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Iris Murdoch - the 'good novelist.' (20th century novelist)

PART of my education was spent as an admiring junior in the same school as Iris Murdoch. She has always been my hero, and I have followed her career as an author since her first novel Under the Net was published in 1954. Her output has been tremendous -- twenty-four novels to date, two of which have been short-listed for the Booker Prize, and an outright win with The Sea, The Sea. There are many ways of reading Iris Murdoch and just as many critically appraising her work. It is possible to study her books from the point of view of her love of the sea, animals, and painting, the meticulous detail given to food and clothing; the descriptions of places and locations, from which it is often possible to draw up an accurate map; and the part that letters play in her novels. The way she uses dialogue (reminiscent of Henry James in its tendency to be obscure and enigmatic) could be an interesting study in itself, as would the eccentricity of her characters, and the many profound themes which she explores. Her role as narrator is fascinating, and her life-long search for the |good' in the world, within both individual character and the main religions, has already been the subject of an excellent book, Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good by Suguna Ramanathan.

In this article, I should like to concentrate on an aspect of Iris Murdoch's work which involves the methods she uses as an author to structure her novels. There is nothing haphazard about this, and her technique, especially in the later novels, reveals a very carefully thought-out plan of construction. The Book and the Brotherhood and The Message to the Planet, contain features of her authorial methods which I have come not only to expect, with pleasure, but to admire and even to emulate.

Many readers complain about the proliferation of Iris Murdoch's characters, which are often introduced rapidly in the first few pages. Usually, the opening scene is specifically chosen as a suitable venue where all the main protagonists can be present. This sometimes necessitates drawing up a list of dramatis personae, composing charts or genealogical tables as a visual aid to memory! Not only are the characters numerous, but their relationships with each other are complicated. From the outset, the reader is asked to work hard and to assimilate valuable knowledge, without which the rest of the novel becomes a maze of confusion.

In The Book and the Brotherhood, the opening scene is a Commem Ball at Oxford University, at which the fourteen main characters are present. In the latest Penguin edition the first fifty-one pages are densely packed with intricate and involved details of the protagonists, seven of which are introduced on page one. Similarly, in The Message to the Planet, a supper-cum-sing-song, occupying the first twenty-two pages, opens the proceedings, although this time page one is entirely in dialogue among three of the nine chief characters. In both these scenes, the reader is plunged straight into the middle of an existing conversation, the topic of which is the pivotal character, whose personal appearance on the stage is delayed until later. They encapsulate within a nutshell a foretaste of what is going to be a novel of panoramic proportions.

These very full opening scenes convey a sort of shock tactic, which dismays many readers, who prefer a gentle preamble prior to the drama itself. This shock tactic is stimulating and provides one with an immediate incentive to read on. I become addicted to the tantalizing and confusing information which is revealed about the leading character, and by the bottom of page one, I am already hooked! In the former novel, for instance, who is David Crimond, and why is he in a kilt? In the latter, who is this famous madman Marcus? Is he already dead? For me this technique works, but not for those who remain dedicated to the |dear reader' approach of the Victorian novelist who played God. Not all Iris Murdoch's openings employ exactly the same method, but they all, without exception, have the capacity to involve one in immediate and total participation. It is equally satisfying to discover that her closing scenes sometimes refer one back to the beginning of the novel. In The Message to the Planet, hymns open and close the action, and in Henry and Cato, a similar sentence begins and ends the book, the only difference being the change of heavy object which |banged irregularly against his (Cato's) thigh at each step'. A crucifix takes the place of an initial |revolver', introducing her use of symbolism, which merits a study of its own.

I first became fascinated by the use of Retrospect and Disclosure from my reading of Trollope, especially in his novel, He Knew He Was Right, where these techniques are given exceptional prominence. They are used in a straightforward fashion, representing a constant backward and forward motion, in which the reader is carried along, and assisted at every turn by the narrator's running commentary. We are taken into his confidence, and there is no opportunity for misunderstanding or for reliance on our own personal interpretations. This smooth-running shuttle-service, moves one group of characters forward to a given point, and then returns for another group to bring them up to the same level in time. It is an on-going process, interspersed by the author's comments: |We must now go back to. . .'; |It is hoped that. . . will not have been forgotten'; and |the reader may perhaps remember'. The outcome is certainly a relaxing read, but Iris Murdoch, for the most part, takes these techniques a stage further, and asks much more from her readers.

Part I of The Book and the Brotherhood opens as mentioned above, and is then followed by four long retrospective passages. Having met the main characters, the history of four of them is now given in detail, from the author-narrator's point of view, through their own consciousness and recall, or a mixture of both. A Coda or Summary closes Part I, and the reader can take a well-earned breather! A further stage in Iris Murdoch's use of Retrospect occurs in the middle of passages of dialogue. There is a very good example of this in The Message to the Planet, where Ludens is talking to Irina, and eventually says: |I love you'. At this point, when the reader is interested to know what her response will be, the author takes Ludens away in thought from the scene in several paragraphs of retrospection lasting three pages. Returning gradually to the present, he thinks about his declaration of love, and it is then that we rejoin the conversation. The motive for breaking up dialogue in this way, must be, I feel sure, to create greater incentive to read on. Also, of course, it is an attempt to reproduce realism. As in a serialization, each episode ends at the point of greatest suspense. In this particular scene, however, the interruption also highlights the fact that Irina has not really taken Ludens' declaration seriously.

This technique is taken into a third, more advanced stage, in what I call Circular Retrospection. Throughout The Message to the Planet this circular movement is repeated in scenes which involve Ludens' consciousness. They start and finish at exactly the same point, completing a perfect circle. In one instance Ludens is again talking to Irina about a group of |intruders'. He then leaves her briefly to address this group, but returns after a few minutes. Silently, in thought, he recalls the events of the day before, which were full of activity and movement, and after this period of retrospection, he resumes his conversation with Irina about the intruders. These circular scenes abound in this novel, giving it an involved structure. They are contained within a larger framework, which is very carefully controlled by the authorial voice. Each passage is introduced by its respective description: |The following morning'; |The next morning'; |Two days later'; |The day after the seekers' invasion'; and so on, clarifying the chronological sequence of events. It presents an intricate pattern, which serves to enhance the cyclical nature of the novel as a whole.

Disclosure, the twin method which is used alongside Retrospect, plays a lesser part in Iris Murdoch's novels, as it does in her predecessor, Trollope. In The Book and the Brotherhood the author informs us that |it was not tonight that Violet would kill herself', which draws our attention to the fact that Gideon had underestimated the extent of her distress. Similarly, in The Message to the Planet, a future event |will be related later', we are told, because of its |awful', |unexpected' and |catastrophic results'. A short passage using Disclosure in Action, as it were, occurs in the same novel again concerning Ludens. The construction is very interesting, and is yet another scene which can be lifted out of the novel, being almost complete in itself. It commences with Ludens enjoying his customary morning talk with Marcus, which is interrupted by a messenger bringing him a note, requesting him to meet Dr. Marzillian at two o'clock. There is then an immediate jump forward in time to that interview, followed by Ludens' retrospective thoughts, recalling what happened after his morning session with Marcus, and how he killed time until his two o'clock appointment. This is a complicated sequence, which shows the skill and artistry of Iris Murdoch's work.

Trollope used a method which enabled the reader to be aware of the simultaneous actions of more than one person, or group of persons, at any one time albeit in different places. There is an example in He Knew He Was Right where several characters converge on a small village in order to visit a family there. Over a period of three days, we are able to pin-point and synchronize the individual whereabouts of the various people involved. In the Coda to Part I of The Book and the Brotherhood, Iris Murdoch introduces a summarizing section by the words: |about this time', drawing together the simultaneous actions of five characters. Each is either, |trying to cry'; |crying in each other's arms'; |stopped crying'; or |faint with joy and pain', punctuated by the author's repeated words: |At about the time when. . .'. Here, Iris Murdoch is in complete charge, and her presence controls the action in the best tradition of Victorian novelists.

Richness lies in depth, and background reading is essential if the reader wishes to come to grips with this profound novelist. Iris |Murdoch believes that the novel is an |art form', and the structural framework round which her novels are so carefully and skilfully created, confirm and support this belief. Her methods and role, as author-narrator, are some of the aspects which combine to make her an outstanding twentieth century novelist.
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Author:Colley, Mary
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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