carnation floating like a benediction in the clear Argentinean sky”. But this banal invocation glosses over the tragic repercussions of the “Dirty War”. Many of the most gifted members of an entire generation were liquidated, leaving behind a society that is, to this day, deeply conformist.

Indeed, the legacy of these years is so indelible that, during a visit to Argentina, the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, opined that every Argentine harboured “a fascist dwarf” within. Fallaci is often prone to hyperbole but here her assertion, which some would call a model of restraint, is given ballast by the fact that in 1995, Luis Patti, an infamous torturer during the “Dirty War”, was elected mayor by 73% of his constituency. In Imagining Argentina Thornton conjures up the image of an ice cave (enough to make Plato’s Cave seem the source of all enlightenment) for the country that the Generals wanted Argentina to become. If the “fascist dwarves” gain the upper hand, Argentines could descend once again, in an atavistic rush, into caves of their own making.

“Scott Moncrieff is, in the end, rather hard to pin down”

C. K. Scott Moncrieff painted by Edward Stanley Mercer (1889–1932)

Reviewing “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K.  Scott Moncrieff” by Jean Findlay,  D.J.  Taylor writes:

Proust died in 1922, long before the project was complete, impressed by the rendering down while deprecating its occasional floweriness and over-elaboration: had Scott Moncrieff added the word “to” before Swann’s Way (the title of Du côté de chez Swann) he would have “saved everything”, its author insisted. The translator by this time had disappeared to Italy, where he combined a prodigious work rate – two chapters a day was not unusual – and spying activities for British intelligence’s “Passport Office”, with a variegated social life that took in everyone from Harold Acton and DH Lawrence (by whose books and personality he was unconvinced) to the Florentine bookseller Orioli and, we infer, a great deal of bought sex. Much of the £1,000 a year by this point was being used to support a collection of hard-up nephews and nieces, and his Who’s Who entry under the heading “Recreations” is a nicely ironic “nepotism”.

Dead at 40 of an oesophageal cancer that, Findlay speculates, may have had something to do with his fondness for oral sex, Scott Moncrieff is, in the end, rather hard to pin down. The bawdy, and, to be honest, faintly embarrassing, badinage he exchanged with his fast friend Vyvyan Holland – Oscar Wilde‘s son – gives no hint of the uncertainties that dogged his early career and the pseudonyms that clouded his search for a literary identity. The great romantic passion of his life – for the heterosexual Wilfred Owen – seems not to have been reciprocated. To read JC Squire’s obituary notice (“That poetic, but positive and staccato soul … the supercilious curl of his moustached lip, and the fierce, straight look in his eyes”) is to wonder whether it may not have concealed someone else altogether.

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s life “takes on the contours of a fully orchestrated Iris Murdoch novel…”

Iris Murdoch

Reviewing The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

Since her subject left virtually no record of her life, it is natural that Ivy Compton-Burnett’s biographer look to numerous other sources. By degrees, after hundreds of pages of eyewitness reports, an appealing portrait emerges of a woman who is both fiercely secretive, yet ”public”; aloof, proud, possessed of a frequently malicious wit, yet often girlish and mischievous; wholly predictable in the habits and patterns of her life, yet wholly unpredictable in its particulars. As her life unfolds it takes on the contours of a fully orchestrated Iris Murdoch novel and by no means the attenuated quality of a novel by Compton-Burnett; and there is a delightful whiff of Barbara Pym too, surely, in the spectacle of the much-revered literary sibyl who astonished admirers by eating ”like a horse,” devouring half a pot of raspberry jam by herself and ”surreptitiously wiping her sticky fingers” on the cover of her host’s sofa, and, upon numerous occasions, greatly embarrassing dinner guests at formal dinners by groping about in her bloomers beneath the table – in search of her handkerchief, which she usually carried in that very practical place.

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels “are written to formula yet unfailingly inventive within the confines of the genre”

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Reviewing The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett by Hilary Spurling, Joyce Carol Oates writes:

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s books will strike most American readers as quintessentially English: spare, decorticated, tightly constructed drawing-room comedies in which everyone (3-year-olds, 90-year-olds, butlers, governesses) speaks in finely honed language. They are unrelievedly arch, even campy, contrived dramas of domestic life in a fantasy England, circa 1885-1901, of country estates, down-at-the-heels gentility, family tyrants and hapless scheming victims enmeshed in plots of mock-tragic resonance – Aeschylus and Sophocles funnily reinvented by Oscar Wilde, perhaps. Informed too by a genial cynicism – antireligious, anti-”family” – reminiscent of Samuel Butler, whose ”Note-Books” made a powerful impression on Ivy in 1918, the novels are written to formula yet unfailingly inventive within the confines of the genre. They exhibit their kinship with one another openly, being given markedly similar titles – among them ”Pastors and Masters” (1925), ”Brothers and Sisters” (1929), ”Men and Wives” (1931), ”Daughters and Sons” (1937), ”Parents and Children” (1941), ”Darkness and Day” (1950), ”The Present and the Past” (1953), ”Mother and Son” (1955), ”A Father and His Fate” (1957).