The winter months are good reading months for me, especially when snug indoors with a view of the snowy cityscape. I’ve been reading more than I’ve been reviewing here, so here’s a peek into the recent stacks.

Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net (1954) and The Sandcastle (1957) were read with Liz’s Iris Murdoch Readalong in mind, both library loans, in anticipation of reading some longtime shelf-sitters. I’ve read four of her novels previously, but both of these were new-to-me.

It’s interesting to wonder what Iris Murdoch might think of these early novels, approaching them so many years later. She gives Jake, the writer at the heart of Under the Net, the opportunity to reflect on the matter, and one suspects she would feel the same sense of disconnect and distant respect.

“It’s always a strange experience to read one’s own writings again after an interval. They so rarely fail to impress. As I turned the pages of this curious journal I felt that the years which separated me from the moment of its creation had given it a strange independence. It was like meeting as an adult someone whom one knew long ago as a child. It wasn’t that I liked the thing any better, but that now it somehow stood alone; and the idea crossed my mind that now at last it might be possible to make peace with it.”

It’s a long way from ‘making peace’ to admiration, and, yet, there is much to admire about these early novels.

They are uncomfortable reading at times, however, for relationships are mainly dissatisfying and disappointing. (They are not exclusively unhappy, sometimes disorienting and thrilling, but still not lastingly and not quite happily.)

The dialogue is always entertaining (more so than one might guess from Murdoch’s reputation as a serious and philosophical writer) and sometimes more so than intended (when comments about women wearing trousers arise, for instance).

My favourite parts are the description of Mrs. Tinckham’s Shop (Under the Net) and Tim Burke’s jewellery shop (The Sandcastle). They are such detailed and delightfully and dynamically chaotic spaces, which also offer (each in its own way) the space a character requires to envision their lives taking a turn.

Not only the descriptions of the shops are vivid and sharp: even minor characters are described in detail.

“Mr Everard had a plump healthy face of the kind which passes imperceptibly from boyhood into middle age without any observable intermediate phase. He always wore a tweed suit and a dog collar. His expression was habitually gentle, his eyes doe-like. His hair was light brown and rather fluffy and unruly. As a boy he must have been pretty; as a middle-aged man he appeared candid and disarming to those who did not see him as looking stupid.”

The next books in the Readalong were/are The Bell, The Severed Head and An Unofficial Rose, for January, February and March. The first two I read for bookclubs in 2001 (both were good for discussion as I remember them, particularly The Severed Head), and I tacked on An Unofficial Rose at the end. Perhaps I was, even then, half-heartedly attempting a chronological read-through!

Have you been reading any English classics lately?