Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–
Murdoch is a British novelist and playwright. Her training in philosophy plays an important part in her novels which have as a central concern the ethics and moral alternatives of the English middle class. A frequent theme is that love is rare and only possible when a person realizes that someone besides himself truly exists. Some critics complain, however, that the philosopher sometimes triumphs over the novelist, reducing her characters to puppets thrown into situations to make a point. Her novels are intricately plotted and often treat complex and fantastic situations in a melodramatic way. Critical reaction to her work is generally divided; some critics see her as a major contemporary novelist, others as a middle-brow romancer. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
It is difficult to chart Iris Murdoch's progress, if only because she has a gift for making the variety of possible plots and characters seem inexhaustible. The result of such plenty is that no new novel of hers is going to retain its air of finality for long: it joins the oeuvre, it confirms the appetite (in author and readers alike) for yet more novels. She herself would perhaps think this response appropriate, given her stress on art's capacity to strengthen our moral curiosity ('Virtue', she once wrote, 'is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist') but it has its problematic aspect, since it produces a nice confusion between quality and quantity. More does seem to mean better for her; imagination and curiosity are near akin, and curiosity can only be fed with particulars fresh-invented each time. Three years and three novels ago in The Black Prince she mocked her own reputation for prolixity in the person of popular novelist Arnold Baffin ('He lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea'), but for all that she gave him eloquent things to say in his defence—'the years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work. I do not believe that I would improve if I wrote less. The only result of that would be that there would be less of whatever there is.' Arnold's besetting sin, of course, was curiosity.
So Henry and Cato offers a lot that's titillatingly different, and at the same time nothing exactly new. It doesn't have the self-consciousness about language of her last, A Word Child, but that doesn't imply that she has somehow moved on. For her such formal questions (even self-questionings) are merely local matters—connected with the tone of the particular novel—not the permanent 'issues' that they're assumed to be by many novel critics…. Henry and Cato is a visual book, dominated by pictures (Henry is an art historian of sorts) and concentrates on the problem of making people see (a word that often gets italicised with frustration). It's the work of a robust allegoriser—bold, confident and unfastidious. Which means that it displays equally frankly the richness of illusion Miss Murdoch has achieved and the imperfections she has settled for.
The plot extracts sharp moral humour from the multiple contrasts and overlaps of its two heroes' careers—a technique at which Miss Murdoch has become so carelessly expert that one soon loses sight of its crude binary origins. Here, the book's beginning finds the characters at very different phases: the great decision and battle of Cato's life—his conversion, his priesthood in the face of his rationalist father's blank loathing—has already taken place offstage; whereas Henry has only just (by virtue of a car accident, also offstage) become heir to the family estate…. The idea is that Cato seems to be losing his certainties as Henry acquires his…. (pp. 61-2)
The descriptive strength of
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