The Novels of Iris Murdoch

There’s a scene in Iris Murdoch’s Philosopher’s Pupil where a little lapdog comes face to face with a fox. Realising that if he tries to run away the fox will easily outrun him, the plucky little dog chooses to stand absolutely still staring back at the fox until it finally turns and walks away. It’s only then that the dog runs away shivering.

As a metaphor for Murdoch’s own engagement of Shakespeare, I can’t think of a better image. Murdoch is not Shakespeare – but in the four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death she may be the only writer to have the courage to consistently take on the Bard, standing up to him wherever necessary, refusing to flinch even though she knows herself the weaker one, and coming away, eventually, relatively unscathed. No other writer in the last century could lay claim to so mighty an achievement.

It’s always been a mystery to me why Murdoch does not enjoy more of a reputation among readers today – IMHO she is one of the greatest of the British writers from the last century, I would place her above Huxley, perhaps even above Forster. Yet I find that a surprisingly small number of people have actually read her, and this, I think is distressing. She is too great a talent to be forgotten. I believe that the trouble, ironically enough, may be that she wrote too many brilliant, beautiful books – so that the praise that could justly have been lavished on one or two seminal works was diluted and diffused in being spread among many. By churning out novel after incredible novel, Murdoch reduced the writing of a literary masterpiece into a mere party trick – the very ease with which she seemed to do it made the quality of the writing suspect.

What are Murdoch’s novels about? About the same things as Shakespeare’s plays – everything and nothing. They are about relationships and ideas and identity and feeling, about the small backward counties of emotion and panic that we all inhabit. Murdoch’s greatest gift (which she shares with practically every great dramatist through the ages) is her ability to create worlds of exquisite self-containment, to imagine and describe a universe with a logic all its own where all the usual emotional laws cease to hold. These worlds are at once visionary and familiar – in much the way that say, Kafka’s world is – when you think about the situations and the characters they often make no sense, but it’s easy to relate to the emotions her characters feel and the plots, while you’re reading them, seem rational, almost obvious, one thing following the other. It’s only when you finish the novel and think about the plot that you realise how truly outrageous, even silly, it was (this again is part of her fascination with Shakespeare, where the same effect often holds) . This, in some sense, is the way that Murdoch explores the human spirit – by placing her characters in deeply unfamiliar situations, and then having them respond in frighteningly natural ways.

Murdoch’s second great gift is for approaching life sideways. Her novels seem alive because they are filled with a sense of consequence, of something meaningful and deeply illuminating just outside one’s grasp, of an epiphany lurking in the shadows. You come away from her books with a sensation of great clarity about the human race and the nature of our feelings and ideas, but there’s often nothing tangible that you can articulate or hold on to. The mirror Murdoch’s work holds up to the world is a slightly tilted one – you can see yourself in it easily enough, but the perspective seems a little strange, a little off centre.

But perhaps Murdoch’s greatest contribution is in the organic quality of her novels – the way her characters often become seperated from their roles, so that rather than creating one or two memorable characters, Murdoch gives us a cast of lesser players, muddling their way through life, their loyalties constantly shifting, achieving sometimes greatness and sometimes mediocrity. In one way this detracts from Murdoch’s novels (see Harold Bloom’s essay on her in Genius on this point) making them harder to remember and leaving us with no peg of an unforgettable character to hang our mental hats on. I remain unconvinced, however, that this is a true failure of Murdoch’s talent – it seems to me that Murdoch’s entire endeavour is to break away from such stylisation, giving us instead the true flavour of life, where (in truth) everyone is equally knave and hero, philosopher and fool. It also enhances, in my opinion, the technical enjoyment of reading the book – that experience of watching the characters change and blend into each other (like people wearing each other’s clothes), the idea of the plot as a single entity that lives itself out through it characters, feeding on them as it goes, which is more evident in Murdoch than it anywhere else.

Perhaps the most accurate description of Murdoch’s work is that her novels are a sort of literary jazz – improvisations on old, familiar themes (mostly Shakespeare) that dazzle with their ingenuity, their control, showing us our favourite tunes in new perspectives. Like jazz, the music shifts from instrument to instrument (character to character) and is filled with tangential riffs, ecstatic visions of sound and harmony, coupled with a basic insistent beat that drives it inexorably forward. Like jazz, it’s hard to hold on to the tune afterwards, hard to pin down exactly what made it beautiful – all that you have left is the feeling your heart that you’ve just experienced something truly eventful, something truly moving.

Bottomline: If you care at all about the novel in the 20th century, you simply HAVE to read Murdoch. Don’t read them all at once. Just read about one, maybe two a year, and with 26 novels to get through it’ll still take you some time. But believe me, it’s worth it.

For what it’s worth, I’m enclosing a list of my ten favourite Murdoch novels (in the interest of disclosure, let me say that I’ve only read 18 of them, so there are 8 which I can’t comment on; in particular these include the later novels – The Book and the Brotherhood, Message to the Planet, the Green Knight and Jackson’s Dilemma* which, if trends are anything to go by, should be superb). This is just a list to get started on, however, I can’t think of a single Murdoch novel that I don’t think is worth reading.

1. A Word Child (shades of Lear; one of Murdoch’s darkest works, and perhaps her truest, most burning character portrait)

2. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (classic Murdoch – superb passages on the nature of life, love and identity, a cast of unforgettable characters and a brilliant demonstration of Murdoch’s gift for the dramatic interweaving of her characters into a single dramatic whole)

3. The Black Prince (Murdoch takes on Hamlet, who proves too much for her; yet the struggle is fascinating, the technique of the attack almost flawless and the dialogue as lucid as Murdoch ever gets – an achievement that Nabokov would have been proud of. This is probably Murdoch’s most exciting novel, though not, in my opinion, her most accomplished)

4. The Sea, the Sea (Regarded by many as Murdoch’s finest novel, this is her most yearning work, the one filled with the most longing, the most authentic pain. A fascinating read)

5. A fairly honourable defeat (Murdoch’s unforgettable variation on Midsummer Night’s Dream; a stunning portrait of both the frailty and strength that we all hold within us, a novel of infinite possibilities – a combination of Dostoyevsky and Lawrence)

6. The Philosopher’s Pupil (Tempest this time; a mature, philosophical novel about the nature of human relationships and the impossibility, after all, of reconciling words and feelings. After you’re read this, you’ll never think of Caliban the same way again)

7. The Nice and The Good (Brilliant – a novel of fine distinctions, of exquisite subtleties; this is an almost Jamesian novel, except that Murdoch gives it a touch of passion, of emotional desperation, that James would not have allowed)

8. The Unicorn (A novel of gothic brilliance – Murdoch’s version of Jane Eyre and Heathcliffe all rolled into one, with a touch of dramatic intensity that is closer to Becket or Osborne; the Bronte sisters would have wept)

9. The Time of the Angels (As in The Unicorn, what counts here is not so much the plot but the atmosphere that Murdoch is able to create, the way in which she sucks you into the claustrophobic logic of the story until it feels so real, so unescapable. This is one of Murdoch’s plainest novels – she has not really learned to be clever yet – but for that reason one of her more heart-wrenching. It also features some incredible meditations on the nature of God, man and the angels)

10. A Severed Head (Imagine a novel with a Wodehouse plot, the sexual intensity of Jeanette Winterson and the Gogol’s brooding despondency and you have this novel; a superb example of the way Murdoch can weave characters together, twisting and re-arranging their relationships in almost soap-operatic way, without making it seem awkward or forced)

* The other novels I haven’t read: The Sandcastle, The Red and the Green, An Accidental Man, Henry and Cato.