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Posts Tagged ‘Iris Murdoch’

Iris Murdoch’s Favorite Painting

July 15, 2015 | by

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas, ca. 1570–76, oil on canvas, 83" × 81".

Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-six today, thrilled to paintings of every stripe, but she was compelled by one work in particular: Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, from the late sixteenth century. She mentions it in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a painting you are particularly interested in and think, I might be able to use that some day in a novel, or I’d like to use it because it attracts and interests me?

MURDOCH

The novel often indicates a painting during the process of creating the characters. Somehow the character will lead to the painting. A great painting that I have only recently seen—it lives in Czechoslovakia—is Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. He was over ninety when he painted it. This painting gives me very much, though I have only referred to it indirectly.

Elsewhere, Murdoch has called the painting the greatest in the Western canon. It makes prominent appearances in her novels A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Black Prince, and Jackson’s Dilemma; she even went so far as to include it in the background of her portrait, which hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Flaying of Marsyas has “something to do with human life and all its ambiguities and all its horrors and terrors and misery,” she told the BBC, “and at the same time there’s something beautiful, the picture is beautiful, and something also to do with the entry of the spiritual into the human situation and the closeness of the gods … I regard Dionysus in a sense as a part of Apollo’s mind … and want to exalt Apollo as a god who is a terrible god, but also a great artist and thinker and a great source of life.” Read More »

Mental Vacation

April 17, 2015 | by

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Photo: Olivia Alcock

Early in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, the narrator, Charles Arrowby, explains why he never learned to drive and prefers to be a passenger. “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” he asks, with impeachable logic. 

In the course of the novel, his veneer of self-assurance crumbles. Arrowby discovers the limits of control, even in isolation. But he also begins to see the lengths we go to in seeking that most elusive pleasure: an escape from ourselves.

For the overthinkers of the world, there’s maybe no greater luxury than shutting off your mind. It happens so rarely that you tend to notice it, if you notice it at all, more as a state of absence than anything else. It can happen during a movie, or listening to music, or, perhaps, in the presence of a great cook. And most especially when reading. Read More »

John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Algiers, Aliens, Adulthood

July 25, 2014 | by

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George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.

I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandyat last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell

In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay

Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
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To Be Enjoyed

July 15, 2014 | by

Happy birthday to Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-five today. “A readable novel is a gift to humanity,” she said in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:

It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment. 

That interview with Murdoch was conducted by James Atlas as part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review—it was recorded live at 92Y on February 22, 1990, and you can listen to an audio recording of it above.

As Atlas later remembered their encounter,

She was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over seventy at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound without sounding that way, or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theater is, why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.”

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Beware Usen’t To

January 28, 2014 | by

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This is what happens when you use usen’t to. Constance Charpentier, Melancholy, 1801, oil on canvas.

At ten every morning, Garner’s Usage Tip lands in my inbox—I’m sure Garner could suggest a less clunky formulation for “in my inbox”—providing a quick bit of unfussy, eminently sensible grammatical advice. There are worse things to look forward to.

Yesterday’s installment was the third in a scintillating four-part series on used to, which gets pretty spicy, as far as grammar goes. Fun fact: the contracted form of used not to is usen’t to, which has been, despite its pleasant lilt, almost wholly displaced by didn’t use to.

You could try to bring it back into style, but apart from sounding pretentious—which you would—you’d run the risk of becoming very miserable. Take a look at usen’t to as it appears throughout literature and you’ll see: it’s almost always used in the context of a total bummer. See below for examples from Forster, Trollope, Beckett, et al., none of which make the sun shine any brighter.

Please, if you can find any positive instance of usen’t to, direct me to it. Otherwise I’m inclined to offer a warning: abstain from this phrase, or you’re liable to be plunged into cafard, parochialism, censoriousness, or just sort of a downer mood. Read More »

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