Symbolic titles are often a bother, but lately there have been some very helpful ones. One knows what one’s in for, certainly, when a book is called Ship of Fools, and in case The Centaur should raise doubts, that book supplies a glossary. Iris Murdoch’s seventh novel, The Unicorn, follows so close on the hooves of John Updike’s third that progressively educated readers may pardonably be muddled. In fact, Miss Murdoch’s beast has played a greater role in Christian symbolology than in classical mythology; here she gives it a fresh run.
This author has always provided us food for thought. As none of her book jackets has failed to state, she graduated with first-class honors in classical “Greats” at Oxford. Moreover, she is (or rather was) a don so eminent among linguistic philosophers as to have called for Ved Mehta’s attention in his recent New Yorker survey. So we come to her novels prepared for subtle sortings out of appearance and reality. But she has more than a first-rate mind; for her virtues as a novelist are not donnish ones. She has no fear of insolent extremities: this, after the stylish pussy-footing of much admired fiction, is wonderful. She has a keen sense of the multiple levels on which people simultaneously function, a strong and sensitive hand when it comes to driving a narrative along for short distances at full gallop and an alarming, grotesque sense of humor—all this, in addition to a considerable fund of ideas. What an assemblage of excellencies! No wonder critics broken by drink and bad novels have invoked Joyce.
But it doesn’t add up, partly because of all those ideas. Their presence in her novels is like that of silver six-pences in a Christmas pudding. They are coin of the realm, but they don’t improve the flavor of the dish. When all seven of these novels are read at a sitting (not a good plan), certain preoccupations are plain to see. The author likes, for instance, to set rational young women the task of trying, with unforeseen results, to break down the mysterious order of a world to which they don’t belong (“Every young girl dreams of dominating the forces of evil”); she invests at least one person in each book with charisma; she believes love is a mere consolation, and finds normal sexual relations of little interest. She once summed herself up nicely in a scrap of dialogue: “So you do recognize certain mysteries?” one character asks another. “Yes, I’m an empiricist.”
The Unicorn begins with a dramatic severance from the world where “fierce rationality” controls events. The pedagogical young protagonist, Marian Taylor, is “a handsome, clever girl with the face of a Michelozzi angel” who has answered an advertisement for a governess in a remote part of an unidentified country (the western coast of Scotland?). The first hundred pages, which describe Marian’s arrival in an “appalling” landscape of boiling sea, bogs and black cliffs; her first days in Gaze Castle; her encounters with the assortment of creepy or disarming people who are to appear, disappear, wail, shriek, sob and discuss their way through the rest of the book are splendidly managed. The first chapter, in particular, is what reviewers call “a masterpiece of suspenseful writing.” James, in The Turn of the Screw, hardly made a more unnerving mixture of the smiling normal and the alarming odd.
Nobody is quite what he or she seems; even Marian’s position as governess is a mystery. Because there are no pupils; or rather, the pupil is to be her employer, Hannah Crean-Smith, a golden-eyed lady whose prettily cluttered sitting room smells of peat fires and whiskey. (A great quantity of whiskey is drunk in the course of this novel, which may have something to do with the events recorded, though there is no outright suggestion that anybody is merely alcoholic or drunk. On the contrary, the whiskey, freely dispensed at all hours, “rings like an angelus” from the decanter.)
Around the mysterious chatelaine the action and talk begin portentously to revolve. More, or less, than mistress of the castle, Hannah is a prisoner; but imprisoned for what crime and by whom? The governess soon finds out: her employer committed adultery seven years ago and possibly tried to kill her husband, who has since removed to New York to live with a boyfriend. From there he supervises her custody.
Before long, Marian sets out to break the magic spell and bring the seven fairy-tale years to an end by kidnapping Hannah. This attempt sets off a positively Jacobean chain of catastrophe. Before it’s over, the parlor is full of corpses and one more sits in a Land Rover a few fathoms down in the sea. According to my count, there have been two murders, two suicides, one attempt at murder, ditto suicide not to mention two male homosexual relationships (one involving a minor), at least one pass by a Lesbian—maybe more, it’s hard to be sure—and some curious, if not unnatural, approaches to lovemaking. One striking scene reveals a middle-aged lady and gentleman, both fully clad, she with her hands in her pockets, somehow lying supine, almost wholly submerged, in a rock pool—kissing. Nobody can outdo Miss Murdoch’s comic grotesqueries, but this is not meant to be exactly funny. On the contrary, one uneasily feels that it meuns something.
But long before the violence breaks out, the mainspring of the narrative has snapped with a dolorous twang. The reason is right there at the center of things. “I know one mustn’t think of her as a legendary creature, a beautiful unicorn—“ one character says of Hannah. An elderly sage replies, “The unicorn is also the image of Christ. But we have to do too with an ordinary guilty person.” On other occasions and by other persons Hannah is seen as une princesse lointaine, a sleeping beauty, a secret vampire, a chaste mother-goddess and the Virgin mother. She is loved, one way or another, by all, and almost all seem to agree that “in a way, we can’t help using her as a scapegoat…. She is our image of the significance of suffering. But we must also see her as real. And that will make us suffer too.” But this heroine is not humanly present. Her whiskey, her jewels, her dressing gowns, her shoes are triumphantly there, but she is a golden void.
Redemptive powers, to be sure, are a heavy burden for any character to carry. Prince Myshkin managed, but Dostoevsky’s ideas, of course, are not the kind that can be taken out of the pudding and put back on one’s pocket. Miss Murdoch is a daring writer. She is not afraid of great themes any more than she is afraid of what is grotesque and extreme. Besides guilt and innocence, questions of love, evil, responsibility, death, freedom, to name a few, are seriously considered in The Unicorn. What more should one ask for? People Without people, love, evil, responsibility, etc., are quite meaningless, and for all her narrative powers, her telling dialogue, and her mad wit, she can’t really create characters. Things, yes: she has a great sense of the part they play in human lives, and when it is seen to be a comic part the effect is memorable and somehow even touching. In The Unicorn all nature is an overpowering presence—even the sun that shines on this terrific countryside enjoys the male sex. But too often landscape, tables, chairs, chandeliers, beds, motor cars have the best of it.
One isn’t suggesting she be placed in the train of women led by Robbe-Grillet, but in spite of her acute sense of the ways in which people tell lies, one feels she is kidding herself. She would not likely be caught in an embarrassing intellectual stance, but when good writing begins to change to bad writing some kind of lie is being told. About half way through The Unicorn sentences like these start to appear: “The silence of the house hung its foul night about him in thick, ragged folds.” ” ‘Go! Go, I tell you! This will end in blood!’ Violet’s voice wailed and faded. She receded through the white lace curtains. The sky outside had darkened.” And when one character ushers another out of the room, “It was the defeat of a man by a beast.”
The trouble is not that she has bitten off more than she can chew, but that she is in the wrong house at the wrong dinner party. Her real gifts are comic, and though her one unabashedly comic novel, Under the Net, is chaotic, it is the work of an energetic and original mind. There have been luridly comic passages in novels since, but in The Unicorn there is hardly a moment of humor. It is a well-known-fact that when comic writers get serious they are likely to end up with something they never intended; for the comic view of life is an extreme one and the alternative to it is an extremity of another sort: vulgar bathos. In Waugh’s case, of course, snobbery is the snare, but Iris Murdoch, for all her edgy sensitivity to social placement and misplacement, is not a snob. Her vulgarity goes right down to the basis of human relationships. She has a good deal to say about love, but she can only show us what infatuation feels like. One striking clue to her emotional insensibility is the fact that whenever, in her novels, anyone has something of an urgently feeling nature to say to someone else, he—or she—falls to his knees. So much genuflecting cannot often be seen outside church. The more grotesque the human conjuctions she devises, the more she needles emotion, the more she insists on “appalling mystery.” the deader and duller it all gets.
After its brisk beginning, this novel is a bore; for falsehood is the secret of boredom. The loony vigor and clutter that made Under the Net an extremely funny book have been diverted into excesses that in this seventh novel make The Castle of Otranto look, by comparison, like Persuasion. The moral scruples Iris Murdoch used to note with a nicety have become the preposterously solemn discussions of Hannah’s spiritual state that keep everyone in The Unicorn zealously occupied around the clock. Once she saw violence of feeling as the fountainhead of comedy; she now whoops it up in grim earnest.
It is said that the author has left Oxford to work on a film version of A Severed Head. I hope she will consider giving the same treatment to The Unicorn. As Alfred Chester has pointed out, we are more indulgent of movies than of novels, and people who would never swallow Marguerite Duras’ books eat up her pretentious film. All The Unicorn really needs is the old Hitchcock and a new Joan Fontaine.
June 1, 1963