Six Degrees from Lincoln in the Bardo to Iris

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, a book I haven’t read.

Lincoln in the Bardo

It’s about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War. Willie finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Moving from a fictional and highly original book by the looks of it my chain goes next to a biographical account of Lincoln:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a biography of Abraham Lincoln and others, by  Doris Kearns Goodwin, a book I bought after watching the film, Lincoln, which is loosely based on this book covering the final four months of Lincoln’s life. Goodwin examines his relationships with three men he selected for his cabinet, all of whom were opponents for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing

Writing biography is the subject of Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee, a collection of essays on Shelley,  T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen, Eudora Welty  and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few. Lee explores the relation of biography to fiction and history and of the connection of writers’ lives to their works.

So my next link is a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf –

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished.

The title essay is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane. As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. Woolf watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life.

Moths provide the next link  – to a novel, The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams.

Behavior Of Moths

This is the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time.  What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past. Two events in particular affected their lives. One was when Vivi, aged 8, fell from the bell tower and nearly died. The story alternates between the past and the present as Ginny recalls their lives.

Bell‘ is the next link in my chain – to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell, a book with an impending sense of evil and menace. It looks at the angst and self-denial of the relationship between religion and sex.

The Bell

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself.

And my final link is to a book about the author of The Bell, Iris Murdoch – Iris: A Memoir by John Bayley.

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch

I first read this in 2003. It’s a very loving and touching account. Iris died in February 1999 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Bayley explained how he had coped emotionally and practically with the illness that beset the woman he loved and cherished.

Writing this post as disrupted my reading because I got Bayley’s book off the shelves and began reading it again. He writes in such a warm and affectionate way that I’ve decided to read it right away.

For once there is no crime fiction in my chain! It contains books pondering the nature of life and death, beginning with a meditation on the death of Willie Lincoln and ending with a memoir of the life of Iris Murdoch.

Next month (March 3, 2018), the chain begins with a controversial book that Kate reports had everyone talking in the nineties – The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Everyone that is, apart from me – I don’t know anything (yet) about this book.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch: a Book Review

I first read The Bell years ago and it remained in my memory as an excellent book, but this time round I think my reading tastes have changed because, although I still liked it, I no longer found it so enchanting. Iris Murdoch wrote beautiful English, with detailed descriptions of the location – Imber Court, Imber Abbey and the lake and woods around them. But I just couldn’t work out the layout and that is actually relevant in this book. There was also too much detail about the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters – Michael Meade – for my liking, and yet for all the description he didn’t seem a real person, but more a mouthpiece for Murdoch’s philosophical thoughts. In fact most of the characters, with the exception of Dora, come across more as stereotypes than real people.

A lay community lives next to an enclosed order of nuns, a new bell is being installed and then the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic  is retrieved from the bottom of the lake. The legend of the bell is that it fell into the lake after a 14th century Bishop had cursed the Abbey when a nun was discovered to have a lover and had drowned herself. The various characters include Dora Greenfield who is staying at Imber Court whilst her husband Paul is researching the Abbey archives. Paul is thirteen years older and is an art historian. Dora had left him six months earlier because she was afraid of him and was returning for the same reason. She is a young woman, a rather silly young woman who thinks one thing and immediately says the opposite, but Paul is probably the most obnoxious character in the book – he is a manipulative bully. The other residents at Imber Court are a mixed-up bunch, there for both religious and other reasons. As the date for the installation of the new bell approaches their weaknesses begin to be exposed.

Much of the book is taken up with discussions and examining the thoughts of the characters about the relationship of goodness to power. On the surface everything appeared to Dora to be peaceful, but underneath stresses and strains are causing the community to diverge into two parties. It’s not just a matter of organisation but also of morals and there is an impending sense of evil and menace.  Bearing in mind that The Bell was first published in 1958 this must have been quite a shocking book at the time – about the relationship between religion and sex and the angst and self-denial that it depicts.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (2 July 2009)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0099470489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099470489
  • Source: I bought this book

For a rather more positive view of The Bell see The Senior Common Room.

Book Beginnings: The Bell

I love starting a book. There’s such potential to find a book that really satisfies the imagination, that draws you into its world and also makes you think. It’s even better when you can start a book you’ve read before, knowing that you enjoyed it but not remembering all the details and have it unfold before you still with the power to enchant. Such a book is The Bell by Iris Murdoch.

I first read it in the early 199os (I think), so my memory of it is only of the outline story – a new bell is to be installed at an Abbey, which triggers the discovery of the old bell and then tragedy strikes. I also remember that it was peopled by some interesting characters, but I couldn’t have told you who they are.

Here is the opening paragraph:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence. (page 7)

Now, that’s not a good marriage, but it is a great opening to this story of a lay community at Imber Court, a beautiful house outside Imber Abbey, the home of an enclosed order of nuns. Paul is a guest at Imber Court studying some 14th century manuscripts which belong to the Abbey. You know straight away that Dora and Paul’s marriage is a disaster area, that Paul is a man to be feared and that Dora is a mass of contradictions, a complex character – will she be able to stand living with Paul? My immediate reaction was that she is making a big mistake.

So far I’ve read about a quarter of the book and it’s just as good as I remember. Iris Murdoch’s writing is so good, full of description so that you can see the people and places as though you were there and also full of insights into the characters thoughts and feelings. There is an impending sense of evil  and menace, for below the peaceful surface stress and tension abound.

Book Beginnings is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages, where you can leave a link to your own post on the opening lines of a book you’re currently reading.