Magic Defeated

The Time of the Angels

by Iris Murdoch
Viking, 245 pp., $5.00

The Birds Fall Down

by Rebecca West
Viking, 354 pp., $5.95

The Animal Hotel

by Jean Garrigue
Eakins, 184 pp., $3.95

Near the beginning of The Time of the Angels a train in the London Underground passes beneath the Rectory, St. Eustace Watergate. The servant, Pattie O’Driscoll, is reminded of death:

She murmurs the poetry which takes the place of the prayer which took the place of the poor defeated magic of her childhood. Turn away no more. Why wilt thou turn away? The starry floor, the watery shore, is given thee till the break of day.

The feeling in Iris Murdoch’s new novel is elegiac. The novel is an elegy, poetry to take the place of prayer that took the place of magic.

The setting is the Rectory, where a crazy rector of a bombed-out church kills time by playing Swan Lake. Pattie, his slave-mistress, is a cappucino-colored waif. Muriel, his avowed daughter, lives to write a long philosophical poem, until a day comes when, spying through a keyhole, she sees her father making love to his invalid daughter Elizabeth, officially his niece. The rector’s brother Marcus comes to talk sense to the crazy man, finds the house in darkness, and receives for his pain a carrot which the rector calls “flesh of my flesh.” Poor Marcus is one of the old school. Disengaged from the old magic, he has given up his prayers, but he likes to know that there are some people who believe. He does not want the blood of God to be turned back into table wine, or His body to lapse into a white and tasteless wafer. So a pattern is established: Once upon a time there was magic, then there was prayer, and now, hopefully, there is poetry. The servant Eugene Peshkov was born in Russian paradise, “that dear early time,” embodied now in his cherished possession, a fabulous icon. Muriel has nothing but her poem. Pattie has nothing, not even her lover: All her poems are unwritten, waiting for the great poetic day when she will be called Patricia. The Time of the Angels is an anthology of defeats: magic, belief, prayer, love, and now perhaps poetry itself. “There was no rock of ages,” Muriel reflects after her father’s suicide.

IRIS MURDOCH’S imagination is a Gothic energy, when it knows itself, roaming in disenchanted castles, collecting glass menageries; like Felicity in The Sandcastle, it feeds on magical rites. But the trouble is that she tries to write a novel. The genre does not suit her. She tries to touch the quick of feeling by going through its public forms: hence her official traffic with morality, society, family, palpable relationships. As a theorist of the novel, she has compaigned against dryness, speaking up for people, characters, the good solid things, often Russian. Muriel is attracted to Eugene by his plainness, his simplicity:

He seemed to represent that world of thoughtless affections and free happy laughter and dogs passing by in the street from which she felt herself to be totally separated.

And if there is a heroine in The…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.