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 Time of the Angels it is Anthea Barlow, a figure of psychiatric fun to begin with, but later resuscitated to tell the reader that Miss Murdoch is voting on the good old side. Marcus needs her to cure his own dryness:
With her the ordinary ‘world seemed to resume its power, the world where human beings make simple claims on one another and where things are small and odd and touching and funny.
But here Miss Murdoch’s will is trying to do the work of the imagination. She writes novels as she exerts her willpower, insisting that dogs will pass by, but her imagination has no interest in dogs, streets, “the ordinary world,” or people. She seems to think of herself as Tolstoyan in imaginative allegiance, but she is closer to Carson McCullers. Gothic fiction was invented as a home for such writers. They ought to go there and write things like The Ballad of the Sad Café, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and (from the Grimms’ stories) The Juniper Tree. Miss Murdoch is devoted to the novel, as Henry James to the theater; a commitment, in both cases, at once touching and perverse. With The Time of the Angels a happy union of imagination and form seems further off than ever.
The evidence is in her style. Clearly, she wants to devise a style from a despair, from the defeat of magic and the loss of prayer. But the recent style is disastrous. Compare any of the conversations in The Time of the Angels with Under the Net; with the conversation in Madge’s flat between Jake and Sammy. Miss Murdoch has lost her touch. Perhaps the point at which the style started breaking is the long conversation between Mor and Rain at the end of The Sandcastle, a damnable scene, pretentious, banal, bad poetry. Hence the Jamesian pastiche in An Unofficial Rose, notably in the scenes between Hugh and Emma. Or this, an unintended parody of Portrait of a Lady:
No one knew. It had been his own private coup, his own privately arranged alteration to the face of the world, the beautiful, extravagant, feckless setting of Randall free. He had been let out, like a wild bird, like a wild beast, and whatever should come of his more extended prowl his father did not feel that he would regret his act. He could be confident that Randall would slash the color on. Happy or not, Randall would certainly live.
There is no reason why Miss Murdoch should write like that, except that she misunderstands her imagination. She is not Henry James, nor Tolstoy. Her imagination has much more in common with Poe; a fact which, on the evidence, she refuses to acknowledge. Meanwhile we have her tenth novel.
IF MISS MURDOCH is not Henry James or Tolstoy, Rebecca West is not Conrad. The Birds Fall Down is a Conradian novel in the sense that Conrad is the only writer who could have written it. Imagine a bright young girl, Laura Rowan, who goes to Paris to visit her grandfather, the exiled Count Nikolai Diakonov:
He was a perfect example of the true Russian nature, as it’s been formed by Orthodox Christianity, a traditionalist, a monarchist, an imperialist, a Pan-Slavist, though without any taint of rebellion, of attempts to claim the right of judgment in practical politics. He was more Russian than mere Russian human beings can be, he was like a tree in the Russian forest, its roots deep in the Russian soil….
Laura and the old man go off to Mûuressur-Mer. On the train, a strange man comes into the carriage to speak to the Count. He is Chubinov, a revolutionary, a theorist of terror. The conversation between the two men, with occasional interruptions by Laura, forms the bulk of the bulky novel. Chubinov tells of Kamensky, the Count’s associate, who is a double agent. The Count leaves the train, falls ill, is brought to a hotel, and dies. Chubinov devises a plan with Laura. Back in Paris, he shoots Kamensky. “It had all worked out very well, Laura thought.” So this is, to begin with, a spy story, enormously amplified by the addition of motives, ideas, theories, and historical setting.
For instance, Kamensky is a double agent, otherwise known as Gorin. And the ideological equivalent of double agency is the Hegelian dialectic, as Kamensky himself explains to Laura halfway through the book:
Why not follow one deed by its opposite? Why not go gloriously further, and serve one way of life and then its enemy?
Perhaps Gide could make something of this, developing his novel on the principle of moral experiment, so that every admonition, “Don’t.” would be immediately translated as, “Yes, but suppose I did.” And the supposal would be worked out for its own experimental sake. But Rebecca West is not thus lightfingered. Kamensky is allowed to play dialectical games with Laura, and these are interesting as far as they go, but they are not seriously intended. The only idea that is taken with persistent gravity in the book is the notion, canvassed by Laura and Chubinov, that we are forced to do evil because evil has been done to us. Later, this idea is sponsored again by Tania, Laura’s mother. So a certain impression of determinism hangs over the book and qualifies its atmosphere. Early in the book Kamensky says to Laura:
Life advances by contradictions, so first we surrender ourselves, you and I, to a positive state of poetic rapture, and then we pass into a negative anti-poetic state, chilblains for me and a cold in the head for you; and we should pass into a third state of synthesis when we reconcile these two opposites.
But to invoke Hegel is to lapse from magic and prayer. Necessity is the mother of nostalgia; as in this book the Count recalls “my master the Tsar” and the splendor of the capercailzie shoot in old Datchina. Indeed, the first part of the book is all nostalgia for the defeated magic. In Russia, the Count says, “We had only the sorrows laid on us by God, not those engineered by the devil, and they were outnumbered by our joys.” None of us, he says, was ever tired. Sofia, his wife, turns to Tania: “If only we were in Russia. Oh, if we were only back in Russia.”
MANY OF THESE early scenes are pretty, and they make a touching contrast to the evil deeds, all in the imperative mood. The book is interesting as certain essays are interesting, by saying interesting things. But it badly needs Conrad to make it a novel. Idea is related to action, but the relation is sluggish, a matter of insistence. Miss West has a strong mind, she is a vivid essayist, but her dramatic sense is weak. To think of Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent is to see that what Miss West lacks is the power of invention, the narrative and dramatic gift. Her happiest occasion, as a writer, is when there is no need to invent, when the matter is given into her hand, as in A Train of Powder (1955). When she writes of Mr. Setty and Mr. Hume, in that book, she writes brilliantly because Fate has already blocked out the novel and she has only to fill in the gaps, reasons, speculations. Indeed, the chapter on William Marshall and Pavel Kuznetsov is a spystory far more vivid than anything she has invented in The Birds Fall Down. The impression given in the novel is that, for Miss West, the invention of incident is a frightful strain: She much prefers talk, especially if it is high talk.
Perhaps this explains the peculiarities of the dialogue. For the most part, her conversations are put together on the assumption that Russian gentlemen seventy years ago spoke in lectures. These performances differ in tone only as one man stands and another man sits. When the Count proposes to leave the train, he says:
And the train is stopping. Let us get out of this accursed carriage, this moving Golgotha, this rollingstock abode of skulls.
I suppose it is possible to hear any kind of speech on a train, but a hundred pages of it are a burden, especially when a new paragraph begins:
Imbecile of all imbeciles, you’ll never be granted the immunity which is ceded to a member who is lodging an accusation against a fellow-member of your organization, because already, as you sit in this compartment you are a member of your organization who has had a charge lodged against him by a fellow-member, the trinity of evil who is Kamensky who is Gorin who is Kaspar.
This was composed by the same Rebecca West who wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and The New Meaning of Treason.
JEAN GARRIGUE’S book is a novella; a story of a happy animal farm, where a splendid bear keeps a splendid hotel and a cat pays the rent in dead mice. Trouble begins as a young colt, a handsome thing, who sweeps up the enamoured bear and carries her off. After a long lost time the bear comes back to tell her story; how she triumphed at the Cirque d’Hiver, dancing as Gretel with a Hansel-horse, until a new colt arrives, not as good as Hansel but not too bad. Gretel should stay in the act, but she leaves, the magic is gone. She returns to the hotel, bringing her own magic back to those who need it more than prayers or poetry. “And the good times went on and on and on.”
Miss Garrigue is a poet and still, perhaps, something of an amateur in prose, though she has written some fine short stories. Robert Lowell once said of her poems that they had a special simplicity, a Book of Hours simplicity. Something of this quality is audible in The Animal Hotel. But the most important thing is that she knows her powers, she knows what she can do. If you want to write fabulous prose, the best bet is to compose a fable; to get the genre right before trying to get everything else right. Miss Garrigue has done this. So she is free to turn her pretty phrases, to speak of “the curl and curlycue of her voice,” giving the language its head:
Not me, I replied, for I saw what I knew and knew what I had to do and threw up the cards, every one, all the trumps of them and the trumpets, the trumpery too, and the triumphs.
This is Miss Garrigue’s way of restoring the magic, by writing a book of charms, making the sentences charming. She says of her hotelier-bear:
A firm character that way, she liked chapters closed once they had been thoroughly opened.
The book itself is composed with a sense of this propriety. True, it is a slight thing, but it knows its own extent, how far it claims to go. Within its own fine terms, it is excellently done.
It is so good, indeed, that it moves vividly beside Miss Garrigue’s poems, especially those in A Water Walk by Villa D’Este. For a motto, I recall a poem in which she invokes “a little native elegance,/Some green-shuttered saffron buildings/And avenues of leaning trees.” It seems appropriate to quote. I recall, too, that Miss Garrigue has written perceptively of Marianne Moore. So I make another comparison, to finish with, between The Animal Hotel and Miss Moore’s recital of the Fables of La Fontaine. It would be nice to find that Miss Garrigue wrote her own fable to make up for that harsh parable in La Fontaine, Book VIII, about the bear and the gardener; how, at the start of a new and wonderful friendship, the bear, erring in the relation of means to end, killed the poor gardener because he must be protected from a fly. La Fontaine’s bear is introspective at the start and lonesome again at the end. Miss Garrigue is a more hopeful image and, comparisons aside, a charming fabulist.
November 17, 1966