Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

The Sandcastle begins with a fractious dialogue between Mor (the main character) and his wife Nan. It becomes clear within only a few pages that this kind of antagonistic exchange is common between them. In the middle of the discussion, Mor makes a reference to their dead dog, seemingly out of the blue. And then Murdoch delivers two lines which put their entire relationship into perspective:

This 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.

I really like this kind of specific insight into a character, especially when, as I suspected correctly, it also serves to highlight the book’s central focus. In the case of The Sandcastle, a book about an unraveling marriage, these two sentences illustrate the longstanding tension between Mor and Nan (and ultimately the complete failure of their marriage) as well as reveal a fundamental issue of Mor’s personality – his need to mollify Nan.

As the book progresses and certain important events transpire (Mor meets an engaging young painter and begins a chaste affair with her), his absolute inability to really cross Nan becomes fundamental to the rest of the story. So what looks on the surface like an exploration of the bonds of marriage and whether they are really sacred is actually a careful and detailed criticism of Mor’s particular weakness.

I mentioned earlier that Murdoch was recommended to me as a writer I would like because of my deep admiration for Nadine Gordimer. Interestingly, I think I actually put off reading Murdoch for a long time because I was afraid to make the comparison and find either writer lacking. Now that I’ve read Murdoch, I realize how silly this was. They are similar, so I can see where the recommendation came from, but of course they each carry certain distinct stylistic traits.

Without reading more Murdoch I can’t make a real comparison, but I do think it is interesting to note some of the echoes of Gordimer I found while reading The Sandcastle. First, the flawlessness of the male narrator. Not all female authors even try, let alone succeed, in writing from the male perspective. This is something Gordimer does with about half of her novels and each time I felt it was a seamless performance. The voice of the male narrator in The Sandcastle was equally convincing.

Second, I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Gordimer’s moments of insight, where, in just a few lines, she manages to explicate or illuminate a certain feeling or thought. She takes a singular experience and renders it universally understandable for the reader. Murdoch did exactly this in The Sandcastle, allowing her characters to reflect on the world with bold statements and keen observations and by giving them a voice to their precise, individual thoughts in such a way that the reader says, yes, that is exactly what that feels like.

And finally, both writers are courageous in their use of dialogue, allowing their characters to engage in complicated, weighty conversations at the risk of moving too far away from the cadence and rhythm of natural dialogue. I think Gordimer almost always gets away with this risky endeavor, and I think Murdoch succeeds perfectly in The Sandcastle.

Murdoch has an even larger oeuvre than Gordimer and although I don’t think I’ll be able to tackle it this year, I’d very much like to read her from start to finish in the way I read Gordimer in 2008. If anything I will get a copy of The Sea, The Sea and read that before the end of the year. Any other suggestions?


18 Responses to “Iris Murdoch – The Sandcastle”

  1. Steph

    Alas, I haven’t read any Murdoch or Gordimer, so I’m of little help to you here, but I wanted to say that I’ve had a copy of The Sea, The Sea sitting on my shelves for about a year now and haven’t picked it up because of how intimidated I’ve felt. Your review has really made me anxious to finally give Murdoch a shot (the print is so small, and I assume the writing is so dense!)… but it will have to wait just a little bit more as I’ve been sick with a nasty cold and my brain is incapable of withstanding any kind of writing at the moment! Sigh.

  2. Stefanie

    What an interesting comparison. You make me want to read more Murdoch and finally take to plunge into Gordimer!

  3. Lilian Nattel

    That was so interesting. I especially am curious about the dialogue. I haven’t yet found a writer who can write weighty dialogue without it sounding like 3rd person narration between quotes. And yet people do have profound conversations. I’m interested in how she does it and I’m putting this book on my list.

  4. Guilherme

    I’m salivating…can’t wait to sink my teeth into the author’s work.

  5. Anthony

    About five years ago I went through a Murdoch phase. The book that remains with me most is The Black Prince.

    I find it fascinating, and undoubtedly true, that despite being one of the top 3 UK authors of the 20th century, Murdoch was irritated that she never created a memorable character.

  6. nicole

    Ooh, this makes me think I’d really like her–I’d always wondered.

    Never read Nadine Gordimer though, even after all the lovely things you’ve said about her. Shame on me!

  7. Thomas

    I have read a lot of Murdoch and liked it all, but I haven’t read The Sandcastle yet. I have jumped around a lot chronologically with her books but lately I have been thinking of going back and starting from the beginning. Even though I have already read (and loved) Under the Net, her first novel.

  8. litlove

    I read Murdoch for a while in my 20s, and can’t recall the titles of the books I read, apart from The Sea, The Sea because I couldn’t get past the first 30 pages. It was the first book I ever abandoned! But this only indicates my youth at the time, I’m sure, as I very much enjoyed the other novels I read.

  9. Dorothy W.

    Interesting review! I’m not entirely sure if this means I won’t like Gordimer (since I had some doubts about Murdoch), or if I should give Murdoch another chance and try Gordimer, and that I would like them both. I’m not quite satisfied with my response to Murdoch, so I may try her again one of these days.

  10. ds

    I love Iris Murdoch, but never thought to compare her to Gordimer. That’s interesting…
    Try The Bell, which is an early one, and The Book and the Brotherhood, which may be her best (but I’ve not read them all. Yet 😉 )

  11. deborah

    From my perspective, if you enjoyed the Sandcastle, you are in for a big treat with the others. (It’s among my least favorite.) I really appreciated seeing it through your eyes, though; so I may have to give it another look. I would definitely read The Sea, The Sea, and also Under the Net, Bruno’s Dream, The Black Prince, The Philospher’s Pupil. A start to finish Murdoch project sounds very worthwhile.

  12. verbivore

    I just realized I didn’t comment on any of these thoughtful suggestions – thank you everyone, I’ll be slowly amassing a stack of Murdoch in preparation for a complete read next year sometime.

  13. Deborah

    Are you having a Murdoch year? I am. Currently reading The Sandcastle with The Nice and the Good waiting for me. Did you try The Bell? It is full of flawless characters and those uncomfortable moments that Murdoch was so good at. Given it was written in the 1950’s it must have been very controversial when it was printed.

  14. verbivore

    Deborah – I’d like to have a Murdoch year, but it won’t be this year. Maybe I’ll start collecting the books and start in Jan 2011. Wanna join?

  15. Deborah

    Yes, I’m in.
    I am glad to be making a head start as I think you are a quicker reader than I am, although with the same butterfly tendencies moving from book to book depending on the mood.

  16. Elisabeth Payne Rosen

    I am a total Iris Murdoch groupie and have read all of her novels except the Red and the Green (i own it, but for various reasons have never finished it.
    I loved them all (The Sandcastle, actually, perhaps least). THis is (these are) my comments: her first two novels, Under the Net and The Flight of the ENchanter, are in a class by themselves. Utterly unique. After that, all the “middle period” books are almost equally good. The fact is, if you like one Murdoch, you’re likely to like them all. And vice versa.
    Finally, I want to put in a word for her late novels, which weren’t always as well reviewed. I actually began my addiction with JACKSON’S DILEMMA, and returned to the Kensington Library each week until I’d finished them all (it’s also great fun to follow her characters around London, as she’s always very specific about where they are). NUNS AND SOLDIERS was almost my favorite! (But that may be because I’m very attracted to both nuns and soldiers.)
    The best comment I know about IM is that she was often described as “protean” and compared for that reason to Shakespeare. Like him, you can never say, “Oh, thus and such character is a stand-in for the author.” They are true shape-shifters. ENJOY!

    • verbivore

      What a wonderful and thoughtful comment. I am delighted to find such an Iris Murdoch enthusiast. The information here is helpful and I’ll come back to your comment as I continue working through her work. I’m set to begin Under the Net this week!

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