Well I can cheerfully admit that this book scared me silly when I first read it – aged about 15, I’d imagine. What DID I make of it then? The death of God and the rise of the avenging angels, all that quivering violence, all those secrets, all that fog pressing around the house … It’s still an unnerving experience, but I’ve read it at least three times before this time, and could remember most of the story and – more importantly – the atmosphere. I don’t think I changed my opinion on any of the characters for this one, though. Maybe they’re set out to be more black and white (literally, I suppose) with less room for ambivalence.

Iris Murdoch – “The Time of the Angels”

(27 February 2018)

It’s a short book but it’s festooned with post-it tags, so I hope I’m able to get my thoughts into some sort of order.

First of all, I’m disappointed to say that I don’t THINK we have any women in white dresses running off into the night, do we, although Muriel flees at one point but is not pursued. That’s the first time for a long time and I hope that theme comes back, because I have been enjoying spotting it.

The book is full of horrible foreshadowings which you will probably only notice on a re-reading: most notably on p.2 where Marcus brushes against Pattie, touching her neck and sweeping her with his cassock. The fog has a good go at being its own character, and there’s quite a lot of what I remember as being the Pathetic Fallacy (OK, I’ll admit it, I had to look that up, but I remembered there was such a thing, at least), where the weather reflects the happenings and emotions in the book. It also gives us some sublimely beautiful scenes, most notably when Eugene takes Pattie to the river in the snow.

The massive theme of this book is of course the loss of religion in society and the vacuum into which nothing has actually come rushing in. Norah talks about this and the “modern young” where “it’s as if her sheer energy has taken her straight over the edge of morality” (p. 13) and Muriel and Leo talk about going beyond morality; this then gives weight to Carel’s ravings about the death of God and the time of the angels: are they really ravings if everyone’s talking about this in their own way? Poor old Norah is rather satirised, her “brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical” (p. 14).

So many echoes in this one. In my head, I’d built up the bits of The Book to come all the way through it, but actually we only have one chunk of Marcus’ writing and one of Carel’s. Of course someone writing a book is a constant theme that we’ve had in many of the novels. But going back to echoes, I was interested to see Norah and Anthea as almost the same character, doubled (in fact, I have a feeling I thought they WERE the same person in my memory of this book), both trying to do good. Both of them are remarkably unchanged and cheerful by the end, which might be saying something against Marcus and Carel’s hatred of do-gooders. Pattie has lost a younger brother, like Carel and Marcus have, and Eugene his sister. Marcus falls through two doors holding chrysanthemums.

As well as the doublings and echoes, we have the usual hair – Elizabeth’s flat metallic strands, Muriel’s boyish crop and Leo’s animal fur. Leo has some Japanese prints but I don’t think they imply that he’s a saint or an enchanter or have any significance. Maybe the fact that they’re only stuck onto the wall takes their power away. He associates looking at girls through screens with Japan, so maybe using the country for nefarious reasons takes that away, too.

Who is the enchanter in the book? Fairly obviously Carel, with Leo trying to do a mini-enchanter act but actually just being one of those annoying prancing boys who are another stock character. Elizabeth is a “magical child” who certainly engenders obsession in her father and her uncle, but is too passive to be an enchanter, and is more enchanted. We see him in relation to Pattie: “Carel was her whole destiny” (p. 152) and in fact we see both enchanter and saint defined by poor Pattie. They are “the white figure against the dark one” (p. 177).

Who’s the saint? I’m saying Eugene. Although Pattie is passive, she’s in thrall to Carel and doesn’t really do any good for anyone, actively or passively. She lies “inert like a chrysalis” (p. 28) but can’t find a “normal” way out of her situation, only fleeing violently for another continent when her hand is forced. And she WANTS to be a saint, which surely must be the way not to go about being one. Eugene is a classic saint, isn’t he?

Eugene did not suffer much from anxiety. He had spent too long sitting at the bottom of the world and hoping for nothing to suffer from any precarious play of tempting aspirations and glimpses. No object lay just beyond his grasp since he had long ago ceased grasping. (p. 42)

and when Pattie thinks of him “Some plainness about him, some absolute simplicity attracted her” (p. 96) and later, “He was a man without shadows … and offered her a life of innocence” (p. 152).

Talking of this simplicity, Carel does define goodness in the book, stating that it’s impossible and unimaginable. But Norah and Marcus don’t think it is, and elsewhere Murdoch shows us goodness, I think, here and elsewhere. Carel’s imagining that it can’t exist is perhaps his downfall. As Norah says, “Ordinary morality goes on and always will go on whatever the philosophers and theologians have to say” (p. 193). In fact, the Afterword by Richard Holloway sort of echoes this:

We have to remember that it was written by a philosopher and philosophers tend to think too much – it’s what they are paid for, after all. Most people negotiate the intricacies of conduct without too much agonizing about how to treat their neighbours, even if they think God is dead.” (p. 242)

There’s not much humour in this one, I have to say, although Marcus’ and Norah’s tea parties manage to get in some satire of the bishop and comments about the price of jam vs chutney. There’s a lot of perceptive stuff about women’s characters, whether that’s Pattie lacking someone to lick her into shape or Norah needing somewhere to direct her energy: although they’re not hugely positive characters, they are rounded. Marcus’ pomposity about his book is nicely pricked: “Let his critics assign him to a tradition and a school. He would speak simply, with the sole authority of his own voice” (p. 67) (I’m uncomfortably reminded of my own adherence to Reception Theory here!). There’s also a moment of farce for Marcus, too, when he falls in the coal hole, although the scene is quickly jerked into almost horror.

In echoes of other books, I was curiously reminded when Muriel is regarding the last moments of Carel of the scene in The Philosopher’s Pupil where Rozanov lies dead/not dead in the thermal baths. Eugene with his rusty moustaches reminds me a bit of Finn in “Under the Net” and also prefigures Fivey in “The Nice and the Good” perhaps (and Carel’s comment about life being some dusty feathers in a cupboard reminds me of a scene in that novel, too). Elizabeth and her court are reminiscent of the willing captive in “The Unicorn” – who is keeping whom in the house? Norah’s lost Fabian ideals remind us of “The Book and the Brotherhood” characters trying to find their old ways in a new world. Pattie’s childhood might remind us of Hilary’s abandoned life in “A Word Child”. Our Russian emigres remind us of those in “The Italian Girl”, even with their lies about their origin story. Marcus’ thought about Carel being mad comes at him “obscure and disturbing as a large unpleasant looking object rising through deep water” (p. 87) – did that remind anyone else of the monster in “The Sea, The Sea”? Marcus seems to have a weakness for boys, although not so explicit, like Michael in “The Bell” – has Leo actually got some scandal over him or does he just exploit his emotions? Marcus has a cold at one point, and annoys Norah by sneezing – shades of Palmer in “A Severed Head”, or have I gone too far? Another too-far one is probably Eugene’s handcart taking his precious pot plant to their next home: was IM thinking of that when she gave Tallis his handcart in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”?

So, a complex book and a lot of intertextuality with IM’s other novels, perhaps. I agree with Richard Holloway’s practical assessment at the end of his Afterword:

Carel Fisher might have reached less dramatic conclusions about life if he hadn’t lived mainly inside his own head. He should have got out more. But then, if he had, we wouldn’t have had this strange novel to trouble our sleep. (p. 242)

and I hope I’ve done this book justice, even though I never found a good order in which to put my thoughts on it.

Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.