on 29 May 2001
This book is an exquisite portrayal of how a man falls victim to love's madness. A middle-aged school master, Mor, betrays his wife and family and falls madly in love with a young artist, who has been commissioned by the school to paint the Headmaster's portrait. Mor behaves abominably throughout, but his situation and emotions are so sensitively depicted that the reader is intrigued to find out how Mor can possibly resolve his crisis. Murdoch does not encourage any sympathy from the reader - Mor is too far in the wrong for that - but she does manage to reveal the devastating effect that romantic love's madness can wreak on the lover, as well as those who surround him. Murdoch's delicacy and faultless sense of balance allows the reader to see common sentiments expressed with precision and beauty, for example when Mor is required to comment on his wife's new appointment, '"I'm glad too" he said, "it'll be good for her". The words were empty. The future in which Nan would enjoy the benefit of her daring did not belong to him"'. This book is an excellent read, subtle yet engaging, and I strongly reccommend it.
on 20 February 2010
The last novel by Iris Murdoch which I reviewed for this site, "An Unofficial Rose", has a particularly complex plot, detailing a complicated web of emotional entanglements among a large group of characters. "The Sandcastle", published a few years earlier, is also a psychological study of love and desire, but with a much simpler plot and a much smaller cast of characters.
The central figure is William Mor, a middle-aged schoolmaster at a public school in Surrey, who is considering standing as the Labour candidate for the neighbouring constituency at the next election. (It is described as a safe Labour seat, although in reality Surrey is, and was even in the fifties, a stronghold of the Conservative Party). He is married with two teenage children, but the marriage is not a happy one; Mor's wife Nan is a cold, domineering personality who is fiercely opposed to her husband's political ambitions. Mor meets, and falls in love with, Rain Carter, a young painter who has come to the school to paint a portrait of Demoyte, the school's former Headmaster, and discovers that his feelings for her are returned. He therefore needs to decide whether to leave his wife for Rain, knowing that if he does so this is likely to spell the end of his career at the school and of his ambitions to enter Parliament.
The significance of the book's title becomes clear in a scene where Rain is telling Mor about her childhood. She grew up in the South of France, where she attempted to build a sandcastle on the beach, as she had seen children doing in pictures of England. The Mediterranean sand, however, proved too dry, and her sandcastle collapsed in a heap. This image can be seen as symbolic of the relationship between Mor and Rain, whose dreams of future happiness together might prove to be built out of equally unpromising materials. There may also be an intended reference to the passage in St Matthew's Gospel about the "foolish man, which built his house upon the sand".
Images of moisture and dryness are important in the novel. Rain's Christian name has obvious symbolic connotations; she is like rain falling into the parched desert of Mor's life. Water plays a part in a number of key scenes. In one early chapter Mor manages to drive Rain's car into a river, and the scene, about halfway through, in which they realise their love for one another takes place against the background of a thunderstorm. This storm marks the end of a long, dry summer heatwave which has dominated the first half of the book; again the symbolism is quite clear.
Besides Rain and Mor there are several others who play an important part in the story. Nan's marriage may not be a very happy one, but she is implacable and determined to use every weapon at her disposal to try and save it. The children Donald and Felicity have both, in different ways, been marked by the marital discord between their parents. Donald is a headstrong, rebellious young man; it is an act of reckless bravado on his part which precipitates the novel's final crisis. Felicity is a strange, fey girl, in thrall to her own private superstitions. She is convinced that she has occult powers and that she can communicate both with the ghost of the family dog, who died two years earlier, and with a supernatural being whom she names Angus. On holiday by the sea (another water image) she performs a bizarre ritual designed to divide her father from Rain.
Two characters who play lesser, but nevertheless significant, roles in the story are Demoyte and Bledyard, the school art teacher. Demoyte is a close friend of Mor and encourages his relationship with Rain; there is a suggestion that the elderly former Headmaster may be in love with the young woman himself and is using his friend as a vicarious way of fulfilling his own fantasies. Bledyard, on the other hand, urges Mor to remain faithful to Nan; he is partly motivated by his strong religious faith, which tells him that adultery is a sin, but also by a belief that Rain has a vocation as a great painter from which she will be distracted by an unnecessary romantic affair. (Murdoch also uses Bledyard as a vehicle for a debate on the philosophy of art, especially representational art).
The two most important characters, however, are of course Mor and Rain. Rather surprisingly, given that she was a young woman in her thirties when she wrote the book, Murdoch concentrates more on the middle-aged man than on his younger mistress, who despite her clear intelligence and artistic gifts is portrayed as rather naïve, a girl in search of a father-figure. We learn that Rain's own father, Sidney, who has recently died, was himself a famous painter and a great influence on her life and on the development of her artistic career.
Mor is, initially, a rather austere figure, portrayed as a man of great integrity with a deep regard for the truth. Although he is a freethinker, who does not share Bledyard's religious views, he nevertheless suffers from guilt over his deceiving Nan- not deceiving her in the sexual sense, for his relationship with Rain is never physically consummated, but deceiving her in the sense that he is concealing the truth from her- and this guilt leads him into a fatal prevarication.
This was Murdoch's third novel, after "Under the Net" and "Flight from the Enchanter", neither of which are really favourites of mine. "The Sandcastle", however, is in my view her first great novel, in which she admirably demonstrates her gifts for characterisation and psychological analysis.
on 16 June 2011
My second favourite out of the 4 Iris Murdoch books I have read, behind The Sea The Sea (also read Under the Net and The Bell which are also very good). The Sandcastle is very much a page turner and I completely disappeared into it within seconds every time I picked it up. I found that the pace did dwindle a bit in a couple of places towards the end of but this I think was a means of building up the anticipation to significant events which took place thereafter.
This next part contains spoilers so go away and read this fantastic book if you haven't already!
I think The Sea The Sea, which was published 21 years after The Sandcastle, echoes some of the themes in it's predecessor, both being centred around the conflicts of inner desires and a more austere reality, ultimately leading to disappointment and acceptance of the latter. In both books I was thinking increasingly as the story unfolded that the main character's fantasies could become their reality, only to have my hopes dashed in the very final stages, but then again there is a nice sense of resolution, and the sense that their anxieties can now cease because the inevitable, which they previously feared so much, has occurred.
There is a lot of nice symbolism contained in the narrative, perhaps most notably in Rain's description of the sandcastle that she could never make as a child due to the dry sand on the beaches where she grew up. Like her sandcastle, Rain and Mor's relationship is unable to stand for very long because it is not built under the right circumstances. I found the several appearances of the mysterious gypsy character harder to interpret, but perhaps he symbolises fear of the unknown, which seems to be a concern of Mor's judging by his inability to make and stick to decisions. Or maybe the gypsy represents a more feral, dissolute way of living in stark juxtaposition with the orderly middle-class community in which he lingers. We last see him carrying a sack so maybe he has realised there is no place for him there and he is moving on, just as we realise Rain has done shortly afterwards.
I love the very intelligent and articulate way Iris Murdoch tells a story. She employs beautiful prose but at the same time is not overly descriptive, managing to connect the reader with the feelings of the characters and allowing space for the imagination to fill in the gaps. I'm completely hooked on her books now and plan to read them all. I ordered A Severed Head and An Unofficial Rose from Amazon but I couldn't wait for them to be delivered so I spent ages yesterday ringing round book shops in the area trying to get hold of any others. I managed to get The Unicorn and am looking forward to starting that one today.
on 28 October 2005
I fell in love with this book (no pun intended) the first time I read it. Murdoch does not make us sympathetic towards any of the characters, as they are all at fault for what happens to them.
Mor is an ageing school teacher, feeling appart from his tedious and ever scolding wife, and disinterested with his life and its monotonous progress. This changes however when a young artist arrives, having been commisoned to paint a protrait for the school. He emmediately feels attracted to her, even though it takes some time for him to realise she feels the same way. There are many wrenching scenes near the end of the book, where his 2 lives are clumsily merged with devastating and irreversible consequenses. The ending is beautifully tailored and not in the least abrupt.
This is definately a book to recomend, but perhaps not the thing to cheer you up on a bad day.