Thursday, 4 December 2008

Living with the Truth by Jim Murdoch

Jim Murdoch describes himself as making steady but erratic progress as a writer. When I read Living with the Truth, I assumed he meant as a novelist, but now I’m not so sure. I do not mean this as an insult – far from it. What I am trying to convey is that while I was reading this excellent and absorbing novel I had a strong feeling that it had actually been written by a poet, and on researching further for the purposes of writing this review I discover sure enough that Murdoch has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, and so his emergence as a poet pre-dates his discovery of himself as a novelist. There are some sentences that could be lifted straight out of this book and re-set as verse, and very good verse too. For example:

Here he was, in his twilight years, his life well and truly worn in, perhaps even a bit frayed round the cuffs …

The premise of the book is simple enough, though I am going to have to be more cursory here than I would like as I am determined not to give away the ending. Jonathan Payne is moving towards the latter end of middle age and leads a life which contains little of interest. He runs a second-hand bookshop, he has no human relationships of any note, and it is debatable whether he really even has any genuine interest in matters literary. He has drifted into his present situation, and has continued to drift aimlessly ever since. He is one of those people who are shaped by events, rather than vice versa, bobbing along like all the other human flotsam and jetsam on the rather scummy tide of life.

(It was) not that he had a particular reason to die, he simply lacked a decent excuse to keep living.

Into his bookshop and his life walks Truth, an omniscient supreme being, who proceeds to bring him face to face with various facets of his life both past and present. The idea that over the quiet boredom of a mundane existence hovers the continual possibility of a metaphysical encounter is handled with everyday nonchalance and a certain black humour which calls to mind Peter Cook playing the devil in Bedazzled.

“I remember a certain time with Descartes: we bumped into each other in this tavern in Holland and we got talking about the meaning of life – he was heavily into stuff like that too, whereas I was far more fascinated by the fact that the barmaid’s bosoms didn’t topple out of her dress … Anyhow, he’d come up with this great new gimmick of his – Cogito ergo Sum – I’m pink, therefore I’m spam. I don’t know why it had to be in Latin, but there you go.”

When helping out around the shop, knowing in advance exactly what every customer wants clearly comes in helpful. Miss Tremble, a seemingly respectable spinster, is handed “an erotic work, whose author had greater aspirations for it than it rightly deserved”. Incidentally, this episode also demonstrates Murdoch’s priceless ability to find a few evocative phrases which perfectly convey someone’s personality on an almost subliminal level. This is one of the novelist’s greatest gifts, and very few are blessed with it.

She had been saving herself for the right man and the interest was accruing nicely. The fact is ‘interest’ could be her middle name, as that was as far as she’d ever got.

Truth dissects Jonathan’s relationships with the opposite sex, which have been infrequent enough to be capable of easy enumeration, and helps him to the realisation that his recollection and evaluation of these has been unnecessarily harsh, and that in at least one case a major opportunity was missed. To say more would risk disclosing essential plot developments, but let us just say that by the end the book Jonathan has become considerably more self-aware than he was when we first met him.

Murdoch offers that priceless commodity, a unique novelist’s voice. Many labour for this, but it is granted to very few and where it appears it is an unmistakeable sign of true talent. In this, as in fact in some other things, Murdoch resembles his countryman, Frank McGillion, who is also reviewed on this blog. There is the same arch and rather mischievous poetry in his view of passing objects and people, for a start.

The woman at Number 66 was calling her son Tommy who was choosing not to hear her death threats if she had to cross that road to fetch him … a couple of sullen teenagers passed them, if not dressed to kill then at least dressed up to commit GBH

This, then, is a novel that speaks to one and it always difficult to define exactly how and why this occurs, partly since the experience is necessarily subjective, but it does. It is a novel which offers frequent shafts of wisdom, usually dressed up as sly, witty asides. More than anything it is a novel which stays with you. By force of circumstances a period of some months elapsed between my reading the book and writing this review. Yet I found that it was still so perfectly formed in my mind that though I read it again (with just as much pleasure as before) I could probably have written this just as well based on my recollection alone.

Jim Murdoch has a genuine natural talent and it as well for all of us that he has both recognised this fact and, so far as I understand it from his blog The Truth About Lies, managed now to arrange his life in such a way that he will have more time to write in the future. That’s good news for everybody.

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