Iris Murdoch

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Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 8)

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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,...

(This entire section contains 2595 words.)

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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 their characters and out of their pasts. No such consideration is possible: apart from the central, Jamesian section, the rest is too fantastic. Too much happens, and in the end we begin to feel that absolutely anything could happen. Once implausibility has taken over, once the connection is lost between what happens and what makes sense, then however much we may be urged to raise questions, there ceases to be any point in raising them with regard to these people and these events. We could answer them any way we pleased. If the book had ended in the middle, we should have been left to reflect. As it is, we are left with some sharpened perceptions … of what falling in love can be like, and what it is like on the Inner Circle. Perhaps this is better than nothing. (pp. 519-20)

Mary Warnock, "Inner Circles," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 18, 1975, pp. 519-20.

There was a graceful, intelligent completeness to Iris Murdoch's earliest work; and yet it is hard to think of another novelist who has developed so much. Her confidence increases with each book, as she faces and solves new technical problems (and here each technical problem is a moral one), incorporating her achievement into the texture of her writing, always digesting, so that themes which formed the central problematic of one work appear as powerful details or almost invisible underpinnings in another. By now the strongest impression is of great resource, and equally great economy. Iris Murdoch uses precisely as much energy as is called for.

Henry and Cato is not one of the handful which stand out as watersheds among her novels. This must be said for accuracy's sake, but still seems churlish in the face of such a fine book. It could be seen as her All's Well That Ends Well, perhaps—a major, mature and characteristic work, but not destined to be anybody's favourite….

For some time now Iris Murdoch has been telling us what all great artists seem to say if they live long enough: that there is nothing to tell. 'The point is one will never get to the end of it, never get to the bottom of it, never, never, never'. We live, as one of her characters does, 'surrounded by mysteries'; the pursuit of that ultimate mystery which might be called perfection will yield many rich by-products, but only when they are known to be worthless in comparison with the infinitely receding perspective that will never be grasped.

The theme of Henry and Cato is truth—or better, mystery. Things are seldom what they seem; skimmed milk masquerades as cream. The book reaches a tentative present tense at the conclusion of Part One—'it is the end of the story,' thinks Cato, 'the end of a story' echoes Henry; then Part Two unmakes the characters' lives and knits them up again quite differently. The Turn, the Pause, the Counter-Turn: everyone's dearest idol shows feet of clay, their image of themselves, or their self-serving interpretations of others. Iris Murdoch ruthlessly demonstrates that we can never see the 'truth' of the situation, that the demand is inappropriate, or made of the wrong reality. She demonstrates also that the transcendent reality on which we consciously or unconsciously call, in making that demand, cannot be caught in the nets of thought.

In Henry and Cato, the inexpressible enters the plot perhaps more directly and freely than in Iris Murdoch's other novels. She has the confidence. Her symbols have less Ibsen-like starkness, they no longer so stridently proclaim their crucial rôle, but emerge from the background when internal logic requires them. There is also perhaps a new stylistic playfulness. But by and large, Henry and Cato is a characteristic Murdoch novel; and needs no further recommendation. (p. 19)

Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 25, 1976.

Henry and Cato is not a startling new development in the work of Iris Murdoch—her essentially 19th-century way of writing and working has an even temper that renders revolution unnecessary. The novel is rather a consolidation, another star for her literary firmament….

Her new book is about two childhood friends, who have drifted far apart, coming to wrenching turning points in their lives. The corner, the sudden turn is a key device in Murdoch's novels to give her characters a hint of what lies behind them and a glimpse of the road ahead. Henry Marshalson and Cato Forbes are no longer young and both face a crisis. For Henry, the death of his hated elder brother precipitates him from peaceful, self-elected exile at a small mid-Western college, to being lord of the manor at Laxlinden Hall. Cato, meanwhile has become a Roman Catholic priest. As Henry flies back to England to assume his new role, Cato faces alone in a decaying London mission house a shattering challenge to his religious calling. His passion for God the Son has been supplanted by his consuming, so far platonic love for Beautiful Joe, the young tough with the shining hair and hexagonal glasses.

In different and diffuse ways both men fail to ride their crises. Both return home to be greeted as prodigal sons, Henry to his scheming unloving mother, and Cato to his domineering insensitive father. The interweaving of the parallel stories is endless and fascinating and it is a measure of Murdoch's superb craft that the effect, like that of classical ballet, is one of effortless grace, the labor and the discipline quite hidden. Henry has a widowed mother, Cato a widowed father; Henry a brother, Cato a sister; Henry rejects his inheritance, Cato his religious faith; Henry lusts for his brother's mistress, a self-styled tart who is actually a typist; Cato lusts for a son of the slums, a small-time Irish crook. The symmetry is part of the complex pattern, yet is never strained or artificial. "The only writer I am sure has influenced me is Henry James," Murdoch has said. "He's a pattern man too."

Cato's failure to repel the assault on his priesthood leads to violence and death. It also sets the stage for some brilliantly executed cerebral discourses between Cato and Brendan, his fellow priest and spiritual mentor, that lay bare the bones of faith and the loss of faith.

The strong religious theme in Henry and Cato brings us inevitably to the question of Murdoch and the philosophical novel. She seems to construe the description as pejorative and has herself criticized the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre for being deadened by the weight of the message they carry. Her novels do not, in fact, stand or fall on their philosophy. They are built on the strength of their characterization and this is especially true of Henry and Cato…. (pp. K3-4)

The philosophical content of the novel, like its intricate patterns, blends into the whole. On rare occasions, when the blending is not complete, there are slight flaws of ommission and some unrounded characters. The scene is not set carefully enough for the happily-ever-after ending for Henry and Colette, Cato's sister. To make Henry's failure significant, his destiny should be more believable. Cato's protege, Beautiful Joe, is almost a caricature of the beautiful body and the rotten soul. It is hard to get any real sense of his deprived background or of the underworld that has molded him. Murdoch, who feels he is an important character, both admits and regrets his inadequacy. "I didn't quite know what Joe was like," she told an interviewer. "I feel if I could have made him a more sympathetic character without being in any way sentimental about him, it might have been a better book."

But fine writers are notoriously perfectionist. Despite the author's reservations, Henry and Cato succeeds in both entertaining and in contributing to our understanding of the muddles of mankind. It is a substantial and satisfying book. (p. K4)

Brigitte Weeks, "Weaving the Tapestry of the Prodigal Sons," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 9, 1977, pp. K3-4.

Certainly the reader of any of Iris Murdoch's other 17 novels finds ["Henry and Cato"] easy enough to negotiate. I myself confess to having read those 17 all the way through (except "The Italian Girl," which was too feeble to finish) but to what apparent purpose or with what cumulative response I cannot say. There are few contemporary novelists who, page by page, perform in such a lively and interesting manner on such a range of subjects and materials; yet who when the pages are taken together and up to so little. (p. 4)

It could be argued that, as in Iris Murdoch's other fiction, we are dealing with the satirist's vision of things, a cold eye cast at how (in language from "Henry and Cato") "human beings are endlessly ingenious about promoting their own misery." Almost 20 years ago in her essay "The Sublime and the Beautiful" she spoke eloquently of how in great novels "the individuals portrayed are free, independent of their author … not merely puppets," also of how "The great novelist is not afraid of the contingent." What has happened, with varying degrees of success in the many novels since this reflection, is that Murdoch has been endlessly ingenious about promoting the miseries of her characters; moreover, she has not only not feared the contingent, she has downright cultivated it, dragged it in wilfully and held it under the reader's nose. It is a subtle form of bullying, as if to say "so you thought prudence or common sense ever had any effect an anybody's behavior, did you? Well, take this!"

At the same time she has been sparing (unlike, say, Amis or Anthony Powell or Mary McCarthy) of witty and trenchant comment on the human foibles she depicts. There is, apart from the machinations of plot, relatively little pleasure to be taken in her narrative voice. And while her unwillingness to exteriorize "some closely locked psychological conflict of [her] own" may be discreet, it makes the novels, for all their preoccupation with ideas and motives, a good deal less psychologically interesting than one could wish.

What is truly entertaining and permanently valuable about her work are its descriptions of place: of an English landscape, a country house's architecture, the inside of a green-house, or the abandoned air raid shelter where Cato is held prisoner by Beautiful Joe. One most remembers from the earlier novels events like prying the car out of the river in "The Sandcastle"; the flowers and the Tintoretto of "An Unofficial Rose"; Effingham in the boggy quicksand of "The Unicorn"; stations on the London underground in "A Word Child"—anything that has to do with how things work or how they look to the eyes and mind of an incredibly perspicacious observer. In that sense all her books are literally spectacular; it would be surprising if at the same time, with but a change of focus, she could also produce elegant or humanly touching analyses of individual miseries. The air of the books is all too feverish, the excited pushing of coincidence and contingency all too stage-center, for that. She has chosen, or been chosen, to write a lot—nine longish novels in the last 10 years! Like the rest of them, "Henry and Cato" should be read as engaging and striking work; though I suspect it will seldom be reread. (pp. 4, 24)

William H. Pritchard, "Murdoch's Eighteenth," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1977, pp. 4, 24.


Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 6)


Murdoch, Iris (Vol. 1)