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Authors: Iris Murdoch

The Bell

BOOK: The Bell
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Table of Contents
 
 
THE BELL
IRIS MURDOCH was born in Dublin in 1919, grew up in London, and received her university education at Oxford and later at Cambridge. In 1948 she became a Fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where for many years she taught philosophy. In 1987 she was appointed Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire. She died on February 8, 1999. Murdoch wrote twenty-six novels, including
Under the Net
, her writing debut of 1954, and the Booker Prize-winning
The Sea, The Sea
(1978). She received a number of other literary awards, among them the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for
The Black Prince
(1973) and the Whitbread Prize for
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
(1974). Her works of philosophy include
Sartre: Romantic Realist
(1980),
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals
(1993), and
Existentialists and Mystics
(1998). She also wrote several plays and a volume of poetry.
 
A. S. BYATT is the author of
Possession
and other acclaimed novels. She lives in London.
By the same author
Philosophy
SARTRE, ROMANTIC RATIONALIST
THE FIRE AND THE SUN
ACOSTOS: TWO PLATONIC DIALOGUES
METAPHYSICS AS A GUIDE TO MORALS
EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS
 
Fiction
UNDER THE NET
THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER
THE SANDCASTLE
THE BELL
SEVERED HEAD
AN UNOFFICIAL ROSE
THE UNICORN
THE ITALIAN GIRL
THE RED AND THE GREEN
THE TIME OF THE ANGELS
THE NICE AND THE GOOD
BRUNO'S DREAM
A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT
AN ACCIDENTAL MAN
THE BLACK PRINCE
THE SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE MACHINE
A WORD CHILD
HENRY AND CATO
THE SEA, THE SEA
NUNS AND SOLDIERS
THE PHILOSOPHER'S PUPIL
THE GOOD APPRENTICE
THE BOOK AND THE BROTHERHOOD
THE MESSAGE TO THE PLANET
THE GREEN KNIGHT
JACKSON'S DILEMMA
Plays
A SEVERED HEAD (with J. B. Priestley)
THE ITALIAN GIRL (with James Saunders)
THE THREE ARROWS and
THE SERVANTS AND THE SNOW
THE BLACK PRINCE
 
Poetry
A YEAR OF BIRDS
(Illustrated by Reynolds Stone)
PENGUIN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
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Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1958
Published in Penguin Books 1987
Edition with an introduction by A. S. Byatt published in Great Britain by
Vintage, an imprint of Random House UK Ltd 1999
Published in Penguin Books 2001
Copyright © Iris Murdoch 1958
Copyright renewed Iris Murdoch, 1986
Introduction copyright © A. S. Byatt, 1999
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Murdoch, Iris
The bell / Iris Murdoch ; introduction by A. S. Byatt.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-49566-7
1. Gloucestershire (England)—Fiction. 2. Religious communities—Fiction.
3. Married women—Fiction. 4. Church bells—Fiction. 5. Gay men—Fiction.
I. Title.
PR6063.U7 B45 2001
823'.914—dc21
2001036040

http://us.penguingroup.com

INTRODUCTION
I remember my first reading of
The Bell
with uncanny clarity. It was 1958. I was an unhappy postgraduate in Oxford, working on religious allegory in the seventeenth century. I wanted to write a novel—I
was
writing a novel—and I feared I would never learn how, and should perhaps not be trying. Earlier in Cambridge a prescient friend had given me
Under the Net
, saying he thought it was my kind of book. I had admired it, and puzzled over it, and had been uncomfortably aware that I had not understood either quite what it was about, or why it was the shape it was.
The Bell
I devoured, entranced, involved, feeling puritanically that perhaps a novel had no right to be both so completely readable and so certainly serious. My idea of the possible novels in English shifted in my head. Vistas and avenues opened up. It took me years to work out how and why. Meanwhile I read and reread
The Bell
.
Under the Net
and
Flight from the Enchanter
, Murdoch's first two novels, I came to understand, are European novels.
Under the Net
is French and Irish, owing its form to Raymond Queneau to whom it is dedicated, and to the early Samuel Beckett of
Murphy
. It is partly a philosophical quarrel with Sartre's
La Nausée
; it is brilliant and innovative. Murdoch's third novel,
The Sandcastle
, was a not entirely successful attempt to write more realistically about “ordinary” people and problems—it had elements of women's magazine romanticism, and touches of the fey.
The Bell
felt like a more powerful and sustained attempt to create a dense, real world of feelings and behaviour, as opposed to the stylised dancing patterns of the first two novels.
To say that
The Bell
is a novel of ideas is to misdescribe it. One of Murdoch's abiding preoccupations was with the complicated, not wholly describable “thinginess” of the physical and moral world, which could be represented in art in a more complex way than it could be analysed in discourse. It is better to say that
The Bell
is a novel about people who have ideas, people who think, people whose thoughts change their lives just as much as their impulses or their feelings do. (This includes Dora, who often does not stop to think until too late.) It is a novel about goodness, the good life, power, cruelty, and religion. It is also funny, sad and moving. Murdoch wrote in her wise book on Sartre
1
that he had “an impatience, which is fatal to a novelist proper, with the
stuff
of human life”. Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to
be
people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel.
Middlemarch
, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which
one
of Dickens's novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist ... Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and
leitmotiv
that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap.
Nietzsche saw Plato's dialogues as the first form of the novel, and there is a sense in which all Iris Murdoch's novels contain Platonic dialogues, in which knotty problems of the nature of truth, goodness and beauty are worked out. The two leaders of the lay community attached to the Abbey at Imber, James and Michael, represent two different attitudes to the moral and the spiritual life. James sees these as a matter of simple duties, attention to rules, practical goodness. Michael sees them as a matter of imagination and romantic desire. Both make persuasive cases in their sermons, which both rely on different aspects of the symbolism of the bell which is to be installed in the Abbey. Michael, like many of Murdoch's most attractive heroes, is trying to convert eros into agape, earthly love into spiritual wisdom. In her essay “Existentialists and Mystics” (1970) Murdoch contrasts the existentialist hero—“powerful, self-assertive”—with the mystical hero—“an anxious man trying to discipline or purge or diminish himself”. “The chief temptation of the former is egoism, of the latter masochism.” Murdoch was fascinated by what she repeatedly called the “machinery” of Freud's description of human behaviour, which she treated with respect and suspicion. He presents us, she says in “On ‘God' and ‘Good' ” (1969) with “a realistic and detailed picture of the fallen man ... Freud takes a thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature. He sees the psyche as an egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy, largely determined by its own individual history, whose natural attachments are sexual, ambiguous, and hard for the subject to understand or control. Introspection reveals only the deep tissue of ambivalent motive, and fantasy is a stronger force than reason. Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings.” Elsewhere she says that Freud's description of the machinery of masochism shows how fantasy can produce
imitations
or parodies of the spiritual denial of the self up to the highest level. Michael Meade is her first extended study of spiritual masochism and its unpredictable effects. He tells himself stories of the spiritual life (fantasies), and learns from the Abbess across the water a lesson many of Murdoch's characters learn
in extremis
, that the true spiritual life has no story and is not tragic.
The Bell
is about religion and sex, and the relations of those two. One of Murdoch's great powers as a novelist is her ability to communicate sexual urgency in all its delectable, humiliating, baffling, driven complexity. Sex is part of the thinginess of the world, as well as part of the hidden machinery of the human psyche. “Art” she says in “Existentialists and Mystics” “is not discredited if we realise that it is based on and partly consists of ordinary human jumble, incoherence, accident, sex. (Sex, though it produces great thought-forms, is fundamentally jumble: not even roulette so much as mish-mash.)” The depiction of sex in this novel, in Nick, Michael, Toby, Paul and Dora, is both absurd and terrible, accurate and truly unpredictable. It is made more terrible and more touching because it is set against the powerhouse across the water, the enclosed order of nuns which Catherine is to enter. It swarms against an ideal of self-denial. Murdoch can write about flesh, male and female, its tastes and textures, smells and dampness, in a way that is imagined through her own. The Platonic dialogue which is a skeleton of the novel is
about sex
, but the reader's experience is immediate, and sensual.
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