Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Renewing my acquaintance with Iris

After a decade or so of reading and rereading Iris Murdoch regularly, I’ve spent the past few years away from her, reading nothing but From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction, a fascinating collection of interviews. But you can’t ever escape an author who so dominates your youthful reading, and this week I turned back to her, re-reading The Nice and the Good (1968). And while much of the book--Murdoch’s style, the plot--was familiar, the time away had unquestionably been salutary: I took renewed pleasure in the density of Murdoch’s prose, the way she worried away at her philosophical themes, and the sheer pleasure she obviously took in putting her often slightly silly characters through their self-inflicted paces.

The Nice and the Good concerns a typical group of Murdoch characters: educated, upper-class Britons living in slightly too close intimacy while still holding secrets, dissatisfied with life but unsure of why or how to change it, and prone to being swept up, however temporarily, by the transformative power of love. I know of no other writer who so skillfully combines philosophical themes with such rich plotting--Shakespearian in its deployment (and enjoyment) of misapprehension, eavesdropping, and misplaced, shimmering eros--and an ability to describe physical action. The Nice and the Good, like The Sandcastle and, if memory serves, The Book and the Brotherhood, has as its climax a scene of breathtaking physical danger, so palpable and full of tension as to be difficult to read--a forceful reminder that all the preceding talk of emotion and duty and goodness ultimately boils down to fragile physical bodies in a harsh universe.

And while Murdoch often allows her characters to be overwrought--in fact, I realized fully for the first time in this reading, to be downright silly, even self-parodying--even as they agonize over decisions that ought to be simple, or freight their feelings with outsized importance, they nonetheless continually get at something about our relationships, to others, to the good, to ourselves. Take this scene, for example, which finds John Ducane, who reflexively thinks of himself as a good man, trying to break off an unsuitable relationship:
Ducane said to himself, human frailty, wickedness in me has made this situation where I automatically have to behave like a brute. She is right to say why kill love, there is never enough. Yet I have to kill this love. Oh God, why is it so like a murder. If I could only take all the suffering on to myself. But that is one of the punishments of wickedness, perhaps the last and worst one, that even if one wills it one cannot do it.
Few characters ever get it all quite right--and those who do tend to be at a remove from the world, often damaged by it before the novel opens. But nearly every character gets some of it right, some moment of insight, and the cumulative effect is that, while Murdoch leads us through the twists and turns of her plots, we think, and we learn, and we know ourselves better.

In addition, here and there she allows herself a straightforward passage of philosophical reflection, delivered in a questing, but assured, voice that is familiar from her straight philosophical writing. Here, for example, the narrator reflects on Ducane:
What Ducane was experiencing . . . was . . . one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely that in order to be good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness is thought about in the wrong way. To become good it may be necessary to think about virtue; although unreflective simple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence.
These passages, while interesting in themselves, also serve to teach us how to read Murdoch’s book, what sort of self-deceptions--her greatest theme--we are to look for in her characters.

And for all her reputation for chatter and wordiness, at times she offers up a thought that approaches the concision of aphorism:
This is perhaps the saddest experience in the demise of love: to come to know that someone who loved you once now regards you as boring and annoying and unimportant.
Once in a while, she even allows her characters such moments of crystalline insight. The Nice and the Good offers one particularly amusing instance. After the thoughtful, reserved Willy Kost has offered forcefully expressed intellectual and spiritual comfort to the discarded mistress of a friend . . . and then immediately, gently, seduced her in that same friend’s bed, she turns to him:
Jessica said, softly, not anxiously, but curiously, “What are we doing, Willy, what is this?”

“This is sacrilege, my Jessica. A very important human activity.”
What a sheer pleasure this re-reading was--the closest comparison I can make is to spending a long night talking with a friend you’ve not seen for years, but with whom you instantly slip back into rhythm and accord. The mind was familiar, but newly fresh, fully invigorating. You can’t ask for much more from a re-reading.

1 comment:

  1. Under the Net's the only Murdoch I've read so far, but I think I'll make The Nice and the Good my second. Great post; thanks.