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?