"I left in store with that first love so much of my innocence and gentleness which I later destroyed and denied, and which is yet now perhaps at last available again. Can a woman's ghost, after so many years, open the doors of the heart?"
This was my first time with Iris Murdoch, and I see why she was shortlisted so many times. I was drawn to her simple yet ellaborate prose, her fine rhythm, all bolstered by her expertise in psychology.
Here we have the memoirs of Charles Arrowby. The story he tells is brutal and haunting, not always on the surface but mostly in the characters' psyches. These poor people should not be dealing with each other, but somehow out of their interaction comes a sense not just of redemption but also of transcendence. After living a famous life in the theater, Arrowby moves to a small home by the sea and begins to write his memoirs. The first part of the novel is very much a day to day recitation of events--though thanks to Murdoch's insight and wit, even the food is interesting and important. The people from his past, however, don't leave him alone. In particular, he runs into his first love, a seemingly unhappily married old woman. He becomes obsessed with taking her away and begining the life they should have begun some forty years ealier.
"What indeed was I planning to do? I was in a state which I well knew was close to a sort of madness, and yet I was not mad. Some kinds of obsessions, of which being in love is one, paralyse the ordinary free-wheeling of the mind, its natural open interested curious mode of being, which is sometimes persuasively defined as rationality. I was sane enough to know that I was in a state of total obsession and that I could only think, over and over again, cetain agonizing thoughts, could only run continually along the same rat-paths of fantasy and intent. But I was not sane enough to interrupt this mechanical movement or even to desire to do so."
Arrowby is a despicable man--here he is telling a story that puts him and his life in such a high position that readers do not get to read the guilt, the pain, and the emptiness of his life, though it's there. Also, readers do not get a clear glimpse at the other characters because Charles himself does not fully comprehend those around him. While this may sound like a typical case of an unreliable narrator, Murdoch expertly uses this to explore the themes of egoism and jealousy, and even the unreliability of the whole narrative.
"Of course this chattering diary is a facade, the literary equivalent of the everyday smiling face which hids the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure. Yet such pretenses are not only consolations but may even be productive of a little ersatz courage."
Murdoch is also a master of atmosphere: the bead curtain, the red room, the sea itself are all presences throughout the book. She uses them to great effect to create moods and to reflect the flow of the novel. There are some beautiful passages that I'd love to put into this review, but I will resist the temptation.
This book is not a straight forward story with a clear plot. One of the great things about this book is that whenever the narrator lets his reader know his intentions, he never complies, he never gets around to doing anything he says he is going to do. It's like a long list of failed plans. The symbolism and the psychology might not always be clear, but the book is worth exploring.
I give it 4/5.