Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"The Green Knight" by Iris Murdoch

Though I have recently taken to buying and reading books that I feel ought to be read for a firm foundation (Woolf, Joyce, Coetzee), I arbitrarily found The Green Knight in a well-ordered used bookstore in downtown Seattle. Something about the cover, the way the book felt, and the kinship to the Byatt I had just re-shelved, caused me to buy it. Reading the Green Knight has been like being immersed in a well of exhaustive emotions, ideas and characters. Focusing on issues like sex, religion (both Western and Eastern), morals and ethics, and deception, it gradually draws the reader in to a web.

Murdoch’s dense plot and characterization pays tribute to the great novels of the past – Dickens, James, the Russian authors. There are at least eleven or twelve significant characters, including a dog. The novel, published in 1993, is set in London and introduces Louise, a widow, and her three remarkable children: Aleph (Alethia), Sefton (Sophia), and Moy (Moira). Aleph is the beauty and a scholar of English literature; Sefton is the historian; and Moy is not an intellectual but “clever in her own way,” having a deep sense of earthy mysticism and artistry. Louise’s friend Joan is lonely and strung-out, the mother of Harvey, a handsome scholastic youth who has injured his foot in Italy and is experiencing great insecurities as a result. Louise and Joan’s good friends are equally significant and pivotal: Bellamy has rid himself of all earthly possessions (including his beloved dog, Anax, who goes to Moy) in order to prepare himself for the monastic life. Lucas is a cruel, emotionally distant professor and Clement, his brother, in love with Louise, is an actor. All is complicated when a mysterious Russian Jew named Peter Mir arrives desiring justice and retribution in response to a recent incident that involves both Lucas and Clement.

Murdoch’s omniscient narrative voice enables her to rotate and jump, eye-like, between characters and scenes. Her frequent use of italics for vocal stress satiates the novel with expression. The cast of characters are needy, obsessive and display great signs of instability. These characters are intellectual, emotional, changeable, and able to eloquently express themselves even in the midst of turmoil. This is a necessary device in the context of the book, but a little unbelievable as a reflection of reality.
Aside for a few cultural references (a nineties attitude towards homosexuality, for example), the assemblage of characters and the events which transpire could have occurred during the Belle Epoque, or in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Time only lightly anchors the events.

The conclusion is slightly spoiled by a trio of quick romantic pairings. I feel as though the novel should have ended with Peter Mir, but the ending does bring a bookend. Though the action is propelled by introducing Peter Mir, the book truly begins and ends with Louise and her children.

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