Saturday 15 June 2019

Further Reports

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Some people never write negative reviews. It is their policy. They tactically ignore the offending book, or damn it with faint praise, or try to like it, or...

There's probably an epigram in there somewhere. Oscar Wilde would have turned a pretty phrase, as he does tirelessly and tiresomely in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, mediæval art is charming, but mediæval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me, no civilised man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilised man ever knows what a pleasure is.” (Ch. 6)
Ignore the rhetorical dazzle - of specious value at the best of times - and consider the meaning, which is where Wilde's epigrams come a cropper. Their meanings are either facile or confused. But he keeps on trying. More, he thinks, means more. More chance of success, certainly. In fact he scores very few authentic hits, but he knows a good one when he's written it - for he'll almost certainly recycle it in one way or another. There are whole lines of The Picture of Dorian Gray that find their way into Wilde's drama - where they work, I would say, much more effectively.

Wilde would probably counter that it's the likes of Lord Henry who talk in this way. 'You cut life to pieces with your epigrams,' (ch. 8) complains Dorian of his lordship: surely a case of an author preempting criticism. But what of Wilde's narrative voice? That's florid, overblown, sickly: 'beautiful' writing in all its naffness.

The book's central idea - that Dorian's portrait ages over time, while he remains young - is famous and brilliant, but rather uncertainly handled. It comes to the fore after quite a lot of conventional social comedy and a touch of realism. The introduction of a supernatural element feels sudden and tonally askew.

The novel's second half involves a gear shift, as many years pass and Dorian sinks into a life of 'sin'. The East End scenes of his adventures are daringly depicted, but the lack of specificity, and the commentary of shame and guilt, though necessary for publication in 1890, are nevertheless distancing and difficult. But all the while the fantastical detail of the portrait - in many ways an add-on - keeps intruding, giving the book its novelty and fame, but weirdly at odds with the story as a whole.

A Word Child

In a moment of expansiveness (ever to be mistrusted) I confessed on Twitter that I'd never read Iris Murdoch. A flurry of suggestions coalesced around A Word Child, which I duly acquired.

My awareness of Murdoch was fragmentary. I knew Philip Larkin and Monica Jones had enjoyed private games centred on mocking and parodying her. I knew she was considered in urgent need of an editor. I knew she suffered from dementia, only to become a further victim at the hands of her husband John Bayley's seemingly endless memoirs.

She was the kind of writer I was always aware of in my formative years, along with Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble and the like.

I made a real effort with A Word Child. The failure was mine alone. I could have gone on reading; I would certainly have appreciated the exquisite style. But there was so much of it. And I didn't want to be there. I think it was her world I turned away from: a grim grey 70s world of dully middle-class folk, all of them entitled, if only to their tragic sorrows and neuroses. I broke down after fifty or so pages. Such defeats always leave me obscurely depressed.

Oliver Twist

The world I always seek out when in a reading quandary is that of the nineteenth-century novel. I am not proud of this, wish I were more varied. I've read all of Dickens, but haven't read Oliver Twist since I was a child at school. I remember Mr Crisp's English lessons, an airy Victorian classroom, wooden desks with lids and defunct inkwells, and reading round the class, or silently to myself.

Dickens's main mode in Oliver Twist, as elsewhere, is irony: 'the impious and profane offence of asking for more'. This can be confusing to young minds and to less than engaged teachers, of whom I had a few. Mr Crisp was a good teacher, but I didn't really enjoy or 'get' Oliver Twist.

One should be careful of editions. I recommend the current Penguin, which reproduces the original serial text - in many ways quite different from what I probably read before: less polished, less corporate, more spontaneous and unexpected.


  1. I’m so glad you are back. I tried to reply to this effect on your last post, but for some reason my comment bounced. And now I have just written a comment for this one, pressed preview and the whole thing disappeared.

    I wanted to say that I have also had big problems with Iris Murdoch. I struggled through A Severed Head and loathed it. A group of middle-class people going on about their personal crises. The older I get, the less patience I have with this kind of thing, in writing and in art - endless woe about what the writer or artist thinks is their unique misery, and which for some unfathomable reason they feel compelled to inflict on the rest of us. I don’t mind so much if they can extrapolate from this thoughts about the general human condition, but when it’s all just ME, ME, ME I am driven to distraction.

    I always find great comfort in Dickens, though like you I haven’t read Oliver Twist since I was at school, where Dickens - along with Shakespeare - was wasted on me. Why on earth our English teacher thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream was good fodder for a class of 11 year olds is a mystery - perhaps the school just had enough copies. Needless to say we all thought it was silly and boring, whereas now I love it and see that it is full of all sorts of interesting stuff.

    Thanks for returning to your blog. Best wishes.

  2. Many thanks for your comments, and so sorry you had trouble with commenting. I find this too with many online comment forms.

    As a teacher myself I'm always wary of over-recommending great literature, lest the student be put off for ever! Best to provide space and opportunity - not always easy in today's curriculum, but never impossible.

  3. It will be a long time, if that time ever comes that is, before I am compelled to read another Iris Murdoch novel. When I was younger I read four of them and, as I recall, liked them. (But I read indiscriminately then, reading anything I could get my hands on, without truly comprehending what I was reading, as perhaps is the only way to read when one is young.)

    A few months ago I read The Sea, the Sea. No doubt my reading is neither wide nor varied enough (I seem to be unintentionally stuck in a loop of British female mid-century novelists, Victorian and French literature) I cannot recall ever hating a book this much, except perhaps some of Yukio Mishima's works. I inexplicably drudged through all 500 pages of it, but nothing. No revelations, no insights, no magic, nothing. My reaction undoubtedly speaks more about me than about either the book or Iris Murdoch, as these things always do, but I just couldn't see the point at all. I don't mind implausibility or unpleasant people. Muriel Spark writes implausible plots with unpleasant people and I adore her writings. I do not need 500 pages of verbose prose to divine that someone is a pompous ass with an urgent need of a paradigm shift, if that indeed is what it was all about, as the last two pages of the book attest. But worst of all was the authorial smirk, felt by me on every single page. It is never there in Brookner, however awful the situation or indeed however stupidly her characters behave. For me that is perhaps the one unforgivable thing in an author. This violent a dislike undoubtedly requires further investigation, but it certainly will not be happening any time soon.

  4. I can report not the slightest urge to return to Murdochland in the years since.


Questions and comments are always welcome. (Please note: there will be a short delay before publication, as comments are moderated.)