Some years ago a couple of friends were running a speed-dating event at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and, being short of male participants and knowing I was performing at the festival that weekend, they asked if I could help out. And so it was that I found myself meeting twenty women, sequentially, for very short periods of time, wearing nothing (as it were) but a name tag. It was, naturally, almost as bad as it sounds.
Because it was a literature festival, however, our name tags didn’t sport our own names. Instead they carried the title of a favourite book or author or character, and that evening I wore ‘Iris Murdoch’ on my lapel – the consequence of which was that every time I changed tables I was greeted by one of two opening gambits. On the one hand, the words ‘The Sea, The Sea’ might be said (an acknowledgement of her Booker-winning novel of 1978), usually followed by the phrase, ‘I’ve not read it’; or, on the other, I would be encouraged to agree that Jim Broadbent is a really superb actor, especially (and relevantly) in the film Iris. It’s not wholly unusual for an author to be remembered for such things but it seems a bit of a shame, as does a third response, voiced by many of my speed-daters: ‘I’ve always found her rather impenetrable.’
Perhaps Iris Murdoch is often seen as off-putting because she began her career as a philosopher (as a student she arrived at Cambridge just after Wittgenstein had left but fell under his spell nevertheless – the first line of her novel Nuns and Soldiers is simply his name, spoken by a dying man) and she both lectured in and published books on the subject (hers was the first English monograph about Sartre, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist). Her books, even the thinnest of them, inhabit a world alive with philosophical thinking – her characters are people in search of meaning and understanding, on the deepest levels. In short, they worry a lot.
But what sometimes isn’t mentioned is that all her books are rollicking love stories. Her characters fall in and out of love violently, passionately, desperately and despairingly, often with the wrong people, often when they’re already involved elsewhere, often inopportunely. If they wore bodices they would be ripped. And it’s these two poles that make her books entirely their own creatures – stories of intellectuals having affairs with one another and worrying about the nature of The Good. And they’re funny, too. And heartbreaking. They’re like grandiose Shakespearean tragedies and comedies with added vigour and philosophy.
Take the plot of The Sea, The Sea. It’s told in the first person by a retired theatre director, Charles Arrowby, who moves to a remote cottage on an unnamed stretch of coast. He’s busy living a life of solitude and simplicity – a break from his London life, an escape from his friends – when he meets a woman in the local small town. She turns out to have been the love of his life, whom he last saw forty years ago. They have both grown old, but in his deluded loins the fires are relit. She is married; he stalks her, abducts her. All sorts of complicated, embarrassing and frankly frightening (and occasionally supernatural) things happen and eventually she is lost to him again.
So much for the plot. We only have the report by Arrowby himself however, and as a storyteller he is astonishingly self-centred, self-important and clearly somewhat deluded. One wonders exactly how far the unreliability of his unreliable narration extends. What would this story of obsessive, destructive, unrequited love of one pensioner for another look like from the outside?
The Black Prince, an earlier first-person novel, actually has four additional postscripts written by characters other than the narrator – each of whom shares their view of the narrator, each of whom puts themselves at the centre, as the real undeclared love interest of the story. Maybe that’s an accurate and natural way of seeing things, to assume such a central importance (it’s certainly very funny to read), but in The Sea, The Sea, Arrowby goes wonderfully above and beyond, entirely unable to imagine any other point of view.
This is where the sumptuous pleasure of Iris Murdoch’s prose comes into its own. It’s the sort of prose that delights in its own fecundity, that believes in richness rather than sparseness, that was learned from Proust rather than Hemingway. She piles detail upon detail, without ever losing, for one second, her grip on the story. Granted, pages may go by as she details a dinner party and the involved irrelevant thoughts of the diners, but it all ties in (sometimes only on a second reading, but these books are jigsaws without any missing pieces).
Her writing is sometimes criticized for its superfluity of adjectives, an over-richness on the lectorial palate. Indeed, when the paperback rights reverted from Penguin to Random House at the turn of the century, and the novels were reissued with introductions, Candia McWilliam mentioned this while discussing The Black Prince: ‘As quite a young child . . . I heard an adult say that she wished “Iris Murdoch would not write her adjectives in threes”. So I watched for this habit . . . and it is true, she favours a triplet. Occasionally there are bravura groups of four or five adjectives . . . “She was looking at me in the cool north indigo duskiness of her room with such a humble pleading diffident rueful tender look on her face”.’ She goes on to suggest that these idiosyncrasies aren’t there to impress, but rather to soothe the reader – as if to suggest her art has the truthfulness and virtue of not being ‘over-mediated’.
Another common feature of Iris’s writing that might annoy is the habit of her characters to eat. Of course, characters in other writers’ books also eat, but not often in such combinations and detail. This reaches, perhaps, its apogee in the The Sea, The Sea, in Charles Arrowby’s meticulous and didactic diary entries:
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with taste, I have brought a supply from London.) . . . Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest ‘cellar’. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading.
This passage ends: ‘How fortunate we are to be food consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.’ You get the sense that Iris herself is speaking in this last pair of sentences, and who am I to argue?
Other objections? It is said that her characters live their lives in closed circles outside the real world. No one ever seems to own a television, go to the cinema or read a paper – in fact news events never seem to intrude, there is no topicality; if they have jobs then they’re usually civil servants who never appear to go to the office. There is a lot of truth in these comments (a lot of untruth too, of course). Her characters aren’t always connected to the real world, aren’t always anchored in a recognizable time (although they’re ‘contemporary’, precise years are generally unpindownable), but they’re Shakespearean in that way. The real world, the one outside the closed walls of these circles, or these strange closed-away communities (in The Sea, The Sea it’s an isolated cottage outside an unnamed village, in The Bell it’s actually a nunnery), has nothing to do with the story and so is unnecessary. This is what love does – it drives away all other concerns. Her novels often dwell in that middle section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where all is magic and bewildering and love.
But when they do touch the earth, there’s one character that recurs time and again, and that is the city of London. Murdoch really is a London novelist. Her first novel, Under the Net, was a philosophico-picaresque romp around post-war London, through bomb sites, pubs and a midnight swim in the Thames. Her penultimate novel, The Green Knight, includes a detailed, breathless, desperate chase scene (following Anax, a runaway dog) in which streets and parks and details whizz past like the A–Z.
And dogs! That dog, Anax, gets a lot of attention and is a major driver of the plot. In Nuns and Soldiers, Barkiss, the pub dog, is missing for the whole novel, only to return on the final page. In The Philosopher’s Pupil the dog is called Zed, and there is a scene in that book in which some piece of information is revealed to an assembled crowd: ‘The silence continued, ringing now with echoes of what William had said, and each person present promised himself some amendment of life. Brian thought, what a skunk I am . . . Gabriel thought, dear, dear William . . .’, and so on for ten more characters, until, ‘What Zed thought is not known, but as his nature was composed almost entirely of love, he may be imagined to have felt an increase of being.’ To anyone who has known or owned a dog, that description must be ideal.
That passage is also one of the funniest – a hugely tangled web of concerns, intrigues and blind alleys all tied up together, with people worrying too much: Murdoch-esque and knowingly so. She’s funny in the same way as Leonard Cohen – they’re both aware of the dark corners of being human, and of their own reputations, and they know the only rational response is to explore the depths and smile while you do it.
In Nuns and Soldiers the character Anne Cavidge, a defrocked nun, has started reading novels: ‘Anne read with continued amazement. What an extraordinary art form it was, it told you about everything! How informative, how exciting, how funny, how terribly sentimental, how full of moral judgements!’ How true, I’d add! Even at their most fantastical, most unlikely and bizarre – when characters are being obtuse and irrational – Murdoch’s novels are desperately true and beautiful.
But I couldn’t say all this in the four minutes I had to share with each of those women in Cheltenham and so I left empty-handed, except for my name-badge which had declared me to be Iris Murdoch, for just one night.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 25
© A. F. Harrold, March 2010