I am a severed head

Colin Burrow

  • ‘The Sea, the Sea’; ‘A Severed Head’ by Iris Murdoch
    Everyman, 680 pp, £14.99, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 84159 370 8

The word ‘parodiability’ is not in the OED, but it is a significant literary attribute. Iris Murdoch certainly had it. Malcolm Bradbury’s Murdochian parody ‘A Jaundiced View’ has Sir Alex Mountaubon watching his daughter Flavia beneath a ‘dark and contingent cedar tree … sitting on a white wooden seat, in her unutterable otherness, her pet marmoset on her shoulder, her cap of auburn hair shining like burnished gold on her head. Nearer to the house, in the rose-garden, their younger daughter, seven-year-old Perdita, strange, mysterious and self-absorbed as usual, was beheading a litter of puppies with unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms. Her cap of golden hair shone like burnished auburn on her head.’ Bradbury does capture something. Occasional whiffs of Walter Pater-meets-upmarket-Woman’s-Own fiction can emanate from Murdoch’s descriptive prose: ‘A memory came back to her from her Italian journey, the young David of Donatello, casual, powerful, superbly naked, and charmingly immature.’ And no one could read more than a couple of her novels without recognising that they usually take place in summer, often in a large house, and rarely shift their gaze significantly below the upper-middle-classes. Her people have too much time to do anything except fall in love, darling, and many of them would, one feels, have been better off had they been given a sharp slap and told to go off and make something. Rather too many of them either are or could be called Hugo. And, in the way of most parodiable writers, she can sometimes parody herself – Iris Murdoch, the Sartrean, Platonising, Buddhistical philosophical novelist – by having her characters launch into speeches like this, from The Bell (1958): ‘The good man does what seems right, what the rule enjoins, without considering the consequences, without calculation or prevarication, knowing that God will make all for the best. He does not amend the rules by the standards of this world.’

But parodiability cuts several ways. It is often a marker of writing that takes risks and that clearly has a style. It also presents critics with an easy opportunity to be unfair rather than to think. And being fair to Murdoch is quite hard at the moment. She has received a sympathetic biography by Peter Conradi, which may be too kind to her, and a sour memoir by A.N. Wilson from which even the concept of kindness appears to be absent. What with John Bayley’s Iris and the film of it, and all the ‘coo wasn’t she a one’ coverage of her sex life, she has had too much press as the novelist who did a lot of shagging and then lost her marbles to be given an entirely fair trial for at least another decade.

A first step towards being fair to Murdoch would be to take stock of what is remarkable in her. The first time I read Bradbury’s ‘unexpectedly muscular and adult twists of her slender arms’ I did find it very funny indeed. But decapitating puppies? Murdoch had the inestimable virtue of not only liking dogs but of making several of her plots turn on their kindness and humans’ kindness to them: in her first novel, Under the Net (1954), a retired film star German shepherd remains infinitely obliging despite enduring the indignity of being sold and then dognapped; in The Nice and the Good (1968) a ‘somewhat poodle-like dog’ warms a pair of characters trapped in a cave. She writes brilliantly and with real sympathy about other hurtable creatures. Her adolescent men are perhaps her most vivid creations: the scene early in The Bell in which 18-year-old Toby is in a hot railway carriage opposite the insensate and sexy Dora captures an adolescent mixture of straight desire and a desire to please that vindicates her statement: ‘How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents. There is a yet more difficult age which comes later, when one has less to hope for and less ability to change.’ Murdoch’s representations of gay men, and also of gay men who are attracted to much younger males, are free of both cliché and moralism in a way that is probably without parallel among fiction written by women or men in the 1960s and 1970s. There is an omnivorousness about her understanding of desire which brings with it a wise form of toleration.

Perhaps her greatest skill, however, is one for which she’s rarely praised and for which she herself would probably not have wanted praise. She is exceptionally good at describing gravity-defying feats of engineering. So in The Sandcastle (1957) Don Mor, the hero’s son (an adolescent who is made vivid chiefly by not saying very much, and by his love for a dog who has died), is stuck up a tower after a school prank has gone wrong and is about to fall to his death. His father, a teacher at the school who had been off with a new love, manages to stretch out a ladder to him across from an adjacent building. Gravity, and human efforts to defy it, add material weight to the levity of passion in the novel: ‘As Mor saw the body still perched there over the sharp edge, and as he felt the terrible drop opening beneath him, he was in such an agony of fear that he almost fell himself.’ In The Bell the mechanics by which the adolescent engineer Toby sets about getting an ancient submerged bell out of a lake – a tractor, a rope, an incline, then a makeshift crane and much leverage – are all worked out in such detail that one could imagine Murdoch having made drawings of the whole thing. Indeed some of her plots, particularly in the earlier and mostly better half of her career, do not turn on the sub-Jamesian summery reveries that are foregrounded in Bradbury’s parody, but on literal pivots, on objects counterbalancing each other and perilously holding good: ‘Once the bell was inside the barn, the steel hawser would be passed over one of the large beams and the winch used to raise it from the ground.’

That concern with physically complex feats of engineering is an element that many of her (apparently) ultra-serious moral fictions have in common with the ultra-frivolous detective novels of the 1940s and 1950s, the dénouements of which so often turn on precisely engineered actions, in which, say, an apparently impossible murder has been committed by hoisting a body up through a skylight by means of a block and tackle and thereby vacating the murder scene. Cyril Hare’s fiction and the Oxford-based novels of Edmund Crispin in particular must have been works which Murdoch knew well. In The Nice and the Good a jealous mistress (Murdoch created rather a lot of these) tries to gather evidence of infidelity from the house of John Ducane (who is himself a kind of detective investigating a suicide that may be a murder). She casually notes ‘the bathroom wastepaper basket contained a detective novel.’ That’s a guilty acknowledgment of a debt to a genre which would not have figured large in Murdoch’s grave North Oxford conversations about Philosophy and Love. But that surprisingly donnish genre (the English tutor at Christ Church in the 1950s and 1960s, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote detective fiction as Michael Innes, and Edmund Crispin took his pseudonym from one of his novels) could be regarded as Murdoch without the metaphysics.

But of course Murdoch without the metaphysics would not quite be Murdoch. Her chief contribution to the English novel was to create an unstable marriage (and marriages within her fiction are always unstable) between apparently incompatible elements. She took the forensic realism and the stagey conjunctions of many people in one place from detective fiction and welded onto it a large dose of philosophy, with a dash of incongruous starry-eyed romantic fiction on the side. As this description implies, it was a very unstable fusion, both structurally and tonally. Sometimes her novels read as though a French farce were being redescribed by Sartre. Sometimes Hugo (as it were) pitches up for no apparent reason other than to tell the protagonist he needs to sort out his karma, and everyone suddenly falls in love. At these moments it’s hard to tell if Murdoch’s fictional tongue is in her cheek, or if it’s just poor engineering in the plot, over which she laboured with less care than she did over representing material actions, or some deeper failure to recognise that people usually do things for some kind of reason.

Her particular flavour of metaphysics is not always easily combined with the conventions of realist fiction. In 1953 she wrote one of the earliest English-language discussions of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s conception of freedom made her uneasy, but she thought about it throughout her working life; and Sartre’s way of exploring larger perceptual truths through the description of transient experiences often helps her add weight to moments of bodily accident. So, when Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, the Sea (1978), meditates on his near-fatal fall into the ocean he reflects in the mode of the more casual sections of Being and Nothingness: ‘Even in a harmless fall in the road there is a little moment of horror when the faller realises that he cannot help himself.’ Freedom and the void are there to swallow you up when you fall, and we are all weighed down with an amoral kind of gravity.

The other main strand in Murdoch’s intellectual origins is a version of Platonism that is pretty much a direct enemy of the tendency in bourgeois fiction to particularise people. This generates many problems. Her novels tend to be overpopulated with Flavias and Hugos and Pierces and Peregrines, not to mention Johns and Judies, who fall in and out of love with one another with remarkable ease. Of course there is not much else to do when you are summering by the sea in a large house; but this much-noted feature of Murdoch’s fiction does not simply result from her tendency to represent middle-class characters at leisure. Love evidently was for her an emotion that was transferable between individuals, each of whom might partially embody a form of the loveable, and whose external accidental attributes – their name, their sex, the colour of their hair, their taste in food – were therefore insignificant.

Here I should make a confession. I am completely out of sympathy with Platonism, and, moreover, have a sure and settled belief that love either is or ought to be an emotion that is centrally concerned with particularising the other person and, indeed, with feeling affection for the accidental characteristics of that person (the way they walk, the way they drop things, their recurrent bad taste in fabrics, their delight in bees). I am, in short, a bourgeois monogamist of the most pitiable sort. This makes me perhaps unusually resistant to the metaphysical core of Murdoch’s representations of human desire. But it also prompts me to make a critical observation that extends beyond the tiny restraining circumference of my beliefs about love: she is in some respects an anti-novelist, in that she is not very good at particularising people unless they happen to be very wicked, in which case they tend just to become embodiments of Power. Or, to put that another way, she is in a very precise sense a promiscuous author, for whom individuals are over-interchangeable – and as a result they seem sometimes to be not quite there, or are there while you read and then vanish the moment you put the book down.

*

The two novels reprinted here as Everyman Contemporary Classics are both first-person narratives explicitly about power and passion. A Severed Head (1961) is not a good book, but it does show how difficult it is to write a novel founded on Murdoch’s metaphysical principles. I read it two weeks ago. I have not been donked on the head since, but found I could not without picking up the book again remember who was who, who loved whom, or quite why anyone does anything in it. I can remember its layers of clunky Freudianism, its many reflections on marriage and on power (a word it uses far too often), and a memorable scene in Cambridge in which our hero turns up to see a woman he has previously disliked (but with whom he has suddenly decided he is in love) in bed with her brother, who is the hero’s analyst. There is an ex-wife, and lots of ah, the vagina, well it’s just like Medusa’s head. The analyst then runs off with the protagonist’s discarded girlfriend because Love does that kind of stuff, is necessarily entangled in power relations, and we all want to collect heads (severed and separable from the individuals who own them), don’t we? The heads on particular people are as a result curiously not there. The narrator says of the incestuous psychoanalyst Palmer: ‘There was something abstract in his face. It was impossible to pin wickedness or corruption on to such an image.’ His sister, who displays implausible skill with a samurai sword, as though she needs a characteristic which might confer reality on her, confesses that ‘I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use.’

The Sea, the Sea (in which the words of its title are also pounded on a bit too heavily) is quite a different cauldron of sea monsters. It won the Booker Prize in 1978, and if one wanted to be irritated by it one could say it too clearly displays the features of Booker Prize-winning novels of that era: it has a narrator who is in his own eyes cleverer than any of the other characters, but who allows his readers the luxury of believing that they are cleverer than he; and over all this cleverness presides a super-clever author who is probably much cleverer than her readers, and who, moreover, probably knows all this. The Murdoch vices are all on display. The book is too long. The narrator, a retired thespian called Charles Arrowby, has a succession of more or less interchangeable lovers who are all variously jealous. His cousin James can be relied on to turn up in a Bentley at the least psychologically plausible of moments in order to deliver short lectures on Buddhist philosophy, and is, like Palmer in A Severed Head, a powerful force who seems not to have a face: ‘Perhaps it is just not a very coherent face. It is as if a fuzzy cloud hangs over it.’

But two features of The Sea, the Sea make it probably the second best Iris Murdoch novel after The Bell. The first is that it is very nearly a detective novel told from the point of view of the victim. Charles is at one point pushed into a deep chasm in the sea by an invisible hand. The fact that he is then rescued in a way that seems physically impossible comes to be the principal enigma of the novel. And that mystery depends on Murdoch’s earlier interest in the practicalities of rescue, because, having written about two men stranded by the tide in a cave with only a dog to warm them in The Nice and the Good, and having had herself at least one bad experience of near-drowning, she had thought hard about how difficult in practice it is to escape from the sea when it decides to have you. In The Sea, the Sea magic rather than mechanical engineering appears to bring about the rescue. Charles then has to work out who among the large cast hates him enough to kill him, and this leads him to individualise people whom he had previously not thought about as having particular thoughts or feelings. Was the killer ‘Gilbert, mad with secret jealousy because of Lizzie? Rosina mourning for her lost child? Perhaps there were quite a lot of people with motives to murder me.’

The second thing that makes The Sea, the Sea still such a powerful book is that alongside its treatment of love as a sentiment that sanctions the transposability of human beings – Charles has a Rosina and a Lizzie and even a teenaged Angela panting to be dominated by him – it also gazes hard and cruelly at love as a particularising force. Murdoch here seems to regard the love of a particular person as a human horror that is necessarily driven, and driven mad by, power and appetite. Charles has a past singular love, from his adolescence, for a woman he calls Hartley (and the bisexuality which Murdoch saw as an inevitable consequence of sexuality means that his other main lover also has the androgynous name of Clement). Charles’s retirement home, a damp house over a roiling sea, turns out (by pure coincidence, he wants us to believe) to be near the village where Hartley lives. She is now old and married. Charles, who has the egoism of Prospero and perhaps something of his power, imprisons her, and does the whole Proust with Albertine love-as-obsession-which-dominates-and-paradoxically-disindividuates-its-object routine over her. His Buddhist cousin James repeatedly tells him that his love for Hartley is for a simulacrum, that particularising love is a delusion, and that marriage is a kind of servitude – and we eventually discover it’s the philosophical James, who has picked up funky tantric tricks in Tibet, who in defiance of gravity and physics had rescued Charles from being ‘murdered’ in the sea.

There is an obtrusive moral (as well as a vividly mad collie dog): we are but shadows, and our desires for particularised individuals are both illusory and predatory. In a sentence that might be labelled in the margin with ‘wake up and listen’, Charles asks the rhetorical question ‘Can we not love each other at last in freedom, without awful possessiveness and violence and fear?’ The answer to that question for Murdoch was a resounding ‘no’. The reason for that answer does not lie in the nature of human beings or of the universe. It lies in her strange mixture of beliefs. She combined an implausibly unconstrained conception of human freedom ultimately drawn from Sartre with an implausibly depersonalising view of love drawn from Plato. Fusing those two things with the conventions of the realist novel was a profoundly interesting thing to have done, and for having attempted that fusion she certainly will always be thought to deserve a major part in the history of 20th-century fiction in Britain. But it made for plots in which people try to be free and find they are trapped in master-slave relationships, and in which being in love means being cruelly disloyal to more or less any particular person. Behind that recurrent dynamic in her fiction is a deep kind of sadness: she never quite recognised that it might be possible and even pleasurable just messily to get on with loving one person.