Likely Stories: The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch

Feb 13, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Dame Jean Iris Murdoch is—to my way of reading—one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.  She passed away February 8, 1999.  She was a British novelist and philosopher.  She has written 26 spectacular novels, along with a short story, plays, philosophy, and poetry.  I have so many stories about her and her works, I could fill several episodes of Likely Stories.

The Italian Girl, by Iris Murdoch begins with Edward Narraway who has returned home for his mother’s funeral.  Immediately, he runs into some difficulty.  Iris wrote, “I pressed the door gently.  It had always been left open at night in the old days.  When I became quite certain that it was locked, I stepped back into the moonlight and looked up at the house.  Although it was barely midnight, there was not a light showing.  They were all abed and asleep.  I felt a resentment against them.  I had expected a vigil, for her, and for me.  […]  I walked a little, with dewy steps, and my shadow, thin and darkest blue, detached itself from the bulk of the house and stealthily followed.  At the side it was dark too and protected by such a dense jungle of ash saplings and young elder trees that it would have been impossible to reach a window, even had there been one unlatched.  I measured, by the growth of these rank neglected plants, how long it was since I had last been in the north: it must be all of six years” (11).  I want to bathe in this marvelous prose.

Edward’s father died sometime earlier.  Iris wrote, “It was scarcely credible that all that power had simply ceased to be, that the machine worked no longer.  My father had passed from us almost unnoticed, we believed in his death long before it came.  Yet my father had not been a nonentity. When he was young and famous John Narraway, Narraway the socialist, the free-thinker, the artist, the craftsman, the saint, the exponent of the simple life, the redeemer of toil, he must have impressed my mother, he must indeed have been an impressive person, a talented and perhaps a fine person” (17). 

The title has an interesting origin.  Apparently, “The Italian Girl” of the title was one of a series of housekeepers on the premise.  Iris remarked, “it seemed as if there had always ever been only one Italian girl” (19).  Edwards describes himself.  Iris wrote, “I lived a very simple solitary life, but on the other hand I also earned very little money.  The art of the wood-engraver may be deep but it is narrow.  I passed my days contentedly with the twenty-six letters of the roman alphabet, whose sober authority my father had taught me to love, combining their sturdy forms with wild fantasies of decoration to produce everything from book-plates and trademarks to bank-notes and soap-coupons” (23).

In 2008, The Times ranked Murdoch twelfth on a list of "The 50 greatest British Writers since 1945.  She certainly deserves 5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!