#18: Under the Net (1954), by Iris Murdoch

After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.

 

under the net

Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a perfectly charming, shambolic escapade filled with colorful characters, whimsical romantic entanglements, and all-around good cheer.

It is also a novel of serious ideas, written by an author who produced many volumes of hardcore philosophy, and a novel of influences, unabashedly putting its literary ancestry on display. Murdoch herself called Under the Net a blatant imitation of the works of French author Raymond Queneau, to whom she dedicated it, and Samuel Beckett.

It’s interesting, then, that Murdoch’s most famous novel — not only does the Time 100 include Under the Net on its official list, but the Modern Library also includes it (Murdoch is one of eight women to make the cut), as does the coffee table book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — might well be the least representative novel she ever wrote.

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A New Project: The Stories of John Cheever

I have finished reading the next book in the Time Magazine project, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, and will post some thoughts about it very shortly as the series chugs along at its deliberate pace. It is always my intention to speed things up, lest I devote another 10 years to completing what seemed at the beginning like a perfectly modest challenge, but other commitments always rear their heads.

One of those commitments is what should prove to be a stimulating, enriching new series of posts over at Trevor Berrett’s wonderful lit-blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor was once a patron at my public library, and I have continued to keep his website bookmarked in the years since. It is therefore a real pleasure that I’ll be writing about John Cheever’s collected stories over the next few months on his blog. Please check them out and join the discussion!

I don’t plan on writing about all 61 stories, so I will periodically add the titles I’ve chosen to discuss here.

#17: A Death in the Family (1957), by James Agee

That’s what they’re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. You can feel you’ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened. And trying to imagine it as Mary was. Andrew, too. Any poor subterfuge’ll do; and welcome to ’em.

ADeathintheFamily1stEd

I.

One of the great side effects of reading a lot is that you can’t help but bring all the books you’ve previously read into anything you read next. Different books about different subjects can actually start talking to each other.

After finishing James Agee’s A Death in the Family last month, I picked up David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, a staggering piece of immersive reportage about the “after-war” many of our returning troops are fighting and the withering toll it’s taking on their families. With the Follets still fresh in my mind, I read Finkel’s account of a woman named Amanda Doster, whose husband was killed in combat. Here, she recalls the day the doorbell rang:

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A Dispatch from the Field

I attended the American Library Association’s annual midwinter conference in Philadelphia last month. After braving the snowy weather, navigating the tight but aromatic aisles in Reading Terminal Market, and cursing the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s ruthless efficiency, I returned home to file this report.

See y’all in June for NJLA.

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/ala-midwinter-conference-defies

#16: Falconer (1977), by John Cheever

He needed time, but he would not pray for time or pray for anything else. He would settle for the stamina of love, a presence he felt like the beginnings of some stair.

220px-Falconer

Q. Do you think your works will be…dated?
A. Oh, I don’t anticipate that my work will be read. That isn’t the sort of thing that concerns me. I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn’t disconcert me in the least.

When John Cheever gave that answer during his Paris Review interview in 1976, broke and recovering from a legendary, decades-long alcoholism, he couldn’t have known how dramatically his fortunes were about to change in the coming years.

By the time he died in 1982, Cheever was unquestionably at his critical and commercial peak, riding the wave of a valedictory resurgence: his fourth novel, Falconer, was published in 1977 to great fanfare, and a year later, thanks to the efforts of his editor Robert Gottlieb, his epochal collected stories received rapturous reviews and a dedicated place in every bookworm’s shelf. Even a substandard final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, written as his physical health was collapsing, couldn’t dim his stature as one of America’s preeminent writers.

Thirty-two years later, Cheever’s premonition that his books would be consigned to a long and yellowing future on library shelves, which might have seemed a tad disingenuous at the time, now seems prophetic.

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