You may recall my foray into the novels of Iris Murdoch which was going so well before Christmas. Well' I haven't been able to get back into them again yet but had written this post about The Bell which I enjoyed enormously, and thank you for the reminder in comments last week that it features nuns and a convent, I had completely forgotten.
Anyway I have raised The Bell from the depths which in the grand scheme of things is quite appropriate..
Heaven knows how many editions of The Bell by Iris Murdoch, published in 1963, have slipped through my hands over the years. It's quite a few, all unread, some started and given up on, and only recently did I send a batch to the charity shop on the basis that I really do only need one copy of a book, not several. If only I had looked first, and not just kept the newest and most pristine copy, because I would have discovered therein 11pt font coupled with heavy ink and highly absorbent paper, and realised that new does not always equal best, but in this case, unreadable.
I can only suppose this is about saving paper, but how sad that such a brilliant book (because, after all these years I discover it is) is presented in such poor quality reading copies. I suppose I must at least be grateful that Iris Murdoch remains in print, enough said.
And moving on to the much more important matter of Choosing a Bookmark, which is becoming quite a treat for the novels of Iris Murdoch and in this case not too difficult.. a card bought whilst visiting the London Hospital museum...
The setting for The Bell is Imber Court, a minor stately home attached to a cloistered Abbey housing a closed order of nuns, and one thing my ongoing Murdochitis is revealing is the skill with which Iris Murdoch creates that sense of place; from the descriptions a better artist than I would be able to create an accurate representation of the Imber estate on paper. Likewise I find my imagination doing the equivalent, and as the community is gradually populated with equal clarity so Iris Murdoch proceeds to pick apart that whole 1960s communal living enterprise. Led by self-elected leader Michael Meade, a perfect expose of the trials and tribulations of this shared way of life begins to emerge as the characters wander into the action... the acolytes, the young apprentice, the outsiders looking on with some disdain, those wishing to learn or to join, and then there is Dora. Dora, indecisive and disempowered and only there because her estranged husband Paul, an art historian, is doing some research and she really can't think of anything else to do but try and make a go of it with this controlling, dominant and emotionally abusive man.
When the Abbey's lost bell (missing, presumed drowned...well somewhere at the bottom of the lake) is to be ceremonially replaced with a new one slowly all the vulnerabilities and frailties of the community start to emerge. Iris Murdoch gets busy, exposing the insecurities and flaying them raw but not before she has explored religion and spirituality, and the assumptions of moral superiority often so evident in communities such as this. There is moral high-ground to be seized and a lot of fresh organic veg to be eaten before it all starts to crumble; decisions to be made and choices for which to be responsible, plenty of hubris to be dented and no one seems to escape lightly.
It is no secret that the old bell is recovered from the bottom of the lake in the process (it's another small quibble...the blurb says as much, but in doing so I think says too much, I would have quite enjoyed the surprise of its discovery) and here is revealed another Murdoch speciality...the most meticulous and carefully written technical account of the mechanics of raising the old bell. There will be hawsers and tractors and ropes and every angle and detail attended to...you could raise a bell yourself if you followed Iris Murdoch's instructions. I was almost invoking a few old laws of physics about fulcrums and things as I read, so involved was I in the process.
All of which points to involved and interesting reading, and perhaps the biggest surprise that with no in-depth analysis whatsoever these are enduringly fine and hugely enjoyable novels. In fact, if I am honest, the introductions (always read afterwards) have become superfluous for now, I want to stay with my own thoughts and explore them first. I am learning that Iris Murdoch presents knowable, recognisable communities living in visible and imaginable places...I'd want these books on a desert island, I'd never be lonely. And along the way some of the most finely-tuned and perceptive observations on the human condition...
'Youth is a marvellous garment. How misplaced is the sympathy lavished on adolescents...'
It's true, we spend so much time these days saying how tough it all is for teenagers
'Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port...'
'With strong magnetic force the human heart is drawn to consolation; and even grieving becomes consolation in the end.'
Page after page of moments that made me stop and read again to appreciate what Iris Murdoch had to say, and as I turned the final page on The Bell I was already walking towards the shelf to pick up The Sandcastle. Unusually and for now at least, I am not in the least interested in learning more about Iris Murdoch's life, or her affairs, or her countless lovers, or the slow demise. or watching the film ...no I just want to read the books for what they are.
The Bell? Loved it..how about you