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.