Dame Theory

The Sea, The Sea; A Severed Head BY Iris Murdoch. Everyman's Library. Hardcover. 30.

The cover of The Sea, The Sea; A Severed Head

In terms of posterity, the late British novelist Iris Murdoch, who died in 1999, would seem to have all the equipment a distinguished literary figure might want. She left the planet as Dame Iris, having been awarded an OBE for her achievements in fiction and philosophy. A mere two years after her death she was the subject of Peter J. Conradi’s authorized and highly intelligent biography Iris. This year saw the publication of the skillfully edited Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995, which among other things put her complicated, busy, extramarital and bisexual erotic and affective life on highly visible display. She was also the subject, the year before her death no less, of a best-selling memoir by her husband, John Bayley, which revealed to the world her affliction with Alzheimer’s disease—an especially cruel fate for one of the highest-functioning intellects in modern literature. Whether it was, as the American jacket copy had it, “a portrayal of one of the great literary romances of this century” or subtle revenge for those extramarital activities and her essential unknowability is still an open question. Whatever the case, in 2001 it was adapted into the film Iris, with Kate Winslet playing young Murdoch, a form of recognition few writers ever receive. Her severe and mysterious visage—a face that you might call Oxford-don hot—remains iconic. (Her Holbein-esque portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.) And the memory of her brainy and hectic novels persists. Last year Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his role as “Ethicist” in the New York Times Magazine, addressed an advice seeker thusly: “Quirky intellectuals. Marital betrayal. You seem to have wandered into an Iris Murdoch novel.”

So her “brand,” to use a word she would hate, is secure. All Dame Iris lacks, it seems, is a larger readership. While all twenty-six of her novels are purchasable as e-books, the availability of even her canonical works in bookstores is spotty at best—a dismal situation for a writer widely regarded as one of the finest British novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century. Somehow her novels, chockablock with hyperliterate and supremely articulate writers, academics, civil servants, theater folk, and other brain-workers of the upper-middle class energetically making messes of each other’s lives and their own, demand to be encountered in print form—and that is no easy thing these days.

In fact, it was an accidental collision in an antiques store with a Chatto & Windus first edition of one of Murdoch’s best books, A Word Child, that recently reignited my cultish passion for her work, which had been in remission for almost four decades. In my mid-twenties a girlfriend and I had torn through several of her novels at a furious clip—God knows what I made of the veddy civilized carryings-on, so unlike the scruffy life I was leading at the time—until we both noticed that (a) the books were running to a sameness; and (b) characters tended to fall in love with other characters the way earthquakes happen: instantaneously, titanically, disastrously, preposterously, with no logic or explanation. What grabs me now, in my mid-sixties, are Murdoch’s amazing fluency, brilliant descriptive powers, and razor-sharp dialogue, along with some of the most adroit, well-timed, and consequential plotting I’ve ever encountered. (I’ve come to think of the delighted noise I give out when one of her plot moves leaves me flabbergasted with surprise and delight as the “Murdoch Gasp.”) Hilary Burde is the “word child” of the title, a scholarship boy who has embarked on an adulterous affair with fatal consequences; now exiled and contrite, in a dreary civil-service job, he discovers that the man he had grievously wronged is slated to become his boss. As in most Murdoch novels, the highest-minded, most thoroughly parsed and morally calibrated actions lead to consequences that mix the comic and tragic in proportions that can only be termed Murdochian. I became hooked all over again and am now well into double figures as I addictively make my way through her oeuvre.

The recent publication of two of Murdoch’s best novels, The Sea, the Sea (1978) and A Severed Head (1961), in an Everyman’s Library edition provides an occasion for a look at her literary situation. What are the qualities that make her work distinctive, even unique, among modern novelists, British or otherwise, and what reading pleasures are on offer?

Murdoch’s novels, with few exceptions, take place in some timeless region of postwar British life, in the offices, flats, and country houses of the cultured class, with no time markers aside from the occasional hippie to indicate what decade a book is set in. Her first novel, Under the Net (1954), was a comic picaresque about a scheming and impecunious writer with a Ginger Man flavor and some existential top notes. She soon settled into a style of writing that, while resolutely realistic and contemporary on the surface, contained intimations of powerful philosophical, archaic, and mythical forces and patterns shadowing and shaping her characters’ lives. The tensions between the archetypally vast and the novelistically local and precise is perhaps the essential and most striking aspect of her work. Things are as they seem and yet often freighted with allegorical meanings—rewarding the reader’s close attention on both planes. Murdoch World is a strange and liminal place, inhabited by magi and monsters in modern garb, full of terrors and delights.

At a sprawling five-hundred-plus pages, The Sea, the Sea is the loose baggy behemoth among her major works. Charles Arrowby, a distinguished grandee of the theater (or so he assures us), has retired to a drafty house on the northern seacoast to write his memoirs. He’d hoped to recollect his life in tranquillity, but figures from his past keep intruding, in the process contradicting the story he wishes to tell. Arrowby is the most unreliable and Nabokovian of Murdoch’s narrators, a towering egoist whose self-absorption blinds him to his own misogyny, grief, and rage. (All of those narrators are men, incidentally—a woman’s voice clearly never suited Murdoch. Why haven’t critics made more of this?) The sea itself in all its moods, from deceptively placid to treacherously stormy and roiled, is a major presence, placing Murdoch in the Thomas Hardy class as a writer able to handle landscape as a resonant indicator and determinant of fate. Arrowby’s LSD-like vision of a sea monster rising from a tidal pool symbolizes all the repressed anger, lust, and disappointment he resolutely refuses to acknowledge in himself. When he concocts a demented scheme to abduct a long-ago lover from her miserable (or so he believes) marriage, the depths of Arrowby’s willful and destructive delusions become alarmingly clear.

While themes from The Tempest clearly inform The Sea, the Sea, with Arrowby coming across as a kind of tin-pot Prospero, the book makes a not entirely satisfactory trade-off of economy for scale. No such problem arises with A Severed Head, perhaps the most lethally swift and sheerly entertaining of Murdoch’s comedies of erotic disarray. Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a cultured wine merchant and amateur scholar who, as the novel opens, reflects on the perfection of his domestic arrangements, with a glamorous older wife, Antonia, at home and a pliant and undemanding younger academic, Georgie Hands, on the side. (“Only with a person so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife,” he smugly opines.) But Martin soon proves that he is a fit rival in obliviousness to the cuckolded husband of The Good Soldier as, with outrageously adept timing and misdirection, Murdoch reveals his blindness to the sexual hijinks taking place around him. Antonia is sleeping with her American psychoanalyst Palmer Anderson, for whom she plans to leave him. Also, it turns out, with his sculptor brother Alexander, who subsequently sleeps with Georgie. And, most shockingly, Palmer is carrying on an incestuous affair with his half-sister, the anthropologist Honor Klein.

It is Honor Klein, one of Murdoch’s darkest and most mysterious creations, who brings aspects of the Gothic and primal to what might otherwise be merely a skillfully depicted sexual roundelay of adulterous misalliances. A demonic presence, she keeps an ominous ritual Japanese sword on hand for easy access and compares herself symbolically to the severed head that primitive cultures utilize as a totem of their fears and desires. (No wonder Martin retires one night with a copy of Frazer’s The Golden Bough to gain some perspective.) As in so many of Murdoch’s novels, psychic dramas of huge force and implication seem to hover about and control quotidian events, robbing characters of their usual agency. As Martin wryly remarks, “Roughly, I cannot imagine any omnipotent sentient being sufficiently cruel to create the world we inhabit.” A sex farce crossed with a graduate seminar in Freudian psychology and the Oedipus complex, A Severed Head might have been written to illustrate Murdoch’s comment, in her Paris Review interview, that “sex is a complicated, subtle, omnipresent, mysterious, multifarious business; sex is everywhere.”

Except, perhaps, in marriage. If love in Murdoch’s novels is usually a form of madness or possession, a selfish condition that tramples over logic and conventional morality, marriage is a mutually exclusive estate, a purely instrumental arrangement of convenience to be grimly endured or blithely disregarded, as circumstances dictate. Her work abounds with balefully unillusioned statements on the matter. In The Black Prince the novelist-protagonist Bradley Pearson “reassures” his distraught sister in this fashion: “Priscilla, calm yourself. You can’t leave Roger. It doesn’t make sense. Of course you’re unhappy, all married people are unhappy.” Later, the wife of his literary rival baldly says of her marriage, “We accept each other as liars, most married couples do.” Little wonder that Martin, in A Severed Head, counters his wife’s complaint that their marriage was not “getting anywhere” with this barbed retort: “One doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.”

A miserable marriage sets off the complex and masterfully rendered series of events that ends shatteringly in what many people, myself included, regard as Murdoch’s finest novel, The Bell (1958). It is the book in which she most directly engages with questions of faith and the hunger for transcendence and moral perfection. Dora Greenfield, an art student in flight from her concupiscent and bullying husband, takes refuge in a lay community of seekers associated with Imber Abbey, the home of an order of contemplative nuns. Its leader is Michael Meade, a former schoolmaster in disgrace from an affair with a student, Nick Fawley, years before. The deity-like Abbess of Imber Abbey, remote and hard to grasp, sees the lay inmates as “kind of sick people . . . disturbed by and hunted by God,” their hunger for meaning all too often thwarted by the difficulty of belief. (Well there we are, aren’t we?) The rediscovery of the Abbey’s original bell, buried in the lake during the Reformation; the return of Nick, now a drunkard in crisis; and Michael’s foolish recapitulation of his original pedagogical sin (another characteristic Murdochian maneuver) all culminate in a disastrous climax. As a parable about the necessity and impossibility of faith, touched as it is with Murdoch’s signature blend of irony, insight, and compassion, The Bell is unsurpassed among modern English novels, making Greene and Waugh look more than a bit thin theologically.

In The Black Prince, Bradley asserts, “No high theory about Shakespeare is any good, not because he’s so divine but because he’s so human. Even great art is jumble in the end.” Iris Murdoch would scoff at the comparison, but she shares with Shakespeare the rare ability to create characters who are vividly themselves in all their idiosyncratic individuality and who also suggest archetypal figures in the human pageant. While she was a famed moral philosopher, Murdoch strenuously resisted the suggestion that the books she wrote were in any way “philosophical novels.” Indeed, profound questions of the good inform her novels, and her characters interrogate the matter, and many another weighty question. But there are no answers to be excavated from her work, just the perplexing and exhilarating jumble of great art awaiting rediscovery.

Gerald Howard is an editor at Doubleday.