Iris Murdoch’s Incompatibilities

The word ‘parodiability’ is not in the OED, but it is a significant literary attribute. Iris Murdoch certainly had it. Malcolm Bradbury’s Murdochian parody ‘A Jaundiced View’ has Sir Alex Mountaubon watching his daughter Flavia beneath a ‘dark and contingent cedar tree … sitting on a white wooden seat, in her unutterable otherness, her pet marmoset on her shoulder, her cap of auburn hair shining like burnished gold on her head. Nearer to the house, in the rose-garden, their younger daughter, seven-year-old Perdita, strange, mysterious and self-absorbed as usual, was beheading a litter of puppies with unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms. Her cap of golden hair shone like burnished auburn on her head.’ Bradbury does capture something. Occasional whiffs of Walter Pater-meets-upmarket-Woman’s-Own fiction can emanate from Murdoch’s descriptive prose: ‘A memory came back to her from her Italian journey, the young David of Donatello, casual, powerful, superbly naked, and charmingly immature.’ And no one could read more than a couple of her novels without recognising that they usually take place in summer, often in a large house, and rarely shift their gaze significantly below the upper-middle-classes. Her people have too much time to do anything except fall in love, darling, and many of them would, one feels, have been better off had they been given a sharp slap and told to go off and make something. Rather too many of them either are or could be called Hugo. And, in the way of most parodiable writers, she can sometimes parody herself – Iris Murdoch, the Sartrean, Platonising, Buddhistical philosophical novelist – by having her characters launch into speeches like this, from The Bell (1958): ‘The good man does what seems right, what the rule enjoins, without considering the consequences, without calculation or prevarication, knowing that God will make all for the best. He does not amend the rules by the standards of this world.’

But parodiability cuts several ways. It is often a marker of writing that takes risks and that clearly has a style. It also presents critics with an easy opportunity to be unfair rather than to think. And being fair to Murdoch is quite hard at the moment. She has received a sympathetic biography by Peter Conradi, which may be too kind to her, and a sour memoir by A.N. Wilson from which even the concept of kindness appears to be absent. What with John Bayley’s Iris and the film of it, and all the ‘coo wasn’t she a one’ coverage of her sex life, she has had too much press as the novelist who did a lot of shagging and then lost her marbles to be given an entirely fair trial for at least another decade.

A first step towards being fair to Murdoch would be to take stock of what is remarkable in her. The first time I read Bradbury’s ‘unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms’ I did find it very funny indeed. But decapitating puppies? Murdoch had the inestimable virtue of not only liking dogs but of making several of her plots turn on their kindness and humans’ kindness to them: in her first novel, Under the Net (1954), a retired film star German shepherd remains infinitely obliging despite enduring the indignity of being sold and then dognapped; in The Nice and the Good (1968) a ‘somewhat poodle-like dog’ warms a pair of characters trapped in a cave. She writes brilliantly and with real sympathy about other hurtable creatures. Her adolescent men are perhaps her most vivid creations: the scene early in The Bell in which 18-year-old Toby is in a hot railway carriage opposite the insensate and sexy Dora captures an adolescent mixture of straight desire and a desire to please that vindicates her statement: ‘How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change.’ Murdoch’s representations of gay men, and also of gay men who are attracted to much younger males, are free of both cliché and moralism in a way that is probably without parallel among fiction written by women or men in the 1960s and 1970s. There is an omnivorousness about her understanding of desire which brings with it a wise form of toleration.

Perhaps her greatest skill, however, is one for which she’s rarely praised and for which she herself would probably not have wanted praise. She is exceptionally good at describing gravity-defying feats of engineering. So in The Sandcastle (1957) Don Mor, the hero’s son (an adolescent who is made vivid chiefly by not saying very much, and by his love for a dog who has died), is stuck up a tower after a school prank has gone wrong and is about to fall to his death. His father, a teacher at the school who had been off with a new love, manages to stretch out a ladder to him across from an adjacent building. Gravity, and human efforts to defy it, add material weight to the levity of passion in the novel: ‘As Mor saw the body still perched there over the sharp edge, and as he felt the terrible drop opening beneath him, he was in such an agony of fear that he almost fell himself.’ In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing. Indeed some of her plots, particularly in the earlier and mostly better half of her career, do not turn on the sub-Jamesian summery reveries that are foregrounded in Bradbury’s parody, but on literal pivots, on objects counterbalancing each other and perilously holding good: ‘Once the bell was inside the barn, the steel hawser would be passed over one of the large beams and the winch used to raise it from the ground.’

That concern with physically complex feats of engineering is an element that many of her (apparently) ultra-serious moral fictions have in common with the ultra-frivolous detective novels of the 1940s and 1950s, the dénouements of which so often turn on precisely engineered actions, in which, say, an apparently impossible murder has been committed by hoisting a body up through a skylight by means of a block and tackle and thereby vacating the murder scene. Cyril Hare’s fiction and the Oxford-based novels of Edmund Crispin in particular must have been works which Murdoch knew well. In The Nice and the Good a jealous mistress (Murdoch created rather a lot of these) tries to gather evidence of infidelity from the house of John Ducane (who is himself a kind of detective investigating a suicide that may be a murder). She casually notes ‘the bathroom wastepaper basket contained a detective novel.’ That’s a guilty acknowledgment of a debt to a genre which would not have figured large in Murdoch’s grave North Oxford conversations about Philosophy and Love. But that surprisingly donnish genre (the English tutor at Christ Church in the 1950s and 1960s, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote detective fiction as Michael Innes, and Edmund Crispin took his pseudonym from one of his novels) could be regarded as Murdoch without the metaphysics.

But of course Murdoch without the metaphysics would not quite be Murdoch. Her chief contribution to the English novel was to create an unstable marriage (and marriages within her fiction are always unstable) between apparently incompatible elements. She took the forensic realism and the stagey conjunctions of many people in one place from detective fiction and welded onto it a large dose of philosophy, with a dash of incongruous starry-eyed romantic fiction on the side. As this description implies, it was a very unstable fusion, both structurally and tonally. Sometimes her novels read as though a French farce were being redescribed by Sartre. Sometimes Hugo (as it were) pitches up for no apparent reason other than to tell the protagonist he needs to sort out his karma, and everyone suddenly falls in love. At these moments it’s hard to tell if Murdoch’s fictional tongue is in her cheek, or if it’s just poor engineering in the plot, over which she laboured with less care than she did over representing material actions, or some deeper failure to recognise that people usually do things for some kind of reason.

Her particular flavour of metaphysics is not always easily combined with the conventions of realist fiction. In 1953 she wrote one of the earliest English-language discussions of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s conception of freedom made her uneasy, but she thought about it throughout her working life; and Sartre’s way of exploring larger perceptual truths through the description of transient experiences often helps her add weight to moments of bodily accident. So, when Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, the Sea (1978), meditates on his near-fatal fall into the ocean he reflects in the mode of the more casual sections of Being and Nothingness: ‘Even in a harmless fall in the road there is a little moment of horror when the faller realises that he cannot help himself.’ Freedom and the void are there to swallow you up when you fall, and we are all weighed down with an amoral kind of gravity.

The other main strand in Murdoch’s intellectual origins is a version of Platonism that is pretty much a direct enemy of the tendency in bourgeois fiction to particularise people. This generates many problems. Her novels tend to be overpopulated with Flavias and Hugos and Pierces and Peregrines, not to mention Johns and Judies, who fall in and out of love with one another with remarkable ease. Of course there is not much else to do when you are summering by the sea in a large house; but this much-noted feature of Murdoch’s fiction does not simply result from her tendency to represent middle-class characters at leisure. Love evidently was for her an emotion that was transferable between individuals, each of whom might partially embody a form of the loveable, and whose external accidental attributes – their name, their sex, the colour of their hair, their taste in food – were therefore insignificant.

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