On a personal note, one of my best buds from back home popped over for a visit and read the book specially to join us. It was wonderful being able to share this with her!!
Taking his cue from The Tempest’s Prospero, playwright and director Charles Arrowby leaves London for retirement in a coastal village to ‘abjure magic and become a hermit’. Both seduced and unnerved by his new setting, he begins a journey of self-discovery by writing the story of his colourful theatrical life. Finding himself in the same village as Mary Hartley, the first love of his adolescence whom he perceives is now locked in a brutal marriage, he becomes obsessed with the idea of forcing her to elope with him.
This – the 19th novel by Iris Murdoch – was the Man Booker Challenge winner in 1978. It was also her 4th book to be nominated – demonstrating her prowess as an author and the high regard she was held in by her contemporaries.
In the main, we all really enjoyed the writing style – meandering and idiosyncratic as it was. Without knowing what to expect going in, I found it to be very comical and silly – especially for a Booker prize winner. However; we couldn’t seem to reach any sort of consensus with regards to the characters!
Of especial enjoyment to a few members was the primary protagonists obsession with food. The odd choices and combinations – all described in detail – fascinated and horrified in equal measure. The two types of cooked egg concoction was one that seemed to pop out for most people!
Agreeing that Charles was a very peculiar character, we discussed how he seemed doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and again. As a first person dialogue it was interesting that we – the audience – were able to see this relatively quickly in the novel; while Charles himself remained oblivious. The character seemed almost childlike is his inability to recognise the consequences of his actions.
He should be despicable to us all – after all; he is arrogant, misogynistic and has a chip on his shoulder that weighs on his every decision.
However, in the main, we quite warmed to him. Just.
Yes; he is the architect of his own destruction and all that but for many of us we thought that he and James were mirror images. James reflected the person he might have been. Charles was raised in a mean home by parents incapable of responding to their precocious child. He was brought up hyper aware of his own economic inferiority and developed a gregarious but resentful personality. James – idyllic childhood aside – came across as a man searching for a greater meaning in his life. Yet he was also at peace with himself. For a minority of us; he would have been a more interesting case study than the irascible Charles.
Moving onto the relationships within the book; once again we were all agreed that Charles was a destructive force. While he certainly believed that he loved women; he had no respect for them. No one was off limits. Indeed; the more unobtainable, the more desirable for Charles. While initially this is described as an almost endearing trait; the kidnapping of Hartley transforms him from misguided and selfish to something more sinister.
His interactions with men were scarcely more successful. Though Charles surrounded himself with men; he despised them and looked down upon them. Titus, James and Peregrine are all drawn into his circle and rejected over the most trivial of matters. With the exception of Titus – this is a standard pattern. Yet another example of how Charles will repeat his mistakes through a refusal to admit them.
For a number of us, the tension leeched away from the book after the death of Titus. Hartley and Ben disappeared and we were left with many questions about them. Granted we only saw their relationship via Charles, but there were still a number of things that could have been resolved and weren’t. We agreed that this felt like a book where we had to trust our narrator. The story is presented from his viewpoint throughout. Yet despite himself – Charles paints for us a negative self portrait. The locals in the pub for example appear cold and ignorant, excluding Charles. Then again, bearing in mind his attitude and expectation of their servility – perhaps this was only to be expected. This lent an authenticity that we had to depend upon.
We noted for a second on the successes that the secondary characters had once they broke away from Charles. Peregrine and Rosina in particular thrive away from his pernicious influence. Even Charles’ chauffeur rises as soon as he leaves! The person who picked the book seemed pleased enough with the response. She had found the book but wouldn’t have necessarily bought it and it was a personal favourite. A comedy that holds relevance today.
I was listening to the Greatest Hits of Etta James – who had passed away a week or so earlier. Not really appropriate you might think, but Ms James’ voice has a haunting emotive quality that for me seemed as wild and wonderful as the sea.
Venue: Medusa Bar