Thursday, December 12, 2019

Book 211: Henry and Cato

"Fear had entered his life, and would now be with him forever. How easy it was for the violent to win. Fear was irresistible, fear was king, he had never really known this before when he had lived free and without it."

Dates read: February 24- March 2, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Figuring out what you want should be one of the easiest things in the world, but somehow it's not. What we actually want is usually buried under a dizzying series of projections: we think we want things, but we actually want the security they represent. Or the status. Or both! We think we want love, but maybe we're just afraid to be alone with ourselves. Or we just want that head rush that happens at  beginning. The Buddhists think that want/desire is the cause of all suffering, and I think they're probably right.

The two men at the center of Iris Murdoch's Henry and Cato, the titular Henry Marshalson and Cato Forbes, are tied together by their failure to have any idea what it is they actually want. They're also tied together by their shared past, growing up as friends in neighboring English country estates. Their lives have taken them wildly different directions, though: Henry has carved out a life for himself as the third party in a sort of three-part relationship with a married couple, working in academia in the United States, while Cato has had a sudden revelation and joined the church as a priest, ministering to the wayward youth of London. But the two men find themselves in the same place, in crisis, at about the same time.

Henry learns that his older brother, Sandy, his mother's favorite, has died, leaving him as the heir to his family estate, and so returns to England full of plans to toss out the mother who never loved him and her hanger-on, Lucius Lamb (a useless poet) and sell the property. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in a love triangle between Stephanie, Sandy's former mistress, and Colette, Cato's little sister. Meanwhile, Cato has become obsessed with one of the delinquents who visits him, an attractive teenager called Beautiful Joe. Cato's faith is waning, and he wants nothing more than to abandon the priesthood and run away with Joe. The two men meet up briefly in London to reconnect, and when Joe joins them and learns about Henry's inheritance, events begin to spiral out of control.

There's a LOT going on in this book: Henry's complicated relationship with his mother, his resentment of his brother, his desire to possess his brother's lover, his relationship to the ancestral home, Cato's sudden religious awakening and subsequent disillusionment, Cato's desire for Beautiful Joe although he's previously believed himself heterosexual. Henry and Cato are set up as mirrors of each other: even just on a fundamental level, Henry had an older brother and his father has died, Cato's got a younger sister and his mother has died. Both men rejecting what their parents wanted for them: while Henry left the country and pursued a living and was involved with a married couple, Cato renounced his father's intellectualism and became religious, took vows of poverty and chastity.  The theme of mirrored opposites even plays out in Henry's two love interests: while Stephanie is lower-class, older, and slatternly, Colette is young, rich, and virginal.

I'd been tossing the idea of reading Iris Murdoch around since I saw Iris several years ago, and this was the first of her works I found discounted for the Kindle. It's hard to put my finger on exactly how I felt about the book: the characters were mostly well-drawn, the plot proceeded smoothly, the prose was capable, there were interesting ideas toyed with...but the whole was less than the sum of the parts, somehow. I didn't really ever care what became of either Henry or Cato, both of whom I found frustrating (understandable, but frustrating). Without a connection to a character, I personally find it difficult to get invested in a book. So while there was enough good here to get me to check out some of her other works, and I didn't hate the experience of reading it or anything, it wasn't the kind of good that makes me recommend a book widely.

One year ago, I was reading: The Goldfinch

Two years ago, I was reading: The Girl in the Tower

Three years ago, I was reading: The Wonder

Four years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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