Friday, 6 May 2011

The Bell ~ Iris Murdoch

For reasons it's far too complicated to go into, our Monday Reading Group this month discussed Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel The Bell.  I went through a Murdoch phase a couple of decades ago and read her first three novels, but got distracted at that point and so never reached this, her fourth novel, described to me on Monday as 'the first one with real people in it'.  Perhaps that is a clue as to why I gave up on her previously.  I really can't remember.  For most of the group, however, this was at least a second and in one case, a fourth read and having spent last weekend in Murdoch's enclosed lay community at Imber, I can see why.

After a couple of false starts last week with novels where the writing was either so ordinary or so sloppy that I simply couldn't go any further, to enter a world so precisely and so effective described as the one we are introduced to here was a sheer joy.  I don't think you would ever call Murdoch a poetic writer, but there is an almost mathematical definitiveness in the way in which she lays out her setting and her characters before the reader.  As someone remarked, you could walk the paths around the lake which is central to the novel without any fear of getting lost and if you ran into one of the characters in the course of your walk you would know exactly who it was you had met before you even spoke to them.

Imber is an enclosed lay community attached to an Abbey of Medieval foundation and it is towards this claustrophobic environment that Dora, one of the two protagonists, is travelling as the book opens.  Dora, a young woman in her early twenties, is returning to her estranged husband, Paul, several years her senior, who is researching in the Abbey's archives.  Dora is young not only in years but in maturity - witness the fact that she is returning to Paul rather than ditching him completely.  Dora may be a blunderer who does wrong things even if for the right reasons, but she does not deserve Paul who is manipulative and in many ways an inadequate human being.  The word that is used most often in relation to him is 'violent' and although he is never physically so, mentally and emotionally he is a bully.

If Dora is always acting before really thinking, then the other chief protagonist, Michael is the exact opposite.  Many of the disasters that occur during the course of the novel might have been avoided if only Michael, the putative leader of this group, had acted rather than thought so protractedly about whether or not he ought to act.  In a weekend spent considering the role of equivocation in Macbeth, Michael was yet another character who was persistently saying one thing while meaning something else, although in the main the person he was trying to fool was himself.

One of the questions we inevitably found ourselves posing on Monday was whether or not the book had dated and while I think that would be too harsh a criticism, it is true that Michael's dilemma must have been viewed in a very different way by the original 1958 readers to that which is likely to pertain today.  At the time the book was written both the social and legal attitude towards homosexuals was different to today, even if we may not have progressed as far along the road in terms of rebuffing any prejudice as we might like.  Michael's sexual orientation torments him, especially as his greatest desire is to enter the priesthood.  As far as we are aware he has done nothing about fulfilling his sexuality until he is trapped by a fourteen year old boy in the school where he is teaching.  There is no doubt that Nick is the one who does the seducing and who then, seemingly for the pure pleasure of destroying another human being, denounces Michael as his lover.  Ten years on, Nick, who now seems bent on destroying himself through drink, is sent to the community in an attempt to save him from his inner demons and Michael is now forced to face again the reality of who he is in the midst of a world that will condemn what lies at the core of his identity out of hand.

During the few summer weeks that the novel's plot spans both Michael and Dora have to learn certain harsh truths about themselves and, like the bell which gives the book its title, they have to recognise that brilliantly projected new starts are rarely able in reality to live up to the promise of the dream.  I can certainly see why some of the other members of the group had returned to this book more than once and I'm very glad that I have been reintroduced to Murdoch's work.  I shall definitely be going back for more.

18 comments:

  1. I've only tried one Murdoch, obtained many decades ago as a book club selection, entitled The Red and The Green. For some reason I was never able to become fully engaged in it and gave up reading it the several times I tried. This one sounds like a good reason to try Murdoch again.

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  2. I read Irish Murdoch, first book Under the Net very many years ago and didn't think much of it at the time and it was many years later that I read The Green Knight(published in 1993 and her 25th novel), which fascinated me. Since then I've read several more, including The Bell, which I loved - so much so that I suggested it as the June book for my local book group. I hope the other members enjoy it as much as your group did.

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  3. Grad, I think this a problem where Murdoch is concerned. From what some of the members of the group who have read more of her work that I have said, the books are variable in quality and their ability to engage and if you happened to hit one of the more difficult novels first off then you are likely to be put off. I would say go back and try again and that 'The Bell' would be a good place to start.

    Margaret, what a coincidence, given the vast number of books out there and the fact that it isn't exactly a book in the public eye at the moment. I hope you have as good a discussion as we did and I shall be really interested to hear about it.

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  4. The two Murdochs I have read are 'The Sea, The Sea' and 'The Book and the Brotherhood' both of which I enjoyed. For some reason I haven't gone on to read any more of hers. You've inspired me to try some more.

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  5. Joanne, it's good to have some recommendations for others that I might try. Many thanks.

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  6. I read 'The Sea, The Sea' a few years ago and although I can't remember much about it now, I know I enjoyed it. I've recently been sent a copy of 'A Word Child' through Netgalley and am looking forward to reading that one.

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  7. That isn't one I've tried Helen. Let me know if you think it's worth a look.

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  8. I read two Murdoch novels a while back, one for a class, and I was not terribly impressed by them, I think because of the "real people" problem you identify here. Perhaps I would have more luck with this book, and I'm always curious if my opinions and reactions have changed now that I've gotten older. But then, there are so many books out there, you know?

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  9. Far too many, Dorothy, at least in comparison with my capacity to read them. After finishing 'The Bell' I mentally decided that I was going to go back and read all the Murdoch I'd missed out on, but when? Realistically it just isn't on.

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  10. I've read The Sea, the Sea a few years ago and really liked it. I have meant to read more Murdoch ever since but haven't gotten around to it. I will have to find a copy of The Bell. It sounds like one I would like.

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  11. Thanks for the review - like some of the other commenters I've not read any Murdoch before (though I did enjoy seeing Kate Winslet - from a great distance - while Iris was being filmed).

    I'll add The Bell to my to read list - and wonder if it'd be a good fit next time my book group does 'we ought to read more classics'...

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  12. I've been wondering about that for my other book group, Rose. We were actually asked to read 'The Bell' and comment on its suitability for use with book groups. One thing that it made us realise was that we tended to read either books that had come out in the past decade or nineteenth century classics. The middle ground represented by people like Murdoch was getting neglected. I think we will try and do something about that in future.

    Stefanie, I think 'The Bell' is probably a good way back into Murdoch. I'm going to try and read more in the next few months, although I might have to put her on a book group list to make it happen.

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  13. I have been wanting to read Iris Murdoch for quite some time but since I dont have a background in literature I wasn't sure I was up to it.
    Can you recommend which on of her books that I can start with? Thanks

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  14. Vipula, I haven't read that many myself, and this was the first in a very long time. However, people in the group who are better read where Murdoch is concerned than I am would say the 'The Bell' is probably as good a place as any to begin. The earlier novels are a bit strange and the later ones much more complex. I would try this and see what you think, but do remember, it is very much a book of its time.

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  15. I was given this last year for Christmas and haven't managed to find the time for it yet. But your review encourages me to pick it up soon. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I'd really love to try her work.

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  16. I downloaded a copy of The Bell to re-read on my Kindle the other day, so I was delighted to see you were talking about it here. I'm a huge Murdoch fan, I love the manneredness of her writing in the same way that I love Ivy Compton Burnett's, but it's that very aspect that puts many people off, and makes some of the later books very hard to read (not least because you feel as though you're wading thigh deep in adjectives). Her last book, Jackson's Dilemma is pretty nearly unreadable, I'd say.

    Somewhere I have a half-written blog post on Murdoch - I must hunt it out and try to finish it. I tried to compare several books, and it would be nice to have other people's thoughts on my meanderings!

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  17. GC, the general feeling was that those who had tried to read her later work had come up short. And yet, on Wednesday when my other book group met I said that the Monday group had read 'The Bell' and everyone (in what is a very different group) immediately said how much they loved it. Murdoch must have really got things right with this one.

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  18. Nice write up of your thoughts on this book. I liked your comparison of Dora and Michael - I hadn't thought of them as opposites but as you say, if he had acted sooner in many instances disaster would have been avoided, and the converse is probably true of Dora's hasty reactions to situations.

    I am just finishing reading this now: I originally read it when I was doing A-Levels in 1993 and thanks to that chance encounter with her work, I have always since sought out her books. Murdoch is one of my very favourite writers, both for her literary skills and her gripping emotionally wrought plots.

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