Mostly, though, I was reading and rereading Iris Murdoch ahead of a panel discussion with Alex Clark and Catherine Taylor at the Cambridge Literary Festival this weekend. It was a lively and stimulating hour’s talk, and only solidified my sense that she was, above all, a hugely accomplished novelist.
After a somewhat shaky start, my recent run of Murdoch novels has been one of unalloyed reading joy. Here, then, are some comments worked up from notes I made ahead of the talk:
Crazy plotting – and lack of interest in M’s biography
I’ve not read any of John Bayley’s books about Murdoch and, while I’ve read (some of) Peter J. Conradi’s biography, I didn’t find it particularly illuminating, and didn’t finish it. (I prefer his critical book, The Saint and the Artist.) I certainly didn’t find much to treasure in the recently published book of letters, Living on Paper, very well edited though it was. (My review here.) Basically, I’ve never really found anything in Murdoch’s biography that deepened my understanding or increased my enjoyment of the novels. The novels are enough.
Perhaps the novels’ crazy, precipitate, highly compressed plotting – usually taking place over a matter of days or weeks – is an attempt to make sense of the much bigger chaos of her life.
That’s all that art is, after all: an attempt to impose order on – or draw order out of – chaos.
An exchange from Stoppard’s Arcadia, that could be taken as explicatory:
HANNAH. The weather is fairly predictable in the Sahara.
VALENTINE. The scale is different but the graph goes up and down the same way. Six thousand years in the Sahara looks like six months in Manchester, I bet you.
The plotting in Murdoch is overtly theatrical: Shakespearean, or Restoration Comedic. She gathers a small-ish cast in a contained setting, or series of settings, and sends them bouncing around like molecules in an ever-tighter compression chamber.
How often in our lives do we have had someone knock on our door, unannounced, to deliver good or bad news, let alone tell us that they love us? It happens a lot in Murdoch’s novels. But, as I say, this shouldn’t be taken as a realistic reflection of everyday life, but as the compression of a life’s worth of living into a short, ecstatic and exemplary period.
Morality in a post-religious, post-Freudian age
Morality has many arenas in which it can play out, yet in Murdoch it plays out most usually in the arena of sexual relationships – through the questions of right love, adultery and faithfulness.
You can’t be true to God any more, since He doesn’t exist, but you can (or can not) be true to your wife, husband or lover. God is no longer the authority you must answer to, but Freud.
“The disappearance of God does not simply leave a void into which human reason can move. The death of God has set the angels free. And they are terrible.”
“There are principalities and powers. Angels are the thoughts of God. Now he had been dissolved into his thoughts which are beyond our conception in their nature and their multiplicity and the power. God was at least the name of something which we thought was good. Now even the name has gone and spiritual world has scattered. There is nothing any more to prevent the magnetism of many spirits.”
From The Time of the Angels, which I recently read for the first time. It is a stunning example of Murdoch’s process. It is also the darkest of her novels that I’ve read. No surprise that it was followed by The Nice and the Good, which is one of the lightest and most joyous, out-leavened only by The Sandcastle.
Sympathy for all her characters
We are all each other’s antagonists.
Even Carel, surely the blackest of all her characters, is presented sympathetically.
The novels (the best of them) are so expertly constructed, deploying their elements and then entangling them and setting these in conflict with each other, that they at times seem like exercises in counterpoint. John Gardner talks about the novel as symphony. These are not that, but they at times seem like a miraculous two- or three-part invention. Chamber music, played at double speed – like something from Switched-on Bach.
Compulsively rather than carefully written
Someone (Conradi?) talks about Murdoch’s refusal to slow down her novel writing, even if that might have improved her work. (She wrote 26 novels over a period of 41 years – a novel every 18 months!)
No. She wanted to work through a particular problem. When she had done this, it no longer interested her. On to the next one.
Might it have been an aspect of her success, considering the times in which she lived and published, that she seemed happy to explore ‘universal’ human concerns through male protagonists?
Many of her protagonists are middle-aged men, or older, who seem to have no problem in having much younger women fall in love with them. Male writers get hauled over the coals for this. Murdoch, not so much.
(Obviously, she treated male homosexual characters seriously, when it was not usual to do so.)
Beautifully clear prose
The descriptions of buildings and houses, of woodland and landscape, of rivers and lakes and the sea. The descriptions of fog.
The insistence, too, on describing complex physical actions: the car slowly falling into the river in The Sandcastle; the rescue by putting a ladder out of a window, also in The Sandcastle; the lifting of the bell in The Bell; the adventure in the cave in The Nice and the Good.
The idea that these might be intended as analogues for the concrete descriptions of abstract mental states.
Tell don’t show
The lack of interest in the free indirect style/close third person.
If the contemporary literary novel is often interested above all in the nature of consciousness, and invested in the ability of prose to blur the lines between character and the perceptual world (a phenomenological aesthetics), then Murdoch has no interest in either of these things. She sees the world clearly. She sees the insides of her characters’ minds equally clearly. She keeps both separate.
At the end of the session, Alex asked us all to name our favourite Murdoch. I was expecting Catherine to say The Black Prince, about which she had written a marvellous essay in the Brixton Review of Books. But she said The Flight from the Enchanter (which didn’t bowl me over; I need to revisit it). So I said The Black Prince, only for Alex to say that that was what she had been going to choose. So I chose A Severed Head instead, though kind of wishing that I could also have had The Nice and the Good.
Basically, of the Murdochs I’ve read, here are the ones that I feel are definite successes, perhaps in a kind of order:
- The Sea, The Sea
- The Black Prince
- A Severed Head
- The Nice and the Good
- The Bell
- The Time of the Angels
- The Sandcastle
And these are the ones I’ve not been so impressed with:
- Nuns and Soldiers
- The Italian Girl
- Under the Net
- The Flight from the Enchanter
- An Unofficial Rose
(By the way, I popped into Kirkdale Books this afternoon, and asked Roland – who read all of Murdoch, in order, a year or two ago – how far through you could get before the novels starting getting, well, not very good. He said that, of the late books, The Good Apprentice and The Book and the Brotherhood were certainly not to be dismissed. The three that came after – The Message to the Planet, The Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma – were all essentially flawed.)
Murdoch and me
So, many thanks for Alex and the Cambridge Literary Festival for inviting me. Oh, and why did they do so? Well, because of my recently published novel, The Large Door, which features epigrams from Murdoch and her friend, lover and sparring partner, Brigid Brophy, and a sort of joint dedication. Which epigrams did I choose? Well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out.
My second novel, The Large Door, is published by Boiler House Press in April 2019. You can read more about it and sign up for updates here.
I remember exactly where I was when I had the idea for this book – or rather where the two ideas collided that made it possible. I was walking down the Mile End Road in Norwich after sitting in the library researching a conference paper on Brigid Brophy, a C20th British writer I had become a little obsessed by.
In the three years from 1962 to 1964 Brophy published three utterly brilliant short novels that I thought had rather slipped off the literary map: Flesh, The Finishing Touch and The Snow Ball. It was The Snow Ball that I was particularly enamoured of – a dark, sparkling and death-obsessed sex comedy set between midnight and dawn at a masked New Year’s Ball as close in spirit to C18th Vienna as Swinging London. It is unashamedly intelligent, psychologically acute and serious as hell about love and sex, all while whipping along the line of its narrative like a dancer in a drunken gavotte. Why didn’t anyone write books like that anymore, I thought, which naturally slipped far too quickly into the dangerous thought: hell, I will write a book like that!
And then, walking through the Norwich night, I realised I had the material to do it: a short story set over 24 hours at an academic conference, with an arch and unbiddable female protagonist very much in the vein of The Snow Ball‘s Anna. ‘Festschrift’ had been published by Susan Tomeselli in her excellent journal Gorse, and then picked by Nick Royle for one of his Salt Best British Short Stories anthologies, but expanding that 8,000-odd-word story to the length of a short novel shouldn’t be too much trouble, should it? The title, that had been lying around for about 20 years, and I also remember the moment when the decision to use it became absolutely fixed, when a particular sentence set itself down on the page.
During the time I’ve worked on the text, ripping it apart and building it back up, I’ve also been trying to read as much as possible of – and, in a way, to triangulate – three British writers who to my mind bestride the second half of the last century: Brophy, and the far better-known Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. I’ve read most of Brophy, and about half of Spark’s novels, and a third of Murdoch, and I find that, together, they map a set of approaches to writing fiction that I find irresistible. How to dive headfirst into your characters’ moral quandaries, like Murdoch, and wallow in them? Or how to hold them at arm’s length, like the divinely ambivalent Spark. In a sense, Brophy splits their difference: as involved in her characters as Murdoch, but able to dismiss them with a Sparkish turn of the wrist when need be.
The Large Door, in a sense, is the result of that reading, and thinking. Of course there are plenty of other concerns in the book, thoughts that occurred to me on the journey and got Hoovered up: how to make use of text message communication in prose fiction; how to make the mechanics of an academic conference (keynote speech, panel, workshop) remotely interesting; the desire to find a way to punch through the page of the novel – break the fourth wall, in theatrical terms – without resorting to the usual tired postmodern gestures.
But in essence the book is a serious attempt to do what Brophy did, time and time again, and Murdoch and Spark, in their different ways: put serious characters at the heart of a comedy. They all three of them write tragic-comedies, I suppose – comedies in their structure, in the artifice of their narrative devices, but tragedies in their temperament, in the way that you feel an abyss would open up under the characters if only they once looked down. I fell in love with Brophy’s Anna, as much as I’ve ever fallen for a fictional character, and that’s the challenge I set myself: to write a character that, for all their foibles and – say it! – unlikeableness, other people might fall in love with in turn.