Friday, March 13, 2015

Reviews of two Iris Murdoch books

My bow to Saint Patrick's Day this year was to read Iris Murdoch, whom I'd never read. I still may don green on March 17 and savor a Shamrock Shake, but I'm also glad to be more familiar with this Irish author.

Something Special

Although hardbound with woodcut illustrations, Something Special is more of a short story than a novel. Iris Murdoch’s lean prose shows a pivotal day in the life of Yvonne, a young woman who does not want to settle for less than her dreams. Her mother and uncle remind her of societal expectations, and how her date with suitor Sam unfolds reminds her of harsh realities. What will she choose?

I enjoyed the way Murdoch revealed so much with dialogue. And I think most readers could identify with Yvonne’s dilemma.

The Bell

Iris Murdoch’s suspenseful novel, The Bell, feels heavy from the weight of Murdoch’s narrative and subject matter. Her place descriptions are like fine sculptures. And her thought descriptions are very thorough as characters turn over every possibility in their minds. Although I sometimes felt impatient with such detailed narratives, I also marveled at certain characters’ thought processes. They reflect how human anxieties sometimes take on a life of their own. What a character study The Bell is. As for weighty subject matter, The Bell shows sexual attraction with and without moral influences, both confinement and freedom of religion, mental instability, and destructive ripple effects of actions done in moments of weakness.

The bell in this story is literally and symbolically significant. Just outside London, Imber Abbey, whose tower had been without a bell since it mysteriously disappeared in the 14th century, has ordered a new bell. Iris Murdoch invites us into Imber Abbey in the weeks just before installation of the new bell. There she has assembled a motley crew, some of whose pasts have intertwined and some of whom are in for new love-hate entanglements, with each other and with good and evil. Of course the old bell has a legend and a curse, ostensibly known only by ancient manuscript expert Paul and his wife Dora, who happen to be at Imber Abbey during the time of the story. Also, people in Murdoch’s story use bell images, such as Michael’s sermon about spiritual beings finding God. He says, “The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up.” [page 189 in my edition] And in the story, several characters ring the bell accidentally and intentionally, symbolizing, in my opinion, various personal victories.

As I read The Bell, I had vague flashbacks to John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, in which a new, symbolic bell is sought for a town, and to Tom Stoppard’s dual-era play, Arcadia, in which a modern scholar “enters” the historical era he is studying. Murdoch’s The Bell is quite different in nature from these works even though all three soar in philosophical realms. Even as complex as Arcadia is, The Bell is more so, I believe because of how deep Murdoch digs into the psyches, especially the consciences, of several of her characters.

The Bell has a few moments of comic relief, but only a few. It is a serious novel. I was disappointed to see religion presented as a set of rules. Although encounters with certain cloistered nuns reveal pure peace and joy, I don’t think events and personages of Imber Abbey in general reflect God’s love behind His laws. And I felt presentations of Michael’s and Dora’s points of view were disproportionate to the others’ inner workings. This felt a bit lopsided to me. Still, Iris Murdoch is a language genius and masterful storyteller. Despite many dense passages, this novel is a page turner.

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