Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Modernist (page 2 of 3)

The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).

My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?

So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.

There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.

Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!



Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!

Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.

Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.

Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!



I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.

I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.

Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

  • “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
  • “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.



The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker



Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos

Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…

NIneteen NIneteen - John Dos Passos - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Nineteen Nineteen here.
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… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?

Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.

Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.



Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.

It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.

The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?



Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.

What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!

Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.

Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.

In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:

  • “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
  • “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer


Amongst Women – John McGahern

This slim, unassuming volume actually marks a very important discovery in my reading life: I purchased it on my first trip to a local charity shop’s book section. Before that fateful day, I’d almost exclusively haunted secondhand bookstores and book fairs. Discovering that charity shops also had amazing book selections – and so cheap! – was a revelation! I’d been looking for a copy of Amongst Women since I began the Keeping Up With The Penguins project a year and a half ago, so I was more than happy to hand over $3 for this pristine Faber edition.

Right, enough personal stories – this isn’t a recipe blog! Let’s get down to business. Amongst Women is the best-known novel of Irish writer John McGahern. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release (1990). That was pretty much all I knew about it going in. From the blurb, I thought it might be similar to An Artist Of The Floating World, in that they’re both stories of aging men trying to outrun the fallout from their role in a war in the mid-20th Century. On the face of it, that assumption was technically correct, but the protagonists are very different, and as such their stories go in very different directions…

Michael Moran is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. He’s known to his community as a respectable and devout Catholic, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. He’s super bitter about the “small minded gangsters” that now run his country, and he refuses to accept the government’s solider pension, because he feels they have betrayed the ideals he fought for (yeah, let ’em keep their money, that’ll show ’em!). Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. He’s positively tyrannical in his personal life, cruel and brutal with his wife and children, and controlling in the extreme. So, consider this a trigger warning if those kinds of family dynamics don’t sit well with you: you’re going to want to give Amongst Women a miss.



Amongst Women begins in the Moran family home, in the rural midlands of Ireland. Moran is elderly, weakened by illness and age, and suffering a bout of depression his family fears will kill him. His adult daughters have decided to re-create an annual event of their childhood, Monaghan Day, in an effort to lift the old man’s spirits. From there, the family’s history is told through flashbacks as the Moran women remember their shared past, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (thank goodness!). It’s more like a chronological story that circles back around on itself. In fact, I’d say the opening scene really just serves as an unofficial prologue, setting up the story.

These grown daughters are: Maggie, who moves to London to become a nurse and marries a fashionable drunk; Mona, the family beauty who returns home most often, holds a civil service job in Dublin; and Shelia, who wanted to go to university but ol’ Daddy Moran talked her out of it (boo!). Shelia is the most defiant of the three, and a lot of her motivation comes from wanting to keep her own children away from the poisonous Moran patriarch. He’s a real bastard, no doubt about that. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, he has an explosive temper, he’s frustrated by his own obsolescence… it’s a deadly combination, one that makes him very unpredictable.

So, the flashback takes us back to when Moran – then a widower – re-married a local woman called Rose. His children were already teenagers, but she still became a mother figure to them, and she was often called upon to mediate disputes. She’s disturbingly tolerant of Moran’s mood swings and abuse. In fact, all of the Moran women are. Like many victims of such cruelty, they become extremely grateful for any expression of tenderness or goodwill, and they wind up willing to overlook his behaviour and his unapologetic attitude. This is, really, the crux of the story; there’s not a lot of plot, just the normal highs and lows of family life, and trying to work out why on earth all these women are so gentle with such an arsehole.



As the children leave home, one by one, Moran grows increasingly panicked. He can’t handle no longer being the center of their worlds, so what does he do? He devolves into a clingy, needy, hot mess, demanding their attention (and thus drawing them back to him), even when it disturbs the lives they’re trying to build for themselves. He finds his sons particularly threatening, as they “need” him the least (i.e., they’re less inclined to indulge his every whim).

Ah, yes, the sons! There’s two of them: Luke, the eldest, who escapes to London early on, unable to cope with his father’s overbearing authority; and Michael, the youngest, who hides in Rose’s skirts until he’s old enough to escape, too. It’s a dynamic that plays out with every single one of the Moran children, boys and girls alike: the only power they can exert in their relationship with their father is to leave him. Moran talks a lot of smack about how blood-is-thicker-than-water and family solidarity is the most important value and all of that, so the act of leaving him for the Big Smoke is the ultimate kick in the guts. And, yet, they all find themselves suckered back in to his vortex of manipulation and cruelty – all except Luke, who returns to Ireland only once, to attend Sheila’s wedding.

Moran dies in the end, of course. He’s buried under a yew tree and everyone grieves, but McGahern goes out of his way to make it abundantly clear that this is not the end of that bastard’s influence in their lives:

“… now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

Amongst Women, pg. 183

I kept waiting for the “clang” that never really came. Perhaps McGahern intended for Moran’s death to be that moment, but it seemed a foregone conclusion: what other ending could he give such a terrible person? Amongst Women was, in short, the story of a traumatised veteran abusing and manipulating his whole family until the day he died. All the women he was amongst just made excuses for him and cleaned up after him, keeping the peace instead of calling him out on his bullshit. It’s a heart-breakingly familiar and relatable narrative, but in that sense it’s also really frustrating. What good is mirroring these unhealthy family relationships back at us through fiction, if the story doesn’t teach us anything other than… these families exist? I mean, we knew that. Arseholes die but people remember their arseholery? We knew that, too. Trauma is passed down through generations? Yep, we’re all across it. Amongst Women is not a satisfactory story, it’s just a depressing window into a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town.



Perhaps McGahern was trying to make some greater point about why the women in Moran’s life remained so devoted to him, even after they established independent lives of their own, but I couldn’t see it. I read later, in other reviews, that McGahern “asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality” in post-colonial Catholic rural Ireland, and “exposes the insecurities and inexpressiveness of Irish masculinity”. I guess I can kind-of see both of those elements, but only after they were pointed out for me in a For-Dummies kind of way, so I don’t blame you if you missed them too.

I do like the title, though, and it has a clever dual meaning. Firstly, the Moran household is mostly female, so Moran is literally “amongst women”. Secondly, it refers to a line from the Hail Mary prayer (which I only learned reading this book, I’m a big ol’ heathen) – “blessed art thou amongst women”. The Moran family says a lot of Hail Marys, it’s a daily ritual for them, so it’s repeated often enough that you get the point.

Given the level of detail McGahern gave about the emotional brutality of these relationships, it came as no surprise to me that Amongst Women is (at least somewhat) autobiographical. These pages were clearly written by someone with inside knowledge of what a Moran-type household is like. McGahern’s beloved mother, Susan, died when he was a child, leaving he and his siblings in the care of his authoritarian IRA-veteran father. My heart breaks for McGahern; it must have been a deeply traumatic childhood (and adulthood, if his relationship with his real-life father bore out the way the fictional ones did), but I found myself frustrated on that point, too. When Louisa May Alcott mined her own childhood and family life for a novel, it was called “sentimental” and “schmaltzy” and excluded from the canon for years. When McGahern did it, it was heralded as a literary triumph, and the Booker Prize came a’knocking. Hardly seems fair, eh?

But I can see how I’m perhaps being a little hard on McGahern here, so I’ll let him have the last word of this review. He said of his novel: “The whole country is made up of families, each family a kind of independent republic. In Amongst Women, the family is a kind of half-way house between the individual and society.” And I think he’s spot on, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Amongst Women:

  • “I didn’t care about anyone in this family.” – Jayfred
  • “For some reason I expected the book. Instead I rec the literary review which was actually better tha the actual book.” – Lisa L Smith


Murphy – Samuel Beckett

I’m getting closer and closer to the pointy end of my reading list, which makes it harder and harder to pick my next read! I decided to do something different this time, and let my husband pick for me. He chose Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, because (in his exact words): “It’s exceptionally weird, and he was mates with [James] Joyce, so it’s the next best thing to forcing you to read Ulysses.” Isn’t that sweet? *eye roll*

The inscription in this pre-loved edition reads: “To Dad, Fathers’ Day 1973, from No. 1 Son”. Whoever Dad is, he apparently enjoyed Murphy, because it’s very well worn – I had to tape the back cover on to hold it together as I read.

Murphy was first published in 1938, the third work of fiction by Beckett (but the first one to be released). He wrote it painstakingly, by hand, in six small exercise books over the course of 1935 and 1936. He had a devil of a time getting it published; no one wanted in Europe wanted a bar of him, and he got no love in America either. Now and then, a publisher would offer to take it on if Beckett was willing to undergo a rigorous editing process, to make the book more marketable, but the smug prick turned them down every time, insisting the book was perfect as it was. In the end, he had to get his mate – the painter Jack Butler Yeates – to put it on the desk of a publisher friend at Routeledge. That’s how Murphy came to be another story in the file of Magical Nepotism.

Between the time of Routeledge accepting his manuscript as-is, and Murphy hitting the stores, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed while wandering the streets of Paris. Apparently, he’d refused a kind offer of companionship from a notorious local pimp, who had much the same attitude towards rejection that Beckett had himself. Beckett nearly died, and had to call on another friend, this time James Joyce (yep, the same one), to oversee (and pay for!) his medical treatment. He made the final amendments and approvals to the manuscript proofs from a French hospital bed. This is a very on-brand story for Beckett, which tells you everything you need to know about the man, really.



It’s got a cracker opening line, perhaps my favourite part of the whole book:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Murphy (Pg. 1)

Normally I’m not a fan of opening with the weather, but for a line so delightfully snarky, I can make an exception. Anyway, Murphy follows the story of a solipsist named (you guessed it) Murphy, who lives in a condemned apartment in West Brompton and later moves to London. Funnily enough, shortly before putting pen to paper, Beckett himself had moved from Dublin to London – the advice to “write what you know” pays off, once again! If we’re to believe, as has been reported, that Murphy draws heavily on Beckett’s real-life experiences, geographically and otherwise, then you’ll soon see that Beckett must have lived a very strange life indeed…

See, the story opens with Murphy sitting naked, tied to a chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, apparently having placed himself in that position. It’s his attempt to enter “a nonexistent state of being” (something akin to sensory deprivation, or deep meditation perhaps), and he finds this state particularly pleasurable. He has withdrawn from the world in gradual but increasing increments, in pursuit of these (shall we say) unconventional desires. Now, bear with me, I’m going to have trouble explaining what happens from then on because this book is, as my husband so eloquently described it, exceptionally weird. Just trust me: if you’re finding this hard to follow, you’re not the only one.



Even though he’s off his trolley, Murphy has at least one friend: Neary, whose party trick is stopping his own heart, a phenomenon he calls “apmonia”. Basically, he can induce cardiac arrest at will. WTAF? And Neary and Murphy sit around talking about their heart attacks and special-naked-rocking-chair-time, until the conversation eventually shifts around to their love lives. Murphy is engaged to one Miss Counihan, but in conversation with Neary, he decides – to hell with her – he’ll escape to London where he can have all the special-naked-rocking-chair-time he pleases, without her nagging him. Of course, he tells his wife-to-be that he’s taking off to find a respectable job, and she… just… believes him? Smh.

It’s not until after he’s been gone quite a while, without a word of correspondence, that Miss Counihan starts getting suss. She’s now shagging Neary (who has no qualms about cutting his mate’s grass), and they decide together to hire a bloke to track Murphy down. Miss Counihan is hoping that the dick, named Cooper (who, it must be said, is also a few pickles short of a party), will prove that Murphy is either dead or sleeping around, so that she can move on with her life guilt-free. Yeah, she’s a real peach; they deserved each other, to be honest.

That’s when the character of Celia Kelly is introduced: a sex worker, and Murphy’s concerned Friend-With-Benefits. I think Beckett invented her character purely for the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the censors. In describing her profession, he says: “This phrase is chosen with care; lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche”. Ha! But even so, you really feel for this girl, perhaps more than anyone else in Murphy, because she’s hopelessly in love with him even though he’s bonkers. He’s only slightly more than indifferent towards her, and yet she has enough powers of logical persuasion to convince him to get a job.



And what a job it is: Murphy begins working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, finding a refuge from the strains and pains of the real world in a literal asylum. He befriends the long-institutionalised patients there, and figures if he hangs out with them long enough, he’ll find a way to send himself insane and escape reality altogether. He’s so happy in his new work that he ditches Celia, and promptly forgets all about her. What a guy!

Celia joins forces with Miss Counihan, Neary, Cooper, and some other blow-in called Wiley. They all hurry-up-and-wait for Murphy to snap out of it. I can’t even begin to fathom the delusion that went into deciding on this course of action, because Murphy has never done anything not weird. And just as you think the story is approaching some big confrontation or resolution, Murphy dies. Yep! He’s burned to death in his room due to some whoopsy-daisy with the gas line (or maybe he died by suicide and that was his chosen method, Beckett didn’t really make it clear). Either way, he’s dead, and his friends don’t waste a lot of time mourning. They charge Cooper with putting Murphy’s remains to rest, which he does by spilling the ashes during a bar-room brawl and just leaving them there, among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”. So, a happy ending for all involved!

Reviews of Murphy were (very) mixed, and sales were (predictably) poor. Just 568 copies were sold upon its release in 1938. A further 23 were sold in 1939, 20 in 1940, and just 7 in 1941. By 1943, Murphy was out of print altogether. Beckett didn’t see any success or find any substantial audience until the release of Waiting For Godot, and since then Murphy has lived entirely in its shadows. I felt, reading Murphy, that Beckett was naturally more inclined towards being a playwright than a novelist, because his prose (bizarre as it was) read very theatrically – I could picture it being performed on a stage.



I’m sure there’s a lot of brilliant stuff in here – Beckett was obsessed with chess, for instance, and even I (a relative dummy) can see some of the ways he exploited the artistic possibilities of the game in Murphy – but damn, it’s a tough row to hoe. Normally I’m a fan of nihilistic black humour, but the way Beckett stewed it in absurdist existentialist ramblings just wasn’t to my taste. Luckily, there are plenty of people far smarter than me who are able to get more out of it, like the folks who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Murphy is a hard book to read, even being as short as it is (just 158 pages). I had to keep convincing myself to pick it back up; this is one I definitely would have abandoned if not for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s neither character-driven, nor plot-driven – in fact, I’d say it’s not “driven” at all. It’s just a weird meander in the dark through some dodgy parts of town. My ears picked up a bit when Murphy started working in the asylum, but my interest waned very quickly. On the whole, I was rather underwhelmed. Luckily, my husband anticipated this reaction, and laughed heartily when I told him what I thought. I think I’ll stick to picking my own reads from now on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murphy:

  • “I had to read this for class. The plot is all over the place and it is really boring. There is nothing memorable about this book and it as mundane as watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter…on second thought, watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter is like going to Disney World when you are 4 years old compared to reading this book. I had to read this for English 196 and I can’t wait to sell this back to the book store even though I got it on ebay…so in essence, selling it to the bookstore…..good riddance!!!” – M. R. Randall


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