Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The thing is to console without telling lies."

For those of you stuck in the office one last day this week, I offer a distraction that Maud Newton dug up this week: a five-part interview of Iris Murdoch on YouTube.

Part one is below, and parts two, three, four, and five are at the embedded links.

If that's not enough Murdoch for you, you should definitely check out From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003), a collection of interviews spanning Murdoch's whole career, edited by Gillian Dooley. I've drawn on the book before, but last night as I was paging through it again, a couple of passages struck me anew.

The first one comes from a symposium at the University of Caen in January of 1978. Murdoch is in conversation with editor Jean-Louis Chevalier, and they're talking about the handful of novels she wrote in the first person:
There probably is a more direct emotional punch if the thing is written in the first person. On the other hand, the danger of this is that it's harder then to create other characters who can stand up to the narrator because they're being seen through his eyes. And I think my ideal novel--I mean the novel which I would like to write and haven't yet written--would not be written in the first person, because I'd rather write a novel which is more scattered, with many different centres. I've often thought that the best way to write a novel would be to invent the story, then to remove the hero and the heroine and write about the peripheral people--because one want to extend one's sympathy and divide one's interests.
It could be that I've simply got Roberto Bolaño too much on my brain these days, but does that last idea sound like a rough description of The Savage Detectives?

Actually, though at first blush Murdoch and Bolaño would seem to be wildly different writers, the snippets of interviews I've read with Bolaño remind me a bit of Murdoch's interviews: like her, he seems to have had a habit of making grand pronouncements that he didn't necessarily mean, or that flat-out contradict the evidence of his work. I get the sense that, like her, there's a coyness (if not a caginess) running through the persona he projects in an interview.

I'll leave you with one last bit that could I think have led, in a different world, to a productive conversation between Bolaño and Murdoch. This comes from an interview with Jack Biles in 1977:
Some sort of drama must belong to the theater, where everything is highly significant and rather poetic and where there is a definite shape.

It seems to me that in the novel very often the novelist quite properly is destroying this shape, because ordinary life doesn't have shape. Ordinary life is comic and absurd. It may be terrible, but it is absurd and shapeless, and the novelist very often attempts to convey the shapelessness by having a dramatic shape, which if he is telling a story, he usually has to have. At the same time, he is fighting against it and blurring it--even destroying it.
That struggle between plot (which Murdoch loved, and at the making of which she excelled) and character, like that between authorial control and freedom, runs through, and animates, the best of Murdoch's work.

A happy thanksgiving to you all. May your holiday feature far less drama than a Murdoch novel--and certainly less than a Bolaño one!


  1. Years ago I went through all 27 or 28 Iris Murdoch novels. The ones I enjoyed the most were the ones she had written in the first person: Under the Net, The Black Prince, A Word Child, and The Sea, The Sea.

    However, she also did multiple points of view very well in her other books. Sometimes you felt as if you were moving back and forth between several books.

  2. Thomas,
    Under the Net and A Word Child are among my favorites, too. The opening chapter of the latter could serve as the text for a course in how to begin a novel: in a matter of a few pages it presents a strong voice, a dramatic situation, and enough interesting questions to completely hook a reader.