Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV

Robert Fagles’s superb translation (the best, in my opinion).

Welcome back to the Virgil readalong.  All translations of the Aeneid are brilliant in different ways, and all are welcome to comment on their responses and interpretations. I am reading the Latin, and will occasionally guide you through a translation, or compare a translation to the original.

(Note: Our reading schedule is posted at the end of this blog entry. We have already discussed Book I here and Book II here. )

Today we’re reading Book IV, the story of the love affair of Dido and Aeneas.  It is the most famous, and perhaps the most widely-discussed book in the Aeneid.   It has inspired numerous works of literature and art, among them Dido’s letter to Aeneas in Ovid’s Heroides, Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and Charles Martin’s modern poem, “Dido and Aeneas.” Shakespeare’s plays are rich with allusions to Book IV. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When I first read the Aeneid as an undergraduate and Second Wave feminist,  Dido was my favorite character.  We were modern women; we empathized with Dido.   Our male classics professors didn’t pay much attention to the female perspective.  But  certainly writers through the ages have preferred Dido to Aeneas.  Later, as a graduate student in classics, I did much research and taught a Virgil class. And I began to view the details of Book IV with different eyes.  I discerned the tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty).  I saw the perspectives of Dido, Aeneas, and perhaps Virgil.   And when I taught Latin at prep schools and in adult education classes, I tried to share these perspectives.

Some of you are reading Sarah Ruden’s translation.  It is my least favorite, but I will talk about it in a later post.

There is a historical context for Book IV.   No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:

Carthage (Dido’s city), one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War. Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Carthage was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.

But more immediate would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east. Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, more gorily, with a sword. But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and she is traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas. Aeneas’ views of duty are craven in comparison, or so we think nowadays. Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome. But Virgil may be questioning empire as Aeneas gives up all personal life in despair. (You can find evidence for both sides.)

Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company 2017.

Book IV portrays the  tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty). If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas (duty to his gods, country, and family)  When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation) to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared earlier to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.

But is furor or pietas more sympathetic? Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is weak (certainly pietas is not much regarded nowadays).  And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here.  His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response. But we know from Virgil that Aeneas is heartbroken.  He writes (Book IV, vv. 279-80):

The Latin is:

At vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens,
arrectaeque horrore comae et vox faucibus haesit.

My literal translation:

And truly Aeneas was astounded, frenzied at the sight,
and his hair stood on end with horror, and his voice stuck to his throat.

Robert Fagles’s superb translation:

Then Aeneas
was truly overwhelmed by the vision, stunned,
his hackles bristle with fear, his voice chokes in his throat.

What does Virgil mean by this description of madness? Aeneas is as mad (amens, literally “away from his mind) as Dido, who also is described as amens (pronounced ah-mense).  Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty?  Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, now doomed, despite his eventual win?

Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic. There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ Medea and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion (little epic). In Euripides’s tragedy, Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for Jason’s deserting her for a younger women. Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power. Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path. Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.

Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:

exposition (the set-up)

agon (struggle, conflict)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)

hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)

Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.

anagorisis: a discovery [hinges on surprise)

suffering occasioned by discovery

lamentation (kommos)

catharsis (for audience)

Do let me know what you think about Book IV.  There is so much to discuss.  Books have been written on it.  And what translation are you reading?  I think Robert Fagles’ translation is the richest and the best, the closest in spirit to the Latin.  But I know that others of you are reading Ferry’s and Ruden’s.  Do you like the one you are reading, whatever it may be?


Jan. 22-28: Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4: Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

Feb. 5-11, Book VII (Book VIII optional)

Feb. 12-18, Books IX

Feb. 19-25, Books X and XI

Feb. 26-March 4, Book X

Break of Day by Colette

When I first read Colette, I was exactly the age when one dreams of multiple choices: (a) independence, (b) wild sex, and (c) a brilliant career. Colette’s feminist heroines flee from love, disillusioned with love, but they also derive pleasure from knowing they can have love.  Her sensual descriptions of nature remind us that nature is the source of beauty and eroticism: the exquisite imagery transforms the novels into prose poems.

Colette’s graceful novel Break of Day is a lyrical account of Colette’s retirement from sexual love in middle age. It is less dramatic than her earlier novels, but in a way it is bolder: who wants to admit to getting older? Published in 1928, Break of Day perfectly describes the reasons for Colette’s decision in her fifties to set aside sexual love for solitude. In my favorite of her novels, The Vagabond, a younger alter ego of Colette, the independent Renee, also rejects love. But Renee gets another chance at love in the sequel, The Shackle. Somehow, we understand both heroines: in Break of Day, the narrator is simply called Colette.

Where do you retreat in middle age to ruminate about your life? Colette bought a house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d’Azur. She describes living in a hypnotically gorgeous Paradise with her cats. She gardens and contemplates nature. Most of us would like to move to Saint-Tropez, but don’t have the opportunity.

Colette reflects on her late mother, Sidonie. She begins the novel with an old letter from Sidonie, in which she declined an invitation to visit her daughter. “…I’m not going to accept your kind invitation for the time being at any rate. The reason is that my pink cactus is finally going to flower.” Colette is amused: the blooming cactus is a metaphor for Sidonie’s independence, strength, and beauty in old age. Colette writes: “Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bit, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter–that letter and so many others I have kept.”

A gorgeous illustration from a Limited Editions Club copy of Break of Day.

Now that she is older, Colette is happiest alone, watching the colors of the sky and the sea and marveling at the faery-like cats who consent to spend time with her. But she is not alone: she has an active social life. Painters and their mistresses gather at her house; they go on night picnics and dancing.

The most faithful guest is her neighbor, 35-year-old Dial, an antique dealer and decorator. He doesn’t talk much, but he has fallen in love with her. Age doesn’t matter to Colette, but she doesn’t feel strongly about him, and treats him casually. After an encounter with a jealous young woman, she gently rebuff shis love. Although she doesn’t want Vial as a lover, we feel her chagrin when she knows she is letting love go.

This reminds me slightly of Doris Lessing’s Love, Again, in which the heroine is in her sixties and attracts three younger men. But she knows love cannot last in old age, and she rages. And, indeed, we see her aged at the end of the book.

Colette laughs about the independence of her heroines. In real life she didn’t let love go so easily. “And I said to myself that… I should be thenceforward like the woman I have described many a time…. while I was painting this lonely creature, I would go to show my lie, page by page, to a man, asking him, ‘Have I lied well?'”

That’s how we all feel at times. Don’t you remember reading Colette when you were an aspiring artist, or a world traveler, or a Buddhist, or something? Love would never get in your way. Well…

A few years later after Break of Day was published, Colette knew love again: she married a younger man who stayed with her till the end of life.

My Book Journals

My book journals

I recently read an amusing post at Stuck-in-a-Book about book journals.  He is busy consolidating his lists into a single notebook.  While he copied titles and authors into his new notebook, I experimented with my 2018 book journal.  Inspired by Goodreads stats, I added categories in columns:  Genre, Why?, Copyright, and Star Ratings.

It Was Not for the Better. I returned to my original format.

My 1997 book journal

In my first book journal, which I recently found in a box, I wrote the title, author, and date (when I remembered) and sometimes a short response to the book.  On January 6, 1997, I was enthusiastic about Wright Morris’s Plains Song: “This novel about three generations of women in the harsh Midwest reminded me of Willa Cather’s books. Cora, the unsmiling matriarch, reminded me of my grandmother.  Life on the farm was hard.  So hard. Iincomprehensible to me surrounded by books.  This novel really grew on me.”

In the next entry, I said I hated Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us:  “The worst novel I’ve read this year.”  Outlander:  “Cult reading at its weirdest.”  Brenda Peterson’s Sister Stories:  “A non-fiction book that explores the sister bond and the role of women’s friendships.  Worth reading!”  And some of the titles I don’t remember at all.  Playing the Bones by Louise Redd?

In later book journals, I was less thorough:  I never wrote “reviews.” From Feb. 2008 – December 2012, I kept a list of titles, authors, and dates in a journal with a stained glass motif on the cover. During these years I read a lot of Monica Dickens, Charles Dickens, Ruth Suckow, H. G. Wells, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Elizabeth von Arnim.

One of the most beat-up notebooks.

Then there was the Miquelrius notebook with graph paper (2013-2015).  The binding cracked.

From 2016- 2017,  I listed titles, authors, and dates in an orange Moleskine notebook.  This year I switched to a tall orange Nava Notes notebook, because I wanted to expand my notebook to include short reviews.

And so it begins. I wrote this month about The Ice House by Laura Lee Smith:  “An entertaining novel, very well-written, about a group of people facing an OSHA investigation of an ice factory, and the consequences.  A very good read.  No much going on beneath the surface, though.” Continue reading

Out-of-Print: Queen of Hearts by Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve

I am a bibliomane.  I read new novels, classics, interwar women’s novels, science fiction, biographies, memoirs, and the occasional out-of-print book.   Have you read this,  I ask.  Did you know this tour de force has fallen out of print?

I am sometimes more successful than others in conveying my enthusiasm.  I once recommended Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (NYRB) to a librarian. “This isn’t right for our patrons,” she said.  (Danielle Steel was, though.)  A member of the library book club seconded my request, but it wasn’t right for her, either, I guess.

Recently I reread Susan Richards Shreve’s out-of-print novel, Queen of Hearts. It was even more exquisite than I remembered.

The  award-winning Shreve, the author of literary fiction, historical novels, memoirs, and children’s books, has a multitude of fans.  Nancy Pearl, the famous  librarian and author of Book Lust,  chose Shreve’s quirky novel Plum and Jaggers to be reissued in the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series.  Pearl writes in the introduction, “…I’d eagerly await each new novel from Shreve, devour it with joy, and hope the wait for the next one wouldn’t be too long.”

I first read Queen of Hearts in 1987 when an editor gave me a review copy. This lyrical novel, with its intimation of magic realism, completely charmed  me.  I wonder now, looking at the cover, if it fell out of print because it was marketed to  the wrong audience.

Anyway, here is my 1987 review of  Queen of Hearts.  And I hope you will enjoy it.

Queen of Hearts, by Susan Richards Shreve.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Like her fortuneteller grandmother, Francesca is reported to have second sight, yet her insights are equally rooted in her own violent secrets. Raped at 14, she lived for years “like a nun.” Later, she murdered her fiance when she caught him philandering with a naked woman “in a swan hat.”

If this sounds a bit wild, well, it is–in the lush tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Hoffman. Shreve’s finely tuned visual imagination meshes with her sense of the absurd to create a story as haunting as the songs of her protagonist.

At one point, Francesca’s mother, who longs to compose music, hallucinates “that mockingbirds with yellow breasts were filling her hospital room with song.” And in an erotic description of one of Francesca’s suitors, Hendrik is said to have “hair so black, it seemed wet.”

In an especially humorous passage, Francesca insists that her friend Maud has more on her mind than just boys. According to Francesca, even when Maud sleeps with boys, “she’s thinking about the theory of relativity or whether man is born innocent or whether there’s such a thing as salvation…. She’s very smart.”

When Francesca starts to tell the town’s stories in song, the citizens of Bethany, Massachusetts, get the jitters. How can she possibly know about the violent rape of gentle Billy Naylor? What is the origin of her Top 40 hit “Betrayal”? Recognizing the universality of human experience, Francesca wisely tells them, “Every woman knows about betrayal, but the story isn’t personal.”

And that’s the secret of the charm of Queen of Hearts. Shreve addresses our most heartfelt modern concerns in the impersonal form of a classy adult fairy tale. Do women really want to marry? Francesca and Maud dream of husbands and adventure in Paris. Maud, aware that Francesca’s illegitimate son is teased for not having a father, opts for an abortion when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.

Although Francesca’s seductive music tames the violence in most men, she eventually falls in love with the only truly dangerous man in Bethany. From a literary point of view, the attraction between two unpunished murderers is apt. The hair-raising suspense, however, made this reviewer extremely nervous.

Luminous writing, eroticism, and suspense make this novel a heady treat. Read this book.

Favorite Book Columnists & The Slog of Self-Publishing

The other day I was thinking about book columns.  I have always preferred columns to reviews.   And then I was startled to realize I read only two book columns now, “NB” by J.C. at the TLS and “Well Read” by Robert Weibezahl at BookPage.

There must be more than two book columns.  Do you know of any?  We like the personal voice.  When a writer publishes a column, we get to know his or her taste. No pretense of being objective:  columnists are  allowed to speak out.

There are witty columnists, and there are serious columnists.  J.C., the author of NB, falls into the witty category.   In a recent column, one of the items he wrote about was “the George Gissing Book Club.”  He says, “We do our bit for the cause. Most recently (NB, October 20), we listed the works of Gissing available in Italian, mentioning in passing a short novel we admire, Eve’s Ransom (Il riscatto di Eva, in case you’ve forgotten). It is, we suggested, ‘hard to find in English.’”

Then an irate reader wrote a note to him claiming Eve’s Ransom was not hard to find: the Idle Bookshop in Bradford had seven copies.   J.C. pointed out that Bradford is four hours away  by train.   I myself have now ordered a copy of Eve’s Ransom (Dover, 1980) online:  it’s cheaper than Bradford.

Robert Weibesazhl, on the other hand, devotes his literary columns to criticism:   Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays, Russian translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and James Wright’s poetry.  He does not write in a personal voice, but I take his criticism as seriously as I do  The New York Times.

Who are your favorite book columnists?  There must be more columnists out there.

THE SLOG OF SELF-PUBLISHING. Poets publish chapbooks.  Self-published memoirists take control of their  lives.  There is always a local writers’ section at bookstores.  One day I was buying a copy of a novel by the Native American writer James Welch when a man briskly entered the bookstore and asked if anyone had bought his self-published book.

He said to me, “You look like someone who would enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” I said, for no reason I can fathom. I hurried out of the store.

I did not fall into that trap with my own book,  Between the Pages:  Reflections on Reading, by Kathleen Adelaide.  (You can find it by typing  in Kathleen Adelaide at Amazon.)  I published it only as a Kindle e-book, because the readers would be family, friends, and a few bloggers.  My husband has given me my first blurb, “A good book to read at the gym.”  And he is now reading Pamela Hansford Johnson, as a result of reading at the gym.

The book is very short, really a pamphlet.  Most of my reviews and essays were published in the 20th century in little magazines and newspapers.  Most of the books are now forgotten or out-of-print.

The  process of self-publishing was difficult for me, a techno-primitive.   How could I upload the manuscript at Kindle Direct Publishing?  I had to convert the document into plain text or epub or something.  I had no idea how to do it. I got it after a couple of hours.  My husband thought I should change the cover.  I found a nicer image, but it took an hour to adjust the pixels.  And now I am far too tired to figure out how to superimpose the title on the cover. The Amazon-generated cover is fine.

The cheapest price for an ebook is now $2.99.  I had thought more in the spirit of alternative papers:  I do wish it were free.  I used to organize readings by novelists at conferences and colleges.  My students would attend for extra credit, but hardly anyone bought the books.

The best thing about publishing my book? I want to reread all these old books I loved. And I recently reread Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts, and it is even better than I thought in 1986.  Why is it out-of-print?

Here is an excerpt from my review of Shreve’s novel.

In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.

If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.

Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.

Let me know about your own experiences in self-publishing.  Isn’t it wonderful that we can all have our own books now for family and friends?

Our Winter of the Aeneid: Self-Narration & Serpents in Book 2

Detail from “The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy” by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

Welcome back to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid.   Since it’s a holiday weekend, I’ll write briefly about Book 2 today and try to get to 3 later this week.  (The schedule is printed at the bottom of this post: Book 3 is “optional”in our readalong.)


At the end of Book I, Dido urged Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy.   And, by the way, the heroine Dido is based on Cleopatra, the powerful Egyptian queen.  More about this later.

In Book 2, Aeneas relates the story of the fall from his personal point-of-view.  And it is the poignancy of  his “self-narration” that makes Book 2 unique.   Homeric heroes like Odysseus may express pain and grief in order to manipulate others’ emotions, but Aeneas is a “counter-epical hero” who reveals his very real desolation, doubts, loss, and regrets.

And yet Aeneas is the cultured hero of a lost Trojan civilization, and the story is shaped for reception at a banquet.   Of course he is  trying to win her compassion.

Here is the first line of Aeneas’s speech, in Latin and three translations.

The Latin:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem

Allan Mandelbaum’s translation:

“O Queen—too terrible for tongues the pain/you ask me to renew”-

Robert Fagles’ translation:

“….Sorrow, unspeakable sorrow,/ my queen, you ask me to bring to life once more”

My literal translation:  “Queen, you bid me to renew pain.”

The arrangement of the Latin words is very  clever, and not quite translatable:  I have color-coded two Latin words  in blue, infandum (unspeakable, unutterable, shocking), the first word in the line, and dolorem (pain), the last word in the line. These two words belong together:   Infandum… dolorem (unspeakable pain). The arrangement emphasizes the unspeakable pain that surrounds  Aeneas and Dido:  the queen (regina), the command/question (iubet) and the renewal (renovare) are encircled by the phrase “unspeakable pain.”

Laocoon and his sons.

And then Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy. The great Bernard Knox, in his essay, “The Serpent and the Flame:  The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid,”  analyzes the imagery  that dominates Book 2.  The priest Laocoon, who  says the famous words, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” (“I fear Greeks even bearing gifts”), warns the Trojans not to bring the strange gigantic wooden horse left by the Greeks  into the city. Then two huge serpents glide across the sea from Tenedos, and stangle Laocoon and his two sons.

And a Greek trickster, Sinon, whose name means “destruction,” claims the Greeks have sailed away due to an oracle and built the Trojan horse to appease the gods.  He  insinuates himself in their midst.  His name recalls the Latin words sinuo (wind, curve) and sinus (fold, curve).  The words serpentes (serpents, snakes) and serpere (creeps) recur.  A new fear insinuat (winds) into their hearts after Laocoon and his sons died, but they take the horse into Troy anyway. The flames also take on snakey shapes.  At one point they are described as serpentes (winding).


I do feel Aeneas’s unspeakable pain (infandum dolorem)  as  I read Book 2. I am especially moved by the loss of his wife Creusa. Do let me know what interests you in Book 2:  particular scenes, poetic details, any effects characters.  There are many, many interpretations of this poem, so all comments are welcome.

N.B. I promised to write about Sarah Ruden’s translation today, but, alas, I have misplaced the book.  I organized my classics books–all except this one apparently.


Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

Liz Dexter of the blog Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working at Home has organized an Iris Murdoch readalong this year.  What a fabulous idea!   My favorite Murdoch is The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 1978.  This lyrical, philosophical novel about a retired actor and his obsessions won the Booker Prize in 1978 and is truly a classic.

I plan to catch up on the reading next month,  but meanwhile here is a journal entry I wrote in 2011 about her 1987 novel The Book and the Brotherhood.

Much of Murdoch’s clever, fast-paced novel takes the form of intellectual conversations among a group of radical middle-aged friends who have long financially supported their friend Crimond, a brilliant political writer whom they knew years ago at Oxford.  He has been working on a book forever, and will he ever publish?  One of the friends wonders if they should continue to support him.

It all begins at Commem Ball at Oxford, many years after their graduation. For the first 53 pages we observe their intricate relationships and learn their history. There is dancing, but they jabber a lot. They discuss Marxists, Platonists, Liberation theology, and the New Philosophy.

The group’s obsessions, interactions, and love affairs are described with intellectual clarity, but their talk can also be wearing. Their relationships are intricate, and their sexual connections are a bit off.   The intelligent, wealthy Rose is in love with their “leader,” Gerard, a gay retired civil servant. (Murdoch often describes such relationships, as I recall.)  . Jenkin, an unmarried schoolteacher, is completely sexless, and Duncan, a diplomat, was half-blinded years ago in a fight with Crimond over his wife Jean.

Crimond, who is mad, vicious, and enjoys Russian roulette,  betrays their trust and ruins a few lives.  After he dances with Jean at the ball, he runs away with her, repeating his first betrayal. He tries to persuade Jean to drive her car into his at top-speed so they can preserve their happiness in death.

Murdoch also describes the younger generation: Tamar, Gerard’s young cousin, is persuaded by her mother, Violet, to leave Oxford; Gulliver, a failed writer, is slightly older and self-destructive; and Lily, a wealthy woman, wants to get to know the intellectual group.

What is to be done now that Crimond has destroyed Duncan’s marriage?  Will Crimond’s book ever be finished?  The committee meets and cannot decide what to do with him.

Murdoch’s writing is excellent, but 607 pages is too long.   You have to read a lot of dialogue like this:  “I am left to burn, I am left to die…For God’s sake, Tamar, don’t leave me, stay with me, tell those wicked people to go away!  What have they to do with us?  You’re all I have–I’ve given you my life!”

It is brilliant, though talky. Not my favorite, but Murdoch cannot write a bad book.