I hear, I see, I learn

Nicholas Spice

  • The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 472 pp, £15.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7011 6030 6

The question of how we are to take Iris Murdoch’s characters (indeed, whether we can take them at all) is raised, even before we get to know them, by their names. In The Green Knight we have to contend with Lucas and Clement Graffe, Harvey Blacket, Bellamy James and his dog Anax, the Anderson women – Louise and her daughters Alethea (Aleph), Sophia (Sefton) and Moira (Moy) – Emil and Clive and the Adwardens. A reader alert to social differences will find such names far from neutral. An odour of class hangs about them. As emphatically as Tracy or Darren, Sharon or Keith, Bellamy, Alethea, Lucas and Clement map out a distinct social territory. It lies in pockets of Hampstead and Barnes, in Oxford north of St Giles or on Boar’s Hill, where large families live in rambling old houses full of innocent laughter and fun, and favourite aunts and uncles and friends of the family come for lunch on Sunday, and amiable dogs bound about answering to clever names. Mama and Papa are perhaps academics (although Mama can be just lovable), and everyone is frightfully well educated and intelligent. By the age of six the children enjoy Beowulf and Greek myths. At eight they devour Dickens. By 12 they have read most of Shakespeare. Television is anathema to them; audio, video and disco just Latin verbs.

‘I hear, I see, I learn.’ It would make the ideal motto for the Anderson family. Painted by Moy (in Latin, of course) on a colourful escutcheon depicting three enigmatic maidens against a storm-threatened background, it should be fixed over the door of ‘The Aviary’, the first-floor room which Aleph (19), Sefton (18) and Moy (going on 15) have made their ‘common room’. The Aviary was once the drawing room at ‘Clifton’, the four-storey terraced house ‘in a modest street in Hammersmith’ to which (from their larger house in Hampstead) the girls and their mother, Louise, moved when Teddy, their father, died.

Life at Clifton is a charming charade. When the girls are not quietly occupied in their rooms – Aleph reading Scott, Sefton deep in Thucydides, and Moy painting fey pictures or shifting her stones around by telekinesis or shepherding an insect to the safety of the outdoors – they are mostly to be found in the Aviary singing madrigals or old-fashioned sentimental love songs. The lack of a man in the house is partly made up for by the visits of Teddy’s old university friends: Clement (very fond of Louise) and Bellamy, although Bellamy is trying to ‘give up the world’, which has meant him giving Anax to Moy, so for the time being he doesn’t visit Clifton (out of respect for the dog’s feelings). Then there’s Harvey, the sort of honorary son of the household, who has broken his foot jumping off a viaduct in Italy and mopes about the place calling himself a failure or sits in Aleph’s room deep in conversations like the following:

‘What did you dream about last night?’
‘A tiger.’
‘Burning bright?’
‘No. What did you dream about, Harvey?’
The tower of Siena Cathedral.’
Tiens nothing. It was made of marzipan. Then it turned to a picture by Mondrian.’
‘Marzipan, Mondrian. I envy you your aesthetic dreams.’

There’s gentle satire in this, but it is moral not social satire, the comedy of human nature not the comedy of manners. In Aleph’s duetting with Harvey we are to hear a song of foolish innocence, sung by two young people about to trip over the threshold of life, not an idiom resonant with social and educational privilege. The ‘king-size sheet from Liberty’s sale’ which serves as the best table-cloth at Clifton is just a prop on a stage set.

Far from wishing to satirise the society which her characters may be thought of as representing, Murdoch scarcely acknowledges its existence. Her attentive gaze is fixed on deeper realities: the fundamentals of the human condition, which she thinks of as cutting across and below the contingent map of wealth and class. The concept of society obstructs her contemplation of the meaning of life, so she does her best to ignore it. In The Green Knight Lucas and Bellamy, Clement, Louise and the girls appear dressed in their social regalia speaking the language of their class, but they do so against a background that has no social (socio-economic) or historical depth. Much of the action of the novel takes place indoors: at Clifton or at Lucas’s house. The characters move between these settings through a vacuum, like astronauts transferring from one space laboratory to another. When they cross London, they cross a city without people. How they earn their money is only theoretically known: we never see them working. And although scattered references tell us that the action is set in the present decade (a reunited Germany, student loans, the ubiquitous fax machine), the world of The Green Knight bears about as much relation to contemporary Britain as the ‘lanthorn’ to the moon in Pyramus and Thisbe.

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