Iris Murdoch has for many years been considered one of the major women novelists in the English-speaking world, along with Doris Lessing and, in the younger generation, Margaret Drabble. Her weighty reputation has been nourished by the fact that Miss Murdoch is a professional intellectual, a former philosophy don at Oxford who has written highly respected books on Sartre and on aesthetics. But primarily she is a prolific novelist, endowed with extraordinary energy and confidence, who has written twenty novels in the last twenty-six years. Inevitably, her earlier vocation of philosopher has led critics to label her an existential novelist, a transcendental realist, and a moral logician whose fiction is subtly indebted to Wittgenstein, Sartre, and Simone Weil. But none of these rubrics succeeds in placing Iris Murdoch within the multifarious world of the novel.
There are, among traditional novelists—and Miss Murdoch is assuredly traditional—four kinds of writers. One is the natural storyteller, including writers as dissimilar as Sir Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, whose sense of the dynamics of narrative is inborn and unlearnable, like a talent for music. But Miss Murdoch does not have that natural skill; her plots are generally effortful and contrived. Then there are the reflective novelists, like Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, whose large philosophical and panoramic books are conceived under the mythic spell of history. Though Miss Murdoch is a philosopher, she is curiously uninterested in sweeping historical or cultural themes (only one of her novels, The Red and the Green, dealing with the Irish rebellion, is set in the past, but it conveys little feeling for the political atmosphere of the Troubles); nor does she make any effort to dramatize abstract ideas in her fiction. She surely does not belong among the novelists who are enthralled by larger-than-life characters and the comic power of the grotesque, such as Dickens and Saul Bellow, and whose creatures, once they invade the reader’s imagination, are etched in his memory forever. Though Miss Murdoch is intrigued by character, few of her invented men and women are so distinct and uniquely drawn that they remain in the mind after the novel has ended.
What kind of novelist is she? A gamester more than anything else. She is one of that peculiarly British (and Irish) breed of writers who confront the elements of fiction as the stuff of a diverting contest, and view their characters not as persons rooted in a recognizable world but as chessmen on the great board of life. Such game-playing novelists often write brittle comedies that focus upon narrow areas of experience in which the human tokens can be manipulated with exhilarating ingenuity and detachment without defying the confines of the game—or becoming too seriously involved in its potentially sober actuality. There was a good deal of the gamester in the young Evelyn Waugh, and one of the myriad selves of the English-educated Nabokov was a master of such fictional revels. But it is hard to think of another novelist who has been as indefatigably willing as Iris Murdoch to play the same game, make the same moves, with remarkably few variations and an astonishing immunity to boredom, year after year in one fat novel after another.
Miss Murdoch’s convoluted plots are marvels of intricacy and accident, full of tempestuous adultery, sexual quadrilles, sudden death, destructive infatuations, nasty conspiracies, and poisonous jealousy. But they usually bear little resemblance to what we already know about the convulsions of human experience, and our engagement with this rackety maelstrom rarely goes beyond the level of mischievous amusement. Neither the victims nor the survivors, the winners nor the losers, can arouse a strongly felt response. We are always too aware of Miss Murdoch’s crafty maneuvers, her coolly inventive dispassion. What is particularly ironic about Iris Murdoch the “philosophical novelist” is that her novels seem so willfully unreflective and devoid of ethical and metaphysical scrupulousness. We have busy-ness and a prankish preoccupation with musical beds, tireless dashing from place to place, eruptions of passion and treachery in the unlikeliest hearts at the oddest moments, but none of the commotion adds up to a comprehensible grasp of the power of unreason and the workings of fate.
It hardly needs saying that the irrational and the demonic play a vital role in many novelists’ visions of the way of the world; but these violations of order must be plausible in order to win the reader’s acquiescence. Miss Murdoch scorns this tiresome necessity, and prefers to play the game her way. A particularly flagrant example of this indifference to plausibility occurs in her 1978 novel, The Sea, the Sea. An urbane and worldly-wise theater director, Charles Arrowby, retires to an isolated village to write his memoirs and woo the consolations of solitude. But when he discovers that the great love of his youth, who jilted him forty years before and is now an old, dumpy, dreary housewife, lives in the same village, he tries to steal her away from her husband in a campaign of lunatic cunning. Of course he is the prisoner of a vanished dream. What we want to know is why, but Miss Murdoch does not even raise the question, providing minutely detailed accounts of Arrowby’s antic machinations instead of making his madness believable.
The word “love” is the rhetorical keystone in Iris Murdoch’s novels, but it is hard to derive any clear idea of its meaning, beyond the fact that those who are by love possessed are electrified with an energy they did not know they had. Sometimes love is cruel, more often it is absurd, but the only Murdoch novel in which this alien force acquires hard precision is A Severed Head (1961), which reveals a gift for straightforward, unpretentious sexual farce that she has unfortunately allowed to atrophy in favor of sentimentality.
In her new novel, Nuns and Soldiers,1 all the familiar Murdoch types are once again assembled for the pleasures of the game: the dying saint, the gossiping birds of prey, the rejected lovers, the failed mystic, the charming good-for-nothing, and so on. Most of the characters are linked by marriage or friendship to a large Anglo-Jewish banking family, the Openshaws (“perhaps originally Oppenheims or some such”), many of whom converted to Christianity long ago but still think of themselves, we are told, as vaguely but essentially Jewish. Why this is so is never clarified, nor does Miss Murdoch seem to find it in any way remarkable that the several rabbis in the family, along with those Openshaws who still live as Jews, are imperturbably tolerant of their apostate cousins. Predictably, Miss Murdoch is far less intrigued by the social and psychological nuances of Anglo-Jewish assimilation than she is by the dance of love and the dance of death.
Guy Openshaw, a saintlike man of honor, is dying of cancer in early middle age, and his friends and cousins gather round to pay homage and to ease the strain on his wife, Gertrude. One of the faithful company is a Pole, called the Count because pronouncing his name gives his English friends lockjaw, who has been an outsider in Britain since his wartime childhood, and is much given to brooding on Polish history. In a recurrent nightmare, the Count, whose father was a vicious anti-Semite, becomes a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto who will eventually perish in Treblinka. This should come as a welcome relief from Miss Murdoch’s customary indifference to history, but the Count’s Polish despair is given far less prominence than his secret and hopeless love for Gertrude. When, after Guy’s death, she impulsively marries Tim, a scrounging, deceitful, untalented young painter, the Count contemplates suicide. Meanwhile Gertrude’s friend Anne, a former nun, is hopelessly in love with the Count, while Guy’s cousin Manfred falls hopelessly in love with Anne. Everyone talks a lot about the nobility of suffering and self-sacrifice, and in the end Gertrude and Tim, who have had their troubles, are blissfully reunited by the sweet balm of Eros, while the others make a separate peace with their unrequited longing.
It is true that such a quick synopsis makes the plot of Nuns and Soldiers sound preposterous, but it is preposterous. The characters are so inchoate and inadequately realized that they cannot sustain the burden of passion Miss Murdoch imposes on them. Love, constantly asserted, discussed at tedious length, remains a vague and sentimental abstraction. All these throbbing hearts belong not to human beings but to pawns on a sexual chess-board. And if we cannot believe in a novelist’s characters, how can we hope to credit her definition of love?
Miss Murdoch slyly opens Nuns and Soldiers with the name “Wittgenstein,” uttered by the dying Guy Openshaw, who then impatiently dismisses the thinker he had long admired as “a sort of amateur, really.” But the invocation of the philosopher’s name suggests the key to the novelist’s design. The later Wittgenstein repudiated his former belief that words can correspond directly to objects, and came to the position that all of language is a game in which the rules of meaning vary in accordance with the kind of game one is playing. In adapting this notion to the game of literary fiction, Iris Murdoch keeps her cool, ironic distance from the importunate pressures of thought and feeling. Though she is called a philosophical novelist, it is difficult to get any idea from her novels of what she thinks about contemporary culture, society, politics, what judgments she has arrived at about the issues that confront us all. Even when, as in The Bell (1958), Miss Murdoch has dealt with such a sober subject as the disintegration of an idealistic religious community, the moral direction of the story remains hidden. Perhaps this adroit evasion of accessible meaning, the refusal to provide any hint of commitment, explains why she has been able to turn out a book a year with such indefatigable ease. When a novelist prefers the moves of the game to its more demanding and unplayful consequences, it is not hard to be prolific.
But even Iris Murdoch’s prodigious energy pales beside that perpetual word-processor, Anthony Burgess. A late bloomer, he did not devote himself entirely to writing until he left the British colonial service in his forties, but in the following two decades he has made up for lost time. His twenty-odd volumes of fiction range over vast immensities of time and space, and are full of flashy erudition and restless experiments with language and form.
In one of his early novels, The Right to an Answer (1960), Burgess proved himself a mordantly funny satirist, expert at the outraged snarl against society that has been a staple of postwar British fiction and that reached comic perfection in the work of Kingsley Amis. In Devil of a State and the trilogy, The Long Day Wanes, drawing upon his colonial years in Malaya, Burgess was a canny and unsentimental chronicler of the death rattle of empire, perceiving it as a tragicomedy of misconception and fatally crossed wires between incongruent races and cultures. But in his later work it has become clear that his unique brilliance lies not in the fields that Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and Graham Greene have already plowed, but in his Joycean obsession with language. Joyce, indeed, is the taunting ghost that looms behind Burgess, as Wittgenstein hovers over Iris Murdoch. Not only has Burgess written several studies of Joyce, but he has also published a shortened version of Finnegans Wake and has been working for years on the quixotic dream of translating the book into Italian, one of some half-dozen languages he speaks with acrobatic fluency.
Where Joyce sought to compress the whole of European civilization into a single moment of historical time, Burgess deployed his erudite fascination with language in a futuristic morality tale. A Clockwork Orange is Burgess’s masterpiece, a savage prophecy of a future socialist England in which teenage gangs called Nadsats roam the streets in an ecstasy of mindless violence. The novelty of the book consists in an invented language, the Russified slang that is the hoodlums’ secret code. Its unintelligibility to others is an emblem of the gangs’ sinister power over the poogly chellovecks (frightened persons) and grazhny bratchnies (dirty bastards) they terrorize. The astonishing feat of A Clockwork Orange is the way the seeming gibberish quickly yields its meaning within the context of the gang leader’s monologue.
In his account of the Pavlovian conditioning which the state employs to transform the vicious Alex into a docile citizen, Burgess sought to press home his certainty that man, however depraved, must be free to make a moral choice between good and evil. Deeply suspicious, as he once remarked, of “any political ideology which rejects original sin and believes in moral progress,” Burgess in A Clockwork Orange turned the liberal piety of the welfare state on its head, repudiating the simple-minded faith of our age in rehabilitation and social conditioning. More recently Burgess spelled out the point once again in 1985, a rather cranky attempt to bring Orwell’s dystopia up to date: “I recognize that the desire to cherish man’s unregenerate nature, to deny the possibility of progress and reject the engines of enforced improvement, is very reactionary, but, in the absence of a new philosophy of man, I must cling to whatever I already have.”
What Burgess is saying—that moral reform cannot be induced—is presumably indisputable. Yet his implication that the evil of violence, freely chosen, is preferable to the brainwashed passivity of “reconditioned” sinners shrinks the actual human alternatives with ludicrous severity. Any absolute principle, no matter how uncompromisingly it declares itself for moral freedom, becomes twisted in its absolute application. And the lesson of the last thirty years, the lesson that makes a tragedy of the Enlightenment, is that even when virtues are positive they may prove to be irreconcilable. As a thinker Burgess is considerably less persuasive than as a virtuoso of language.
It is not immediately clear as one reads Anthony Burgess’s fitfully entertaining new novel, Earthly Powers,2 whether he conceived it as his magnum opus or as an eccentric attempt to write a best-seller. On the one hand it draws heavily upon his versatility as scholar, linguist, Christian-humanist sage, and satirist. On the other hand it displays with gaudy largesse a talent for the kind of blockbusting fantasy that relies on sensational coincidence, extravagantly unbelievable characters, and exotic locales.
It has never been possible to guess what Burgess might tackle next—his recent novels have dealt with Napoleon, Keats, Orwell, Jesus, and a pornographic movie “based on” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland”—but the imagined autobiography of a popular writer modeled on Somerset Maugham is the last thing one would have expected him to attempt. Why Maugham? For one flippant reason, because he provides Burgess with a socko opener: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.” For another, because a protagonist who roams the world in search of plots and settings enables Burgess, too, to put to practical use all the strange countries he has lived in. Finally, the history of Kenneth Toomey, rich and world-famous homosexual writer of fluffy novels and plays, allows Burgess to haul in a glittering catch of actual stars whom his peripatetic celebrity would have known in the course of a long and adventurous life: Henry James and E.M. Forster, Havelock Ellis and “Jim” Joyce, Wyndham Lewis and “Ruddy” Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Rainer Maria Rilke, who “cried in my presence in a low beershop in Trieste.”
As the dust-jacket serenely boasts, Earthly Powers “includes everyone of fame and distinction in the social, literary, and political life of two continents,” but this is just the icing on the cake. For Burgess also appears to have more serious matters in mind in recounting the saga of Kenneth Toomey. In his youth, the fledgling novelist by chance encounters an earthy priest, Carlo Campanati, and as their lives become deeply intertwined over the next fifty years, the improbable friends find themselves increasingly at odds about the nature of the human soul. For Toomey, the cynical novelist, the horrors of 20th-century history continually reinforce his inherent certainty of man’s irredeemable depravity, while the peasant-priest’s faith in essential human goodness remains unshaken through two wars, Nazi barbarism, and betrayal by his own family. Evil, he declares, is the work of the Devil and external to man. Eventually Campanati ascends to the throne of St. Peter (the resemblance to Pope John XXIII is not coincidental) and is canonized soon after his death.
The awesome philosophical differences represented by Toomey and Campanati account for only a single layer of the story. Burgess seems to have been determined to omit no important moment of this malignant century; at every turn of the historical wheel, there is Kenneth Toomey, on the scene and bearing witness. In the 20’s he can tell us all about Prohibition gang wars in America and the rise of fascism in Italy. A decade later he is at a Nazi film festival in Berlin, where he inadvertently saves Himmler from an assassin’s bullet, and a few years after that we find him sneaking into Austria in a doomed effort to save a Jewish Nobel laureate. In 1945, who but Kenneth Toomey is sent by Churchill to Germany to write a book about the Nazi death camps? As an old man he tries to rescue a great-niece from the clutches of a Jonestown-like cult.
After a while it begins to look as though Burgess set out to write a tongue-in-cheek version of Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd and Herman Wouk’s Pug Henry, both of whom Toomey must have run across on those well-worn trails of history. Indeed, the further Burgess moves from the image of Somerset Maugham, the more suspect his panorama of history comes to seem. But Burgess is a witty fellow, and to leaven the heavy dose of historical drama, he has a wonderfully funny time with the campy malice of Toomey’s dreadful catamites, one of them a black poet who runs off to serve a ruthless African dictator, becomes fed up with his “roots,” and migrates back to New York to teach Black Studies at Columbia. With his usual comic agility, Burgess interleaves the decline of the West with brilliant parodies of musical songs, social comedies of the 20’s, a homosexual version of the Creation, and the cozy verse of John Betjeman.
Why, then, since Burgess has provided so many things to contemplate and savor, does this groaning board of a novel finally seem so meager? Why should a work that strikes so many chords of significance sound so tinny? Part of the trouble stems from Burgess’s chronic exhibitionism, which he has never been able to control and which is especially obtrusive in Earthly Powers, with its solemn air of high seriousness. The swaggering displays of knowledge have no genuine connection with Burgess’s thought or characters, and soon become merely exasperating. Sitting in a Paris café with Wyndham Lewis and Joyce, Toomey remarks that Joyce “could not see the sudden shaft of levin”—lightning, that is, and a sly wink at Harry Levin, who wrote a fine early study of the Irish novelist. Eliot is ticked off for misconstruing a Tarot card in “The Waste Land” (“A novelist could never get away with that sort of inattention to detail,” sniffs Toomey). In the midst of a melancholy death scene, we are instructed that the word “sardonic” means “either grinning like a dog or sour-faced after the eating of an astringent plant of Sardinia, what the art historians call,” and so on. And Burgess’s addiction to uncommon words in common contexts—anaphebe, infangthief, gaudiated, obliterans—instead of refining his meaning just buries it.
But the heart of the problem with Earthly Powers is more complicated than verbal ostentation. Burgess has sought to weave two very different fictions into a cluttered skein. On one level he has, in his odd fashion, written a lurid, amusing, speciously intellectual saga of the man who is there at every right historical moment, and in so doing has squandered his narrative gifts on the tricks of Ragtime and Hollywood. Into this hollow frame he has tried to squeeze a Christian meditation on man, God, and the Devil that is dimly reminiscent of Graham Greene but much less affecting, since in Burgess the conflicting views are embodied in such artificially calculated opposites—the homosexual novelist and the priest who becomes Pope. Threaded through both the Hollywood epic and the spurious moral philosophy is the other Burgess tinsel of Joycean puns and coruscating verbal resources. The huge unwieldy structure cannot be taken seriously, though reviewers on both sides of the ocean have done just that. Once again we are made aware that a game, however intricate and dazzling, is still not a novel.
1 Viking, 505 pp., $14.95.
2 Simon & Schuster, 607 pp., $15.95.