As I pointed out last year in my review of her novel The Black Prince, I came to Iris Murdoch’s work with a completely unwarranted perception of it –unwarranted because I had hitherto read exactly nothing by her. Something about it being dry, prim and claustrophobically British. Of course, The Black Prince blew the wheels off that prejudice, and her 1964 novel, The Italian Girl, does it again. I’m not sure where I acquired my stupid bias of her work, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Iris Murdoch was one of the cheekiest and most daring writers of the 20th century.
The Italian Girl is a marvel for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it takes a premise that is easily one of the most clichéd in literary fiction and makes it fresh and new again. Her straight-laced and teetotalling protagonist Edmund Narraway has just returned to the home of his estranged family following the death of his mother, Lydia, and while there confronts all manner of strife conjured up by his bizarre kin and troubled past. How many novels and short stories have we seen built upon this exact narrative basis? Yet Murdoch knocks the cliché onto its boot heels by eschewing the dour, introspective tone we’d expect for a biting, caustic humour, and by plotting the relationships between her characters so carefully.
The stand-out here is Edmund’s brother Otto, a stonemason who has descended into alcoholism (a fact revealed, hilariously, during Lydia’s funeral, when he explodes into an inappropriate laughing fit), a force of nature in the household, a man with large appetites and a tenuous grasp on reality. As one character describes him: “He’s primitive, gross. Otto’s the sort of man who’ll pee into a washbasin even if there’s a lavatory beside him.” Edmund soon learns that Otto is cheating on his neurotic wife Isabel with a promiscuous young girl named Elsa, who is the [correction - sister] of Otto’s apprentice, David. This fact leaves the prudish Edmund thoroughly aghast – but oh, if only it ended there. It is soon revealed that Isabel, by way of strange irony, is cheating on Otto with David. If that were not enough, poor Edmund also learns that his niece Flora, the daughter of Otto and Isabel, is also having a love affair with David, and in fact has fallen pregnant by him. If that were not enough, Edmund, against his reserved and conservative nature, finds himself sexually attracted to Flora, and is manipulated into helping her acquire the abortion she so desperately needs. And if that were not enough, there is also the question of Lydia’s will and how much of the old lady’s vast estate she has left to whom.
The centrepiece character in this grand farce is, of course, the “Italian girl” of the title, a woman named Maria 'Maggie’ Magistretti, the household’s long-time servant and nursemaid to Lydia. She is nearly an anonymous presence in the house, and just one in a long line of indistinguishable Italian girls employed to help Lydia raise Edmund and Otto when they were small. And yet, Murdoch grants her the best bird’s-eye view of all the machinations and back-stabbing going on as the novel unfolds. It is strongly suggested that Maggie, in fact, had had, at some point, a lesbian affair with Lydia. This should make the novel’s big reveal at the end – exactly whom Lydia has left her wealth to – contrived and predictable. But it doesn’t. Murdoch is so skilled with her humour, with her nuances, with her pacing, and with her keen sense of story, that we allow this novel to lead us anywhere we want to go.
The Italian Girl is a masterstroke of setting up an expectation of predictability and then knocking it askew in sublime, delightful ways. Even the novel’s theme – the redeeming bonds of family, the conflict between obligation and rational self interest – is handled expertly and in fresh ways. This novel reveals a consummate professional at the very height of her powers. It’s an entertaining read, through and through.