Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 8)
Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–
An Irish-born English novelist and playwright, Murdoch is a prolific writer concerned with ethics. Her characters struggle to realize their spiritual, psychological, and philosophical beings in an absurd world, which is often depicted through the tragicomic or fantastical. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
[The Sacred and Profane Love Machine] is a dreadful mess. There are some excellent scenes, but much wasteful floundering, too. As she begins a novel, Murdoch seems to commit herself to a central situation and then to rely on her talent to uncover what exciting scenes lie inherent in that situation. If it works out, fine; if not, start another novel….
So there are three or four scenes of bizarre energy about a third of the way through the novel. But then what? Murdoch didn't ask, or if she did, she accepted bad answers…. Murdoch must call on one of her typical collection of ghastly misfits to take over, sexually kinky and emotionally scarred to the last person. The last half of the novel is awful, one big and boring scene after another, each taking the novel further from its ostensible interest…. Murdoch must finish every novel she starts, she accepts strong feelings for interesting feelings, she prefers scenes to people—so both she and her reader have to take their chances. Murdoch's characters are twenty years older than they were in Under the Net, they are occupationally more settled and have grown children and some occasionally die, but they and their author are essentially the same. Yet she could right now be careening blindly and with joy into a masterpiece. (p. 18)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), December 12, 1974.
Not by any means for the first time I marvel at the combination in Miss Murdoch's novels of perceptive realism (and high, really high, intelligence) with absurd gratuitous fantasy. People just do not behave as these people do—but they live where these people live, they endure the same weather and the same electricity cuts, and they even think, in part, the same thoughts. The setting is dominant in [A Word Child] and is marvellously pervasive. The weather is uniformly wintry and wet, except for the enchanted flashback to summer in Oxford; the London scenery—Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Bayswater Road, the Inner Circle—is lovingly dwelt upon, and geographically detailed. The fantasy, in contrast, is all the more worrying. Perhaps this is the point: a fairy tale set in the familiar backyard, laced, as usual, with quotations from Wittgenstein. (Why? The hero was not even a philosopher in his academic days.)
But the fairytale does not quite work. For besides the plot, there are also questions that are supposed to be raised in reflecting on it. (p. 519)
The best passage in the book comes when the chance of reconciliation, salvation, whatever it will be, is presented to Hilary by the second wife of his new chief. Everything is ambiguous, unclear: not only what the outcome will be, but what he actually has to do is uncertain. [The] language is Jamesian. The whole scheme is 'magnificent'; but what is it? We are given the authentic sense of complexity, significance and infinite possibilities. All the questions are, as they should be, implicit. How long can a man be responsible for the consequences of his acts? Can doing anything let him off? If he does not believe in God, can he properly make use, as he wants to, of concepts such as forgiveness or redemption? Is feeling guilt or resentment just a habit?
But, alas, none of these questions can be considered for long in the context of A Word Child , and not only because they have been too crudely brought to our notice. For to answer them one would have to consider them, not in general, but in relation to the particular people in the novel, and how their actions and sufferings arose out of...
(The entire section is 2,595 words.)