Iris Murdoch is one of my mother’s favourite contemporary novelists. My mom has had a huge influence on the development of my reading tastes, so I’ve always been curious to read some Murdoch. I tried one of her novels when I was approximately 20 years old, but wasn’t impressed. I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet.
This time, I tried ‘The Sandcastle’, mostly because I came across it in a second-hand bookshop. ‘The Sandcastle’ was first published in 1957 and it is one of Murdoch’s earlier works. I’ve already given two quotes from this book for ‘Monday Musings’ here and here, so that must mean I liked it, right? And I did like it.
The blurb on the back says the following about the plot:
A middle-aged, married schoolmaster falls violently in love with a young woman artist who has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the school’s last headmaster, and the situation is complicated by his dominating yet pathetic wife, his two adolescent children, his political ambitions and the girl’s own vocation as an artist.
Sounds a bit like a soap-opera to me. Thing is that through this plot of a middle-aged man falling in love and stuggling with the results of this love, Murdoch is able to raise some fundamental issues about life, responsibilities and ambitions.
Truth plays a large role in this novel. The schoolmaster, William Mor, does not tell his wife that he intends to leave her, while on the other hand, he also doesn’t tell Rain Carter, his love-interest, about his political ambitions. But this is not just about telling the truth, it is about being true to yourself. I believe that is the real struggle of William Mor. During the twenty or so years of his marriage he has let himself be dominated by his wife. He is not true to himself in that he doesn’t stand up for his dreams. He is afraid of and dominated by his wife and is therefore reduced to having to play a role. Falling in love gives him some temporary courage to go against what is expected of him, it also provides him with some temporary happiness. Despite of this, Mor has not changed essentially and he continues to struggle with determining his own course in life.
As I mentioned in a previous post, in between the plot there are a lot of philosophical comments about several aspects of life and art. I have two more examples of this. This is from a conversation between Mor and his colleague Bledyard about Mor’s relationship with Rain Carter:
‘Happiness?’ said Bledyard, making a face of non-comprehension. ‘What has happiness got to do with it? Do you imagine that you, or anyone, has some sort of right to happiness? That idea is a poor guide.’
The next quote is from a conversation about art, painting in particular, and the difference between painting an object and painting a portrait of a human being:
‘Upon an ordinary material thing we can look with reverence, wondering simply at its being. But when we look upon a human face, we interpret it by what we are ourselves. And what are we?’
I found much to admire in this novel. It has great ideas and some very well-written characters. I have about twenty pages marked with post-its and every time I open the book I find other interesting passages. I look forward to reading more Iris Murdoch soon.