She came and sat at the other end of the bed and we gazed at each other. I could not remember that I had looked at anyone in quite that way before: when one is all vision and the other face enters into one’s own. I was aware too of a bodily feeling which was not exactly desire but was rather something to do with time, a sense of the present being infinitely large.
– Iris Murdoch, The Italian Girl (168)
Close to Updike on the stacks was The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch. I thought I might read it as the only thing I really have in my head concerning Murdoch is the face of Judy Dench. It’s a strange little book. Or I read it on a strange little day, but I’m not sure I was entirely convinced of it.
The story is a brief period in the lives of two brothers, Edmond and Otto. Edmund returns to his childhood home where Otto’s wife, daughter, an Italian maid, an apprentice to Otto, and the apprentice’s sister all live. Anyone whom has experienced a little of this wonder we call life will not be surprised by reading in this story the lengths to which people go to complicate relationships and repress past traumas. This deranged family reunion is due to the death of Lydia, Edmund and Otto’s mother.
Perhaps Murdoch felt that the reader would not be interested to understand why the mother of the protagonists was such a monster, instead she focuses her story on the effects of Lydia’s depraved mothering instinct. And maybe that is where I lost a little something. Perhaps I have to disagree with Tolstoy- all unhappy families are alike as well. Certainly there is a greater diversity of action and reactions, but we all know that emotional pain is a sickness, and when a mother or a father is the cause, some sort of great violence or cataclysmic event is required to root it out. Or, we wither away into ourselves (which doesn’t always make great fiction).
Initially that is the path Edmund has chosen. He lives alone. He is alone. He is loath to face the demon of his mother. His experience in the present tense is a litany of what he does not like: “I detest smoking.” “I don’t like drinking,” I can’t abide that smell, or color, or feeling, or whatever it is. There is a lot he doesn’t like.
But he has his moments. Those lovely moments.
The extreme beauty of the scene put me into an instant trance. It was always a trick of my nature to be subject to these sudden enchantments of the visible world, when a particular scene would become so radiant with form and reality as to snatch me out of myself and make me oblivious of all my purposes. Beauty is such self-forgetting.
That last line: beauty is such self-forgetting, is extraordinary. It’s just…I would have liked to know a little more about Lydia. I would have liked to know – why? I always think of healthy babies coming into the world hard-wired to love and adore their parents. One really does have to be quite awful to make it such a horror show. Is it just a banal truth – simply a matter of selfishness? Narcissism?
Going through life forced into wanting to be loved, craving the timeless truth and purity of what was your inherent nature as a human from the start, well, it makes for a difficult experience. It is very hard to process the Lydias of the world. Edmund and Otto take opposite approaches, but both end up at the same place – which is back at the start.
I am in the truth now. And this is a moment for following the truth to whatever folly.(151)