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Authors: Iris Murdoch

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The immediate reality of this novel also depends on other sensuous immediacies—very English—the shabby country house, the thickness of the vegetation, the smells and textures of the orchard, the woods, and the water of the lake, with its ooze and weeds. These are seen first through the eyes of Dora, the “habitual town-dweller to whom the countryside looks always a little unreal, too luxuriant and too sculptured and too green”. The world of the community is the observed social comedy (and pathos) of the traditional English novel, but the novelist I always think of in the context of
The Bell
is Henry James, whose countrysides always invoke paradise, whose elegant dreaming façades hide demons. There is an easy balance in this novel between conscious aesthetic patterning and the immediacy of particular experiences. Consider, for instance, the complete range of musical or singing experiences, from simple birdsong to jazz, from a Bach recital on gramophone records to what Murdoch (like James in
The American
) calls the “hideous” purity of the nuns' plainsong. Peter Topglass imitates birdsong; there is Catherine's singing of the madrigal “The Silver Swan”, there is the blackbird Dora hears over the telephone from London. (Iris Murdoch wrote of Kant's respect for birdsong as an example of “free beauty”—“a bird's song, which we can reduce to no musical role, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to be richer for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes.”) There is the voice of the bell itself, which Dora causes to sound out. I used to believe that the bell itself had to carry too much of the weight of the action of the story, and that its discovery and fate somehow substituted a symbolic action for a “real” one at the dramatic centre of the story. I think now that we all had (and have) too facile and simple an idea of the opposition between realism and fantasy-myth. In my case at least this was the result of an enthusiastic response to Iris Murdoch's brilliant polemic of 1961, “Against Dryness”.
“Against Dryness” is a persuasive and powerful critique of the state of the novel halfway through the twentieth century. The nineteenth-century novel, Murdoch believed, was intrinsically better and more powerful than the twentieth-century novel, partly for historical and political reasons which Murdoch describes with some subtlety. It was possible for writers like Tolstoy and Eliot, she said, to “use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society”, to “see man against a background of values and realities which transcend him” in a way that had become difficult or impossible. She argued that the success of Liberalism, the arrival of the Welfare State, had removed certain political incentives to thinking about human beings as “real various individuals struggling in society”. For the nineteenth-century novelist, she said, quoting Marx, it was possible to see characters as both types and individuals merged. People in that world were only partly free agents—they interacted with a complicated moral world from which they had much to learn. Modern writers, on the other hand, thought in terms of “the human condition”, and pictured human beings on the whole as “rational and totally free”. The twentieth-century novel, she said in a famous distinction that was almost too brilliantly quotable, was “either crystalline or journalistic”. The crystalline novel was a small, perfect object like a poem, “quasi-allegorical”; the journalistic novel was a “large shapeless quasi-documentary object” telling “some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts”. Any reader, any aspiring writer, could recognise the approximate justice and penetration of these descriptions. They could also respond to her suggested remedy:
Against the consolations of form, the clean crystalline work, the simplified fantasy-myth, we must pit the destructive power of the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character.
Her respect for the Russians—“those great masters of the contingent”—her sense of something lost and diminished, echoed the feelings and ideas of Anna Wulf, the novelist heroine in Doris Lessing's
The Golden Notebook
, also published in 1961. Wulf too regrets that she will never write a “philosophical” novel like Tolstoy or Thomas Mann; Wulf too feels that the realist novel has become “an outpost of journalism”. Wulf's suspicion of her psychoanalyst's tendency to feel that dreams which reproduce Jungian mythical motifs do anything to solve the human mess she is in, can be related to Murdoch's persisting suspicion of her own ease in creating fantasy-myths. The second-rate novelist in
The Black Prince
creates “a congeries of amusing anecdotes, loosely garbled into ‘racy stories' with the help of half-baked unmediated symbolism.” Murdoch's argument that our moral vocabulary is impoverished and deficient can be related to the strenuous verbal experiments of
The Golden Notebook
, in which Anna's political diaries, her Communist writer friends' daydreaming fantasies, newspaper cuttings, a deliberately ordinary novelish novel-in-a-novel describe a sense of loss without creating a new coherent form. Lessing, like Angus Wilson, William Golding, and Murdoch herself also argued that the novel of the time, despite the recent war and the Holocaust, had trouble in wholly imagining evil. “Our inability to imagine evil is a consequence of the facile, dramatic, and in spite of Hitler, optimistic picture of ourselves with which we work” (“Against Dryness”). We saw everything, Murdoch seemed to be suggesting, too easily from inside ourselves. Our sense of value was wound up in our judgement of our own “sincerity”. In another phrase which I never forgot, which changed the way I looked at things, she wrote, “For the hard idea of truth we had substituted the facile idea of sincerity.”
You cannot, of course, have a hard idea of truth if you have insufficient faith in the human capacity to apprehend or describe the world. Recent, very exciting, intellectual fashions and explorations have caused us to question all our assumptions, to question the adequacy of language to describe the world, and our own powers to know either language, the world, or how they are related. I think, indeed, that the recent groundswell of interest in science, and scientific thought, is a function of the need for some hard idea of truth in two generations who have been disabused of the idea that the concept is meaningful. At least scientists' empirical truths work solidly in a solid world. They contradict solipsism.
What Murdoch understood better than anyone else I have read was the way in which our sense of our moral beings, the imperatives and prohibitions we desire, or agree, to accept, depended on a religious structure which our society as a whole no longer believes in.
The Bell
is her first directly religious novel. The moral welfare of the community in Imber (which must derive from “umber”, “umbra”, shades or shadows) depends on the spiritual reality of the enclosed powerhouse of the Abbey. Life is easier for James Tayper Pace than for Michael, because he is more sure of both the truths of his religion and the rules that derive from them and are handed down. Michael's religion is more personal, and Dora has none, only vague intuitions and a very significant vision of the “reality” of the works of art in the National Gallery. In later novels there are a series of characters who are good men, struggling, like Murdoch herself, to work out an idea of goodness in a world without religion, who only realise slowly and with difficulty how much of their sense of good derives (historically and in the forms of society we still live in) from a religion they no longer believe. (Marcus in
The Time of the Angels
, Rupert in
A Fairly Honourable Defeat
.)
The Time of the Angels
was written at a time when the theology of the “Death of God”, derived from Nietzsche and Altizer, was paradoxically energising the Church by saying that God had withdrawn, was unknowable, was absent from His creation. The title comes from the idea that when God withdraws the world fragments, and various angels, good and evil, are all-powerful. It can be seen, in retrospect, that the final enclosure of Imber in the world of the Abbey prefigures some such separation.
“Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination. Think of the Russians, those great masters of the contingent. Too much contingency, of course, may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete art must not be afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.”
This is the rousing penultimate paragraph of “Against Dryness”, and perhaps in retrospect its distinctions are almost too powerful, too seductive. Iris Murdoch's critics have steadily berated her for not fulfilling her own prescriptions. She wrote of “the consolations of form” as though those were self-evidently inferior to some tough, unformed “realism” which would remain true to the “incomplete”. But in fact, a precise and delicate reader of her novels, or anyone else's, does not experience any such brute opposition. There is a danger in Murdoch's powerful formulations that her ideas can become associated with a pervasive modern myth that has also damaged both fiction and criticism—the myth of the primacy of the “random”. Too many novels eschew plot, storytelling, shapeliness, and wit in pursuit of this “authentic” sense of the random and the open-ended. Ian McEwan's splendid
Enduring Love
was misunderstood by both reviewers and the Booker jury because it appeared to be “contrived”, plotted, formally too tight—although it was about a form of madness that sees fate and religious and erotic purpose where none is, and then creates it. He had found the appropriate form for the driven nature of his subject-matter. I think, without ceasing to respond to Murdoch's call for both character and contingency, we can admire the formal variety of her fictions, including the artifice. If one looks with the microscope of a novelist learning her trade at any novel, from
War and Peace
to
Malone Dies
, from
La Rabouilleuse
to
The Castle
, concentration on precise things like the contents of a description, the number of metaphors, the number of characters in a scene, a chapter, the whole work, on the narrative transitions and what has been suggested but omitted give a more complex picture than any simple contrast between the realistic and the mythic, the fantastic, or the formally controlled. There is a general impression, not inaccurate, of a “world” of the Murdoch novel, with agitated hurried dialogue, discussion of moral ideas (sometimes in stressed italics), unexpected problems with machines or near-drownings, dogs and other creatures who are part of the texture of emotion, a plethora of accidents, mysteries ... and bright sensuous colours, and described rooms and significant objects, milk bottles or works of art. But technically they differ more than this ease of recognition may suggest.
There are those, including the first two, the Irish-Gothic-Platonic religious fantasy of
The Unicorn
, and the Nietzchean fable of
The Time of the Angels
, where the symbolic nature of the world constructs a fabulous story in which, nevertheless, the people are mortal beings, not figments. There are many varieties of realism—
A Severed Head
combines a Wildean or Shavian drawing-room dance with a wicked anthropological undertow, whilst
An Unofficial Rose
and
The Nice and the Good
create space and leisure in their telling, are “English” like Jane Austen crossed with Margery Allingham. There are differences, which can be pursued with technical delight, sentence by sentence, between those novels which have a first-person narrator—all male—
A Severed Head
,
A Word Child
,
The Black Prince
—and the more usual ones, where a narrative voice sees the world of the novel through many consciousnesses, as
The Bell
is lived through the minds of Michael, Dora and Toby, whilst we never “see into” Paul, or Nick, or Catherine, who remain, to use a Murdochian word, “opaque”. One of Murdoch's abiding lessons was the difficulty and necessity of imagining other people, with centres of consciousness as real as our own, and different. This lesson is dramatised differently through the eyes of a first-person narrator failing to learn it, from when it is seen through a spread-out cast of human imaginations. There are differences too, both in the story that can be told, and in the craft of inventing characters, between a book with three actors, and one with fifteen or twenty. You have to say less if there are more—the skill is in suggestion and detail. The large cast, the repetitions and differences of behaviour, are essential both to Murdoch's moral world and to her forms of realism. She said frequently that she liked to imagine retelling her stories from the point of view of the minor characters, and it is a tribute to her—especially when one thinks how few words, how few paragraphs she had to make up her minor characters in—that it is possible to imagine how this could be done. Even Mrs Mark, in
The Bell
, a deliciously recognisable type of the uncharitable charitable person, has a personal history, a marriage, a mystery.
As Murdoch grew bolder, she moved in one sense further and further from the “probable” world of conventional realism into a world of games, of chance, of a human dance. Art, she used to say, was “adventure stories” and she let go of her puritanical mistrust of the fabulous, having understood how human truths are contained in the unreal patterns of Shakespearean comedy and romance, as well as in high tragedy. The novel, she used to say, is essentially a comic form—tragedy can be experienced communally in drama, but the private world of the novel is a mixed form, an incomplete form. She would say gleefully to me that she had come to see that you could put anything and everything into a novel, you were constrained only by length and paper pages. It could be argued that her late baggy monsters were defeated by this high ambition and by the problem of length.
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