IT IS NOT EASY for a reviewer to know where to catch hold of a novel by Iris Murdoch, when he has to make up his mind about it. This latest example is the most difficult of all. Has it a story? Yes. A good one? Yes, but not one of your neat plots; wambling and discursive, like life itself, rather than smartly turned by a fabulist's invention. Is the style distinguished, then? There are several styles, and all are right for what they have to carry. Is it innovative? (This is the voice of eager youth.) Well, yes, you might say so. Is it a good read? (This is the voice of slippered age.) That depends on how alert you are to what is being said. What influences are apparent in it? (This is a professor, hot for the long chain of succession in what he calls The Art of the Novel.) Well, sometimes it reminds me of the 19th-century novel, in its leisurely pace and heaping-up of significant detail, and its pleasure in description of natural surroundings; but at other times it is a novel which could only be written now. Would you know it for a philosopher's novel? (This is someone who knows that at one time the author plied that demanding trade.) No, or at least not to the point where it hurts. Do you recommend it, then? Oh, indeed I do, but don't come whining to me if it is not your sort of book.
Not an easy book to write about, as you see. There were moments when I wished that it could be infinitely extended. There were other moments (such as the 4,000 words that intervened between a character reaching a door and crossing the threshold) when I found myself mentally shouting Get on with it! The author has a fine profusion of imagination, but her complexities do not always justify themselves; she delights in parentheses and conditions, so that if we are not always alert we may miss something important; she cares nothing about putting the reader at ease, and likes to tease us by calling a woman Alex and a man Emma. She assumes that her reader has a strong visual imagination, and delights in her power of painting with words.
From time to time she astonishes us with splendid passages, like a fine Quaker sermon, uttered by a minor character who exercises a major influence. She says things that bring us up with a start, because of their quality as aphorisms: "The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future." She takes pleasure in the device of the Buried Quotation or Allusion: "Gabriel had undone her corded bales well out in the middle of the sand." She is writing for the clerisy, and people who do not catch the references must be content to be left out.
She has many voices, and to me the most astonishing is the Dialogue Voice; the talk among her characters whips along rapidly, pushing the plot well beyond the speed limit, and giving us insights and illuminations that we must catch on the fly; a dramatist might envy her skill. She cannot wholly discard the Philosophical Voice, and once--just once--she allows herself to set up a clergyman as stooge for her philosopher, who wipes the floor with him in a fashion just a little too easy. As the clergyman has slight faith and the philosopher is a great bulging monster of contention, the victory is too easy, and one longs for a return match when the clergyman knocks the philosopher out of the ring. Or could he? The unfair advantage of philosophers is that they are not obliged to believe anything.
Her philosopher is her principal character, though perhaps she meant the pupil named in the title to have that place. It is difficult to make a philosopher credible in fiction, because to carry complete conviction he would have to talk sometimes in a way that would leave us nonphilosophers baffled. But John Robert Rozanov convinces us because he is clearly a man of powerful intellect, and at the same time a victim of that overwhelming silliness that may overcome a man who has lived most of his life in his mind, and does not know what to do with emotion when it tosses and gores him. One of John Robert's problems is the pupil, a middle-aged man who has little turn for philosophy, but a painful longing for the wisdom that philosophy is supposed to engender. We can understand and suffer with the philosopher's problem, faced with this tedious detrimental, who wants to be loved and is violent when he cannot have what he wants.
The philosopher's other dilemma arises because of his granddaughter, and it would be unfair to the author to spill the complex bag of beans involved here. His difficulty is a terrible one, and by no means so uncommon as some readers might at first suppose. Iris Murdoch's great skill shines forth in the way in which, slowly and steadily, she convinces us of the truth of what she tells.
All the people in her book are in muddles of one sort or another, but they are not the tedious muddles of stupid people of whose fate we soon weary. They are the muddles of people who, either because they think more than they feel, or feel more than they think, cannot gain any serenity, however fleeting. But they all possess some distinction that makes them worth caring about, and they all behave in ways that we believe, even if we do not fully understand. When the philosopher, supposedly a man of wisdom but really just a man of broad knowledge, gets into a fantod about an affront to his granddaughter, we know why he does it, and how truly angry he is, and we feel for him as we wish to shake him into a better frame of mind.
Indeed, this may well be the real power of the book, which has many sources of energy. The author does what old-fashioned novelists did when they could; she makes us gods, observing, weighing, rebuking, forgiving, and happy with our omniscience. To professors who talk about The Art of the Novel this has been abhorrent for many decades, but it is one of the most difficult and rewarding things a novelist can do for us. It is an age-old attribute of the real storyteller, and Iris Murdoch possesses it in high degree.