Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Oops looks like I'm in blog post overdrive at the moment!

Re-write of a poem I wrote couple of years ago on Monet's Haystacks: Snow Effect.

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Philip Gross. Heard of him? He's just won the T.S. Eliot Prize, how shameful of me, never read any of his work!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Trying to write some poems to enter into the Scotland National Galleries competition, here's one I wrote today based on a painting by Alan Davie - 'Woman bewitched by the moon'

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I've been such a rubbish blogger.
So I decided to write a random update post!

I'm not allowed to tap my feet in my house because my three year-old son shouts "mummy, don't sing with your feet"!

I normally read Plath's diaries over Christmastime every year but haven't managed to this year, I aim to read them this month though. Talking of Plath I read an interesting article in the Guardian the other day linked from Peter Steinberg's Sylvia Plath info blog: Nick Laird's Poems for a Baby. Laird states -
"I've been struck by how often, for male poets, having children roots itself in linear imagery, bloodlines, inheritance; whereas for female poets, the process is a form of replacement, of disappearing."

I was surprised to read this in relation to my recent baby poem which has the line about the trees and I becoming white shadows of ourselves. My primary thought was about post-pregnancy body shape, of me becoming a shadow of my former pregnant self. Now I wonder if there is an unconscious replacement thing going on here. One example Laird uses to support his theory (?) is from Plath's Morning Song -

"I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand"

Laird picks out Plath's use of the word effacement, "the act of one thing erasing another" as the key thing. But what he doesn't mention is that effacement is exactly the word every full-term pregnant woman wants to hear as it refers to the thinning of the cervix, one of the indications of the body preparing itself for labour.
But I loved Laird's comment at the end in reference to his newborn baby: "I find myself holding the wee dote on my knee thinking, now surely to God I can get a poem out of you . . ."!

On another note, I've been reading in various blogs and things about the lack of lit crit written by women, one of the usual explanations is that we are too caring and nurturous by nature to step easily into the big bad world of literary criticism. Personally I think this is nonsense, women in academia are able to scrutinise just as thoroughly and mercilessly (if need be) as the next bloke.

I got my Edinburgh Review in last week, really enjoyed reading it - it was a Czech themed issue and I did Slavonic studies for a year at uni and loved it, in fact one of my old lecturers has an article in it! Anyway there was an interesting essay by the poet John Hartely Williams titled 'Speaking of You' in which he certainly doesn't set out to pull any punches. He writes -

"Nowadays those who consider themselves to be poets think they should write poetry, but this is quite wrong. The last thing one should want to do while writing a poem is write poetry. The whole project of writing a poem ought to be to dodge the image of itself that confronts it in the mirror. (not sure what he means here) Writing poetry...involves you in questions of vocabularly. One might give up on vocabulary altogether and stop thinking. That way you might arrive at a poem".

Williams describes himself as a warty poet who has eschewed vocabularly and stopped thinking and this enables him to write poems as opposed to poetry.

Although I get the point about poetry as opposed to poems, I love language, I love words. I love playing around with images, sounds and language but I also know that that amounts to very little if there isn't a poem in amongst those words, sounds and images, if there isn't that unknown thing that makes itself know to me (at least partially) by the end of the poem, of what the poem is actually about. I'm strongly in favour of the stop thinking part (not easy to do) but giving up on vocabularly and sticking with plain language, I don't think so.