Iris Murdoch seems headed toward an almost Trollopian record of productivity. Like Trollope but unlike, say, Dickens, she has become, since the early, “experimental” phase of Under the Net and The Flight from the Enchanter, a novelist of remarkably even achievement and pleasurable predictability, one who can be counted on to marshal her characters and put them before us with dispatch and ease, to comment sharply on their antics, and to win our light-hearted curiosity about “the way everything is going to turn out.”
That said, the differences between the fictional predilections of the Oxford philosophy don and the Victorian postal official are so great as to be nearly unspeakable. One need not have read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels (as I have not) to expect a cast of mostly upper-middle-class, often sexually amorphous characters with cultivated tastes and a marked degree of emotional changeability. Among them are likely to be one or two sorcerer-like figures who cast an ambiguous spell over the others. The plot—or rather multiplicity of plots—will be so full of reversals as to keep the reader constantly off balance. One can further anticipate a succession of long, vividly narrated scenes, an elegant juggling of moral or metaphysical themes that remain unresolved, and a sprinkling of magical or supernatural elements that seem somewhat gratuitous but add to the gaiety of the performance. In my case, the books and their titles tend in retrospect to blend into one mega-Murdoch fiction, from which only A Severed Head and The Sea, The Sea emerge with real distinctiveness.
All of one’s expectations are amply met in The Book and The Brotherhood, Iris Murdoch’s twenty-third novel and, at more than six hundred pages, her longest. It opens with one of her striking set pieces: a midsummer night’s dream that takes place at a “Commem Ball” at an Oxford college (presumably Magdalen). In a boozy wilderness of striped tents and dance bands, ancient floodlit buildings, intensely green illuminated trees, a deer park, college rooms, and the river Cherwell, the characters—as in Shakespeare’s comedy—appear and drift off, encounter and lose one another, and undergo striking amatory transformations. They are introduced briskly, with physical descriptions and bits of biographical information, but they are so numerous and they come and go at such a rate that the reader becomes nearly as muddled as any of the drunken dancers at the ball.
The ones we meet are not (with two exceptions) undergraduates but a band of middle-aged men and women who have known each other since university days. The leader is Gerard Hernshaw, a well-to-do former civil servant with a handsome “cubist” face who likes arranging things; having chosen early retirement, he may or may not undertake various projects, among them the writing of a book on Plotinus. He has come to the ball with his dearest friend, the Honourable Rose Curtland, a spinster with a little money from her titled Yorkshire family. Years before, Rose had a brief affair with Gerard and has been in love with him ever since. But Gerard, who still earlier had been the Oxford lover of Rose’s brother Sinclair (now dead), is mainly homosexual and shows no sexual interest in Rose. Another former lover of Gerard’s, the heavy-drinking Duncan Cambus, is present with his rich Jewish wife Jean, who had once left him for the most brilliant and forceful member of their group, a Scottish Marxist, Crimond. Still another friend (but not a lover) of Gerard’s, Jenkin Riderhood, has come alone; he is a semireclusive schoolmaster who has unrequited religious yearnings that might lead him to go off to Africa or Latin America to work with the wretched of the earth. All take a protective interest in the waiflike undergraduate girl, Tamar Hernshaw, the illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate daughter of an uncle of Gerard’s.
Tamar was poised ready to fall in love. It is possible to plan to fall in love. Or perhaps what seems like planning is simply the excited anticipation of the moment, delayed so as to be perfected, of the unmistakable mutual gesture, when eyes meet, hands meet, words fail.
But a far worse fate than falling in love awaits poor Tamar.
These characters, together with a rather indistinct youngish man named Gulliver Ashe, who has recently drifted into Gerard’s orbit, wander through the enchanted maze until gradually the evening comes to focus upon the enigmatic and charismatic Marxist radical, Crimond, the only character whose mind we never enter but about whom the other characters revolve in fascination or dismay. When, after hearing much about him, we at last see him, Crimond, wearing a kilt, is dancing a Scottish reel with Jean Cambus.
Her narrow hawklike face, usually as pale as ivory, was flushed and dewy with sweat and her dark straight heavy shoulder-length hair, whirling about, had plastered some of its strands across her brow. Her fine Jewish head, usually so stately and so cold, had now, her dark eyes huge and staring, a fierce wild oriental look…. Crimond was not sweating. His face was, as usual in repose, pallid, expressionless, even stern, but his slightly freckled skin…was now gleaming and hard…. With his conspicuously long thin nose he reminded Gerard, watching, of one of the tall Greek kouroi in the Acropolis museum, only without the mysterious smile. Crimond danced well, not with abandonment, but with a magisterial precision, his torso stiff, his shoulders held well back, as taut as a bow and yet as resilient and weightless as a leaping dog.
Jenkin, who is also watching, murmurs, “I’m glad I saw this. He’s like Shiva.” Before the ball ends in full daylight that reveals the sordidness of its debris, Gerard has learned of his father’s death, Crimond has thrown the drunken and jealous Duncan Cambus into the Cherwell, and Jean has decided to leave her husband for the second time in order to live with Crimond.
Only well after this alternately brilliant and confusing introductory movement, which is more than fifty pages long, is the main theme of the novel announced. Many years before, the Oxford friends had banded together to subsidize Crimond—the most politically active, dedicated, and ascetic of their group—in the writing of what they all expected to be an extraordinary work of political philosophy—the idea being that a small regular stipend would keep him from having to take a job that would necessarily interfere with his great project.
Over the years the company of friends (“the Crimondgesellschaft“) have been contributing to his salary, and there is still no book. Meanwhile, the Gesellschaft, most of them now estranged from Crimond, have all moved in a conservative direction, whereas Crimond has remained steadfastly on the extreme left, writing articles and political pamphlets and eventually getting himself expelled from the Labour party. The question now facing Gerard and his friends is whether they should continue to support a book “which, if it ever appeared, must exert a dangerous and pernicious influence…. This was the state of indecision which Crimond’s second abduction of Jean Cambus seemed likely to bring to a head.”
Over the next five hundred pages Iris Murdoch pursues the zigzag course of each of the hares she has started, narrating the surprising and often horrendous events in the lives of her numerous characters. Of these I mention only a suicide pact to be carried out by the headon collision of speeding cars; the impregnating of little Tamar by the bereft and despairing Duncan; the transformation (in Tamar’s fantasy) of her aborted fetus into a malign demon; the use of snails for telepathic communication.
Opposing the fierce dedication of Crimond to the self-indulgent, sometimes absurd, and sometimes despairing lives of the others, Iris Murdoch has created what might superficially seem an allegory of contemporary Britain. Is Britain—or indeed the whole late-capitalist Western world, with its feckless individualism and post-Christian muddle of values—done for? Or is such a world, as Gerard and Rose would contend, preferable in its small decencies and inherited amenities to the harsh revolutionary alternative that Crimond represents? But Crimond is himself a mass of contradictions: a sexually active puritan, a needy tyrant, an idealist drawn to both murder and suicide. To complicate matters further, the author introduces an evangelically fervent Anglican priest who believes passionately in Christ but not in God and who is the instrument of Tamar’s enigmatic salvation from guilt-induced madness. While many of the issues and ideas so emphatically voiced are indeed serious ones, Iris Murdoch will of course allow no pat thematic resolutions to pull down the essentially comic balloon she has sent aloft.
The Book and The Brotherhood can seem maddeningly prolix. The characters constantly ask themselves how to assess, or react to, a given situation or a particular state of mind—only to have one or both reverse themselves almost at once, thereby leading to further questions and (equally tentative) answers. So emotionally fickle, so prone to radical change, so relentlessly talkative are Murdoch’s flighty men and women that the reader seldom has a confident sense of them. This is no doubt deliberate on the author’s part (it may even reflect a “deconstructive” notion of personality), but the result is that the characters in the new book become practically interchangeable, in the reader’s memory, with those in a dozen of her other novels.
What haunts the memory is certain images and certain scenes of strangeness or piercing beauty or even terror—Honor Klein tossing a dinner napkin into the air and halving it with a samurai sword as it descends in A Severed Head or, in this novel, the skating scene on the frozen water-meadow at Rose’s country house or the sensation of the headlights of the two suicide cars hurtling toward one another in the darkness on the narrow Roman road:
Her foot was pressing the accelerator into the floor of the car, there was a roaring in her ears, the sound of the engine of which she had been unaware, the wheel seemed fixed in her hands, locked into position. She had never driven so fast in her life, yet she felt in perfect control of the car…. The pale brilliant eyes ahead which had for a time seemed to grow larger without moving, were now perceptibly coming nearer, rushing nearer, nearer, fast, very fast…. How could she kill her lover? If she could only die and he became a god…. The bright eyes were near, hypnotic, glaring dazzling, filling her vision, directly ahead of her, rushing, charging towards her. She thought, he’s not going to swerve, it isn’t a test, it’s the real thing, it’s the end. Jean began to scream, she screamed into the roaring of the engine. She could see now, not just the eyes, but the car, illumined now by her own headlights, a black car, with a figure in it, coming, coming. The box, the box, the box. Oh my love.
Despite its excessive length and passages that can seem almost as self-indulgent as the characters they represent, The Book and The Brotherhood demonstrates again and again that Iris Murdoch is among the most gifted descriptive and narrative writers in English—and certainly one of the most consistently entertaining. Her comedy can accommodate horror, revulsion, and pathos as well as absurdity and still leave the reader feeling cheerful at the end. If one were to seek a tag for The Book and The Brotherhood in keeping with its midsummer night’s opening and with the tenor of the novel as a whole, Puck’s comment on mortals would do better than most.
The expatriate American writer of crime novels, Patricia Highsmith, has a few characteristics in common with Iris Murdoch. She is prolific, with nineteen novels to her credit, together with six volumes of short stories. Like Iris Murdoch, she frequently writes from the point of view of one or more of her male characters, who may or may not be “straight”; in fact, taken as a group, Miss Highsmith’s characters, male and female, represent a wide spectrum of what used to be called the perverse. That she is also a reader of the English novelist is clear from her newest novel, Found in the Street, in which a reclusive Greenwich Village crank (himself the victim of various sexual hang-ups) takes out of the Leroy Street library a novel by Iris Murdoch,
whom he enjoyed because the English world she described, though contemporary and evidently realistic, was fantastic to Ralph, making him think of the plots of Richard Wagner’s operas…. Ralph had never been to England, and he wondered if a fair number of English people kept falling in love like that, seldom if ever showing it under their calm exteriors?
It would be misleading to press these affinities any further. Patricia Highsmith is one of those writers of genre fiction who have a following among literary people, especially in England. She has been handsomely praised by Graham Greene, Julian Symons, and Auberon Waugh. In this country she has had enthusiastic readers ever since her first book, Strangers on a Train, which was filmed by Hitchcock, but her literary reputation is fairly recent and seems just now to be gaining momentum. Found in the Street, which was published in Britain in 1986 and in this country only a few months ago, has been widely and for the most part glowingly reviewed.
The novel begins with the image of a pretty girl with short blond hair and white sneakers making her way, smiling and spirited, down a Greenwich Village street. Suddenly she spots a man “with a rather side to side gait and with a dog on a leash. The girl stopped abruptly, and took the first opportunity to cross the street.” We cut immediately to the consciousness of the dog walker, a middle-aged man named Ralph Linderman, who is clearly obsessive and a bore, his head full of angry clichés about dirty streets, littering kids, and muggers. We learn that eighteen years before he had fallen down an elevator shaft in a garage where he worked as a security guard and has felt changed ever since. We learn too that he is preoccupied with a young blond girl, Elsie, whom he met in a coffee shop, and worries about her safety in this dangerous, sordid city. While Ralph is conscientiously scooping up the mess of his dog, a black and white, piglike animal he has named God, he finds a wallet lying in the gutter. Though a cantankerous atheist, Ralph thinks of himself as one of the last moral men, and there is no question that he will return the bulging wallet to its rightful owner.
Thus we meet the second consciousness of the novel—that of a blandly reasonable, agreeable man whose character contrasts in every way with Ralph’s. Jack Sutherland is an “upscale” young book designer and commercial artist who enjoys a coolly modern marriage with a good-looking fairly rich woman named Natalia. “She was the kind of girl, or woman, who would bolt and run off, perhaps forever, if she felt the marital harness chafing even a little.” They live in a handsomely decorated apartment on Grove Street in the Village (only a short distance from Ralph’s Bleecker Street tenement) and have a bright little girl, Amelia. For the rest of the novel we alternate between Ralph and Jack, following the former from his dingy flat to the garage where he works at night and the latter to conferences about his art work, to parties, gallery openings, and other events in the life of a young New York husband and father. In addition to the returned wallet, Ralph and Jack have a bond in their mutual fascination with the young blond girl, Elsie, whom Jack, too, has encountered at the coffee shop where she works as a waitress.
Terrified that Elsie might fall into prostitution or get hooked on drugs, Ralph makes a nuisance of himself at the coffee shop, lecturing her on her sex life and issuing baleful warnings. He begins to spy on her, following her to her apartment. Jack, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her looks and spirit and wants to sketch her—all without any acknowledged desire to go to bed with her. When Ralph one day sees Elsie leave Jack’s building (she has innocently helped him carry home some groceries), he suspects the worst and writes Jack a letter telling him not to see the girl again. What follows is a situation of mounting paranoia on Ralph’s part and growing annoyance on the part of Jack and Elsie. Having set up this situation, Patricia Highsmith complicates it by revealing that this sunny girl of men’s dreams is, at least for the present, a lesbian, and that Jack’s wife, Natalia, has fallen in love with her. Jack’s easy acceptance of his wife’s homosexual affair is an example of the passivity that seems to afflict so many of Patricia Highsmith’s male characters, including her murderers.
Interestingly (and typically) the author does not play up the inherent drama in the situation, but mutes it, slows things down, and distracts us with other matters. We are allowed to spend a lot of time with Amelia, watching her being put to bed, listening to her prattle with her parents, particularly her father, who, more than the elusive Natalia, is in charge of domestic arrangements. We tune in on Ralph’s reminiscences of his wretched, brief marriage and listen to his misogynous imprecations. From time to time we are allowed to glimpse Elsie’s meteorically rising career (aided by Jack and Natalia) as a fashion model. The explosion, when it occurs, is produced not by the bomb that has been quietly ticking away but from another source altogether—the sudden murderous impulse of a jealous “dikey” type whom we have met only once before and may well have forgotten. Murder, in Patricia Highsmith’s hands, is made to occur almost as casually as the bumping of a fender or a bout of food poisoning.
This downplaying of the dramatic in her work has been much praised, as has the ordinariness of the details with which she depicts the daily lives and mental processes of her psychopaths. Both undoubtedly contribute to the domestication of crime in her fiction, thereby implicating the reader further in the sordid fantasy that is being worked out. Found in the Street is a fairly typical example—less lively than the cycle involving that prince of disguises and offhand murder, Tom Ripley, and less stolid than, say, Deep Water. The claustrophobic and obsessional quality that Graham Greene has praised (and that I certainly experienced in other novels going all the way back to the rantings of the polymorphously warped Bruno in Strangers on a Train) is here limited to those passages in which we are trapped in the boring mind of Ralph Linderman, but its impact is undeniable. The denouement, when it occurs, is skillfully worked out and its effect is enhanced by the way in which the reader has been led to expect something altogether different.
But I have reservations that apply, in varying degrees, to Patricia Highsmith’s other novels as well. The ordinariness—what might be called the calculated banality—of her approach extends to her use of dialogue, which in the case of Found in the Street is generally commonplace and often dull. Miss Highsmith’s ear seems to fail her when she attempts to reproduce the speech of the contemporary American young—would a girl like Elsie really pepper her speech with “gollys” and “by goshes” and refer to young men as “fellows”? Furthermore, the utilitarian flatness of the novel’s prose is such that one is never tempted to quote more than is strictly needed for illustrative purposes. While the characters, here and elsewhere, come equipped with any number of interesting kinks, quirks, and neuroses, their rendering seems to me to lack a certain energy that would make them memorable in their pathology. I suppose I should at this point confess that I find the understated approach to the crime genre that Miss Highsmith’s British critics admire less appealing than the fast-paced, vulgarly sensational, and demotically attuned crime novels of a writer like Elmore Leonard.
March 31, 1988