Friday, July 01, 2011

A young Iris Murdoch

Caught by the pleasures (illicit?) of reading other people's mail, I went straight last week from the new book of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty's letters to the first selection of what I hope will be many volumes of Iris Murdoch's, A Writer at War: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945. The letters are to two of her simultaneous paramours, the ill-fated Frank Thompson, who was to be executed in Bulgaria during the war, and David Hicks, to whom she was briefly engaged; it's hard to imagine any fan of Murdoch not falling for these letters, which are absolutely sizzling with youthful energy, passion, and intellectual archness. The exchange in which she confesses to Thompson that she's lost her virginity, and he responds, are a stunningly perfect example of the way that, when young, we want to seem sophisticated, imperturbable, and intellectual--even as we also more than anything else want to know how the other person feels, really feels, and how much we can influence that feeling by our actions. Both say exactly, in clinical terms, what they're thinking and feeling; neither one says anything of the truth about what they're thinking and feeling.

But the moments that really struck me--and perhaps it's just an early days of summer thing, the return, fifteen years too late, of the feeling that school ought to be out now--as embodying the things I remember about being young come in the diary portion of the book, which covers a tour Murdoch made of the West Country in 1939, when she was twenty, with a troupe of fellow actors from Oxford who visited towns and country manors to put on a musical revue, even as Europe was sliding into war. Seventy years later, the diary still carries the distinct air of youth, the fierce engagement with the immediate that sits side-by-side with ignorance, even dismissal, of the larger world. There are simple, self-consciously silly passages like this:
Am sharing room with Joan, which is excellent. We are luxurious compared to others, in that we have a private room, complete with dressing table, washstand, and Improving Textes. One bed is a Goosefeather Bed. My romantic spirit forthwith inclined me to sleep therein in spite of Joan's warnings--now I understand why the lady in the song preferred a cold open field. That was the hottest night of my life. That bed was as hot as flaming cinders on the flagstones of hell. I slept toward dawn--and then was wakened by cocks crowing. Realised this is the first time that I have lived on a genuine farm. Thought poetically about the Bird of Dawning--then 5 o/c struck & confirmed the cocks. (I never really believed it till now.) Then the cows passed under the window--giving tongue. Lay and laughed silently , hoping I wouldn't wake Joan. All sorts of strange birds sing. I sleep, & get up at 7:45 to accompaniment of more cows.
There's madcap adventure:
VIctor's car was an incredible sight. The hobby horses & banner stuck thro' the roof, placards bedecked the sides, & Hugh's haversack was strapped to the spare wheel, all but obscuring the number plate. In front were Victor & Tom--Tom as often as not opening the roof & standing up to view the countryside--while in the back were Charley & Joan & Hugh & me, woven in and out of each other like a half-inch twill, as Charley put it. Hugh & I sat in the middle, & the other two lay diagonally across us with their feet out of the windows. It was a splendid sight, & drew shouts of mirth & glee from all beholders. After an hour or so Hugh nobly got out & rode dangerously on the running board--at least it wouldn't have been so dangerous if he hadn't insisted on doing Cossack tricks all the way. Then it began to rain & we packed Hugh in again & I sat on his knee.
And there's what young actors always end up with, love:
After the show Hugh & I wandered down to the Cherwell which flows thro' meadows below the house, & sat & watched the moon rise. A group of white swans sailed silently past. It was a most magical evening. Hugh lay down beside me with his head touching my side, & I sat & looked across the river. Then gradually we gave expression to what had been tacit between us for several days. There is something incredibly tender & gentle about Hugh, for all his terrific strength & bluffness.
But the moment that most clearly brings back age twenty, with all its unrealized blindness and perpetual change, is this simple one, from relatively early in the trip:
I have revised my ideas of Cecil. Strange how quickly one can change estimations of character. He is not the lofty conceited & utterly snobbish young swine I thought he was at all. He is very keen on the drama, & he is humble enough to want to be liked. Ruth observed that "he didn't seem quite at home here," and I think she's right. I watched him & Hugh fencing with considerable interest. Hugh had it every time of course, but was kind to his opponent. Cecil eventually retired into a rather awkward silence. I thought of the last time I had seen him, at John Russell's sherry party, & wondered at the contrast.
That age when we're not sure yet who we are, much less who anyone else is--for 70 pages, Murdoch's diary brings it back in force, and the added knowledge that, because of the war, adulthood was about to demand brutal sacrifices of the members of the troupe makes the whole positively wrenching.

1 comment:

  1. Another diary you might enjoy is Elias Canetti's 'A Part in the Blitz', in which Murdoch frequently features--usually Canetti is being incredibly rude about her immediately after having slept with her.