Some thoughts on Jim Murdoch’s Living With the Truth
If you approach the novel with the idea that it’s going to be some kind of serious psycho-philosophical study into existence and the human mind then you could be forgiven for being disappointed when you begin to read the book though by the end of it that’s exactly what the novel has become.
The basic plot is that the protagonist, a lonely oldish man called Jonathan, gets a visit from Truth personified who resides with him for a couple of days and the novel is about this visit.
I’m not going to review the storyline as such as there are already several reviews of this book here. Instead I’m going to pick out some strands of thought I’d like to explore.
In all honesty, I found Truth to be super-annoying much of the time. What did I find annoying? Well his inability to be serious for any real length of time is the main culprit. What can be more serious than the truth – the truth about life, existence, knowledge, morality, afterlife etc. It’s all a big game to him. But it turns out that truth personified is not alone, there’s a whole pantheon of personified abstracts which are, to me, indicative of the Homeric Gods. Though Murdoch goes to lengths in the novel to insure that they are not quite the same thoughtless puppeteers, their essence is the same – existence is a big joke to them because they’re not weighed down with the worries / burdens of life and death.
With this characterisation of Truth, Murdoch immediately subverts the expectations of the reader and yet, as it turns out, manages to explore deep philosophical issues in an accessible manner through the use of comedy.
The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the interactions between Jonathan and the women in his life. I really loved the scene in Jonathan’s flat when his sister, Mary, comes to visit. Truth convinces Mary to act out a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The ridiculousness, the absurdity of the scene and the ambivalence of the characters towards one another reminded me of Harold Pinter-style scenarios. Murdoch’s excellent characterisation made this one of the best parts of the book for me.
Jonathan is alienated from life around him, he watches from the outside looking in. This is exemplified in his profession as the owner of second-hand bookshop. Life is to be experienced second-hand, not directly; the role of a book is to mediate life to its reader. Which brings us to Jonathan's curious attitude towards others, particularly women.
He had never married and, despite being lonely, had no desire to. Women are reduced to their physical being yet Jonathan is not misogynistic in the usual sense. Even when listing his sexual encounters, he never really enjoyed the actual act of sex in itself, seeming to prefer self-love. What he does desire is the physical closeness which, we are led to believe, is due to the lack of overt parental physical affection throughout his childhood. In particular the Freudian memory of eight-year-old Jonathan being harshly told off when, watching his mother breastfeed his baby sister, he also expressed a wish to be breastfed. This is then the explanation of his particular obsession with breasts throughout his adulthood, yet it is no ordinary sexual desire. Rather, the sense of not being allowed to simply touch another woman’s breasts is viewed as an injustice harking back to the unfairness that his sister should have been the recipient of the tender affection he was denied.
I genuinely enjoyed this novel. Murdoch’s strengths are in characterisation, humour and the complex interaction between strained relationships.
I’ve only scratched the surface of a couple of the themes running through the book. I haven’t even mentioned the many, many humorous exchanges or the existentialism integral to Jonathan’s perception of life.
And, of course, this is only my reading of the book which may or may not be accurate as close reading of novels are not possible in my household at the moment!