Thursday, June 12, 2014

a kind of involuntary seduction

This from Murdoch:
That Paul was a violent man had been clear to Dora from the start. Indeed it was one of the things which had attracted her to him. He had a sort of virile authority which her boyish contemporaries could never have. He was not exactly handsome, but had a strong appearance with almost black dry hair and a dark drooping mustache which made Dora think of him as Southern. His nose was too large and his mouth inclined to harshness, but his eyes were very pale and snake-like and had fluttered other hearts at the Slade besides Dora's. She had liked to see in him something taut and a little ruthless, especially when he had been at her feet. She had enjoyed her role of a teasing yet pliant mistress; and Paul had delighted her by the revelation of a sophisticated sexuality and a fierceness of passion which made the lovers of her student days seem insipid. Yet now she began to see his power with a difference. She was at last disturbed by the violent and predatory gestures with which he destroyed the rhythms of her self-surrender. Something gentle and gay had gone out of her life.
or this from Powys:
Settled down close to Mrs Lily in her little car, with Daisy Lily sitting on one of his knees, the Jobber gave himself up to a procession of the queerest thoughts. It gave him a deliciously soothing and sensual pleasure to hold Daisy like this; but out of the lap of this sensuality his mind kept shooting off in more serious and more poignant directions. To High House it flew, straight and fast, like the wind that was blowing in their faces; and the girl who balanced herself on his knee had no idea how his contact with her young body was mingling and fusing itself with his romantic feeling for Mrs Cobbold's companion. But the Jobber was not permitted by destiny to remain long in peace, enjoying this contact with Daisy and these thoughts about Perdita. A casual word from Mrs Lily, as they drove through Rodwell, referring to the number of new villas that had sprung up in that district, though he replied to it in a friendly manner--and indeed there had always been something piquant to his fancy about having a flirtation with the Dog's fiancee--set him upon his murderous thoughts again. The weight of Daisy's body upon him accentuated the pressure of the cold hard stone from Chesil against his thigh...
Certainly the first example, because it isn't in a scene, lacks Powys' sensory details, of the weight of Daisy on the Jobber's knee, the wind, the car. So perhaps something from a scene of Murdoch's:
Toby turned over and reclined on one elbow. In this more inviting position he was accosted by Murphy who came and laid his head against his shoulder. In a kind of physical rapture Toby sat up and took the furry beast in his arms and cuddled him as he had sometimes seen Nick do. The sensation of the hot soft living fur against his skin was strange and exciting. He sat there motionless for a while, holding the dog and looking down into the lake. It was deep there by the landing-stage; and suddenly his eyes made out a large fish basking motionless where the sun penetrated the greenish water. From its narrow length and its fierce jaws he knew it to be a pike. His head nodding a little over Murphy's back he watched the quiet pike. Then his eyes began to close and only the hot sparkling of the lake pierced through the fringe of his eyelids. He felt so happy he could almost die of it, invited by that sleep of youth when physical well-being and joy and absence of care lull the mind into a sweet coma which is the more inviting since its awakening is charmed no less, and the spirit faints briefly, almost sated with delight.
Maybe that's it, the narrator telling the reader what it's like to experience sensations. Powys does this, too, writing out away from the scene and its characters, into the shared life of the mind, or something. Both writers are making claims about universality of a kind.
He replied so coldly that Mrs Lily, anxious to please him tonight at all costs, threw back her heavy coat from her throat, as she held the wheel, and turned quickly to him with a smile into which she threw so much intimacy and sweetness that it quite startled the man. With naive, masculine simplicity the Jobber welcomed not exactly the thought, but the vibration of the thought: might not this desirable Being be cajoled away from Cattistock? Had the painter Correggio been driving by Mrs Lily's side, instead of the Jobber, he would have been forever afterwards trying to catch the Ariel-like equivocation of this ambiguous glance wherein all the wanton nymph in a light woman's nature threw provocative arms round the neck of her lover's foe. Her smile was given him as she turned her vehicle round the corner of Franchise Road into Rodwell Road. Few places could have been more difficult to transform into a Correggio picture than this suburban retreat of quiet tradesmen, where the very pavements were kept so neat and even the fluttering eddies of little hard, dead, metallic-colored privet-leaves were soon caught, scooped up, and carried away; but Mrs Lily was one of those fair women whose skin is so exquisitely white that any gesture, revealing a fragment of throat, or neck, or bosom, acquires a kind of involuntary seduction, independent of place or time.
The Correggio bit is fantastic. A little later, Powys suggests that absent people we are thinking intensely about might be present in a real way, and those thought-about people, even if for example I am thinking of one person and you of another, might well actually be brought together in some psychic space beyond all four of us, invisibly, the power of our minds linking them together in real life. Well, perhaps there is less similarity between Powys and Murdoch than I thought. It's been some time since I read any Murdoch. Her excerpts are from The Bell, and his are from Weymouth Sands. She was writing two decades after him.


  1. From the "Paris Review" interview with Iris Murdoch, summer 1990:

    I don’t read much contemporary fiction. I particularly admire John Cowper Powys. I particularly like Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance, and Weymouth Sands. They are very long novels, full of details that novels should have. I think he is very good on sex. Sex is a complicated, subtle, omnipresent, mysterious, multifarious business; sex is everywhere. I think Hardy is a far more erotic writer than Lawrence. John Cowper Powys is really interested in sex, just as keen on it as Lawrence, but he understands and portrays it far better. He sees so many different aspects of it. He treats it with reverence and respect. He finds it very strange, and funny, and mysterious.

  2. That's a good answer to the question I asked two posts ago. I think there's a difference between them when it comes to that "psychic space" and those "sensory details," with the world in Powys constantly trying to infiltrate the human body in one way or another, as a gas, or as the essence of a thought-about person, or as a sensation of "intimacy and sweetness," so that the integrity of any character is continuously under threat; and this person has to maintain their sense of themselves against these alien powers. (Eccentricity in his books often presents itself as a refusal.)

    And the whole world breeds those alien powers, and even the person's own thoughts might accidentally invite them in because they are almost limitlessly subtle: "not exactly the thought, but the vibration of the thought." Life is a giant sadistic torture device, which isn't a bad thing in Powys' mind; he's thrilled. Murdoch's character might feel the dog's fur and the sunshine and see the pike, but that sense of crushing and assault is not there. Her things tend to stand separately. They're not so often mashed and squashed together.

    1. Yeah, the entire Powysian world is unpinned and in motion, interconnected and porous; I just read a passage where a young man is, in his sleep, sort of breathing in the emotions that others feel about him, emotions carried to him on a dawn breeze through an open window. The whole book is like that, and Murdoch would only say something like that as a metaphor, whereas Powys means it on a literal level. I'm still going to say that Murdoch's prose reminds me of Powys', the sentence- and paragraph-level structuring, and a sort of constant "I am telling you the reader about how people are" declamatory gesture. I'm also put in mind of Graham Greene and Baron Corvo. And Antonia Byatt, of course, but obvs filtered through Murdoch. I can't believe I've never read Powys before now. Fantastic stuff, the narrative coiling around itself like a snake. I'll bet Graham Swift read Powys.

    2. "Powys means it on a literal level" -- the closest equivalent I can think of is the salt water monster at the end of The Sea, The Sea, the one that gets blurred over with a speech about Buddhism. She'll flirt with physical literalism but she won't give in to it.

  3. It's been quite a while since I read either Powys or Murdoch but I remember feeling that A Severed Head seemed the most Powys like of Murdoch's books. There's a sense of life in inanimate objects which I remember being ubiquitous in Powys. Glad to see my intuition that Murdoch was influenced by Powys is shared by others, and even backed up by Murdoch herself.

    1. I think we have all of Murdoch on the shelf, but I haven't read Severed Head yet. Maybe this summer. Her novels seem to me to be more about abstract ideas than actual people, but it's been a while and I've read a lot of books since last encountering Murdoch. Maybe after Weymouth Sands I'll read a Murdoch or two. They aren't particularly long novels.

      I am increasingly interested in this sort of writing, where the entire world is invoked by the narrative, where each page drags more of life into the story and forces the story to open itself up to things not directly part of the primary action. What I like about the Powys book is that it's so alive at every level for long sections. Not every page is like that, but a lot of them are.