The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
by Iris Murdoch
Viking, 374 pp., $8.95
The Siege of Krishnapur
by J.G. Farrell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 343 pp., $7.95
The Last Days of Louisiana Red
by Ishmael Reed
Random House, 177 pp., $5.95
Winter in the Blood
by James Welch
Harper & Row, 176 pp., $6.95
One takes one’s chances with Iris Murdoch. I read her first ten novels as they appeared, but gradually realized that both success and failure with her seemed like accidental results of her need to keep writing, and so missed a few after that. Bruno’s Dream has some good moments, and her next-to-last, The Black Prince, has been praised by people I respect; her latest, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, is a dreadful mess. There are some excellent scenes, but much wasteful floundering, too. As she begins a novel, Murdoch seems to commit herself to a central situation and then to rely on her talent to uncover what exciting scenes lie inherent in that situation. If it works out, fine; if not, start another novel.
Imagine an ordinary love triangle, not as it forms, but as it survives after eight years. Next imagine the husband tells his wife about his mistress, and about the son he has had by her. Then go to work. Fireworks of husband with wife, husband with exposed mistress, then wife with mistress as the latter insists she doesn’t want to be forgiven:
“I want Blaise. I want him to live with me properly in the future. I want the lot. Sorry and all that. This is what this is all about.”
“Of course he must see more of you,” said Harriet quickly. She picked up the sherry and twisted the glass without drinking. “This is part of what I wanted to say. I know he’s been negligent. You may have thought that—when he told me I—well, I don’t know what you thought—”
“I didn’t imagine you’d want a divorce,” said Emily. “No such bloody luck. But that isn’t going to make any difference!”
“After all, we are women—”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Please listen to me seriously and with forbearance. Of course it’s been a shock and I’m very unhappy—”
“Poor—” Emily began.
Harriet raised her hand. She had set the glass down again. “Something very perfect, which seemed very perfect, very precious to me, is gone….”
Having arrived at this scene feeling impregnable in her own generosity, Harriet can only discover sententiousness when that generosity isn’t wanted. I know no other writer who would try to get away with a line like “Please listen to me seriously and with forbearance,” and it seems both surprising and just right. Murdoch is good, too, when that sententiousness has to face the fact that the husband is a skunk, that Harriet doesn’t like him—and so makes the typical Murdoch leap to the discovery that what she really wants is to keep the son of the mistress.
So there are three or four scenes of bizarre energy about a third of the way through the novel. But then what? Murdoch didn’t ask, or if she did, she accepted bad answers. The husband isn’t so much awful as dull, and …