26 January 2012

Book Review: The Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch

    
For all of its faults, I have the Modern Library's list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century to thank for turning me onto the work of Iris Murdoch. Since 1999 I have read 15, well now 16, of her novels. Some I definitely like better than others but all of them are eminently worth reading. I am particularly fond of her early work. The first Murdoch I read was her first novel Under the Net. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember feeling an instant affinity for the book and Murdoch's writing. Published in 1956, her second novel The Flight From the Enchanter brought back the same feeling of discovery and excitement that I felt when I read Under the Net thirteen years ago.

I have often said that Murdoch's novels are like soap operas for literati. While grounded in unexceptional circumstances and familiar settings, her novels tend to have casts of characters that think long and hard about art, and politics, and morals, and god, and love and principles and then somewhat implausibly act on their convictions. They are full of high melodrama covered in a cloak of philosophical musings. Her characters rarely have affairs on the basis of mere lust. But they do have affairs, lots of them--especially in the later novels. But I am making observations, not judgements. I love this world of high stakes sexual politics. When I read her books I am always left thinking that the civil service and academia in Britain is nothing if not a steaming cauldron of sexual antics.

I realize I haven't said much specific about this particular Murdoch novel. Well to quote the back of the book it is "elegant, sparkling and unputdownable..." I couldn't agree more. Set in 1950s London, Enchanter follows a group of people, Rosa Keepe in particular, who adore and abhor the enigmatic Mischa Fox. As I read the book I tried hard to think of a contemporary example in real life, TV, film, or literature of a group of acquaintences who would choose someone "to be their god".  I think that the hero worship Murdoch writes about in Enchanter may not be relatable taken as a whole--as a life-organizing force, but I do think we all have moments of lunacy and bad judement based on such worship.
  

8 comments:

  1. I don't know why, but I keep shying away from Murdoch novels. I'd probably like them if I read them. Where should I start?

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  2. I'm completely unfamiliar with Murdoch, but you have me very curious. (Plus, the cover you posted is pretty great.) Off to GoodReads to do some investigating...which should I put on my wishlist?

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  3. I read The Sea, the Sea a number of years ago and loved it but have't gotten around to reading anymore Murdoch though I have added a few more of her books to my shelves. Thanks for the reminder about how wonderful she is!

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  4. I too have been trying to read all of the books on the Modern Library’s top 100 list (56 thus far) and have read some great books that I probably would not have encountered otherwise. However, I wasn’t impressed by Under the Net. Maybe someday I will try something else by Murdoch just to be sure I have given her a chance

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  5. Bybee: I would start with her earlier novels.

    Melody: No better place than her first Under the Net, but you might also try her Booker-winning The Sea, The Sea, or The Bell.

    Stefanie: And the great thing is she wrote so many novels, you still have a ton to discover.

    Ruthiella: I am now up to 63 of Modern Library list, but I started on it back in 1997(!).

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  6. I keep holding off on reading more Murdoch because I'm getting close to the time when I won't have any of her novels left and I love them! 'Soap operas for the literati' - exactly!

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  7. I discovered Iris Murdoch my senior year in college. I devoured The Good Apprentice and The Sea, The Sea. I read a third book, A Severed Head, but I didn't care for it too much.

    For some reason I forgot about reading Murdoch after that summer. I've collected many of her novels, but I didn't read her again for a bit. Then last summer I checked out A Word Child from the library and adored it.

    For me, my favorite aspect of Iris Murdoch's novels are her characters and more specifically their descriptions. They are so visceral... they feel human because they have things like oily skin or frizzy hair or a penchant for tinned tomatoes. And they are usually awful and likable at the same time. She really was a brilliant author.

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  8. Ted: I know the feeling about running out. But I think Murdoch novels would be great for re-reading.

    Amanda: You are so right about her characters. They are all very easy to imagine thanks to Murdoch's description. And it ain't tinned tomatoes it is tinned peaches.

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