Against Consolation: Some Novels of Iris Murdoch

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I picked up my first Iris Murdoch in a bookshop in South Wales, summer '74, for 30p. It was called Under the Net. Next morning I left it under the Gideon along with Gerald Durrell on elephants. Congenial company, thought I, since the Murdoch seemed to be about this German shepherd named Mars, a retired film-idol. Both books were supposed to be veryvery funny. The Net's epiphany was certainly funny: the hero (whose name immediately escaped me) was as rapt as Gregor Mendel in the garden when somebody's tabby gave birth to two tabbies and two Siamese. At Aberystwyth I bought up all the minor Hardy.

A twelvemonth later, Towsonbooks special-ordered Under the Net for me ($4.01 paper). I have begged, borrowed, and stolen the other fifteen or sixteen novels and read them straight through in a six-week marathon, without knowing any more about the author than the blurbs provide. My knowledge is subsequently extended by Murdoch's book on Sartre, her Leslie Stephen lecture, The Sovereignty of the Good over Other Concepts, several more of her articles and interviews, and the by now considerable critical literature, including full-length studies to date by A. S. Byatt (1965) and Peter Wolfe (1966). It is difficult for me as a devotee of Wordsworth, Rilke, Stevens, Dickens, James, and both Eliots, to account for my attraction. Murdoch's true Penelope may be Gilbert and Sullivan. Or she may be Mozart. But there's a semblance of a theme here: the solidity and significance of the world external to the self (Wordsworth); the angels Eros and Thanatos (Rilke); living in the world without subscribing to any concept of it (Stevens); contingency, comedy, and horrors (Dickens); moral truth and consequences (James); compassion (Eliot, G.); conscience and culture (Eliot, T.); English Institutions (Gilbert and Sullivan); versatility, wit, and High Seriousness (Mozart).

These are high compeers for a writer who commits every stylistic cliche we learned to avoid in workshop, e.g. omniscience, switching viewpoints in mid-scene, planting obvious props (if there's a swimming pool, somebody's going to drown in it), and sometimes growing symbols inorganically. She introduces black masses in the bowels of government buildings, imprisoned princesses, Irish patriots, bog suck-ins, airport shoot-outs, and as many varieties of murder, sex, accident, and suicide as the Daily Mail. She has been called Gothic, Metaphysical, Naturalistic, and lately by Daiches (Critical Inquiry, June '75) "not modern." But none of these portmanteaux contains her. Sometimes outrageous, always sceptical, always observant, hypersensitive to the hide-and-seek of human relationship, cultivated, funny, tolerant, uncommitted to systems, committed to Truth and Virtue insofar as we can know them, and to Freedom as vision rather than choice, Iris Murdoch is an accurate and undespairing projector of our age. She is able to envision a meaningful life without myth, and to retain a kind of free-form belief in values that are "existential" without being, as they are in Sartre, selfish or arbitrary. Suffering is real, the more so because it is not purgatorial ("Who minds suffering if there's no death and the past can be altered?"). Life is the recognition of the reality and impenetrability of others--primarily people, but also animals, vegetables, and the elements. The universe is not susceptible to reason; we cannot solve it, but we have much to learn from it. The consolations of form--religious, philosophical, social, aesthetic--are many and great. Murdoch is sympathetic to them. She puts sharp words into the mouths of dull clerics. She is acquainted with the perfect release that can come to us in contemplation of the masterworks of art (especially visual art) and nature. But she is against consolation, and on this count Mr. Daiches is wrong about her modernity, although he is correct that she is no less concerned than Jane Austen with class, money, and marriage. Her "form," as I shall presently demonstrate, is most often that of romantic comedy. …