Saturday, November 10, 2007

Iris Murdoch joins the list of Pleasing Things

{Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai}

In one of the lists of Pleasing Things in her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon includes:
Finding a large number of tales one has not read before or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed.
If it were my list, I'd add getting a call from one's local bookstore saying that a book one ordered long ago has come in. More pleasing is getting that call having forgotten that one had even placed the order. Even more pleasing than that is to get that phone call having not only forgotten that one had ordered the book, but having in addition forgotten that the book even exists! O frabjous day indeed! Such was my reaction to the phone call informing me that my copy of From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003, Gillian Dooley, editor) had come in.

Of the bits and pieces I've read already, there are a few worth sharing from a 1963 interview by Frank Kermode. He opens the interview by talking about Murdoch's opposition to myth as a distraction from reality, even within the confines of fiction:
KERMODE: You didn't want myth to the degree that it interferes with the representation of character in a rather old-fashioned sense?

MURDOCH: Yes, this is perhaps my main thought in that article you referred to ["Against Dryness," in Existentialists and Mystics (1997)]. I think that it would be coming back to character in the old-fashioned sense which would save one from being too readily consoled.
If there is a single moral point to Murdoch's fiction, it's that one, conjured up from some mix of Plato and the Buddha: one must pay attention, for much consolation is false and we are inherently self-deluding rather than truth-seeking.

A bit later in the interview Murdoch comes out with a lament that is common to writers, yet seems to have been an even more pernicious problem for her than for many:
[One] way of putting it would be that one isn't good enough at creating character. one starts off--at least I start off--hoping every time that this is going to happen and that a lot of people who are not me are going to come into existence in some wonderful way. Yet often it turns out in the end that something about the structure of the work itself, the myth as it were of the work, has drawn all these people into a sort of spiral, or into a kind of form which ultimately is the form of one's own mind.
The most common argument against Murdoch--which I think is overstated, though containing a grain of truth--is that she wrote the same novel over and over, with the same characters. It's interesting to see her already in 1963 fretting about not being able to give her characters the full freedom they deserve.

Finally, in discussing Under the Net (1954), her first novel and one of my favorites, she responds to Kermode's question, "Is it a philosopher's novel?" with:
MURDOCH: In a very simple sense. It plays with a philosophical idea. The problem which is mentioned in the title is the problem of how far conceptualising and theorising, which from one point of view are absolutely essential, in fact divide you from the thing that is the object of theoretical attention.
What that explanation neglects, however, is the liveliness and fun of the novel--especially the sense given by the richly detailed London setting of a young writer who has fallen head over heels for a place and is determined to set that place down for everyone to enjoy. Kermode picks up on that:
KERMODE: And you set this novel quite deliberately in places which are given a good deal of actuality, in London and Paris, for example, as I remember rendered in some detail.

MURDOCH: That was just self-indulgence. It hadn't any particular significance.
An interesting response, seeming simultaneously true and a dodge, indicative in its way of Murdoch's whole career. She never did choose one or the other--ideas or characters, freedom or constraint, realism or the romantic pleasures of plotting--instead mingling them all into a shambling, joyous mess, as if she stood at the lip of Plato's cave, knowing that reality was outside, but unwilling to completely forsake the story told by the shadows.


  1. Gillian12:46 PM

    I'm so glad you've enjoyed my book! (or really Iris's book - it was a lot of fun getting to know her through her own words).
    Gillian Dooley

  2. Gillian,
    I'm so glad you found your way here. I have very much enjoyed your book; it's a sheer pleasure to have all those conversations and thoughts in one place to turn to again and again. I draw on it frequently, both here and as an aid to my own writing. Thank you for your great work in assembling it!