The Time of the Angels.
by Iris Murdoch.
Viking. 245 pp. $5.00.
Iris murdoch, who writes her own special brand of allegorical fiction, has recently been having troubles with this tricky form, partly because she writes so much—The Time of the Angels is her tenth novel since 1954. Any allegory is schematic but Miss Murdoch’s are more so than most, and her schemes are unusually visible because she likes to cast them in the mode of a fairly conventional realism. Her allegorical figures always stand for boldly contrasting ways of life and her plotting always aims at a brilliantly surprising dialectic of strange relations and revelations in which these ways of life define, criticize, and evaluate each other. It is easy enough to see the motive in all this, to realize that the characters have to be an oddly assorted group in order to define each other sharply and quickly and that for the same reason the action has to be fast and unexpected; but it is also easy to see how much tact and taste Miss Murdoch needs in order to avoid the effect of mannered and arbitrary contrivance.
In a few of her novels, Miss Murdoch’s methods have been excitingly successful. A Severed Head, the best of them all, is full of improbable people and behavior, yet for all that it is also a serious allegory of modern love. Like everybody else in the novel, its hero carries on a grotesquely rapid and various love-life, but that’s not the main point; it is, in fact, almost the accidental by-product of the method. For the hero is obviously a modern Everyman, and his love-life represents his emergence from conventional social and sexual role-playing into the freedom of being able to fall in love with a woman who represents neither mother, daughter, sister, nor even friend, but the pure unknown otherness of the opposite sex—in this case, a half-Jewish lady don named Honor Klein. This character is a patently artificial assemblage of qualities all expressly calculated to make it as unlikely as possible that the hero will fall in love with her, and in another sort of novel she would be ruinously implausible. If she is a little hard to take even in A Severed Head, that is not because the characterization is contrived, but rather because it is clumsily and naively contrived. Yet Miss Murdoch manages to get by with this invention because its point is after all quite clear; and because her execution of the rest of the scheme is splendidly intelligent and witty in the speed and unexpectedness of its dialectical leaps. Though everything that happens is strange, its meaning is always very clear, and this combination makes the book exciting.
But A Severed Head seems important because it is so intelligent a set of variations on major themes derived from Freud, Sartre, Lawrence, and others. In fact, this kind of eclecticism is almost a necessity for Miss Murdoch. Only when her themes are so important and familiar as to seem true, and when her dialectical wit is working with particular agility, can the lack of emotional depth of her novels pass unnoticed. But how many such themes are there, and how many bright and interesting variations on them can even so lively a mind as Iris Murdoch’s invent? There’s the problem, and Miss Murdoch, who wants to write a lot of novels, has recently been showing the strain of having to come up with more originality and novelty than any ten writers put together could hope for.
Though all writers repeat themselves, some don’t have to worry about it: their sincerity of imagination can create the illusion that they are looking at something in the real world long and closely for the first time in order to understand what it means, even though that meaning may happen to be one they have discovered frequently before. Miss Murdoch can never create this illusion; it is simply beyond her or perhaps not interesting to her; and so when she repeats herself, she is in trouble. The need to invent a new quasi-novelistic costume for the old abstraction can sometimes produce a particularly awful mixture of artificiality and banality. One of her recurrent types, for instance, is the kind of person who is in easy contact with “simple innocent things, with thoughtless affections and free happy laughter and dogs passing by in the street.” In this definition of the type (which comes from The Time of the Angels), the language itself, particularly those dogs in the street, shows the strain I am talking about, as do the two representatives of the type in the novel: plump Pattie O’Driscoll, the illegitimate, cappuccino-colored maid of the house, and Eugene Peshkov, the educated, wellborn Russian exile who is the janitor. Pattie is a game try and I wished Miss Murdoch well with her at the beginning, but I felt less amiable toward the corny Russian with his quiet dignity, his solid manly figure, his memories of “the pink front of the big house by the Moika,” his precious icon of the Trinity. And the allegorical action in which these characters figure is also mechanically self-imitative. Peshkov loves Pattie who loves him in return, but he is also loved by Muriel, who is just the sort of woman Peshkov could never find attractive: tense, intellectual, cool, withdrawn. Muriel in turn rejects the advances of Peshkov’s son Leo, an alienated-modern-youth type, whom she half-heartedly tries to pander into an affair with her cousin Elizabeth, suffering from some obscure illness. In short, a regulation Murdoch love-circuit, but in this case no charge of interesting—much less new—meaning is passed through it, and one gets all the mannerism of the Murdoch method with none of its rewards.
The love between Pattie and Peshkov can never work out because she is the slave-mistress of Carel Fisher, a half-mad apostate Anglican priest who engenders and controls the sinister atmosphere of the whole novel. This character and this atmosphere seem to me to represent a more willful failure on Miss Murdoch’s part. Lacking access to genuine imaginative intensity, she has recently taken to raising the stakes wildly in order to make the game more exciting, as in the coarse gothicism of The Unicorn and the absurdly ambitious political and social meanings to which The Red and the Green was so plainly inadequate. The murky setting of The Time of the Angels is far more concretely and sensitively realized than anything in Miss Murdoch’s recent work, but the same cannot be said for its main character, whose sensationally lurid moral identity is simply not paid for by honest intellectual energy on the author’s part.
Carel Fisher is a priest who has lost faith in the unity of the godhead, but not in his vocation as priest. He becomes, then, something of a satanist, exploring the world of the evil “angels of multiplicity” whom the absence of God has set loose; he first acts out impermissible impulses, then tries to reestablish a demonic unity by demanding the absolute devotion of those he has corrupted. Miss Murdoch’s job then is to invent suitably thrilling impermissible acts for her satanist to perform, and it is one that she finds all too easy. Fisher’s relation with Pattie is one such experiment in evil; a second is his relation with the sickly Elizabeth, who turns out to be his daughter (Miss Murdoch always keeps plenty of incest on hand). Both of these relationships are justified by the mythology of Fisher’s new religion in which the Virgin has a dual identity: she is the Sugar Plum Fairy, as played by Pattie; and the Swan Queen or the Sleeping Beauty as played by Elizabeth—for the new liturgy is supplied by Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, which Fisher plays incessantly on the phonograph.
This gamy material has interesting possibilities, of course, and I read along with enthusiasm as it was being divulged; yet at the end I felt cheated. Miss Murdoch spends a lot of energy making us shudder about the perversity of it all, and far too little defining that perversity, or even deciding how seriously she herself wants to take it. Instead of the working out of an idea, we get mystery-mongering, indirection, and finally a chic and lazy ambiguity.
Before the revelation of incest, Fisher is never presented directly, but always through dark intimations: through the swish of his soutane or “tall and dense in his black cassock as a tower of darkness”; his sinister power is constantly being hinted at. When he finally appears before us directly, it is in a sadistic argument about religion and morals with his spinsterish younger brother, Marcus, surely the feeblest debater a satanist has ever squelched.
But, but,” said Marcus, and his voice seemed to be turning into a raucous gabble, “but there is goodness, whatever you say, there is morality, it’s just there, it makes a difference, our concern for others—” Carel laughed softly.
Now Marcus is engaged in writing a philosophic treatise whose aim is to demythologize morals, and though this work is treated with some irony in the novel, its author is presumably capable of more than this gushy helplessness. The point is obviously that Marcus is supposed to be succumbing to his brother’s sinister power, but if we buy this we are buying something very cheap; we are buying the banal image of the grown man turning into the impotent little brother and at the same time we are buying Miss Murdoch’s lazy decision to face her hero with an opponent who can offer no meaningful criticism of his moral and religious position. Meanwhile, Fisher gets off some things that Miss Murdoch seems more than a little proud of: “Are there others? Only in the infliction of pain is the effect so contained in the cause as to convince us of the existence of others.’” It’s a nice remark but, as Gertrude Stein said, remarks aren’t literature. Unless Miss Murdoch puts more energy into her games, even her warmest admirers aren’t going to want to play for very much longer.