Iris Murdoch’s annual novel now seems to have become an established British institution: in private it may be derided or dismissed, but in public it gets the respect customarily given to venerable traditions. Some such theory, at least, is needed to account for the fact that reviewers tend to receive her novels in an awed and intimidated fashion, and critical comment is restricted to a narrow spectrum of remarks, ranging from uneasy approval to mild and nervous dissent. The review in the Times Literary Supplement was a case in point: at the end of a long and unenthusiastic piece, which accurately pinpointed the faults of The Nice and the Good and of Iris Murdoch’s fiction generally, the anonymous reviewer felt obliged to say, in words which betrayed extreme critical discomfort and evasiveness, “Despite a conclusion which is not far from being soppy, The Nice and the Good remains oddly undismissable,…unusual if often recklessly trusted power of imaginative invention, and a serious, generous, and indefatigable attention to the problems of the moral life.”
Without doubt The Nice and the Good is an unimportant book: readable, certainly, but with all the triviality and pretentiousness that have characterized Miss Murdoch’s novels since The Bell appeared about ten years ago. It repelled me in a number of ways, and I found it totally incredible from beginning to end. I am, I hope, as good at suspending disbelief as the next man, but for nearly 400 pages I found nothing in this novel I could believe in, no matter how tentatively. I could not, for instance, believe in Octavian Gray—“a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him”—a top civil servant, in whose office, one hot afternoon, an employee called Joseph Radeechy is suddenly shot. Nor in Kate, his handsome, bland and complacent wife, queening it over a country house in Dorset, which houses such various inmates as Barbara, the Grays’ snooty teen-age daughter, just back from a finishing school in Switzerland; a widow called Mary Clothier, whose adolescent son is in love with Barbara; a divorcee called Paula Biranne, and her precocious nine-year-old twins, Edward and Henrietta; and Theodore, Octavian’s semi-invalid brother. Nor, to continue the list, could I believe in John Ducane, a Whitehall legal expert who is called in to investigate the death of Radeechy (subsequently found to be a practitioner of black magic). Ducane is the book’s nearest equivalent to a hero, and we are heavily involved in his efforts to withdraw himself decently from a longstanding affair with a schoolteacher called Jessica, and in his semi-platonic love for Kate Gray. These characters are, as usual, interrelated in various ingenious ways (though restrainedly; there’s no incest in this book), and the total effect could be summed up in the words I once heard a San Francisco Disk Jockey use about the Rolling Stones: “Are they putting us on, or what?” The title points to the portentous moral division we are supposed to see in the book: John Ducane, in his moral sensitivity and earnestness, is Good; whereas Kate Gray, basking in the love of her husband while splashing about in shallow emotional waters with John, is Nice, which isn’t necessarily good. This is the kind of truism characteristic of the long tradition of liberal fiction, from George Eliot to Angus Wilson, which tends to give the word “moral” a bad name.
AS A NOVELIST, it seems to me, Miss Murdoch was once Good, at least in Under the Net, an enchanting story that was at once comic, philosophical, and poetic, and, although intermittently, in The Bell. But now she has become irredeemably Nice, in love with her own contrivances and the slack, cozy prose of commercial fiction. Miss Murdoch’s taste for high living, plushy decor, golden weather, and rich, soft-centered emotions would be tolerable if she wrote prose that would control these predilections, but the way she now writes seems to be totally dominated by them. Consider, for instance, this representative passage:
She was lying on her back on the bed and John Ducane was lying beside her, his face buried in her shoulder and his dry cool hair touching her cheek. Jessica’s two hands, questing across the dark stuff of his jacket, met each other and clasped, holding him in a tight compact embrace. As her hands interlocked across his back she sighed deeply, gazing up at the ceiling which the slanting golden sunlight of the evening had made shadowy and dappled and deep, and the gold filled her eyes which seemed to grow larger and larger like great lakes brim full of peace. For the terrible pain had gone, utterly gone, and her body and her soul were limp with the bliss of its departing.
I have nothing against a novelist describing a girl tenderly relaxing with her lover, providing he does it in such a way as to render the reality of the emotion, and not just the blur of words. But this kind of writing is irreconcilable with the serious practice of literature.
Although The Nice and the Good, like most of Miss Murdoch’s later novels, contains a good many characters who are exactly described and placed, and who indulge in all kinds of intricate and surprising behavior, there is a great deal of doubt in my mind as to how much Miss Murdoch knows about people at all (in the sense, which as a student of philosophy she will appreciate, of “knowing” as opposed to “knowing that”): hence, perhaps, the cumulative incredibility I find in these books. Samuel Beckett is not, I suppose, a writer one would normally associate with Miss Murdoch (although Murphy was one of the few books owned by Jake Donaghue, the picaresque hero of Under the Net), but just after finishing The Nice and the Good I came across this sentence from Watt: “Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done.”
Miss Murdoch has, in fact, gone on record as arguing that the novelist should be concerned above all with character, as a presentation of the human person in his full and impenetrable uniqueness, which we find in the great novelists of the nineteenth century, and particularly the Russians. She opposes this kind of fiction to the contrasting twentieth-century models of the “journalistic” novel of accumulated fact, and the “crystalline” novel of aesthetic concentration, which is more concerned with pursuing an ideal of form than with conveying a sense of the variousness of reality. Freedom, unpredictability, contingency, these are the qualities Miss Murdoch claims to value in the novel: “Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination”* Reading these words, and still more the essay from which they are taken, one is struck by the extent to which Miss Murdoch’s practice as a novelist has diverged from these admirable prescriptions. The later novels are nothing if not fantasies or myths, full of complex manipulative patterns in which the contingency of life is constantly subdued by the rigid will of the author. They are infinitely far removed from the Tolstoyan openness to which she aspires.
NEVERTHELESS, some interesting defenses of Miss Murdoch’s methods have been made by her admirers, who include such excellent critics as G.S. Fraser and Malcolm Bradbury, as well as the young English novelist Antonia Byatt, who has written a study of Iris Murdoch called, paradoxically, Degrees of Freedom (this book, although the work of an admirer, builds up a substantial case against the author’s own high estimate of Iris Murdoch’s importance). One line of defense is to say that if, as becomes almost comically the case, any given character in a Murdoch novel is likely to have sex with any other character or characters, regardless of age, gender, or kindred, then this is not authorial manipulation at all, but rather a recognition of contingency, a clear recognition of the fact that you never really know what people might be up to. One might see the point of this as an argument, and still remain—as I am—wholly unconvinced by its fictional illustrations; that is, an a priori idea has been imposed, instead of a real possibility of human behavior.
In “Against Dryness,” Miss Murdoch says that novelists should recognize what she calls “opacity of persons,” by which she means their impenetrability and unpredictability, their resistance to any form of appropriation, whether political or aesthetic. But if the characters in her fiction seem opaque this seems to me rather owing to the deficiencies of their creator; for although Miss Murdoch has some striking literary gifts, she seems to be lacking in the essential novelistic ones: insight, sympathy, and true imagination (as opposed to an endlessly ramifying fancy). In the world of Miss Murdoch’s novels, characters, often of considerable complexity, are described, and indeed can be made to look and sound very real. But her only way of relating them is by some form of abitrary sexual encounter, or an act of violence, or by involvement in complicated or dangerous physical activity. This kind of activity, is, in fact, what Miss Murdoch is best at describing: one thinks, for instance, of the farcical account of stealing the cage containing the film-star dog, Mister Mars, in Under the Net (the episodic structure of this novel allowed it to contain a high proportion of such incidents, which helped to make the book so entertaining); or the antics on the tower in The Sandcastle and the scene in the same novel when a car falls into a river; or the passage in The Unicorn when Effingham Cooper is lost at night on the moors. In The Nice and the Good by far the best piece of writing is about two characters who are trapped by the tide in a cave and narrowly escape drowning. It is in such extreme episodes that Miss Murdoch seems most at home, rather than with the subtler but more central forms of human behavior, which she seems to know or care remarkably little about. Apart from the intricacy and ingenuity which her sophisticated literary admirers respond to, the qualities of her recent work are precisely those which will give her a wider and less discriminating audience: intermittent physical excitement, mild lubricity, and a lush celebration of the pleasures of rich or unfamiliar environments. She is more than welcome to that audience; but it’s surely time that the notion of her literary seriousness was officially settled.
IN Orchestra and Beginners Frederic Raphael also writes about English upper-middle-class life; much less pretentiously, it’s true, but not very successfully either. Or, to be more accurate, Orchestra and Beginners is long enough to contain one very bad and one rather good novel. The first half of the novel is set in the 1930s, and describes the meeting and marriage of Linda, a young American girl, and Leonard Strauss, a Jewish businessman from England; all this part is told in flashbacks set in a house-party on the fine Sunday in September 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany. This first part of the novel is both wordy and perfunctory. Linda Strauss slowly emerges as a credible—and likable—person, but Leonard remains a complete cipher. Mr. Raphael has some annoying literary habits, in particular his addiction to long stretches of laconic, pointless dialogue, trickling limply down the lefthand side of the page, and to inert descriptive writing.
But in the middle of the book we switch to the experiences in prep school of the Strauss’s son, Mark, and here the narrative suddenly becomes alive, with an evocation of childhood that is both sensitive and full of energetic observations. Since Mark was born in Chicago and was about eight in 1939, and the jacket tells us that Mr. Raphael was born in Chicago in 1931 and then educated in England, one can assume that the account of Mark’s boyhood draws on autobiographical experiences, and that Mr. Raphael seems better at recalling things than in inventing them. Still, regarded as a whole, the book is distinctly over-ambitious.
It’s pleasant to be able to finish with some praise. I greatly enjoyed the two previous novels by Heather Ross Miller, The Edge of the Woods and Tenants of the House, and her new one, Gone a Hundred Miles, is equally distinguished. The setting is still her native North Carolina, but this time she has gone back into the past, to the 1820s, when a German immigrant doctor arrives in a remote mountainous corner of the state and sets up practice. He becomes a great force in the neighborhood, respected and feared if not much loved, and when his wife dies he marries a young nature-girl, whom he had once treated for a broken arm; the story of their marriage is full of smoldering intensities. The doctor, Tscharner, is a Nietzschean Ubermensch type, and the end of the novel, when Tscharner is finally destroyed by the forces of nature that he had fought for so long to contain, rather worried me by its abruptness. Mrs. Miller’s great virtue is her feeling for ordinary life, and the tangibility of the world she describes, which is never undercut by any symbolic pattern. If anything, her stress on clinical detail and the processes of primitive medicine is somewhat unrelenting, though they fit easily into the narrative. In spite of the remoteness and rawness of her material this is a fascinating and original work.
April 11, 1968