Friday, 15 July 2011

Iris Murdoch Day

No time to write today, but tonight I am going to crawl off to bed to celebrate the last hours of the late Iris Murdoch's 92nd birthday with another re-reading of one of her books. I'd rather wanted to go for The Sea, the Sea, partly for its narrator's obsession with eating (I've been cooking this week as OH hasn't been well; I find the planning of food very time-consuming now that I'm out of practice and I thought Charles Arrowby's musings might have helped), and partly because it came first in the Twitter poll for favourite IM book* organised by @IrisMurdoch, in honour of her anniversary. Anyway, a hunt of the bookshelves upstairs proved fruitless (the shelves are all double-stacked, and have become rather inaccessible, in part owing to OH's own obsession with acquiring cookery books, which are piled on the floor and spilling out of boxes), so it had to come down to a choice between what was available/not recently read: The Sandcastle or A Word Child.

Because her dogs are so wonderful, I feel the need of one today. Really, I should be reading Under the Net, in that case, but The Sandcastle has, at least, a late dog, Liffey, who is mentioned near the start, as Mor and Nan are sharing, in a desultory way, a cold lunch (and the temperature refers both to the unappetizing meal and the atmosphere in which it is being eaten):
"You remember how poor Liffey used to hate this hot weather," said Mor.
Liffey had been their dog, a golden retriever, who was killed two years ago on the main road. The animal had formed the bond between Mor and Nan which their children had been unable to form. Half unconsciously, whenever Mor wanted to placate his wife he said something about Liffey.
Nan's face at once grew gentler. "Poor thing!" she said.
How much information is conveyed by that exchange!

I have never much liked this cover, which dates from the late 60s/early 70s, the later Penguin covers are much nicer. I'd much rather have either of these, the later Penguin or the rather elegant Vintage one:

 I think the Vintage covers are wonderful, and wish I were starting my collection with them, especially the cover for Under the Net, which I fell in love with the other day. Do have a look and see if you agree with me.

* I voted for The Nice and the Good, another lovely Vintage cover and, again, much better than my old Penguin one. I grew up at the wrong time evidently.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

As dysfunctional families go the Troutmans are particularly so. Hattie, the narrator, hasn't really got her life together - she's been living in Paris, mostly to get away from her sister, Min, but when Min's 11-year-old daughter Thebes calls and begs her to come home, there's not much to prevent it. Min, who's spent large parts of her life as an elective mute, will no longer get out of bed or talk, and needs to be in hospital, but Thebes and her older brother Logan are desperate not to go into foster care.

Thebes and Logan may be troubled kids, but they are used to having to care for each other, and for Min, so they're actually nice, with lots of redeeming features, although these aren't necessarily evident to many of the people around them, like teachers and neighbours. Hattie's had a similarly difficult background (she thinks Min tried to drown her once) so she mostly understands the reasons, if not always the actions. She's inexperienced at parenting though: "Do you ever wash?...Am I supposed to tell you to?" she inquires of Thebes, who has acquired a coating of crud - tears and candyfloss and tattoo transfers and general dirt - that makes her look as as if she has "some weird skin disease".

Hattie decides that they should look for the children's father, Cherkis, who was pretty much driven out by Min. She doesn't know exactly where he is, but he was least heard of in a town in South Dakota, so they'll take the unreliable van and head there, something made easier by Logan's expulsion from school. The journey takes up most of the book and, of course, as a metaphor it works on a number of levels as they all undergo voyages of self-discovery, and we learn the more about them as they look back into the past and Hattie tries to unravel the family history for the two children, and to show them that both their parents can love them, even if their father chooses to be absent and their mother chooses to die.
For me The Flying Troutmans seems haunted by another book, Marian Engel's Lunatic Villas, whose protagonist is another Harriet (I can't believe that the name is not an acknowledgement from Toews, even more so since in another of Engel's books the main character is Minn). Lunatic Villas is also full of dysfunctional families and precocious children - I can see both the lovely Simeon and the more troubled Mickle in Logan. Reviewing it in 2007, I said that "every parent knows that the weird and ridiculous are part and parcel of the process of bringing up children" and it's true here too, as Engel and Toews share an insight into the best and worst aspects of family life that enriches and enlightens. LV marked the beginning of my love affair with Canadian literature and its presence in the background resonates and complements this book. Until now I haven't loved Toews as much as I (and other people!) thought I should, but this is a stunning piece of writing and I know that it will be alternating with Lunatic Villas for re-reads from now on.