Iris Murdoch

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Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 3)

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Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–

Iris Murdoch, an Irish-born British novelist and lecturer in philosophy, writes powerful and complex intellectual novels, often employing metaphysical themes, about the possibility of love and individual freedom. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Iris Murdoch belongs within the tradition of continental letters, to that awesome line of philosopher-novelists who write novels of ideas. Philosophers by trade and temperament, they appropriate fiction in order to tell us something about universal ambiguity. Huxley did it through what he called the "musicalization of fiction," Sartre through existential heroics. Iris Murdoch's brand is metaphysical fantasy: a combination of pyrotechnics and philosophy, a design of bizarre effects intended to convey reality as contingent and eccentric….

Iris Murdoch's bizarre design [in Bruno's Dream] is fleshed out with coincidence, riddles, ironic reversals and hints of sexual perversion that constitute a strategy of insinuation employed to highlight the susceptibility of her self-styled victims. By converting the unknown into vague concepts of destiny, demons and portents, they see themselves as spellbound by arbitrary powers. It is as if some omnipotent Spider were spinning out a Web to ensnare them in disaster. But, the author assures us, there is no universal mechanism grinding out suffering or conspiring against us: "the machine is just a phantasm of our pain." Life is painfully mysterious and the universe, unfathomable, so all we can do is blunder along as best we can trying to fit the pieces together free of grand illusions.

This message is familiar, though the unusual design not quite the extravagant fare one has come to expect, say, from Miss Murdoch's absurdist fairy tale, The Flight from the Enchanter, or her grotesque myth, A Severed Head. Moreover, the gothic romance of The Unicorn and the anti-Christian allegory of The Bell make the current theme somewhat less than exciting. In comparison, Bruno's Dream is a version of the metaphysical muddle modified by the author's unwillingness to surrender her people to despair….

Many readers will also regret the waning of Iris Murdoch's inventive powers and wonder why she continues to turn out a variation on her formula almost once a year. Since The Unicorn in 1963, she has rarely shown the uncanny imagination that illuminated the earlier works. And while Bruno's Dream can be viewed as an attempt to scale universal ambiguity down to human proportions, it is an undistinguished novel of ideas, with only a few vestiges of the Murdoch flair and wit and scarcely a breath of life.

Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 28, 1969, pp. 52-3.

Iris Murdoch's speculative emphasis is on the writer's persistence in his work rather than on the finished product and the competition of masterpieces. Following Sartre, she has spoken pointedly of the making of works of art as not only "a struggle for freedom" but as "a task which does not come to an end." Against the bourgeois idolatry of masterpieces and their creators (an attitude which she has called "Romantic"), she advances an image of endless marginal struggle with, at best, only limited and provisional success. "Art, too," she has asserted, "lives in a region where all endeavor is failure." Hence it "must not be too much afraid of incompleteness." her solutions as a novelist ratify her speculative pronouncements, and in their conjunction she has become a writer whom anyone concerned with the immediate future of literature must come to terms with; she stands at present for as effectively reasoned a program of creative renewal as exists in the English-speaking world….

She became a novelist in...

(This entire section contains 4511 words.)

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order to deal freshly with matters on which the intellectual tradition she was reared in had, it seemed, reached a dead end. The problem of knowing "other minds" (a kind of philosophic counterpart to the durable English obsession with "personal relationships") having proved insoluble as raised, through the analysis and classification of linguistic propositions—thus producing another of "those exasperating moments in philosophy when one is relentlessly prevented from saying something which one is irresistibly compelled to say" ("The Idea of Perfection")—she turned to making up complicated stories about actual encounters between such minds and about the natural existence of such primary moral phenomena as intention, love, individuality, sincerity, and choice, conceiving of the successful novelist as a prime model of man at grips with the job of responding truthfully to the turmoil of actual experience.

Her concerns as a writer have shown a severe consistency. They have hardly progressed, but she has refined and concentrated them. From the first her novels have been composed as if to illustrate one of her own later declarations, that the novelist's fundamental job is to create "real characters," i.e., personages who will be "more than conventional puppets" and at the same time "other than oneself." Her strategy for accomplishing this job has been to make use of the very problem of knowledge that it chiefly involves; for it is precisely through their conceptions (always more or less "wrong") of themselves and, by extension, of each other and of the world in general that she identifies her characters to us, and it is through an extended succession of crises in which these wrong conceptions are acted on, shattered, then revised under fire and perilously re-formed, that she tells their story. At this stage it hardly matters what the story is, only that it follow this rhythm, this succession….

The much advertised peculiarities of her practice of fiction are liberally displayed in The Red and the Green. Once again we are given a big cast of characters who dance out an intricate sequence of private relationships. Her reshuffling of these relationships and her staging of scenes in which radical shifts and reversals take place have become famous. Eavesdropping, improvised symbolic linkages, a multiplication of chance meetings that beggars Hardy, are now quite ordinary in her work; if you read her, you simply have to get used to them. You have to learn not automatically to be put off when additional characters required to be present at the ironic climax of some intense private interview simply pop out from behind the door or loom up through an attic window; and if four male characters are in love in their several ways with one woman, as is the case in The Red and the Green, you are not wholly surprised when all four arrive at her house in succession in the middle of the night, for decisive assignations….

The strain of reasoned Gothic fantasy in Iris Murdoch's novels is … not necessarily a sign of weakness, of imaginative failure. Conceivably it represents an intelligent choice among accessible traditions. At the least it can remind us of the historical uses and virtues of the Gothic mode in fiction, a mode that flourished almost without check during the manifold revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries…. In its oddly stylized way it both asserted and criticized that liberal individualism, that image of man as a free rational unit of being, which remains the dominating concern of all of Iris Murdoch's effort as a writer, if not of most of modern literature….

Iris Murdoch … has possessed from the first a distinct literary personality: an indispensable source of interest. With her humor and moral generosity it is a very attractive personality as well. Her further distinction is that she has put this virtue at the disposal of a reasoned conception of the uses of literature. She has something of importance to demonstrate, something that imposes itself on her working consciousness as important, and this double weight is communicated in all she writes. Anyone can see the flimsiness of composition in much of her work and, more damagingly, the incompleteness of imaginative absorption. She leaves a lot to the reader—so much in fact that one begins to suspect that her negligence is itself programmatic. She seems to have taken literally Sartre's eloquent description in What Is Literature? (her book on Sartre dwells on the passage) of writing as above all else a collaboration of author and reader in an act of freedom; a collaboration, continually to be renewed, wherein the willful misdemeanor of mere literature finds its one incontrovertible justification. She keeps herself free as a writer from the "consoling dream necessity" ("Against Dryness") of purified craftsmanship and absolute artistic fulfillment; she counts on the reader to fill out what she has left blank, and to give life and truth to all that despite an honest effort remains glib or sentimental or merely adverted to in the exposition. To use sentimental or merely adverted to in the exposition. To use the language of existentialism, she is not afraid of "bad faith," knowing that acting in bad faith is at least to have acted, and consequentially; it is at least a serious beginning.

Just here we find her special importance in contemporary English writing: she has found a way out of silence and the dead end of a crippling obsession, crippling to philosophy and literature alike, with perfect truth and unimpeachable sincerity. She knows that it is not artistic incompetence that afflicts English letters but a deeper, more organic malady. E. M. Forster diagnosed this malady nearly half a century ago…. Forster called it the "undeveloped heart" and continued to make it the monitory subject of his novels….

The "undeveloped heart," from which the only sure escape is into silence and inanition, is the regular affliction of Iris Murdoch's leading characters, as love and its shocks and failures are her constant subject. In this respect her work takes its place in a classic line of moralistic English fiction. But what particularly marks her off from her nearest predecessors, the stricken generation of Graham Greene and Angus Wilson, perhaps even from a contemporary like Amis, is that she is no longer weighted down by guilt about this condition, or by a parochial craving to kick at those who commonly profit by it. She does not, so to speak, hold herself responsible for it (as a woman, and an Irishwoman at that, she has less reason to). If she is to survive as a writer, she knows that it must be with the help of others, of her readers. Her very abruptness, arbitrariness, imaginative cursoriness have for the reader the force of a direct appeal. "Go along with me," her books say; "as to winning our struggle out of prejudice, division, self-enclosedness, the deformations of fantasy, the virus of nonlife, of course one can't be sure—but you'll have a fairer chance in company like mine than out of it." It is because she sees her work as constituting, like the moral life itself, "a task which does not come to an end" that she has shouldered her way to the center of her time's effort in literature. Like Sartre she seems to work too hastily, yet my own finding is that she draws one after her….

It can be seen that Iris Murdoch has constructed a kind of novel-machine—A Severed Head was its first dazzling free flight—which moves, at once, her characters and her ideas through a dialectical series of confrontations and reversals that convey her understanding of the moral life as it rises from the obscure dynamics of our interlocking yet self-enclosed personal histories. Sometimes this machine seems to run on unattended, at the expense of the uses it was designed for. More frequently it justifies itself by highlighting and giving precise configuration to the strong moral and psychological truths fed into it….

In designing her novels Iris Murdoch has all along been responsive not only to the pressure of her own acutely interesting moral ideas but equally to the special agony of this age's insoluble arguments with itself as to what is required of human beings, and what is permitted to them, in the face of unprecedented historical evil—of which the "final solution," racist and colonialist terrorism, the totalitarian repression of entire peoples, the monstrous aberration of Vietnam, are the consubstantial symbols. One of the hardest truths that we have had to learn, and evidently must go on learning, is that the evil generated by these undertakings (all of which have had, at some point, their right-thinking apologists) does not end with their blunting or reversal by opposing forces; it enters history and cannot be removed from history's sequences….

Warner Berthoff, "Fortunes of the Novel: Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch," in his Fictions and Events: Essays in Criticism and Literary History (copyright © 1971 by Warner Berthoff; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1971, pp. 118-54.

[The] fiction of Iris Murdoch [is such that] … the fable, handled ironically, often destroys those who believe in it, and the apparatus of the novel turns around on itself. In Flight from the Enchanter (1955), The Sandcastle (1956), and The Bell (1958), the author deals with symbolic structures of human experience, designs elaborate patterns that presumably explain and articulate life. But, in each of these novels, the pattern breaks down, the abstract structure is shown to be foolish or irrelevant, and man is left in his formless chaos. Miss Murdoch's next novel, A Severed Head (1961), a highly patterned dance of sexual relationships among a group of people, full of bizarre incidents and unlikely relationships, carries the philosophical skepticism further. The characters are shown as creating their own patterns, their own forms, manufacturing the false Gods that eventually destroy them. In the intricate series of switches in the novel, they constantly fabricate a God out of another character and what he represents, fashion the metaphors and truths they try and are unable to live by. In some of her subsequent novels, An Unofficial Rose (1962), The Unicorn (1963), and The Time of the Angels (1966), Miss Murdoch is more Gothic and macabre, concentrating on the intrusion of the strange-and unknowable into human affairs. The chaos implicit within the world of all her fiction is magnified in these novels which depict isolated and mysteriously powerful women, men subject to bizarre and inexplicable passions, and preternaturally wise and sensitive children….

In her best work, The Flight from the Enchanter, A Severed Head, and The Nice and the Good, the message fights the form and the mode is philosophical; the attitudes of compassion emerge negatively, through the destruction of the abstract pattern that set the novel in motion. Yet, in Miss Murdoch's less highly structured and philosophical novels, in An Unofficial Rose and The Italian Girl (1964), she frequently becomes exotically banal and sentimental. Her one attempt to use history instead of philosophy as a framework, The Red and the Green (1965), a novel set in Dublin during the Easter, 1916 rebellion, is similarly flawed by sentimentality and stereotyped characterization. She seems to need philosophical structures to undercut, artificial buildings to demolish, in order to give strength and excitement to her fiction.

James Gindin, in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 346-48.

Grudging admiration has long been a common response to Iris Murdoch's fiction. Most readers agree that she offers an unusual compound of pleasures: ingenious storytelling, elegant design, the provocations of myth and philosophy—so many pleasures, in fact, that it may seem ungrateful to ask for still more. But as Frank Kermode has put it: each of her books contains "somewhere inside, the ghost of a major novel," and some people (although not Mr. Kermode) cannot quite forgive her for failing to make the spirit flesh.

This insubstantiality is usually traced to the thinness of Miss Murdoch's characters, an especially ironical linkage, since she is a famous critic of the narrow view of personality found in much of modern fiction….

Yet in practice, the more she talked about freedom and opaqueness, the more over-determined and transparent her novels seemed to become. Thinking back now on books like "The Unicorn," "The Red and the Green," "A Fairly Honourable Defeat" or "An Accidental Man," one is likely to remember situations not characters, mechanisms not worlds. Despite the inventiveness of the situations and the brilliance of the design, Miss Murdoch's philosophy has recently seemed to do little more than make her people theoretically interesting.

Can an Iris Murdoch novel be a house for free characters to live in? Inevitably, "The Black Prince" raises the old question, but more than any Murdoch novel in years it gives something close to a reassuring answer. Not that Miss Murdoch is any less preoccupied with her special blend of magic and suspense. Doorbells still bring trouble, phone calls disaster, and omnipresent Eros has lost none of his disrespect for gender, age or custom. Scenes of domestic frenzy mingle with reflections about the nature of art, and to cap the antic festivities there is a last-page shock guaranteed to leave everyone gasping. But the intricately patterned plot and the audacious symbolism come closer to being functions of character and action than they usually do in Iris Murdoch's fiction. Unlike those recent books in which she handsomely manipulates dozens of puppetlike people in an ornate but diminishing design, "The Black Prince" has only six main characters and a psychologically complex hero-narrator whose growth we follow and about whose fate we care.

The main narrative section is presented to us by a fictional editor, P. Loxias, who has prepared for publication the long manuscript of his dead friend, Bradley Pearson…. The design of his manuscript emerges gradually from his effort to interweave scenes dramatizing the invasion of the callers with discursive reflections on mutual motives and the hazards of creative art. The scenes are often grating, farcical, outrageous, fierce—Feydeau mixed with Strindberg and a touch of Muriel Spark….

Here and there "The Black Prince" is weakened by familiar Murdoch blemishes: too great a strain on adjectives and plausibility; in some places, a bit too much pointing; elsewhere, an irritating vagueness. The ending really is a whopper; and an overly elaborate scaffolding of postscripts is appended to Bradley's narrative….

But, all in all, fertile invention is put to the service of an expansive sense of character; and since "The Black Prince" also has Miss Murdoch's usual narrative energy and intellectual weight, it is the best novel she has written in years.

Lawrence Graver, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 3, 1973, pp. 1, 12, 14.

[Iris Murdoch's] The Black Prince is principally a sort of Lolita-story, the tale of an elderly male novelist named Bradley Pearson who falls desperately in love with the twenty-year-old daughter of his best friend. At the same time, the girl's mother falls in love with Bradley, his exwife returns from America very rich and determined to remarry him, and his neurotic sister runs away from her husband and collapses on Bradley's doorstep. And of course this, as fans of Ms. Murdoch will realize at once, is only the beginning. There are scenes, confrontations; gentle poetic encounters and crimes of passion; misunderstandings and reconciliations. She is very good, for instance, on the shape and atmosphere of a domestic crisis, with its hysterical verbal cross-purposes and the sudden awful vividness it gives to indoor scenery….

Beyond all this, The Black Prince also contains aesthetic and metaphysical disquisitions, literary references to everybody from Plato to The Jungle Books, and a complex interlocking system of symbols—the Prince of the title, for instance, is both Hamlet and "the black Eros," as well as Bradley's inamorata, who once appeared as the melancholy Dane in a school production.

An added dimension is given to the novel by the fact that both principal male characters are novelists. The hero, Bradley, is a perfectionist who has published only three slim volumes in fifty-eight years, while his friend, former protégé, and rival Arnold Baffin has become a prolific popular success. Baffin can be seen as a conscious caricature of Iris Murdoch herself….

The Black Prince is a very good book; it is, as Bradley says of Arnold Baffin's, "both serious and funny" and "will delight [her] many admirers." But it does not seem to be taking place in the modern world. This is partly because all but one of the main characters are well-off professional people in late middle age, with no serious financial problems and no interest in current events…. Much of what Ms. Murdoch has to say about writing, art, sexual love, and human psychology is perceptive and very well expressed. Yet The Black Prince is a romantic melodrama.

Alison Lurie, "Wise-Women," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), June 14, 1973, pp. 18-19.

The novels of Iris Murdoch are exasperating, though this conclusion is by no means born of exposure to all 15 of them. A random sampling shows that, for one thing, they tend to be long—this one [The Black Prince] is over 400 pages; for another, they generally deal with middle-class people—most of them terribly well informed—who, whilst working themselves into emotional binds, talk interminably. The worse their situations, the more eloquently they burble, and in a manner indicating that there's more of the Anglo in Murdoch than the Irish….

Dutiful as the writer's characterization and scene-setting are, there is an artificial, theatrical quality to this work, not helped by the cast appearing to crowd each other on stage. Yet whatever it is—and it certainly isn't the plot, which is Restoration farce with neither the humor nor the closets—something keeps one reading, thinking the while that she's the least suitable of authors to import. Needless to say, she is one of the most popular. It's a rare day one finds more than a couple of the 15 on the shelves of the public library, at least in New York….

[The] author is primarily a philosopher. (Her first book was Sartre, Romantic Rationalist, and it was published six years after her installation, in 1947, at St. Anne's College, Oxford, as tutor and fellow in philosophy.) It has always been her intention to keep this side of her life from intruding, but, to paraphrase a remark by Rubin Rabinovitz in a critical essay, her obvious preoccupation with ethics gives the game away.

In truth, without such prior information it wouldn't be so easy to pinpoint this as a cause of her novel's air of neither-fantasy-nor-reality. Her belief that salvation lies in people's paying attention to each other, rather than to themselves or to some overriding ideal, is not exactly exemplified by the antics of her characters. On the other hand, the book does occasionally resemble a parable….

Iris Murdoch has expressed the hope that, through her fiction, "a lot of people who are not me are going to come into existence in some wonderful way." There's no telling if her characters are not her. They certainly resemble each other quite a bit. More pressing is the evidence of a battle between her talent as a novelist who can inexplicably hold the reader's attention, and her didacticism. Odds are, however, that it's not the philosophy that's keeping those library shelves empty but the almost Gothic romanticism.

Vivien Raynor, "Something Keeps One Reading," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 17, 1973, pp. 4-5.

Miss Murdoch writes philosophical conversations and casts them in the form of novels. In a novel by Miss Murdoch I generally find that intellectual curiosity, together with a susceptibility to her skill in the melodramatic arts, compels me to read on. One must allow for certain conventions, such as the pages of straight dialogue, the picking away at motives, the transparent cunning of the narrative: yet these are fair enough. For those who can stay with the conventions, The Black Prince will look like Miss Murdoch at the very top of her manner….

The evenness of tone that has marked her fiction over the past twenty years is reviving, as if it were the staple of life in the novel: and of course it is.

David Bromwich, in Commentary (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), September, 1973, pp. 88, 90.

It is easier to discuss Iris Murdoch's intentions than her achievement. She has written more brilliant scenes and created more solid characters; but [The Black Prince] seems to be the one toward which all the rest have been moving. There is the repertory company of Murdoch characters: ludicrously overcome by unmanageable bodies just as their feelings are most urgent and intense, sliding into new fantasies at the very moment the old ones at last become sincere. Yet the sudden transfiguration of Bradley Pearson, with its reminiscences of such experiences in Proust and Tolstoy, becomes as powerful as anything Miss Murdoch has created so far. Its power arises in part from its exactitude of detail, in part from its inclusiveness of awareness, and not least from the emergence of its moral and metaphysical themes. No one of these alone would achieve this power, but the fusion makes for a novel that is as humane as it is artful, both a triumph of intelligence and a triumph over it.

Martin Price, in The Yale Review (© 1973 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1973, pp. 80-3.

To review Iris Murdoch's excellent novel [The Black Prince] is to confront the precarious nature of our collective fictions. As in so many political conspiracies, we know the plot, but we cannot identify the form that the fictions assume nor can we identify the roles of all the mediators. There is only the sniff of the nefarious that stops short of pronouncements of guilt or innocence. The novel itself is a hybrid, existing somewhere between hagiography and prison literature, depending upon whether we view Bradley Pearson as a martyr or a common criminal. Like the typical late-nineteenth-century mystery story, the novel is written backwards; we have an event for which we must construct a sequence of motives that lead us back to a question of origin….

Clearly, Iris Murdoch is now exploring the relationship between criminality and fiction. If each of us lives in his own subjective "world," then to write at all is to write the literature of imprisonment. Hence any effort to make judgments, whether as a reviewer or as the jury that convicts Pearson, is only a futile attempt to exteriorize the subjective and hence to compound the crime. Since her splendid Bruno's Dream, Miss Murdoch has been exploring the contours of a world where, tormented by guilt, each of us does evil, perversely, as the sole mode of feeling real. To be authentic is to assume the criminality so that one might have a good reason for his guilt. As Genet understood so well, there is a relationship between the artist and criminal activity: both use an alias or a mask in order that they might alter the forms and norms of a civilization. And both imagine themselves as being constantly under surveillance; one by an audience, the other by the authorities…. Miss Murdoch has written a distinguished novel about our failure to make a community out of our private fictions.

Jan B. Gordon, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 14, 1973, pp. 300-01.


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 22)


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 31)