I will admit to finishing reading this book a good few days ago, but I need a chunk of time to write these reviews that I really didn’t get in the week back after our holiday in Cornwall. I was slightly worried about reading this one as it’s traditionally been one of my least favourite, however I recall liking it a lot more last time, and I found even less to feel weird about this time. Maybe it’s a book that gets better with increasing maturity (or age!). Discuss! Let’s NOT discuss any further how Vintage didn’t do a “red spine” edition of this one. It’s fine. Honestly.

EDITED TO ADD: After some comments and some thinking about this on my own part, I’ve realised that I’m using these ‘reviews’ of IM’s books as sort of notes for discussion rather than traditional or formal reviews, using a kind of shorthand regarding themes etc. I’ve realised this might be a bit offputting to the casual or new visitor, or the person visiting IM for the first time, even, so I’ve added this comment here and tweaked the piece slightly to hopefully make it a bit more approachable. I’ve made additions in italics on 23 October in the early morning, so the first two comments on the post were made before that.

Iris Murdoch – “Bruno’s Dream”

(August 2018)

Bruno, very elderly and frail, is dying slowly in his son-in-law Danby’s house. Across London, his estranged son, Miles, lives with his second wife and her sister in some sort of domestic harmony. Meanwhile Danby dallies with the maid, Adelaide, who is mixed up with a pair of twins, weird actor Will and Nigel, Bruno’s nurse. As the Thames threatens to flood, Bruno mulls over his indiscretions, his obsession with spiders, his stamp collection and the metaphor of his dressing gown as he sinks and the waters rise.

When I first read this book, in my mid-teens, it really did feel like it was all about Bruno’s slow death, and I found it morbid and alarming and really wasn’t keen. But there’s so much more to it than that, including a range of interesting other characters and their tangled relationships. What I hadn’t realised, though, or remembered, was just how much Adelaide (like Patty?) is abused and mistreated.

We’re straight into Bruno’s consciousness at the start of the novel, and it’s amazing how she “gets” his life and his slow decline. With the description much later, “He felt as if the centre of his mind was occupied by a huge black box which took up nearly all the space and round which he had to edge his way. Names not only of people but of things eluded him, hovering near him …” (p. 278), it’s almost impossible not to think of IM’s own Alzheimer’s, isn’t it (or is that just me, ignoring my Reception Theory / Death of the Author underpinning?).  But it’s not all about him and soon we meet Danby, and a great pithy summary of his character:

Danby was the sort of man who, if civilisation were visibly collapsing in front of him, would cheer up if someone offered him a gin and French. (p. 11)

There’s not so much farce and humour in this book as there is in some of the others, even if there’s some drawing-room stuff and some partner swapping going on. It’s more irony: Bruno saving the stamp collection for a rainy day has pathos and humour when he considers what he could have done with the money, and then savage irony when it’s an actual rainy day that takes it away. There is the farce of everyone thinking Danby has crept into Miles and Diana’s garden to see them which reminds us of other misunderstandings in other novels. The duel, again, could be farcical but is odd and disturbing and leads Nigel to make a strange claim about who he loves. IM does seem to like amusing when she’s describing a house: she’s done that before and she does it again in Auntie’s house: “Not everything which ought to be against a wall had a wall to be against” (p. 45)

I think something which might be unique in this book is the flash forward to Adelaide and her marriage and children: does this happen in any other of the novels? Also quite unusual is the brief flash of feminism on p. 220:

‘My name is Nigel. I’m the nurse. Nigel the Nurse. I suppose I should say the male nurse, the way people say women writers, though I don’t see why they should, do you, as more women are writers than men are nurses. Wouldn’t you agree?’

Another weird thing I found: Nigel refers to Adelaide as taking the stamp “for Will Boase” – however Will is his twin and Danby knows this (doesn’t he?) so why would he refer to him as Will Boase and not just Will?

With our main themes that we find in most of her novels, and which make IM’s entire oeuvre something many people read over and over again, rather than having a particular favourite, in the descriptions of women, Diana “tucked her hair well back behind her ears and thrust her pale smooth large-eyed face boldly forward at the world” and I think if we came upon that in isolation we’d know it was IM, wouldn’t we? Adelaide fulfils an important theme by having her hair cut off and then carrying the cut-off bit around with her. With siblings, we have Diana and Lisa and their swap in importance and power; Lisa also becomes a sort of child in Diana and Miles’ marriage. Miles and Danby are brothers-in-law and of course we have nasty Will and creepy Nigel, weird twins grown up but torturing each other rather than conspiring. Why was it Bruno and not them I found horrifying on my original reading of the book?

In further doubling, Lisa resembles the dead Gwen, Miles’s first wife, and Nigel goes to do the job Lisa originally signed up for in Calcutta. Bruno has written his Great Book but it wasn’t a huge tome after all and we get a wryly amusing passage about its decline from a planned great work to a couple of articles. Nigel spends quite a lot of time looking through windows from damp gardens, and then Danby has his foolish climb into Miles and Diana’s back garden to look through their window, causing the horrible almost-farce in the garden. Water is of course a main theme, with the threat of the Thames flooding and the flood scene, plus Danby’s escape from the duel by swimming the Thames. Adelaide’s tears make more water appear. And who can forget London and its fogs, redolent of “The Time of the Angels” or “A Severed Head” as almost another character.

IM is often talked about as having a central enchanter and a saint figure in her novels. Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Poor old Adelaide feels herself not to be like other people, lives in clutter and “did not feel herself in any way attached” which is quite a classic indicator of Murdochian sainthood. She’s in the power of Danby and Will but is maybe enchanted rather than saintly? Lisa is spoken of as having a vocation and she is a “bird with a broken wing” but also very strong: she works in an “atmosphere of dirt and poverty and muddle” and “lived in a real world” (p. 148), and of course she cares for Bruno without revulsion and tries to go and do charity work but finds her role is back healing the folk around her. She is also described has having “superb negativity” (p. 254) and being detached.

I’m not sure there IS an enchanter. Nigel claims he’s God but I think he’s just a creepy hippy – and certainly no enchanter claims to be one and usually becomes on by his subjects making him one. Or maybe he’s a saint: he gives Diana advice to “Let them trample over you in their own way” (p. 223), although he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice. But again, he talks in his letter to Danby of being a saint, and the way to be one is not to strive to be one, isn’t it. Diana learns to let people do as they will and to look after Bruno without recoiling, so is maybe moving towards goodness. As Bruno fades, she realises, “She tried to think about herself but there was nothing there” (p. 289) so in helping Bruno she’s subsumed her own person – and become saintly?

Echoes of other books: First of all, the pursuit of a woman is back, when Bruno chases Janie through the department store early on. Miles also sees a woman in a pale dress walking across the paving stones in the dark and doesn’t know whether it’s his wife or sister-in-law.  Gwen and Danby meet on the Circle Line Tube, a line which will of course assume prominence in “A Word Child” (taking a forward echo on for once). The fog and London echo “A Severed Head” and “The Time of the Angels”, and of course Will Boase and/or his sons are mentioned in “The Sea, The Sea” (which I love).

I’ve really been feeling my way as I’ve written my review here rather than formulating thoughts on the book in advance and putting forward full hypotheses. I certainly reacted viscerally to some of the scenes and like it a good deal more than when I first read it, 30-odd years ago. I hope this piece isn’t too muddled and is clearer now!


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.