Jean Stafford’s stories have a wide social and geographical range; they are linked together by two strong threads—the presiding sensibility is always a woman’s and the attitudes are unmistakably American—but, beyond that, one has no idea what to expect. She writes about people whom loneliness has driven slightly mad, but also about people who are secure and comforted; she explores childhood and old age, poverty and wealth, tragedy and comedy. The comedy is usually wry, sometimes sour, but often moves one to laughter. Above all, Miss Stafford will not be hurried. Confronted with a scene or a situation, she moves forward deliberately, possessing it with her eyes and her mind, taking in all its details, the meanings it offers, and the meanings it holds back. Here she is in the women’s ward in the poorhouse:
Beyond this hearty band and beyond the laughing matron, Lily could see into the large ward, where every bed—and there were four long rows of them—was occupied by an ancient woman; the humps of their withered bodies under the seersucker coverlets looked truncated and deformed like amputated limbs or mounds of broken bones, and the wintry faces that stared from the stingy pillows had lost particularity: among them it would have been impossible to determine which was primarily bleak or mean or brave or imbecile, for age and humiliation had blurred the predominant humor and had all but erased the countenance. A few of the women had visitors and the tops of their commodes were littered with purses and hats and gloves; those who were alone glared greedily at their luckier neighbors and, like crones in a comic strip, cupped their ears to eavesdrop. A constant, female babble came from the room, and though they were immobile, the bedridden seemed to bustle and flit; they gave the impression of housewives hurriedly setting things to rights as they saw unexpected callers coming up the drive; the impression came solely from their voices, in which there was neither resonance nor modulation; they chirped like crickets, dry and shrill.
This amplitude occasionally—very occasionally—works against the short story form, which thrives on brevity and suggestion; Miss Stafford’s inclination is to analyze, to explore fully, whereas the story is, ideally, a feathered arrow that goes the shortest way to its target. But if some of the pieces read like panels from a novel which was never assembled, that only adds to the strength of the collection as a whole, for by grouping the stories according to the region of their setting, Miss Stafford permits us, if we wish, to read the book as if it were four short, episodic novels, in which we move from house to house, from family to family, rather as in the early chapters of Dr. Zhivago. (I don’t mean that there is any other resemblance.) To me, this book is the most solidly achieved of the three I deal with here, and I have the least to say about it, because the stories in it are more to be read and lived with than written about.
Bruno is ancient and dying. His household is run by Danby. Danby loved and married Gwen, Bruno’s daughter, but she dies. Adelaide, the domestic servant, loves Danby. He sleeps with her and likes her but he does not love her. Will Boase loves Adelaide. Nigel Boase, his brother, nurses Bruno and nurses also an undeclared passion (Platonic? homosexual?) for Danby. Bruno also has a son, Miles. Miles loved Parvati but she died. Diana loves Miles. She winkled him out of his self-absorbed misery after Parvati’s death and married him. Danby tries to get to bed with Diana. He may be succeeding but he meets her sister Lisa. Lisa lives with Diana and Miles and she loves Miles. Miles loves Miles. After Miles discovers that Danby loves Lisa, Miles also loves Lisa. Lisa… Any practiced reader of present-day fiction will have guessed by now that the author could only be Iris Murdoch. That obsessional pavane of sexual relationships is her habitual device for moving her characters into action. But the action into which they move is not only sexual. It is exploratory; it bumps against the barriers.
When Miss Murdoch first made her appearance as a novelist, some fifteen years ago, she did so in company with a generation of writers who were, on the whole, in retreat from the apocalyptic visions, the large symbols, that had dominated the Western imagination for two or three decades. Her first novel, Under the Net, was swallowed easily into the generalizations of those days about “the movement.” It shared with its companions the restless scurry of incident, the keenly observed manners and dialogue, the literalness, the unspoken assumption that, after waste lands and castles and lighthouses, it was time for ordinary life to be made articulate.
It is true that Under the Net also contained one lump of unassimilated philosophy, in the form of a long stylized dialogue, but most readers accepted this cheerfully as lagniappe. What most people noticed, in those far-off days, was that Miss Murdoch had the skills that seemed to be demanded by the pragmatic, essentially mundane fiction of those years. And so she had. But as book followed book, it became bafflingly evident that the skills were not quite mated with deeper intentions. The crisp dialogue, the adroit narrative, the lucid and memorable evocation of time and place, were pulling one way, but the imaginative currents were an undertow pulling the other way. Miss Murdoch’s affinities, it turned out, were not at all with the writers with whom she was originally grouped, but rather with someone like William Golding. She, like him, sees life in apocalyptic terms. Everyday existence, the empirical business of surviving from day to day (in Hemingway’s formula, “living with it” rather than “understanding it”) does not really seem to her worth writing about. Her “friends are exultations, agonies, and love.” She is interested in the human being at the point of crisis.
The immediate motivation of her people is nearly always sexual. But “sex” is not a rich enough word, as it would be in the case of most of her contemporaries. Miss Murdoch writes about love, which takes off from sex but also goes far beyond it:
Being in love, l’amour fou, is very like a spiritual condition. Plato thought any love was capable of leading us into the life of the spirit: perhaps because falling in love convinces so intensely of the reality and power of love itself, which dulled life knows nothing of. But falling in love involves also an enlivening and magnifying of the greedy passionate self. Such love will envisage suffering, absence, separation, pain, it will even exult in these: but what it cannot envisage is death, utter loss. This is the vision which it will on no account tolerate, which at all costs it will thrust away, transform, and veil.
In Iris Murdoch’s stories, love is a daemonic possession. Human beings are powerless in its clutches. Their lives and habits, however sturdy, are instantly wrenched out of shape by its sudden and ruthless hand. But human helplessness does not end here. As well as sexual lives, people have metaphysical lives. Into the clutches of the great questions—where is meaning? whence comes love? who is God?—they fall as helplessly as into the grip of love.
Since this creates an atmosphere of highly wrought incident, in which at any moment the most settled character may feel an irresistible urge to dive into the bed of some less settled character, Miss Murdoch’s books have achieved considerable popularity. But for her this vision has nothing frivolous about it. It is the way she sees life. People move like sleepwalkers in the dailiness of their lives. Nothing they do or say has any interest to anyone else, and not much to themselves. Then, suddenly (it has to be suddenly), they are knocked off pivot by the bruising hand of great joy or great pain (deriving from sexual love), and this brings them, tongue-tied captives, before the seat of the great questions.
This is Iris Murdoch’s formula, and the intense ice-cold fury with which she battles to give it imaginative expression gives her fables their force. But one’s misgivings remain. To put it bluntly, holding this view of life she ought to write like Dostoevsky, whereas in fact her manner is closer to that of English social comedy.
In this new book, there are, for instance, symbolic episodes that don’t appear to be symbolic of anything; they are offered, that is, with the fervor and expansiveness appropriate to major symbols, but their references are too splayed-out: to mean anything, inevitably, is to mean nothing. At one point, Bruno is alone in the house with Adelaide; it has been raining for days, and the Thames is nearby; several earlier references to flooding have been planted. Bruno has a stamp-collection worth twenty thousand pounds. He normally keeps it with him, but all the characters have become increasingly absorbed in their emotional crises and the collection has been casually left downstairs. Then the flood comes. Adelaide, bemused by the pain of the collapse of her relationship with Danby, fumbles together a few belongings as the water surges in and Bruno screams from upstairs; she toys, numbly, with the thought of stealing some of the stamps—it might rehabilitate her with Will, who needs money and has previously asked her to steal one for him—but before she can muster the resolution to do anything, the rising water drives her upstairs, she meets Bruno desperately tottering at the head of the staircase, and the two of them fall back into the water.
One’s first impression is that they must be drowned, but when the narrative is resumed it turns out that Adelaide is unharmed and even Bruno’s thin thread of life is not yet sheared. Only the stamps are destroyed. This, admittedly, takes away Bruno’s transmissible wealth and thus makes it impossible for him to influence the action from beyond the grave. But surely this is too trivial a result from such a portentous episode. The stamps are hardly more than an excrescence on the story in any case. What, then, “is” the flood? The gigantic force of nature which pushes down people’s tiny barriers? The cleansing punishment which liberates the world for innocence? This last would be my guess, but I do not offer it with any conviction.
Then we have the non-credible duel between Danby and Will Boase, which takes place at dawn on the mistshrouded banks of the Thames. This is beautifully described, but the Danby whose character has been so convincingly built up would never have agreed to take part in such a piece of apocalyptic and murderous play-acting, and the author’s attempts to make his behavior convincing only focus attention on the fact that only the puppets are being manipulated.
Nigel Boase, a pitiful shabby halfcrazed character who wants to be God and perhaps is a kind of god, however, succeeds in holding our attention and belief. We don’t believe that such a person might exist in the ordinary world, but we believe that humanity contains the different qualities which go to make up his blend. As he trots round, spying on everyone, passing on the information which jolts the plot into each successive phase, he seems rather like the Duke in Measure for Measure, and, like the Duke, he is given some genuine wisdom to utter. The trouble is that he has to co-exist in the same story with Danby, who is imagined with solidity, and the juxta-position diminishes both of them.
In the end, perhaps, one assents to the book as a piece of wisdom-literature, for saying two things and saying them very strongly. One is that suffering, if it is intense enough, transforms people and makes them ready for joy. The other is that death, as it approaches, strips away the confusions of life; that, as Forster realized, “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him,” by providing an essential perspective. Thus Bruno’s tormenting doubts are at last resolved; and Lisa, after years of pain, releases her capacity for happiness through Danby, who has also earned this right by suffering. One doesn’t find it credible that Lisa should give herself to Danby, but Miss Murdoch’s blueprint demanded it, and in the end it is the blueprint we find ourselves responding to.
I hope that in spite of so much grumbling I have conveyed my admiration for Bruno’s Dream, which contains many passages quite beyond the range of most other contemporary novelists. Perhaps, in the end, one appreciates Iris Murdoch by reversing Lawrence’s maxim, “Never trust the artist: trust the tale.” In Iris Murdoch, it is the tale we don’t trust; what we trust is our sense of the author’s personality, our feeling that she knows important things and may tell them to us if we listen.
Some people, I know, will find A Compass Error exactly what they are looking for, and will delight in every gracefully written page. To them, I can only apologize for having to offer what is, inescapably, my own impression of it, as a last gasp of that international rentier culture of the Gertrude Stein epoch which has already been so disastrously over-articulate. A distinguished literary lady, at fifty, muses about the past; in memory, she is once more the eager, idealistic girl of seventeen, left alone, by her own choice, in the South of France, guardian of an important secret: the whereabouts of her mother and the upright middleaged Frenchman, a political theorist, to whom after many storms the mother has finally given her love and trust. The couple are in hiding because his difficult wife, who is understood to have martyred him for years, will otherwise set detectives on them and make difficulties about the divorce that will regularize everyone’s life.
The girl, Flavia, enjoys her solitude, her studies, her sense of tremulous self-dedication; she works hard and reads the New Statesman every week from cover to cover because “she regarded that paper much as Christians of solid faith used to regard heaven, the place one hopes to get to.” As part of her delicious acclimatization to life, she loses her virginity, if that is the right expression, to an older woman. Presently, another woman of that generation (more or less her mother’s) appears on the scene: beautiful, cool, troubling; Flavia falls in love with her, and the newcomer unaccountably takes her up, though she is as far above Flavia’s girlish sphere as the New Statesman itself. It turns out that her motive is to find out Flavia’s secret, which she duly does by underhand means, in spite of Flavia’s faithful resistance. She then reveals herself, considerably in the wake of the reader’s intuition, as the fatal, pursuing wife.
This seems to make little enough difference, since the couple subsequently live together without troubling to marry. Entwined with all this is a family history of Italian titles and American fortunes (from soap, chiefly), and a courtly old gentleman who writes letters in the vein of Henry James and is actually called Mr. James, and love affairs and divorces and international comings and goings. Some of the characters are artists but nobody is poor; they are all interested in those aspects of civilization which manifest themselves in good food and wine and interesting motor cars (everything is catalogued until one feels one has been reading through the advertisements in The New Yorker), but somehow the quality of life that is suggested, the range and depth of values, remain those of the New Statesman.
The story is delicately scented with nostalgia, and it is clear that Mrs. Bedford intends to reconstruct in admiring memory a dead civilization. But what is portrayed isn’t interesting enough or strong enough to be called a civilization; it is merely a bundle of habits and attitudes, a soap-bubble blown up by the movement of international capital and fashion. Nobody has quite enough intelligence; the political ideas of the sage Michel, fruit of his years of selfless meditation, turn out to be some rigmarole about “selecting our custodians by ‘objective’ tests—no believer he in universal franchise!—even by breeding them to specification like so many queen bees.” If only there were more vitality in it all, more strength, more salt; if only one could whip up any interest in what became of these people.
April 24, 1969