Monday, April 07, 2014

The Mind Plays Tricks: Appreciation of Novelist Iris Murdoch

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.]
Iris Murdoch was a full-time professor of philosophy at Oxford, author of philosophical treatises. In her spare time, she wrote long novels at the rate of about one every year between 1955 and 1995. These all share elements of British comedy of manners and Shaw's comedies of ideas. They share with Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest such traits as huge casts of noble and low classes, infatuations that begin suddenly as if by magic, and hints of spirits and fairies.

Experiencing some difficulty remembering details while she composed her final novel Jackson's Dilemma, Murdoch took tests and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her husband reports that a doctor, examining her, asked if she could name the current prime minister. She hesitated, then tartly replied, "Does it ever matter?"

I have to guess that she wrote fiction to say something that did matter. But what?

I suppose that her message is not a philosophy or religion easily put into words. One of her novels, A Message to the Planet, involves a philosopher who fails to find the words to write his life's work. I tried to read her philosophy book Metaphysics and Morality and gave up midway, unable to grasp the connection between any paragraph and any other.

So, I'm not expecting to distill a creed from her novels. Several characters in several novels do try to do that. A philosopher, a mathematician, an artist -- they all think that they're on the brink of expressing a truth about life in direct language, unmediated by metaphors and particulars. They all fail.

Instead, Murdoch must be imparting some kind of feeling, experience, an "emanation" from all the books.

First, her books express Murdoch's love for the world and its people. She lovingly details the natural beauty of her locations, no less when it's the violent beauty of a storm or the sea. Her books, like operettas or Shakespeare plays, have huge casts. Yet all characters get the full Murdoch treatment. We learn their life stories, their daily routines, and their religious views. There's always a bit of ironic detachment, here: no character is ever so pure or smart as he or she thinks, and Murdoch makes sure that we figure that out before they do.

While she can be very particular about lives, she omits most particulars of their times.  There's no background noise from the media, no mention of the Cold War, the Beatles, television, wars, computers. Her stories seem to take place outside of current events and history. From all her novels, I remember only two events that couldn't have happened in a Dickens novel: one character watches a weather report, and another character is exploded by a terrorist bomb in an airport.

Second, her stories often begin in the Garden of Eden. That is, we see a family gathering, a reunion of friends, a happy occasion. We see all the characters who, if not happy, are at least comfortable in their routines and views of themselves. This includes not only those who are wealthy, healthy, and happily married, but also others who are comfortable in their self-sacrifices as monks or Marxist agitators or social workers.

Third, as in Genesis, it takes just one character giving into one temptation to launch a chain reaction that destroys all the characters' personal Edens. Often in Murdoch, the temptation is carnal, but sometimes it's envy or some other base emotion that starts the disintegration. Religious, atheistic, pagan, Marxist, whatever: routines, relationships, and cherished beliefs crumble.

Then, what happens? To continue the comparison with Genesis, all are expelled from paradise, and everyone has to learn how to get along in the scary new world. In Murdoch, almost all characters try to be unselfish and to speak with honesty, saying exactly what they feel with all the precision that novelist Murdoch can muster. The thing is, nothing goes right in spite of all this good will and eloquence. There is sometimes forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, but it's never the way it used to be, and no one goes back to what they believed before.

So it's funny to see these educated, self-important, self-satisfied people scurrying about and slipping on some banana peel in the plot, and it's also sad, and it also seems inevitable. Is this a religious feeling? An anti-religious message?

I'm not sure I'd ask the question, except for the fact that I first heard of Murdoch in a book about religious writers. The book compared Murdoch to two Roman Catholic writers that I admire, Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. The author concluded that Murdoch, the professed agnostic, succeeded at convincingly expressing a religious view of life where the other two failed.

In style, every page of Murdoch's entire oeuvre is involving, brilliant, and maddening. John Updike, quoting someone else, wrote that you can thoroughly enjoy a novel by Murdoch and then be unable to remember anything about it. It's a fact that I read one book twice, recognizing the story only at a particularly memorable calamity involving a dog and a storm drain that occurs four-fifths of the way through the story. I hesitate to buy her books now, for fear of making the same mistake.

Still, she stays with me. Forget the particulars, remember the joy. It's all about the joy of being alive, and everything in her stories feeds that: inanimate objects, friendship, art, pets, and infatuations. Her characters cry excessively, and we readers may cringe, but we can also enjoy the fun she's having manipulating them into outrageous situations.

Two of her darkest novels seem to explore qualities of her own writing. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a cruel and clever man, motivated solely by the challenge, engineers the destruction of a long and fruitful marriage through the unwitting agency of close friends who all adore the couple. Like Prospero in The Tempest, clearly a basis for this novel, the cruel man sets the characters in motion and sits back to watch the results, and that's the novel.

The other book, most unusual of them all, is Bruno's Dream, and it's about a repulsively spider-like old invalid whose bed sits at the center of a web of plot. His mind is going, and his perceptions of present and past merge. He frets to a wise nurse that his days now seem to take place just in his head, and she replies matter-of-factly, "we all do that." Do all the other elements of the novel also take place in his head? She wrote it thirty years before Alzheimer's hit her. I wonder if the real experience was as she had imagined it?

Others that I remember most fondly:
  • The Book and the Brotherhood has the most potential to hit adults hard. We read of a group of left-leaning college students who pledge a portion of their incomes to support the work of their most brilliant friend as he writes a searing book that will certainly change the world. When Murdoch's novel begins, it's years later, their views have changed, and they have families and careers of their own. They meet happily at a midsummer dance at the old college, when they get word from their old friend for the first time in years. His book -- in which they no longer believe -- is almost finished, unless he's lying and sponging off their generosity. Did their old beliefs mean nothing? What of their old commitment? Were they fools then, or have they now sold out? Of course, Murdoch throws in some extra-marital complications to the mix. It's a funny book and moving, too.
  • Nuns and Soldiers has that unforgettable scene involving a storm drain and a little dog in rural France. The title refers to the sort of people who dedicate their whole lives to a mission - religious, political, personal - while the plot dwells on the others hurt by the missionaries' good intentions.
  • A Word Child stands out because its narrator is a brown-skinned, intense, strapping young man of Indian descent wreaking havoc on people around him. He does in fact love words, too. I can think of no other important character in Murdoch who isn't Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Irish, and no other one characterized by great physical strength or such intense contempt for himself and for others. Even though I remember few particulars of the story, I remember the man's anger, energy, love, dismay at the changes that love makes in him, and guilt. This is also the one novel that seemed to come closest to being a thriller, highly focused through that one character's perceptions.
  • The Good Apprentice was the first of her books that I read, and it set the pattern. On the very first page, a charismatic young man, taking LSD for the first time, plummets to his death from a dormitory window. His best friend, the one who tricked him into taking the drug, desperately seeks relief from his intense guilt. He consults a guru, gets entangled in criss-crossed love affairs. A weekend in the country reminded me of romantic farces and Noel Coward-y comedies of manners.

[Reprinted from my personal web site, dated April 2006, at]

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